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When she rises to consciousness the first time, her head feels like an echo chamber. It pulses and throbs with every sound, counterpoint to the ache in the rest of her body, which is just a never-ending sharpness. The kind of pain that grows boring after a while. She feels like someone took a bag of rocks to her body, repeatedly. She begins to hope for unconsciousness again.

She doesn’t know how that happened, doesn’t know where she is or why her arms feel like they’re being pulled from their sockets, or why she’s slumped against cold stone, why her head is turning sound into fireworks behind her eyelids. And opening her eyes to find out doesn't help-- she gets a flash of gray stone blocks and bars before her head swims and vertigo makes her shut them tight again.

She can hear voices, though, close enough that each word sends a fresh ripple of pain through her head, but beyond that she doesn’t know. They sound familiar, both female, but she can’t place them. They aren’t friends, she thinks. They don’t sound friendly.

“—but when Silas went to take his blade to her, it was as if the charm faded completely. And I’ve seen Silas charm hundreds of people. They’ve never reacted like that. As long as violence wasn’t offered toward their person, you could kill their entire family in front of them and they wouldn’t so much as frown.”

“Interesting. So the boy immediately went for Silas?”

“Both blades drawn. I barely cast Hold Person on him before he put several holes in my husband.”

“That is fascinating. So you think it’s because they’re twins. That attacking her was like attacking himself?”

“The spell doesn’t break that way for when siblings are involved, as far as we know. But I wouldn’t rule anything out.”

“And you want me to, what. Test how far we can take it before the boy shrugs the spell off again?”

“Something like that. I just want to know if I have to keep them both, afterwards. Not that I’d mind, of course. They’re both such pretty little things, and I must admit, the idea of having a matching set is delightful. The way the boy talks about her, she’ll be useful at the very least. We would have to do something about that bear though…”

Vex starts a little, moving her head fast enough that vertigo infects her again, even with her eyes closed. Trinket, she doesn’t know where Trinket is. Oh, gods. When was the last time she saw Trinket?

“And afterwards. After your ritual, after everything. You’ll actually let me leave.”

“Of course, my dear doctor. Provided you actually complete your task this time. Isn’t that kind of me, offering you a second chance. Even giving you a side project to catch your interest. You really should thank me, Anna dear.”

The other woman responds, but Vex can’t seem to concentrate on her words. She’s thinking about Trinket, about her precious bear rushing Silas Briarwood, who was menacing Percy. A ray of necrotic energy coming out of nowhere, blasting into his flank. The moan of pain that escaped him as he fell back.

She lets out a low moan of her own, struggles again to open her eyes. She remembers what happened, remembers everything in that moment. Trinket’s pain, the smoke pouring out of Percy, Keyleth trying to capture the vampire in sunlight but being… stabbed. Getting stabbed by Vax.

Vax, oh gods, she thinks. Vax bellowing at her to cut off her attack as she sent a barrage of arrows down on the ziggurat, Vax slashing at Pike’s ethereal form as she tried to get close to him, defending Lady Briarwood. Lady Briarwood.

Her head jerks up.

“She’s waking,” Anna Ripley says with disinterest. “Can I begin? See if hurting her outside of his sight triggers anything?”

“Not yet,” Lady Briarwood replies, voice as velvet as it was that day during the banquet in Emon. “Not yet. You’re going to have to earn that privilege Anna. Besides,” there’s the whisper of fabric on stone, “I still have a use for her. I think I might still have a use for them all.”

A cool hand cups her jaw, moving her face this way and that. Vex opens bleary, swollen eyes, and there the bitch is. Her dark auburn hair pinned up in a chignon, not a hair out of place. She’s immaculate in one of those high-necked dresses she favors, and her dark painted lips are pulled up in a delighted smirk. “You’d be amenable to helping us out, wouldn’t you dear?”

Even through the throbbing of her head, Vex can feel the warm wash of an enchantment. Dominate Person, if she’s not mistaken. It breathes across her head like a tropical wind, promising warmth and safety, promising to make everything better if only she would just submit.

She struggles against it for a long moment, screwing her eyes closed. It swirls like a noxious perfume in her head, but she manages to push it off.

“Fuck you,” she grinds out, glaring up at the other woman.

The smirk falls into a scowl, and she claps Vex on the cheek almost playfully, though it’s enough to set her head ringing again. “Very well. I’ll suppose we’ll have to try this a different way. Perhaps your brother can convince you better than I. It certainly will be fun to watch him try.” Her hand connects with Vex’s cheek again, and coolness spreads over her face, making her eyes heavy. She slips back into unconsciousness.

***

When she wakes a second time, the pain is still a dull all-over throb, but her head is mostly clear. Someone's healed her while she slept. Or she's been out for a long, long time.

She opens bleary eyes, goes to wipe the sleep with them, but her arms stop short. Ah, right, she thinks. Chained to a wall. That would explain the ache in her shoulders.

She clears her sight by blinking a few times. And brings her brother into focus, standing just beyond the bars to her cell. He looks well, probably better than she does, and dressed in clean black linens and silks that look incredibly expensive, embroidered in silver along the cuffs and hem. Clothing for looks rather than protection.

They dressed him up, she thinks with horror. Like a doll. Like they owned him.

“Vex’ahlia,” he says fondly, oblivious to the horror on his twin sister’s face. “It’s about time you wake up.”

“Vax.” She pulls against the chains, trying to get to him, but there’s not enough give to stand, and she ends up collapsing against the wall, her breath stuttering in her chest. “Vax, are you alright? They haven’t hurt you have they, they haven’t—”

“Lord and Lady Briarwood have been perfect hosts,” he replies. And gods, he doesn’t even sound like himself. There’s a dreamy quality to his voice, and even his words are different. He didn’t even call her Stubby, and he knows how much that annoys her. Didn't comment on the state of her hair, which she knows is an absolute mess. “Unlike Vox Machina. Really, Vex, attacking them in their home?”

“This isn’t their home,” she snaps, then closes her eyes. Takes a breath. “Vax. You have to get me out of here. Unlock the door and get me out of here.”

Vax hesitates, though he rocks forwards on the balls of his feet. “I was told not to.”

“Vax. It’s me, what damage can I do? I don’t even have my bow, I don’t know where Trinket is.” She breathes slowly against the hysteria threatening to overwhelm her. She doesn’t know where anyone is, gods, and what if they’re… “Vax. Just let me out of here, and we can talk.”

“I can’t do that Vex.”

And that's the last shred of her sanity breaking. “Oh, snap out of it already! Remember who you are! You’re Vax’ildan, of Vox Machina. You’re my brother. Not some vampire’s lapdog. Please, Vax.”

Vax shakes his head slowly, disappointment in his eyes. “I’m sorry. They told me, Vex. They explained everything to me. We've had it all wrong all this time. Percy and that damnable spirit…” he sighs, rubs the back of his head. “We had it all wrong. What they're doing, it's going to change the world." He gets a flash of serenity on his face that makes her stomach heave. "But don’t worry,” he takes a half-step closer, wrapping his hand around one of the bars, offers a dreamy smile. “Lord Silas will be down here to explain everything as soon as he’s feeling better. And once you understand, we can be together again. We can all be together again.”

Vex swallows, feeling the panic building. “Vax, please. You can’t leave me down here.”

He doesn’t even seem to hear her pleading. He just smiles at her, beatific. “Don’t worry, Vex’ahlia. Everything will be alright. I promise.” He gives her one last look, as if reassuring himself, and steps away. Oblivious to her screaming after him, oblivious to her begging him to come back.

When he’s gone, she slumps yet again against the cold stone, biting her lip against the scream building up in her throat.

***

She doesn’t see anyone for a while after that, though while she was sleeping someone had unlocked her manacles and brought her dinner and a pot to piss in. It’s not much, she thinks, but it’s an improvement. She finds herself pacing the little cell, and listening to every sound, waiting for someone to come and find her.

She’s also tried shrieking for help, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone else down here. And she can’t stop worrying about what happened to her team. Did any of them survive? Are they all under the Brairwoods’ control now, wearing the same creepy smile Vax is, obeying that bitch's every command? It’s maddening, not knowing, and she vows the next time Vax comes down to convince her of the Brairwoods’ innate goodness, she’ll pretend, she’ll play along. She'll do whatever she has to do to convince him she's on their side, she wants to help usher in a new vampire order or whatever, and she'll beat Vax over the head until he remembers who the fuck he is.

Vax doesn't come though. It’s Silas that sees her next.

He looks better, whole and healthy, with even a red flush to his cheeks. As if Keyleth had never blasted him with her Sunbeam. Vex wonders how many innocent citizens of Whitestone he had to feed on to accomplish that. How many gnomes that might have taken. How many goliaths.

Silas regards her with his steely gaze, and she stands at the other side of the bars, staring right back. Though not at his eyes. The thought of eye contact with him chills her all the way through.

She starts as he steps toward the cell, and then she tenses, mind already spinning out a doomed escape plan. It’s possible she could race through the opening, past him and to freedom, and she’ll figure out the rest when she’s out of his reach, when she's in the hall, but Silas doesn’t even open the door. He bursts apart into a dark mist, and coalesces back into form as soon as he’s through. Completing the next step as soon as he has a foot to do so.

Vex scrambles back, but he’s on her in a moment, a cold hand cupping her cheek, another holding her to the wall.

He directs her gaze to his gently, insistently, until all she can see are those two blue eyes, and she can’t break away. Her breathing slows, and she relaxes underneath his hands. She feels warm.

“Don’t worry my dear,” he says. “Your delicious brother tells us how confused you are. I’m here to make everything make sense again.”

And suddenly, everything does.

***

The Brairwoods have been so kind to her. She wonders why she’d been so frightened before, why she’d been so insistent on staying in that cold dark dungeon when she could have been sleeping in a luxurious bed, warm and safe. Could have been with her brother this whole time. He was right. He'd been right all along.

They’d dressed her in lovely clothes, had even gotten her this fur coat, a tawny brown that was so familiar for some reason. No one had ever done something so kind for her. She’d cried first when they given it to her, buried her face in it, Vax rubbing her back through her sobs. She'd been so embarrassed to lose it in front of her lovely new friends (far better than the old ones, wherever they'd gone), but they had even understood her tears.

So very kind.

They asked her to visit Percival, who was being very naughty and refusing to eat and making ridiculous demands, refusing to allow anyone to help him. He wasn't convinced that the Brairwoods had Whitestone’s best interests at heart, Delilah had said, as she stroked Vex’s arm, her dark eyes glittering. And neither Silas or Delilah seemed to be able to talk him to sense. And he’s refusing to see Vax, and poor Cassandra is refusing to see him. “It’s a whole thing," Delilah had said, sighing prettily. "But perhaps you can convince him to help us out, darling. I would hate to have to send Anna, though she’s been begging to see him again.”

Vex didn’t like Anna Ripley. She kept watching her and her brother with hungry eyes, and she knew Delilah would ask them to help the Doctor out soon. She wasn’t looking forward to it. But of course she would help. She'd do anything they needed.

Just as she agreed to go talk to Percy. The Brairwoods had been so kind, after all. And Percival had no reason to act like a recalcitrant child.

She rapped at his door with a merry rapidity, then unlocked the door and slipped in, eyes searching the richly appointed room for him. "Percy?"

And there he was, standing in the middle of the room. Attached one silver chain connected to the edge of the four-poster bed so he couldn’t get too far. Delilah had told her about it, how he'd taken to lunging at people when they entered and scaring the servants, so they had to tie him up to keep him away from the door. That spirit was really doing a number on him, Vex had thought. If only he would allow Delilah to help him.

He looked like he needed it-- his clothes rumpled and sweat-stained, holding the desk chair in his hands for some reason, his eyes red-rimmed and crazed. Gods, what had that smoke demon done to him?

He let the chair go as soon as he realized it was her, sending the wood clattering to the floor, his mouth open in surprise. His gaze dipped from her eyes, to her magnificent coat, and back up again. “Vex. Oh, Pelor. Vex, what have they done to you?”

She cocked her head to the side and stepped forward into the room. “Done to me? Oh, Percy. They haven’t done anything to me. But let’s have a little talk, shall we? You look terrible, they tell me you're not eating, and everyone is so concerned.” She shuts the door behind her.

Chapter Text

He’s been playing the end of the battle in his head over and over again. Scrutinizing his part in it, what he could have done differently. Trying to figure out what had gone so wrong.

He remembers the smoke curling up and around him in thick black ropes, and yet it never seemed to impair his vision. Instead, it seemed to improve his sight, to steady his aim. The Briarwoods seemed to glow in his vision, as did Cassandra, though he tried so hard to keep his gaze off of her, his gun pointed the other way.

He remembers hearing Trinket moan, remembers Pike racing for Vax and being warned away by his daggers, remembers shoving Diplomacy in Silas’ face and running, Silas cutting him off, even as Keyleth aimed a Sunbeam at the vampire, the blinding light searing through him and slamming into Grog as well. The light made Silas’ eyes roll back, seemed to burn half of his face away.

And then a dagger came out of nowhere. He had looked over to see Cassandra, her eyes panicked and wide, even as she slashed at him again with her sword.

He cried out, watching her grimace. Her movements were fluid, he noted, so she wasn’t being puppeted, but there was a struggle contorting her face. It was entirely possible that she was just as charmed as Vax was.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Grog’s hammer come down on Cassandra, the glow around her intensifying as she cried out, and she fell backwards into the pillar, a small strangled note of pain coming from her.

“I’ve been known to take a ladies’ breath away,” Grog joked, and in that moment Percy saw the conflict in her eyes solidify into anger.

He didn’t have time to chastise Grog. Pain lanced up his back—Silas had swung around and slashed him with a sword, hitting him twice more, forcing Percy nearly to his knees.

From somewhere off in the distance, through his ringing ears, he heard Pike scream, “Dammit, Vax, let me help you!” and then there was a clang of metal on metal. And then a Word being spoken by Delilah Briarwood, one that made his mind stutter blank for a moment.

Keyleth screamed Pike's name.

He turned his head just enough to see Pike’s ethereal form’s freeze, her small body going rigid, the bright suggestion of a mace falling to the floor. And with a sound like a gust of wind, she vanished.

Shit, he’d thought, and then, we’re doomed.

Then Silas was on him again, cutting at him with his onyx blade, slashing into him again and again, zapping him of strength even as he was opened up, blood weeping from cuts up and down his arms.

It was there his memory got shaky, but he clearly remembers the blade coming in again, this time aiming for his stomach. And then Delilah shouted “Not yet, Silas. We may have need of him,” and the blade turned aside, and a fist coming in instead, ramming him in the solar plexus.

He fell to his knees, gasping, the world going gray around the edges, and then there was another blow to his face, and he’d fallen unconscious.

Over and over again, he plays that scene in his head. If only Vax hadn’t been so fucking reckless, dimension dooring outside of the trap and right into the Brairwoods’ arms. Or, mayhap if they’d gone up in a different formation, if they’d snuck up the sides instead of him going up with only Trinket as back-up...

He still doesn’t know if everyone else has survived, if any of them had managed to escape. He hopes they have, that they’re waiting for Tiberius’ army of dragonborn and they’ll come rain fire and freedom down on Whitestone. It won’t happen, he knows, but in his darkest moments he likes to pretend.

But no knowing for sure makes him anxious, so he tries to focus on what he does know. He knows Vax is still alive. He’s been the one bringing him food, chatting endlessly about how wonderful the Briarwoods are, sporting new cothes and new scars. He knows Cassandra yet lives, the Brairwoods wouldn’t have killed her, though he’s been told she refuses to see him. Vax would tell him nothing else, nothing substantial, and finally Percy just refused to speak to him. It was too painful to see his friend, someone he cared for like a brother, smiling blissfully, extolling the virtues of the same people that killed his family. Who may have destroyed his new one as well.

Guilt wracked him as he paced his room—his room, the same room he’d had as a child— as far as the chain that kept him from the door would allow. He’d already tried escaping twice. Had made it as far as the castle door the second time before Ripley had found him and taken great pleasure in calling for the guards, in watching him be wrestled to the ground.

They’d chained him to his bed that night.

He is trapped. The rest of his friends are probably dead, and he is at the whims of his worst nightmares yet again. And worse, the thing that had inspired the creation of the List, the thing that allowed him these new powers, that was lending him its smoke, the thing that calls itself Orthax, had begun whispering to him during his waking hours. Whispering terrible, terrible things.

As if his thwarted vengeance had been enough to bring him from the darkest places in Percy’s mind.

I could get you out of here, it hisses, when the silence gets too much to bear. I could give you more power, Percival. You’re trapped here, at their mercy, and you cannot escape without me. You know this.

It had been saying things like that off and on since his last attempt, was that really only a day ago? Time seems to have slowed to a crawl in here, as he paced. As he dwelled.

With some little difficulty, he ignores the thing hissing in his ear, ignores the need for violence, the guilt that itches at him. Ignores the smoke that seemed to flare and flutter whenever he made a too-sharp movement. Ignores the flashes of black and bone-white, just at the edges of his vision.

He did need to escape, though. All of his plans began with him out of this room and with a gun in his hand.

The lock clicks on the door, and hope surges within him, sending him over to the desk chair. He picks it up by its legs, mind flashing through the sketches of a plan. Whoever it is might have the key to the blasted chain, might be important enough he can take them as a hostage and get him out. He almost hopes its Ripley, even though the thought makes him go cold.

Well, he thinks. His arms aren’t manacled, like they were before. He could probably take her in a fair fight.

But it’s not Ripley who walks through the door.

He almost doesn’t recognize her at first, but then he catches sight of the feathers behind her ear. The only thing that hasn’t changed.

They put her in a dress the same brilliant blue as those feathers, a dress she never would have chosen for herself, all tight and restricting, yet covering her from the top of her neck to the soles of her impractical velvet slippers. Her brown eyes have this far-away look to them, as if she’s been drugged, and her voice is soft, dreamy. Like Vax’s was through the earrings.

And if that weren’t horrifying enough, she’s wrapped in a fur. A fur he’s stroked absently too many times to not recognize instantly.

She’s going to be devastated when she wakes up, he thinks.

Or perhaps she already is somewhere inside. Her smile is tight. Manic.

His heart cracks all over again.

“Vex. Oh, Pelor, Vex. What have they done to you?”

She cocks her head to the side. As if she couldn’t quite wrap her head around what he might be implying. “Done to me? Oh, Percy. They haven’t done anything to me. But let’s have a little talk, shall we? You look terrible, they tell me you’re not eating, and everyone is so concerned.”

She shut the door behind her, and he felt the click of the lock in his bones.

Orthax is there in an instant, from wherever he’d hidden when the door opened. The demon makes his skin feel too hot and too tight, his voice buzzing in the back of Percy’s head. They’re taking everything away from you again, boy.

They won’t, he thinks back, as Vex stalks toward him. I won’t allow it.

And what can you do to stop them? They had Vax’ildan, and now they have your lovely Vex’ahlia panting after them, begging to do anything they can to help destroy your home and unleash some great and terrible evil below, the smoke demon snarled. How long before the rest of Vox Machina is theirs?

All you have to do is agree to my bargain, Percival. Agree to complete the List, and I will aid you. The vengeance you so richly deserve will be yours. Just let me in, Percival. Say yes.

“No. Not while that last name remains on the barrel. I won't kill Cassandra, not for you, not for anyone."

Vex walks up to him, just inside that manic smile falling into a parody of a frown. “Oh, Percy. It’s gotten worse hasn’t it.”

He grimaces. “Yes, you could say something like that.” He looks down at the chair he would have thrown at her if she were anyone else. It’s a sturdy chair. Well built. The dark wood didn’t splinter at all where it clattered to the floor. “Things have decidedly gone from bad to worse.”

She reaches out to touch him, steps into his personal space, and it’s all he can do not to flinch back. So he holds them there, half caught in flight, as she reaches out. Smiling that vacant smile, she cups his chin in her hand, and gently redirecting his gaze until he has to look her in the eye.

Percy holds his breath. Counts sequences in his head-- starts himself off easy with prime numbers-- willing himself not to feel the warmth of her hand. The last time she'd been this close, she'd had him pinned to the wall after he'd used Orthax's first, ah, gift. What he'd thought was a gift of a kind, a spark of magic, a bit of otherworldly smoke to help even the playing field, before he'd realized, before he'd let himself realize, that Orthax was more than a fever dream, then vengeance smoldering in his heart. Orthax was an entirely separate being, and that spark of magic was a taste. A whetting.

Look at her Percival, the demon snarls in his ear. Look at what they have done to her.

"Percy? Delilah can help you. She wants to rid you of this thing."

Orthax's growl sounds like an explosion.

"But only if you let her.”

He gently takes her wrist, and removes her hand from his face. "And what will she want in exchange?"

"In exchange? Whatever do you mean? She just wants to help you--"

"You of all people know nothing comes without a price." He fights to keep his voice even and smooth, but he ends up clipping the ends of his words. He takes a breath, deliberately gentles his voice. He lets go of her wrist. "As do I. So, what does Delilah Briarwood want of me? What part could I possibly play in her little drama? Plaything or sacrificial lamb?"

Which do you think she is for them? How long before she grows boring, or that sweet, slender neck is bared for the knife?

Vex’ahlia laughs, and it tugs at him how genuine it sounds. "You're always so dramatic, Percy. She just wants to rid you of that awful thing. If you're going to be mercenary about it, sending a demon away a demon that's driving you to kill her is definitely in her best interests."

Ah. And there it is. She can’t seem to dominate him, and Silas' gaze can't penetrate the smoke, so she thinks she'd have a better chance of controlling him if Orthax were gone.

If her offer were genuine.

See Percival? You need me.

I could fight her off on my own, he thinks. I could.

"I'm sure she'd appreciate you helping with her summoning," Vex continues, "But that wouldn't be a requirement or anything."

He seizes on that. "And what has she told you about what they're doing in that cavern? Or about the Whispered One, for that matter."

She shrugs, completely unconcerned and uncurious. "Nothing much. Only that it will pay a debt. Which can only be a good thing, I think. Paying what you owe."

“They haven’t told you anything. And you’re willing to blindly follow whatever they have planned?”

"It’s better that I not know," Vex says, dutifully parroting what she's been told. "It means they trust me to help without all the details. That’s important.”

She’d walk right off a cliff if she thought it would help them, Orthax whispers. With a moment of effort, Percy pushes him back behind a mental barrier. It’s imperfect, but it will keep long enough.

"I'm sorry my dear,” he says after a moment, voice strained. “but that's bullshit. And you know it."

"I know no such thing," Vex shoots back, and it is almost a relief to see some real emotion in her, even if her irritation is directed at him.

He considers arguing. Bringing up all the people the Brairwoods have murdered, the magic they’ve built up by distilling the whitestone, the shape they’ve left the town in. The fact that nothing good could possibly be summoned in a temple lined with corpses underneath a city.

But it wouldn’t be any use. The charm twists everything around, defying logic or reason. She'll defend the Briarwoods from insult or injury from all quarters, even if it means taking harm herself. The thing about her shoulders proves that elegantly enough.

He withholds a sigh. “You did,” he says, and he finally lets his gaze fall from her face. “Alright. You win. Tell Delilah I won’t fight her anymore.”

“You’ll allow her to help you?” Gods, she sounds so hopeful.

If that’s what she really wants, he thinks. “Yes,” he says.

In his head, behind the mental wall, Orthax is thundering.

“That’s wonderful,” she goes on, oblivious, and in a fit of excitement grabs his hands. “Really, Percy. Once that thing is gone, you’ll be able to see clearly. I promise. You’ll be able to see all the good the Brairwoods are doing.”

The smell of smoke fills his lungs. “Yes. Yes, I’m sure I will.” His voice sounds distant. Half-tranced already.

She gives him one last brilliant smile, his hands one last squeeze and she says, “I’ll go let them know. Oh, Delilah will be so pleased,” before she vanishes out the door. The lock clicks shut behind her, and he wonders if that was done consciously, or if the charm keeps her mind as blissfully unaware of what her hands are doing as to the Brairwoods’ true intentions.

It’s troubling, but not as troubling as the smoke, which flares only a moment after Vex is gone from the room. The mental wall crumbles and the inky, roiling blackness of Orthax’s power envelops him, obscuring the room from his sight. Percy fancies he can see a pair of piercing red eyes, the curve of a bone-white beak somewhere in the haze.

YOU WOULD BREAK OUR PACT? YOU WOULD SURRENDER TO THOSE THAT DESTROYED YOUR HOME. YOU WOULD LEAVE WHITESTONE AT THEIR TENDER MERCY, YOUR FAMILY UNAVENGED?

Would that he could. Exhaustion pulls at him, and for the first time since he’d been locked in this, his childhood bedroom, he feels like he could sleep. He sits at the edge of his bed, head in his hands.

The smoke followed him, swirling about his head, filling it with the smell of gunpowder.

I am the only chance you have at avenging your family, Percival. If you allow her to sever our tie…

“That’s not the plan,” Percy snapped, his head jerking up to glare up. And there it was again, the bone-white bird face that seemed so much like his mask.

There was a sound like a gunshot. A scoff, presumably.

“I do have a plan, you know,” he shot back.

The smoke continues to boil around him, darkening, intensifying.

“I assume,” Percy says, sitting up straight, staring into the smoke with his best impression of his Father, castigating some visiting ambassador for thinking Whitestone would roll right over for any foreign power who so much as looked at them avariciously. “That you’re able to hide yourself within your host. You hid from me for five years.”

The swirling of the smoke slows to a lazy wafting. I could.

“Good, you’re able to do the bare minimum for this to succeed. You’ll likely also need to hide from any magical and divine detection.”

Arcane, I can manage. Divine… divine power I might have difficulty with.

“Then it’s a very good thing the Briarwoods do not have Pike.” His mouth twists. “And as far as we know, Keeper Yennan still eludes them. Very well then, the plan is simple. You hide in whatever deep, dark corner of me you’ve made your home, and I allow Delilah Briarwood to torture me. A minor illusion of smoke being ripped from my body and dissipating should be able to sell it.” That and being able to feign devotion. Not a very simple plan after all, actually.

You don’t think she’ll be able to see through an illusion, Percival?

“Not if you’re powering it. Or are you saying you’re no match for some minor league necromancer?”

The smoke freezes. It’s fairly disconcerting.

You’re agreeing to my deal.

“I’m agreeing to a restructuring of our deal,” he tilts his chin upward, into the heart of the cloud, where the red eyes are burning in a grotesquerie. “I will enter a partnership with you, fully cognizant. I will shoot where you point, with some noted exceptions.”

I have no designs on the souls of your ‘friends,’ Percival. And I swear, the mental impression of a voice goes sly. Not to touch a hair on your pretty half-elf’s head. Either of them.

Percy’s lip curls, but he refuses to rise to the bait. “Yes, my friends are implied. But I am explicitly meaning innocents. I will not become weapon of mass slaughter for your amusement."

No one is innocent.

“My definition of innocents, then.”

A scoff. Fear not, Percival. I would never waste you on such easy targets.

“And Cassandra. Cassandra lives. She is to remain free of your influence, and you will take her name from the List.”

Orthax sighs. Predictable, he knows, but Percy has no desire to be interesting right now. You can't protect her forever.

"No. But I can damn well protect her from myself. Take her name off of the List.” His voice is deceptively light. “Or we will see if Delilah Brairwood has the skill to rip you from my soul.”

Within the shroud of smoke, Percy sees the great bird-mask of a head nod. Very well, Percival Fredrickstein von Musel Klossowski de Rolo III. In exchange for the power I offer you, the revenge for your fallen family, you will complete my List. You will be the weapon in my revenge. Vox Machina, Cassandra Johanna von Mussel Klossowski de Rolo I, will remain free of my influence and will remain unharmed by me--

“And any parties allied with you.”

--and any allies of mine. So too will any living being that has not earned my ire nor the vengeance of any living soul. Are these terms acceptable?

It’s a good deal. Too good, and immediately he wants to interject, tie up the contract in a dozen more clauses, but there’s no time. Any minute Delilah could be barging in, and he needs every advantage he can muster. “I, Percival Fredrickstein von Musel Klossowski de Rollo III do agree to these terms, and will abide by this contract, so long as it is kept by both parties in the spirit in which it was made.”

He can feel Orthax’s amusement. I, Orthax, and then there is a slew of words that make no Euclidian sense, words that scald his ears to hear them, do agree to the terms cited, and will abide by this contract, so long as it is kept by both parties in the spirit in which it was made.

Not the most eloquent pact, but it will serve, Percy thinks. And then Orthax surges toward him, enveloping him in smoke. It invades through his mouth, through his eyes, through his pores to scald the insides of him, drying out the insides of his organs, stealing away his breath. It boils down into his core, until his skin can’t contain it, until it’s bursting out of him again, redoubling on itself, swirling in and out of him as if he is a permeable membrane. He gasps, coughs around it, his entire body shaking with the force of it. Finally, he falls off of the bed, doubling over, hands splaying on the rich carpet, searching for some cool bit of earth, something that might save him.

THE PACT IS MADE.

He gasps, takes in only blackness, and his head swims with it.

This is it, he thinks. This is how it ends. With my soul in the grip of a demon. He’d been calling the thing a demon for convenience’s sake, but Orthax is something from the pit, and he has just sold his soul. He’d laugh, if he had any air.

Not your soul, Orthax thunders. Thiers.

He sees Lord and Lady Brairwood, bent in an embrace, the vampire’s mouth still stained with blood. He sees Anna Ripley’s face, saw the smirk on her face as she brought the brand down on his side. And then flashes of other faces, faces that seem vaguely familiar, the Brairwoods' agents? Guards? All of them holding blades stained with red, indifferent to the atrocities they’d seen, or committed at their own hands. Then faces he knew he’s never seen before, an old man, bald pate and with a full white beard, a malicious grin showing yellowed teeth, a girl, no more than 20, with little blue flowers woven through her flaxen curls, an old, iron-hard matron, her black hair frizzing gray, her dark skin showing wrinkles and scars. More and more of them flashing through his head, a never ending List.

You will give me them.

All of them? Sweet Pelor. Percy thinks. Horror is slow to overtake him, sluggish and black, rising up from the pit of his stomach. All this time this thing had been inside him, waiting for years. Helping him create such weapons of destruction. No, inspiring him. Would he ever have wanted to in the first place, if Orthax hadn’t latched onto him?

But it’s too late for second thoughts now. The smoke is in his lungs. There are oil-slick claws wrapped around his spine.

Just when he thinks he can’t take anymore, it eases. Or rather, it’s still there, the entire world smells like sulfur and snuffed candles, but he can breathe. And there’s power at his fingertips. He can feel it.

The smoke falls away from his vision, and he feels strong. He wants to laugh. He feels powerful, he feels... Gods.

Let Delilah Briarwood come, he thinks. Let her bring her infernal, bloodsucking husband. Let her bring Doctor Ripley and all her knives and every undead servant she still has shambling about the place. He will destroy them all.

He settles back up on the bed, and he waits.

Chapter Text

Vex shuts the door behind her, a frown pulling at her mouth. It had been worse than she had thought. The demon, that thing, had made him so paranoid as to think the Briarwoods wished him harm and yet… and yet.

That thought stops in its track, rebounds. Percy is her friend, as Lady Briarwood is. She hates having one of her friends angry at another. Percy had to be made to see reason. And he had. So why did she feel unsettled?

Does she feel unsettled?

She mulls it over as she walks away from his room, trying to parse out the circle of her thoughts while her feet take her to the parlor where she had left Lady Briarwood. Even now, she can Lady Briarwood and Doctor Ripley talking. Something whispers hard in her ear that she should knock on the door and announce herself immediately, but she hesitates. Waits just at the threshold where she can hear everything.

“…Winter’s Crest is fast approaching, and we need someone to break across the alter. While any blood will suffice, the Whispered One has requested one of Pelor’s chosen to break the seal. For personal reasons.”

“I don’t understand why you’re keeping any of them at all,” the Doctor hisses. She really is an unpleasant woman, Vex thinks. But Delilah must have a reason for trusting her. “You only need one of them to complete your ritual, and you already had the youngest de Rolo brat. Why can’t you use the girl? Percival has a brilliant mind that could easily be bent to our purposes—”

“One that can be bent to your purposes, you mean, Anna dear. Though if you think you can actually bend the boy, you’re letting your… ambitions cloud your judgment. He wouldn’t help you dear. Not of his own will.”

“So subvert it! I have no doubt you or Sylas could—”

“And why would I waste my energy with that? I have no interest in your little hand cannons or any of the applications of that powder of yours. No, he is alive for a different purpose. And he will fulfill it.”

“But the girl—”

“The girl is under my protection.” Delilah snarls. Vex flinches back instinctively from her displeasure, even with the door between them. “As she has always been. She is mine. Mine and Sylas’. And if you wish to live long enough to spend your gold, you will be wise not to contemplate hurting her again.”

There is a long period of silence, and Dr. Ripley murmurs something. An apology, maybe. Or an acquiescence.

Vex’s heart hammers in her chest, suddenly she wants nothing more in all the world than to burst into the room and comfort Lady Briarwood and smooth away all her anger. Though, if the Lady thought her friend had been listening at the door… she held herself still, impulses warring.

“Oh, come now,” Delilah replies, her voice mellifluous. Hot honeyed tea on a winter’s night. No hint of anger. Vex relaxes, closes her eyes to hear it. “Don’t be like that, darling. We all know you just want poor Percival for your games, for the knowledge you can rip from his head. I can’t allow that—I need him in fact—but I promise, you’ll have something to keep you occupied in time. For now you are just going to have to be patient.”

Ripley sputters. “What about the others of their merry little band? The elves, for instance. Why are you keeping them around? Or the goliath in the crypt? Are you planning just to put every one of them under your spell and hope it doesn’t break at an inconvenient moment?”

“Anna,” Delilah’s voice lilts with warning, exaggerating the otherwise smoothness of her voice. “This merry little band nearly killed Sylas and I atop the ziggurat. I would be remiss if I didn’t try to turn that power toward my advantage.” There was a sound of wood scraping on wood, the brush of fabric. “Remember who pays your stipend, my dear. If I say I have further use for them, I have further use for them. You’ll just have to trust it’s for a good reason. Now, if you’ll just do your job and run me through the calculations again—”

Vex lets out a breath, feeling a relief she can’t quite account for. Of course Delilah wasn’t going to get rid of them, they were friends. Friends didn’t just abandon one another.

Still, she waits another moment or three, and another span of heartbeats beyond that, before she raps sharply on the door. Then she waits for Delilah to tell her to come in before she complies.

Delilah stands immediately. She’s beautiful in the firelight, Vex thinks. The light adds a luster to her dark eyes and edges the red of her hair with gold. Vex has to hold a sigh in her throat even as she sketches a small bow.

“Vex’ahlia, darling,” Delilah says, stepping up into her personal space. Vex freezes, unsure of where her hands should be, eyes wide. “Back from that naughty Percival’s room. Did you make my offer? What did he have to say?”

“I’m afraid he wasn’t making much sense, milady. But he did agree.”

Her dark eyes light up, and Vex feels an unpleasant shiver crawl up her back. She pulls her fur a little closer around her. “Did he now? He’ll let me rid him of that… what was it again? A spirit? A demon?”

“We’re not all that sure,” Vex replies. “All he knows is that it visited him in his dreams, and when he woke up, he was able to complete his pepperbox—”

Ripley, who had wandered to the window when Vex came in, turns towards them now. She has look on her face that could only be described as ravenous. “His weapon? The demon gave him the idea for his weapon?”

“I’m not entirely sure, Doctor,” Vex replies, suddenly nervous. “I don’t think he likes to talk about it. All he told us is that he had a dream in which the creature appeared to him, and then he completed the weapon almost immediately afterward.”

Ripley mutters something about making him talk, and Vex turns deliberately back to Delilah, who is watching the both of them intently.

“Did Percy have any stipulations, try to make any bargains in return for me… saving him from the spirit?”

“None, my lady.” She frowns. Why would he make stipulations on such a generous offer?

“That’s odd. None at all?” Vex shrugs, and a little wrinkle appears between Delilah’s eyebrows, then promptly vanishes. “Ah, well. Making those demands to you wouldn’t have done any good, would it darling? You’d have no idea what he was talking about.”

“What do you—”

“It’s settled then. I’ll go speak with him directly. Get this whole mess sorted out.” Delilah turns and flounces toward the door.

Only to be stopped by Dr. Ripley’s heavy sigh.

Delilah rolls her eyes and turns back. “Fine, Anna. I suppose you’ve been good. We can give you something to occupy your time with.” she turns back toward Vex. “Vex’ahlia, darling. You and your lovely brother wouldn’t mind helping Delilah with a bit of research, would you?”

Fear spikes in Vex’s stomach. She couldn’t put her finger on it, couldn’t articulate why, but the idea of being in Doctor Anna Ripley’s laboratory makes her mouth go dry, her fingers itch for a… for something. She curls them around the sleeve of her coat instead, and she smiles at Delilah, and says, “No, not at all. Shall I go find Vax?”

“In a moment. First…” Delilah inches up, places one warm, soft hand on Vex’s cheek. She’s just slightly shorter than the half-elf, even in her boots with the sharp heels, so she has to reach up, and Vex cranes her head down a little to reach her, to feel that soft palm on her face. It feels like being treasured.

And there’s a warmth that settles into her, mildly disorienting at first, but the world quickly clicks back into place. Vex lets out a sigh, all tension gone. All worry evaporated.

Lady Briarwood steps back. “There,” she says. “That should do quite nicely. Be good for Doctor Ripley, now. Do anything she asks.”

“Of course, my lady,” Vex replies, and allows herself to be lead out of the room.

---

They find Vax in their room. He’s draped over their ridiculously oversized bed, black hair splayed over the spray of navy blue pillows, and there is a bandage wrapped on the side of his neck. Vex smiles at that, knowing he’s just come backed from helping Lord Briarwood. It is good to be so useful.

The Briarwoods had, of course, offered them separate rooms, separate beds, but the twins had insisted upon the same room. It was a comfort, Vex supposed, even after so short a separation, to have her brother so close.

Vax rolls over to look at her, and his face immediately splits open in a delighted smile. She smiles as well, always his mirror, her chest bursting with delighted love for him and something else she cannot name. She wants to shut the door behind her, enclose them back in their own little world and pretend for a moment they never left their shared room in Byroden, and they’re safe and their mother is making dinner in the next room.

But she can feel Dr. Ripley’s stare on the back of her neck, and they are safe, they are, and they are with people who care about them.

So she leans against the doorway, and tells him, “Lady Brairwood wants us to help Dr. Ripley with her research.”

Only she could have noticed his smile falter a fraction. He sits up off of the bed. “She wants us now?”

“Apparently.”

“I’ll get dressed.”

“No need,” came Dr. Ripley from behind her. Vex straightens her spine, and Vax freezes where he is, half-reaching for a shirt hanging off of the top of the dark-wooded armoire. The doctor slips past Vex and into the room like she owns the place, her eyes trained on the rogue, a smirk on her lips. “You’d only have to take it off, anyway. Now come, you two. There is science to be done.”

And she turns on her heel and stalks out of the room, expecting the twins to follow her.

Vax looks over at Vex, who shrugs. “I’m not entirely sure what she wants, but Lady Brairwood says we’re to do anything she asks.”

Immediately he understands. He always understands. “Then we must do what we can.”

Vex nods, and as one, they follow Dr. Ripley out of their room.

---

Percy is waiting on the bed, hands gripping the frame below him. Orthax is biding the time in the back of his head, positing new modifications to the pepperbox—another enchantment perhaps, something that used the power he could give.

It’s more than an hour later when Delilah walks in, flanked by a set of undead soldiers. From where he sits, there’s no whiff of decaying flesh, so they must be vampires, if he’s not mistaken, or very recently dead zombies. But her husband isn’t with her. Curious.

She flashes her incisors at him as she walks forward, one hand lifting her skirts out of the way of her feet. “Percival.”

“Lady Delilah.” He stands, and he bows deeply. As if he wasn’t in his childhood room, staring at the woman who had ordered the deaths of his parents.

“I am told that you have finally agreed to let me help you,” Delilah says, her voice pitched just a little higher than normal.

He raises an eyebrow. “That is what I told Vex, yes.”

Mimicking him, she raises one of her own, perfectly sculpted, eyebrows. “So, you don’t intend to allow me to root your little demon out.”

“Oh, I do,” he replies, ignoring the discontented roiling in the back of his head. “I absolutely intend to let you try. Though I have no illusions that you’re actually trying to help me.” Delilah merely smiles as he continues. “I had thought to use this as a way to ambush you, of course, but unfortunately, you and your people have confiscated all of my guns.”

“And so, if I’m not here to help you…?”

She draws so near to him now. Close enough for him to put his hands on her before her attendants could react. Orthax shifts underneath his skin at her proximity, an echo like a gunshot in a cave beating in the back of his head. He could wrap his hands around her neck, he could---

He clears his throat. “You need me for something. Something the—demon, as you put it— something it stops you from doing. As it happens, the thing is impairing my judgement. It wants me to hurt my sister. My friends. And I can't..." he pauses, screws up his face. "Sometimes I find it difficult to not do what it wants. Suffice it to say, both of us want it gone.”

“How very practical of you.”

“That, and you have a few things that I want.”

Her smile broadens, revealing the tips of her incisors. They’re only human sharp, but they’re an uncomfortable reminder nevertheless. “There we are.” She waves him onward, granting her permission. “Make your demands.”

“Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan will be released immediately from the charms you and your husband have placed upon them, and you will let them leave this castle, unharmed and unfollowed, along with any other still living members of Vox Machina that you may have in this castle.”

“And what of Cassandra. You made no mention of her— would leave your fragile baby sister here, with us? With the dangerous monsters who murdered the rest of your family.”

“As if you’d give her up after all the years you’ve had her. I know you heard her, beneath the castle. ‘I’m a Briarwood, now…?’ I wouldn’t be surprised if that attachment goes both ways.” Breathe, Percival, he warned himself. Be polite. Don’t give her a reason to lash out, or hurt anyone.

He couldn’t resist snapping at her, but that was to be expected. She’d be suspicious if he rolled over without biting back.

“And what makes you think I’d give up those… delicious young half-elves? Silas has taken quite a liking to them, you know.”

“You don’t need them,” he snaps. “Whatever you’re trying to accomplish here, they were never part of your plan, and they aren’t mages or scientists to be able to help you. Be honest, Delilah. You kept them because they were pretty and because it hurt me. And it worked. It was very effective, I must say, sending Vex to me. All wrapped in the skin of her son.”

And Delilah simply waves his comment away. “Oh, that mangy thing? I was going to keep it myself, but it does look so much better on dear Vex’ahlia, don’t you think?”

“Everything looks better on Vex’ahlia. Now. Will you agree to my proposal, or will I have to force the issue?”

A tendril of smoke curls up out of his pores, wafts against his face, then trails outwards toward Lady Briarwood. It get close, but it can’t seem to touch her. It skirts the edges of her skin, curling close, and then recoiling, but it’s enough to make Delilah’s eyes narrow.

“If you think you can force the issue, Percival, you are welcome to try.”

Percy stands, and they stare at one another for a minute, three, waiting for the other one to blink first. It’s Delilah, but only just; she lets her expression resolve into that same infuriating smile. “Very well. We can discuss the particulars of that in a moment, but for now…?”

He tries to protest. He knows better by now than to cut a deal without specifically outlined parameters, without understanding on both sides, but Lady Briarwood’s companions are on him in a moment, their hands gripping his arms, forcing him backwards into the bed. They’re strong, inhumanly so, and as he tries to fight them off the scent of decay hits him like a mace to the back of the head.

Zombie, he knows. Vampires could be reasoned with, perhaps, could be bribed to let him go, as difficult as that might be to architect with Delilah watching, but zombie… He consoles himself with the fact that they’ll be easier to fool with an illusion than a vampire.

He struggles against the hands, like he’s supposed to, and finds them far, far stronger than he is. He can barely force his shoulders off of the smooth sheets before being forced back down.

Delilah stalks around the four-poster bed, until she is standing over his prone form, gaze once more locked with his. “Now, let’s begin. The sooner we free you of this evil influence the better, hm?”

She reaches down until her palm covers his face, her dark lacquered nails digging ever so slightly into his skin. And with the contact, her power pushes into him like ice through smoke, immediately encases his head with cold, frigid air scalds down his throat, yanking the comforting taste of gunpowder off of his tongue.

Somehow he breathes around it. He can’t do much more than that; it’s difficult to get his bearings underneath the oppressive cold, the winter-bitter wind stealing is breath and though. But any attempts to focus are quickly swept away, the smoke of his patron dispersing as quickly as he could expel it.

An illusion, he thinks, his own mental voice sounding desperate. All he needed to do was concentrate the smoke. He struggles against her, and manages to push her magic back just an inch to give himself some room for thought. For planning. And within his internal geography, he rights himself, breathes, and thinks at the thing somewhere behind him him: Let’s begin.

He mentally grasps at that oil-slick spark, that frozen combustion he’d found inside of him when the nightmares had begun again, that place where Orthax was, the place where he had drawn from to cast that smoke on his enemies, and began to craft. There was no other word for it, really, and though it rankled to even think it, but he didn’t really know how he accomplishes it. He just wills it be done, and so it is. Maybe that’s all magic was, intent, and the power to force it to completion.

Illusory smoke rises out of him as he fights to push her power out of her mind, aided by Orthax’s efforts. The smoke takes on features: a gaping mouth, moaning in agony, glowing crimson eyes, the suggestion of horns and a snout and scarlet skin. If Percy didn’t already know what Orthax looked like, he would assume that was the demon.

Delilah spares it a glance, frowns, and then pushes the pads of her fingers harder against Percy’s head. And the cold fingers in his mind pushes further in as well, until, he felt them in the small cavern Orthax had made for himself.

Percy lets out a gasp, feeling Orthax’s surprise and confusion as his own.

“There we are,” she crows. “Clever, trying to use an illusion to fool me. But not clever enough.”

Shit.

And the icy tendrils of her not-fingers reach into that place where Orthax lurks in the back of his head. He feels them wrap-grasp around what should just sift through it, an incorporeal and around an incorporeal form, and they pull.

Screams echo through the room, through his head, reverberating and multiplying. His screams and Orthax’s, no way to tell between them. It's akin to having his frozen internal organs ripped from him, an ice giant preforming the most brutal of surgeries, his heart and his liver and his kidneys ripped from their moorings over and over and over again.

And then something in him snaps.

The roiling black mass ejects itself from his mouth all at once, and he knows, he knows it is no illusion.

“There we are.”

Delilah pries her hand away from his face slowly, and the smoke follows her hand, pools in her palm. It coalesces into an orb of ever shifting darknesses, layers fluttering and folding from translucent to opaque and back again. Running into a barrier and rebounding on itself. And every now and again, he could see the flash of an enraged red eye, the slash of a bone beak.

He felt its anger and his own fear from a distance, helpless to do anything but watch as Delilah turns it over in her hand, smiles, and then tosses the ball upward in one smooth motion. And poof. It vanishes into nothing. Not even a dispersal of smoke, just a faint popping sound, and Orthax was gone. Percy felt the absence like a missing limb.

Only a few hours into his contract, and his patron was gone.

“There.” Delilah beams down at him, curling the fingers of her still-outstretched hand against her palm, finger by finger. The light glints against the lacquer on her nails, a deep red bordering on black. As if stained by the thing she had drawn out of him. “The little pest has gone back where he belongs and all is right with the realms. Now.” Her smile widens. “Let’s see what we can do now.”

She reaches for him again.

“Wait,” Percy croaks. He can feel the sweat dripping down his face; can feel the echo of his heart resounding in a too-empty chamber. His skin is too tight and his body too small all at once. His throat is drier than the sierras. “What about Vex and Vax.”

Her answering smile is a scythe. “We’ll talk about that in a moment, Percival. Oh, don’t look so worried. I gave you my word after all.”

And her fingers wrapped around his chin, directing his gaze to hers. Her eyes are a blue so deep he could fall into them. And then he did.

Warmth spreads across the frozen ache of his mind; the warmth of a fireplace with a blizzard roaring outside the castle. The memory transfixes him, curled up on the rug in front of the library fireplace, a book in his hands, the knowledge that his mother is curled up on a plush couch behind him. All business and classwork done for the day, so they were free to indulge, his mother with a copper dreadful imported from Emon, and he with a book on the Feywild.

He leans into that feeling, lets it soothe away his worries, his bruises, and when he opens his eyes, he is smiling.

Lady Delilah Briarwood smiles back down at him, smooths an errant hair out of his face. “Feel better?”

“Yes, milady. Much.” He sits up now, and is met with no resistance. Lady Briarwood’s assistants had let him go and retreated a respectful distance away. He turns around, to face her, and puts his feet on his floor.

His floor. The floor of his old bedroom. How kind of Lady Briarwood to instill him back here, even after how rude he had been to her and her husband. His eyes slip past the scroll-top desk, still covered in papers and books, though it looks recently rifled through—probably Dr. Ripley, it’s so nice that he could help a fellow tinkerer with his notes— to the upended chair, still lying on the floor, and he frowns. He could have really hurt someone, just leaving it there in the middle of the room.

“So, Percival.”

He turns back to face Lady Briarwood. “My apologies, Lady Briarwood, for my behavior thus far. I don’t know what came over me. You are my guest, I should—”

Her eyes glitter. “Technically, my boy, you’re mine.”

He frowns. Yes, yes, that’s right. This castle wasn’t his anymore. Was no longer the ancestral home of the de Rolos. For some reason the thought fratched at him.

“Do you know why that is, Percival?” He opens his mouth to answer, but nothing comes out. He can’t seem to think, can’t seem to grasp at… Lady Briarwood must notice his confusion, because she takes pity on him, pats the side of his cheek. “Nevermind that. It’s terrible what happened to them, it had to happen, you know that right?”

He nods, once, twice, with exaggerated slowness. It was unfortunate what had happened to his family, but it had to happen. He understands that now. He only thinks that for a moment before Lady Briarwood draws his gaze to her again.

“So, as my guest, would you be willing to help me out with a little project of mine? I need someone with your… expertise.”

“Of course my lady. Any thing I can do—”

“Wonderful. It won't be for a few more nights, you see, but you're absolutely essential to the project. Now, you just stay here I’ll send for you when we’re ready to begin. Alright?” He nods quickly, and she pats his cheek again. "Good boy, Percival. I know we will work so very well together." She takes a step away from him, starts toward the door.

He watched her go, still smiling. She was being so kind, really. It was hard to believe that just a minute ago—

“Oh Percy,” Lady Briarwood calls out, her hand on the door, halfway turned towards him. “What about your friends? What about dear Vex’ahlia and Vax’ildan?”

He frowns, cocks his head to the side. They were in the castle he knew, but... “What about them?”

“Oh, nothing. I just thought you might like to see them.”

“Oh, of course. That’s very thoughtful of you, my lady.”

She waves his praise away. “Think nothing of it. I’ll send them both to you this evening with your dinner. Provided they’re finished helping Doctor Ripley.” She watches him for a moment, expectant, but he just nodded.

“Of course. We can’t disturb the good doctor’s work.”

“No. No we cannot. Good day, Percival.” And with that, she opens the door and exits the room, leaving Percy staring after her, the faintest of smiles on his lips at the thought of seeing his friends.

The Briarwoods really were the most generous of hosts.

Chapter Text

The twins follow Doctor Ripley to her laboratory: a stone flagged room in the basement of the castle, just above the dungeons. They wait on her, both of them silent, expectant, as Ripley opens the thick metal-banded door, revealing the room: large, sturdy wooden tables standing sentinel at the left wall, loaded down with various arcane and alchemical equipment, books stacked to mountainous heights, glass flasks of green liquid cooling from where they’ve been suspended, glass vats of the same liquid standing against the far wall. And what appeared to be two empty wooden gurneys in the center of the room, hastily set up, the beds at 45 degree angles to the floor.

Vex can’t figure out what any of it is for, but then; she isn’t well versed in matters of alchemy. That’s Percy’s territory. Perhaps after they were done here she could go visit him, ask him about what she saw. He could use the company, and the thought of seeing him, especially with his demon banished, makes her smile.

Vax doesn’t seem interested in the room at all, just turns to the Doctor and asks, “So, what sort of thing do you need help with, Doctor? Tidying up or…?”

Doctor Ripley’s mouth twitches in a smug approximation of a smile, her eyes lit with avarice. “Oh, no. Lord and Lady Briarwood prize you both much too highly to put you to manual labor—” out of the corner of her eye, Vex sees Vax preen a little, puffing out his thin chest, and even she feels a small thrill of pride. “In fact, you won’t really need to do anything at all. Just lie back and pay attention. Can you do that for me?”

“That’s all you need,” Vex reiterates, while Vax replies immediately: “Of course we can.”

Ripley gestures to the two tables with the straps. And, without hesitation, the twins move toward them, Vex on the left, Vax on the right. They spare each other a warm glance, keeping eye contact as Ripley moves around them, strapping them in, hands at their sides, legs slightly apart, tightening each strap until the leather rubs uncomfortably when they shift positions.

Vax doesn’t move after the initial testing of their give, his face calm, eyes a little misty, but Vex pulls a little, testing their bonds.

“These are awfully tight, Doctor. Are you sure we need to be restrained for whatever you’re doing?”

“Lady Briarwood said anything I asked,” Ripley reminds her as she moves away from them, to a small wheeled desk. She doesn’t spare the twins a glance as she sweeps the sheet off of it, revealing a number of small metal tools. “You wouldn’t be questioning her ladyship now, would you?”

“Of course not,” Vex replies quickly, a thrill of panic going through her. The thought of going against one of Lady Briarwood’s requests was unthinkable. “I was merely curious. Forgive me.”

Ripley doesn’t answer, just peers at the tools, fist to her mouth, as if deciding something. Finally she picks up a small sharp knife and nods. “This will do for a start. Right.” And she whistles, making a little orb on her desk glow suddenly with light. “Let’s begin, shall we?

“Session one, 18th of Nightal. Subjects are half-elf twins; both charmed. The male has been able to break through the charms at the sight of the female in pain. We shall see be testing if the reverse is true, and to what extent.” And she starts towards the twins, the knife raised in her hand.

Vax frowns as he approaches, his eyes misting over, unfocusing, a thought refusing to form in his mind. It felt something like vertigo, or like two dissonant notes being played at the same time on a shawm right in his ears. “Doctor Ripley?”

She doesn’t answer him, though she stops right in front of him to examining his body. “Where to begin? Where to begin.”

Vex watches with the same small frown, more puzzled than alarmed. “Doctor Ripley, what are you doing?”

She doesn’t look over at Vex, too busy staring intently down at her twin brother. “We begin with a cut. Shallow, I think. On the male subject’s left pectoralus major.” She brings the knife up.

Vex can only watch as Ripley swipes the blade over her brother’s skin, innocent puzzlement heavy in her mind. She cannot breathe around how baffled, how perplexed she is at the sight of Doctor Anna Ripley—Lady Briarwood’s friend, someone Lord and Lady Briarwood trusted— cutting open Vax’s chest.

Her mind flicks through explanations like a rabbit bolting through grass, like vermillion sunlight rotoscoping through trees: Ripley must be cutting him loose/she was the one that bound him. She must be preforming delicate surgery/Vax wasn’t hurt, didn’t need it… she is... She is.

Ripley lifts the knife, moves it over a few inches, and cuts downward again.

The knife parts Vax’s skin. The knife glides downward. Blood chases the blade. Vax inhales sharply.

Ripley stops as soon as he makes a noise, looking over at Vex, studying her for a long moment. “Female subject seems confused. She’s watching every move I make, but it doesn’t seem enough.” She steps back, examining her handiwork. “Is it too clean a cut? Not enough pain perhaps. Or not enough of a threat…” She looks down at the bloodied blade, then sets it aside.

“I’m sorry,” she says a little louder, “it’s been so long since I’ve been given free reign. But I did learn so much with my last experiment, so we should be underway in a moment. Now.”

She looks over the remaining instruments on the table, casts a look back at Vax. “Perhaps the more primitive ways will be more effective. What I wouldn’t give for a red-hot poker.” The twins share a glance. “Ah, well.”

She abandons her table, moving around Vax’s table to his side. She puts her hand over his right hand. Her eyes flick to Vex, and never breaking eye contact, she grabs Vax’s pinkie and snaps it backward.

Vax gasps in pain, nearly coughing on the sharp inhale, and the words were out of Vex’s mouth before she’d formed a thought. “Stop it!”

Calm as a graveyard, Ripley grabs the next finger, and snaps it back as well. Her eyes on Vex the whole time.

And in that same moment Vax’s expression goes from kicked-puppy to realization to pain and rage, and he swears at Ripley, but he’s held too fast to even shift away from her or stop her from reaching for his middle finger.

“Vax’ildan,” Vex whispers.

His answer is a scream of pain as Ripley breaks a third finger.

Vex cries out “Doctor Ripley, what--?” still held fast though the domination has utterly shattered on her twin.

Vax screams at the top of his lungs, a litany of “I’ll kill you, Ripley. Do you understand me? If you touch my sister, if you go anywhere near her at all, I swear by all the gods, I’ll cut you apart and scatter your bones---” and other uninteresting threats of that breed. Ripley ignores him.

But sweet Vex’ahlia. She just looks up at the doctor, hurt reflected in those fogged-over eyes of hers, all, “Doctor Ripley, please. I don’t know what we might have done to displease you but give us a chance to make it right.”

Ripley sniffs, and turns on her heel, talking to the air. “Breaking the male subject’s fingers, despite it being a source of his livelihood, has only seemed to distress his female counterpart. His charm has shattered, but she still seems to be under the influence…” She taps her chin with a finger, twirling back around, her eyes bright. “Lady Briarwood said the charm broke her husband tried to attack the female subject with his sword, after she had fallen unconscious, so perhaps…” she looks at Vex’ahlia, icy eyes glowing with the excitement of impending discovery.

“Perhaps it needs to be the threat of a mortal wound.”

Panic spikes through Vex, and she shifts against her too-tight bonds before it is smothered with thick, floral confusion. “Doctor Ripley,” she begins, voice shaking, but then she can’t remember what it is she wants to ask the woman, and somewhere inside she knows it won’t do any good.

She can only watch as Ripley stalks to the other side of the room to the long work bench piled up with books and tinkerers tools and all sorts of explosive flammable things… and pulls out a revolver.

And points it at her brother.

And fires.

Vax grunts in surprise, his cursing cut off at once, but the scream that comes out of Vex is inhuman, all panic and wordless rage. It echoes off the stone walls, loud enough to make even Doctor Anna Ripley take a step back.

Vex’s head rings with the shot, the sound cascading over her head like cold water. Resounding in her like iron breaking. Everything crashes in and down on her at once, and the her scream goes on and on and—an outpouring of grief and rage and anguish—and she thrashes against the bonds, straining against the leather to leap at Ripley and tear her throat out with her own claws, with her own gods damned teeth—

She throws herself against the bonds, and the straps hold her back.

Anger, so much anger, fills every trembling part of her and yet her mind is suddenly clearer than it has been for days. A tether has snapped and everything inside of her is free; emotions a deluge, memories a drowning flood. She and her brother are strapped down onto tables in Ripley’s lab for gods-know-what purpose, and the last few days she’d been playing handmaiden to a psychopath. And she’d told Percy to… she’d told him too… and Trinket. Gods. Trinket.

She throws herself against the bonds again. They don’t move, but there’s a small complaint from the wood before she falls back against the table, chest heaving.

Ripley stares at her like she’s a butterfly under glass, her mouth moving, describing everything for the orb, but Vex can’t hear anything past the rushing of blood in her ears.

She throws herself forward again.

The wood gives a slightly longer scream, but she slams back, but this time she doesn’t give herself a reprieve. She pitches herself forward again, heedless of the pain in her limbs or the protests of her back, and is rewarded by a mournful sound coming from the polished wood, and a small give in the leather around her wrists.

Ripley stumbles backward half a step, her eyes wide.

Vex’s lips curl into a satisfied snarl, and she throws herself forward again. The rage builds up inside of her, a bowstring pulling tighter and tighter, all potential motion ready to be channeled into devastating accuracy.

“Enough of this,” Ripley says, and she throws her hand out and begins muttering under her breath. Even through her anger, Vex feels Ripley’s will blow through over her brain, but she bats it away. She screams again, wordlessly snarling, hands clenching and unclenching, desperate to tear into Ripley’s flesh.

But it’s not fear that make Ripley’s eyes go wide, though she moves further towards the door, her mouth curves into that same surprised, exhilarated smile she’d had once viewing Percy for the first time since he’d escaped her clutches. “Fascinating,” she murmurs, and her hand reaches for the door handle.

“I will rip out your lungs through your stomach,” Vex snarls, the first words she was able to form since Vax went quiet, and she throws herself against the bonds again.

“Guard,” Ripley asks once the door is open. “It seems we may have a situation underway. Please fetch Lady Briarwood.”

“Lady Briarwood is indisposed and is not to be disturbed,” comes the reply, and Ripley curses necromancers and undead servants under her breath.

Across the room, Vex’ahlia just sees that the guard is in the red and navy of the Brairwoods rather than the pale blues and lavenders and whites of the de Rolos, and though her wrists are running red with blood, she throws herself against the leather that holds her fast again, and with each lurching movement, wins herself a little more leeway.

“Then fetch Lord Briarwood,” Ripley snaps. “Immediately.”

The guard obeys, moving as fast as death-withered muscles will allow out of the doorway and down the hall.

Ripley moves back away from the door, begins dictating again to her orb, hand gesturing emphatically. “The female subject, as you have doubtlessly guessed, broke free of the domination that held her once her brother was mortally wounded, and subsequently broke the attempt at recharming her—”

“I will eat your heart,” Vex screams, throwing herself forward again.

“Though we have yet to see if a stronger enchantment will work. Unfortunately, I haven’t reached that point in my arcane studies—”

Vex throws herself forward again, wood shaking of splinters underneath her weight.

“A fact that I am now regretting. Still, we have yet to see if vampiric domination will be able to drag the subject back under.”

Vex throws herself forward again.

“Hopefully, we will find out fairly soon.”

She gives another scream, and even though she’s exhausted from all her previous attempts, even though her breath is coming quick and hot and her arms feel so, so heavy, she pitches herself forward with all her might.

And this time she isn’t pulled backward.

Whatever is holding the leather straps to the wood snaps. Vex hurtles forward, her momentum carrying her a few steps, enough for her to balance before she runs straight at a startled Ripley, her arms outstretched with a yell.

Ripley makes a small, undignified squeak, and thrusts her arm out between them just before Vex makes contact, and with the motion another spell ghosts across Vex’s skin—this time a wave of force pushing out of Ripley— but though it hurts, she pushes through. They struggle, Ripley pushing at her, she trying to get a hold, and after a moment she gets her hands around the doctor’s throat. Her nails dig into pale skin, and she squeezes.

Ripley makes a small, strangled noise and her face goes red.

Vex squeezes harder, triumph thrilling through her. First she’ll tear the life away from Ripley, then Delilah, then Sylas. Or Sylas first, making Delilah watch every torturous second as she cuts him apart with a silver dagger. And then every last bleeding coward who ever aided the Briarwoods in anything—

—and then a hand comes down on Vex’s shoulder, cold and hard as iron, and she’s hurtling across the room, the stone wall rising up to meet her, and all the air is out of her lungs and her back is on fire, the floor cool beneath her cheek.

She takes a moment to collect herself, to take in a gasp of air before she rises on all fours to see who dares to get between her and her prey.

And there stands Sylas Briarwood, unruffled, cheeks pink as if he had fed recently. He didn’t seem to notice her, his look of sneering disdain only for Ripley, who is still on the floor gasping for air, her hand massaging her throat.

“If you can’t take care of the toys we lend you, Anna, we won’t let you play with them anymore,” he drawls. His eyes flick over to Vex, still steadying herself, and to Vax, who is bleeding sluggishly from a hole in his abdomen, head hanging limp. He sniffs. “Have you at least managed to learn anything from your barbaric experiment?”

Ripley nods frantically, gives a weak cough.

“Then perhaps I won’t kill you for this. Guard, fetch the chirurgeon. Now.” The guard shuffles to obey, as Sylas turns on his heel, his blue eyes raking over Vex. “And what are we to do with you, dear thing.”

Vex just snarls and launches herself at him, hoping this time it will be different, but catches her so easily, her anger no match for his vampire strength. He grab her by the arms and lifts, and he is smiling. Like he is indulging a yowling kitten. That enrages her more, but even the kicks that connect don’t move him. “Easy now, child. It’s all going to be all right. I’m going to make everything alright again.”

“You fucking—”

“Look at me, Vex’ahlia,” he coaxes, and then, because he can’t resist, “look into my eyes.”

She screws her eyes shut, still kicking and writhing uselessly, and he sighs heavily.

“If we’re going to be difficult about this, there will be consequences, child. Not for you, but… perhaps for poor Vax’ildan.” His voice seems to slide like oil down her back, and she freezes in horror. “It would be a shame if, in having to deal with you, I was unable to attend to him, wouldn’t it?”

“You bastard,” she whispers.

“Open your eyes, Vex’ahlia,” he warns, ignoring her. “Or poor Vax’ildan will just bleed out where he lies. Such an ignoble death for a hero such as him, don’t you agree? To die chained when he could so easily be saved?”

Vex winces, then slowly opens her eyes to look over at her twin. Vax is still lying, limp, on the table where he was strapped in. The open cuts on his chest are still bleeding sluggishly. The bullet wound in his stomach, likewise seeping blood. His skin has a grayish cast that makes her heart quail.

He seems to be struggling for consciousness, eyes focusing and refocusing on her face though it seems to take all his effort to lift his head. He says her name softly, and his chin falls back against his chest.

He is alive. Sweet Sarenrae, he's still alive.

On the heels of her relief comes blistering panic. She can’t lose him. She can't lose him.

It swirls inside of her, each word resounding with the beat of her heart, leaping up her spine vertebrae by vertebrae until she can’t breathe for the panic that she might lose him anyway. He was her better half, her conscious. Her brother, her best friend, her constant companion. Her soul and her shadow. She cannot lose him too.

Panic building, she forces herself to look at Sylas, looks him right in those terrifying too-blue eyes, almost luminous in the antiseptic light of the lab.

He smiles, and she sees a hint of fang. “Good girl.”

She feels his gaze pierce through her, feels the magic behind it take hold. It wraps around her, sleepy warmth falling over her thoughts, oppressive and thick. Her eyes feel heavy, her mind slow.

Something was wrong, wasn’t it? Someone was hurt, but she couldn’t remember who or why. She had been screaming just a moment ago. Her throat hurts from it.

She blinks.

No, everything is fine. She and Vax had just been helping Doctor Ripley as requested and there had been an accident. That was it. Just an accident. It was a lab, and Doctor Ripley was doing dangerous and important work. Accidents happened, on occasion, in such an environment.

But everything is fine. Lord Briarwood is here, and he’s going to make everything fine.

She is dimly aware of being set back on the floor, of her body taking her own weight again. She sways a bit, but catches herself as Lord Briarwood pats her on the shoulder.

“Good girl,” he repeats, and turns towards Vax.

***

Anxiety has been Cassandra’s constant companion these past few days.

Lady Briarwood—Delilah—has been trying to keep her distracted with horse rides and embroidery and all the sorts of things a young noble woman should occupy her time with, as if the guards weren’t zombies and their attending servants weren’t a pair of charmed half-elves that she’d betrayed only days ago and her brother wasn’t locked in his old room. She tried, at first, to hide herself back behind empty-eyed obedience. Back in that place where she didn’t flinch every time Sylas moved his hand, or feel sick when Delilah brushed her hair from her face, but she couldn’t manage it anymore. It eats at her, sets her thoughts on circular paths, and finally, she feels she must do something or break into a thousand pieces.

She heads to Percy’s room.

And there she stands now, feeling distinctly ill, but she doesn’t let herself run back to her room. Even after everything, she thinks, she owes him this much. She needs to see what they’ve done to him. Needs to make sure he’s still alive.

She knocks on the door brusquely, not even waiting for Percy’s reply before she opens the door.

He’s laying on his stomach on his ancient four-poster bed, an open notebook in front of him and a book in his hand, eyes flicking from one to the other as he sketches something.

“Percival,” she says, softly, feeling so much, so much she can barely contain it. She breathes through it, trying to remain cold, trying to keep her composure, but it’s her brother before her. The brother she once saved from this castle, the brother she returned to captivity.

And he looks up, blue eyes placid with the charm Delilah must have placed on him (she knew Delilah’s charms, knew what they felt like, remembers distantly seeing that look in her own eyes), but sweet Pelor he looks terrible. His clothing is sweat-streaked and wrinkled in a way he would never allow if he were in his right mind, and his face is covered with stubble. She wonders if he been able to change his clothes or wash at all these last few days.

His eyebrows rise in shock, and he quickly closes the book, scrambles to prop himself up “Cassandra. What a surprise. Not that I’m not glad to see you, of course. It’s just that Lady Briarwood told me you were still angry at me.”

“Angry.” She purses her lips. "Yes, I suppose that covers it." Though it doesn't come anywhere close to blasted emotions swirling in her stomach.

“Not that I could blame you, of course. I’ve treated you abominably.” He stands from the bed, and starts towards her, getting as close to her as the chain around his ankle will allow. “Not as a caring brother should at all.” He sighs, and the look he gives her is so heartfelt beyond the fog that it hurts.

“I never should have left you, Cassie. Even if Lord and Lady Briarwood have proved to be apt and able guardians. They cared for you while I was gone, and for that, I will always be grateful.” He finally reaches the end of the tether. It stops him a few inches away from her, and he gives up trying to move it after one tug.

It’s the sound of metal that breaks her out of her swirling thoughts, and Cassandra glances down to see it. It’s gold, clasped around his ankle above his bare feet. Her eyes follow the chain to the bed, and cold horror settles in her stomach. “Percy? Gods, what have they done to you?”

“What?” He frowns, follows her gaze to his ankle, and then laughs. “Oh, that’s my fault I’m afraid. I was possessed, did you know? By some sort of demon. It had me thinking that the Briarwoods were my enemy. Can you imagine?” He gives a small chuckle. “And I’m afraid I was attacking everyone within reach like some sort of rabid animal. Now that Lady Briarwood has cleared my mind, I suppose they’ll unlock me shortly.”

She looks back up at him, her stomach twisting.

He had left her, she thought. He had left her behind to watch her city be turned into wasteland, to watch their people be cowed and beaten and made full of fear. Had left her to spearhead one failed rebellion, then to cause the others to fair under the direction of the Briarwoods. He had left her. In Whitestone. For four years of the Briarwoods’ tender care. It was hard not to resent him, out in the world, gallivanting with his friends while she endured hell.

And gods alone knew if he'd even have apologized this much, if he had been in his right mind. Nobility doesn't apologize and all that.

But he didn’t deserve this. No one deserved this.

Her hands shake, and she feels the itch in the back of her throat that meant she was going to dissolve into tears any moment. “I’m sorry,” she manages.

“Sorry?” His forehead wrinkles when he frowns. How could she have forgotten that? His hand comes up and he places it on her forearm. “You have nothing to be sorry about, Cassie. I’m the one who should be sorry. And I am. And I’m going to make it up to you.”

His hand is on her arm, and he means to comfort her, but she’s just frozen. They were de Rolos. They didn’t touch. They didn’t show emotion. De Rolos set their jaw and kept moving, no matter what tragedy befell them.

But here he was, comforting her. And here she was, on the edge of breaking apart.

“I’m a Briarwood,” she had whispered under Whitestone, her hand on the residuum glass that separated her from him. But she isn’t that either. A Brairwood wouldn't care that his eyes were fogged over, his thoughts influenced. A Brairwood would be delighting in getting her way at last, in his weakness, in the plan coming together. A Brairwood would looking for further cracks to exploit. She'd spent enough time around them to know that much.

She doesn't know what she is, now. Just that she is still Percy’s sister.

And though she doesn’t know why the Briarwoods have kept him alive, she decides then and there that cannot allow whatever plans they have for him come to pass.

She lets that purpose fill her, lets it wipe the last lingering cobwebs from her mind. And, feeling clear-headed for the first time in days, no, years, she squares her shoulders, tilts her jaw and looks Percy in the eye. “No, brother. I’m going to make it up to you. I promise.”

“Cassie?”

But she’s already dislodged herself from his grip, has already began heading towards the door, her stride quick. No longer the mouse of Whitestone, creeping along, trying not to be noticed. And she makes her decision.

She heads toward the basement stairs.

Chapter Text

Whitestone was safe. Well, safe in the way that there were no longer undead giants roaming the streets and the hoard of skeletons had all been put back down. Most of the guards, those that had still been human, had been slain on the castle steps, their bodies burned just in case. But the air of oppression still lingered over the town, and the Sun Tree was still very dead, its yellowed leaves hanging limp on all its branches.

And the Briarwoods still controlled Whitestone castle, and whatever lies beneath it.

Keyleth looks up at the castle through the weak dawn light, her eagle eyes scanning for a glimpse of her friends on the battlements. But like all other mornings before, all she can see are the austere, white curtain walls. The thick mist that seems to shroud it doesn't give her any more than that.

She waits, watches until the rosy dawn light shifts to a soft pearl-- just enough to see by unhindered, but not enough to harm a vampire, if she doesn't miss her guess, but the castle doesn't stir. If she didn't know better, she would think it was abandoned.

She would spend her entire day out here if she could, waiting for a glimpse of a familiar shape, but though the Briarwoods weren't wasting any more of their power on the town itself, she knew they still had operatives around the castle. Yesterday she'd waited too long, and had almost gotten shot down by a man in the Brairwoods' navy blue and red. It's stupid for her to sit out here too long, to expose herself to that again.

But still, she waits just another breath more before she takes off, and soon she is wheeling high above the canopy of the forest. She takes it all in, how empty and lifeless it all seems, (how hopeless this all is) before she dives back through the leaves another mile or so away from the castle, changing back as soon as she hit the ground. It was still another mile or so out to the home they were squatting in, but it was worth it to be a little paranoid. She couldn't be tracked back, not yet. They weren't ready.

Scanlan waits for her in the basement of a little cottage at the edge of Whitestone proper, seated at a dusty table in the furthest corner, facing the door. His quill flies over a piece of parchment. He doesn’t look up as she enters. “What rhymes with ‘savior,’ do you think? It has to be 3 syllables.”

She shoots him an annoyed look and slides down the wall furthest from the door, so she could keep the entire room in sight, and more importantly, the door. “I can’t believe you’re still writing that thing while our friends are dying, or are dead, or worse up at that castle.”

“Well, when we save them or revive them or whatever, I’m going to need a series of limericks to tell them how dangerous and harrowing it all was, and how amazing I am. We are,” he conceded, sending her one of his winning smiles. “Otherwise how will they know?”

“Scanlan—”

“Relax, Keyleth.”

“You’re not worried at all are you,” she shouts back.

He stops, putting the quill down, ignoring the ink blot it immediately starts spreading across the page, and shifts on the stool until he’s facing her. “Of course I am. You think I like the idea of Vax as the Briarwoods’ gimp? I want to charge up there just as much as you do. But Pike told us to wait, so we wait. You’ve got to have a little faith.”

Keyleth is silent for a moment. She looks down at her hands. “What if they’re all dead already.”

“Then we avenge them. And then we bring them back.” He says it with such fierceness that Keyleth had to look back at him. He looks more serious than she’s ever seen him, she thinks. “One way or another, we will get them back.”

“You don’t know that,” she whispers. “You can’t possibly know that.”

“Of course I do. We’re Vox Machina. And I don’t know if you know this, Keyleth, but we’re pretty awesome. We’ve killed demons and dragons and one really fucked up beholder. And next time, that vampire and his freaky necro-bride won’t stand a chance.”

Her eyes itch and her vision swims. She hugs her knees to her chest. “I wish I had your confidence.”

Scanlan just stares at her for a long moment, at the way she’s bent over herself, at the dark circles underneath her eyes. Finally, he gets off the stool and comes closer to her, places one small gnomish hand on her shoulder. “Keyleth…”

“You know what I can’t stop thinking about Scanlan?” Her voice is hoarse, as if tears aren’t that far away.

He shakes his head.

“In the study, while he was still bleeding… when Vax told me he loved me?”

“Ah, right.”

“He told me he loved me, Scanlan. Like, was in love with me.” She takes in a raspy breath. “He told me he loved me, and I couldn’t say anything back because I was terrified, because I didn’t know how to respond, because he almost died, but now the worst has happened and we lost him anyway and…” The tears are flowing now, big wet tears tracking down her face. Scanlan looks uncomfortably on. “What if he dies. Or-or-or what if the Briarwoods turn him into a zombie or something and we have to kill him and I never get to tell him…”

“What. Tell him what.” His face softens. “That you love him?” She’s quiet just a moment too long, and Scanlan nudges her with his shoulder. “It’s okay. Either way. We all heard him say it.”

“Maybe? I don’t. I don’t know.”

“Hey.” She looks up at him. “You don’t have to decide whether you do or not right now. And..." he stops. "Okay, so you know this thing with Pike, that I have? The thing where I profess my love and tell her how sexy she is and she shoots me down every time?”

She nods.

“I don’t do it because expect her to jump into bed with me. I don’t expect any professions of love from her. I mean, I wouldn’t say no if it happened,” he smiled, waggled his eyebrows at her, making Keyleth give a watery laugh. “But I don’t expect anything from her. And Vax doesn't expect anything from you either.”

Keyleth sniffs.

“But if you do love him, ? Tell him. Life—this life, our lives— are way too short for you to hold that stuff back.”

That was what she was afraid of, she thinks. Because if she completed her Aramenté…. But there was no guarantee of that, either. They could all die in this gods forsaken place. She just nods slowly, holding a scream back in her throat.

They sit in silence for a moment, and in that silence, Keyleth remembers. She remembers gnomes live a long time too. Not as long as elves, not nearly as long as she might, but it was still more years than most of their little band would see. And Scanlan was already middle aged. How many had he already loved and lost.

Keyleth snuffles again and nods. “I’ll think about that. And Scanlan?” He raises an eyebrow. “Thanks.”

“Just call me Doctor Love,” he shoots back with a wink, before heading back to the desk, humming a few bars underneath his breath.

Keyleth laughs and wipes the tears from her cheeks. The sounds of Scanlan’s quill scratching fills the room. She rests her head against the earth-packed floor.

But the fluttering panic is still there, still under her skin, reminding her how many hours it’s been since they had to flee the castle and leave their friends behind. Wondering how much of Grog and Vex and Percy and Vax are actually left. Pike needed a body to bring someone back, what if there wasn’t one?

She tries to take in slow, even breaths, tries to take comfort in the repetitive sound. Scanlan’s here, she wasn’t alone. But still it beats under her skin. If she could just go Minxie and tear through the woods until she couldn’t think anymore, maybe then she could get some peace.

But it’s not safe. And she already risked too much.

Instead, she pipes up with, “How long do you think it’ll take Pike to get back?”

It’s a question she asks basically every day. Twice a day, if she’s being honest. But to his credit, Scanlan never snaps at her. Never tries to make her feel bad about needing to give voice to the worry that builds up inside of her until she has to move or speak or explode all over the inside of their hideout.

Scanlan thinks about it a moment. “To get here from Vasselheim without you being there to open a tree?” He hisses through his teeth. “That’s not a quick journey.”

“But every day we wait is another day the Brairwoods could have—” she says, the sentence building like she’s said it a dozen times, and she probably has, only for Scanlan to interrupt her.

“Sssh.” He summons a mage hand to close the gap between them, and puts its fingers to her lips to shut her up. “Do you hear that?”

It's the sound of clanking metal. They look at one another, faces set in the same determined expression, both of them thinking the exact same thing. The guards had found them at last.

Scanlan raises an eyebrow and Keyleth nods, all business and as one they stand and turn toward the dusty wooden staircase. Keyleth lights her hands up, the crackling flame illuminating the barely contained rage on her face. Scanlan brings up his shawm and purses his lips around the reed, the image somehow managing to be threatening, perhaps because of the intensity of his stare.

There is a flash of silver at the top of the stair, weak sunlight shining through the dusty windows onto metal, and the clanging gets louder. Keyleth leans forward, lifting one flame-wreathed hand, and readies a fireball.

One heartbeat. Then another.

Then, “hey guys!” a familiar voice stage-whispers, just as the light from Keyleth’s hands brings a gnome into focus, with a bright smile and hair the color of white-gold, braided into a crown across the top of her head.

“Pike!”

“Oh my god, Pike!”

They rush forward to greet their friend as one. Keyleth gets there first, of course, longer legs, and sweeps the gnome up into her arms, into a nearly bone breaking hug, then immediately puts her back down. “Oof. I always forget how heavy you are in all that armor.”

Scanlan reaches them a moment later. “Pikey pants, you’re here, you’re really here. How…?”

Pike throws her arms around him in a hug, beaming, then stepping away before he can take advantage of it. “It wasn’t easy,” she says, “I had to call in a few favors, but I had to get here as soon as possible, and in the meantime I managed to get some help too, and well… you’ll see.” She turns, looking up at the top of the stairs, and beckons. “Come on down guys!”

“Help? What kind of…”

The creak of the stairs stops the question, as two figures start down the stairs; one of middling height, and one just a half an inch shorter than Pike herself. They both wore dark cloaks that shrouded their faces, the hoods coming to a strange beak-like point.

“This is Naomi, and Merric,” Pike said, gesturing. And the hoods came down, revealing the faces of a young human woman with dark skin and a scar over her left eye, smiling warmly, and a male Halfling beaming towards his new acquaintances. “They’re paladins of the Raven Queen.”

“Well,” the human—Naomi, said, a small smile on her lips. “I’m a paladin. Merric has made a… different deal with our Lady.”

The halfing’s smile goes sly, and he wiggles his fingers in the universal signal of magic. “Still, the Lady calls and I answer,” he says in a reedy voice. The raven on his shoulder caws in agreement. “And Miss Pike says you guys need to get rid of a vampire, so…” he shrugs. “Here we are.”

“Not just a vampire,” Scanlan says, looking over at him. “A bunch of zombies. And a necromancer, I think, from the spells she used. And whatever the hell they’re trying to do down in that creepy temple cannot be good.”

Naomi looks at Merric, who nods, both of them going serious. “This temple is going to be an issue. The Dawnsister told us some of what she recalls, but we could use a more thorough understanding, if you two don’t mind—”

“Pike, where did you find these people?” Keyleth snaps, glaring at the paladin.

“The Raven’s Crest.” Pike gives a grimace of understanding, and pats the druid’s hand in a way she hopes is reassuring. “I don’t know a lot a lot about the other gods. But I do know the Raven Queen hates the undead, so as soon as I woke up back in my body, I ran to the Duskmeadow, and these guys were just waiting for me, all ready to go.”

“Our Lady has… a vested interest in what is happening here,” Naomi explained, that same half-grimace on her face. “Both for Her own sake and an ally of Hers who cannot send representatives here Herself. Someone who we suspect that temple once belonged to. Please. I know your friends are in trouble and we do want to help as much as we can, but we’re gonna need to know everything we can before we go in there.

“I promise we’ll be helpful,” Merric breaks in, a shy smile showing a dimple in his boyish face. “They train us special. And Naomi here was top of her class at making the undead dead again.”

Naomi rolls her eyes, but to Keyleth’s eyes it looks like there’s a pink tinge to her brown skin that wasn’t there before. “So,” she says, “what all do you guys know about that temple? About these Briarwoods?”

Keyleth looks down at Scanlan, and Scanlan looks up at Keyleth, both of their expressions dour. Keyleth looked on the edge of tears, and Scanlan’s eyes were hooded from lack of sleep. And try as he might he couldn’t think of a single flippant thing to say to lighten the mood.

So he turned toward Pike, tried to ease her concern with a soft grin, and then looked up at the paladins. “Alright. So, here’s what we know…”

***

His breathing comes wet and heavy. His chest aches with the familiar pain of a broken rib or two, his arms burn from a thousand half-healed scratches and bruises, his feet throb from standing. He focuses on that pain, lets it fill his thoughts, let it keep him going. He knows pain. Had made it a companion to while away the nights with, had let it make him better, stronger, faster. Made him a shield for his family.

(Don’t think about how it wasn’t enough. Don’t think about your best little buddy vanishing in a scream, don’t wonder if she’s still alive, if her going poof means her body is back in Vasselheim without her and he’ll never see her again. Don’t think about Percy going down, don’t think about Vax’s daggers cutting through Keyleth and driving her back from the half-charred vampire, don’t think about Vex swooping out of the sky to stop him and getting caught by a spell, don’t think about Percy’s traitor sister slashing through Scanlan’s back. Don't think about your family falling one by one. Don’t think about how you were helpless to stop it. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.)

He breathes again, deep as he can, and feels the agony of broken bits of bone rubbing against one another, narrowly keeping his vision red instead of succumbing to the black.

He does sleep sometimes. Eats what they give him. He has too. Even his rage hasn’t given him a way of ignoring his body’s needs. But he sleeps lightly, and as soon as he hears footsteps against the stone floor, he is awake and aware and he is raging, and he is in pain.

As long as he is in pain, he can keep his rage. As long as he keeps his rage, as long as his blood burns, he’d be ready the next time that bitch mage and her corpse husband walk through that door.

Then he can make them pay for what they did to his family.