The elf smelled like flowers and wine. How did Redcloak know?
Well, waking up with his face in the crook of its neck probably helped.
Redcloak straightened, trying to work a kink out of his neck and frowning. Vaarsuvius was still trancing, an expression of relative peace on. Redcloak stood up, stretching, and despite his hurting neck, he felt well-rested. He carefully prodded his ribs, finding that they still hurt, but he was far from dying. He glanced at the elf, giving it a once-over with his eye, and nodded slowly. His tusks had left shallow imprints on its neck and Vaarsuvius was far from the picture of health, but it should only be a matter of a few days now.
“Are you going to return to them so early?”
Redcloak started a little. He hadn’t realized that the elf had woken up. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“It is likely that your master will hurt you again, only this time you will not live.” Vaarsuvius pulled at the tattered robes on it and slowly stood up, knees almost buckling at the weight it was no longer used to carrying. Redcloak automatically came forward, clawed hand gripping the elf’s arm to keep it from falling, but Redcloak found himself shrugged off. “You do not need to carry me again. At any rate, it seems simply unwise to leave so soon. If my sense of time has any meaning, it is the early hours of the morning. Perhaps five o’clock.”
“Really?” Redcloak glanced out of the barred window, frowning a little at the lack of sun. “Looks like you’re right. You shouldn’t be awake yet.”
“I tranced little even before my… disturbances.” The elf ducked its head, flushing a little. “I am simply readjusting. My point remains.”
Redcloak frowned for a moment. “Why do you care?”
The elf glanced up, scowling a little, and wrapped what remained of the ragged gray robes around itself. “My apologies. I was under the impression that you did not enjoy being beaten so badly that you are rendered immobile for two days. My mistake.”
“Watch it.” Redcloak frowned, tensing a little. “My patience doesn’t last forever. The only reason you’re not stripped to your underwear on the floor of a cage is the fact that you’re still weak.”
“I doubt that you would harm me.” Vaarsuvius frowned darkly. “Not yet, at least.”
“You’re overestimating me.”
“If you think so.” Vaarsuvius glared defiantly before its knees buckled again under its weight. Redcloak automatically caught the elf, hoisting it up like a rag doll again and scowling. “Unhand me!”
“Sure. And let you keel over.” Redcloak let out a long-suffering sigh and gently placed Vaarsuvius back on the bed. “Don’t get so excited.”
“You are not my nursemaid!”
“As of now, yeah, I am.”
The elf flushed. Redcloak tried to hide a small wince when his ribs gave him an irritable twinge of pain.
Redcloak frowned in confusion. Vaarsuvius slowly hugged its knees, looking away with ears twitching. “Tart cherries. They’re natural painkillers. My parents gave them to me when I once twisted my ankle and we weren’t in the vicinity of anyone who had the needed spells to help it. It was a little less than a hundred years ago now, but I remember that they were quite effective.”
“…” Redcloak frowned a little. “Thanks. I’ll try that.” He slowly sat on the bed again, reaching out and cupping the elf’s chin gently, forcing it to turn its face so he could look at it. His claws lined up exactly to the little dots they had left before. He wasn’t so rough this time and the sharp points didn’t penetrate the delicate pale flesh, gold eye scanning skin that was looking considerably pinker. “You’re getting healthier.”
“Probably due to your ministrations.” The elf squirmed. “Please let me go. I will turn my face for you if you wish—I prefer to not be forcefully touched.”
Redcloak paused, then released the elf gently. “Your eyes are still a little bloodshot and your hands still shake. A little more time.”
Vaarsuvius nodded slowly, shrinking a little against the wall.
“I know that you’re quiet, but try being even quieter now. Xykon’s in a very bad mood and is probably looking for an excuse to turn you into an example.”
“I suppose that will happen with liches when one forces them to lose their phylacteries.” Vaarsuvius’s eyes glowed slightly with defiance.
“Yeah, yeah, you put the biggest dent in his confidence out of anyone and you’re proud, I get it. He’d still rip you apart when you’re in this condition.” Redcloak held the elf’s gaze. “Don’t be stupid.”
“I have no intention of making another blunder.” Vaarsuvius ran a hand through tangled hair. The elf looked up again, frowning. “You must be tired.”
“Not really.” Redcloak rubbed his ribs gently. “I’m used to little sleep. I had more last night than usual.”
“Oh! So you were sleeping with me, then? Well, next time, would you care to wake me up and inform me?”
Redcloak put his hand over his mouth, hiding a small smile. “You’re not supposed to make jokes like that with your jailer.”
“To quote a comrade of mine, ‘You walked right into it.’” Vaarsuvius had a small smile on a face that obviously hadn’t had many for a while. Light, teasing light, danced a little in its eyes just before it faded and both sobered, neither being ones to hold on to flashes of humor for long.
Redcloak glanced at the window, noting that the sun was rising. He looked back at Vaarsuvius, gold eye dimming in the increasing light. “Food should come soon for you, but I need to get to work.” He started to stand up, but a warm hand, still shaking a little from weakness, touched his arm.
He looked back down and the elf jerked its hand away as though it had been burnt, apparently just surprised as Redcloak. It ducked its head briefly before looking up, smoothing its expression.
“I simply wished to ask if you were coming back this evening,” it said in the same tone one would use to comment on the weather.
Redcloak quirked an eye ridge. “Of course. If I can’t, I’ll have someone come and tell you why not this time.” He gave a small smile before standing up and picking up the forgotten thermos on the ground. “Try walking a little, but not too far away from the bed. Your legs are probably just not used to walking anymore.”
They both exchanged nods before Redcloak left.
“Supreme Leader, reports of attacks from landside and the shore are coming in!”
Redcloak popped another cherry in his mouth, chewing it carefully before looking up at Jirix, frowning. “Give me the reports.”
Jirix put a small stack of papers on Redcloak’s desk. “We’ve already lost a handful of scouting teams and a couple of guards on the edges of our territory.”
Redcloak started flipping through the papers slowly.
“The survivors report two adventuring parties—one purely elven and one is the one that we fought in the battle for Azure City.”
Redcloak looked up, frowning in concentration. “The adventuring party for Azure City? That was the Order of the Stick, right?” He rubbed his temples. “I should remember something about it. But I don’t remember what I forgot.”
“I didn’t remember either until the reports.” Jirix frowned nervously. “Sir, they’re missing their spell caster. I couldn’t recognize him because of the hair, but he’s the elf in the tower.”
Redcloak stiffened. “How do you know? Did you get a good look at their spell caster during the battle several months ago?”
“I got a decent look, sir. That, and a couple of the adventurers were shouting ‘For Vaarsuvius!’ while slaughtering our troops.”
“…That is a good reason to know.”
Redcloak frowned at the papers on his desk. “Jirix, get our best clerics and spell casters together. Throw illusions and enchantments all over the city and put up any other spells you think will help. Send in reinforcements to the affected areas and try to drive the parties away from the places we’re looking for the phylactery. They can’t know that it’s lost.”
“I’ll tell Xykon and Tsukiko about this then come back to help the rest of you enchant the city. Before that, I need to speak with the prisoner.” Redcloak got up slowly. “Leave the reports on my desk. You’re dismissed.”
Jirix repressed a wince when his leader got up and left, shoulders squared and claws subconsciously sharpening against his scales. He would hate to be the prisoner right now.
Redcloak slammed open the stone door with the gold ring, eye blazing, and Vaarsuvius almost jumped off the bed in surprise, a raven that it had been speaking softly with popping out of view at the foot. The door swung closed behind him and he grabbed the elf’s tiny shoulders, claws tearing painfully into the flesh and eliciting a surprised and hurt cry, and slammed the small body into the stone wall.
Blood flowed freely from his claws, staining the ragged robe, and Vaarsuvius squirmed in his grasp, stifling pitiful, plaintive distressed mewls. “What—?!”
“You didn’t tell me you’re part of the adventuring party that’s been fighting us since the start!”
He slammed the elf against the wall again, cracking its head against the stone. Vaarsuvius’s eyes glazed for a moment in pain, trying to see through the agony ripping through its recently healed skull, and blood stained the stone that its head hit. It shook itself, trying to ease the pain away. “You did not ask…”
Redcloak back-handed the elf’s face, claws leaving deep scrapes in its cheek, blood dripping down slowly. “Don’t take me for a fool, Vaarsuvius!”
“You’re hurting me.”
“I know that!”
Redcloak slapped the elf again, adding another set of bloody scrapes to crisscross the others. “Tell me about what they plan to do!”
“If they are here, as I am willing to bet due to your behavior, I assume they mean to save me! I know nothing of their current course of action!”
“Like hell you don’t!” Redcloak slammed Vaarsuvius against the wall again, and this time, the elf couldn’t stop a soft groan. “I’ve been too soft on you. Interrogation starts now. What are they going to do?!”
“I do not know! Our only goal is to stop Xykon from annihilating the world! How we do it is not planned far ahead!”
“What kind of adventuring group would be so unorganized?!”
“Ours!” Vaarsuvius squirmed, blood sticking on its shoulders, face, and hair, gritting its teeth against any sound.
“Tell me how to beat your party. Tell me anything that could possibly assist in defeating them.”
“You know that I won’t betray my comrades.”
His claws started digging deeper, provoking spurts of blood. “Then let’s go on to your familiar. Have you tried using it to get a message to your allies?!”
“Of course! But your spells prohibited it! Why else do you think he was still here?!”
Redcloak slapped the elf’s cheek again savagely, ripping through the skin. Vaarsuvius let one little cry escape before stifling any further noises, blinking back tears of pain quickly. Redcloak could see the fierce struggle the elf was putting up to keep signs of weakness from showing. “Watch your mouth! What about the elves?! You’re here and suddenly they happen to come?”
“I don’t know why they are here! I don’t have any affiliations with them! I have not seen anyone from my village besides my family for six years!”
“Don’t take me for a fool!” Redcloak slammed the elf against the wall again, listening to the sound of the fragile skull bashed against the stone. At this point, he might as well have been bludgeoning the tiny elf’s head with a club. Vaarsuvius couldn’t keep from going limp, head lolling forward and blood dripping down in dark streaks. “Elves have come and you, an elf, are our prisoner. You see where my logic’s going?!”
“Your only proof of my association with these elves is the fact we share our species!” Vaarsuvius shuddered despite itself with pain, eyes glazing a little. “We may not even be the same subrace! I am no more affiliated with them than you are affiliated with every bugbear settlement in the south!”
Vaarsuvius gave an involuntary spasm of pain, gritting its teeth, glaring at Redcloak, giving him an ultimatum, somehow: continue and suddenly find himself spinning off into Xykon’s uncaring monster territory, or stop and admit that he had mercy where the elf would have probably had none for a goblin.
Redcloak dug his claws deeper, the warm sticky fluid flowing past his scales, and then he stopped all at once, taking his hands away and letting the elf slump to the ground, a path of blood trailing from the back of its head. He didn’t look at Vaarsuvius at first. He only looked at his stained hands.
Vaarsuvius shook, staring at the blood gently splashing on the floor, hesitantly touching one of his shoulders and wincing when a finger brushed up against the ragged slices, gritting its teeth hard.
There was a soft rustle of cloth and a clawed hand reached out, holding several dark red berries in its palm. The elf hesitated, then slowly took one of the cherries and popped it into its mouth, careful to not swallow the pit.
Redcloak took out a handkerchief and dabbed at the cuts on the elf’s face gently, murmuring too softly for even elven hearing to make it out.
“I’ve been too soft on you.”
He cleaned the cuts on the elf’s face with the care one would expect from a nurse. Vaarsuvius’s eyes flicked up, glaring defiantly. Redcloak tilted the elf’s head so he could examine the gash on the back of it, judging it to not be as serious as it looked.
“Get your hands off of me.”
“You should have your cuts cleaned,” Redcloak muttered absently, pressing the cloth against the gash gently.
“The cuts you gave me!” Vaarsuvius wrenched out of Redcloak’s grip, holding a small pale hand to the head gash and standing up shakily, glaring. “If you believe that you are too soft, very well. Be harsh. If you believe I need care, very well. Be tender. Do not be both!”
“I’d think that you’d be happy to get help, elf,” Redcloak said softly, standing up to meet Vaarsuvius’s gaze.
Defiance and fierce pride smoldered in the elf’s eyes. “I do not need your help. I do not wish my tormentor to nurse me, and I do not wish my medic to cut me. Make your intentions clear, Redcloak—do you mean to hurt or heal me?”
Redcloak stared at the fierce elf before him, keeping his eye carefully expressionless. Vaarsuvius’s hair was wild and sticky with blood. Its face was starkly pale with streaks of angry red lining its cheek. Its robe was torn and stained.
And for a scary moment, Redcloak knew why humans waxed about the wild beauty of elves so often.
“Why won’t you accept help where it is offered?”
“I need to know where to categorize you.”
Redcloak flicked his eye up and down the delicate elf’s body, forcing the weird feelings in his gut back with shock. “You’re bleeding. Let me touch you for a moment.”
Vaarsuvius shook a little. “Will you heal me only to hurt me again?”
“…” Redcloak frowned, hesitantly holding out a stained clawed hand. “I’ve hurt you all I will for today. I’m going to heal you for now. I’ll come back this evening. We don’t have to talk about any information you may have until the morning.”
Why was he being friendly?
“Are you my friend or my foe, Redcloak?”
He didn’t know how to answer that question. Instead, he took the elf’s arm gently and gave a soft ‘Cure Light Wounds’ under his breath.
“I guess you’ll have to figure that out for yourself.”
He drew his hand away, watching the cuts on Vaarsuvius’s cheek mend themselves, and he walked out the door.