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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.

Chapter Text

Caduceus sits in one of the grimy chairs in the corner of the bar, and closes his eyes tightly to keep everything from caving in on him. Uprooted. That's what he is. This city is not a place for trees, from what he's seen, but he'll make do. That's what he's always done, and stranded in the middle of an ever shifting mess of a world isn't going to stop him. Eventually he falls asleep to the very faint sound of rain and the more audible one of low and murmured voices.

There is no sun to wake him up, but he knows it's morning instinctively. Nobody is left in the room, but the torches are still burning. It's an eerie kind of silence that greets him and he craves the air above. Stretching his sore muscles, he climbs the twisting stairs and pushes open the trapdoor. His mouth is uncomfortably dry, but there's no water around anywhere that he can see. The tall man at the upstairs bar is not there. Caduceus puts on a disguise, a human man with a thin brown face and long, straight black hair. His eyes are still purple, though. Whatever form he takes, for some reason, his eyes remain their original color.

The streets are mainly empty. Caduceus is glad as he slides down against the wall of the building and takes a few breaths of much needed fresh air. His clothes are still damp and awfully dirty, but they're functional, and they stop the wind that blows through the streets from piercing his skin entirely. There are clouds in the sky, but most of them are pale and hints of dawn peek through. It seems the rain has halted for at least a little while, but it's a cold day. More importantly, it's a new one.

After a moment to clear his head, Caduceus gets up and walks the way they came through the streets when they arrived. He doesn't go too far, lest he lose his way and not be able to return to the Gentleman's place, but far enough to make it onto a more awakened street. People are setting up carts and stands, filling them with goods of all kinds. Caduceus has a little gold in his pocket but hardly enough to get anything substantial.

Even so, he wanders around, looking for anything that catches his eye. There are a group of ornately decorated plates and cups, pieces of jewelry with all sorts of gems embedded in them, scarves that look worn but not enough to be unusable. More little baubles than he's ever seen in his life. He's tempted to get a blue, purple, and green patterned scarf, but from what he's learned so far money is used to stay alive and not to spend on frivolous items, so he restrains himself and turns back the way he came after one last glance.

A light drizzle starts to fall as he walks across the rapidly muddying road, only getting the chance to lightly coat his hair before he drops his disguise as he walks towards the guards. They nod in acknowledgement and let him pass unhindered into the Gentleman's place. The tall man is scrubbing down the bar and smiles at Caduceus as he opens the storage room door for him. Caduceus finds the chain and descends back down the stairs with only the slightest hesitation.

There is one person, hooded, at the table farthest away from the stairwell. Caduceus ignores them and searches for the Gentleman, who he finds coming out of a different doorway than the one he saw Ophelia go through. The man seems to literally brighten at the sight of him.

"Oh! You're back! Good. I thought I'd lost you for a moment there. And well, that wouldn't be good for either of us," he says. It takes Caduceus too long to get what he's implying, but he's hardly disturbed. It's only fair: "Speaking of that, I should find a way to keep tabs on all of my employees." The Gentleman frowns for a moment. "I'll make a note of it. In other news, though, I've managed to find you a place to stay. It's not too far from here, on the very edge of the Pentamarket, into the Outersteads - though I don't suppose you know what they are."

"Nope," Caduceus replies. They sound interesting, though. Then again - most things do.

"Eh, no matter." The Gentleman waves his hand. "I'll have Jesse show it to you. It's not the greatest, but I'm sure you won't mind. I have to save money, you see. We're still new in the business." He sticks his hand in his coat's pocket and brings out a bronze key, offering it to him. Caduceus takes it gingerly, as if it might break in his grip.

"Of course, of course." Caduceus waves his other free hand. "It's already nice of you to do this for me." He smiles, and the Gentleman seems appeased. He looks behind him at the paper scattered across his desk and scowls.

"Well, I have work to do, it seems. So I'll leave you to it. Jesse is the small one upstairs. They'll take you to your house, and they'll come get you once I get your first job in order. It shouldn't be too long, but in the meantime-" he takes two gold coins out of seemingly nowhere- "I suggest you get some new clothes."

Caduceus nods, not offended in the least, and tucks the coins into his satchel. He can't think of any suitable parting words and turns to climb the stairs once more. At the doorway to the street, the guard who greeted Ophelia is waiting patiently. They have a deep green cloak around their shoulders and a hood that obscures most of their face. They wave at Caduceus when he comes near and he swears he sees a glimmer of teeth in the shadows.

"Good to meet ya," they say, wrapping their long-nailed hands around his wrist, which is still just under their height. He figures they're probably a halfling - too bony to be a dwarf. "Come along now. Not far." They have sort of a low growl in their words, an accent he's unfamiliar with. The Gentleman's isn't anything he's heard before either, but it's not so jarring. He seems like he should have that voice, with the way it slips out of his mouth like raindrops.

They walk through the light mist, Caduceus's hand still clutching the key. He's never had a key before. Nobody bothered his family either way and they hardly had anything of value on them besides their lives.

Jesse stops where a small street turns off the main road, shadowed by the overhanging roofs of the other buildings. They have been weaving their way in and out of the darker places trying not to catch the attention of passersby, since Caduceus has already used up his disguise and needs a break to do it again. The Wildmother is still beneath the streets, watching and giving, but she's fainter here like all those footsteps are pushing her down, weight on her shoulders.

He doesn't resent them for that. He just makes sure he gives the Wildmother his strength so that she can shrug it all off. The Wildmother hasn't ever appeared before him physically, as is to be expected, but it doesn't stop him from devoting himself wholeheartedly. She is there when he needs her the most, and in return he can do the same - though his help is hardly comparable to hers. She is a god.

Jesse turns into the alleyway and he has to shake himself awake to stop from continuing on and getting lost. The alleyway's pebbles and mud are considerably less wet and less worn than the ground on the main street. He only sees one set of footprints besides Jesse's going through. They're deeply set and a strange groove appears behind them, like something was dragged along the ground.

The alleyway has an even smaller exit on the other side, barely big enough to fit someone Caduceus's size. It's likely it's not even visible from the other side.

Jesse stops at a rundown shack on the left side, as far away as you can get from the street. It's painted an unassuming grey-brown and has three stone steps that lead up to a tall door with a tarnished golden handle. The house itself is much taller than it is wide, having been squeezed between two bigger buildings. Miraculously, it seems as if it rises higher than most all of the houses Caduceus has seen so far. That's not so bad, even if it means his feet won't be touching the ground very often.

Jesse is watching him- or he thinks they are, he can't tell when he can't see their face- and searching for a reaction. "Yeah, 's not the fanciest house on the block an' the floors are pretty tiny. 's got three of them though, so that's a plus, right?"

Three floors? His house had one floor and an old, dusty, tiny attic that none of them could fit in. "It sounds nice. Very nice. Thanks," he says, trying to sound more sincere. He really did mean it. Jesse glances at him skeptically before shrugging.

"Okay, sure. I'll leave y' to it. You do know how to use a key, right?" they ask. Caduceus nods - it's only a half lie. He knows how to do it in theory, but he's never actually tried it before. It doesn't matter. He'll figure it out. If worst comes to worst he can break down the door with no problem, judging by how frail it looks (it seems to be in even worse shape than he is).

Jesse, as soon as he responds, vanishes in the blink of an eye. They're probably some kind of magic user. He doesn't think about it too long and walks up the steps, carefully putting the key in the lock. His first try he sticks it in upside down, and the second he doesn't get it far enough to remove the bolt. The third try, however, it turns and makes a click that leaves the door swinging open, hinges squeaking loudly. He wipes off his boots as much as he can before he steps inside and removes them entirely.

Jesse was right. The floor really is small. It's tall though, maybe ten feet, and he doesn't even have to bend his head as he walks forward and looks at the place that will probably one day carry the name 'home'. It's not much to look at. On the right side are a few cabinets mounted on the walls and what looks like some sort of counter. They're all in disrepair, obviously, though not dusty. It seems that someone lived here not too long ago and left their furnishings here. Caduceus can't blame them. He wouldn't take any of these things if he had the money for something better.

The sort-of kitchen, with a small table to boot, takes up almost all of the first floor. Then there is the stairwell off to the left, and behind it a bathroom. He decides to take a look at the second floor. The stairs are bare wood and cold against his feet. He'd be worried about splinters if his soles weren't so thick. Caduceus usually prefers to walk barefoot, and over time the skin has hardened against the thorns of his roses and vines, the stones scattered across the graveyard.

The second floor has a window with grey curtains that were probably white once that overlooks the alleyway he came in from. Not a great view, but at least if he looks up he can get a glance of the sky. It will probably be a nice place to stargaze when all of the clouds move out, but who knows how long that will take.

There's a couch against the wall with a small table to the side that has drawers all the way down. The stairs continue up to what is presumably where the bed is stationed, or perhaps there's none and the couch is what he'll have to sleep on. It's a little short for him, and his feet will probably hang off the edge, but there are plenty of cushions to make it bearable.

After a brief glance around this floor, he proceeds to the last one and almost hits his head on the ceiling. This floor is much shorter than the other two, with a ceiling that slants to the left. It's virtually empty, but he immediately decides this is his favorite. Where the ceiling slants, there are two large windows. He goes towards them, bent over, and manages to push them out. A gust of cold fall air sweeps in and chills his bones. A moment later, rain starts to fall onto the floor. Caduceus can't find it in himself to care, however. He walks up to the window and sticks his head out. From here, he can see most of Zadash: it's truly a beautiful sight. The roofs of buildings are mostly rust-red tiled, some varying shades of brown. Off faintly in the distance he can see the Tri-Spires, still looming over the city.

Caduceus sits down on the grimy floor and looks out for- he doesn't know how long- until he realizes his clothes are slowly being drenched by the steady dripping of the rain. He regretfully closes the window and goes about settling in with his few possessions.

Chapter Text

During the two days he's undisturbed by the Gentleman, Caduceus learns about the sections of Zadash. The Pentamarket, where he buys most of his things. The Interstead Sprawl, where the slightly more well-off reside. The East and West Outersteads, where Zadash's buildings collapse into the slums. He ends up buying candles, three more outfits, a winter coat, and a heavy blanket that is thankfully large enough to cover all of him, even his feet, when he sleeps on his couch. Bright and early the third day, there's a pounding on the door below. He takes a moment to right himself and blink away the fuzziness before putting on his coat and moving down to the first floor.

Before he opens the door, he peers through the spy hole in the doorway. It's Jesse again, with their green cloak still over their head, tapping their foot and looking around impatiently.

He cracks the door open just enough for cold air to sweep into the room. Jesse whips around to stare at him, seeming faintly relieved. "Hey, Clay. Someone requests your presence." Obviously someone is the Gentleman, but it seems that even in complete solitude people like these are still paranoid.

"Okay," Caduceus replies. "Give me just a moment." He puts on his boots and his disguise. He's been using the same one since he got to Zadash, with long black hair and a face that has sunken in somewhat, accentuating his cheekbones and eye sockets. That way he'll be recognizable to both the guards at the Gentleman's place and people he's bought things from before.

He and Jesse walk through the streets purposefully, not bothering to stay out of sight. They're just normal people going about on normal business. Caduceus doesn't resent his firbolg form, but even though it's only been three days or so it has already been a bit tiring; concealing who he is just so he can be treated as a human. He's never had to worry about anything like this before, since his family had always gone to the town instead of him.

Caduceus rubs the tiredness from his eyes; all these new things have made shadows under them, and the couch is passable at best. If not for the thick skin of his feet, his toes would have probably have gone numb with the beginnings of frostbite. Winter is arriving fast, in the chilly air, in the clouded sky, in the rain that turns to ice on the way down, in the puddles that freeze before they melt. The Blooming Grove was effected much less by seasons than the Savalierwood, so he had been able to see the snow pile up on the ground and trees outside of the boundary, but in winter his siblings demanded they stay in their bubble and away from the hungry animals waiting just beyond.

Jesse has to dig their nails into his hand a few times to keep him on the correct path and by the time they reach their destination it is covered with little crescent indents. No one has taken Jesse's place guarding the entrance, but the other guard looks like so intimidating Caduceus doubts it's really needed. Besides, the place looks so inconspicuous he'd guess nobody would bother messing with it unless they knew what kind of business went on below.

The halfling gives a nod to the guard as they enter. The door to the storage room is unlocked and there's no one at the bar, so they head straight down back into the Gentleman's place. As they step off the stairs, Caduceus frowns. "Does this place have a name?"

Jesse squints back at him. "... Yeah, it's written above th' entrance." They look at him for a few more moments, thinking about something. "Can ya... can ya read?"

Caduceus shakes his head subtly. He can neither read nor write. Only his mother and his eldest sister could. He can speak four languages, though, so it might make up for that fact. Common everybody knows, and Giant has been passed down from some distant ancestor. Sylvan, however, he picked up from the spirits that occasionally came by to find brief sanctuary from the Savalierwood. The last one, Elvish, was a language of business. Quite a few bloodlines of elves had their relatives buried in the Blooming Grove and so it was necessary to learn.

Jesse shrugs. "That's fine. No one cares. T' answer your question, though, the place above is called th' Evening Nip. The Gentleman owns it, so technically downstairs is an extension of it and's also by the same name. But, eh, semantics." They keep moving, and Caduceus is forced to follow them. After a quick glance around he spots the Gentleman near, in conversation with a burly looking human woman. He doesn't notice their entrance. Caduceus watches as a slight smile spreads across his face while simultaneously the woman scowls.

People are just so intriguing. Caduceus can tell a lot from only someone's expression, and what he's learned from that skill is that everyone has scars and deep set emotions that make a story, every time something different. He only wants to know those stories.

The Gentleman finally looks away from the woman, whose hand has gone to her hip and seems to be resting on the handle of something concealed by the cloak she's wearing. Caduceus would hazard a guess that it's a weapon of some sort, but try as he might doesn't feel any alarm at the knowledge. Maybe she could kill anyone in this room. Maybe she will: it's just something that happens.

Jesse also sees the woman go for her weapon, and drops into a defensive stance. As the Gentleman stands and turns, the woman lunges toward him with a flash of silver as she pulls a dagger from beneath her cloak. Jesse blinks out from Caduceus's side and reappears in the woman's way, gripping the hand that she now struggles to drive down into the Gentleman's chest. The man in question looks up, seemingly unconcerned, and takes a few steps away as Jesse grabs their own weapon- some sort of long, jagged-edged thing- from the sheath on their back and plunges it into her stomach as the woman gasps a horrible muffled scream. Her eyes go wide as the dagger she was clutching falls onto the ground and blood begins to spill out of her lips and drip down her chin.

Jesse narrows their eyes at her before they yank the blade out of her stomach and she collapses onto the wooden floor, rasping heavily as blood pools beneath her. Caduceus watches with a tilted head as slowly her life slips away and she stops struggling. His attention is taken from the dying woman by the Gentleman, who clears his throat and brushes off his jacket as he steps carefully around the body, trying not to get his shoes wet.

"Sorry about that," he says with a sheepish smile. Though he looks distracted enough, Caduceus can tell he's carefully monitoring Caduceus's expression, searching for some kind of reaction to what he just witnessed. Caduceus keeps his face blank. It's just the way of things; he doesn't think people are in the business of deserving anything, but you get what you get, and sometimes, as it seems, what you get is a blade to the gut.

"It's fine," Caduceus replies. "Things happen." They stare at each other for one more moment, locked in some kind of battle of will, until Jesse coughs discreetly and the Gentleman breaks his gaze.

"Anyway," he says, brushing an invisible piece of lint off his coat. "I've found you a job that shouldn't be too hard - and it pays well. It's just a simple delivery for some rather illegal items, to a client who will remain anonymous. You have instructions to take the package to the Platinum House, a shrine to the Platinum Dragon to the west of here in the Interstead Sprawl. Go through the front entrance and take a right. There will be a stack of books. Place the package in one of the pages of the second book in the stack. If they're not there, return to me and I'll figure something out. I know, it seems like a lot of hassle, but clients' instructions must be followed."

Caduceus didn't think it really was a problem, but clearly the Gentleman was irritated by something, so he chooses not to comment; only nodding as the man- genasi? He asked around for information in his spare time but didn't get enough to give him anything except a vague idea- finishes his sentence. Actually, it sounds kind of interesting. Visit a shrine? Despite his belief in the gods, he's never done that, besides the one he lived in. There are no shrines in Shady Creek Run. It's a godless land.

The Gentleman is once again pleased with his leisurely attitude. "Alright. I told them it would be delivered by tonight, so as long as you get it done by then, I don't care what else you do. Don't open the package either." He turns back to his desk, glancing at the body on the floor for a moment, and pulls open drawers until he finds what he's looking for.

Caduceus has to stop himself from decomposing the body. He hasn't had a chance to pick flowers in a while, and there's a perfectly nice bush right there, but the Gentleman (and Jesse) would probably not approve of the act. For whatever reason. It's only natural, but some people still seem to be unsettled by it.

The Gentleman makes a noise of satisfaction as he pulls out a slim off-white envelope from one of the drawers, not sealed by any visible means. "This is your delivery," he says. "Remember, be subtle. Don't let anyone see you and be quick about it, maybe I'll give you a bonus."

Caduceus takes the envelope and slips it into the sleeve of his jacket. It's thin and light enough not to be noticeable, but as he moves it he discerns a small lump in the middle of it. Pushing away his curiosity, he nods to the Gentleman and turns away.

As he goes up the stairs, he watches Jesse slowly drag the woman's body away, frowning at the stain of blood left on the floor. It's not the only one, Caduceus notices now. One of the tables has a large dark patch and in the furthest corner there are marks on the walls. He's a bit disappointed in himself for not observing it sooner.

The cold air greets him as he walks out onto the main street, searching for a face that doesn't look too angry or too friendly as he walks in what he hopes is the vague direction of the Platinum House. He might as well get it done right away, since he doesn't have any other plans, except maybe looking for a more extensive collection of information. It's an issue since he can't read, but perhaps he'll have a stroke of luck and find somewhere or someone willing to inform him about the world around him.

After a good seven minutes of walking along, he spots a short woman leaning against a jewelry stand, eyes glazed over as she watches people walk by. Caduceus wanders over, hovering nearby until he catches her attention and she turns to face him with a pleasant smile, even if it's not quite all there.

"Hello! Can I help you? Are you looking to buy?" she asks, rubbing her cheek. A bit of grime comes off as she does. The stand seems to be closed down at the moment, with a black sheet draped over whatever items she's selling. It doesn't stop her from asking, however. As Aubrey had said, Caduceus recalls, these people are just doing what they can to get by.

Caduceus smiles apologetically. "Sorry, not at the moment. I was wondering if you could help me find a place, though," he says. She brightens. It looks like he chose correctly.

"Oh, of course! Always happy to help," she says. "I've been here for a long time, so I probably know where it is."

Caduceus studies her for a moment before asking. She seems innocent enough, but there's sadness staining her being in her slumped shoulders and shadowed eyes. The posture of someone stuck where they don't want to be. Stuck, and with evidence that they've tried as hard as they could and failed all over them. This city has lots of stories to tell, but from what Caduceus has gleaned so far, most of them are sad ones.

He shakes out of his reverie. "I'm looking for the Platinum House. Do you know about that?" he asks. The woman's smile becomes a bit more focused, and one of her hands clutches a pendant at her throat.

"I certainly do," she replies. "Faithful to Bahamut myself. If you take a left at the end of this street where it splits and keep heading north, you'll probably spot it. Very conspicuous. Pure white building. If it were sunny out-" for a moment she glances sadly at the clouded sky- "it would practically be glowing. And if you can't find it after a little while, just talk to a guard. I'm sure they'd also be happy to assist." She motions to two guards standing a little ways off, watching. Just watching. They're crawling all over this place.

"Thanks," Caduceus says. He digs into the deepest pocket of his new coat, where he keeps a little bit of his money. He doesn't have very much gold, but surely he can do without. It's a worthy cause and it's not like he's saving up for anything, so he eventually manages to grab hold of a piece of gold and hand it to her. She doesn't take it immediately, too busy staring at him with wide eyes that shimmer slightly. He nudges it towards her.

"Really?" she asks, disbelieving. He nods, a strand of black hair falling in front of his right eye. He brushes it back. "But, you need it, don't you? Everyone needs money in this place. Surely it would be better off with you."

Caduceus doesn't understand why someone would say no to something given to them. It's not a concept he can wrap his head around. They're giving it to you. They know what they're doing, and they've decided you're worth it. "I don't," he says. "It's just one piece. I'll feel a lot better if you take it."

The woman smiles hesitantly and stuffs it in the front pocket of her dirty apron. "Well, I hope you find what you're looking for," she says. "And thank you for your generosity. I will remember it."

Caduceus nods once more and turns away, following her directions as best he can. A few icy drops fall onto his bare hands and he puts his hood on as the rain- sleet, really- starts up again. Soon it will be snow, and even though it'll be colder it will still be more comfortable than the drops of ice that pierce his skin.

At long last he spots the white building, stark against the dark grey sky. The main entrance is obvious, with two guards posted, though he can see several others on different sides. Without a moment of hesitation he walks up, smiling amiably. The guards scrutinize him for a moment before deeming him harmless, and let him pass through without issue.

Inside there's a kind of stillness that Caduceus only feels when he closes his eyes in a quiet place and listens to the Wildmother's heart. Four people are on their knees, heads down on the cold floor. Sleet falls through a hole in the ceiling and spatters onto the grand centerpiece - a large pale statue of the metallic dragon god Bahamut. The sound is soothing and irritating at the same time, breaking the reverie but somehow still managing to preserve the atmosphere.

Caduceus backtracks out of the main room, retreating until he spots the doorway that he's looking for - the one on the right closest to the entrance. After glancing around and seeing no one in the vicinity, he turns himself invisible and enters. The door's already open. To the left are the aforementioned stack of books, and in the middle is a reed woven mat that faces six lit candles. Obviously someone has been in here recently, but doing what he doesn't know. Presumably all worship of the Platinum Dragon would be in the central area, and worship of other gods would be at their respective shrines.

He pushes away the mystery for the time being and takes one book off the stack, opening the second book to a random page and sliding in the thin envelope. Replacing the book on top, he starts to walk towards the exit before freezing as another figure comes in and shuts the door behind them, leaving Caduceus trapped.

Adorned with long blue robes, trimmed with silver, their short blonde hair is slicked back, not one strand out of place. Their ears are not quite large or sharp enough to make Caduceus believe they're an elf - half-elf would be much more likely. They glance around nervously for a moment before falling to their knees on the mat and removing a necklace previously hidden by their robes, placing it in the middle of the ring of candles. Caduceus stares, not quite knowing how to look away. Obviously prayer is a very personal thing, but there's something indescribably wondrous watching a person speaking their truth.

They begin to murmur as Caduceus peers at the symbol on the pendant of their necklace. Two crescent moons facing away from each other, in deep blue and silver just like their robes. "Archeart, mother, father, sire," they begin. Caduceus realizes as they speak just how young they are, twelve or thirteen maybe. Their voice falls even softer, evening out into a tone that suggests these words have been spoken countless times before.

"Every day is so long. Every night is longer. How can I endure all of this? Your teachings speak of beauty and creation, but I find none of it here. I don't know where to look. I'm not strong enough to flee. Dirty streets and tarnished gold, these are the only things I find. Mother and Father try their best to assuage me, but they're suffering too. How am I supposed to keep living in a world where there is no joy in the things I do?"

In the low light of the candles, something traces a shining trail across their cheek as they raise their head to stare at the symbol of the Archeart. Caduceus steps forward. It's no choice at all, really. He drops his invisibility and clears his throat. They jolt and whip around to stare at him, face slowly taking on an expression of horror. They grab the necklace and hide it from view, even if it's a moot point.

"Oh no, oh no, it- it's not what you think it is," they stammer, breath coming out in gasps. "I- will you say anything? Oh no, I knew I should have waited for later, oh- what's going to happen to Mom and Dad? I'm going to doom them, they'll be kicked out and I'll go to prison and it will- Archeart help me-"

Caduceus steps forward as they ramble and places a hand on their shoulder as he too kneels down. "I'm not going to say anything," he says, waiting until they get their breath back. "I heard what you said. I haven't been here for very long, but this place seems like a hopeless sort of city."

The half-elf looks at him as their shoulders slowly fall, wiping a hand aggressively across their cheek. "You're right. It is. But what's your point? Surely you have something other to tell me than how awful life is. I already know that."

Caduceus smiles a wry sort of smile. "I heard you saying your god shows you beauty, but you can't find it anywhere in a place like this. Maybe my words are worth nothing to you, but from what I've seen, sorrow is a kind of beauty too. All these people are crumbling under weight. But amongst them are the people who have a sort of light in their eyes. There are the people who find little spots of solace, bright color. Watching those people, seeing how they see, surely there's beauty in that."

The half-elf tilts their head and blinks at him, eyes slowly clearing. They lean down and blow out each of the candles one by one, seemingly in a random order. To Caduceus, it appears more ritualistic. Eventually they lean back and adjust the hood of their robes. "I... I'll take it under advisement. Thank you. For telling me, and for... not telling anyone else. I guess there is a kind of beauty, in people who are kind to others like you are."

Caduceus's smile grows warm. It's very satisfying to see someone appreciate what you do, to make a difference. A minuscule one, sure, but everyone is small in the large (and he doesn't know the half of it) world.

"Sure, sure," he replies. "Go on ahead. I'll come out a little later." After all, it would be pretty suspicious. And at the end of all this grand talk he finds he has one more thing to do before leaving this temple. He's not quite ready to abandon the stillness when the city around him is so busy.

As they get up and grasp the door handle, the half-elf turns and gives him a considering look. Caduceus doesn't have any sort of worship object on him at the moment- what he once had is sitting in a pile of ashes far away- but that doesn't stop the half-elf from understanding, and it will not stop the Wildmother from hearing his prayers. She is forgiving.

They stick their head into the hallway before slipping out, door closing behind with a faint click. Caduceus blows on the tips of his fingers and watches as the end of his index finger suddenly holds a tiny flame. He lights three of the candles and sits down legs crossed, letting the faint smell of smoke and the slightest hint of incense set his mind adrift in the sea of meditation. He feels the Wildmother all around him. She is still unaccustomed to the city, as he has learned, but here in the temple her turmoil eases a bit and she lets her roots grasp the dirtied soil.

Caduceus meditates for who knows how long. He can never tell, and there's no one to break him out of it like there was back in the Blooming Grove. He watches and listens and settles his mind, just resting, until something in him lets him know he must move before someone comes in - either picking up the delivery or discovering him.

He extinguishes the candles with one breath, shoving them to the side. Candle wax slides down the sides of the candles, making drops on the floor, and as he moves them some of the melted wax sloshes over the side and spills on the floor, cooling quickly into a hard coating. He doesn't bother cleaning it up- it's a shrine, candle wax is a common thing- and rolls the woven mat into a tube and props it against the wall behind the candles. Refreshing his mind has allowed him to turn invisible again, but he doesn't think it's really necessary and saves it for a different time.

No one is in the hall, although he can see a person kneeling in front of the statue of Bahamut in the central chamber. They're focused completely on the task at hand, however, and don't even twitch as he leaves the door cracked slightly and walks out the way he came. One guard, recognizable from before, nods to him as he passes - the other is unfamiliar. Outside the sky is grey and the ground is damp, but nothing falls from it, even though the air is harsh and biting. The breeze has died down too, leaving the cold to stagnate.

It takes a couple of tries and multiple missteps for Caduceus to find his hovel of a home. At a glance nothing is out of place- not that he was expecting anything to be, but he thinks the paranoia of the Gentleman and his crew is starting to rub off on him- and he goes to one of the rotted cabinets to get out a loaf of half-eaten bread. He tears off a chunk, chewing it slowly, wishing he had some lichen or berries or even tea. But as much as he's looked, he hasn't found anything like that worth buying.

Bread in hand, he climbs his creaking stairs, bypassing the second story momentarily to peer out the window out onto the roof. He sits down, gazing out as he pushes the window open and breathes. Peering at the elusive spires in the distance, he lets himself slump down so his chin is resting on the dark grey tiles of his roof.

The day is done. Though he can't see the sun through the cloud cover, he knows instinctively where it is - resting comfortably on the horizon, slowly slipping away as minutes tick by. The days will only get shorter from here. It's likely he will not see the stars or the bright blue clear sky until late into the month of Misuthar. Looks like his plan of stargazing will have to be put off for a long while.

Regardless of the weather and season, it's still one day done. One job done. And, it seems, many, many more to go.

Chapter Text

Caleb Widogast is in a bit of a situation. If you could call 'killing your parents for the sake of the Empire before realizing that it was a terrible, terrible mistake' a situation. At the moment, he is sitting in a rundown cart that jolts every time the wheels hit the bumps in the road, and staring out with heavy eyes as that cursed city slowly fades away in the distance. He's not really taking in the view - too stuck in his head to give attention to anything else.

He doesn't understand why he didn't just go through with it. After he realized what he'd done, he went into a state of shock for maybe a day and a half (time seems to blur). When he finally snapped out of it he was in an unfamiliar room, alone as he deserved to be, with a window that showed the grand expanse of Rexxentrum all before him. He wanted to tear his eyes out.

Eventually someone showed up to check on him and he learned he was in a practitioner's room, courtesy of a stab wound in his side and damage to his mental state. The cause of either was unknown - only that he was found on the side of a road leading to Rexxentrum, conscious - but at the same time not. They had not had any idea who he was until they uncovered the metal tag around his neck, which had his name inscribed on it. Of course, Caleb knew that. He'd had that tag since the day he became a part of Soltryce Academy.

A day later, he was released from the practitioners at his insistence. It wasn't like they could stop him, so he gathered all of his things and walked through the streets of Rexxentrum and toward a place much too familiar to him - the interrogation rooms, where he'd spent the last six months.

He arrived at the end of his rope, clothes muddy, smeared with oil and blood and dirt, muscles exhausted, eyes barely keeping open. His side ached. He was almost certain during the time it took to get there a few of his stitches came loose and blood started to seep out of the injury. He couldn't tell - any blood that might have trailed behind him was quickly washed away by the light rain.

He got to the door with weak knees, no lock picks and certainly no keys, but all he had to do was call on the magic to twist open the door and allow him into the dark facility. He searched all of the rooms, but no one was there. There wasn't a bit of humanity left, with the exception of two things that he found in his room. The first, hardly a trace of humanity, was a finely crafted steel dagger left by the mattress he had been sleeping on. On the mattress itself he found a note.

'There is a carriage waiting for passengers at the gates, with the red banners rimmed gold. It will take you to your destination. Talk, you are putting them in danger. Flee, you are putting them in danger. Be careful. Do not spill. 700 Conthsen. We are watching.' It wasn't signed, but Caleb could tell who it was from, although for some reason he did not want to believe it. Ikithon was rough around the edges, sure, but he was a guiding hand and he only had their best intentions in mind - to make them become their best selves was what he had always told them he wanted. Bren- no, he decided he was Caleb- had not thought his mentor would manipulate him in this manner.

He leaned down to pocket the note, but as he touched it it burst into flame and crumpled to ashes. He jerked back, screams ringing in his ears, and tucked away the knife before turning and fleeing the building as fast as he could limp. Conthsen was tomorrow, and he only had his legs to rely on, so he had to move quickly if he wanted Astrid and Eodwulf to remain safe. He had to swallow down the bile that rose of the thought of all three standing together just a week or two ago.

He reached the gates of the city well into the early hours of the morning - around 400. Barely seeing through his blurry vision and heavily lidded eyes, he stumbled through the small encampment of carts and tents, searching until he found the tell-tale red banners. Once there, he slumped down next to the cart. It was an old and ruined one, but by the mud on its wheels it still worked, so the condition didn't really matter.

Bruised and battered though he was, Caleb couldn't find it in himself to shut his eyes and go to sleep. Countless screams echoed in his ears- from the many people he tortured and more loudly from his parents as they were burnt alive, but most of all the foreign howl that he eventually realized was his own- and even though it was almost black he swore embers were flying into the sky and all around him the carts crackled and fell to the ground as they were overtaken by raging flames.

Quietly, he took out the knife. He knew why it was left there, and it was so, so tempting, but... he couldn't do it yet. Not until he had done something with the scattered dreams he had been left with. Change something somehow. Be someone that does something greater. Then, only then, would he be free to return the favor unto himself.

Doing it now would be like giving up, like taking the easy way out, like not remembering the loving smiles on his parents' faces when he came back home for a visit. He was the only one who knew what they were really like. He couldn't let them fade away without at least telling someone else to remember, but that wouldn't be the case. He would fix this. Somehow.

Of course he didn't need the blade to kill himself. He knew a hundred ways to kill a man, had killed a man in a hundred different ways. The dagger was only a cruel taunt. But it didn't stop his hands from trembling as he slid it into the deepest pocket of his long shirt and hid the glinting silver from view. Even after putting it away, he didn't lose consciousness, just sat in the deep night and stared out until his eyes begin to make phantom figures out of the darkness.

When the sun crested the horizon and the owner of the cart stirred from their tent off to the side, they glanced at him with narrow brown eyes. "Bren?" they asked. He nodded, and so they began their journey.

A particularly large bump breaks Caleb out of his thoughts and he grips the wood of the cart so hard he makes indents in his fingertips and sucks in a sharp breath as something like a sliver slides into his thumb. The driver doesn't spare him a glance, but it's not unexpected since they haven't spoken or acknowledged his presence since they've gotten on the road - only putting on their black hood against the slow drizzle and focusing on directing the two horses pulling the cart.

From the way they're continuously heading south he would assume they're going to either Zadash or one of the scattered small towns on the Amber Road. Only time will tell, however, so he too sits in silence through the cold and miserable days they lumber slowly southward. Every night he stares up at the empty sky until sheer exhaustion takes him under. The trip is delayed several times as the cart gets stuck in a pothole or the one of the wheels stalls under the weight of the cart.

He can feel his cheeks becoming hollow, his eyes sinking into his skull as he eats barely anything - only the stern glance of the driver convinces him to take a few bites. Walking makes his legs burn with a kind of hellish fire, and something as small as a deep breath stirs the festering wound in his side and causes pain to flare up, reaching even his frozen toes.

Despite his slow starvation and likely infected wound, the worst thing is most certainly the exhaustion. He cannot sleep. His mind runs a hundred miles a minute, repeating the same moment over and over. Every time his body forcibly shuts down, he wakes up in the middle of the desolate night with fresh memories spinning around. He lives through it again and again and sleep becomes something to be afraid of.

After an eternity of hell they reach their destination, Zadash, as Caleb first presumed. He might've visited it at some point, but he has no memory of it. Of course, he's also having trouble making sense of anything at all. He puts that thought aside as they go through the gates with just a suspicious glance from the Crownsguard who monitor there.

As they approach the slightly less slum-like district, the driver finally speaks. Their voice is hoarse and deep and generally quite soothing. "Your friend has acquired a position for you," they say. Caleb tries not to react at the word 'friend', only managing to stop himself enough so that a low growl rumbles through his chest. "Go to the Pentamarket and into the Invulnerable Vagrant. Tell the shopkeeper that your name is Bren and you were hired. And you are reminded to be silent."

They frown, "I don't know what that means, but I'm sure you do." Their dark hood slides back just far enough that Caleb can see a flash of green in their eyes. "I don't know you and I don't know what happened to you, but anyone with half a mind can see you're suffering. So," they hesitate as if regretting their words, "try to take care of yourself. Even if you don't deserve it."

Caleb stares at them for a moment before pushing himself off of the cart and landing on weak and unsteady legs as yet another coat of mud splatters over his boots and pants. He wants to say something, to tell them that he's not something that's worth spending kindness on, but he can't find any sort of words to speak. They elude him. Instead he nods slightly and walks far enough away to be out of view, turning into a small alley and letting his legs give out as he slumps against a stone wall and breathes in and out.

Time passes. He doesn't know how much, but the color of the clouds has changed slightly when he next glances up at them. His muscles are beginning to freeze up again, so as he awkwardly stumbles to a stand he resolutely ignores the ache that starts to spread through his bones.

He isn't aware of what the Pentamarket is OR where it is, but he can guess that it's some sort of trading center. Probably not in the slums. So he moves away from the gates to the center of Zadash, taking it all in as he does. Most people seem to be heading inside as night slowly descends on the city, packing up their bags and disappearing inside their slightly moldy houses. His clothes, surprisingly, aren't so out of place in this city. Of course most of them don't have blood stains, but the majority of people he's seen so far are wearing tattered and dirtied shirts and pants. As he goes forward, however, he glimpses more and more people with rings around their fingers and necklaces clinging to their necks. So, it seems, this place has money after all. It just happens to be disproportionately distributed.

Caleb ends up literally stumbling into the Pentamarket. He follows the most well-lit paths until someone comes rushing by and slams into his bad side. He staggers as a wave of white hot fire sweeps through him, but the offender doesn't even give him a glance. A few seconds later another figure concealed by a cloak sprints past, obviously chasing the one from before. Caleb hastily scrambles to the side and lets them pass before looking in the direction they came from.

He knows as soon as he sees that he has reached his destination. The open market is bathed with gold, but it's just the flickering of fire light. Most of the places have closed up, as the sun is just dipping below the horizon, but a handful still have torches by their entrances.

He scrapes his nails along a brick wall as he tries to use it to haul himself up, eventually managing it even though his breath comes out in gasps. Something again has been dislodged in his frantic movement, and even though it's been days and days since it was stitched Caleb feels a trickle of hot blood on the cold skin beneath his clothes. He grits his teeth and scans the area for the Invulnerable Vagrant.

He walks along the edge of the vacant market until his eyes catch on a relatively small and inconspicuous building with green on its edges and a few tints of gold, with the exception of the sign, upon which is written "The Invulnerable Vagrant" in curling gold script. Caleb smiles, though it's a painful one that is more relief than happiness.

He stumbles towards it, vision blurring at the edges. His whole side is now warm with the sticky coating of blood and energy threatens to leave him entirely. Still he walks forward and prays to the Archeart the door will be unlocked. Thankfully it gives way as he pushes on it and holds himself stiffly upright as he approaches the counter.

A small part of him is in awe of the items in here, the craftsmanship, the magic that permeates the air. But a larger part of him is preoccupied with the pain that pulses in time with his fluttering heartbeat and the fear that he's making all the wrong choices and he should have just ended it while he could keep it clean and quick. But maybe this is best, suffering like this. Maybe it's what he deserves.

The bell that rang when Caleb pushed the door open has alerted the shopkeeper and Caleb sees a blurry shape behind the counter. He has to blink a few times for it to come into focus, and when it does he has to close his mouth, which has fallen open in surprise.

There's a firbolg there. Caleb of course knows all the races that exist in Wildemount, but he's seen few of them in the flesh. The firbolg, a wide smiling face that changes into something concerned as he takes Caleb in, turns around and shouts, "Prime!" as he moves around the counter to Caleb's side. Caleb looks up at him- so tall- and shudders as something awful sweeps through his being.

"My name is Bren, but you should call me Caleb," he says as his voice wavers. "I was hired." But he only gets those words out before the world vanishes before his eyes, and he loses consciousness.

Chapter Text

Looking back on it, Caleb only remembers flashes of the time he was under. He woke up for a few painful minutes in a different room on a cold metal table as blurry shapes rushed by him, and then he was out again - the next time his stab wound was completely numb and he could barely feel his fingers as muttered voices filtered through the haze - and the last time before he regained complete coherency he remembers feeling only a dull ache and not being on that cold table anymore, in fact the opposite. A bed or a couch, soft, warm light, wrapped in a blanket.

Caleb opens his eyes to a place he's never been before. His throat is dry and his head is still a little dizzy, but he's managing to keep his eyes open for longer than five minutes. The couch he's on is faded green, somewhat old. A couple feet away is a table, and from the little bit of dried blood smeared on one of its edges he can tell it is the same table where he was healed. At the moment, however, he can see no medical instruments - just screws and bolts and other strange things like pink dust, metallic paint, a bag with small jewels spilling out. And at that table there is a large figure bent over, clearly focusing on something out of Caleb's line of vision.

He still feels tired, so he sits limply for a while until he's startled out of his semi-conscious state by a clatter as something falls to the floor. He jerks around at the loud noise, frightened, and ends up meeting the person at the table's gaze as they lift their head with the fallen object in their hand.

They stare at each other for one long, uncomfortable moment. In the back of Caleb's mind he registers recognition- that this is the same person that was in the Invulnerable Vagrant- but he knows it isn't, for some reason. It may be the same firbolg, grey-brown skin, light brown curly hair shorn close to his head, but somehow it's not. Caleb isn't sure how something can be and not be at the same time, but it seems to be happening right now, so he doesn't think long about it.

The moment the firbolg breaks his stare, Caleb exhales in relief. But instead of resuming his project, the firbolg places the fallen item on the table and turns around to fully look at Caleb. "You're awake," he says. His voice is warm. "That's good. How are you feeling?"

He does not answer any of Caleb's unspoken questions. The longer Caleb looks at the firbolg, the more he feels something is wrong, until it clicks - the eyes. The firbolg's eyes are the wrong color. They're the same color as the one who greeted him- because by now Caleb has figured out he is in the backroom of the Invulnerable Vagrant- but he distinctly remembers a pair of purple, possibly violet eyes over him during his time in and out of consciousness, and he definitely does not see any purple eyes around here.

As the firbolg's gaze turns slightly more concerned, Caleb slowly sits up. There are newer, tighter stitches on his wound. "I am alright," he says, because thankfully it's true. "Dankeschön. Thank you."

"Well of course," says the firbolg with a slight smile. "We couldn't just leave you to die. I'm thinking you weren't aware that stab wound in your side also had slow acting poison in it, right?" he adds while Caleb blinks in shock. No, he didn't, but he probably should have. Just a stab wound wouldn't have hindered him like he was, but poison?

The fact that he's not feeling worse now, however, means the shopkeeper also got it out of his system along with cleaning up his wound. And he feels a little cleaner, too, the layer of grime that had accumulated on his skin and clothes simply gone, and his long coat disappeared. "That seems like a lot of work for someone you just met," he says, frowning. "I am sorry to have been a burden."

The firbolg laughs in his chest. "Well, as I said, we couldn't have just left you there. And of course, you're supposed to work at the Hall of Erudition. You can't work if you're dead, and Headmaster Hass is expecting you. They're short on staff, so if you didn't show up, I reckon he would not be pleased. Nobody wants that."

On that slightly ominous note, he turns around and pushes around piles of things on his table until he manages to find what he's looking for. When he comes back around, he is holding some sort of cup. It seems to be a piece of pottery, reddish brown in color and dwarfed by the firbolg's large hand. He walks over to Caleb and hands it to him gingerly, taking care not to crack it between his fingers.

Caleb peers down into the cup. It's longer than it is wide, so he can only see its contents through a small opening at the top, but strangely enough he sees... nothing. Whatever liquid is in there- he can hear it hit the sides when he moves the cup- seems to have no reflection. Clearly it doesn't matter however, since he's already been healed this much. He doesn't know how much time has passed, but clearly it hasn't been too long, since the shopkeeper doesn't seem to be concerned about his position at the Hall of Erudition.

Which is another thing he needs to think about, but sitting up so long is making his side burn a little, so he downs whatever is in the cup with little hesitation. It tastes- strangely enough- like blackberries. There was a row of blackberry bushes next to Caleb's childhood home, and every summer he and his mother- and one memorable time when his father was home- would go out to pick as many as they could, wash them all off at the well, and make pie.

Caleb blinks his eyes rapidly, draining all of the mixture and handing the cup back to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper, however, looks concerned. "Sorry if it's not great," he says, hand once again swallowing the tiny cup. "Healing is not my strong suit, but my friend couldn't stay long enough to ensure you the best recovery. I tried my best, but..."

That must have been the person with the purple eyes. Quite an experienced healer, if they managed to do all that with little assistance. Caleb shakes his head as he wipes the remaining blackberry juice off his lips. "No, no, it wasn't that. When you see your friend, let them know I say thank you."

The shopkeeper shakes his head and lets out a small sigh. "I sure will. It's not something to be thankful for, but we've already had this discussion, so I'll move on. I'm afraid I haven't introduced myself yet. My name is Enchanter Pumat Sol, a purveyor of magical items and owner of the Invulnerable Vagrant - which is where you are now." Pumat Sol turns to the doorway on his left, which is only shrouded by green curtains. "Two, three, four!" he calls. Caleb furrows his brows, but his confusion only grows as three, wide figures make their way into the back room, pushing apart the silky curtains.

In front of him, impossibly, somehow, are three more Pumat Sols. They're just... standing there. Three of the exact same person. Smiling. One has a smudge of oil on his cheek. Another is wearing leather gloves stained multiple colors. But despite the minuscule differences, they are clearly the same. It's not a case of quadruplets, that much Caleb can tell. The similarities are too exact. But if not siblings, what are they? Illusions?

The original Pumat looks at his stunned expression and chuckles. "Allow me to introduce them," he says, gesturing to his copies. "I am Pumat Prime, as they might say. These are my three simulacra. They manage the customers in the shop while I work. Everyone, this is Caleb, the man who came in last night and passed out."

All three Pumat Sols greet Caleb in varying tones as he winces at the phrasing. "Hello," he says uneasily. Simulacra implies these are something like clones of Pumat Prime. He hasn't heard of anything like this before, but as Caleb knows, magic is always being pushed to the limits. From his previous discussion, Pumat Prime has some sort of relationship with Oremid Hass, a powerful Archmage in Zadash. And Pumat is an enchanter, so clearly he knows his magic, if not in the same way Caleb does.

Pumat Prime turns to his simulacra. "Well, I only wanted you to meet him since he's awake now. Feel free to resume your duties." He flicks a finger, and the simulacra respond with friendly murmured words of agreement as they disappear back into the main store. Pumat Prime gets out of his chair and goes to the corner of the room, where after a moment of shifting piles too far away for Caleb to see he retrieves a familiar coat, no bloodstains or dirt in sight.

Pumat Prime returns and hands the coat to Caleb as he shrugs off the grey blanket, trying not to move too abruptly. "Sorry for touching your things," Pumat says. "It was necessary. Since you're going to work for the Hall of Erudition, you're going into the Tri-Spires, and they would not let someone clothed like you in. I mean no offense. But the Tri-Spires are all about appearances. Even with my directive, it's doubtful they'd make an exception."

Caleb takes the coat, looking at the clean light brown fabric. Right. He's going to the Hall of Erudition. He does know of it, having been in the Soltryce Academy for over two years. It would have been hard not to. The Hall of Erudition is an extension of Soltryce Academy here in Zadash. He's going back to the Academy. Again. Great.

"Speaking of which, you should get going as soon as you're able to," says Pumat as Caleb winces, struggling into his coat. "My friend did leave one thing, but he said it should be taken slowly to continue the healing process, so you can take it with you. If you're feeling up to it, that is, but I would advise you to leave before sundown. Ore- Headmaster Hass is expecting you before tomorrow."

Caleb narrows his eyes at the slight slip of the tongue. Was he about to say Oremid?

It doesn't really matter. Caleb has already figured out Pumat Prime must know the Archmage personally, so it isn't unexpected. But some dreaded curious part of him wonders about it. He silences it and nods, tugging his sleeves to straighten them out. "What was that about a directive?" he asks, barely managing to catch the small wooden box suddenly tossed his way. Removing the top, he looks inside to see the wood on the inside is lined with some kind of metal.

The contents of the box are many small, round, light blue beads. He balances one between two fingers and finds it bends slightly if pressed hard enough. The light also manages to shine through it, giving it a stained glass look. It is a stark contrast to the blackberry juice with no reflection - while the juice was clearly unnatural, even with the odd appearance these beads seem to have been knit out of moss and rain. He places the bead back in the box and tucks it into his pocket.

"He says to take one a day until they're gone," Pumat says as he watches Caleb carefully, before turning to his overflowing desk with a white feather quill with black spatters across it in hand. He scribbles something down for about a minute before picking up the piece of parchment and waving it in the air to dry off the ink.

"This is your ticket into the Tri-Spires. Just hand it to one of the guards and you should be let right through. If they're being particularly disagreeable, feel free to come find me or... me, but not me. We can definitely verify if they ask. You'll need to keep this on you at all times, or at least don't lose it, because it will keep you from getting into any sort of trouble. Headmaster Hass will probably give you some sort of token when you get to the Hall of Erudition, though, now that I think about it. But you still shouldn't lose this one. Someone will probably ask to see it over there, to make sure you're you."

Caleb takes the parchment, keeping his fingers clear of the wet writing. Pumat stops talking, chuckling quietly to himself. "Anyways, I'm rambling again. Stay until sunset if you want, but again, I'd advise you to leaving as soon as possible. I'll just be over here, working on some things. The entrance to the Tri-Spires is just west of here, right out of the Pentamarket."

With that, he goes back to his desk, picking up some sort of metal tool and beginning to hammer down something on the table. Caleb stays still for a moment. Despite his friendliness, Pumat definitely gives an air of someone who can't put up with people for too long.

He makes sure he has everything, though it's not hard since his possessions have since been lost, and goes out through the green curtains, taking a brief glance around the store to gaze at the wondrous items he hadn't had time to look at before he blacked out the night before. Enchanting was never a viable path for Caleb, but it is truly an impressive art.

Two Pumats, one standing on a ladder and dusting off the shelves and the other sitting at the counter with his face in a book, look up in sync and wave at him. It's quite unnerving. The third one is nowhere in sight.

Caleb gives them one last nod before he steps out of the doorway and into the faint sunlight of a clouded day. The Pentamarket is not empty as it was last night, people chatting to each other, the shops all full of bright lights and movement. It's so wholly different than it was before that Caleb has to glance around once to make sure he's in the same place. Without the darkness creeping around him and the pain blurring his vision, for a moment it seems as if he could go anywhere, fly away into the open sky above.

Chapter Text

Hardly anyone looks Caleb's way as he shrinks into himself and wanders towards the entrance to the Tri-Spires; the few that do dismiss him immediately. His clothing may now be presentable, but he has never had the appearance or demeanor of someone who has considerable riches. His family, in a tiny town, was not considered 'poor' by anyone there, but a traveler passing through would clearly see the way the buildings collapsed in on themselves and how ragged, torn clothing adorned its residents. Most of all they would notice the hollowed cheeks and dark ringed eyes of everyone - the simple deep tiredness that you earn working day and night on and on and on.

They were so happy for him, knowing what a bright future Caleb had, so, so happy. That he would rise higher than they could have ever imagined. Stuck in their drowning town, Caleb knew his mother always thought about things farther away from them to ease the stress of their days, dreaming of lives they could never live. So when Caleb left for the academy, he didn't need any dreams. His parents had given them theirs. And he-

Caleb notices he's stopped walking, and removes the hand tightly clenched around the dagger hidden in the folds of his coat. It's wrapped around the blade instead of the handle, and is digging deep into his skin, causing the muscles in his hand to tense and reject the sensation even as he only tightens his grip.

When something warm drips down his palm, he comes to his senses and slowly lets go. He hurries forward, resisting the urge to wipe his hand on his jacket. He doesn't want to get bloodstains on it when it was just cleaned.

The gates to the Tri-Spires are easy to find, slightly imposing and wrought of iron with complicated designs in the twisting metal, probably forming some sort of folk tale that Caleb doesn't understand. Before he approaches the two guards looking lazily out over the Pentamarket, he tears off a piece of cloth from his shirt- hidden beneath his coat- and wraps it around his hand, ignoring the vicious sting of protest his cut gives in retaliation to being squeezed tightly.

Once that is finished, he straightens his collar and runs his hands through his hair, trying to get the most obvious knots out He hasn't brushed his hairs in weeks. Hasn't had access. Not that he particularly cares about his appearance- or anyone's, really, he much prefers the person over the appearance- but the guards will need more persuasion than just a rite of passage from Pumat Sol, if what he's been told is true. The gates of iron feel slightly off, too. He keeps out a wary eye as he approaches.

"Halt," one of the guards says in full Crownsguard regalia, even as Caleb stops before them. The two guards observe him thoroughly, taking in his sallow skin and slump of shoulders, the hand pressed tightly against his side with some kind of covering on it, the coat, one that you could buy off a regular shop vendor selling their wares in any old place. The little bit of stubble he's grown and the almost faded bruises that are scattered across his shoulders from too many times falling over in these last few days.

Taking all of this into account, the guards seem... unimpressed. That's okay. Caleb is used to people looking at him with that same gaze before passing onto some other, more eye-catching student. Of course he wants- wanted to be the best. Everyone did. But he was content to sit there, biding his time, not caring really if someone did or did not see his potential. He would have proved them all wrong.

Caleb obligingly hands Pumat Sol's letter to the other guard. The guard takes it, scanning for any signs it was forged, then looks back to Caleb as if deciding whether this is enough to let a man like him into the Tri-Spires.

After some thought, the guard shoves the paper into the other's hand and she grunts. "Alright, I guess this is good enough. Remember, don't cause any sort of trouble. We will not hesitate to detain you. And..." she lifts a disdainful eyebrow. "Try to stick to the shadows until you get to the school."

The other guard swings the gates open. They creak horrifically on their hinges, like screaming children. Caleb has to fight his way to the surface of his mind to continue walking forward, slipping the pass back into his coat as he does. It's lucky he bought a coat with so many pockets; he has gained a lot of unexpected possessions.

Without a glance behind him, he slips into the Tri-Spires as the gates clang shut. A half-elven woman wearing a red dress that appears to be casual but is so much nicer than anything Caleb's ever seen glances at him as she walks by in heels that click rhythmically on the pavement. She scrunches her nose and scoffs at him; gradually slows his pace until he's barely moving and drifts over to one side of the street, darting between the scattered shadows that line the walls.

If he looks up, he can see the three spires themselves - the Triumph Chime, the Zauber Spire, and the Constellation Bridge, reaching up and up high above the mortal earth. The white stone of the Zauber Spire, adorned with blue banners, is almost angelic in the far away sunlight, except when its glow is broken by the clouds, painting it a patchy grey. The top of it has a large window, clearly visible even from this distance. From what he's heard, the largest and most intricate telescope currently in existence is stationed at the top of the tower. For a moment he has a deep yearning to travel all the way up on weary legs and lose himself in the vast night sky, but that is too much. Too much for anything.

Caleb shoves his longing to stargaze deep inside him and moves at a quicker pace, agitating his wound slightly as he strides forward. He ignores it. The furthest spire from the lower districts is the Zauber Spire (and by extension the Hall of Erudition) so he has to find his way there fast if he wants to still be awake by the time he gets there.

Either whatever was in that blackberry juice or whatever that pill had is making his eyes flutter open and closed, but this time it isn't the delusions of fever, just medically and regularly induced exhaustion. He might have been surprised waking up at Pumat Sol's with the exhaustion from before still prominent if he hadn't realized that he will probably never have a good night's sleep again.

Even so, he can't help but marvel at the buildings in the Tri-Spires. They're all beautiful in different ways- some rustic and charming, like how a person might imagine his parents' house if they had never been poor, others embracing the pure gaudiness that comes along with piles of gold, painted bright colors and with heavy dark oak doors and shiny gold knockers- and so utterly, utterly revolting. He has to keep down the bile that rises up at the thought of these grand places and then the people on the other side, begging and stealing and murdering all for fucking money. Caleb might want money, but he needs it as a means to an end and nothing more.

Try as he might, Caleb can't look away as he passes, eyes going wide at the smell of fresh bread from a bakery just down the road and his ears oddly devoid of rough voices. Everywhere he's lived, Caleb has always been alongside people who have accents like saws. Up and down and sharp in places where they're dull the next. But the people who live in this part of town all have sleek and smooth voices, some too oily to hold onto for long. It unsettles him, this sound.

It would hurt even more to hear it spoken in Zemnian. Common is one thing - it's everyone's language. But Zemnian is his. It would hurt to hear these people, who remain oblivious to others' pain and spend hours a day on their appearance, speak it. Zemnian is a dying language. As the Zemni Fields are stripped of resources, so too are the people living around them. Zemnian is a language spoken by people who eye books skeptically and spend their days and nights breaking their backs to make a living. It is not meant for rich tongues.

Fortunately and unsurprisingly, as Caleb wanders over to the Hall of Erudition (back to Soltryce Academy again and again) he hears not a single frustrated nein in Zemnian. He does hear Sylvan however, spoken by an odd person with moss along their wrists and silver hair that drapes across their back like a cape. He stays away from then as they silently walk across the cobblestone. However, though he would never admit it, for a split second Caleb pauses and glances at their face. They do not have purple eyes.

After what seems like an eternity on aching legs, Caleb stumbles up to the Hall of Erudition. It's a grand building, arched at the top and stained windows with magic coming off it in waves. With a start, he thinks he remembers rumors of ancient artifacts from even as far back as the Age of Arcanum housed here. Those could be giving off the magical aura, or it could just be that the Hall has been warded over and over for its protection.

Guards stand on either side of the wide double doors, but the first thing Caleb notices is that they are not Crownsguard. They are completely devoid of armor, wearing simple blue robes that hang all the way to their feet. In the place where you might find their hearts is embroidered three interlocking diamonds. On their faces are masks of cloth, lined with metal, that curve backward to encompass their ears and only have holes for the eyes. The guard on the right only has one hole cut in the cloth, is if they have no need for another space for an eye to see. And, instead of the mass-issued sword, the guards have metal poles that stretch up to their shoulders. As Caleb edges closer, he sees that what originally looked like regular poles actually have many carvings cut into the metal, some glowing or pulsing slightly. They're runes.

As soon as he gets perhaps ten feet into range of the guards, they both whip their heads in his direction and take a few deliberate steps forward. Caleb quickly steps into the light where they can see he is not a threat and the one-eyed guard reverts back to their previous position while the other lowers their head and raises it in a sort of respectful nod. Caleb nods back. Their eyes are, predictably, a human or close relative's, brown turning dark around the pupil. (Not purple.)

"Hello," he says, voice cracking halfway through the word. The guard- mage in training or battlemage, he isn't sure- looks at him and slowly what feels like a wave of cold water slowly drips down his skin and dissolves. At Soltryce Academy, Caleb learned that everyone's magic feels different, each having certain elements prominent. Caleb's is, of course- awfully- fire. He was told it burns hot and wild and runs not only along your skin, but tears through the outer layer to burrow inside your veins and either turn you to ashes or make you feel so very alive. That it was so wholly different than what he seemed to be at first glance it was shocking.

Caleb shoves the burning in his palms deep, away, until he is cold. The guard eventually replies, "...Hello. What is your business here?" in a hesitant voice that makes him lean more towards mage in training than battlemage. Caleb would think it foolish to leave less powerful magic users to guard this place had he not felt before the layers and layers of wards.

"I was hired," Caleb says, hoping they will not ask what for, since he doesn't actually know. "Supposed to arrive by tomorrow. And, well, I am here. Talk to Headmaster Hass if you do not believe me. It is my understanding he has the details."

The guard looks frightened at the mention of the Archmage, while in the background Caleb notices the other guard (most likely) smiling at the one in front as they shrink in on themself. Regardless, they soon straighten and push their shoulders back. "Of course, of course. Someone will verify this claim, but in the meantime you can come in and sit in the lobby. Just try to stay put, and take the bracelet offered by the clerk. If you don't, unfortunately, you will be banned from the Hall - unless of course you have permission from the Archmage. But that doesn't apply to you, so go on and we will be with you as soon as we can."

They nod to the other guard, who reaches over and places a hand against the grand wood door, closing their eye until something makes a large thunk and a ripple appears going out from where the guard's hand is, as if they've dropped a stone into phantom water. The door slides open cleanly, the bottom of it brushing against the carpeted floor.

The elder guard steps back into their position and spreads an arm out, inviting. Caleb starts forward, giving a deep nod as he passes and decidedly not flinching when the door shuts behind him with a resounding boom, leaving him in a long dusty hallway with windows all the way to the door on the other end. Cold light from the afternoon sky filters through, turning more grey as it does and illuminating the dust particles floating along in the air in beams.

The hallway is silent. It's a deafening kind, a sort that looms over you and fills your ears to the brim, and Caleb suspects it would not be broken even if people screamed and shouted and pounded on the glass outside. The door on the other end of the hallway is considerably smaller than the ones behind him. Just a light orange toned wood with a fogged glass window at the top and a silver knob.

He shakes off the feeling of abandonment that creeps its way into his bones as he walks forward. Perhaps it will be different on the inside, but the whole place seems much too distant and uncaring for his liking. Grand. Not a place that people actually go to every day and more some sort of untouchable shrine to an unseen god.

The knob of the door turns easily under his fingers and he steps into the next room, lit by a lamp hanging from the ceiling and giving the room a warm glow, as there are no windows. There are, however, two doors on the left and right and a plush couch in the right corner. In front of him is the previously mentioned clerk, desk attached to the wall. She has spectacles precariously balanced on the indent of her nose, so close that when she blinks her eyelashes brush the lenses. Her hair is black with brown streaks pulled back into a tight ponytail, and her ears are of the half-elf variety. She blinks up at him a couple of times.

This room smells like cold and dust too. It's no better than the hallway, even with the furniture and warm light. "Hello," Caleb says again. "I am here for a job. I was told to wait here." He smiles, trying to be as respectful as he can. The woman leans back from where she was curled over some paperwork and twirls the pencil in her hands.

"Alright," she says after a pause and pulls open a drawer, retrieving a painted gold band and holding it toward him. Caleb obligingly puts it around his wrist. As soon as it settles a jolt of electricity travels from his toes to his head and leaves him momentarily disoriented.

Caleb knows, however, that even in that vulnerable state he would still be able to protect himself. Ikithon taught him that; never let your guard down. He would enforce it by attacking his students without warning with offensive magic until every waking moment their muscles were tense with anticipation, ready to fight or flee at a moment's notice. Caleb has many scars from then; most are burns. What do they say? Fight fire with fire?

He sits down on the couch in the corner, the woman's gaze only lingering on him for a second before she turns back to her paperwork. Minutes pass- and more minutes- and more- until Caleb's eyes grow almost unbearably heavy, until his head falls to the side and hits the back of the couch. He startles and almost ignites flame in his palms at the sudden slight sensation, but as he's coming out of his half-conscious state he looks around wildly at an empty room.

Fortunately the clerk doesn't notice his panic, but after this Caleb stops himself from nodding off by pinching the skin around his wrist viciously every time he gets drowsy. He doesn't know how long it's been in this stuffy room, with no sun for him to judge, but it has to at least have been an hour. He will wait longer. He has to.

Only a few minutes later, however, the door on the left side opens and a man steps through. He's shorter than Caleb by a good half a head, with dark skin that turns a strange silver-gold in places the light hits it. His hair is curly, cropped close to his head. His eyes are black, but not black like a void. Light reflects off them and makes them gleam brilliantly.

His expression- stern and twisted when he walked in- changes into something more welcoming when he sees Caleb, who immediately stands up and leans forward in an imitation of a bow. Oremid Hass nods to him. "Hello," he says. "Bren Aldric Ermemdud, I presume." His voice is thick, laden with an earthy accent. It is oddly soothing. Caleb clears his throat.

"Ja, that is me," he says, feeling so much younger. He is only eighteen, or something around there, but these past few weeks he has been hit by all that he has fucked up and caused and it all begins to bear down upon him (of course as it should). He is sore from that weight, but Oremid has a rather calming demeanor that makes him relax just slightly. Strangely. Looking at him one would presume coldness, with the way his eyes seem to be jagged stone and his skin steely firm. "But Caleb is alright too."

Oremid cracks his neck and folds his arms over each other. "Usually I would not come out to greet people in person, but you are a special case. It is not often that Archmage Ikithon recommends someone personally. Well, I suppose 'recommends' is a strong word. Having all the experience of Soltryce Academy, but not being able to graduate."

Caleb doesn't bother to smother his anger, but is careful to conceal it from the imposing man before him. If nothing else, Caleb deserves to be angry. He deserves to want to burn Ikithon with him - and how he does. Ikithon will never be worse than him, but that doesn't matter. He is threatening to hurt Caleb's friends. If Caleb ever gets the chance to hurt him without retribution, he will make him pay for ever even thinking of laying a hand on them.

Oremid goes on, blissfully unaware of Caleb's fire. "He suggested you work as something menial, but I disagree. You seem to have quite the repertoire, looking at your records." For a moment he stops and looks at Caleb with his obsidian eyes, searching for something. Caleb gives nothing. "And I just so happen to have a position that needs someone as skilled as you. I came to tell you that being the curator of our collection is a job that requires dedication, precision, and a careful eye. As much as I need someone to continue where the previous curator left off, I am asking you first. Do you feel as if you are able to take on this position?"

Caleb tries to conceal his shock. He isn't sure if he was supposed to know about this beforehand or now, so he keeps perfectly still. Curator? Archmage Hass was entrusting the Zauber Spire and Hall of Erudition's collection of magical items to him? It is something Caleb would never even dreamed of. But he can't say honestly he would turn it down if asked, and he is being asked. Of course, Ikithon is still there. Watching. But he can't counter Headmaster Hass without a good reason. And...

Astrid. Eodwulf. Caleb shakes his head of wary thoughts and smiles at the man. "Ja. I do."

Chapter Text

Caduceus spends about two or three seasons working for the Gentleman before he gets a longer break. By then, he has killed people that needed to be killed, stolen things that needed to be stolen, and broken things that needed to be broken. He hasn't been as many places as he would have liked, but then again he will never be able to, so he satisfies himself with where he has been.

Rexxentrum a few times, the Labenda Swamp and Berleben more (he helped establish a base there), Hupperdook, Alfield, the Wuyun Gates, Felderwin, and even Shady Creek Run, albeit for a very limited amount of time. Ophelia had left not soon after Caduceus settled down and hasn't returned since.

The Gentleman doesn't seem particularly put out by that, but even having known him for two years and having an uncanny ability to parse people's emotions, Caduceus can't be sure of anything when it comes to him.

Right now, Caduceus is sitting on the couch (bed) in the place that he calls home. Jesse, who is miraculously still around, came by earlier this morning to inform him that for two or three months he has a clear schedule and to 'find somethin' t' distract yourself; it shouldn' be too hard, seein' how easy it is to take divert you from what you're tryin' to do already'.

A while ago he and Jesse did a two-person job together, an eliminate-the-target kind of thing. They were collecting information on the rich merchant's whereabouts at a bar when Caduceus struck up a conversation with a friendly elven man and almost cost him their lives when, in the process of trying to take down the target, they learned he was hired to protect her, and Caduceus was caught off guard. Jesse, it seems, has not forgiven him.

A loud tap on the window catches Caduceus's attention. He reluctantly stumbles off the couch and peers out the window, smiling when he sees the tabaxi standing there with a glare on her face, dark eyes watching his second-floor window. He turns and walks down the stairs, grabbing his staff (which now also doubles as a cane) and opening the door, making the woman on the other side jump at the noise.

She immediately takes off in Caduceus's direction and kicks his left ankle with her face scrunched in anger. Caduceus frowns at her, moving himself out of her range. "What was that for?" he asks, shifting the hand on top of his staff. He acquired it about a year ago, in a raid on a strange abandoned facility. It wasn't quite abandoned as they thought it was, spiders and specters coming out in full force, but the staff was well worth it.

It's dark wood, gnarled and wild in a sharp contrast to all of the other wood in this city, which has been filed down and cut. The tendrils of wood unfold at the top like a flower, reaching in all different directions. In the middle rests a stone. At first it looks like your standard rock, grey and uninteresting, but it has veins of bright iridescent opal running through it that glow brilliantly whenever he casts a spell. It's not his amethyst staff, and it doesn't have beetles living within (yet), but Caduceus knows that some things get lost and stay lost.

The tabaxi woman distracts him when she taps her foot and says tightly, "What do you mean, 'what was that for'? I thought you were dead. You haven't sent anything to me in four months."

Caduceus is about to defend himself before he realizes that this is, in fact, true. Being in the middle of the wilderness has messed with his sense of time - more than usual, of course. He was just... very busy. Yes, it's possible he stayed longer than strictly than necessary, but he just wanted to spend a little time in the forest. He hadn't actually been in a real, healthy forest until then, and it was so stunningly beautiful that he never wanted to leave. So he stayed. Made himself a little camp in the woods next to a running stream with water so clear you could see the trout swimming by, and made friends with the deer that ate off the blackberry bushes next to his tree.

He eventually left because the Gentleman sent him a message asking if he was alive, and because even in the blissful peace of the woods something just wasn't right. He's realizing he isn't someone who wants to be alone - meditation is nice and all, and the Wildmother is a comfort always, but it isn't the same as having someone's heart beat near. He doesn't need them to talk; he just needs to know they are there. And there was no one, no one, in that forest. According to what little he's heard about firbolgs on his travels, they're supposed to want to live peacefully alone. Perhaps spending his whole life with his siblings has changed him in some way.

Caduceus smiles sheepishly at Cree, not able to come up with a suitable reply. She frowns at him and folds her arms across her hide-bound chest, black tail swishing from side to side. "I may not have been here then," Caduceus says, "but I'm here now. So, how's it going? Is business good?"

He met Cree on the streets of Zadash, out in the slums; he tends to swing by there occasionally if he has extra coin. Cree was sitting in the shadows - her fur was matted and she was drenched by rain. It was a pitiful sight, really, and so when he learned that she was selling pottery he had to take a piece with him. She's a bit odd; it seems that pottery making is not what she wants to be doing with her life, and sometimes there's something dark in her eyes. But she and Caduceus struck up a quick friendship, and she wasn't scared away by his strange appearance. (Caduceus long ago decided it was just plain too much work to disguise himself every day. And as he became acclimated to this complicated place, he realized he didn't really care what other people thought of him.)

Cree has a level head and steady paws. She's a good friend to have.

She squints in his direction for a moment and, surprisingly, lets it go. "Business is pretty okay. The usual, I guess. I think I'm still the top dog-" she snickers- "in the market for hand-made pottery, so... there's that." She shrugs. Her assistant, Kole, isn't here, Caduceus belatedly realizes. Kole is oftentimes a barely noticeable shadow at her side. He does the painting part, while Cree does the shaping. Some people might call him unsettling, with his tendency to stare with overly wide blue eyes and stay silent- so silent Caduceus isn't sure if he breathes- but Caduceus just finds him interesting, as he does most things. He fits well with Cree - they have something unearthly about them.

He figures Cree would have mentioned if something happened to him, so he doesn't press. "That's good. That's good. Do you need me to go somewhere with you? I need to run errands, but if you..." he trails off as Cree waves her bracered black paws.

"No no, I just wanted to make sure you were still alive." She reaches over and taps his arm (she can't reach his shoulder). "But come over tomorrow. I've been working on a little something. And Kole has, too. He's really proud." She smiles a little at the mention of the boy. "And he's been missing you too, so even if you had no reason to, you should still come over," she says. "Don't forget." She gives him one more skeptical glance, half-salutes, and then departs, slipping in the crack between buildings. Caduceus watches her go; he didn't even get the chance to say thank you.

He has to get going. He needs a watering can for the slowly growing collection of plants on his top floor, and a bunch of scattered ingredients for his experiments in alchemy. Asking around yesterday he learned of the Invulnerable Vagrant, a place that supposedly has magical items - which at least if not actually helpful in his goal will be intriguing and give him a chance to learn about those kinds of things, which have remained foreign throughout the years.

Caduceus heads back into his house to grab his keys, money, and coat - the same one he bought the very first day he got there. It's a little torn up at this point, but it remains functional and that's good enough for him. He has also managed to acquire armor, but it's nothing compared to his beetle armor, and it would definitely not be very practical to wear around the city.

He pulls on his coat and grabs the keys that sit in a bowl on his counter. He always has at least ten gold in his pockets, which is enough to buy his things, so there's no need to go to the top floor and collect his coin bag where he keeps the rest of his money, hidden behind a thorny bush that only moves its branches when he asks it to.

Outside the sky is pleasantly blue, with grey and white spattered across its expanse. He elects to not squeeze himself between the two buildings and walks the other way, staff banging on the stone and gravel beneath his feet. Even his healing magic couldn't entirely fix the fractured femur he got jumping off the roof of a building. It's been a hassle to limp around everywhere, but slowly it's getting better. (Except on cold days - then it aches and aches and becomes quite annoying.) He isn't sure that time will mend it all the way, but he'll probably be able to walk around for a good bit before requiring assistance.

As usual, people's heads turn when he walks past, though he stays close to one side. Usually he doesn't mind, but today he's already felt the scrutinizing gaze of Cree and has no need to be the object of any more examination, so when most of the curious eyes are not looking he turns himself invisible. He could have easily chosen the disguise illusion instead, but he feels the urge to literally be unnoticeable right now, and so he must disappear.

The Pentamarket is maybe a seven minute walk from his house, Cree's place slightly more so and the Evening Nip a mere two or three. He walks quietly into the open space of the market. Only the most perceptive turn at the noise of his staff, but are confused when there is nothing there. The Invulnerable Vagrant is across the way, green and gold lining its dark front. It gives Caduceus an odd feeling of familiarity, which he pushes away even as he edges closer and it grows stronger.

Weaving his way through the moving carts and milling people, Caduceus walks up to the building. He drops his invisibility as he pushes the door open, a bell ringing above him. Strangely, he doesn't have to duck to get through the doorway, as he does almost everywhere else.

The room is dimly lit, still with the same color accents. Shelves are covered in all manner of things - jewelry, armor, weapons, bottles of mystery liquids, and so on. Someone is on a ladder in the corner, head almost touching the ceiling as they take a delicate silver wire mask of some sort off the shelf and make their back to the floor, turning in Caduceus's direction and immediately fumbling with the mask when they see who has walked in. Caduceus too almost lets has staff fall to the side, but manages to keep his composure.

"Oh, well then," says the man. The firbolg. There's another firbolg in Zadash and Caduceus hasn't met him. He has the signature long, bat-like ears, and grey skin tinged blue like stone. His hair is curly, shining on the edges from the faint firelight, and he has a growing fuzz all the way from ear to ear. "It's not often we see another of our kind in this city. Wow. How nice to meet you." He sets the mask on the counter and walks towards Caduceus slowly, but Caduceus thinks that's probably just how he walks. Maybe it's a firbolg thing.

He reaches out and pats Caduceus's shoulder. He's probably the only one who has done that since Caduceus has been with his siblings. They were all taller than him, so he finds it's a comfort to meet one more person who is at least his height. He knows of goliaths, tall and strong people who live in clans in the mountains, but he's only ever met one, probably because his travels have not taken him to any mountain ranges.

Where Caduceus is pale and gaunt, the other firbolg is wide and warm. He still manages to be taller than Caduceus, however. Briefly Caduceus wonders if he constitutes as short by firbolg standards - but it probably doesn't matter, because there's not a large chance he's ever going to meet a clan of firbolgs, and he definitely does not believe he'll see any of his family again.

He pushes the dreary thought away and smiles, eyes crinkling. "Yeah. You too. Your shop is very nice, by the way. Very nice." He looks around it once more, eyes catching on a grey- almost muddy lilac- cloak that shimmers with a faint magical aura. If he squints, he thinks he can make out gold thread in spiraling designs on the sleeves. It's in the corner behind him, hanging amongst other clothing items inconspicuously, so it isn't surprising that he didn't notice it when he came in, but it really is quite pretty. Also probably out of his price range. He hasn't taken the time to total up all of his gold in a while, some of which being paid to him by the Gentleman, a major quantity from the jobs he's done, and the rest from either the deceased or the places where the deceased once resided.

"Actually, this isn't really my shop," says the firbolg. Caduceus tilts his head, not quite understanding. Is he just an assistant? "And sorry for not introducing myself immediately. Pumat Sol, of the Invulnerable Vagrant, where we deal with enchanted items and more, for example paper for spells and magical ink, if that's your thing. I don't know if your'e looking for anything in particular... it's very nice to meet you, but excuse me for just a moment. I have to go find the other Pumats."

Caduceus stands there for a moment, mind not comprehending, as Pumat gives him a slow smile and turns to the empty counter, walking behind and through the green curtains. Caduceus watches for a second more, still in slight shock, before heading over to the cloak he saw a moment ago, between a simple tan leather bag and a quiver full of black- really purely black- arrows. He takes it off the hook it's hanging on and holds it with both hands, then lets it dangle over one as he runs his fingers across the golden thread, tracing its path as it cuts through the sea of grey.

The otherworldly-ness of its fabric makes him wonder what kind of enchantment this cloak holds. It must be something for the quiet, to help blend in to the world. It seems useful and he wants it; he'd buy it if he had enough money, but he doesn't, so he sets it back on the hook as he hears multiple pairs of heavy footsteps coming his way.

He turns around, preparing himself for what he isn't quite sure, and stops. Confused. Maybe he's hallucinating; it's happened before. Or seeing an illusion. It can be the only explanation for three of the exact same firbolg walking towards him, but one is smiling and the other two have wide eyes and it must be a pretty complicated illusion or hallucination for all three of them to be doing different things at the same time. Maybe they're triplets?

"These are the other two Pumat Sols who work in the shop here. The original is back there, in the middle of a project, so I figured I'd get him after you meet the other two," says the Pumat who seems to be the one he met before. The other Pumats greet him with slight waves and gentle smiles.

After a moment Caduceus spends processing, he says, "Wow. That is really neat. Wow." And there's even one more, too. In all his time (which really isn't much) exploring the world, he has seen nothing remotely similar to this. "Sorry for not introducing myself before. The name's Caduceus Clay." He sticks out a pink-grey hand in the Pumats' general directions, not caring which one takes it.

The one whose brown eyes shine more than the other two grasps it firmly, Caduceus's skinny fingers disappearing in his large palm. He somehow seems younger than the other two. It's a wonder how people who look exactly the same can seem younger or older, but Caduceus has an eye for these kinds of things. He's seen it before.

He recalls a young human and a half-elf - both in a cold-floored temple sitting next to each other, one in deep prayer and the other constantly distracted by flickering lights and other entrancing mysteries hidden near the grand dragon's silhouette. Their faces might have had the same shape and the same skin tone, but the human held joy in her heart and a boundless youthful energy, while the half-elf had recently shed tears and a fear of the unfamiliar world.

He had given them each a gold coin in passing. The half-elf did not recognize him, unsurprisingly.

The Pumat that Caduceus has not met hangs back, though he is still eyeing him with surprise and a calm interest. The first Pumat, however, distracts him as he reaches out and runs fingers down the cloak Caduceus was previously admiring. "I saw you looking at this," Pumat says. "I can understand why. It really is a fine piece of work. Provides a mask to the wearer; lets them hide in plain sight and move more stealthily."

Caduceus nods. He resists the urge to take it and keep it with him for as long as he can. "Unfortunately, I'm not in the business of those kinds of items at the moment," he says. "But I do have a list of things that I'm looking for, so I would quite appreciate any help."

"Oh sure, sure!" says Pumat Sol. The more reserved Pumat backs away as the words are said, hoping to slip out unnoticed, but Caduceus always notices things. Maybe not the things that need to be noticed, but he clearly sees the slight crack on the ceiling above him that glows just slightly pulsing yellow, and he has been tracking the fly that came with him into the shop since he glimpsed it. It has rested on one of the shelves, over to the counter, and flew in circles around his head for a while before resting on his hair, where presumably it still resides. Maybe he's so busy noticing everything all around him that he doesn't see the most obvious things.

The fly leaves his hair and buzzes towards the green curtains in the back of the shop, following the Pumat who has left. Caduceus shakes himself back to the present. "I'm looking for raw amber, candlewax... sodium, amethyst dust, rusted lichen, blue or purple ink. There might be more, but I don't remember, at the moment. Sorry."

"It's fine," replies Pumat. The younger one disappears eventually, too, after a glance over his shoulder, going over behind the counter and starts rooting through the drawers down at his feet. "Do you have a list?" the remaining Pumat asks. Caduceus shakes his head. He can't make a list without knowing how to write. He's considered it many times since he left, slowly realizing how much people actually read in a city like this, but there's just no time for it, or a teacher to teach it, and it's not essential for a life in the business of crime. So he hasn't had a chance to really look around for someone willing, and anyway, he would have to find someone not so bigoted.

Pumat gives him a considering look, probably taking in his mildew stained simple clothes and the bones that give him too many edges to be natural and the slight bit of fuzz coating his cheeks. He keeps it like that with his favorite dagger, using it to shave himself. He probably has a plentiful amount of little scars across his chin and cheeks from all the places he's nicked himself; his hands just always start to shake when he focuses on them. Or maybe they're always shaking, and he doesn't notice.

"Can you write?" Pumat asks after coming to a conclusion on Caduceus's appearance. He doesn't know the whole idea, but this part at least is correct. His sisters and brother, he recalls, always seemed to know what the other was thinking. Maybe it's a firbolg thing.

"No," Caduceus replies, seeing no reason to lie in the face of such a nonjudgmental friend. "I can't read, either," he adds, just in case they come to a misunderstanding later.

Pumat doesn't respond for such a long moment that Caduceus begins to grow nervous, if only slightly. Are all firbolgs supposed to know how to write? Is it some sort of initiation in firbolg tribes? A requirement? Is there a firbolg language that he and his isolated family have missed the entire development of?

"If you have time," Pumat says, "we could teach you a little bit. There's four of us. I don't know about Pumat Prime, but us three can usually find some extra time in our days if that's something you're interested in. I mean, if you're not, that's fine too."

"That sounds great," Caduceus replies, all doubts immediately washed away. At that moment he can't bring himself to care whether or not he will actually have time to take up the offer, just surprise and a gratefulness which he has only really felt one or two times. One of them being the first mission he and Jesse went on; he wasn't particularly clear on how everything worked. Stealing an item soon turned into fighting four people at once, and Jesse got them out of that quickly devolving situation with ease.

The second time, he remembers, was a time when he was in one of the states that he gets in from time to time, feeling numb and apathetic and utterly devoid of all his fascination. Cree had said it was downright disheartening to look at him and see no wondrous smile on his face, and she took him and Kole to the bath house in an effort to make him feel better. Obviously it still took a while for him to sort himself out, but that was when he was struck by the realization that someone actually cared.

"I don't know how much free time I will have," he says with a smile at the memory. "But I do know that for three months I won't have any pressing obligations."

Pumat nods and calls over his shoulder for another Pumat. "I'll go talk to Prime and see if I can get him away from his work for a little bit," he says as the younger Pumat appears behind him, waving at Caduceus brightly. "In the meantime, tell Pumat Number Four here that list of ingredients and we'll see what we can cook up for you." He pats the cloak on its hanger and once again goes back through the curtains, where a muffled banging sound is now arising, the rhythm of hammers hitting metal in a smithy.

"What was it that you needed?" Pumat Four asks, clasping his hands behind his back and waiting patiently. Caduceus repeats the list- though he might've forgotten another thing, he isn't sure because he can't remember- and Pumat Four takes him to a shelf near the counter full of little trinkets of all sizes, colors, and shapes.

He is given a bottle of red melted candlewax that seems to somehow be in a permanent liquid state, and high-quality blue ink. They don't have purple, but Caduceus suspects that ingredient is just for dye so he doesn't worry too much about it. They have plenty of sodium (Pumat Four explains that sodium is a crucial part of most scientific experiments so it always is in high demand and they can almost always be found with some in stock). They unfortunately have no amber and the small amount of amethyst dust seems to be priced way too high for Caduceus to spend on a mere test run.

The total is an easily payable amount. He doesn't ask how much the cloak is, because if he does he'll buy it even if it leaves him with hardly anything left. He pays with eas;. three gold left is more than enough for a watering can. He could even buy two- or maybe three!- if he really wanted to. But there's no reason for that. Sometimes Caduceus is struck by the urge to buy things that he really does not need. So far, for the most part, he has successfully restrained himself.

He gets some advice from Pumat Four about where to get a watering can- most smithies will probably carry one, and there is probably a little cart that specializes in that kind of thing, even here in the middle of the city where there are no gardens in sight, and if he really cannot find anything there is a black tent on the other side of the Pentamarket and the shopkeeper, she might have something, it's really very hard to guess what kind of things she will have at any given time (he looks a little nervous, oddly, at the mention of the shopkeeper) and eventually after settling down against the counter Pumat Two comes back with yet another firbolg in tow.

He looks much like the other three, completely unsurprisingly, except his hands are covered by thick and stained leather gloves, curly hair held away from his face by large brown goggles, and his face has quite a few more lines in it than the rest of them - not to mention the grease and smudges on his (wrinkled) work clothes and blue skin. He looks much less put together than the others; an air about him that tells Caduceus he's been alive for a long time and has suffered for it.

Caduceus himself tries to not let life make him suffer. He and his closest siblings had always believed in the idea that life was what you made of it, and you could be happy or you could be sad when you bore the brunt of the world. They had decided to collectively straighten and smile. Of course Caduceus is not immune - sometimes he just can't stop his mind from breaking away from all the noise and emotion and numbing him to it all. But he pushes through and he keeps himself open to whatever comes his way. It's worked out so far.

Pumat Sol- the original, that is- strikes him as a man who does not care for the little things in life, like rain in fog or the sounds of the people playing their instruments on the sides of streets. He seems to be work first, life second. And Caduceus cannot judge him for it. He does tend to judge people, but this is a situation that doesn't deserve the scrutiny. It's just that Caduceus has never really had work to devote himself to.

Sure, he tended to his graveyard garden everyday, cultivating those flowers and chatting with ghosts and letting the birds rest on his shoulders. But he would classify that as more a 'hobby', or perhaps even a form of prayer. It wasn't work. Partly because if that was work, then it meant Caduceus had no life to speak of. Until now, that is.

Hopefully their differences in perspective will be made up by the fact that they are both firbolgs in an utterly firbolg-less place - or maybe he's reading too much into things and is twisting them into shapes they really aren't. He decides to stay silent for now, lest he scare away the only true kindred soul in this Wildmother-forsaken place.

Pumat Prime stops, while Two keeps moving for a moment before realizing no one is following him. Pumat Prime rubs the corners of his wide eyes, making oily rings around them and making him bear at least some passing resemblance to a raccoon. He doesn't say anything for a tense moment, but then lets out a large breath and leans across the counter to peer at Caduceus.

Caduceus peers back.

"Well. This is certainly unexpected," says Pumat Prime, breaking the silence. Two and Four- though they probably don't notice, Caduceus does- both relax tense shoulders, but don't move their eyes from their creator.

Caduceus nods. "It really is," he says. "I was just looking for some magical items, and then I walked in, and there you all were. Just standing there. And this place is so nice, too. You should be proud of it." He just keeps talking and he can't stop himself. Usually Caduceus isn't the most social person, what with all the cautious glances and hunching of shoulders when he walks by. And usually he can't care less what other people might think looking at him. But he supposes this is what happens when you want someone to like you at least a little bit, as unfortunate as it is.

Pumat Sol smiles at him, eyes folding into those ingrained lines. "Thank you very much. Speaking of this place, I'm Enchanter Pumat Sol - as you've probably already gathered. My simulacra." He motions to Two and Four. Four begins to fidget, so much nervousness from such an imposing figure quite unusual. And as if summoned, Pumat Three, the more laid-back one, sticks his head through the curtains, glances around to make sure nothing is amiss, and disappears just as fast as he appeared.

"They were very kind to me," Caduceus says. He does not comment in the clear difference in social skills as much as he wants to. He has learned the hard way that always saying what he thinks is a good way to make people angry, and Pumat Sol is the one of the last people, Caduceus has decided, that he wants to dislike him.

"I trust you found everything you were looking for?" Pumat says, going back to the business at hand - though whether he realizes that is debatable. Caduceus nods; he's gotten everything he needs from here. It doesn't count as a lie.

Pumat Two speaks up, lumbering forward enough that both Caduceus's and Pumat's gazes shift to him. "Clay and I were discussing just a minute ago teaching him how to write and read," he says. Caduceus stays steady. He will not be unsettled by the prospect of Pumat Sol the Enchanter, clearly a very knowledgeable and scholarly man, scoffing at his abysmal education.

Still, a breath escapes him as Pumat nods. "Well," he says, "I can't promise any of my time, but I'm sure if my simulacra wish to help you they can make space to help you without forgoing any of their work. It's always nice to help someone understand more about the world."

Caduceus smiles slowly, gripping his staff. He's going to really learn. He's going to be able to ask for things off a restaurant menu. He's going to be able to visit those Cobalt Archives he's heard so much about and actually make use of their wide, wide expanse of books. Of course it will take time, and Caduceus has never really been great at the technical side of things, but he will try his best and he'll have faith that his best will be enough.

Chapter Text

Caduceus comes to the Invulnerable Vagrant every other day, switching between Pumats Three and Four. Two is always busy - it seems his job is a clerk's, and that is a position that is never vacant. He learns the ways that Three and Four teach - subtly different, even though they are technically the same person. Three will sit back when he needs to, watching Caduceus struggle to hold the pen steady enough to copy the symbols he's been given, and step in as soon as he sees something that is not to his liking. He corrects Caduceus much more gently than his initial impartial-ness would suggest.

Four shows him step by step the ways in which to complete his task, giving him a thorough understanding that is only offset by the slight annoyance Caduceus sometimes feels at his occasional nabbing. He can't do everything right, no matter if Four explains it to him in great detail. Some things just take more than one try.

When it comes to writing, and at the same time reading, that's especially true. Learning what letters make the sounds he's so accustomed to speaking is an interesting process, but definitely learning to write them at the same time helps his comprehension immensely, as he knows the sounds as he learns the letters.

Sometimes, even, every so often, Pumat Sol the original will come out of his workshop at which he obsessively sits to talk to the other firbolgs. And more rarely he will invite Caduceus to take a break and come to see what he's working on, giving him impromptu lessons on the properties of magic, color mixing, and other little tidbits that may very well be useful some time in the future - but for what Caduceus has no idea.

So when Caduceus receives a message in the form of a sending spell, sitting amongst his plants on the top floor of his house as one of the thorny vines curls around his wrist and makes indents just deep enough to linger but not enough to draw blood, it's quite a surprise.

For one, it's an off-day. He didn't even show up to the Invulnerable Vagrant, deciding to hang around Cree's place for a bit before heading over to the Cobolt Soul Archives, whose residents are becoming familiar with him as he begins to visit more. He often sits down and browses through books that he can barely understand, but gets better at it with each passing day.

For another, the one casting the sending spell is Pumat Prime himself. Even with the slight undertone of panic so strange in his voice, Caduceus can clearly identify him.

"Caduceus," he says. "Please come over. Someone is in need of your help. Medicine is not my forte; I do not feel qualified to handle this situation-" the spell cuts off abruptly. Caduceus jolts to a stand, the vine not uncurling fast enough to avoid ripping the skin around his wrist. Thankfully the holes are not deep enough to come near his artery; it's just a little blood. That's completely natural.

"I'll be there," Caduceus replies. He knows how messages work, Jesse having sent a few of them to him, and several of his other partners having used it in jobs. Pumat Two has even done it once when he needed assistance when a vial of a liquid distantly related to acid was dropped and shattered on the floor. Caduceus had only been across the Pentamarket at the time, so they safely cleaned it up fast enough for it to corrode only a little bit of the floor. This, however, doesn't strike him as a situation that can be wrapped up so neatly.

Someone is dying. That must be it. Pumat wouldn't ask him to come for any other reason, unless someone he knew personally was sick or hurt - but only in a grave situation would he call. Hah. Grave situation.

Caduceus shakes himself and heads down the stairs as fast as he can, leg groaning in protest at the strain until he reaches his staff and slows down to a moderate speed. Surely this person can wait just a few more minutes. And besides, he can probably bring them back if they go completely. Pumat probably has a few diamonds stored somewhere in a dusty corner.

The Pentamarket is barely lit, only a spare few torches at the late-night establishments, but Caduceus knows where the Invulnerable Vagrant lies - partly because he's been there many times at this point, and partly because there is a trail of staggered footsteps and spattered blood all the way from the street he came out of and across to the doorway, where a dirty hand print tarnishes the golden knob. The door itself is propped open, and more blood stains the floor in a path to the counter, where it culminates in a more central pool, accompanied by what looks like a pile of ashes, oddly enough. Pumat Four is going to be complaining forever about getting out those stains in the wood, though. Caduceus grimaces just thinking about it.

He hurries to the curtains, peering in against his better judgement. The Pumats are not in the store, however, so he has to enter by himself, even though everything in him is telling him that he cannot go in without permission. But no one materializes to stop him from stepping through the velvet fabric, and nothing prevents his eyes from widening at the scene before him.

Prime is sitting at his work chair, eyebrows twisted, while Two is reaching for things off the shelves that line the walls- always packed to the brim with all manner of odds and ends- and placing them on the table to the left of the main one, some of the items instantly recognizable as things Caduceus uses in his spells. Three is standing out of the way watching with a critical eye, while Four clenches and unclenches his hands on the green couch, blinking rapidly. All of them whip around with the exact same distressed expressions on their faces to stare as soon as Caduceus steps through.

However, clearly the more pressing issue is the body on the table, the table Caduceus is used to being covered in all of Pumat Prime's work items. The body is clearly a man's; human, young. His eyes are closed. In the silence Caduceus can hear a faint rasp as he breathes in and out, but even if he couldn't identify that the man's hands twitch weakly at his sides. Occasionally wisps of smoke and flame dance around his fingertips and disappear just as fast, as if defending him from a phantom enemy.

Prime quickly moves from his chair and lets Caduceus come over to inspect the damage. A wound isn't clear immediately, just a seeping pool of blood on the man's coat and scrapes all over his uncovered skin. Caduceus removes the coat, trying to keep the man stable for as long as possible. From what little he's identified, the man is either dying of infection or poison, or both. The wound, though not new, seems to have opened up again, but that isn't what's causing the main issue.

"This is the man who was supposed to be coming to work at the Hall of Erudition," says Pumat Prime in a low voice as Caduceus assesses the damage. The man's coat hangs, filthy and bloodied, from the top of the chair. Caduceus nods. He heard about this in passing, just an exchange between Pumats to expect a visitor. "I have no idea what's happened to him, but he seems to be on the brink of death. Do the best you can. We will do everything in our power to help."

It's an oddly charged statement from the usually laid-back Pumat Sol, but now is certainly not the time to ponder the workings of the humanoid mind. Caduceus takes the wet, sterilized rag offered to him by Two- who has at least some idea of what should be going on from all the times he's observed Caduceus mending little cuts on his fingers from paper, but nothing larger than that- and moves the man's undershirt to the side, eyes only momentarily lingering on his orange-red-brown hair. Caduceus's never seen someone with that hair color; it reminds him of the Savalierwood in autumn.

The wound is (or was at some point) cleaned, but the stitches have been broken and torn. He removes them with care and investigates the inside of the stab wound. It looks like the weapon used was a poison-laced dagger, just jagged enough that it appears to have been made with the intention of murder and hit just off the mark, which brings the question of why the man had been able to get to an infirmary. A wound like that would probably severely debilitate your ability to move, so the attacker could have finished him off; but for some reason they didn't.

Then again, Caduceus could be reading this wrong, and the attacker didn't have the intention to kill him. If that's true, however, it raises another question - why the blade was poisoned. There seems to be a long story behind this man that he will probably never know, and he will especially not know if he lets him die. Which he will not. The man is so young, and even though his eyes are shadowed heavily, he does not seem ready to exit this life quite yet.

Caduceus works and works. Eventually Three and Four exit, going up the stairs to the apartment that the Pumats reside in, although Three looks reluctant. Prime and Two refuse to leave, even as they grow steadily less awake. Caduceus himself is starting to feel the lethargy setting in, a product of the magic that he continuously uses to clear the poison from the man's veins one by one. He stitches up the wound after cleaning the infection with a paste that he has had Two make out of the ingredients in the shop. At one point the man wakes up, surprising considering the magic that Prime has laid over him keeping him sedated, but his eyes only slide blearily around for a minute or so before slipping closed.

Caduceus can't help notice that they are blue, light and tinged with grey around the edges like wet stone, matching the rest of his dreary appearance. Unlike it, however, these eyes are soft. Not like cliffs or knives. Like the gentle fog that hangs around Zadash in the morning. Like the few dew drops that gather on the leaves of his plants when he forgets to close the window. They are very interesting, and Caduceus looks away only when they flutter shut again.

He numbs the side before he stitches it, just as a precaution, and to save the man from discomfort if he breaks for air again.

The poison takes the longest by far. Every little bit has to be demolished to ensure a safe recovery and it is truly tiring work. Pulling poison from the tips of his fingers, through his skin, until Caduceus ends up with a tablespoon or so, which he stores in a jar to study later; poison is an interesting art and similar to alchemy in a few ways. Perhaps he could learn something from this, maybe about the nature of poison, or possibly the story that Caduceus just can't piece together.

After he extracts the poison, Prime and Pumat Two relax a bit. Prime naps on the couch, while Two disappears upstairs. Caduceus chews a mint leaf to wake himself up and goes through fixing the scrapes and bruises strewn around.

He doesn't touch the shadowed eyes, though he thinks about it, instead opting to send the man into a deep slumber that should at least last for more than nine hours. That will probably not be enough to fix the shadows, as it seems to be more of a psychological problem, but it gives the body time to recuperate.

Caduceus leans back when he's done as much as he could, back aching like something else. The silence is almost deafening - only broken by the man's slightly stronger but still ragged breaths. It still doesn't seem like it's enough, though, so Caduceus allows ten minutes to let his mind wander and then begins preparing medicine needed to continue the healing process. He can only use the dregs of his magic, as that's all he has left, but he thinks the herbs should be enough.

Once he's done and scoots back from the chair, Prime's eyes crack open and he sits upright, instantly attentive. Caduceus gestures to the man, not willing to break the silence. He doubts his voice would work anyway, and Pumat understands what he needs to do.

Caduceus leaves with one last glance at the person on the table, just in time to see Pumat scoop him up and place him on the recently vacated couch. Then the green curtains flutter closed and he's faced with a walk in the cold darkness back to his home.

Chapter Text

Caleb Widogast- no longer Bren- lives in a dusty room tucked into the corner of an unused hall. It doesn't have any working lights or windows, so he buys candles every two weeks and lights them every day, flinching at the sparks that fly between his fingers.

His room has a bed, a desk that is now covered in books and paper, and the bathroom is just down the hall. The ceiling doesn't leak, the walls don't grow mold in the corners. But Caleb is still unsettled.

It's not that he wants something more grand, or even that he feels unworthy of this place. It's that it is too similar to another home he once had, and every night when he wakes up staring at the ceiling he prays- and is, at the same time, terrified- that he is back before it all, and everything was just a vivid nightmare.

It is not. The world that Caleb lives in is so terribly real. Cold, lonely, heavy, and still real. It's, in a way, comforting that he is still existing out here, however insignificant.

He sees maybe five people in a day - Headmaster Hass may live in the Zauber Spire itself, but his true work is in the Hall of Erudition, and he walks along Caleb's dusty hallway nearly every day. (Sometimes Caleb wonders if that is the reason the hall is covered in dust.)

He sees the few janitors around and thinks they've come to an understanding - that they're all just shadows still walking, and that it's okay. The cook for the school occasionally catches him before he can escape, forcing him to eat at least a piece of bread.

Caleb forgets to eat a lot these days. He isn't sure if it's just because he keeps getting distracted, or if something he can't see inside of him is trying to send him a message.

His routine goes something like this: every day, he wakes up and lights his candles. He sits down at his desk and chooses from the stack of books to his right until someone knocks on the door. He has never seen who is the one doing the knocking, but he does know what it means.

He puts away his book, takes one of his blue pills. (It tastes like salt and earth and mint. At first Caleb wasn't sure he could stomach it, but he's grown accustomed to the flavor, and now he feels just a little bit of warmth whenever he tastes it. Someone cared enough to save his life. Granted, he doesn't know who it is, but that's okay - he can be grateful for kind people in general.)

After he cleans himself up, about ten minutes after the knock sounds at his door, he makes his way through the halls. They're barren at this time of morning, students absent. Regardless, Caleb carefully avoids any and all classrooms. He is just young enough to be mistaken for a student.

He isn't. And he never wants to be in a classroom again.

Instead, he climbs up the left spiral staircase that leads upward into the Zauber Spire. After six or seven minutes of climbing, he takes a right, and enters the artifact room.

This is where he works. The artifact room is all dark wood and tall, tall windows. Caleb can see most of Zadash if he parts the thin curtains and looks down. He doesn't most of the time, because he's busy, and because peering at those collapsing buildings makes him feel sick. He isn't sure if it's because of the imbalance of wealth or the sensation of being so frightfully above them all. Sometimes, he wants to open one of those windows and just feel himself falling down, down, but he never does.

There is a goblin woman who flits between the artifacts. She has faded dark green hair, interspersed with threads of grey, and gold studs all the way up to the tips of her large green ears. Her face is wrinkled with age and her nails are sharp enough to cut words into wood. Caleb knows this firsthand.

The first time Caleb saw her, Headmaster Hass had to come up personally to stop Caleb from attempting to immolate her. It turns out she's been here for who knows how long, living amongst the shadows. She frowns at Caleb constantly, at the ribs that press against his skin and the dark tender skin beneath his eyes. He suspects that she is the one who knocks on his door in the morning, but she is so quiet and slips between shadows so easily that he doubts he'll ever be able to confirm it.

When Caleb realized she was a goblin, which was not long at all after he met her, he started to wonder how she was still around. Goblins have certain reputations. Granted, she doesn't check any of the 'bloodthirsty thieving murderer' boxes, but he knows there's prejudice thick in this place. Then he thinks of the way Headmaster Hass's eyes glimmer black and the dust that collects on his shoulders, and knows that he would never throw out someone for being different.

Caleb has been guided by her about how to make sure all of the artifacts get proper attention. He gets the impression that she helped out the previous caretaker. Unfortunately, he still hasn't gotten her name (she has never spoken to him), so when he arrives breathing heavily this morning, all he can do is go over to the desk and wait for her to come to him, all the while surveying the objects in (seemingly) glass cases placed in neat rows. There are so many fascinating things in this room.

This is what Caleb has been spending his time on since he's arrived, along with magic studies. He wants- needs- to know about everything here, needs to know the stories, where they come from, what they have done, why they are here. He keeps a page of information on each one as he methodically observes all of them.

Some are very obscure, and he can only find a couple sentences about them. There are only about nine items in the room total, in three rows. He has a preference for several of them, sometimes opting to sit in front of them and stare until he thinks of something he hasn't investigated yet.

He tells himself that it's work. It's research. It's not just a way to keep his thoughts from spiraling down. But as much as he repeats it, he hasn't quite gotten to the point of belief.

He catches the goblin woman looking at him when he pushes back his chair this morning, and waves. She doesn't offer anything in return, sitting on top of one of the bookshelves that line the back wall of the artifact room. The ladder is nowhere in sight. Caleb wonders how she got up there, at this age, but thinks he probably shouldn't judge.

The goblin woman does not wave back, but she does glance with her bright glowing yellow eyes at his freshly bandaged hand. She raises an eyebrow, and Caleb sticks it in his coat pocket hastily. It was just an experiment he did yesterday that she must not have been around for.

One of the items in the artifact room is a whip, long and snake-like, seeming to be wound of silver and gold thread. On one end, the whip is covered in spikes that open up around it like flower petals. He has seen them open and close a couple of times, but has never really been sure what causes the reaction, so he sliced his hand open and dripped a few drops of blood into the crack between the lid and the sides. As expected, the whip moved rapidly and then opened its spikes. After about five minutes, in which it seemed to be waiting for more, it closed and resumed a still position, and Caleb was left with a bleeding hand but more information; a fair trade.

He raises his shoulders at the goblin woman, who scoffs and turns on the top of the bookshelf, swinging her feet so that her heels hit the side of it. The soft thud accompanies him as Caleb weaves through the artifact cases, making his way to the one furthest from the door.

This one he always makes sure to sit next to for at least ten minutes each day. He hasn't quite gotten up the courage to touch it; he has with some of the other ones and the goblin woman hasn't stopped him, so he figures it's fine. Probably.

This particular artifact is a dodecahedron, all twelve facets reflecting a purple-ish grey color, and two shining gold handles on either side. It pulses with a glow that grows brighter and duller in time. All of the facets seem to reflect Caleb in different ways - smiling, frowning, scowling, sobbing... he isn't sure if it's a trick of the light or his mind.

It is a Beacon, according to his research. That's all he could find - a vague reference to a glowing dodecahedron in a book about the Calamity and its effects on current Wildemount. He doesn't know what it does yet, but he fears that touching it will make it unravel beneath his fingers, so he sits a few feet away. He swears that as he approaches it this morning, the pulses of light get strong, but he's probably seeing things.

Nevertheless, he scribbles this observation down in his notebook - its pages that have been filling up with an alarming speed. He stares at the dodecahedron- the Beacon- once again, torn with indecision. It wouldn't really hurt to try, and if it does that would be alright, but at the same time... this thing seems unbearably ancient. He does not want to touch it with unclean hands.

For once, curiosity outweighs caution. Caleb stands shakily- his healing injury aches, the air in the artifact room is unpleasantly cold- and moves towards the Beacon. He reaches out to move the lid just an inch to the side-

The door opens and Caleb darts away. Oremid Hass, wearing his standard red and grey robes, peers through the doorway, something tucked into his hand that Caleb is unable to see because fabric obscures his line of sight. Oremid straightens when he sees Caleb, walking over briskly and holding out the item to him with a warm smile.

"This is for you," he says. Caleb dares to take his eyes away for only a moment and sees- a letter?

Sure enough, it's sealed with green wax and the edges of the envelope have gone yellow. On it, in shaky letters, is written 'Hall of Erudition'. It has no indication that it's for Caleb, but Oremid seems to know and that is enough. Also, the handwriting is amateur enough that he can guess it's not Astrid, Eodwulf, or Mas- Trent Ikithon, which settles him somewhat.

"Well?" says Oremid. "Are you going to take it?" He holds the letter farther. Caleb grabs it and walks to his desk to set it down, if only to give himself something to do.

As he does, Oremid follows. "I came to deliver that, but I also wanted to talk to you about something else," he says as Caleb pushes down the involuntary panic that arises at a statement like that. "You have some experience under your belt, as you and I have discussed. I've been thinking about it, and so want to offer you a chance to train under me. If you can keep up with your duties in the artifact room, that is."

Caleb's hand freezes halfway back to his side. "Study? Magic?" he asks in an effort to make sense of it. Oremid looks at him with amusement in his black eyes. Or perhaps judgement. It's hard to tell anything from his dark, faceted pupils.

"Yes, Caleb," says Oremid. “Magic. It was my understanding that was what you were learning at Soltryce Academy with my friend Archmage Ikithon. Was I mistaken?"

He’s almost laughing, but Caleb has gone entirely tense, as he does every time Ikithon is mentioned. Caleb has not decided whether Headmaster Hass is to be trusted.

These words seem to imply that he believes Caleb and his friends were learning more magic under Ikithon's guidance, but it could always be a front. If it isn't, which is doubtful, does this mean that Ikithon was training them to... torture... without permission from other Archmages? What reason would he have to do it in secret? Caleb will have to investigate further, see if there is anything he can dig up to get Ikithon to leave Astrid and Eodwulf alone.

Even the distaste brought on by the thought of Ikithon doesn't stop him from hardly contemplating the choice. He is, after all, a student first and foremost, if one that gets sick at the sight of a classroom for no reason other than the memories that crawl up his throat of him and his- gone, gone- friends living a better life.

"No," Caleb says with a deep exhale, stilling his hands and bringing them to his sides. "No, you were not mistaken. I would very much like to learn from you, Headmaster Hass.” He nods gravely and a few strands of dusty red hair fall in front of his eyes.

He looks up in time to see a small smile across Oremid's face. To his dismay, he cannot discern whether it is pleased, mocking, delighted, or anything in between. Caleb is not really a people person. And, as it turns out, he is definitely not a genasi person either.

"Alright," says Oremid, bringing his hands together. There are gold and silver bands on his fingers, but nothing more intricate. "There is no time to waste. Wait for me here tomorrow. I will try to be up at around ten. I hope you will exceed my expectations," Oremid says with a glance to the goblin woman peering out from behind the desk.

He waves at her and then does a few lightning quick gestures, rings glinting. She waves back and nods while doing something undecipherable with her hands, grinning fiercely to expose her bright white and yellow teeth. Her fangs are long enough to stay outside her mouth even when it is closed.

Oremid stands on his toes and sets a hand down on Caleb's shoulder- he flinches hard at the contact against his will, Oremid looks at him for a long moment but does not comment- and catches Caleb's gaze with his dark one. After a tense second, Oremid lets go and steps back.

"I will see you tomorrow," he says, retreating to the doorway. "Take care of the artifacts." He shuts the door behind him, the goblin woman appearing once again as soon as he does. It's probably just Caleb's paranoia that he thinks he sees the earth genasi give a glance to the dodecahedron. Regardless, he doesn't sit near it for the rest of the day.

Chapter Text

Eventually Caleb goes to his desk and gently pry open the mysterious envelope, stilling his shaking hands so he doesn't get a paper cut. His hands are usually shaking these days. Apparently, the same is true for the author of this letter, if their handwriting is any indication.

He pulls out the piece of paper, setting the wax seal to the side. It has a distinctive green shade, but other than that it is not indented with any sort of crest or drawing like you would usually have from a royal family.

However, if it's being sent to Caleb here in this school in this room that no one seems to know about (from Caleb's observations), that isn't unexpected.

The paper has fingerprints on its edges and the words are occasionally dotted with ink splotches that bleed through the paper, but the message is legible - if barely. It's just a few sentences on paper. No 'Dear Caleb' or 'Sincerely'. No indication of who has sent it to him, frustratingly. But as he reads through, he realizes he doesn't need to know.

Hello, it starts off. I apologize for handwriting. Both 'handwriting' and 'apologize' are misspelled, but Caleb appreciates the effort. I hope this find you in good health. You do not know me nor I you but maybe you still have little blue pill that I gave you. You seemed trouble when I see you and I want to let you know my good wishes. Thank you. I hope whatever problem ails you, is at least eased for now. Try to shake the shadows under eyes. You have much, to live for.

Although many of the words are crossed out and rewritten, some multiple times, and punctuation, capitalization, and spelling are sketchy at best, the sentences written are elegant in tone. All this does is make Caleb more curious, but there is no offering of name or reference to the author themself, so Caleb gets the feeling they wish to remain anonymous, and he will not ask around for a friend of Pumat Sol. (Oremid would probably know.)

Regardless he keeps the details in his mind as if eventually they will turn into a whole person - healer, purple eyes (maybe violet, he isn't quite sure), learning to write and possibly read, wise, kind.

Maybe those last two aren't true, but for Caleb's peace of mind he is going to believe them. He writes the collection of details on the back of the paper and tucks it back into the envelope, leaving the seal on his desk as he sticks the envelope itself in a coat pocket, across his chest from where the dagger hangs.

His ears ring with a phantom voice in an incomplete sentence as he does - 'You have much, to live for.' You have much. Does he have much? Does it matter?

The goblin woman opens up a set of curtains, distracting Caleb from his thoughts, allowing sunlight to stream into the room and illuminating dust particles along with two of the artifact cases. Caleb chooses those two to devote today's studies to, pointedly not letting his gaze get dragged back to the glowing dodecahedron. As he takes notes and combs through the pile of intriguing books he's pulled off of the room's shelves, he exercises all of the magic he knows.

Abjuration, protection to ward off the book thrown at his head by the goblin woman when he spaces out, conjuration to summon a mist that clings to his clothes and makes him flicker from the naked eye, divination in which he breaks his own rule and Identifies the dodecahedron, momentarily awed by its ancient twisting magics that he still can't figure out

He does not cast anything from the enchantment school, as he doesn't know any spells from it that don't have anything to do with influencing people; he doesn't think that the goblin woman would appreciate being used as a test subject.

Evocation, however is easy. The elements swirl around his fingers at his command. He doesn't cast any spells with them - just watches their patterns, watches the fire crackle and spark with wisps of green and blue through the orange-red glow. He skips over illusion and necromancy - he has to save some of his energy, and he hardly ever practices necromancy. Besides, he wants to get to the school he's set his sights on - transmutation.

He has always had a knack for evocation- for fire, really, and something in him knows it- but being able to change the things he sees now gives him a satisfaction that nothing else has. What if he could change everything?

That's being much too ambitious for now, though, so Caleb settles with creating a series of divots in his desk that eventually create a flower, like someone carved it there with a knife. It will disappear soon, but it feels real, dipping and curving under his fingers, and that's more than enough.

He eventually places all his books and writings back on the desk where they belong, hand-picking a selection to take back to his room to study when he wakes up in the middle of the night with nothing else to occupy himself with. He has a book on the magic used in the Age of Arcanum to cause such mass destruction- it's rather patchy-, a history book concerning the expansion and rule of the Dwendalian Empire that miraculously has some unorthodox opinions in its pages, and a thin leather bound black stained book about the theory and practice of astral projecting and the moving of the body outside of the material realm.

The last one is Caleb's favorite. In addition to being extremely interesting, even though that's never really been a subject he's studied, it is written in thick simple Zemnian, handwriting that makes him think of the notes left to him for instructions on dinner or school by his mother as an afterthought when she left home for the work that she could never seem to get away from.

Caleb tends to keep the one about astral projection with him too, although hidden on the inside of his coat. He isn't sure if this counts as Dwendalian Empire approved reading material, and doesn't want to get caught, even if he probably would have Headmaster Hass on his side.

The goblin woman, as Caleb begins to head toward the door and back down the stairs, reaches up on her toes and plucks a book from the leftmost shelf, quickly scanning its title before hurrying over to Caleb to catch him before he leaves.

He feels cold sharp-nailed fingers wrap around his arm and turns. The goblin woman makes a few fast and undecipherable hand motions before gesturing with the book toward him. He takes it, even if his arms start to shake a little at all the weight piled on.

Walking slowly and steadily down the stairs, stained glass windows peachy pink from the setting sun, Caleb narrowly avoids a student who rushes by him and starts to climb into the tower, boots thumping on the azure carpet. He isn't worried about the artifact room, having conducted studies in the first two weeks he arrived.

It seems that you can only find the artifact room if you know it's there, some sort of misdirection enchantment. Even if you do manage to bypass that line of security, the room has defensive wards wrapped around it tightly and Oremid locks the door every night, also unlocking it every morning. They (he and the goblin woman, presumably) take the protection of the artifact room very seriously. After all, Caleb has a feeling there are things that people are looking for locked away in that chamber.

A few more people wearing the red and black robes of the Hall of Erudition walk by him, but most spare him nothing more than a glance. The ones who do are probably just wondering what a young man without a student's uniform is doing walking around with a pile of books in his hands. Most likely.

He makes it to his tucked away little room unhindered, setting his books down with a large sigh and cracking his knuckles as the door shuts behind him, the force of it making the few candles still lit flicker in the light. After setting down his books, a few wobbling precariously on the edge of his desk, he turns and slides the deadbolt into place. That's one thing he likes about this room, one thing that's not the same. He can lock his door.

Rearranging his books so that none are in danger of toppling over, he makes a pile of priority reading on his desk and moves the rest to the floor. Then he picks up the book the goblin woman handed to him, curious about what she recommended. The book is dark grey with three letters engraved into the cover and overlaid with a thin silver coating - C. S. L. There is no author or any other marking, just a dark grey expanse, but on the spine is written 'dictionary' in letters alternating between thick and thin. Dictionary of what?

He opens to the first page. The spine cracks as he does and folds easily under his hands, giving him the impression that this is a book that has been opened countless times but isn't quite at the 'falling apart' stage yet. The title greets him in spindly black writing, all capitals - COMMON SIGN LANGUAGE COMPREHENSIVE DICTIONARY, VAMIL QI & GLADYS TREMELL.

Oh. The reason that the goblin woman has not spoken to him yet is not that she is reserved or guarded - perhaps it took her some time to warm up to Caleb, but she has decided in his favor, and given him the book. Maybe the reason its pages are so worn is because the previous artifact keeper also learned sign language so they could talk with her.

Regardless of any past exploits, Caleb bypasses his astral projection and Age of Arcanum theory books and spends the rest of the evening trying to get a grasp on Common Sign Language. The 'Common' part seems to just be a formality, as this language bears little resemblance to the language of Common, with the exception of the general concepts of words being mostly similar. It isn't too hard, as language has always come smoothly to Caleb- what with his memory- and he manages to understand some of the basic ideas before his eyes start to droop.

He is exhausted, and not just from carrying many books around while having hardly one meal a day. As he was studying, he also kept one eye on his candles and took one that was almost melted all the way down, liquid wax reflecting the soft flame at the wick. After extinguishing the flame as to not burn himself, Caleb attempted to lift all of the melted wax back up into its former position to make a fully formed candle. He was mostly successful - some spots drip and the candle is definitely not professionally shaped, but his progress means he will have to spend less of his small sum on candles and more on books and things like magic-attuned ink.

Exhaustion claims him easily with his drooping eyes and his tired soul. He stumbles over to his grey sheets and snaps his fingers. The flames all disappear at once, leaving his room completely black, but the wool fabric of his blanket is under his hands and he easily finds his way into the bed. He turns to one side and tries to relax all of the muscles that scream at him to be alert- be alert always- but he doesn't need to anymore, probably

Caleb dreams. Time isn't quite a thing he can touch in his dreams, slipping away and wrapping around him in different impossible angles. Some moments are slow - unbearably or wonderfully. He sees bright wide eyes above him, sparkling and dripping violet into the void around them. He spends hours, milliseconds maybe, just looking up and staring. What this means he does not know.

Eventually they disappear, blinking shut, although the purple stains are still left on the night fabric like two sickly suns.

They are overtaken by flames- everything is- and then Caleb sees his house lit by night torches and still whole. He is standing outside, sky dark without even a moon to guide him. He knows when this is and wants to recoil, to do anything to change what the person in front of him is trying to do. He takes the silver dagger in his coat pocket out, watching the other, cleaner Caleb with anger hot in his bones.

The Soltryce Caleb is staring at the house with furrowed eyebrows. He walks forward slowly, fingers lighting with fire that curls all the way to his elbows and the Caleb who knows what is about to happen cannot hold himself back anymore. He rushes forward, blade reflecting the orange as he draws closer and closer. Past Caleb extends his hand to touch the wood of the house. At the same time, Present Caleb brings the blade mercilessly into Past Caleb's back, right where the spinal cord lies, and everything-

Caleb wakes up tangled in his wool blankets and sweating from his temples, eyes hot white orange whenever he closes them.

He removes the blankets from his weak limbs and lights the candles. His mouth is dry and tainted copper. He doesn't know what time it is, if anyone will be disturbed by him as he unlocks his door and makes his way to the bathroom, splashing cold water onto his face and then drinking it from cupped hands that only stop shaking when he grasps the folded letter in his coat pocket - the coat which he forgot to remove in his lethargy.

He removes his hand before he can do any lasting damage to the paper with his wet fingers and heads back to his room, taking a quick detour to the hall on the left of his where there are windows to tell him what time it is, The sky is a soft grey that has not quite been lifted by the sun. Probably six thirty, if he were to take a (well-educated) guess.

He heads back to his room and resumes in his study of the sign language dictionary. It's a dictionary, so it's certainly not structured like a lesson and doesn't have any in-depth instructions on grammar or sentence construction. Regardless, he takes notes.

His bandages are getting musty and it should be a little while before the knock comes on his door, so slowly he unwinds the swaths around his wrists and forearms and then the strand around his neck that dips just below his collarbones. He could just clean them with a spell if he wanted to, but he enjoys the repetition of cutting the strips from the rolls he bought and winding them around his again, still smelling of faint herbs from the remedy shop they came from.

Once he has replaced the bandages, making sure to soothe the exposed skin while he can, he reads a few chapters from the astral projection book, mind slipping easily into Zemnian. It isn't so fluid with Sylvan and Celestial, as they are dialects that remain unfamiliar - hardly anyone he knows has ever spoken them to him fluently and continuously.

He tries to read, at least. His mind seems to insist on doing other things - like obsessing over the knowledge that he is going to be taught again. That he is going to learn more magic. Gain more knowledge.. It doesn't seem like such an important thing, but Caleb is always always looking for more information to run through his head no matter where he is physically or emotionally. He has a fundamental need in him for more. It's just a part of him that has always been there; an essential part of being Caleb.

The knock on his door comes sooner than expected, a comforting rhythm on the old oak. He reaches over and retrieves the pill bottle on the side of his desk, which is down to the last few. He pops one into his mouth, straightens his wraps and robes, ensures his hair is somewhat presentable - although it is getting a little long. Perhaps he should ask the goblin woman to lend him a hair tie.

Ikithon always told him that looks were important, people judge on looks. Caleb doesn't know who he would be impressing, in this sheltered place, but his training will not leave him now.

Caleb glances one last time at his guide sheet for Common Sign Language and slips through the halls. The weather seems to have turned bright, as yellow beams hit the floor through the windows he passes by. Caleb likes the sun, personally, although he isn't against the rain either. But his mother was always in a better mood on sunny days, not having to work in the fields getting soaking wet and drenched in mud.

Caleb pushes away the thought of his mother, his father never there but still casting a shadow, instead struggling to identify the images flashing through his head in partial and blurred fragments. His knife was in his hand. The sky was stained purple. The flames were orange. He cannot discern anything more concrete than those impressions, and writes them off easily as he starts up the stairs.

He enters the artifact room slightly out of breath and just a little disappointed that it's empty, even though he knows Headmaster Hass said he would be there at ten o'clock and it is maybe eight thirty at this point. However, the goblin woman is sitting on top of Caleb's desk. He sees all his papers have been pushed to the side. As he approaches, he lifts a hand in greeting and attempts to sign something akin to 'how are you'. It seems he is successful when she smiles at him, all teeth, and then goes on to point at herself and start signing letters one by one. Caleb hurriedly picks up the notebook on his desk and writes down each of them: A-U-N-N-A.

Aunna. Huh. He signs the letters back and she nods, wrinkled skin folding further as a large smile shows off her gleaming sharp teeth. Caleb points to himself and attempts to sign the letters needed to spell his own name, but halfway through she raises an eyebrow and gestures to one of the papers on his desk. On its right hand corner is scribbled 'Caleb Widogast' lazily. Caleb stops and pushes down the embarrassment, shrugging in her direction.

Something in the corner of his eye catches his attention. It is the Beacon, again. It's always the Beacon. There's just something so alluring about it, comforting, that makes him want to hold it closely. When he turns to face it, it glows brighter, soft grey reaching out. He glances back at Aunna. She tilts her head and nods.

Given that there is still plenty of time before Oremid Hass gets there and he really really really wants to hold the Beacon, Caleb clutches his notebook and pencil and walks over to its case, leaning down to set his things on the ground before pushing aside the lid. He notices Aunna following intently and his heart ceases in its uncontrollable beating just a little bit. He removes the letter and the dagger from the immeasurably deep pockets of his coat, slipping the letter into one of the pages of his notebook and only staring at the dagger and his skewed reflection for a split second before setting it down.

Leaning over the Beacon there seems to be no obvious change, so he hypothesizes it's direct contact that triggers whatever it is that this Beacon does. He doesn't have proof, but he knows it does something extraordinary, he can feel it, so he pushes the lid all the way off and reaches in to grasp it by the two golden handles. The effect is virtually instant.

He is somewhere wholly unfamiliar and fathomless. It is all dark for a terrifying moment before millions upon millions of small lights appear to float around him. It takes a moment for Caleb to comprehend that they are stars, all of them glowing brightly. He does not believe that even if he searched he would find any constellations that he knows in the night sky of Wildemount. They are stars, but he is not anywhere really conceivable. He is, at his best guess, somewhere in some strange infinite plane.

Then, as he looks around at the wide expanse, he begins to see shapes. Not in the sky, but standing next to him on all sides. The shapes turn into something concrete - an echo of Caleb himself, but they're all doing different things, some grinning, some crying, some cradling a phantom figure against their chest, some kneeling and praying. He gapes at all the different versions of himself, wondering if they really all exist somewhere and he is but one, insignificant.

All of this happens in a mere instant, before he is rocked off his feet - or at least that is what it seems like. He cannot understand it any other way as the stars turn into mere blurs as he shoots forward past his selves at incomprehensible speeds, eyes locked on the night around him. Plumes of blue and purple appear like dust clouds around stars that he barely has time to glance at before they are gone again. The stars gradually start to get smaller as he goes farther and farther towards- towards what? What is a place without stars? How is that possible?

Caleb knows, although he does not want to contemplate it, that there is only one place that has no stars to guide you and that place is the void. He is being shot towards the void and he cannot stop it, he is going to hit bottomless space and time and he is going to dissolve because humans do not go in the void, no one goes in the void, the void is nothing and people are something and therefore they must become nothing-

The Beacon clatters to the bottom of its case as Caleb releases its handles, stumbling backwards at the sudden shift in perspective and, well, everything. His hands are still white from gripping the handles too tightly, although red slowly starts to creep back in.

Nothing else seems to be out of place. He's in the artifact room, Aunna is watching him with a thoughtful yellow gaze, his notebook and dagger are still at the foot of the podium on which the artifact case is mounted.

At the same time, however, everything seems to be slightly off. Maybe not as bright as it should be in some places and making him squint in others. A sort of glitter covers everything, causing it all to gleam in an unnatural shade. Caleb passes it off as a side effect of him seeing the void. Or at least getting near it, or realizing that really out there somewhere there is something so vast and empty that maybe it will devour everything if he thinks about it too much.

Being the student that he is and always will be, Caleb gathers his things- tucks his knife away when he thinks Aunna is not looking (though she probably is)- and rights the Beacon. He isn't afraid of touching it now, as he realizes he was wrong about the assumption. To go into the Beacon, one must want to know. They must want to focus into those unbearable and awe-inspiring depths.

He replaces the cover, checking that the wards have once again formed, and starts to jog back to his desk before realizing how much his still-healing wound is irritated by that and slows to a swift walk.

He needs to write everything down. He cannot forget a single detail, he is afraid he will forget a single detail, he does not know if he will ever experience something like that again.

He gets it all down, almost all, maybe there's some intricacies gone because there was so much impossibly in that so empty place. Once he's finished transcribing it, he tucks the notebook into one of the drawers of his desk and goes about doodling faces of people he's known that somehow turn into the glassy starry expanse just moments ago in front of him. He is still dumbfounded about how he could go from one plane to another in nearly a split second. Maybe there's something in the book about astral projection that will help him with the different planes. Perhaps he should try again to gain more information.

Probably not. Caleb focuses on the page of his notebook- which is now completely covered in abstract concepts- and tells himself not to get near that void ever again, but he doesn't manage to quite convince himself that there is nothing in that dodecahedron that he wants. Caleb wants everything. Always. He does want the Beacon's power, but for now he will pretend he doesn't until he is less dazzled by what he has just experienced.

It seems to take many crawling hours for Headmaster Hass to arrive. Caleb has moved onto the page next to the doodles and is beginning to make diagrams and halfhearted analyses next to them, but even the fascination and awe that hit him in waves are not enough to make the time go faster. They only serve to make him want that new knowledge more.

Headmaster Hass's heavy footsteps can be heard before he opens the door. Aunna, to Caleb's right, looks at him and gives a half smile in encouragement. Caleb signs the word 'thanks', or his best approximation of it, and removes all evidence of Beacons from his desk surface. He tears out all the pages from his notebook about it and glues them together with a piece of wax from the bottom of the nearest candle, warming it up and cooling it only when he has stuck them firmly together, as a kind of temporary tape.

Headmaster Hass comes into the room as Caleb runs his hand through his hair, the other one at his side playing with a strand of unwound bandage on his palm.

The Headmaster has his red and grey robes, although his shawl seems to be embroidered with a thin strand of gold that winds its way around the edges. He is wearing the same rings that he was yesterday and dust is still covering his shoulders in a grey-brown shade that faintly glimmers when the sun hits it in just the right place.

What is not the same, however, is the necklace clasped around Oremid Hass's neck. The pendant rests between his collarbones, which are hardly visible as ridges in his stone skin. The pendant itself is not something Caleb recognizes, or even particularly eye-catching, but his attention is drawn to it all the same.

It is an improbably large ruby stone. Not cut into a certain shape, but polished enough that Caleb would assume it has been taken in to a jeweler. Or maybe Headmaster- Archmage?- Hass did it himself. He can't assume. However, on closer inspection, the heart of the ruby is dark and writhing, almost like... the void. Except green and blue lights flicker throughout it occasionally like extremely slow strands of lightning, but- softer, somehow.

It hangs on a silver chain and seems to dig into Headmaster Hass's skin with all of its points and ridges. He smiles at Caleb before following his gaze and picking the pendant up in a calloused palm.

Caleb flinches, fearing that somehow it really is the void in the stone and it will turn Headmaster Hass into mere nothingness, but nothing unexpected happens. The stone just sits there, gleaming in the stray sun beam that hits Headmaster Hass through the recently unveiled windows. Caleb can't even feel a pulse of magic. He isn't sure if that is proximity or just the fact that the stone is not magical at all.

"Good morning, Caleb," he says before making a few gestures in Aunna's direction that are too fast and too complicated for Caleb to decipher. He does not attempt to parse out Aunna's reply, eyes glued to the void-like ruby.

"I see you've spotted my necklace. There is nothing dangerous about it, I assure you. It is only enchanted with a protection spell. The stone has been analyzed thoroughly and nobody has found anything off about it. If, of course, that's what you're worried about,"

"It is very pretty," Caleb says when he gets his voice back, keeping all the spiraling thoughts of void and emptiness away until later when he can sit in his room alone and contemplate. Headmaster Hass smiles, dimples deeply impressed into his skin.

"That it is," he says fondly, letting it once again rest against his skin. "A lovely gift." He pauses, smile faltering slightly, but moves on just as quickly. Caleb doesn't inquire more - partly because that would be rude (it's important not to be rude) and partly because he is trying to discern whether the dark is pulsing in any way. Headmaster Hass clears his throat and Caleb tears his eyes away, smiling guiltily.

The earth genasi speaks into the silence that descends uncomfortably on their shoulders - "Well, you know what I am here for. I can only spend two hours with you at this point in time, but from what I have heard and seen, I trust you will continue your studies while I am unable to assist. Yes?"

Caleb nods rapidly, his other hand going to pick at the same bandage on his palm. It covers the accidental cut- now mostly healed- that he gave himself on the way to the Zauber Spire, lost in his thoughts. The scar itself stretches from his thumb joint to just below the bottom of his pinkie finger. It is a pale, ghostly white, just like all of his other scars, with the except of a few older ones that are still red. Those ones are burns, raised and angry.

"Of course," he says. "I will not let you down." He says it with conviction that is not faked, but might be if he starts to contemplate whether he is again being tricked to become a puppet of someone else. "Do you have a subject in mind?" he asks, keeping his thoughts on the task at hand. He just wants to learn; the specifics of his subject matter are inconsequential.

Eager to get started, I see," says Oremid. He crosses the room and scans the bookshelves for a few moments before pulling out a thick brown book with writing on the cover but no image. The title seems to be unusually long, taking up almost all the space on the front of the book, but from his place at the desk Caleb cannot make out what words exactly are written.

"I'm afraid today will not be particularly interesting. I find it is best to know the basics completely before moving on to any more advanced techniques; I do have faith that you are solid in your foundations, seeing as you have been taught by Archmage Ikithon personally, but it's always useful to brush up on things when you have not visited them in a while."

For a split second Caleb believes that he has once again been fooled, backed himself into a corner when the area was open, led by white lies, that Headmaster Hass will use him for his own ends. But then Oremid sets down the book with a thump and Caleb can see its title - The Calamity: the History of the Divergence and Forming of the Divine Gate.

Oremid looks to him expectantly. Caleb takes out his notebook and pencil, flipping to an empty page for note taking, and seats himself.

"Though this is a history book," Oremid begins, "I do not want you to think about that. This book also delves into the specifics of the Divine Gate, which is generally a mystery to all except those who defeated Vecna. I would like you to take what information you can from this book and analyze this barrier between the mortal and immortal realms. I'll be back in a few moments, but in the meantime, feel free to get started."

Caleb nods diligently, pulling back the chair and sitting down. He opens the book to the first page. He reads.

Chapter Text

Caduceus Clay has had plenty of encounters with the thing called death. After all, he's spent a good chunk of his life in a graveyard talking to ghosts who were not willing to move on and people who weren't either. Now, he works as somewhat of a mercenary. He has done the killing, and he has seen people killed in front of him.

The one thing, however, that Caduceus has never encountered, is the prospect of his own death.

It has been about seven years since his home burned down and he hitched a ride on Ophelia Mardun's cart. He has friends in the forms of cats, fellow firbolgs, halflings, genasi, humans... and he has somewhat of a place in the terrifying mass that is the city of Zadash. His house, which he now pays for with his own money, is decorated with items he has collected on his travels, and the top floor is home to countless plants that have eventually spread out through the window and onto the roof. No one has complained about it, so Caduceus doesn't feel it's a problem he needs to fix.

However, he is not currently in the comfort of his own home. He is far from it. The urging of the Wildmother (and the Gentleman) has brought him to her country, with infinite blue waters and salty winds that whip the foam off of cresting waves. It is beautiful, if haunting in its expansiveness.

The city of Nicodranas is a lovely change from the crowded and dark streets of Zadash. Nicodranas is a much more open place, in both security and color palette. It is home to large sand-colored arches and lightly shaded buildings, with the guards- not Crownsguard, but rather ones that give Caduceus a more comforting feeling with their easy demeanor- that keep a watch on town but not a watch that is too close. This makes it an object of the Gentleman's attention, although his support here is not much, seeing as it's so far from Zadash and outside of the Empire, which is both a blessing and a curse.

Even so. Caduceus, from what he has learned about the business of criminal syndicates in his time working as one of the central figures in the Gentleman's schemes, believes that the Gentleman should have more people here than he does. He has noticed that the water genasi seems hesitant whenever it comes to Nicodranas, but does not press, for once aware that perhaps pursuing that thread of conversation would not end well for him.

They- he, Jesse, and a man who claims to be half-elven but looks more like full elf named Ishihe- are camped in the room above the Wayfarer's Cove, a small bar filled with intriguing characters, Their job here is to intercept a transfer between someone and a growing network that is starting to expand up the coast and beginning to encroach onto the Gentleman's territory.

First, they must find where the deal is taking place, and that requires some hunting. It's morning, the sun barely glazing the horizon with its gold sheen, and Ishihe is sleeping next to Caduceus. Jesse is on the floor, out like a light.

Somehow, through the seven years that Caduceus has known them, he has not seen details of their face; he's starting to suspect that maybe they just don't have one.

Caduceus has woken up before both of them, but doesn't want to move for fear of shifting Ishihe to his side of the bed or off it entirely. Usually he would be the one sleeping on the floor as he takes up so much space, being tall as he is, but he and Jesse decided that rock-paper-shears would dictate who got the bed last night, and Caduceus is very good at rock-paper-shears.

For now, he just sits and waits. The position for meditating is not ideal, but he can see the bay out the window. The ocean is the Wildmother's domain and so he can feel her even sitting on this slumped and sagging mattress.

He closes his eyes and lets his mind fall away for just a moment. Not long in this state, however, he begins to become distracted by the thoughts of Zadash and things too far in the past and future for him to thinking about.

Pumat Sol (and Two, Three, and Four) are still working at the Invulnerable Vagrant. Their shop has easily stayed afloat in the city. None of them have pressed him on where he goes for months at a time, although some of them seem to dislike his leaving so often. And it bothers him too. Not a lot of things bother Caduceus, but seven years is a long time (which he did not appreciate before he left the graveyard).

It's a long time to be working below the law. It's a long time to spend killing and stealing for people and goals you don't really care about. Most of all, it's a long time to be unable to make proper friends.

He isn't sure if he can really leave, however. Routine, stability, these are comfortable things. Things that Caduceus is hesitant to give up in favor of the great unknown. He doesn't know if the Gentleman would even allow him to, with all the knowledge that he carries about his business. But if he did...

Caduceus doesn't have a plan for his life. He wants to explore, sure. He wants to meet new people and experience new things. But other than that? There is no ultimate objective, no peak that he must climb to. For some reason, it troubles him. It didn't used to.

He used to be okay with letting the currents of life carry him along. Now however, he feels that there should be something out there that he wants so that he can direct himself towards that. Without that guiding post, he is just floating in those waters aimlessly, and it makes him feel helpless.

He shakes his head to clear it of those unwanted thoughts and searches for a new topic to keep away the quiet of the room. As per usual, his mind drifts to four or five years ago. Caduceus knows, and has been told, that he is very good at solving people. Not so much things like math or magic, but people? He knows people. There aren't a lot of mysteries about the people around him that he has not solved.

A few years ago, he was confronted with a mystery that he could not figure out, and still can't. It has stayed with him all this time, and he has parsed through it time and time again never to come up with an answer - the man who came to the Invulnerable Vagrant has all but disappeared.

He does not think he is dead, although it's a possibility. His shoulders did seem very heavy.

Caduceus sent him a letter when he was at the very beginning of his writing career, and he did not get a reply. Maybe the letter was not delivered to the right person. Maybe it was lost in translation. Maybe he just didn't feel like he ought to have replied. The most sobering thought, however, is that he didn't receive it because he was not alive.

There are so many questions about this man that Caduceus will never have the answer to, and they eat away at him. But there is one that has been answered - the man's name, part of it. The initials are (were) C.W. Caduceus doesn't know what they stand for, but he knows this: he has blue eyes, red-orange-brown dying ember hair, and a scar on the left side of his stomach. These are all facts. None of them are answers.

It has been so long since he performed that operation that the details are hazy, but he's written down those facts on a piece of paper and has not forgotten. The whole thing- the mysteries, the identity of the man- is at this point little more than a pastime to keep him from delving too deep into his own mind and losing his grip on existence, but it serves its function well enough. And if ever impossibly he does meet C, he will feel a little more whole.

Ishihe, next to Caduceus, rolls over though it appears he's still in deep slumber. He edges perilously close to the edge of the bed and Caduceus reluctantly takes a hand to push him back from the edge, hoping he won't wake up. He murmurs something in Elvish, but his voice is slurred and Caduceus can't make sense of it.

Motion from the floor catches Caduceus's attention. Jesse is sitting against the wall, pencil moving across the notebook in front of them and only pausing when they look up at him and grin with teeth that are very sharp for a halfling. They have always been like that, however, so Caduceus isn't bothered.

He is bothered by the smirk they send in his direction, their non-pencil-holding hand forming a thumbs-up. He would do something in retaliation if that would not force him to move in some way; instead he lays his ears back in annoyance.

Jesse shrugs and returns to their notebook. Eventually Ishihe wakes up, bleary eyed and , and they all set out to scout the city.

Jesse patrols the Restless Wharfs with their hood shadowing their face and shoulders hunched. Ishihe splits off to the Open Quay, suspiciously eyeing the impossibly large tower in the middle of the central area. This leaves Caduceus with only one option left - the Opal Archways.

He's not against this, as the Opal Archways district is a beautiful place. Elaborately carved buildings line the streets, some almost mansion-like in size and others small enough to be his own home. The guard presence is heavier in this district, as there's a lot more to be coveted.

Caduceus disguises himself as a skinny man with light brown skin and dark curly hair; they seem to be the predominant features in the population here. His clothes are also nice - if they weren't, he might be accused of ulterior motives. Secure in his disguise, he wanders through the streets unhindered.

He's not quite sure what he's doing here. It's doubtful they'll find any suspicious activity in this district, but Jesse wants to cover all their bases and he's not about to complain.

Without really expecting to find anything, Caduceus feels free to explore anything that catches his attention and his gaze is immediately captured by a rather fanciful building with three stories. Besides its beautiful outside, Caduceus is also intrigued by the flicker of curtains he saw in the corner of his eye before he turned his head, as if someone was watching him. It's probably nothing and he might get himself into trouble, but that's okay - Jesse had told them to cover all their bases.

As he gets closer, he spots the name of the place - "The Lavish Chateau". He isn't sure how to pronounce the third word, or even what it means. Vocabulary isn't his strong suit. But there is a nicely dressed man standing at the stoop, surveying the street with a careful. There is a white stitched rose on his left breast pocket. If Caduceus has to guess, he would think it's some sort of hotel. Everybody finds their way into hotels, suspicious or not, so it can't hurt to check it out. Right?

He walks up to the man beside the double doors. The man turns and smiles - it seems fake.

"Hello! Welcome to the Lavish Chateau. Whether you need food, drink, company, or a place to stay, we've got it all." He turns and pulls on the golden handle. Caduceus enters, considering. Someone was watching. Maybe it was nothing, just a person enjoying the view, but those curtains seemed to be swinging a bit too much for someone to be closing them gently.

The inside of the Lavish Chateau (he can say it correctly now!) is as... well, lavish as its outside.

Chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, casting shards of light on the ceiling. A few people are seated at the many tables in the hotel, most eating what seems to be breakfast food, a small number having a morning drink. Even have spent seven years in close proximity to it, Caduceus will never understand alcohol nor its appeal. He has gotten drunk before, but it hurt his head and just made him feel sick. And it tastes awful.

The patrons are all dressed expensively, if not fashionably. This does not rule out suspicion, however - quite the opposite. The poor might commit crimes because they have to (after all, that is basically what he's doing) but the rich commit crimes because they are bored and hungry even with all the food in the world in front of him.

No one looks like they've rushed down here - all of them have either drinks or food in front of them, but Caduceus doesn't know how long it takes for the food in this place to be ready. He can't make any assumptions just yet.

All of the seated people stop what they're doing, however, when the distinct sound of heels on wood comes from the grand staircase curving upward on the right side of the room. Caduceus's head turns with them. A few forks clatter to their plates as a woman appears, smiling gently at the awestruck tables before her.

There is something so infuriatingly familiar about her that Caduceus is instantly on guard.

She is a red-skinned tiefling with dark hair that looks scrupulously curled as it cascades down her left side. One strand falls in front of her golden eyes just so that Caduceus knows it's deliberate. But looking at the horns stretching back from her temples, twisting in sync, he finally understands who he is reminded of.

Her face in his mind's eye might be faded with time, but this woman bears an undeniable resemblance to Ophelia Mardun.

Not related, he isn't so naive as to assume all tieflings are, but now that he realizes he's stumbled across this connection something in his mind is trying to tell him something. The Gentleman, perhaps?

Whatever it is, he cannot figure out, but it sits restless and waiting even when it's shoved back by the information that this woman- clearly the proprietor of this establishment- is heading in his direction. He glances at his hands to make sure he has not somehow dropped his disguise. Of course, it doesn't mean that she's coming over to him specifically, but she is getting closer... and closer...

His cover might be blown if she realizes that he isn't as short as he seems, so he slowly begins to back away, but he is not fast enough. Worse still are the heads that follow her as she goes and eventually land on Caduceus. He can't say he's a fan of attention; he always prefers to stay a reasonable distance away and watch.

The woman smiles at him as she reaches for his hand and flounders for a moment in the space that is the illusion, but manages to move her hand up enough to grasp his actual wrist. Astonishingly, her smile does not fade. She just tilts her head in curiosity, looking into his eyes. Which are purple, as they always are, even with his disguising self spell.

"I haven't seen you around," says the tiefling woman. A man in Caduceus's peripherals exhales at the sound of her voice, light and melodious. Undoubtedly this woman spends some of her time singing.

Caduceus also makes note of her outfit: a thin black dress that transforms into lace as it covers her arms and neck, making her red skin stand out even more. Evidently, everyone here is under her thumb. This makes her very dangerous. Does she know something?

Her golden eyes are frustratingly hard to read. "I just got into town and happened to wander in here," he says. The truth is not conspicuous and Caduceus usually doesn't care to lie. He already lives amongst thieves and murders. No need to be a liar himself when the truth is always simpler.

"Oh!" The woman brightens, fangs digging into her deep red lips. "Well. You probably haven't heard of me before. It's always nice to meet a new face."

Caduceus tilts his head slightly at that phrase, intrigued. This woman... does she not want people to know of her? Is she fearful of the reputation she has made? No, that isn't right... she wouldn't be so outgoing, she wouldn't handle everyone's attention the way she does... or would she?

Those eyes give him nothing - as Jesse once said, even if offhandedly and clearly mocking, "the eyes are the window to the soul," which doesn't sound good for them as all Caduceus has every caught beneath their hood is a bright flash of anger or excitement. No shape, no color. If their teachings are to be believed - no soul.

That doesn't really bother Caduceus as it might other people, but now is not the time to contemplate the existence of souls and their reflections on a humanoid character because the tiefling woman continues speaking and Caduceus is starting to get dirty looks from some of the other patrons.

"I am Marion Lavorre. Some might call me the Ruby of the Sea, but that's just a grandiose title. May I offer you some fine wine or perhaps a glass of champagne as a welcome present?"

Caduceus is about to reply when he sees a small shadow behind her, darting from wall to wall, edging ever closer to the door. The guard on the inside of the door is watching the shadow but does not seem concerned, and Caduceus realizes that this all must be a distraction for whoever that is to get out without being noticed.

"It's a little early for alcohol, I think," Caduceus says, mind working as fast as it can - which is, he will admit, not that fast. He slows his words as he continues, "and- oh, I'm sorry." He frowns as if he's just recalled something. "My friend told me we were going to meet at the Open Quay in a few minutes. I'm sorry. I think I have to go."

Marion easily lets go of his arm and steps back. The tip of her tail winds its way around her leg. There are a few bands and piercings on it that glimmer enticingly in the warm light of the chandeliers, much like the ones that hang from her sharpened ears.

...Perhaps Caduceus should get his ears pierced. He doesn't know where one would go to do such a thing, but jewelry is always such a fascinating thing and surely he could fit a lot of different pieces with how abnormally large his ears are.

"That's completely understandable," Marion says, tilting her head. Caduceus isn't sure if she's mocking him, as there is not a clock in sight, or if she's letting it slide. One thing that he is sure of - she knows he's making things up. She's too sharp to have an obvious misstep slip by her like that. "Well, you're welcome any time. Perhaps you'll catch me on a singing night."

The shadow is almost out of the door and Caduceus pauses until they've completely disappeared. No one else notices (except for presumably Marion), their attention still focused on the tiefling. She is very enrapturing, but none of these people would pass for spies. Spies are always paying attention, to everything and anything. The shape he saw in the window, then, was either Marion herself or the shadow that has disappeared into the sunlit streets of Nicodranas. Maybe it was a badly-planned move on Caduceus's part, but he couldn't risk chasing after them and spooking Marion, given all the power she holds.

"Thank you," Caduceus says and turns back to the entryway, pretending not to feel the angry gazes on his back. He's going to have to drop his disguise as soon as possible so that he isn't attacked by jealous or angry onlookers while he's unprepared. He will have to get out of the Opal Archways District first, though.

The last thing Caduceus sees before he leaves the Lavish Chateau is Marion- of course- peering at him with one delicately raised eyebrow. Then the heavy double doors slam shut behind him and Caduceus hurries away from the building, trying to discreetly scan the streets for any small shadows moving clumsily about. He does not see any immediately and so begins to walk down the main street at a casual pace.

It's probably only been forty-five minutes since he and the other members of the Gentleman's entourage went their separate ways; he can afford to play the waiting game.

Chapter Text

Caduceus peers in the windows of all the shops lining the Opal Archways, which are many different varieties of elaborate clothing, jewelry, household appliances, and restaurants. None of them seem particularly suspicious for a good two minutes down the street, but eventually something catches Caduceus's eye.

A cloaked figure moving, somehow both in his vision and not. For a moment Caduceus confuses them with Jesse before realizing that they're much too tall, and also for a moment he got a glance of shockingly green eyes, which Jesse doesn't have, if they even have eyes at all.

The eyes he sees now show an ancient soul that is laughing and youthful even with centuries of memories layered over.

No, definitely not Jesse. The figure appears for one split second and disappears as one eye closes in what is probably a wink. It's so fast it's hard to tell where they came from, but when Caduceus squeezes his eyes shut he can see a searing white imprint of them in the dark behind his eyelids, so he knows that they originated from the bakery across from him with bread and pastries lining its windows in an artful display.

It seems like a place he would want to visit anyway, so he has no qualms about ducking into the nearest alley and dropping his disguise before climbing the two steps that lead to the bakery and opening the wooden door.

Inside, there's one long counter with goods in the shelves below and two small tables on the right edge of the room. One person is sitting at the table closest to the window. She has blonde hair that falls all the way to her waist and a stocky look about her, muscles in her arms standing out impressively. The other person, chatting animatedly with the cashier, is undoubtedly his objective.

She is a tiefling. Her skin and hair are blue, which might be enough to mislead others, but Caduceus can clearly see the resemblance between the her and the Ruby of the Sea by the way she grins and how her face shape is similar to Marion's, soft and round.

Although - Marion has a more cultured look about her. The tiefling at the counter seems to be somewhere from fourteen to fifteen, in the process of becoming an adult, though she's kept her cheerfulness about her.

It seems Caduceus had nothing to worry about, but now that he sees all of the baked goods around he feels the need to stop and buy one, so gets in line after the tiefling. Her small curling horns are encased in silver at the tips. He isn't sure if it's a fashion statement or if they're just so sharp they are a hazard to others.

He gets a squint from the cashier for his pink hair and sickly grey skin (also his height, ears, nose, and staff) but other than that the cashier does not make any other defensive move, which allows Caduceus to relax if only a little bit.

The tiefling girl bounces on her heels in front of him as she is handed an entire loaf of bread and then a cupcake, which Caduceus didn't know they had, having not been displayed in the window. Maybe it's a present for the daughter of the Ruby of the Sea, or perhaps a gift in the name of friendship, if the tiefling's demeanor is any indication.

She turns around and almost runs into Caduceus, clearly not expecting someone behind her. He side-steps just in time, but the sleeve of the girl's dress is caught on a splinter coming off his staff, and it tears. She looks frantically between Caduceus and her dress sleeve, as if not sure which to address first.

Her eyes- which are astonishingly not the customary tiefling's, with her pupils and irises clearly visible- widen in shock and worry. Caduceus can't help the panic he feels at the prospect of having a crying person in front of him and takes her sleeve where the tear is, reaching into his bag of spell materials to bring out two lodestones and murmur an incantation under his breath while stitching it up until the fabric is unmarred once again.

"I'm so sorry," Caduceus says, though he's also relieved he has fixed his mistake so quickly. The tiefling- at least half tiefling, she's got to be- straightens and stares at him in shock. Caduceus shifts his weight, leaning on his staff before reaching down and picking off the offending splinter; he isn't sure how only a splinter could tear clothing, but he has suspected for a while that this staff isn't made of regular wood.

It's the same staff that he got a year or so into his journey amongst the lands of Wildemount. Now, however, a soft pink lichen the same shade as his hair grows on the wood of the staff and the branches that sprout out and wind around the opal-infused rock are studded with different interesting stones Caduceus has found in his travels. Some of his favorites are the piece of amber he recovered at the base of an incredibly grand tree, the stunningly blue sapphire stone that he was given as a token of thanks by a wealthy landlord that he managed to save by stopping the assassin set on killing him, and an obsidian shard that Pumat had collected and found no use for, so donated to his cause.

Caduceus learned how to carve wood and set in gems of all shapes and textures just for this purpose. Maybe if this crime business doesn't hold up, as is seeming more and more probable, he can open up a jewelry stand next to Cree. He hasn't seen Cree in a while, and they haven't had a good conversation in even longer, but he likes to think that they're still friends.

Caduceus is dragged back to the task at hand when the tiefling gasps and grins up (and up) at him.

"You can use magic!" she says excitedly, voice carrying the familiar cadence of the Ruby of the Sea's. Her declaration also attracts the attention of the dwarf-looking woman at the table, and the cashier. Caduceus's ears fold back against his head involuntarily; the tiefling girl watches them move with fascination.

"That's a broad term," he says, trying to sidestep the accusation. "Magic can be many things. The rumble of the air during a thunderstorm. The flicker of energy between two hands. Water dripping into a pool and causing ripples to spread out-"

"How do you do it?" the tiefling interrupts. She's barely holding onto her cupcake in her excitement, but regains her grip when Caduceus raises his eyebrows at it. At least she isn't put off by his odd appearance, but whether that's better than having her full energy directed at him is still up for debate.

He hasn't met someone so exuberant about things in a long while. While of course Caduceus is interested in the workings around him, interested doesn't translate to energetic. His energy is a fickle thing, and most of the time it's sapped by the phantom fog that clings to his skin and leaves him with nothing but bone-deep exhaustion.

Those are things for a different time, though. Right now he should be focused on the tiefling who stares up at him with her clear blue eyes with all the hope in the world reflected across their surfaces. He... cannot deny something like that.

Reluctantly, Caduceus replies, "I suppose I could teach you a couple things if you can spare a few minutes," and isn't surprised at all by the way she jumps at the opportunity, freckles crinkling with her smile.

"Okay, okay!" she says and abruptly turns, easily dragging the rather bony Caduceus along with her. They sit down at the unoccupied table (dwarf woman seeming to try her best not to cast any glances in their direction) and the tiefling sets the bag of bread at her feet while taking a large bite of her cupcake.

"My name's Jester," she says through the cupcake. "Wow. You're kind of weird-looking, right?"

Perhaps he should find it insulting, but Caduceus is instead charmed by her blunt demeanor. "Yeah, but I could say the same for you," he replies. Jester flashes her frosting-covered fangs at him. "The name is Caduceus Clay."

Maybe it isn't so wise for someone of his occupation to be giving away names with such leisure, but whatever trouble that wants to find him will find him regardless, and that's okay. Besides, Jester deserves honesty, even if he isn't quite sure she's giving him the same courtesy. The name 'Jester' seems just a little too fitting for this bright star.

"Nice to meet you, Ca-dew-sea-uss," she says, stumbling her way through his name. It's almost correct. "What are you? You're not a human and you're definitely not a tiefling, right?" She peers at him, tilting her head.

Caduceus's ears fold back under her gaze. She seems like she could easily pick out the gathering shadows around his eyes and the downward tilt of his lips. Some things Caduceus doesn't want even a stranger to know, so he shies away and resists the urge to shield his face with a spell once again.

"I sure am not," he says, pushing past his discomfort. "I'm a firbolg. We're not really used to climates like this-" he motions to the window and its bright sunny skies and somewhere out there shining blue sea- "so I doubt you've seen us. We tend to stick to the forests, mostly. Forests are nice, but I can say I do like this city of yours so far."

Jester cocks her head, blinking her dark lashes. They brush the skin beneath her eyes as she does. "So what are you doing here so far away?" she asks. "If you usually stay in the Cyrios Mountains, you've gotta have a reason to come down here."

Caduceus doesn't correct her. He is not from the Dwendalian Empire, either, at his heart. Even if he has not lived anywhere else in what seems, to him, like a very long time.

He is from the Savalierwood, from Shady Creek Run, and the memory might be fading but he knows that this is true with unrivaled certainty. Saying anything is giving away much information, though, so he gently rebuffs her.

"I thought you said you wanted to learn about magic," he says. For a moment he thinks that she won't fall for it, that he's misjudged her (considering her mother it wouldn't be a stretch), but she straightens instantly. Caduceus didn't even realize how close her face had gotten to his in her intent studying.

"Yes! What kind of magic do you do? Where does it come from? Is there some sort of ritual you have to go through to make it happen? Is it in your blood? Tell me everything," Jester enthuses as she stuffs the rest of the cupcake into her mouth, turning the last few words of her sentence into incomprehensible mumbles. Caduceus casts a wistful glance at the bakery counter. Well, no matter. He can buy something once Jester has inevitably lost interest.

"Magic comes from everywhere, as I said from before," Caduceus says. He spreads his arms out to try and encompass the whole world. "But I practice healing magic. My goddess gives me the power to cast my spells. I think of her and she lends me her pulse beneath the earth to weld into something that can keep people just above the edge of death if I wish."

Jester stares at him for a moment, stillness a jarring change from her previous behavior before she rocks back in her chair. "Gods?" she asks. "Oh, I know all about gods. Tell me, Cad-oos-ass." Caduceus grimaces at the deliberate pause before the last syllable, but ignores it as she seems to shift in some indeterminate and yet unsettling way.

She turns to look him directly in the eyes, suddenly exuding the aura of someone much more mature and almost frighteningly knowledgeable. "Have you heard of the Traveler?"

It's an unfamiliar name to him and he opens his mouth to reply with the negative when a shadow that is almost faint enough for Caduceus to believe it's a trick of the light appears behind Jester, placing their hands on her shoulders.

It's the same one that he saw before entering the bakery, and one of their vivid green eyes once again drops a wink, flickering in and out of existence like a candle in the wind before their shadow hands start to dissolve on their place on Jester's shoulders. Smoke that isn't really smoke curls over Jester like water, encompassing her in a layer of shadows as the cloaked figure disappears entirely and all that is left is shadows on the floor and smoke coating every inch of Jester's figure.

Caduceus blinks again, and unsurprisingly everything is as it was before. He changes his answer mid-syllable, though the words get slightly mixed up as he tries to speak then. "N-yeah, I think I have. Green eyes, right?" he says, becoming wary as Jester's expression shifts into one of shock.

Was he supposed to say no? He isn't good at picking up underlying signals. Maybe it was a trick question. Maybe Caduceus was just plain hallucinating and there really was nothing, but he often sees things that aren't there and the reality is that most of the time they actually are. His sight is something that he can almost always rely on.

"Yes! Green eyes. Hood. Very handsome. That's the Traveler," Jester says, glancing around the bakery and sagging a little bit at the fact that it continues to be empty. "He's my best friend and he's totally a god. If your goddess can give you magic, do you think that the Traveler could give me magic?" She pauses for barely a split second before: "I think so. He's super powerful. He can blink all over the place and he can make illusions and jewels out of nothing. A god like that could totally spare some magic for me, right?"

Even though Caduceus had not known about this Traveler until some two minutes ago, he feels that the god would most likely have some energy to spare, although he doesn't know what to make of the fact that the Traveler has appeared in the physical. There's probably a better time to consider the ramifications of that in relation to the Divine Gate (though that's a subject he is not very knowledgeable in).

On the subject at hand, though - even if the Traveler didn't have any magic to lend to her cause, it seems that if Jester asked, she would definitely receive at least a boon of some kind. Despite this, he shrugs his shoulders.

"I'm no acolyte," he says - technically this is true. It was a graveyard he grew up in. So what if he actually lived in the temple? The Wildmother was always there no matter where he found himself and his family never dedicated any special time to the study of religion, so he can't say he's qualified to speak out about how it works. "This Traveler does seem like he would be able to help you if you wanted to learn, though. But magic is not something to be used only for menial tasks; I would advise you to avoid it when there are other ways to do something."

"Okay, yeah, this is all good," says Jester although it doesn't seem very satisfactory based on the way she's rushing Caduceus. Hopefully she's at least absorbing his words. "But how do you do it? Once you've got the power, what's the trick to making something happen? Don't tell me there's like, a place you have to 'reach' or wherever like a peace of mind or something! I've tried meditation before and I really wasn't very good at it." Jester giggles.

Caduceus is not a teacher under any circumstances. Words are not his preferred language. He just can't seem to get them to come out in the right order and have them communicate what he is actually thinking. The abstract concepts of feelings and thoughts are much easier to process - it's a shame that he can't project his ideas out into the world raw and unrefined for someone else to do the shaping and molding to fit the ideas into the constraints of mere words.

Sylvan, oddly enough, is actually quite easy for Caduceus to communicate in, but he hasn't actually found anyone who speaks it fluently yet. Not that he's been looking hard. Maybe he should. The tongue of Sylvan is so soft and elastic that he has no trouble taking his thoughts and gently shaping them into the same silhouette of its letters. Caduceus did all his talking to the graves and ghosts and faeries in Sylvan.

Maybe that's why he feels it's so much easier than the other three languages, because when he was a little child he learned how to speak it and how to make his thoughts into the right kinds of words. When he needed privacy, he would switch to Sylvan because his biggest sister was the only one who knew how to speak that language, and she left five seasons after he was born.

After a very long pause in which Caduceus thinks over the annoyance of having to speak out loud, he replies, "I think the most central part of spellcasting is will. That's all it is. Will." He pauses to glance at Jester, making sure she's following him and hasn't been lead away by some shiny bauble in the near vicinity, which is a distraction that Caduceus has fallen prey to time and time again.

He still struggles to pay attention, even with Jesse's many, many snide remarks about it that have layered on top of each other with every journey that they take together in which Jesse finds yet another thing to nitpick him about.

"You need to have something you want to accomplish," Caduceus says, focusing on the tips of his fingers. He imagines the heat flowing orange through his veins and seeping out of the holes in his skin to make one flame on each of the pads of his fingers. Soon he has five small and controlled flames curling up from under his nails. Jester, surprisingly, doesn't move away at all at the sight of them. Her mouth only drops and she oohs and ahs with a familiar excitement, the excitement of seeing something new when you've spent your whole life in the same place. She doesn't even seem concerned that the table might catch fire.

It won't, of course. Caduceus can manipulate the flames much too easily for them ever to be a danger. The heat of them is also suitably comfortable, although he isn't sure whether they are actually that temperature or if he's just imagining them like that and managing to fool his brain into thinking it's true. His fingers aren't burning though, so that's a point in favor of the first thought.

"They just... appear because you want them to?" Jester asks skeptically, orange light jarring in her blue eyes. She watches with fascination as the flames die out and instead threads of pink moss start to wind around his hands and hang off the edges of his fingers.

Technically, the spell that he's using as a demonstration is not actually cleric knowledge. It's a druid spell, one that requires only the slightest bit of effort to create but still a druid spell all the same, when Caduceus's chosen field does not deal with those kinds of things. He came by it because the scroll with the incantation was given to him as a gift from Pumat Sol, the spell being as weak it is was not worth much. Originally no one was sure if he would actually be able to learn it, but between the Wildmother (who is of course the goddess of the sea and nature) and firbolgs' natural ability in druid-type spells, he was able to pull it off with only a little more practice than the rest of them.

"Mostly," Caduceus says. The moss starts to climb past the lines of his palms and follows his veins upward. "You will also need some kind of book to gain your information, though. There are certain spells that can only be achieved depending on what kind of magic you focus on, and other spells that can only reach their full potential with assorted items to guide their effects into something... tangible."

He reaches into the satchel slung over his shoulder and retrieves the two lodestones that he used for the Mending cantrip. He takes his staff and drags one of the more pointed ends of the branches across the wood of the table, engraving a single line. Jester's eyes follow without flickering away once, all distractions gone. She is completely and utterly focused.

Caduceus would be much more shocked at the shift in tone if he weren't intimately familiar with the grips of fixation himself. He and Jester are at least a little bit alike in that regard, if in nothing else. From what he has gathered, it would be a bad idea to put the two of them on any sort of job together, as even with their opposite demeanors they appear to both have the tendency to get easily sidetracked. There's always a possibility that Jester is playing him like a fool and was sent by the Ruby of the Sea to gain information on the Gentleman or some other equally illegal thing, but... Caduceus, unfortunately, doubts that is the case. Against his better judgement.

He's getting ahead of himself, though. He doubts once he leaves Nicodranas he will ever see Jester again. The thought is a little disappointing for some reason, so he pushes it to the side and brings the lodestones together with a satisfying click, then pulls them apart with sudden force.

It's possible he may be adding a little bit of flair to the process, but Jester seems to be one that would appreciate a good show. Caduceus whispers a few words in Giant- sometimes his spells are in Sylvan or Elvish, but his family spoke Giant and so he always uses that language for the spells he knew before evacuating his home- and stares down at the engraving, simply willing it to fold in on itself and disappear.

The whole thing is much more drawn out that Caduceus is used to. This is a cantrip, after all. He has done it countless times. But Jester's eyes widen and glimmer in the bakery's faint torchlight, so it is wholly worth it. Once the table is as smooth as before, she turns to him, sharp pink nails drumming a rhythm on the tabletop. Her eyebrows are slightly scrunched together; Caduceus's own ears fold back at the sight of her hesitation.

"Can..." Jester trails off, nails halting in their beat. They begin again just a moment before her voice continues. "Do you think I can try? You can fix things if I do it wrong, right?" she says, anxiousness permeating her words. Caduceus almost breaks into a grin then and there, but manages to keep his expression calm and indifferent - as it most often is. No need to unsettle her with his wide smile, which Jesse has informed him multiple times is 'off-putting'.

"Sure, sure," he replies easily. There's no harm in at least letting her attempt it. Well. There's almost no harm. There will probably be harm if she can't manage it, but if she starts crying he can probably manage to comfort her adequately, and the Traveler might even help out.

Caduceus obligingly slides over the two lodestones. Jester picks one up in each hand, not concerned by their coldness or their heaviness. She looks towards him questioningly. In the background of his thoughts, he registers that both the cashier and the dwarf are openly staring. It's no matter.

"Motion with the lodestones somehow," he says. "In a way that makes them produce a stir in the air. Then you will be able to take those ripples and redirect them to-" He pauses and looks down at the table, realizing there isn't actually anything to fix. He draws a line through the wood though this time using his nail instead of staff. It does the job just fine. All of his nails are very long, as is usually the case with firbolgs - long enough that perhaps it would be sensible to paint them with how much space they take up. Perhaps the same shade as Jester's.

"Sorry," he says. Jester's eyes are on the lodestones, though, and it doesn't seem like she even registered the scrape against the wood. "After you produce that energy from the motion, this spell requires words. It's just a simple phrase and you can say it in any language that you prefer. Usually the more comfortable you are with the language- or at least pronunciation of the words- the easier it will be to manipulate the magic. The phrase is..."

Caduceus trails off, eyes darting across the observers in a split second before leaning in to whisper into Jester's sharpened ear, "The phrase is 'stitch and unwind'."

He leans back as Jester nods vigorously and her lips move as if testing out the words, though Caduceus doesn't recognize them in Common. He is almost certain she'll be able to complete the spell even if it takes her three or four times, but working (unofficially) in Pumat's shop has taught him that when it comes to magic it's better to be safe than sorry, so he readies the words for a dispel magic to unleash at the slightest hint that something has gone wrong.

Dispel Magic is in Giant too. His brother had once cast it on a ghost that was getting a little too aggressive, and it's stuck in his mind since then- since then. It was... so long ago.

He pushes aside the nostalgia and wave of sadness when Jester closes her eyes and then suddenly and forcefully raises both her arms above her head, opening her eyes to glare at the line on the table. In the moment after her arms stir the air around them- magic is harnessed from energy, this is the most basic of facts- she lets out a low growl that eventually shapes into words that Caduceus does not understand but recognizes as Infernal, spoken by most of the tieflings he's met, usually in the form of swears when something doesn't go their way.

Jester's accent conflicts with the harsh syllables of Infernal and somehow manages to create something even more unsettling than what it would be if she just spoken it unaccented. Not that anyone is really unaccented in the first place - but he can contemplate languages later.

Slowly and surely, the line on the table folds in on itself and disappears. Jester's shoulders slump and her eyes lose some of their- glow?- as she watches in fascination. There is a moment of blessed silence before, predictably, she shouts excitedly and leans forward to grip Caduceus's shoulders and shake him.

"I did it! I did it! Did you see that, Ca-doo-sass? Did you see it?" she says, motioning to the table, where... it just looks like a regular old table. That was the point of the spell, after all. She only deflates slightly and lets go of Caduceus's shoulders when seeing his wary glance, smiling guiltily. Caduceus doesn't mind that much, but Jester's hands are surprisingly cold, which fits with her blue skin. He's never seen a tiefling with blue skin.

...Come to think of it, the only other humanoid he's seen with blue skin is the Gentleman. This might mean something, or it could definitely could not and Caduceus just needs to get out and see more blue people. What a ridiculous thought.

"I did," he says, leaning back and smiling. Jester's fangs are larger than his, anyway. She has no right to be unsettled by them. "That was very good. Now all you need to do is find a book or two to help you along. Or someone to teach you, at least." He would wager that Jester can probably read, but it never hurts to be considerate.

He shakes his head at the almost pleading look she sends in his direction. "Sorry, no can do. My friends and I are only going to be in town for maybe one or two more days before we leave. I believe that if you want to continue, somehow you will find a way."

He is referencing both Jester's enthusiasm and the certain godly presence that floats around her. Said presence laughs lowly, voice so deep that it sends tremors through Caduceus's thin bones that appear on the outside in a series of shivers. Goosebumps rise on his forearms and he folds them away, though not before the Traveler laughs a little more at his expense.

Jester looks around her wildly, thankfully not keeping her gaze on Caduceus, and eventually whips back around to stare at him with sparkling eyes.

"I wasn't the only one who heard that, right?" she asks. At some point she has grabbed the two lodestones and has them clenched in her hands so tight that the skin around them is turning to pale ice.

Caduceus shakes his head. "I think he's proud of you," he says. The shape of the Traveler is beginning to manifest as a gathering of shadows behind Jester on the bakery display that faces out into the street. The light filters through stronger in there and pierces holes in the god's form to make him a sort of patchwork quilt, although the faint green eyes are no less piercing.

Jester smiles at Caduceus's comment and obligingly lets go of the lodestones when Caduceus reaches out to take them back. He doesn't want them to accidentally dig in too deep, and sticks them back in the hide satchel that hangs around his shoulder.

All the components of spells he regularly uses are tucked away in there, along with a handful or two of gold coins. Right now it's possible there's also a two foot watercolor painting (he isn't sure if he hung it up in his house before he left, and hasn't checked) and a pair of boots that he hasn't had time to get rid of but really should because the tan leather has been marred by bloodstains all the way to the tops of the boots. (He didn't mean to step in those puddles and he definitely didn't mean to nick the artery while it was facing him, but it did and he ruined his perfectly fine boots. Maybe he should try Mending... or ask Jesse for Prestidigitation on them.)

He is distracted from his dilemma when a familiar voice sounds close to his ear. Very close. He looks around for the source, but there's no one new, and he soon realizes the words are coming from a Sending spell.

"Hey, Caddie," Jesse says. They call him a variety of names. This one is one of the better ones, as it has nothing to do with the phrase 'deuce'. "You're probably lost somewhere, but come back as soon as possible. I got information and Ishihe got int' trouble. Could use healin'. Love ya."

The voice vanishes, leaving a split second of impossible energy-less space where the spell used to be. Maybe Caduceus should be worried that he can sense these kinds of things, but then again he's never been anyone else, so maybe it's something everyone can do.

Jester is raising an eyebrow in his direction and Caduceus realizes he's stayed silent for far too long. He blinks to center himself and leans forward on his elbows. "Sorry, I have other obligations," he says regretfully. He would stay longer and enjoy Jester's company, but he can't leave Ishihe to bleed out when Jesse has asked him to come help. What troublesome duties a cleric has.

Jester's face falls, but soon she regains some of her vigor. "That's okay. I understand. I should probably get going too... I guess." She glances at the loaf of bread at her feet. "Thanks for teaching me magic, Caduceus. I'll make sure to put it to good use. And if I see you again, you're going to be so impressed at how much I've learned!"

Caduceus chuckles as he rises, only a little disappointed that he won't be able to buy anything from the bakery. The feeling is dwarfed next to the prospect that he will never get to see this bright little star again, but so life goes, unfortunately.

He uses his staff as leverage to lift himself up and begins to walk steadily toward the door after nodding one last time in Jester's direction. His melancholy is only eased slightly by the fact that she looks just as dejected.

Before he can grip the handle and pull open the oak door, however, Jester suddenly shouts, "Wait! Hold on, don't leave yet!" before her footsteps can be heard crossing the floor to the cashier. Caduceus turns around to watch with interest as she whispers something in their direction and then slips some coins to them. They disappear into the backroom and a moment later come out with something in their hand.

Caduceus squints, trying to get a glance as they pass it over to her.

She takes it and turns around with a toothy grin once again on her face; clearly held in her blue hands is a- cupcake?

His spirits begin to rise as Jester bounces over and pushes the cupcake- chocolate cake batter with some form of blue and pink frosting in a swirl on top- into his empty hand. He stares at her for a moment, processing, before grasping it firmly and tipping his head in Jester's direction.

"Thank you very much," he says. "We might well meet each other again."

Without another word, he turns and steps into the street, aiming to get out of the Opal Archways as soon as he can, as even with just one or two steps he's attracted the glance of a guard off to the side. He notes with vague alarm that her armor is recognizable as Crownsguard garb, but he takes a deep breath to calm himself and walks away, taking a bite of his cupcake as he leaves the Archways with just one backwards glance.

Chapter Text

The bartender waves to Caduceus as he enters the Wayfarer's Cove. A quick glance around reveals no fresh bloodstains, so Ishihe can't have been too injured. Right?

It's possible Jesse found a back way or just scaled the wall- which he has seen them do at least once, to his astonishment- but Caduceus chooses to take it as an assurance, tipping his staff in the bartender's direction as he makes his way to the unassuming stairwell in the corner of the room.

Their room is just to the left of the stairwell on the second floor. It is, in fact, the only room on this floor - temporarily rented to them on the promise of both a large sum in exchange and the assurance that they will be gone in a day or two. Bloodstains were not included, but hopefully the owner won't be too annoyed, as neither Jesse or Caduceus enjoy getting blood out of fabric.

(Jesse doesn't care enough, and Caduceus- although it only takes a few quick cantrips- feels that if blood has been bled in a place, it should stay there. It is a mark of violence and sickness that should not be erased; it gives significance to events that are otherwise forgotten or covered up.)

The door is locked, unsurprisingly. Jesse is always unreasonably paranoid. Occasionally it gets on Caduceus's nerves, if only slightly, but especially when he has to knock twice and then tap the door with a fingernail thrice to get them to open up. It wastes valuable time, and he's not great at remembering these kinds of things. What will happen when he inevitably forgets the code?

That's something to bring up (or just silently contemplate) later, however. Jesse opens the door only wide enough for Caduceus to slip through before they shut it quickly.

Inside, there is the simple layout of the bed and the single desk. The bed is currently occupied by an unconscious elven figure, who doesn't stir even when Jesse leans over and snaps their fingers right next to his slim, pointed ears.

The damage is easily identifiable and Jesse, who at least has vague knowledge of basic medical care, has wrapped the slash along his collarbones with white gauze that turns red in a long line across it. Ishihe's face and bare chest are covered in a thin layer of sweat and there is another layer of gauze wound around the left side of his chest where his ribs would be. Seems like someone got into a knife fight.

Caduceus sends Jesse an unimpressed look, both for disturbing his patient and also doing such a haphazard job with the bandages. Even if he is going to have to unwind them to fix the cuts, it's still irritating to see such lazy work in a serious situation. Jesse shrugs. "Didn't wanna get blood on the sheets," they say. "Had to do some quick fixin'."

Caduceus restrains himself from breaking his facade to chuckle and kneels down, quickly undoing the bandages while checking Ishihe's heartbeat, which still pulses strong enough for Caduceus to relax a bit. He doesn't know if the Gentleman or Jesse or the Wildmother would deem it necessary to perform a resurrection on a man such as this one.

It's costly- diamonds just down the drain- and occasionally it strains the boundary of the natural order. Caduceus wouldn't go through all that trouble for someone he holds no real attachment to. And he wouldn't go through any of the trouble if the Wildmother told him that it would upset the balance of life, which of course is a very delicate scale.

He doesn't have to think about any of this, however, because Ishihe is not going to die if he works fast enough and makes sure to thoroughly clean the wounds.

Caduceus grabs the scissors and sutures he has in his satchel and casts a quick healing spell to make the damage a little less severe before he stitches the cuts up - thankfully, the one near Ishihe's ribs does not seem as deep as the perpetrator probably intended.

If they had managed to slip the knife under his ribs, Caduceus would have a serious problem - as it is, it only takes a little while for him to sterilize and finish his stitching. He feels slightly bad at the way Ishihe's hands twitch in discomfort occasionally and he groans in a sleep-smothered voice, but he doesn't wake up fully, so there is no reason to sedate him.

As soon as he's reached a decent stopping point, he busies himself with cleaning and rearranging the tools in his kit. Jesse sits on the other side of the bed- it dips almost imperceptibly, but still manages to slide a pair of tweezers away from Caduceus- and rests their head on the board behind, gazing contemplatively (from what he can discern) at Caduceus from beneath the dark cloak.

Before they lace their fingers together and place their hands behind their head, they reach down and grab a cigarette from their pocket. It lights with seemingly no assistance between their fangs. Caduceus pauses in his organizing to crack open the window, though he has to exert himself more than he'd like to accomplish it; it doesn't give away easily.

"As I said before, I got some info," they say, removing one of their hands begrudgingly to hold the cigarette, then inhaling and exhaling wisps of smoke that wind their way around the room.

Caduceus grimaces when the distinctive smell reaches him, but he's used to it. The first time he started coughing uncontrollably and almost blew their cover, but he (rightly) blames everything on Jesse for that one.

"Yeah?" says Caduceus, glancing at Ishihe, who is breathing deep and slow. "I didn't, but I did get a cupcake. So, not a waste." He brushes the corner of his mouth and licks the frosting off his hand - it's been annoying him since he got in the room and realized it was there, since he couldn't use his gloved hands.

He doesn't mention Jester or the Ruby of the Sea - perhaps he is widely misjudging them, but they both seem like lovely people and not ones that Caduceus wants to involve in the kind of life he lives. Jester is so young. He hopes she never has to see someone killed in front of her.

Jesse exhales more forcefully in Caduceus's direction. "Yeah, I can see that. You've had pink frosting on your lips since you walked in. Almost missed it, since it's th' same color as your hair. ...But anyway, that's not the point. So I was asking around, discreetly as ya do, on the docks where all the shady figures tend to stick around." They stop and clear their throat as their voice falters.

"I caught wind of a so called 'Shalel Ves' which seemed familiar, as I'm pretty sure the Boss said something about a 'Ves' a while ago. Followed it to one of the dingy bars just off the docks and met this pirate-lookin' woman, built like a brick shithouse. She shoved me around a little when she heard I was watchin' out for Ves."

Caduceus furrows his brows at Jesse and they hold up their free hand. "Don't worry, 'm fine. Don't think she meant anything by it, anyways, because she took me aside and told me the deal was between part of Ves's crew and a fellow named Cynthia on dock number sixteen, east side. Freaky, right? She just said all of this to me. Didn't ask for nothin'. Wasn't really sure what to do with myself for a couple of moments there. Thought she might do a hit-and-run sort of thing, but no, she just walked away an' left me with a couple of bruises to the stomach. Maybe we should follow up on it, but I didn' catch her name. ...Probably her intention, now that I think about it."

Caduceus glances at Jesse out of the corner his eye for a long moment until they presumably roll their eyes. At least, the scoff they let out indicates that's what they're doing, though it depends on whether they actually have eyes in the first place - it's just shadows under there, as far as he can see. Vaguely he wonders if he casts dispel magic anything would happen. Not that he would violate their trust like that, but he is still curious about it as he is everything else.

"Yeah I caught up to her, I'm not an amateur," they retort in response to Caduceus's silent prompt, "we're four gold out. I know it's a pretty hefty sum for some information, but somethin' like that's gotta have other motives, and she was a hefty woman. Smiled at me she did. Really unsettling. Almost like you, actually, although with big muscles and a scar that went from her temple all the way to her collarbones. Pretty distinct, so at least that's something." Their eyes shift to the blue bay just barely visible through the stacks of buildings out of the window.

"And Ishihe. 'm not really sure what to do about him. He wouldn't tell me where he got those knife cuts! Raises all sorts of red flags. Not sure if we can depend on him. Of course I wasn't all sure about that in the first place, but 'm a little more wary now."

Jesse, Caduceus has learned along with the many other things, is actually kind of a chatterbox once you get them going. He suspects they enjoy the sound of their own voice by the long-winded explanations they sometimes go on. Granted, Caduceus likes their voice too, all of its gravelly and oddly accented cadence, but he'd never let them know, if just because they would never let him live it down.

"If you don't think Ishihe is competent enough to complete this mission, or compromised in some way, he's given us a perfectly good reason to keep him away while we go out. If it's tonight, perhaps I can even put him under until then. I would have to check what I've got, but it could probably be done," Caduceus says, finally tucking away the medicine kit.

There's also a bag of different herbs that double as tea leaves and balms in his satchel, with miscellaneous other objects like notebooks and pencils beside his gold, painting, and boots scattered around. It's been a while since he cleaned it out - and it will likely be a while until he gets to it again.

Caduceus grabs the herb bag as Jesse sits in silence to his right, their cigarette dwindling. Ash has collected on the green fabric pooled around their stomach. The light from the cigarette does not bounce back onto Jesse's face, with the exception of their fangs - they have an orange and red sheen over them from the faint firelight. Jesse stubs out the cigarette on the blanket- Caduceus tenses, but nothing catastrophic happens- and get up to drop it out of the crack between the frame and the window.

"You're right, I know, but I feel like we should prob'ly look into it at least a little. Def'nitely leave him here though - maybe put an alarm around the door so we know if he tries to leave." Jesse walks over and sits where they were sleeping this morning, watching Ishihe's slowly rising and falling chest.

"That's a good idea," Caduceus agrees, nodding along. After a long moment of silence, he removes the notebook from his bag, and begins to write.

He doesn't have any sort of aim and there is really no use to continue doing it, but it was a habit he got into years back when he was learning the Common language and it has stuck with him. He has two notebooks at his house in a kitchen cabinet, filled to the brim with shaky letters and scattered sentences. Writing is a good outlet when he gets nervous, even if after everything he still occasionally forgets what he's doing and writes the wrong letter.

He has also learned how to write in Sylan. Sylvan has a very different alphabet than Common, so it was a challenge, but he's managed it with the help of a woman named Expositor Dairon, who speaks and writes Sylvan fluently - he found this out exploring the 'other languages' section of the Cobalt Soul Archives, which is the most interesting place Caduceus has ever been to.

Expositor Dairon was sitting in a corner reading and got up to greet him, allowing for him to glance the pages of the book. The curling script looks just like how Sylvan sounds - he was able to immediately identify it, and was even was kind enough to spare a little time every few days for his studies. Eventually she directed him towards the language books in the Archives.

It's amazing, really, how many doors reading can open. He has learned all of the history he can find about this strange world he has ended up in and has read accounts of people from hundreds of years ago reporting about cataclysmic events such as the Divergence and the waves of magic and their properties used in the Age of Arcanum. He is leaning towards learning the writing of Elvish next, although it seems to be very similar to Sylvan, as it is derived from the Feywild.

Perhaps he should take up Infernal instead, try to learn something that he has absolutely no knowledge of. Or maybe Primordial, which is another harsh language that the Gentleman is fond of swearing or muttering to himself in. More languages allow access to more information.

"Do we have any other plans for the afternoon or are we going to stay here and watch Ishihe?" Caduceus asks as his pencil halts in the middle of a sentence about the sea and its empty expanse. Jesse has to snap out of their haze to reply and halts in the drawing that they seem to be making of a curtained window - at least he assumes by the way that their eyes scan the drapes over and over and their pencil moves slanted, leaving lines of dark charcoal in its wake.

"Wasn't gonna move, really, but feel free if ya want to. I can check his vitals and make sure everything's a-okay up in there if you've got stuff that needs to be done easy enough."

Jesse tilt their head in Caduceus's direction before dragging a thumb through the mass of charcoal in their notebook and then lifting it up, pressing it to below where their eyes would be if Caduceus had any assurance they had them, in some sort of ridiculous form of warpaint. Ridiculous, obviously, because no one can even tell it's there in all those shadows.

Something in Caduceus's mind is staying unsettled, though, and he cannot honestly tell Jesse there is anything in Nicodranas he needs to do, but he can't remember what it is that caught his attention when they first walked through town.

Along the docks, making their way across single-plank walkways, looking at the ocean- blue and orange in the dusky light, but in the morning then covered with a solid layer of pale fog- and being so terrified as an unnaturally bright light sweeps through the grey haze and lights up his every nerve for one single awe-struck moment.

Right, that's what it was. The lighthouse.

"Actually, I do believe have somewhere I would like to visit. It shouldn't take too long. Message me if something happens," Caduceus says, making sure everything is secure in his satchel and feeling a twinge of excitement in his stomach. He couldn't quite make out the lighthouse through the misty morning, but he remembers grand white stone curved into something familiar and yet distant at the same time.

The Wildmother's pulse beats strong here on the coastline, but he doesn't think he's imagining that her very essence encases the carving. Whatever it is depicting, it's worth a look around, if only to pay his respects to the Wildmother - he hasn't had time to pray for a while, something always managing to pop up before he gets to it. Meditating can sometimes be a form of worship depending on who your god is, but earlier today Caduceus hadn't asked for her and they did not perform the standard give-and-take of energy that they have every time he calls out for her.

Jesse nods. "Not a problem, Caddie," they say. "Wouldn't even dream of leaving ya hanging." They lift up two sharp nailed fingers in a salute against their cloaked forehead as Caduceus shifts into a standing position and quietly slips out the door, casting one last curious look at the patient on the bed.

Before he completely disappears, however, he hears Jesse's voice call faintly out to him, "Two knocks, three taps, remember?"

Caduceus will certainly try, but he can make no promises as he heads down the stairwell on light feet, darting past the bartender as best as he can with his staff. Thankfully the fog that seems to occur every morning has burned off by now, leaving the sun high in the sky with no clouds in sight, air pleasantly warm and stirred occasionally by a soft breeze.

As the breeze hits his face, stepping outside, he feels the urge to just sit down on the ground and soak it all in for as long as possible... but he cannot. There are things that must be done.