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a gentle sound, the world in flames

Chapter Text

Caduceus Clay is in a bit of a pickle, so to speak. He has spent the last fifteen days or so huddled in a box on the side of the road in Shady Creek Run. He's cold and wet and overall not happy with where he's ended up in life. He would have stayed in his graveyard, but he couldn't have. A few people- usually he would know the exact number but it all gets a little confusing when he thinks back to it- came through the fence and trampled all over his precious flowers. That wasn't important to them, but it was to him. What was more important, however, was that they came in with bright flaming torches and they lit the whole place up like it was nothing. Absolutely nothing. When the land was sacred.

His sister, who had been planning on leaving for the east, but hadn't quite left yet, begged him to run while she held them off. And so he did. He ran as fast as he could and he prayed the forest- however twisted it was becoming- and the Wildmother would protect him and his sister, but he hasn't seen her since and he can only hope she took those people down with her.

It was probably for nothing, anyway. Nobody in this place cares - not about beggars, but especially not about firbolgs. Not ones who have lived in graveyards all their lives. Not ones so glaringly inhuman it's disturbing to look at.

He can make himself look human, though, and he doesn't want his sister's death to be worth nothing (though in the end nobody's death is worth nothing - they all have life to give back, he's just thinking about the more situational differences). So he sits in his box and lets the rain wash away the dirt as he thinks and thinks and comes up with maybe a little more than a handful of dust.

He hears chatter on the streets a few dreary days later. The Mardun family is going on a business trip. Caduceus doesn't know who they are or what they do, but from all the muttering he can at least gather they're pretty wealthy and consequential in this sad place - most importantly, however, they're leaving.

Caduceus has seen the guards at the gates. They would kill him without a second thought, and even if he managed to make it past them he doesn't know how far it is until the next piece of habitable land is. If he could hitch a ride, however, everything would be so much easier. They're leaving tomorrow, big carriages, totally out of place. Easy to spot.

After the lights- mostly- go out, Caduceus makes his way to the edge of the town where the buildings fade away, and prepares himself. As he cleans his clothes as best he can, he thinks back sadly to his beetle armor and staff, lost in his haste. It's a shame such fine pieces of work are gone. Made by his sister, too.

As the sun rises, Caduceus is jolted awake by a thunk off in the distance and then shouting. He flinches, blinking as his eyes readjust to the dim morning sky. There's more yelling- "Get your asses out of here! Make way! I won't hesitate!" A moment later, a carriage rounds the corner. It's pulled by two horses and made of some kind of leather that's lined with iron on the sides. There's a driver in the front, and a concealed compartment behind that, presumably for the passengers.

Caduceus digs his hand into the dirt, sullied by the town though it is, and feels the pulse of earth. It's the same everywhere he goes, a steady comforting beat, and in time with the rhythm he lets magic wash over his skin and vanishes from the naked eye. As the carriage draws closer and closer, he kicks a foot out to try to draw the driver's attention. Nobody spares him a glance. Caduceus feels a smile slowly spreading across his face.

Behind the more elaborate carriage, he spots a wagon that was previously hidden, only one driver sitting in front. The back is filled with something, but what he can't tell, as there's a black cloak or blanket covering all the contents. Caduceus walks out into the road as he watches where he steps, and right after the storage cart jolts from a rock in the road he takes the chance to climb on as quietly as he can. The cart creaks for a moment as a considerable amount of weight is added to it and he turns still as possible as the driver turns around and squints. She's a woman, brown skin and long pointed ears almost hidden by her hair. Her dark eyes twitch back and forth, searching, before the cart hits another rock and she's forced to keep them on the road ahead. Caduceus lets his muscles slowly relax - just for the moment.

The person inside the carriage, it turns out, is just as inhuman is he is. She is relatively young, with dark blue grey skin, shockingly yellow pupil-less eyes, and large horns that curve upward in a warning sign. Her name is Ophelia Mardun. She dismisses the guards at the gates to the Dwendalian Empire with a flick of her hand as her driver tosses a hefty pouch of money in their direction. Caduceus leans forward, interest sparked. He's never really seen anything before. He knew that when he left his oasis, but it's being driven home now.

They continue on their way through the canyon. The wind whistles ominously, sweeping through the curtains of the carriage and up Caduceus's spine. Eventually they pass the haunted place, and come into a wide expanse of rolling hills and brown tinted grass. It's fall, and everything is turning to dust.

Again Ophelia hardly spares the guards a glance, handing them a few scrolls which are unrolled and handed back to her with a wave of their hands. Caduceus doesn't notice the exchange - his eyes search the sky, finding the sun concealed by clouds, and then drop to the ground to loom upon the seemingly endless plains. He's never seen so few trees in his life. Only a little disconcerting.

The carts travel at a steady pace, so much that Caduceus feels a twinge of sympathy for the horses when they finally stop. Everyone is weary and sore from a long day, only eating a few bites before setting up camp and disappearing inside the two tents. Clay gets off the cart only when everyone disappears. Apparently all the tents are stored in Ophelia's carriage, since no one has touched the concealed items on Caduceus's cart since they've started their journey.

He stretches his sore legs and scans the vicinity for anything to snack on. There doesn't seem to be anything, but he's not that worried - he's lasted a decent while without food before, and they'll probably hit civilization before he gets to the end of his rope. He still hasn't decided whether he's going to ride with Ophelia to her destination or get out as soon as it seems optimal: obviously leaving soon is safer, since she has less of a chance of discovering him, but for some reason he's a little reluctant to leave the company of another odd-looking person

With nothing else to do, Caduceus heads behind one of the tents and lays down on his back. The cold ground is refreshing.

Above him is a field of stars. As the day went on, the clouds slowly dissipated, and by the time the sun set they all could clearly see the firey orange as day and night shifted. Now the sky is completely clear. There's no light from either of the tents in front of him, and in the darkness for a moment it seems as if it's just him and the whole wide world. Free for him to see.

It's never been like this before. He was always trapped - trapped in his own home, trapped in his own mind, trapped in an awful town full of angry people. But now he isn't and his heart beats faster with the knowledge. Or perhaps it's the ground, the Wildmother, showing him she is still with him.

Caduceus closes his eyes. When he does, he sees the stars imprinted on his eyelids. And when he wakes up, dew has crawled up his arms and rests on the tip of his nose, clinging to his eyelashes. The tents are still up. He pushes himself into a sitting position and, after a moment to get his bearings, digs his hand into the wet earth and turns invisible once again. Satisfied that he's sufficiently concealed, Caduceus stands up and moves his sore muscles as he peers over the tops of the tents. The carts are still in place, horses roaming a few feet away, and there are no signs of waking from any of the people. The land is still cloaked in the off-purple of dawn and as far as Caduceus can tell the sun has not yet crested the horizon, so it makes sense that no one has woken up yet. He takes the time to clean off the damp and dirt as best he can. For the sake of comfort. Usually he doesn't mind being covered in dirt, but it's a long journey and any prints left on the wood of the cart could expose him.

A cluster of bushes to the right of the road they pulled off of catches Caduceus's attention. Little red berries gleam against the dark green glossy leaves of the bush, and Caduceus wanders over as he runs a hand through his hair. He plucks a berry from the stem and sniffs it for a moment - it's not giving him any immediate warning signs, and he's confident in his poison tolerance, so he pops it in his mouth and chews. It's quite bitter with a tiny hint of sweet. Definitely not the most delicious thing he's ever had. but the very slight gnawing in his stomach causes him to search the bushes for more. He manages to grab a sizable amount and resists eating them all, instead storing them in his leather satchel - the only thing he had on him at the time of the fire.

He goes over to the horses and pats them a few times, whispering low assurances. He wants to give them a berry or two, but Ophelia doesn't seem like the type- however shady she is- to neglect them. They nicker slightly at the strangeness of empty air stroking their manes and Caduceus looks around for anyone disturbed by the noise as he soothes them.

The guards rise and Ophelia comes to shortly after. They cook a small breakfast and pack up camp quickly, Caduceus making sure he's on the cart before the woman comes over. He settles into the cart's packages, which are mostly soft. Whatever they are. Soon enough the horses are hitched back up and they're off on the road again. A long day of travel, with the sun high in the sky and the air biting cold despite it, begins. They camp in a nestled nook between two hills, but Caduceus's night of sleep is restless. Unnatural death stains seeps into the ground, and whatever has happened here makes the Wildmother displeased. The earth's pulse is erratic and disturbed, and it permeates his mind and leaves him wide awake with blurred images in his head more than once in the night.

|~|

They go on like that for more than week. Caduceus doesn't know where they're going or how long it will take - and even if he knew the name of the place it would undoubtedly not ring any bells. He's heard of Rexxentrum, the capital of the Dwendalian Empre of which Shady Creek Run is on the edge of, and he's heard of Xhorhas and the Menagerie Coast. People from Xhorhas have shown up to the graveyard before. Their skin was dark, hair light, and ears sharp. They carried a heavy grief and a power that slumbered like a bear, ferocious if woken. They weren't unkind, however, which was more than he could say about others who visited. Even if they made him wary.

He hasn't met anyone who has specifically said they were from the Menagerie Coast, but Shady Creek Run apparently deals in trade with them and he has heard the name on others' lips a few times. And the Dwendalian Empire of course is where they are now. Ever-expanding and strictly ruled are the details he's gotten so far.

The fifth day Caduceus wakes up to see the trees and cloudy sky around him, he also wakes up with something cold and sharp pressed against his throat. It takes a moment for him to process the glowing, solid yellow eyes that glare down at him in the still dark morning, and when he does, he prays the ground will keep him safe.

"Good morning," Ophelia says. Her fangs glint as she curls her lip. Caduceus stares at her in silence, not daring to shift even as the wood of the tree trunk behind him digs into his back. After a moment, she raises an eyebrow. "Well? Anything to say for yourself, or should I just slit your throat right here?"

Caduceus speaks through the tightness in his throat, and as he does the usual calmness comes back to him. "I mean no harm," he says. She looks back at him - 'Why should I believe you?'

"I only wanted to get out of that place and you were the easiest way. I don't intend to cause any trouble. I was going to leave as soon as I could." Caduceus slowly raises his hands, only flinching slightly as the blade is pressed deeper. His shudder only digs it in and a thin trail of blood winds its way down from his neck across his skin. Ophelia watches with sharp eyes, and then reaches out to smear it on her finger and lick it off.

Caduceus valiantly maintains his demeanor. As long as he has his feet on the ground, he will be okay.

Ophelia seems intrigued by what she tastes. "So, let's say I believe you." She takes enough weight off that Caduceus can breathe without injuring himself. "What I would want to know, then, is how you managed to stay hidden for so long."

It hadn't been Ophelia that Caduceus was really worried about, since he had not seen her come out during the days of travel at all. Only after the sun had set she would join the guards to eat dinner and set up camp, and at that point Caduceus was usually a safe distance away from the firelight, looking for food or a comfortable place to sleep.

Ophelia is one who appreciates honesty, so Caduceus says, "Well. There is this thing I can do where I turn invisible." And as he says it, he sees something off in her gaze. Something calculating and dark that makes it a struggle to finish his sentence.

She considers this for a moment. "Is there anything else within your capabilities?" she asks. He dismisses 'turn dead people into tea' and 'talk to plants and animals' and sticks with the more relevant ones.

"I suppose, I can change my appearance. And I do have a penchant for healing."

Ophelia stares at him scrutinizingly for one more moment and then ever so slowly removes the knife from his neck. "Well..." She pauses. It takes a few seconds for Caduceus to process her unspoken question.

"Ah, you can call me Clay. Mr. Clay."

"Well, Clay, I do suppose I have an idea of how you can make it up to me. Here are the terms. It will only be a little while longer until I reach my destination. Until then, you sit on the cart with Aubrey, and if you try to make a run for it, we will not hesitate to kill you. Once I arrive, you will follow my instructions and you will know what to do."

It can hardly be considered a choice, but Caduceus doesn't want to die when he could be living, so he nods without hesitation. Whatever he's getting himself into, at least he'll be able to see a little more of the world, and really. What more could he want?

|~|

The remainder of the drive to Zadash, as he'd learned it was called, was less uncomfortable than he expected. Though the two guards were surprised and a little wary to have a new passenger, eventually he and the elf who he sat next to on the cart, Aubrey, struck up a conversation. She talked about growing up in Rexxentrum, the incomprehensibly large capitol of the Dwendalian Empire. She talked about meeting the people who ran the city, the Archmages and politicians. Her parents were nobles who adopted her and wanted to raise her as their heir, but apparently she decided to flee from the Dwendalian Empire instead. There were obviously reasons that led to that decision, but Caduceus easily lets her skirt around them. It's all so fascinating, he doesn't need to know.

In return, he tells her a little about the Blooming Grove. She initially seems skeptical that something so beautiful could exist in the Savalierwood, but as he goes on, a little lost in the memories of home, she begins to smile and nod along with him. She isn't even disturbed by his offhand mention of decomposing bodies and making tea from the flowers, and scowls as she imagines it all going up in flames.

Caduceus decides she's a nice person. Maybe not everyone in Shady Creek Run is a thief or a murderer. Ophelia seems fair enough so far, but Caduceus is certain she's got blood on her hands that isn't just from a small knife cut.

The last two days before they reach their destination, it rains constantly. Caduceus has hardly ever been this cold, but rain? Rain is a downright rarity, and he loves it. The two nights it rains are the only two where Ophelia forces Caduceus to sleep inside a tent. After he was found out, he suggested that he spend the nights outside and no one objected. But Ophelia refuses to have a sopping wet and muddy person dirtying her cart, so he crams himself in the tent. He has to say that it definitely looks bigger on the outside. He has to curl up just to fit, and wakes up sore in the morning.

The rain doesn't stop even when they reach Zadash. He and Aubrey are soaked. They share a few smiles and it's clear neither of them mind as the rain becomes a steady beat to Caduceus's thoughts.

In front of him, there's a wall and a gate. It seems they've finally reached their destination. Around them are people camped out in tents and other structures, making a little town all to themselves. Aubrey only spares them a single glance, looking a little sad, and then hurries her horses forward. They arrive at the arched gate, guards a very different tone to the ones they encountered outside of Shady Creek Run. They only glance at the carriage- one guard, a rather sallow human man, almost jumps back in fright when he gets a glimpse of the person shielded by curtains- and let them pass without a word. Aubrey's cart they also hardly glance at. For a moment Caduceus is confused, before he remembers that he looks like an average human man. Ophelia wanted a demonstration of his skills before whatever was waiting for him happened, and so it was suggested that he change his appearance to pass without any disturbance into the city.

They pass through the streets at a quick pace. The buildings lining the main wall are hovels, really, but they become more well-built the further in they go. Caduceus's eyes scan the streets around them, but his attention is quickly caught by the towering buildings in front of him. There are three especially striking spires that catch his eye. Aubrey follows his gaze as much as she can without driving into one of the makeshift shops on the street and gives a slightly twisted smile.

"Those you're looking at are the Tri-Spires." She points to the one on the left-most side. "That one is the Constellation Bridge. Haven't heard much about it." Even from here, Caduceus can make out what seems to be stalks of ivy climbing up its side, watery grey stone stacked in rows as it shoots up and up and overlooks the whole city. It's gorgeous, and looking at it for a moment eases the uncomfortableness of being so closed in by all these unnatural formations, but his mind is once again shifted as he sees the tall multicolored tower to its right covered in banners of all hues, braided together and strewn about. Some flap in the faint wind. It's hard to tell from this distance, but they don't seem to be affected by the rain.

"That mess is the Triumph Chime," Aubrey says. "It's where all the rich people go to spend their money and drink and gamble." She scowls in its direction and shakes her shoulders. Rain drips down her clothes. "And the last one is the Zauber Spire. It's connected to the Hall of Erudition, where all the mages get taught." Caduceus looks towards the spire the farthest away. It's white stone with few blue banners. A simple and elegant design, but it seems a bit too cold and uncaring for him to take a liking to it. He finds himself drawn back to the Constellation Bridge.

Aubrey glances at him when he doesn't reply and frowns at him. "Don't look at them like that," she says. "With where you're going, you'll probably never set foot in the Tri-Spire District. Nobody on these streets will." She looks at the people scattered around, some smiling hopefully at the prospect of new customers, others ducking down under their hoods and moving faster. All of them are in fairly tattered clothes.

"You know why all of these people look like this?" Aubrey says, eyes narrowed, mouth twisted. "Because all of the money is there-" she flicks her head in the direction of the Tri-Spires- "and they just leave all these people to sit in the dirt. I've heard them judging, laughing at these people stuck on the streets, but they're just doing what they have to. We are just doing what we have to."

Caduceus stays silent as she loosens her hands on the reins. He doubts he's in a position to talk about these kinds of things; he doesn't really even understand the whole concept of money yet. How can little gold coins be worth so much, change so many things?

For the rest of the ride Aubrey sits with her brows furrowed silently. Caduceus looks around - the day is winding down and the whole city seems to grow darker. He watches as they curve around to the right, not going any closer to the Tri-Spires. In fact, they skirt just around the slums beside the wall, rolling to a stop at a slanted dark wood building with one large figure and one small standing at the doorway with their arms crossed. They both turn at the sound of wheels through mud, and shift as the light of recognition hits one of them - the smaller figure's face is shadowed by their cloak. Caduceus leans back as they roll to a stop and the larger guard comes over to the carriage door, holding a hand up.

Ophelia steps out a few moments later. She blinks at the guard a few times, who sweeps into a bow and says, "Lady Mardun. What a pleasure to see you again. I'm glad you could find time to come visit."

Ophelia smiles slowly, fangs stretching over her bottom lip. "Of course, dear. Anything to ensure this relationship continues to be beneficial." The guard lifts their head and she trails her fingers down their cheek.

They look at her, previous calm composure lost. "W-well, the gentleman you're looking for is inside. We can easily manage your bags."

Ophelia nods, turning to Caduceus and Aubrey as her carriage's driver comes to stand next to her. "Come on, you two. I don't know what you were thinking, letting yourselves get soaked like that."

They hop out of the cart. Mud splashes onto Caduceus's already dirty boots. As they pass into the building, he feels the larger guard's gaze follow him in, and is relieved when the door shuts behind them. It's not much better inside, however - the stench of alcohol turns the air heavy.

A tall man with dark skin and dark hair in coils looks up and straightens as he registers their presence. "Lady Mardun, you can vouch for these three?" he asks. Caduceus's eyes catch on the many scars across his neck that shine in the low torchlight.

Ophelia blinks slowly and nods. He reaches into his pocket and beckons them behind the bar. They, after the door is unlocked, enter what seems like the storage room, filled with barrels to the side and jars on shelves. The man bypasses them entirely and pulls up a barely noticeable chain in the corner. Part of the floor comes with it and Caduceus stares in fascination until Aubrey tugs his sleeve and he follows the rest of them down stairs that go down deeper and deeper. The door slams shut behind them and he shivers from the gust of wind that hits his back and chills the water drops still clinging to his clothes.

There are just so many interesting things in this world, Caduceus realizes as they enter yet another room. This one is drastically warmer, almost like the Blooming Grove but less humid. Three people sit at a table in the corner, arguing fiercely with each other. On the other side there are more tables. There are two people sitting with a table in between them, cradling mugs that emanate the same stench that came from upstairs. Nobody else spares them a glance, but Caduceus watches as occasionally one of them will flick their eyes to the other and back again. The other one then does it in return, but they never seem to catch each other looking.

He's distracted from this odd sort of dance by the man that Ophelia is heading towards intently. He looks up from the papers he's scribbling on and startles, pushing back his chair as he stands up. The three arguing people all abruptly stop and look at him in Caduceus's peripherals.

There's yet another strange person. He looks relatively young and has greasy black hair and a goatee the same color, but what's more distracting is the pale blue shade of his skin. It looks as if he's been sitting in the cart with Caduceus and Aubrey the way his skin is soaked with drops of water, and his ears seem slightly pointed behind his long hair.

"Oh, Lady Mardun," he says. His voice is as slick as his hair, slipping away as he speaks. Caduceus squints at him, trying to piece together what sort of humanoid he could be. "I did not expect you to arrive so soon." He walks closer to her and kneels as she offers a hand, kissing it.

"Traffic was light," she replies. "And we were untroubled." Her yellow eyes slip over to Caduceus for a brief moment and he's glad the man is not looking at her. "The goods have arrived all in one piece. I even have an extra gift for you."

The watery man lets go of her hand and rises with a curious look. "Clay," Ophelia says. He unwillingly steps forward and she speaks again, "This man owes me. I had a feeling he would be of some use to you."

The man focuses his attention on Caduceus, narrowing his eyes. Caduceus, in a split second decision, drops his disguise. The man only shows a flash of surprise before he walks closer, still scrutinizing.

"I see," he says. "You're right. He could be of some use." Caduceus's ears lay back against his head as the watery man raises his eyebrow.

"He also has the ability to turn invisible," Ophelia supplies. Caduceus frowns at being discussed as if he were an object, but he did promise Ophelia he would follow her instructions, so he refrains from making any comment.

The man shows a glimmer of a greasy and sinister smile. He takes Caduceus's hand and pulls on it until he's forced to fall down to his knees. The man glances at Ophelia. "He'll do nicely. In the meantime, while I make arrangements, come in and make yourself comfortable." He releases Caduceus's hand and motions over to a door behind the table he had been sitting at. Ophelia walks past him as she cracks her neck, and he watches her with something Caduceus has never seen before in his eyes.

He turns back, looking at the guards, who watch Ophelia disappear with tight expressions. "You two can go with her, if it so pleases you," he says. Aubrey and the other guard straighten and hurry after. Caduceus's expression changes minisculey, knowing that will probably be the last time he ever sees them.

The watery man claps his hands together. "Down to business," he says. "My name is the Gentleman. I run a covert operation down here, getting the goods to people who want them and making sure everything around runs decent, at least. And since you owe my business partner, you owe me. So."

This must be the equivalent of Shady Creek Run in a big city. There is law here, however, and people to punish you if you break it, so it must be much more dangerous. But Caduceus has no choice - and at the very least it sounds interesting.

"I owe you," Caduceus says. "But I've only really been out in places like this-" he motions to the room around and the rainy streets up above- "for about two weeks. You should think about that."

The Gentleman considers this. "Well," he says after a moment of silence, "no way to experience the world except live it. I didn't get an idea of how much you owe Lady Mardun or what it was for, so I don't know how much you need to pay off to me. So, let's give a general idea of four years."

Caduceus has lived for a while now. Four seasons isn't that long, really.

"I will give a place of residence and you can take a small cut of the money I'm being paid," the Gentleman says. By his tone, Caduceus thinks this is probably a good deal and nods slowly. A home and a job. He's had both of those before. He can do this.

"Alright," says the Gentleman. "I like you. No fuss. I'll give you three days to settle in before I send you on your first errand. You'll probably have breaks between things I need you to do, so find something to entertain yourself, yeah?"

And that's that.