Redcloak threw his hands up, cursing all clichéd illusory traps in his head and rolling his eyes towards the ceiling. “If you are another cheap illusion of a family member or Vaarsuvius, I swear…”
“I’m not an illusion.”
The goblin looked around, gold eye narrowing. “Not again.”
Vaarsuvius looked offended. The elf was just as Redcloak remembered. Wild purple hair. Fiery violet eyes. Pale skin. Pointed ears. The scent of flowers and wine was so intoxicating that, had Redcloak not known that this was another trick, he would have gladly thrown away all of the barriers he had put around his thoughts of Vaarsuvius just to feel the elf’s lips again, just to touch the body he knew he was only one of the few who was found worthy to touch… but he was no fool.
“You’re not tricking me. I caught on after the first five or so times this place pulled the ‘brother/niece/lover’ card.”
“Reddy, I’m not an illusion.” Vaarsuvius smiled, reaching forward and resting a decidedly tangible hand on the goblin’s cheek. “You see? I’m real.”
Redcloak arched an eye ridge in surprise, wondering what sort of creature this was. The elf went on tip-toes and kissed the goblin softly, lips melding carefully to accommodate the other species. The warm body pressed against his. Gentle fingers trailed down his sides…
“Maybe not an illusion, but not Vaarsuvius.”
Redcloak roughly shoved the copy away, only eye a mere fleck of gold, wiping his mouth free of the sour taste of the imposter’s kiss. “One, Vaarsuvius never calls me ‘Reddy.’ That elf’s hard-pressed to tell me so much as her name. Vaarsuvius isn’t the type to give pet names to people that are going to try to destroy everything for the sake of one species.” He brushed himself off, a little sickened by being touched by the creature in front of him. “Second, Vaarsuvius wouldn’t be so willing to jump right back into whatever we were. When I see that elf next, I’m going to be like any other enemy.” He backed up a step, glaring. “Third, you can imitate appearance and smell well, I’ll grant you, but you can’t imitate touch and taste.”
The thing that looked like Vaarsuvius was silent for a long moment, absorbing what was being said, before rolling its eyes to the sky, skin reddening and hair darkening to black. “Jeeze. You’re no fun.”
The succubus shook her hair out, eyes turning red and moist wings wiggling out of the restrictive robes they were forced in, flapping wetly to lose the liquid that Redcloak was positive he didn’t want to know the origin of. “I mean, usually I’m able to get some poor sap who’s so desperate that they’re willing to believe, but no. I had to get some frigid bastard who won’t even put out a little for fun’s sake.”
“So sorry to disappoint.”
She started to morph again, back into Vaarsuvius, but this time, Vaarsuvius looked beaten and bloody. Redcloak reminded himself quickly of what was really in front of him before he came forward to heal his partner.
“Anyway, I have other fish to fry.” The succubus who looked like Vaarsuvius ripped her tatty red robes, exposing more flesh than Redcloak was comfortable seeing on his partner. He had seen and felt Vaarsuvius naked, but it was something personal that he knew the elf allowed only to a few. To see this woman freely flaunt things that had every appearance as belonging to the elf made him angry on his partner’s behalf.
The succubus spun around, her arms outstretched. “Like it?” She smirked. “You sure you don’t want a quickie before I pop off to terrorize other people? From what I’ve gathered, this one wasn’t too good about putting out a lot. How can a big guy like you be satisfied with a frigid wench like her?”
Redcloak sneered in disgust, making a dismissive motion with his hand. “Get out of my sight. There’s more to relationships than sex.”
“Oh come on. I’ll imitate your elf, if you like. You’re a lonely sap without her, I can tell. Don’t you miss her?” The succubus who looked like Vaarsuvius ran a hand sensuously through her royal purple hair, smiling. “You can always pretend.”
Redcloak scowled darkly, making another dismissive gesture with more force. “I don’t want a cheap copy, fiend.”
“Really? Huh.” The succubus disappeared in a puff of smoke.
The Order unanimously decided that the gates were almost more trouble to get to than they were worth.
“V, Durkon, are you guys sure—”
“We are fine, I assure you.” Vaarsuvius refused to accept Elan’s or Haley’s silent offers to help walk, severely weakened from trying to hold the illusions at bay while the Order opened the door to the dungeon and head spinning for reasons that would never be divulged to the Order. “Focus on the path ahead.”
Durkon shrugged off Elan and Haley’s offers as well, but more politely than the elf, and fixed his eyes on the phosphorescent walls. “I sense th’ presence o’ a dark god. An evil cleric was through ‘ere recently.”
Vaarsuvius looked up with an odd look in violet eyes, but no one noticed. Roy took out his sword, swinging it experimentally, muscles tensing noticeably under his skin. “Do you think it’s Xykon and his goblin?” The name and the last word were coated in more venom than usual. Vaarsuvius casually wrote it off as Roy’s usual dislike for the lich and his associates. Only the other Order members knew why the swordsman was feeling particularly heated about their foes.
“I can’t think o’ any other reas’n tha’ there’d be an evil cleric runnin’ around.”
The elf subconsciously rested a hand on a small abdomen, avoiding the gazes of the rest of the Order without realizing it. “R—the goblin who serves Xykon is a cleric of a high enough level that he would have a significant effect to the divine energies.” Vaarsuvius seemed to notice the instinctive gesture, scowling, and brushed the red robe off, removing the hand from the hurting stomach quickly. “It would make sense for them to be here.”
The rest of the Order exchanged looks, misconstruing the elf’s lack of eye contact and reinforcing their suspicions.
“Well, we ought to find them. We owe them for killing our leader and taking our spell caster, don’t we?” Haley said, taking Elan’s hand and smiling, an unspoken message rippling out to everyone but Vaarsuvius.
“I do not suggest it,” the elf said, mind obviously elsewhere. Maybe it was because of the uncharacteristic inattentiveness that the mage didn’t notice what the pointed discouragement was further convincing the Order of. “If Redcloak is with Xykon, we are against a high-level cleric and an epic-level sorcerer. Even without one of his eyes, Redcloak is powerful and intelligent enough so that he would be very difficult to defeat, even when we are working together. Xykon is powerful enough to kill us all on his own. They are also likely with the mid-level Theurge and a creature of indeterminate species and strength. We should avoid fighting them at all costs.”
“And Rule of Drama says that the party has to split up! We’re probably going to get to a giant fo…” Elan trailed off as the entire group stopped, faced with six different paths leading off in wildly different directions, the phosphorescent walls flickering only slightly. “Here it is.”
Everyone stared for a moment, roughly identical thoughts running through their heads. “Can all of us go down one path?”
“We don’t know which way the gate is. It’ll take too long for us all to explore each path.”
There was another reluctant silence.
“Well, I’ll divide up th’ rations an’ supplies.” Durkon started rifling through the packs. “Vaarsuvius, ye wouldna happ’n t’ ‘ave a spell so we c’n track each other…?”
“I am afraid not, Mr. Thundershield.”
“Figures.” Roy sighed, exasperated that the gods of drama continued to make life a thousand times harder for him. “Alright. We don’t know how this works. I don’t like the idea of us splitting up, but we’re going to have to. Elan, in a story, what would happen along the paths?”
Elan smiled, leaning on his heels. “That’s easy. We’ll all face what we fear and what we want, and after a big journey where we all think that we won’t survive, we come back together at the gate and have an epic battle with the villain, each one of us changed for the better, and we slay the dragon and get the damsel in distress.”
“That sounds like more trouble than it’s worth. Can’t be just blow through the tunnels and get a whore back outside or something?” Belkar took out a dagger, throwing it hand to hand restlessly.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Roy said, frowning at the tunnels. “You ready, Durkon?”
“I’m done, lad.”
Durkon handed out packs to everyone, looking thoroughly disgruntled. “It’s against ev’rythin’ I was taught as a healer, but I’m goin’ t’ ‘ave t’ leave ye all with jus’ a coupla bandages an’ painkillers fer when I’m na around.”
“Yeah, yeah, cluck all you want. We’re all grown up now.” Belkar checked the contents of the bag and, satisfied, slung it over his shoulder. “Let’s get this over with.”
Most people just nodded their goodbyes, or actually said them if they were so moved. Elan and Haley kissed each other, the blond saying something about some drama cliché guaranteeing that they would be back together soon. Both Roy and Durkon looked at Vaarsuvius before exchanging glances, both a little reluctant to leave the elf alone but neither having a choice in the matter.
“Farewell. We shall see each other again soon.”
With the soft goodbye from Vaarsuvius, the group split apart, each going a different direction.
Deep in the heart of the dungeon, an imprint reached out, smirking, and started to pull the strings.
Vaarsuvius and Blackwing traveled in companionable silence, the quiet only disturbed by the occasional rustle of cloth when the elf touched a pregnant abdomen after a particularly vicious cramp. Anyone else would have suggested that the mage take advantage of the painkillers that the healer had provided. Blackwing knew his master well enough to realize that it wouldn’t matter.
The raven also knew better than to comment when Vaarsuvius had to stop numerous times to nurse the pain or make the dizziness go away. The only acknowledgement he gave was a gentle nip on the elf’s ear, a light reminder that Vaarsuvius wasn’t alone.
The elf was grateful for it. When the female cleric said that the pregnancy would be difficult, the mage hadn’t been quite prepared for it. Vaarsuvius could deal with cramps, sore breasts, and headaches. Pain was a matter of the body, not the mind. But the dizziness and the light-headedness were just nuisances. The elf was well-aware of what little it would require to faint, and Vaarsuvius was not at all happy with it. And then there were the hormones to deal with. How the mage would hide it from everyone, especially when the time came to battle, Vaarsuvius had no idea. But hidden it would remain.
Vaarsuvius was shocked out of these thoughts when a pale hand, previously lightly running against the cold green wall, hit something sticky and wet.
The mage stiffened, a cold flare running down a tiny body, and slowly brought the affected hand up to look at.
It was covered with blood.
Vaarsuvius swallowed, trying to calm the nerves going haywire in a hormonal brain, and watched the crimson drip to the floor slowly. It wasn’t real. It was an illusion.
It felt real.
The mage slowly looked at the wall, rubbing sticky and warm fingers together, eyes widening at the trails of scarlet running down from the ceiling. It was a bad idea to look up. It was a really bad idea to look up.
So, of course, Vaarsuvius looked up.
And regretted it dearly.
There was a natural shelf of rock at the ceiling. Four people were sitting up on it, glaring down at the elf, blood trailing from them and dripping down the walls, creating a fine red mist, the phosphorescence of the tunnel dimmed until it felt like the elf was in hell. Hell was red darkness.
One of the gargoyles held his head tight in his hands, an angry fountain from his stump of a neck staining a blue uniform red, eyes narrowed in accusation, lips silently moving in what could have either been pleas or curses.
“Worthless coward,” the woman spat, snapping sharpened teeth, before she started coughing, more blood welling up, making the coppery smell choking, and the smell of sulfur was growing and oh elven gods the head’s lips were still moving what were they doing here the blood was everywhere OH ELVEN GODS THE BLOOD
“CHOKE ON YOUR USELESS GODDAMN MAGIC!”
Vaarsuvius turned to run, but slipped on the red pool on the ground, falling hard in the warmth. The elf stumbled, trying to stand up, but the female gargoyle’s mouth opened up, a snake-like tongue snapping out and wrapping up tiny ankles.
“I’ll kill your children!”
“I’ll kill your mate!”
“I’ll kill your comrades!”
“AND YOU WON’T CARE!”
oh great elven gods what was happening the lips on the head are still moving and oh great elven gods the blood was coming faster and its eyes were changing colors all yellow and orange and purple and THE BLOOD WAS COMING FASTER MAKE IT STOP
“You did this to yourself, Other Parent.”
Vaarsuvius looked down to see one of the beloved children tear through a vulnerable arm, the blood up to the little one’s waist, sharpened teeth stained red sunk deep into the mage’s flesh, pure yellow eyes dancing wildly and broken legs cracking under weight that they shouldn’t have to hold.
“Always remember that.”
Vaarsuvius shrieked in pain, fire shooting through the elf’s very being, and the other beloved child, orange-eyed, ripped sharp teeth through the mage’s other arm. The blood was rising and the children would drown in it oh great elven gods what was happening the children they should never have been involved why was this happening it hurt it hurt so much oh elven gods Vaarsuvius was going insane the elf could feel its mind unraveling THE ELF WAS GOING INSANE
“You’re only forced to see what you did to us.”
Inkyrius cocked a starkly pale head, purple eyes staring in a frozen grin, face looking like a bad mask, wrists and feet draining blood from where stakes were driven through them, green hair scarlet. “You see what you have done to us, Suvie?”
Inkyrius raised thin arms and turned into a black dragon stained red, roaring and coming down to swallow Vaarsuvius whole.
Redcloak looked up sharply at the sound of screaming. “Tsukiko?”
He entertained the idea of letting the crazy Theurge bask in a different kind of madness for a moment, but the scream changed pitch, sounding increasingly desperate, and his moral compass was tripped.
The goblin ran towards the sound, wondering what could possibly have made Tsukiko sound like that, but he stopped short when he came to the passage where the screams were coming from.
“Vaarsuvius? Vaarsuvius, what’s wrong?!”
The raven vainly scratched at the elf’s face and arms, pecking for good measure, but Vaarsuvius was sitting on the ground, face covered by arms that had obviously been ravaged by ragged nails and were now bleeding profusely, and screams of the likes Redcloak had never heard resonating out.
His immediate instinct was to rush to the elf’s side and hold the little body close to his, heal the bleeding arms, and snap his lover out of whatever hellish daze this dungeon had cast. His next thought was that he was supposed to not care about Vaarsuvius anymore so he should take advantage of the situation and kill the enemy spell caster. His third thought was that this was another clever illusion.
He should go. He’d dealt with too many illusions. Redcloak meant to go, but his body wouldn’t respond.
He tried to leave again, but his heart wasn’t in it.
The screams were too much. It was one thing to reject a horny imposter. It was another to ignore an unconfirmed imposter going insane.
Redcloak ignored the surprised squawk from the raven when he came forward and knelt by the elf, lightly putting his hands on tiny shoulders…
The tunnel stank of blood and the undead corpses of Azure City soldiers sat at the ceiling, one holding his own severed head, and two little demon children were grinning with a similar demon elf…
Redcloak jerked his hands back, blinking the macabre vision away, and braced himself against what he instinctively knew was the product of his partner’s past, something he knew very little about. The scientist piped up, telling him to either leave the elf to face its own demons or kill it where it sat. It was only logical. The person scolded the scientist for referring to Vaarsuvius as an ‘it’ and quickly interjected that it would be cruel to leave his lover like this. The scientist loudly proclaimed that this probably wasn’t Vaarsuvius in the first place and he was falling into an obvious trap—admittedly, an obvious trap that was much harder not to run into. The person countered with the fact that he could handle almost any level of monster this place tried to throw at him. If this was real, then Vaarsuvius was going to go insane. Was he willing to risk that? Vaarsuvius was too proud and fiery to lose such an integral part!
Redcloak left the two conflicting parts of his personality to squabble and lightly put his hands on the elf’s shoulders, forcing the visions of blood, smoke, and sulfur away from him and staying focused on Vaarsuvius. Was he doing the smart thing? No. He wasn’t. He should take advantage of this and claw the mage’s throat open.
The goblin slapped the elf hard and the vision shattered.