Redcloak and Vaarsuvius both jerked awake at the voice, looking up and letting out twin yelps, both trying to conceal their bodies. Tsukiko stared in shock, then promptly devolved into laughter. “By the twelve gods! We haven’t been here for a day and you two are already banging each other?! Jeeze, I didn’t know you were so horny, Reddy. Keep it in your pants once in a while.”
Both lovers scowled at her while they grabbed their clothes, covering themselves as best they could. “Avert your eyes.”
Tsukiko let out a cackling laugh, ignoring the pointed command and looking both of them up and down. “Nice, Reddy. So she’s a girl after all.”
Vaarsuvius looked up and glared fiercely, raising one hand. “Blindness.”
“Hey!” Tsukiko backed up a step, waving her hands in front of her newly filmed-over eyes. “No fair!”
“Perfectly fair, Tsukiko.” Redcloak shot Vaarsuvius an amused smile, stealing a quick silent kiss while the unwelcome Theurge still couldn’t see them. Vaarsuvius smiled, quickly putting on discarded undergarments. Their time to be intimate together was over, but they were still with each other.
“You’d better not get it on while I can’t watch!”
Redcloak rolled his eye, pulling on his pants and shirt. “You know, there are some situations where you’re not supposed to keep talking.”
“Like when you’re nailing your whore?”
Something weird happened among the conflicting parts of Redcloak’s personality. The suspicious third in his mind lashed out, demanding that he protect his mate, knocking the person and scientist to the ground and out of their bored daze. The goblin stiffened in surprise, trying to rein in the new voice. “She is not a whore.”
Vaarsuvius glanced at him, eyebrow arched. Redcloak shrugged, averting his gaze. The elf touched his shoulder, an odd amount of understanding in violet eyes, and kissed him softly again.
“Yeah, yeah, sure. The girl who’ll blow whoever can keep her out of a torture chamber is totally not a whore.”
Redcloak tensed up, the third voice, the instinct, roaring for the blind Theurge’s blood. Vaarsuvius stroked his shoulder, kissing his cheek, forcing the fierce hostility to drain. The elf frowned in concern, putting loose hair into a ponytail, slipping on a red robe and picking the goblin’s cloak from the ground, giving it to him quietly.
The goblin smoothed his expression, taking his cloak and putting it on, doing up the clasp.
“Are you guys dressed yet?! I don’t like being blind!”
Redcloak entertained the idea of letting Tsukiko stay under Vaarsuvius’s spell, but he knew that she was useful for him and Xykon. He touched the Theurge’s shoulder lightly, murmuring the needed spell under his breath.
Tsukiko’s mismatched eyes lost the magical film, making her pull away and shake her head. “Alright, Casanova. Are we going to gut your whore or what?”
The goblin instinctively wrapped his arms around the elf, bringing Vaarsuvius close and a growl rumbling in his chest. Redcloak caught himself, frowning in confusion, and loosened his grip, forcing the growl to recede. “We don’t need to kill her.”
Tsukiko raised an eyebrow, crossing her arms. “We need to get you some goblin woman. Seriously. Why shouldn’t we slit her throat then turn her into a zombie? I mean, you can still get your rocks off if she’s dead.”
Both Redcloak and Vaarsuvius jerked in disgust, the growl in the goblin’s chest returning threefold. The elf subtly stroked the goblin’s hand, calming him down before he slashed the Theurge’s face.
The scientist shoved against the instinct, standing up and shouting that this was not normal. The person jumped up, emphatically adding agreement. He was more controlled than this. It was harder to get him angry. And this weird need to make sure that Vaarsuvius was completely and utterly safe and unharmed was not usual. He had already had the desire, but he used to be able to control it. Vaarsuvius was fully-grown, capable of defending herself, and his enemy. He had been able to keep a lid on his wanting for the elf’s safety before. Why was it so out of hand now?
Vaarsuvius snapped Redcloak out of that line of thought with a skeptical roll of the eyes towards Tsukiko. “It would be in your best interest to keep me alive. This is a dangerous area. The dungeon itself is trying to drive us insane or kill us, whichever is first. The more company provided, the better chance anyone of us has of retaining reason. In that way, I am helpful. If either of you attempt to kill me, I am perfectly content in reminding you that I am not a weakened prisoner any longer and that I have prepared all my spells. You both, working together, would undoubtedly be able to overwhelm me and perhaps even kill me, but I would put up enough of a struggle to damage you. Of course, before Redcloak could heal himself or heal you, the dungeon would take advantage of your weakness and somehow separate and destroy you both.” The elf crossed thin arms. “So you would be unwise to try to kill me.”
Tsukiko didn’t seem to be listening too closely. She frowned, her mismatched eyes narrowing in concentration, and her head cocked. “Are you glowing?”
The elf blinked in surprise. “Has this place driven you mad already?”
“I am not preparing to use magic, so I do not see why.” Vaarsuvius’s ears twitched in irritation. Redcloak, calm now that there seemed to be no immediate danger (which was odd, considering the fact that Tsukiko usually jumped at the chance of killing someone, but he wasn’t one to look the gift horse in the mouth), shrugged and gestured for them to start moving, slinging his bag over his shoulder.
“Tsukiko, you’re imagining things. If we want to meet up with anyone else, our team or Vaarsuvius’s, we’ll need to try to get somewhere.”
Tsukiko kept frowning in thought, even after the elf brushed past her to follow Redcloak. The Theurge turned around to start after them, then her eyes widened with realization.
After a moment, she broke out laughing. “By the twelve gods! This is so rich! You’ve got the glow!”
Both Vaarsuvius and Redcloak glanced back at her, twin expressions of annoyance painted over their faces. “Tsukiko, if you’re insane, then it’d be best to tell me.”
“Don’t trouble your little green head over it, Reddy.” Tsukiko tittered, practically prancing after them. “It’s a girl thing.”
Vaarsuvius awkwardly edged away from Tsukiko, sticking close to Redcloak. Their hands brushed briefly before both drew away, staying at a safe distance to keep Tsukiko’s giggles and taunts to a minimum, but staying close enough so that each knew the other was there. If the illusions came back, they were still together.
It was safe for now.
Haley looked around, licking her dry lips, tasting the faint trace of blood on them. She didn’t know what was going on. Was the dungeon screwing with her head again? Was this real? Had she gone nuts?
Old houses made out of stone and dried clay protruding out of the ground itself surrounded her, empty windows looking more and more like mournfully gaping mouths and eyes. The sky was devoid of moon or stars. Sand from the surrounding desert blew gently through, but there was no heat. It was freezing cold.
Haley shook, her breath visible in a small cloud of mist, and she rubbed her arms, walking down the empty street. The darkness seemed almost tangible, something silky that she could run her fingers through and fall into, dropping into oblivion until her entire being was unraveled into one long strand of thread.
She rubbed her arms harder and tried to concentrate on what was in front of her. Maybe Elan or Vaarsuvius would be nearby. Maybe—
Someone slammed their hand over her mouth and dragged her into the darkness.
“Aarindarius, you know that I’d do anything for you, but you’re asking me to go into sealed records.”
Aarindarius didn’t allow his frustration to show. He kept his arms crossed and his expression patient, something more likely to get the nervous, mouse-like elf in front of him at ease. “Aelius, I fear that this is my old apprentice that I am asking about. You know what Vaarsuvius means to me.”
Aelius awkwardly shifted in his seat behind a desk over-stacked with boxes labeled with elven runes, pink hair stacked on his head, orange eyes nervously glancing away. “I know. Anyone who caught so much as a glance of you and that kid knows. But our ways of finding people to serve or summon are closed. We can’t give out where anyone is freely.”
Aarindarius ran a hand through lavender hair, still doing his best to keep his frustration inside. “Then do you know who I can speak to who can tell me more?”
“I can’t give you names!” Aelius stood up, glancing around nervously and trying to usher the wizard out. “Listen, I know that the kid meant a lot to you, but I’m sure she’ll turn up eventually. People come back to Ivyleaf. They get attached.”
“Not Vaarsuvius.” Aarindarius spun around, refusing to be pushed out. “If I do not find her, I doubt she will ever return.” He took the other elf’s cold hands tightly in his own. “Aelius, you have three daughters. What would you do if you thought they were in danger?”
The other elf yelped softly, shifting. “Danger?” The oddest distressed warble came from the back of his throat, reflecting his mood.
Aelius squirmed, looking away, until he twisted out of Aarindarius’s grip. “I… I can give you the place we found her. And a couple of names of people who can tell you something about what she’s been doing during the past year. We don’t know anything about the five years before that.” He started rummaging in the boxes that lined the walls, pulling out one labeled ‘V-Z’ and pulling off the top. “She made a bit of a splash in Azure City! I can tell you where the refugees from the battle settled. I think she traveled with them for a bit. I hope you have better luck in getting something out of their new lord, because he was pretty tight-lipped with us. His name is Lord Hinjo.”
The elf pulled up a thin file with elven runes running all along the border, handing it over to the wizard. “Good luck with finding her, Aarindarius. I know you love her.” He nervously pulled at a strand of his hair. “And be careful. The man we sent to serve her with divorce papers is still in the hospital with two clerics working on him.”
Aarindarius paled, swallowing and taking the file slowly. A more observant elf would see that his hands were shaking. “Thank you, Aelius. I know how dangerous this is for you.” He turned away. “And I hope that I do not need to be careful.”
Then he was gone.
Something carefully walked along the branches, navigating past the ropes keeping up the hanged bodies, cradling a bundle wrapped in blankets in the crook of its right arm.
Under the branches, the world began to change.
The scent of blood rose with the temperature. The one in the shadows looked down to see two familiar people, hugging each other and trembling, the sand under their feet sticky and red with blood. One’s mouth opened, then shut, then opened again, trying to speak even though that ability had been ripped away.
The one in the shadows sat down on the branch, swinging its legs back and forth, cradling its bundle gently in its arms. It sang in a soft, cooing voice to the bundle, running its fingers over the surface.
One of the people put their palms together, trembling, begging without words. Desolation surrounded them. Nothing but wasteland, each other, and the creature in the shadows.
The creature held up one hand and the sound of screams rose up from around them.
The creature’s lips turned up in a smile.