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Mortal Choice

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Her Clay is cold and wet and miserable. She feels this in every fiber of his being as he reaches out to her. He is not used to life at sea. But that is only the first part of his prayer. The Wildmother cannot help but smile as she listens to him murmuring over the vegetables he’s chopping for a nice, hot soup.

               “It doesn’t seem to be a very good relationship,” Caduceus Clay says, shaking his head. “This Uk’otoa person seems like a tough customer. I’m not sure what he is, and I know…I know you all have different relationships with your followers. But this can’t be right, can it? Everything about these temples seems unnatural. Wrong.”

               Young Caduceus’s mind’s eye recounts images of the horrible drowned things he’d faced below the sea, marking them for her. The Clays have ever stood against the restless dead, ensuring they find their everlasting sleep if at all possible. The Wildmother watches Caduceus’s memories thoughtfully. It’s true, Uk’otoa is not one of her favorite beings. Nor is his creator. After all, his kind had been locked up for a reason. If it was meant to be that Uk’otoa was freed, so be it, but it would mean the scales would tip toward death, chaos, and destruction for a while. Enough of that is occurring with the wars and sicknesses in the lands at present.

               Still, it is not her place to intervene.

               Caduceus sighs, laying down his knife for a moment. He closes his eyes as if he feels the same resignation she does, nodding down at the countertop in his slow, thoughtful way.

               “I guess this isn’t really any of your business,” he says. The Wildmother smiles.

               “You’ve looked out for me—even though it’s been…it’s been pretty bad, I know you’re there. That’s why I’m still here, I think,” Caduceus continues, his voice becoming unsure, a little fear creeping in around the edges.  

               My sweet boy, the Wildmother thinks. It’s been good for him to leave the Blooming Grove. He has things she would like him to accomplish, but she also wants him to learn more about the world and the things in it. What good is faith if you never test it and try it? No faith is true if your life is spend locked in a garden, tending the plants and the dead alike. Caduceus knows so little of the world. It’s good for him to explore and question his faith—Caduceus has always been an unquestioning follower when he should really question things more. It pleases the Wildmother that he is asking questions and having doubts. The youngest of her Clays is finally growing up.

               He opens his eyes and resumes cooking. He takes a deep breath and continues his prayer.

               “I don’t know if it’s something in your purview or not, but if it is, could you keep an eye on Fjord? He’s…he’s a good guy. I don’t think his patron is treating him very well. I don’t know much about any of this stuff about pacts and agreements, but I do know this isn’t a very healthy relationship. If there’s anything you can do, I think he’s going to be a good person in the end, if he could just get away from this Uk’otoa character,” Caduceus says. “I’d like to help him do that.”

               This surprises the Wildmother. The Clay family have been faithful worshippers of hers for generations upon generations, but they have never been evangelical. That is not how she wants her worshippers to be. They do their part and tend to her gardens and defend the balance between life and death. The Clays respect the worship and custom of all the other gods. They are well studied and well versed in those that require specific burial rituals or other death rites. Young Caduceus is the first in many generations to question the tendencies of others and their relationship with their deity.

               The Wildmother reaches out curiously, reading Caduceus’s heart. It is full of concern for Fjord and his situation. So then. Caduceus has truly come to care for these people he travels with.  It’s good.

               I will watch and see, the Wildmother thinks. Caduceus smiles into his soup, relief tinging the edges of his aura. He felt her promise, then. He always was a sensitive boy. The youngest of this generation of Clays.

 

               And watch she does, acquiescing to Caduceus’s prayer. Indeed, the half-orc orphan appears to be afraid of his patron. Though he tests where giving in to Uk’otoa’s call might take him, Fjord ultimately decides to end their sea voyage, turning away from the last gate keeping the not-quite-god locked away. And the Wildmother watches.

 For a short time, the Wildmother thinks Uk’otoa has let Fjord go. The Mighty Nein make their way to the shore and travel further and further inland. The Wildmother follows their path, keeping watch for any darkness on the horizon.

               It’s late one night—her attentions are mostly elsewhere—when she sees black tentacles reach for Fjord’s consciousness. She sees them writhing from the corner of her eye. As she turns to watch, a chill shudders through her celestial self. The tentacles wrap themselves around Fjord’s sleeping mind, filling his aura with fear and dread…and pain.  

               The Wildmother hesitates. It is not her place to intervene, but she recalls how Caduceus was concerned about the nature of this relationship. He was right to worry—it does not look healthy or natural. Uk’otoa’s dark tentacles drip with a sickly green power as he threatens his chosen vessel. He isn’t strong enough to do very much yet, but mortals are weak and Fjord is not left undamaged. She does not like it either.  

               This will not do. Yet…what can be done? The boy entered into a pact with that unsightly being. It is not the Wildmother’s place to intervene. The rules are very strict. The gods should not fight over each others’ followers, but accept their coming and going with grace. Once, they fought for the worship of certain mortals. They destroyed each other and the mortals in the process. No more. Even lesser beings such as Uk’otoa have rights under these laws. A pact willingly entered is out of her reach.

               The Wildmother watches Fjord wake up terrified with a frown on her face. She never cared much for any of the Cloaked Serpent’s creations. Dark and dripping with poison, all of them. They were as ruthless as the Serpent himself, each holding close an aspect of the god who created them. Uk’otoa is made of all the destructive force of the sea. In his power, he threw ships about as if they were toys or would stir up calm waters to suddenly chew up ships as if in a giant maw. Now, he casts his storms in the minds of his chosen, twisting them with false promise or the threat of destruction until he is free once again.

               The Wildmother does not like this.  

 

               Caduceus’s second prayer for Fjord comes at the request of his friend Caleb. The Wildmother, of course, had seen the things that transpired between Fjord and his patron. She likes their relationship less and less. Her heart went out to the half-orc as he stumbled into the rain, clutching his lifeless sword, reaching for a power that had been rescinded. The power Uk’otoa had given Fjord had been his driving force. She watched him, panicking as he struggled to deal with the sudden emptiness in his chest.

               This is wrong, the Wildmother thinks, anger boiling in her like a geyser ready to blow. She’s become fond of her Clay’s friends. They’ve taken good care of him and taught him many lessons about the world he’s been hidden away from. Misguided as these Mighty Nein are, they do the best they can, and they clearly love each other. It’s enough for her. She doesn’t like seeing one of them tortured by the being he’d trusted for so long. Nor does she approve of a higher being treating his mortals so poorly.

               The human wizard had watched carefully, feigning sleep. He watched Fjord through his eyelashes, eyes mostly closed. Fjord had been too frightened to notice. Caleb watched him fail to send his sword away, fail to cast magic. He watched as Fjord slipped out of the room, then sent his fey creature to watch as he tried to reach for that missing magic in the streets, laying troubled and concerned in bed until Fjord returned safely.  

               Caleb woke early to find Caduceus, always an early riser. Now, they face each other over a cup of tea.

               “You…you have roomed with Fjord often on our journeys,” Caleb says hesitantly, casting nervous glances toward the staircase leading to the guest rooms.

               “I have. Why?” Caduceus says.

               Caleb leans in, dropping his voice to ensure no one is listening.

               “Have you noticed whether he is getting more dreams from…from his patron?” he asks.

               Caduceus frowns.

               “I wouldn’t say more, but he seems unhappy when he gets one, now, doesn’t he?” he replies thoughtfully. “They seem to be causing him…pain…somehow.”

               “I think Fjord is being punished for walking away before he freed…his patron,” Caleb says, hesitating to name Uk’otoa. “He woke last night unable to cast. His falchion was still laying on the bed this morning. I don’t think he can send it back to wherever it is usually kept.”

               Caduceus lets out a sigh that might be a partial growl. He shakes his head.

               “I don’t like that Uk’otoa,” he says, voice low and angry. “He’s bad news, Mr. Caleb.”

               Caleb nods, face unhappy.

               “You are…a man of the cloth. Is there any way to get Fjord away from his god? Can he break his geass? Can your Wildmother do anything to protect him?” Caleb asks.

               The Wildmother smiles at that. Caleb, the broken, faithless boy is always willing to support the faith of others. He gives his faith to no one, but knows enough to understand that his beliefs have nothing to do with anyone else’s. He understands well—better than some of the most faithful followers—that the choice to believe in a god is a personal matter.

               “I’ve asked. I don’t really know how all that works…I don’t know if she’s allowed to interfere with what other gods—or whatever Uk’otoa is—are doing,” Caduceus says. “It won’t hurt to let her know what’s going on, though. Maybe she can do something for him.”

               “I hope so,” Caleb says. His aura is always gloomy and worried, but his concern spikes a bit for the sake of his friend, as well as the rest of their group. “I do not think it will bode well for any of us if that fiend comes for vengeance. Especially not Fjord”

               “No, I think you’re right,” Caduceus agrees. “I’ll see what I can do.”

               “Danke,” Caleb says.

               Caduceus asks for her help later that day. She listens, curious as to how he will shape his prayer.

               “I don’t know what you can do, or what you’re allowed to do, or if you’re even interested,” Caduceus says. “But you’ve taken care of me, more than I deserve. If there is anything you can do for Fjord, please do it. This thing…it’s not good. And we need him. He’s part of our team, and he’s a good friend.”

               The Wildmother sets a part of herself to look at the geass keeping Fjord bound to Uk’otoa, and keeping Uk’otoa bound in his prison. For days, she studies both.

               “You know, you do have options, sister.”

               The Wildmother turns to find the Raven Queen smirking at her.

               “I’d like to crush him in the deep waters he loves so much,” she replies.

               “And perhaps you will get that chance. For the time being, why not take the boy under your wing? If it’s bothering you so much,” the Raven Queen says.

               “I’m not about to steal someone else’s chosen as my own. I don’t play that kind of game,” The Wildmother says sharply.

“Who said anything about stealing? Don’t underestimate the power of mortal choice, Melora. You can always ask nicely…if the boy chooses you over his eldritch beast, it’s all fair game,” the Raven Queen says with a shrug. “Mortals change their hearts on faith as quickly as the weather changes. That’s hardly your fault.”

               “You make it sound so easy,” The Wildmother says with a shake of her head. “The balance—”

               “It is easy. Choice is as natural as it gets, sister. All you need to do is open a door. Whether he walks through it is up to him. You’ve disrupted no balance and broken none of our laws. But Uk’otoa will greatly disrupt the balance if he breaks free again. Personally, I would rather not see him roaming the mortal realm,” The Raven Queen says. She turns to leave. “Think about it, sister.”

               The Wildmother frowns, watching her go.

               A choice…

 

               Her Clay is angry with her. He does not like to be told no. He does not like being told that some problems are too big for him to fix. She loves him none the less for it, staying near as he closes his mind to her like a child slamming the door. Though he has come so far and grown so much, there is still an innocence about him that he’s not ready to give up yet. He still thinks he can save the world.

               Perhaps if she had not been so close to the Mighty Nein, she would have missed the black tentacles reaching for Fjord. She hesitates for a moment, watching them reach for the half-orc’s mind once again.

               Open a door.

               The Wildmother touches the consciousness of the half-orc. The cracking of Uk’otoa against his binding is muted as she creates the image of a door, opening it and filling it with as much light and love and life as she can. She pours her essence into the light.

               Fjord’s eyes widen as her emerald light touches his face. He leans into the light as if it were a caress. He’s so cold. He’s tired of feeling cold and wet—shameful for a sailor to think, but this warmth feels good. It’s been a long time since he was truly warm.

               “Come with me, child.” She can’t help but whisper the words to him, reaching out.

               He’s mesmerized. At a glance, she sees the child-Fjord’s dreams of a mother’s plea just like hers, longing to be called to a place he can call home, longing to be loved by a mother. He moves toward her, arms outstretched.

               Uk’otoa pulls back, but Fjord breaks free. The Wildmother pulls him into her embrace, letting vines sap the water from him, warming his clammy skin in her arms. He sinks into her chest, sighing with an exhausted contentment.  

               “This womb I grant, but withers without faith. His wielder shall find you again,” she warns. She can protect him so long as he chooses her, but Uk’otoa won’t let go that easily. Even now, the beast rages against her, fighting to pull Fjord back to him. Behind bars, he’s not strong enough to strike her down, but the walls encasing him are becoming thin. The Wildmother can hear his roars, though her mortal charge does not.  

               Fjord doesn’t reply, but stares at her in awe and admiration. The Wildmother looks down at him and smiles gently, flooding him with feelings of warmth and safety.

               “His will shall find you again, but until it does, rest,” she murmurs, embracing his small, mortal form.

               The relief on the half-orc’s face as he falls into a restful sleep makes her heart ache. How long has it been since he had found peaceful rest? She should have offered this to him sooner.

               When he wakes, the WIldmother watches as he fights with renewed strength and confidence. He marvels at the warmth of his magic now that she is watching over him. His newfound awe and shy, whispered prayers endear him to her. He thanks her for her warmth and protection. He asks her what he can do to show his appreciation, as he understands nothing comes without a price.

               “I will protect you as long as I can,” the Wildmother promises, knowing he can’t hear her. “My orphan boy.”

 

               Don’t underestimate the power of mortal choice, the Raven Queen had said.

               The Wildmother watches as Fjord’s power is stripped of him once again. She burns with fury—Uk’otoa dares to come for Fjord in her kiln! So. He knows she is watching him. This is as much an attack on her as it is on Fjord. He had spoken to the small blue child—Jester—prior to this dream. He’d admitted his desire to ask the Wildmother for guidance.

               Fjord stands, fury in his own heart. Fury and the long weariness of one who has been mistreated and used for far too long and understand that they can escape. Though his breath his shaky, his steps are sure as he walks to the edge of the ever-burning magma.

               “You need me more than I need you,” Fjord murmurs. Setting his jaw, he raises his pact weapon to his chest and slides the tip in. If I matter so much to you, do something, he thinks. The Wildmother watches closely, waiting, but nothing reaches out for Fjord.

               He takes another step, shoving the weapon further into his own chest. Come on, save me or punish me. Do something. Anything. I am your vessel and I will die. Where will you be, then? The prayer is savage and hard—the gamble of a man who knows the price of what he’s offering.

               Uk’otoa does not respond. He sits on the edges of this plane, watching, but not moving.

               Fjord bares his teeth, forcing himself forward, forcing the blade in deeper. White hot pain sears the edges of his consciousness. Answer me! Give me something, anything. You tell me to obey; give me a reason. Do you care nothing for me? His plea is anguished now, years of loneliness and doubt sharpening his anger.  

               The Wildmother watches. Uk’otoa is silent.

               Fjord pulls the blade from his chest and holds the sword over the pool. Then I will destroy our pact and be done with you, he thinks.  His blood drips into the magma, into the Wildmother’s sacred kiln like an offering. Never has she asked for blood, but freely given, she will accept it. She waits for a moment more, watching.

               Uk’otoa remains silent.

               Very well. So be it.

               The Wildmother answers Fjord’s prayer, feeling a curious relief in her own heart. She fills the room with her presence, rising from the kiln with the smoke. She wraps her arms around him—she cannot fully heal his wounds from here, but she can lessen the pain. She does so, touching him with the warmth and comfort she’d filled him with in his dream. Choose, she whispers.

               Fjord lowers his arm, as if tired (and he is so very tired.) As the Wildmother releases him, she feels his heart settle into place. With what feels like the end of his strength, Fjord throws the sword into the magma. For a moment he just stares at the weapon as it sits on top of the molten metal. As it starts to sink, his heart leaps in panic and he reaches out as if to take it back, but he stops himself, letting his arm fall to his side. He nods once, with a deep sigh. It is done. It is over.

               Fjord presses a hand to his wound. As he turns, he whispers one of his small prayers. If this was you, I thank you, he says.

               The Wildmother smiles. She reaches out to Caduceus. He sleeps peacefully, comfortable in a place so wrought with her image and his family’s lore. She pulls his mind gently toward consciousness. I have answered your prayer, my Clay. Wake, for your friend needs your healing hand and your wise heart. Care for him as I have. He has won a battle tonight, though the war has not yet ceased.

               Moments later, Caduceus awakens, a healing spell already on his lips almost before Fjord can ask for it. Her Clay only looks startled afterward, looking around briefly almost as if he expects her to be physically in the room with them. His confusion turns to excitement as Fjord begins to tell his tale.

               Caduceus’s thankful prayer comes later, as the both of them finally return to rest. His prayer is full of hope for Fjord’s future and gladness that she was able to rescue him. As he drifts off to sleep, the Wildmother drops a touch of peace on him.

               Learn this, my young Clay. It is not my power that saved him this night, but his own power of choosing. Faith is important and I can do much with it, but I have learned that mortals can be strong, too. Never will I underestimate the power of mortal choices.