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a certain future

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Shadowhand Essek Thelyss awakens on the 19th of Horisal, 836 PD, for the sixteenth time.

Instinctively, he feels his body for signs of injury he knows aren’t there. The crossbow bolt in the right side of his chest from Nott; the bruises from Beauregard; the fatal slash across his neck from Yasha. He knows the name of the sword that killed him: Magician’s Judge. A sword forged for one purpose, a purpose it had found again.

He finishes examining his body. Sure enough, his skin is unmarred. The pain isn’t real and he knows that, but it’ll last a few days anyway - the way it did after he died the last fifteen times.

He had been so close this time. He’d learned his lesson: Kill Jester first, then Caduceus. Caduceus was the better healer, but killing Jester breaks their morale in a way the others never recover from. Caleb next, if only to save him the indignity of being Polymorphed, again . The last five times he’d fought the Mighty Nein, he’d managed to kill those three.

Yesterday - well, not really yesterday - he’d killed Nott next. She’d made herself an easy target by running to Caleb’s side, trying fruitlessly to feed his dead body a healing potion. He killed Fjord when he tried the same with Jester. Only two left.

He’d set his sights on Beauregard. Was that where he went wrong? His entire body is still wracked with pain and it’s hard to focus on the details. He remembers lifting Beauregard up, condensing her body on itself until she fell, lifeless, to the ground. Yasha had let out a scream Essek can still hear, ringing in his ears. She kicked the back of his right leg hard enough to knock him to his knees, despite his usual float.

Then the sword.

Judgement.

Then nothing.

But nothing never lasts more than a second. He wishes he could cling to it, desperately hold on to just a few minutes of blissful nonexistence. He can’t, and once again, he is thrust back into the worst day of his life (lives?) - the day he meets the Mighty Nein.

Essek stands, blindly going through the motions of dressing and preparing himself for the day. He takes his time, the ache in his body still clouding his thoughts. He’d have to hide his pain the rest of the day - he can allow himself this. He notices his clothes fit more tightly than they had “yesterday.” He’d been hiding in the mountains for months before they found him, and food wasn’t exactly plentiful.

The Mighty Nein have killed Essek nine times, he realizes with a sardonic laugh. Yasha three times, Beauregard and Nott twice each, and one from both Fjord and Jester. He’d underestimated Jester his first few lifetimes. He wouldn’t do so again.

That leaves six deaths from other sources. He counts them off as he does each time he awakens. Executed for treason twice. Killed by an ancient white dragon once.

The remaining three deaths he puts in a category he calls “self-directed.” The most recent of which was only two deaths ago - attempt fourteen.

He lets out a breath, slowly, controlled. He doesn’t let himself think about attempt fourteen.

He leaves his tower and floats through the Firmaments towards the Lucid Bastion. He goes to work, waits patiently all day until he is summoned to the Queen’s court. He tries not to roll his eyes as he listens to Caleb’s speech for the fourteenth time.

The last time he’ll ever hear it, he tells himself.

He’s going to get it right.

 


 

The first time Essek died, it was Jester that killed him.

They figured out he was the traitor, that he’d handed over two beacons to the Dwendalian Empire. He didn’t know how they found out. He’d only known them for a few weeks, and then there they were, at his doorstep with questions.

He’d invited them inside.

He was so young and unprepared then. The questions became more targeted and Caduceus’s piercing gaze was more than he could handle. He attacked them and they fought back, harder than he’d thought them capable of. All of a sudden, Jester was just there , and she punched him in the chest so hard that he could feel his body almost wilt, like he could feel her pulling his life out of him.

His last thought before he died was about the indignity of being killed by a person like Jester. Bubbly, awful, annoying. He’d done bad things, sure - but he didn’t deserve this

Of course, it wasn’t his last thought. Only a second later, he woke up from a trance that felt like the deepest sleep than he’d ever had. Essek only slept when he was sick or injured, but he had been perfectly healthy before the fight.

Had he fallen asleep? Had it been a nightmare? Essek tried to focus on the previous day. Had he had any head injuries lately? Exposure to weird magic? He’d been busier than normal at work, and falling into a trance had been getting harder over the last few years...

He drifted through his tower to his study, opening the first notebook he sees to scratch down some notes about the dream, when he noticed the date on his most recent notes - the 18th of Horisal.

Panic coursed through his body. He shuffled through the papers again, looking for anything more recent. Any work of his newer than that was just gone - not taken, there were no pages pulled from his notebooks, they were just blank. Edits he’d made were gone too. How had more than a month of work been undone?

Had it all been a dream? Can people hallucinate that much missing time? He remembered things, he remembered specific notes he’d made. If today was the 19th of Horisal…

He froze. That was the day he met the Mighty Nein. He felt his entire body sink into his chair as the panic intensified. Maybe it had all been some kind of horrible stress nightmare. Maybe he fell asleep while trancing and had some inexplicably detailed nightmare. He didn’t sleep often enough to know if that was even possible, but what other explanation was there?

His entire body felt wrecked. Dreams couldn’t do that, as far as he knew. He can still feel that wilted feeling from Jester’s spell - that had been real, at least. So it wasn’t a dream.

It wasn’t consecution. How could it be? Essek wasn’t consecuted. Even if he had been, consecution didn’t work like this. He’d know if it did; he had access to that kind of information. 

He drifted through the rest of his day in a dreamlike haze as he watched the events of the day unfold. He halfheartedly concocted some lie about having been up late working on a new spell, but no one had even bothered to ask why he was so distracted. 

It was rage that cut through the fog.

He saw Caleb present the beacon - his beacon, the one he took, all of his work - and clenched one of his hands into a fist, digging his fingernails painfully into his palm.

Caleb was right there. Essek could kill him. It would be so easy.

Caleb pulling out the Beacon ruined everything. The Mighty Nein ruined everything. It had been so much work - stealing the beacon, keeping suspicion off of him, protecting himself from the Martinet and the rest of the Cerberus Assembly. How was it he could have done all that, but these people caught him?

He thought about killing Jester instead. She had been the one to kill him, after all, and the beacon had been in her bag.

He unclenched his fist, focusing on the pain from his nails. He had a second chance.

He felt the rage fade into hatred and determination.

He’d get it right this time.

 


 

Sitting - floating - through Caleb’s stunt with the beacon always puts Essek in a bad mood. He thought it would’ve faded by the tenth time he’d heard it, but it hasn’t. It usually ruins the rest of the day, at least, but it’s been a week.

He had been so close. It was the closest he’d ever been. He’d studied them - he knew everything about them, knew which weaknesses to exploit, which strategies to watch out for. They still figured out what he did, who he was, where he was, how to kill him. 

He’s beginning to consider the possibility they’re a physical force in the world, like time or gravity. 

After the rage fades, despair sets in. How is he supposed to defeat them, subvert them, neutralize them? He’d tried getting to them before they met with the Bright Queen, but there wasn’t any way he could have done that without people noticing. When the Aurora Watch found the beacon among their belongings, and Essek was the one that tried to intercept them, people started putting things together. 

He’s been executed for treason twice.

Still, he maintains his collected demeanour, especially around them. He has to stay focused, on guard. He can’t let it slip this early in the game.

Giving them their house is always another bad day. 

He wishes it wasn’t a gift from his Den. He wishes they weren’t so impressed, so grateful. He wishes he didn’t notice the way Caleb mutters something under his breath in Zemnian each time, or the way Beau and Jester start planning how they’re going to decorate their room before they even see it.

He wishes he didn’t remember that they call it the Xhorhaus. He wishes he didn’t remember every minute he spent inside of it.

Jester invites him inside and he declines without looking at her. He can’t take that disappointed look in her eyes on top of everything else, but he needs to put some distance between them.

It doesn’t matter. Over the next few weeks, gravity pulls him back into their orbit, as it has every time. 

When Caleb asks to learn the basics of Dunamancy this time, Essek finally lets up. If he’s more of an ally to them, they won’t suspect him, right? He knows Caleb well enough at this point - even if he’s still a stranger to Caleb - that it’s easy to explain things in a way he’ll understand. He picks up the spells quickly, almost effortlessly. It makes Essek feel something , but he’s not sure where it is between fury and admiration.

He asks Caleb to help him with his own work, more than once. Caleb even offers to help Essek with a spell of his own - Gravity Sinkhole. A spell he’d used to kill Caleb twice.

He hates that Caleb’s suggestions are helpful. He tries to write down what he can, but he can’t think about the spell without remembering what it did to Caleb’s body. The way he screamed as his body was pulled up in the air, the sound of his body hitting the floor when Essek dropped the spell. The way Jester screamed when she couldn’t heal him.

He settles into the routine eventually. He delays the scourger’s execution at Caleb’s request and still quickly kills her when she attacks Caleb. He’d tried not doing that before, too. He’d let her kill him a few times, and each time he did it was Nott that figured him out. She was so suspicious of him already, and smarter than he’d given her credit for. 

This time, when Caleb comes to thank him in the Dungeon of Penance, he holds Essek’s gaze intently for a moment. 

This is new. Is it because of the magic lessons?

It’s not just Caleb, either. Jester has never hugged him this much, at this point he can practically feel them before they start.

He tries not to think about that.

As the weeks go by, it starts to become one of the most pleasant attempts he’d had. He’s been more productive with work as well, so he’s had a lot of time to work on his own studying. Not being able to bring notes with him always sets him back, but it was getting easier.

The Mighty Nein start asking him to Teleport them all around Wildemount. They always do, but this time they’re asking him more than ever. And more than ever, Essek’s saying yes. 

He’s Teleporting them to the Lotusden Greenwood when something inside him snaps.

Something about the way Beau said thank you - impersonally, rushed, thoughtlessly - brings him back to reality. Is this why they were being friendlier to him? Caleb’s held gazes, Jester’s hugs, the tea blends Caduceus makes for him - are they using him for transportation?

The idea that he’s a second thought to them, a convenience and nothing else, hurts worse than thinking they were suspicious of him.

And then they tell him that this isn’t the right part of the woods, ask him to Teleport them again .

Why does he still say yes?

“I can’t keep ferrying you around,” he says, when they arrive for the second time. “It is interfering with my work.”

The second part is a lie, so he doesn’t look at Caduceus or Beauregard.

Jester looks at him earnestly. “We’re sorry, Essek,” she says. It’s either painfully sincere or painfully insincere. He doesn’t know which is worse and it just makes him angrier.  “It was really important we got here quickly, we’re trying to save Yasha.”

“It’s okay,” he sighs. It’s not okay. She’s playing him - why is his instinct to make her feel better? “If that’s all, I’ll be heading home now.”

He walks a few steps away from them and turns around to begin casting Teleport when Caleb grabs his arm.

The meaningful look from the Dungeon of Penance is back, and Caleb is gentler than he expects. “Thank you,” he says. His voice is quiet, and they’re far enough away from the others that he won’t be overheard. “Maybe we can spend some time together when we get back?”

Essek rips his arm from Caleb’s grasp before he even realizes. “I am not interested,” he snaps.

Stupid. Stupid stupid. He let himself get too close. 

Caleb stares at him, looking surprised and hurt. His eyes are the last thing Essek sees before he Teleports back home.

Chapter Text

The eighth time Essek died, it was by his own magic.

The seventh attempt had been challenging, after a few tactical errors on Essek’s part. Beau had killed him that time. When he woke up after, his entire body felt numb. He could move around fine, but the feeling of numbness was intense and distracting.

The numbness lingered for a week. The thoughts lasted longer. Who would kill him next? How painful would it be if Nott killed him with a crossbow bolt to his neck? What if Caleb killed him, burned him alive? He had read that that was one of the most painful things a person can experience - how long would the pain last into his next life?

He needed to be better prepared.

Most of his magic wasn’t offensive or destructive - the kind of work he did required a lot more subtlety. Perhaps it was time to shift focus.

It took him a while to design the spell and even longer to make it functional. He had started small - the first thing he destroyed with it was an empty jar of ink - but he knew it could be bigger than that.

He called the spell Gravity Sinkhole.

He was working on the spell late into the night. Jester had sent a message to him earlier in the day, asking if he would Teleport them somewhere, something about a monster in the south. He didn’t bother to remember the details before telling her no.

The question alone made him seethe with rage. Why had she asked? What had he done to make her think that he would say yes to that? It was new - she hadn’t asked for Teleportation services before, none of them had. Was he letting down his guard too much?

He channeled his anger, as he usually did, into his work. He’d been working for hours - he had no idea what time it was, he didn’t care, this was all he could focus on anyway.

Broken objects were scattered on the floor of his dining room. He didn’t want to risk breaking anything in his study, and he didn’t remember a single time his dining room had been used. Most of the furniture had been sacrificed to test the spell, the floor a mixture of shards of glass and wood.

He started small - a wine glass, a plate - and progressively tested larger objects. He watched as an armchair raised slowly from the ground toward the spell’s centre. He heard the wood snap and crack under the increased gravity, then dropped the spell. The shattered pieces of the chair fell to the floor.

It had worked, but only just - the force pulling it toward the centre wasn’t strong enough. If the chair had been much heavier, it wouldn’t have worked at all.

He bent back over his notes and made a few adjustments, then tried the spell with the dining table.

It didn’t work.

He made a frustrated sound then tried the spell again, amplifying the gravity. Some pieces of garbage on the floor were sucked up into it, but the table stayed firmly on the floor.

Of course it wouldn’t work. Nothing worked.

He imagined casting this spell on Beauregard, getting even for the way she had stunned him in the last fight, payback for the week he spent unable to feel his limbs. But all he could imagine was her ponytail and sash being drawn up toward the spell, while her feet stayed planted on the ground.

He imagined Beauregard’s scoff, Jester’s snort and “how embarrassing!”

She would be right.

He was the graviturgist, but they were the ones constantly pulling him towards them, as much as he tried to stay on the ground. And he couldn’t even make this fucking spell work.

Essek made another frustrated sound, then tried the spell again, increasing the gravitational pull.

Still nothing.

He barely noticed that his frustration was now very audible; the sounds escaping his mouth became more and more like growls as he tried, again and again, to destroy the table.

He tried increasing the radius of the spell’s effect as well - papers on his desk, the notes he’d been working on, flew through the air before falling to the floor as shreds.

He tried again, increasing the pull. The heavy dining table was still stationary, but the smaller desk he’d brought down moved an inch toward the centre of the room.

He increased the gravity again. His entire spellbook flew from the desk into the spell’s area. He paid it no mind.

He increased it again. The curtains on the windows were long gone, but this time, the spell pulled the brackets for the curtain rods right out of the wall. The table stayed still.

He increased it again. The chair he had been sitting on - he didn’t remember standing up, but must have at some point - almost knocked him over as it was pulled away from the desk.

The table stayed still.

With a final shout that was almost a roar, Essek increased the gravity again. He watched the table finally lift off the ground. 

His triumphant smirk lasted barely a second before the gravitational pull reached Essek. In a panic, he threw his hand back for his chair - gone - and then his desk - also gone.

With nothing to grab onto, Essek was pulled from the floor and into the centre of the spell.

Pain like he’d never experienced shot through his entire body. Every bone, every muscle felt like it was being simultaneously condensed and pulled. He screamed in pain. His voice sounded shattered, broken, as the pain only intensified.

The next thing he knew, he was waking up in his bed, on the 19th of Horisal, for the ninth time.

He was still screaming.

The pain hadn’t stopped. The spell was over - he knew he was back at the beginning of another attempt, a lot of the things he could see around his bedroom had been used to test Gravity Sinkhole.

He stood up, still screaming. Why wouldn’t the pain end? It was never still this bad - what if he had done something wrong, something permanent?

The screaming started to mix with loud, broken sobs as he moved through his tower. He couldn’t even concentrate enough to think if he had a spell that would be helpful here, let alone enough to cast one. Instead, he ran from room to room on legs that felt broken, that felt like they’d give out at any second, but never did.

He finally found something in his study - poison one of his spies had found on a Dwendalian soldier. Essek had studied it a little bit. It worked quickly.

He ripped the cork off the bottle so hurriedly that some of the contents splashed onto his shaking hands. He lifted the vial to his mouth and drank what was left.

He sat on the floor of his office, his face wet with tears and his breath shallow and broken.  At least the screaming had stopped. He pulled his knees up to his chest and buried his face in them, then waited for darkness to take him.

Essek woke up on the 19th of Horisal for the tenth time.

The pain was gone. In its place was an overwhelming feeling of numbness, as though he had been completely hollowed out.

It took him a few minutes to notice he was still crying.

He tried to remember the last time he had cried. Various incidents from his childhood - his early childhood - came to mind, but nothing more recent than that. Had it really been more than a century?

He let himself cry. He was stuck in Hell. There was no escape. It didn’t matter what he did - the Mighty Nein would find him and kill him. He couldn’t create new spells to defend himself, clearly. This was his fate: To be reborn, hunted and killed, again and again.

Essek felt wrecked. He reminded himself that although his body was just freshly awoken from an ostensibly restful trance, his mind had been active for close to a full day - it had probably been almost dawn when he was working on his spell.

He didn’t know how long he let himself cry for, but it stopped suddenly. The fear, pain and hopelessness left as he felt a wave of detached determination wash over him instead. He was fine - why had he been crying?

There was only one thing left to do.

He drifted slowly, purposefully, through his tower, packing necessities into a travel bag: Spell components, a warm blanket, a waterskin, some food. He took one final look around his home, then Teleported as far north as he knew how to go.

Then he just kept walking.

If they don’t know him, they won’t be able to find him. The Greying Wildlands were vast and mostly empty. He could hide here.

He let himself lose count of the days and weeks as they passed. His food had run out quickly, but he pressed on, using his magic to hunt. During the day, he kept his cloak pulled low, protecting his eyes from the worst of the sun. The snow was blinding, but his eyes adjusted. At night, he built himself a campfire and slept - actually slept - next to it, trying to stay as warm as he could.

He was not used to travel, not used to this kind of cold or the blinding sun, not used to living without the comforts his wealth and status afforded him, but it was the most peace he’d found in years. The north was as beautiful as it was harsh, and the solitude became more comfortable over time.

He didn’t notice the dragon until it was too late.

There were many threats in the Flotket Alps - yetis, frost giants - but Essek had managed to keep himself safe. But by the time he hears the loud beating of enormous, shimmering white wings, the dragon is almost upon him.

He put up a fight, but he was one person against an ancient white dragon.

When Essek woke up on the 19th of Horisal for the eleventh time, he could feel the biting cold all the way to his bones.

 


 

Essek could never get used to the cold of the Dungeon of Penance. It doesn’t matter how much time he spends there, interrogating some scourger or Dwendalian soldier or, currently, Adeen Tasithar. The cold permeates his whole body and he can never quite relax.

Adeen was a perfect scapegoat. Essek had been lucky to have discovered he was working with the Angel of Irons cult early on. He’ll certainly be executed for treason for his part in the attack on Rexxentrum - what was one more treasonous act? It’s not like they could execute him twice.

(They executed you twice, he doesn’t let himself think.)

He already knows the extent of Adeen’s crimes, but he goes through the motions of interrogating him anyway. Others may think of Essek as cruel and cold, but he didn’t revel in torture. Holding all the cards going in meant he could ask leading enough questions that he could get his information that way, instead.

Essek had time to consider not only his plan for how to frame Adeen, but a handful of contingencies as well. They end up being unneeded; his plan goes off without a hitch. Adeen is captured and interrogated, and he confesses to the theft of two Luxon beacons.

It was a clever, elegant, perfect solution.

So why can’t Essek shake the cold?

He didn’t always have such a convenient scapegoat. Another wave of cold washes over him as he remembers the time he framed his younger brother Verin for the thefts instead. It had worked for a while, but, as they always did, the Mighty Nein figured him out. Beau had been the one to kill him that time, too.

But those mistakes are in the past. He’s doing things right this time. With Caleb’s notes, he’s perfected Gravity Sinkhole. From comparing notes, he also knows each of the spells Caleb is able to cast, making it easy to prepare counters to them. He knows Yasha’s mind is easily overtaken - he can use that. Put her to work for him, instead.

So why does he feel so tired? He hasn’t been able to shake the permeating exhaustion, and the reassurances that this time will be different are beginning to sound hollow.

And then Jester messages him.

He’s in the Dungeon of Penance when it happens, and he feels even colder as the voice plays in his mind. She tells him she misses him. A lot. 

It doesn’t matter. He inhales through his nose, exhales through his mouth. Let her miss him. He doesn’t care.

He sends back a reply saying he was on his way to the Xhorhaus, but it takes him the better part of an hour to get there. He stops at home first, changes his clothes - why, he doesn’t know, they’re covered by his long mantle anyway - and combs his hair. 

As he walks up the steps to the Xhorhaus, the chill in his bones returns. He won’t do himself the indignity of wrapping his mantle tighter around himself, but he does think about how nice and warm a hug might be, before he catches himself.

He can’t think about it.

Of course, Jester hugs him anyway, as soon as she sees him, and were he not prepared for it, it might have knocked him onto his back. He forces a slight smile on his face.

(Kill her. She’s right here. She’s pinning your arms to your sides but you can still cast, you can still kill her, just do it, just do it-)

Jester takes a step back from him, then grabs his hand and drags him inside.

Essek stands just in the doorway as he listens to the Mighty Nein recount their adventure. He notices Yasha among them, but she’s being very quiet. She was usually quiet - something Essek understood - but she didn’t look like she was even listening to what was going on around her.

From what the rest of the Nein were telling him, he understands why.

He shares the news about Adeen Tasithar having been working with Obann and his cult, that it had been his information that informed where they attacked in Rexxentrum. That he had lied about knowing where the beacons were being held in order to draw attention away from the Chantry of the Dawn.

“Is that why you look so tired, Essek?” Jester asks, her voice heavy with concern.

(It’s not concern. She’s thinking . She knows you’re about to lie to her.)

“It has been a very long day,” Essek says. Not entirely a lie. “We have been interrogating him since very early. However, our efforts have paid off. He has also confessed to the theft of two beacons.”

The Mighty Nein look up at him, surprised, save for Yasha. Essek is suddenly very self-conscious of the way he is floating just a few steps inside their door, as most of the rest of them sit around him.

Fjord is the only one still standing. “Really?” He asks, and Essek feels confident that it’s not his paranoia that makes it sound like a challenge. He knows Fjord doesn’t trust him.

(He’s right not to.)

“He confirmed information that only someone who had committed the act would know,” Essek says. (Information you fed to him.) “It seems he was working both with the Cerberus Assembly and this Angel of Irons cult.”

“That’s the second cultist with ties to the Assembly,” Beauregard notes. “Vence worked with Ludinus, right?”

Essek nods as Caleb confirms this aloud. So far so good.

Nott looks up at him with her eyes narrowed. Her eyes always made Essek nervous. He knows other goblins, but there’s something about her stare in particular. “He must have been pretty high up, then, to have access to stuff like that.”

“Den Tasithar is a prominent Den here in Rosohna, yes.”

“But not one of the ruling Dens, right?” Beau asks.

He’s stopped underestimating Beauregard, but he’s still taken aback by how much she remembers.

“Ruling Dens are Kryn, Mirimm and Thelyss,” Caleb lists, as if by rote.

“The other Dens still have a great deal of influence,” Essek tries. Nott is still staring at him.

“Why do you look so nervous?” She asks.

“I’m not nervous,” Essek snaps. “It has been a very long day for me, and yes, I do not enjoy having the extent of my failures laid out bare before me.”

Your failures?” Fjord asks. “Are you the one in charge of keeping them safe?”

“I am one of several, and it is only one of my duties,” Essek says. He tries - unsuccessfully - to hide the annoyance in his voice. “And please remember that while someone was able to steal one of the beacons from us, it was also stolen from your people in Zadash.”

“Not my people,” Fjord mutters.

“Wait,” Jester interrupts. “Maybe he was being mind controlled, like Yasha.”

Essek shakes his head. “I assure you, we have accounted for the possibility. Any magic of that sort would be suppressed within the Dungeon of Penance.”

“But we don’t know everything Tharizdun is capable of!” Jester shouts, leaning forward and looking up at Essek with a look of sincere desperation. “Maybe his mind control can’t be suppressed that way! Did he have a thing on his neck, like Yasha? Yasha, show him your neck!”

“What?” Yasha asks quietly, lifting her head up. It’s clear she hasn’t been listening. “What did you say?”

“Turn around, show Essek your neck.”

Yasha turns around, pulling her hair up and away from the back of her neck. Sure enough, Essek can see the faint outline of the orange marking the Nein had described to him.

“We would have found something like this,” Essek says flatly. “For safety reasons, we thoroughly inspect prisoners before any interrogations begin.”

Jester deflates a little, and Yasha lets her hair fall back and goes back to sitting quietly in the corner, staring at her fingers.

Essek clears his throat. “You said you wanted to inform the Bright Queen of these developments. I have things to inform her of as well. If we want to speak with her tonight, we should do so now.”

“Caduceus was about to make dinner,” Jester objects. 

“It will have to wait.”

Jester frowns. “Will you come back after? Have dinner with us?”

“No,” Essek says, a little too quickly. “Thank you,” he adds a moment later.

Jester’s frown deepens.

“The man is right,” Caleb says. “We should talk to her tonight.”

Essek nods. He catches himself before he thinks about how he can always rely on Caleb.

The rest of them agree as they prepare to leave. Yasha doesn’t need any prodding to get up from her chair, but when she does, she walks straight over to Essek.

He barely restrains the flinch. She’s taller than he is, even floating, and it’s all he can do to stop from staring at the sword on her back that has killed him so many times.

She stops just before him. She looks down into his eyes and Essek feels as though she’s peering into his soul.

“Check again,” she says, her voice barely audible even this close. Her eyes are wide, and it takes Essek a moment to register the emotion - it’s fear. “Your prisoner. Check him again.” She takes a second, before adding, even quieter, “please.”

Essek doesn’t let himself feel guilty.

He can’t stop thinking about Yasha as they make their way to the Lucid Bastion, and all through their conversation with the Bright Queen. He’s rehearsed what he has to say often enough that it’s no problem to maintain decorum, even with his mind somewhere else.

He doesn’t feel guilty about doing to Adeen what Obann did to Yasha. It was different, anyway. Essek wasn’t making him kill anyone, or even hurt anyone. His instructions had been clear: Maintain, until your execution, that you are the one that stole the beacons. The spell wouldn’t let him do anything else.

She doesn’t look so lost anymore, her face back to the cold, steely look he expects from her. He recognizes something in it, understands it. It makes the not-guilt feeling that’s settled in his stomach intensify.

Yasha had never let herself look so vulnerable in front of Essek before, the way she had in the Xhorhaus. He hasn’t really spent much time with her - had he been kinder to her without noticing? Maybe the others had told her that he could be trusted?

He parts ways with the Mighty Nein after they leave the Lucid Bastion, but they’re still on his mind.

Yasha had trusted him enough to let him see her so vulnerable. Just by asking him to be sure, she revealed a lot of information. She trusted him enough to let him know that she cares deeply about this. Yasha has never been particularly easy to read.

Of course he feels good about it. This is new information - new information is good. New information means this time could be different. Yasha had freely offered information on what she cares about, what makes her feel like a frightened child. 

It’s research, he tells himself.

“Research” is still what he tells himself when he reconsiders the dinner invitation from earlier. It only takes about fifteen minutes to get from his tower to the Xhorhaus, and he spends half of it convincing himself that his plan hasn’t changed, he’s still going to kill them.

(The other half is spent worrying about the bottle of wine he thought to bring - was this customary in the Empire? Beauregard’s family sold wine - would this be insulting?)

He’s pulled from his thoughts when a voice enters his head.

“Essek!” He hears, in Jester’s bubbly tone. “We realized we know nothing about you. Are you married? Kids? You should still come over and have dinner with us!”

He’s about to respond that he’s already on his way when her voice kicks in again. 

“Also, mom’s name?”

Chapter Text

Essek decides not to respond to Jester’s message. He’s only a minute away anyway.

Jester’s the one to open the door. She gasps at him, excited and bouncing up on her feet a little bit. She doesn’t greet him, but instead turns around and screams, “Beau! Beau!”

“What, Jester?” He hears Beau yell from deeper in the house.

“He came! You owe me ten gold!”

“You placed a bet on whether I’d come or not?” Essek asks blankly. 

“Yep!” Jester says as she holds the door open for him.

He drifts inside. “How did you know I would?”

“Earlier today,” she says. She’s looking at him with a joy that is completely unfamiliar to him. It seems genuine - does she actually like him? Enough to place bets on whether he’d spend time with them? “When I hugged you, you were ready. I saw you brace yourself. It would have been just as easy to move out of the way. You like us.”

“I am growing accustomed to your madness,” Essek corrects.

“Same thing,” Jester says. She winks at him and then adds, “Next time, lift your arms up so you can hug me back.”

An exhale that is troublingly close to a friendly laugh escapes Essek’s lips. “I shall try.”

Jester turns around. “Beau!” She yells again, then runs toward where Essek knows the stairs to be. “I want my gold!”

“She can be a lot at first,” Caleb says. 

How long had he been standing there? Nott is with him, looking up at him suspiciously. 

“I have learned this,” Essek says. “She is not without her charm.”

Caleb smiles, but it looks humourless. “Ja.”

Essek unclasps his mantle. Removing it always made him feel exposed - this will be the first time (this version of) the Mighty Nein see him without it. Something Essek can’t articulate compels him to see if Caleb is looking at him as he takes it off.

He is.

Essek doesn’t mean to, but their eyes meet. Essek holds his gaze for a second, keeping his expression neutral - daring Caleb to give himself away by looking guilty or embarrassed - then straightens. He’s always been good at looking impassive, regardless of how he was feeling.

“I brought a bottle of wine with me,” Essek says conversationally.

Caleb blinks. Essek is still looking at him when Nott reaches up and grabs the wine out of his hand.

“Thank you,” Nott sings, then shuffles through the door to their sitting room.

He’s there to figure out what they’re up to this time around, but he’s had a long week and the Nein have never suspected him less. He decides to try to relax a little. There’s no reason it can’t be a pleasant evening.

So he offers Caleb something that might almost be a smile, then turns to follow Nott.

The rest of the Nein are already there. He lets his float drop, then sits down.

“What the fuck?” Beau says, looking at him. “You can walk?”

“That’s ten gold you owe me now,” Nott says. The smile on her face is so big it might have been unnerving if Essek didn’t know her.

“I thought it might have been a mobility aid,” Beau complains, exasperated but smiling.

“And what was your rationale?” He asks Nott.

“You seem like the kind of person who would do it just to show off,” she says. He knows she means it as an insult, but it’s not malicious.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why do you float?” Fjord asks.

“Nott was more or less correct.” Essek smiles, and hopes it comes across as good-natured.

“Whoa, really?” Beau asks, switching from indignant to curious.

“With my position and my family’s status, there are some expectations people have,” he says. “I am very young for a drow and this is my first life. I learned how to do this, and it impressed people, so now it is somewhat expected of me. It isn’t draining or uncomfortable, I do not usually notice it.”

“That’s neat,” Caduceus says.

“Now, are there any more bets you have placed on my behaviour that I should know about?” Essek asks. 

“Might be,” Beau says, leaning forward. “You want in?”

Essek gives her a confused look and Yasha snorts loudly.

“What?” She says defensively, but she looks as surprised at her laugh as everyone else. “That was a really dumb thing to say, Beau. How would that even work?”

Beau shrugs.

It’s comfortable . He’s comfortable around these people. Some of it is the advantage he has, knowing them a lot better than they know him; some of it is that even though they insult him and make bets, they have always been welcoming.

Essek had accepted a dinner invitation from them before, a couple of lifetimes ago. He hadn't been so open that time. 

He decides not to think about it. It was in the past and these were not even really the same people.

The dinner Caduceus serves is tasty, even if the food is unfamiliar. Beau offers him some of her family's wine and Essek drinks it faster than he means to.

The conversation turns to their respective goals, and Essek blames the second glass of wine for his honesty. He tells them about his research and his frustrations with the Dynasty's faith.

When was the last time he'd shared those thoughts with someone?

The others tell him about their adventures, their plans coming up. He listens, finding himself interested not for the tactical advantage it might confer, but for the stories themselves.

Then they invite him to their hot tub. He blames the third glass of wine for saying yes.

He doesn't get in. Instead, he removes boots and socks, rolls up his pants to the knee, and sits on the edge of the tub, letting his feet and calves soak.

He's tired; it had been a very long day, and he’s not a regular drinker. The buzz from the wine is pleasant, but it's too hard to focus on all the conversations happening. He doesn't mind, he's happy just to sit there among them.

(He's happy.)

Caleb drifts from where he had been sitting across the hot tub to the small bit of space left between Essek and Jester. Jester slides over, but it's still tight; Essek can feel Caleb's arm against his calf, his shoulder against his thigh.

The heat that settles in his stomach is from the wine, he decides. 

"I thought I might ask a favour," Caleb says once he settles. He's looking up at Essek pleasantly, but Essek notes the hint of apprehension.

"And what might this favour be?" Essek replies. He swirls the glass of wine in his hand and takes a sip. Has the water suddenly gotten hotter?

"I've been working on some magic," Caleb starts. "It's not all my work. I'm unused to having to decipher another arcanist's notes, especially when he is not available. I could use another set of eyes."

"What kind of magic?"

"It is some high level transmogrification," Caleb says. "It's for Nott. She wasn't always a goblin, she was a halfling. I want to give her her body back."

Sixteen lifetimes and he's only learning now that she's not really a goblin?

"That is much more your field than mine," Essek says. He's flattered, but hopes it doesn't show. 

"Ja, well, I have been working on it for a while and can't quite finish it. Would you mind taking a look?"

"Tomorrow, perhaps," Essek says dismissively. He doesn't know why he does this with Caleb - acts aloof, playfully disinterested. He has no reason not to help Caleb with this, but it's too intoxicating to stop. "I should be heading home."

He pulls his legs out of the tub and swings them over the side.

"Aww, Essek," Jester complains. "You don't want to stay?"

"It's very late," he offers. "But this has been a surprisingly pleasant evening. Thank you for the invitation," he says, then turns to Caduceus, "and for dinner, it was delicious."

"What about my fucking wine, man?" Beau asks.

"Yes, I also drank some of your wine," Essek says. Her family’s wine is good, but, like with Caleb, this is more fun. The rest of the Nein laugh, and the sound reverberates somewhere unfamiliar in his chest. “Caleb, do you mind walking me home? I can show you where I live for your visit tomorrow.”

“I’m coming too,” Beau says, standing up out of the water.

“I’ll be fine on my own, Beauregard,” Caleb insists, stepping out of the water himself.

“This is the worst fucking party,” Beau complains, but she still looks happy when she sits back down in the hot tub.

Essek dries off and puts his boots and socks back on, then gives a polite nod before turning to leave the room.

“Wait,” Beau shouts before he does.

Essek turns back around.

“You didn’t get all the way in the hot tub,” she says. She looks at the rest of them. “He didn’t get all the way in the hot tub. We had a bet. Does it count?”

“What was your prediction, Beauregard?” Essek asks.

“I thought you’d be too much a prude to get in,” Beau says. “Yasha just expects everyone else to love hot water as much as she does.”

“I believe it should count, then,” Essek says. “Congratulations, Yasha.”

“What the fuck, man?” Beau shouts. “Is it me? Would you say the same thing if our answers were reversed?”

Essek fixes her with a neutral look, then shrugs. “Probably not.”

He turns away and leaves the room as Beau continues shouting. He waits to smile until he knows they can’t see him.

Him and Caleb walk in companionable silence for most of the way back to Essek’s tower. He likes spending time with Caleb, he decides. There’s something about him, something Essek can’t name, that pulls Essek in. 

“You can trust them, you know,” Caleb says, breaking the silence.

“Them?”

“The Nein,” Caleb clarifies.

“Why ‘them’ and not ‘us?’” Essek asks. 

“We are a lot alike, you and I,” Caleb says, and it’s not an insult but it’s not a compliment either. Moreover, it’s not an answer to his question. “It took me a long time to open up to them, to trust them. There are still some things they don’t all know about, but I am a better person with them.”

Essek doesn’t say anything. He’s relieved they’re still walking - he can keep his eyes forward, he doesn’t need to look at Caleb.

“I see you check for the exits in every room and in every conversation,” Caleb continues. “I see the way you look down when you laugh, like you don’t want them to know. I see the way you debate with yourself before sharing any detail about your life. You don’t need to.”

He wonders if he should say something, but he has no idea what to say.

“I have some,” Caleb starts, before pausing. “Sins, in my past. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to make up for the harm I’ve done, but if I’m closer than I was, it’s because of them. The ones who know the extent of my actions never hold it against me. I worry, sometimes, about the others. Maybe I’ll tell them and that’ll be it, which is why I haven’t said anything.” He pauses again.

He wants to offer Caleb a reassuring touch or glance, but keeps his hands under his mantle and his head forward.

“But part of me knows they will still love me,” Caleb says, quieter. “That might be the problem. I’m not sure I deserve their forgiveness.”

Essek stops, having arrived at the gate that surrounds his towers. He turns toward Caleb.

Caleb flushes. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I know this is a lot for this hour.”

He wants to tell Caleb that whatever he’s done is nothing compared to his own sins, wants to reassure him, wants to hold his hand or touch his arm or anything to get that tortured look off his face.

“It’s no trouble,” he says instead. “I am no stranger to regret.”

“Forgive me for this, friend, but that was my impression,” Caleb says, barely audibly.

Essek only nods, then looks up at his towers. “Well, this is my home,” he says. He’s nervous, suddenly; his home is several times larger than their home and he is the only one that lives there. It has none of the warmth or comfort of the Xhorhaus.

“Ja,” Caleb says. He forces a slight smile. “Nott and I will be here in the morning, okay?”

“Until then, Herr Widogast,” Essek says. The Zemnian catches Caleb off guard, and it is just as sweet even after their tense conversation.

“Shadowhand,” Caleb says in response, before turning and heading back to the Xhorhaus.

 


 

It's not just illness and injury (and death) that compel Essek to choice sleep over trance, but alcohol too. When he wakes up the morning after his dinner with the Mighty Nein, he's still in his clothes from the night before.

It's later than he expects and his head is throbbing. Dwendalian wine must be more potent than he's accustomed to; he'll have to make note of that. 

Mercifully, whatever the alcohol did to him it did to Caleb as well, as it's late morning before him and Nott arrive.

He decides to lead them to his dining room; his study is too small for the three of them to work simultaneously. Essek helps Caleb spread out his notes over the heavy wooden dining table, but it's still not big enough - half of the floor ends up covered as well.

The three of them work on the spell for hours. Caleb was right, Essek's second set of eyes help, but it's hard to conceal how impressed he is with the work Caleb had already done. Nott is contributing too; he knew she was capable of some magic, but she didn't think she'd be able to keep up with him and Caleb.

Whatever game Essek is playing with Caleb, Caleb is playing too. He catches Caleb looking at him again, and again he holds his gaze. 

He can’t help but sneak glances at Caleb, too. There is something about Caleb sitting on his floor, poring over notes and completely unaware of the world around him. Some of his hair has fallen out if its ponytail, and it's a good thing Essek is ten feet away. He doesn't know if he would have been able to resist the urge to tuck it behind Caleb's ear.

It's important he doesn't show his hand. Whatever exists between them is tenuous at best, and certainly dangerous. He’s only letting himself indulge in it because he holds all the cards.

If it is a game, Essek is pretty sure he's winning. He can’t remember any victory better than the way Caleb is looking at him.

The game doesn't keep him from working, though. After a few hours, Caleb is done transferring the spell from their scribbled notes into his spellbook. 

It hurts when it doesn't work.

He wanted it to work. He wanted his efforts to be the difference, he wanted to impress Caleb and help Nott.

Instead, they leave, and he is left with a mess of clay and scattered notes to clean up.

It's the first time Essek has been alone for more than a few hours since the Mighty Nein had arrived yesterday. He'd gone over to explain about Adeen Tasithar, went with them to the Lucid Bastion, then went from there to dinner.

He feels winded. Spending time with them - even when it's enjoyable - takes a lot out of him.

He would have liked a few weeks to recover from the chaos and regroup. He doesn't have that luxury; he needs to be in Nicodranas in a week to prepare for the peace talks.

The peace talks. Something heavy settles in Essek's stomach. This is when everything went wrong last time.

(Not last time. The time before.)

He still doesn't know how they found him out. He was at the party and Jester's mother had been performing. Somehow, he had ended up on a ship. He remembers Yasha blocking the door, the gentle press of lips against his forehead, and cold, cold darkness.

Whatever he's doing with the Nein, it will be over by the time that party ends. He doesn't know how he was discovered, so he doesn't know what to do differently. Things are already precarious - he can't take other risks, can't change his plan. 

It feels very much like waiting to be executed did.

Perhaps it would have been better not to have indulged at all; would he have been more level headed if he didn’t have his relationships with the Mighty Nein riding on this, too?

Self-pity isn’t becoming, but when he pushes it aside, guilt and shame take its place. He’s killed these people over and over again and he ate dinner with them, while they knew nothing. He hadn’t thought of his toying with Caleb as cruel, but was it?

He decides to stick with self-pity.

Too soon, he is stuck at a too-loud party in Nicodranas in a disguise he hates. He hates having to walk, he hates the accent he has to affect. But everything is riding on this. He didn’t just have the Nein to worry about, but the Assembly as well. Not to mention, there were certainly Kryn spies at the party who may recognize him were he to slip up.

He spends the first half of the party trying desperately to avoid the Mighty Nein, but they’re spread out all over the place and it’s hard to keep an eye on them. He hasn’t seen Nott at all.

Veth, he thinks, correcting himself. Essek had been happy to see her in her halfling form when they had been introduced earlier. He realizes he’ll never be able to actually congratulate her, and sinks deeper into his chair.

(It’s practically your spell. They couldn’t have done it without you and they didn’t even bother to tell you it had worked. They’re using you, they don’t care about you. Don’t trust them.)

Beauregard keeps staring at him, and eventually Jester finds him. 

“Lord Thain!” She almost yells, dancing over to his table and sitting down. “You remember me, right?”

“I believe we met earlier,” Essek tries.

“I know you know my name,” Jester says, winking at him. She pauses for too long, goading him. “It’s Jester!”

He takes a deep breath. He hopes Jester reads it as annoyance from a stranger rather than the anxiety it is.

She starts pestering him with questions, questions he doesn’t have the answers to. He feels like she knows this - she’s playing with him.

She knows.

(Maybe it’s just her. Kill her before she tells anyone else.)

He’d intended to stay as sober as possible during the party, but he needs something to do with his hands. He drinks between Jester’s questions, and soon his glass is empty.

“Excuse me, I-” Essek starts, rising from his chair, before an announcement interrupts him.

Essek sits down right before the paralysis hits.

This hadn’t happened last time. Did Jester poison him, poison his drink? Had she cast a spell on him without him noticing? Was she working with someone else, and she was just the distraction?

Panic floods his body. This is it - they discovered him and they poisoned him and they’re going to kill him, here. He can’t move, can’t walk, can’t speak. Can’t cast spells.

He tries to talk to her, tries to make some excuse, but he can barely groan. She’s still talking to him, but he can’t focus on the words. She stands up and grabs his upper arm, pulling him to his feet.

He can’t stand on his own, but he can float. He weighs the options quickly - the float might give him away, but having a woman literally drag him out of this party while he stumbled over his feet might be worse. He floats.

His muscles come back to him once he gets outside. 

“I need to leave,” he tries, but then Caleb and Caduceus are there too, and they’re both looking at him.

“I think you need to come talk to us,” Caduceus says. As meek as Caduceus normally seems, there is an edge to his tone now, and Essek decides it might be best not to escalate things by trying to run.

“Jester, let the others know to meet us on the ship,” Caleb says. 

Jester nods, then begins sending a message to Fjord.

“Come with us,” Caleb says.

Essek follows.

Half an hour later, he is once again on their ship.

(The Ball Eater. You let this happen to you on a ship called the Ball Eater. )

When he drops the illusion, no one looks surprised.

Things progress, more or less, the way they did before. Essek is sitting on a crate, spending as little time looking at the Nein as he can. Yasha is guarding the door. Everyone is staring at him.

He explains, the best he can, the same story as before. Yes, he stole the beacons. Yes, he knows that action started a war that has killed thousands. Yes, he did it because the Bright Queen wouldn’t let him play with the toy he wanted.

But Caduceus and Caleb are there, calling him a “good man” and “friend,” and Essek can’t take it anymore.

“I didn’t mean for you to get involved,” he tries. He takes a deep breath. Between the wine and the nerves - and the lingering effects of whatever paralyzed him - it’s hard to think straight. He needs to choose his words carefully. “Things may have gotten…” He looks around, but he can’t look any of them in the eye. He looks down instead. “Out of hand.”

“I’ll say,” Beau retorts, before Jester punches her in the arm.

“I am not a good man,” he says. This, at least, is honest. “I know I am selfish, I know there is no path to redemption for me. I know I have hurt others, I know so many have been killed because of my actions. I am sorry for bringing you into it. Knowing this truth puts you all in great danger. I did not want that on whatever remains of my conscience.”

When he looks up again, Caleb is crouched in front of him.

“This is not all you are,” Caleb says, slowly, deliberately. “Maybe you are damned, maybe I am too. I still think we can try to do better .”

He feels Jester place her hand on his shoulder, and Caleb leans up, pressing his lips to Essek’s forehead.

Something inside of him breaks.

Chapter Text

When Caleb pulled back, he was holding Essek’s gaze. Essek stilled, and the ship was silent for a few seconds. Caleb was looking at him with such earnesty , an earnesty most people couldn’t fake - 

Something clicked.

There was one type of person who could feign sincerity that way. How had he missed this?

He felt the panic rise in him until he could hear blood pounding in his head. He felt the thrum of his pulse in his throat as he stood up from the crate on which he’d been sitting, so quickly that the crate slid back a few inches.

“Of course,” he said, letting out a small laugh. If he was right, he was also cornered, here. With them. He was dead anyway.

“What-” Caleb started, but Essek cut him off.

“This is why you always found me out,” he said, with another humourless laugh.

Fjord and Nott were looking at him warily.

“What are you talking about?” Caleb asked. His tone was frustrated, almost angry - how did he have the gall to feign ignorance, even now?

These people, who had invited him to dinner - befriended him - asked him for help , repeatedly. These people who beat down his defenses after more than a dozen attempts, these people he was beginning to like - to trust

Essek’s mind was racing so quickly, his panic so dizzying he could barely hear the words the Mighty Nein were saying to each other.

He backed up a few more paces - when had his float dropped? - until the crate he had been sitting on was flush against the wall, and the backs of his legs were against the crate.

“Essek, what is it?” Jester was looking at him with concern so insincere that the panic bubbled up again, threatening to overflow. Jester who had hugged him, given him pastries , Jester of all people -

“I know who you are,” Essek said, looking at Caleb. “ What you are.” He let out another laugh.

Caleb just looked back. Caleb who had asked for magic lessons from him - it was good Essek had refused - Caleb who held his gaze, who touched his arm, who made a heat settle in Essek’s stomach, time and time again -

Well. Maybe they were more alike than he thought.

“You’re a scourger,” Essek said.

“I am not -” Caleb started as he took a step toward Essek.

“Stop,” Essek commanded. Without thinking, he pulled a dagger from under his cloak, pointing it at Caleb. He didn’t usually keep weapons on him, but he needed as much protection from the Assembly as he could get. You can’t Counterspell a dagger.

Essek could hear the blood rushing in his head again as heat coursed through his body. It was too hot in here, he couldn’t breathe, he could feel himself start to sweat, he couldn’t think -

“Essek-” he heard Caduceus try.

Essek spun, pointing the knife at Caduceus, instead.

“There is really no point in denying it any longer,” Essek said. The laugh was gone. Instead, Essek’s voice was low and cold, the words almost hissed. He wondered if they could see how much he was shaking. “Which one put you up to this? The Martinet? DeRogna? Ikithon?”

Essek saw Caleb react to the third name, something between fear and anger flashing across his face. 

“Ah, yes,” Essek continued. “I see him in you.”

“We’re not working with them,” Beauregard almost shouted. “We told you at dinner, we know the Assembly sucks-”

Beauregard, ” Caleb hissed, warning. “Stop talking.”

“Fuck that,” Nott yelled, her voice uneven and shrill. He’d seen her drunk before, but not like this. “I’m not going to let him say that to you!”

Caduceus lifted his arms. “I think we should all calm down -” He moved his hands as if to cast.

Essek pointed the dagger back toward Caduceus, using his other hand to quickly Counterspell whatever Caduceus was about to do to him.

“No magic,” he hissed. He turned back to Caleb. “What is it like, being Ikithon’s dog?”

Caleb was still silent, staring at Essek with an intensity he’d never seen. His hands were clenched at his sides, his fury barely restrained.

He didn’t notice Jester approach him.

“Essek,” she tried. She placed a hand on Essek’s shoulder.

Essek reacted before he could think. He heard Jester let out a choked gasp.

When he looked down, the dagger he had been holding was buried in Jester’s stomach.

The ship was silent again for a moment, broken only by the sound of the dagger falling to the floor. Essek couldn’t take his eyes away from the blood staining Jester’s pink gown.

Then, all at once, Fjord had his sword summoned and Nott was pointing her crossbow at him - Yasha drew her sword and widened her stance, completely blocking the door.

He looked around frantically for a way out. He had barely any magic left - he had spent most of it keeping himself safe and disguised during the party. He couldn’t Teleport home. He could Teleport a short distance - to the other side of the door maybe - but Nott and Beau were both faster than him, and Fjord could Teleport too -

He had a split second to react.

When he Teleported, he simply thought down. The last thing he saw was Jester looking up at him, her eyes wide and fearful, holding her hands over the wound.

Then, darkness, as he appeared in the water below the ship.

The cold water sobered Essek instantly. Where there should have been panic - Essek couldn’t swim, and his mantle was weighing him down - there was, instead, the crushing realization that he was wrong.

That even he didn’t believe the Nein were working with the Assembly. 

Essek choked as the last of his air left his lungs and the briny water rushed in to replace it.

He began to flail, instinctively, reaching out for anything, but there was nothing close enough to grasp. The cold stabbed at his chest as he felt his eyes lose focus.

The last thing he heard was Jester’s voice, ringing magically in his head. Even through the spell, her words were choked and heavy with tears.

“We’re sorry, Essek. We promise we’re not working with them, we weren’t - we aren’t - we won’t turn you in, okay? Please, Essek, we care about-”

Essek died for the fourteenth time, frozen and alone, below the ship of the only people who had ever called him friend.

 


 

When Caleb pulls back, he holds Essek’s gaze.

Essek feels a mixture of panic, anger, fear and guilt pulse through his body, his legs shaking as he feels the urge to stand up, to get away.

Instead, he keeps his eyes on Caleb’s. He tries to breathe.

“Maybe you and I are both damned,” Caleb says.

Essek lets out a small laugh. He is more damned than Caleb could ever know.

Jester squeezes his shoulder and Essek realizes Caleb is still speaking.

“You were not born with venom in your veins,” he says, emphatically. 

“Perhaps not,” Essek says, “but it’s there now. I’m unsure if it’s possible to remove it.”

“You can try,” Essek hears Veth say.

Veth never trusted him. He looks at her, but she just shrugs and looks away.

Essek’s head is swimming, but he looks around the room at the rest of the Mighty Nein. They’re all looking at him, some of them sadly, some of them with an expression Essek thinks might be encouragement.

“I have already done more harm to you than you know,” Essek says. 

“Yeah, but we’re tough,” Beauregard says.

Essek lets out another nervous laugh. “Believe me, I know that.” He pauses. “All of you knowing what I have done puts you in even greater danger. I have never…” He scans the room, his eyes settling for a moment on Jester’s, then Caleb’s. “Cared for anyone, really. That is a hard thing to admit to oneself when you’ve been alive more than a century.”

“Do you care about anyone now?” Yasha asks quietly.

Essek looks down again. “I’m unsure.” He takes a deep breath. “Perhaps.”

“That’s a start,” Caduceus says. “I mean that sincerely. It takes time.”

“Things change when you have friends that get under your skin,” Caleb says to him.

“I don’t know that I’ve done anything to earn the title of friend .”

“Of course you have, Essek,” Jester says. She picks up one of his hands and squeezes it. “You helped us Teleport all over so we could try to save Yasha, you taught Caleb some magic, you helped with the spell for Veth…”

“You got in the hot tub with us,” Yasha says. “That means we’re friends.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Fjord says. “ Why did you do those things, for people who undid your hard work? Was it just to keep your enemies close?”

“I believe it started that way,” Essek says truthfully. “I’m… unsure now. I don’t think I would have gotten in the hot tub with you if that were still the case.”

“I told you,” Yasha says quietly.

“Well, are you planning on fucking us again?” Beauregard asks.

“What do you mean?”

“Are you gonna kill us all so we don’t share your secret?” She pauses to think for a second. “Do you know if the Assembly is planning to sabotage the peace talks? Do they have any other tricks up their sleeve?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Essek says. “They want an end to this war too. That being said, if they were planning something, I don’t think they would have told me.”

“If they do try something-” Fjord starts.

When they do,” Veth corrects. “Fuck those guys.”

If or when they do ,” Fjord says, glaring at Veth, “are you willing to try to stop them?”

Essek shakes his head. “I’ve been able to keep myself safe, but the Assembly is made up of some of the most powerful mages in Exandria. There’s nothing I could do alone to stop, or even delay them.”

“Not by yourself, stupid,” Beauregard says.

Caleb shoots her a look and Beau shrugs.

“I don’t-” Essek starts.

“You’re worried about your safety around the Assembly, right?” Fjord asks.

“Always.”

“Then - if it’s okay with the group - you’ll stay with us during the peace talks.” Fjord pauses and looks around, but no one dissents. “On the condition that when we need you, you’ll help us. Also, whatever favours we owed you - we’re even now.”

“A better deal than I deserve,” Essek mutters, mostly to himself.

Fjord says “maybe,” at the same time Jester squeezes his hand and coos “no, Essek,” and Veth says “yes, absolutely.”

“And you won’t turn me in?” Essek hates how small, how weak he sounds when he asks.

Caleb, who had been silent for a while, catches his eye. “No.”

“At the risk of sounding ungrateful - why not?”

“You’re a bad, broken person who set out to do harm,” Veth says.

“I know,” Essek says quietly, looking down at the floor of the ship.

“And yet,” she continues, raising her voice to speak over him, “somehow, along the way, you found a heart. You sound like all of us.”

Essek looks up, caught off guard. Even Veth is looking at him softly.

“Welcome to the Mighty Nein,” she says.

Essek looks back down. For the second time since his childhood, he feels the urge to cry. He pushes it down and instead takes a deep breath before sitting up, straightening his posture. “Thank you.”

She takes a few steps closer to him. When she starts speaking again, her voice is quiet and low, inaudible to everyone but him, Caleb and Jester. “If you fuck us again I will kill you. This is not a joke. If I have to do it myself I will hunt you down and I will kill you.”

Essek looks at Caleb, who just shrugs.

“I understand,” Essek says.

“Good,” Veth says, back to her normal voice.

“And, Veth?”

She looks up at him, raising her eyebrows.

“Congratulations,” Essek says, and the sincerity makes something in his chest hurt. “I was very happy to see Caleb’s spell worked. You look great.”

 


 

The peace talks go more smoothly than Essek had thought possible. He spends his time aboard the Ball Eater with the Mighty Nein, though he tries to keep to himself. For all of Caleb’s encouragement the night of the party, he seems to be avoiding Essek now.

There must be something between Caleb and the Assembly, Essek decides. Between what had happened on the ship last time and how personally affronted Caleb seems by Essek’s deceit, Essek is sure of it.

He doesn’t push it.

Jester and Caduceus check in on him often, bringing sweets or tea, or just sitting quietly with him. Beauregard does too, but Essek thinks she’s trying to make sure he’s behaving. He suspects Veth is spying on him a lot of the time. He can’t blame her.

When he returns to Rosohna, he convinces the Bright Queen to send him north to Eiselcross. As far as he knew, the Vurmas Outpost wasn’t on any Empire maps of Eiselcross. If he wanted to avoid the Cerberus Assembly, it was likely the safest place for him.

This was not the first time the confrontation on the ship sent him north.

When he had woken up after he drowned, he immediately packed his things and headed north, as he had done once before. This time, instead of constant travelling, he found a network of caves to hide in, making sure they were far away from any sightings of ancient white dragons.

He barricaded himself inside with what little food he could scavenge and set to protecting the place. He covered each tunnel with traps and alarms.

For months, he stayed holed up in the caves. Travelling had been more pleasant. The caves were pitch dark - even with his eyes accustomed to darkness, he had difficulty seeing, but he wouldn’t risk light. The silence was so heavy and permeating that whenever he did hear a noise, he would jump, fleeing deeper into the caves, ready to attack.

The monotony got to him first, then the isolation.

When the Mighty Nein found him, he was thin, frail and crazed. 

He barely remembers what they had said to him. Something about a contract from the Bright Queen and his mother and a “concern for his safety.” 

He was so frightened, so paranoid that it didn’t matter. Even if he had been able to hear them over the rushing of blood in his head, he wouldn’t have been able to understand them, let alone reason with them.

They were already injured from the journey north and the traps he had set, so he attacked.

Jester first, then Caduceus.

They didn’t hold back. A blur of action and magic later, and Yasha was bringing the Magician’s Judge down across his neck.

He wakes up at the Outpost sometimes, on particularly dark nights, worried he’s back in the caves, worried everything that had happened this time was only a dream.

He starts keeping a lantern lit through the night.

But, amazedly, the sun keeps rising in the morning. No Assembly mages, scourgers, or Dwendalian soldiers arrive to kill him. He doesn’t hear from the Mighty Nein.

He buries himself in his work and finds some peace in trying to keep the rest of the Outpost safe. He had always felt drawn to the cold of Eiselcross.

As the weeks pass, he starts letting himself spend more time alone with his thoughts. Slowly, carefully, he lets himself float above the snow, watching the rise and set of the sun.

The north is as beautiful as it’s ever been, and Essek might almost have called it healing if he thought himself capable of being healed. 

He was now farther into this lifetime than he’d ever been. He counts the days as they go by, wondering how much time he has left. Wondering what will kill him, this time.

Still, hopeless or not, he’s glad he has this view.

After a month of silence, Jester checks in with him, and Essek is happy she does. He’s nervous when she says they’re headed north - why are they drawn to him, like gravity?

After six weeks or so at the Outpost, Essek starts breathing again. He no longer starts every day wondering if it will be his last.

And then the Nein are at his doorstep one morning, bloodied and beaten.

Jester’s messages had been one thing, but having them here is too much. He can’t look at any of them, especially Jester and Caleb.

They check in with him first, asking about how he’s doing. This only intensifies the shame - had they been worried about him?

And then they tell him about a man named Lucien, who had once been their friend Mollymauk. They tell him about Lucien’s plan to awaken Cognouza, a ward of the ancient city of Aeor. The panic begins to rise in him again and he fights to keep his hands from shaking.

Someone makes some comment about Caleb stripping, showing Essek something, but Caleb quickly deflects. Essek can see the mistrust in his eyes and finds himself grateful for it. He doesn’t mean to betray them - at least he doesn’t think he does, at least not right now - but the less information he has, the safer they are.

(From him.)

Then they tell him about how Lucien killed Vess DeRogna.

“You mean to tell me,” Essek says, slowly, quietly, glancing around anxiously, “that a member of the Cerberus Assembly has died, a member who was last seen in your company. You have her body with you. You are known associates of hers.”

“Yes?” Beau says.

“And you’ve come here,” Essek says. “To me.” He can’t contain his nervous laugh, but it comes out louder and sharper than he means.

“What’s funny?” Beau asks.

“Knowing who you are and knowing what I’ve done, I have feared for a long time you would be the ones to kill me,” Essek says carefully, trying not to speak an intentional lie. “It seems you still might.”

“If we’ve put you in danger-” Caleb starts.

“It’s a - joke,” Essek says awkwardly. “This stress might stop my heart.”

“Caleb’s right,” Fjord says. “We’re sorry if we’ve placed you in further danger.”

Essek shakes his head. “Don’t be,” he says, but his voice is shaking and he can’t stop his hands from trembling. “I have only myself to blame.”

He accepts the cocoa Caduceus offers him, then the whiskey Beau adds to it. It’s early, and he hasn’t had anything to drink since the party, but he needs something to calm his nerves. He drinks it quickly.

Mercifully, it helps some of the panic subside.

“If you have the time you say you do, I would suggest finding more allies and information,” Essek says.

“Would you join us?” Caleb asks.

Essek blinks. He looks at Caleb, but as soon as their eyes meet, Essek can’t stand to look at him anymore. He drops his eyes to the floor. “I’m unsure if I could be of any help.”

“You’re super strong, Essek,” Jester says.

“Is this not what you came here for?” Caleb asks. Essek still can’t look at him, but he feels the weight of Caleb’s gaze on him. “The undiscovered arcane knowledge that might be hiding in Aeor?”

“Truthfully, that has not been my priority since coming here,” Essek says.

“What has been?” Caduceus asks.

“Living.”

Caduceus nods.

Essek takes a deep breath, clenches his fists. Before he can change his mind, he says, “when it is time, when you’re headed to Aeor - if you still desire my help - I will go.”

Jester throws her arms around him. He wants to return the hug as much as he can with his upper arms pinned to his sides, but can’t bring himself to.

As the Mighty Nein prepare to leave, Essek can feel himself start to relax. But before Caleb leaves, he turns around, grabbing Essek’s forearm.

He resists the urge to pull it away. The touch is firm, but not unfriendly.

“Breathe,” Caleb says. 

“I am trying,” Essek admits. Caleb is looking at him, and Essek knows he can’t look away. So he keeps looking into Caleb’s eyes as the whiskey and cocoa churn uncomfortably in his stomach. He tries not to throw up. “It had been getting easier, before today.”

Caleb glances away for a second, but doesn’t apologize, which relieves Essek. 

“It takes time,” Caleb says instead. “Not days, not weeks, not months. Time.”

Essek nods.

There is no softness or kindness in Caleb’s eyes, no gentleness to his tone. But when he loosens his grip on Essek’s arm, he lets his hand slide down past Essek’s wrist, giving his palm a brief squeeze.

Chapter Text

The Mighty Nein return a few days later.

When Essek refuses to work with Ikithon, he's sure they'll tell him that they don't need him. Ikithon was much more powerful than he was, and Caleb had mentioned a couple of scourgers too.

Essek is both relieved and terrified when they decide to bring him instead.

The Nein trust him. Even after they learned about what he did, they still trust him more than Ikithon. A low bar, certainly, but Essek focuses on it while they're travelling to Aeor.

Whatever he's doing is working, then. “Befriend the Mighty Nein” is a strategy, the same as killing them or avoiding them, and it’s his most successful one so far.

That being said, he is certain he is going to die.

The first fight they get into is with some frost giants. Essek is not an adventurer. He hasn’t seen much combat outside of his fights with the Mighty Nein, certainly nothing like actually fighting frost giants. But he survives, somehow.

The fight against the salamanders is worse. Essek doesn’t see the giant ape Caleb had polymorphed into - Capeleb , they called him - approach him from behind and pick him up.

Essek shouts as Caleb lifts him into the air, shaking him in front of Jester and Caduceus.

The two that could heal.

Is Caleb worried about him?

No, he decides. Essek doesn’t know how much Caleb understands while he’s an ape; it’s likely he can’t differentiate between allies and it could have just as easily been Veth or Beauregard - people Caleb actually cares about. The ape sees an injured humanoid, thinks ally , and tries to have them healed. It has nothing to do with him.

The other possibility is that the ape knew it was Essek and knew that he was a liability. Powerful arcanist or not, Essek is way out of his depth. He doesn’t know how much longer he can pretend he’s capable of keeping up with the Mighty Nein.

While they rest from the fight, the others decide to set intuit charges as a trap for the Tomb Takers. Caleb, Beauregard and Essek each set one. He’s relieved and elated he’s able to help and that he could set it successfully. He’s impressed by Beauregard too; he knows she’s smart, but anything arcane often seemed beyond her.

He sits out of the rest of the planning. He’s terrified of where they are, what they’re up against, and knows there’s no way he’ll be able to survive. He’s intrigued by the possibility of finding some arcane discovery in the city, if he lives long enough to find it. He’s worried about his fraught relationships with the Nein.

The others finish planning. Caleb summons his tower as they wait for the Tomb Takers.

The tower is beautiful, and Caleb tells Essek he wants to give him a tour while Jester is preparing their Heroes’ Feast.

The rest of the tower is just as breathtaking as the entrance, but the ninth floor is something different.

When he steps carefully onto the floor, he sees dozens - then hundreds, then thousands - of versions of himself on the dark, reflective walls. They seem to stretch forever in every direction; it’s immediately clear to Essek that it is meant to simulate the feeling of gazing into a Luxon beacon. The ceiling is black and filled with stars, reminiscent of the sky over Rosohna.

“I believe your influence for this floor is quite clear,” Essek says. He tries to keep it airy, the usual detached tone he tries to keep with Caleb, but he can’t keep the awe out of his voice. He can’t help but look around in every direction he can, marvelling at the infinite versions of him and Caleb, standing together under the stars.

“If I am a good student of dunamancy, it is because I have been well-taught,” Caleb says.

Essek still isn’t looking at him - not the real him, anyway. When he sees Caleb react in surprise to the sincerity of his own words, it’s in the reflections surrounding them. 

“I am merely a student myself,” Essek says. Easier to talk about that than deal with whatever Caleb had meant by what he said. “I am always still learning.”

“Are you working on anything now?” Caleb asks. It’s conversational, not prying, and Essek realizes with a start that Caleb could be a peer, a colleague. 

“Yes, actually,” Essek says truthfully. He can’t help it. Who else could Essek talk to that would understand? “I’m very close to a breakthrough, I can feel it. But there are some… problems, when dunamancy is being used in this way.”

“Problems?”

“If I am able to do it successfully - which I think I will be, in time - it will still be so draining that I might need an entire day to recover.” Essek pauses. “Theoretically, there is no limit to what I could do with this ability, however, it seems to drain vitality rather than my arcane reserves.”

“What does it allow you to do?” Caleb asks. “When working as intended, I mean.”

Essek hesitates. “Like other dunamantic magic, it would allow me to potentially alter the outcome of an event.”

“Like the beacon allows you to, or Fortune’s Favor?”

“Something like that,” Essek says. 

“But it’s dangerous,” Caleb says.

“It seems that way.”

“Is there any way to mitigate its effects?” Caleb asks.

Essek shakes his head. “Arcane magic can already do very little to restore life. Even divine magic seems unable to speed recovery. It just takes -”

“Time,” Caleb interrupts.

Essek turns to Caleb, looking at him directly for the first time since they arrived on the ninth floor. He looks up at Caleb - a few inches taller than him - and realizes he hadn’t thought to resume floating once he’d stepped onto the floor.

“Time,” Essek repeats quietly, trying not to lose himself in the blue of Caleb’s eyes.

Caleb looks away first, turning from Essek and looking at the reflections on the walls instead. “What do you intend to do with it?”

“I’m unsure,” Essek says, again truthfully. “Do not think I’m unaware of the power I would hold if I could do this. In a way, I’m grateful for its limitations. It should keep me from getting...” Essek pauses for a moment. “Carried away.”

“I know it’s improper to say,” Caleb starts, still looking away from Essek, “but I understand the draw of that type of power, the attraction of it.” The word attraction makes Essek’s stomach jump. “I have dreamed for many years what I might do if I could change the past, but it seems so trivial when we’re here, at the end of the world, fighting this .”

Essek closes his eyes for a moment. Caleb might have been able to put his petty, earthly grievances aside for now, but Essek hasn’t.

“You’re a better person than I am,” Essek says. He hadn’t meant to vocalize the thought, but it’s out now. “I don’t think I’d be capable of setting my past aside.”

“I told you that night in Rosohna,” Caleb says, his voice more forceful, but solemn. “I have many sins, like you do.” 

Essek keeps his eyes toward the walls, as hundreds of versions of Caleb look down at the floor, their brows furrowed.

“Nothing like I do,” Essek says, hoping it comes across matter-of-factly instead of self-deprecating.

“Don’t be so sure,” Caleb says quietly. 

The tortured look from their walk in Rosohna is back, and Essek can’t handle it this time. Not from Caleb. Not from the man who let him into his home, showed him this.

He won’t let Caleb denigrate himself by bringing him down to Essek’s level.

Essek squeezes his eyes shut for a moment, steeling himself, then places his hand on Caleb’s shoulder. He pushes, turning Caleb toward himself, until he can look at him, eye to eye.

Around the room, thousands of reflections of Essek and Caleb stand together, their faces only inches apart, as Essek looks intently at Caleb.

“I am pretty sure, young man.”

 


 

Their ambush against the Tomb Takers is successful, and only Lucien and the tabaxi - Cree, they told him - escape. They try to chase after them, but Cree teleports her and Lucien away, then collapses a tunnel behind them. It’s hours later before they finish clearing the tunnel.

Eventually, the path is cleared and they continue onward. The tunnel ends and Essek sees the Aeorian skyline, decayed and crumbling, frozen underground. He can’t help but be awed as he drifts behind the Mighty Nein, taking in as much as he can.

They find the Aeormaton. The Nein name him Charlie, and Essek warns them not to trust it. They fight a few more monsters, most of which Essek thinks would haunt his nightmares if he were to sleep.

They continue travelling through Aeor, eventually reaching the tunnel that had been bored into the ground. When Caleb sees the mountain of high quality paper - the kind used for transcribing spells - Essek opts to stay with him, poring through some of the notes.

Caleb sets to work immediately, sitting cross-legged on the floor with stacks of paper around him. Yasha stays with them too, sitting on the floor against the wall, keeping an eye on Caleb.

He wonders if she’s there to protect Caleb from him.

Some of the notes describe a theory that the gods were created through sheer will. He knows the implications for this would be immense, but he is not a religious man. As he shifts through notes, some scribbled dunamantic runes catch his eye.

Calmly, to avoid alerting Caleb or Yasha, he picks up the stack of paper with the runes and leafs through it. 

This is it. The notes describe using one’s understanding of dunamancy to see into multiple realities. Once they can be seen, it is simple to pluck the desired reality from the air. The notes describe them as convergent futures, and while they offer Essek no help with reducing the exhaustion it causes, the resulting effect cannot fail.

Essek is suddenly struck by the enormity of his discovery. He’d hoped he’d be able to do something powerful with it, but he hadn’t thought the ability could guarantee success. Even with the limitations - he could probably only safely do it once or twice a day - it’s more power than Essek has ever had.

He turns away from Caleb and Yasha, unsure of how well he’s able to hide his reaction.

The last time Yasha had killed him, she had already been hurt. What if Essek had used a convergent future to ensure her attack missed?

She had kicked him to the ground, he had fallen to his knees. He imagines her bringing her sword down and Essek ducking out of the way just in time, Yasha’s greatsword striking the cave floor with a sound only outmatched by Yasha’s furious shout.

With the few seconds he’s granted by the missed attack, Essek could do anything to Yasha. Slow her down so he could flee - even slowed, she’d be almost as quick as him, but he knew the fastest way through the tunnels. He could paralyze her, hold her in place while finished her off.

He could have been free.

He’s pulled from his imagination when the real Yasha tells him it’s time to go, to meet up with the others. The difference between the two Yashas is stark. This Yasha is in front of him, watching him with a look somewhere between suspicious and protecting, her white hair cascading past her shoulders. The Yasha that had killed him had black hair. Her wings had changed too; Essek remembers the eerie, black, skeletal wings that had erupted from her back time and time again. The wings he sees now are a brilliant white, feathered; he’s seen her use them to fly, to keep her friends from danger.

He pushes his guilt down. Befriending them was just a strategy, the best one he had at the time. The situation has changed. He needs to look out for himself. The Nein see through him in a way no one else ever has. They may have looked past his theft of the beacons, but it’s only a matter of time before they learn the truth about him.

The deaths of strangers from a war he indirectly started was one thing. Their own deaths - over and over - were another.

He can’t afford the risk.

So he floats carefully behind the group. He doesn’t tell Caleb about what he found, and instead warns him against letting Aeor’s mysteries distract him from stopping Lucien. Essek doesn’t know how much more information about dunamancy is hidden in these ruins, but he can’t risk it. If Caleb had found these notes, he’d know what Essek would be capable of. Caleb, rightfully, doesn’t trust him. Caleb could keep the notes for himself, negating Essek’s advantage.

Best to keep him from looking at anything for too long.

Caleb thanks him for keeping him on track. It stings, but it reminds Essek he still needs to keep up appearances.

He’s relieved when the Aeormaton - Devexian, he had introduced himself as - is repaired and parts ways with them. He trusts Devexian even less than he’d trusted Charlie, and follows the Mighty Nein into the room Devexian had opened warily.

Essek notices the dunamis in the room immediately. He walks around, slowly, carefully, while the Nein investigate the two large, glass tubes at one end of the room. He watches, in awe, as Fjord enters one of them and steps out, only a few seconds later, completely refreshed.

Essek can’t pull himself away. He gets down on his hands and knees in front of the tube, investigating the pulsing purple gem at its base. He wishes he could take it, just grab it, but the entire Mighty Nein are there and he’s not quick the way Veth is. Perhaps it’s best to keep cooperating, for now.

“Caleb,” he calls. He lifts a hand in the air to wave Caleb over, but keeps his eyes locked on the gem.

Caleb crouches down next to him, and without thinking, Essek lets his fingers slide through Caleb’s hair, pushing his head closer toward the gem.

“It’s almost like-” Caleb starts.

“A miniature Luxon beacon,” Essek finishes.

“Do you think it’s used to accelerate time inside the terminal? It’s not magically refreshing anyone - it’s simply giving them enough time to rest, even as no time passes out here.”

“That is my assumption as well,” Essek says.

Essek stands up and steps back, and Caleb follows suit. Essek then turns to the broken terminal, using his magic to crush its base until he can retrieve the purple gem.

He hands it to Caleb.

“You don’t want to keep this?” Caleb asks. Caleb’s looking at the gem in Essek’s hands, not at Essek, but Essek knows it’s a test anyway. If Essek takes it, Caleb knows he can’t trust him. 

“There are two, aren’t there?” Essek says with a wry smile.

“The others want to leave that one intact, in case we return and can use it again,” Caleb says.

Essek nods. “Even still, nobody knows about this place but us. We can find it again, if needed.”

Caleb takes the gem, pockets it. Essek notes which pocket he put it in.

“Ja,” Caleb says. He nods at Essek, then turns to join the others.

Caleb didn’t thank him, and Essek is filled with bitter annoyance. Sure, he really didn’t have any option but to give the crystal to Caleb, but he still should have thanked him. 

Ah, well. It’s further proof the Mighty Nein - Caleb especially - are as opportunistic as he is. It doesn’t matter if Caleb is more concerned with the artifact than he is Essek. If Caleb doesn’t trust him, then it’s not betrayal when Essek turns against him. It’s just business. He’s certain Caleb would do the same in his position.

He lets the thoughts distract him as he follows the others to B-9, the floor Devexian had directed them to. He only partially hears the others shouting about Jester’s weasel. He’s in a weird space with the Nein - he’s with them, but he’s not one of them, so he often keeps to himself during downtime. 

Still, he listens until he understands the basics - Jester’s god is actually an archfey named Artagan, who occasionally embodies a crimson weasel that lives in Jester’s coat.

Whatever compelled him to distrust Devexian is nothing compared to the distrust he feels for the archfey. Essek knows that he, himself, is untrustworthy, but he knows that has more to do with his upbringing and status than anything else. He’s not incapable of being trustworthy.

An archfey, on the other hand, is fundamentally untrustworthy. He’s almost dumbstruck by how ignorant the Nein are to this simple truth.

It infuriates him. First, Caleb and Beauregard withheld the red eyes that had appeared on their skin until after he agreed to go with them to Aeor. Yasha had to supervise him when he was alone with Caleb in the records room. Caleb had pried into the magic Essek was working on, obviously distrustful, it’s clear now that Caleb is just trying to stay one step ahead. 

Essek is not the only one who can keep his enemies close.

They’re not angry or wary about Artagan having lied to them for months while he lived in Jester’s clothing . They trust this famously untrustworthy being more than they trust Essek.

And he had tried, hadn’t he? Hadn’t he accepted their dinner invitation, shared personal information about himself, sat in their hot tub? Hadn’t he trusted them not to turn him in when they figured him out? Hadn’t he agreed to risk his own life following them into certain peril?

He stays in his usual spot, away from the rest of the group, as they discuss the eyes on Caleb and Beauregard’s bodies. Essek overhears the main points: they can now see in the dark, see through illusions, and project their thoughts to others.

And they thought Essek was reckless? Caleb had stood next to Essek, asking him what he intended to use his magic for, accusing him of being power-hungry and selfish. Essek feels stupid for having thought it was friendly curiosity.

If Caleb already thinks Essek is untrustworthy and selfish, then what does he have to lose by proving him right?

He starts concocting a plan as they move quietly down a hallway. He’ll wait for them to be injured, more injured than they are now. He’ll conserve his magic while they deplete theirs. He’ll attack them when they’re down, or turn on them in a fight if the opportunity arises. He wonders if working with Lucien might be advantageous, if Lucien would let Essek leave with the beacon-gem in Caleb’s pocket.

His mind made up, he follows Jester, Yasha and Caleb into a room labelled “T-Dock Project.”

Chapter Text

Essek is distracted as they walk into the room labelled "T-Dock Project." He's still trying to figure out when would be safest, most advantageous, to take down the Mighty Nein.

Still, he sorts through the notebooks and papers left scattered around the room, showing Caleb what he finds about the beacons and time travel.

Without even thinking, he says, "Perhaps, if we survive this, we could come back and-"

"Change the past?" Jester asks. Her tone is careful, accusatory.

"Exchange theories," Essek corrects, looking back down and rifling through pages.

He hears Jester whispering and he registers that Caleb is saying something telepathically, but he doesn't hear the words themselves. Instead, he stares blankly at the page in front of him.

The notes he's already shown Caleb talk of anchor points, of moving back to a specific point in time. But it was all intentional, deliberate. In this book, he reads, scribbled in a margin:

Conflicting reports abt anchor points triggered at death. Reports individual & unverifiable, but too many similarities to be coincidence. Each speak of death and rebirth, always reborn at the same time, in the same place. Rel. to primal artifact? Affected retain memories but not injuries, etc. No info found abt stopping cycle. 

Jester finishes whispering to Caleb, then turns to Essek and winks at him. He hopes the confused look he gives her is convincing; Essek's head is spinning so suddenly that he worries he might fall over.

While Caleb and Jester aren't looking, he tears that page from the notebook and stuffs it in his pocket.

 


 

"Are you okay?" Caduceus asks. The two of them are walking at the back of the group as they continue down the tunnel.

"I am uninjured," Essek responds.

"That's not what I meant," Caduceus says. He gives Essek a soft look.

"There is a lot to think about," Essek says.

"Trust doesn't come all at once," Caduceus interrupts. “I’m sorry, I just wanted to make sure I said this and I don’t know how much time we have.”

Essek nods. "I've given you little reason to trust me."

"I didn't mean our trust in you," Caduceus says mildly. "I can see your distrust for us sometimes."

Essek lets out a small, humorless laugh. "Distrust has kept me safe."

"Are you safe?"

Essek looks over at Caduceus.

"I think you came with us, running into danger, because you had a better feeling about this than the danger waiting for you outside. You came with us for a reason. You could've fled, hid somewhere safer, but you didn't."

Essek stays quiet.

"Trust is a commitment," Caduceus continues. "It's not always easy. It's not trust if it's easy. If you trust us, that means trusting us when it’s hard, when your instinct is to cut and run. Especially when your instinct is to cut and run.”

Caduceus holds his arm out, blocking Essek’s path, letting the others get a little further ahead. He lowers his voice and says, “I don’t know what we’ve done to earn your distrust in the past, but I think you do.”

“What?” Essek says, turning to look at Caduceus.

Caduceus fixes him with a patient, yet scrutinizing look.

“You know,” Essek says slowly.

“I have an idea,” Caduceus corrects.

“How?”

“You flinch whenever Yasha gets too close to you,” Caduceus says. “She’s big and intimidating, but this seems different. Instinctual. And there have been a few other moments where you seemed just a little too prepared. I thought I saw you roll your eyes when Caleb presented the beacon. I saw you brace yourself before Jester hugged you the first time. What happened on the ship solidified it.”

“On the ship?” Essek asks.

“Before Caleb kissed you, I saw you brace yourself the same way, like you were fighting with yourself to stay still. I thought it was weird, but then Caleb kissed your forehead. You knew that was going to happen.”

Essek lets out a long sigh. “You’re correct,” he says quietly. He thinks about trust , thinks about Caduceus’s gaze as sympathetic instead of scrutinizing, and then reaches his fist in his pocket. He pulls out the page he took from the T-Dock journal and gives it to Caduceus.

Caduceus hums as he reads it, then smiles at Essek. “I don’t understand any of this.”

Essek lets out a small exhale, almost a friendly laugh. “Every time I die, I wake up in the past like nothing has happened, always on the same day. I remember everything in detail.”

“That’s normal for your people though, right?” Caduceus asks. “Conse- it’s not consecrated - I’m sorry.”

“Consecuted,” Essek corrects. “It’s not consecution. That works differently.”

“I see, I apologize.”

“Also, I am not consecuted.” Essek admits.

“I thought-”

“I lied,” Essek interrupts, before adding, sincerely, “I’m sorry.”

Caduceus nods at him, knowingly. Essek wants to justify the lie, to apologize, to explain why it was important he seemed intimidating and respectable. But Caduceus’s look silences all of it; he already knows. He already understands.

“How long ago do you wake up? How long have you been alive, this time?” Caduceus asks. “You don’t need to answer if you don’t want to.”

“I want to,” Essek says. He’s not sure if that’s true, but he continues anyway. Trust . “The anchor point is a few months ago. This is my sixteenth life, and this is the longest I’ve lived.”

“So, too late to decide against stealing the beacons.”

Essek lets out a quiet, bitter laugh. “Yes.”

“And then we brought one back,” Caduceus says slowly. Essek can see him trying to put the pieces together. “We were a threat to you.”

“Yes,” Essek says again.

“How many times have we killed you?” Caduceus asks.

“Believe it or not, nine,” Essek says.

“That seems appropriate,” Caduceus replies.

“Each time I met all of you, you were nicer to me,” Essek says. “You were growing on me and I think I was warmer to you all as a result. Eventually Jester started hugging me, Caleb tried to talk to me about magic, you all invited me over for dinner. When you discovered what I had done and confronted me on the ship the first time… I’d seen you all connect the dots many times before, but when it was as my friends -”

“That was different,” Caduceus finishes.

“Yes.”

“Do you want to tell me what happened?” Caduceus asks.

Essek nods. “It was very similar. It only happened once before. Caleb-” Essek’s stomach drops, thinking about Caleb kneeling in front of him, holding his hand, telling him he is not doomed. He sighs instead of finishing his sentence. “When that happened, I panicked. I don’t know why. Before I knew what was happening I was shouting and waving a knife at all of you.”

Caduceus is still just looking at him, patiently.

“Jester came to-” Essek tries. “She put her-”

“You don’t have to,” Caduceus reminds him quietly.

Essek shakes his head. “I remember looking down and realizing that I had stabbed her.”

Caduceus looks at the ground, but nods.

“I fled before the rest of you could kill me again,” Essek continues, “but there weren’t many places I could go. I, ah, drowned.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Caduceus says.

“Don’t be,” Essek says quickly. “I’ve killed all of you, over and over again.”

Caduceus furrows his brow, then gestures at himself. “No you haven’t.”

“Caduceus, I killed -”

“We’re here,” Caduceus interrupts. “Forgive me, the arcane is usually beyond me, but isn’t that the idea with the beacon?”

Essek looks up. “What do you mean?”

“There are hundreds of versions of all of us,” Caduceus explains. “Thousands? I’m not sure how high numbers go. But they’re all different, all those versions of us. You’re not responsible for their actions. Those people weren’t you, even if you remember their lives. And they weren’t us.”

“But I remember -”

“I can’t explain what’s happening to you,” Caduceus interrupts. “But it sounds to me like something, or someone, is trying to give you another chance. It would be rude, and stupid , not to accept it.”

Essek opens his mouth to argue, but no sound comes out. He closes his mouth, then his eyes, resigned, and nods.

“What are your intentions this time?” Caduceus asks. He looks uneasy, and a pang of guilt washes over Essek. “Again, I apologize, but I need to be sure.”

“I understand,” Essek says. “I think I’ve been lying to myself, telling myself that it was still the plan to-” He stops for a moment, then continues. “Part of me is still planning, part of me still sees opportunities and wants to strike. It is comforting and frightening at once. But, if I am being honest, I do not think I’m capable.”

“Well, we’ve won every fight before,” Caduceus says.

“That’s not what I-”

“I knew what you meant,” Caduceus says. “I was making a joke.”

“Oh,” Essek says awkwardly.

“I like you, Essek,” Caduceus says. “And I think you’re trying to do better. That voice, the one that tells you to protect yourself above all else, to not trust us, to hurt us - it’s just that. A voice. For all the times you’ve thought those things around us - the real us, this us - how many times have you actually hurt us?”

“None,” Essek admits quietly.

“You wizards all think too much,” Caduceus says. “Listen to your actions instead. The voice will be there, but you don’t have to listen to it. It’s your actions that matter.”

“I will try,” Essek says. He pauses, letting himself take a few deep breaths. “I understand if you feel this is information the others should have,” he says.

Caduceus shakes his head. “It’s your story to tell, and I’ll be there to listen when you’re ready to tell it. For now, we should catch up with the others.”

 


 

Trust.

The conversation with Caduceus gives Essek a new goal. He does well with a goal.

He just needs to help them stop Lucien.

He’s dying anyway, he’s come to terms with that. Even if he survives Aeor, there is no way he’ll survive the trip to Cognouza. This version of the Mighty Nein, at the very least, he can try to leave better than he found them.

It’s freeing. It’s easy. Just make sure they all survive.

 


 

The first time it happens, they’re fighting the water elemental at the Imensus Gate. 

Essek is - the way he always is in fights - trying to stay hidden and mostly focused on keeping himself alive. He’s surprised none of the Nein have brought up how bad he is in a fight, how much he panics. Almost everything they’ve fought would have been able to kill him in seconds.

Then Caduceus yells, "help!"

Essek turns towards him, sees him trapped by the elemental, still closer to the hallway than the portal to the Astral Sea.

He doesn't think, he just does, casts; a second later Caduceus rises, flying gently above the water.

What Essek doesn't expect is for Caduceus to reach down and pull Essek up as he flies overhead.

He shouts, horrified; if the elemental attacks Caduceus it'll hit him too. If he's hurt and he loses focus on the wings keeping Caduceus afloat, they'll both fall, crashing to the floor. Even barring that - Caduceus does not seem particularly strong, and they are soaking wet. It would not be difficult to let Essek fall.

He decides it's a good idea to try trust, because he doesn’t think he has another option anyway. 

Caduceus holds onto him tightly, and Essek stops bracing himself for the fall. They’re halfway to the portal when the elemental lashes out with a watery tentacle. 

In a second, Essek sees millions of possibilities - most importantly, he sees the one directly ahead of him, where the elemental hits him, hard , and he and Caduceus both plummet to the ground. They’re hurt, he just needs to get them the rest of the way there -

He sees a reality where the strike goes wide instead, and focuses on it, willing it into existence.

White-hot pain erupts behind his eyes for only a second, but it leaves him winded, grateful Caduceus is still holding him.

But he did it. He got them through the portal.

 


 

Cognouza is, without question, the most horrifying thing Essek has even seen, read about or imagined.

By the time they reach the underground tunnel, chasing after the tabaxi, he thinks he’s gotten used to it. Then Cree turns into a huge, horrifying mess of skin and muscle and bone.

The monster had done something to him, filled his mind with flashes of lights and patterns, and he feels a small twitch behind his shoulder. He doesn’t know - it was probably nothing, it’s definitely not one of those eyes - 

Then he sees Yasha with a dazed look on her face that lets Essek know she’s seeing it too. His stomach drops, thinking of Yasha who had spent so long under someone else’s influence. He hates fighting - he never has time to think.

So, without thinking, he looks into the infinite realities spawned in this second and sees one where Yasha shakes it off, letting out an angry scream. He pulls on the thread of it, pulling it into existence.

The spot on his shoulder twitches again.




 

Of course, they don’t know that he’s doing this. 

Using the second convergent future exhausted him. He’s distracted, he can tell, and he hopes nobody notices. His entire body is sluggish, and he’s grateful the Astral Sea lets him float; it looks to the others like his typical glide, but he’s willing himself forward the same way they all were. He’s quick enough that he can keep up with the others.

His exhaustion makes it harder to keep his thoughts straight. He can’t stop thinking about the purple crystal Caleb has in his coat, and Essek catches himself keeping his eyes on the pocket Caleb placed it in.

Perhaps the smaller beacon could be used as a focus for the convergent futures, taking some of the strain off his body. If that were the case, there’d be no limit to how often he could use it. No limit to what he could do.

He’s thinking about it as they teleport away the threshold crest they had found, talking about how they could possibly rest.

Without thinking - he’s tired - he says, “it may be dangerous, but perhaps we could use some of the same magic that rejuvenated Fjord?”

The others turn toward him and he sees Caleb put his hand in the pocket with the crystal.

He immediately regrets it, thinking about the research he’d be sacrificing by destroying the crystal now. But the others are looking at him expectantly, and Caleb looks impressed and intrigued and offers to help and then he’s sitting next to Essek, their hands together as they channel their magic into the beacon.

A wave of lethargy hits him at a crucial moment in the ritual. Essek doesn’t see the future that would have been ahead of him, just feels it, and it’s so disastrous he doesn’t even think before he finds a thread where the lethargy hit him just a few seconds later, allowing him to complete the ritual.

It works. He feels the energy wash over him, as though he hadn’t pulled through a new future at all.

The beacon is shattered, but his friends are rested.




 

He’s heard of Yussa Errenis before, but Essek’s never met him. The Mighty Nein are discussing whether they have time to search him out within Cognouza when Veth reminds them that they’ve always prioritized keeping their friends safe.

He wishes it didn’t make him feel bitter and jealous as Beauregard explains her idea to commune with the city, asking it to clear a path to Yussa. Essek knows they wouldn’t do the same for him, even though he came all this way, even as he’s risking his life trying to-

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Beauregard tense as she sits crossed-legged, attempting to reach the city. But her eyes are closed too tight, her hands clenched into fists.

He sees, for a moment, as another red eye appears in the centre of Beauregard’s forehead and another on her neck. He scrambles, turning toward her, searching out some reality where Beau opens her eyes with a pleased smile, telling them she knows how to find Yussa.

It’s hard for Essek to mask the painful grimace as the white pain erupts once more in his head, but mercifully, nobody notices.

They find Yussa.

 




Nothing feels real in Cognouza. Essek is exhausted and he’s never sure if the things he sees in his periphery are real or imagined; whether the city is actually twitching, or if his brain is confused, too slow to process everything happening around him. It feels more and more like a dream.

The haze fades when they see Lucien in the Aether Crux, holding a dozen intuit charges and laughing at them. Panic spreads through his body instead as he and the Nein flee. He wills himself to move faster but he can’t ; he drops to the ground and tries to run instead, but that only slows him more.

Essek barely contains his scream as he feels something grip his wrist. When he can parse his surroundings - everything is swimming - he sees Yasha pulling him through the tunnel. They collapse into a small room and Yasha lets go of him. He’s humiliated, it’s finally clear to them - to Yasha at least - that he’s too weak, he can’t do this.

But when he forces himself to look up at Yasha, she’s looking at him nervously, biting her lip. “I’m sorry if I was rough,” she says quietly. “I should have warned you I was going to do that.”

Essek shakes his head, then realizes she’s probably waiting for him to say something. “No - ah, sorry - I am grateful you didn’t leave me to be buried beneath the rubble.”

“Of course,” she says quietly before she leaves him to sit with Beauregard.

He’s completely dazed, probably close to sleep, when Jester’s voice rings in his head. “Essek! What do you want to eat?”

His stomach grumbles. When had they eaten last? It’s no wonder he’s hallucinating Jester’s voice, as if they could somehow find food, here.

“Essek,” Jester repeats, and when he looks over, he sees Jester waiting impatiently. “Soup? You like soup, right?”

He sees a jewelled chalice in front of her and he remembers their discussions about Jester’s conjured meal that should protect them when they’re up against - 

Wait, what were they fighting? Lucien, Cognouza? He’s going to die, he’s going to die, he’s going to die.

He doesn’t remember giving Jester an answer, but some time later, she crawls over to him, sitting close enough that their sides are touching. She hands him a sandwich and a bowl of soup.

“Have you ever had grilled cheese?”

Essek looks at the sandwich. “Cheese that’s been fried? I’ve heard it’s a delicacy in some parts of-”

“Nooooo,” Jester whines. “A grilled cheese sandwich!”

“Oh,” Essek says. “No.”

She picks up her own sandwich, showing Essek as she dips it into the thick red soup. “Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup are the best foods for feeling better,” she says cheerfully. “My mama always made this for me when I was sick.”

“She sounds nice,” Essek says. He tries a small bite of the sandwich, tasting it, before dipping it in his soup the way Jester had.

“What did your mom make for you when you were sick?” Jester asks.

Essek lets out a short laugh. “To be honest, I’m not sure she ever cooked me anything just because I was ill.”

“Oh, Essek,” Jester says sadly. “Who took care of you?”

Essek shrugs, sighs. “I was intelligent from a young age, so I was left to take care of myself most of the time. My mother is the Umavi of our Den, she couldn’t abandon her duties to make me soup just because my throat hurt.”

“My mama works a lot too,” Jester says, “I had to take care of myself sometimes too. But she always made me soup when I was sick, no matter what. She loves me so, so much.”

Essek just takes another bite of his sandwich, imagining what it must be like to know that your mother loves you unconditionally.

“I’m sorry!” Jester says. “I didn’t mean to say that your mom doesn’t love you, I’m sure she has her own ways of-”

“It’s okay, Jester,” Essek interrupts. “She is not particularly nurturing.”

“I’m sorry,” she says.

Essek doesn’t say anything. Instead, he looks down at the mostly empty bowl of soup and discards his spoon, lifting the bowl up to his mouth and drinking the rest of it.

“This was delicious,” he says when he finishes. “Grilled cheese. I’ll have to remember this.”

He’s rewarded with a smile from Jester as she leans even farther into him. “I’m so happy you like it, Essek. I’m so glad you’re here with us.”

 




The world spins again as Essek sees Lucien rise into the air above Cognouza, nine eye stalks snaking out from his body, like some horrifying tiefling-beholder abomination. He keeps hoping the fear and danger will snap him out of his dazed exhaustion, but it doesn’t.

He’s not a fighter. He was already barely able to keep up with what was happening in fights, but he’s struggling even more now. He spends as much of the fight as he can hidden behind a tower.

What he does see, eventually, is Lucien diving toward the ground, fusing with it, rising once more, even more horrifying than before.

He wants to run. He wants to teleport away, or even just find something to hide behind for the rest of the fight. There’s no way they can defeat this thing, they’re all going to die, they’re all going to be trapped here for thousands of years too, just screaming and screaming and if Essek thought he was in hell before, living the same days over and over, that would be nothing next to-

Essek barely manages to dodge out of the way before the top of a tower is flung down at him. It hits him, but not as hard as it could have.

He hears a shout from under the tower and realizes with horror that Caleb had been standing on it when it had been thrown, and he was now pinned under it.

He hears himself scream Caleb’s name.

He immediately reaches down, grabbing Caleb’s arms with both of his hands. He braces a foot against the tower, trying to pull Caleb free. His thoughts catch up with him, telling him he’s not strong enough, that it would have been smarter to use a spell, that Caleb will die and it’ll be his fault - and Caleb is looking up at him, terrified, desperate - one of the eyes is turning toward him, he hears screaming -

Reflexively, he thinks of a future where by some fluke, he’s able to pull Caleb free.

Then Essek stumbles backward, barely catching himself before he falls, as he pulls Caleb’s legs from under the tower. Another white-hot flash of pain and Essek is barely standing.

Caleb grabs his arm, pressing their foreheads together for a moment. 

Then the eye turns toward Essek and he’s too tired, he can’t fight it, can’t stay awake -

And then it’s over?

Essek blinks but the image in front of him is the same. Where Lucien had once been, tangled in the fleshy mass of the city, he sees the Nein. Alive. Safe.

He can hear Jester calling his name, see Caleb’s arm outstretched.

It hardly seems real, but he can see them, clearer than he’s seen anything since they arrived in Cognouza. Caduceus had told him to trust . And they’re calling him over, and he can move -

He wills himself forward in the air, drifting closer and closer, but Caleb’s hand is only getting farther away -

The illusion drops and Essek realizes he’s standing directly below Lucien. Lucien is looking down at him, grinning wickedly, and then all six of his bladed wings shoot down toward him.

Essek Thelyss dies for the sixteenth time, his body torn to shreds on the streets of Cognouza.

Chapter Text

Essek awakens on the 19th of Horisal, 836 PD, for the seventeenth time.

He keeps his eyes shut, wishing, as always, for a few more minutes of oblivion. He knows it won't work. He failed. Did the Mighty Nein succeed without him? Did Caleb scream when he saw Essek's wrecked body? Did Jester cry?

His body feels just as exhausted and he can feel where Lucien's wings had torn into him. Worst of all, he can hear the voices of his friends ringing in his ears.

He doesn't want to open his eyes. He can't do this again, can't show up to work and see them all later, see Caleb with the beacon. He can't introduce himself to them again, after everything they've done for him.

The voices of the Nein had been indistinct but as he focuses, he can hear their words. They're saying things like "when will you know if it worked?" and "we can bury him back at the Blooming Grove" and "Essek, come back to us, please, please-"

He opens his eyes. 

He's still in Cognouza.

Jester is leaning over him, and she gasps loudly when he opens his eyes. "Essek!" she cries, throwing her arms around him and resting her head on his chest. When she pulls away, there are a few specks of diamond dust stuck to her cheek.

"It worked," she says quietly, tears running down her face.

The rest of the Mighty Nein are there too, sitting around him in a circle. Caleb is sitting to his side, and Essek is only realizing now that Caleb is holding his hand.

"Did I die?" he asks.

"Yes," Caduceus says, evenly. He's looking at Essek thoughtfully. 

"Caduceus seemed uncertain it would be successful," Caleb says quietly. 

"I'm alive," Essek says. It's not a response but it's - it's real, right? "I'm alive." 

He moves to sit up and both Jester and Caleb lean in to help him. His clothing is torn and bloodstained, but when he feels the skin underneath, it's intact. Scarred, but whole.

Jester stands up, but Essek grabs her hand. "Jester, thank you. Thank you."

"Oh Essek," she says, "I'm just glad you're okay."

"Thank you," he says again, because he can't help it.

The words echo around him, and Essek looks around. He sees small motes of light, drifting upward and out of the city. The souls of the trapped Aeorians, he assumes. He can hear their voices, echoing "thank you, thank you, thank you."

Jester and Caleb help him to his feet, and they walk together to where Lucien's body fell. It's just his body now; the flesh and bone that had held him has been cut away.

He watches as Caleb takes his Transmuter's Stone from his coat, placing it over Lucien's chest. Caleb is shaking, looking around at the others.

Essek tries to stay out of their way as they prepare the ritual, but Lucien had horrified him - what if he comes back?

"Are you sure this is wise to attempt?" He asks.

"He's one of us," Caleb responds. "And once you're a member of the Mighty Nein, you're in. We don't leave each other behind. You should know that by now."

The implication makes Essek's heart jump. He can't bring himself to respond, knowing his voice will crack.

"And right now there are only eight of us," Veth says.

Caleb leans over the body, beginning the ritual. Essek sits with them, trying to stay out of the way as Yasha, Jester and Beauregard appeal to Mollymauk's soul, trying to convince it to return to this body.

The ritual completes. The magic fades and the eight of them are frozen in their circle as they stare at the body, waiting for signs of life. 

Nothing happens.

Something in Essek is shaking, trembling, threatening to tear his body apart. He stands up, huffs, and walks away from the body before sitting down on the ground.

He takes a deep breath, then another. It doesn’t help the shaking.

Someone sits down next to him.

“Are you alright?” Fjord asks, gently.

It’s not a tone Essek has ever heard Fjord use with him - quiet, tender, caring. The feeling inside of him starts to bubble over.

“It’s not fair,” he says quietly.

For a moment, he considers regaining his composure. Standing, straightening, not letting Fjord see him break. He pushes the thought away.

“It’s not fair, ” he repeats. His body starts shaking on the outside, too, and it’s a while before he realizes he’s crying.

“I know,” Fjord says, voice still low and warm.

“I’m sorry,” Essek says. “I’m so sorry, it’s not fair, we came all this way - for me to be the -”

“No,” Fjord interrupts firmly. He places his hand on Essek’s shoulder. “This is not your fault. If you’re here, it’s because you’re meant to be. I miss Molly, a lot. All of us do. But you’re not a consolation prize, and I’m relieved we don’t need to bury two friends.”

Essek nods, then sniffles. “All my life, I worked to control fate. I’ve spent more than a century trying to stop things like these from being left to chance. What is the point of it all?”

Fjord is quiet for a moment. When he starts speaking, his voice is back to the quiet, tender tone it had when he sat down. “My very wise friend Caduceus would say that this is part of life. Even if it looks like lifelessness, there is life there. It changes, grows, and we may not always see it, but it’s there. Almost like…” Fjord pauses for a second.  “Waves on the ocean.”

“Waves?”

“Yeah,” Fjord says, and Essek can hear the slight smile in his voice. “We see a wave and it’s real, right? Tall, formidable. And then it reaches the shore, and the wave is gone.”

“But the water is still there,” Essek suggests.

“The water is still there,” Fjord repeats. “It just changed. We can’t see the wave anymore, so we think it’s gone, but everything that made it is still there. It’s still water. It will still fill the seas, reflect our sky, sustain life.”

Essek nods. “Thank you.”

(The souls of the Aeorians echo around him. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…” )

“Keep studying,” Fjord says. His tone is brighter now, encouraging. It’s never been more clear to Essek why the Nein see him as their captain, on or off their ship. “If you’re angry - about this, about what you did, about what happened to you - let it fuel you. You have a talent I’ll never understand and I can’t wait to see what you do with it.”

Essek just nods again.

“We took a chance on you, Essek. And I’ll admit, I was skeptical.”

“Probably wise,” Essek says under his breath.

“You’ve shown me all I need to see,” Fjord continues. He stands up, then reaches his hand down toward Essek.

Essek takes his hand, standing up. “I am glad I did not let you down.”






The conversation with Fjord helped, but Essek is still relieved when, only a few moments later, the moss and fungus that Caduceus had begun spreading made its way to the tiefling's body. There, it bloomed into beautiful, vibrant plant life, and when it faded away, Lucien - Mollymauk? - was breathing.

Essek and Caduceus stay behind the others as the tiefling runs off, only speaking a few short words. Besides no longer feeling like he'd wasted the Nein's resurrection luck, he's grateful their attention is elsewhere.

Hours later, they've teleported to Caduceus's home, the Blooming Grove. It's like nothing Essek has ever seen - lush and teeming with life. The Nein are sitting in the grove, enjoying tea as the sun sets around them. Caduceus's family are inside, and Kingsley - the tiefling, having decided he's not Mollymauk - has gone off to lay by one of the ponds.

Conversation lulls for a moment as they sip their tea. It's peaceful, and Essek still feels wrecked . Whether it was the exhaustion from the convergent futures, the resurrection, or just the fight itself, he's unsure. He supposes it doesn't matter.

Jester breaks the silence, her voice quiet and unsure. "Essek, why wouldn't the resurrection have worked? Caduceus was so worried."

Essek opens his mouth to speak, but no words come. He looks at Caduceus.

"Consecution, right?" Beau says. "But there was no beacon around, as far as we know."

"I am not consecuted," Essek says. "I apologize for lying about my status before."

"Then why-"

Caduceus interrupts them. "Not tonight."

Everyone, including Essek, turns to look at Caduceus. Caduceus is only looking at Essek. "I told you I will listen when you're ready to share, but not tonight. We've earned this rest. You have earned this rest. There is nothing you need to do tonight."

Essek nods. "Thank you."

He waits for someone - Beau or Veth, probably - to object, but nothing comes.

"Whatever it is, Essek, I'm sure we'll still love you," Jester says.

"I hope so," Essek says quietly.

 




He's grateful for the tower that night. He's relieved when he's finally alone. He carefully removes his clothing, wincing as he pulls it away in the places where the blood has dried.

He sits down in the bathtub in his room. He’d meant to clean himself, but as soon as he adjusts to the warm water, he starts crying.

Not crying. Sobbing. He draws his knees up, hugging them to his chest, and cries himself hoarse. Months and months - years - of anguish pour out of him as he tries to grapple with the reality of what happened. He was alive. He was alive, now, with his friends. His friends that saved him in more ways than Essek can count. His friends that brought him back to life.

When he pulls his head up from his knees, he sees one of Caleb's spectral cats has brought him a pitcher of ice water and a few extra blankets.

Essek sleeps that night, rather than trance.

When he wakes up, he keeps his eyes squeezed shut, worried it had all been a pleasant dream. But the bed isn't his, and he can see the tower's artificial sunlight through his eyelids.

He opens his eyes, and it's like being revivified all over again. He feels his eyes well back up with tears, and stays in bed an extra few minutes, crying into his pillow.

He waits until he's ready before dressing again for the day, using his magic to clean the blood stains from his clothing. He fixes his hair, adjusts his jewelry until it's just right. He doesn't wear his cloak or mantle, but he takes a moment to compose himself before he joins everyone in the Clays' dining room for breakfast.






Caduceus had given him a book to read while Caleb, Veth and Jester went to Zadash. The Clays didn't own many books, but there were a few collections of short stories for children. He accepts it happily and enjoys the morning he spends with it, inside and away from the burning sun.

When they return, he stays in the armchair, listening to their conversation but trying to stay away. He's happy they give him his solitude, not forcing him to interact all the time. He's learning, he's getting better, but being around people all the time like this was still new and overwhelming, even in the safety of the Clays' home.

As soon as he has the thought, the smell of burning wood hits his nose. He looks over at Caleb and sees he's shaking.

The panic spreads quickly as Jester clears a path through the door - whatever had caused the fire had also covered the doors and windows with stone, trapping them inside. He watches Fjord create an arcane gateway before ushering the Clays and Brenattos through it, presumably to safety. Caleb was standing stock still.

Essek rushes over to him. "Caleb, we need to-" he tries, but when he looks at Caleb, his face is that of pure horror. He had looked less frightened in Cognouza, trapped beneath the tower.

“Caleb!” Essek repeats, and when Caleb doesn’t respond, he starts pulling him through the door Jester had created, into the sunlight.

Squinting through the light, he sees a figure floating above them. It takes a moment to identify the figure as Trent Ikithon, a member of the Cerberus Assembly. He and Caleb are speaking and Essek doesn't understand -

He remembers with horror his accusation before, that Caleb was working with the Assembly. With Ikithon, specifically. It was a different Caleb - this Caleb had no idea he had said that - but the guilt sits heavy anyway.

Ikithon notices Essek and his smile is horrifying, malicious; Essek moves himself between Caleb and Ikithon, and Ikithon just laughs in response.

He'd known this was coming, but it's horrifying all the same. He thought they'd come for him, not for Caleb, but Ikithon seems disinterested in Essek.

There was a certain detachment to everything that happened in Aeor; worlds away from the rest of the world, even if Essek couldn’t forget about what was waiting for him after their journey, he didn’t have to see it.  But Ikithon was here with two scourgers, and it is somehow more horrifying than anything Lucien had done.

Essek is still exhausted and spends most of the fight trying to stay hidden, occasionally dragging Caleb out of danger. Then, suddenly, he sees Beauregard fly through the air, locking a metal collar around Ikithon’s neck.

Caleb dispells Ikithon’s flight. Jester glues his hands together. And just like that, it’s over.

What can’t they do?

 


 

Essek volunteers to help with the garden after the fight.

He follows Caduceus’s instructions, a large, straw hat protecting him from the afternoon sun, and rose-printed gardening gloves on his hands. He helps remove the dead, wilted plants, clearing the area as the others till the soil and plant the seeds and sprouts Caduceus hands out.

Essek works without magic, his feet firmly on the ground.

When he’s cleared the last of the area he was assigned, he finds a large tree and sits down, rather ungraciously, letting his back rest against the trunk. He pulls his hat down over his face.

“I have one more job for you, if you can spare the energy,” a voice says.

Essek pulls the hat off his face and looks up to see Caduceus standing over him.

“Of course,” Essek says, but even climbing to his feet is a struggle.

Caduceus opens his hand, and Essek sees a handful of odd-looking seeds.

“These need to be planted,” Caduceus continues. “Not at the front, near the house - they don’t do well in the sun. Can you plant them somewhere shaded?”

Essek nods, holding out his hand, and Caduceus gives him the seeds.

“I’ve never-” Essek starts. “I don’t know how.”

The patient smile Essek has grown to expect from Caduceus doesn’t come, and he immediately regrets saying anything. 

Caduceus sighs. “They go in the dirt.”

“Of course,” Essek says.

Caduceus leaves him, and Essek begins wandering around the grove, looking for somewhere to plant the seeds.

He finds the perfect spot, next to a pond, deep in the grove. He crouches down, carefully tilling the soil. He doesn’t know how deep to plant the seeds, so he tries them at different depths. He realizes he hadn’t brought a watering can, so he uses some of the pond water to wet the soil when he’s done.

 




“Mighty Nein,” Caduceus says after dinner. His face is still wearing the severe expression it has been all day. “Since Eadwulf and Astrid have offered to clean up, can we speak somewhere?”

Both of the scourgers open their mouths as if to protest, but don’t say anything. Astrid gives a small nod, then begins clearing the dishes. Eadwulf looks incredulously at Astrid, but follows suit.

“I can help too,” Essek offers.

“You’re included in the Nein,” Caduceus says.

“Do we need Kingsley?” Beauregard asks. “He left again-”

“I think this conversation would be better without him,” Caduceus says. He gives Essek a look.

Oh.

“Alright,” Beau says.

Jester wants to sit in the garden, so the eight of them leave the Clay house as Caduceus leads them deep into the grove, until they find a place they can all sit comfortably.

The sun has set by now, and Essek notices several of the plants around him glowing faintly in the moonlight. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.

“What’s this about, Caduceus?” Fjord asks.

Caduceus looks at Essek again, and Essek tentatively raises his hand. “I believe I owe all of you an explanation.”

“About why the revivify might not have worked?” Jester asks.

“That is a piece of it, yes,” Essek says. He scans the group and lingers on Caleb for a moment, before looking down at where his hands are clasped in his lap. “I have not been entirely honest with you.”

Veth covers her mouth with her hand just as a small laugh escapes, and Beau mutters, “no shit.”

“Jester, I know you have magic that can prevent me from further dishonesty-”

“Oh no Essek,” Jester interrupts. She reaches across the circle toward him, placing her hand on his. “We trust you. I won’t cast the spell.”

“I would like it if you did,” Essek says. “There is a simplicity in knowing I can’t lie. I wouldn’t want to mislead any of you, and I would find comfort in knowing that I have spoken honestly.”

“Are you sure?” Jester asks.

“If she won’t, I have magic that does that too,” Beauregard says.

Essek ignores Beau. “Please,” he says to Jester.

Jester nods, then takes a few moments to cast the spell. Essek doesn’t resist as he feels the spell’s influence enter his mind.

“Caduceus knows part of this already,” Essek says. He pauses for a second. “I don’t know how to start.”

“What if we ask you questions?” Jester offers. 

Essek nods. “That would be helpful.”

Jester smiles, and Essek can’t help smile a little too, even as the anxiety claws at his insides.

“Who do you have a crush on?” Jester says, wiggling her eyebrows. “Is it Cay-”

“Jester-” Caleb interrupts.

Essek lets his eyes flicker over to Caleb for only a second.

“You don’t actually have to answer that,” Beauregard says.

“None of you are any fun,” Jester complains.

“Questions might have been a bad idea,” Fjord says.

“I’ll try to just… speak, then,” Essek says. He waits for anyone to object, but they stay quiet. Everyone is staring at him, and Essek can’t take it, so he looks back down at his hands.

“I’ve met you all before,” he starts. “I’ve known you a lot longer than you’ve known me. The first time I met you was just like the time you met me - at the Lucid Bastion, after Caleb returned the beacon.”

“I’m confused already,” Yasha says.

“I was angry,” Essek continues. “I had worked very hard to… procure the beacons, and not only had the Assembly managed to lose one, but some Empire mercenaries returned it to us. I had spent years covering my tracks, and I worried that, with the beacon returned, it would be possible to discover my crime. I was not as friendly to you, then. You were my charges then, too, but I kept as much distance as I could. I was quite mean.”

“We know,” Beauregard says.

“You don’t,” Essek replies. “Jester never invited me over for dinner, Caleb never asked me for magic. I know you don’t remember this - please be patient. Eventually - I do not know how, really - you suspected I was behind the theft of the beacons. You all arrived at my home one day, asking questions.

“Once it was clear there was nothing I could do to remedy the situation, I-” Essek pauses, taking a deep breath. “I attacked you all. I am sorry. I was, of course, no match for the seven of you.”

Essek remembers, with brutal clarity, Jester running up to him, delivering a powerful spell as she punched him in the chest.

“I died,” he continues. “Really, truly died. And then I opened my eyes, and I was alive, at home, in bed. I thought it might have been a dream, but drow do not often sleep. Eventually, I discovered that I was alive again, in the past.”

“How long ago?” Caleb asks, his voice heavy.

“It was only a few weeks earlier, then,” Essek says. He sighs. “I woke up on the day I met you all.”

“That’s how you knew us already?” Yasha asked.

“Kind of,” Essek says. “That was still not when you met me.”

“How many-” Caleb starts.

“Sixteen,” Essek interrupts. “I mean - I’ve woken up on that day sixteen times. I’ve died sixteen times, including yesterday.”

There is a moment of stunned silence, and Essek can’t bring himself to look at any of them.

“Most of the time, it was you that killed me,” Essek continues, staring down at the grass. “Nine times, actually.”

“Nein!” Yasha yells immediately, as if by habit. “I’m so sorry - that was not appropriate.”

“I thought it was funny too,” Essek says. “Well, funny may not be the right word for it.”

“What happened the other times?” Beauregard asks. Someone must have hit her, because she then yells, “what? He said we could ask questions!”

“It’s okay,” Essek says, and he manages to lift his head to look at them. “I tried intercepting you before you reached the Bright Queen. Both times I tried that, it ended up with me being executed for treason. One time, it was a dragon. I believe it may have been the same one you’ve fought a few times. The other three were - ah -”

He tries to say “accidents,” but Jester’s spell stops him.

“It’s okay,” Jester says. “You don’t have to say.”

Essek nods. “Each time I met you, you were nicer to me.”

“You were nicer to us,” Caduceus says.

“We were growing on you already,” Jester says.

“Eventually you started inviting me over for dinner, asking me to Teleport you around, asking to learn dunamancy. And, sometime later, I started saying yes.”

“How long did it take?” Yasha asks. “When was the first time you said yes to dinner?”

“It was two deaths ago - three, if you count yesterday - but I did not meet you in the life that followed that one.” Essek thinks of the frigid isolation of the mountain caves, and a chill runs through him. “Well, I suppose we met in the moments before-” 

“Before we totally smoked you, again?” Veth asks.

“Yes,” Essek answers. “After I went over for dinner the first time - the peace talks were soon after, and just like the time you all remember, you saw through my disguise as Dezran Thain. I do not know how.”

“Frumpkin,” Caleb says quietly.

“Frumpkin?”

“I cannot say for certain that our actions were the same then,” Caleb says, “but this time, Frumpkin saw a conversation between you and the Marinet.”

“Ah, yes,” Essek says. “That explains a lot.”

“So we figured you out and you what - tried to kill us again?” Veth asks.

“Not exactly,” Essek says. “You confronted me on the ship, as you did this time. But I, ah, panicked. I hurt one of you, and knew there would be no coming back from that. I tried to flee, but ended up trapped underneath the ship, and drowned.”

Veth’s expression quickly changes to something stunned and somber.

“When I woke up after drowning, I couldn’t face you again in the Lucid Bastion, so I fled north. Of course, you found me there too. I don’t know exactly why - I think you tried to explain, but -” He tries to find the words to explain the paranoia isolation had instilled in him and fails.

“We killed you?” Caleb asks.

“Yes,” Essek says. “And then I woke up again, and met you all, and you all met me.”

He waits for a moment, hoping someone, anyone, will break the silence, tell him to leave, get angry, attack him.

“I am so sorry,” Essek says, grateful Jester’s spell doesn’t stop him. “I understand if you cannot trust me after this.”

“Did you ever kill any of us?” Jester asks quietly, not looking at him.

“Yes,” Essek says. “All of you, often. Not all at the same time, of course.”

“Was it ever close?” Fjord asks.

“A few times,” Essek responds. “I began to strategize, knowing what you were capable of. The last time we fought, only Yasha was left.”

“I killed you,” Yasha says slowly.

“More than anyone else,” Essek says. 

“Essek, I’m sorry-”

“No,” Essek interrupts. “Please don’t apologize. You were protecting yourself and your loved ones. I am sorry if that was not something I should have shared. I thought you might like knowing that, but in hindsight-”

“Did I ever kill you?” Veth interrupts.

“Twice,” Essek answers. “I believe those were deaths eleven and twelve.”

“Can we talk about something else,” Jester says loudly, but staring down at her lap.

“Sorry Jessie,” Veth says.

“So when Jester tried to bring you back-” Caleb starts.

“When I regained consciousness, I thought it had happened again,” Essek says. “I thought I was back in Rosohna, in Horisal.”

A look of horrified realization flashes across Caleb’s face. “Your magic - that thing you had told me about. You knew it would weaken you. Did you use it?”

“Yes,” Essek says.

“What magic?” Jester asks, looking back up at him.

“It allows me to alter fate in small ways, but it is very physically taxing,” Essek explains. “I apologize, I believe my weakened state is the reason I couldn’t fight off Gaudius’s charm, eventually causing my death.”

“What did you use it for?” Caleb asks.

Essek looks over at Caduceus. “The first time, it was to stop the elemental from hitting me and Caduceus.”

“You used it more than once?” Caleb asks. “You said any more than once and it could-”

“I used it five times.”

Caleb’s eyes shoot open.

“I was okay after the first one,” Essek says. “After the second one - I was worried about you in the fight against the tabaxi, Yasha - I was tired enough that I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with you, were it not for the Astral Sea letting me move through it wilfully.”

“The third?” Fjord asks.

“The ritual with Caleb,” Essek says, looking over at Caleb. “That one was okay, because the rest we obtained more or less cancelled out the exhaustion. The fourth was when Beauregard was trying to commune with Cognouza to find Yussa Errenis.”

“I didn’t fucking need your help,” Beau says.

“You did,” Essek says. “In the future where I did not intervene, the communion resulted in more eyes. In the brief second I saw, I could not see all of them, but my theory is that you would have had all nine.”

“Oh,” Beau says. “Thanks, I guess.”

“You risked your life for her,” Caleb says. “And for Yussa, and Yasha, and Caduceus.”

“And you,” Essek says, before he can stop himself.

“The fifth time?” Jester asks.

Essek nods. “I needed a little help pulling you from under that tower.”

“That was right before Gaudius’s charm,” Caleb says. “Saving me killed you.”

“I’m alive,” Essek says.

“Why?” Veth asks. “No offense - why did you live this time? Why did it work?”

“Truthfully, I don’t know,” Essek says. “I found some writings about it in Aeor, but they didn’t explain very much. I think perhaps it was because we were not on the prime material plane, or perhaps it was specifically the Astral Sea.”

“I disagree,” Caduceus says, speaking up for the first time in a while. “I think the universe wanted to ensure you did this right, and now that you have, you’re free.”

“We could test that theory,” Veth says, holding up her crossbow.

“No - no thank you,” Essek stammers. “I believe living with the uncertainty may be good for me.”

“If you ever do want to know, I could ask the Wildmother,” Caduceus says.

“Perhaps one day,” Essek says.

“We forgive you, Essek,” Fjord says. “I meant what I said in Cognouza, and I mean it even more now. You’ve done horrible things, to all of us, but you just died trying to protect us, even though you didn’t think we could save you.”

“You do not owe me-”

“I know,” Fjord interrupts. “I don’t forgive you because I think I’m in your debt for using some magic to help my friends. I forgive you because I sincerely believe you’ve changed paths, and I cannot see you betraying us in the future.”

Essek nods.

“This has been a lot today,” Caleb says. “Unless there is anything else you’d like to say, would it be okay with everyone if I summoned the tower?”

Essek shakes his head. “I might stay out here for a few minutes.”

Caleb gives him an understanding nod, then heads back toward the house.

The rest of them follow, and Essek rises to his feet to tap Jester on the shoulder. “Could you wait here with me for a moment?”

“Of course,” Jester says.

Essek peers over her shoulder, waiting until the rest of them are out of earshot. 

“Thank you,” Essek says.

“For what?”

“I wanted to tell you something before your spell ends,” Essek says quickly, hoping he won’t lose his nerve before he gets it out.

“What is it?”

“I do have feelings for Caleb,” Essek says. “Feelings I’ve never - I didn’t think I could have feelings for anyone.”

Jester’s eyes go wide, and a huge smile spreads across her face before she covers her mouth with both hands.

“But you’re my favourite,” Essek continues, “and none of this would have happened if you hadn’t been so persistent in befriending me. Thank you, Jester.”

Jester just nods, still standing still in front of him with her hands over her mouth, though Essek can see her eyes well with tears.

One last time, he screws up his courage, then wraps his arms tightly around her.

“Thank you,” he says again. “Thank you, thank you.”

“Oh Essek,” she says quietly in his ear.

When they break apart, Jester keeps her hands on the sides of Essek’s shoulders. “You know, Caleb likes you too.”

 




Essek is, once again, relieved to retire to the comfort of his bedroom within Caleb’s tower, but when he opens the door, Caleb is there, sitting on his bed.

“Caleb,” Essek says dumbly. The expression on Caleb’s face is inscrutable, and Essek can feel his heart pounding in his throat.

“Essek,” Caleb says. “Can you sit down?”

Essek tentatively walks over to his bed before sitting down next to Caleb. They’re both facing forward, so at least Essek doesn’t need to see Caleb’s eyes staring through him.

“I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you,” Caleb says quietly.

Essek laughs, too loud and too sharp. “I’ve killed you, Caleb Widogast. Over and over.”

“Not me,” Caleb says. “I have no memory of that, and I do not forget things easily. You, on the other hand, remember every time one of us has killed you. I wish to apologize for the times it was me.”

“It never was,” Essek says quietly.

“What?”

“You never killed me,” Essek says. “I don’t think it - really, it’s just chance who lands the killing strike - I’m not reading into it.”

“No,” Caleb says. “There is comfort in that, thank you.”

Essek stays quiet.

“Veth killed Caduceus, once,” Caleb says. “Not to mention all the times we’ve attacked each other while under external influence.”

“I wasn’t under external influence,” Essek says.

“Neither was Veth when she killed Caduceus.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Essek asks, turning to look at Caleb.

“Because,” Caleb says, catching Essek’s eye, “do you notice how she’s still here? She did something dangerous and reckless, and it killed Caduceus. I don’t mean he was unconscious and bleeding out - he was dead. Jester had to Revivify him.”

“An accident is very different-”

“Essek,” Caleb interrupts. “Listen to me. I told you this because I need you to believe this group forgives you, as they have forgiven Veth and Yasha for the harm they’ve brought us. I do not want your guilt to keep you away from - from all of us.”

Essek sighs. “I will try.”

“There is something else I need to apologize for,” Caleb says. “I have kept secrets from you too, and I would like to share them some day. I won’t get into all of it tonight, but some of it has to do with the training I received from Trent Ikithon.”

Essek’s stomach falls, remembering again the accusation he’d made on the ship.

“The way Volstruckers are taught to gain information is often unsavoury,” Caleb says. “We’re taught to use anything that could work, and that occasionally means making advances at people we wish to get close to.”

Essek’s head is swimming. So Caleb wasn’t interested? It had all been an act, for what - magic?

“You got angry with me once,” Caleb says. “After the incident with teleporting us south to the Lotusden Greenwood. I apologize if I made you uncomfortable, and I’m sorry if I have made you uncomfortable since then.”

“I may have overreacted,” Essek stammers, looking away from Caleb and down at the floor. “I was under a great deal of stress.”

“I can imagine,” Caleb says. “But I should have stopped after that. You were already teaching me some of your magic, so there wasn’t any need to continue to press, but I couldn’t help it.”

“It’s okay,” Essek lied, happy he was free from Jester’s spell. Essek should be happy just to be alive, he doesn’t need this - Caleb - too, and he certainly doesn’t deserve it. “I know how things we are trained to do can become second nature.”

“Not just the training,” Caleb says. “It did start that way, but that is not why I continued.”

Essek looks up. “Then why-”

“Because I am very attracted to you,” Caleb says. “It’s not an excuse. I will stop.”

“No-” Essek stammers. “You don’t have to stop.”

“If it makes you uncomfortable-”

“Caleb,” Essek tries. But when Caleb pauses, Essek realizes he has no follow up. He can’t articulate what he means to say, can’t find the words to explain.

So, instead, he leans forward on the bed, and presses his lips to Caleb’s.

He pulls back just far enough to say, “I am very attracted to you too, Caleb Widogast.”

“Essek - you do not owe me -”

Essek wraps his hands around the back of Caleb’s head and kisses him again, then laughs. “And what a horrible debt that would be, having to kiss this beautiful, powerful, brilliant man in front of me.”

Caleb pulls back, still looking distrustful.

“I told Jester,” Essek says. “Before her spell ended. If you don’t believe me, you can ask her.”

Caleb’s eyes widen. “Really?”

“Yes,” Essek says. He feels dizzy and delirious with everything that’s happened in the last two days, and he can feel his control slipping away from him. “Now, will you please kiss me?”

He does.




 

A week later, the rest of the Mighty Nein are preparing to leave the Blooming Grove.

Essek and Caleb had talked, deciding to take their - Essek doesn’t want to say relationship , not yet - slowly. He has business in Rexxentrum, and even disguised, the Empire is still too dangerous for Essek. But they can both Teleport, and Caleb promised he’d visit often.

“Caduceus,” Essek says nervously. “You had extended an invitation - I wondered if you might still require help with the gardens -”

Caduceus’s gentle smile is back. “I would love to have you stay for as long as you like.”

Essek nods. “Thank you.”

Caduceus glances down at Essek’s clothing. “You may need to get some things, though.”

Essek looks down at his once-fine attire, now stained with blood and dirt and grass, torn in more places than one. “Ah, yes.”

“Come shopping with us in Nicodranas!” Jester suggests. “I know all the best places, you’ll totally love it.”

“And if you need anything in Rexxentrum, I can bring that for you,” Caleb offers.

“Both sound great,” Essek says.






Another few weeks later, Essek is carefully stepping through the Blooming Grove, looking at the dirt where Caduceus had asked him to plant some herbs and vegetables.

There’s something in the dirt.

He kneels down, getting as close as he can. It’s small, but a green sprout has pushed its way through the dirt.

“Caduceus!” Essek calls.

He hears him run over. “What’s wrong?”

“Look,” Essek says.

“Oh, it’s sprouted,” Caduceus says. “That’s nice.”

“I planted this,” Essek says.

“Yes you did.”

“It’s growing.” He feels stupid, but he can’t help his grin.

Caduceus places his hand on Essek’s shoulder, squeezing a little. “You’re doing good.”

“But - wait,” Essek says. “I planted these only a few days ago. You gave me seeds to plant after the fight, and I check every day, and it still just looks like dirt.”

“Not everything grows right away,” Caduceus says. “Some things take time. It will probably be at least a year before anything comes of those seeds.”

“What are they?”

“Trilliums,” Caduceus says. “Some people say they symbolise rebirth and transformation, and striking a healthy balance between all parts of ourselves.”

“Do you believe that?” Essek asks.

“What I believe is inconsequential,” Caduceus says. “Flowers don’t intend to mean anything, they just are. Things are only meaningful when we give them meaning.”

“I don’t understand,” Essek says.

“If you like, keep checking on these flowers, year after year. If you find that they bring you joy or comfort, or make you feel refreshed or balanced, then you have given them meaning,” Caduceus says. “If not, then don’t. You’re not beholden to them. And we’ll find something else.”

Essek nods.

“Some things take time to grow,” Caduceus repeats. “Trilliums can’t survive in the sun, and they grow slower than a lot of other plants. But they do grow, and when they bloom, they’re beautiful and stunning. A pure white, three-pointed flower.”

Essek nods again, looking back down at the dirt, imagining another small green sprout climbing through the earth.

“I think you’ll find they’re worth the wait.”