Redcloak never knew how deliciously, wonderfully warm something could be. He never thought that warmth could make him feel this way, but he really did feel like he was completely wrapped in sunlight. He had thought that one could only feel that way under the influence of drugs, but it felt so clear without them. He would have been happy if he had been able to curl up against the warmth for the rest of his life, his heart beating in time to another’s, hard hands resting on smooth, soft, warm skin.
He suddenly understood why mammals loved this sort of thing so much.
He also suddenly understood why everyone always prescribed the surly, young or old, male or female, good or evil mammals this treatment to lighten their spirits. It was impossible to be in a bad mood with that light feeling in his stomach, even with the fact that he had probably made one of the greatest blunders in his life.
He looked down at the pale face of the elf—his lover, he supposed—looking up at him, violet eyes glowing with calmness and contentment that he didn’t remember ever seeing there before. He supposed that the light feeling was affecting Vaarsuvius as well.
“You are smiling.”
Redcloak nodded slowly. “I am.”
The elf closed its eyes, allowing it to rest its forehead against the goblin’s scaled chest in a rare moment without any defenses. Vaarsuvius looked so vulnerable. The tiny elven body was completely bare, pale skin reflecting the light dimly, and the gentle breathing was so quiet and relaxed that one wouldn’t have guessed that they were enemies. Redcloak felt inexplicably touched by the fact that the elf was allowing this blatant vulnerability show, even if it only lasted this morning, because he knew if nothing else that Vaarsuvius was not one to do that lightly.
“Did we make a mistake last night?”
The question was soft. Honest. Curious.
Vaarsuvius sighed softly. “I dislike being confused, Redcloak.” The elf gently started tracing the goblin’s scales.
“I’m not too fond of it either. Just incase you didn’t notice.” Redcloak leaned back a little, feeling the elven heartbeat gently pumping against his chest.
Redcloak cocked his head when the elf trailed off, hands resting at the small of a pale back, careful to keep their claws from scratching any skin. “What are you going to ask?”
“I… nothing.” Vaarsuvius continued tracing the scales, frowning faintly. “I am thinking too hard.”
“That’s a tendency we share.” He sat up, tempted to kiss the elf, but he resisted the urge. “I need to attend to my duties.”
“Redcloak, you’re vulnerable. Xykon is furious with you, as is Tsukiko. Now that this has happened, I can be used as a tool against you. You need to do something to protect yourself…”
“You were always a tool that could be used against me, Vaarsuvius. They don’t know that anything’s different.” Redcloak reluctantly pulled away from the warmth, standing up and picking his clothes off the floor. “I have things I need to do.”
“If Tsukiko targeted me yesterday, then she will target you. You hurt her pride.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that I’m several levels higher than she is. I’ll be safe.” He looked back at Vaarsuvius. “You can help me by doing your best to keep a low profile. That’s easy. It’s not like you can leave this room. And if Xykon or Tsukiko get you, try to find a way to get into Jirix’s or another hobgoblin’s sight. They’re loyal to me. They’ll find me and tell me what is happening.” Redcloak put his clothes on slowly.
“Are you going to be careful around Xykon?”
“I’m no more interested in getting beaten up than you are.” Redcloak did the clasp of his cloak. “You don’t need to worry.”
Vaarsuvius tilted its head to the side, sinking back into the bed slowly. “I do not know what to make of recent events.”
“Don’t try to make sense of them. Just keep going.” Redcloak picked up the elf’s robe from the floor, folding it neatly before putting it on the ground again. “I suggest getting dressed soon. Someone will be here with food.”
Vaarsuvius nodded absently.
“I promise that I’ll be back tonight.”
The elf nodded, glanced up, and gave a small smile. Redcloak smiled a little in response and left, resisting the urge to touch Vaarsuvius again the whole way.
“Sir, the Resistance, the elven party, and the adventurers all apparently are teaming up.”
“Like we didn’t see that coming.” Redcloak leaned on his desk, crossing his arms and staring at the floor. “How do we know this?”
“Our soldiers saw them talking. They’re working together to dispel the illusions.”
“How many spell casters are there?”
Jirix shifted nervously. “Two in the elven party alone. None in the adventurer’s party. We don’t know about the resistance.”
“Have we made any progress on the phylactery?” Redcloak tapped his claws against his arm, making a tiny ‘ting’ sound.
“We’ve searched through the plant. We haven’t found it.”
“Double our efforts. Sweep through the labyrinth and then check the sewers and plant again.” Redcloak frowned, lacing his fingers together. “Let’s hope that we’ll find it. The only alternative is the ocean.”
“And work on the illusions. Adventurers have an annoying tendency to destroy spells, but we have to keep it up as long as possible.”
Jirix quickly left, frowning nervously. Redcloak turned away from his desk and the door, facing a great window overlooking the destroyed city. Streams of orange weaved through the streets, gleams and flashes of iron showing up in the pale purple light. He started mapping out strategies in his mind, face frozen in a thoughtful frown, and glared through the window.
“Looks like you have a lot on your mind.”
Redcloak glanced back at the door, eyes narrowing. “Tsukiko, don’t you have someone else to bother?”
Tsukiko smirked, but her eyes were narrowed warily and her stance was instinctively guarded, an unconscious signal that the lesson Redcloak had taught the night before was still fresh in her mind. He took private satisfaction in that and looked back at the window. “Go and play with the slaves. They’ve been rebelling a lot lately.”
“You’re a cold-hearted phony, you know that?”
Redcloak glanced back at her, arching an eye ridge. She was still smirking but the guarded posture was still there. She shrugged, faking nonchalance, and sauntered across the room towards him. Her eyes weren’t glowing. She wasn’t planning on attacking him with a spell. Maybe she was going to try psychological attacks? That seemed to be her specialty outside of magic. “Oh really?”
“Well, I guess you do know that.” Tsukiko crossed her arms and leaned back a little on her feet, apparently feeling safe enough to be close. “You like fooling yourself, but not about something as small as that.”
“Can you get to the point? I’m trying to figure out what to do with the troops. Or you can just leave me alone.” Redcloak looked back at the window. “That would work too.”
“You act nice to her and you’re going to kill her.”
“Am I right to assume that you’re talking about Vaarsuvius again?” Redcloak looked back, expression deadpan. “Tsukiko, it gets hard to get under someone’s skin when they really don’t care what you think. Is that all you wanted to say?”
Tsukiko scowled darkly, muscles tensing a little in irritation, but she quickly tried to fake nonchalance again. “What does she do to make you help her so much? Is she that good in bed or have you just gone so long without a woman that anyone is good enough?”
“I’m waiting for the part where you actually get to me or leave.”
“Why an elf?”
Redcloak frowned. “What?”
“You say you hate all ‘powerful’ races. That includes elves. Why sleep with one and go against your principles?”
Redcloak looked back out of the window. “I work with you and Xykon, don’t I?”
“The elf’s different.” Tsukiko advanced slowly. “You know, Xykon’s going to make you kill her. What’re you going to say when you do it?”
“I tend to not think about that. You can go now, Tsukiko.”
“Will you like doing it, Reddy? You act like you’re all high and mighty—better than me and Xykon because we’re open about enjoying the pain of others. But I see you when you look down at all those human slaves.”
Redcloak glanced at Tsukiko, expression unreadable.
“You love it. You love that the goblins are the ones on top for once. You love that you finally made an entire city of humans suffer. You’re addicted to that high you have when you see it. You’re going to keep working on your big Plan until you can’t even pretend it’s for goblins anymore—it’s for your own bitterness and hatred.” Tsukiko smirked. A real smirk this time. “You know I’m right. Maybe you think you’re neutral with the elf. Maybe you even think you like her. But I know you. You hate anything with warm blood in its veins and a mind capable of thinking beyond where the next meal will come from. So you’ll have your fun. When Xykon tells you to gut her like a fish, you won’t put up a big fuss. You’ll do it. She won’t believe that you will, but you will. You’ll like it. Maybe she’ll say something to you. Call you a monster. Ask why you would be so callous.” Tsukiko danced back, eyes gleaming with her own vision of what was to come. “You’ll answer her questions. Once she’s dead on the ground and her blood’s drained, you’ll zombify her like everyone else. You’ll send her off to me to be set to work. You’ll change out of your bloody clothes. You’ll go on without another thought for it like the cold goblin you are.”
Redcloak’s face was impossible to decipher, the only hint to his thoughts being the slight narrowing of his eyes.
“Maybe it would be different if she had been a goblin. But she’s not. She’s an elf. You’d never be able to get over that.” Tsukiko cocked her head, smirking. “You’re just stringing her along. You should’ve just let me kill her and put her out of her misery. Or maybe you shouldn’t have. I’m sure that it’ll be fun to see her eyes when you kill her. Make sure to describe them to me.” She turned and trotted out.
Redcloak stared after her for a moment, then turned his head to look out the window again.
“Tell me—do you believe that I am being foolish?” Vaarsuvius held the blankets close, trying to retain heat in the drafty room. Blackwing hopped on to the elf’s knees, stretching his neck out and nipping the tip of a pointy ear, eliciting a surprised wince and yelp.
“Of course I do!” Blackwing hopped from one knee to the other, fluffing up his feathers to make himself look bigger. “You’ve just had sex with your goblin-high-priest-of-an-evil-god jailer! Who’s probably going to kill you! That and you’re still technically married, though I’m not sure if it’s really valid anymore…”
Vaarsuvius scowled, rubbing the bitten ear. “A simple ‘yes’ would have sufficed.”
“No, I don’t think it would’ve.” The raven shifted his weight, scowling in a way only a bird could. “You’re smart, Vaarsuvius. You know that this is a really, really dangerous road to go down. As in, dark-alleyway-with-no-streetlights-in-dodgy-orc-gang-territory dangerous. There’s a reason he’s the bad guy.”
“I’m well-aware of that.” Vaarsuvius smoothed tattered robes carefully. “I have tried to keep this from happening, believe me.”
“You seemed pretty eager last night.”
“I was going against the tide.” The elf frowned at the stone wall. “Stockholm Syndrome, presumably. I didn’t realize it in time to keep from its effects.”
“Vaarsuvius, you just slept with Xykon’s right-hand man!” Blackwing threw his wings up. “Besides the usual ‘the protection spell could have failed and you could end up with a disease or…” Blackwing paused, staring at Vaarsuvius, “or possibly get pregnant depending on your gender’ issue, you’ve just betrayed the Order, made this fight hugely complicated for yourself and opened up for a maniac to hurt and manipulate you.”
“My intention was never to betray my friends, and as long as my performance is not hindered, I do not see how this could affect them.” Vaarsuvius looked at the wall. “And I am not manipulated by him, Blackwing. My decisions have always been mine.” Vaarsuvius’s eyes closed and the thin chest expanded with a deep breath. “Redcloak is difficult for me to understand. He is difficult for me to read. He is determined, calculating, secretive, intelligent, and set in his opinions. That is a part of what little I know of him. What I also know is that he is not a monster.” Vaarsuvius looked down at a pale hand, gaze contemplative. “He… I won’t say that he has never hurt me. He has. I have struck him as well. But he has been… tenderer than he needed to be. Kinder. Gentler. He treats me as a person even when I am being stubborn and uncooperative.” The elf sighed. “He is not a monster. I cannot imagine him manipulating anyone for their body.”
“You know, getting this attached to your enemy is usually considered a bad tactical move.”
“It is. I do not know what to make of him, Blackwing, but I do know that I have…” Vaarsuvius ran a hand through purple hair. “I have feelings. I do not know what to label them as. They are not entirely negative, but not entirely positive. I am unused to attempting to articulate these things.”
“I’m your familiar. Empathetic bond, remember? I get it.” Blackwing started hopping back and forth again. “This is bad news, Vaarsuvius. Would you be able to strike him down if you were fighting?”
“Of course.” The elf glanced at the bird and frowned. “I will not allow any feelings I have for him to inhibit my ability to fight for the world. I am a fool for allowing it to get this far, but I am not such a fool that I would allow the entire planet to suffer from my mistakes.”
“And should I assume that you’re probably going to sleep with him again?”
Vaarsuvius shrugged simply. “I have already dug my grave, so to speak. Being with him again will hardly make it deeper.”
“Should I remind you who he is? What he does? If you don’t want to bother with any of that, should I remind you that he cuts you? Most people consider that an abusive relationship.”
“Had I my spells, I would probably strike back with extra force.” The elf absently stroked the raven’s wing. “Despite how the jailer/prisoner, medic/patient dynamic usually works, it does not feel as though he has power over me. He rarely acts that way.”
“I’ve just given you all the reasons that this is a bad idea and you’ve either justified it, waved it off, or flat-out said you didn’t care.”
A slight smile played across Vaarsuvius’s face. “You are my common sense, apparently. Did you not realize that I chose to disregard that a while ago?”
“This is going to end with your heart broken at best, you dead at worst.”
The raven held out his wings in an exasperated gesture.
“Then I’ll stick with you to make sure that you don’t screw up too badly.”
Vaarsuvius smiled, leaning back and staying quiet for a moment. “Thank you.”
Blackwing hopped on to the elf’s shoulder, nipping the tip of a pointy ear affectionately.
“Don’t mention it.”