Vaarsuvius barely picked at his breakfast, Durkon noted. Dark circles were under his eyes as though he had been viciously punched in both of them. Gray veins were slightly more visible under his skin. His fingers trembled faintly but noticeably. He seemed to have shrunk in on himself, as if he had been polymorphed into a praying mantis or some other scrawny bug.
The marks of not trancing.
Durkon kept his concerns to himself, but everyone, Elan especially, looked from V to the cleric expectantly at least once, telling Durkon with their eyes that they wanted him to fix their elf. He gave them all the same response. A slight dip of his head. He had sat by and only offered words to Vaarsuvius once—he wouldn’t do it again.
But now wasn’t the time to try to coax Vaarsuvius out of his protective shell.
“Shojo told us that Girard’s Gate is protected by illusions. V, Durkon, do you have anything that you think can counter that?”
Durkon nodded. “Aye. Took a while t’ find anythin’, though.”
“I have a few spells I prepared today for such things. It will help us find the gate and dispel some of the initial illusions, but I doubt that such a cunning man would have left only illusions to protect the gate. Clever illusionists tend to mix reality with dreams.” Vaarsuvius put down the untouched food on the blanket they were eating on, the raven on his shoulder jumping down and pecking at what was left.
“So, in short, keep your guard up and your senses sharp,” Roy said quietly, frowning at the full plate but not commenting.
Belkar didn’t seem so inclined. “Hey, Ears, if you’re going to go anorexic on us, Mr. Scruffy calls dibs on the scraps.”
Vaarsuvius shrugged and made a small dismissive gesture. The cat padded up across from Blackwing and started eating. The bird didn’t seem to mind. Neither animal needed too much to eat.
“Shall I start the spell to find the gate?”
“Go ahead, V. We’ll pack up camp.”
Durkon watched Vaarsuvius pull out a scroll and lace gray fingers together, readying himself to perform the spell. Durkon noted that the elf seemed a little more… feminine today. Maybe it was the light or something. Durkon couldn’t really tell if he or she was a man or woman or something in between, even on a good day. He turned away and started taking down the tents.
“Shouldn’t we be trying to check this place for traps before we go in?”
Tsukiko groaned in discomfort, squirming and disrupting the visibility through the illusion.
“Tsukiko, stop moving around and just help me keep the illusion off.”
Redcloak scowled at the Theurge, the magic running through his veins straining and starting to heat up at the exertion that was being put into the temporary abatement of the illusion. Trying to keep his feet from sinking too far in the sand didn’t help his concentration. Xykon took his sweet time, strolling to the sandstone door in the ground, kicking it a little to see how solid it was…
“You both are wimps.” Xykon smirked and opened up the door into the dungeon. The monster’s glowing gold eyes pinched slightly in a big smile and he lumbered inside.
“Oh goody! It was getting hot out here.”
The wind picked up suddenly, a cloud of sand forming, and grains started whipping their faces. Visibility was disrupted. The desert itself had sensed the intruders, roaring and trying to swallow them up before any secrets could be revealed.
Xykon waved his hand in front of his face. “Sand’s hell trying to get out of my joints. And eyes. And… well, everything that can get sand in it.” He quickly walked into the dungeon, leaving behind two swearing minions.
“Dammit! Sandstorm’s here.”
Tsukiko let out a swear and a shouted ‘it’s in my eyes!’ before Redcloak dropped his hands, grabbing the necromancer’s arm roughly and jumping into the dungeon just before the illusion settled back. Xykon shoved the door closed behind them, letting the sandstorm rage.
“I don’t know if that was enchantment or coincidence,” Redcloak muttered, letting Tsukiko go and brushing sand off of himself. His very blood ached from the divine magic he had focused through it, and he could tell by Tsukiko’s stifled whimpers that she felt the same way. They both just wanted to curl up and sleep for the next two decades, but Redcloak was well-aware that they wouldn’t be allowed two minutes.
The passage they had come into was pitch black, the scent of sulfur coming off of the walls, as though they had been saturated with it. Redcloak coughed, breathing in a little too much dust for his liking.
The tunnel promptly lit up.
It wasn’t the cheerful light of electricity or the atmospheric light of torches. The walls, ceiling, and floor themselves lit up, completely phosphorescent and casting a green glow on everything, giving Tsukiko the look of deathly illness and Xykon the look of being overgrown by moss. The monster started shifting nervously, but thankfully not so much that he brought the entire dungeon down on their heads. “Redcloak, what’s this?”
“Girard was an illusionist. Illusionists don’t work with force—they work with the mind.” Redcloak glanced back at the group. “The enchantments are probably designed to play on our fears and desires. It’s predictable. We’ll be separated at some point, we’ll be shown dead family members, we’ll have monsters under the bed coming out randomly and trying to chase us out, we’ll get little pixies promising ultimate power popping up… Just ignore what any of them do. As long as you can’t touch them, they’re not there.”
“Yeah, yeah, we all know how illusions work, Reddy.” Xykon started walking, leading his three subordinates through the twisting tunnel, going deeper and deeper in the radioactive green depths. “Hey, who wants to bet on how long it’ll take until we get to a split in the tunnel with exactly four routes?”
“My money’s on twenty minutes,” the Theurge piped up.
“I’d say even less. Fifteen gold pieces to who wins.”
The competition seemed to make Tsukiko get a little more color and life in her face.
Xykon won the bet.
When the sandstorm started, the entire Order hunkered down, doing their best to shield each other with their bodies and what little of the tents they could put up without fear of losing them. Belkar kept Mr. Scruffy securely in his arms and Blackwing clung to Vaarsuvius’s shoulder the whole time. Roy kept within arm’s length of Vaarsuvius and Belkar, a little nervous that either of them could be overwhelmed by the storm or blown away because of their light weights. Neither showed signs of yielding. Vaarsuvius concentrated what magic could help into the storm, trying to protect everyone from the tiny yet deadly projectiles being thrown around in the wind at ridiculous speeds. It mostly worked.
The Order all scuttled into the safety of the elf’s magical barriers, quickly putting up the most sturdy tent they could and going into it. Vaarsuvius started swaying, head spinning, before the elf staggered and zipped into the tent.
“By Thor!” Durkon forced the flimsy ‘door’ shut after Vaarsuvius came in, doing his best to keep the sand out. “Tha’ started too quickly t’ be natural.”
“I believe that we are getting close to the gate.”
Vaarsuvius let the purple ponytail out, shaking out the sand. Durkon frowned a little as the hair fell against the elf’s chest. Vaarsuvius was definitely looking a little more feminine.
Belkar ran his hands through the mewing Mr. Scruffy’s fur, getting as much sand out as possible. “The Scruffster wasn’t meant to be in the desert.”
“With any luck, we’ll be out soon.” Roy leaned back, doing another quick headcount in his head. He had no desire to repeat the ‘Losing Durkon’ incident in Dorukon’s Gate. “We’re getting closer to the gate, if Shojo’s directions are anything to go by.”
“Are we sure he wasn’t just pulling our legs again?” Haley half-joked, helping Elan get sand out of his hair.
“He was a manipulative old man, but I can’t see a reason he’d trick us about that.” Roy quietly thanked the gods that he had decided to shave his head in college. It would have been hell to get sand out of his hair. “Let’s try to sleep through this. Night was coming along anyway and it doesn’t look like this will let up.”
“I will stay awake as a lookout,” Vaarsuvius immediately volunteered, provoking a surprised caw from Blackwing and strange looks from everyone in the tent. Belkar shrugged, but Roy leaned forward in concern.
“Fine, then. Ye ought t’ get somethin’ in ye, first.”
Roy looked at Durkon in confusion, but everyone, after brief hesitation, decided to trust his judgment. The dwarf pulled out what little rations they had for everyone, passing them out.
Vaarsuvius understood the unspoken tension about the elf’s health, and to put the adventurers’ minds mostly at rest, the mage tried to eat a little more this time. The mage abandoned the meal after eating half, allowing the animals among the group to finish it off. Few others left so much as a scrap after the strenuous day.
The elf loosely wrapped thin arms around a tiny body, eyes slightly glazed, and after a moment Roy scooted a little closer.
“V, is there something wrong?”
The elf didn’t respond, eyes fixed on the ground.
“V?” Roy frowned, reaching out to touch the elf’s shoulder.
“A dinnae suggest doin’ tha’, lad.” Durkon put his clean plate next to the elf’s. “‘E’s out cold. Th’ elven equivalent, anyway.” He flashed a small pouch filled with what looked like pills, smirking, before he put it in his pocket.
There was silence. Then Belkar burst out in laughter.
“You drugged V?!”
“Na’ if ‘e asks.” Durkon smirked privately, taking off his heavy armor, leaving just simple leather garments on. “If’n ‘e asks, ‘e jus’ sudd’nly started trancin’ so hard tha’ ‘e didn’ ‘ave any dreams on ‘is own an’ we decided t’ let ‘im keep doin’ that. I’ll handle th’ first watch shift.”
After another bout of laughter, Belkar’s short attention span came into play and he designated a drugged but trancing Vaarsuvius too boring to pay attention to anymore, so he and Elan started watching Mr. Scruffy bat some string.
Vaarsuvius’s raven swooped to the elf’s lap, looking up at the dull trancing face, shifting his weight from foot to foot and fluffing up his feathers. “Hey, any chance you have more of whatever you used? I’m thinking that it’d be a good idea for me to keep some for V.”
Haley frowned at the bird, taking out one of her arrows and checking it for damage from the sandstorm. “You can talk?”
“Of course I can.” The raven stretched out his neck, glaring a little. “Not like any of you would know.”
“You don’t get enough attention?” Haley smiled, grabbing some scraps from her plate and holding them out to the bird. “Will this make up for it?”
“Maybe.” The raven hopped to the rogue’s hand, pecking at the food. “So anyway, whatever you used on V…?”
Roy shifted, emptying his sheath of sand, frowning at the bird. Durkon arched his eyebrow, leaning back and taking the opportunity presented to him. “I gotta few questions first, lad.”
“If they have to do with V, then I’m not answering them.” The raven continued pecking the rogue’s hand. “I have some loyalty, you know.”
“Think o’ it as loyalty t’ the point where ye won’t let ‘im destroy ‘imself.”
Blackwing looked up, cocking his head, expression unreadable. “Are you going to give me what you gave V or not?”
Durkon frowned, recognizing defeat when he saw it, and pulled out the tiny pouch of small white capsules filled with powder. “They’re strong. Jus’ one an’ ye can’t think straight fer at least eight hours. They’re usually meant t’ help out people in mournin’ or wit’ nightmares. I figured whate’er was botherin’ V at night ‘ad t’ do with memories durin’ trance. It wasn’t like ‘e was obsessin’ o’er spells again.”
Blackwing stuck out his foot, letting the dwarf tie the small bag to his leg. It was so small that it was hidden when he fluffed up his feathers. “Thanks. I think that I’m going to sleep now.”
The bird stared at the adventurers suspiciously and hopped into Vaarsuvius’s lap, leaning against the elf’s abdomen and falling to sleep.
“This next spell is going to stain clothes.”
Vaarsuvius looked up at Aarindarius curiously, violet eyes wide and hands resting lightly on the table. The child’s abdomen was hurting, but that could have been hunger. The wizard looked down at the apprentice, smiling, and lightly patted the purple hair before opening one of the many drawers in the study, pulling out a color-splattered robe and gray undergarments. “It isn’t a very useful spell in the long run, but it is excellent for learning the principles of the manipulation of things outside of yourself. Quite popular among little children, if you ever find yourself trying to entertain them. Change into these before we start.”
The child nodded, smiling, and took the clothes before scampering down out of the room and into a bathroom, glad that Aarindarius wouldn’t help get the clothes off and on as Parent and Other Parent were wont to do.
The child’s growing breasts felt a little sore, but that could be ignored. They’d felt that way for a while. It was a little harder to ignore the pained abdomen, but Vaarsuvius was sure that it was just because of hunger.
It was a little harder to explain away when Vaarsuvius slipped off her underwear to see blood, and a trail of crimson started down the inside of a pale leg.
More blood started dripping down, leaving a trail of sticky warmth and staining white skin until it hit the dark wooden floor.
Vaarsuvius shrieked, haphazardly putting on the red robe again, and ran out of the bathroom. “Aarindarius!”
The teacher was at the doorway already, alarmed by the scream and coming to see if Vaarsuvius was alright, and caught the hysterical child in his thin arms, holding the apprentice close. “Vaarsuvius! Vaarsuvius, what is wrong?!”
“I’m dying! Aarindarius, I’m dying!”
Aarindarius blinked in surprise, keeping his grip around the young apprentice tight. “Dying? Why do you think that you are dying?”
Vaarsuvius shook and tears streamed out of big violet eyes as the child opened the robe up just enough to show the trails of blood down the insides of her legs. “Is there enough time to go to Parent and Other Parent and tell them that I love them?”
Aarindarius’s eyebrows went up and his face flushed a little, gentle hands rubbing the child’s back. “Oh, Suvie…” The wizard knelt down so their eyes were level, hands clutching tiny hands. “Has this ever happened to you before?”
The little apprentice shook her head quickly, sniffing and blinking against the tears staining pale cheeks.
“Suvie, you’re not dying.” Aarindarius smiled, raising a hand and gently wiping the child’s face free of tears. “Your body is just telling you that you are a young woman. It is something that happens to girls around your age—you bleed from between your legs. It’s a little alarming if you don’t expect it, but it’s just a sign that your body is working properly.”
Vaarsuvius sniffed, shakes starting to recede. “Really? So I’m not dying?”
“No, little one.” Aarindarius did something that he rarely did. He kissed the child’s forehead tenderly. “I will explain it to you once you are cleaned up. You may use my bath and I will bring you something that other women use to handle the bleeding.”
Vaarsuvius nodded, swallowing, feeling suddenly ashamed by the outburst. “Thank you.”
“Do not feel embarrassed. Your parents should have informed you of this before. I’ll tell you everything I know about it.”
The child nodded, then slowly smiled. “Thank you, Aarindarius.”