Caduceus stretched, trowel still in hand, and yawned up at the baubles of daylight strung under the canopy of his tower tree. With a gentle pat to the earth, he remarked "I think that's enough for tonight, friends," to the turnips, then pressed up to standing. He deposited his trowel in a bucket and dusted the loose soil from his hands before plunging them into the basin of cool water by the door. "Let's see about something to eat," he mused to no one in particular. Then he pushed open the door and stepped out into the quiet staircase.
The baths were empty and dark as the furbolg meandered down the winding stairs and let himself out into the hallway. There was an unusual quiet there, too. Lack of the usual low snore from Fjord's room let him know it couldn't be too late in the evening, yet. Though, Caduceus swore he saw everyone arriving home through the windows as he worked. He was going to shrug it off and go looking elsewhere for his companions when a low whine echoed under the door of Molly's room. He paused just a moment to listen.
"Please, I've been a good boy!" A heavy Zemnian accent drifted through the wood.
"Patience, now, handsome," the low drawl of Fjord responded.
And nope, Caduceus did not need to hear any more. He turned back into the tower and down the rest of the spiral of stairs to the kitchen. A glance in the ice box revealed more food than there was at breakfast. That meant the girls must have been successful at the market today. The still packaged leftover casserole from the night before, however, meant Caleb didn't eat when he got home from the library several hours ago. That was concerning. The girls probably ate at the market, but he didn't think Caleb would have stopped for food unless accompanied by someone with half a brain. And a horny Mollymauk only counted as a quarter of a brain at best.
With a defeated sigh, the cleric loaded his arms with various things from the ice box and baskets of the fresh vegetables he'd dropped down the tower pulley throughout the day. The wood stove took a bit of prodding, but soon a lively fire roared inside the stone shape. Humming to himself, Caduceus started parsing through the basket of snow peas and chopping carrots. The peas got tossed into a pan with some spices and a bit of water, and covered over to blanch. The carrots got a liberal dosing of the honey he and Jester had so lovingly harvested from their bees at the base of the tower, and a sprinkling of cinnamon and cloves, and a pod of star anise. Then he unpacked half of the left over casserole and tucked it into the oven under the stone stove top. The bare half of the stove was put to use browning a bit of cured ham against hot stone.
Satisfied with the spread, Caduceus loaded up a tray with heaping bowls full of each food and three empty plates. He also grabbed a pitcher and three empty glasses. Then he pushed through the door to the tower staircase and headed up, careful not to allow anything to spill. Arriving at the door to Mollymauk's bedroom, Caduceus balanced the tray on one arm and tucked the cups under the other so only the pitcher was in his hand as he knocked twice on the door, then pushed it open without awaiting a response.
A strangled sound escaped Caleb, but was soothed by a gentle "it's just Caduceus, darlin' you're alright." Caleb only responded with a low, but placated whimper as he relaxed back into the intricate weave of silken rope that bound his ankles together, keeping him kneeling with his upper body supported by ropes pulling each arm out towards the two top posts of Mollymauk's ridiculous canopy bed.
"I thought you gentlemen might be in need of sustenance," the cleric announced, crossing over to the small desk against the wall and laying out the spread of food.
"Uh, Deucy, I'm not so sure now's the time," Fjord insisted. He reached a hand down to stroke hair from Mollymauk's face.
"Well then I suggest you make it the time, because I'm not leaving until Mr. Caleb has eaten. Especially considering his last meal was breakfast."
"Is this true?" The dominant edge to Fjord's voice caused Caleb to flinch a bit.
"Y-yes sir." The wizard hung his head.
"Cay," Molly's voice insisted from behind Caleb's form. "Why didn't you say something, sweetheart? We could've stopped on the way home."
"I, uh. I have been so preoccupied the thought never occurred to me."
"Well, no need to dwell on that, now," Caduceus interrupted. "I brought down some of that casserole from last night, and some fresh vegetables from the garden. Let's get some food in you, then you'll have the constitution to last the night, yeah?"
There was a long pause and then, "Ja."
"Would ya like me to set you down to eat? Or should Deucy come over and feed ya?"
Caleb was quiet for another long moment, contemplating his answer. "I am afraid if you untie me, my body will not want to be restrained, again. I wish to stay as I am."
"Well, 's'pose that's settled, then." Fjord pressed a kiss to Caleb's temple and pulled the deep purple sheet up around his waist. Then he rounded the bed and leaned down close to Mollymauk, running callused fingers over scarred and tattooed flesh. "I'm gonna lead you over to the desk, then you can drop the blindness spell, yeah?"
"Yeah, okay." The tiefling groped up along Fjord's muscled arms to wrap his own around a thick neck, then allowed himself to be drawn from between Caleb's legs and up off the bed. Standing, a silk robe draped over his shoulders and secured around his waist before he was led, slowly, with gentle, encouraging words across the room to the desk where Caduceus waited with food.
"Would you like me to take care of Mr. Caleb?" Caduceus offered. Fjord gave a short nod, and the furbolg gathered up a plate and crossed the room. "Hello Mr. Caleb."
"Uh, hello Caduceus." A red flush burned down Caleb's exposed chest, but neither man made mention of it.
Caduceus settled on the bed face to face with the wizard, settling the plate on his thighs and pointing to each dish as he spoke. "Let's see, we've got fresh carrots in that sweet glaze Jester so adores, some blanched snow peas, a bit of ham, and your mushroom and green bean casserole. Where would you like to start?"
Caleb gave as much of a shrug as his bindings would allow. "What's freshest?"
"Well, I just picked the peas this morning. They seem to grow well in this climate- don't need much extra heat or coaxing."
A lazy grin traced Caleb's features. "That sounds lovely, Caduceus. Why don't we start with those?"
"Okay, Mr. Caleb." The fork in Caduceus's hand speared down into the peas with a crunch before he lifted it to the human's mouth for a taste. "It's only a matter of time before the summer squashes come in," the furbolg babbled. "I think I've finally gotten the right combination of sunlight and heat. Same for the zucchini and the cucumbers, and maybe even a few melons! Have you ever had watermelon, Mr. Caleb?"
Caleb hurriedly swallowed down the fourth mouthful Caduceus had served. "No, I can't say I have. Blumenthal is not quite warm enough for those. I've heard they're very good, though!"
Caduceus continued on about his garden and all the wonderful things he hoped to grow there as, bite by bite, Caleb ate his plate of food. Once the last morsel of sweet carrot passed Caleb's lips, Caduceus carefully stood. "Good, you've eaten. Now, water. All three of you. Hydration is also neccessary." With a wave of his hand, the pitcher filled with fresh, crystal clear water. "That pitcher should stay full through the night. Please make use of it."
"Thank you, Caduceus," Caleb was the first to say. The other two chimed in just after, Fjord with his mouth full of food.
"Of course, gentleman. It's my pleasure." The cleric leaned down to drop a kiss on Caleb's forehead, then crossed back to the table. "You gentlemen have some fun." As he gathered the empty plates, Caduceus leaned down to drop another kiss to Mollymauk's forehead. "I'm serious." He turned, searching for Fjord's eyes. "You've earned it." He lifted the tray of dirty dishes onto one arm, then leaned over to kiss Fjord's cheek as he moved to the door. Pausing in the doorway he added, "Just be careful. I know I walk around with some high level healing spells in my pocket, but I would really rather not like to have to use them at home."
"Of course, Caduceus," Fjord answered. "We'll be careful."
With that, the furbolg pulled the door closed and then started down the hall. He was almost back to the tower door when another sound caught his sensitive ears.
"Oh, Jessie. Yes yes ye-AAAH!"
So the girls were still up. No surprise there. Caduceus smiled in the warm manner he'd learned from the Wildmother and headed down the stairs, his ears catching "so beautiful, Beau," in Yasha's low, soothing tone.
Humming a low tune to himself, Caduceus filled the deep washing basin with water and busied himself with the dishes. Once what had been used was clean, dried, and settled back in the cupboards, he returned to the ice box. Yasha had been true to her word and brought back bacon. Not that Beau would have let them leave the market without her favorite form of meat. Crinkling his nose at the heavy smoky smell, Caduceus laid a dozen slices across the stone stove top, then stooped to stoke the embers within. He separated out another dozen strips, then carried the bacon back to the ice box. A second glance through the depths of the container revealed a chunk of the sharp white cheese with strawberries similar to one Yasha had liked so much at a festival some time ago. Caduceus hadn't quite gotten the salt to berry ratio right, but his evolving attempts at recreation always delighted the barbarian woman. He broke off half of the portion, and tucked what remained back in the box. Then he grabbed one of the glass jars of milk and settled both on the counter. A practiced arm reached for a long spatula and started flipping the bacon over, consolidating the now smaller pieces over to one side so he could start the second batch. Then he turned to the cupboard above the ice box, siding the carefully carved wood door to one side and pulling down the freshly restocked basket of pastries. The three dozen assorted baked sweets would probably satisfy Jester alone for a mere couple of days. With a warm smile, he selected three different options; a dense looking cinnamon roll topped with dripping swirls of hardened white icing, a honey tart loaded with dark red berries, and a donut complete with pink berry icing and multicolored sprinkles.
Once the last of the bacon was toasted just right, Caduceus loaded it onto a plate and back on his serving tray. He tucked the chunk of cheese on a small desert plate next to a small glass of milk, and the three pastries on another large plate. Then he procured another three glasses and a pitcher, and headed for the stairs. He gave his signature two-thump knock at the door to Beau and Jester's bedroom, and pushed inside.
"You ladies sound like you might need a snack, soon. I was downstairs cooking and thought I'd bring it up." He spared a glance at the tangle of limbs on Beau's bed. Thick leather straps hooked over Yasha's hips and around each thigh, a pair of deep toned slender legs hooked around her waist at the small of her back. Equally slender arms disappeared past the curves of Jester's waist as Beau gripped her tight, head pillowed on muscular blue thighs.
"Awwww thank you, Cadewces!" Jester chimed, eyes lighting up as the tray of bacon and pastries passed her. Her hands didn't move from idly stroking Beau's hair back, however, so she was still more occupied by the head cradled in her lap.
Yasha's movement between Beau's spread legs stilled. "That will be much needed shortly. Thank you for your foresight."
The cleric set the tray on the small night stand and then filled the pitcher. "Water, too. Jester, you should be able to refill it as needed. I already used my continuous charm for the gentlemen."
"No problem, Cadewces! I'll take care of them!" The little blue tiefling's head bobbled happily with her words, jewelry jingling with the movement.
Caduceus laughed. "I know you will, little one." He leaned down to press a tender kiss to the top of her head.
As he pulled away, Beau caught his hand. "Thanks, Duceus."
He lifted her hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to the scared and callused knuckles. "Of course, dear." He tucked Beau's hand back up near Jester's and then leaned in to kiss Yasha's cheek before heading out. As he pulled the door closed, a stream of low moans and curses in Beau's abrasive voice filtered through the door.
With a heavy sigh, Caduceus turned back down the hall and meandered down the spiral stairs. The song he'd been humming seemed to take itself up this time, low rumbling notes settling comfortingly in his chest. He was just easing into solitude when a familiar green figure scurried past his vision.
"Oh, uh...sorry. I smelled bacon."
A warm chuckle escaped the lumbering furbolg. "No need to apologise. I made bacon and took it up to the girls. There's about a third of it still on the counter if you want some. You know I'm not about to eat it."
"Well, don't mind if I do!" Nott scampered up to the counter and leaped onto one of the stools opposite the prep counter. She pulled the plate closer, inch by inch, as if the only vegetarian of their group was about to tell her she couldn't have it.
"Alright, there, missy. What's your hesitation?" Caduceus turned his back and reached up into the bread cupboard, pulling down the basket of pastries and retrieving one of the honey tarts. "Pastry?"
"No, Jester already gave me, like, six of those."
Caduceus shrugged. "Figures. Now tell me what's on your mind." He reached for the kettle and settled it on the stove, then began rifling through the many small clay jars in his tea curio. "If you really were just down here for bacon, I never would have seen it or you."
"Good point." The goblin crunched into a piece of bacon. "It's just, well they're all so loud. They like to think no one knows what they're doing, but I can't walk the halls without constantly hearing them."
The cleric studied his friend's face for a long moment. "Is it the noise that bothers you, or the sex?"
Nott froze mid-bite. "Well it... it's loud. It's not that I..." she quieted a moment and then, "yeah, it's the sex."
"Sex is a part of nature," Caduceus responded with a shrug. "We've been through some bad fights, lately. It's how they unwind." He turned with a mug in each hand. "I thought you would understand. You've had sex at least once, given that you have a son."
"Well yeah, but that was before, ya know? Before I was...this." The goblin motioned down at her body.
"You mean you and Yeza didn't...?"
"How could we? Look at me! Who would want this?"
Caduceus poured the now steaming water into the two mugs. "Well, I know this isn't the case for everyone, but I don't think sex is about what you look like. I know most of you were together before I came along, but I'm a rather observant being. With the exclusion of Mollymauk who will go to bed with anything that gives him the time of day, it seems like this particular group chooses sexual partners, internally and externally, based on some level of trust and personality compatibility. Their souls just kinda fit, ya know?"
"No. No, I don't think I do." Nott's ears drooped. "How could my Yeza ever trust me when I look like this?"
The cleric smiled, pouring a small bit of brown liquor into one of the tea mugs. "I think your Yeza knows you. He doesn't look at you and see the same monsters who hurt your family years ago." He pushed the now alcohol dosed mug of tea towards Nott. "Yeza sees his wife. He sees Veth, the woman he fell in love with, who collects pretty things and comes up with crazy ideas that he's spent his life trying to create."
Nott took a careful sip of the tea. "You can't possibly know that."
Caduceus shrugged. "Perhaps not, but I've seen the way you two work together in the lab. The way you anticipate each other's movements and thoughts. Honestly, that's why I thought you two had already recommenced the physical part of your marriage. Two people with that kind of compatibility have usually built it in the bedroom as much as in their preferred field of work."
Nott's eyebrows crinkled. "What makes you say that?"
"The rest of the group, honestly. Yeah, living together, spending all our time together, builds some of that. But Beau and Jester got better at working together after they started sharing the room here at the house. Fjord and Molly have always worked well together, Yasha says, and I suspect their relationship picked back up after we brought Molly back. Caleb and Fjord never seemed to work well together until Molly came back, but now they almost move in sync in battle. Beau and Yasha can anticipate each other's movements almost second nature. And we all know when Jester and Fjord stopped dancing around each other they started dancing together much better. Bedroom relationships transfer to battlefield tactics. Or, in your case, lab techniques."
"I never thought of it like that," Nott commented. She took another bite of bacon. "It doesn't change the way I feel though. Yeza's not here, and even if he were..."
"Do you feel lonely, Nott?"
Pink hair fell in the furbolg's face as his head tilted in contemplation. "No, I can't say I do. I've never felt the need for another person in my life in that way, so I suppose there's nothing to miss."
"You mean you've never been in love before?"
Cadeuces shook his head with a comical flop of ears. "No. I mean, before you lot, the only other people I'd known were either my parents and siblings, or the grieving."
"So you've never..." Nott made a rude gesture that Caduceus assumed translated to sex in some way.
"Nope. Never wanted to."
"Not even, like, when you were a teenager? You know, going though the changes?" The last bit was harshly whispered.
"No, not really."
"And you don't get lonely?"
A bushy pink eyebrow climbed up Caduceus's face. "Well I'm rather used to being alone. I was alone for all that time before you all showed up and dragged me on this adventure. And even then I wasn't completely alone. Not really. I had the Wildmother. I spoke to her, communed with her, and in return she taught me. So when you and Caleb disappear into your studies and the girls disappear into their training, or when everyone is otherwise occupied with each other, I have Her. I have the tree and the garden, and I can spend days worshiping at the Wildmother's roots."
Nott was quiet for a long moment, sipping at her tea. "But do you think you'll ever want someone like that?"
Caduceus took a bite of his tart to delay the answer, brow furrowed as he tried picturing such a thing. "You know? I honestly have no idea. I supposed if the Wildmother wanted me to sow my seed I would, but for now, I'm happy. I have the garden and the bees and goats and chickens. I have you lot to look after. But taking care of people and animals and life in general fulfills me. I'm quite satisfied."
"And the rest of the group, you know, going at it like bunny rabbits. That doesn't bother you?" The last bit of tea in Nott's cup swirled in a spiral of leaves and brackish liquid.
"Well, no. Not really. Like I said, sex is a part of nature. Naked bodies are naked bodies. They don't seem bothered by my presence when they're in the act. The act itself doesn't bother me. It just kinda is. That's their thing. I'm just happy to be around to make sure other needs are met. Food and water, mostly. The boys have a tendency to forget that bit."
"You mean Caleb forgets. He always forgets to eat."
"And neither Fjord nor Molly think to ask if he has eaten. But I do. That's what I'm here for."
Nott swigged down the last of her tea. "I'm glad you're here with us, Ducey. I think we all need you more than we're willing to admit."
Caduceus rounded the counter and tucked a bit of hair behind Nott's ear. "I know. I'm glad I'm here too." He stooped to press a kiss to the top of her head. "Now, you've eaten all the bacon. Why don't you go get some rest? I'm sure the others will be settled by now."
A small green hand reached over to pat Caduceus on the arm. "Yeah alright. Thank you for listening." Then the goblins scrambled down off the stool.
"Anytime." The cleric gave a sharp nod and then turned back to his tart and tea. His soul felt full and at peace in a house overflowing with love.
Once the last of his tea was gone and the cups washed, Caduceus started up the tower steps one last time. Light poured down the stairs from the spa, so he slowed his steps and made them a bit heavier to announce his arrival.
"Oh, that feels sooo good, Fjord!" Jester's drawn out accent drifted down the stairs. "Can you go a bit lower?"
"Sure thing, sugar. Anything you want," came Fjord's responding drawl.
Caduceus thumped his foot on the top stair before entering. "Just passing through."
"Oh, Cadewces! You're still awake! Come in!"
The furbolg laughed a bit at the excitement in the other cleric's voice. "Alright, just for a minute." He crossed the room and leaned against the edge of the large stone basin, folding his arms over and resting his chin on them. Steam drifted up from the hot water, causing the shorter hairs near his face to curl up a bit. "You two having a good night?"
"The best!" Jester insisted, drifting over to the edge Caduceus was leaned against. Bubbles clung to her deep sapphire skin and the ends of her black hair dripped back into the tub. "Thank you for the donut. Cadewces. I was going to come get some when we were done so we could all have something to eat, but I'm glad you beat me to it."
"Of course, dear." A pale furred hand reached out to pat Jester on the head.
"Yeah, and thanks for the meal." Fjord peeled himself out of the carved seat and eased over beside Jester. "Had I know Caleb didn't eat..."
"I know." Caduceus smiled. "Things happen. Our wizard is easily distracted. But I'm always happy to help." He reached out to clap Fjord on the shoulder. "But I'm headed to bed, now. Don't exhaust yourselves too much."
"Goodnight, Cadewces!" Jester called.
With a satisfied smile on his face, Caduceus made his way up the rest of the stairs. Before pushing open the door to his garden, he caught Fjord's gentle prodding of "you're not too worn out to play around with me, now, are ya?" Followed by Jester's ringing laughter and an insistent "Never!"
The garden smelled sweetly of the moon flower Mollymauk had planted around the base of the tree. The little white and pale purple blossoms swayed in the arcane breeze that shifted through the leaves of the massive tree. Caduceus padded softly up to the trunk, bowing a moment before the likeness of the Wildmother carved into the lowest branch. Then he righted, and started a slow, leisurely climb along that low branch. Standing on the thick limb, he reached up and unfurled his hammock from the next branch up. A low sigh of contentment escaped his chest as he settled in, gazing between the branches up at the sprinkling of stars in the sky. Smiling, he reached a hand back over his head to grasp the branch holding him. "Goodnight, my goddess."
A warmth filled his chest, and a soft breeze rocked his hammock. The Wildmother heard his salutation and cradled him in her love.
Content and filled with peace, Caduceus let his heavy eyelids fall closed, and relaxed into the embrace of his beloved.
I might come back to this and write chapters from each of the other members' perspectives but the idea of Caduceus casually taking care of the others even when they're *ahem* busy keeps bouncing around in my mind.
Chapter 2: Provision
"Here, Caduceus. I'll help you with the dishes." Yasha rose from between Beau and Molly at the table and began gathering the plates in her broad reach.
"Thank you, Yasha. That's much appreciated."
Yasha stepped away to leave Beau and Molly looking at each other. "Hey Molly," Beau started in her voice that meant she was up to something.
"Yes, Beau?" Molly mimicked back, fluttering his eyelashes.
"I'm in the mood for a fight."
The tiefling leaned forward, propping his head up with both hands. "And what do you propose we do about that?"
"I was thinking a little pop over to the city of beasts, some two on two in the Four Corners?"
Mollymauk nodded in consideration. "My blades are a bit thirsty. Whaddya say, Caleb? Wanna join us?"
The wizard looked up from his conversation with Nott. "Oh, uh, no, thank you. I've barely gotten halfway through transcribing the last book Essek loaned me."
"Spoilsport," Beau teased, then turned her attention across the table. "How 'bout you, Jessie?"
"I don't think I'm allowed to fight there anymore." Jester's big blue eyes looked up at the others, forehead crinkled and lower lip curled out.
"You can come be our cleric!" Beau offered.
"Yeah, someone's gotta patch up Beauregard when I'm done kicking her ass."
"Tough words for a twice-dead man," Beau bit back, humor in her voice.
"Hey, I'm like a bad rash, baby. I just keep coming back!"
A gentle smile lit Caduceus's features as Yasha passed him a clean plate to dry. He shook his head a bit at the crass comment from Mollymauk.
"It is nice to hear him laughing," Yasha commented. "Especially when he was silent for so long."
The furbolg leaned slightly to bump his shoulder to hers in a silent answer. After a few long moments of washing and drying and putting away, he piped up, "So what's on your agenda today? Going with them to fight?"
Yasha carefully passed over a clean glass. "You know, I'm not sure. I don't think I'm up for a fight, and honestly the way those three conduct themselves in that place just makes me embarrased. Even if Beau and Jester are fun to watch against each other."
"Yeah, that they are." Caduceus shrugged. "Why don't you come help in the garden? The strawberries looked close to ripe yesterday, and I think with a bit of coaxing we can get enough for another attempt at that cheese you like."
The barbarian looked over at the table a long moment then turned back. "Yes, I'd like that. It will be good to make myself useful." Wide, strong hands gripped the handles of the large wash basin. "You want this up in the garden?"
"Yes, please. Over by the salad vegetables, please. They were looking a bit sad this morning."
Yasha paused in the doorway to the tower stairwell. "I'll just set it over by them. I don't think I'd know how much water to give them."
"That's alright, dear. I'll be up shortly." Caduceus reached a long arm up over his head to hang a pot from the rack over the stove. "Alright, who all's going to Asarius?"
Beau, Jester, and Molly all chimed out with excited affirmation.
"Fjord, you're coming with us, right?" Jester insisted, turning pleading eyes on the half orc.
"I dunno, Sugar, I'm awful tired."
"Come on, pahleeeeeease?" The little blue tiefling drew the word out and pouted her lower lip a bit.
Fjord gave a heavy sigh and looked down at her. Then a grin crept over his cheeks. "Oh, alright. Sure. Why not?"
The other three cheered in victory, laughter ringing through the room.
"Anyone else?" Caduceus checked. "Caleb? Nott?"
"Oh, uh, no. Thank you." Caleb's thick Zemnian accent cut through the babble. "I've still got quite a bit of work to do."
"Do you need my help with anything?" Nott asked, turning towards Caleb.
"No, Nott. Thank you, but I'm just copying spells for the time being. You should go. Have fun with the others."
The goblin turned back towards Caduceus. "I suppose I'll tag along. See what kind of trouble we can get into."
"Oh, please, don't get in too much trouble." The furbolg shook his head as he reached above the ice box for a loaf of bread. "Especially not you, Beau. The city of beasts is not a great place for a human to cause trouble."
"But we're favorites of the Bright Queen and heroes to the Kryn Dynasty!" The monk faux whined.
Caduceus started cutting slices from the bread loaf. "Asarius is still home to some of the more dangerous creatures within the Dynasty."
"Yes, and you are a squishy human," Caleb added. "You want to go pick a fight, do so at the Four Corners where your number of opponents is limited."
"You sayin' I can't hold my own in a fight?" Beau cocked her head to one side as a come-on.
"No, what I am saying is that you shouldn't take any unnecessary risks during our down time. We are supposed to be resting and recovering and preparing for what's next." The wizard's voice was humorless.
The monk crossed her arms and sagged back in her chair. "I'm tired of resting. I need to punch something!"
"Yes, which is why you're going to Asarius," Caduceus pointed out. "We are just asking you to be smart and mindful of what you do outside of the fighting pit." He punctuated the statement with the sharp drive of a knife through a tomato.
"Alright, alright, fine. I'll be careful." She pushed herself to standing and stomped up the stairs with a pointed mumble of profanity.
"I am going to the library. I'll be in there for the foreseeable future if anyone needs me," Caleb announced. He pushed himself to standing and meandered off towards the library.
"Hey, Caleb, wait!" Nott hurried after him, pulling her sweater up over one shoulder.
The furbolg shook his head and turned his attention back to the sandwiches he was preparing. Sure, they all had coin and could eat, but sometimes a little taste of home is nice after a beating. "Jester, come pick which pastries you wanna take with you."
"All of them!" She responded, throwing her whole body over the table.
"Now, I think a handful will suffice, Sugar." Fjord rested a large hand on her shoulder.
"Aww you're no fun!" She teased back.
"Yeah, Fjord," Molly started, easing up on the other side of the Warlock and draping an arm over his shoulder. "I think we need at least an even dozen." He rested a horned head on his own hands on Fjord's shoulder. "You know Jessie's gonna eat half of that, herself."
"Yeah, alright. A dozen," Fjord conceded. He brushed Molly's hands off his shoulder, but not without a quick kiss to the back of one. Then he crossed to the cupboard and pulled down the noticeably depleted basket of pastries.
"Oh! Don't forget the ones with the berries that Beau likes!" Jester bounced up and started pulling pastries from the basket.
"And the rum cookies for Nott," Mollymauk added.
Caduceus smiled fondly, stacking together sandwiches as he listened to the trio bicker over the pastries. He reached into a drawer for a stack of brightly colored napkins, and began wrapping the sandwiches according to their owners; blue for Beau, pink for Jester, gold for Nott, gray for Fjord and purple for Mollymauk. Then he set aside the orange cloth, and tucked the green and black ones back in the drawer. The sandwiches situated, the furbolg turned to the small group huddled at the counter. "Jester, be a dear and go get the picnic basket?"
"Okay, Cadewces!" She chimed, turning on a heel and scurrying off into the cellar.
Caduceus smiled at her enthusiasm then turned and pulled down two bulbous glass bowls from a high shelf. He dragged the basket of berries from the previous day's harvest across the counter and began filling the first jar with brightly colored fruit.
"Are you gonna eat this one?" Molly pointed at a doughy pastry shaped like an 8 with some sort of cream in one hole and a deep purple fruit preserve in the other.
Fjord crinkled his nose up. "Nah, I don't much care for those. The cream just don't taste right."
"Excellent I'll take them both." The tiefling plucked both berry and cream pastries from the basket and set them on the plate with the others they planned to take with them.
"Uh, Fjord? Do me a favor?"
"Sure thing, Ducey."
"Go down to the cellar and bring up some vegetables for your lunch?" Caduceus spread a small scrap of burlap over the opening of the jar now filled with berries and then tied a bit of cotton string around the lip of the jar, securing the burlap down. "And find Jester while you're down there. I think she's lost."
"Sure thing." The half orc bumped shoulders with Molly as he turned towards the open cellar. "Did ya find that basket, Sugar?" he called, heading down the narrow stairs.
"You know they're not coming back up anytime soon, right?" Mollymauk leaned against the counter, tail curling up behind him in a loose question mark.
"They will." Caduceus reached under a counter and pulled out a water skin and two flasks. "I'll chase them out with insects if I have to." Another turn and reach under a counter produced several liquor bottles. "Dealer's choice."
Mollymauk raised an eyebrow and then assessed the alcohol options before him. "Is this necessary? Nott carries that endless flask everywhere."
"I thought it'd be a nice treat, you know?"
"Yeah, alright." The tiefling shrugged then pointed to a small crystal decanter filled with a warm golden liquid. "The honey liquor then."
"Yeah, Beau and Jester are sweet on that one." Caduceus uncorked the bottle and filled the larger of the two flasks.
"What's with the little one?" Molly pointed at the small flask in a pink leather case with a blue snowflake carved into it. "I don't think I've seen it before."
The furbolg only offered a coy smile as he pulled the bucket of milk from the goats that morning across the counter and then reached for the tiny flask. "The case is enchanted to keep the contents cold. Something Jester picked up." He turned the tap lever at the bottom of the bucket, and creamy white liquid poured down into the flask in a thin trickle. "You know she simply must have milk with her pastries."
"That she does."
"I've got it!" Jester's yell preceded the mass of her body barreling up the stairs. A large straw basket swung under one arm as she danced into the room. "It was stacked under a bunch of old animal skins. Why do we keep those down there anyway?"
"I'm tellin' ya, Jester, Ducey's tryin' ta learn how to tan." Fjord shoved the door closed on his way out of the cellar.
"But can't he just go up in the tower and tan from the daylight balls?"
Caduceus gave a heavy sigh and shake of his head, accepting the handful of vegetables from Fjord. "No, Jester, tanning is the process of turning skin to leather, preserving it for use."
"Ooohhhhh." She set the basket down on the counter. "But why?"
"For use," Caduceus said with a shrug. He began quickly chopping a cucumber into discs. "Or for trade. We kill so many animal type creatures it just seems a waste not to make use of what we can." He reached for a carrot and repeated the rapid movement of his knife, chopping that one into discs as well.
"Yeah, good leather is valuable trade." Molly swiped some berries from the basket on the counter. "And the fur of some creatures is a commodity, even a luxury." He popped a couple berries into his mouth.
Jester puffed air between her lips in a rude sound. "Ohkaye but like, why would anyone want to wear that? Like that was a living thing."
"You know, Jester, I wonder that all the time." Caduceus scooped the now chopped cucumbers, carrots, and radishes into the second glass jar. "Just never seemed right, commandeering the appearance of another life for the sake of vanity." He covered the jar over with burlap and began wrapping the string under the rim.
"See, leather I get," Fjord added. "Tanned right, it's strong and sturdy and lasts for decades if you care for it. I once had a ship mate who wore this old leather coat - originally belonged to his grandfather. Pristine condition 'cause he kept it oiled."
"It just seems a waste to leave something so useful behind," Caduceus added. "If I can get the solution right, we'll have strong leather to use or sell or trade. Either way, it'll be put to better use than rotting in some cave or dungeon or wherever we left the body."
"See, I told ya!" Fjord insisted to Jester.
"Ya, okay," the little tiefling responded, absently. "Molly, throw me a berry!"
The other tiefling obliged, tossing a blackberry in an arc towards Jester's open mouth.
"Alright. Sandwiches are here. This jar is fresh berries and this one is chopped veggies." Caduceus pointed to each package on the counter. "Water, honey liquor, and milk. At least one of you should be capable of packing the basket."
"Of course, Caduceus. Thanks for takin' the time." Fjord clapped a hand to the taller man's shoulder, then reached for the jars and flasks to start filling the basket.
"It's my pleasure, really. You lot have fun. Take care of each other, and try to come back in one piece." Caduceus turned back to the cupboard and pulled down a pitcher, a glass, and his serving tray. With a gently whispered command, the pitcher filled with fresh, cool water. Then he pulled down a plate and set it at the center of the tray.
"I am the embodiment of caution!" Molly flipped a bit of hair over his shoulder, batting his eyelashes in mock flirtation.
Caduceus snorted. "The only think you embody is trouble, my friend." Deft hands selected a round pastry with chocolate and sliced strawberries in its depressed center and set it on the plate.
Molly flashed a winning smile and winked, causing the furbolg to shake his head in amusement.
"I disagree!" Jester interjected. "Mollymauk also embodies sex. Just ask Cayleb."
Caduceus pretended to busy himself, selecting some cheese and cured ham from the ice box and adding it to the plate in slices. He did notice the flush that sunk down Fjord's neck and chest at the comment, and the low drawl in Molly's voice that seemed to elicit some affect of discomfort on the people he directed it towards. Beau, who also never seemed charmed by that tone of voice from the tiefling, had tried to explain it to him once. But even seeing the tone grip at both Fjord and Jester, causing heavy blushing and a bit of stuttering in their comebacks, Caduceus still didn't understand. So he stayed quiet, chopped up another carrot into thin sticks and splayed them in a fan pattern on the plate. A quick glance in the bread cupboard revealed the small toastettes he made from the last long loaf of bread Jester had let go stale. He carefully placed a line of those down the middle of the plate, then added a scattering of berries around everything else.
"Whatcha working on, Cadewces?" Jester must have finally gotten tired of Molly's antics.
"Food for Caleb. I figure he's less likely to forget to eat if I leave snacks in his immediate proximity."
"That works?" Fjord raised an eyebrow.
"Well, we're about to find out." Caduceus set the water pitcher on the tray, carefully folded the orange napkin and tucked one corner under the plate, then set the empty glass upside down on top of that. "Worst case scenario, Beau and Nott eat it all when they go bother him when you all get back."
"Yeah, that sound right," Molly said with a nod.
Caduceus just chuckled and lifted the tray, carrying it off towards the library.
Chapter 3: Communion
I've been thinking a lot about Taliesin's remark (as Caduceus) about how when he communes with the Wildmother he sits and tries to name all the different sounds he can hear.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Yasha was already hard at work when he made it to the garden. The barbarian knelt before the berry bushes with a basket to one side, plucking bits of black, blue, and red and depositing them into different sections of the basket. Her shoulders swayed to the rhythm of a song that swelled from her in a throaty hum as she worked. So as not to scare her, Caduceus tapped lightly on the door as he entered. Her song didn't stop. Mismatched eyes glanced up over a leather clad shoulder, and then a smile painted Yasha's face before her attention returned to the harvest before her.
After another moment of observation, Caduceus padded into the garden, pausing to stroke a hand over Yasha's shoulder as he passed. She returned the gentle touch by tilting her head to nuzzle a cheek against the soft fur of his arm. Then he continued around to the drooping leaves of the salad garden. Settling down on his knees, the furbolg pulled the water basin Yasha had carried up closer, took a tightly woven straw bowl, and began scooping up the water and letting it dribble out between the folds of the weave onto the thirsty plants. Some of the plants, like the lettuce and leafy greens, perked up immediately at the offering.
Slowly, Caduceus settled into the routine of watering the large, multi-tiered garden. He dragged the basin of water with him and continued scooping it with the woven basket, simulating rain over the plants according to their natural climates. As he worked, arm sweeping side to side in graceful arcs of water, Caduceus picked up the melody his companion hummed, and settled into a counter melody an octave lower. An easy, arcane breeze drifted through the room, swirling between leaves with a gentle rustling. A small host of honeybees busied themselves, flitting bud to bud and carrying with them the pollen vital to the garden's success.
This was Caduceus's favorite part; the symphony of gentle sounds of life. Water trickled through the bamboo irrigation channels he had built at eye level around the room for seedlings. Each handful of fruit Yasha picked dropped into the basket with a soft pap-pap-pap. The small trowel made a gentle scraping noise with each stroke of overturned dirt as he opened new holes for the seedlings to transplant into the garden, proper. Bees buzzed and crickets hummed and even the occasional butterfly or hummingbird would wander in and bumble about with the beating of wings. The wind whispered through his fur and the tree responded with the low rattling of leaves. And Yasha hummed, carrying the low current of arcane energy in the tempo of her song. Caduceus wandered if she was even aware she was doing it, but he didn't dare break the embrace of peaceful quiet that had settled between them.
Once even the new transplants had been sufficiently watered, Caduceus hooked the wash basin to the pulley and let it drop back down to the first floor of the tower. A low clatter informed him it had safely reached the slanted table at the bottom and slid down to join the other basins and baskets against the high part of the staircase. Stilling the pulley wheel, he turned and dropped the watering basket on top of the pile of baskets near the door. Then he sat down before the bed of salad vegetables a good six feet from Yasha, pulled a harvesting basket over, and assessed the situation.
The creeping tendrils of peas and green beans climbed the stalks of tomato and pepper plants, respectively. Brilliant shades of yellow, orange red, and even a few deep purples peaked out between bright green leaves of varying shapes. The ripest tomatoes simply rolled off their stems and fell heavily against his palm. The peppers made a soft crunching sound as each was dislodged from the green stalk. True to their name, the snap peas plucked from the vine with a light, open snap. The snow peas made more of a low pluck, and the green beans more of a pop. The soft sounds of picking settled into the symphony, and warmth bloomed in Caduceus's chest. If he focused, he could almost feel the Wildmother's arms around him.
As Yasha and Caduceus worked, they slowly arced in closer to one another. Eventually, Caduceus found himself at the bed of tomatillo plants that shaded the strawberries. Yasha had almost finished with the blueberry bushes when she realized how close Caduceus had traveled. She turned mismatched eyes up to him and smiled, her humming not faltering. Caduceus raised an eyebrow as their arms brushed against one another over the baskets of produce between them.
Yasha’s callused hand trailed up along the soft, short fur of his arm and over the coarse woven wool of his robe to cup the curve of his jaw. Then her thumb stroked across his cheek. “You’ve got a little smudge,” she murmured, brushing the bit of dirt away. But her hand remained cupping his jaw.
“Oh, uh, thank you.” Caduceus didn’t dare move. It was rare for Yasha to initiate contact in this way, and he didn’t want to startle her.
As they sat, Yasha seemed to lean in a little closer. The gentle hum from deep in her chest picked back up as her thumb stroked, rhythmically, across the fine hairs of the furbolg’s face. When their faces were almost touching, Yasha froze. The music died in her throat as she abruptly pulled away, bringing her arms in close to her body.
Caduceus tilted his head, ear flopping against his cheek as his eyebrows narrowed. “What is it?”
Yasha shook her head a bit. “Nothing. It’s just that…” Her eyes cast down to where her hands wrung in her lap. “I find I would like to kiss you, but I don’t know if that’s…if you are okay with it. Or if you’d understand.”
“You kiss me all the time,” the furbolg pointed out. “Which leads me to believe this is different.” He leaned back a bit, long fingers curling around crossed, narrow ankles. “You say you don’t think I’ll understand. So explain it to me.” Caduceus’s shoulders curled in and he tilted his head forward a bit, eyes searching the barbarian’s face.
“Well,” Yasha started, words coming slowly as she mulled each over before speaking them into being. “Have you…have you ever been kissed on the mouth?”
“Only by my mother when I was small. I’ve seen you lot do it, though.”
“And what do you, uh…” Yasha swallowed hard, then looked up into Caduceus’s eyes. “What do you think of that? Of the way some of us kiss each other?”
Caduceus’s face settled in contemplation before he answered. “Well, it seems nice I suppose. I can’t say it’s something I have ever, like, actively wished for. It always seemed to be a private thing, and in some cases, sexual.”
Yasha rolled her lips together before speaking. “They’re all different, I think. Even kiss to kiss. When Beau kisses me, it’s charged and wanting. I can feel in the way she moves what she wants.” A smile traced the woman’s features. “Jester’s kisses are playful, always pulling away and drawing me closer.” The smile clouded over a bit. “When I kiss Molly, it’s desperate. We’re clinging to one another and trying to remember who we are, and that we’re alive. Or they’re gentle and comforting, but always with a tone of reminder.”
Velvety ears flopped as Caduceus nodded. “That makes sense, but I don’t think any of those apply to me.”
“Well, they don’t.” Yasha reached up to tuck a stray braid back from her face. “I don’t…the way I feel for you is different. I’m not…” Dark eyebrows crinkled together in frustration. Braids rustled against each other as she shook her head, trying to sort out her thoughts. “I don’t know how to put it into words. So I would like to kiss you, so maybe you’ll feel it.”
“Alright,” Caduceus nodded, assembling his thoughts as he looked around the vibrant tower garden. “Well, we’re in a safe space. We’re at home, where it’s comfortable and familiar. I trust you. As far as new experiences go, the circumstances are ideal.” He reached up to run fingers through his hair, pushing it back from his face. “If you’d like to kiss me, I’m amicable to the experience.”
Yasha looked up through dark eyelashes, mismatched eyes bright and hopeful. “Really? Are you sure?”
Caduceus just nodded, a warm smile curling up the corners of his mouth.
A low exhale escaped Yasha’s chest, tension uncoiling like a snake. She rubbed her hands together for a moment, then reached over the baskets to Caduceus’s shoulder, curling her hand up along his neck and then to stroke along the underside of a soft ear. Caduceus’s ear flicked a bit in response, and he huffed a slight laugh. Then Yasha’s forehead was pressed to his, one violet and one icy blue eye meeting his pink ones. Her breath shuddered against his lips, hers hesitantly nudging closer then away again. There was a low tension between them like the surface of a still lake; peaceful, undisturbed, but deceptive in its harboring of something else, something other.
In another heartbeat, the tension snapped. The hand tucked under the ear on the furbolg's neck curled in, short nails dragging through the thick hair as Yasha's lips ever so softly brushed against Caduceus's. Her dainty, pointed nose nudged along the broad, flat flare of a bovine nostril. Warmth flared in the cleric's chest, his lips parting in a surprised gasp. Then her lips made contact again, this time a bit more firm as they closed around his broad lower lip with a slightly wet sound. His lip pulled the tiniest bit between hers before the contact slipped away. Just when Caduceus felt sad at the loss, Yasha's lips pressed to his again, this time firm and closed, and far too quick.
Then she pulled away, sitting back on her heels and looking up into Caduceus's eyes. Her own were bright and wide, expression more open and vulnerable than Caduceus had ever seen. Yasha's eyebrow lifted just a bit as if in question.
"Wow," Caduceus breathed. "That was...quite pleasant." The warmth in his chest hadn't faded. In fact, it seem to pulse stronger and stronger when he looked across at Yasha. "I think I understand."
A broad smile lit the barbarian woman's features. A few of her braids fell into her face as she leaned back on her elbows. "You evoke a softness, Caduceus, that is unfamiliar to me. But its pleasant, and perhaps comforting. I am grateful for you."
"I find I am grateful for you as well, Yasha. I admire your strength and compassion." Caduceus pushed the baskets to either side so he could crawl forward and lean down over Yasha. "I find I would like to do that, again, if you'll let me?"
There was a gentle ease between the two. Yasha nodded, leaning up towards the furbolg's embrace. Caduceus tucked a hand against Yasha's neck, mirroring the way she'd embraced him as his fingers laced between stiff braids. Her hand trailed up along his arm then hooked at the back of his neck, bringing him down, closer. This time, the barbarian waited, allowing Caduceus to initiate the kiss. At first, he just trailed his nose along her cheek, savoring the way the fine hairs of his face dragged against her skin. Then his forehead made contact with hers, and then the bridges of their noses slotted together, then their lips brushed. The longer, stiffer hairs of Caduceus's goatee tickled Yasha's chin. The soft cleft from his lip to the tip of his nose caught the point of hers as she caught his lower lip between her own. His free hand moved down to her waist, pulling the broad form of the Asimar up against his own chest and holding her in a gentle embrace. His lips pressed to hers again and again and again in light little pecks. Then he rested his forehead against hers, eyes closed as he basked in the warmth he'd finally identified.
It was the Wildmother, or at least the way her embrace made him feel. Peaceful, protected, cared for. Loved. It was almost shocking, especially given how different Yasha was from the Wildmother; all stone faced, hard edges and not soft maternal comfort. Though they both possessed a wild fierceness and protectiveness towards those in their charge. Caduceus found he didn't want to let go, didn't want that warmth to ebb away.
The warmth enveloped the pair. Yasha leaned back into the clover floor of the garden, bearing Caduceus's weight down with her. His elbows came to rest on the ground near her shoulders, both hands tangled in fine braids as his body sagged against hers. Comforted by the closeness, Yasha began humming again. The melody rose and fell, and Caduceus could feel the vibration of her voice against his chest. The arcane energy in the room picked back up, settling into the rhythm of the song. The baubles of sunlight seemed to flare a bit brighter, casting a warm golden glow over the garden.
The warmth in Caduceus's chest pulsed even stronger. His breathing settled into the rhythm of the song as well, and he basked in the wild comfort, content to commune, to worship for as long as this feeling remained.
I want to clarify that these kissed were NOT romantic or sexual. I don't believe that lip contact is an explicitly romantic or sexual thing, but rather just an expression of affection. Also that sex and romance aren't the only types of love.
Chapter 4: Company
Hey lovelies! If you see me updating the story but not adding chapters, that's because I'm adding art! The first one is in the depths of the first chapter, and I'll be adding one illustration to each chapter. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Oh, I'm sorry, Fjord. I didn't realize you were in here." Caduceus hesitated at the base of the tree, looking up at where the half-orc was lounging on a thick branch, back against the wide trunk of the tree.
"That's alright, Caduceus. I wouldn't mind the company."
The furbolg smiled and then began carefully climbing the tree. When he got close enough, Fjord reached a hand down and lifted him up to his branch. "It's peaceful."
Fjord smiled, tusks sliding against his lips. "Yeah. If I focus on the right stars, it almost feels like I'm sitting on the mast of a ship."
"Do you miss it?" Caduceus straddled the branch and propped his upper body up with an arm behind himself.
Fjord was quiet for some time. "Yeah," he finally said. "I miss it. I miss the water and the wind, the sun and salt. I don't miss the nightmares though. I don't miss that cold pull into the depths, the feeling of drowning." There was another long pause before, "but it's better if I stay here. Safer, being far away from where he could get to me."
Caduceus nodded. "It's hard, giving up your home for the good of the world." A sadness filled his eyes. "I miss the graveyard and the temple. I miss my family. But I don't want to go back. I think I'd miss you lot far more than I miss my old home. And family can be visited. This is home, now."
"Yeah," Fjord agreed. "And Nicodranas is a short hop away via Caleb's fancy teleportation circle. I can go, when I need to."
"I find that, when I'm homesick, the Wildmother brings home to me. When I miss the grove, I close my eyes and find myself walking the plots, picking leaves and flowers and mushrooms." Caduceus shifted a bit, resting his hands on the branch in front of him and leaning his weight a bit forward. "But more often, it's when we're away. I see this tree, this garden. It's Yasha helping me harvest and it's Jester sitting down there painting in her journal with that constant stream of babble to the Traveler. It's Beauregard busting in looking to be patched up, or to yell at the symbol of the Knowing Mistress when she's figured something out. It's Mollymauk laying in the clover, bare naked and bathing in moonlight when Catha is full and high in the sky. It's Caleb and Nott bickering over breakfast. And it's you, Fjord, climbing up to this branch. Always this branch."
Fjord chuckled the slightest bit. "Yeah, it is, isn't it?" He patted the trunk down past his hip. "Feels like a mast, more than the others. It's the right width and it's at the right angle. And I can see the sky between those two branches, there." He gestured ahead and up, over Caduceus's head, index and pinky finger outstretched.
Caduceus followed the line of Fjord's hand up to where the branch above them split into two, revealing a patch of dark, starry sky. Then he looked back down at Fjord and nodded. "Are the stars the same?"
"Most of them." The paladin's hand fell back to his side. "The ones along the northern horizon are unfamiliar. We don't see them that far south. But the rest are. I do miss some of the southern constellations, though. We're too far north to pick up the serpent or the crab. Occasionally I catch the tail of the scorpion or the tip of the sea hawk's wing, or the dorsal of the shark."
"Which one was your favorite?"
Fjord fell quiet for a long moment, gazing up at the stars littered across the sky above. "When I was young, it was the serpent. That was easiest for me to find. But after everything, after UK'otoa (Uk'otoa), it just feels... wrong." He stared a little longer. "I like the sea hawk. It makes me think of freedom, of the way the Wildmother makes me feel."
The cleric nodded a bit. "I was always a fan of Melora's Crook. You can find it anywhere in Exandria, depending on the season. Much like your serpent, it was the first constellation I learned to find, and it holds a special place in my heart. But then, well, perhaps I'm biased."
The half orc's brow furrowed. "I'm not sure I'm familiar with that one." He looked back across at Caduceus. "Is it in the sky now? Can you show me?"
A smile spread across the furbolg's face. "Of course!" He carefully turned on the branch, then inched back until he came in contact with Fjord's broad chest. "Is this alright?" He leaned his head back on a muscular shoulder.
"Uh, yeah. Yeah." The Paladin sounded a bit flustered. "Sorry, you just surprised me. I'm not used to you, uh, being so physical."
Caduceus smiled a bit and arched his neck back so the bridge of his nose stroked along Fjord's jaw. "I am learning the value of physical affection among close, trusted friends."
Fjord's arms wound around the furbolg's slim waist and pulled him in closer, resting his chin on a bony shoulder. "Well, I certainly won't complain. Now show me this constellation."
A slender arm extended towards the sky. "You see Ruidus just there?"
"Follow it to the right just a bit and that bright star just there is the top of the crook. There's another star down and to the left that's the end of the crook, and across to the right is the outer curve." He traced the noted stars around a curve, hand arcing and then following a line down towards the horizon. "Then these four stars straight down make the staff."
"Ruidus looks like it will pass over the crook soon." The paladin caught Caduceus's hand as it dropped. "Does that have any particular meaning? I know the stars sometimes bear good or bad omens."
Caduceus squeezed the other man's hand. "Actually, yes. It's said, at least where I'm from, that when Melora catches Ruidus in her crook, that she is shielding the world from its ill fate, at least for a time."
"I like that," Fjord responded. The low tone of his voice rumbled through Caduceus's body. "Do you think she'll catch it this time?"
The cleric was quiet, gazing at the sky. He raised a hand again, fingers pressed together and outstretched, thumb extended along the horizon. "Hmmm. It will perhaps catch just in the top of her crook, but it could pass overtop. The angles here aren't the same as further south."
Fjord just nodded and continued gazing out at the stars. Caduceus's body was warm against his chest, and the steady rise and fall of their breathing synchronized, falling into the rhythm of a soft breeze among the leaves. A deep, comforting stillness enveloped them, and another pair of arms wrapped around the two men, cradling them in warmth.
"What about the others? I want to know about the stars you grew up with."
Caduceus gazed up into the sky for a long while, eyes tracing from star to star in search of something familiar. Finally near the southern edge of his vision and low on the horizon he spotted the bright star that marked the eye of a large, sleek figure. "There," he said, pointing to the shape. "The Moonlit Wolf."
Fjord's eyes narrowed. "I'm not sure I'm familiar with that one. The same sounds familiar, I think."
"You may know him better as Galdric, companion to the Raven Queen's Champion." Caduceus slowly traced the curve of the wolf's back from nose to tail tip. "He's low in this sky, but you can find him by searching for his eye. In some places, it's the brightest star."
The paladin focused for a long moment, watching as the form of the wolf moved to the front of his vision. "Huh. Interesting." He gazed a little longer, letting the stars fade back to the patterns he grew up with. "Where I'm from, that bright star is the tip of the scorpion's stinger. The rest of her lies farther south in the sky. I don't particularly recall the stories behind it, but from the south, we could use the movement of that bright star in relation to a fixed star in the north to navigate at sea in the summer."
"It's fascinating," the furbolg started, eyes wide with wonder. "Same stars, but different eyes see different images. I suppose it makes sense that some constellations would be regional and culturally defined."
"Makes you wonder what else is out there. What do other cultures see in the same stars?"
"I bet Beauregard would know. The cultural significance of differing constellations seems like something the Cobalt Soul would teach."
Fjord laughed a bit, warm and deep. "If she was even paying attention that day."
Laughing with his friend, the cleric gave a soft agreement, then their voices settled. Caduceus leaned into Fjord a bit closer. The warmth flared in his chest, similar to what he'd felt with Yasha. But different. Fjord was a different kind of sturdy, supportive the way the mast of a ship runs from the deepest point and up through the sails. The cleric let his eyes fall closed and nuzzled against a strong jaw line, deeply inhaling the faint air of sea salt that always surrounded the half-orc. Trusting in the strength of the arms holding him, Caduceus pulled his right leg up and threw it over Fjord's left thigh, his own legs crossing.
Fjord felt the subtle shift and pulled the furbolg in closer, almost cradling his narrow frame. He felt an arm slide down into the narrow space between his lower back and the tree trunk, another tucking up around his neck. "Comfortable?" His voice was warm and gentle like the tide lapping at the shore.
"Mmmhh, quite." Head still tilted back to face the half orc, Caduceus used the arm up around a broad neck to pull Fjord's face to his. He hesitated just a moment, but then closed the inch gap in a light brush of lips. He felt the low vibration in Fjord's chest of a confused, though content hum. The tip of a nose trailed up along the bridge of his own, catching the small hairs on his face before soft lips and firm tusks pressed to his forehead. Warmth danced across his skin like the sun reflecting off the ocean surface. His whole body relaxed, head dropping back to Fjord's chest. He felt the weight of the other man's chin on the top of his head, and the mindless stroke of a thumb across his ribs as Fjord settled into the closeness as well. He felt the warm breeze of the Wildmother upon them, and smiled in content, letting his consciousness sink into this rare moment of still warmth, like a tidal pool between jagged rocks.
I just want to clarify that the constellations mentioned in this chapter are completely made up by me and as far as what I could read aren't canon in any way to the lore of Exandria which I spent several days combing through. I did try to select some things that would make sense in reference to the lore and deities of the land in the interest of realism. But it's all made up.
Chapter 5: Support
The furbolg halted as a hand caught his arm with the charming drawl of Mollymauk. He paused, egg basket swinging from his arm as he turned in the doorway to the fenced yard where the chickens roamed. "Yes, my darling Mr. Tealeaf? What can I do for you?"
"Well, as you know," the tiefling drawled, his body settling into the soft, slanted posture as he looked up through long eyelashes. "My beloved Catha will be full in the sky tonight, as well as Ruidus, caught in Melora's Crook. I have something important to ask of you."
Caduceus took a slow, steadying breath. "The eggs need gathering. Come. You can talk while you help me search for them."
"Oh! An egg hunt! What fun!" The edge of amusement crept into Mollymauk's voice. "The satyrs would be pleased!" He giggled with glee, skipping past Caduceus into the yard, keen red scleras carefully scanning the patchy grass.
The cleric just shook his head and ambled along behind the other man. "So, what did you need, Mr. Tealeaf?"
"So, I know the garden is kinda also your bedroom, but I need it, tonight."
Caduceus stooped to pick up an egg cradled between two clusters of spiky grass. "Well, I can probably arrange that. I'm sure Fjord or Yasha wouldn't mind sharing space with me tonight. May I ask what you intend to do? Normally my presence is of no consequence when you commune with Sehanine."
"Weeeell," Mollymauk drew the word out. "I need you on standby." He scooped up an egg from under a bush.
"What, exactly, are you doing that you need a cleric on standby?"
The tiefling glanced down at the scars on his chest. "I am ready to become a blood hunter again. I'll need to make the blood sacrifice to my weapons, now that Yasha's brought them back from the blacksmith." He glanced back up into Caduceus's eyes. "I can't guarantee I won't die from the pact. It's dangerous to inact. I'll have Caleb, as well, but his healing abilities are limited to potions, and if I go too low, he can't bring me back like you can."
There was a long moment of silence, Caduceus frozen as he processed the request. "You're sure?"
"I am." Molly offered a lazy smile. "It's time. I can't keep hiding here in the house while you lot go fighting things. I have to start somewhere. I've been training with the others, getting back into fighting form, but without making the connection to my blood magic, my skill level can never increase."
"Understood. I'll make sure to prepare the necessary spells." Then the furbolg reached a hand out to catch Molly's shoulder. "At what time will you be starting?"
"As soon as the last rays of sun fade from the sky. Caleb will have to tell us when that is, with this eternal night bullshit. But after dinner, we'll start setting up."
Caduceus nodded, holding out the basket to retrieve the eggs Molly had found. "I will have the others clean up after dinner for me, and make sure we all will not be disturbed."
Molly sighed and dropped to the ground, legs crossed up in under him and reached out to stroke the head of the hen that had wandered over. "I don't know about that I just...Yasha I guess could come in if she wants. She was there when I did it the last time. I don't really want Caleb there, but he's stubborn. He's insistent on not letting me do this alone." The chains in his horns jingled as he shook his head. "I don't want anyone there. I need people there, but I..."
There was a long moment of quiet as Molly trailed off. Caduceus let it hang, waiting to see if the tiefling was going to continue the thought. When it was clear he had nothing to add, the cleric stooped down to cup the other man's jaw. "Why do you think you must face anything alone?"
Mollymauk turned wide red sclera up to Caduceus. "I don't want them to see me almost die, again." It was a hoarse, almost whisper. "They buried me, Caduceus. They put my dead body in the ground and had to continue without me because Yasha and Fjord and Jester needed them. Yasha didn't even know...she wasn't..." A tear slipped from the corner of one eye. "I can't put them through that, again."
The callused pad of a thumb stroked Molly's tattooed cheek. Caduceus lowered himself the rest of the way to the ground and wrapped an arm around the tiefling's shoulders, rubbing soothing circles across his back. "You are not alone, Mollymauk Tealeaf." He pressed his forehead to Molly's temple, whispering into his ear. "The more people you have around you, the stronger they all are, the safer you become. You have people, Molly. You have all of us who love you, who want to see you become stronger, who want to help you see that goal come to fruition."
Molly laughed a bit, nervously. "Are you suggesting I hold court and slit my wrists in front of everyone in the house?"
"I am suggesting that the Mighty Nein gathers our strength in numbers, and that together, we have the strength to share with those of us who need it." When Molly didn't offer an immediate response, Caduceus added, "This is a huge step you're taking, a milestone. I know you don't necessarily feel that way. Your body has been through this twice already. But your consciousness, this rendition of Mollymauk, is ready to take a very important step towards regaining your strength and power. It's scary, the possibility of walking into yet another death. It's even more scary to go through that alone. I believe if you asked each member of this house, they would rather be by your side than leave you to potentially face death, alone."
Molly nodded. "Yeah, okay." He swallowed hard and wrapped his arm back around the furbolg. "Alright, we hold court, then."
"Good. This is good." Caduceus stood, then reached a hand out to pull the other man up as well. "Here." He thrust the egg basket towards the tiefling. "You finish collecting eggs for dinner. I'll go prepare the others."
Molly visibly sighed at the weight of preparation being lifted from his shoulders. "Thank you, Caduceus. Really."
Caduceus only smiled, leaning to kiss Molly's cheek before wandering back inside. The door firmly closed behind him, Caduceus leaned back, eyes closed, and released a shaky exhale. "Oh, Melora, guide us. I fear I may need your hand in this, tonight." Then he pushed off the door an moved towards the training room.
The clanging of weapons and shouts of several familiar voices met the furbolg's sensitive ears before he even reached the door. He steeled himself, then pushed his way in. Yasha and Fjord were fighting sword to sword, grunts of effort and the occasional playful taunt echoing between the sharp ring of metal on metal. Beau was in the corner, chugging from a water skin as Jester wrapped her arms with the banding she used to support her wrists in combat.
"Oh, Cadewces! I didn't know you'd be joyning us todaye!" Jester turned a brilliant smile and tucked in the end of the bandage before skipping up to him.
"Actually, I'm not joining you." Caduceus looked down at the other cleric, then over at where Fjord and Yasha fought. "Have you used any of your healing spells today?"
Jester's eyes clouded, brow furrowed in concern. "Well, not yet." She blew air between her lips in a rude sound, then turned sharply on a heel and hurried across the training room. "Fjord! Yasha! Stop for a minute!"
The Rage cleared from Yasha's eyes as she stepped back, sheathing the Magician's Judge. Fjord also stepped away, banishing his blade with a flick of his wrist. Jester motioned over to Caduceus standing just inside the door. After a moment, the three approached, Jester motioning for Beau to join them as well.
"What's up?" Beau's jaw lifted with the words.
Caduceus tried to hide the worry on his face. "I was wondering if you guys would mind not training today."
"I wouldn't mind a break," Yasha said with a shrug, taking the water skin from Beau.
"Yeah, I've done enough fighting for today," Fjord added.
Beau crossed her arms. "I'm just getting started, so there better be a good reason."
Jester studied Caduceus's face. "You need the healing spells? Why? Didn't you prepare some for today?"
"I will be reviewing what I have on hand. Do you have Revivify?"
"Well no. Why would I prepare Revivify? We're here at the house." Confusion clouded Jester's voice, and then worry. "Cadewces, why do I need Revivify?"
"Yeah, what's going on, Deucy?" An edge of caution crept into Fjord's query.
Yasha's expression shifted from concerned to stalwart and calm. "It's Molly, isn't it?"
"Molly?" Panic flared in Jester's eyes. "What happened to Molly? Is he okay? Where is he?"
Caduceus caught the little tiefling around the waist as she moved to push past him, pulling her back by sheer force of will rather than strength. "He's fine, little one. He's out in the yard gathering eggs for dinner."
Yasha reached out to rest a large hand on Jester's shoulder. "It's not for right now, Jessie."
"It's his blood rite, isn't it?" Beau also reached for Jester, folding their fingers together.
"Yes. Dinner will be early, tonight, and I'll need all of you to help clear up after so we can be ready up in the garden before the sun fully sets."
"Um," Jester started. "Do you have Revivify, Cadewces?"
"I did not fully prepare my spells for the day, so I can still get that one together. Do you have a diamond?"
"Yeah," Jester nodded. "Yeah, I'll go get it."
Caduceus nodded and moved passed them towards the door to the study. "I'll go let Nott and Caleb know what's going on."
The furbolg stepped into the study, careful not to mute his footsteps as he angled towards Caleb's desk in the farthest corner of the room. Just to be sure not to startle the wizard, he rapped on a bookshelf as he approached.
Caleb still jumped a bit, blue eyes glancing up from scattered scrolls and worn parchment. "Oh, uh, hello Caduceus. I have been expecting you. I take it you've spoken with Mollymauk?"
"I have, yes." The cleric hesitated a moment. "We will all be meeting in the garden after dinner. Dinner will be early, make sure Nott is aware."
"What did you say to him, Caduceus, to change his mind? It took me three weeks to convince him to even allow you and myself to accompany this endeavor."
"Oh, not much." Caduceus shrugged. "Just that what makes our lot so strong is that we share strength among us."
Caleb nodded, thoughtfully. "Thank you, Mr. Clay. I know Molly's intentions were to spare us the potential pain of losing him again, but I fear we all would be far more concerned if he were to go through this alone, not telling us."
"That's the thing about a found family like ours," the cleric started, leaning against the edge of the desk, careful not to disturb the pages near the edge. "We are all so used to doing things alone, the hard things anyway. Support is still a bit of a foreign concept, and it is difficult to accept and even more so to ask for. But that's also why it's important for us to be in a group. No matter how used to being alone we all are, we really shouldn't be. It's easier to accept support when those around us who love us don't leave room for the alternative."
Caleb just nodded. The furbolg sensed the wizard simply couldn't find the words with which to respond, but that was okay. He didn't need them. The grateful glint in his eyes and relieved sag of his shoulders was telling enough.
Chapter 6: Resurrection
Hey so like once again a lot of this is made up based on general blood hunter lore but may not be entirely accurate.
Caduceus's ear flicked in discomfort at the low boil of nervousness that sparked between all members of the household. He checked his own pocket again, rolling the large diamond in his palm just to remind himself it was there. Then he took a deep breath and leaned back in at the table, catching the attention of Fjord, sat across from him. "If you'd please help clean up. I need to go start preparations."
Fjord nodded and then bumped his elbow with Molly's. "Showtime, circus man," he teased, then he stood and began collecting plates.
Molly swallowed, stood, and reached a hand down next to him to rest on Yasha's shoulder.
"I'm going to help clean up. Caduceus and Caleb have you. I'll be up, shortly." Yasha tilted her chin down to kiss the back of Molly's hand.
The tiefling nodded and the locked eyes with Caleb across the table. The wizard gave a single, curt nod in response and stood. Both Caduceus and Caleb stepped aside, letting Molly slip from behind the table and lead the way up the stairs.
"I have to get my swords," Molly murmured, turning out of the bath level of the tower and into the hall. There's a light click of the door opening, closing, then silence.
The silence passed for a minute, five. "I'm going to get him," Caleb snaps, moving for the door.
Cadeuces caught the wizard's arm. "Just give him a moment."
"There are very few moments until sundown. We need to move."
"Let him come around," the cleric insisted.
Just as Caleb began to step back, Molly appeared, pulling his bedroom door closed with one hand and carefully sheathed and wrapped blades cradled in the other. He'd shed his coat, shirt, and boots so all that was left to cover him was his tight black leggings. "Okay, lets do this."
Caduceus settled into the rhythm of preparing for a ritual. He watched as Mollymauk began tracing lines of ground obsidian across the clover floor of the center of the garden. Caleb followed a few steps behind, keeping the leather bag in easy reach. The cleric just stared down at the selection of components for this casting. Those that were unfamiliar made his spine crawl. He may be a grave cleric, but this was a darker magic than even he was comfortable around. The internal battle subsided with the reminder of his own words to Molly that afternoon. Together. He nodded to himself and then took up the incense and stack of brass plates, laying them across a low, wide branch. He pulled out a small knife and began cutting the incense block into five equal pieces, then crumbled each of those pieces onto a plate. Yasha appeared over his shoulder, taking the plates one by one and settling them at each point of the shape drawn in obsidian sand. The last plate crumbled and taken, he turned to see that the other tasks were already underway by various other members of the Nein.
Fjord knelt under a branch beside a basin of icy salt water, the blades of Molly's scimitars balanced and crossed over the rim on either side. He scooped water up from the tub with a hollow horn that looked less animal and more devilish in nature. The blades seemed to glow an eerie white as the half-orc worked.
Beauregard held a hefty leather bound tome in one hand, and a basket of smaller components in the other. "Hey, Jessie," she called. "Do you think this is a bear tooth or a tiger claw?"
Yasha stood and glanced over the monk's shoulder at the piece between her fingers. "That's a tooth, Beau. Do you really not know the difference between a claw and a tooth?"
"Take it easy!" Beau tossed the tooth back into the basket. "I was raised in a vineyard and then a monestary. I didn't get the chance to examine a lot of dead shit til I met you lot."
Yasha sighed. "You're lucky I've done this before, Molly," she called, taking the basket of dead bits from Beau. "Why don't you do the reading and I'll identify the animal parts."
Across the room, Nott held out a small wooden bowl of what looked sickeningly like blood. Jester danced about with a paintbrush, carefully outlining detailed glyphs and runes between the structural lines of the pentacle that stretched across the floor.
Caduceus stood and crossed to where Beau and Yasha were sorting through the basket of animal parts. "Anything I can do?"
"Tell me where you got raven feathers at such short notice." There was a note of teasing in Yasha's voice.
"Oh, I asked."
Caduceus nodded and pointed up the trunk of the tree. "There's a family of crows that nests up that way, south side of the tree. I asked nicely."
Yasha's brow furrowed. "And they just, what, dropped a couple feathers for you?"
"Well, no. They had some loose in their next they no longer had use of and allowed me to take them."
"Uh huh..." A thoughtful expression crossed the barbarian's face as she plucked the feathers from the basket.
"Hey Cad. You're good at, like, plants and shit." Beau flipped the page over. "Whaddya think that is?" She pointed to a drawing of a sharp looking leaf with small round orbs beneath it.
"Oh, that's holly." The cleric grabbed the box where he kept little jars of plants that were more used for components than tea. "Does the rite call for berries or leaves?"
"Berries," Yasha responded. "We used the little red berries last time."
Caduceus just pulled a small jar from his box and passed it to the barbarian. "We'll have to pick up some more next time we venture into the forest, but this should be sufficient."
Yasha nodded, taking the jar and moving towards the circle.
"I think that's the last component," Beau commented. She flipped through several pages, squinting at the writing.
"Hurry up, Jester, it's almost time!" Caleb called from the middle of the garden.
Fjord rose from under the branches. Molly's swords were still crossed over the basin. "You'll have to come get them yourself, Molls. I can't touch them."
"I'm done!" Jester chimed.
"Okay, everyone out of the circle," Caleb ordered. Then he turned to the purple tiefling. "Are you ready?"
Molly grabbed the wizard's face and pulled him in for a deep kiss. "I'm ready." He snaked a hand into the leather bag of obsidian sand and pulled out a handful, nodding to Caleb to back away. As soon as Molly was alone in the circle, he threw the handful of sand at his feet.
A shudder climbed Caduceus's spine at the energy that filled the garden. He checked his pocket again for the diamond, just in case, fingers clenching around the cool stone.
Molly's eyes glowed brighter red. He stalked across the circle towards Fjord and then reached past him, hand closing on the hilt of the lower scimitar. With a flick, he knocked the one on top towards himself, catching it with the other hand. With a practiced swish, the blades turned in against his arms, and he moved back to the center of the circle. "Caleb?"
"Not yet, Mollymauk."
The tiefling looked antsy. His blades swung back down at his sides and he paced around the center point of the circle, tail swishing.
"Was he like this the last time?" Caduceus leaned towards Yasha.
"No. But we could see the sun setting." The barbarian wrapped an arm around Caduceus, patting his shoulder with a broad hand. "It'll be okay."
"Now, Molly." Caleb raised his hands and cast a fire bolt to each point of the circle at once, lighting the incense. Heavily scented smoke rose up between the tree limbs, burning Caduceus's eyes.
Mollymauk took a purposeful step into the pentagon at the center of the circle. He raised his arms out to either side, then slowly turned the blades in so that the pommels aligned and the curve of each sharp edge rested against his bare forearms. With a slow, deep breath to still himself, the tiefling flung his arms apart. Caduceus could hear the blades dragging deep into flesh, and watched crimson blood splatter across the clover floor. Then Molly fell to his knees.
"Don't." Yasha caught both clerics by their shirts and yanked them back from the edge of the circle. "Not yet."
The wind shifted. Caduceus saw a black figure out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned, there was nothing there.
"I know." Yasha's hand on his shoulder kept the furbolg grounded. "You saw the spirit of the Raven Queen. It's okay. She'll bring her gift, and then she'll leave."
The low, breathy whisper of Celestial rattled from the circle, and Molly seemed to answer it.
"Do you swear, by the blood shed, to seek out, hunt, and destroy devils, fiends, and the undead that threaten peace in the land?" Yasha translated for the others.
Yasha listened for a moment, then continued the translation. "Do you swear, by the blood shed, not to harm the innocent in your pursuits?"
Caduceus reached to his shoulder to grasp Yasha's hand. Molly sounded weak.
Squeezing back, Yasha continued. "Do you swear, by the blood shed, to do your part in stamping out evil and balancing the scales of right and wrong?"
Molly was quiet for a long moment, then inhaled sharply. "I do."
"Then take this boon into thine blood, magic to bind, curse, banish, and destroy beings of evil." Yasha took in a deep breath. Caduceus could feel her shaking.
The smoke of the incense swirled into darkness within the boundary of the circle. Caduceus could just see Mollymauk's figure rising into the air, moonlight shining down on his bare, scarred and tattooed chest. The black energy spiraled around his body, then split in half and shot into the open wounds on his arms. His back arched as a scream of agony ripped from his throat.
"Molly!" Jester yelled.
It was Fjord who caught her this time, strong arms wrapping around her shoulders as he whispered softly in her ear.
Caduceus could feel Yasha shaking next to him. "Does this track? Is this what happened last time?"
She nodded a bit. "For the most part." The barbarian's voice sounded shakey. When Caduceus looked back, he saw a tear trail down her cheek.
A sudden, deafening silence filled the garden as Molly's scream ended. The swirling of wind halted, ash falling silently to the ground. Molly's body remained suspended for a long moment, his found family watching on with bated breath. Then he crashed back down to the clover floor, his body laying in a heap for a few heartbeats.
"Move, now!" Yasha charged into the now shattered circle towards Molly's fallen body, everyone else taking off with her cry.
Beau reached him first, skidding to her knees and reaching for his hand. "Come on, Molly. Come on." Deft fingers slid against his wrist, feeling for a pulse. Her eyes widened and she looked up at the others, shaking her head in a panic.
The others came crashing down around him. Nott deftly picked up the two swords and scurried away, trying to clear the space for the others.
Yasha's hands wrapped around the curve of horns and dragged his head up into her lap. She stroked his hair back from his face. "It's gonna be okay, Molly, we've got you. I've got you."
"Not again, Molly please!" Caleb dropped beside the barbarian, reaching for Molly's throat to feel for a pulse, not willing to take Beau's word for it. His heart sunk at the lack of rhythm under tattooed flesh.
"Oh no, Molly!" Jester whined and stopped just behind Beau. "Caduceus, come on!"
Fjord skidded up behind Yasha. "No, this can't be happening again."
"Move, move all of you. Out of the way." Caduceus had the diamond in his fist the whole time, praying to Melora and the Raven Queen and the Moonweaver and anyone else who would listed to please not let him have to use it. He crashed to the ground, knees ripping up clover as he shoved Beau aside and lunged in for skin contact. The first thing the cleric touches is the rough scars of Molly's chest. The spell falls from his lips, and Caduceus can feel the diamond crumble between his fingers.
No one dared to say a word.
"Come on, please." Caduceus felt the tears brimming in the corners of his eyes.
Then Molly inhaled with a sharp gasp. His eyes flew open to seven familiar faces gazing down at him like they'd seen a ghost.
"Fuck!" Caduceus almost never cursed. He collapsed forward, forehead colliding with Beau's knee. The monk just tucked a hand down against his face and dragged it properly up onto her thigh. Her focus was still on Molly, but deft fingers still worked through the cleric's fine hair, soothing.
"Did it work?" Molly raised his arms, not letting go of the hands that held his, and stared at the gashes across the skin.
"You're not finding out until we've got you healed!" Jester hopped over Caduceus and then dropped into a straddle across Molly's hips. Her hands pressed hard into his chest, holding him down as she started burning through every healing spell she'd prepared. The deep lines on his arms healed over and scarred with each word from the little cleric's mouth.
Caduceus clenched his fingers around Molly's side. He added two more healing spells, voice rough and spent. Then he dragged himself up from Beau's embrace and crawled to the water basin at the edge of the circle and became violently sick.
"Hey, it's okay." Fjord's hand caught the furbolg by the shoulder, then scooped his hair up and held it back. "Let it out, there ya go."
The cleric turned his head back and watched as Molly took the sword Nott held out to him and sliced open his thumb. The dark energy rose back up, though to a lower degree, as he spat the words for a spell of binding.
Caleb let out a choked sound as he was brought to the ground, body held tight by an invisible force. "Fuck, Molly, not here!"
The blood hunter flicked his wrist, and the binding released from Caleb's form. The wizard didn't even hesitate, he just pushed in closer and grabbed Molly's face for a deep kiss.
Caduceus sagged against Fjord's leg. "He did it." His breath heaved, head spinning from the incense and magical energy.
"Yeah. He's alright. You got to him in time." Fjord lovingly scratched at the back of the furbolg's head. "He's going to be alright."
Chapter 7: Intervention
Cadeuces startled awake as the door to the garden slammed open. It took a moment for him to still the hammock from his abrupt movement for him to clamber out. "What's going on?"
"Can you heal this?" It was Beauregard, cradling one arm with the other.
The cleric sighed and climbed down from the tree. "How did you manage to break your arm in the middle of the night?"
"Caught the arm of one of those fucking spiked spinning dummy things wrong." She shrugged. "Come on, patch me up. I can't keep hitting things with a broken arm."
"Of course, dear." Caduceus took the injured limb in one hand and lined the pieces of bone back up with one another, then cast Cure Wounds. The bones fused back together, bruising fading away as Beau winced in discomfort.
"You're very welcome, dear. Now, mind to tell me why you're hitting things in the middle of the night while the house is asleep?"
A different form of physical discomfort spread through the monk's posture. "It's nothing, really."
The furbolg gave a knowing smile. "I sincerely doubt that, so I'm going to give you two choices before I let you back in that training room."
"You can't fucking keep me out of there!" Beau protested. "I'm a fucking adult. I can do what the fuck I want."
"You hit a training dummy so hard you broke your own arm in two places, Beauregard. And then you came and woke me up to heal you rather than asking Jester."
The human shrugged, firmly chastised. "So what are my options then?"
"You sit up here with me, have a conversation with your goddess, meditate. Or you come downstairs and we talk about it over tea."
Beau's face crinkled up in irritation at the thought of both options. Caduceus knew she wouldn't like either. Beau worked out her problems by ignoring them or hitting them. Occasionally she'd disappear into a library with some notebooks and come out with her hair tangled out of its top knot and littered with lost scraps of paper and broken off feather bits from worn quills, a wild look in her eyes as she babbled to Caleb about what she thought she'd found. This didn't seem to be a book problem though, and the source of it wasn't someone or something she actually could hit. Which meant, as much as the monk hated the idea, she needed to talk about it.
"Fine. I'll take the fucking tea." Beau turned and stomped out of the garden and down the spiral staircase to the kitchen.
Stretching, Caduceus followed after her. The knowing smile on his face holding strong as he loped down the stairs. No surprise, the kitchen was empty and dark. Caduceus grabbed a candle and the tinderbox from the table beside the stairs and lit the former, carrying it into the kitchen to light the wall torches and then the stove. He watched out of the corner of his eye as Beau perched on a stool, elbows resting on bent up knees and head in her hands with a pout. He started filing through the tea curio, carefully selecting a variety of dried plants and dropping them into the tea kettle. Then he filled it with a whispered word and set it on the warming stove top.
"Now," the furbolg started. "Why don't you tell me why you're awake at this hour."
Beau mumbled something imperceptible, hanging her head so as to avoid eye contact.
"What was that?"
"I had a nightmare." She repeated a bit louder. Her voice was laced with irritation.
Caduceus hummed and brought down the pastries, selecting a spiral of chocolate dough and raspberry preserves. He set it on a plate, cut the giant thing in half, and pushed it towards the girl. "The repeating images of the bad battles kind or the being hunted by your worst fear kind?"
Beau looked up with scared eyes. "Kinda both." She reached for the pastry, tearing a piece off and raising it to her mouth in slow motion. She chewed it as if considering if she even liked it or not.
"Alternative question, why go hitting things instead of crawling in bed with Jester or Yasha?"
The flicker in Beau's eyes was telling. "Well, Jester's in Fjord's bed tonight." The fact she didn't mention Yasha gave the cleric a good idea of what the problem was.
"You've been having nightmares about Bazzoxan again, haven't you?"
"And the Chantry." She nibbled at another chunk of chocolate pastry.
The teakettle whistled in a high, reedy tone. Caduceus picked it up and poured tea into two mugs. "Bourbon or rum?"
"What kind of tea?"
"Chamomile and valerian."
Beau nodded again, pulling her knees to her chest. "Fuckin rum I guess."
Caduceus reached under the counter for a bottle, uncorking it and adding the spirits to one mug of tea. "You seem like you need something to take the edge off."
"That's what hitting things is for." Two dark hands curled around the mug, pulling it in close. Beau seemed to relax just a bit, lowering her head to take a slow sip.
The cleric sighed. "This doesn't seem like the kind of problem hitting things will solve." He cradled his own mug, taking a slow sip. "I know it helps you think and clear your head, but the thing about problems like this is that they always come back. At least until they're dealt with properly."
"Yeah? And how the fuck do I go about that? I can't just be like 'hey Yasha you remember that time you turned against us and almost killed Fjord and Caleb?' Or how about 'You almost killed me just like how Molly was killed.' Like there's an unspoken agreement that we don't fucking talk about it."
Caduceus leaned against the counter. "Let me get this straight. You can fight beside her. You can have sex with her. But you can't talk about this very traumatic thing that happened between the two of you?"
"She won't talk about it, man." Beau shook her head a bit. "And yeah I mean we fight together, but I'm always watching her, making sure she isn't gonna turn on us again." She let out a pained sounding exhale. "If she turns again, I have to be the one to take her out." Wide blue eyes turned up to Caduceus's face, shimmering with unshed tears.
A broad furred hand closed over Beau's shoulder. "Beauregard, that is not your responsibility. You shouldn't have to take that on. We are all a team. Now I don't think that will happen again, but you know that when any of us is turned in battle by an opponent's spell, we do our best, as a team, to end the spell and cause as little damage to our teammate as possible."
"This is different!" Beau shrugged the cleric's hand away. "She put herself in harm's way. She fucking chose to go first. We could've protected her! We could've broken the spell sooner or or chased her into a portal and knocked her out and dragged her home to figure it out later. But she went first so she was too far in and there was nothing we could do. There was... she was too far...she..." Beauregard broke down, shoulders hunching in even more and shaking with sobs.
"There ya go. Let it out, little one." Caduceus knew better than to touch Beau like this. He'd already used one healing spell for the night. Instead, he set his mug down and searched for eye contact. "I'm not leaving you, I just need to do something. I'll be right back, I promise."
Beau nodded, wiping away the tears with the back of her wrapped arm. A part of her was glad for the privacy, that Caduceus would turn away and allow her dignity to remain in tact.
The furbolg's heart sunk as he turned away and headed up the stairs. He knew these people around him were fucked up, but he hated seeing them in pain nonetheless. If his conversations with Yasha were anything to go by, this was something she still needed to work through as well. And while she was better at conversing with her god for answers and guidance than Beau, no amount of prayer was going to fix the rift between the two women who very clearly loved each other. One conversation over tea in the middle of the night wouldn't magically fix things either, but it would be a start.
He raised a hand and thumped twice on the door to Yasha's room, and then let himself in. The Aasimar was asleep, but not in the bed. She'd taken to sleeping on the floor since she returned to them. She claimed the bed just felt too soft after cave floors, but Caduceus knew she didn't think she deserved the soft comforts of home. He knelt down beside her and shook a shoulder, his soothing voice begging her to wake.
When her eyes opened, they were black with Rage. She inhaled sharply and drew her body back, a dagger appearing in her hand before she rushed Caduceus. With a practiced arc of his arm, Caduceus hit the nerves in Yasha's wrist and knocked the blade from her hand. Then he wrapped long arms around her, grappling her tight to his chest until her breathing slowed.
"Yasha," he murmured. "Yasha, Yasha, Yasha." He repeated her name over and over, the depth of his voice acting as an anchor, a reminder. Yasha. Not Orphanmaker. She was Yasha.
"I'm sorry." The barbarian relaxed into her friend's touch. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"
"No, no." Caduceus released her, leaning back and reaching to retrieve her dagger. "No harm done."
Yasha nodded, taking the knife back and setting it on the table beside the bed she rarely used, then pushing herself to standing. "Did you need something, Caduceus?"
"Ah, yes, and I'm afraid you're not gonna like it." The furbolg stood as well, looking down at the barbarian, apologetically.
One blue and one purple eye turned up to the furbolg. "Is everything okay? Is someone hurt? What's wrong?"
"Everyone is quite safe and well, dear. Just...you are needed downstairs."
Yasha hesitated a moment. "Care to tell me what this is about?"
"I suppose I owe you a fair heads up." Caduceus steepled his fingers in front of his mouth, steeling himself for what he knew he had to say. "I think it's far past time you and Beauregard had a conversation about Baxxozan and Rexxentrum and the Angel of Irons."
Yasha swallowed hard at the statement, a bit of panic flaring in her eyes. Her hand moved to the ruby ring of protection on her other hand, fingertips brushing over the sleek stone. Then she nodded. "Yeah. Very well."
The two made their way back down the stairs. Caduceus held up a hand, halting Yasha as he stepped into the kitchen. "First thing, Beauregard, please do not throw anything or swing any punches or any other 'monk shit,' as you call it."
Beau narrowed her eyebrows. "Why would I - oh." Her words broke off as Yasha followed the furbolg into the room.
"Please don't walk away." Yasha held her hands up in mock surrender. "I know you want to. I want to. But..."
"If it's so bad Caduceus is forcing us to talk about it, we probably should," Beau conceded.
There was a hesitance in Yasha's posture. She swallowed and moved closer, keeping the counter between herself and the likely to become volatile monk. "Uh, Caduceus, could I..?" She motioned to the tea kettle.
The furbolg pulled down another mug and passed it over. "Help yourself, dear."
"So we're doin' this?" Beau had moved into a defensive stance.
"I think we should." Yasha poured herself a mug of tea, lifting it to her lips and sipping. "I think we should have talked about this a long time ago. I know we glossed through it with everyone, but you and me, we had something. I'd like to try and get that back."
Beau's eyes widened just a bit when she saw the ring on Yasha's finger. Safe in the house, there was no reason for the barbarian to be wearing the protective piece. Yet the fingers of her other hand brushed against the deep red stone fondly as her hands folded around the mug. The monk swallowed hard and looked up into Yasha's eyes, then over at Caduceus.
"Stay? Just in case?"
The cleric nodded. "I'm happy to mediate. If things go south, I'm more than willing to intervene." He pulled two more stools up to the counter, pushing one around beside Yasha, and then settling on the other between the two women. "This is good, what we're doing. It's important. I think nothing but good can come from this, even if it will suck for a while."
Chapter 8: Comfort
The library was dark and cold. Colder than it should be. Caduceus listened carefully. He hadn't seen Caleb leave, but that didn't mean he hadn't left while the furbolg was otherwise occupied. Though the wizard was usually good about telling someone in the house if he slipped out to go to the conservatory or shopping or over to Essek's. Then Caduceus caught the low muttering of Zemnian and scribbling of a quill on parchment.
"Caleb? I'm coming in, I don't want to startle you."
The muttering didn't stop. The temperature in the room seemed to drop a bit more.
A chill ran down the cleric's spine. Something was very, very wrong. Caduceus took a deep breath and started cycling through the spells he had prepared. He almost tripped over something twining between his ankles. With a surprised yelp, Caduceus looked down into a pair of bright green feline eyes.
"Hello, Frumpkin. Is Caleb alright?"
"Mrow." The fae cat headbutted Caduceus's leg, then turned down the aisle between two tall bookshelves. He paused at the end of the row, looking over his shoulder with another insistent yowl before trotting deeper into the study.
"Okay, I'm coming." Caduceus followed, steps quiet on the ornate rug that spanned the aisle between shelves. "This isn't right," he muttered to himself, checking his pockets for spell components.
Frumpkin hopped up onto the edge of Caleb's desk. "Mrooow!"
Caleb was there, hunched over the desk and scribbling away at a long scroll of parchment that had rolled off the desk, unfurling until it hit the bench under the window six feet away. There were no lit candles, and the fireplace was unusually dark and barren. The only source of light was an eerie blue glow emitting from the book Caleb appeared to be copying.
The wizard didn't even seem to notice the visitor.
"Ohhkay." Caduceus exhaled, biting his lower lip in concern. Then he turned his attention to the cat. "Go get the others. At the very least, I need Jester and Veth."
"Mrow?" Frumpkin tilted his head to one side, blinked, then leaped from the desk and took off out of the library.
Caduceus swallowed hard and glanced around the study. "Okay, first things first we need warmth and light." He crossed to the fireplace, hand running along the mantle searching for the tinderbox that was usually left there. He started by lighting the candles on either side of the mantle, then crouched to light the fireplace. Deft fingers wrapped around a metal poker, stoking the embers up into a roaring blaze. "There we go." He sighed as the warmth seeped into his bones. Then the furbolg pushed himself to standing and whispered the soft command for detect magic.
The normal, expected things lit up; Caleb's necklace that matched the one around his own neck, the small collection of books in the locked shelf behind his desk, the bright glow of Veth's alchemy corner across the room. But the brightest beacon came from the book open under Caleb's hand. The half unfurled scroll also gave off a low glow.
"Well, that's not good."
"What's not good?" Jester chirped, startling the other cleric.
"Yeah, Cad, what's going...on..." Beau's voice trailed off as she approached the other clerics, lifting the small silver pendant of her own matching necklace to her lips in thought.
"Oh, no." Veth was already at the window, carefully inspecting the scroll. "Jester, can you send a message?"
"Uh, yah!" The tiefling was already reaching for the emblem on her hip. "Who am I sending a message to?"
"Essek," Caduceus and Veth respond at the same time.
"Okay!" Jester traced a pattern of glyphs in front of herself, took a deep breath, and then began. "Hey, Essek? Are you busy? We kinda have a problem. It's Caleb. He's kinda, like, in a trance? And there's a creepy glowing book and-"
"Words," Beau informed the tiefling.
There was a long pause, then Jester's eyes widened. "He's on his way. He says don't touch him or the book or anything."
"Yeah, okay. That's doable." Caduceus gave a gentle nod. "Jester, do you have some diamond dust on you? I have Greater Restoration prepared if it's needed, but my apron is upstairs."
"Oh uh..." She rifled through her pockets. "I think it's in my haversack," the tiefling answered in a disappointed tone.
"I've got some!" Veth hurried over towards her alchemy table. "You need fifty gold worth, right?" She threw open a drawer and pulled out a small drawstring leather bag and a handful of small lead weights.
Caduceus shook his head, tearing his eyes away from their affected wizard and turning towards the halfling. "Yeah, 50. If I don't end up needing it you can have it back, of course."
Veth placed the weights onto her scale with a soft plink plink, then began pouring the diamond dust into a smaller pouch.
"Yeah, okay I feel pretty fucking useless here," Beau huffed "Unless you need me for something, I'm going back to bed."
Then a loud collection of clanging echoed from the front of the house. "That would be Essek," Caduceus commented. "Show him this way on your way out, Beau?"
"Yeah, sure." The monk turned, steps almost completely silent as she hurried toward the door.
"Alright what's...oh no." Essek dropped from his hovering stance down to his feet and ran full charge to Caleb. "No, this book is supposed to be locked up. Where did he get it?"
"Uh, we kinda found it in a dungeon?" Veth approached and passed a small bag of diamond dust to Caduceus.
"What dungeon?" Essek shot the halfling a threatening look.
Jester placed a hand on Veth's shoulder and stepped forward. "When we were getting Yasha back from the creepy cult, we found it in the crypt. Like right before we went into the room where the shackle was."
"Yeah," Veth added with a nod. "In the room with the big torch."
Essek's eyebrows shot up. "And you took it? A powerful magic book from a powerful location?" He sighed and turned to look at Caleb again. "Damn your curiosity, wizard." Then he traced a glyph in the air, and his eyes turned completely white as he glanced around with some form of magically enhanced sight.
"What kind of damage is this likely to have done?" Caduceus squeezed the bag of diamond dust. "I have greater and lesser restoration prepared since Veth was working with some experimental substances."
"I didn't use all my cure wounds today," Jester chimed in. "Fjord's getting better at blocking."
"I don't..." Essek exhaled in frustration. "It's hard to say at this point. He hasn't finished."
"What happens if he finishes?" Jester so helpfully asked.
The drow swallowed hard, bending to inspect the writing on the scroll. "Did you get this from the crypt as well?" He squinted, confused as he studied the lettering. "Not all this is in Caleb's hand."
"I don't know, Essek." Veth was speaking in the way she did when she knew the answer but didn't want to give it. "We got A scroll but it was in a canister."
"This canister?" Essek held up an ornate blue and silver cylinder.
Essek nodded and righted himself, hurriedly stepping away. "Get back, everybody. Caduceus, I'd suggest you be ready to move with Greater Restoration as soon as that book is closed. Veth, can you close the book with Mage Hand on my mark?"
"Yeah, I think so." The halfling traced a glyph in the air and then pointed, and a glittering hand appeared on the table next to the book. "Okay, ready when you are."
"Do you think he'll need Cure Wounds?" Jester looked up at the mage with scared blue eyes.
The drow grimaced. "I don't know if this...effect causes physical damage. Have it ready, just in case."
Jester nodded, hand already resting on the little brass archway that pinned her over skirt to her corset. Veth stood just behind her, hands almost white from how tightly she wrung them in worry.
"Alright. On my count." Essek began slowly tracing a shape through the air with graceful fingertips. "One..." His hands moved in symmetrical patterns, separating, coming together, and separating again. "Two..." They arced out into a circle, each hand tracing a mirrored crescent from top to bottom. "Now!" His hands shoved forward into the middle of the glyph, and a cloud of white gray energy pulsed out from Caleb's form.
Veth flicked her wrist, and the mage hand flipped the cover of the open book, closing it with a loud slam.
Caduceus moved forward on quick feet. Caleb was already reaching for the book, eyes narrowed in irritation at having been disturbed. "Not now, Caduceus. I have work to finish."
"No, Caleb." The furbolg wrapped firm arms around Caleb and shook him a bit. "You need to take a break."
"No, no you don't understand!" Caleb tried to push the cleric's arms away. "I'm so close! The answer is right there!"
Caduceus dipped his fingers in the diamond dust and traced a pattern against Caleb's back, softly whispering the spell with a shake of his head that momentarily soothed the wizard. Then he turned the bag over in his palm and pressed it to Caleb's cheek in a gentle caress. The wizard's eyes blazed bright white, and then he jerked back from the furbolg's hand, startled.
"I've got you." Caduceus tightened his hold on the wizard, cradling him in close and stroking back a strand of bright orange hair that had escaped the leather tie. "Are you hurt?"
"Nein. No." Caleb shook his head, then buried it against the cleric's shoulder. "The book...I didn't know."
"It's okay." Caduceus rubbed gentle circles against the wizard's tense back. "We got it dispelled. I have you. It can't hurt you."
Caleb's body began to shake. "We should get that book to Yussa or Alura. Something that powerful, it needs to be locked up."
"Shhhhh." The cleric rocked back and forth, crouched on the floor beside Caleb's desk and gently cradling the other man's slender body. "We can worry about that later, Caleb. Right now we need to take care of you."
The wizard nodded in surrender, then curled into Caduceus's embrace. His face pressed against the soft fur at the cleric's throat, and let the tears fall. Stiff fingers stretched and then pressed hard into Caduceus's arm. "I'm sorry." Caleb swallowed hard. "Scheiße, I should have known better."
"You can't have known," Essek piped up. He had procured a pair of enchanted protective gloves from Veth's alchemy table, and was now oh so carefully rolling up the scroll. "Enchantments like that book are untraceable until they're activated, and can only be activated by following the formulas in the book. It's really the ultimate trap for a mage. You couldn't have known."
Veth crossed to the drow with the scroll case. "How did you know what to do, then?"
"Yeah, Essek," Jester cut in. "You seemed to know what was going on when I messaged you."
"I know of magic like this." The mage tucked the scroll into the case and carefully twisted the cap into place. "There are a number of books like this, all by the same mysterious author, and all incomplete. One was come across some fifty-ish years ago by a member of my den, and thus many of us who take up the practice of dunemancy are heavily cautioned in their respect."
"What happened to him? Or her?" Veth spared a glance towards Caleb, satisfied to find the wizard curled into their healer's chest. "This...this other mage who stumbled across a book like this?"
"A number of things." Essek hesitated a moment, then leaned back against the window seat, wind blown from his sails. "None of them good. But at the risk of misinforming you, I would much rather just send my copy of the study to Caleb. It just seems like something he should read firsthand."
Caduceus looked up to make eye contact with their drow friend. "You're trying not to scare the girls."
Essek nodded with a mildly relieved exhale. "The thought of that happening to Caleb scares me. I'm glad you got to him in time."
"How far was he from finishing?" Jester asked.
"I don't know." The mage pushed himself off the window seat and crossed over to the desk, letting the ornate silver and blue scroll case roll from his hand to halt against the spine of the book. "Magic like this, it drains the life from a mage while tempting them in further with the promise of discovery. It's quite probable he wouldn't have finished before the life was gone from him."
"Oh no!" Jester's eyes widened with fear. She glanced down at Caleb, who had passed out from sheer exhaustion. "But he'll be okay, right?"
"In your and Caduceus's capable hands, Jester, I think he will be just fine." Essek gave the little tiefling a gentle pat on the head as he passed. "I'm going home. That's more than enough excitement for one day."
"I'll show you out," Veth offered.
"Oh, me too! I got these new pastries I want you to try!" Jester hopped up and hurried after the other two.
Caleb suddenly shook awake, chest heaving. His cool blue eyes were bloodshot, making the color startlingly brighter. "It hurts," he groaned.
Caduceus continued stroking back flyaway ginger hairs. "What do you need? I can take you to your room or up to Molly's? Or we can just sit over in the window for a while."
"My head fucking hurts!" Caleb tried to sit up, but Caduceus gently hushed him, holding the wizard's small frame a bit tighter.
"I'm sure it does, but I'm not letting you up quite yet. What do you need?"
The wizard groaned. "Water, probably."
"Water I can do." Cradling Caleb in the crook of one arm, Caduceus reached up for the platter of chopped vegetables he'd left for the wizard around lunchtime. It hadn't been touched, and the water pitcher was still full. He flipped the empty glass, carefully poured water from the pitcher into it, and then brought it down to Caleb's lips. "Here ya go. Easy."
Caleb wasn't aware of how dry his throat was until the water hit the back of it. He got about half the glass down before nudging Caduceus to push it away. "That was incredibly stupid of me."
"The way I see it," Caduceus started, dragging the plate of chopped carrots down and resting it on his knee. "The more time you spend beating yourself up over how stupid you've been, the less time you spend learning from said stupidity. Carrot?"
With an irritated groan, the wizard took the carrot stick and bit down into it, then winced as the crunching caused his head to pulse. "I think I need some actual healing after all. This headache isn't going away."
The cleric didn't hesitate. At the request, he began quietly muttering, and then Caleb felt the headache begin to ebb. "Is that helping at all?"
"Yes, thank you, Caduceus." Then Caleb yawned, jaw popping as it extended. "Can I get up, now?"
"Oh, yes. Of course." The furbolg shifted the weight of the other man off his lap and stood. His arms stayed wrapped around the wizard's upper body, hauling him to his feet in the process. "Up we go."
Then Caleb's legs buckled out from under him. He laughed, weakly, leaning into Caduceus's chest. "Okay. Maybe not."
"Maybe not," Caduceus echoed. He readjusted his hold on the wizard's slim frame, pulling him tight against his chest. Then he started moving for the door to Caleb's room not six feet away. "Let's get you to bed. You need rest."
Caleb was beyond arguing. He leaned into the cleric's side and allowed himself to be half lead, half dragged to the door. "Aufschließen." The door swung open of it's own accord, and Caduceus was able to maneuver them through the doorway, kicking the door closed behind them. "Erleuchten." The sconces on the walls lit up with the twinkling of Caleb's Dancing Lights spell. Then he heaved a deep sigh as Caduceus settled him at the edge of the bed. "Danke, Caduceus."
"Yep. Are you steady, now? I'm gonna get that platter of food and bring it in here."
The wizard squinted his eyes, leaning back a bit and trying to figure out which tall pink head to focus on. "Ja. I'll be alright for a moment. I'm just gonna...sit here."
Frumpkin hopped up on the bed with a concerned "Mrrr?"
Satisfied with the cat's watch on the wizard, Caduceus hurried back out into the library and gathered the various plates of snack like food back onto the tray, then quickly returned to Caleb's room. "You are going to eat."
Caleb's eyes flew open, squinted at the light, and then rapidly blinked to clear his vision. Frumpkin was curled in his lap, making kitty biscuits against his stomach and purring in a heavy, low trill. "Ja, that sounds...ja." He tried to push himself to standing, then hesitated at the low mewl of protest from his familiar. "I'll just..."
"Yeah, maybe don't try to stand until you've had a long rest." Caduceus crossed over and pulled the chair from Caleb's bedroom desk over beside the bed. "Eat, before you sleep. Last thing we need is a blood sugar crash in the middle of the night. I've got carrots and radish and some strawberries. Where would you like to start?"
A hand lifted from where it was scratching Frumpkin's head and rubbed sleepily at Caleb's eyes. "I guess with the berries."
It was a slow process of keeping the wizard focused on eating. His mind kept wandering off into nothingness, or else slipping into the self depreciating spiral like a safety blanket. Caduceus stayed, voice gentle and reassuring as he passed the snacks to Caleb one piece at a time. Frumpkin stayed in the wizard's lap, never ceasing the gentle kneading of paws into Caleb's belly. A part of Caduceus wished he could just scoop the wizard up in his arms and hold him close. He didn't want to admit to how much it scared him to find Caleb in the cold and dark, half absorbed by a mysterious spell. He shuddered to think what may have happened had he not gotten there in time.
Caduceus snapped out of his thoughts. "Hmm?"
"There's no more food to pick up."
The cleric looked down to find three empty plates, his hand blindly grasping for something that wasn't there. "Oh."
"You look as tired as I am."
Caleb grimaced and gently pushed Frumpkin from his lap and onto the end of the bed. "Help me out of these clothes, please?"
A gentle smile graced the cleric's face. "Yeah, of course." He stood, setting the empty tray on the chair, then closed the space to the bed. His hands carefully unfastened the line of flat wooden buttons that closed Caleb's warm sweater. In this moment, he was grateful the wizard always wore the heavy green garment. It may have kept him just that much warmer despite the arcane drop in temperature the cursed book had caused. Caduceus pushed the heavy sweater off narrow shoulders, then reached down to pull at the leather of Caleb's belt. "Arms around my neck, dear." He leaned down so Caleb wouldn't have to reach so far. "It'll be easier to get your pants off if I lift you up."
"Ja, thank you." Caleb could feel a deep ache settle into his bones as Caduceus lifted him to a half standing position. The pants were quickly pushed down off his hips, and then his body settled back against the mattress. "That feels a bit better."
"Yeah, it's always more comfortable to sleep in your unders. That stiff wool isn't the most comfortable in bed."
"No, it is not." The wizard sighed, heavily, and started pulling himself up into the bed. His back popped as he stretched to reach the covers. Then he crawled under the soft sheets, body sagging in relief back against familiar pillows. "Thank you, Caduceus. I mean it."
The furbolg smiled, softly. "That's what I'm here for," he insisted. He started putting the room back in order, lifting the tray and pushing the chair back to the desk. "Goodnight, Caleb."
A long moment of quiet passed, and Caduceus started towards the door.
Caduceus paused, turning to glance over a shoulder. "Is everything alright?"
Caleb swallowed, hard. "I uh...I find I'd not like to be alone tonight."
"I can send Molly down. Or Veth?"
The wizard shook his head. "Stay with me. I know it's not a hammock, but there's room in the bed."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, bitte, Caduceus. I'll feel safer with a healer nearby, and I find your presence rather comforting."
Unsure how else to proceed, Caduceus set the tray down on a bare space of Caleb's desk. "Alright, then." He pulled at the leather belt that held his tunic close to his body during the day, letting it slide across the gossamer silk of his shirt before laying it over the back of the chair. "I'm more than happy to stay if that's what you need, Caleb." He toed off his sandals and then crossed to the bed, then hesitated.
"Come on." Caleb flopped over onto his stomach, rolling to make more room on the large bed for the furbolg. "I don't take up much space."
Caduceus pulled back the bedcovers and lifted a knee to the bed. "You're sure?" he checked again.
With a nod to still his nerves, Caduceus climbed up into the bed, letting his long legs extend under the covers and resting back against the pillows. He laid stiff for a few long minutes, then an arm fell heavily across his ribcage. Caleb looked up at him with wide blue eyes, a strange fear dancing behind them. Without a word, Caduceus's hand fell to Caleb's back, rubbing soft circles against the taut muscles. The tension bled from Caleb, shoulders sagging and breathing evening out. The wizard curled in closer, tucking his nose against the soft fur of Caduceus's throat and wrapping an arm around a narrow waist as sleep slowly took him.
Chapter 9: Affection
So this chap opens with Jester expressing that her skin feels "sad" which is my own interpretation of feeling skin starved. It's a feeling I'm rather familiar with and until I even knew that term I would have some wild descriptions like that. Just wanted to clarify ahead of time.
"I'm going cah-razy Cadewceus!"
The furbolg looked up just as Jester flopped down next to him under the tree. He set aside the half woven basket. "Why are you going crazy, Jester?"
The tiefling plucked a clover flower from the ground. "My skin feels sad."
Caduceus took a deep breath. It's gonna be one of those conversations, then. The ones where Jester talks in circles until someone else can sort the babble into coherency. "Alright. That's a start. How exactly does skin feel sad?"
Jester crossed her arms and pouted, and Caduceus was briefly reminded of his little sister, Clarabell, when the critter she's chasing gets away. "It's just all prickly and cold and lonely."
Yep. There it was. Cool. He could work with that. "Alright. Why do you think you feel this way?"
Indigo lips pursed off to one side, then she expelled a breath between them, making a rather rude sound. "I can't remember the last time I slept alone."
Caduceus just nodded. Beau and Caleb were spending a few days in Rexxentrum updating some archives and gathering some research. Fjord had popped down to Port Damali to meet with Orly about some much needed ship repairs, and Veth had tagged along with the promise of a weekend with her family in the pretty coastal town. Molly had agreed to accompany Yasha out into the wildlands in search of her late wife's grave - which still hadn't been located. That left the clerics alone in the big house. Caduceus was used to being alone. So was Jester, he'd thought. Except maybe that was no longer the case.
Then it dawned on him that Jester didn't technically have her own room. In the tower she did, but most of the time once they were in the tower, all they wanted to do was eat and then fall over. That was meant as a safe haven between battles or expanses of travel. The house was for down time, and Jester shared a room with Beau.
More accurately, she shared a room with everyone. There was no telling who's bed she'd be in one night to the next.
Usually she could be found curled up with Beau or Fjord. Those were the default locations, and usually a bit of a lottery on how clothed and how asleep she'd be there. Technically, she kept her things in the room shared with Beau, and typically that room was only ever occupied by the two women together, with Yasha occasionally joining on the large bed. Whenever the monk would crawl into bed with Yasha, Jester would find herself in Fjord's room. The room was used more as an art studio and study than anything.
Still, she frequented Molly's room. Sometimes when the nightmares of Lucien got bad, and she needed the reminder of opulent tapestries and that ridiculous canopy bed to show her Molly was Molly. Sometimes because Molly needed the comfort of Jester's soft strength when he woke up from nightmares of his own. Sometimes because she couldn't be bothered to leave after sex with Molly and Caleb, or Molly and Fjord, or Molly and Yasha, or just Molly.
Frequently, Caduceus would stumble into Yasha's room from a nightmare of his own to find Jester already there, asleep sitting up against the wall with Yasha's head cradled in her lap and dainty blue fingers twisted in black and white hair. Or pinned between Yasha and Molly on a pile of cushions on the floor, as if they'd all passed out staring at the endless mural of wildflowers, trying to find the dick that Jester painted somewhere in there. Or bracketing Beau with Yasha on the other side and the sheet barely pulled up over naked skin.
On more than one occasion, Jester and Veth, and occasionally Beau and Molly, fell asleep smack in the center of the floor in the Happy Room, celebones still flickering and reflecting off a myriad of buttons that had fallen to the floor as Veth lost concentration on the hypnosis spell. Caduceus would just throw blankets over the tricksters so they could sleep off the hallucinogenic tea he allowed them sparing access to.
Very rarely, Jester would climb in bed with Caleb. Or rather, Jester would fall asleep in the library while the wizard read to her, and rather than leave the tiefling alone, Caleb would telekinesis her into his bed and succumb to her sleepy cuddles.
Come to think of it, Caduceus couldn't remember the last time Jester slept alone, either. He wasn't entirely sure when things changed for her. When she shifted from the little girl spent locked alone in her room to the woman now sitting before him, struggling to figure out why an empty house felt alien.
"Would you like to sleep up here, tonight?"
Relief washed over the tiefling's face. "Are you sure?"
The furbolg couldn't help but smile. "I would never offer if I wasn't." He reached out to take her hand, and Jester visibly shuddered. "What do you say we raid the beds for sheets and pillows and build a fort?"
"Like a slumber party?"
The concept was foreign to a grave cleric who spent his whole life sharing a room with three siblings. "What's a slumber party?"
The corners of Jester's lips curled into an elated smile and she gasped. "Oh, you know. It's where you invite a bunch of friends over and you get in your pajamas and braid each others hair and paint each other's nails and stay up all night giggling and talking about your crush and sharing secrets. You've never had a slumber party?"
Silver jewelry jingled as Jester tilted her head to one side. "Well, no, not exactly. With Artie a few times maybe, but I don't know if that counts."
A fleeting mental image of Artagan letting a tiny Jester paint his nails flickered through Caduceus's mind. "Well, for what it's worth, I did all of those things with my siblings and I don't think that counts, either."
"Okay then let's have a slumber party!"
Caduceus couldn't restrain his laugh. "Alright, then. What do we need for a slumber party?"
Jester thought for a long minute, eyes glancing around from branch to branch as she processed. "Well we're gonna build a pillow fort. I have some paint we can use for our nails that has gem dust in it so it's glittery! And we need snacks and dirty books to laugh at and lots of blankets to snuggle up in."
The tiefling's joy was infectious. Caduceus grinned and shook his head a bit. "Alright. Help me raid the other beds for fort materials, then I'll get snacks together while you pick out some books."
"Hey Cadewceus?" Mischief danced in Jester's eyes.
"Bet I can get more pillows than you!"
"Betcha can't," the furbolg shot back.
Then Jester was gone, opening a dimension door into some other room of the house and no doubt stripping someone's bed of the sheets. Caduceus just smiled and hurried down the stairs and outside to where he knew fresh linens were hanging on a line.
It turns out that by snacks, Jester meant candy and pastries. Which, fair. Caduceus should have seen that coming. Still, he made a point of slicing up some potatoes into thin rounds and frying them up crispy and sprinkling them with salt and vinegar, if for no other reason than to have at least one savory option to cut the sugar. He loaded up his serving tray with an overwhelming array of sweets and the basket of chips and headed up the tower.
Jester was already bundled into a pile of blankets in the fort they'd built. Sprinkle was on top of her head, desperately attempting to escape into the tree above, poor thing. At the sound of the door opening, Jester looked up and grinned in delight, Sprinkle scampering off into the salad garden.
"I'm so excited, Cadewceus! We're gonna have so much fun! What color do you want your nails?" She was already digging little bottles of glitter varnish out of a tiny paint set.
"Hmm, let me think on that while we eat. Come on, before it gets cold."
Jester smiled, delighted, and reached for the bowl of chocolates. "Which book should we start with?"
Caduceus eyed the stack of books to Jester's left, and found he recognized most of the covers. "Why does it have to be the sex books?"
The tiefling's expression fell. "Oh, I'm sorry Cadewces, I didn't even think about that. Do you want to go pick some books?"
"I mean, I can't read so..."
Then Jester's eyes lit up. "I can always read you the really bad flirting!"
"Hmmm." One of Caduceus's ears flopped backwards as he tilted his head. "Actually, this can be a learning experience."
"What are you trying to learn?"
The furbolg quieted for a long moment. A few ideas passed through his mind, and many were dismissed outright.
He knew it wasn't curiosity about sex. If that were the case, he'd have taken any of the myriad of opportunities to ask questions of the others. It wasn't like there was a shortage of sexual activity in the house. And it wasn't romance. Fjord and Molly were both dyed in the wool romantics, though their expressions differed greatly. Even Yasha had a romantic streak that occasionally took the team's monk off guard.
It wasn't even love. Caduceus spent his entire childhood surrounded by many different forms of love. There was the playful camaraderie between himself and his siblings that differed even from one to the next. There was stern yet gentle love from his father, and the warm soft love from his mother. There was the deep respect and awe he'd always felt around his aunt. There was also love he could witness. The care and kindness between his mother and aunt. The intimate closeness between his parents.
All these things he understood, and either knew himself to not be interested, or else was already able to glean knowledge from real world examples. Then it dawned on him. It was the thing he'd been exploring since Yasha kissed him in the garden.
Jester made a face, lips pursed on one side of her mouth, and curled in on the other. "Ohh no," she grumbled with a shake of her head and widening of eyes. "I don't think that's something you should learn about from here." It was the same sort of tone the little trickster used when ushering the group away from a location in which she'd just pulled off some kind of prank - part hesitant, part amused, part insistent.
Caduceus just studied the other cleric's face for a long moment. "What do you suggest, then?"
"I dunno, man, but not trashy romance novels."
"Could I just..." and he hesitated a moment, thinking. "Could I ask you? I mean, you're affectionate with everyone."
"Well yeah, I mean. That's just kinda the way I am though." She shrugged. "I always have been."
"But what does it feel like?" Caduceus couldn't restrain the frustration that bled into his voice.
Jester huffed and threw the blankets from her shoulders. She reached for the bowl of fruit gummies Caduceus had made sometime last week at the bright eyed request of Veth's son. "I don't really know how to answer that, Cadewceus." She popped a little red sphere into her mouth and chewed, lost in thought. "It's kinda always different. It's different with different people and the situation and the timing. It's not something I really think about. I just kinda do it."
Caduceus sighed, head drooping as he popped a chip into his mouth with a crunch. "There's something-" and he exhales. "I feel like I'm missing something. Like it should be obvious, and it just doesn't click."
Jester tilted her head, examining the furbolg closely. "The thing you're missing...is it a sort of empty feeling? Like loneliness or that sad feeling when you miss home? Or is it something you think you should be offering to others?"
Heavy shoulders lifted and then fell again. "It's not any of that really. It's not like I miss it and want to feel it more. It's more like..." He glances around the garden for a long moment. "It's like bees."
Jester's mouth stilled, mid chew. "It's like bees," she repeated, waiting for an explanation.
"You know how the garden, when we first started it, it just did okay? The plants grew and bloomed flowers, and then some of the flowers would turn to fruit but most would fall off. And the plants were okay, because there is a small handful of pollinators around here. They gave a handful of fruits and did their job well enough. But then you begged me for bees so we could have honey. And the bees pollinated the plants and the plants gave more fruit. So the plants were happy. And the bees got nectar to turn to honey, so the bees were happy."
The look on Jester's face was blank with utter confusion. "I don't get it."
"Affection is bees." Caduceus crunches down another salty chip. "I'm okay without it. I can do all the things I need and want to. But I like it. And it seems, what little I've experimented with sharing it, that you all like it too."
Jester lit up. "Of course we like affection! At least I do. It makes my skin happy!" She giggled. "Are you asking me if you can show me affection, Cadewceus?"
"Oh, you don't have to ask me for that. Maybe ask the others just in case. But I love affection, from any of my people."
Caduceus carefully slid the tray aside and moved closer to the little tiefling. "Is...is this okay?" He reached a hand out to stroke hair behind her ear.
She nodded with a jingle of silver. "Go on."
Then Caduceus's long arms enveloped her. One wrapped down around her waist, the other up over her shoulders so his hand caught the curve of her neck, and he pulled her in close to his chest. Her arms wrapped around him in return, head tucked under his chin as she let out a satisfied little sigh. They stayed like that for a long moment, holding each other close until their breathing synchronized.
Then Jester abruptly pulled back to plant an exaggerated kiss on Caduceus's mouth. "Mwah!" Her head pulled back to assess his reaction with an expectant smile.
And Caduceus couldn't keep himself from laughing. It was pure, unrestricted joy. He leaned in to mimic the action, planting a pursed lipped kiss to Jester's lips. "Mwah?"
She squealed happily, and grabbed his ears to pull him in again. She kissed his lips, his nose, his forehead, his cheeks, and all over his face. Each kiss was a quick smack of her soft lips to his skin, pressing hard enough he could feel the short fur shift and settle back almost instantly.
He laughed, falling back against a collection of pillows and cushions. Jester fell against him, not stopping the litany of playful affection. Caduceus found himself returning the kisses, pulling her in to smack a kiss to the bridge of her nose, then the tip. Then he just held her close as they both dissolved into laughter.