They didn’t say much to each other at first when they woke up. Both were preoccupied with thoughts of the night before, glad that they hadn’t gone farther than kissing yet painfully aware of how close they had been. Vaarsuvius showed its embarrassment by simply smoothing down its bloodstained robe and backing into the corner, hugging its knees and scowling at the wall.
Redcloak looked down at his robes, noting that they also were bloody, and sighed before standing up.
“Xykon will attack you again.”
Redcloak glanced towards the elf that had come so close to becoming his lover last night. Its eyes were fixed on the wall, the usual low-light vision glow gone with the sun filtering through the small window above. “He is fuming. I do not know what he plans on doing, but last night was not the last of it.”
“I know. I still need to handle the troops.” Redcloak avoided looking at the elf’s eyes. “Just try to stay out of his way for now.”
“As if I have any other option. With this prison, the only possible way for our paths to cross is for him to come to me.” Vaarsuvius frowned, crossing its arms. “And yet you are much more vulnerable.”
“We can keep the vulnerability to a minimum if you do your best to keep away from Xykon or Tsukiko. They’re sociopaths and they have fun with other people’s pain.”
“Why do you care if I suffer at their hands?” Vaarsuvius asked, eyes still firmly fixed on the wall.
“Do you have to keep asking questions like that?”
Vaarsuvius glanced at him for the first time that morning, expression deadpan. “Quite frankly? Yes.”
Vaarsuvius arched an eyebrow. “Indeed? Most probably because of the excess of information I have gladly provided with minimal prompting.”
Redcloak rolled his eyes. “I need to go. I’ll be back tonight, okay?”
The elf nodded slowly. It glanced back at the wall again, flushing a little, and Redcloak turned to leave.
“Please be careful.”
The words were so quiet that Redcloak was still unsure if he had heard them after he closed the door behind him.
“Get away, foul hobgoblin scum!”
Durkon jerked awake, shaking slightly and shaking of the remnants of a nightmare. He looked around, noting how all of his comrades were still sleeping. He stood up, brushing himself off, and picked up his hammer, walking slowly to the partially boarded-up window of the abandoned inn to see what was happening outside. It sounded like there was a scuffle of some sort, but it wasn’t loud enough to wake anyone but him.
He frowned, wondering if the scuffle was just vestiges of the dream, but he rubbed his eyes, gave his face a little slap, and looked through the window clearly.
A red-haired person, a woman by the looks of it, was fighting three hobgoblins with a bow and arrow at close range. One goblin lunged forward, catching her bow on its sword and swinging it across the street. “Can’t you guys ever call us anything besides ‘foul scum’? Hasn’t anyone heard of originality?!”
Durkon stumbled away from the window, grabbing his armor from the floor. “Ev’rybody up! Ev’rybody up! Grab yer weapons—s’meone’s in trouble with s’me hobgoblins! Don’t kill ‘em, Belkar! They c’n take us t’ tha castle!”
“Are you quite sure about this, Monster-san?” O-Chul leaned against the bars of his cage, frowning absently at the ground. “That the elf survived its ordeal with Xykon?”
“Well, it looked like she wouldn’t for a bit there, but Redcloak jumped in and stopped Xykon.” The monster shifted in his cramped cardboard prison, the ground groaning underneath him.
“The goblin saved the elf?”
“Oh, her name is Vaarsuvius. I think. Redcloak called her that, anyway.” The monster shifted again, his glowing yellow eyes bobbing in the darkness. “I was a little scared that Xykon would kill Redcloak there. That would have been sad. I like Redcloak. But Xykon left the elf and Redcloak alone after they stood up for each other.”
“Stood up for each other?” O-Chul frowned in confusion. “That is very odd indeed. Are you sure?”
“Well, when Xykon was about to kill her, Redcloak stood in the way, and when Xykon was beating Redcloak up she got in the way and said… something. I think she was telling him to attack her instead of his friends. Something like that. Then Redcloak made Xykon stop casting spells on her. We left when they were both on the ground.”
O-Chul tapped his chin slowly in thought. “Why would the goblin protect the elf? More importantly, why would the elf protect the goblin?”
“Tsukiko thinks that they’re in love.”
O-Chul choked a little, hiding his smile with his hand. “I doubt it, Monster-san.”
“But I really think they are!” The monster bounced slightly in his cage in excitement. “You know, I thought that she was a boy, but then I stayed behind a little even though Tsukiko told me to hurry up and I watched them. They were talking for a while but then they were kissing. It was really cute. Usually, kissing’s gross but it looked cute.”
O-Chul eyes went wide and his hand dropped to his knee, gaze fixed on the two yellow eyes in the cage.
“This… is odd and unfortunate news to hear.” O-Chul crossed his arms, frowning at the floor. “Either the elf is a traitor, the goblin is more of a monster than I ever imagined, or they both are very, very foolish.” He sighed softly. “Or perhaps merely young. In any case, I must find a way to get the elf and myself to safety. Only danger and death lurks within these walls, and, in any way this information can be construed, the elf is in a perilous situation.”
Jirix really hated going against orders. He really, honestly did. Especially when they came from people that could easily obliterate him and bring him back as a zombie to eat brains with a flick of the wrist.
But he had his loyalties.
Redcloak looked up from the maps on his desk, frowning and eyes flickering. Jirix usually didn’t go into his private study unless asked to or in serious cases. He stood up, clasping his hands behind his back. “Jirix?”
Jirix skidded to a halt, trying to resist the urge to bite his lip nervously. “Sir, Ms. Tsukiko took the elven prisoner down to the dungeons. She told me to not inform you, but I believed that this was your area…”
Redcloak nodded, his eyes narrowed. “Thank you for telling me, Jirix. I’ll make sure that this is sorted out.”
Jirix nodded as he watched his master leave. He wasn’t quite sure how to feel about this. Maybe it would have been best if he had let the crazy necromancer kill his master’s lover—it would be much safer for the Supreme Leader to lose that vulnerability. But he of all people knew that sometimes the vulnerabilities are all that hold up the strengths.
Vaarsuvius reaffirmed its prior conclusion that it seriously did not like the necromancer woman. At all.
“I love this! It’s like eating forbidden fruit or something!” Tsukiko licked her lips, giggling and letting her mismatched eyes flash out of time with each other, completely out of sync. Zombified humans held the elf against the wall, and Vaarsuvius was too disgusted to try to resist. The zombies were from the sacking of Azure City—all scarred with stab and burn wounds, their flesh peeling off to reveal rotting muscles and organs within, bits of hair hanging off incomplete heads, stringy, bits of bodies missing, maggots wriggling within the decaying tissue, eyeballs either hanging out, eaten through with worms, or completely gone, leaving just yawning holes where they used to be…
More people that had died because Vaarsuvius had failed in keeping the hobgoblins back. More people to appear in the nightmares.
“Hey! Pay attention when I’m talking!”
Tsukiko scowled and gave the elf a sharp slap. Vaarsuvius immediately looked back up, glaring.
“What do you plan on doing? You have no need information. I have already been tortured.”
“I’m booooooooooored,” Tsukiko whined, “and it’s so much fun to get Reddy angry! I think there’s something about a family member of his that I could use, but no one will tell me which one and what happened.”
“Dare I ask how old you are? I fear that, if you are immature enough to act in this way, you are far too young to be dealing with magic.”
“Cheeky, for a prisoner.” Tsukiko shrugged, grinning. “You know, that’ll get you in trouble.”
She waved her hand, whistling a few notes, and one of the zombies staggered forward, punching Vaarsuvius hard in the stomach. The elf clenched up, struggling to breathe for a moment, but not a sound escaped.
“Awww, don’t be like that. It’s no fun to play with people who won’t scream.” Tsukiko cocked her head, smiling in a very odd way. “You know, if you clean up your hair a little and wear something a little nicer and form-fitting…”
“Are you truly about to go on about aesthetics now?”
“Yep.” Tsukiko tapped her chin, frowning and bouncing on the balls of her feet. “I dunno. Elves are always so attractive, but I prefer it when they’re dead.”
Vaarsuvius’s eyes widened slightly, instinctively trying to draw away.
“It’s… sexier. All cold. No heartbeat. And you know that the beauty is frozen there, and that it’ll soon rot away, so it’s all yours for that moment and no one else will be able to enjoy it, to take it from you.”
“You are a very sick woman.”
“That’s what everyone says.” Tsukiko glanced down at Vaarsuvius, still smiling. “You know those ‘Unnatural Acts of Wizardry’ I was jailed for? Basically, it was all just a bunch of close-minded windbags who couldn’t leave me well-enough alone. I was just having some fun with my zombies. Is that so wrong?”
Vaarsuvius paled a little, suddenly extremely afraid of the woman in front of it. The elf futilely tried to pull out of the zombies’ grasp, not letting its eyes stray from Tsukiko.
“Aw, now you’re getting all nervous.” Tsukiko looked down, still smiling, and fumbled with her belt, pulling out a plain-looking dagger with a skull etching on the hilt. “I don’t get what Reddy sees in you. I always thought he’d be into girls like him—quiet, deceitful, street-smart… but I guess you’re just as secretive.”
Vaarsuvius scowled. “You act as though you know me yet I have only seen you three times—once in battle, once when you were a mere bystander, and now.”
Tsukiko shrugged, twirling the dagger in her hand. “Everyone thinks I’m a ditz. I bet you don’t have that problem, do you? What they don’t know is that I know people. I can tell things. You’re arrogant and prissy. Reddy still sleeps with you. Usually, I could write that off as you just being easy.” Vaarsuvius looked deeply offended. “But he stood up to Xykon for you, so there’s gotta be something there.”
“We are not having relations with each other.”
“Sure you’re not.” Tsukiko laughed softly. “I don’t like it when prisoners fire off insults and stuff. I think that I’ll fix you. It’ll get cold sometimes and it’ll be hard keeping the bugs out of you, but I’m sure you’ll manage. I’ll even give you to someone for embalmment—it’s easier to work and move around when your body isn’t rotting.”
Vaarsuvius set its mouth in a grim line.
“But first, I think I’d like to see you without that tatty robe on. I’m still not quite sure you’re a girl.”
The elf tried to squirm in the zombies’ grips, eyes fixed on the approaching woman. “If you touch me, I will not hesitate in sending you to oblivion.”
The woman’s mismatched eyes sparkled. Vaarsuvius could tell easily that she enjoyed the defiance, but the elf could not let that rebellion go. As stupid as it was to provoke the woman’s interest in any way, the elf couldn’t let go of its pride. “I’ll do more than touch, probably. I’m open.” Tsukiko spun the knife again, pulling at the faded string belt around the elf’s thin waist and getting ready to cut it.
A hand snatched Tsukiko’s wrist roughly and jerked it up, eliciting a cry, and squeezed it hard enough for the human hand to swell and redden and the dagger to fall to the floor with a clatter. Once more, the hand to save Vaarsuvius was green and scaly.
“That’s more than enough, Tsukiko.”
Redcloak’s eyes were two narrow flecks of gold and his claws dug deep into the necromancer’s flesh, staining the pale skin scarlet. Tsukiko squirmed, glaring fiercely. At the presence of their mistress’s superior, the corpses robotically let Vaarsuvius go.
The elf braced itself against the wall, frowning darkly and keeping its arms crossed across its chest as if that alone would protect it from what had almost happened.
“You can let me go now, Reddy.”
Redcloak shoved her away and released his grip on her, making sure to drag his claws into her skin as deeply as possible. “Tsukiko, there’s a reason that I let Xykon push me around—he can obliterate me completely. He’s more powerful than the both of us combined and infinitely crueler. It’d be stupid of me to try to pick a fight.” He brandished his bloody claws, eyes still narrow. “You don’t have that power.” He clenched his fist, letting the faint light from the torches on the stone walls make the blood and scales glisten. “You’ve been alive for a little over twenty years. I’ve been alive for a century, now. I’m still as young as the day I took on my duty to the Dark One and I retain all the power I’ve earned since then. Our levels don’t compare. Don’t try to get me angry again.”
He pointed to the door. “Get out now before I decide to provide a demonstration.”
Tsukiko glared, but she obviously more than understood the point he was making. After a brief hesitation, she backed off and gestured for the corpses to leave. “You know what we’re going to do once we find that phylactery? Xykon’s going to make you kill all the prisoners.” She glanced at Vaarsuvius. “I wouldn’t get too cozy.”
She stalked out, nursing her bloody arm, and slammed the door behind her. Her zombies went after her, shambling quietly without complaint.
Redcloak wiped the blood off his hands, glancing over at Vaarsuvius and looking it up and down. “Did she hurt you?”
“Not terribly.” Vaarsuvius stood up, knees trembling slightly, trying to convince the elf that they were not ready for walking. They were ignored.
“You were baiting her, Vaarsuvius.”
“It was hardly my fault that she took me out of my room.”
Redcloak tapped his clawed against his scales, his back to the elf. “I heard both of you talking while I was going down the stairs. You’re not stupid. You knew that defiance would only fire her up.”
“Well excuse me for refusing to remain silent.”
Redcloak scowled at the floor. “Vaarsuvius, you can be defiant with me. I’m not going to deny that I will hurt you, but I’m not like her. She sees you as a toy that she’s not supposed to play with. You make it fun for her with rebellion, and that just encourages her to go to greater lengths to break you.”
“Redcloak, I won’t allow anyone to do what they wish with me without making my opinions known, no matter how unwise it is.”
“She would have raped, killed, and zombified you. Pride shouldn’t be a factor.”
Vaarsuvius crossed its arms, glaring at Redcloak’s back. “I refuse to abandon my dignity, Redcloak. Even in the face of those who hold power over me.”
“You’re a fool, then.”
“A fool, perhaps. But a fool with principles. Principles you seem to lack.”
Redcloak made a violent dismissive motion with his hand, claws catching the light and gleaming. “I serve a greater cause. If I die, that cause has been set back. Principles? Pride? They’re nice enough when they’re not dangerous. They’re dangerous for us when we’re around those who can and will annihilate us if we rub them the wrong way. You happen to be around a lot of people like that.”
“I do my best to avoid causes,” Vaarsuvius said dryly. “What I have to live for are the people I care about and myself.”
“You won’t be very effective in helping your party stop us if you die.” Redcloak turned around, glaring, and his claws instinctively sharpened on his scales. Vaarsuvius inwardly wondered if that was a goblin’s equivalent to clenched fists. “Knock off the defiance with Xykon and Tsukiko. They’re just looking for an excuse to kill you.”
“Your suggestion has been noted and ignored.”
Redcloak looked upward as if the Dark One himself would swoop down and help him make the elf see sense. “Damn it, Vaarsuvius.”
“You know that they all believe that we have been having relations. I suppose that is only natural, considering the circumstances, but I still find it rather offensive that they would assume that.”
“I don’t care who they think I’m sleeping with. Let them gossip all they want.” Redcloak gripped the elf’s arms tightly. “Listen to me: you’re not a big powerful wizard right now. You have no way to prepare spells. You’re an elf without any skill points in anything that could possibly be useful to you in this situation. You’re nothing but I tiny bundle of flesh and bone who couldn’t even take down a single soldier in hand-to-hand combat. On top of that, you have an epic-level sorcerer lich really, really angry with you for losing his phylactery. I’m the only thing that’s keeping you from being thrown into the Snarl, and incase you haven’t noticed, Xykon isn’t all too happy with me either. You can’t afford to be rebellious.”
Vaarsuvius tilted its head upward, mouth set and eyes burning brightly, savage elven beauty ripping its way straight to Redcloak’s heart. “I won’t remain quiet, Redcloak. It is unwise. It is downright foolish. But I won’t.”
In one swift movement, Redcloak slapped the elf across the face, claws dragging in the flesh. “Will you listen to me for once?!” Vaarsuvius looked back up, glaring, blood oozing from the slices in its cheek. “Lose the hard head and face what is happening: Tsukiko is going to come back for you. So will Xykon. If you get Tsukiko interested enough, she will rape you. If you get Xykon angry enough, he’ll force me to kill you. Is that clear?!”
“You shouldn’t care! What would my violation by a sociopath of a woman do to you?! What would your killing of me do besides deprive you of a dry source of information?! You should not care about it!”
“Just because I shouldn’t doesn’t mean I don’t.” Redcloak’s eyes flicked up at the deep scratches on the elf’s face, letting his hand drift up to touch them lightly. Vaarsuvius stifled a small wince and tried to pull back.
“Redcloak, don’t heal the cuts you gave me wantonly.”
“Cure Minor Wounds.”
The slices sewed together, leaving no trace of their presence besides blood. Vaarsuvius pursed its lips and looked to the wall. “Just because you heal them does not mean that they were never there and you did not inflict them.”
“I never pretended that it did.” Redcloak sighed, shaking his head. “Even when I’m your jailer, I still can’t get you to do anything. Can’t imagine what it’s like for your friends.” He gently picked the elf up. “You should go back to your room.”
The elf pursed its lips tightly, looking away. “You shouldn’t care.”
“At a certain point, I wonder if that’s all you can say.”
Vaarsuvius scowled, tracing the area where the slashes used to be. “You call me stubborn, yet you are the most stubborn of both of us.”
“Is that so?” Redcloak pushed the door open, shivering a little at the cold, and started climbing the stairs.
“You work to advance your cause, correct?” Vaarsuvius glared, the faintest trace of anger and disdain in its eyes. “From what little I know of it, would I be correct in saying that you intend for goblins to have equal social standing in the world to humanoids?”
“In a nutshell, that would be right.” Redcloak pulled the gold ring at the door, slipping inside and making sure that the door closed behind them.
“Xykon obviously does not care for goblin welfare.”
“I’m well-aware of that.”
“And if the world is unmade by the Snarl, the issue is a moot point.”
“I’m also well-aware of that. To a certain point.”
“So you suffer his abuse for nothing.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.” Redcloak gently put the elf down on the bed, sitting beside it. “He’s not a nice person. I never pretended he was. But he’s willing to work together as long as it’s entertaining and he’s useful for the cause, even if it doesn’t look like it from your point of view.”
“Redcloak, he forced you to lose your eye permanently.”
Redcloak was silent for a moment. That was the first time the elf had acknowledged it. Vaarsuvius faced him, fingers twitching a little in its lap, and hesitated for a brief moment before reaching forward and brushing the bandage with its hand, hard gaze softening. “You have turned yourself into a martyr for this cause of yours and I can’t see how Xykon can help you. Through him, goblins will find only the ruling tyrannical class of the world or an even lesser social station than they already have. Perhaps rule over others is what you want, but less lives, both goblin and not, can be lost by way of simple diplomacy.”
Redcloak was tempted to hold the soft warm hand against his face. It lacked the toughness of scales and the chill of cold blood—foreign yet comforting. He resisted the urge, but he subconsciously leaned into the touch. “You think that diplomacy will work with goblins?” Bitterness coated his words and he had to stop himself from spitting in disgust. “It’s been tried.”
“I do not doubt that fact, but attacking entire cities and overrunning innocent citizens will hardly endear you to anyone…”
“Don’t talk to me about attacking innocents.” Redcloak jerked away, anger flaring in one fiery gold eye.
Vaarsuvius’s muscles tightened slightly and its eyes narrowed. “You do not need to be so quarrelsome.”
Redcloak tensed noticeably, scales flashing in the dim light from the Snarl. Vaarsuvius immediately saw the difference, ears twitching slightly in an equally instinctive response and head lowering a little, unsure how to proceed. “You know what the human Azure City paladins your kind seems to be so fond of did?” Redcloak’s eye narrowed. “A long time ago, there was a goblin settlement in the mountains. It was a peaceful one—mostly civilians who just went about their business and did their best to live alongside the humans. Those paladins came and completely slaughtered everyone there. Men, women, children, everyone.” His eye glowed with Darkvision, his expression getting increasingly menacing. “My family lived there. Out of all of them, only my little brother and my niece survived. My brother is dead and I haven’t been able to see my niece since. I don’t even know if she is alive.”
Vaarsuvius was very, very quiet.
“Try using diplomacy against that.” Redcloak looked away bitterly, glaring at the floor.
Silence. Redcloak didn’t know why he had burst out at the elf. He didn’t know why he was telling anyone about all that. It had happened a long time ago. He thought that he had put it behind him.
But he hadn’t. He knew that in his heart. He hadn’t put it behind him and he had a feeling that Vaarsuvius was just like him—trapped in the events of the past and unable to drag itself out without a helping hand.
The elf shifted, obviously in uncertain territory. It gently rested a hand on top of Redcloak’s after a moment, an awkward yet sincere gesture coming from someone who Redcloak knew wasn’t well-versed with social situations. “I am sorry. I cannot imagine having my family taken from me in such a way.”
“An eye is not a big price to pay to make sure that that never happens again to my people. When I became the high cleric of the Dark One, I made a vow to look out for the welfare of all goblinkind. People may disagree with my methods, but I do what I think is best.” Redcloak shook his head slowly. “I have lost a lot for this. I’m not going to falter because of Xykon.”
There was another long silence.
Redcloak couldn’t help but be darkly amused that he had left such a verbose elf speechless.
Such a simple statement. Uncharacteristically vague. Was Vaarsuvius saying that it understood his motivations? His willingness to put up with abuse? His behavior around the elf? Or just the simple event that had occurred so long ago?
“It’s clear now. Why you are so bitter.” Vaarsuvius crossed its arms in its lap. “You hate me for being an elf, don’t you? That my species has the Gods’ favor and is privileged in this world. That I most likely will never have to suffer the complete destruction of my village because a self-righteous group decided that my people were little more than walking Experience Points.” Vaarsuvius glanced at the wall, a faint frown on its face. “I believe… I believe that in your place, I would hate me too.”
Redcloak was quiet for a moment. “Hate is a strong word. But yes. I’d be a liar if I denied being bitter.” He traced the elf’s face with his gaze. It was still slender and elegant, but much healthier than it used to be. He reached out, gently running his finger along the delicate features. The elf shivered, leaning into the touch after a tentative pause. “You make me confused, Vaarsuvius. I suppose I don’t have to say that. It’s obvious. I think I confuse you too.”
“Redcloak, we are venturing into dangerous territory.”
“We ventured into it a long time ago, Vaarsuvius.” Redcloak drew his hand away, cocking his head and eye narrowing in a thoughtful manner. “Why do you do this to me? You’re a smart elf, you should know—why is it that I can safely keep from being a monster to every prisoner without developing this save for one?”
“I have found that I know much less about matters of the heart than I thought. And I know even less of what would be the best course of action to take in situations such as this. I suppose I will do what I think I should.” The elf looked up, putting a warm hand on Redcloak’s arm.
Vaarsuvius leaned forward and kissed him softly. Something in him jumped in surprise, the majority of him having expected this, but he was glad for the contact. It had been a long time since anyone had kissed him. It had been a while since he had acknowledged the losses that ran much deeper than his eye. He had lost his family. He had taken his little brother’s life, the one person he should have always protected above all else. Maybe he would be forced to kill other people he cared about—maybe a loyal follower, a friend, his niece (Dark One forbid the unlikely yet terrifying possibility), even, though he was tentative to admit how much it mattered to him, Vaarsuvius. He was a vessel, nothing but a martyr for a cause that would forever label him as ‘evil’ to everyone but goblins. His life as a goblin had ended when he was only a teenage, and after that, he was just a crusader. A teenager… he was a kid.
The smart thing to do would have been to push the elf away. They had come dangerously close to the ultimate line last night.
Redcloak was sick of doing the smart thing.
He gently wrapped his arms around the elf’s thin waist, pulling it up against his body, and returned the kiss. Vaarsuvius lacked the slight rigidity that had been there the night before. Its posture and muscles were relaxed, the quick heartbeat so hard that Redcloak could feel it in his own chest. Was it a sign of trust? Pity? He wasn’t sure. But he highly doubted that Vaarsuvius would do anything like this out of anything but wanting to. The elf wasn’t the type to try to please or comfort with its body—the mere thought being tacked to Vaarsuvius made him want to laugh at the utter ridiculousness. No. The proud elf in his arms would never let any man or woman touch it without it wanting them to.
As if to confirm his thoughts, Vaarsuvius wrapped its arms around his neck, deepening the kiss. “We may be making a mistake, but I find that I do not care anymore.”
Redcloak found that he didn’t care either.