As the hydra thrust closer to its prey, broken stone fell from the ceiling. Its nest of faces, knotted in the doorway, surged forward with knifelike teeth that dribbled saliva and sizzled with poison. Jester screamed, and in that moment Caduceus was sure he was going to die. Caleb was pressed against his back, still under the influence of the hallucinogenic fruit. That was the reason Caduceus had moved closer, hoping his invisibility might shield them both, but it wasn’t working. Like snakes, the hydra seemed to sense rather than see its prey.
Desperate to put distance between them, Caduceus tried to press further into the corridor, but that was a mistake. The hydra beaded in on the movement, and as the crumbling doorway finally gave, it lashed out with two of its heads. However, even as the purple reflection of his staff illuminated the creature’s scales, a blade pierced the reptilian hide, splitting it with a burst of radiant energy. The gore was incredible. It steamed over Caduceus’ feet, almost to his ankles. The smell of viscera clogged his nostrils, and, behind him, Caleb gagged.
Then Yasha was there, pushing past the corpse in the entryway. “No problem,” she said, and relief flooded him. Rescue had come, and they were alive.
Afterward, they tended the wounded. There was no healing magic left; Caduceus and Jester were sapped dry, and so it became a matter of patching holes. Caduceus hated that. Holding a friend under his hands, able to do nothing more than shush them and bind their wounds and wait. Rest was the only solution. Jester broached the subject, but both servants of Uko’toa were evasive. It was clear they would chose to press forward if the decision was left to them, but Caduceus had learned from Nicodranas, and this time he put his foot down.
“We can’t go any further,” he said. “Everyone’s about to drop.”
Avantika spoke, not to him, but to Fjord. Her voice was like fingernails, dragging softly over skin. There was intimacy there, but also tension. “We’re so close to finding answers, so close to achieving our aims.”
“Frankly, I don’t give a damn about your aims,” Caduceus said. The oath tasted foreign on his lips, but sounded suitably harsh. He was mimicking Beau, who used it often. “Fjord, if we push these people any further, someone is going to die.”
There was a moment when it could’ve gone either way. Fjord stared, and to Caduceus it almost seemed as though he were looking at someone else. Eventually, though, he said, “Alright, Caduceus. We’ll take a long rest.” Avantika made an irritated che sound in the background, but the decision had been made.
“Good.” Caduceus let go of the breath he’d been holding. “Good.”
As he retreated, Beau’s half-delirious voice echoed through the tunnel. “Whoo-hoo! Caduceus grew a pair. Good for you, ‘Deuces. You tell him.”
“Hush now, Beau,” said Yasha. She offering Caduceus a grateful look, and he nodded, reaching for his pack with the heaviness of the confrontation still hanging over him.
Caleb was slouched bonelessly against a nearby wall. As Caduceus draw out a cooking pot and utensils, intent on getting a meal into everyone before putting them to bed, the man cleared his throat. Caduceus looked up. “Are those bite wounds bothering you, Mister Caleb? I could check them again.”
Caleb’s gaze was hazy, not entirely present. His globules of light, which drifted around them, had begun to grow dimmer. “That was good, just now.”
Without his thinking of it, Caduceus’ teeth pressed together. He didn’t like pushing to get his way, but it had been the right thing to do, however unpleasant. “One can't go forward perpetually,” he reasoned. “You have to stop and smell the tea, you know? Have time to recuperate, take care of yourself.”
Caleb’s brows furrowed, as though the concept were foreign to him. “I haven’t had much time for tea,” he admitted.
No time for tea? Caduceus sat back on his calves. “What’s the point of life without tea?”
A sound, short and sharp, escaped Caleb’s lips. Shifting closer, he clumsily patted Caduceus’ arm. “I am glad you’re with us, Mister Clay.”
“That’s nice,” Caduceus said, smiling. “Shall we eat and get bedded down?”
They set up a hasty camp in the underbelly of the serpent temple, crammed into the passageway between the unnatural garden and the watery graveyard of the hydra. Fjord remained on guard, talking quietly to his pirate friend, but most of the party seized the opportunity to sleep. Beau collapsed beside Yasha and began snoring through her broken nose. Caduceus, meanwhile, took guardianship of Caleb and Nott, tucking them into their bedrolls with soothing words to calm their residual confusion.
Sometime in the middle of the night, something woke him. At first Caduceus wasn’t sure what it was, but then he saw Nott. She was sitting up with her chin pressed into Caleb’s hip, staring at him. “Are you awake?”
“Yes,” Caduceus answered. “Though we should both be asleep. We need to recover if we’re going to get out of here safely.”
“Coming down here was stupid,” Nott said, and that was Caduceus’ first indication that she might be coming down from her high. Until now, she’d had only dreamy things to say about their adventure. Even the hydra hadn’t seemed to faze her. Now, though, she sounded almost bitter. “It’s not safe.”
“To be fair,” Caduceus said, “I’m not sure we were any safer in the jungle or on the ship.”
The mention of the ship, and by extension, the ocean, brought a shudder. Nott dug her nails into Caleb’s leg, kneading. “Hate water.”
Caduceus could relate. In unguarded moments, and especially while he slept, he could still feel the cold sluice of water surging down his throat. He’d never feared death before, but he thought he might fear drowning. “Yeah, water isn’t great.”
His agreement seemed to mollify Nott because she relaxed. “I like you, Mister Clay. You’re sensible. I understand why you do things.”
He took her meaning. Duplicity wasn’t new to him. However, the members of the Mighty Nein took subterfuge to a whole new level, often doing and saying things that seemed to have no bearing on one another. They lied, and snapped at one another, and loved each other with tooth and claw. Half the time, he had no idea what they were thinking. Nott wasn’t like that. Her motives were simple. She liked baubles and buttons. She craved acceptance, and she was devoted to her people, especially Caleb. That had been one of the first things he learned about her, and he’d seen many proofs since. He thought it very admirable.
“I like you, too,” he said. “Your motives are direct. I appreciate that.”
“I’m not a very good liar,” Nott confessed. “It’s easier to just tell the truth.”
Not a bad philosophy. It was certainly pragmatic. Maybe that was the goblin in her, or perhaps it was just Nott. “Is there a truth you need to tell me now?” he coaxed. ”Something keeping you up?”
“Wanted to talk to you.”
“About my boy.”
Caduceus had never bothered to ask how a goblin ended up with a human son. It seemed rude to ask. He’d made her a promise, though, to keep Caleb as safe as he could. Today he’d not done so well. His hand twitched on Caleb’s side, where heat radiated from the serpent bites. The pressure, as slight as it was, provoked a soft noise, almost a moan. Caduceus rubbed soothing circles in the man’s back. There wasn’t much else he could do.
Nott watched from her perch. “You’re good at that. You’re a good healer.”
Despite their surroundings and the stink of the hydra, warmth filled Caduceus’ belly. “Thank you. Though I’m afraid I let you down this time. I should have checked him better during our short rest. I’m sorry.”
Caleb, unbeknownst to either cleric, had been walking around with deep, ugly gouges in his side. Perhaps as a result of the poison, they’d already begun to suppurate. It would be the very first thing Caduceus healed tomorrow, but it bothered him it was overlooked to begin with. It bothered him, too, that Caleb had said nothing. Caduceus shuddered to think what might have happened if the hydra had got its teeth in him. He might very well have been so grievously wounded that nothing Caduceus or Jester could do would bring him back.
“It’s not your fault. He’s stubborn. Always stubborn. Used to hurting, too. Like me. You get used to it, you know?”
Nott’s rambling words were sadly quite clear. The Mighty Nein were damaged people. Caduceus had known that from the beginning, but the depth of it still surprised him. When he met them on their mission to free their enslaved friends, Caleb, for one, had been quite different. Driven and magnetic. Then Fjord and the others were rescued, and that soldier-esque demeanor had faded. Only his devotion remained, thinly veiled. Caduceus gazed at Nott with her bedraggled hair and drooping ears. He felt compassion for them, these two tender souls wrapped up in bandages, green skin, and scar tissue.
Very gently, he told Nott. “I understand that, but I know your Caleb a bit by now, and I should have been more careful.”
She laid her cheek on Caleb’s hip tiredly. “People haven’t been kind to him. He gets scared. Even around these people, he gets scared to be weak.”
“Were people very unkind to you?” he asked because he sensed she wanted to talk about it.
“People would kick us, or come at us with brooms. Spit on us even though we were just hungry or sleeping. Crownsguard are nasty. They pinch and shake. They beat you. They put your head into a bucket of water and hold you down.” She shuddered. “But goblins are even more nasty than crownguards, and Caleb...he had a bad teacher.” She whispered this like it was a secret. “I can’t tell you because he doesn’t want people to know, but that teacher hurt him. Messed up his head. Made him do terrible things, and now he’s like this.” She looked like a grieving mother whose child had come to harm while her back was turned. “He was broken to pieces when I found him. Now he’s better.”
“You’ve done a very good job,” Caduceus assured her. He sensed her revelation about Caleb’s past wasn’t meant for him, but he wouldn’t spread it around. “Can you rest now?”
“In a minute,” she said. She was playing with Caleb’s hair, which was the color of autumn leaves. Caduceus liked it a lot. Eventually, Nott said, “Do you remember your promise, on the boat?”
“I said I would look after your boy.”
“Yes,” she said. “I was so glad. Beau and Jester try, but they’re so bad at it. Molly was better, but he’s gone now.”
The knife of sorrow he heard had become very familiar. This Molly fellow’s name came up often. It made Caduceus, wary of haunts in all forms, uncomfortable. He cleared his throat. “I understand what you’re saying.”
Nott's luminous eyes seemed to grow larger, penetratingly earnest. “Will you help me? You’re big, Mister Clay, and you can heal. We could – we could work together. And not just for battles. He – he’s very bad at taking care of himself.”
Caduceus considered what she was proposing, turning to Caleb as he did so. The man was deeply asleep. Earlier that night, he’d moved fitfully, muscles twitching and eyelids moving. At the moment, though, he was quiet, sandwiched between Caduceus and Nott with his arms folded against his chest. His forehead had drifted to press into Caduceus’ shoulder, and his soft breaths were a puff against his sleeve. He and Nott listened together. It was a miraculous thing, really – life.
But he also saw the strain of life. Caleb’s hair was a tangled thatch. If it had been groomed in recent memory, Caduceus would have been surprised. He was also scruffy, and weren’t humans supposed to have a cleansing and shaving ritual each morning? His skin wasn’t scrubbed. His nails were a mess. He wore not one stitch of armor. Then there was the way his clothes hung on him. Caduceus thought of how easily Jester had hoisted him in the air. He saw Nott press food into his hands all the time, but grazing wasn’t enough for a human of his age and size. He needed full meals. Yes, Caduceus decided. It was worse than he thought. The man had a look of neglect about him that was quite severe, and while, in human terms, he was fully adult, it was obvious he was stunted in some way that made him very bad at taking care of himself.
“You have an accord, Miss Nott,” he heard himself say, laying a protective hand over Caleb’s pulse point.
Nott puddled with relief. “Oh, thank you, Mister Clay. This will be better, I know it. And he’s so good. You won’t regret it at all. He acts like he doesn’t care, but he's really so kind and good and strong.”
“Hush now,” He soothed. “I don’t need convincing. I liked him since the moment you four showed up at my house. He was so determined. You all were.”
“Do you still regret coming?”
He thought about it. A very short time ago, huddled on the deck of The Mistake, Caduceus had wondered if he’d made a very serious mistake. It was the first time he’d ever felt regret, and that, too, had been a philosophical shock. He could still feel Jester’s soft arms around his neck, hear the group’s clumsy attempts to comfort him. Now they were here, with Jamedi the undead guide, Avantika and her veiled threats, and Fjord, their leader, who was worryingly obtuse about his motives. He sighed.
“I’m not sorry,” he told Nott, and he meant it. He thought of her alone with these people, who would as soon plunge headfirst into danger as take a nice nap. It wasn’t just Caleb who needed minding, if you asked him.
‘And are you really going to step up and do that?’ he asked himself. ‘Are you going to do more of what you did today, even if that means Fjord keeps slipping and calling you Molly?’
He didn’t know. Best, perhaps, to start small. Nott was still looking at him, so he asked, “Are you sure about this?”
It was hard, he knew, for a mother to trust. “You promise you won’t hurt him?”
“You have my word.”
She yawned, settling back down into the small of Caleb’s back. “Okay, then. Goodnight, Mister Clay.”
“Call me Caduceus,” he said. “Partners shouldn’t stand on formalities.”
“Caduceus, then,” she said.
He waited until she drifted off, her snuffles joining Beau’s congested snores. Then he looked down at Caleb. “You’re a lucky fellow to have such a defender. But, then, we rarely deserve our parents, do we? But you do deserve looking after, Mister Caleb, so that’s what we’ll do. You’ll help me with my quest, I’ll keep you alive, and she and I will try to do some mending along the way.”
It was a lot. Maybe as big a job as healing the cursed woodland around his home, but Caduceus believed in responsibility. He believed in people. And he liked broken things. He would just have to do his best.
In the meantime, he laid down his head, dimmed his staff, and began humming a quiet lullaby his mother once sang to him. It echoed, making the quiet dripping of the stone chamber a little less awful, and he kept it up until he fell asleep.
The next morning they were still enclosed in the temple vault, but nothing had crept up on them in the night, and everyone was back on their feet, wounds treated or restored. Beau bounced on her toes, looking rough and ready as usual. She laughed with Yasha, exchanging versions of the harrowing fight (Beau’s was noticeablely more elaborate, but Yasha was in a good mood after her defeat of the hydra and had more to say than usual). Fjord leaned against the wall, watching the proceedings without talking much. There were shadows under his eyes, and his expression was preoccupied. Then Jester offered him some of their rations, and his face mellowed.
For his part, Caduceus was with Caleb and Nott. The fruit’s effect was mostly gone, or at least the nice parts. Nott was twitching like she had an infestation of fleas, and Caleb was so groggy he could barely keep his head up. He swatted at Nott when she tried combing his hair, which was matted with sweat and blood. “Stop,” he muttered. She huffed, but her hands were too restless to outmaneuver him.
Caduceus put a stop to that, taking Caleb’s wrists and pressing them into his lap. “Now, that’s enough,” he said firmly.
The man’s eyes snapped toward him, confusion coloring his expression. “Was?”
“She’s right. You’re a mess, and if you keep that nasty gunk on your face, you’re going to get sick.”
They had no shortage of water down here. Caduceus squeezed out a rag until it was wet but not sopping, then went to work on Caleb’s hair. The man squirmed at first, trying to twist away, but Nott was pressed against his back, and Caduceus finally tsked so sharply that he went completely motionless.
“That’s better,” Caduceus encouraged. “Just hold still, and we’ll have you all cleaned up in no time.”
Caleb looked a bit flummoxed, as though he couldn’t decide whether what was happening was normal or if the fruit was still messing with his mind. Nott hummed with contentment.
“There, all done,” Caduceus said. He pulled Caleb to his feet. “Time for breakfast?”
Caleb gazed up at him wordlessly. Moved by impulse, Caduceus reached down and straightened the collar of his shirt. Finally, Caleb said, “I’m not hungry just now.”
“You need to eat,” Nott said, tugging on his hand.
He swayed a bit, and it was clear he was still not quite well. He touched his midsection. “No. I don’t –”
“Is your stomach bothering you?” Caduceus asked. “You had a fever all night, and I haven’t a clue how that poison metabolizes. Perhaps you’re nauseated?”
Caleb paused for a long moment as though making a decision. “Yes,” he said finally, and Caduceus was gratified. Honesty implied trust, and that was important.
“I’ve made some tea. Let’s try that first and see how we feel, alright?”
Caleb opened his mouth. Closed it. Then looked at Nott. “Ja...okay. Tea.”
“That’s good, Caleb!” Nott chimed in as Caduceus herded them toward his teapot. Afterward, while Caleb was sipping and nibbling on a cake of hard tack, Yasha approached Caduceus. They’d barely made each other’s acquaintance before this whole thing started. All he know of her was that she was an Aasimar (he sometimes dreamed of her wings, stretched out over a roadside grave), and that she was a close companion of Mollymauk, whom everyone mourned so fiercely. And he knew she was like him, a mission-holder, someone on a quest for a higher being. Aside from that, they’d barely spoken, so he was surprised to find her shadow cast over his own.
“That was cleverly done,” she commented.
Without context it would’ve meant nothing, but her heterochromatic eyes were gazing intently at Nott and his new charge. Caduceus shrugged. “Kindness doesn’t require cleverness.”
“You’re right,” she said. “However, not everyone makes it easy. Though if there are any in need of kindness, it’s those two.”
“She loves him very dearly,” he said, watching as Nott pulled up Caleb’s shirt when he wasn’t looking, surreptitiously checking his bandages.
“Yes,” said Yasha. “But she’s young. A little help wouldn’t go amiss. The question is, how long will it take Caleb to notice she’s outsourcing?”
It was something like a joke, and Caduceus couldn’t help chuckling. “For someone so smart, he is a little obtuse about some things.”
“We all have our blind spots.”
Yasha straightened her shoulders. “It makes me feel better, seeing you with everyone. I have to leave too often, and when I’m gone, I worry bad things will happen.”
This was part of her wounding, he knew. “There are no guarantees in life but death,” he said. “And perhaps taxes. I’ve heard that said, but I don’t really know what it means. What are taxes, Miss Yasha?”
She giggled, and it was a strange sound coming from such a somber woman. “Yes, you will be very good for them, Caduceus Clay.”
He smiled back at her, not with perfect understanding but glad of her approval anyway. It felt important. “I’ll do my best.”
“Would that they be good for you too,” she added like a benediction.
Caduceus considered. “I think they’ve been already. My world was very black and white. I’m seeing in more shades now, and much wider. I think it’s what the Wildmother wanted. It was just...a shock at first.”
She nodded. “Yes.”
Meanwhile, Caleb was trying to secret half of his hardtack onto Beau’s plate. “Caleb,” Caduceus said, his voice cutting through the murmur of conversation. “You finish that now.”
Caleb hesitated for a moment before drawing back. His brows were knitted, but then Nott nudged him. He took another bite.
Yasha giggled again. It really was a nice sound. “I wish Molly could see this,” she said, and though her words were tinged with grief, the mirth held.
Caduceus asked, “Would you like some tea?”
“That would be very nice,” she said, and followed him over while he drew out another satchel of dried lichen.
Caleb watched him as he did so. “Mister Clay?”
Caduceus put a hand on his shoulder, pressing down with gentle pressure. “Yes?”
The man paused. “Nothing. May I have another?”
“Of course,” Caduceus said, taking the outstretched cup from Caleb’s bandaged hands. ‘Those are next,’ he thought as he busied himself with his teapot. ‘Hands are important, after all.’
He started humming.