Water ran down Vaarsuvius’s body, hot against pale skin, making it turn red. Both parents were showering with their child, Other Parent tossing wet blue hair over his shoulder and squeezing shampoo into his palm. “Suvie, let me look at you.”
Vaarsuvius didn’t want to. The child’s chest was getting a little bigger, like Parent’s, and it felt wrong for anyone else to see it like that, like it was a disease of some sort. The apprentice mage didn’t want to see Other Parent wet and without clothes for the same reason—the foreignness of his body made the child’s gut jerk uncomfortably.
Parent noted the child’s reluctance to move thin arms away from the growing chest and come closer so Other Parent could wash the short purple hair, and she only smiled, kneeling down and starting to rub Vaarsuvius’s back with soap. “Is Suvie feeling modest? Your body’s a beautiful thing. Let your parents see how beautiful it is.”
Vaarsuvius didn’t want to. Vaarsuvius wanted to jump out of the shower, grab a towel, and wait until Parent and Other Parent were gone before bathing. But the child instead allowed the thin arms to drop.
“It’s not so bad, is it?” Other Parent smiled, gently rubbing the shampoo in the apprentice’s hair, careful to keep it from getting into big violet eyes. Vaarsuvius had to admit that it felt nice, but at the same time weird. “I don’t want you to ever feel embarrassed about your body, Suvie. Especially around Parent and I. We love every inch of you, no matter what anyone else says about it.”
Vaarsuvius stared at Parent’s ‘intimate areas’, unable to look away, wondering if that was what the naked child body would look like in a hundred years. Parent noticed her child’s attention, smiling and continuing to wash the little elf’s body with soap. “It hurts a little now, Suvie, while they’re growing. But soon yours will be just like mine, round and good for children. Would you like to touch them?”
The little child quickly shook a wet head, sending droplets of water everywhere. Parent chuckled softly, making sure to wash behind Vaarsuvius’s pointed ears. “You’re so modest, Suvie. Touch anything you like—we don’t mind your curiosity.” As if to punctuate her point, Parent started washing her child’s ‘intimate areas’ gently.
Vaarsuvius couldn’t help but wonder what Aarindarius would think of this if the wizard ever knew.
“But first, I think I’d like to see you without that tatty robe on. I’m still not quite sure you’re a girl.”
Vaarsuvius kept violet eyes fixed on the approaching necromancer, but the feel of the zombies’ cold flesh and the scent of rotting were overwhelming, making already-weak knees practically fold. These were the corpses of the people that Vaarsuvius had been responsible for protecting. They had trusted the Order to keep them from this abominable un-life, to keep their spouses, siblings, parents, children, friends and family safe. But they hadn’t been safe.
The elf had thought that Redcloak’s touch was cold. It wasn’t. Not compared to this. It had life and a heartbeat. The only heartbeats these shadows had were the heartbeats of the maggots embedded in them.
“If you touch me, I will not hesitate in sending you to oblivion.”
Two completely different eyes sparkled, black lips curling almost grotesquely. The undead humans’ grips seemed to tighten, as if the last sliver of their independent thoughts and desires focused fully on punishing the so-called hero meant to save them.
“I’ll do more than touch, probably. I’m open.”
Vaarsuvius could tell by the tightening of grip that the lost souls relished this punishment.
“Help us, please!”
so much smoke and sulfur and metal and blood and oh great elven gods the blood was everywhere why was V frozen why oh why the elf was supposed to protect them why wasn’t there any magic left so many years wasted to find useless magic and OH GREAT ELVEN GODS THE BLOOD WHY COULDN’T V SAVE THEM
Blades slicing through an unprotected neck, forcing the head to fall off followed by a horrible fountain of blood and the smell was getting caught in the elf’s nose until there wasn’t anything left and the lips were still moving oh elven gods the decapitated head was still begging to be saved why was the elf so weak the dead were still imploring V for help
One of the solders dropped on the ground, smearing the ash-stained cobblestone with scarlet, letting the pool spread until it soaked the elf’s slippers, marking the one to blame.
The hobgoblins stabbed the woman soldier almost as an afterthought, running through the streets, content on wreaking more havoc, saying things that didn’t make sense about help and animal gods and oh elven gods the lips on the head were still moving…
“Elf, if you’re still here…”
Vaarsuvius jerked slightly, broken out of the half-insane thoughts, and stared wide-eyed at the woman on the ground. No spells left. No dwarf nearby. She was dying. The so-called almighty Vaarsuvius couldn’t save one innocent life.
And the elf didn’t even have the strength to kneel down and hold her hand while the red pool grew.
The woman’s mouth opened, eyes bitter coals, voice dripping with pure, undiluted hatred. “I hope you choke on your useless goddamn magic…”
The pool blossomed in a flower, the dead woman at the center.
Vaarsuvius jerked awake, entire body aching, limbs flailing to do something, anything, to make it all stop.
The cold desert air was all that responded. Vaarsuvius was alone in the tent. Haley had opted to spend the night with Elan.
A hard beak gently nuzzled the elf’s sweaty neck, reminding Vaarsuvius that the ‘alone’ statement was far from true.
The elf shook, concentrating on breathing. “Yes.”
Vaarsuvius shook, wrapping the sleeping bag tighter around the clammy body and allowing the raven to press closer to a slender neck. The elf’s abdomen was cramping up uncomfortably, to say nothing about the small chest. It was practically pulsing with pain, forcing the mage to stifle a soft whimper and shift so that there wasn’t any pressure against the swelling tissue.
“You haven’t had a nightmare in a long time,” Blackwing pointed out softly, trying to conceal the concern evident in his voice.
“No. Not since Redcloak… well, not in a while.” The elf gently rubbed the pained belly, noting that it seemed slightly more swollen than usual. But that would be impossible—people usually didn’t show until the end of the first trimester. It was most likely just Vaarsuvius’s imagination.
“Maybe you should get that checked out.”
Vaarsuvius’s head shook gently, instinctively veering away from the entire topic. “There is little Durkon can do about memories, Blackwing. Attempt to get some sleep.”
“Are you going to trance?”
“In retrospect, I have seen what lack of trance will do to me. With my current condition, the effects will only be worse. I shall do my best.”
Blackwing nipped the elf’s ear very lightly before falling asleep again.
It wasn’t the last time Vaarsuvius had nightmares that night.
“I don’t care about the damn city and its rebellion! Your hobbos are all grown up now, Reddy. They can handle this by themselves.” Xykon brandished a blood-stained holy symbol, the red lights in his sockets blazing. “And I have my phylactery again! Time to get off our asses and get to the next gate!”
Redcloak grimaced, understanding the casualty count of the battle for the phylactery even if Xykon didn’t care. When the hobgoblins found the phylactery deep in the labyrinth underground, the rebels had attacked in a desperate attempt to get it. It had been a complete bloodbath. Tsukiko was nursing a broken arm and Jirix looked like he could barely stand on his own, blood covering his clothes and dripping onto the cold stone floor of the throne room.
The goblin reached out, touching his subordinate’s shoulder. “Cure Serious Wounds.”
His hand glowed briefly and Jirix steadied, flashing his leader a look of gratitude. “Thank you, sir.”
Redcloak flinched in surprise but caught the slippery holy symbol thrown at him easily, staring down at it with confusion.
“Here’s your chance to redeem yourself after the whole ‘Running away from battle and then letting the whore and bastard that lost my phylactery in the first place escape’ thing. Don’t lose it this time.”
Redcloak quietly put it on, wiping away what blood he could. He knew better than to argue. “Jirix, make sure that the clerics make rounds through the casualties. Heal absolutely everyone you can. You’re going to need to take the reins for now and make sure we keep the city.”
If Jirix was nervous about the responsibility on his shoulders, he didn’t show it. “Yes, sir.”
“Send in a wizard who can teleport us across the continents. They’ll only be needed to get to the west.”
Jirix nodded in acknowledgment and left to do as told. Redcloak looked to the monster’s cage, frowning. “Do you have your umbrella?”
Redcloak wasn’t quite sure why, but the monster seemed much quieter since the prisoners escaped… Then again, a lot of things had changed since then…
He abruptly pulled himself out of that train of thought. Thinking of Vaarsuvius distracted him far too much.
Tsukiko opened up the monster’s cage, allowing him out under the cover of his bright pink umbrella.
“Hey, Reddy, try not to screw up again this time.”
Xykon’s tone had all the characteristics of malicious teasing, but Redcloak heard the warning in there. The goblin sighed, acknowledging the lich’s threat silently, and looked up at Tsukiko and the monster. “Tsukiko, get over here for a second so I can fix your arm, and both of you, if you need to go to the bathroom, do it now. Girard’s Gate is in the middle of the desert and we’re not going to stop for either of you because you didn’t have foresight.”
Durkon paused in his trek through the market after Elan and Haley, turning around to see who was speaking to him. A cleric with a simple white tunic on and loose-fitting white pants stood in front of a tent, dull brown hair hanging limply to her shoulders. “Sir? Would you happen to be traveling with a purple-haired elf? A little hard to tell its gender with its clothes on? Rather brusque?”
“Aye.” Durkon cocked his head, frowning suspiciously. “Why do ye ask?”
“Well, I believe I saw someone like you talking to that elf, and then it came to me because of a personal issue.”
Durkon wasn’t sure if he should be offended or worried. He settled on the latter. “Why did Vaarsuvius see ye? I’m hard-pressed t’ get ‘im t’ come t’ me even fer somethin’ like a painkiller.”
“So you are the healer?” She perked up immediately, brown face brightening.
“Aye. What’s wrong wit’ Vaarsuvius?”
“I can’t tell you for confidentiality’s sake.”
Durkon frowned, tempted to tell her to stuff confidentiality, but he knew how secretive the mage could be. The guaranteed way to alienate Vaarsuvius would be to pry into what he (she?) explicitly considered his own business behind his back.
“But I think you should keep a close eye. And keep… Vaarsuvius, right? Keep Vaarsuvius away from monsters.” The woman ran a hand through her hair nervously. “Make sure you’re nearby at all times.”
“Yer worryin’ me. Why wouldn’a ‘e come t’ me aboot this?”
“I was hard-pressed to get the robe off. I guess that it was embarrassing.”
“‘E let ye see ‘im wit’out th’ robe?” Durkon frowned nervously, understanding the significance of the elf allowing himself to be seen like that. It must be serious. “I’m goin’ t’ be tryin’ t’ figure this out until I get ‘im t’ tell me, jus’ so ye know.”
“Good. I was hoping you would. If anyone asks, I didn’t say anything.”
This conversation ran through Durkon’s head as he quietly watched the elf twitch and whimper feverishly in his sleep, a raven curled up at his neck. Cold sweat gleamed off unusually pallid skin, leaving Durkon with the uncomfortable impression that Vaarsuvius was dying.
Two warring instincts, the instinct of a healer and the instinct of a dwarf, fought for his attention. One pointed out that he had taken an oath to help all those who needed it, and Vaarsuvius certainly needed it. The other said that, if he wanted to help Vaarsuvius, he should wait until he was approached. Vaarsuvius would just withdraw in any other scenario.
The dark thought that Durkon had hidden after his first talk with Vaarsuvius when he came back from the castle rose to the forefront, making both the healer and the dwarf recoil. He had told Elan and Belkar—he assumed that Haley and Roy would be thinking a similar route as him and wouldn’t need to be warned—explicitly to not ask any questions about the things Xykon did and said during the battle when the elf and paladin escaped. The reason he gave was that Vaarsuvius would be embarrassed and Xykon was probably making stuff up on the spot anyway. Elan believed him easily, but he could tell that Belkar was getting a grasp of his real suspicions.
The halfling only darkened and tensed up, shaking his head and muttering ‘You don’t think…’ before leaving a clueless Elan behind. With the way Vaarsuvius withdrew after his escape and refused to talk about being captive outside of any possible information he had gotten while there, Durkon could tell that Roy and Belkar were getting increasingly suspicious and angry. Haley didn’t quite come to the conclusion that they did, but she knew that something had happened and he could tell how restless she was getting about it. Elan was the most naïve, but even he had the sense that something was wrong and that it had started in that damned castle.
One thing was for sure—when the Order encountered that wretched goblin leader again, he would regret everything and anything that he may have done to their elf.
As if the gods conspired to strengthen Durkon’s resolve, the elf twisted again in his sleep, letting out one of the most plaintive whimpers he had ever heard, and the scant light reflected off of his sweaty skin, throwing the nearly invisible scars all along his cheeks in sharp relief.
Durkon backed up and slowly went back to his tent, a metallic ball of hatred and fury hardening in his stomach. He would wait for Vaarsuvius to come to him, but rest assured, he would concentrate every bit of Thor’s might he could muster into making sure that the one who did this to their elf was punished.