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Whumptober 2021: Not as Dead as I'd Like

Chapter Text

“Runaan, you have to let go.”

Tiadrin treaded water in the lake twenty feet below, making even ripples with her arms. Her eyes were locked on his as he straddled the broad tree limb with his chubby little toddler legs, clinging to a little branch with a steely grip.

“It’s so far,” he called.

“The water will catch you,” she said encouragingly.

“I want you to catch me!” 

Tiadrin’s voice was patiently exasperated, as only an older sister’s could be. “Runaan, I won’t always be here. But the water will. You have to let go.”

 

Blur.

 

“You have to let go, Runaan.”

Runaan’s hand clenched the handle of his sword, trembling and bloody like the rest of him, and wouldn’t let Lain slide it from his grip. His eyes blazed with horror out of a gore-splattered face as he stared down at the slaughter scattered around his feet, full of broken, leathery wings, triple-spined tails, and the heady stench of acidic green bile. “Th-There could be more,” he stammered through chattering teeth.

Lain sighed patiently and honored Runaan’s panic with his full focus. “Listen. It’s silent. No more scrabbling claws in the cave walls. We got the whole brood.” His hand eased over Runaan’s as it gripped its only defense. “Time to stop fighting, Runaan. Let go.”

 

Blur.

 

“Runaan, you have to let go.”

Runaan bared his teeth with the effort of holding off Tiadrin’s heavy sword, caught between his own two blades after another of her massive jump attacks. “Of what?” he grated. His feet began to slide backward across the dirt of the training arena.

Her eyes narrowed. “Your expectations of survival.”

Runaan blinked. “What?”

Tiadrin dropped and spun, whipping his feet out from under him with a wide sweep of her leg. Runaan planted in the dirt on his back with a soft oof and looked up just in time to see Tiadrin rearing back with her blade. She let out a war cry and stabbed downward. Runaan’s eyes widened. The sword pierced the dirt by his ear to a depth equal to Runaan’s forearm, and he stared at it, seeing his wide-eyed reflection.

Tiadrin plopped atop his chest in her customary victory pose, making him cough. “Alright, kid. How’d I beat you this time?”

Runaan glared up at his mentor. “Easily, it seems.”

Tiadrin grinned at his sass and ruffled his hair. “And how else?”

Runaan glanced again at the sword next to his cheek. “I didn’t think you’d actually stab me.”

Tiadrin sighed and stood, offering Runaan a hand up. As he dusted himself off, she looked up at him seriously. “Everyone is capable of everything, Ru, if they’re pushed hard enough. If it’ll help you understand, I will stab you.”

Runaan darted out of range as she jerked her weapon out of the ground. “That’s not necessary, Tiadrin. I know your battle instincts are strong.”

“Then know this, too.” She rested her blade across her shoulder and lifted her chin. “Once you accept that even I could stab you without hesitation, you need to let go of your expectations of surviving an encounter with me. And with everyone else you ever fight. Once you begin combat, don’t assume you’ll live to see its end. What happened when you suddenly realized that I might actually stab you?”

Runaan thought back. “I… I hesitated.”

Tiadrin nodded sharply. “Hesitation isn’t just torture for our targets , Ru. You deserve better, just as they do.” She turned and sauntered away, leaving Runaan wide-eyed in her wake.

 

Blur.

 

“Runaan, my heart. You have to let go.”

Runaan’s grip only tightened, unwilling. “Or what?” he murmured. Ethari’s eyes had never been this captivating, nor his hands so comforting. Runaan couldn’t look away, couldn’t take a single step from his own doorway.

“Or the full moon will rise over the human lands without you,” Ethari prompted.

“That sounds like it could be a bad thing,” Runaan allowed teasingly.

Ethari bit his lip, sensing Moonshadow eyes in the distant dark. Perhaps they wondered if the soft craftsman was the reason the Silvergrove’s best assassin dawdled. “Love, please… You know you have my heart, and you always will. Carry it with you, and bring it back to me safely.”

Runaan’s brows rose softly before settling with firm intent. “I’ll return it as soon as I can, my light.” He leaned in and kissed his brand new husband goodbye. Then he leaned even closer, squeezed Ethari’s hands tightly, and murmured, “But I’ll never be able to let go of you.”

 


 

“You have to let go.”

“You have to let go.”

“You have to let go.”

You have to let go.

Voices echoed out of the past as if borne on the full moon’s light. Runaan let his bowblade clatter against the balcony’s flagstones, bowed his head, and let go.

I’m sorry, Ethari. I finally managed it. I had to, this time. Where I go, you cannot follow. 

But the human’s sword never fell.

Unable to walk due to his knee injury, Runaan got dragged down halls and stairwells like a netted fish, barely registering the blond Crownguard’s emotional rant along the way. In the secret hallways behind one large painting, the lighting changed from torches to familiar blue crystals. Nostalgia threatened to invade Runaan’s detachment, and he reached involuntarily toward one of the soft blue lights. Am I already dead? This looks like home-

“I’ve got this, Soren. Just hold him still for a second.”

The girl was already in the room. As she chanted her dark spell, her eyes went purple, then black, and two long chains from the ceiling snaked their way down, clamping around Runaan’s wrists. They detached completely from the shadowy ceiling and slithered clankingly across the stone floor, pulling him from the Crownguard’s grip and dragging him down a side hall. His long ponytail got trapped between his torn vest and the floor and pulled painfully at his scalp, and his weight ground who knew what sort of filth into his white hair as he slid. Between the unexpected pain and the shock of being dragged across the floor by enchanted chains, Runaan unwillingly snapped out of his deathly stupor. He struggled instinctively, but to no avail. 

The dark mage strode after him, black skirts swishing, as she directed the chains. Runaan skidded through a doorway, unable to see where he was being dragged. He glanced over his own head just in time to see a thick stone wall approaching at speed, and he flinched to avoid hitting his head against it. The chains jerked upward, and his back slammed against the wall instead, knocking the wind out of him and bringing him to a sudden stop in an inglorious tumble of limbs.

He stifled a groan and tried not to cough. His internal injuries would protest, and he had a sudden need not to appear as weak as he truly was before this young dark mage.

It was the way she was standing. Arms folded proudly, she stared at the wall over Runaan’s head and used her magic to link the chains to something metal, hoisting his arms up and outward with a painful jerk. “There, see? Better than you could’ve done,” she told the tall Crownguard.

“Whatever,” the blond groused. “At last someone’s gonna pay for what they’ve done tonight.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that, Sor-bear,” the dark mage said brightly as she turned to leave, pulling the big warrior along in her wake. “He’ll pay tomorrow night, too.”

 


 

Runaan had managed to drag himself into a more balanced kneeling position by the next night, when the door to his cell banged open and slammed against the wall. His eyes snapped open at the sudden noise, and his chains clinked as he made tense fists.

You,” Lord Viren seethed from the doorway, “have ruined everything!” 

Runaan’s eyes raked the man from head to toe and saw only blind fury. The dark mage took one step into the cell and slammed the door shut behind him without looking. Stalking over to where Runaan sat against the wall, he snapped his silver staff out to full length.

Runaan bared his teeth and glared up at the dark mage, expecting to endure a rant, or perhaps a spell.

The mage didn’t slow, nor did he speak, forward or backward. He swung.

One of the wings at the head of his staff clipped Runaan behind the ear as it struck, and a sharp burning line sliced across his scalp. He rocked hard against his chains with the force of the blow. Growling under his breath, he glared back up at the dark mage, just in time for Viren to smash the center jewel of his staff into Runaan’s face, four times in quick succession.

“He! Was! My! Friend!” Viren raged, in time with every strike.

Runaan’s nose felt like it had broken beneath his markings, and his black eye throbbed in agony as a film of red glazed half of his vision. Viren’s blows made his intact horn clatter hard against the wall. But it was the broken horn that caused him to cry out as its freshly cracked edge struck the stone. He gritted his teeth, expecting more blows to rain down. 

But Viren hesitated.

Runaan gasped for breath through a throbbingly loud collection of fresh new pains and glanced up. The silvery metal diamond at the center of Viren’s staff hovered in front of his nose, bearing a bright red smudge along one swirly-laden plate. He stared in disturbed fascination as his blood trickled along one delicately etched curlicue. 

Ethari wouldn’t like that.

With a mental shudder, Runaan locked that part of his heart away. Ethari could not help him now. And he would not sully Viren’s attack with any bright memories of his beloved, either. I bear my choices alone, and their consequences belong to me.

But Viren had been distracted from his vengeance, it seemed. He was squinting at Runaan’s horns. The dark mage’s expression shifted subtly, from rage to cold hate to detached calculation, and a chill smile spread his lips for a bare moment. In a mercurial shift of mood, he drew back and adopted a perfectly poised stance, staff at his side.

“I trust I’ve made my position clear, elf.” 

Runaan glowered up at him and dipped his head to the side in bare, antagonistic acknowledgement.

Viren’s nose wrinkled for a moment, dissatisfied with Runaan’s lack of cowering. “Let me make yours clear to you, too, then,” he continued smoothly. He swung the tip of his staff under Runaan’s chin and dug the point of one wing upward, forcing Runaan to keep looking at him. With cool superiority, he said, “You’ve committed an atrocity on Katolian soil. The punishment for this crime is a swift death. But there may yet be a light at the end of the tunnel for you. You’ll earn the privilege of remaining alive as long as you prove useful to me. Is that clear?”

Runaan rolled his eyes and looked aside dismissively.

Viren wanted more. “I asked you a question, elf.” The staff’s wing dug in harder, drawing blood.

Runaan’s lip curled, and he jerked his head away from the staff even though it hurt. “I heard your words, human. Your proposition was simply uninteresting.”

Viren’s brows rose and immediately lowered. With an accusatory growl, he seized Runaan by the jaw and slammed his horns back against the wall. Runaan cried out again. Viren leaned close and muttered, “You elves think you’re so special, don’t you? Well, let’s find out, once and for all, if you’re right. Scientifically speaking.” Viren slid a hand along the top of Runaan’s hair as if petting a wildcat. Then he jerked his hand away, spun, and strode out, opening the cell door with considerably more aplomb than he’d entered with.

Runaan stared through the open cell door as Viren strode out to the main room. The hallway looked the same as it had yesterday, but a sudden vertiginous dread sliced through him, making his vision appear for a flicker of time as if it were doubled: two hallways, two fates.

But no. That was just an illusion. Runaan only had one fate awaiting him.

I’m not walking out of here alive, no matter what the dark mage promises. His words are just tricks. He’ll kill me as slowly as he can, and then it’ll be over. Runaan nodded to himself. It’s already over. I am already dead.

Viren walked back in a few minutes later, humming a soft tune under his breath and carrying a small table. He returned several times, setting various pots, jars, and vials on it, some of which radiated with magic, as well as a journal and an inkwell with a feathered pen.

Runaan’s sense of dread filled his chest and spilled out as if he were leaking ink, oozing midnight through the cracks that his pain made in his focus. His hands tightened in their manacles, and his breathing sped up. This isn’t killing. This… This is worse.

Viren drew himself back up to attention and offered a false smile. “Thank you for coming to tonight’s special examination study,” he began, as if gearing up for a lecture of bright young minds. “Tonight, we’re going to study the rare and elusive Moonshadow elf. Specifically, its subspecies, the deadly assassin.” Viren turned slowly, as if speaking to more than the rough stones in the cell walls, as if addressing anyone but Runaan himself. “What makes him so deadly? So heartless, so ruthless? Does he even have a soul? Is it tainted by the blood he feeds on? What are his mysterious powers, anyway? Can he really sl-”

“You going to lecture me to death?” Runaan groused.

“Talking helps me think,” Viren replied mildly. “The death part, as I said earlier, is up to you.”

Runaan lowered his chin and glowered, unswayed.

Viren sighed patiently. “Very well, then, elf. Since you’re so eager. Let’s get to know the real you.”

Runaan tensed in his chains, but his eyes followed Viren’s hands.

Viren unrolled a leather wrap along one edge of the little table and selected a long thin implement from one of its many pockets. He twirled it in his fingers as he approached. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to say a word. The results will speak for themselves.” A heavy hand clamped around the silvery horn cuff that wrapped the base of Runaan’s broken horn.

Runaan’s vision went white with agony as Viren dug the slender tool into the living bone of his horn, coring out a narrow bit of its marrow, digging further into him with patient precision, one scraping rasp at a time. His unwilling cries of pain drowned out Viren’s humming as he worked. Viren didn't seem to mind in the least.

Inside his mind, Runaan fled deeper and deeper, in search of a space where the pain couldn’t reach him, a place where he could settle, sit, catch his breath, maybe stop screaming before he passed out and let Viren see his weakness.

Voices echoed out of the past, and he bolted toward them with desperate focus.

“You have to let go.”

“You have to let go.”

“You have to let go.”

You have to let go.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Awareness seeped in slowly, ominously, more akin to blood oozing along uneven floor cracks than the gently lightening sky of a rising dawn. Runaan’s jaw ached, and he tried to close his mouth. His teeth clacked against something long and cylindrical, like glass.

Oh. Still here, then. With him.

He managed a faint protesting noise as he tried to turn his head. A firm hand grasped his chin, holding his face steady, and the deep end of the glass vial shoved against the back of his throat.. A warm, viscous liquid spilled out, and he choked on its thick-bodied texture. The flavor backwashed onto his tongue as he coughed and gagged, and his stomach heaved in angry protest.

Blood.

Runaan tried again to jerk his face away, but the hand gripped him harder, holding his chin high. The vial prodded its way into the back of his throat and held it open, trying to force him to swallow by sheer gravity if nothing else.

Fine. I’m awake. Runaan snapped his eyes open with a sharp glare and bared his teeth around the glass vial Viren was jamming down his throat.

The dark mage raised a saucy eyebrow and offered a smug smile at having gotten a direct reaction out of his prisoner. “Welcome back,” he began smoothly, “I-”

Runaan bit down on the glass vial, and it shattered in his mouth. Viren jerked back instinctively as a few sharp fragments tumbled past his fingers, and the assassin used that opportunity to spit the broken glass on the floor at Viren’s feet, along with half a mouthful of blood. He glared up at the dark mage as blood poured from between his teeth and drizzled from his chin.

Viren set his hands on his hips and studied the bloody mess on the floor between him and his prisoner. His face tightened in mild irritation. “That was one of my best vials.”

Runaan sighed audibly and let his eyes slide to the wall on Viren’s left. It was no more special than the wall opposite, but Runaan’s black eye swelled against his vision just a little bit when he stared in that direction and he could see slightly less of Viren that way.

Viren’s gaze narrowed. “You think you’re above the law, you monstrous freak? That you can just come to our kingdom and do whatever you want?” The dark mage’s voice rose in volume as if he were working up to that good solid rant he’d skipped earlier.

Runaan kept his eyes on the wall, but he raised an eyebrow at Viren’s words. Do they understand irony here in Katolis?

Viren stepped forward and jerked back on Runaan’s intact horn, forcing the kneeling assassin to look at him. “You. Are. A. Criminal. And I will teach you your place, elf.”

Runaan bared his bloody teeth up at his captor, worked up a thick red glob, and spat it at Viren. It splattered against the mage's belt, speckling the fine leather with deep red. The dark mage drew back, repulsed. His expression tightened sanctimoniously. “Keep up this unruly insolence and I’ll find something else to shove down your throat.”

Runaan’s gaze dropped to the dark mage’s crotch, and a smirk flickered at the corner of his mouth. He held Viren's gaze with a sassy blue glare and impudently blew one last little bloody shard of glass off his tongue, daring the dark mage to force anything into his mouth and expect it to emerge unshredded. “Don't trouble yourself. I already flossed this morning.”

The look of outraged disgust that flitted across the dark mage’s face before he got himself under control made it a little easier to deal with the vial Viren made him swallow next.

Chapter Text

“Who are you, elf?” Viren mused. He tapped a finger thoughtfully against his pursed lips. “That’s what I’m here to find out. What kind of monster can kill a righteous man and call it a virtue, hmm?” He dropped to a knee in front of Runaan, studying his expression.

Runaan glared blearily at him as the ghost memory potion started to take effect. Viren had helpfully explained its effects in loving detail before he’d forced it down Runaan’s throat. Now the captured assassin’s vision blurred, doubled, shifted. And then it was Ethari kneeling in front of him, teasing smile in place. 

Runaan growled sharply and shook his head, dispelling the vision.

Ohh,” Viren purred, as a knowing smirk tugged at his lips. “A monster who calls himself a lover. You think you have a heart beating in that chest?” He shoved his palm against Runaan’s sternum. 

Runaan twitched back. 

“Let’s find out, shall we?” Viren murmured, chasing Runaan’s withdrawal, keeping contact.

Runaan growled and shot him a hot, furious glare. “Keep your hands off me.”

But Viren only chuckled, as if Runaan’s protests were nothing more than those of a wayward child or a feral kitten, easily dismissed, entirely unfounded. His other hand joined the first, and his fingers slipped under the ragged edges of Runaan’s torn vest, feeling out the fabric of his shirt, pressing heavily against the contours of his musculature.

“What are you doing?” Runaan demanded, trying to pull away. His manacle chains clinked heavily as he tensed.

“Ah, here we are,” Viren said to himself as his fingers found the closure holding Runaan’s shirt shut. He fumbled it free, ignoring Runaan’s noises of protest, and spread the soft green cloth wide as if parting curtains to let in the morning light. 

The last faint layer of warmth left Runaan’s skin, and it pebbled with a shiver. His hands balled into fists, and his expression blazed, simultaneously furious and wary. 

Viren barely noticed. His eyes were locked on Runaan’s chest. “Ah,” he murmured, lifting his brows softly. “So it is true.” He pulled Runaan’s clothing further aside, fully exposing his left pectoral and the deep blue markings that swirled there. Then he rested one fingertip atop the symbol and began to trace it. “Is it also true what they say abou-”

“Don’t get familiar,” Runaan growled, jerking free from under Viren’s finger. 

Viren flinched back, and his brows lowered. “You’re resisting the memory potion more than I anticipated. Fascinating.” His tone made it sound like it was more frustrating than interesting, though.

Runaan seethed at him, eyes full of hatred.

A twisted smile overtook Viren’s expression, and he sighed lightly. “I suppose I’ll just have to double the dose, then.” He rose and fetched another vial from the little table behind him.

Runaan glared at it, and then at Viren, with supreme fury.

Viren stood at his safe distance from the assassin and chuckled. “Ah, I do love to break a willful spirit. One way or another, elf, by the time this night is over, all your secrets will be mine. You can’t hide anything from me. But please, do try.” He advanced on Runaan once again.

Runaan choked down the potion when his oxygen-starved body gasped for air, and he felt its vertiginous effects tendril around his consciousness, softly squeezing and invading like delicate vines. He knew what was coming, and he hated that a part of him wanted it, even here and now.

“You disgust me,” he growled.

Viren just smirked and knelt in front of him again. “You’ll change your mind very soon.’

“I really won’t.”

The dark mage leaned in and tugged lightly on one of his side tails, causing Runaan to bare his teeth. “Oh, but you will. Now, why don’t you just sit back and enjoy this? I thought you Moonshadow elves liked illusions.” He saucily held Runaan’s gaze and touched the cool skin of his chest with an impudent fingertip as if counting coup. His smirk shouted You can’t stop me and we both know it

Runaan sighed sharply and glared back with judgmental insolence. He’d expected very little of Viren and still managed to be disappointed.

Viren dropped his gaze, thwarted in getting the right reaction. His eyes lingered, and he squinted calculatingly. His fingertips spread out, and he let his fingers play lightly along the curves of his captive’s chest. “Any moment now…” 

Runaan twitched away involuntarily and felt his head spin from the concoction Viren had made him drink. Not even pretending it’s about my markings this time… nnnnhh.... His white-hot fury faded into a purple swirling cloud, and his eyes slid shut.

“Runaan?” Ethari’s voice murmured softly in the moonlit hush. The sound of his voice focused Runaan’s attention like nothing else, and the chill of the dungeon washed away in the warm radiance of his husband’s smile. “Where’ve you gone, love?”

Runaan’s eyes opened again, and he gasped in relief at the refreshing sight of Ethari’s twinkling sunset eyes. His shaggy locks and soft smile were a balm to Runaan’s soul. “I’m here,” he said through a sob. “I’m here.”

“Not here enough,” Ethari teased. He eased forward and settled atop Runaan’s lap, and his warm arms surrounded his husband with gentle insistence. “There. That’s a good start, hmm? What’s troubling you, love, that your mind wanders so?”

A frisson of recall flitted through Runaan’s mind as he remembered when this memory had actually taken place. It was the night he’d had to tell Ethari that Lain and Tiadrin were leaving for the Storm Spire. He’d been a wreck. Would be a wreck. 

Was currently a wreck. 

And then, he forgot that detail. The potion consumed it, and the echo of its memory swallowed him once again. “Everything changes, my heart,” Runaan said. “And sometimes, we aren’t as ready as we’d like.”

Ethari’s reply was quiet, a sacred secret murmured against his ear. “I’ll stand with you through everything, Runaan. You know I will. It’s never mattered what we face, as long as we can face it together.”

Soft tugging motions flitted through Runaan’s awareness, at his shoulders, around his back. But Ethari was holding him, so that didn’t matter. Runaan leaned into Ethari’s warmth, feeling another sob work its way up from his gut. “What would I do without you? You always know what to say.”

Ethari tilted his chin up and winked. Runaan was sure that his husband was about to make it much easier for him to say… something difficult… but Runaan couldn’t remember what it was anymore. His memory flickered, and dark purple flashes edged his vision. 

Runaan’s right eye twitched. “Tell me something I need to hear, my heart,” he murmured, trying to reclaim what should have been a cherished moment.

Ethari grinned down at him, and his smile was wide, lopsided, and cocky. Runaan felt like he’d missed another joke. “You know all the answers, Runaan, and you always have,” Ethari said. His fingertip traced the long blue line that ran from the top of Runaan’s shoulder down to the symbol painted over his heart. “Tell me again what this means.”

Runaan’s gaze dropped to his own chest. When had his shirt come off? He supposed it didn’t matter, here with Ethari. “You painted this,” he replied. “You know what it means, more than anyone.”

Ethari’s finger hesitated. His thumb spread along one curve of the symbol’s outermost line, as if painting it by hand. “Fascinating.” 

Runaan frowned as that word tugged at his memory in unwilling ways.

“Tell me, i-in your words,” Ethari said quickly. His hands captured Runaan’s face and tilted it up. “I want to hear you say it.”

A different past reached forward. You have to let go, Runaan…

Something precious and bright shattered deep in Runaan’s heart. He breathed out slowly, accepting the pain. What did it matter, among so many others? Then he raised a soft brow and offered his husband a teasing smile. “What’s so special about me?”

In response, Ethari silently took Runaan’s chin in one hand and turned it from side to side, studying him seriously. He thumbed Runaan’s bottom lip softly and watched it slip free again. 

Runaan’s eyes clung to him, hot and dark.  

“You have something I want,” Ethari murmured. “And I want it very badly. But I can’t just take it. You have to give it to me.”

“Everything I have is yours, my heart,” Runaan said softly. 

Sharp purple flickers haloed Ethari’s horns as he leaned close, speaking nearly against Runaan’s lips. “Even your deepest secrets?” he murmured.

“I have no secrets from you…” A shiver shot along Runaan’s skin, and he winced. “Well, perhaps one.”

“I’m crushed,” Ethari lilted. “Do tell, Runaan.”

Runaan’s eyes glittered, and his tongue flicked against his bottom lip, wetting it. He smirked invitingly. “Make me.”

Ethari’s breath hitched and faltered. Slowly, he traced Runaan’s jawline with a finger until it reached his chin, and he tilted Runaan’s face up.  “Playing hard to get?” His voice was a rough whisper.

Runaan raised a sassy brow. “I’ve never played easier to get in my life.” He raised his chin up farther, leaving Ethari’s fingers behind, and grinned knowingly.

Ethari’s kiss slammed him against the wall, and his horns clattered hard. The craftsman’s fingers clenched in Runaan’s hair, knotting tightly, tugging painfully. Runaan gasped against various pains that rang against his consciousness, and as his mouth opened, Ethari’s tongue slithered in.

Alright, that’s far enough, Pretender. I did warn you not to shove anything in my mouth.

Runaan bit down hard. 

Viren’s undignified screech echoed around the stone cell. Runaan marshaled his willpower, flexed upward, and body-checked Viren off of him, jerking hard as he reached the full extent of his chains. The dark mage plopped onto his back on the damp stone floor and scrambled back into a battle crouch, wary and furious, clutching at his bleeding mouth with a splayed hand.

Runaan stared right back at him. His skin felt filthy and his mouth tasted of blood. He spat the foul taste out without breaking eye contact, and in a voice raw with cold rage, he said, “Don’t ever try that again. You’re a shitty kisser and a shittier elf. You’re lucky I didn’t bite it off.”

Viren stood up straight and dusted himself off with angrily precise movements. He jerkily tugged a wriggling little insect from a jar on his table, crushed it in his bloody hand while chanting backward, and then, incredibly, slicked the creature’s guts deep into his mouth on three of his fingers, nearly gagging himself, all before the black faded from his eyes. Apparently healed of Runaan’s deep bite, Viren sighed in a mildly inconvenienced way and proceeded to wipe his hands clean.

Runaan stared for a long moment, absorbing Viren’s casual comfort with the grotesque. He mentally nudged his expectations further south.

“So,” Viren continued, “this is the game you choose to play when your life is on the line? I’m a fool for expecting any better from such a soulless monster, a heathen freak.” 

“We prefer the assignation ‘druidic’,” Runaan sassed. His memory rippled with the sound of Ethari’s laughter, and he steeled himself against it.

Viren took a single step toward Runaan and balled his fists. “You charm and you lie no matter the stakes, don’t you? You will say and do anything to get what you want! Nothing is sacred in your eyes!”

Runaan’s lip curled, and he raked his eyes across Viren’s person. “Not at the moment, no. But profanity thrives in the dark.”

“What does that make you , Moonshadow?” Viren growled.

Runaan breathed in slowly, tasting the trembling edge of Viren’s temper in the chill air. Ethari, hold my heart. I may be done with it soon. He lifted his chin unrepentantly and retorted, “Able to tell the difference.”

The staff came out again and struck Runaan hard across the head. Runaan’s vision pretended to flirt with the dark for a few moments before loyally returning, but he hung forward in his chains, anticipating the dark mage’s next blow.

It didn’t fall. Next to Viren’s boots, Runaan saw the silvery tip of the relic staff touch the stone floor with a light tap. 

Runaan’s shoulders slumped just a little in defeat. Later, then.

Viren’s voice carried a sneer of triumph. “I’ve no intention of falling for your games, elf. You got greedy, didn’t you? Thought you could force my hand. You thought that this was your place, not mine. Well, you thought wrong. You won’t avoid your fate so easily, oh no. No, you have a grave sin to atone for, and I’m going to make sure you do, slowly and painfully. Because, you see, this is my place.” Viren held out his hands, palms up, as if receiving a beatific blessing from the heavens. “Upright. Free. Deserving of the authority entrusted to me. And you, well… you’re already in your place, aren’t you, elf? Right there, on your knees.”

Runaan tensed and levered himself back into a balanced position with effort. Squinting one eye against the throbbing in his head, he focused his ever-strengthening fury up at the dark mage. “Fuck you.”

Viren laughed lightly, wrapping himself in another layer of control, and Runaan knew he’d lost this round, along with his chance to goad the dark mage into giving him an easy death. “Not in a million years,” the dark mage replied. 

As he turned to pick his next toy of choice from the table, Runaan shuddered and suppressed the urge to throw up. He could still taste Viren’s blood on his tongue, but he didn’t need to show any more weakness than he already was. He didn’t deserve the position Viren had put him in, but he was in it nonetheless. If he was going to outlast the dark mage in a battle of wills, he would need every wit about him. Even those that made him court death instead of love. Because there was only one way to outlast Viren, and that was to die trying.

I knew it wasn’t you, Ethari, he thought forlornly. Not really. But it was so nice to see you, one last time.

Chapter Text

“Moonshadow elves have so many entertaining ways to lie to themselves,” Viren murmured. “Let’s see what yours are, shall we?” He held up a handful of glowing white moonfrog eggs, round and slick like marbles.

Runaan blinked tiredly, unable to guess what Viren might do with them.

Serised straeh eht nommus.” The dark mage crushed the eggs, and their sacs burst with purplish liquid that burst into flickering flames. 

Runaan scowled, disgusted, but Viren stepped closer, hand full of frogfire, and slapped his palm between Runaan’s horns. The cool gooey mess seeped into his hair and made his scalp crawl, but the fire that rode it felt like it was whispering its way through his skull. He grimaced and tried to resist the way it burned through even more of his memories, but it was no use. 

Viren gestured grandly, and four fiery purple figures rose and expanded from Runaan’s head, stepping lightly to the floor of the cell at full size and in full color: Ethari, Rayla, Lain, and Tiadrin.

Runaan tensed, and his gut went icy cold. No. No, no, no.

Viren smiled at the sight, though. “Ah, such a variety! What luck. But where to begin?” he mused, pretending at confusion. “Do you have a preference?”

Runaan’s molten glare shuttered quickly as he closed his eyes and turned away.

“Ah, I thought so. But let me ask again. Perhaps I can persuade you to share a truth with me this time?” Viren mocked. He waved a hand, and Lain and Tiadrin became ensnared in a thick, angry-looking vine with rows of sawtooth thorns which stabbed at them, making them cry out in pain. 

Runaan twitched forward, eyes locked on their faces. He'd been a fool to look away from them before, when they weren't being hurt. Now, he'd do anything for another glimpse of them, even if they were in pain. It's been so long...

“Hmm. And now?” Viren said. Another wicked vine sprang from the stone floor and squeezed Ethari and Rayla, cutting at them until they groaned too.

Runaan growled, straining at his chains. “Stop.”

“Ah. Thank you. Very instructive. And now let's narrow things further, shall we?” Viren waved a hand, and the vines all vanished. Lain and Tiadrin collapsed together, holding tight in a desperate gesture Runaan had seen them make, but only rarely. Ethari and Rayla reached for each other, but more vines sprouted from the cell floor and entangled them, keeping them from touching.

“Runaan! Runaan, help, I’m stuck!” Rayla cried, wriggling hard. The serrated thorns cut into her arms, slicking them with her own blood as she struggled to rip the vines away from her.

“No, I’ll get her this time,” Ethari said, though his powerful arms were just as tightly bound as Rayla’s. He growled and strained, freeing one arm at the cost of a slow, grinding cut as he stretched toward Rayla with thorns digging deeper and deeper into his flesh. “I… can do it…”

Horrified, Runaan couldn’t look away. To be tortured with the sight of his most loved elves, in such pain and distress as they only tried to help each other, was a scenario he hadn’t anticipated needing to defend against. And to have Viren foist it on him so casually... “S-Stop this.”

“Choose one to save, and I’ll stop.”

“No.” Runaan's lip curled. For all the agony writhing in his heart, he knew a would-be puppetmaster when he saw one. Despite the chains on his wrists, he would not dance to the tug of Viren's strings.

“You have a preference, elf. Stop lying to yourself. You have a favorite, and I need you to admit it.” Viren snapped his fingers, and the illusions jerked and flailed as the thorned vines wrenched tighter. Their horrible screams echoed off the stone walls, filling Runaan’s ears with nightmarish sound, stabbing into his brain, shivering along his spine, squeezing his lungs.

He winced and ducked his head, and his teeth ground together. “Stop!”

“Choose,” Viren retorted, “and it will end.”

Runaan forced himself to look up, first at Lain and Tiadrin, and then at Ethari and Rayla. Their bodies writhed in agony, having lost all thought but that of pain. Victims of too much sensation, they could only react in the last way left to them: to scream in confirmation of their continued existence.

So much pain... When the screams end, they will end too. Is it not a mercy...? No. No, I’m alone in here. I’m alone. They are only illusions! The only one getting hurt here is me! The thought sapped the worst of the tension from Runaan's shoulders, and he caught his breath for a moment. A low sob slipped out of his mouth, hidden beneath the sound of his husband’s illusory screams. He made fists, straining against his manacles. That’s not Ethari. I’ve never heard him scream like that. It's not real. It's just a cruel trick.

That’s not my husband.

Runaan’s head snapped up amid the ringing chaos and flailing illusions that filled his cell. His eyes were tight, his teeth bared. “I choose me, dark mage.”

It was Viren’s turn to bare his teeth. Furious at being thwarted, he jerked his arm and made a fist, and the illusory vines whipped one last time, ripping all four victims into fiery purple fragments. Then they vanished too.

The sudden silence slammed against Runaan’s ears, and they rang as if they were full of hornswallow warning songs. Viren stalked closer, looming, cold, his mouth a taut frown.

Runaan deigned to look aside, discounting Viren as a threat, dismissing him and his clumsy illusion tactics. See? Not real. Not real, he soothed himself.

Viren knelt, suddenly soft. “What’s this?” he murmured with quiet interest.

Runaan looked back at him with instant suspicion. When Viren reached for his chin, he jerked free. But the dark mage patiently grabbed him by his intact horn and held him still. His free hand plucked a small vial from a belt pouch and brought it closer.

Runaan growled, not interested in chugging yet another potion for the dark mage’s entertainment, but this vial was empty. And Viren merely slid it against his cheek before letting him go. 

The dark mage held his prize up and studied it with curiosity. “I must thank you for this unexpected boon, elf. The tears of a Moonshadow assassin are considered rarer than hen’s teeth. Some xenobiologists have postulated that it’s impossible for you to cry at all. I must confess," he added with conspiratorial amusement, "I’m not even sure how to use them. But rest assured, I’m suddenly very motivated for research.”

Runaan held still. His gaze rested on the dusty floor. He didn't even want to take his next breath, so heavy was his heart. All this... for a tear.

"Oh, don't be such a bleeding heart," Viren scoffed, as he worked a small cork into the top of the vial and tucked it away.

"At least I have a heart." Runaan's sass fell like an iron bar to the floor of the cell and landed with a heavy clang.

Viren pressed a hand to his own chest and smirked in speculation until he felt his own heartbeat. "Hah. You're more ignorant than I thought, elf. Don't they teach you anything true about humans in Xadia?"

Runaan was the picture of angry poise, until his lip curled.

After a long moment, Viren seemed to register Runaan's mood, and--for whatever reason--felt generous enough to say, “I shall leave you to a moment of contemplation, then... on your educational failures.” With a mocking nod of false respect, he left the cell, pulling the door shut behind him.

Runaan felt a ball of ice form in his belly. I see it now. How it will go. Piece by piece, and trick by trick, until the end. He nodded to himself in the dark. And then, I can rest.

Please. Let me rest.

Chapter Text

“Alright, just another moment, and we can begin.” Viren’s voice was soft, distracted, as he focused on his work.

Runaan hated how he sounded so reasonable when he focused so tightly on what he was doing. The cruelty of his actions meant nothing. Only the results. Hated it, even when a very quiet voice deep inside him murmured of understanding. It's not the same! This is wrong, it's vile... s-so much pain...

Viren bent over Runaan to adjust the dark magic-infused webbing just so, making sure it held Runaan’s horns securely against the cell wall. Runaan’s bare skin shivered against the shadowy wrongness of the sticky, gluey webbing that clung to him in thick strands, around his chest, his thighs, his arms, globbing his feet to the floor where he knelt, and his horns to the wall. It stretched out from him to the front and sides, arching him up onto his knees and pulling his head back until he could only stare at the dim, dank ceiling overhead. Far from the familiar pale webs of spiders in Xadia, this webbing pulsed with dark purplish veins, as if Runaan's body had been torn open and his vessels stretched out and bound to the walls. As if the cell pulsed with his lifeblood, and he its beating heart.

The giant smoky cave spider that had spun the webs crouched in an upper corner of the room, all fat abdomen and thick, prickly legs, waiting to be dispelled at Viren’s wish. As long as she remained, so would her webs.

His torn knee ached, protesting his outstretched position with angry red throbs, and he tried not to gasp for breath despite the bend in his lungs. At least when Viren was fully done with him, he wouldn’t have to put up with any more of this torturous harvesting and testing.

“Ah, this should work nicely,” Viren murmured. “Ready?” he asked, daring to rest a companionable hand on Runaan’s shoulder.

Runaan bared his teeth and shot him a hot glare from the corner of his eye, since he was unable to turn his head.

“Excellent. Me too.” Viren smirked and snapped his fingers, and Runaan’s skin began to crawl. Or rather, things began to crawl on his skin. Tiny smoky spiderlings spiraled up from the floor along his trousers, then across his bare, chilled skin, circling up over his chest, crossing his scars, getting lost in his hair. 

Runaan squeezed his eyes shut and suppressed a hard shudder, hoping they didn’t pour into his mouth.

“It’ll only hurt more if you keep your eyes shut,” Viren said.

Runaan turned his head away an inch, fighting the webbing, his expression angrily dismissive.

Viren clucked his tongue. “You play at being stubborn like there’s a prize to be won,” he marveled wryly. “Trust me. There isn’t. Why do you live as if you must be the best at things that don't even matter, or exist at all? Look at this ridiculous hairstyle,” he added, warming to a mood of complaint. He grabbed Runaan’s right side tail and lifted its silvery cuff for a cursory examination before beginning to tug it off. “So unnecessary. Even my daughter-”

Runaan’s sudden growl caught Viren off guard, and his eyes flew open to reveal irises of blue fury. “Don’t touch that,” the assassin barked, jerking angrily on his chains. The webbing stretched and wriggled with his sudden motion.

Viren stared down at him with wide eyes. “What? This?” He held up the shining hair cuff between a thumb and finger. “This is important, isn’t it?”

The spiderlings reached the corners of Runaan’s eyes, spun their dark webs down his cheeks like inky tear tracks, and began to nibble at delicate tissue, stinging and prompting his eyes to water.

Runaan grunted, feeling grotesque at the sensation of being eaten alive, if delicately. His vision blurred with tears that tried to wash the spiderlings away, but they drank them too swiftly.

When his vision cleared again, Ethari stared down at him with wide eyes, in a vision long years past yet fresh as the last breath Runaan had taken. A vision of softness and love, of vulnerability safeguarded and treasured. “What? This?” The craftsman’s voice was hushed, and he hesitantly took what Runaan offered: a hairbrush. “This is important, isn’t it?”

Runaan simply offered a knowing smile. He pressed the brush into Ethari’s hand and offered him a soft, lingering kiss, full of gratitude and devotion. He smiled against Ethari’s lips as his kiss was enthusiastically returned. Cupping his beloved’s cheek, the assassin winked and slowly turned his back, letting his long loose hair tumble freely into reach.

Ethari gasped, and when Runaan glanced back over his shoulder, he saw his beloved craftsman’s eyes sparkling with wonder. Ethari bit his lip and reached hesitantly for Runaan’s loose hair, gathering it carefully and beginning to brush it out with slow, careful strokes that immediately soothed Runaan’s soul. The assassin's eyes slid shut and his heart sang, prickling the corners of his eyes with warm tears of profound joy and relief. Finally, finally. Someone to trust with this softest, most personal part of himself. Someone whose hands would never wish him harm. Someone Runaan could promise his heart to and never regret it. Someone who could even manage more than a basic ponytail!

Morning after morning, the seasons spun on, and Runaan woke a thousand times and let Ethari put his hands in his hair and tame it. And then a thousand more, and yet more, in the softest and most sacred of rituals Runaan had ever known. They wove it together, as Ethari’s fingers wove the braid that fell against the back of Runaan’s neck. Ethari’s touch was ever gentle, ever focused, and his radiant love never failed to fill Runaan’s heart to the brim, subtly setting the tone for his day. Runaan wore the weight of Ethari’s touch all day every day, bearing his love in the sweep and fall of his ponytail and in the swing of his swirly-etched sidetail cuffs.

“You shape me,” Runaan had murmured once, when Ethari had his hands full of his thick white locks. “I could have any shape at all. But I like the shape you give me.” He hadn’t expected Ethari to hug him hard from behind and burst into happy tears, calling him a soft fool that really meant “I love you too.” But he hadn’t minded in the least - the hug, or the fact that Ethari had to start all over with his braiding.

No one had ever touched Runaan's hair before Ethari. Not in battle, nor in interest. It belonged to Runaan alone, and he’d learned very young to defend it and all the traditions it stood for. But once Runaan knew how precious it made him feel to let his hair be cared for by such a loving, dedicated partner, he knew he never wanted anyone else to touch it. Managing it alone on missions made him ache for home, so he tried never to tangle or disturb it. To muss his hair was to disrespect his husband's care for it.

His hair belonged to Ethari now. Just like his heart. The long slender braid that Ethari had woven and Runaan had sliced free on the night of their vowing had been far more than just decorative. They twined it around their hands as they danced, and it bound them with the softest and strongest of ties.

“You shape me.”

Runaan stared toward the dank stone ceiling as Viren’s dark magic spiderlings swallowed his tears and exuded them down black silk strands that dangled over his cheeks, and he heard them fall quietly into glass vials below. It didn’t matter that the dark mage still gripped his side tail, completely unaware of how inappropriate his touch was. It didn’t matter that Viren thought Runaan was protective of the shiny hair cuff Ethari had made him instead of the soft white hair it held.

Runaan's heart wrenched. He would never get to trust his husband with his long hair again, never feel those strong, sure hands brushing and tucking and settling everything just so. The battle-distressed braid he wore in his hair even in this dark moment was the last braid Ethari would ever give him. As tangled and dirty as it was, Runaan could still feel his beloved husband's hands weaving his soft and determined love into place, so that when Runaan let the night embrace him, he would feel Ethari's tender adoration with every turn of his head. Even now, his hair's soft weight hung down, swaying with every little motion he made. He could almost hear Ethari humming as his fingers worked in it.

Fresh tears welled in the corners of his eyes, and the smoky little spiderlings gorged themselves. Runaan couldn't stop crying, not with them pricking at the corners of his eyes. But Viren would never know that some of the tears he shed had nothing to do with their insatiable hunger.

It didn’t matter.

It would never matter again.

But it had mattered, once. 

Runaan stared, tear-stained, into the future and saw only the past.

My heart. Those were the days when you brushed my hair.

Chapter Text

“What did you see?” Viren’s voice was soft, curious. His pen hovered over parchment, lit by the light of a four-candle candelabra. He crossed one knee atop the other as he sat at his little table in the center of the cell, playing at the helpful scribe.

Runaan’s throat refused to open. The sickly sweet taste of rotten berries nearly gagged him. Viren’s last potion had been truly foul, both in flavor and in result. He choked back another heave as a flash of white teeth grinned at him.

“I… I-” he stammered, forcing breath through his throat to keep suppressing his nausea.

“Yes? Do go on,” Viren encouraged in a soft, clinical tone. “What did the shadow dream potion show you?”

Runaan couldn’t look at him. But when he shut his eyes, flashes of the unholy vision flared to life again.

“You want me so badly that you leave your husband behind, is that it?” Harrow’s voice was cool, sure, knowing Runaan, knowing every twist in his soul. Somehow, they were alone in his chamber, and the raging battle outside had never spilled within. The human king sat on his bed, studying a photo. Then he set it face down and focused on his visitor with unnervingly astute green eyes. “You run from him, and you run to me.”

“I’m not here for you. I’m here for Xadia.” Runaan drew his bow to deliver the killing shot. His lip curled, but he could feel cold sweat slicking his temples. His hands shook.

No! I can do this. Whatever it takes! What … what is wrong with me?

“Put it down, Runaan.” Harrow rose and approached, and Runaan couldn’t kill him. Couldn’t even move, until the king’s warm hand settled on his as it strangled the grip of his bow, his husband’s precious gift.

“H-How…?” Runaan broke off and dropped his weapon. It clattered to the floor unheeded as Harrow tugged on his wrist, pulling him toward the bed. His feet skidded across the floor. He was helpless in Harrow’s grip, and that terrified him. Why should a human’s grip be as strong as a dragon’s? “Let me go.”

“I am no freer than you are,” Harrow replied carelessly. He spun, pulling Runaan into his arms, and such was the siren call of his touch - warm, empathetic, gentle - that Runaan had to let him. 

“I’m not free at all,” Runaan protested breathlessly, even as he leaned closer. “I am bound to another, for life. It is a bond that will outlast my very breath.”

Harrow pressed his forehead against Runaan’s and stared at him with lidded eyes. When he smiled, his teeth were no longer human. A flash of draconic power flared in his features, bony, sharp, and blue. “I know,” he replied, and the gravelly voice Runaan heard was Avizandum’s. “Now, do as you are bid, assassin. The time for lying has come. Lie to yourself, and lie with me, as you were always meant to.” Harrow snugged Runaan tightly in his arms and toppled backward onto his royal bed.

Runaan nearly sobbed in helpless frustration as vertigo seized him and left him reeling. Why did he need this so badly when he didn’t want it at all? Or was his blood promise driving him here, driving him mad, driving him away from Ethari? “No ...!

They landed together in a tangle of limbs and rolled across the broad bed. Harrow cupped the back of Runaan’s neck and pulled him close, and Runaan buried his face against Harrow’s collar and clung to his tunic, inhaling the man’s refined scent, pressed against his solid warmth.

"I have always been your destiny, Runaan. Not the craftsman. Your heart... is mine."

Runaan clung tighter, and tighter still, and Harrow did the same. His fingers dug tightly and tangled in Runaan’s hair. Runaan gasped for breath and shifted his grip, feeling the last of his control slip away-

His hands pressed into rotting flesh and grasped exposed ribs. Harrow’s breath on his cheek went as cold and dry as the grave.

Runaan jerked back, and Harrow’s toothy grimace grinned into his face. The dead king pinned Runaan onto his back, and the moonlight angling through the balcony doors revealed the skin of his face sloughing like ancient leather. His cheekbones gleamed with timeless inevitability. His eye sockets sucked at Runaan’s soul.

"What shadowsaken sorcery is this?" Runaan blurted.

“Embrace your destiny, Runaan,” the lipless skull said, impossibly. "It has come to claim your undying promise." It leaned down tenderly, and Runaan’s heels scrabbled against the blankets as he struggled in vain to escape its deadly kiss. Though its bones weighed little, the heft of its will easily trapped Runaan in place. He strained desperately, shoving at its jaw, its shoulder joints, nearly sobbing with terror and unwanted need.

“Get away from me,” he wheezed. He thrashed blindly, turning his face from its seeking teeth. “Leave me be!”

“But Runaan,” the skeletal king crooned, his breath cold against his ear, “you’re home now.” Dry bone fingers caressed his hair, his cheek. “We will be together forever. Don’t you see? You’re mine, and you always will be, body and soul.”

Runaan’s eyes snapped open, and icy fury flared in them. “Body, perhaps. Soul, never.” He embraced the specter that held him down and wrenched the both of them to the side. They flailed off the bed and fell.

And fell.

And fell.

And fell.

Fell howling down into darkness, until nothing was left of them but dust and the echo of inevitability.

And one single, eternal regret:

Ethari. I’m so sorry. I wanted to be yours.

Only when the last faint notes of Runaan's own deathcry faded into blessed oblivion had Viren’s potion let him wake to the dank view of his cell again.

Runaan hated the relief that had filled him at the sight of its familiar stone walls. Hated it so hard that his throat clenched around a curse. He nearly gagged on it before it hissed out between his teeth. Then he gasped for breath, for life, while his fists trembled in their manacles.

“What’s that?” Viren prompted, bringing him forward in time. “The shadow dream potion showed you something. Tell me what it is, and you can have the antidote.”

“It…” Runaan had to stop and unclench his jaw. His eyes unfocused. “It was…”

Viren sat forward eagerly, pen poised to record Runaan’s every weakness.

Runaan didn’t want to give his nightmarish vision a voice. Especially not to his target’s closest ally. He had wanted it, what Harrow offered. He had wanted it, far more than he’d feared it. That touch of death, brushing against his very soul… Runaan shivered, and he hated how he liked it just a little bit.

But I am the shadow. And this is my dream. Runaan stared Viren dead in the eye, suppressed a shudder, and managed an ironic smirk. “It was Harrowing.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The basket of kittens was the last thing Runaan saw before Viren blew the black powder off his palm and stole his sight. The assassin tensed in the sudden and complete blackness, frowning. His fists tightened and drew soft clanks from the links in his manacle chains.

“Are you able to sense me, assassin?” Viren asked quietly.

Runaan’s frown became a smirk. “The odor of bullshit is very distinctive.”

Viren sighed tiredly and launched into a series of dark magic spells. Runaan braced again, heart pounding, trying to parse their backward language, but none of them seemed aimed at him. When the dark mage stopped casting, Runaan couldn’t hear any more mewing from the kittens.

Somehow, that made the situation more dire.

Viren’s footsteps moved around the cell, pausing here and there, before returning and stopping directly in front of him. “Now then. Tell me which kittens are still alive.”

An urgent flicker of alarm shot through Runaan’s consciousness, and he glanced up sharply despite being blinded.

Apparently he’d looked toward one of the kittens. Viren chuckled tolerantly. “No, not that one.”

Runaan grimaced, repulsed. Life and death were not a game to him. 

“Try again. I know you can.”

Runaan’s nose wrinkled in disgust. “Or what?”

“You know ‘or what.’”

“Do you always play with your food before you eat it?”

Viren suddenly flicked the tip of Runaan’s ear, making him twitch away from the dark mage's presence. “Not always. But it’s nice to see when it’s got some kick left in it. Now. Choose me a kitten.”

Runaan nearly choked on his growl, and on the things he refused to let Viren know. The dark mage claimed that he knew what Runaan could do with his Moonshadow powers. But the very fact that he was demanding a demonstration hinted that he wasn’t fully certain. Runaan knew he wasn’t going to make it out of this dungeon alive, but he didn’t want any of his other assassins ever ending up in here. Not again, and not due to some cursed loophole this mage forced into existence. He also knew that the assassin skills he could call upon while standing in the light of the full Moon were not the same assassin skills he could call upon on his knees in the dark two days later. Conveniently, one word could sum up his entire range of feelings on the matter. He glared blindly toward the recent sound of Viren's voice and growled, “No.”

A soft, warm little body rucked up against Runaan’s left knee and came to its final rest. Runaan gritted his teeth and shut his unseeing eyes, turning his head away. Viren had already collected enough of his tears. I’m so sorry, little one. I can’t save you any more than I can save myself.

Viren’s mocking laughter echoed darkly in the cell’s small space. “ You’re really the best Xadia has to offer? A delicate flower that cries over fleabitten vermin ? Pathetic . Or were all the real assassins busy that day?”

Runaan clenched his jaw in true irritation. Then he sniffed loudly toward the endless blackness before him. “Fresh new bullshit. Pick an illusion, dark mage,” he sassed, despite the sting of tears in his eyes.

Viren’s sudden baffled silence was palpable. “...What? What are you talking about?”

“Either you took off my shirt because you knew you'd find markings befitting a top-tier assassin there, or I’m too soft for this job, Xadia's no threat to you, and you have some deeply disturbing kinks. But either way,” Runaan growled, “I did take your king.”

A single footfall was all the warning Runaan had before Viren’s hand seized him by the face and shoved his head back against the wall. The sudden motion wrenched at Runaan’s shoulders, and he grunted in pain. His soul hovered, ready to take flight if its tethers were finally cut.

But Viren only leaned in close, his breath hot and acidic with coffee. Near Runaan’s ear, he murmured three poisonous words: “Are you sure ?” One hard finger drew a firm line across Runaan’s right bicep, where his binding ribbon had fallen free.

Sudden alarm rocketed through Runaan’s body. The kittens… The battle… It couldn’t be… Rayla, our oath…? What did he do??

Reason returned, cool and calming, like oil on water. No. No, he’s just toying with me again. “We’re all kittens to you,” Runaan said through gritted teeth. “You’d as soon drown us in a sack as teach us tricks for food.”

The smirk in Viren’s voice thickened. “What a fascinating idea.”

He spun and exited the cell on a sudden mission, and Runaan's gut went cold with anticipation.

And then, despite the magical darkness in his eyes, he saw something. A soft golden shape stretched and got to its feet in the far corner of the room. A deep blue form peeped up next to his knee and sniffed his boot carefully. Other jewel-toned colors pranced and explored the cell, gradually cuing in on each other and centering on Runaan.

The assassin held his breath in soft wonder. Spirit cats rarely granted living mortals the gift of knowing they were there. Yet here in the dark, the stabby little floofs had chosen him to reveal themselves to.

It was supposed to be a sign of good luck. Runaan didn't feel lucky.

"You shouldn't linger here," he whispered to them. But they gamboled around his knees anyway, scattering with incorporeal swiftness when Viren returned bearing something heavy that sloshed with the sound of water.

It seemed that spirit cats didn't like water any more than living cats did. For a moment, Runaan entertained a precious thought: he should make sure to tell Rayla about the spirit cats when he got home, because she'd enjoy knowing she wasn't alone with her distrust of water.

But only for a moment, before he remembered.

Runaan wasn't going home.

I'm sorry, Rayla. I hope you get to meet your own spirit cats someday...

Chapter Text

Viren hefted the large, worn oak bucket onto the floor in front of Runaan, setting it down with a precision that barely jostled the water inside. He dusted his hands off with an air of satisfaction, as if for a job well done, and chanted for a moment. The blindness left Runaan’s eyes, and he blinked blearily in the dim cell, grumpy that his first sight was of This bitch again.  

Viren fetched his chair closer. With an anticipatory sigh, he seated himself on the far side of the bucket, just out of reach, and crossed one ankle at his opposite knee.

Runaan glared at him, then at the water. Clear. Cold. Its surface perfectly smooth. The fact that he could see the bucket through the water’s surface felt mildly disorienting. Water was meant to reflect, not to be transparent. I suppose that’s what happens when you have nonmagical water , he thought tiredly.

“Are you aware,” Viren began conversationally, “of the difference between dunking a person in cold water and dunking them in warm water?”

Runaan’s face tightened, and several vividly unpleasant memories paraded through his mind, full of aching lungs and flailing limbs. Of numbness. Of ice. Water is life, but ice is death. “Yes.”

Viren hesitated a moment, disappointed, and then continued as if Runaan hadn’t spoken. “It’s the gasp. The colder the water, the deeper the urge to gasp when it covers your head. I want to see whether Moonshadow elves have it. You’re going to assist me.”

Runaan merely offered an even glare. He knew what was coming, and he had a plan of his own. I shouldn't linger here, either.

Viren pulled a jar from his belt and freed a waterwisp beetle inside it. The lacy-winged bug skittered frantically across Viren’s fingers, seeking freedom.

Runaan’s gaze drifted away, but he still heard the creature’s wings crunch when the dark mage crushed it. He closed his eyes. Let his breath drift out softly, like a final prayer.

Viren chanted a spell, and the water in front of him gurgled higher.

Runaan tensed. Waited.

Waited some more.

The moment he opened his eyes to see what the hell was taking Viren so long, the hovering ball of water smacked him in the face. Runaan did gasp, inhaling some of the cold liquid. Its chilly weight burned against his lung tissue. The water outside his lungs remained, though, hovering around his head like an aquatic halo, held in place by Viren’s spell. Through its rippling surface, Runaan saw a wobbly vision of Viren’s satisfied smile.

Runaan’s throat spasmed as he fought his own survival instincts. The water trickling into his lungs burned and ached. The kittens had escaped. It was time Runaan escaped, too. I’m not doing this anymore. I am already dead.

Viren’s brows twitched together as he studied his uncooperative subject. He raised a hand and began to direct the water back into the bucket.

Runaan nearly threw up as the water inside him tried to leave the way it had come, but he clenched his throat shut and didn’t let it out. His vision began to dim, and his heartbeat became overwhelmingly loud in his ears. It sped up, desperate for oxygen…

“...naan?” Ethari’s voice echoed muffledly, as if from a great watery distance. “Runaan?”

Runaan jerked upright, eyes seeking, chest spasming, choking on his own last breath. Unable to speak, his entire being radiated with a single disbelieving word: Ethari?

Viren stood abruptly, and his chair skidded back across the stone floor. The sight of him flickered, superimposed by a watery view that, at first, made no sense to Runaan at all.

Splashes of water jumped and wobbled against a flat, translucent bluish surface, through which he could see Ethari in the distance, leaning urgently forward, mouth open and agonized. The view vanished and reappeared as if struggling to stay afloat, and a high, frantic pinging noise echoed from everywhere at once.

My flower, Runaan realized . Ethari enchanted it to bond with me, and now it’s sinking… Why is he at the ritual pool at this hour? Ethari, don’t… don’t watch this…

Ethari leaned out over the pool, bracing his hands on the rim, nearly toppling in. His words poured out in a strained cry that etched his face with agony.  “No, no, please don’t sink, please! You’re strong enough, you can get through this! Hold on, please hold on, just… please don’t go, please don’t leave me…” His face crumpled, and a sharp sob shook his big shoulders, collapsing his urgent pose into hunched sorrow, but his eyes never wavered from the struggling lotus. With tears on his cheeks and agonized sadness pulling at his mouth, Ethari whispered, “You promised. You promised . I need my heart back, Runaan… you promised…” 

Runaan felt his body go limp. Viren was saying something about insubordination. Runaan thought he felt a hand on his horn again. But it didn’t matter. Ethari was there…

Ethari was sad.

Ethari was weeping.

Open-eyed, with tears streaming down his face, a sob frozen onto his features, breathing only a little more than Runaan was. Fingers digging hard against the pool’s stone lip. Tears spilling into the water.

As the lotus slipped beneath the surface, Runaan lost sight of Ethari. The craftsman’s cry of horrified denial cut off, just as drowned as Runaan was about to be.

Runaan stood at the edge of an endless black lake and took one step into its inkiness, staring with all his focus at the invisibly distant shore despite the sobs coming from behind him. He took another step, and another. But as the black water reached his thighs, he stopped. His firmly determined expression faltered. 

Softened into uncertainty. 

Settled into regret.

No. 

I can’t let my choice hurt him like this. I can’t let the last thing I give him be the sight of my flower sinking right before his eyes. Not… not today...

Runaan’s mind skittered, oxygen-starved, around bright, happy, passionate moments from exactly one year ago, and year after year before that. At this hour of the night, Ethari always had Runaan’s hair a whirling mess from plenty of moscato-fueled dancing--and also from the dance that followed the dance. Runaan couldn’t shit on one of their favorite nights of the year like this.

I never could stand to see you cry, my heart. For you, I will wait. I can endure anything, if it’s for you.

My last gift, then.

Runaan opened his mouth and surrendered. Viren ripped the water out of his lungs with an angry yank. It burned its way out and spattered the stone floor. Runaan coughed and gagged, wheezing in agony, and his vision blurrily returned. He shook hard, unable to keep from crying out hoarsely at the shock of sudden oxygen chilling his veins again. 

Viren let go of his horn and shoved his head away, exasperated. “”Fool. Don’t you know how easy it is for me to keep you alive if I choose to?”

The lotus bobbed up sharply, and Runaan caught one last view of his husband. Ecstatic joy painted Ethari’s face with soft moonlight. He clapped his hands over his mouth and laughed with blessed relief. Then he swiped at his tears and hopped onto the pool rim, seating himself meditation-style. “I knew you could do it,” he murmured through trembling lips. “I believe in you, Runaan. And I’m going to sit right here with you so you know it’s okay. Just… come home safe. Do you hear me…?”

That gentle voice and its encouraging words faded from Runaan’s consciousness.

I hear you, my heart. But I...

“Do you hear me?” Viren echoed. “There is nowhere you can hide from me, elf. Not even in death. You are here until I dismiss you .” The dark mage dropped to one knee beside him and squeezed water down Runaan’s side tail until it splattered onto the floor. 

Unable to speak yet, Runaan shot him a resentful glare for touching his hair again.

Viren smirked. Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing with Runaan’s hair. “And I won’t be dismissing you for, oh, quite some time, I’m afraid.” He pulled on the side tail, tilting Runaan’s head toward him.

Runaan winced and managed a brief smirk. “Worse luck you, then,” he rasped in a ruined voice.

Viren tsked and rose to fetch something from his little table of horrors. “Why’s that?” he asked lightly, clearly up to something.

Runaan grimaced, throbbing with so many hurts he could no longer distinguish among them. Yet, for Ethari, for this night, he would endure them, and everything else Viren could bring.

For Ethari.

When he was young, Runaan used to judge those who daydreamed of love while they sat in class, while he used to daydream in his classes of assassin honor and dashing missions and setting justice on its course. Of spins and slashes and tucks and turns. Of everything except the history or math right in front of him. 

Now, at the end of all things, he found himself in a very particular hell with a man who wanted to play at being his instructor, in yet another course Runaan had no interest in taking.

And here Runaan knelt, daydreaming of a cute elf who loved him with all the strength of the Moon itself.

After a helpless chuckle at the whims of fate, he whispered, “I always was a terrible student.”

Chapter Text

I deserve this.

I deserve this. 

I’ve done this to him, and this is the fate I’ve earned by it.

The thought couldn't have hurt Runaan any worse if it had dropped Tiadrin’s massive sword from the heavens and pierced him straight through. It stabbed and ripped at his soul, a violent counterpoint to Viren’s gentle humming as he opened a jar and dipped something shiny into it over at his little table. 

It wasn’t a new thought, and it had hurt deeply before, when Ethari would lie in his arms at night and sob silently, as if by making no noise he was allowing both husbands to deny the hot tears that soaked into Runaan’s hair. Runaan always held his precious craftsman as softly as he knew how, as tightly as he seemed to need. But they both knew that he couldn’t stop doing the things that made Ethari cry in the first place. 

All he could do was witness Ethari’s grief. So, witness it he did, alone with him in the dark, where some secrets fell away and others cycled into their places, ever dancing, ever reaching.

Even when those secrets stopped to hold each other tight, Runaan knew they weren’t truly stopping. Only one thing could stop them, because only one thing could stop him.

But that had always been a worry he could push away, postpone, spin away from and twirl back into Ethari’s arms. Until now.

Now, Runaan faced his true end. Bloody, messy, drawn out and torturous, meant to hurt, to wound, to ruin and break. Meant to pick him apart and examine the bloody pieces. An ignominious end full of a thousand pains that meant nothing to Viren except as tools to use against future enemies. Runaan dared not break until he could break all the way, until he was sure he could flee beyond Viren’s reach. Every reaction he offered the dark mage could get another assassin - another Moonshadow, another elf he'd sworn to protect - killed someday. Everything he suffered, everything he survived, was a test. Not of his strength, nor his endurance, but of his wits

I’m going to die, but if I die screaming, then I’ve failed everyone. The more I can foil this monster, the safer everyone will be after I’m gone.

I will not let them down.

I’ve given Ethari my last gift. I’ll survive until moonset. But my people deserve a gift from me, too. My life has been spent in service to protect them - every breath, every step of it. But my death is no less legal tender for only getting to be spent once.

Then, the tiniest whisper, slipping between the ancient upright stones that circled the round where Runaan’s heart danced: I hope they remember me. I hope I served well. I hope they bless my husband for his years of sacrifice, and they honor his tireless dedication… I’m so much less without him. I hope… I hope they know that. Did I say so? Did I tell them? Did I…?

Runaan’s chest seized as he stifled a sudden sob. My heart, surely I told you… did I not…? Surely you know, surely, surely… His heart wrenched with pain as he knelt in his chains, waiting for fresh agonies at Viren’s hands, and worried that somehow he hadn’t made clear to his husband just how much he loved him, adored him, blessed his very breath and every thudding beat of his heart.

I love you. I love you. Why do I never say so? Why do I not shout it from the treetops? Why did I not press more flowers into your hands, pull you into more dances, let you drag me from my training to hold your hand by the riverside? I'm trying to die without having failed Xadia, my darling heart, but I failed you years ago. I failed you.

A hot shiver flashed over his skin as he fought against the swelling tide of his feelings. He squeezed his eyes shut and braced his shoulders as if expecting a heavy blow. Runaan thought in tactics, in battle formation, in stealth maneuvers. Ethari had never followed such protocols, but if he had… 

You’ve been standing in my blind spot for years, my light, and I couldn’t see you. I’m a blind fool, and you should’ve slipped a dagger between my ribs ages ago. It would’ve been kinder for us both. Your enchantments and your trinkets, your masterful bowblade, all trying to stave off this end, this exact fate, which has caught me nonetheless. You knew this day was coming just as I did. You thought I didn’t deserve it. But you always were soft. I deserve exactly this. I’ve taken so many lives, my heart, but none I regret taking more than yours.

Why did I ever dare to reach for happiness? I’ve ruined your life with the mere touch of my hand.

Viren turned around, brandishing a small, sharp implement along with a dark smirk. “Let’s begin again, shall we, elf? I think you’ll find this trip down memory lane particularly enlightening.”

Runaan glowered and dragged his game face back into place. “I am already dead, dark mage. It truly doesn’t matter where you try to take me.”

Viren’s smirk turned speculative. “Let’s find out, shall we?” He crossed the floor, brandishing the little scalpel.

Runaan looked away, accepting whatever Viren was bringing. Surely, surely, it was exactly what he deserved, for all his dark deeds, for all the violent ends he had delivered. Surely, surely, one of Viren’s terrible tests might eventually deliver him into death’s waiting hands, yes? Or was he doomed to suffer for days, for weeks, forever?

And how long should I suffer for betraying my husband's love? Runaan thought, even as his breathing tensed at Viren’s approach. I promised Ethari my heart, but that was a lie. I'd already given it to Xadia. I deserve to suffer, for making him suffer. The gentlest elf I've ever known, and I hurt him. So let this hurt me. Let it hurt, and let me fight that as long as I can. Until I can’t fight anymore.

Viren dropped to a knee in front of his prisoner and studied his intense expression with a curious lift of one brow. “Unless you have something else on your social calendar?” Viren sassed.

Runaan bared his teeth, grateful at last to have something to hate besides himself. I never deserved your love, Ethari, not a single day of it.

Chapter Text

“Scars don’t hurt when you cut them. That’s the extent of the mercy they can give. They know when we’ve suffered enough.” Viren drew the sharp blade slowly, gently, across Runaan’s chest, tracing the center of the white scar tissue that banded there. 

Runaan tensed against the pain he couldn’t feel. He wished he could. Somehow the warm blood that trickled down his bare skin felt all the more unnatural because he couldn’t feel the wound it flowed from. “A limit you have yet to acknowledge,” he sassed through clenched teeth. 

Viren smirked. “I don’t mind getting my hands dirty in order to protect those under my watchcare from enemies like you, elf.” 

Runaan's lip curled as he recoiled from hearing his own deep belief spoken out of the mouth of his torturer.

Viren took his motion as some kind of weakness, apparently. He pressed an open palm against Runaan’s bloodied chest until his skin was fully coated. Then he patted Runaan’s cheek mockingly, leaving a bright red handprint on his face. 

Runaan grimaced as the coppery smell of his own blood filled his nose.

Viren pretended to pout. “Oh, did I do it wrong earlier? You don’t like the taste of human blood because you prefer elven blood, is that it?” His expression shifted to a smug smile. “Well, I can understand that.” Holding Runaan’s gaze, Viren opened his mouth and slowly licked one finger clean.

A muscle in Runaan’s jaw spasmed, and his stomach twisted. “You disgust me.”

“Oh, don’t worry, elf. The feeling is quite mutual,” Viren said, contradicting his previous motion. “Now, let’s see what you’re made of, shall we?” The dark mage reached his bloodied hand toward Runaan’s chest again.

Runaan stiffened and tried to lean back against the cold stone wall, but Viren just chased him there and pushed against his bleeding wound, stretching its edges to expose the flesh inside in a grotesque parody of how he’d explored Runaan’s shirt as he sought its openings.

That did hurt. Runaan stifled a pained moan.

“Oh no,” Viren purred, “we can’t have that. I need you able to talk.” Viren swiped the edge of his hand firmly across Runaan’s chest, gathering a palmful of blood. He cupped it and held it up dramatically for a moment. Then he squeezed his hand into a fist and began chanting as Runaan’s blood squirted out between his fingers. “Gnileef eth evomer.”

The world dulled suddenly, in ways Runaan had always relied on. His body felt like someone else’s. His scar wound didn’t hurt anymore, and neither did anything else. But he also couldn’t feel his lungs breathing, or the weight of his hair. “What have you done?” he blurted. He opened his mouth again, testing it, trying to adapt to a tongue he couldn’t feel anymore.

Viren leaned closer, bracing a hand on the wall by Runaan’s head, and smiled knowingly. “Do I need to tell you to hold still, or will you be sensible?”

Runaan growled in his face, but his rage fluttered like a torn flag. He couldn’t feel his voice vibrating in his chest. Am I really angry if I can’t feel it?

Viren slid a hand down Runaan’s chest and dug his fingers into his bleeding scar as if slipping them into a pocket. As his fingers pressed deeper, crawling beneath Runaan’s skin, distending it, Runaan’s throat closed in horror. Tiny grunts of revulsion managed to slip out through his teeth.

Yes! Yes I am! Get the fuck out!

Something stretched, resisted, ripped, as Viren forced his hand into Runaan’s body. Runaan jerked forward, dry heaving. His body couldn’t feel anything, but its instincts were strong, and they knew something was extremely wrong.

Viren tsked in mild exasperation and shoved Runaan upright against the wall. “I told you to hold still,” he chastised. He leaned closer, up on one knee, and shoved his hand deeper.

Runaan couldn’t help the desperate cry his body made. It was terrified and furious, and he could offer it no assistance, detached as he was from its frantic messages. 

Viren didn’t seem to understand the subtle difference. He found the smooth edge of an internal organ and fondled it curiously, keeping his eyes locked on Runaan’s face. “Well, this seems to be in the usual place. How fascinating. How about… this one?” His hand shifted, tugging, ripping. Things pulled free where they absolutely shouldn’t.

Runaan writhed as his body took turns trying to empty its stomach and gasp for air.

“Ah. Breathing. Good idea.” Viren adjusted his reach upward inside Runaan’s ribcage.

Runaan’s body stiffened sharply and tried to climb the wall out of sheer flight response. He couldn’t cry out, though, not with his left lung squeezed in Viren’s fist. All his mouth managed to make was a series of tiny panting gasps, nearly silent.

Helpless.

“Insult me now, elf. Come on. Say whatever you like.” Viren turned his ear toward Runaan and leaned in. “I’m all ears.”

Runaan dragged the scraps of his focus together and mouthed with trembling lips, “ F-Fuck you .” He couldn’t feel the cold, but he was sure that shock had set in. If Viren wasn’t careful, Runaan’s life would slip right through his fingers even as he gripped his body. At least it’s an end. But… Ethari is watching my lotus… Ah, my heart, look away. You don’t want to see this.

“I told you, elf. That’s not my style.”

Runaan’s vision blurred from sudden internal pressure. He could breathe again, but his heart wasn’t beating properly. He couldn’t feel Viren’s long fingers wrapping his heart muscle, constricting its beat, but his body shook and went cold from the dark mage’s grip. “That doesn’t belong to you,” he gasped out.

So cold.

Runaan shut his eyes, feeling a final moment approaching, not wanting it to be one he spent with Viren. Ethari… I am ice, I am death, without you. You are all the warmth I possess. I melted for you. You taught me how to flow, how to pool. I could not reflect your love if you hadn’t shown me how. I hope I have carried your heart with the pride and respect it deserves - you deserve - I hope I have shown you how much I-

A purple flare of magic burst inside Runaan’s chest, and Viren began to pull. Runaan’s heart wormed its way out of his chest, straining at its vessels, until it pulsed in Viren’s reddened hand like a shivering, dying creature.

Runaan could only stare in horrified shock.

“What do you think?” Viren murmured. He turned Runaan’s heart this way and that, slowly and carefully. “Is it what you expected? I have to admit, it seems rather… disappointing. So ordinary. So… mortal.” He slicked a red thumb across the throbbing organ as if hoping to coax a different reaction.

But Runaan’s eyes were locked onto his own heart. No, not his. This heart was Ethari’s. Runaan had never actually laid eyes on it before, but here it was, with him in his darkest hour. Moonshadow folk tales said that an elf’s vowing ribbon vanished when the heartpromise was spoken because it had sunk inside to wrap around their heart, and that the hearts of those who died loyally still bore the ribbon’s imprint even decades later. Runaan had never doubted the stories. But he’d never expected to see them confirmed with his own eyes, either. Especially not by looking at the heart that called him home.

Seeing the pale purple imprint of the ribbon he’d promised Ethari his heart with, Runaan finally felt something. It pricked tears at the corners of his eyes and warmed him to his skin. “My heart,” he breathed.

Viren misunderstood. “It’s my heart now.”

Refueled by the strangely welcome sensation of Ethari’s presence, of his love and regard, Runaan managed the tiniest smirk despite his shakes. “You cannot possess what has never been promised,” he whispered.

Viren stared Runaan in the eyes and lowered his head to Runaan’s heart. His tongue lapped slow and hard against its pulsing rhythm. 

Runaan nearly threw up.

Viren smacked his lips and lightly commented, “You taste like meat. Just meat. I could put you in a stew, and it would be no different than my other harvesting. You would still strengthen humanity against the looming threat of Xadia.”

Runaan’s body shivered from missing its heart and from blood loss. But he tightened his hands into fists and bared his teeth, pumping up his blood pressure long enough to suck in a big breath and speak aloud. “I am unpalatably salty. And I hope you choke.”

Viren stared at him with judgy fury for several seconds. Then he pulled a utility knife from his belt and carved a translucently thin strip of muscle from his throbbing prize. He held it up between them, letting it dangle soft and red and wet from the edge of his blade, pinned there by a bloody thumb.

Then, with a wolfish smile, he opened wide and ate it.

Runaan grimaced and leaned forward. The edges of his vision were flickering and fading, but he knew that bite was not Viren’s to take. “Give it back,” he muttered. His head felt so heavy, and he struggled to maintain his furious eye contact. 

“I’ll piece you back together when I’m ready,” Viren said, misunderstanding again.

“Give it back!” Runaan wheezed. He coughed violently, and a trickle of blood slipped from his mouth.

Viren was arrested by the sight of Runaan’s new blood trail. He lifted the assassin’s chin and thumbed the blood away. “You’re just about spent, aren’t you? Well. We can’t have that. I still have so much more I want to learn from you, you see.”

Runaan’s cursing reply was muffled as Viren grasped his chin and shoved his head back against the cell wall. His horns clattered hard, uneven. Viren’s other hand launched into the deep wound on Runaan’s chest, forcing his heart back into place.

Runaan bucked and writhed and nearly passed out as deadly pressures warred inside a body he couldn’t feel, but he refused to let Viren see him give in and slump in surrender. He growled around the whimpers his body couldn’t help making, and he glared up at Viren’s smirking face as the dark mage left his hand inside his chest, still holding his beating heart in his grasp.

Viren fondled the powerful muscle as it thrummed in his hand. “You live because I allow it, elf. And you suffer because you deserve it. These truths are intertwined, and I will carve them on your heart if it will help you understand the magnitude of your sins.”

Runaan's defiant grin tasted like copper as he sassed, “Sorry. No vacancy.” It’s already covered  in swirlies.