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The heart of things

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For hundreds of years, there in the heart of the Savalirwood laid the Blooming Groove. Tucked away deep into the forest, it was a place of rest, of mourning and of peace. And for many years, a place of loneliness as well. Caduceus Clay took care of the humble home on his own, Tending to the graves and gardens that surrounded the house. For years now the once crowded home housed just a single firbolg. It was bound to happen, after their parent’s death, the Clay siblings had to make a choice of dwelling in it or moving on. They all did the latter, except for Caduceus Clay.

He didn’t hold it against his siblings of course. He was proud of them, and wished them all the best for what life could bring them. They made sure to send him messages and even visit on the rare occasion they could. But firbolgs had a bad sense of time, and those periods could stretch for long. He stayed because the memories of this place he grew in didn’t hurt him more than they brought him a bittersweet happiness. Someone had to take care of the graves after all. They couldn’t look after themselves.

It’s what he told himself as dull after dull day passed him by, but Caduceus never really left the Blooming Grove.

Seasons went by and he fell victim to stagnation, feeling a strange comfort in just how mundane his daily decisions were.

Wake up, clean up, make food, take care of this place, pray, sleep, repeat.

Sometimes he’d get people too, coming to bury their dead. For the occasion, he’d bring his nicer tea and his comfort. He’d listen to their sorrows and let them break down so they could start building themselves up again. And then, they’d leave. Strangely enough, few ever came back to visit any dead buried there. Caduceus wasn’t too sure if that was good or bad, but he never dwelled on it too much. He just did his part.

He couldn’t even remember what the last time he had gone to any city was. He would sometimes tell himself he’d go soon, to fix his breaking appliances or to replace things that didn’t grow in the near nature. But he’d put it off, finding another silly solution to avoid fixing the problem.

Maybe he was avoiding many things.

But no one lived close enough to judge him. It was just him, the wildmother and the dead.

Two of those couldn’t express any disappointments they could have about him.

And so Caduceus Clay lived his life like that for many years.

 

But there wouldn’t be a story to tell if things had remained like that forever. 

 

 

Caduceus stares at the bush of roses by the gate. A frown is stuck on his face as he examines the poor wilting things. They were beautiful things, a red so vivid, only a few days ago.

Now they were just dying.

“Are you feeling down? Or is something else bothering you?” He mumbles to the flowers, letting his fingers carefully thread through the leaves. He hadn’t made any significant changes in his routine to have resulted in such a sudden change in them, but sometimes plants could get moody, so all Caduceus could do was keep an eye and try to remedy any damages best he could.

The roses didn’t answer him anyway.

He gets up from his crouch and dusts his knees of mud. He was out collecting a few more vegetables to eat when the little plant caught his attention. He adjusts the basket that is on his back and continues his way through the open gates of the Blooming Grove.

There’s another sea of colors within there from the different wild plants growing about, though not as colorful as they could be due to the season. But fall has a beauty of its own, and Caduceus appreciates it nonetheless.

Stepping over fallen leaves and past stone slabs, he makes his way to his wooden house.

He pushes the door open with one hand, humming as he lets himself in. The door is never locked, there’s only him there, and anyone else is welcome inside for a moment if respite.

He takes the basket off his back and drops it on the table in the kitchen.

He opens it and sniffs the inside.

He was thinking about making veggie stew today. Again. But he has some mushrooms now, so something just a little different.

He doesn’t mind either way. Veggie stew is great.

It was warm, tasty, homey, and it was what his mother made him whenever he was sick or had trouble sleeping. With the cold coming soon, it felt only fitting.

And if it helped Caduceus withs sleeping problems too, then that was just great.

It was not often that Caduceus felt himself fighting against the throes of sleep. But lately, a night's rest had become just a wish. Insomnia struck him as a strange feeling crawled through his skin at night, and once sleep came, it was short and left him feeling unrested.

It wasn’t very nice, but as with most things in his life, he just waited patiently for it to pass.

And veggie stew hopefully would help.

 

He starts washing the produce, humming along to a song in his head. He peels and chops down everything he needs for the recipe. He likes the place. From where he stands, he can see through the large windows of the kitchen on the wall in front of him, and past that, he can catch a glimpse of the entrance of the grove. It’s specially nice in times like these, when the sun starts setting and the whole place starts getting painted in oranges and pinks. Though he’s a fan of the sunrise too.

He goes through the motions of cooking with not too much attention, but with enough care, and in time he is rewarded with a big pot filled with veggie stew.

It’s too much for one person. Specially him.

He serves himself a portion and sits down in the living room with a piping hot bowl.

He starts working again on this scarf he was trying to make, sipping on his soup as he goes until night time comes and it is time to sleep.

He puts away his leftovers and lets his project lie somewhere safe.

“Good night.” He tells the house and retires to his room.

It's a big room for one person, especially when he was used to sharing it with at least one sibling, but the place was changed so that it only housed his bed. There is a wardrobe, a desk, a nice carpet to sit down and think and lots of space to just wander around.

Some plants as well, that Caduceus checks on before retiring for bed.

He lays down, drawing his covers up and breathes in. 

He hopes for a good night of sleep.

He closes his eyes and breathes out.

Caduceus wakes up with the taste of mud on his tongue.

His eyes snap open and there’s an edge of panic in his heart but no recollection of the reason for it.

His hands shake and an unnatural cold runs through his body.

He tries his best to calm down, breathing in and out slowly, rubbing his hands on his arms to gather some heat.

It happened again.

Sunlight is already filtering through his window and that’s a relief, because it meant Caduceus at least managed to sleep through the whole night. He still feels tired, and the panic is hanging on slightly, but that too shall pass.

He gets up from his bed, still wrapped in his blanket and leaves his room.

It’s very early in the morning, the chill air of the night still hanging around. It isn’t too cold yet, it will take a few months until the cold truly settles in and snow will be covering the grounds of the forest.

Caduceus puts a kettle over the fire and starts making some tea. He looks out the window as he waits. Calming himself down properly with the visage of his home.

He pours the tea into a cup and walks outside. The morning does him good. It has a smell and life of its own, like the whole world is waking up as well.

He walks up all the way to the gates, letting the sun hit him and warm him up as much as the tea.

He closes his eyes and just listens. Paying attention to how his heart now thumped calmly in his chest. How the forest moved around him.

He remains like that for several minutes.

He then stretches his arms, hearing a pop as his bones settle. He scratches his head and takes another glance around. Might as well get started with the day. No need to get food today, maybe he’ll finish his sewing project? That sounds nice.

He turns to head back in, but stops,  looking at the rose bush by the gate.

He frowns, crouching by them like he did the day before.

They were still dying, but curiously a layer of ice seemed to coat the flowers.

“Huh…”

Caduceus glanced around at other plants around. There seemed to be three bushes in a row with ice melting on them. Just those. 

“What could be happening here?” He asks them.

As always, they don’t answer.

He goes back inside and thinks about it for a bit. When no explanation comes of it, he thinks about something else.

 

He works on his scarf until it is a few many centimeters longer. He tends to his plants.

He eats his leftovers.

He tries to relax.

As the sun makes its way down from the sky, Caduceus can’t help the dread that crawls up his skin. He’s come to accept that the bad nights just can’t be helped, didn’t mean he enjoyed it. There’s something off about it, wrong. He takes some time in the afternoon to meditate. Clear his thoughts. Think about what was causing him to be so tense. 

Maybe he should write to his siblings, just check on them. One less concern in his mind.

Maybe this was an omen.

 

And soon night came, and Caduceus couldn’t make up any more excuses to stay up.

“Good night.” He tells the house again as he settles for the night.

Breathing in deeply.

And out.

Caduceus wakes up with the taste of mud on his tongue.

He pushes himself off his bed with chest heaving, breathing through his nose.

It’s the middle of the night. He can hear the rain pattering against his window outside. It’s almost a storm.

He’s freezing.

A lightning strikes far away, his whole room flashing white for a second.

With his heart still beating rapidly, he gets up.

He sets off to make himself some tea.

He hugs himself and walks through the empty house, rubbing his arms and stepping into the kitchen. 

He fills the kettle with water and puts it over the fire.

His eyes are screwed shut as he breathes deeply, leaning back on the counter.

The house is too cold. Too cold.

The noises too loud.

There’s a crackle of lightning and another flash.

Caduceus turns his head, looking at the way to the entrance of the house. There’s water on the ground.

He leans off the counters, apprehensive, and takes careful steps towards the living room.

There’s indeed water on the floor, and as he approaches, he notices a trail of water leading off towards the entrance.

 

The door to the outside is wide open, rain water splattering inside.

He gently pushes the door closed, glancing about.

The house is buried in shadows. Nothing moving.

He follows the water trail inside. Bare feet silent on the stone floor.

He makes his way through the living room, one careful step at a time.

The house is still too cold.

The water droplets stop when they reach the kitchen.

 

It is empty.

He wants to call out for whoever or whatever seemed to have walked into his home, but something in him makes him stop.

He watches carefully for every corner of the room. Any movement in it. But all there is the noise of the rain outside and the small flicker of flames from the stove.

Caduceus goes back to leaning against the counter, staring out the window.

 

It is so cold he can see his breath as he exhales.

His limbs feel stiff as he rests his palms against the cold stone pressed against his back.

He can hear his heart beat.

He can hear his blood run through his veins.

There’s a spark of light.

Caduceus stares intently at his reflection briefly reflected in the window, made clear from the lightning strike.

A loud crackle echoes through the air.

 

Caduceus tries to move, easing the tension off his shoulders, but realizes he can’t even flinch, stuck in that position. Eyes pointed towards the window, body tense against the counter.

There’s a spark of light.

In the reflection of the mirror he seems himself, and a figure behind him. Eyes of blood red. 

He can’t move.

He’s cast in darkness once more and he can’t move.

He can feel the figure behind him, curled horns sitting on their head. Hands moving up. Caduceus can feel the static, the cold as the hand draws up towards his neck.

A loud crackle echoes through the air.

He can’t even breathe.

 

His kettle whistles loudly as steam escapes and suddenly Caduceus can lean forward and turn off the fire. He turns on his heels and he’s alone in the dark.

He breathes in and out, looking around his kitchen as noise fills the place once again.

 

The cold is gone.

He draws a hand to his neck.

 

There’s a taste of mud on his tongue.