Haley kept her ears covered and her eyes forward.
“Sweetie, why are you ignoring me?”
The walls were made of cages. In each one, her emaciated father leaned on the bars, pounding his fists against the steel, his red hair hanging in greasy strings around his white face. “Haley, sweetie, blood’s thicker than water. How can you betray me?”
Haley hummed desperately, keeping her hands over her ears, running a constant stream of lyrics through her head to block out the illusions.
“As I was a-walking for my recreation,
A down by the gardens I silently stray’d,
I heard a fair maid making great lamentation,
Crying, Jimmy will be slain in the wars I’m afraid.”
Haley kept singing the song softly, aware that her voice wasn’t as beautiful as her mother’s or Elan’s, but not caring in the least. She concentrated solely on the lyrics and the story they told. It was a sad story. It made her cry when she was a little girl when she first realized what it meant. Right now, it was her lifeline.
Her father started pulling at the bars, his body so thin that his bones were visible under his skin, his pitted eyes staring at her, resentment growing like a fire. “I suppose I couldn’t even trust the people in the family.”
“The blackbirds and thrushes sang in the green bushes;
The wood doves and larks seem’d to mourn for the maid;
And this song that she sang was concerning her lover;
O Jimmy will be slain in the wars I’m afraid.”
Too many of them. They were blurring together, or maybe that was just the tears welling up. The area behind her right eye started to throb. Her hands were shaking. The lyrics. Concentrate on the lyrics.
“Her cheeks blushed like roses, her arms full of posies,
She stray’d in the meadows and, weeping, she said:
My heart it is aching, my poor heart is breaking,
For Jimmy will be slain in the wars I’m afraid.”
A familiar goblin and Vaarsuvius were lying intertwined on the ground. Vaarsuvius was sleeping or trancing or whatever elves did. Haley looked down blankly, her father glaring down at the two lovers. The goblin looked up from tenderly stroking the trancing elf’s face with a claw, one eye wide in surprise and mouth open slightly to speak.
“It’s… it’s not what it—”
Haley covered her ears, blurted something about ‘damn illusions,’ and kept walking, turning her eyes back forward and sternly ignoring everything but what was ahead of her. This dungeon could do a lot, but she refused to let it take her sanity.
“When Jimmy returned with his heart full of burning,
He found his dear Nancy all dead in her grave
He cried: I’m forsaken, my poor heart is breaking,
O would that I never had left this fair maid!”
Redcloak stared after the thief in confusion, subconsciously holding Vaarsuvius closer and curling around his partner protectively.
“Redcloak?” Vaarsuvius blearily started blinking, shifting to look and see who was singing. “What…?”
“Just go back to sleep. Nothing’s happening.”
Vaarsuvius murmured softly, cuddling closer and lightly brushing warm lips against the goblin’s collarbone. Redcloak stiffened, gasping softly in surprise, but the elf was trancing again.
The elf was still shaking gently in the goblin’s arms. Residuals from that weird vision of blood or trails of nightmares? Redcloak didn’t know. He only knew that his partner was distressed, and for some reason, this idea made him ache and want to make whatever was causing it to go away. He wanted Vaarsuvius to smile again. He wanted to smooth the marks of exhaustion and strain that he saw written all over the trancing face. He wanted to make sure that the elf had no reason to scream or shake ever again.
He knew better than to even dream that he could do any of that, though. When they last parted, Redcloak had let go of any power he had over the elf’s happiness, if he had any power in the first place. Most likely, the next time he would see Vaarsuvius smile would be during the inevitable battle they’d have to have, if then.
Redcloak knew what a fool he was. He knew how lovesick he had become. He was actually musing over how much he would like to see a particular elf smile when he should be ripping that same elf’s throat open. It was pathetic. It was absolutely and completely pathetic.
And yet he didn’t care as long as he was still with Vaarsuvius.
He gently kissed Vaarsuvius’s forehead and pulled the slender body close, drifting back to sleep.
Vaarsuvius shifted, body colder than it should have been, and blinked awake to see why. A fire crackled cheerfully, starting to restore heat, but the weird stone cavern that the elf was in was so dark and cold that it seemed to literally suck away resources such as light and warmth.
Redcloak glanced up from the fire. “I think that this dungeon is going to be harder to deal with than we thought. It changed while we were unconscious.” He hid his shivering, but it was obvious to the elf. “Would you like something to eat?”
“I am not particularly hungry, thank you.” Vaarsuvius sat up, wordlessly sidling up to the goblin’s side. Both could easily use the excuse of ‘it’s warmer to be together by the fire’. Neither would think too hard about it. “I did not expect to spend another night together, I must admit.”
“It was safest.” Redcloak glanced at the elf, shivers starting to recede with the heat from the mammal. “Are you sure you don’t want something to eat? You look a little thinner than the last time I saw you.”
“It has only been a week. Two at most.” Vaarsuvius stared deep in the fire, ignoring twinges of pain from a small abdomen and breasts.
“Which is why you shouldn’t have a discernable difference and the fact that you do is troublesome.”
Vaarsuvius allowed a vaguely amused smirk out. “Are you going to continue giving me lectures about my health if I do not eat?”
“Probably. It looks like we’ll have to stick together until we have some sense of where we are again at any rate.”
“Very well then.” Vaarsuvius unhooked a travel pack from slender hips, opening it up and taking a small apple out. “Satisfied?” The elf elegantly took a bite, arching one purple eyebrow.
“Not really, but we can work on it.”
“You are acting like my nursemaid again.”
“Call it a cleric’s instinct. When you start taking care of yourself, I’ll stop trying to.”
Vaarsuvius smirked, starting to lean against Redcloak’s side and affectionately stroking his hand. It wasn’t prudent. They should be as far apart as possible. The elf knew it but didn’t really care. The weight in the mage’s abdomen was too heavy to carry alone. “I am a fully grown elf. You should acknowledge that.”
“Believe me, I know.” Redcloak smiled down at Vaarsuvius, inexplicable warmth growing within at the elf’s touch. “You just don’t take care of yourself.”
Vaarsuvius took another bite of the apple, stifling a wince at a flicker of pain in the small abdomen. Redcloak frowned, reaching up to touch the elf’s face. “Vaarsuvius, are you okay?”
The elf’s lips pursed. In a flash, Vaarsuvius was back to emotional distance and the pale hand left Redcloak’s, leaving both of them conspicuously farther apart. “I am fine, Redcloak.”
Vaarsuvius stood, finishing off the apple and tightening the red robe around the slim body. “We should part. It is dangerous for us to be together for any prolonged amount of time.”
“Wait a second, what’s with the sudden change of heart?” Redcloak stood up, frowning suspiciously and tensing up. The elf was hiding something. “Vaarsuvius, I’m a cleric. If you’re hurt, I can help you.”
“You are an enemy cleric who should be Inflicting Wounds on me. Our relationship was convoluted from the start and encouraging it is, quite simply, one of the most foolhardy things we can do.”
Redcloak frowned, gently looping his arms around the elf’s waist and bringing their bodies up against each other. “Vaarsuvius, don’t be like that. Is there something wrong?”
“Redcloak, if you continue touching me, I will unleash my not-inconsiderable power and destroy you where you stand.” Pain started ripping through the elf’s abdomen, clenching up and forcing Vaarsuvius to tense with pursed lips. “Get away from me now.”
The goblin frowned, the scientist and the person both telling him to do very different things. One told him to let the source of his confusion go and continue down its spiral of self destruction. The other told him to forget the complications and help her through whatever has been plaguing her since before they knew each other. No one should suffer through so much pain, both psychological and physical. A third voice, somehow vastly more powerful than the unsuspecting previous two, reared up and demanded that he remove any sort of harmful influence from his mate’s body and the vicinity. No discussion was allowed.
“Cure Moderate Wounds.”
The pain disappeared. It happened suddenly, making the elf go completely limp and make no sound.
The elf squirmed out of the goblin’s grip. “Thank you.” Vaarsuvius spun around, frowning, and backed away. “You are still a fool for it.”
Redcloak shook his head, rubbing his temples in frustration. “Alright. I’m an idiot. We’ve gone over that.” He let his hands drop and he stared at the elf, frowning, something pulling at his cleric instinct. He had never specialized in healing, but he was a decent doctor and there was something about Vaarsuvius that looked odd.
She seemed much brighter despite her lack of sleep and food, the person pointed out in confusion. She looked different. Something that he couldn’t quite place.
The scientist shrugged his shoulders, mentioning the fact that that could just be his imagination. Either way, something was wrong with the elf. Either way, he shouldn’t care.
The third voice receded back into the darkness, provoking nervous glances from the other two parts of his personality. It only growled softly, telling him to make sure that his mate was not in danger.
Vaarsuvius noticed the close examination and instinctively drew back, covering the thin figure with equally thin arms, glaring. Redcloak’s suspicions of the elf hiding something were cemented.
“Vaarsuvius, I’m not safe for you, but I’m going to tell you when you shouldn’t trust me and when you can. I’m not your group’s healer, but I’m still a cleric and, no matter how stupid it is, I care enough to want you to be healthy.” It was an understatement, but Redcloak knew that it was all Vaarsuvius would allow without turning heel and running away. Even then, the elf looked unnerved by the declaration of ‘caring.’ Redcloak held out his hands, palms-up, and slowly started walking towards the elf. “You’re a private person. I am too. If you don’t want to tell me what’s wrong, just stay with me until we figure out where we are and tell me if you need healing. That’s all you need to do.”
“Stop treating me with tenderness, Redcloak. Stop caring about me.” Guilt twisted in Vaarsuvius’s abdomen. The goblin was offering so much to an elf that was hiding his own child from him. Vaarsuvius truly believed that this was a matter only of the elf’s body, but the mage was well-aware that Redcloak had a right to know. This whole thing was a grievous injury done to the goblin. And he was still giving kindness.
Not that Vaarsuvius would, under any circumstances, tell him.
“I think I remember this.”
“Redcloak, just stay aw—”
Redcloak touched Vaarsuvius’s cheek, giving the elf room to pull away if the contact was unwanted, and pressed their lips together gently. “Vaarsuvius…”
“Redcloak, please, stop…” Vaarsuvius looped delicate arms around the goblin’s neck, kissing back desperately. The weight in the elf’s abdomen eased. The fear and stress was gone. Redcloak had taken it away.
The elf pulled back, pushing the goblin gently. “We will not be able to stop ourselves. Do not do this.”
Redcloak didn’t allow his feelings to cross his expression. He lightly stroked the elf’s face, his eye glowing dimly in the darkness. “Fine.”
He let the mage go and picked up a stick from the ground (Vaarsuvius distractedly examined their surroundings to see piles of wood and sticks mysteriously lined against the stone walls) and rolled the burning logs in their fire away from each other to slowly lose the flames. He picked up their bags from the ground, slinging his own over his shoulder and giving the other to the elf. “I don’t know how long we were sleeping. It looks like the dungeon changed itself to disorient us.”
Vaarsuvius numbly touched a slightly swollen abdomen, tentatively allowing Blackwing to pop into existence on a tiny shoulder. The raven gave the elf a sharp nip on a pointy ear, a silent reprimand for the rampant foolishness, and quickly followed up with fluffed feathers.
The elf winced but didn’t make comment. Redcloak glanced back, an amused smirk playing over his face, but a powerful instinct embedded in all goblin men forced him to snake an arm around Vaarsuvius’s waist protectively. “Stay close. I have no desire to deal with a vision from either of us again.”
Vaarsuvius’s mouth opened to protest the unnecessary contact, but the pointed ears twitched when they heard a gentle rumble originating deep in the goblin’s chest. It was an odd combination of a growl and a purr.
The elf shifted uncomfortably, frowning in confusion and trying to bring up any memories of goblin biology or culture. Of course, of that topic humanoids were woefully ignorant. Vaarsuvius knew so little, unless…
“Wait, so babies grow inside the females?” Vaarsuvius looked at Aarindarius in horror, squirming and touching her own tiny abdomen in dread. “Does that mean that I am going to need to carry a baby inside?”
“If you wish for biological children, that is the most likely scenario, little Suvie.” Aarindarius smiled sympathetically, closing the biology textbook they were reading.
“And we need to bleed every month to dispose of material we don’t need if we do not start growing children?!” Vaarsuvius kept staring as Aarindarius slowly bobbed his head. “What do the males have to deal with to make this fair?!”
“Well, besides the initial fertilization, biology asks little of us.” Aarindarius smiled sympathetically and gently picked up the child, placing her in his lap so she could see the next biology book better as he opened it up. “Culturally, of course, the male parent of an elven child is expected to support the female and provide her with love, affection, and anything else she asks for during the pregnancy. And then he is expected to be there and hold her hand during childbirth.”
Vaarsuvius blinked in indignation. “That hardly seems to equal to the hardship the female suffers!”
“Well, of course not. That is why our culture gives a certain amount of responsibility to the male.” Aarindarius stifled a chuckle at his apprentice’s thoroughly cross expression, kissing her head lightly. “Ah, little Suvie. You are still not satisfied? Well, there are certain species and cultures that give even more responsibility to the male. Among seahorses, the male is the one to carry the children to term.”
“Seahorses are not sapient, Aarindarius.” Vaarsuvius still looked bitter.
This time, Aarindarius actually let himself chuckle, earning a small glare from his apprentice. “Vaarsuvius, humanoids on the whole tend towards patriarchy. Not all cultures or species, but most. I fear that females drew the short straw when it came to biology, but in exchange, they often have a very deep connection with their children. Males are not incapable of gaining the same connection, but it seems to be instinctive among females.” He leaned back, keeping the child in his lap and his arms around a slender waist. “Goblinoids seem to tend more towards equality between genders, and in cases of pregnancy, become somewhat matriarchal.”
Vaarsuvius perked in interest.
“Ah, I have gotten your attention.” Recognizing a chance to appease his apprentice, Aarindarius tightened his grip gently and stroked the child’s hair. “I know little about bugbears and orcs. Hobgoblin society, as far as I know, makes special accommodations for pregnant hobgoblin women that not even small children enjoy.”
He lovingly tucked a tendril of purple hair behind the child’s ear. “Goblins seem to have a more… innate response to pregnancy. When the female is impregnated, she becomes more aggressive and is provided a knife from her male to protect herself. Male goblins are interesting. Even if they are not informed that their mate is pregnant, they develop an extreme sense of protectiveness and a need for closeness. It’s a very base instinct that most goblin children aren’t informed of, as far as I know. I only know as much as I do by virtue of a close friend of mine who happens to be an anthropologist specializing in reptilian societies.”
“So the males get protective? That does not seem so different from the elven response.” Vaarsuvius stubbornly crossed thin arms. “How does biology bring them in equality to the females’ hardships?”
“It is difficult to say as I have never witnessed it myself, but it seems the goblin males have a chemical need to become viciously protective of their female as soon as they catch scent of the pheromones pregnant women give off, starting around their second week. It is primal, but goblin society in general tends toward the primal.” Aarindarius stroked the apprentice’s hair gently. “Little Suvie, I hope dearly that you will never experience this feeling, yet at the same time I dearly hope that you will. There are certain instincts that no living being can shake that override all common sense and survival urges. Among those instincts are the instinct for a parent to protect their child, and apparently, the instinct for a goblin male to protect his pregnant partner. These are dangerous feelings. These are also testimony to true love.”
Aarindarius affectionately squeezed the child’s hand. “But enough about goblin instinct. While we are talking about reproduction, I should tell you about the methods to avoid conception. I am loath to send any child into the world without at least basic knowledge in the area.”
Vaarsuvius blinked at the realization, then heaved a soft sigh, glancing over at Redcloak as they began to walk. Redcloak was the heart of Lawfulness, civilization, and calculation, yet the soft growling purr in his chest and the arm wrapped securely around the elf’s waist as they moved reminded Vaarsuvius that he was not exempt from the primal urges of his species.
This wasn’t good.