His home is lush. Beautiful. Restored to a glory that he’d only ever been told stories of, the kind of life that had existed here long before even his parents were born.
You have done excellently, My Clay.
He feels Her warmth, Her approval, carried along the breeze that tosses his hair back. His heart sings. The corruption is gone. The world is safe.
Distantly, he knows his family is somewhere. It’s been so long since he’s seen them.
His world is a symphony of color, a cacophony of leaves and moss and flowers. Vibrant and soft and bright in the sun that leaks through the thick canopy of trees overhead. His family’s temple sits where it always has, the garden in front of it rich with every fruit and vegetable and herb Caduceus ever remembers them growing.
That’s where they must be, he thinks. His mother and father and sisters and brothers. Home again. Together at last. He can hear them, he thinks, just beyond the wooden front door. There is singing and laughing and the clink of a teacup returning to a saucer and Caduceus aches to be a part of it again, to return to being happy with them.
He throws the door open and the world goes silent.
His home lies in ruins. The upper floors have collapsed, the stone ceiling has cracked and caved in. Caduceus stands at the threshold of the temple but there is no temple anymore. There is no home, there are no voices, apart from one that suddenly speaks behind him.
He turns, startled. Horrified. The grove is now barren, the corruption that was barely held back for so long finally overrunning it. Everything green has withered and died. Thorny vines twist on dry, cracked dirt. The sky overhead is a bleak grey, the air cold and sharp and the magic of the grove, Her magic, is gone without a trace.
He can’t feel Her anymore. Melora’s warmth in him is gone, and the loss is more painful than any trauma his body has ever endured. The sound he makes is involuntary—a sound of mourning.
Amongst the corruption Caduceus finally sees the source of the voice. His sister. Clarabelle. She is dressed in black, her hair white as ash and cropped short, long robes spread out around her. She stands still and somber among the desolation.
“You failed,” she says again, sadder than he’s ever heard her sound. Sadder than she was the day their mother left. “You failed all of us. We came home and you had left. We came home and home was gone.”
“No.” The word leaves him faintly. A quiet, desperate plea. “No...”
She walks forward, thorns tangling in the hem of her skirt. “We trusted you to keep it safe. We trusted you to stay, Caduceus.”
“Please,” he begs. He falls to his knees, onto cold, unforgiving stone. “Stop.”
“Most loyal. Least loved. So desperate to prove yourself and still you left.”
He curls in on himself, hands fisted in his hair, trembling under the weight of his grief. “It’s not true,” he tells himself. “It can’t be true.”
“You failed us. And you’ll fail them, too.”
He looks back up at that, but Clarabelle is gone. In her place, his friends stand. His new family. The Mighty Nein.
Their faces are blank. Impassive. They stare at him, unseeing, so still and silent and unlike the loud, vibrant people he knows them to be.
His sister’s voice lingers, carried on wind that chills him to the bone.
“You replaced us, and for what? They’ll leave too.”
The vines creep toward them, corruption spreading and consuming all life it can find. Caduceus tries to stand, to run to them and save them from this place he’s dragged them to, from this fate he could have saved them from, but thorns dig into his legs and arms and back and he finds himself bound. He tries to scream, to tell them to run, but his voice is stolen from him. All he can do is watch in horror as the corruption wraps around his friends and they are one by one choked of life and crumble into dust. Nothing to bury. Nothing to give the earth. Nothing left of the ones he loves.
In the end only Caleb and Fjord stand, and in the end they are the only ones to speak.
“We trusted you,” Caleb says, and in an instant his once-blank eyes are consumed with hate. He glares at Caduceus and Caduceus feels it as if it were a knife in his back.
“We trusted you,” Fjord says and there is no hate in his eyes, only a sadness so deep Caduceus cannot even fathom it.
Caduceus fights with all the strength he can muster. He needs to reach them. He needs to save them. His friends. His lovers. He can’t be alone again, he can’t let them down, he can’t lose the ones he’s given his heart to, the ones who know more about him than anyone else, the ones who have opened up to him in return and have given him the happiest days he’s had in such a long time.
But the corruption holds him down. And they crumble to dust and fade away. And Caduceus screams, wordless and soundless, in an agony he has never let himself feel before because all is truly lost now. He has no family and no home and the Wildmother has abandoned him but the corruption refuses to take him now. Instead he must remain in this prison, surrounded by the land and the remains of the people he failed, and he cries out but nothing hears him anymore—
Caduceus wakes with a start, heart hammering in his chest. He sits up and looks around, breathing heavily, almost crushed with the relief that it was all a dream.
Mostly. Sort of. The corruption still looms. His family are still gone. And his friends, his lovers—
Are stirring out of their own sleep. Fjord sits up on his elbow, rubbing at his eyes as Caleb, on the other side of Caduceus, groans and burrows deeper into his blanket.
“Deuces?” Fjord looks up at him, voice low and thick with sleep. “Everything okay?”
Caduceus opens his mouth and is fully prepared to say he’s fine. The lie is on the tip of his tongue. But he can still hear Clarabelle’s voice, can still see his friends crumbling to dust around him, and instead of speaking he simply shakes his head. Fjord’s brow furrows in concern. He moves to sit up fully but Caduceus shakes his head again, rests a trembling hand on his chest and eases him back down.
“Can...Can you hold me?” His voice is as shaky as the rest of him, small and scared, and Fjord nods immediately and opens his arms. Caduceus buries his face in the crook of Fjord’s neck and breathes in deep, relishing the familiar and comforting scent of Fjord. He starts very briefly at an unexpected hand on his hip only to realize that it’s Caleb, curling up close behind and pressing his forehead to Caduceus’s back.
“What is wrong?” Caleb asks and Caduceus hesitates before giving his answer.
“Nightmare,” is all he says.
Fjord gives a little hum. “Those can get pretty nasty.”
“Yeah.” He blinks quickly, fighting back tears. “It was...bad.”
“We’ve got you,” Caleb murmurs. “We always will, Liebling. ”
You have no idea how much I need to hear that, Caduceus thinks to himself. He can still see them looking at him with sadness. With hatred. Can still see them crumbling away and leaving him alone forever. The trembling continues and Fjord continues to hold him close and Caleb’s thumb traces the line of his hip bone before he runs his palm up Caduceus’s side and Caduceus drinks in their touch. Their presence.
“I haven’t had a nightmare in a long time,” he admits. “Not since I was a child.”
“Do you want to discuss it?” Caleb asks.
Caduceus thinks for a moment. He really doesn’t know if he can explain it succinctly, if he can easily summarize the tangle of fear and grief and anxiety that roils in the pit of his stomach, the ever-present worry in the back of his mind that everything he’s doing is for nothing, that the destiny of his family is to be wiped out by distance and corruption.
“I don’t know,” he finally says. “I don’t know how.”
“You can try,” Fjord says. “If you want. If you think it will help.”
He swallows hard, steels himself.
“The grove couldn’t be saved. Everyone was gone. My family. My friends. Both of you. I was alone. I was...alone forever.”
Fjord holds him a bit tighter. He feels Caleb press himself harder against his back and feels lips against his neck.
“We’re here for you,” he says. “All of us. We will help however we can.”
“And we’ll be here when it’s over,” Fjord says. “And...we’ll stay together. Right?”
Silence settles among them. Caduceus knows that nothing is assured. That with the way they’re living now, anything can happen. He can do his best to keep them safe but the worst outcome is still possible. And he knows they understand that too.
Caleb’s voice, full of assurance, breaks the silence.
“We will. For as long as we can.”
Caleb’s confidence helps to ease some of the ache and chase away the worry. Caduceus wants so badly to believe him. He prays that future can be real for them, that they can retire someday wherever they’d like. Somewhere with a school Caleb can teach at and an ocean for Fjord to explore and a garden he can tend to, right in front of their home.
“I love you,” Caduceus whispers into the night.
“And I love you,” Caleb replies.
Caduceus feels Fjord’s hand move for a moment, reaching for Caleb who reaches back. “I love you both,” he says, hand returning to running through Caduceus’s hair.
Caleb is the first to sink back into sleep and Caduceus manages a smile at the soft sound of his snoring. Fjord takes a little longer but eventually the hand running through his hair slows and stops, resting on the back of his head as Fjord’s breathing evens out.
His mates. He loves them more than words can say, more than he could ever hope to express to them. He just hopes he can find a way to show them even a fraction of how deeply he cares for them.
Someday. If he doesn’t fail his family. If the grove can be restored to the glory he’s only ever heard about.
If they really do love him enough to want to stay by his side.
Caduceus sinks slowly into a blissfully dreamless sleep, savoring the warmth and comfort surrounding him.