Vaarsuvius’s first impression upon awakening was crushing despair. The elf reached out feebly for Redcloak, searching for something to hold onto, and gentle hands caught weak pale ones. Lips brushed gently against the elf’s, then against the elf’s hairline.
The elf let out a soft sigh of relief, snuggling close and burying a pale face in a green neck. “Redcloak…”
The goblin kissed the elf, holding his lover close. Vaarsuvius would have been content to be in his arms in that warm bed forever. All the strength the elf had within had been sapped away. There was nothing left.
“Vaarsuvius, we need to get up.”
It would have been so easy to forget everything and stay lying there. It would have been easy to let the hanged elf, the elf with the molten eyes, the soldiers, and the remains of the mage’s broken family stay outside and settle into the snow, never to be seen again. It would have been easy to abandon this whole life.
But Vaarsuvius was stronger than that.
The elf took another moment, then forced violet eyes open.
Redcloak stroked the elf’s cheek, smiling gently. “We should prepare our spells before we do anything else. I don’t like staying in one place too long in this dungeon.”
Vaarsuvius sat up slowly, kissing the goblin softly, and pulled out a spell book. Redcloak ran his fingers through the elf’s hair, brushing his lips gently against the pulse point in Vaarsuvius’s neck, a low growling purr in his chest. It felt vaguely like a gesture declaring ownership.
Ownership? Should the elf rebuke him? Or was this another thing about relationships that Vaarsuvius hadn’t paid attention to during the elf’s marriage?
Vaarsuvius shifted curiously, pausing, then experimentally slipped an arm around the goblin’s shoulders, kissing his throat and the corner of his mouth with just as much of an air of ownership. The growling purr became louder and Redcloak nuzzled a slender neck, fully accepting the elf’s gesture and what it conveyed.
There really was no turning back, was there?
The elf kissed him again softly before pulling away. “Prepare your spells, Redcloak.”
Redcloak nodded, touching Vaarsuvius’s shoulder one last time before crossing his legs and placing his hands on his knees, closing his eyes. Vaarsuvius looked down at the spell book, murmuring very softly.
Time passed. It was relaxing for both of them to not have someone impatiently asking if they were done every other moment.
Vaarsuvius was finished preparing spells first. The elf stood from the bed and walked to their bags, taking out an apple and biting into it.
“I hope that that’s not your only breakfast.”
Redcloak shook himself out of his meditative state, divine magic running quickly in his veins, and he stood up and picked his armor up from its neatly folded pile on the floor. Vaarsuvius glanced up at him, arching an eyebrow and taking another bite. “We do not have very much sustenance left, Redcloak, and an elven metabolism does not require as much food as a goblin’s.”
The goblin put his armor on, making sure all the clasps were done properly before walking to the elf, sitting down and pulling a little food out. “You’re sick and are going to need to exert yourself physically, mentally, and magically today. What kind of cleric would I be if I didn’t make sure you ate?”
“A practical one, Redcloak. Regardless of our feelings for one another, it would still be in your best interest if I were weak.”
Redcloak sighed, kissing the elf’s cheek softly. “You don’t exactly inspire practicality in me, Vaarsuvius. Eat a little. I get worried.”
“I know you do, believe me.” The elf leaned against the goblin, allowing an affectionate nuzzle against a green neck. He smelled like sweat, old books, and rosemary. Vaarsuvius had never noticed before, but it put a general happy and well feeling in the elf’s heart. The rumble in the goblin’s chest made the elf’s heart beat faster. His scent, sharpened by the elf’s condition, clutched the mage close, caressing a pale face sensually. Vaarsuvius suppressed the shivers running down a delicate spine, instead kissing Redcloak’s neck softly.
Redcloak’s growling purr grew and Vaarsuvius sat up, taking a small part of a loaf of bread and starting to nibble at it lightly. The goblin started eating, eyes clouding with thought as he mentally mapped out the day. They had no idea where they were or where they had to go.
Vaarsuvius noted his expression, kissing his cheek gently. “Redcloak, we do not have the information needed to strategize. Do not try to.”
Redcloak looked at the mage, a tired smile playing over his face, and rested his head on the elf’s shoulder. “It’s still snowing outside. I’m going to have to cast a spell so we can deal with the weather.”
“Well, that is all we truly need to concern ourselves with at the moment, is it not?” Vaarsuvius sidled closer to Redcloak, snuggling against him and intertwining their fingers to prove the point. “We will keep traveling as we have. Every illusion has a center. If we go there, logic dictates that we shall find the gate.”
“What are we going to do once we get there?”
Vaarsuvius shrugged, kissing his neck lovingly. “We part ways. We may not be able to kill each other, Redcloak, but we are still able to think of what we both believe to be the greater good.” The elf looked up, gaze gentle, and leaned forward to brush their lips together. “Work for your cause, Redcloak. I shall work for mine.”
Redcloak sighed, reaching up and gently stroking his lover’s cheek. “I wish… You know, I lo…” He paused for a while. “We should go.”
He stood up, holding out his hand. Vaarsuvius took it and allowed the goblin to help the elf to stand. Redcloak avoided eye contact and put their supplies back in their bags, taking the blankets down from the windows and putting them away.
Vaarsuvius knew what he had almost said.
Had he finished, the elf would have told him the same thing.
Vaarsuvius picked up the last bag from the ground, slinging it over a small shoulder. “Let us leave. I do not like this place.”
“Neither do I.” Redcloak quickly cast Endure Elements on himself and on Vaarsuvius before he forced the door open, staring out warily at the wintry landscape. “We should hurry. We don’t know what we’ll run into.”
Vaarsuvius walked after him without a word. They joined hands and intertwined their fingers.
Somewhere in the distance, a creature growled and shifted.
Aarindarius frowned as the illusion around him took a more distinct form. Snow fell from the sky lazily, covering the small abandoned town in immobile rivers of white. Something in him hummed softly and power left him in invisible tendrils, only coming back to report the sources of magic before reintegrating into his very being.
Three individual sources of black magic—one was definitely arcane, one was definitely divine, but the third was a little confusing—and three individual sources of neutral or good magic—one divine, one arcane, and another confusing one.
He sighed softly. He could feel his student’s fingerprint among the shadows, and her scent clung to the black divine magic tightly, but he couldn’t tell which tendril of magic belonged to her. He prayed silently to gods he didn’t worship for his old apprentice’s safety.
He started down the road again, trying to sort through the various signals he was getting. If he concentrated harder, he found three presences that didn’t exude magic. The rest of the world was completely made of the epic illusion.
Something he found odd, however, was a sort of… anti-source of magic somewhere in the dungeon. It was moving towards him. It was dangerous and it was moving towards him.
Aarindarius pursed his lips and continued to walk down the street, magic gathering at his hands.
“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU?!”
Haley lunged forward, driving her knife into the warm flesh of her captor. There was a muffled scream and it jerked away, grabbing at her wildly and pinning her to the ground. Its palms rubbed hard against the rope burns Haley had earned by escaping, sending throbbing pain through the rogue’s arm.
Haley paused, staring at the thing above her wide-eyed. She might as well have been looking at a mirror.
Her own face stared back, only her hair was long and wild again and her eyes were crazed. Duct tape covered her mouth, an insane scrawl of ‘no secrets no secrets no secrets no secrets’ spattered through it.
Before her eyes, the face shifted, turning into that of her father, the duct tape still clamped firmly on his mouth.
Haley kicked the creature off. It flew back, morphing into a familiar red-haired woman with green eyes, and clung to the wall like a spider, looking up at her with a crazed gaze, shrieking desperately from under the duct tape.
The rogue glanced to the side, eyes widening at the sight of Roy and Elan tied back-to-back, both staring off vacantly into space. “Guys! Wake up! Seriously! I really don’t want t—”
The creature posing as her mother sprang forward, digging barbed claws in her throat. It morphed back into Haley’s form, shrieking from under its gag, tearing at her neck.
Haley growled and punched the thing in the eye. It reared back, screaming, and tore its hands from her throat. Warmth poured down her neck to her chest, but Haley ignored it for now. She kicked the thing away, scrambling up again and brandishing the knife she had stolen from Crystal. “Come on, bitch! You want some of me?!”
The thing whimpered, backing away, tears running down its face, and it grasped its hair in fists, muffled sounds coming from under the duct tape. It was the picture of wretchedness, and Haley couldn’t help but feel a flicker of a mix between disgust and pity.
Haley warily backed off, holding her knife up, reluctant to attack someone who looked so much like herself, especially when it looked so pathetic. “What are you?”
It whimpered, bending over and sobbing, clawed hands reaching up and scrabbling desperately at the duct tape, trying to get it off. The tape stayed resolutely on.
Haley slowly side-stepped to her catatonic friends, hoping against hope that the fight was over and slicing through their bonds.
The creature jerked slightly, screaming in pain and tears of agony streaming from its eyes, before it shrieked and lunged for her.
Haley held up her knife reflexively.
The thing impaled itself on the blade.