As Vox Machina caught their breaths after having rescued Grog from Queen Ulara, and after being “introduced” to the menacing entity known as K’Varn, they set to work on searching the campsite and its inhabitants for anything useful. The deceased individuals that accompanied the queen were sadly revealed by Lady Kima to be members of her party, now turned into thralls by the illithid that was roasted by Tiberius’s Fireball spell.
As the group gathered together and Vax headed off to pee, he heard over the earrings that Keyleth wanted to talk to her party and asked where Kima was. He heard Vex pointing out that she was still standing over the bodies of her companions, and then he heard Scanlan offering to pull Kima aside while she spoke her mind. He saw from behind the stalactite a confused Kima agreeing to Scanlan’s unusual request. He chose to ignore the ridiculous statement from the bard’s silver tongue as he focused on what Keyleth wanted to say. And as he finished his business, he heard something that he was not expecting from the druid’s mouth as soon as Kima and Scanlan were out of earshot.
“Everyone, I think we should get out of here.”
Vax froze mid-walk. Was she serious about what she just said?
“What? Why?” Vex asked her.
“Look, we got Grog. We got Kima. We came here to find her; that was our mission. I don’t— I don’t trust her.”
“We found her, but we can’t leave without her.”
Vax approached the group and sat down at the campfire between Keyleth and Pike, wondering what was causing her to think these things.
“Keyleth, we were sent here to bring back Kima,” Vax told her. “She’s not gonna come with us until we’ve killed this K’Varn.”
Vex, in agreement with Vax, asked Keyleth, “What’s your problem with her?”
Keyleth glared at the direction where Kima and Scanlan walked off and looked towards Vex, saying, “Look, she’s been— she just gave me the wrong vibe up front. She’s been very rude—”
“And she’s been very tortured, Keyleth,” Vex interrupted, which prompted an exasperated sigh of annoyance from Keyleth.
“Right, but look. Look what happened. She’s brought countless people down here, only to meet their end.”
Tiberius, still invisible, said. “Well, none of those people are us.”
“Yes, but not yet!” Keyleth replied as she raised her voice in a very annoyed tone, upset at the dragonborn’s overconfident attitude.
Vex then mentioned to Keyleth, “They met their end because they were captured. We’re stronger.”
Keyleth’s only reply was another exasperated sigh as she threw her hands up in the air, frustrated that no one seemed to understand what she was saying or taking her seriously. In fact, ever since they found Kima, Keyleth had been acting increasingly hostile which had led to their argument after narrowly escaping the Emberhold fortress. Vax assumed at the time that it was because Kima was overzealous and placing too much faith in her god. He was not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination, and he was starting to agree with Keyleth’s remarks regarding Kima’s overconfidence and belief that they would be protected. After all, even with the so-called “protection”, Grog ended up getting captured and nearly made a thrall, just like her companions.
But why she is still behaving in such an unusual manner, completely different from when we first knew her?
“Do you know something we don’t, Keyleth?” Vax asked her.
Keyleth looked at Vax, her glare softening and her temper subsiding a bit. “Look. All I know is that only a fool believes that his path is the most virtuous.”
When she said those words, Vax noticed something. The way she talked, the way she acted at this very moment... It all had the air of contempt. But... contempt towards what? At first Vax was ready to write it off as stress carrying over from the earlier argument. Their entire journey throughout the Underdark thus far had left them all rattled and harried, deep underground and so far away from civilization. He was ready to believe that her stressful attitude was simply due to her being out of her element.
But he knew better. He knew full well what it meant to have contempt for something. He had contempt for his and Vex’ahlia’s very existence due to that man who claimed to be their father. He had contempt for his home, the elven city of Syngorn. He had contempt for the elves that lived there. He had contempt for the man himself.
Syldor Vessar did practically nothing in terms of what a father should do for his children: love them, teach them, protect them, and help them grow. But Syldor did none of those things. All he did was steal them away from their mother in Byroden to live in Syngorn. And he did nothing while the rest of the Syngornian court looked on at the half-elven twins with disgust and vitriol, their thoughts on the twins clearly written all over their faces. They were unwelcome among them.
It was no small wonder that, in the dead of night, Vax and Vex chose to become runaways and return to Byroden where they knew they would be happier. And yet, when they returned home, all they found was a village in ruins, their home torched to the ground... and their mother gone. And then they learned that a dragon was responsible for the razing of the humble village. Since then, the only people the twins could rely on were each other as they honed their skills in separate yet equal fields: Vax being a stealthy rogue and Vex being a skilled ranger with a bear cub in tow. Vax never got a straight answer as to why the cub, Trinket, ended up accompanying his sister, but felt as if he could always ask another day.
And then they met the people that would—alongside them—form the adventuring party known as Vox Machina. It took a very long time, about a year or so, to get used to these people. Vex seemed to fit in really well with their new companions, not missing a beat as she took it upon herself to become the group’s treasurer. Percy in particular seemed to get along with her really well, and Vax wondered if he had a thing for Vex; his sister had that effect on a lot of people, being the sort of person that she was. It was also pertinent that Percy had become close to all of them, including Vax himself. Camaraderie did not necessarily mean romance. And besides, they had gotten him out of a dank jail cell and out of so many binds, so of course he would be that way. And he had certainly proven his worth in battle more than once with not only his inventions, but also his ingenuity and wit. Vax was very impressed with how the white-haired human handled being among such a group.
And then there was Keyleth. Over the course of their time together, Vax was curious about what the half-elven druid thought of as they traveled. She hadn’t been—and still wasn’t—the best at conversation, and the way she awkwardly carried herself was rather cute, in a way. But she also had a fierce side to her, the way she could turn into animals and unleash powerful magic based on the forces of nature. All in all, she was a vicious beast of a woman with a heart of gold, her conscience rarely wavering. But she also had her bad moments, such as when they had faced the Dread Emperor shortly after saving Sovereign Uriel. He saw the look of horror in her eyes when she accidentally ended up killing one of the children tied to the fiend’s breastplate. She was virtually inconsolable and Vax felt useless, unable to help her cope with what she had done. And then she vanished and finally returned after a long six months.
Vax wasn’t sure what he was feeling about this particular girl. He cared about everyone in the group, especially Vex. And when Keyleth had her argument with Kima the other day, Vax was certain that there was clear hostility towards the paladin.
Thinking back, she had expressed some distrust in their own cleric, Pike. Not to mention the few other people who served the gods that they encountered. It took a while for Pike to earn Keyleth’s trust and friendship. And Vax had hoped that over time, Kima would end up earning that trust as well when they fought together in the throne room of Emberhold. And yet, the paladin’s pride and her faith only served to fuel Keyleth’s anger towards her.
And that’s when it hit him. It wasn’t just about Kima earning the druid’s ire. No, Keyleth had felt this way about every other person of the faith other than Pike. Best he could tell, something had happened to her in the past, something that would cause her to have this much contempt to the point of hostility. Not to mention that after the six-month wait, when Keyleth returned, she wasn’t as carefree or awkward as she was previously. Something about her had changed, something that he had only seen once: when that child was killed. She was now a lot more concerned about doing the right thing, about not wanting to cause unnecessary bloodshed.
She’s scared of taking more innocent lives. That, and something else.
She’s suffering. I… feel like I understand all too well.
Vax had wondered why Keyleth had changed so much, and now he felt as if he had found his answer.
As he thought these things, Clarota spoke up in response to Keyleth’s statement, his voice echoing in their minds. “I wholeheartedly agree, she is unstable and cannot be trusted in her state.”
“Look—” Keyleth began to say, but Vax chose to raise his head up and voice his own objection. He realized what was wrong with Keyleth. He realized something about her that was nagging at him for quite a while; he was not about to let it slide.
“Hold on a second. That’s unfair!”
Keyleth stopped talking as Vax suddenly raised his voice. Everyone’s eyes (except Kima and Scanlan since they were gone) were on the rogue as he then looked at her with a soft look in his eyes.
“Why?” she replied.
“Keyleth, I know you’ve had a hard time. We all have,” Vax began to say, Keyleth still taken aback at his sudden focus on her. “I know we’re miles below the surface of the world. But we’re together. We are family. And everyone here is here for you as you have been for us.”
Vax’s words suddenly made Keyleth’s eyes water a little as she tried to hold back tears. For a lot of her life, she indeed had a hard life. Granted, she was never able to tell the party exactly how hard of a life she lived. But, in this moment, she felt as if Vax understood. This young, charming half-elven man could see that despite the front she put up for herself after that incident with the child that led to her going to the Earth Ashari alone, she was deeply troubled.
Just being on the Aramente alone was stressful for her. Being forced to undergo something that she was chosen to do since birth and having no say in any of it, but at the same time not wanting to be a disappointment to her people, least of all her own father. She constantly wondered if she was truly worthy of becoming headmaster of the Air Ashari, especially due to the questionable choices she’d made ever since joining the party. She was always doubting herself, questioning herself.
And then the child died.
Keyleth felt so much guilt due to that child, his life snuffed out by her own hands. It was something that she could not even bear. And so, she left the party and traveled to Terrah alone to train with the Earth Ashari, hoping that their techniques could help her. And yet, things only became worse as every time she tried to advance in her training, she could see flashes of the child’s eyes and she would consistently fail. Even the vision from the tea that she had received that was normally meant for the end made her future unclear.
Two paths. The left led to an older woman with a line of young Ashari behind her. The right to a young but strong tree. She could tell that both paths led to a possible future of hers. The left was her should she stay true to her journey, but the right was her becoming that tree, which could only mean her death. She knew that in order to survive to complete the Aramente, she would have to make choices that she would not want to make, even if it meant taking lives. But she was so scared, and still is.
And now, she could see that Vax saw that fear in her.
“Now I say we camp for the night inside this schmuck’s tent. We stay here, we rest up, sleep on it, and see how we’re all feeling in the morning. We’re here for you, Keyleth. We’ll protect you as you have protected us. You got a family with us.”
Hearing all of this made Keyleth break down, the tears now flowing. “How do we know we’re doing the right thing? We’ve killed a lot of people, you guys... We’ve killed a lot of people.”
Vax replied, his voice soothing as he grabbed her hand and squeezed it gently, “No one in this world is without fault who hasn’t made mistakes. We certainly all have.”
“We’re keeping him—K’Varn—from killing even more,” Vex added, but Keyleth continued to cry.
“How do we know we’re not interfering with issues that aren’t our own?!” she cried out. “We didn’t know of any of this until we came down here!”
She gestured towards where Kima and Scanlan walked off. “And look! She wants to take the horn. She wants the horn, and she wants to take it back herself!”
Vax squeezed her hand a little tighter. “The bottom line is, all of this insanity is going to bubble up to the surface if someone doesn’t stop it. Remember. Think back. It has already begun, and no one is here to stop it except for Vox Machina. Us.”
Percy, who was sitting next to her, spoke up as well and said, “I promise, we will heed your warning, but we can’t run. We will heed it, though.”
Clarota then spoke up as well, his voice in her mind saying, “We made a deal.”
Keyleth nodded towards Clarota, remembering that they did make a deal when they first met. “I understand you, Clarota. And I’m on your side, I swear. But... a lot of people...”
She took a shaky breath before saying, “There have been a lot of murderers who said they did the things that they did because their gods told them to do it.”
She remembered the argument she had with Lady Kima, and how insufferably arrogant and self-righteous the paladin was. She always had a strong belief that the gods could not be trusted, that even those that follow them are not immune to corruption. She had seen many examples first-hand. And she truly believed that Kima was no different. She was just like all the rest.
“We’ll be cautious, and we’ll have you to protect us,” Percy told Keyleth, trying to be comforting. Just then, Tiberius dispelled his Greater Invisibility spell and knelt down in front of her.
“Your Highness, by the honor of all Stormwinds, I will let nothing happen to you. I swear it. I will fight ‘til my death, and I have ways to get us all out of here whenever I damn well please,” he said with a serious tone and a chuckle near the end as he mentioned his ways of getting out. “So do not worry.”
Despite everyone’s encouragement, Keyleth couldn’t help but feel this increasing sense of dread deep within her soul as she admitted to the party, “I just have a bad feeling. This horn cannot make it back up to the surface. You guys have to promise me that. She wants to take it back. Why? If it’s that bad, why does she want it?”
“That may be so,” Vax told her, his grip on her hand still firm, “but the evil that is brewing beneath the surface of the world will stretch up to everything we know. And I know that you’ve made mistakes; I have certainly made mistakes. That is to live. There is more at stake right now and we are the front line. We’re the only ones that can stop it. Mistakes are all right.”
“Gods and darkness will blot out the light,” Percy added.
Keyleth, feeling overwhelmed, buried her face into Vax’s shoulder and cried as she said out loud to the group, her voice choking up due to her tears, “I just hope we’re not the darkness...”
“Oh, did you need light?” Tiberius spoke out as his staff suddenly lit up, momentarily blinding everyone due to the close proximity. Keyleth thankfully had her eyes closed at the time. She lifted her head up, Vax’s hand still squeezing hers, and managed to regain her composure. She started thinking things through, especially about Kima.
It was true that they had found her while she was being tortured. And in that situation, anyone would not be thinking straight. Keyleth soon felt like she was being too harsh on the paladin. After all, she barely knew her at all, and was judging rather unfairly due to her immediate actions. She hadn’t taken the time to get to know her, as there wasn’t much time to do so at all. She felt that if Pike could be something more to her... perhaps even this halfling could.
Shortly after their talk, Kima and Scanlan returned to the group, the halfling looking rather flustered and the gnome adjusting his trousers. Vax didn't really want to assume what exactly transpired, especially if it involved Scanlan and a woman. The group began to bicker with Scanlan about his supposed antics until Vax intervened.
"I think we're all a little frayed. I think we need to rest. Let's set up camp."
"I agree," Kima replied. "We have quite a journey ahead of us."
"Indeed," Clarota said. "We're not too far from Yug'voril. Let us rest."
Vax then noticed Keyleth and Percy having had a brief conversation, after which she turned towards Kima with a much softer look in her eyes compared to yesterday.
"Kima," Keyleth began to say, her voice shaky from the earlier discussion, "I just wanted to apologize."
"If I came across too harshly that night," she explained. Kima, however, put her hand up in a matronly way, as if to ease her fears.
"It's honestly not a worry," she told Keyleth. "War is stressful and all of us have been through a lot through this experience. I understand. I've been where you've been, and it's not uncommon to question everything around you and with good reason. That's what keeps you alive. For you to believe every person that crossed your path, you would not have made it to past your fifteenth season."
Kima's demeanor faltered and Vax noticed her tone becoming much more uncertain as she continued to speak, "I can assure you, as best as I can, that I mean the best for all of us. I just know if we don't do what we're here to do, far more people will suffer than the few I've brought down here to protect me and for me to protect."
She then walked over to Keyleth directly and said, "I'm not asking for your trust. Just asking for your patience."
Keyleth nodded after hearing Kima's heartfelt plea and placed her hand on her shoulder and said, "Well, I can grant you that only if you promise to grant us respect in return. Because I feel you were a little untrusting of what we were doing upfront, which I understand, but..."
"You caught me at a bad time," Kima admitted which drew a genuine chuckle from everyone in light of the circumstances of their first meeting the other day.
"Well... same here," Keyleth replied as she extended her hand to shake Kima's.
"Thank you," the paladin said as she nodded and accepted the handshake. Just like that, Vax felt that perhaps Keyleth could trust Kima after all.
His gaze soon wandered to Scanlan, who had a rather suspicious bulge in his trousers. "I'm sorry. Scanlan, what is that?"
"Oh, this bulge down here—"
"That's bed time is what it is," Kima thankfully interrupted. "All right everyone, let's go ahead and find ourselves to rest."
Vax couldn't have been more thankful for any form of intervention as everyone gathered their things and pulled out their bedrolls for the evening. It was indeed a rather hectic experience, as Kima pointed out earlier. And right now, they really needed to sleep.
As everyone prepared for bed, Keyleth thought back to the talk around the campfire and everyone’s encouragement. It felt really comforting to know that she had such good people with her that would hear her out, despite her uneasiness at being with them due to some of the more dubious and morally questionable acts they had done. Vax in particular she wasn’t expecting to say the things he'd said to her. He was usually really quiet, not one to seek the attention of most discussions. He’d rather sneak off into the shadows, keeping watch for anything dangerous. But in that moment, his presence and words were a source of comfort.
In fact, it was the first time anyone had ever stood up for her when it came to her morals and ideals. And of all people, it was him. She rarely ever met anyone who shared such views on the world or of people in general. It made her wonder how he felt about her as a person. It made her wonder... how she felt about him.
Could it be... that I feel something for him?
Keyleth couldn’t be sure about what this new feeling within her was. Instead, she decided to—as Vax so eloquently put it—sleep on it for now and see how she was feeling in the morning. They had a ways to go before arriving at Clarota’s colony, the illithid city of Yug’voril. And she herself was still afraid of the possibility of the horn of Orcus escaping the city and finding its way to the surface. She knew the party had promised her that they would do their best, but what if it became necessary to still take it with them?
That was something that could be talked about at a later time, assuming there was a chance to.
Keyleth sighed as she felt her weariness overwhelm her and she surrendered to the soft release of sleep, thinking about Kima, the well-being of the party... and Vax.