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Darkest Before the Dawn

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Caduceus has never had the privilege of meeting Mollymauk Tealeaf while he was alive, only when he was buried deep underground with an apparent gash in his chest and a rainbow jacket hitched on a stake as a flag of his remembrance.

He's heard stories, of course, by the band of the adventures he has now begun to call his family, but it is obvious that while they adored Mollymauk, he was not all they said he was, and there is some deep, underlying secret that is kept unspoken by all.

Once the Mighty Nein have retired from their sea voyage and Fjord has slumped off in search of a strong drink with the others in tow, Caduceus has finally accepted the startlingly painful disconnect from nature he'ss been feeling since the moment they stepped foot off that dock in Jester's hometown and after leaving a quick message to Caleb to let them know he would be back soon, maybe within a week, he sets off in search of green trees and lush grasses and colourful, fragrant flowers.

Which, coincidently, led him here- to the final resting place of Mollymauk Tealeaf.

To be honest, he isn't entirely sure what led him here in the first place. Maybe it's his connection to the graveyard home he misses so much, to the point that his subconscious took his feet to that direction? Maybe the Wildmother has smiled down on Mollymauk and has sent her most loyal disciple and most willing follower back to his grave to wish him a final farewell?

He isn't sure how he's gotten here or how long he's been travellinging for, his mind too preoccupied with the birds and the plants and the whispers of the wind through the leaves to take notice of where his feet had been traveling. At some point, Jester had spoken into his mind, asking where he was and if he was aright and Caduceus replied and told her that he was still alive and much happier to be back on dry, solid land.

Regardless, Caduceus kneels down and places a hand on the dirt floor, now coated in a thin, sporadic layer of foliage of wonderful purples and pinks and reds, and smiles at the small yet strong tree growing from the soil, the coat that once so beautifully adorned the wooden stake now clung to the tree as it grew upwards and outwards.

For once, Caduceus has no words for such a simple beauty. A beauty deserving of such a vividly colourful and bright individual, if Caduceus is to believe the words of their mutual friends and the evidence of the coat caught in the boughs of the tree.

“Hello there Mollymauk, it’s nice to see you again.” Caduceus greets as he forgoes kneeling and instead falls backwards and sits with crossed legs on the dirt, a puff of dust floating upwards from his rough landing. “Your friends really miss you. I thought I should come and say hello while there is still something to say hello to. I mean, you never know what happens in nature. A flash fire could wipe out this whole orchard. A drought could sweep through and the plants could die. A terrible sickness could poison the land. You never know.”

Caduceus doesn’t really know what to say. Though he lives in a graveyard, it feels unusual, even to him, to be sitting at the grave of a man you never knew and whose place you had taken in the group of friends turned family.

“I’ve heard much about you,” Caduceus continues, deciding to pull the supplies for tea out of his pack. He plucks a few of the most vivid flowers out of Mollymauk’s grave and puts them into the kettle atop the tripod, wondering if it's disrespectful to drink the flowers from a person’s dead body at their own grave but considering the type of person Mollymauk seemed to be in life, he wouldn’t mind all that much. And besides, after months sailing the sea with the fear of setting the rickety wooden ship on fire from the blaze from his tripod, Caduceus really needs some tea. “Your friends all tell me great things. Apparently, you were some type of god- they speak extremely highly of you.”

To Caduceus expectations, the grave doesn't answer, but the small amount of leaves in the growing tree rustles in the wind as if laughing lightly at Caduceus. “I thought it was only fitting for me to come by here, considering I was the one to finally send you on your way. I see you have taken over most of your final resting place, as you had with every place you touched.” He waves his hand at the land around him, at the flowers matching the ones in Mollymauk’s grave that spread out across the grass, the vines that curl around the tree winding its way through the earth. “Good for you. I mean, it’s not every day that you get to see something like this, and I must say your tea tastes delicious.”

It was true. Lavender and honey and lemon and cumin and something that tastes suspiciously like the drink Nott had forced into Caduceus’ hand during his first night in Zadash dances across Caduceus’s tongue like sparks in the night, bright and strong and clear. It’s not a taste Caduceus has ever experienced before, despite drinking ‘dead-people-tea’ the entirety of his life, yet Mollymauk is extremely different in every way. Caduceus wishes they could have met.

“I’ve heard about many of your achievements. Apparently, you worked at a circus.” Caduceus sips at his tea, savouring the strange taste. “I’ve never actually been to a circus. I would have liked to have seen yours.” Caduceus has heard the stories of what happened at the Moondrop and Fletching Traveling Carnival of Curiosities the first time the Mighty Nein had met, but he doesn't really take any of those things to heart. It could happen to anyone. “You seem like a very interesting person. I feel like we would have gotten along, in a very strange way. They say you were brash and ostentatious- I seem to be the opposite.”

Above him, Caduceus is aware of the sky darkening, the horizon a painting of purples and oranges and when he turns around he sees that theres a bright splattering of glistening stars in the night sky behind him. Quickly, Caduceus makes camp beside Mollymauk’s grave and wishes him goodnight.

Once he wakes up, Caduceus plucks a handful of flowers from the grave and collects them into his now empty satchel. “Well, I believe this is goodbye. I uh, I’m sure our friends would be worried about me by now. I suppose I’ve been gone longer than I said I would be. It’s was very nice to speak with you, Mollymauk, and I believe that you have… inadvertently given me new faith in the Wildmother.” He waves his hand over all the beauty of which came from Mollymauk’s body, grown from his blood like water and sprung from his flesh like soul and grew from his soul like sunlight- as exquisite and expressive as Mollymauk himself. “I mean, if she can make something is beautiful, she deserves being believed in. I wish you well Mollymauk, and hope that you are basking in the love of your Moonweaver. I send you the Wildmothers blessing.”

Pausing beside the tree reaching for glimpses of life through the bleak clouds, Caduceus smiles and wraps the coat more securely around the branches so it doesn’t ever fly away.

“You did what?” Beau exclaims once Caduceus returns and dangles the little pouch filled with flowers in front of her shocked face.

Caduceus frowns. “I went to Molly’s grave and picked the flowers that grew there…?” he says it slowly as if the answer was painfully obvious. “Is that bad? Should I not have done that?”

Sighing, Fjord pinches the bridge of his nose. “No Caduceus, it’s not bad, but we would have liked to know that you were planning on visiting so we could tag along. You know, visit our deceased friend who was very dear to us.”

Shrugging, Caduceus places the pouch on his lap and began pulling out his tools for tea. “I’m gonna be honest with you, I was never planning on going there. I just wanted to go back into the world, be one with nature. Maybe the Wildmother was steering me there so I could say goodbye to your friend but uh, I’m not really sure.”

Caleb leans forward from where he’s sat, careful not to jostle Frumpkin sleeping in his lap, and places the tip of his finger gently on the pouch, like it was filled with explosive blackpower that he could accidentally set off. “These flowers… you had collected from Mollymauk’s grave?” Caduceus nods, opening up the pouch so he can show off the bright array of colours inside. Caleb sighs and looks sadly at the flowers. “Those are lovely. Exactly what I would expect to come from Mollymauk.”

“Can you make tea from those?” Yasha’s voice makes Caduceus jump, the sound startling after many hours of her silent. “Like you do from the other flowers?”

“Oh yes,” Caduceus nods, pulling out his kettle and filling it with water from his thermos before setting it above the tripod. “They make wonderful tea. And believe me, it tastes amazing. Not like anything I have ever had before, really. He must have been a very special man in life to make such special tea in death.”

“He was,” Fjord mutters, glancing at the scimitar that lays across his lap, the golden eye staring impassively up at him. “He really, truly was.”

Smiling, Caduceus drops a handful of the flowers into the boiling water and watches as they wilted under the heat. “Well, I suppose the best way to remember him is by honouring him- this is a start.”

“Next time you go, can we come?” Beau asks tentatively as if she was afraid of being shot down. “You know, just to really say goodbye.”

Caduceus nods. “Oh yeah, of course. And believe me, it’s absolutely beautiful. You wouldn’t believe how amazing it is unless you saw it with your own eyes.”

They next visit a couple years later, when Yasha wakes up from a dream and asks Caduceus if they can go visit Molly one last time and Caduceus agrees with a bow and a smile, helping them pack up their belongings from the tavern and leave Huppoerdook in a rush.

The journey to Mollymauk’s grave is long and arduous, having to stop for camp and fight of bandits for most of the night, but by the end of the second week they arrive at the place where a fatal battle went down and one of their teammates was lost.

Only, it didn’t look anything like the last time they had been here and definitely deferent to Caduceus.

The once sparse splattering of flowers across the earth became a thick veil of colour that dominated everything as far as the eye could see, pinks and purples and yellows and blues and reds all spiralled sporadically outwards from the grave and the now large, fully grown weeping willow, it’s leaves droopy and pink-hued, standing strong surrounded by blossoms. Other trees grew around, though much smaller- thick black oak trees, thin white birch, large beech trees, tall spruce trees, wide fir trees, plastered all along the countryside. But this weeping willow is the only tree that dominated the bottom of the canyon where Molly died, the other trees only seen by the head of their last leaves. 

To their dismay, the technicoloured coat that once hung off the branches of the tree- is gone.

“Well, it was bound to happen at some point.” Beau sighs as she bends down to pluck a sprig of lavender from the earth. “But you know, I shouldn't be surprised that Molly would make something so beautiful.”

“He always was the best of us,” Caleb agrees, placing a hand on the tree and gently rubbing his thumb along the patterns, the intricate and delicate filigree grown into the very wood of the tree. “Even in death, he puts us to shame.”

Fjord rubs a hand down his face. “We probably shouldn’t stay here long. We’ve got shit to do and it’s probably not polite to go walking around on someone grave.”

Bending down, Yasha gently picks one of every kind of flower and places it carefully in her book, pressing the pages down to keep them there forever. “I am very glad that we were able to come back, even if it was just to visit his grave.”

Beside her, Jester is sobbing with her hands pressed tightly to her mouth to muffle the sounds. “I really miss him you guys,” she musters between cries. “I really, really do. He was so great and so nice and without him, it feels like we’re all empty again.”

Nott wraps a hand around Jester’s as it hangs down and squeezes it in solidarity. “It’s alright to miss him. I think we all miss him too. But don’t cry- you know he wouldn’t want you to cry anymore. All he ever wanted was for us to be happy. I’m pretty sure this is that last place he would want us to cry.”

Nodding, Jester rubs away her tears and smiles down at Nott. Beau sighs and pats Jester on the back. “You know, as much as I want to stay here and never leave, we can’t. We need to keep moving. Fjord’s right- we’ve got too much shit to do for us to be wasting time here- we probably shouldn't have made the detour from our mission in the first place.”

Celeb turns away from the tree-trunk with a scowl. “While I agree with you Beauregard in the fact that we are busy and cannot stay here long, do not ever call Mollymauk a waste of time. He has and always will be a great man, one who deserves all the time in the world, even if it is just a small visit to his final resting place.” Beau shrugged in apology.

“I don’t think I ever want to move,” Yasha admits as she places her forehead against the wood, closing her eyes as she listened to the rustle of the wind in the leaves. “It’s so beautiful here. It’s all we have left of Molly.”

Beau places her hand on Yasha’s shoulder and Yasha glances at her. “I know, Yasha, believe me, I know, but we can’t stay. We need to move on and continue our quest, remember?”

“It’s what Molly would have wanted,” Nott pipes up from where she is making a flower crown out of the flora that grew on the grave, winding it around her sharp-nailed fingers until it would fit around her head. “He always wanted to keep moving, right? Never stay in one place for too long. That’s why he liked the circus.”

“We can always come back.” Fjord agrees, placing a red flower behind his ear. Jester smiled at him and collects a handful. They needn’t feel guilty- there are plenty of flowers to go around. “On our way through next time, we can always pass back here again. We are not confined to time limits.”

Caleb is the first to react, placing his hand on the roots of the tree and whispering “goodbye old friend,” before standing and turning away. Jester rests her horns against the wood and mutters something teary in Infernal, Yasha doing the same in Celestial.

Throughout it all, Caduceus is silent as he allows his friends to say their final goodbyes but now he steps forward, his hands clasped in front of his chest and smiles at the large weeping willow. “Hello again Mollymauk, it has been a long while, hasn’t it? I told you I would come back with your friends. I uh, I see that the Wildmother smiled upon you and made you beautiful. I am… glad, that this is your legacy. It is as good a grave as anyone could ask for.”

Goodbyes said, the Mighty Nein turn back around to make the long trip back home, putting their back on their fallen friend in favour of new beginnings.

“Guys?”

The unexpected sound has everyone whirling around to stare at the figure currently climbing out from the tree trunk, it’s skin made of wood the exact same texture as the grain of the tree, hair long stands of dark pink and purple lavender, a magnitude of flowers decorating it’s curling horns and vines hanging off of it like streamers, patterns like stretchmarks snaked across his chest and arms like scars, his tail was decorated in sprigs of green tea and leaves that matched that of the weeping willow of which he exited out of.

And on his shoulders rests a familiar ostentatious silk coat decorated with coloured threads depicting a life newly lived and hand-made with love.

“Molly?” Yasha gasps as the dryad approaches, the flowers under his feet seeming to part for his tread. “Is it… really you? How-“

The dryad is laughing and yes, it's definitely Molly, his smile too large and laugh too genuine to be anyone else. “I mean, I’m not sure. But it’s definitely me, though a little different.” He shrugged like it didn’t matter. “It was nothing for a long time but when I woke up it was like this-“ he waves his hand around the land that grew from his bones. “I mean, there’s no snow anymore and my blood isn’t coating the dirt so I suppose that’s a good thing.”

Fjord was the first to recover his speech. “How long have you been… alive? Why didn’t you come back to us?”

“I tried.” Molly insists. “I can’t move too far from my tree.” He pats the weeping willow affectionately, like introducing an old friend. “Believe me, for months I tried. But I can only stay around my land, which is all of this. Believe me, I would have met up with you if I could.”

“Did you get our note?” Nott asks quietly, shuffling her feet, dwarfed within the flowers. 

Molly crouches down and runs a long-taloned finger down Nott’s cheek. “I did. Not right away, of course, but when I woke up and saw it attached to the inside of the tree I was very touched. I’m glad that you thought of me. Although,” He chuckled as he stood. “The fact that you left it for the mere thought that I might automatically be reborn is the funniest fucking thing I’ve heard in years.”

Jester looked like she was bursting at the seams, twirling her dress roughly in her hands. “Are you lonely?” She blurted out quickly, her words mashing together as one.

Holding a hand over his stomach, Molly chuckled deeply. “Lonely? No, my dear, you see all those trees? Those are all people like me, and while I can’t move too far from my tree, we can all visit each other. See, over there is some nutcase who calls himself ‘Barrymore’, which is weird. There’s a dwarf over there named Harley whose flowers are only drugs. I mean they only make drugs and he is always off his face but he’s such a funny fuck. And Beatrice is a bitch and I can’t really stand her but she’s around. Oh, there’s a big ole’ fella named Connie who died in a fire and always smells like smoke and-“

Yasha was the first to break. She pulled away from the rest of the group and flung herself at Molly who barely managed to wrap his arms around her in time, tree roots winding around his ankles to prevent him from toppling over with the added weight. “I’ve missed you so much,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry we never tried to bring you back.”

“Don’t be- who knows if it would have worked, eh? I could have crawled out of there without any memories or worse- as Lucian.” Molly shivered and carded his talons through Yasha’s dreaded hair- longer and thicker than he was used to but so undoubtedly Yasha. “And for the record, I missed you too. No amount of new people could ever fill the gap in my heart that only fits you.”

Sniffling, Yasha reluctantly pulled away, not caring about the people who just watched her break down for the first time in many years. They’d been through enough together. “Uh, in case you were wondering,” Molly joked, waving at the tree behind him and glancing up at the leaves hanging down above his head. “I didn’t choose the type of tree.”

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back- suddenly, they were laughing, starting with a choked snort from Fjord that had Jester giggling at him until everyone ended up in a sweaty exhausted pile on the soft bed of flowers with sore bellies and dry throats. “It’s good to have you back, Molly,” Fjord sighed as he crossed his arms over his chest and watched the clouds through the canopy of drooping leaves from Molly’s tree. “Even if it is just for a little while. Hell, I knew we missed you, but I never realised how much we needed you in our lives until we lost you.”

“Yeah, well, I missed you all too.” Molly chuckled. “I can’t believe you all moved on with your lives. I am… so proud. Of all of you.” He tilted his head to look at Yasha, Beau’s head pillowed comfortably on her stomach. “But please, tell me you two have finally admitted your feelings for each other and are finally shagging? The sexual tension was unbearable.”

“Shut the fuck up, Molly,” Beau sighed happily and without any of the usual heat as she laced her fingers between Yasha’s much bigger ones. Molly laughed softly and smiled as Yasha reached down and ran the fingers of her free hand through Beau’s hair, which had come free from its bun.

Snorting, Molly crossed his arms behind his head and watched the clouds go by. “Well, what have I missed? I’m sure there’s some juicy gossip that I need to be filled in on.”

A long while was spent catching Molly up on all the things he had missed, lying on their backs in a tangle of limbs long after the sun had gone down and the stars had risen up to illuminate the night.

“So, Fjord’s patron isn’t a giant squid.”

“Nope, serpent.”

“And you can control the sea.”

“Something like that.”

“That’s really fucked up man. Just when I thought you couldn’t get any weirder,” Molly laughed as he sipped at Caduceus’s tea made from his own flowers. “But I don’t really know what else I expected from you.” He nodded his head at Caleb. “I’m more surprised that you and Beau managed to make peace and become friends. That’s a tall order for anyone. I can’t believe you’ve been able to stand her for so long.” Beau flipped him off and Molly stuck his forked tongue out at her. “I take it you haven’t figured out who Lucian was then?”

The group jumped in shock, Beau nearly spilling tea on herself and Nott hissing when she wasn’t so lucky and the scalding tea sunk into her pants. “You want to know who Lucian is?” Jester demanded, nose crinkled.

“Well, I mean, it hardly matters now does it?” Molly shrugged like the topic wasn’t of such importance. “He’s never coming back now that I’m part plant, so he can’t really take my memories and go out on a crazed killing spree. You don’t have to tell me because I still really don’t give a fuck but I’m not going to prevent you from searching. And if you do find something, you can always come back and tell me.”

“You still haven’t got any memories?” Caleb asked and sighed when Molly shook his head. “I suppose that must be a blessing and a curse for you.”

“Eh, I couldn’t care less at this point. My life started in a hole in the ground surrounded by circus people and it ended with a hole in my chest, fighting beside the people I care about on our way to save the people I love.” Molly grinned. “It began and ended with family. I’m sure that’s more than Lucian ever had.”

Beau had been silent through his little speech and Molly levelled a glare at her. “It wasn’t your fault, Beau. I chose to charge in without thinking of the consequences. I knew that I was in pretty bad shape but you know what? You’re a bitch and an annoying piece of work but I love you and if I have to choose between someone hurting you and someone hurting me, I’m going to choose me every time.” When Beau looked up, her eyes were wet and Molly smiled sympathetically at her. “I know that you’ve been blaming yourself but you have nothing to be worried about. I promise you- I have never blamed you.” Beau nodded and looked back down, a weight off her shoulders as she rubbed away the falling tears and Yasha rubbed her back. Molly glanced at Fjord. “And I take it you’ve been leading the Mighty fucking Nein? Still a terrible name. I’m surprised you’ve kept it this long.”

“Yeah, Caleb and I have been trying to… create some semblance of order in this fucking mess.” Fjord joked. Caleb blushed at the mention and the praise. “I feel like we’re more a family than a team now though- we’re getting better at helping people and listening to each other.”

“Ah, a shame then,” Molly sighed with a hint of jealousy that he couldn’t completely hide. “Not going to lie- I wish I could be included in the family shtick. Would have been nice to be included in a bunch of brothers and sisters who would look out for me.” He inclined his head to Nott. “And a mother, of course.” Nott blushed and hid deeper into the shadows.

“Shut up, Molly,” Beau said tiredly like she was bored of having the same discussion over and over again. “You were what made us a family long before the thought ever crossed our minds. Don’t ever think that you’re not or were never family because that’s a fat stinking lie.”

Chuckling slightly, Molly winked at her, “I suppose that’s true.” He glanced over at Caduceus, who was currently pouring himself another cup of tea. “I’m assuming that I have you to thank for my nature-based resurrection?”

“Yeah, yeah that’s me.” Caduceus grinned. “I mean, not on purpose. It just kind of… happened, but I wanted the earth to remember you in some way. And it did. I’m glad you’re back, your friends have been really down in the dumps without you, so you being alive is just a really good thing, honestly.”

Molly raised an eyebrow. “Well, thanks for that. I also should thank you for taking care of them while I was gone. They’re still alive so I’m assuming that you’ve done a good job so far, so I’m counting on you to keep doing it. Deal?”

Caduceus held out his hand and Molly took it in a firm handshake. “I’ll do my best. I mean, I already am because they’re a really difficult bunch to keep track of, but I'll make sure they survive to live out their days.”

Nodding, Molly finished his tea and set it down on the bed of grass, which kept the cup secure. All the plant life surrounding Molly’s tree- his home, as he had explained before, and was much roomier on the inside than it looked- seemed to move with a life of its own. “You know, I’ve only been dead for a few years and you couldn’t even be bothered bringing the hard liquor? Come on guys, where’s the ale? The scotch? The bourbon? The glittery stuff? I must say, I’m slightly ashamed.”

Handing Molly her flask, Nott spoke up as he took it gratefully and tilted his head back, swallowing a thick gulp. “I mean; it was mostly for the joke.” Nott teased. “Tea for Mollymauk Tealeaf. You’re drinking yourself, you know. These flowers that Caduceus made the tea out of grew from your corpse.”

“Really?” Molly asked, looking somewhat disturbed for a moment before he shrugged and took another sip from the flask. “In that case, I taste absolutely fucking amazing. I always knew I would.”

“I don’t want to leave,” Yasha admitted into the following silence, voice quiet as if she was afraid her confession would be laughed at or ignored but by the other’s faces, it was obvious that they shared the sentiment. “I just want to stay here with you forever. I don’t want to leave.”

“Then don’t,” Molly said. “I mean, obviously you can’t stay forever, but stay for as long as you need. And come back whenever you want. Hell, I can make you little huts for you to stay in when you visit. If you want to stay here longer, I’m not going to kick you away. I don’t disappear when the sun comes up.”

“Are you sure you’ll be able to put up with our faces for any longer?” Fjord asked hopefully, trying to cover it up with a joke.

Molly snorted and rolled his eyes. “I haven’t seen you in years. You can tattoo your faces onto my ass and I still would never get sick of seeing you.”

They laughed, and for the first time in years, all was right in their world.