Chapter 1: Arrival
In hindsight, she should have been more careful.
Vesper knew about the strange dangers in Emon, cropping up more and more frequently; people would go missing after turning a corner, or passing through a gate, or would be briefly blocked from sight by a streetlamp or telephone pole and never appear on the other side. People were beginning to throw around the word ‘magic’, though all true magic had faded when the Material Plane was cut off from all others with the creation of the Divine Gate during the Divergence, and the last wizards and sorcerers and what-have-you had died centuries ago.
Even if people were reappearing with strange stories (and occasionally, stranger artifacts) there was no way to prove what had happened. It was so recent that the Emon police were still considering whether people hadn’t been drugged, though there was no way to explain the disappearances.
But in the last week, they’d grown more frequent. Vesper should have been more careful when she was out walking, and she should have accepted Whitney’s offer of company, and she definitely should have listened to the little voice in the back of her head that told her to put her phone down and pay attention.
She had not done any of those things.
It was as though Vesper had tripped and stumbled over a threshold, except that threshold barred the way to something far bigger than the kitchen where the cabinet with her favorite snacks was. She stumbled into blackness, and it seemed like a long time before she found the other side and discovered that the blackness there was because her eyes were closed.
Vesper opened her eyes, and immediately closed them again.
“Ah, you’re awake,” said the strange, robed individual sitting next to where she was lying. “Go ahead and take a moment, you probably have a headache. Now, I can guess what happened. We’ve had a lot of cases like yours in the city recently. You tripped and woke up somewhere you weren’t a moment ago?”
“Sounds about right,” Vesper muttered, wrinkling her forehead in an effort to stave off the headache which she hadn’t noticed until it had been pointed out to her. “What happened?”
“You are somewhere I’m told is very different from where you come from,” the friendly-sounding female voice said. “The people here working on the problem right now like to talk a lot about planes and multiple planar systems, but in a nutshell, something is causing magical pathways which link your Material Plane to ours, which is a different one. Though not entirely dissimilar, so the other ones have said.” The voice paused, and added, “Also, you’re in the city of Vasselheim, in the Platinum Sanctuary.”
“The Platinum Sanctuary?” Vesper opened her eyes out of surprise. “I thought it was a museum.”
“On your Material Plane, maybe.” The woman was not so very strange when Vesper got a good look at her, but there was something off about her eyes, and her ears were far longer - and pointier - than they should have been. She noticed Vesper looking, and smiled wryly. “Yes, the ears, that’s always the next question. I’m an elf, to answer it. The others I’ve talked to say that where you come from there are only humans. I’m Amani, by the way.”
On pure muscle memory, Vesper stuck out her hand. “Vesper de Rolo. What others have been here?”
“Others from your world.” Amani shook her hand. The long sleeves of her robe, which was embroidered with silver thread in a pattern of scales with long white stripes along the hems, dangled and nearly reached the floor. “They all seem to end up here. Nobody can figure out what or who is creating these pathways, so for now we just try to send people back as quickly as possible.
“And what else?” Vesper propped herself up on her elbows. It was very awkward to hold a conversation while lying down.
“Is there another question you wanted to ask?”
“You looked surprised when I told you my name,” Vesper said. Amani’s eyebrows had briefly jumped up - and her ears had twitched, but Vesper was trying not to pay attention to that.
“I could have sworn I recognized it, is all,” Amani said. “Quite surprising, all things considered. You’re taking this situation very well.”
Vesper considered the situation. The room she was in had walls which were somewhere between white and pastel blue, and was very small, containing only a low table, Amani’s chair, and the chaise on which she was lying. “Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet.”
“Maybe,” Amani conceded.
“What happens now?” She had, Vesper realized, no home here, and probably no money, and nothing but the clothes she was wearing and her purse. “And where’s my purse?”
“On the ground next to you,” Amani said. Vesper felt around for the strap and quickly located it. “As for yourself, you’re a bit of a special case. Tripped right into the Sanctuary itself, which hasn’t happened before. All the other cases have been out in the city. Highbearer Vord’s taken an interest in how you ended up here.”
“Oh.” Vesper couldn’t imagine that being good. “He sounds important.”
“He runs the Sanctuary, and represents it to the rest of Vasselheim. He’s also an elf, if you were wondering.”
“I wasn’t.” It hadn’t occurred to Vesper to wonder if he was human or not. She supposed she was going to have to get used to that. “Is that what it’s like here? Humans and elves?”
“Among others,” Amani said. “The Sanctuary has a fair number of dragonborn among its ranks, given that we serve the Platinum Dragon. Those are mostly what they sound like. There’s a not-insignificant number of halflings and gnomes in the city.”
“Halflings? Like hobbits?”
“Possibly, but I have no idea what that other word means.” Amani shrugged, and stood. “You’ll have a chance to see for yourself. Highbearer Vord, like I said, wants to speak to you. You can take a moment to compose yourself, though, of course. There’s some food and water on the side table, and when you’re ready you can tell the guard outside and I’ll come back.”
Vesper didn’t have time to protest before Amani was sweeping out, giving her only a brief glimpse of a shiny corridor and a guard in silver before the door closed again.
Cautiously, Vesper sat up.
The low table she’d noticed before was, true to Amani’s word, set up with a glass pitcher and a small plate with bread. Vesper took off her heels before standing up, just in case, though that left her in stockings, and who knew how they’d hold up against the stone floor. Her headache briefly intensified as she stood, but there was no dizziness, and her vision stayed clear.
Just to check, Vesper opened the door. It was not locked. The hallway was chillier, and the guard leaning against the wall was in armor, not just silver clothing. He perked up when Vesper looked out.
“You need something?” He asked, straightening. He also straightened the spear he carried.
“No,” Vesper said, and closed the door. The guard had seemed to be human, but she probably couldn’t be sure. She leaned her head against the back of the door, feeling rough wood under her hands and cold stone under her feet, and wished she hadn’t gone out that day.
With only the vaguest hope, she checked her phone. It turned on, but the clock blinked 12:00 at her, and there was no signal. The last text she’d gotten, unread, was still displayed on the lockscreen. It was from her mother, asking her if she was going to be able to come by for Vex and Percy’s little family party.
The answer was no, now, but Vesper had no way to tell anybody that.
When she felt ready, about four hours later, Vesper asked the guard where Amani was, and he obligingly went off to get her. By the time Amani arrived Vesper had put her shoes back on, and they clicked satisfyingly against the stone floor as she walked alongside the elven woman.
“Why are you escorting me around, anyway?” Vesper asked as they traversed a hallway, along one side of which was hung an elaborate tapestry, faded but impressive-looking.
“I’m...still something of a junior member of the Sanctuary.” Amani looked embarrassed to say it. “And I’m the most patient. So I got put in charge of making sure you didn’t do anything unwise because you didn’t know better.”
“Right,” Vesper said. As an afterthought, she added, “Thank you.”
“Well, I kind of don’t have a choice, but you’re welcome.”
“How does being a junior member of the Sanctuary work? The one I know is a museum, but I know it used to be a functioning monastery, of sorts.”
“Oh, more than that.” Amani perked right up - evidently she knew the subject well. “Vasselheim, which you might already know, is split between five gods - the Platinum Dragon, the Stormlord, the Lawbearer, the Wildmother, and the Raven Queen. There’s been murmurings going on about the Everlight ever since her old temple was excavated out, halfway down the mountain, but no one’s done anything formal yet, so I don’t think it counts.”
“The Everlight? I’m not familiar.”
“Sarenrae,” Amani said. “A bit niche, at least until Vox Machina made her more popular. But you were asking about the Sanctuary!” She swept on before Vesper could ask who ‘Vox Machina’ was. “Highbearer Vord, like I told you before, represents us to the city. Five gods, five sections of the city devoted to them, so whoever’s in charge of each section is part of a council of sorts that governs Vasselheim. Well, six, the founder of the temple of the Everlight does have a position, but like I said, it’s complicated.”
Amani went on to describe the Sanctuary’s role in more detail. The Sanctuary itself was the center of the Platinum Dragon’s district, which was the Silver Talon’s Reach. It took in serious devotees of Bahamut, trained them in religion and history and spirituality - and for those seeking to become clerics or paladins (titles Vesper digested with a fair amount of skepticism, despite everything that had happened that day), they taught magic and various arts of fighting. The Sanctuary was responsible for the defense of not just the Reach, but the city as a whole. Alongside the other four districts, of course.
Vesper was a little lost in the depths of the detail Amani was willing to include by the time the hallway they were walking through opened up and a calm voice said, “Thank you, Acolyte, I shall take it from here.”
The man in the room Vesper had been led to looked sort of like Amani, in that he also appeared to be elvish. He was much taller, and the pale white cloth of his far more elaborate robes made the silver embroidery difficult to see unless he was standing in just the right light, which he appeared to be making an effort to do. The light that fell down from the skylights set into the dome which crowned the large, round room made his hair look much paler than it actually was, almost platinum instead of what had to be the pale grey of someone rather elderly. If he was very old, he didn’t look it; the lack of a beard, maybe, made him look younger than he was. Even Vesper’s father had a bit of scruff going.
“Highbearer Vord,” Amani murmured, suddenly quiet. She sketched a shallow bow, and retreated several paces before actually turning around to walk away. Somewhat alarmed at her guide’s absence, Vesper did her best to straighten her spine and set her shoulders determinedly.
“I was told you wished to speak with me,” she said, trying not to give away how the chill in the Sanctuary was beginning to get to her - especially to her legs.
“Indeed.” Highbearer Vord studied her for several moments, as if whatever questions he wanted to ask could be answered by Vesper’s face. “I’m sure you’ve been told that this is the first time such a disturbance as a stranger appearing out of nowhere has occurred within the Sanctuary itself.”
“Yes, Amani mentioned that,” Vesper said. “I have to say, the whole disappearing thing is causing a bit of a stir back home, too.”
Vord didn’t seem to care much for how it was affecting her home. “You have a name, I presume?”
A bit stung by his curtness, Vesper stuck out her hand. “Vesper Mathilda von Musel Klossowski de Rolo. Pleased to meet you.” She wasn’t, and she doubted he would see her offering to shake as anything less than her dragging him down to the level of her peer - or rudely elevating herself.
Surprisingly, Vord seemed surprised by her name too. Though his ears didn’t twitch like Amani’s, his eyebrows rose a very pointed millimeter.
“De Rolo?” His tone, too, was as measured as it had been. “An interesting name for someone like you to bear.”
“I assume it means something here, too, then?” Vesper lowered her hand only when it was very obvious that he wouldn’t shake. She hadn’t expected him to be the kind of man to be shamed into shaking, but it didn’t hurt to try.
“It belongs to a lordship in the far northeast of Tal’Dorei.” Vord was observing her with a great deal more interest than he had been before she introduced herself. “And to a rather remarkable adventurer.”
“Adventurer?” Vesper echoed, wondering what he meant by it.
“I doubt ‘Vox Machina’ means anything to you.” Still, Vord looked expectant.
“Amani mentioned the name before, but didn’t say who it belonged to.”
“A group of adventurers of quite deserved fame.”
It was Vesper’s eyebrows that rose at that; even she could gather that the comment was a high compliment. “Then I seem to be attached to high company, even when very much out of my depth.” At least the name was explained now; it was a group, not a person with very interesting parents.
Vord was still watching her with the same interest. “Many things are out of the depth of most I might turn to to solve this puzzle,” he said at length. “You, and the other arrivals, speak the same language and are aware of the same major cities and landmarks; yet you describe a magicless world profoundly strange to any here who hear of it. We send you back easily, and yet none can figure out what is bringing you here in the first place.”
“Send us back?” Vesper’s heart had leaped at those words. “You mean - when people return, that’s you reversing whatever it is taking people away? Can you send me back?” She’d assumed - well, she’d really tried not to think about how long it might take for whatever had happened to reverse, or be reversed.
“No,” Vord said. While Vesper stared at him in shock, he continued, “You arrived in the Sanctuary itself. Either the spell is going wrong, or whoever controls it is growing more bold, and either way I suspect your presence at least may offer some kind of answer to this problem. Until it is solved, you will stay here.”
“Shouldn’t I have a say in this?” Vesper demanded. “I have a family! I don’t belong to this world, much less your Sanctuary!”
“Nevertheless, if we send you back you may only end up returning by some accident of fate.” Vord was not moved in the slightest. “I find myself growing wearing of continuing on without an answer. Rest assured we will send you back - this is not a permanent setup.” He nodded to someone behind her.
Outraged, Vesper spun around, facing the guard who was now opening the door. He looked between her and Vord, evidently gauging the situation.
“You are dismissed,” Vord said coolly. The guard gave Vesper a pleading look. He, like all the other ones she’d seen, was armored in silver and carrying a spear.
Vesper squared her shoulders, and strode off as condescendingly as she could manage.
She had no connections, no money, and therefore no influence in this magical world; it followed that there was nothing yet that Vesper could do to solve her current predicament. But she was determined to make up for this loss, and so as Amani led her on a tour around the Sanctuary, she attended closely to her guide’s words.
“This is the library,” Amani said, throwing open the double doors which lead into a huge space filled wall-to-wall with bookshelves. Flameless, non-electric lights burned in sconces, shedding light and casting black shadows. “It’s thousands of years old, no one’s sure of the precise number anymore. You’ll probably be able to look around whenever you like, but bring someone with you just so you don’t get lost.”
“This is the observatory.” A smaller door led into a freezing cold room they’d climbed hundreds of stairs to get to. Its walls were nearly entirely windows, and a domed roof was painted dark blue with silver constellations. Vesper was too busy trying not to shiver to see if she recognized any. “Not many people still come up here, but it’s got a great view of the rest of the city. Though,” she said, catching sight of Vesper as she turned around, “I suppose it’s a little cold.”
“This is the Grand Hall,” as they descended back down the stairs and through a pillared entryway wider and taller than almost anything Vesper had ever seen. Tapestries and banners decorated the walls and pillars, metallic embroidery shining in the weak sun that came in through the skylights.
“This is the Quartermaster,” quickly followed by “Quartermaster, this is Vesper, she needs something warmer,” as Amani introduced Vesper to an older human woman tucked away in a room which appeared to have been dug into the rock of the mountain Vesper knew the Sanctuary was perched atop (if that much remained the same). The Quartermaster nodded briskly and left her position behind her desk to vanish into the many, many shelves and crates of things piled up. Vesper could see a door distantly in the back which seemed to lead to more.
“What is all this?” She asked, peering into a crate full of furs. Next to it was a rack of sticks, next to a box of what appeared to be spearheads.
“The Quartermaster helps keep the Sanctuary running,” Amani explained. “She requisitions what we need - you know, food, clothing, arms, spell components - and keeps track of where everything goes and who specifically needs what. Ah, thank you.” The Quartermaster had returned, carrying a furred thing which she dumped into Vesper’s arms.
“So this is our guest, huh?” The Quartermaster asked as Vesper shook the thing out and discovered it was a cloak. “Gotta say, my friend, you’re going to need something else than what you’re wearing to survive Vasselheim.”
“I’ve been informed she’s staying for the time being, so I’m sure someone will be down to work things out,” Amani said, and before Vesper could even ask how cloaks worked she was being whisked away again.
“This is the training room,” Amani said as they walked through a large empty space, where most of the floor was sunken down into a pit with a thin layer of sand covering the floor. Stairs led up from all sides to a collonaded side area. Vesper could see benches, and more weapon racks.
“And this is where people relax,” Amani finished, as she and Vesper entered a smaller, hot room. The fire roaring in the corner could be blamed for the heat, but Vesper’s view of it was blocked by the ten or so people who occupied the tables between her and it.
The room looked like a pub, with tables scattered around and a hearth on the far side. Behind a long counter, a room with a far larger hearth could be seen, and people were moving around in there. Vesper could smell meat cooking, and hear the sounds of knives chopping over the crackle of the flames. There were windows in the room, unlike the Quartermaster’s cave, but outside the sky was too dark to provide much light.
Everyone was looking at Vesper.
Vesper was not one to wilt under attention, even if it had been a long and trying day. She squared her shoulders once more and met the gazes as evenly as possible, even the particularly inhuman ones.
“I heard you were babysitting all day,” a human-looking girl said conversationally, and it was as if a spell had broken. Several members of the group quickly pretended they weren’t laughing, and Amani rolled her eyes as she walked over to join them.
“Tour-guide-ing, more like. This is Vesper, she’ll be staying in the Sanctuary for the time being.”
A few heads turned back towards Vesper with interest. Vesper followed Amani and let her own gaze flit over the assembled group. Maybe if she pretended it was another fancy dinner party, it wouldn’t be so bad.
There were many faces present, which Vesper was in short order given names to attach to. The human-looking girl who had spoken was Delia Frost, whose parents and grandparents and so on had all worked for the Sanctuary. There was another elf, named Acobi, and a half-elf, half-human who everyone called ‘Tall Don’ and who professed to be a cleric.
The names petered off after that, as everyone realized that Vesper had literally never seen magic before, and hastened to pull the most impressive tricks. The paladins present begged off, citing the lack of anything but defensive and support spells (which was news and something of a disappointment to Vesper); the clerics quickly set about making various objects and articles of clothing glow with colorful light, or cutting holes in things and then mending them with a flash of sparks, and (memorably) lighting the dying fire with a bolt of radiantly bright flame that struck down from nowhere and made the iron grate glow white-hot with heat.
Food and drink was served at a certain point, on ceramic plates and in pottery cups or wooden tankards. Vesper was a little more cautious, as a large amount of the drink was alcoholic, but her new dinner company held no such reservations. As the conversation went on, Vesper observed and quietly gathered that one girl who couldn’t be more than three and a half feet tall was called Merry, and another who was nearly eight feet tall and grey-skinned was Bolt (possibly for her jagged tattoos - Vesper couldn’t guess whether it was her given name or not).
In any case, by the time Vesper was led back to the room she’d woken up in so she could sleep, she was ready to collapse and not wake up for a day. She followed through on the first part, but her internal clock roused her at her usual time the next morning - which, in her current situation, was unfortunately early.
Vesper lay in her bed, drowsing, for perhaps another hour. It took about that long for the pale blue walls and spartan furniture to sink in, and for her to remember what had happened and where she was and bolt upright.
Vesper discovered that she had spent most of the previous day in a state of shock, and was now actually quite furious. She sprang up out of bed, intending to do something - and then remembered Vord’s cold words, and her situation, and hesitated. What could she do?
For lack of any better ideas, she rummaged through her purse and found her phone again. It still blinked 12:00, and the text from her mother was still displayed. Vesper unlocked her phone and got rid of the notification, just so she didn’t have to see it every time she looked. Still, she didn’t exit out of her messages right away, instead scrolling through old conversations.
If nothing had happened, she’d have been at Percy and Vex’s place last night, chatting with her family instead of being bombarded with names and places and all sorts of proper nouns by a group of people she could barely process the existence of. Why in the world did it have to be her who fell victim to this magical menace?
Her parents must be worried sick. Percy had probably retreated to his workshop to retreat from the world in general - he still did that. And who knew what Vex would think. Vesper still wasn’t sure what Vex thought of her when she wasn’t missing under mysterious circumstances.
And Whitney would be upset, of course. She’d be beating herself up for not accompanying Vesper. Vesper wished she could tell Whitney not to - but of course, a world away, that wasn’t very feasible.
She stared down at her phone until the screen automatically dimmed to black, and then blinked several times to clear the blurriness from her eyes. Then she made herself take several deep breaths.
There was no point in sitting around being upset. She was still angry, of course, but neither stomping nor sulking around was going to do anything. She assumed Vord was taking care of whatever business he wanted done; in the meantime, she was going to do some work of her own, and acclimate to the world she now found herself in.
Which meant, of course, setting off to seek out the library.
Vesper brought the fur-lined cloak she’d been given, because the halls of the Sanctuary were unexpectedly chilly. She wandered before one of the guards, evidently realizing who she was, stopped her to give her directions. And so Vesper finally walked through the double doors of the library, only to be immediately stopped by a “Hey!”
It was the short girl from the night before - Merry. She was curled up in a comfy chair, one of several grouped around a small table near the door. The book had fallen to the wayside when she’d sat up to greet Vesper.
“It’s you!” Merry said. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for books, of course,” Vesper said, tugging her cloak a little tighter around herself. The library was not much warmer. “I figure if I’m going to be in this place longer than a few days, I should know a thing or two about it.”
“Oh, I know where the history section is. I’ll show you.” Merry put her book aside and hopped down from the chair.
“I wouldn’t want to interrupt-”
“It’s no bother, really. I was waiting for an excuse to stop reading that.” Merry rolled her eyes as she turned to walk deeper into the mass of shelves.
“...Why read it in the first place, then?”
“Scalebearer Yon heavily suggested I should.” Merry raised her hands to illustrate with air quotes as she added, “You hit one acolyte a little too hard with a quarterstaff and all of the sudden you’re being sent to ‘reflect on the teachings of Bahamut’.”
Vesper said nothing. She suspected that there was a great deal more that Merry wasn’t saying, but she wasn’t in the mood to pick through everything odd about that statement.
Merry gave her a few curious glances as they walked silently, but she only spoke again in order to say “Here should be good. I know Braum’s works look fancy, but trust me, they’re boring as dirt.”
“Right,” Vesper said, eyeing the shelves full of multi-volume compendiums. She could feel another headache threatening - or maybe the one from yesterday hadn’t fully gone away. “Well. Thank you.”
“No problem.” Merry retreated a few feet away to climb a ladder up towards the higher-up books. Vesper sighed, picked the smallest book on the shelf, and flipped through it.
She repeated the process a few times more until she found one in Common. What the library was doing with a multitude of books in Celestial, she wasn’t sure - maybe it wasn’t a dead language here - but she wasn’t nearly fluent enough in it to try her hand at any of them. She paged through the Common one, chewing absentmindedly on her thumbnail.
The Divine Gate, it appeared, also existed here, but all it did was stop gods from physically transporting themselves into the Material Plane. Their influence still extended to it, and so did that of other kinds, such the Feywild and the Hells, which made Vesper think of the fairytales she’d read as a child.
Her situation suddenly seemed a lot more dangerous than she’d assumed. Surely the Sanctuary of all places would be safe, though. Devils and fey couldn’t leave their realms, if she was reading it right, but she wasn’t sure if that meant there was no way to accidentally fall into a difficult situation.
“Oh, hey!” Merry exclaimed delightedly. When Vesper looked up, she was pulling a purple volume off the shelf. “I didn’t know this had even been published yet!”
Vesper looked back down at her own book, disinterested. She would have gone back to reading, if Merry had not continued to make noises of interest as she flipped through her own.
“What could possibly be so interesting?” She snapped eventually, looking upwards. Merry jumped, as if she’d forgotten Vesper was there.
“Oh - sorry. But it’s a history of Vox Machina. It’s only just been written.”
Vesper hesitated at the familiar name. Wasn’t there supposed to be a de Rolo in that group? “What’s Vox Machina done?”
Merry laughed, though she tried to cover it. “Sorry - there’s no way you’d know, I know. But they’ve done pretty much everything adventurers can do. They haven’t been active in decades, but before that they were all over the place - honorary Council members in Tal’Dorei, fighting dragons across half of Exandria. They’re supposed to have gone to other planes, even, but I don’t know how much of that is true.”
“Is that possible?”
Merry shrugged. “With the right spellcasters and the right spells, sure. But it costs a lot of power. Though, they are Vox Machina.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Vesper disliked the feeling that everyone around her was talking in riddles.
“Well, they adventured for years. Travel and experience - let me phrase it this way. The more you do magic, the better you get at it, and the more power you build up to put behind your spells. Even regular fighters get very, very good at what they do.”
Vesper would have gone back to her own book - there was much more to read - but curiosity got the best of her. “Isn’t there somebody by the name of de Rolo who’s part of that group?”
“I think so, why?”
“My last name is de Rolo.”
“No! Really? That’s so weird!”
Vesper shrugged, a little uncomfortably. Not for the last time, she wished she was back home, where things made sense and people already knew who she was. “That’s why I ask.”
“Huh.” Merry was staring down at her in fascination, book half-forgotten.
“Well, does the book say?”
“Oh - here.” Merry slid down the ladder to hand it over. “It probably does, it’s half biography. Most of the members are still alive, so there’s more to say about them than there is public information about their adventures.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The book was handsomely bound in purple with gilt-edged pages, and gold leaf decorating the spine and the edge of the cover. The same gold made the title gleam: In the Belly of Dragons.
In smaller letters, underneath, it said, The Tales of Vox Machina.
Vesper sat down and flipped through it.
There were occasional illustrations, along with illuminated chapter titles. Most of them seemed to be jokes, and it wasn’t easy to parse which chapters contained what. The illustrations didn’t help either. Vesper saw what looked like a carpet design; then a menacing black shadow; further along, a double spread of a woman with greying hair and scars that were only partially covered by an eyepatch, next to a younger woman wielding a six-barrelled gun. Impatient, Vesper flipped speedily towards the end and put her thumb down in a random spot.
A skeletal man decorated the right page. He glared out from it, one eye covered with green-inked flame.
A gasp was Vesper’s only warning before Merry’s hand slammed down, closing the book on Vesper’s thumb and making her yelp.
“What the hell!?” Vesper yanked her hand away.
“Sorry! I didn’t know he was in there or I’d have warned you.” Merry looked genuinely apologetic, but also spooked. She muttered something Celestial-sounding under her breath, making a three-fingered claw over her chest.
“What are you talking about?”
“ Him. In the drawing. The Whispered One.”
“Does he have a real name, maybe?” Vesper was getting utterly fed up.
“Not one anyone would say in this city.” Merry’s serious tone caught Vesper off-guard. “The battle with the Whispered One was the last Vox Machina ever fought. He brought a whole host of undead into the city to try and tear it down, and other creatures nobody’s seen before or since.”
“Undead,” Vesper repeated. It wouldn’t be the craziest thing she’d heard since she got here. “Sure. Why not.”
“There were. ” Merry seemed to take her skepticism personally. “He’s a god of undead and lies.”
“He’s a god now?” That was too much. “Listen, I know there’s a lot I don’t know, but fighting gods - hey!”
Merry had, with unexpected strength, yanked Vesper forward and nearly to her feet.
“Come with me.” Vesper didn’t have a choice, as Merry was still pulling her forward. Barely keeping a hold of the book, Vesper stumbled after her.
“Oh, come on,” Vesper protested as Merry threw open a glass door which led to a balcony. Cold air rushed in. Vesper tried to one-handedly clutch her cloak tighter, and then for a moment forgot entirely about the cold as the sight of the city met her eyes.
The city of Vasselheim was a stunning sight - there was no doubt about that. But more striking was the hulking figure of rock which stood above it. Balanced on two legs, its four arms were held upwards, one raised as if to strike at its nonexistent head.
“It used to be an earth primordial,” Merry said quietly, the words nearly stolen away by the wind whipping around them. Vesper shivered, both at the cold and at her companion’s sober tone. “The Whispered One found it where it had died in the mountains north of here, and put his city on its shoulders so he could plant himself right in the center of Vasselheim after he’d torn down all the temples. He was an insanely powerful lich, and he’d been alive long enough to discover knowledge no one had seen since before the Divergence. Enough knowledge to ascend.”
“Liches are real?” Vesper managed to say.
“Not often. But he was, unfortunately.”
The pair of them stared out at the primordial for several minutes before Vesper asked, “It’s not still reanimated, is it?”
“Oh, no. The magic ended when he was banished to the other side of the Divine Gate.”
“Sure, that sentence makes complete sense.” Vesper was beginning to think that she might as well start accepting whatever she was told without question. Merry surprised her with a little snort of laughter.
“It was insane even for us,” she said. “Nobody even knew the cult of the Whispered One still existed until just before all this happened. Then suddenly we were being threatened by the only source of divinity, even if it was a corrupted one, this side of the Gate.” She sighed and looked down, folding her arms tightly across her chest. “I’m sorry if I got a little intense there. My parents were both wyvern-riders for the Sanctuary when the attack hit - basically the front lines of the initial response.”
“I’m sorry,” Vesper said automatically, and then after a moment tentatively asked, “Wyverns?”
“Oh, yeah. They’re a domestic breed. The Sanctuary keeps a bunch. They’re distantly related to dragons, but not nearly as nasty.” Merry squinted, and then pointed outwards. “If you look, you can see the air patrols.”
Vesper did looks. There were vaguely birdlike shapes making slow arcs over the city. Depending on the distance, they could have been actual birds or something much larger.
“Sure,” Vesper said again. “Domestic dragons. Totally reasonable.”
“This is the Sanctuary of the Platinum Dragon,” Merry said. “We keep to a very strict theme here.”
“The only animals I see on the regular are my sister-in-law’s dog and my cat,” Vesper said. “Gods, I miss my cat.” She hadn’t even meant to say it, but it was true.
“You have a cat?”
“Had, yes. Clio. She was terrible to everyone but me.” Vesper laughed a little to disguise the way her eyes were welling up again. “When we were younger, my younger sister stopped sharing a room with me because of that cat.”
“You have a sister?”
“Several, actually.” Thinking about her family wasn’t helping her situation. Vesper turned away from Merry and the view, swiping irritably at her eyes. With her luck, she’d end up with frozen eyeballs.
“We can go back inside if you want,” Merry offered. Vesper didn’t reply before striding back through the doors, taking several deep breaths. Those didn’t help much either.
“I have a brother,” Merry said, closing the door behind her. Warmth began to seep back into Vesper. “Older than me. He lives on the other side of the Ozmit, and he’s terrible at keeping in touch. Last year he sent me a portrait he’d had done of him and his wife, because they’d just had their daughter. Real cute. I keep meaning to visit, but I have to finish my training here, and they can’t travel easily with a baby, so I haven’t seen him in forever. Shit, I didn’t mean to phrase it like that, that probably hit closer to home than I meant.”
“It’s alright,” Vesper managed. She leaned up against the wall and flexed her numb fingers, realizing that they were still curled around the book. She’d nearly forgotten about what had prompted their conversation in the first place.
“No, I can’t imagine what it’s like being stuck here, waiting for people to tell you that it’s okay to go home. At least I grew up in this city.” Merry huffed, shaking her head. “I know Vord’s got a lot more to consider, but still. Someone could be making an effort to soften the blow.”
“You’re doing alright,” Vesper said, discreetly wiping away the tears on the edge of her cloak before facing Merry again.
“Well, thanks.” Merry seemed genuinely pleased. “I may not be a very good cleric yet, but I’m excellent at the talking-to-people bits.”
“Don’t discourage yourself.” It was an automatic response, mostly. Vesper had lived with a lot of younger siblings, after all.
“No, not in a bad way. I’ve only just started training. I wanted to, after the whole debacle with all that-” Merry gestured back outside. “-but I had to wait until I was of age before the Sanctuary would let me.”
Startled, Vesper regarded Merry more intensely. “How old are you?”
“Thirty-three.” Merry saw Vesper’s shock, and burst out laughing. “I keep forgetting you’re not used to these things! Halflings like me come of age at thirty-three. The big battle was about twenty years ago, so I wasn’t nearly old enough.”
“That - I guess that makes sense.” Merry’s proclamation had done what her sympathy hadn’t - Vesper’s thoughts had been thoroughly distracted from her family. “Is that common?”
“Among halflings, or just in general?” Merry asked with a sideways smile. “Lots of races have similar lifespans to humans, but lots live much longer. Elves for one; dwarves and gnomes too. My uncle always said the shorter races used their energy to sustain themselves instead of getting taller. Which makes sense, because the oldest halfling I ever knew was the Old Gaffer, and he was about three foot nothing and lived to be two hundred and fifty.”
“Yeah, he was pretty old even for us.”
The two of them stood quietly for a moment, before Merry spoke up again. “There are nice chairs by the doors if you want to sit and read.”
“Oh - yes. The book. Yes.” As they walked, Vesper asked, “I gather Vox Machina are pretty common knowledge?”
“Most places, yeah. I think everyone’s at least heard of them.”
“What do you know about them? In case there’s something that’s not in the book.”
Merry made a thoughtful noise. “Well - Dawnmarshal Pike is the best known of the group, at least in Vasselheim. She helped uncover the temple of Sarenrae just down the mountain, and probably is half the reason the whole faith got revived.”
“I heard a little about that.”
“Yeah, Amani’s a big fan. Surprising to most people, since the Dawnmarshal’s a gnome and I think like half of the other members have elvish ancestry, but hey, you can’t use species to predict these things.”
“What does that mean, Dawnmarshal?”
“It’s a member of the Council,” Merry explained. “A generic term - most of them have more specific titles. Vord is the Highbearer; the head priest of Erathis over in the Quadroads is the Judge. I’m not one hundred percent sure about the others.”
“That’s fine.” Those, Vesper could look up when she got home. “So she retired to run the temple here?”
“Yes.” Merry bobbed her head in agreement. “Most of the group is still in Tal’Dorei, which is where they started out. I think the de Rolo one retreated back up to the old family home to help run it after - ooh.”
“After what?” Vesper caught the grimace that passed over Merry’s face.
“No, I just remembered a nasty story,” Merry said, glancing upward with surprising wariness. “So people say, he went back home to help run the place, because years ago nearly the whole family got - well. Violently deposed.”
“Oh.” An unpleasant feeling swept through Vesper’s guts at the idea of dead de Rolos, but she tried to cover it up. “At least it’s not my family.”
“I wonder if you’re even technically related,” Merry mused. “It’s weird enough that you ended up in a world where the same family name even exists. What are the odds?”
“Probably calculable,” Vesper replied, thinking of Percy.
“By someone with a lot of patience, maybe. Anyway - from what I’ve heard, most of the group didn’t so much retire as stop adventuring to go take care of their respective responsibilities. I know there was a druid among them who’s now leader of one of the Tal’Dorei Ashari groups.”
“You’ve lost me,” Vesper said. “First at druid, then at Ashari.”
Merry, to her credit, patiently explained the difference between a druid and other types of spellcasters, and then outlined what she could of the Ashari people. Guardians of interplanar rifts sounded entirely alien but admittedly cool to Vesper. She wondered if there was anything they might do to help with the current situation in Vasselheim. By the time they reached the front of the library again, Vesper had entirely forgotten about the fate of the otherworldly de Rolo family.
There were others in the library now. Vesper recognized one as Amani; the other, who appeared to also be elvish, was unfamiliar. Amani brightened when Vesper emerged from the shelves.
“Oh, good, you are here,” she said. “A couple of the guards said so, but I wasn’t sure. I’m glad I caught you. Some of our higher-level spellcasters have been wanting to ask you some questions, regarding the whole...mishap.”
“Sure,” Vesper said. The word was beginning to feel tired on her tongue. How many times had she said it in the last hour? “I don’t exactly have anything else I need to be doing.”
“We’re much obliged,” the other elf said, smiling at her. “It’s been a difficult puzzle for us so far. I’m Gann.”
“What kind of magic do you do, Gann?”
“Mostly theory work,” Gann admitted. “I’ve been accused of straying into wizardry often. But it’s not me who’s doing most of the hands-on stuff in this case. If you would come with me, I’ll show you to everybody else.”
“...Lead the way.” Vesper did not ask if she was allowed to borrow the book which was now stuffed into her purse. She’d finish reading it and return it later.
Chapter 2: Introductions
i actually had this already written before I posted the last chapter, but I like to have a store of 'what comes next' already done before posting happens.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Gann led her back down into the depths of the mountain - or so it seemed. The stairs sank ever downward with only a little light provided by small, high windows and the occasional flaming torch in a bracket.
“It’s not a good idea to have much ambient magic around a place where people work with lots of it,” Gann explained when Vesper asked. “Open flame has its own dangers, of course, but less of a tendency to make our own work more complicated than it needs to be.”
“Do you work with lots of kinds of magic?”
“Oh, no. All our magic is granted by Bahamut, praise his name. Arcane magic - wizardry and sorcery and the like - is actually banned within Vasselheim, because of how terribly the Age of Arcanum ended.”
“What, really? Doesn’t that make things difficult?”
“Yes; but we find a way to get our work done anyway. That’s our job.”
They were greeted at the long-awaited bottom of the stairs by an older, apparently human man in robes who gruffly sent Gann off to fetch incense, which he hurried to do. Vesper was beckoned to follow the older one, and having not many other options, she did.
The magical workshop was much like Vesper had expected, and yet in many ways not. There were certainly distant shelves full of strange ingredients; some were shapes preserved in ooze, others glittering precious stones or lumps of damp clay. Desks scattered throughout the space were covered in dusty, fingerprinted tomes and scattered with parchment. As she walked, Vesper was directed carefully around an intricate circle chalked onto an open space on the floor.
Still, there were stranger parts. Sets of armor hung on a rear wall, next to a rack of spears with their sharp heads in a box nearby. Nearly every bit of unoccupied wall space was inlaid or carved with symbols of Bahamut, or images of dragons regally observing the room. All the robes being worn were some variation of blue and silver, and many had embroidered scale designs, or imagery evocative of wings down the back.
Vesper was distracted from her observations when she was descended on by a number of tired-looking magicians. A shortish man who looked too stocky to be a halfling (maybe?), an unusually pale person with traces of feathers at the corners of their eyes, and two mysteriously yellow women with identical, pupil- and iris-less silver eyes set about questioning Vesper for the better part of an hour.
What did she remember of the incident? What did it feel like - was there a specific temperature, sensation, anything? Had she smelled anything? Did she have any enemies? And so on, and so on. Nothing she offered seemed to satisfy the quartet, or answer the puzzles they were looking to solve. One of the women, who wrote everything down on a long roll of parchment, grew increasingly ink-stained as her script devolved into hasty scribbles. A question often repeated was “What if-?” followed by a conversation Vesper felt completely incapable of following, much less comprehending.
It was not an unfamiliar feeling - she was no jack of all trades, much less master of all - but she still didn’t like it.
The instance of her surname appearing and holding weight in family trees in both worlds sent the stocky man running off to search for genealogical records, and set the rest of them to an interruption game of a conversation which involved Vesper surprisingly little.
Eventually, they came to a consensus which involved Vesper once again being sent off, this time in search of somebody called ‘Lady Kima’. Vague directions were given, and advice on where else to look in case she was not conveniently in the first place Vesper was directed to. Sighing, Vesper began to climb the stairs.
About halfway up, Vesper paused for a breather. The cold stone of the landing pressed into her butt and legs even through the cloak, which she’d never bothered to take off. Vesper wondered why they couldn’t just use magic to warm up the Sanctuary a bit, instead of walking around in furs all the time.
Grey light fell down in a small but brilliant shaft from the window far above. The lit torches flickered mesmerizingly, making shadows dance along the walls. Vesper watched the flames for a long while. They never moved the same way twice.
The sight was entrancing and magical, but Vesper would have traded anything in the world to be home, in front of the fireplace, watching a movie or doing anything at all with family close by.
She sighed again, and stood up, and continued her trek upwards.
Lady Kima was not in her chambers, as had been suggested to Vesper. She could have been in a million other places in the Sanctuary, but Vesper did not have the patience to explore. Instead, she snagged the nearest guard by the sleeve.
“Tell me, have you seen someone called Lady Kima around?” She questioned.
“Yes - her quarters are over-”
“I know where they are, but she’s not there. Do you know where she’s gone?”
The guard hesitated. “Have you looked elsewhere in the Sanctuary?”
“Don’t avoid the question,” Vesper said shortly. “I barely know my way around this place. Do you know where she’s gone or not?”
“She may have gone into town-”
“Can you take me to wherever she’s gone?”
“Uh...” the guard wilted under Vesper’s pointed look, which had encouraged many a reluctant work partner to nod and agree with whatever she said. “...Sure, I can. My rotation is almost over.”
“Good. Lead the way.”
Though the Sanctuary was cold, stepping outside was like opening a refrigerator. Vesper winced, but stubbornly pulled her cloak tighter around herself and followed the guard as he descended the pale stone staircase which wound its way down the mountain. The guard had, luckily, insisted she borrow some boots; Vesper had been irritated at what seemed like needless delay, but she was grateful for the flat soles and fur lining now.
Lower down, the golden spire of a different building slowly came into view. It seemed to be attached to a surprisingly small building. Built of pale yellow stone, Vesper saw as she passed in front of the doors that the room was larger than she’d expected - it must have gone quite deep into the mountain itself. Heat drifted out through the open doors, alongside the chatter of the many people inside. Vesper caught a glimpse of a huge fire crackling in a bronze brazier. The temple was simple, but full to the brim of people, most of them very short. It seemed like a warm, happy place.
Down below, at the base of the mountain, things were different. Vesper stopped to catch her breath, but also to take a moment to gather herself before plunging into the street level of a very busy city. The area at the base of the mountain was crowded with buildings, some made of the same grey stone, more made of wood or plain brown brick. Shops had painted wooden signs hung above their doors, and the street itself was wide and paved with stones which bore the marks of much wear. Vesper could see that the side streets, leading off in various directions, were much-trodden and muddy.
“Are you alright?” The guard - whose name was Eored, as Vesper had discovered on the way down - asked.
“Perfectly fine,” Vesper replied briskly (only after taking a deep breath). She linked her arm with Eored’s, not wanting to lose him in the crowd. “Lead on.”
They passed down the wide main street, from a district of shops into a quieter one where evergreen trees sprouted up from in between and behind simple houses. A large square, surrounded by faded but colorful buildings, held a large public fountain where people were gathering water from the spouts. Some, who Vesper recognized as curly-haired halflings, had to stand perilously close to falling in to reach the spouts; unfamiliar others had to bend down towards them. One of the taller ones was lizardlike, with a snout covered in brass scales like the rest of their body. Vesper kept her mouth shut and tried not to stare.
A district of mostly brown-brick houses surrounded a huge, squarish pyramid of a building, with an enormous statue of a man adorning the roof. Vesper could see light flickering in the windows, even the ones at the top made tiny by distance. Occasionally their path was crossed by a figure in yellow and scarlet, always heading towards the pyramid.
“The monks of Kord,” Eored explained, when Vesper asked. “It’s not common to see them outside the temple; they take a vow of silence and everything.”
“And I can guess where the temple is,” Vesper said, casting a glance back up at the statue - Kord, presumably. She wasn’t sure she’d ever seen him worshipped so prominently in person.
Eored took her on a shortcut which passed through a tall wall mounted with strange dragon-head sculptures, into a neighborhood of pleasant, well-built houses. They all had gated lawns of grass, distinctly unlike the winter skeletons of gardens Vesper had seen in other places. Once, he pulled her quickly to the side of the road to make way for a horse-drawn carriage which was throwing up dirt in its wake and leaving parallel wheelmarks in the dirt road.
“It’s the Quadroads,” Eored said, misreading Vesper’s surprise with a shrug. “Lords and ladies everywhere.”
The Quadroads - apparently the name of the neighborhood - gave way to a much messier one where the fronts of buildings were obscured by stalls with brightly colored cloth roofs and counters groaning under the weight of absolutely anything and everything a person could want. The crowd doubled in size - and so did the noise.
“Fine cloth, all the way from Marquet, finest cloth in Vasselheim-”
“Enchanted amulets, guard against any ill fortune, very reasonable prices-”
“Miss, wouldn’t you like some of my fine jewelry-”
“Just ignore them,” Eored said, nearly shouting himself to make himself heard. He was keeping a secure hold on Vesper’s arm.
“That won’t be a problem,” Vesper yelled back. “I don’t have any money they’ll accept.”
Even ignoring the shouts of the merchants, only Vesper’s grip on Eored’s arm kept them from being separated by the crowd. A great deal of people in Vasselheim were interested in what was for sale, and as a consequence half the city seemed to be packed into a handful of blocks. Vesper had to be more careful than she usually was in a crowd; it was only two easy to trip over someone short enough that she forgot she had to watch for people so low down.
Occasionally, an actual storefront was revealed behind the eye-catching canopies and the rush of people. One sturdy building was home to a store that displayed colorful tinctures in glass bottles; another was a clothes shop. Some had lanterns hung outside their doors, unlit in the daylight but still distinguishing them as slightly more upscale than their neighbors. They had signs, too, but Vesper could never finish reading them before she was already moving on.
“Turn here,” Eored shouted to her eventually; Vesper turned with him, and found that the market extended only a little further before petering out. She and Eored squeezed their way through the last dregs of the crowd. Vesper gave a sigh of relief at the feeling of open space around her again.
“It was the quickest way through,” Eored said apologetically. “The Slayer’s Take is just down here.”
“It’s an organization that takes contracts to hunt monsters,” Eored explained as they walked. “Outside the city walls, the Timberlands are pretty densely forested, so it’s very common for dangerous creatures to be able to get close to the city before they’re noticed. The Dawnmarshals commission them a lot to get rid of anything particularly dangerous, or other people who have enough money can pay them to get things like teeth and claws if they need them.”
“Why would anyone need monster parts?” Vesper asked, not sure if she was disgusted or fascinated.
“Spell components, maybe. Research.” Eored shrugged. “It’s not really my field, I don’t know. But the Take does pretty good business.”
“And that’s where Lady Kima is?”
“If not, she’s already gone back to the Sanctuary and we’ve missed each other.”
Eored led Vesper to a wide building, with a low set of steps that led to iron-barred double doors - smaller than anything she had seen in the Sanctuary, and more functional than meant to impress. Over the door was a spiky, unfamiliar symbol.
Inside, the wave of heat that hit them was a balm. Vesper could feel her numb ears and fingers tingling as circulation returned to them. She stamped her feet, only partly to shake off the dirt that had attached itself on the long walk over.
“The Sanctuary doesn’t usually send guards,” said a voice. There was a halfling man sitting at a small counter near the door, looking at them over a half-lowered book.
“This isn’t official business,” Eored said. “We’re just looking for Lady Kima. Is she still here?”
“I think she’s still otherwise occupied.” There was a pointedness to the halfling’s words that Vesper noticed, but didn’t understand. “You’re welcome to wait for her.”
“Oh, thanks, Mertin.” Eored made a beeline for the fireplace; Vesper was already there, sitting as close to it as she dared.
“Lady Kima doesn’t work for the Take, does she?” Vesper asked once he was close enough.
“I don’t think so. She only comes down here because it’s where her wife stays when she’s in Vasselheim. As far as I know,” Eored hastened to add.
“ Oh. Not in the Sanctuary?” That seemed odd, if Kima was important enough to have been knighted.
“They’ve offered, but she doesn’t like to, I guess. The Slayer’s Take is one of the more secular organizations here.”
Vesper looked around. She hadn’t noticed at first, but there were no prominent religious icons like in the Sanctuary; there wasn’t much decoration at all. The occasional mounted head hung from the wall, none of them animals she recognized. Some she tried not to look at - they were unnervingly humanoid.
“Why did that man assume you were here for business?” Vesper asked, the thought crossing her mind. “Mertin, you called him?”
“The Sanctuary does a lot of business with the Take,” Eored said. “Either making contracts, or summoning Lady Kima back.” He adopted a sly, conspiratorial tone. “She may be answerable only to Vord himself, but she’s pretty famous for running off to adventure or causing trouble.”
“Really? I was only given a name. Who is she?”
“...Why are you looking for Lady Kima, again?”
“I was told I should,” Vesper explained, shrugging. “I didn’t want to argue - I’d been cooped up in a basement full of magical experiments for too long already.”
“Oh, you were talking to the Professors,” Eored said, as if that explained everything.
“That’s what everyone calls them. Especially people like me who don’t actually work with magic. They’re all in that basement because they like to know the hows and whys of magic - you know, the kind of people who come up with ideas that get found by people in stories thousands of years later and terribly misused or whatever.”
“That seems a little dramatic,” Vesper said, taken aback. Eored shrugged.
“Magic can do some pretty serious stuff, and they’ve all been doing it for years, far as I know.”
Vesper thought of the dead titan standing over the city - nearly over her head, now. “I wouldn’t know. As you may have guessed, I’m not very familiar with magic except for what I’ve witnessed here.”
“I can’t imagine what that must be like.” Eored sounded almost sympathetic, like he thought she was explaining a loss. Vesper wrinkled her brows, and was on the verge of correcting him when a hand settled on her shoulder from behind.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” a woman said, “but you sound quite like someone I know. Have we met before?”
Vesper turned, and wasn’t remotely able to conceal her start of surprise. The woman who had asked had shockingly white hair, almost like Percy’s - but her most striking features were her red skin, and the horns which curved up from her hairline and around the back of her head. She had almost the same blank eyes as the pair from the Sanctuary, but the silvery sclera and pupil were separated by a lighter iris.
“Pardon me,” Vesper said, aware that she was staring. “I wasn’t expecting-”
“Not many are,” the woman said, “especially in this city. But that, at least, answers my question.” She was looking down at Vesper curiously. “Still, you look at bit like the man I’m thinking of, too. Do you know anybody named Percival?”
“...Yes,” Vesper allowed cautiously, “but it’s something of a complicated situation. I doubt it’s the same Percival as the one you’re thinking of.” Percival was a common name among de Rolos - even here, it seemed.
“How complicated can it be?” Vesper’s attention was drawn to a new speaker, a man who’d been lurking behind the woman. He sounded deeply skeptical, and looked it too. His heterochromatic eyes accentuated the one lifted eyebrow.
“Well-” Vesper hesitated, with a glance at Eored. Nobody had told her she shouldn’t speak of the circumstances which had brought her to Vasselheim, and if Vord had she’d have been disinclined to listen. But she wasn’t sure enough of herself that she would give the details to passers-by.
Eored, though, looked almost awestruck. “You must be a member of the Take,” he said to the woman. “That means - you’re Zahra Hydris, aren’t you? And-”
“Yeah, yeah, we get it,” the man said shortly.
“Ignore Kashaw,” Zahra told Eored. “He’s cursed to be permanently grumpy.”
“Really?” Eored risked a quick glance at Kashaw, who rolled his eyes and crossed his arms.
“But I’m intrigued by what you’re leaving out,” Zahra continued, as if Eored hadn’t spoken. She finally let go of Vesper’s shoulder and moved around the end of the sofa, taking the empty space between Vesper and the arm. “Are there secrets afoot in the city?”
“Not as such,” Eored said. “I assume you know about the magical trouble that’s been plaguing the area around the mountain.”
“Oh, yes. We’ve been talking about it lots around here.”
“Vesper is one of our more recent...guests.” Eored gestured vaguely towards her, and Zahra’s head turned once again so she could regard Vesper with interest.
“Vesper,” she mused. “I could swear I’ve heard that name somewhere before.”
“I can’t say the same for yours,” Vesper replied politely, using every bit of will in her body to resist asking precisely what species Zahra was. Kashaw had wandered up behind the sofa, observing the conversation but not taking part or sitting down. He, at least, seemed human, though the one yellow eye might have been magical. It seemed a little too vibrant in color to be real.
“I’m not surprised, if you’re here because of all the strange magic being worked around here.” Zahra propped her chin on one hand idly, those strange silver eyes still observing Vesper.
“And yet my family name is able to follow me,” Vesper joked, for lack of any better way to respond. It was beginning to feel to her as though she’d had the same conversation several times over.
“Not de Rolo?”
Vesper’s smile vanished. “How did y-”
“Now that,” Zahra said, “is one coincidence too many.”
Eored was looking between the two of them, wariness descending over his face. Vesper was staring at Zahra.
“You don’t think-” Vesper wasn’t even sure what she was trying to say. “How similar can two worlds be?” If she was so easily recognizable here as a de Rolo, what did that even mean?
“Evidently, very,” Zahra replied.
“But - you didn’t recognize me because you’ve met me here,” Vesper said, getting the more unnerved the more she considered the idea. “Surely that’s not possible.”
“What’s your name?” Kashaw interjected.
“Vesper. I don’t see what that has to do with this conversation.”
“You don’t recognize it, do you?” Zahra craned her head back to look at him. Kashaw shrugged, making a ‘so-so’ motion with one hand.
“Maybe we should talk to Osysa,” he said.
“Who?” Eored looked blank. Zahra and Kashaw looked at him, then back at each other.
“I’ll ask,” Kashaw said, already walking off.
“Who is Osysa?” Vesper asked, impatient. Two minutes she’d been here, and the conversation was already going off the rails.
“A member of the Take with access to lots of information,” Zahra said, giving Eored a strangely distrusting sideways glance. “Do you mind if I ask why you came to the Slayer’s Take?”
“I was supposed to talk to Lady Kima,” Vesper said, getting irritated. “I was advised to because some people at the Platinum Sanctuary, like seemingly everyone else here, took a weird interest in my being a de Rolo, and if you don’t mind, I would like some answers too! I get that there’s somebody in Vox Machina with the same name, but I don’t understand why that’s such a big deal, considering my circumstances.”
“We’re good,” Kashaw called, striding back over. Zahra glanced at him, and then stood up.
“If you want answers, there’s no better person to get them from,” she said to Vesper. “I can do my best on the way down there with what information I have. It’s your choice.”
“Is it?” Vesper stood up. “I don’t like not knowing things.”
“Admirable,” Zahra said. “Follow me.”
Eored was commanded to stay behind in the main room - evidently, it was for only very good reasons that ‘Osysa’ spoke to anyone who wasn’t a member of the Slayer’s Take. Vesper followed the pair of fantastical Take members down a long stretch of dim back hallways, listening to Zahra talk.
“If they sent you after Lady Kima, it’s probably because she’s the only one the Sanctuary knows who’ll listen to them making her talk to you and who’s also been to Whitestone,” Zahra was saying. “It’s on the other side of the world, so most people here haven’t been. But Kashaw and I met Vox Machina when they were here joining the Slayer’s Take, so we got caught up along with her during the Conclave attack when half the Lower Slums evacuated to Whitestone-”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Vesper interrupted. “Vox Machina were here? Why in the world would part of Emon be evacuating?”
“Where haven’t those guys been,” Kashaw muttered under his breath, at the same time that Zahra said,
“Dragon attack. It’s a long story. Suffice to say Whitestone was the safest option, given it’s a very isolated place even now.”
“It seems like half the people I meet know Vox Machina,” Vesper said. “But what does that have to do with-”
“The de Rolos? The Percival I mentioned, for starters. He’s the overlap between the two groups.”
“Like I said, Percival is a common name.”
“You don’t have a pointlessly longass name too, do you?” Kashaw glanced over his shoulder, slowing for a moment.
“Not by my family’s measure,” Vesper said.
“Maybe proper introductions are in order.” Vesper could hear Zahra grinning, though the woman had her back to her.
“ Please do not,” Kashaw said.
“Don’t be rude, Kash.” Zahra came to a stop in front of a strange door. It was solid iron, not double doors but one thick looking slab hammered with simple designs imitating a wooden door’s. It was also guarded by two very well-armed figures. Vesper noticed each had an exposed shoulder with what looked like a burn - or a brand, given that it formed the same symbol that marked the Take’s door.
“Don’t mind me, boys.” Zahra took a lit torch from a bracket on one side of the door before turning back to Kashaw. “Anyway, you looked at that whole tapestry of the family line while we were in Whitestone - do you recognize the name ‘Vesper’?”
Kashaw sighed, and looked with reluctance at Vesper. “Alright. Lay the full name on me.”
“Do you expect that you’ve seen it already?” Vesper laughed. “How similar can two worlds be?”
“Well, de Rolos in both - I guess we’re about to find out.” Kashaw made a ‘bring it’ gesture. “I’ve got a good memory.”
Vesper sighed. “If you’re so sure, guess. I only have the one middle name, not counting the ones all of my siblings share.”
Kashaw squinted at her, and refolded his arms again. He was quiet for several moments, then said, “Mathilda.”
“How the fuck- ”
“He’s right, then?” Zahra interrupted.
“I am officially creeped out!” Vesper declared, pointing one finger decisively at nothing in particular. Merry’s offhand comment from earlier crept back to her; So people say, he went back home to help run the place, because years ago nearly the whole family got violently deposed.
“Onwards, then.” Zahra turned towards the guards. “If you please? We’ve got permission.”
The two guards glanced at each other, then sized up Zahra. Evidently they trusted her word, because each turned to a metal wheel bolted into the wall and began to turn it. There was a sound of metal grinding and clattering; slowly, the iron slab of a door began to rise, revealing a staircase which led straight down into darkness.
“I promise it isn’t as scary as it seems.” Zahra leaned in to whisper to Vesper. “Ready?”
“Why not,” Vesper said, and stepped forward.
Even with Zahra’s torch and the ones mounted on the walls, the darkness crept in close around the three of them like a solid thing. There was dust in the air, making it smell stale. The stairs didn’t go far, though; soon Vesper’s feet were hitting sand, of all things.
“What’s supposed to be down here?” She asked, squinting to try and make out anything. There were vague shapes in the darkness, but nothing more. The firelight revealed only the base of some kind of stone pedestal, glinting off of the faintest edge of gold inlay.
“Osysa is,” Zahra said, then raised her voice. “Osysa! We’re sorry to bother you, but we’ve got a question or two you might find interesting.”
There was silence. Zahra stuck the torch she held into a convenient bracket at the bottom of the stairs. Vesper opened her mouth to ask what was supposed to be happening just as her ears caught a faint noise.
A shuffle in the darkness; a sound like something soft and heavy moving - no, padding - along a surface somewhere above her. Vesper craned her head up, but the darkness was even more impenetrable.
“I was asleep,” rumbled a voice from above. Vesper jumped; the other two did not. There was a soft rasp of something shifting against stone. “Why did you wake me?”
“My apologies, Osysa,” Zahra called politely. “I wasn’t sure this business could wait.”
“Who is with you?” The strange rumble in Osysa’s voice hadn’t gone away. “Is it a new one? Have they proven themselves?”
“That’s not why we’re here,” Zahra said. “We require your knowledge, if it’s not too much trouble."
Zahra and Kashaw stepped forward. Vesper hurried not to be left behind.
There were torches in the dark room; they slowly brightened as the three of them mounted a wide set of stairs which grew more and more visible as the room brightened around them. They were heading towards the top of a squared-off pyramid high off the ground, made of dark stone. Torches along the walls lit themselves one by one, keeping level with the trio’s height.
The narrow top of the stairs gave way to a wide flat platform. Four obelisks made of rough, dark stone marked the corners, and in the center a tall altar stood. There was a solid glass ball set into it, filling nearly the whole of the altar’s circular flat top.
Other than that, it was empty.
“Does Osysa live down here?” Vesper questioned. It seemed more of a temple than a home.
“Not many other places she could go,” Kashaw muttered. His sentence was punctuated by a massive noise - a rush of air as a huge, winged form leaped down from a hidden ledge above the platform.
Vesper clapped a hand over her mouth to hide her squeak of fright. The creature was huge, with a lion’s body and wings mantled wide, the pale underdown almost shining in the light. The tips of the primary feathers nearly touched the walls. A human face, framed by a mane of ashy blonde that didn’t quite match the yellow fur, leaned down to regard Vesper. The creature’s eyes were blank blue, and they glowed faintly.
“I know you,” the creature said, in the same rumbling voice. “You are one of the strangers brought here by accident.”
“Accident?” Zahra echoed. She looked up from the bow she had made when the creature appeared. Kashaw had bent his head respectfully, but he looked up as well. “Do you know what’s going on?”
Osysa - because it had to be her, but Vesper had been expecting a human - nodded sagely as Vesper took a step backwards. “I see many things. Things in Vasselheim especially. This city is always under my watch.” Her wings folded in as she cocked her head, looking back towards Vesper. The torchlight gleamed off the gold jewelry which hung from her neck, below her mane. “You do not need to be afraid. I am a member of the Slayer’s Take as much as these two - I do not harm those who are brought to me.”
“The world Vesper comes from is full of humans,” Zahra said, as if that explained everything. “No magic, no monsters. But if you’ve seen things happening, why didn’t you say anything?”
“No one came to ask me.” Osysa’s tail flicked as she settled onto her hindquarters. “What did you come to ask?”
“If you knew anything about how Vesper could be here when it seems like a version of her has already existed here,” Kashaw said.
Osysa tilted her head further to the side. “Tell me more.”
Vesper stared at Kashaw as he explained what they’d discovered, the blood rushing in her ears. Has already existed. Past tense. He went back home to help run the place because years ago nearly the whole family got violently deposed.
“Vesper.” A hand on her shoulder made her jump. Zahra had reached out to shake her out of her thoughts. Osysa was leaning in close, too.
“You are not here by accident,” Osysa said, in her rough purr of a voice. “I see the people who do this. They have made mistakes, but their mistakes have reached across worlds and brought the right and wrong people.”
Vesper crossed her arms across her chest and squeezed her upper arms, fingernails digging in. “Am I the right or the wrong?” She was focusing so hard she didn’t have the space to think of being pleased that her voice didn’t shake.
“I do not know,” Osysa said. “I see; I don’t hear.” She sat back upright, still crouching but not quite as close. “There is a danger in Vasselheim. Not as big as some the city has weathered; but danger nonetheless.”
“The kind of danger we tell Vanessa about, or the kind of danger we go out and stab?” Kashaw asked.
“What about the de Rolos?” Vesper asked. Questions were still swarming in her mind.
“I rarely look so far outside my city,” Osysa said. “But I know of who you speak.”
“Do you know what’s going on? With me and the version of them that exists here?”
“You know yourself; you know the de Rolos. You can answer that question far better than I.” Osysa’s ears pricked up, and she looked past the three of them. Vesper turned, and saw the stairs. Distantly, the noise of moving chains reached her ears.
“Someone else must need to talk to you,” Zahra said. “Osysa, is there anything else you can tell us? Do you know why these people are doing this? Who are they?”
“They hide themselves well,” Osysa said. “From human eyes, but my sight sees like human eyes in the light. They-”
“What are you two doing?”
Even Kashaw and Zahra startled at the angry shout. Stomping up the stairs was a woman very similar to Zahra in appearance, though her skin was closer to purple and her eyes blank white. Her horns, curving back and up, accentuated the scowl on her face.
“Huntmaster Vanessa,” Zahra said. “I-”
“You brought an un-initiated woman into Osysa’s sanctuary without telling anyone, is what you did,” Vanessa snapped. Zahra turned to Kashaw with narrowed eyes.
“I thought you asked Mertin-”
“He said I could! I figured he’d heard the conversation we were having!” Kashaw held his hands up defensively. “If I didn’t think he knew about Vesper I would’ve said something!”
“We were let in-” Zahra began.
“And believe me, I’m going to have words with those guards too!”
Vesper backed up a few steps from the fuming woman. Unfortunately, the movement seemed to attract attention - now the furious white gaze was focused on her.
“Who are you?” Vanessa snapped.
“Vesper’s the one who showed up in the middle of the Platinum Sanctuary the other day-” Zahra tried again to explain.
“And you think that’s a good reason to take her down here?”
“I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed,” Vesper said loudly, making all three heads swing towards her. “I’m kind of new here. To everything.”
“The solid iron door didn’t clue you in?” If looks could kill, Vanessa might as well have been shooting lasers from her eyes.
“As far as I know, that might just be how things are here!”
“Now listen here-”
“Vanessa.” Osysa’s paws landed on either side of Vesper. Vesper froze automatically, suddenly remembering the fifth being in the room. She could hear huge lungs breathing in and out just above her head. “She did not know.”
“Know what?” Vesper managed, as some of Vanessa’s anger changed to surprise. A huff of laughter came from Osysa, still with an edge of a purr.
“I am the Slayer’s Take’s greatest secret,” Osysa said. “I represent one who is not of the traditional gods of this city. I remain hidden to preserve my power.”
Vesper swallowed. “I see.” Had the strange eye carvings always been on those obelisks?
“One that has been shared too lightly,” Vanessa said, casting an evil look over her shoulder at Kashaw, who averted his eyes.
“I am glad to have had the chance to speak to her,” Osysa said evenly. Vesper resisted the urge to look up at her in shock, in case that was also impolite or unallowed.
Vanessa gave Osysa a confused look. There was still anger lurking in the tight set of her mouth. “Are you sure?”
“As I always am.”
“I can keep a secret.” Vesper mustered enough courage to speak up.
“It’s not so simple,” Vanessa said dismissively.
“What else could there be?”
Vanessa’s eyes flicked up to Osysa for the briefest moment. “In the arrangement a Take member usually enters into when they meet Osysa, there’s a sort of binding made,” she said. “Magically so. In return for what the Take provides, they’re expected to keep their mouths shut about her.”
“I can do that.” Vesper wasn’t likely to be in this universe for more than a week. One contract was nothing. “What are the details?”
“I-” Zahra spoke up, attempting to sidle closer around Vanessa. Vanessa’s hand snapped up, one warning finger lifted. Zahra shut her mouth.
“The details are stand still.” Vanessa stepped back as if giving Vesper space. “Osysa takes care of this part.”
Confused, Vesper turned to look up at Osysa. The creature rolled her shoulders, wings flexing out.
“Do not worry,” she said, her eyes flaring with a brighter glow.
Searing pain struck Vesper’s shoulder.
Gasping, Vesper stumbled, only to be caught by Zahra’s hands. Vesper clutched at her shoulder. There was no heat, but it felt like a burning brand had been pressed into her skin.
“I did try to warn you,” Zahra whispered apologetically. The words were nearly lost in a rush of wind as Osysa spread her wings and leapt upward with a powerful thrust. She vanished over the edge of whatever secret area was above them.
“What the fuck, ” Vesper gasped out. The pain was already fading, but the shock was not. She was still leaning heavily against Zahra.
“You sound like Kash when we got ours.” Zahra pulled her upright. “Luckily, Osysa’s good at what she does. Once it’s done, it’s perfectly fine.”
“ What is?” Vesper wrestled briefly with the buttons on her jacket, finally yanking it down over her shoulder, which twinged in protest.
Her shoulder, previously unmarked, was scarred with an old-looking burn - shiny but flexible skin, darker and marking out the spiky emblem of the Slayer’s Take.
“Oh my god,” Vesper said faintly. “My mother is going to kill me if she sees this.”
“That’s the spirit,” Kashaw said flatly. “C’mon, let’s get out of here before Vanessa decides to kill us for real.”
full disclosure: it took writing vesper's arrival at the slayer's take for me to realize she was going to talk to osysa, and writing halfway through that part to realize she was going to get branded. writing is full of fun surprises.
Chapter 3: Intrigue
woo, even more! some of the characters i actually tagged might deign to make an appearance! and no, zahra and kash don't count, even though they're the reason i mentioned CR guest stars.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Even on the fringes of the sprawling market, the chatter and the smells of various goods drifted out to Vesper. The wind had died down, but Vasselheim was as cold as ever.
“You should get something warmer,” Eored commented, noticing her shivering. “That cloak is from the Quartermaster, isn’t it? Didn’t you get anything else?”
“Not yet,” Vesper said. “I think I might have been supposed to, but I have no idea.” However different the styles were here, she wouldn’t turn down spare clothes. “I should ask Amani.”
“The one who’s been helping me out since I got here. She’s elvish.”
“Oh, that elf kid! I didn’t know that was her name.”
“Kid?” Vesper questioned. “How old is she?”
“Young for an elf, but old enough to join the Sanctuary, so...” Eored shrugged. “Probably eighty-something?”
“ Please tell me you’re joking.”
Eored laughed aloud. “Elves come of age at one hundred. This is just what happens when a city is as old as Vasselheim - you get lots of different kinds.”
“One hundred. Gods.” Vesper couldn’t imagine waiting a hundred years just to be able to drink. “What do they do for all those years?”
“I dunno. Normal stuff, I assume, just for longer than humans. The only big elvish-only cities are in Tal’dorei, and those are super insular from what I’ve heard.” Eored shrugged again. “I was born in Vasselheim, so.”
“No, I understand.” Vesper readjusted her grip on her cloak, keeping it closed against the cold air. “I’m from Tal’dorei. Or the other Tal’dorei, I guess. I don’t think I’ve ever been this far north except on visits to my parents’ relatives.”
“At least it’s not winter!”
“Oh, I don’t want to know what season it is if this isn’t the coldest it gets here.”
They passed a sturdy-looking in just as the door opened, spilling a handful of people out onto the streets with a billow of warm air laden with loud conversation. The group was laughing, nearly tripping over each others’ feet.
“No, I swear to you, I did see-” One of them was saying.
“Oh, sure, Jin-”
“What’s Vox Machina got business in Vasselheim for?” The name being thrown out brought up both Vesper and Eored up short as they walked past.
“Did they-?” Vesper pointed over her shoulder, glancing at the group. How many times could a name be heard before it stopped being a coincidence?
“Excuse me,” Eored called, letting go of Vesper’s hand. “Did you say you’d seen Vox Machina?”
Instantly half the group began to heckle him, laughing and jeering. It took several moments for the woman in the center to make herself heard.
“I have,” she declared, “no matter what this lot thinks. How often d’you see a great big goliath and a gnome walkin’ together, especially up by the Sarenrae temple?”
“Isn’t the Sarenrae temple all gnomes?” Someone asked.
“That’s not the point!”
“I don’t know what either of those are,” Vesper whispered to Eored.
“Goliaths are big and grey, gnomes are short and wear shoes,” Eored whispered back. “You’ve probably seen one or the other already.”
“Y’know, the Sarenrae temple is on the way back to the Sanctuary.”
“Is that what that was?” Now that she thought about it, Vesper recalled it being mentioned before. The name ‘Sarenrae’ still mostly eluded her.
“We could take a look on the way back.” Eored looped an arm through hers. “C’mon. Who knows how long they’ll be there for.”
“You don’t know that she was telling the truth,” Vesper protested, but kept pace with Eored’s now-quick steps.
“There’s like three goliaths in Vasselheim, and I can promise you that all of them are Kord devotees,” Eored said. “It was Vox Machina.”
When they passed through the gate that marked the entrance to the mountain staircase, Vesper called a break. “You walk too fast,” she puffed, hands on her knees.
“Sorry,” Eored said, glancing up towards where the little yellow temple sat on the slope of the mountain. It was partially obscured from where they stood, but the gold spire gleamed in the afternoon light. Vesper knew it was the afternoon, because her stomach had been rumbling the whole walk back.
“I just need a moment.” Vesper stood upright, but only because she knew that bending over decreased lung volume, and that was the last thing she needed. “Climbing the length of a mountain twice was not what I expected to do today.”
“We can take a rest halfway if we stop at the Sarenrae temple.” Eored squinted up at the distant spire.
“I never asked, but I don’t think I’ve heard of Sarenrae before.” Vesper moved aside to let a woman garbed in what looked like clerical vestments pass. They were a bright blue edged in yellow, not the robin’s egg and silver of the Sanctuary.
Vesper shook her head. “Maybe she’s not as popular where I’m from.”
“Excuse me.” The voice of the guard at the gate drifted up towards Vesper. “You can’t bring that in h-” The guard’s voice broke off with a cry of pain.
Vesper whipped around, and saw the lady framed by the gate loading another bolt into a crossbow.
“Go!” Eored shoved Vesper up the stairs. She nearly tripped, not expecting it. Eored unsheathed a sword, planting himself in between Vesper and the crossbow lady. Two more figures dressed in the same rough clothes melted out of the crowd on the main road. One held a spear; the other a bow. People were taking notice now. Overlapping cries and yells choked the air as they rushed to get away. A barely audible horn was blown. The one with the bow took aim at Eored.
Vesper started running.
The ill-fitting boots made her stumble more than once. Heart racing, Vesper tried to keep her feet where she wanted them to go. There was barely a railing on the stairs, and it was a long way down.
The horn blew again, three times in quick succession. Vesper risked a glance back. Eored was still standing, and figures in armor had shown up as well.
Even the little glance away was enough. Her foot slipped, and her footing with it. Vesper hit the stairs hard, tearing the stocking and her skin. Vesper hissed from the pain and the cold stone.
Standing made her leg ache, and Vesper winced to see it bleeding. Running would only make it worse, or make her trip again. She stuck to the inside wall of the staircase, and pushed onwards.
The way the staircase was carved into the rock made the wind whistle through it dangerously. More than once Vesper stopped to clutch at the rock and pray she wouldn’t be blown off the mountain. She could still hear the yells from down below. There were no more horns being blown. Distantly, there was the clash of steel on steel.
“Look out!” There was that, too.
Vesper looked back. The woman in green - the one who had shot the guard - was scrambling up them after her.
“Oh, fuck,” Vesper whispered to herself, and tried to run again.
The woman in green was fast. She was also probably wearing shoes that fit. Even as Vesper stumbled her way up the mountain, glances over her shoulder told her that her pursuer was catching up.
Vesper didn’t want to think about what would happen then.
The doors of the temple of Sarenrae were still open. Figures were rushing towards her from that side too. She stalled - were they friendly? Could she be sure?
The woman in green was catching up. No - she had stopped. Vesper could see her crouching and taking aim with a crossbow. Her heart leaped into her throat.
That was about when someone played the opening riff of ‘Age of Aquarius’ from directly above her, and something large and purple closed around her.
Vesper shrieked as she was yanked upwards and dumped on the upper flight of stairs, almost fifteen feet above where she’d been standing. She tumbled onto the stone, the edges of the stairs digging into her sides. The thing that had been holding her was revealed to be a huge, partially transparent purple hand. It had retreated to curl protectively around a figure in flashy colors, holding a lute with one hand raised as if a second away from playing it.
“Sorry about that,” he said cheerfully, “but I figured you’d prefer a surprise helping hand than being shot.”
“Who are you?” Vesper demanded. The man was clearly not human. His ears came to a squarish point, but he was too short to be an elf. He was dressed lighter than Vasselheim weather warranted, to her mind, and the scar under his eye wrinkled oddly as he smiled.
“Scanlan Shorthalt, at your service!” He swept into a bow around his lute. “For the moment, anyway. One second.” He held the lute aside as he leaned over the railing wall, then yelped and jumped backwards as an arrow came flying through the space his face had occupied a second before.
“Hey!” He leaned over the railing again to yell “Watch it!”
“It was a ricochet! Watch yourself!” A voice yelled back up. It seemed somehow familiar - the same way the name Scanlan Shorthalt sounded familiar.
“Do you need help?”
“I’ve got this!”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to know what the fuck is going on,” Vesper said loudly over the echo of her rapid heartbeat.
“Your guess is as good as mine.” Scanlan glanced over his shoulder. “I didn’t catch your name, by the way.”
“I didn’t say it,” Vesper snapped.
There was a distant scream from below. Scanlan looked back down, then plucked a few chords. The purple hand dissipated into nothing.
“You don’t have any idea why you were being chased by crossbow-wielding maniacs, do you?” He asked.
“I’d like to!” Vesper’s voice got a little shrill towards the end. She thought she was warranted at least that much, after everything that had happened in the last, what, five minutes? “What’s going on?”
“My good friends have kicked your unfortunate pursuer down the stairs by strategically employing their fists and occasionally arrows,” Scanlan said grandiosely. “I believe the guards are apprehending them. They’re lucky we weren’t expecting to be attacked and didn’t have anything on us.”
“I can tell,” Vesper said, heart rate beginning to slow. “You brought a lute to a crossbow fight.”
“Ah - well-” Scanlan glanced around. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention that. Bard magic is arcane magic, and while they’re not likely to arrest me of all people, it’s not worth the hassle.”
“You of all people-?”
“Scanlan!” The shout drifted up from below. It was a different voice, gruffer than the one from before.
“Coming!” Scanlan shouted down. “Give me a second! I’ve gotta go all the way down the stairs!”
“I can just catch you, though!”
Scanlan appeared to consider that, looked over the edge again, then shrugged. “What the hell. You better catch me!” Nimbly, he leaped over the railing and dropped out of sight.
Despite what she’d just heard, Vesper rushed over, convinced she would see him lying on the stairs below. But an enormous man, grey-skinned and with a roaring bear tattoo on his back, was putting him carefully down on the steps next to a white-haired woman, just as small as Scanlan.
The woman in green was much farther down the stairs, being accosted by several guards in brass. There was another figure with them, dark-haired - Vesper couldn’t tell whose side she was on, but there didn’t seem to be any fighting going on. A figure in blue and silver was slowly ascending the stairs; Vesper’s heart leaped when she recognized it as Eored.
A caw made Vesper look up sharply. Two black birds were circling overhead, descending towards the group which Scanlan was now leading towards the base of the mountain. She couldn’t tell if they were ravens or crows or simple blackbirds, but they were heading unerringly towards Scanlan’s party. As Eored was carefully edging past them on the stairs, one of the birds dove. Its shape seemed to warp; when it landed, it was no longer a bird but a figure with a cape of autumn leaves, a tall staff, and an antlered crown.
Vesper realized she was gaping and shut her mouth. Eored had come to a halt too, but the red-haired figure hurried past him to join with the buzz of activity now clustered around the base of the stairs. As Vesper watched her go, the second bird swooped down to land on her shoulder.
Vesper had another nagging thought; the flash of red hair had tugged at her mind like the voice who had shot the arrow and the name Scanlan Shorthalt. But alone, she couldn’t attach any significance to any of them. When Eored eventually reached her, she was still staring after the group.
“Holy shit, I just talked to the Voice of the Tempest,” he said. He had a bleeding cut on one cheek, and was holding his side. “Um - are you okay? Your knee-”
“I tripped,” Vesper admitted. “These boots don’t fit.” She glanced back down as she stood up, and then regretted it - standing, the view made her a little dizzy. “What’s a Voice of the Tempest?”
“It’s the title for the headmaster of the Air Ashari.”
“Ashari? But-” Hadn’t there been some Vox Machina person who was an Ashari? Vesper looked back down. “That’s not the group I’ve been hearing stories about?”
“I can’t believe it either!” Eored laughed like a man coming down from an adrenaline high. “Did you see how smoothly she shapeshifted? She must have decades of practice. I hear druids can turn into anything they’ve seen.”
“Are there not a lot of druids in Vasselheim?”
“Not even in the Abundant Terrace.” Eored abruptly straightened, eyes on something behind her. Vesper turned to find a cohort of guards in blue and silver clattering down the stairs, spears at the ready.
“What happened?” The one in the lead demanded, ignoring Vesper to focus on Eored. “We heard the Bastion calling.”
“There was an attack,” Eored said in a rush. “I don’t know why, but Vesper and I were singled out on our way up the stairs. I think it’s being taken care of.” He pointed down. The lead guard peered over the railing.
“Are those who I think they are?” He said after a moment.
“Hells below, we must be in trouble. Garm! Take Lionel and Etta and go see what’s happening.” Three of the Sanctuary guards obligingly moved onwards. “You two - do you need healing?”
“I’m fine,” Vesper said.
“I wouldn’t object to it,” Eored said, grimacing.
“Let’s get moving, then.”
The remainder of the trek up to the Sanctuary was silent. Once they entered it, however, Vesper was instantly mobbed.
“Where have you been? What happened?” Amani seemed to appear out of nowhere. “Vord’s been lecturing me for hours about letting you leave!”
“I’m an adult, thank you very much,” Vesper replied, taken aback by Amani’s frustrated tone. “And I didn’t intend for any of this to happen.” Eored had been absorbed into a group of guards, all of them talking seriously in low voices. A man in simpler clothing, weaponless, was poking at his side and making tiny sparks fly. The cut on his face was gone.
“Vord specifically said you weren’t to go anywhere,” Amani groaned. “You may be unhappy but you’re not the one who’s got a job to do here!”
“Well, I’m sorry my being shot at has caused you so much trouble!”
“You got shot?” Amani paled.
“No,” Vesper huffed. “I’m fine. The worst that happened was I tripped and ruined these stockings.” It was a petty thing to concentrate on, but now that the danger had passed, it was all Vesper could think about. She was wearing the only clothes she owned, and she’d already slept in them once. The situation was getting urgent.
“...It could have been worse,” Amani said at length. She was quite obviously vacillating between sympathy and reassurance, and had settled on the latter. “In the meantime, the Quartermaster’s sent up some things for you, if you want.”
“Oh. Alright.” Vesper hoped they weren’t robes. Did the Quartermaster even know her size?
“And we’re going to figure all this out, I promise.”
“...I hope so.”
Vesper took off the borrowed boots with relief and pulled down the stockings while Amani’s back was turned. She winced to see the swell of blisters on her heels, though they came as no surprise. The stockings caught briefly in the scab that had formed over her knee, and blood clung to the edge of the tear.
“How familiar are you with clothes like this?” Amani asked. Vesper glanced down at the stuff that had been laid out on the bed, which she had sat down next to to take the weight off her feet. There was a white nightgownish sort of dress laid on top of a longer, woolen blue thing that was much too long to be a shirt. Folded, she could only assume it was also a dress. There were also white stockings which looked much sturdier than the ones she’d torn, next to a skinny cloth sash of some kind. A pair of worn leather shoes had been left on the floor.
“It seems very old-fashioned, but fine,” Vesper said. “Not as many layers as I was expecting.”
“You’ve already got a cloak,” Amani said. “She probably figured you didn’t need a jacket. Nice jackets are much harder to get, anyway, since they’re more expensive.”
“Well, a cloak you take off the loom and it’s done. A jacket has to be made into all those fiddly pieces and sewn back together.”
That was a point of view Vesper had not considered. She looked down at the clothes again, considering them. “I’d feel a bit like I was dressing up in a costume, but I can’t keep wearing what I already am forever.” Her work suit was not at all suited for her current location in any sense.
“Well, once you’re set, Vord will probably want to speak to you.”
“What, about me leaving?”
“Maybe, but mostly about the attack.” Amani lowered her voice. “I hear he’s already asked to speak with the Lady of Whitestone about what happened.”
“Of Whitestone? ” Vesper startled at the unexpected name. “I didn’t see - I mean, I didn’t realize one of this world’s de Rolos was here.” Which one had it been? Had the familiar voice been Whitney’s? Cassandra’s? Her mother’s, even? Vesper hardly knew what to expect.
“I didn’t even know she was in the city.” Now that Vesper was looking, she could see that Amani was vibrating with excitement. “You ran into them, didn’t you? What was it like?”
“I wasn’t paying attention,” Vesper said. “I got yanked out of the way fairly quickly, and stayed there. I only spoke to one who said he was a bard, if that means anything to you.”
“Gnomish?” Amani replied almost before Vesper had finished speaking.
“Maybe? He was short.”
Amani grinned. “You’re lucky. I’m going to go see if Vord wants you. With any luck, he’ll have forgotten how much he wanted to yell at me.”
“Are you going to speak with him, or to spy on however many members of Vox Machina might be there?”
“Good bye, Vesper!” Amani was out the door in a trice. Vesper found herself laughing a little. Even for someone allegedly more than twice as old as Vesper, she really did behave like a young girl.
If only she’d stayed to give Vesper more concrete instructions on how the clothes were supposed to be worn.
Vesper was left alone for long enough that she had plenty of time to navigate her way into the two layers of dresses (slightly too short for her), realize she had the top layer on backwards, and sort everything out. She had left the shoes off, not wanting to aggravate her blisters further, and was flipping through her apps, trying to see what her phone would still do and what it wouldn’t. There was nobody to call, obviously, and no WiFi. Anything that required connecting to some kind of signal at home was also out, which left pretty much only her photos and the calendar.
She had flipped through the book on Vox Machina again, too. She’d avoided the section on the Whispered One - who knew what kind of superstitions were and weren’t true here. She wasn’t going to risk anything terrible happening.
What she did find was mentions of the de Rolos.
There was a chapter titled ‘The Feast’, next to an illustration of a man and a woman. Both stared slyly out of their page, dressed in dark elegant clothes. The man’s eyes had been done in red ink, for some reason.
Vesper had stopped there because on the page just after that, there was a small family tree. It had Johanna and Fredrick at the top with their full names, and the full names of seven others below; Julius, Vesper, Percy, Whitney and Oliver, Ludwig, and Cassandra. Percy and Cassandra’s names had been done in gold ink, setting them apart from the other eight. A note at the bottom said that the tree was an exact copy of the relevant parts of the salvaged de Rolo family tree tapestry in Whitestone.
Vesper stared at the tree for a long time. It was marked off from the text by a handsome border, double lines enclosing a wavy pattern of yellow and red leaves. Every single name was correct; her own name, Vesper Mathilda von Musel Klossowski de Rolo, was right there in elegant calligraphy.
She turned back a page, and braced herself to discover what had happened to this world’s Vesper.
It was after our return from the city of Vasselheim and our various tasks there that our fates began to turn towards the darker corners of the world. Though we had only just arrived back in Emon, Sovereign Uriel and the Council requested that we be present for a feast that was to be held in honor of a few diplomatic guests who were soon arriving in order that they might cement ties between the Sovereign and themselves. They were the Lord and Lady of Whitestone - Sylas and Delilah Briarwood.
We quickly realized that one of our company, Percival, knew more of them than what we had been told. It was equally obvious that whatever he knew distressed him greatly.
It was the Lady of Whitestone who was supposed to be in the Sanctuary, but a Percival who was on Vox Machina. Vesper wondered who the Lady was. If she were back home, she could say for sure; with everything that she had seen, she might be able to hazard a pretty good guess in this world, too.
It took the five of us (five as we were down Tiberius, who at that time was still part of the team, and Pike, who had remained in Vasselheim) cornering Percy in his workshop where he had sequestered himself to learn the full story. There we heard of the horrors the Briarwoods had perpetrated in Whitestone, and on Percy’s family.
Vesper did not read all of it. She got several paragraphs in before the sick feeling in her gut overcame her and she had to close the book for several moments and put her head on her knees.
She wanted to be home. She did not want to be in a world where there was a version of her somewhere, lying in a coffin six feet underground. Maybe not even that much had been afforded to the Vesper who had lived and died here. Whatever the case, Vesper had only just composed herself when Amani returned, still jittery with excitement.
“Vord wants you,” she said. “There’s - what have you done with the sash?”
Vesper looked down at herself. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s not supposed to dangle like that. And you’re not wearing the overdress. Come here.” Amani fetched a folded piece of clothing which Vesper had missed, given that it had been put down separately from the other clothes, and shook it out to reveal that it was yet another dress layer, this one with half sleeves that widened at the ends. “The sash goes around the waist over this.”
“Alright, give me a second.” Vesper undid her messy knot and tossed the skinny sash onto the bed. Amani helped her pull on the third layer; admittedly, it made the outfit much warmer. The neckline of the overdress was a lower cut, exposing parts of the simple dark blue one Vesper had assumed was the main outfit.
Quickly, businesslike, Amani snatched up cloth sash and wrapped it twice around Vesper’s waist, before tying it so the knot became a loose, neat square and the ends reached only just to her knees. “Okay. Now you’re ready.”
“If you say so,” Vesper said. At least her bun had not been knocked askew by the abrupt dressing.
“Maybe bring your things, in case they ask about what you managed to take with you.”
“I’ve already been asked that,” Vesper said, gathering up her purse and the borrowed cloak anyway. She put on her heels instead of the leather shoes; the blisters still hurt, but the shoes fit, and the extra three inches could come in handy.
“Well, just in case.”
“Yes, fine. I am.”
Amani led her along the same hallways Vesper had been through the first time she’d been taken to meet Vord. Vesper felt like the Vox Machina book was burning a hole in her purse; all her attention was on it. She always fixated on books she left unfinished, but normally it was in an excited way. This left a sick dread that curdled in her gut even when she purposefully clouded her mind with other thoughts. The dizzying whirl only stopped when they reached their destination, and only then because of who was in it.
“My gods,” Vesper said. “Vex’ahlia?” She had been expecting it, at least a little, but it was quite another thing entirely to come face to face with the expectation.
Vex threw a perplexed look back at Highbearer Vord, who was giving Vesper a narrow, thoughtful look.
“Have we met?” Vex ventured. Vesper could only stare. The dark messy hair, her casual posture, her face - that was all familiar. Everything else was not. Blue feathers were tucked behind her pointed ears, and she wore a style closer to Vesper’s borrowed clothes.
“Eored was speaking to me about your adventures and discoveries, especially the similarities among your family to the de Rolos of this world,” Vord said. For all he had changed - even his tone of voice - seconds may as well have passed since Vesper last spoke to him. “As I was just telling you, Lady de Rolo. May I introduce Vesper de Rolo?”
“Vesper de Rolo,” Vex said. She was making a valiant effort not to react overmuch, and while her emotions didn’t show on her face, the struggle did. “...Huh.”
“I promise this is as strange for me as I assume it is for you.” The other Vex, Vesper noticed, had the same penchant for repairing instead of replacing. While her clothes looked expensive, as far as Vesper could judge, they looked sturdy as well, and fitted like they had worn themselves to the shape of her body. Her leather boots were the same, and bore pale worn patches and scuff marks around the sole. Currently they were also very muddy.
“I mean, this is pretty fuckin’ strange, even for us.” Vex put her hands on her hips and looked Vesper over. “Wow. You look just like Percy.”
That, out of everything, threw Vesper for a look. “I don’t think I’ve ever been told that before.”
“Really? You do.”
“I resemble my mother, so people say. Percy takes after our father like most of my siblings.”
Vex nodded slowly. Before Vesper could try to decipher the look she’d made in response, she turned on her heels to face Vord. Vesper noticed the quiver, half-full of arrows, dangling from the back of her belt. “Hey, quick question. Do you have any clue, at all, what’s happening in this city? Because this is pretty fuckin’ weird. ”
“We’re working on the problem,” Vord said.
“What does ‘working on it’ mean?”
“It means precisely what I said,” Vord said coolly. “You’re welcome to lend your aid, if you think you can help. This recent attack-”
A caw interrupted them. All four of them turned sharply towards the window, where a black bird was sitting on the railing. It shifted its footing, then cawed again.
A moment later, a much larger bird swooped into view.
Vesper took an involuntary step back as the huge eagle wriggled onto the balcony, but as soon as it had its talons in the room it began to shrink and change. It was only a moment of dizzying warping before the redhead from before was blowing hair out of her face, leaning heavily on her staff to keep from tripping.
“Sorry if I interrupted,” Keyleth said. “I sent him to give warning, but he’s terrible at listening to directions.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the bird, who seemed to take it as an invitation and flew over to land on her shoulder. Vesper hadn’t quite realized how large it was - it had to be a raven. “Uh, who’s this?”
“Vesper de Rolo, apparently,” Vex said, deadpan. Keyleth did a double take. “The one who got summoned into the Sanctuary by whoeverthefuck is doing magic shit in Vasselheim.”
“Oh, is that the weird thing Pike’s been talking about? People showing up?”
“OH,” Vesper said aloud, accidentally interrupting. A thought had struck her with the force of a lightning bolt. First Vex, now Keyleth, and before that- “That’s where I knew him!” When she noticed the other three and Amani staring at her, she said, “The one I talked to earlier. Scanlan. I knew I recognized his name.” He’d come with some band to perform at a party, ages ago, and Vex had mentioned him a couple times. He was some friend of hers from before she met Percy, if Vesper remembered correctly.
“Wait,” Keyleth said, “but you’re from another world. You’re saying we also exist there?”
“ I’m surprised to find out you exist here!” Vesper felt like throwing her arms up and going back to her room. There, at least, she might stop being bombarded with surprises.
“Perhaps I could lend some insight,” Vord interjected, “given that the Platinum Sanctuary has been studying this problem since it began.”
Vesper tuned him out, taking in the wildness of Keyleth’s appearance. She hadn’t been mistaken earlier - Keyleth did wear a circlet with antlers growing out of it. Her red hair was shorter than the Keyleth Vesper knew, frizzy at the ends and windblown. The staff she held looked to be woven out of vines, and it curled into a circle at the top. There was some kind of green gem which floated, suspended, in the center of the circle. Vesper doubted there were any strings holding it in place.
For someone who was supposedly the Voice of the Tempest, leader of a group of people Vesper still didn’t think she entirely understood, her clothing seemed very rough, if colorful. It was nowhere near the quality of Vex’s, except in the case of the long cloak, which was elaborate only by dint of being made entirely of leaves. From her new perspective, Vesper could see that the leaves originated from a mantle of stiff green cloth - or was it leather? - around her shoulders and neck. She may have been unfamiliar, but she cut a far more striking figure than Vex. Her ears, Vesper saw, were slightly pointed just like Vex’s, only slightly more vertical.
“My main concern lies with this recent attack,” Vord was saying when Vesper started paying attention again.
“It’s weird, but they weren’t particularly powerful,” Vex said. “Is it that big a deal?”
“They were after someone who, as far as most people are concerned, doesn’t exist in this world,” Vord said. “And they bore this symbol.” He tossed something small onto the floor in between the three of them.
He might as well have thrown literal shit. Vex and Keyleth both recoiled from whatever it was, Keyleth grasping her staff defensively in front of her. Vex held her hands like she was reaching for something on her belt that she’d forgotten wasn’t there. Amani gasped. Keyleth’s raven cawed in protest at being jostled.
It was a little necklace; a four-pronged fork shape spreading outwards from a circle. It was pretty terribly made, clumsily carved from wood. But next to Vesper, Amani was making the same sign Merry had made when she’d seen the picture of the Whispered One; a three-fingered claw, pushed away from the chest.
“Still?” Vex demanded. “I thought you’d taken care of this-”
“His cult is banned within the city, but if you imagine there are no criminals in Vasselheim, you presume much,” Vord cut in icily. “It has not been a problem until now.”
“You don’t think it’s connected to the summonings, do you?” Keyleth asked.
“I can’t be sure.”
“Summonings?” Vesper said, attracting the attention of the room. “You think someone’s doing this on purpose?”
“There is no other way people like you could have been pulled between worlds,” Vord said. “It takes a powerful force of magic to do something like that, and it can’t be done by accident.”
“If he’s involved, I have an idea of who’s providing the power,” Vex said sourly.
“Precisely.” Vord eyed the necklace distastefully. “If you wish to take that out of the Sanctuary to share this information with the rest of your team, I would not object.”
Vex picked up a bow which Vesper had not noticed from where it had been leaning against the wall, and used the end of that to pick up the icon by its string. “Sure.”
“Is there anything else you know?” Keyleth asked.
“I suspect the people responsible know who they intended to summon,” Vord said. “Well enough to recognize them on sight, at least. Questioning them revealed that they only wanted to retrieve our guest - not injure her.” Vesper startled at that; nobody had mentioned that to her. “If she was seen out in the city, members of the group could have realized who she was. I think that these summonings are purposeful, but that the summoners have no control over where they end up, except for making sure they arrive in the city.”
“No idea who, though?” Vex asked.
“We’re still working on the problem. This is more than we knew yesterday.” Vord clasped his hands in front of him, which somehow made him look even more regal. “I believe it would be prudent, as of this moment, to formally request Vox Machina’s aid in solving this problem.”
“With only two of us here?” Keyleth sounded skeptical.
“You’re free to decide as a group. I know most of you are in Vasselheim at the moment for one reason or another. I would ask only that you return as quickly as possible with an answer.”
Vex and Keyleth exchanged a meaningful look. “We’ll talk,” Vex said. “I doubt anyone’s going to refuse, but I’m not going to accept on behalf of four other people.”
“What about you?” Keyleth turned, surprisingly, to Vesper. “I don’t want to, like, sideline you when all of this basically centers around you.”
“I don’t have much to offer.” Vesper shrugged. “All I want is to go home.” It came out a little more plaintively than she meant for it to.
“We could see if Pike can figure anything out,” Vex suggested. “Also, I’m kind of curious to see how many of us you’ve already met.”
“Last time you left the Sanctuary-” Vord began.
“Oh, come on.” Vex rolled her eyes. “We’re going down to Pike’s temple. What’s gonna happen, something falls out of the sky on us? Don’t you have wyvern-riders keeping an eye out for that sort of thing?”
Vord’s mouth thinned into a tense line.
“Cool,” Vex said, and gave him a thumbs up. “That’s what I thought. If you need me, I will be about a ten-minute walk away.”
*me, pointing vigorously at the chapter* eh?? ehhhh????
i don't know if you could tell from the clothing bits, but i'm really into medieval fashion and recently went down a youtube hole of this one historical reenactor's channel. it's great. check out prior attire, the bit of her '500 years of medieval fashion' with the long jacket is mostly what I was picturing for Vesper.
also, "The Feast" is the title of the CR episode where Percy in-character reveals his backstory to the team. I thought it would be a fun easter egg to have the chapter titles of scanlan's book be episode titles.
Chapter 4: Many Meetings
i hmmm'ed a lot over whether to end this chapter where it does, but i figure an update would be more appreciated than a longer chapter!
SPOILER WARNING: since this is post-campaign, there are some heavy-handed spoilers for episodes 114/115.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Now in her heels, Vesper was much more careful on her second walk down the stairs. The cold wasn’t as bad with the layers of wool and cotton clothing, though she still kept her eyes away from the view.
“You didn’t seem as surprised to see me,” Vex said, leaning in from behind Vesper to talk. “I mean, if I was in a different world and started meeting people I already knew, I’d never be able to keep it that cool.”
“I’ve been talking to people already,” Vesper said. “The significance of the de Rolo name came up pretty quickly. I just went from there. When Amani said the Lady of Whitestone was here, I was half wondering if it wouldn’t be you.”
“Wait, Percy and Vex are married where you come from, too?” Keyleth piped up. “That’s so sweet!”
“I’m too cool to settle for anyone else,” Vex said confidently, but she was smiling sappily at nothing in particular.
The doors of the temple of Sarenrae were still open, and heat still drifted out of them. However, Vesper froze in the entrance, cold air still at her back.
“That’s a bear,” she said.
“Yeah,” Vex said, sounding unconcerned with the bear in the temple, which was lying down worryingly close to the people at the base of a huge ceremonial brazier at the far end of the room. “Don’t worry, he’s mine, I didn’t just bring a feral bear into a temple.” She and Keyleth went confidently on; Vesper still hesitated.
The temple was larger than Vesper would have assumed, looking at it from outside. The fire in the brazier was large enough that even at the fringes of the room, she could feel the heat. There was a motley crew grouped around it, who she recognized from earlier; the tall grey man, and the two smaller figures, Scanlan and one she still couldn’t put a name to. There was nobody the right height to be a human, much less with scruffy white hair. Vesper felt disappointed, and a moment after that irritated with herself for expecting so much. Who could say if this world’s Percy was anything like the one she remembered?
She kept an eye on the bear, and walked down the main aisle. The attention of the group members she hadn’t already met was already half on her.
“We meet again,” Scanlan said, eyeing her with more interest than he had last time. He was sitting backwards in one of the pews, his feet propped up against its back. The only proper rows of pews were the two at the front; the rest of the room was taken up with more casual furniture, oriented to face the other seats rather than the front. The only nod to the traditional structure was the main aisle that led from the door to the brazier, left unblocked by anything.
“Seems so,” Vesper said. “I don’t think I’ve been introduced to the rest of you.”
“Grog,” the grey one said immediately. “Sound familiar?”
“Shit.” He visibly slumped, scratching at his beard. “That would’ve been cool.” Even bent over, he was still astonishingly tall. Vesper wasn’t quite sure what about him was most striking - the height, the muscles, or the clear inhumanity. A long black scar stretched across his bare chest, distinguished from the black tattooed marks that covered his shoulders and bald head by its rough texture and greyer color.
“Maybe she just hasn’t met you there yet,” the blonde gnome suggested. Up close, Vesper realized that her hair only looked blonde because of the fire’s orange glow; it was nearly white, like Percy’s, streaked through with blue. She extended a hand herself. “I’m Pike.”
“You’re Pike?” Belatedly, Vesper shook hands. “I only mean - people talk a lot about you in Vasselheim.”
“And if nobody specifies, nobody expects a gnome,” Pike said, smiling. The scar over her left eye stayed stiff, cutting off her smile lines. “It’s fine. I hear you come from a world that’s all-human, anyway.”
“Absolutely barbaric,” Scanlan commented. “No gnomes at all? How do you live?”
“Very differently,” Vesper said.
“Do you recognize Pike’s name?” Grog asked. “Not from here, I mean.”
“I don’t believe so.” It sounded vaguely familiar, maybe, but she’d heard it several times over after arriving here.
“While this is fun,” Vex said, “we’ve got things to worry about. This got taken off one of the attackers.” She raised the bow, still with the necklace hanging from it. Grog scowled; Pike startled; Scanlan dropped the lute he’d picked up to tune.
“Well, fuck,” Grog said. “Really?”
“Yeah. Vord’s officially asked Vox Machina to come in and deal with this.”
“You mind if I see that?” Pike asked. Vex obligingly offered it to her. Pike took it and, without a single moment of pause, chucked it over her shoulder into the brazier full of fire.
Grog and Scanlan simultaneously reached over to high-five her.
“That seems like it might be unclean or something,” Keyleth said.
“Sarenrae will deal with it,” Pike said calmly. As soon as she finished speaking, the flame roared to new heights. It turned a vibrant blue, sending heat to scorch Vesper’s face. She shielded herself, but the flames were already dying down. Carefully, Vesper lowered her arm to see everybody staring at the brazier, also lowering their arms.
“...Thanks, Sarenrae,” Pike said loudly after a few moments.
“A little warning next time, maybe,” Scanlan said. He turned his lute over in his lap. “You don’t see any scorch marks, do you? That was hot as the Hells.”
“Does that normally happen?” Vesper still watched the fire warily. It was cold compared to what it had been a moment ago, but the temple was still warm enough that Vesper could feel sweat beginning to gather around her hairline.
“Without Pike asking very nicely and using a spell? No, but normally we’re not in Sarenrae’s temple either.” Vex put down the bow. “By the way, Pike, here’s the bow back. I sorta snatched it on my way out.”
“Oh, it’s fine, I’ll make sure it gets back to Danny,” Pike said as Vex started taking off the quiver, too. “He said he figured you could put it to more use than him, if the guards were mobilizing.”
“There were like three of them,” Vex said, rolling her eyes, “but I appreciate it.”
“That’s not yours?” Vesper asked.
“Oh, no, I didn’t think I’d need weapons on this trip. Mine are much nicer.” Vex dumped the quiver on a pew. “Anyway. Are we gonna? It’s a Vox-Machina-as-a-whole decision.”
“Is there an option where we don’t?” Grog crossed his arms. “If there’s things we gotta fight, fuck yeah.”
“Wait, hold on, but Percy’s not here,” Pike said. Vesper’s attention sharpened threefold. “Is he going to be okay with this?”
“...I dunno,” Vex said, after a pregnant pause. “To be honest, I should probably go back to Whitestone and let him know about all this.”
“I can take you back, but only tomorrow,” Keyleth said. “I can’t do Transport Via Plants until I rest. Can this wait that long? If it’s Vecna-”
“Who’s Vecna?” There was a short, but awkward pause when Vesper interrupted, as if the five of them were remembering that she was still there.
“A dick,” Scanlan supplied.
“No - well, yeah, actually, he definitely is, but that’s not the main thing,” Keyleth said. “He’s - uh, I don’t know if you’d know the story, but he’s the one that put that big primordial in the middle of the city-”
“Him?” Vesper interrupted incredulously. “The one who everyone’s still too scared of to say his name?” The god? “That’s his symbol?”
“Unfortunately,” Pike murmured. She was staring at the flames of the brazier.
“And also a total dipshit,” Vex said. “The point being, even if Percy doesn’t want to come, he should know.”
“And you want to go home already,” Scanlan added. Keyleth giggled, while Vex rolled her eyes pointedly. Vesper felt as though she was missing something.
“Whatever,” Vex said.”If Keyleth and I leave tomorrow morning, that’s fine. Right?” She asked Keyleth.
“Yeah, for sure.”
“Good. It’s settled, then.”
Vesper was not at all tired that night. She lay awake in only the thin white underdress, staring at the ceiling. Moonlight streamed in through the window, casting long dark shadows.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the de Rolos of this world. She wanted terribly to track down Vex before she left and demand that she go to Whitestone with them, but what waited for her there? Who did she think she would find?
She’d looked at the book again before going to sleep. The illustration of the couple - the Briarwoods - was burned into her mind. She probably shouldn’t have read it so late at night, but what was done was done.
She wondered what was happening at home. She’d been reported missing by now, for sure. Was someone stepping in to do her job? Had other members of the family volunteered, or maybe taken leaves of their own? Would her absence really do that much, or was she being overdramatic because she was in the privacy of her own mind?
Vesper rolled onto her side, but it didn’t make her any more tired. She wished she had something to do - some phone game that didn’t make her actually concentrate, or something good to read. But her phone wasn’t working, and she didn’t have enough light to read, even if she’d had an option other than upsetting, alternate-world family history.
Vesper stared at the dress she’d hung on the back of the chair instead. It offered no answers, but she hadn’t really expected it to.
Should she go to Whitestone, or not? Would she even be able to? Keyleth and Vex might leave before she could find them. Vord might try to prevent her from leaving the Sanctuary. And the thought of someone in the cult of the Whispered One finding her again gave Vesper shivers. The world she was in might have magic, but at least where she came from nobody had to worry about cult fanatics with a dangerous god who could inflict very real harm on the world.
As she stared at the wall, trying to will herself to sleep, images of the people she’d met drifted in front of her mind’s eye. She hadn’t seen this world’s Percy yet, but that only made her wonder more. How similar would he be? What would be different?
She hadn’t seen Vax anywhere, either. While Vesper mostly knew Vex’s brother via her and Keyleth back home - their paths did not cross often, something she really should have rectified - she did know him well enough that she would have noticed him even in passing. Was he in Whitestone as well? He and Vex weren’t attached at the hip, but Whitestone was a long way from Vasselheim, if she remembered correctly.
Vesper, eventually, did fall asleep, slowly enough that she barely realized it was happening. No answers put themselves together for her during the night.
In a move she probably should have expected, Vesper slept in late. Weak sunlight on her face finally roused her, and though her phone was still no help she realized that it had to be well into the morning. Her internal clock had picked a terrible day to take a break, but at least now the Whitestone problem was out of her hands; there was no way she could catch either woman in time to go with them.
Vesper dressed again in the borrowed clothes, and went in search of food. She’d gone to the same small, firelit room Amani had brought her to the first night for dinner before she’d fallen asleep, and it seemed reasonable to assume there might be breakfast there too.
There was certainly a heavy smell of things cooking in the air when Vesper managed to find the right place; additionally, there was a familiar face.
Scanlan’s attention latched onto her as soon as she walked in. His companion, an equally short woman Vesper hadn’t seen before, noticed her as well when she turned to see what he was looking at.
“Fancy a companion for your meal?” Scanlan called over.
“I guess?” Vesper took the empty seat at the end.
“Good choice,” Scanlan said. “This is Kima, by the way; I hear you were looking for her earlier.”
“You did?” Vesper said, taken aback. Kima, whose slightly curly hair was going everywhere, raised her tankard in a silent greeting before taking a long pull from it. “How?”
“I hear lots of things,” Scanlan said evasively. “Anyway, I happened to be at the Slayer’s Take earlier to catch up with some old friends.”
“Happened,” Kima echoed, air-quoting with her free hand. The plate in front of her was full of crumbs, suggesting a hastily-demolished meal. “Sure, Shorthalt.”
“That’s Shorthalt-Trickfoot to you,” Scanlan said, before transferring his attention back to Vesper. “You have the look of someone who’s just woken up. Late night?”
“A little,” Vesper said. Her stomach chose that moment to growl. Scanlan grinned, and reached out to catch the man who had come by to whisk away Kima’s plate by the sleeve.
“Another of whatever it is you’re serving, if you don’t mind?”
“Thanks, Al,” Kima said, toasting him with her tankard. Al nodded and moved back behind the counter, where warmth and the smell of food seemed to perpetually emanate.
“I can do that myself, you know,” Vesper said.
“Oh, but you’ve only been here, what, three days? I wasn’t sure you knew how it was done.”
“Three days only if you count today,” Vesper admitted. “I don’t mean to be rude, but don’t you stay in the Sarenrae temple?”
“It’s a free city,” Scanlan said, “and I find my business takes me into the Sanctuary this morning. But yes, I do, when I happen to be in Vasselheim.”
“Annoying me?” Kima suggested.
“I am astonished by the implicated that I might be purposefully trying to annoy you, my lady.”
“It’s too early in the morning for you,” Kima muttered into her tankard.
“You’re just sad Allura left.”
Kima glowered at him. Scanlan beamed back. The waiter, or worker, Al, inserted himself between them when he returned to deliver Vesper’s food. Vesper set upon it quickly - she was hungrier than she’d realized. Kima stuck to her drink, though it didn’t smell alcoholic, and Scanlan whistled, evidently bored.
“What exactly do people do for fun in this place?” He asked Kima.
“Spar. Read. Leave to go somewhere more interesting.”
“Gods, no wonder you’re always so ready to up and leave at the slightest hint of intrigue.”
“Well, I’m not the one carrying a sword.”
“At the moment,” Scanlan retorted quickly. Vesper paused. He was sitting down, so she couldn’t see what was on his belt.
“ Are you?” Vesper asked him. In reply, Scanlan half drew a gleaming sword with a hilt as decorated as his gold-embroidered clothes so that it was visible over the table.
“Of course, magic counts for something,” he said, sheathing it again with a metallic rasp. “But, y’know, my particular brand comes with a hefty fine if anyone sees me doing it, so I might as well have a backup.”
“Do you think you’ll need a sword?”
“I’m surprised you’d ask that , considering which one of us was getting shot at yesterday.”
Vesper paused, and nodded slowly. “I just wasn’t expecting a sword,” she excused herself. “They’re not very common where I come from.”
“Would you like to see it properly?”
...Well, when would she ever get to see a sword at home outside of historical reenactments? “Sure.”
Scanlan stood up and unsheathed the blade all the way, and laid the sword on the table. Kima leaned back to get out of the way. The hilt was cool as Vesper wrapped her hand around it.
It was a long blade, nearly enormous for someone of Scanlan’s stature. The blade itself was etched with abstract designs, which shone briefly as the blade tilted in Vesper’s uncertain grasp. It was heavier than she’d imagined it would be, though of course it was solid metal, so she wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting.
“It seems like quite a big thing to be carrying around and swinging at people,” she said, making a valiant effort to lift all of it off the table. Her hand - and the sword - trembled with the effort, and she quickly added her other hand.
“I have practice, and friends who don’t primarily use swords and can’t tell when I’m doing something wrong,” Scanlan replied. Vesper snorted, and the tip of the blade cut a notch into the table.
“Oh, shit, sorry.” Vesper hurried to steady her grip.
“The table’s going to be worse off than the sword.” Scanlan waved off the apology. “At least it’s still sharp enough to cut wood.”
“Do you even know how to sharpen this thing properly?” Kima asked. She was still leaning back, but more to survey the sword with a keen eye than to give it space.
“I made Grog do it once? I don’t think it needs to be sharpened, honestly.”
“Oh, this is the fancy one, then.”
“The fancy one?” Vesper questioned.
“As opposed to my non-fancy, non-enchanted swords, of which I have approximately zero. It’s like this.” Scanlan whistled a low note. Vesper jumped (just a little) as the sword began to vibrate in her hands, the pace increasing as the pitch of the whistle lowered. It only lasted a second, because Scanlan stopped quickly. “It’s a bard’s sword, see?”
“How do you get it to do that?”
“No idea. I didn’t make it.” Scanlan held out a hand, and Vesper gave the hilt back to him. He had to stand up to properly sheath the sword without cutting more notches into the table. “It was a gift. Kind of a long story; it’s one of a bunch of really old, Divergence-era artifacts we went around tracking down back in our heyday.”
“I assume ‘our’ is ‘Vox Machina’s’,” Vesper guessed.
“That’s a hell of a sword to be hauling around,” Kima said. There was something pointed that Vesper couldn’t quite parse in her words. Scanlan shrugged.
“If someone’s fooling around with that one-eyed jackass in Vasselheim again, there’s no such thing as overkill.”
“Is that what you were talking to the Huntmaster about? The tiefling lady?”
“Maybe,” Scanlan said. For some reason, his eyes briefly flickered over to Vesper.
“Is there more than one of this kind of sword, then?” Vesper asked. She disliked when there was more going on in a conversation than she knew about, and so a change of topic was in order until she could figure out the undertones.
“What? Oh, no. The other artifacts are magical, but they’re not all weapons.” Scanlan stood again. “Walk with me, if you like, and I’ll tell you all about them.”
“...Alright.” If nothing else, she might be able to figure out what all Kima’s pointedness had been about. She’d pretty much finished eating, anyway. Vesper stood, and followed Scanlan out. Kima made no effort to follow.
“So how much, exactly, have you heard about Vox Machina?” Scanlan asked as they entered one of the many hallways the Sanctuary was riddled with. “I’d hate to rehash anything and start to sound boring.”
“A lot of references, but nothing very concrete,” Vesper said. She rifled through the pages of her memory. “An acquaintance from the Sanctuary mentioned the fight that took place in Vasselheim ages ago that has to do with...that one who nobody wants to say the name of.”
“Yeah, probably a smart move not to.” Scanlan nodded. “I’d rather not attract his attention.”
“Is that possible?”
“Oh, probably. Invoking a name and all that. But what else?”
“Well, not many specific stories? Mentions of smaller deeds. Someone said you had something to do with Sarenrae, and then the Slayer’s Take.”
“And that there was a de Rolo who was a member.”
“And you’d be interested in that part, of course,” Scanlan said, with a chuckle that seemed a little too amused. It wasn’t as though she’d told a joke. “Indulge me for a sec - what’s it like where you come from? Besides the lack of magic and nonhumans.”
“Why?” Vesper asked, caught off-guard.
“Call it curiosity! There’s a lot that could be different besides what’s already been aired out. I could be a completely different man, or you could have, I don’t know, a different favorite color than over here, or-”
“Or my family could be in a far different situation?”
Scanlan missed a step. That was what told Vesper she’d guessed right; he recovered admirably quickly, and said flippantly,
“Yeah, I guess that too.”
“I’m not completely ignorant,” Vesper said. “People have mentioned the big difference between the de Rolos here and at home. And there’s books about it.”
“You found my book? I didn’t know the Sanctuary had a copy.”
“ Your book?”
“Who else knows enough about Vox Machina to write a true story?” Scanlan scoffed. He’d stopped walking in order to really meet Vesper’s gaze. Despite being two feet shorter and then some, Vesper felt almost intimidated by the seriousness his face settled into. “But I guess you read the bits about the de Rolos in that, then.”
“Some of it.” Vesper’s shoulders had automatically straightened, though it was hard to hold her head high when she had to look down at Scanlan. “Enough.”
“Must’ve been weird.”
“Get to your point, please. Is there a reason you asked me to speak with you without anyone else around?” He’d led her towards a particularly guard-less hallway.
“Well, yes. It has to do with all this trouble and...everything.” Scanlan gestured vaguely, seemingly for the sake of having something to do with his hands. “The thing is, in the last couple decades the cult of fuckface has been pretty much nonexistent because everyone on his side either fought and died in the battle in Vasselheim, or was rooted out and put to justice - or the sword - afterwards. We kicked their ass badly enough that it was kind of shaming to have been associated with that movement. But apparently it’s been long enough that whoever was left is starting to come out of the woodwork again.”
“I was told it was this group that was responsible for somehow summoning people from my Emon,” Vesper said. It wasn’t strictly true, but that was what the information she had added up to, and what Vord had basically said.
“Yeah, that’s a mess in of itself. I’m not on top of what anybody’s found out about that, but obviously you were somehow recognized even though you ended up straight in the Sanctuary. You don’t remember seeing anybody with those symbols on a necklace, do you?”
“No,” Vesper said. “It was just blackness. Where is this going?”
“I’m getting there,” Scanlan sighed. “I thought I’d do some exposition, because that’s how you tell a story, but whatever.”
“This isn’t a story!”
“Isn’t it?” Scanlan didn’t wait for an answer. “The point is that it’s not for no reason that that symbol is cropping up again. It’s...” He sighed again, and raked a hand through his bangs, sweeping them out of his face in a practiced-looking way. “It’s our fault, kinda. In the last battle, the half-blind dick had three, well, right-hand men. Generals of a sort. We’d fought them before - some of them several times, which made it quite frankly complete bullshit that they managed to come back to fight us again. But we got one, and an ally of ours defeated another, and the third...escaped.”
“Escaped?” Vesper repeated blankly.
“We all thought Vasselheim or somebody would’ve taken care of him, but apparently not,” Scanlan said. “I only discovered this when I was at the Slayer’s Take earlier. They’ve had a contract out on him ever since, paid for by the collective Dawnmarshals, but nobody’s ever completed it.”
“I thought the Slayer’s Take only put contracts out on monsters.”
“They do,” Scanlan said. “This just happens to be a humanoid one. By the name of Sylas Briarwood.”
Vesper gaped at him. How else could she react, when she’d only read that name in one context? “I-”
“He’s not, like, in the city, ” Scanlan hastened to say. “He’s probably out hiding in the forest, still covering his ass. But I told the rest of the group already, and, well - you’ve got a right to know as much as anybody, considering how tightly you’re connected to all of this.”
“What does that mean?” Vesper said. She was clutching the strap of her purse like a lifeline. “If you think he’s involved - and it’s me they summoned-”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” Scanlan interrupted. “If you recognized that name, I get what you’re thinking - but it doesn’t. We don’t know why anyone’s being summoned yet, so there’s no reason to think that you ended up here because of your surname. I can’t think of any kind of spell that uses that as a basis for who it targets, anyway. And even if that were the case, it’s much more likely that the spell would’ve nabbed Percy or Cassandra instead of someone in a completely different world.”
“Cassandra?” Vesper seized upon the name, her heart for once leaping instead of freezing.
“...Yes?” Scanlan’s careful wariness was, for a moment, replaced with confusion.
“I thought - I mean, no one’s mentioned anyone but Percy to me.”
“Ohh. Okay. Yeah, if you only read the first bits of the book...” Scanlan nodded. “No, Cassandra’s alive. She’s in Whitestone.”
The amount of relief that Vesper felt surprised even her. She turned away from Scanlan to hide what must have shown on her face, her rigid posture faltering as she hunched her shoulders towards her ears. When she felt sure she could speak without her voice shaking, Vesper said,
“There aren’t any others you’re forgetting to mention, are there?” What a world, where she had to wonder which of her family members were alive or not.
“No,” Scanlan said. He sounded genuinely regretful. “Not in this world, anyway.” There was a telltale soft tread of footsteps approaching, and then his voice said slightly closer behind her said, “I kind of wonder what Percy in your world is like.”
“Why?” Vesper put on a brave face and turned to meet his gaze again.
“I’ve got a hunch he’s a very different kind of man,” Scanlan answered. “It affected him a lot. I never heard him breathe so much as a word of any lordship or any siblings until we were getting ready to go fuck up the Briarwoods.” He paused, rocking backwards on his heels as he looked up at the ceiling to consider his words. “Honestly, it’s real bullshit that the Briarwoods in particular manage to keep coming back. What they did...that one shitty, shitty thing kicked off years of absolutely ridiculous amounts of bad shit, especially for Percy and Cassandra.” He scoffed under his breath, a humorless snort. “Probably should’ve come back to deal with Sylas ourselves, but after that fight...none of us really felt up to it.”
There was, once again, something more to what he was saying - a mournful undercurrent. Vesper did not feel like asking about it.
“Sometimes I wonder whether or not I really do want to meet this world’s Percy,” she said instead. “On one hand, it’s another world, but...I miss my family. And apparently I’ve only got so much of that here.”
“I doubt the number’s going to go down anytime soon,” Scanlan said. “Quite the opposite. And anyway, Sylas may be dangerous, but I told you because I thought you should know, not because I was trying to scare you. The Sanctuary’s still on the top of a mountain in the middle of the city, and pretty heavily guarded on top of that. And fuckin’ Vox Machina is on the case, or sort of. I still don’t know if Percy’s going to show up. Vex hasn’t come back from Whitestone yet.”
“Do you think he won’t?” Vesper remembered Pike bringing him up as well, in the conversation in Sarenrae’s temple.
“Maybe.” Scanlan looked at her as if he were judging his words - or her - but continued speaking after a moment. “Like I said. Percy was an angry kid for a long time, and I think by now he’s kinda gotten sick of all that. Running around slaying dragons isn’t for everybody forever. And he’s got Whitestone to think about again.”
“ Was there a lot of dragonslaying going on?” Had someone mentioned that to her before?
“While he was a kid?”
“Relatively speaking.” Scanlan shrugged. “Twenty-whatever, plenty young for a human. Might’ve been almost twenty years ago now, but that doesn’t change the facts.”
“And how old were you?”
“What a rude question! A gentleman never tells.” Vesper couldn’t tell if his offense was mock or genuine.
“Even when you were younger?” She pressed, her curiosity getting the better of her.
“Especially then. Especially since I’ve just told you precisely how long it’s been since then. Do you have any questions that aren’t about my age?”
Vesper thought about it. She’d had a great deal of them the night before, but it was suddenly difficult to remember all of them. “I don’t know. All of the questions, maybe. I don’t know anything about nearly anything that happened in this world.” A morbidly fascinated part of her wanted to ask more about the de Rolos, about the Briarwoods, about the young angry Percy who had grown into the mysterious Lord or Whitestone.
“Well, think on it.” Scanlan began meandering down the hallway again. Vesper, of course, walked with him.
“What do you know about these summonings?” She asked eventually. “I was asked a lot of questions about my experience, but I haven’t heard if there have been any results.”
Scanlan shrugged. “I know what I’ve already told you, mostly. You were summoned; the people who did it couldn’t get you to a super specific place, but someone must’ve been able to recognize you when you were out in the city. The people doing it wear the symbol of ol’ fuckface.”
“...You certainly have a way of getting around saying his name.”
“It’s one of my many talents.”
“Has it been confirmed for sure that the summoners and the attackers from yesterday are the same people?”
“Oh, yeah. They interrogated the survivors or something.”
“ Survivors? ”
“Well, yeah, they attacked the guards, the guards attacked back. The Sanctuary wasn’t too focused on healing them over healing their own allies when they got down there.” Scanlan made a ‘what can you do?’ sort of face, raising his hands and shoulders.
“There’s another difference to make a note of, I suppose,” Vesper said at length. There had been a lot of talk of slaying and killing monsters, but she hadn’t pictured before how that attitude might transfer over to regular criminals.
“Are you writing it down, or is this a mental list?”
“The latter.” Vesper mulled over her next question. The topic of the Briarwoods still lurked in the part of her brain she’d stuffed her fright into to try and ignore. “You say you’ve fought these Briarwoods before. How do they keep escaping?” It was odd how Scanlan simultaneously assured her of their weakness and emphasized Vox Machina’s inability to truly defeat them.
“Oh, they don’t. That’s why it’s frustrating.” Seeing her baffled look, Scanlan elaborated. “We’ve defeated the Briarwoods before, but they have powerful allies. You know.” Scanlan put a hand over one eye for precisely as long as it took to make his point. “I’ve seen Lady Briarwood dead about three times, but the last one is the only one that’s stuck, and that’s only because her boss is on the wrong side of the divine gate and none of his surviving lackeys have the power or money to put behind the spells you’d need for something like that.”
“Something like - what, resurrection? Is that on the table?” Vesper stared. “Really?”
“I have no answer besides ‘it’s magic’? I dunno what you want me to say.” Scanlan stuffed his hands in his pockets. “It’s not common . Any spell that you can use to pull someone’s soul back into their body takes skill and power, and they’re always the kind of spells with expensive components that get consumed in the process - diamonds, usually. They’re not guaranteed to work. And there are restrictions.”
“Like what?” Vesper reflected that she should have known better than to think nothing else in this world could surprise her.
“Oh, time of death. The longer it’s been, the more powerful a spell you need. Some only work within a minute. I know Keyleth knows a ninth-level one that works on anyone who’s been dead less than a century, but she’s never actually busted that one out. Also it costs over two thousand gold pieces in diamonds, so.”
“ Keyleth knows?”
“Keyleth, Pike, and I all know healing spells. I mean, Pike’s a cleric, that’s her main thing, but it’s best to have stuff like that spread out among a couple people if you go charging into situations that will get you hurt a lot.”
“What does ninth-level mean?” Vesper wondered if there were still books about magic that she could read at home. It was far more complicated than she had imagined.
“Spells are usually organized by level - dunno who came up with it, but it’s an easy way of gauging how complicated or heavy-hitting it is. Or how much power you have to put behind it. Ninth-level spells are the top of the chart.”
“Do you know any?”
Scanlan smiled - small, and bitterly, taking Vesper by surprise. “Not any that I’ve ever managed to bring someone back with.”
“You say that like you’ve needed to,” Vesper said, carefully treading new conversational territory.
“Adventuring’s a dangerous business,” Scanlan said. “Y’know. Dragons and various genres of shitheads.” The fingers of one hand tapped absently at the hilt of his sword.
“...Have you ever needed to use a spell like that?”
“Yes,” Scanlan said, “but Pike was always better at it, and my spells were only really needed the one time.” The smile that he flashed her was more cheerful than his last, and rang with falseness. “I wouldn’t be worried about anyone needing to break those out. Vasselheim’s not that dangerous. So if you don’t mind, I think I’ll head back to Pike’s temple to see if anyone’s come back from Whitestone yet.”
“Oh. Alright.” The hallway they were traversing had led them back around to the entrance hall area. Scanlan strode off, fetching a heavy cloak from where it had been tossed carelessly over a bench before slipping out through the tall doors. Two of the guards on duty held them both open for him, nearly falling over themselves to do so when they saw him coming.
What a puzzle this world was, Vesper thought, staring after him even after the doors had closed. Life and death were tenuous with the right magical skill, and Vox Machina had toyed with that boundary.
There had been someone they - or maybe just Scanlan - had wanted to bring back, but couldn’t. So who had died? Not Percy - they’d spoken of him in the present tense. She had seen Vex and Keyleth. Other de Rolo family members probably weren’t an option - why should Scanlan care about them?
But there was one who Vesper hadn’t seen or heard of.
man i love writing vesper and scanlan. i don't know how they ended up in so many scenes together, they just did. maybe it's because scanlan talks the most and shares information easily? it's happened now so it's happened.
Chapter 5: In the Temple of the Everlight
ey, new chapter! and certain tagged characters finally show up!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Oh, Vesper! I didn’t know you were awake.”
“That’s fine,” Vesper said. “Uh...what are you doing?”
“Fixing these,” Amani said, as if it should have been obvious. She was standing in Vesper’s room, holding Vesper’s stockings in one hand and two small round stones in the other.
“A needle and thread might be more prudent?”
“Well, whoever originally created this spell didn’t use a needle and thread as components, so I will repeat their strategy. Here.” Amani tossed the stockings over. Vesper caught them, and held them up to look for the hole.
There wasn’t one. Only a speck or two of scabby blood caught in the stitches told her where it had been.
“Wow,” Vesper said. “That would come in handy for me to be able to do. These things tear if you so much as look at them funny.”
“Are they fancy dress?”
“Business, mostly. Thank you.”
“No problem.” Amani tucked the polished stones into a pouch hanging from her sturdy belt. “I didn’t mean to intrude on your room, so-”
“No, it’s fine. I was actually looking for you.”
“I...had a strange sort of conversation,” Vesper said. “I need to ask some things about Vox Machina, and I figured you would be the right person about that.”
“Oh, sure! What is it?”
“Well...to preface this, I should probably tell you that I’ve only just learned that resurrection spells exist, and it was a slightly morbid conversation from certain views.”
Whatever Amani had been expecting, it wasn’t that. “Resurrection? Why on earth were you talking about that?”
“It’s a long story. It was a long conversation. ” She might as well explain further. “I was talking to Scanlan.”
“What, really?!” Amani’s ears twitched like they were perking up. “You call him ‘Scanlan’?”
“Is there something else I should call him?”
“Well - I don’t know. Nevermind. What was he here for?” Amani sat down on the bed, every facet of her attention oriented eagerly towards Vesper.
Vesper sat next to her, briefly explaining how it had been discovered that the Briarwoods - or one of them - were connected to the previous day’s attack. “-And I’d seen them mentioned in the book, so I asked how they were still around, and he explained that they’d been brought back, and it turned into a whole thing.”
“I didn’t know they’d been resurrected to serve the Whispered One,” Amani said in a low voice, as if they were discussing something secret. She sounded impressed. “Names weren’t really given out of the ones who had served him. This is a lot bigger than I thought.”
“I’d really rather not think about it, to be honest,” Vesper said.
“Oh - right, with them and the de Rolos. That must be weird for you.”
“The point is,” Vesper pressed, ignoring the comment, “that in the course of the conversation it came up that Vox Machina as a group had made use of resurrection spells themselves.”
“He confirmed that? Really?”
“Is it common knowledge?”
“There are some stories,” Amani said. “People have tried to figure out the truth of events Vox Machina have been mixed up in. Sometimes people who were there say they saw bodies, or people divined or asked a higher power and got an answer that said something along those lines. But obviously up until recently they were all alive.”
“ Until recently,” Vesper said. “So there is - there is someone who it didn’t work for?”
“It’s a complicated story,” Amani said. “I’m not really sure of all the details - you shouldn’t be looking to me for answers.”
“Then who should I ask, Vox Machina? Scanlan seemed upset just thinking about it.” Vesper turned to face Amani more squarely. “Just answer one question for me.”
“Does Vex’ahlia have a brother in this world?”
Amani’s ears twitched again. “That’s very specific.”
“I’m beginning to have my own suspicions, given certain similarities between this world and mine,” Vesper said. “Does she?”
“Well,” Amani said, “she did.”
Vesper exhaled slowly, leaning back until she could rest against the headboard of the bed. It was not satisfying to have a suspicion confirmed.
“Scanlan didn’t say anything about that, did he?” Amani asked.
“No - he only implied that there was someone he’d tried and failed to bring back. I worried it might be Percy, but I’ve heard him spoken of in the present tense. And, well, I’ve seen Vex’ahlia, but nobody brought up Vax’ildan when they were asking if anybody who wasn’t there would want to be brought in on their quest.”
“But nothing specific.”
“Why would he?”
“I was just wondering,” Amani excused herself hastily. “It’s just - it’s such a big mystery. ”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the circumstances surrounding it,” Amani said. “After the fight with the Whispered One, Vox Machina returned to the Sanctuary to confirm their victory - it had become the de facto center of the defending forces, so I’m told. I wasn’t here yet at the time, I was too young for them to let me begin training. But I did live in the city, and I’ve heard from people who were here, and every account says that the Sanctuary was the first place they went, and that all seven of them were present when they did arrive.
“But later, people saw them elsewhere in the city - a tavern, I think. I’ve heard Lady Kima was there with them, and a couple of the Bastion. And every account from someone who saw them there says that he - the Champion, I mean - wasn’t with them.”
“The ‘champion’?” Vesper questioned.
“Oh, that’s how most people in Vasselheim refer to him. He was a fairly significant figure to the church of the Raven Queen. I have no idea why. There are about eighty stories floating around claiming to explain it, but I don’t believe any of them. But he was considered Her Champion by the temple and priesthood, so I suppose that much is true..”
“What, like he was a saint?”
“He wasn’t significant like that .” Amani shook her head. “You’re just not familiar with how religious adventurers work. But the point is, somewhere between the Sanctuary and a random tavern in the middle of the city, he vanished. And, well, he must have died, because nobody except crazy conspiracy theorists has ever claimed otherwise, and he definitely hasn’t shown up anywhere since, but nobody saw it happen. The seven of them managed to survive a fight with a god, and after that one of them just vanished. Somehow. A lot of people have their own ideas about what happened, but it’s mostly more conspiracy theorists.”
“Surely someone knows,” Vesper said. “Everyone I’ve met seems to think Vox Machina is some kind of unbeatable, incredible force. How could one of them just die out of nowhere?”
“That’s the question,” Amani said. “I think...I feel kind of bad thinking about it so often, it seems disrespectful, but I think maybe it was just delayed. That something terrible happened in the battle and there was some kind of injury that got to him. But that doesn’t really make sense either, because they were in the Sanctuary - even if they didn’t have the right spells, they could have asked someone for healing. They could have asked anybody. Nobody I’ve asked seemed to think that there was anything wrong with them, aside from visibly having been through a terrible fight.”
“Didn’t anybody ever ask?” Vesper asked.
“You were talking to Scanlan Shorthalt himself - why did you come talk to me instead of him?”
“...Alright, fair enough.”
“Is he alive on your side, then?” Amani scooted a little closer.
“Oh, yes. I don’t see him that often, but I’d have heard if anything had happened to him.” Vesper slouched back further. “With everything that’s happened in the last few days, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if interesting things had started happening back home as soon as I was gone.”
“What’s he like?” Amani asked, clearly dying of curiosity.
“He’s not a part of Vox Machina at home, you know. There’s no such thing where I come from.”
“Oh, I know.” Amani continued to look at her expectantly.
“He’s...kind, I suppose.” Keyleth was always talking about how sweet he was, anyway. “Friendly in general. He always pretends to mistake me for a different sister when we see each other.” Vesper paused. “...Now that I think about it, I think he is a Raven Queen devotee.”
“Huh,” Amani said. “Like, working-at-a-temple devotee?”
“No, but I’ve heard he keeps an altar. And a pet raven.”
“Close enough.” Amani shrugged.
“Gods don’t care if you go to the temple, they care if you give regular offerings and maintain your practice. The temple is just the most convenient place to do that for most. Don’t tell anybody I said that, though, I’m supposed to ‘uphold the sacred truth of the Sanctuary’. It was in my acolyte vows.”
Vesper couldn’t help but snort. “I won’t. I’m surprised you’d join if you think that, though.”
“Where else am I going to learn to be a cleric?” Amani asked. “It just felt...right. I grew up in the Silver Talon’s Reach, so it was a little inevitable that Bahamut would be a part of my life. Sometimes people find themselves directed along a certain path. In Vasselheim, you learn to listen when the gods speak.”
“Is it a literal speaking?”
“No, of course not. Almost nobody’s that lucky. It’s like...” Amani was silent for a minute. “It’s like an idea you get without quite knowing where you came from. Or being presented with a choice, and feeling torn because one is what you would normally pick, but you feel drawn towards the other as well. I’m really not explaining this well.”
“You don’t have to,” Vesper said. “I’m not really very religious, anyway. There’s something of a family tradition in observing Pelor’s holidays, but it’s more because of tradition than faith. For me, anyway.”
“Oh. I don’t know much about Pelor.”
“That’s alright, I don’t know much about Bahamut.”
“You could learn, if you wanted to. No better place.” Amani let the conversation lapse into comfortable silence, without a reply from Vesper, for several moments before she leaned forward. “Are you going to go talk to them again?”
“Vox Machina? I don’t know. I haven’t exactly been invited.”
“But I’ve heard the Lord of Whitestone is coming here. You’re technically related to him, so why wouldn’t they extend an offer for you?”
“To do what?” Vesper asked. “I’m not a fighter or anything. I could hardly help them with whatever it is they’re going to do.”
“Don’t you want to know what happens?”
“Surely there’s other ways I could find out.”
“Figures,” Amani sighed. “The one time I have a way to actually get a firsthand account of Vox Machina, and she’s too stubborn to allow it.”
Vesper snorted. “Fine, I’ll think about it. For your sake.”
With little else to do, Vesper went back to the library and curled up in one of the chairs near the entrance. She doubted any fresh news would make its way to her anytime soon, but she didn’t feel quite brave enough to enter the labyrinthine library shelves in search of fresh, non-de Rolo-related reading material. So she mostly lounged, watching the magical lights and listening to the patter of rain against the windows. She had time to grow bored, seek out the café area for lunch, and return to flop over the chair again.
It was surprising, then, when the guard found her and told her there was someone who wanted to speak to her.
Vex, leaning casually against the wall, looked away from the door as Vesper approached. She’d swapped outfits; now she wore older clothing, sturdy greens and browns under a richly embroidered tan and blue surcoat, and that under pale white armor. A breastplate covered her down to the waist, and she wore matching greaves and vambraces. She held what looked like a furred cloak over one arm, and wore an archer’s glove on the same hand. Similarly to last time, she had a bow and quiver of arrows with her, but the bow on her was significantly larger than the last one Vesper had seen her with, and had a strange resemblance to Keyleth’s viny staff.
“Hey there,” Vex said, raising a hand briefly to the guard as he left to give them privacy.
“You look different,” Vesper said. “Is this for the same reason Scanlan had a sword when I saw him earlier?”
“Probably, but it’s Scanlan, so who knows for sure.” Vex glanced back at the door again, showing Vesper briefly the colorful clasp which was pinned to where her braid began to trail away from her scalp. It was a very tight braid, more utilitarian than Vesper had seen on either Vex she had met.
“Are you waiting for someone?” Vesper asked.
“Not quite.” Vex flashed her an apologetic smile. “I hope you weren’t doing anything important when the guard came to get you.”
“If you wanted to speak to me, it doesn’t matter. But I wasn’t.”
“Yeah, well... I didn’t. I just stayed so you wouldn’t come down here to find nobody waiting.”
“You didn’t? Then-?”
“Percy did,” Vex said, “but I think he lost his nerve.”
“Percy’s here?” Vesper stiffened. “Since when?”
“We only just got back.”
It was Vesper’s turn to look at the doors. Was Percy on the other side of them? “What did he want to say?”
Vex shrugged. “I’m not sure he knew, to be honest. He’s been a little weird all morning. But it is a weird situation.”
“You seem to be doing all right with it.” What was different for Percy, Vesper wondered? Stupid of her, not to consider that he might be just as conflicted over meeting with her.
“I never met you before.”
“Didn’t you talk about this a little with Scanlan?” Vex asked. “He said you’d read some of his book. We never saw Whitestone until we were going there to take it back from the Briarwoods.”
“Oh,” Vesper said. “I - I knew that, I just hadn’t put the pieces together that way, I suppose.”
“I heard,” Vesper ventured, “I mean, Scanlan mentioned that Cassandra was also in Whitestone.”
“Yeah, she is. She didn’t come along. It’s not really her wheelhouse, and after I explained everything she really didn’t want to. Someone’s got to stay in Whitestone anyway to do Lord or Lady things and keep the place running.”
“Oh.” Vesper tried not to show her disappointment.
“Look, Vesper, I wouldn’t...” Vex trailed off. “Just...don’t be too disappointed if Percy avoids you. It’s a very different situation with you of all people showing up for him and Cassandra than it is for the rest of us who didn’t have to go through what they did.”
“I understand,” Vesper said. She clenched her hands tightly together for lack of anything better to do with them. “I don’t suppose there’s any update on whether I’ll be allowed to go home yet.”
“I’d ask someone from the Sanctuary, not me. But I think they want to work out the kinks of the spell before they do anything. Apparently it was different or something when you showed up here.”
“Yes, straight into the Sanctuary-”
“Other than that,” Vex said. “But I don’t really know, I’m just repeating what Scanlan apparently overheard.”
Vesper frowned. “I haven’t heard anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t bother trying to tell me about it.”
“I’m sure it’ll happen soon,” Vex offered by way of reassurance.
“I hope so.”
They stood awkwardly facing each other in the entryway for several moments before Vesper said, “If there is literally anything else you could say or invite me to do, I would appreciate it, because I’ve wasted several hours already doing nothing but being bored.”
Vex’s mouth quirked into a smile. “You could come down to the Sarenrae temple, if you like. But Trinket’s still there.”
“‘Still’? I didn’t see him last time.”
“The-” Vesper couldn’t help it. She dissolved into giggles strong enough that she bent over to brace herself on her knees. The bear was the counterpart for Vex’s enormous dog?
“Mind explaining the joke?” Vex asked wryly.
“Give me a minute,” Vesper wheezed. “I’ll try and put some words together on the way down.”
The bear was indeed still in the temple, lounging in the same place near the brazier. There were a few others in the main room as well; a handful of unfamiliar gnomes, sweeping up dust or attending to the brazier. They all shot furtive, curious looks at Vex and Vesper as the pair entered. Vex made a beeline for Trinket; Vesper hesitated.
“Hey, buddy,” Vex said, dropping to her knees to hug Trinket’s head. He grunted, stirring and raising his head as she let go. “You are such an old man, lazing around where it’s warm. Vesper, c’mon.”
“No thank you,” Vesper said, eyeing Trinket’s claws.
“C’moooon. I’ve had him since he was a baby, he’s not gonna hurt you.” Trinket chose that moment to yawn, exposing rows of sharp teeth. Vex wrinkled her nose, bearing the brunt of bear-breath.
“How exactly does one end up with a pet bear?”
“Long story. He was cute, and he didn’t have a mom around to take care of him.” Vex spread out her legs in front of her, and Trinket settled his head onto her lap. “Besides, he’s as much of a team member as the rest of us. Even if he is super old for a bear.”
“Is he?” Trinket was eyeing her with alertness, but there were hints of grey around his muzzle. Vesper inched a couple steps closer.
“Yeah, but luckily he’ll be around for a while longer.” Vex patted Trinket affectionately on the back. “Fancy ranger magics can do that much.”
“Ranger magics?” Vesper questioned.
“My brand of magic is super nature-y, like Keyleth. The path I ended up going down with it lets you sorta bond to an animal, and then even if they have a shorter lifespan they stick around for as long as you survive, barring disaster.”
“I would’ve killed to be able to do that when I was sixteen,” Vesper reflected.
“I had a cat who died, Leo. He was a real sweetheart. He always slept on my feet.”
“Trinket’s been too big to sleep in my bed since I was seventeen, but he’s a pretty great pillow,” Vex said. “Or he used to be, when we were out adventuring on the regular.” She scratched the back of his head, and Trinket made a growly noise, eyes already half-lidded with sleepy laziness.
“Do you do a lot of animal-related magic?” Vesper took a few more careful steps forward and took a seat with a good few feet of space still left between her and the bear.
“Sometimes. Magic’s not really my thing like it is for Scanlan or Keyleth, I just know a few tricks. Keyleth taught me Speak With Animals once and that was pretty cool.”
“I assume that’s what it sounds like?”
“Pretty much. There aren’t many spells that aren’t self-explanatory.”
“I don’t know much about magic at all,” Vesper confessed. “I never expected to need to. But now everyone brings up clerics and paladins, and whatever spell components are, and I just pretend like I know what they mean.”
“Spell components are material objects you have to use for a spell to work,” Vex said. “Sometimes it’s used up to power the spell and you need to get a new one, sometimes it can be reused.”
“Oh, is that all?”
“Pretty much. Here, I’ve got some stuff on me right now.”
Vex had many strange things on her person, not limited to the mistletoe ashes and small collection of thorns which she showed Vesper. Their conversation about magic wound on from there, with a few digressions. Vesper was briefly being coaxed into laying a hand on a half-asleep Trinket’s head for a few consecutive seconds. The fur was coarse, but the skin underneath was warm, and Trinket preferred to go on sleeping rather than claw up her arm.
Pike emerged from a back room partway through the conversation. She didn’t seem startled by Vex’s presence, only asking,
“Have you seen Grog anywhere?”
“No,” Vex said. “Why? Did he go somewhere?”
“He went out with Percy earlier,” Pike said. “I dunno what they were trying to do, but I thought it was gonna be quicker.”
Vex only shrugged. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Pike had to clamber over Trinket to get to the main front aisle of the temple, and showed zero reservations in doing so. Trinket grumbled in protest.
Vesper watched Pike’s movement. The other gnomes in the church reacted much differently to her; they smiled widely and offered greetings. Pike received them in kind, joining in with whatever cleaning work was being done on the still-lit brazier. A few sweaty acolytes stopped and gratefully retreated towards the doors, where cool air was coming in.
“Did Scanlan go out, too?” Vex called over.
“Maybe! I haven’t seen him around.”
Vex raised a hand to fiddle with a blue gem which hung from her ear. Vesper noticed that there was no second one to make the pair on her other ear. “Scanlan?” She sat quietly for a moment, then dropped her hand. “Yeah, he’s not answering, Pike. He must be too far away.”
“What was that?” Vesper gestured at her own ear to make her point.
“Oh, they’re enchanted. We can send messages back and forth between earrings as long as we’re within a couple hundred feet of each other.” Vex flicked the earring. “An old friend of ours made them for us.”
“Like a walkie-talkie,” Vesper said without thinking.
Vesper did her best to explain walkie-talkies to Vex while Pike and the other temple workers buzzed around in the background. Vex grasped the concept quicker than Vesper had been expecting her to. As they talked, Pike clambered over Trinket a couple more times, going back and forth until he got up in a huff and moved to Vex’s other side, carefully stepping over her legs. Vex leaned against his wide back, and scratched under one vambrace, wrinkling her nose.
“Is it uncomfortable?” Vesper asked, catching the look.
“Nah, I just forgot what it was like to wear armor for extended periods of time.” Vex tugged her sleeve back into place, though the archer’s glove made it difficult.
“You really are ready to go at a moment’s notice,” Vesper observed. “All Scanlan had was the sword - I didn’t think it was so urgent as that.”
“We’re putting caution over everything because of who’s involved god-wise,” Vex said. “And Scanlan’s got far more than a sword, he just left his armor down here and the magic is intangible.” Vex wiggled her fingers. “And haven’t you noticed all those rings? He may be vain, but most of them are enchanted.”
“It seems like everything is.”
“We had a couple years of being in the right places to find enchanted items, is all.”
Pike chose that moment to emerge from the doorway (which presumably led into the back rooms of the temple) with a bag full of clattery items which she promptly dropped to the ground. It hit the floor like a sack of tin cans.
“Vex, can you help with this? I figured I should touch it up a little.” Pike reached inside and came out with a wad of cloth and a metallic tin, and a cascade of silver and brass armor followed her hand out of the bag as she lost her grip. “Ah, shit.”
“Jeez, careful!” Vex jerked her leg out of the way, accidentally kneeing Trinket in the spine. He growled a protest. “Sorry, buddy.”
“Sorry! I forgot how heavy this was.” Pike plopped down into one of the chairs, one with a comfortable stuffed seat, and rubbed the cloth in the stuff in the tin before picking up what looked like a metallic knee plate.
“Everybody’s breaking out the big guns,” Vex said. “Sure. Toss me a cloth.” Pike obliged, and Vex’s arm snatched up to catch it, narrowly escaping a dirty polishing cloth to the face.
“What is this?” The metal plates were inset with rubies, some almost as large as Vesper’s fist. Vesper picked up the breastplate to examine it. Leather straps hung loose from the shoulder parts and sides. A ruby the size of a robin’s egg sparkled at its center, like a precious heart. “Is this make of armor practical?”
“It’s a Vestige,” Pike said, rubbing efficiently away. “Probably only silver-plated, I’ve never checked. It does its job.”
“What’s a Vestige?”
“Vestiges of Divergence. Super, super old artifacts that were used during the Calamity and either buried or lost afterwards. Or kept secret, at least.”
“Oh, Scanlan mentioned some artifacts you had tracked down earlier. Like his sword?”
“Yeah, Mythcarver’s one of them.”
“Mythcarver,” Vesper repeated, tasting the name. “Pretty fancy. Does this have a name?”
“Yeah - it’s called the Plate of the Dawnmartyr.”
“Dawn martyr? ”
“I always assumed it was a reference to the last owner, whoever that was,” Vex said. Pike laid aside the now-gleaming knee plate and took the breastplate from Vesper.
“You didn’t meet them?”
“Oh hell no. This armor had changed hands plenty of times by the time we even heard about it.” Vex rubbed, frowning, at a stubborn spot. “We had to get it from this fire giant who liked collecting valuable things.”
Vesper snuck a glance back at Pike. She did not seem bothered by the mention of a fire giant; Vex probably wasn’t messing with Vesper, then. “A fire giant, huh? Those are real?”
“Yep. I’ve only seen them on the material plane once or twice, though.”
“You’re jumping around the story too much, Vex,” Pike said without looking up.
“Geez, fine. I’ll back up.” Vex pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I guess it does start with us deciding to go to the City of Brass.”
Vesper listened, astonishment lurking in the back of her mind as it seemed to do near-constantly nowadays, as Vex outlined their quest to retrieve the magical plate armor. A quest to a city of Brass in the elemental plane of fire, to negotiate with fire giants and battle pit fiends and erinyes - whatever the latter was. Pike interrupted a few times to give her input, or add a detail she thought Vex had forgotten. The pile of neatly stacked, polished armor pieces slowly grew.
“Was it like that to retrieve all of these items?” Vesper asked, when Vex appeared to be done.
“Except Mythcarver,” Pike said. “We were just given that one.”
“ Yeah, after we hiked through the entire Frostweald and fought Ka-” Vex’s eyes flicked briefly over to Vesper. “-you know who.”
Vesper opened her mouth to ask what the Frostweald was, but Pike spoke first. “The Frostweald is nothing like the City of Brass. It’s barely on the level of the Feywild. It’s like if we only had to go through the Moonbrush to get your bow.”
“There were basilisks, Pike. Basilisks. ”
“Nobody got petrified that time, though. And-”
“Wait.” Vex held up her hand, but she didn’t say anything else. Pike frowned.
“I said wait. I thought I heard something.” Vex tilted her head very slightly, and then stood up. “Everyone be quiet for a second!”
The ambient noise in the temple faltered until only the crackle of the fire made any noise. The other acolytes and priests had frozen on the spot, and were looking uncertainly at Vex.
Vesper strained her ears.
Distantly, she heard a horn.
“That’s the Bastion’s horn.” Vex leaped over several chairs, striding towards the door. Armor scattered as Pike stood up, careless of the greave in her lap.
“What’s happening?” Pike demanded.
“I don’t see anything.” Vex was standing in the doorway. Vesper stood up to join her. “We’re too high up, and my sight’s not that good.”
“There’s a telescope on the shelf next to you.”
Vex seized it and put it to her eye just as Vesper and Pike got there. The distant horn sounded again, joined by slightly louder ones.
“I’ll be back in a second,” Pike said. “I need to get some things. Keep me updated!” She ran for the back rooms of the temple.
“Is it another attack?” Vesper asked, pressing herself against the inside wall near the door. She peered around the frame warily.
“Nothing’s happening close enough for me to say.” Vex was scanning the city through the telescope. “But they wouldn’t sound the alarm for no reason.” She reached over her shoulder, and then cursed. “Fuck, Fenthras! Can you grab my bow?”
Vesper hurried to grab it from where it had been left leaning against the wall, barely considering that she had to rush past Trinket to get it. Vex put down the telescope to take it from her, and put her hand to her earring again.
“Is anyone other than Pike close enough to hear me?” Vex waited in silence for a few moments, then scowled and began unwinding the string of the bow to string it properly. “Of all the times for them to go off on their own. Seriously, guys?”
Vesper heard nothing, but Vex’s stormy expression suddenly cleared. “Scanlan? Where are you? What’s happening?” Pike came back as Vex was listening and securing the string; the gnome bore a hammered metal shield and what looked like a heavy mace which she carried with ease.
“Can you see anything?” Pike asked. Vex didn’t reply. Confused, Vesper looked between them, and saw the same blue earring in Pike’s semi-pointed ear. More horns were blowing, clear and close enough that Vesper no longer had to strain to hear them.
“We’re coming,” Vex said, presumably to Scanlan. “Either get to whatever’s happening or wait for us. Trinket!” The bear raised his head. Vex pointed at Vesper. “If anyone comes in to try and hurt her or the other people in there, bite them as hard as you can.” Trinket growled low in his throat. “Good boy.”
“C’mon,” Pike urged, already halfway out the door.
“Coming! Scanlan, where’s Percy? He’s been gone all morning.” Vex tugged on the string of her bow experimentally, following Pike out onto the stairs. Vesper stood uncertainly in the doorway, caught between curiosity and fear. “No, I don’t have an innate sense of where he is at all times. Haven’t you seen him?”
“Grog’s with him,” Pike said.
“I’d like him to be with us. Where the fuck is Percy?”
Distantly, something exploded with a flash of light. All three of them spun to face where a dark plume of smoke was starting to waft up from the far reaches of the city.
“Never mind, I found him,” Vex said.
“What-?” Vesper began, startled.
“Here!” Pike darted back inside the temple and came back out with a broom that someone had left set to the side. She tossed it to Vex; Vesper caught a glimpse of what looked like a bike seat attached to it.
“Oh, fuck yes,” Vex said. Pike slung her shield over her back to free one hand while Vex snapped hidden buckles under her armor onto the edge of the seat. “Vesper, don’t leave the temple until we come back.”
“ Don’t,” Vex warned with a grave seriousness that Vesper had never seen from her. “This could be dangerous. Pike, get on.”
“Should I hold on from below?” Pike questioned.
“You’re small, just get on!” In a surprisingly fluid movement, Vex and Pike leaped onto the stone bannister of the stairs. Vex threw a leg over the broom, and as she jumped and growled something under her breath Pike grabbed onto her shoulders and drew in close behind her.
They didn’t plummet. The broom shot straight forward, carrying them through the sky towards the smoke. Vesper snatched up the telescope and trained it on the smoke. The details were still small from such a distance. The smoke was thick, and movement within or around it was faint. Other buildings blocked her line of sight. Flashes of light showed within and around it, with indistinguishable sources.
A growl was Vesper’s only warning to back up. She stumbled back quickly as Trinket shoved past her, planting himself squarely in the entrance. His bulk filled most of the doorway, wide and high enough that even the telescope couldn’t help her see around him.
“I hope she’ll be alright,” one of the nearby gnomes murmured, going on tiptoe to try and look around Trinket. “It’s been so long since anything like this happened...”
“She’ll be fine,” another said. “Sarenrae is with her.”
That seemed to be enough to satisfy most of the temple crew. They clumped into groups, talking in low voices. Vesper stayed where she was until a hand tugged at her elbow.
“Sit down, girl,” said the woman doing the tugging. She looked to be an older gnome, dressed in a bright yellow and slightly differently styled version of Vesper’s borrowed clothing. A brass pendant, the same shape as the icon of Sarenrae behind the brazier, hung from her neck. “There’s no point standing around while you wait for them to come back when you can’t see anything.”
“I-” How in Exandria could Vesper satisfactorily explain the situation to this stranger? “Okay,” she said reluctantly.
“Good. And put that down too, so someone who needs it can find it again.”
Vesper put the telescope back in its place and allowed the gnomish woman to install her in a slightly threadbare armchair near the front. The heat was just shy of overpowering, that close to the brazier.
“Now, I don’t know why you were with our Dawnmarshal, but you just sit tight and she’ll be back eventually,” the woman said. “What’s your name, dear?”
“Vesper,” Vesper said. She was conflicted; gnomes were so much shorter and tripped the parts of her brain that were used to recognizing children, but the woman was too grandmotherly. Years of visiting her grandparents had instilled automatic, respectful procedures into her. Mostly they involved listening politely and not arguing with what they told you to do.
“Vesper. Well, I’m Eulalie.”
“Nice to meet you,” Vesper said automatically.
“Aunty!” A brown-haired gnome called over. Vesper hadn’t noticed before, but there didn’t seem to be anybody human who worked for the temple. “The wards - we should activate them, right?”
“I doubt it!” Eulalie huffed, turning to face the speaker. “We aren’t in so much danger as all that. And I am in the middle of a conversation, Duck, so don’t go shouting for me all willy-nilly. Understood?”
“Yes, Aunty,” Duck said contritely.
“If you want to be of use, go tell Father Cass what’s happened.”
Duck sped off promptly. Eulalie shook her head.
“That boy is so paranoid,” she said. “‘Course I can hardly blame him, what with being only a child and all during the attack all those years ago, but he’s got to get over it sometime.”
“Is he your nephew?” Vesper asked. It was a stupid question, but Duck didn’t seem to resemble her much.
“Oh, gracious no. It’s only a nickname, like Duck is.” Eulalie patted Vesper’s knee. “It’s a gnome tradition, you see. We all have nicknames from different people.”
“Is Eulalie a nickname too?”
“It’s - Harry!” Eulalie’s attention abruptly switched. “Do not bother that bear!” She quickly rushed off to stop a youngish looking gnome from poking Trinket curiously. Vesper could almost feel the verbal browbeating Harry was receiving. She’d gotten a similar one once for letting her curiosity get the better of her and ending up breaking one of her grandmother’s china Odellan II coronation teacups.
Vesper wondered if gnomes had lifespans like elves. If Amani was likely to be eighty, then how old must Eulalie be? She propped her chin on her hands, staring absently into the flickering flames. Ashy white wood and charred, newer logs glowed red at the edges near the bottom of the brazier.
The ceremonial fire was hypnotizing. Vesper lost track of precisely how long she stared into it. She was only shaken out of her reverie by more urgent conversation. A couple of gnomes, Eulalie among them, had congregated by the doors (and by default Trinket) and were talking nervously.
“I swear I saw something-”
“It was just the smoke playing tricks on your eyes.”
“But there’s not much of that left!” Vesper stood, and moved to join them as the conversation continued.
“What is it that you think you saw, Don?” Eulalie asked, squinting at the sky over Trinket’s back.
“I don’t know. It looked like smoke, but it wasn’t. It was over by where the fight looked to be.” Don pointed around Trinket, but there wasn’t much space to look. Vesper went on her tiptoes and saw only a clear sky with fading traces of smoke.
“Looked like smoke,” Eulalie murmured. She looked troubled. “Those alarm horns aren’t sounding anymore. Maybe the trouble’s over-”
A bolt of blackness soared into the sky, chased by something brown. A distant roar reached Vesper’s ears.
“Close the doors!” Eulalie cried, terror in her voice. The gnomes rushed to obey. Even Trinket took a few steps backwards to get out of the way, making rumbling bearish noises. The temple seemed much darker as the doors boomed closed, even with the fire.
“What was that?” A female gnome asked anxiously.
“One of those shadow beasts.” Eulalie was clutching her Sarenrae pendant. “A gloomstalker. I recognize it.” Unhappy, worried murmurs swept through the room.
“It was being chased,” Vesper said. The attention of the crowd swung over to her. “There was something big, and brown. It - it might have been that big eagle I’ve seen Key- seen the Voice of the Tempest turn into.”
“Are you sure?” Several overlapping voices asked simultaneously.
“I saw something, and I think I know what it was - I’m sure of that.”
“I thought all the gloomstalkers were gone,” Don said. He was rather pale. “I thought they couldn’t survive in direct sunlight!”
“Arguing with its existence isn’t going to make it vanish, Don!” Eulalie seemed shaken.
“Was it running away?” Asked one voice.
“Maybe they’d just finished beating it,” suggested another.
“It’s probably nothing to-”
There was a heavy thud as something landed on the roof. Silence descended in the temple as, as one, Vesper and the rest of them looked up.
Only the beams of the roof showed themselves. There were no skylights, luckily. With the absolute silence inside, a heavy, slow breath was audible from above. Wood creaked as something large moved over the roof. Vesper stood frozen, staring at the invisible threat separated only by a foot or so of wood and stone.
A furious birdlike screech broke the silence. A rumbling roar answered. The roof shook with the crash of stone and heavy bodies.
“Into the back!” Eulalie yelled. “All of you! Go!” It was like a spell had been broken. Everyone rushed for the doors at the rear of the room. Trinket was on his feet now, still taking up the center aisle. Vesper nearly tripped over a chair, then over Pike’s still-scattered armor in her rush. Screeching and roaring still sounded from outside, combined with metallic clangs and shouting from every direction.
Just as Vesper reached the back, the doors were thrown open. She spun around as Pike hit the ground, shield scraping against the stone floor. She rolled quickly to her feet. Trinket growled, and Pike planted herself solidly in place, as a living shadow snaked into the room.
Vesper froze, weighed down by fear. The thing was black as pitch, mouth dripping strings of shadow and pointy teeth bared. Yellow eyes glared out of its indeterminable face. The rest of it was coiled up outside the door, blocking the light.
“Get the fuck out of my temple!” Pike swung hard as Trinket roared. There was a flash of light from her mace and the gloomstalker recoiled with a screech that hurt Vesper’s ears. Its eyes narrowed, slits of light in its roiling, mistlike form.
“Move!” Hands tugged hard at Vesper’s skirt and her arm, making her stumble further into the relative safety of the other room. A flash of white caught her eye. Vesper stopped again, shaking off the hands to brave a look back into the main room.
There was a white-haired figure on the creature’s back, half obscured by the coils of black that drifted off it. Three flashes of light accompanied three powerful reports from an unseen pistol that echoed off the ceiling. The creature wailed, and clawed at its neck. Vesper caught only a glimpse of a blue cloak and a “Shit!” before the figure was thrown to the ground under black claws.
“Out!” Pike pointed her mace at the creature. The fire in the brazier flared, and reached in the same direction. A bolt of flames hurled itself at the gloomstalker, who attempted to duck. Flame burst on its neck. Its drifting mist burned away, revealing a skeletally thin black body underneath. The creature reared back as the fire burned it away like early morning mist, leaving only a few wisps of black that drifted out on the wind.
“Ow,” said the white-haired man on the floor, in a voice that sounded remarkably like Percy’s. He started prying himself off the floor.
Vex skidded in on her broom, making a hasty landing as Pike hurried over to what was presumably Percy. Scanlan tumbled in after Vex, Grog hot on his heels, and Keyleth after him, still shedding feathers. Her raven swooped in after her and perched on the back of a chair.
They all looked worse for the wear; Grog in particular was bleeding copiously. Vex’s quiver, Vesper could see, was half empty. Pike brushed a hand over Scanlan’s bloodstained sleeve, summoning some kind of glowing magic, before turning to Percy.
Percy, Lord of Whitestone, looked remarkably like Vesper’s Percy. He did have the same white hair, but he was dressed like a Regency love interest. A deep indigo cloak was thrown over his shoulders, and under that a more straightforwardly blue jacket with liberal gold brocade. His glasses were rounder, and her Percy certainly didn’t wear waistcoats on the regular, or carry a pistol. At the moment, Percy was sprawled in a chair, allowing Pike to poke at whatever on the back of his head had tinted his hair vaguely red.
“Jumping right onto its back did look cool, but you’re not twenty-three anymore,” Vex was saying in an amused voice.
“It looked very cool, though,” Percy said. Pike moved on to Grog with her glowing hands - was it healing magic? - and Percy straightened, rubbing the back of his head, to look up at Vex, who was leaning on the back of his chair. “You at least admit it.” He was half smirking in a way Vesper had seen before; it was fond, and a little smug. He had one of the blue earrings, too. Vesper guessed it was a group-wide thing.
“You’re falling into old habits.” Vesper could see only the corner of Vex’s smile. The long slashes across Grog’s chest were closing up under Pike’s hands. Scanlan had gravitated towards those two, while Keyleth remained near the door. She was wearing armor now, too, and so was Scanlan - they were both dressed in differently-styled leathers. But Scanlan was still in ostentatious purples underneath, and Keyleth still wore her cloak of leaves.
“You’re back!” Vesper startled as she remembered the gnomes behind her. Eulalie had cried out, and the ones who had taken refuge were beginning to reenter the main room. Eulalie sped towards Pike.
Vesper looked back up, and found Percy meeting her gaze.
He wasn’t smirking anymore. He wasn’t even smiling. His eyes had gone wide behind his glasses. One hand, with a red-stained glove, was suspended halfway towards being lowered.
Vex reached down and caught his attention again, turning his head away from her. She said something to him that was lost in the clamor of gnomes all trying to talk to Pike and ask what had happened, was everything alright, did she need another healer, was she hurt?
Vesper stayed in the doorway. With Percy right there, she felt suddenly compelled to stay where she was. She watched from a distance as Percy stood, his cloak falling around him. He brushed it aside to put away his pistol in what looked like a custom holster, on a belt with several other pouches and compartments. Vesper realized there was also a longer rifle slung over his shoulder, which she hadn’t noticed before. His boots were tall and well-fitted dark leather, at odds with Vex’s with their spots of lighter wear.
Percy made a tight, tense gesture to illustrate whatever point he was making, and Vesper saw that he only had one glove on. He must have lost the other sometime during the fight. Vex reached up to squeeze his shoulder, and he rolled it uncomfortably.
“Hey,” Keyleth said, making Vesper startle. She’d somehow snuck up on Vesper, despite the antlers. “I was going to talk to Vord about this gloomstalker - do you want, like, an escort back up?”
“Should I leave?” Vesper was acutely aware that she’d been staring at Percy for a long time.
“Oh, uh, not if you don’t want to? I just thought, since you’re staying at the Sanctuary and all.”
Vesper risked another brief glance at Percy. He was still talking to Vex, and had turned further away. The crowd of gnomes around Pike and Scanlan had thickened, with the addition of a halfling and a lone young human.
“Sure,” Vesper said. She could guess at why Percy looked so uncomfortable. “Lead the way.”
She and Keyleth parted ways just outside the entrance hall; Keyleth further onwards towards Vord’s audience rooms, and Vesper back to her room or the library. But Vesper paused before leaving.
“Your, um, bird - he’s a raven?”
“Yeah, why?” Keyleth absently reached up to scratch the raven’s neck. He leaned into it, twisting his head around.
“Is it...a Raven Queen thing? Or related to her?”
Keyleth’s face immediately closed off.
“No,” she said, even as Vesper was opening her mouth to apologize for overstepping. “I don’t really care for gods. It’s...because of an old friend.” She smiled stiffly, and swept off.
Vesper decided to cut her losses and walk away as well, before she said anything else stupid. She could guess who Keyleth had meant.
i just wanna say u guys have been leaving a lot of really nice comments and it means a lot to me! i love knowing that people like this story. it really helps me write more, faster.
Chapter 6: Debate
yes! a new chapter! i have a midterm in half an hour but that doesn't matter because it's mostly writing, which as you may have noticed i am very good at.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There was still nothing to do in the Sanctuary. Vesper swung by her room to fetch her purse, on the off chance that reading more of the non-de Rolo parts of Scanlan’s book would be enlightening, and then found herself back in the library, since it had more comfortable chairs than her temporary lodging.
Unfortunately, the library had not gotten less boring in the past couple of hours. The fire lit in the fireplace did nothing to give the kind of warmth that Vesper had found in the temple of Sarenrae.
A little while of wandering around granted Vesper the discovery of a comfortable window seat with a window that wasn’t too cold to be next to. The view it offered was dizzying - it looked out over the steeper rear of the mountain. Vesper hung her cloak over it like a curtain, and settled into the seat.
Flipping through Scanlan’s book - and carefully avoiding the Briarwood parts - Vesper found herself paging with morbid curiosity towards the end. She turned the page with the image of Vecna quickly, not wanting to look at it. After everything she’d heard about a simple name, she wasn’t sure what an illustration might be able to do.
At the very end of the book, there was a mention of the end of the battle against Vecna. The chapter was called ‘The Chapter Closes’ ; a little metatextual, but Vesper hadn’t exactly written a book herself, so who was she to judge.
There was a mention of Vax in the first line.
We had won. It was easy to forget that our trouble wasn’t over yet. Vax’ildan’s barter with the Raven Queen was still unchallenged, and I had so foolishly spent the power I could have used for a Wish aiding my family in banishing the would-be god-king. Listening to the cheers of the crowd and the thanks of the leaders of Vasselheim, it felt to me as though the world were holding its breath.
I don’t know if it was meant to be a cruelty or a kindness on the part of the Raven Queen to let him linger with us after Vecna was gone. It felt like an age when I was still in the moment. It was not enough time.
She was always going to come for him eventually, and she did, when we’d only just stepped outside the Platinum Sanctuary. I can’t begin to describe how hopelessly infuriating it was, to have come victorious from such a battle and stand helpless in the face of Her the next. We had no more trammels, no more spells. Only what dumb luck and love we could muster.
Of course Vax, the selfless bastard, didn’t want us to even try. His relationship with Her was always inscrutable to me. He insisted on seeing the deal through, as opposed to any of us putting ourselves at risk to circumvent it. I suppose his rationale was that if he must go, the rest of us should be able to wait as long as possible before following. He only stalled long enough to let us say our goodbyes.
I would like to see him again; but as he’s upheld his deal, so shall I keep mine. Perhaps the wait will make the reunion all the better when it does come. He had, at the very least, a point about remaining as a support for each other. It has been many years, and we’ve all found ourselves occupied in other business which has absorbed our lives in the stead of the adventures we used to so bravely embark on. We stay in touch, and we move on with our lives. The world continues to turn.
Retirement suits me, I think. A grand adventure is nothing when compared to a long and happy life.
This book is dedicated to Vox Machina, but mostly to my dear Pike, and to Vax’ildan; Champion of the Raven Queen, Slayer of the Cinder King, and my brother in all but blood.
After that there was no more writing. The other side of the page was blank. The only addition to the text was an inked illustration of a snowdrop just under the dedication.
Vesper closed the book and wiped at each eye. She huddled further into the cushions of the window seat, wishing she had a blanket or a thermostat to turn up.
The allure of the high, nigh-unreachable shelves of the library was too much for her to resist for long, though, no matter how touchingly the book’s epilogue had been written. Vesper found a ladder within sight of where she’d left her things on the seat, and climbed up as far as she could to investigate the titles.
Most of the books seemed terribly dense and boring, judging by their titles. An Analysis of the Tenets of the Platinum Dragon as Fulfilled by Champions of the Past. Just reading the whole title, tilting her head further than was comfortable in order to, was giving Vesper a headache. She moved on, scooting the ladder down on smoothly turning wheels, trying to find anything with a title under ten words and less than three inches thick.
Wind moaned outside the stone walls, but Vesper still heard the faint voices as others moved through the library. Mostly she’d been catching soft footsteps, but it was evident that the pair currently approaching didn’t care much for respecting the library’s quiet atmosphere.
“...need somewhere quiet to work for a bit.” Vesper made out the end of a sentence as the voices approached. Shit, that was Percy’s voice! What was he doing in the Sanctuary? Vesper ducked down instinctively, though she didn’t have distinctive hair like Percy’s that could give her away if she were spotted.
“Mhm,” said the other voice. Was it Vex, or someone else?
“I still need to do some planning for the clock tower. There are lots of little bits and pieces involved, you know that.”
“Yes, I know. You’ve been ordering people around for ages making teensy little edits.” It was Vex’s voice. “I don’t see why you couldn’t do this in the Sarenrae temple.”
“I need some time to myself. At least here no one’s likely to bother me.”
“If you say so.”
There was a wood-on-stone scrape, and some other general moving-around sounds before one pair of heeled footsteps retreated again. Listening intently, Vesper heard the shuffle of paper and then the scratchy noise of writing.
Tentatively, she raised her head to peek over the top of the shelf. Percy’s white-haired head was just visible, all the red from before rinsed out of it. He’d taken up one of the desks scattered around for library-goers to sit and read at. Vesper had forgone them on account of all the chairs being stiff wooden affairs with no cushions. Two of the candles in the artistically wrought holder had been lit.
Vesper took a couple steps down on the ladder, sinking out of sight. She wasn’t going to walk up and talk to him, obviously, but she felt very tempted to find a way to see what he was writing. Or drawing, given that he’d been talking about some sort of architectural plans. Head buzzing with terrible ideas, she returned to her window seat bookless, and curled up again to think.
The faint scratch of Percy’s pen seemed to follow her. Vesper could hear it as clear as day, though she told herself she wasn’t trying to listen for it. Occasionally there was a grumble. Several pieces of yellowed paper were tossed aside in crumpled balls, rolling into Vesper’s sight at the end of the aisle.
She walked over once, intending to see if she could grab one, and then lost her nerve and returned to her seat clutching a book about the Feywild, so she had something to hide her face behind in case Percy tried to retrieve any of his rejects.
About an hour into the pseudo standoff, Vesper sighed, and muttered, “This is stupid.” She hadn’t managed to understand one word in ten in the Feywild book, though she was beginning to get the idea that the author had some kind of firsthand account of the place under her belt. She got up to put the book back, then returned to collect her things from the window seat. Her cloak was freezing from prolonged contact with the window, so that she shivered just touching it.
Still, she felt reluctant to actually leave the library. Vesper wandered among the stacks, pretending to herself that she was looking for a simpler version of the book she’d been trying to read. She went where her feet took her, taking turns on impulse and hoping she’d end up at the entrance eventually so that she could persuade herself to leave.
So of course, she went around a corner into another aisle and nearly collided with Percy as he slid down the ladder.
Both of them froze for several seconds; Vesper midstep, Percy with one armful of books and his free hand gripping the ladder.
“Ah-” Percy let go of the ladder like he was stumbling back, though he held himself surely. His hand lingered near it, like he wasn’t sure what else to do with it. “You’re-”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to-” Vesper began in the same breath. They both broke off to let the other speak.
Percy straightened his shoulders and shifted the books around so he was holding them between his arm and his chest, almost defensively. “I...didn’t know you were here. Ah, the library, specifically.”
“Well. There aren’t many more interesting places to go in the Sanctuary.” Percy’s cloak from before was absent, leaving his popped shirt collar and cravat visible. A watch chain glinted near his waistcoat pocket. Still, under his long brocaded coat he still wore the belt with all the pouches, the contents of which Vesper couldn’t possibly guess.
He was older, too. It had been mentioned before, but the reality of it standing in front of her was a different experience. Percy’s face was more deeply lined, the white of his hair a little more natural. He had to be at least forty, Vesper realized, which was jarring - she’d had the numbers, but hadn’t put them together until then. Even the scruff on his chin, which was usually browner than the rest of his hair, was salt-and-pepper. The Percy in front of her was at least a decade older than she was.
As much as she was staring, Percy was staring at her. He seemed to realize it, and averted his gaze for a moment, pushing up his glasses with one knuckle as an excuse to look down.
“I should apologize,” he said, meeting her gaze again. He’d collected himself, putting Vesper in an awkward position - she’d never been on the receiving end of his ‘business face’ before. “For earlier. I suspect Keyleth hurried you out of the temple to try and alleviate an awkward situation.”
“That’s alright,” Vesper said. “You hardly need to apologize for her.”
“Still, I...” Percy adjusted his glasses again, with the same knuckle. As he put his hand back on the ladder, Vesper saw the de Rolo sun embroidered in gold on the back of the glove. His other hand was still bare. “I...was hoping to be a little more eloquent than this.” He muttered the last half. Vesper wasn’t sure it was meant for her ears.
“I get it,” she said. “It’s off-putting for me, too.” Immediately after the words left her mouth, she realized how insensitive they must sound. “I mean - probably not the way it is for you, but. You look just like my brother.”
Percy laughed shortly, still under his breath, and looked up at the ceiling.
“You sound just like her,” he said, his voice more strained than Vesper’s had been.
Vesper tried and failed to come up with something appropriate to say. Percy shifted his books to his other arm and dug his pocketwatch out with his now-free hand, in a move Vesper recognized as ‘scrambling for something to do’. But checking the time only took so many seconds, and he did eventually look back up at her.
“Probably should have expected I’d start on the wrong foot,” he said, a little halfheartedly.
“I don’t think you have,” Vesper said.
“Well, you’re...” Percy didn’t finish the thought. “Maybe we could start over? Though I doubt introductions are necessary.” He extended his free hand.
“Of course.” Vesper reached out to take it, then shook her head and switched to her left hand. Reflexes were annoying sometimes. Percy’s hand was warm, and rough with callouses in places.
Percy held on only a little longer than was normal. “Well, I...was in the middle of something, so-”
“Yes.” Percy hesitated for only a moment, then ducked around her, heading back towards the desk.
After a moment, Vesper followed him.
Percy was sitting down and already flipping through a tome bound in red. The missing cloak was draped over the back of his chair. Vesper went around him, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder and instead picking up one of the crumpled papers on the floor.
A circular clock face was drawn on it, divided into twenty-four numerals and with various attempts at smaller dials drawn over it or off to the side. There was a sketch of an elaborate hour and minute hand, the former half scribbled over. Some of the circles were a little lopsided, and the spacing of the clock numbers was off. Still, it looked like a grand project.
The general outline of a tower had been drawn around the clock, with what looked like empty alcoves. Curious, Vesper picked up another crumpled paper and smoothed it out. It contained only more attempts at clock hands, and some chicken-scratch notes surrounding them with arrows indicating various parts. A somewhat abstract attempt at sketching a method to fasten it to the clock face filled the top left corner.
As she bent to retrieve another, Percy said, “If you’re going to bother with those please burn them when you’re done. They’re terrible.”
“Absolutely not,” Vesper said. Percy only made a vague noise and started playing with a quill pen as he read.
Vesper wandered away as she uncrumpled the third page as best she could. The paper was different than she’d expected - parchment, not paper. It was also not clock faces.
The outline of the tower was back, except the clock face was a blank circle and the alcoves were filled. Humanoid figures were sketched to fill them, the ink smudged in some places.
Some of them looked familiar. There were rows of alcoves, spaces for eight to fill. The sketched figures - were the meant to be statues? - held semi-dynamic poses. One with long dark hair drawn with armor in the shape of Vex’s was in the process of drawing an arrow back; the figure immediately next to her also had long dark hair, and had two daggers raised to strike an unseen foe.
The rough shapes of Vox Machina, and one more Vesper didn’t recognize, filled the page. There was one smudgy sketch of Percy himself, with the coat and cloak she’d seen him in; the rest of them had more detailed attempts, little bits and pieces of themselves surrounding them in, likely, an attempt on Percy’s part at narrowing down the details. The one with daggers was repeated most often, ending at the bottom of the page with a half-finished body dressed in sketchy, jagged armor. Percy must have given up on getting him right, whatever it was he was get right about him.
Vesper flattened the pages between the pages and back cover of Scanlan’s book, and put it back in her purse. If Percy wanted to burn them, he wouldn’t mind if she borrowed them.
When she wandered back, Percy was still reading. He was hunched over the book, fingers kneading into his right arm absentmindedly. Vesper had never seen her Percy do that before, but they couldn’t both be completely alike, she supposed.
His was not the only desk in the small clearing between shelves. Vesper draped her cloak over another chair to make it more comfortable - not immediately opposite Percy, more kitty-corner - and sat down to investigate the promising-looking book she’d pulled off the shelf at random. It was thinner than most, and purported to be an explanation of the planar system.
It wasn’t the most fascinating thing Vesper had read, but it wasn’t so densely packed with academic prose as to be incomprehensible. She glanced up occasionally, without moving her head, to see what Percy was doing.
Percy moved even less than Vesper did. Except for where he was still pressing his fingers into his arm, he was studying the red-bound book intently. The quill had been abandoned to lie on a few sheets of parchment. Once or twice, after she initially sat down, she caught him glancing at her, but he always looked away immediately.
Vesper eventually found herself reading intently, with her feet up on an empty chair and slumped far down in the one she was sitting in. She only noticed because she was jolted out of her book by Percy suddenly shifting so he could take one arm out of his coat. He was still looking down at the book, brow knitted, but his fingers were digging into the crook of his elbow like he was trying to unknot a cramp. His gloved hand was curled into a loose fist.
“You alright?” Vesper asked quietly. Percy’s head jerked up, and he glanced up at her for only a second.
“Fine,” he said. He turned his arm over a couple times, stretching it out. “It’s nothing out of the ordinary.”
Vesper was inclined to argue with the first part, but she was no authority on the second. She sank back behind her book, but her eyes stayed on Percy.
He eventually did let go of his arm, in order to pick up the quill. He’d only written a few notes before-
“You’re a leftie?” Vesper’s mouth moved ahead of her brain. Percy again paused before answering.
“By necessity, yes.”
“What does that mean?”
Percy tapped the quill against the paper a few times, then put it down and started pulling his glove off. Vesper’s questions died on her tongue when she saw wood and metal underneath it.
“It means this doesn’t work quite as well for writing,” Percy said. The wooden hand underneath the glove was polished smooth, ball-jointed like a mannequin’s. A metal plate on the back continued under his cuff. “At this point, I’m better with my left.”
“Many things; among them my trying something foolish and not paying attention to my surroundings.” Percy pulled the glove back on. The fingers of his false hand moved to accommodate the action, without any kind of outside force acted upon them, but also not quite as smoothly as flesh-and-blood fingers. Percy went back to his sketching, unaware of or ignoring Vesper’s gaze on him.
Her Percy, Vesper thought, would be fascinated by how that arm worked. She wondered how far it went. Up to the elbow? Was it the cause of whatever had been paining him?
It was difficult to get drawn back into her book.
As time wore on, Percy lit a few more candles from the worn-down wicks of the previous ones. He’d shoved aside the books and put down the quill in favor of a worn little notebook with a pencil inside it. The pencil was little more than a stick of plain graphite, and he kept taking out a penknife to sharpen it. The grouping of desks became a little pool of candlelight in deeper shadows, with faint light reaching it from the windows.
Vesper eventually reached the end of her book, and left to put it back. No sooner had she turned around into an aisle and out of sight than she realized she could hear footsteps approaching. She slowed down, wondering if she should go back.
“Hey, there.” Vex’s voice reached Vesper’s ears. Percy must have replied quietly, because Vesper didn’t hear it. “What’s all this? Was someone else here?”
“Oh, yes.” Percy’s voice was low. “Vesper, in fact.”
“Oh, shit. I guess I shouldn’t have sent that elf girl off to find her.”
“What elf girl?”
“I was given a companion who’s apparently the designated, I don’t know, alternate-material-plane translator slash guide. I’ve been talking to Vord this entire time, and he wanted everybody to get together.”
“Nothing too urgent. We can talk for a little, if you want.”
“You mean you’d like to talk about something.”
There was a moment of silence, and then Vex spoke again. “Is your arm bothering you?”
“Not more than it usually does in Vasselheim.”
“Normally you take it off to deal with that.”
There was a faint sigh, and a moment without conversation.
“Sooo,” Vex said. “You and Vesper were just hanging out?”
“Oh, here we go.”
“Don’t say that to me after the face you made when you saw her earlier.” There was a faint sound like somebody getting smacked on the shoulder. “Well?”
“I didn’t seek her out, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“You ran into her on accident, in a library this big?”
“Maybe Bahamut willed it.” Percy’s sarcasm was palpable, even from a distance.
“Did you freak out?”
“No. Are there any other invasive questions you’d like to ask?”
“Percy.” Vex’s voice was without any kind of reprimand. “I’m not trying to interrogate you.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“You know how complicated this is,” Percy said at length. “What am I supposed to think of her? She’s younger than me, for gods’ sake. I understand the situation here. But she is so like my Vesper.”
Vesper leaned against the wall, hugging the book closer to her chest. She ached to go back to try and comfort the shake out of Percy’s voice.
“Well, she is, technically.”
“Don’t start.” Percy sounded tired. “I can promise you I’ve gone through every possible version of that argument myself.”
“Sounds like you.” More silence followed. Vesper was caught between moving away to give them privacy, and moving closer to see what they were doing.
“Are you going be alright?” Vex asked eventually.
“I’ll live. I’ve lived through everything else.”
“You don’t need to just live through it.”
“I’m not going to enjoy myself. Do you think I could, against Sylas?”
“I’m not asking that much. But you’re a lot better than you used to be.” There was a scrape like a chair being pushed around.
“A better person, or...?” Percy sounded almost defeated.
“Darling, if you’re going to be so negative about everything I say, you might as well just not listen to me.” The chair scraped again. “I mean that you’ve made yourself do better. You’re not so angry anymore. And you’ve done so much good in Whitestone.”
Silence hovered, waiting for Percy’s answer. His voice was quiet when he broke it. “I’m tired, Vex. You know that. When Vax was gone I thought that was the end of all this, and I was okay with that. I thought I’d be putting down the guns for good.”
There was a short intake of breath at the mention of Vax’s name, and a gap in between Percy’s statement and Vex’s reply.
“You didn’t have to come,” she said.
“The hell I didn’t.”
“It’s fucking Sylas . We’ve killed him twice already, near enough, and we didn’t have nearly as much power at our disposal the first time. It’s not going to be difficult. You could have stayed with Cassandra and the little fiends.”
There was a faint laugh. “We’ve been out of the adventuring game twenty years, though.”
“You have, maybe. I’ve still got my duties as Grand Mistress of the Grey Hunt, which you know perfectly well, since you gave them to me.” There was a creak of wood. “What are you worried about? You didn’t have to make anything new for this. There’s no, I don’t know, Orthax involved.”
“I’m not worried about Orthax.”
Percy laughed faintly again, less genuinely. “I don’t know,” he said. “I hate that it’s always Sylas and Delilah. I hate what they did. But we were done. I spent years trying to figure out some way to defeat them, and you finally gave it to me, and it still did nothing but put us in a dangerous situation where people ended up dead. And even that wasn’t permanent for them.”
“I didn’t think it would bring them back, and I still got less than I expected. And I - I dealt with that. I did. And then finally I was okay with it, and now - here she is. The one time I wasn’t asking for it.” Percy’s voice was growing more choked the longer he talked.
“You’ve got Cassandra,” Vex said softly. “That’s not nothing, Percy.”
“It’s not everything, either.” A sigh. “Maybe if the situation were different...”
“Well, it’s not. Do you think I don’t get what’s going on with you?”
“I did just explain myself pretty well.”
“ Besides that,” Vex huffed, growing serious again with her next words. “I’ve been wondering ever since we heard what happened what it would be like if it were Vax instead of your sister.”
“But you wouldn’t be alone in your reaction to that.”
“Oh, fuck you, Percy, do you think you’re alone?” There was another thwap noise. “I’m literally right here! I’m half in your lap!”
“Alright, alright, point taken-”
“It better be.” Vex grumbled something inarticulate. “I’ve been sitting here being nice and listening and you’re retreating back into your brooding corner.”
“I don’t have a brooding corner.
Vesper recalled that she had meant to put her book back, and forced herself to walk away to do so. She’d eavesdropped enough.
When she returned, walking slowly so as not to interrupt anything important, Vex was flipping through the non-rejected sketches Percy had done. Percy was watching her with a fond smile, leaning on his left arm.
His right arm had the sleeve rolled up past the elbow, revealing a series of leather straps connected to rings and buckles which dangled around the end of a scarred stump. The other half of his arm was sitting on the desk, temporarily discarded, with the glove still (somewhat pointlessly) covering the hand.
“I assume the placement of everybody around the clock is very significant,” Vex was saying.
“I did put some thought into it, yes.”
“And is it just going to be us?”
“I’d hate to waste so much time and effort on our various foes. I was thinking I could have carvings done, or maybe significantly-styled stained glass panes in the windows.”
“If designing a statue figure is too much effort, so’s stained glass.”
“You’re right, but everything about this project is going to require some amount of energy to be put into it, and it’ll be less designing.”
“Fair enough.” Vex happened to glance up, and caught Vesper standing awkwardly at the edge of the shelves. “Oh hey, there you are!”
“Hello again,” Vesper said. “I didn’t know you’d shown up. Did something happen?” Please, gods, let her not get caught in the lie. She did not need that embarrassment.
“Vord wants to talk, is all,” Vex said. “Do you mind? We’ve probably kept him waiting a little already.” Percy took his arm and began strapping it back into place with well-practiced movements.
“I don’t. I don’t have a lot else I need to be doing. What does he want to talk about?”
“Something related to you, I’m sure.” Vex stood, stretching. She was still wearing her armor. “You haven’t seen an elf girl around, have you? She came with me, but we split up, since I was looking for Percy and she was looking for you.”
“Eh. Do you want to hold onto these?” The question was directed at Percy, as Vex poked at the papers.
“Give me three seconds, I’ll get to them once I’ve got two hands.” As Percy spoke, he was tightening the last buckle. There was a visual crackle of bluish energy across the leather and wood, and his gloved fingers flexed. Percy shook the arm out like he was shaking off a shock, rolled down his sleeve and refastened the cuff, then swept the papers up and folded them neatly twice before sticking them into an inside pocket.
“So how are you?” Vex asked Vesper as Percy gathered his things. “I hope the gloomstalker didn’t scare you too badly. We didn’t mean to let it get away.”
“It did,” Vesper confessed, “but at least it was gone quickly.”
“Yeah, the temple was probably the worst place for it to go, considering we’ve got Pike on our team.”
“Just because of Pike?” Percy asked pointedly, gathering up his cloak.
“Which one of you is the Dawnmarshal of Sarenrae, again?”
“I’m just saying, it was putting itself in close quarters with all of us.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re so cool. Let’s get going.” Vex leaned over and blew out the candles. “We’ve got an appointment to keep.”
Amani was waiting for them at the entrance of the library, and fell in next to Vesper as their group went to meet Vord. She flashed Vesper a smile of barely-restrained glee, which Vesper couldn’t help but smile back at. Vesper could almost see the various questions Amani was bursting to ask, but the elvish girl stayed quiet for the short walk through the Sanctuary.
The other members of Vox Machina were already assembled, along with Vord. Vord himself was standing, but Grog had sat on the floor and was talking animatedly to Pike, who was using his leg as a seat. Keyleth was holding her raven on one wrist, either having a conversation with it or casting a spell on it. Scanlan was the first to spot the approaching group, springing to his feet with a greeting.
“So you did find her! We were beginning to wonder.”
“Got lost in the library for a while there.” Vex excused herself easily. “Anything interesting happen while I was gone?”
“Now that we’re all here,” Vord said pointedly, “perhaps we could gather ourselves for a serious conversation. Thank you, acolyte.”
Amani ducked her head and made her exit quickly, like the last time Vesper had spoken with Vord. Grog and Pike stood up, the former looming over everyone else.
“As you may know, we’ve been doing much of the research dedicated to the issue of our otherwordly visitors,” Vord began. “Once we had figured out what magic had brought them to our city, our researchers managed to create a spell similar to both a Counterspell and a Banishment, which reversed the initial summoning and essentially sent them following whatever path they took to arrive here, except in the reverse direction. However, this process required knowledge we retrieved by finding the sites where the summoning had been performed.”
“You didn’t mention that,” Keyleth interjected, startled.
“I didn’t believe it was relevant,” Vord said. “Until now, nothing out of the ordinary - for a summoning, that is - had turned up. The strangest part of the puzzle was the homeland of those summoned. But for each return we facilitated, we had to first locate the original summoning location.”
“It was that easy?” Scanlan asked skeptically. “Nobody ever cleaned up after themselves?”
“Easy is overstating it,” Vord said, “but yes, it was strange. Suspicions were brought to me from several quarters. With the arrival of Miss de Rolo, several pieces seem to have fallen into place.”
“They have?” Vesper questioned. Nobody had said anything of the sort to her. That, at least, seemed like something important for her to know.
“The recent attacks, seemingly caused by your presence, show that others are aware of you,” Vord explained. “These attacks are not coming from Vox Machina or inside the Sanctuary; ergo, it is an outside power. The most likely culprit are these summoners. If they were able to recognize you during your brief time in the city, they likely could similarly identify the other victims of their efforts. I believe that they were attempting to summon a specific person, who they had not been able to get until now. If they did not care what happened to the previously summoned people, there would be no reason to hide what they had done except to, presumably, remove the symbols of the Whispered One and ensure the magic would not be traced back to any one of them.”
“But what could they want Vesper specifically for?” Pike asked. “How would they even know who she is? It still doesn’t make sense that they’re summoning people from completely different worlds.”
“This is where we must conjecture,” Vord said. “However, I have heard you have identified a former cultist and formidable enemy who is likely to be behind the recent attacks, and from what I’ve heard it is not a stretch to assume that such a man would have reasons to want to get his hands on a de Rolo.”
Vesper stared at him, dread pooling in her stomach. Next to her, Vex had reached out to grip Percy’s shoulder with white-knuckled fingers, and Percy himself had pressed a tight fist over his mouth.
“Kind of a long way to go for de Rolos,” Scanlan said, humorlessly.
“I’ve been told by my chief researcher of magic that it is likely these summoners were experimenting as well,” Vord said, still as composed as ever. “I have no way of knowing who their enchanters or summoners are, or what kind of power they have available to them. Perhaps they managed to refine the spell to a proper target, but from the wrong place.”
“Is that all you know?” Keyleth asked.
“What I’ve told you is already straying farther into conjecture than I enjoy.” Vord spread his hands, as if demonstrating the lack of knowledge. “It’s far more than we knew three days ago. But there is one issue.”
“Oh, great,” Vesper heard Grog mutter.
“There is no evidence to find,” Vord said. “Unlike the last times, these summoners cared to clean up after themselves. In order to gather the knowledge necessary to facilitate Miss de Rolo’s return, you will have to go and find where they’ve hidden themselves.”
Glances were traded among the six adventurers. Vesper felt cold. Before, Vord had said no; that was far different from I can’t. It had never occurred to her to be worried about never going home.
“So?” Grog said. “Tell us where they are and we’ll go kill ‘em. What’s the wait for?” His hands were resting on the end of an enormous double-bladed axe, which Vesper had not been quite so hyperaware of until he’d mentioned killing.
“We don’t know precisely where they stay, or else we would have taken care of them already,” Vord replied, a flicker of irritation crossing his face. “As it is, I can think of only one place which might escape regular patrol and still allow them access into the city.”
“Oh, don’t say it,” Vex said. “I just thought of what you’re about to say and I don’t want to hear it.”
“The primordial titan,” Vord said. Vex groaned. Percy swore under his breath. “It is still hollow inside, though it has been cleansed and thoroughly searched for any dangers. One foot still rests outside the city walls.”
“You don’t guard it?” Scanlan asked incredulously.
“It is very close to the city walls - something I’m sure you’re already aware of, given your proximity to it when it was still moving,” Vord said coldly. “Our priority was disposing of the threats that lived within it. Once it was deemed to be empty of any living thing, it was forbidden for any to enter it, and we left it at that.”
“The Bastion who man the wall keep an eye on the other foot,” Pike said. “I’ve kept an ear out for any trouble going on with it, and there wasn’t except for those first few months - Scanlan, you remember, Kima came around to ask for a hand with all the undead.”
“But it’s a pretty big foot, right?” Keyleth said before Vesper could ask if ‘undead’ really meant ‘undead’. “If someone’s sneaky enough, and on the opposite side from the guards, they could get in out of sight.”
“There’s no entrance on that foot, though,” Pike said. “I don’t know if the stuff inside even goes down that far. Where’d we get in, the back of a knee or something?”
“Something like that,” Scanlan affirmed.
“A determined enough mage could make an entrance, or get up that far,” Keyleth said. “Hell, Grog could make himself an entrance.”
“Yeah I could,” Grog preened. “That’s noticeable, though.”
“Oh. Yeah, you’re right. Your way makes a lot of noise.”
“Are you sure that’s the only place in the city they could be hiding, Vord?” Vex cut through the debate.
“It is the only place that makes sense,” Vord replied. “Your own account claims that the surviving Briarwood fled into the Timberlands when you came too close to defeating him. Why would his accomplices not need a way to meet with him?”
“Twenty years and he hasn’t left the Timberlands?” Scanlan muttered skeptically. Pike leaned her head towards his.
“Twenty years, and Vasselheim’s still the biggest city within a hundred miles,” she said, also quietly. “And the Timberland’s wild enough that he’s not likely to be bothered. Plus whatever resting place he has isn’t going to be easy to move by himself.”
Scanlan shrugged, but voiced no further objections.
“I got a question,” Grog said. “The fuck are we doing? This conversation’s goin’ all over the place. Are we gettin’ information so we can send her back to her home-” He jerked a thumb at Vesper. “-or are we killin’ Sylas? ‘Cuz I’m up for either, but I wanna know in advance.”
“I feel like those are definitely things to do separately,” Scanlan said. “I was thinking - this may be stupid - but if we need information about their magic to send Vesper home, and we have to go to their secret lair to get it, that’s gonna be a tight schedule! They might wreck their own stuff to prevent us from getting it, because they can replicate it but we can’t. And then it’s gonna be like ten times more difficult to track them down again. ”
“Is there a point hiding somewhere in that sentence?” Percy asked.
“What if Vesper came with us?” Scanlan said. “Just on the exploration part, and definitely not the Briarwood part, and then we can send her back quickly and go fight him once we’re done.”
“I’m not much of an explorer,” Vesper said hesitantly, her mind instantly rebelling against the idea. “I don’t know that it would work.”
“I mean, we’re barely leaving the city.”
“We don’t know what’s in the titan still,” Vex said.
“There’s nothing in the titan,” Pike said. “I had to smash like eighty undead dwarves, there’s definitely none left. We’ve had people go through the city in there with a fine-toothed comb.”
“But if we’re going to find their hideout, there’s going to be lots of them there, undead or no,” Vex argued.
“They haven’t done the summonings in their own hideout before,” Scanlan said. “Why do it again now?”
“They didn’t, but then they cleaned up that scene, so we have to go to where they’re staying-”
“Oh, right. Right.”
“But Scanlan’s got a point about them destroying it just so we can’t get to it, if they know we’re coming,” Keyleth said. “If we could get in there and chase them out - not even a fight, just chase them out - and then keep them from getting back in, we could send Vesper back quick.”
“As long as we could figure out how the magic works, yeah! Keyleth gets it,” Scanlan said to Pike.
“Can we figure out how the magic works?” Pike asked Vord, who looked like he was getting a headache.
“You may speak to our researchers, if you think that will help,” Vord said. Pike flashed him a thumbs up, and a wrinkle developed between his brows.
“But we can’t just stop them from getting back in-”
“If I Wall of Stone the doors, then there would be no way for them to.”
“Excuse me,” Vesper said loudly. Heads swiveled to look at her. “But I am not an adventurer. I can’t go running off into danger just because it’s the quickest way to get something done!” She twisted her hands around each other. “I want to go home, but this seems like a really scattered, noncomprehensive plan.”
“To be fair, we’ve learned our lesson, making super detailed plans that immediately go wrong,” Scanlan said. “We can’t plan for everything.”
“Do we need to worry about getting this done fast?” Pike asked Vord. “If we could get whatever we need to know from where they’re staying, and bring it back here, would that be enough?”
“Generally, we’ve found it to be easiest to use whatever setup they had left behind for the returns, with some minor alterations,” Vord said. “Small invocations of the Platinum Dragon, to aid our own clerics. There is no saying whether or not they will have such a thing ready in their hideout, or whether the information you seek is kept in a notebook or a person’s mind.”
“Would we be able to bring it back here without getting attacked, though?” Scanlan asked. “There’s been two attempts in the last two days, and they managed to find a gloomstalker for one of those.”
“You’re arguing pretty hard for your own idea,” Percy said.
“I’m just saying! I think it’ll be easier if we don’t have to do anything but get there.” Scanlan thought for a moment. “If danger’s a problem, we could try and draw them off somehow. Maybe we could send a bunch of wyvern-riders out like we’re trying to get them back for the gloomstalker. Then they’ll leave to fight those guys, and we’ve got a clearer path.” He looked back at Vesper. “What do you say? Nobody’s asking you to charge into danger, that’s what we’re for. But it might move things along a little faster.”
Vesper hesitated. Common sense was telling her that it was far too dangerous - but gods, she wanted to be home already.
“How confident are you that such a plan will work?”
more percy, yay!
let me tell you, it took some plot finagling on my part to come up with a situation that would have Vesper actually go with them. she is NOT a fan of tagging along with their brand of adventure.
Chapter 7: Into the Stronghold
So, longer wait than usual (I think?) but much longer chapter than usual! I really wanted to get to a *good* stopping point, not just a convenient one, and I think I found it. Lots more I want to get to, but since I have to get up at 5:30 AM tomorrow, I might put a small hold on writing for the night (as I post this, it's only 8).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I can’t believe this is actually happening to you.” Amani could not contain her excitement as she helped Vesper prepare. A camping backpack, or something similar, had been provided, along with a bedroll. When Vesper had questioned how long the journey was supposed to take, Amani had gone on a long tangent about magic-users needing to rest often in order to have the power to have all their spells at their disposal.
“I’m still not sure I should have agreed to it,” Vesper confessed.
“It’s dangerous, even if it’s happening in tandem with other things to make it less so.” Vesper’s hands hadn’t stopped shaking since the meeting had ended. Not much time had passed; even the gloomstalker had only been that morning. Vesper supposed evening was probably setting in soon. Everything was moving much faster than she’d expected.
“With them in between you and whatever you might face, you won’t get so much as a scratch,” Amani said confidently. She was sitting on the bed, watching Vesper pack her regular clothes into the bottom of the backpack. Other supplies had been provided, but she wasn’t sure what to do with them other than put them in the backpack in a way that conserved as much space as possible.
“I’m inclined to think you of all people are likely to exaggerate.”
“Oh, come on! You’ve seen them in action.” Amani bounced a little. “You know they’re good.”
“Good, yes. But I’m going to continue hoping that we run into as little danger as possible.” Vesper shoved her purse in at the top and buckled the bag shut. It wasn’t too heavy, but she wasn’t looking forward to carrying it around for an extended period of time.
“Reasonable,” Amani allowed. “And I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t be nervous. I would be, too. But whatever danger might come up, it won’t be nearly as dangerous as it would be without them there.”
“I will take your word for it.” Vesper had packed her heels, favoring sense over style and fit, and she wiggled her toes in the borrowed leather ones she was wearing for the first time. They were form-fitting, and didn’t seem the sturdiest, though her socks made up for whatever chill she might encounter. Her ankles were the only body part at risk of a chill.
“Is that everything?”
“I think so.”
“I guess you’re ready, then!” Amani stood up, smiling at Vesper. “I know it’s only been a few days, but I’m going to miss you.”
“Thank you,” Vesper said, oddly touched by the sentiment. Amani had, without her noticing, grown to be something of a friend.
Amani then said several words which Vesper didn’t understand, but which seemed to carry a great deal of weight.
“Galu, savo ‘lass a lalaith,” Amani said. “It’s an Elvish farewell. You know, the usual. Wishing good luck and happiness.”
“...How do you spell it?” Vesper was struck with sudden curiosity, and an intense longing not to go at all, but to stay where she was safe. The only thing binding her to the journey was that she’d already made the commitment and packed her things. Stalling, however, was completely an option.
“Oh, I could write it for you, if you had some paper.”
“I’ve - well, I’ve got one way of taking notes.” Vesper took out her phone and started unlocking it. “But I doubt it has the right letters.”
Amani peered at the screen, fascinated. “Ooh, I wish you weren’t leaving, I have so many questions now! But I know how to write it in Common.” She allowed Vesper to direct her through how to type it out, repeatedly backspacing to erase one typo or another. “These letters are too close together.”
“There’s only so much space on the screen.”
After much hunting and pecking with a forefinger, Vesper had the phrase saved.
“I still can’t believe you come from a world with no elves or anything,” Amani said. “It seems so...bland.”
“I never really considered alternatives,” Vesper said. Her thumb strayed absently over the screen of her phone, smearing a faint fingerprint. An idea was prickling at the back of her mind.
“Even so, it’s-”
“Oh my gods.”
“My phone still works,” Vesper said. “Most of the stuff on it doesn’t, because I’m too far away, but I could have been taking pictures this whole time.”
“Really? It can do that?” Amani brightened. “Oh, I know, take one of me! So you can remember me.”
Vesper swiped the camera screen into view. “Is there a way of taking pictures of people here, or does everyone have to sit for portraits?”
“I think there’s a spell that does it,” Amani said, “but I’ve never seen it used.” She was looking thoughtfully at the ceiling as Vesper snapped the picture.
“There,” Vesper said.
“Well, I have it on silent, so it doesn’t make any noise, and I have the flash turned off.”
“It’s supposed to flash?”
“It helps with the lighting, so I’m told.” Vesper turned the phone around so Amani could see the picture. “There.”
“Whoa,” Amani said, entranced. “You should have been using that already.”
“Maybe you know of a few places to get good views of the city before I leave?”
“...I may know a few.”
Vesper came late to the appointed meeting place on the steps of the Sanctuary, late and giggling under her breath with Amani at her side.
“Sorry, I got distracted,” Vesper said in a rush. She was sweating under her cloak from running around from place to place. It was difficult to wear a cloak and a backpack simultaneously, but Amani had helped figure it out.
“It’s fine. We can still make good time.” Vex was squinting out at where the titan loomed over the city. The backs of her and the rest of Vox Machina were lit dramatically and tinted yellow by the sun, which was sinking down on the other side of the mountain the Sanctuary perched on top of. An idea occurred to Vesper.
“Do you guys mind turning around for a second?”
“What for?” Vex turned around, along with everybody except Grog, who just looked over his shoulder, and Percy, who didn’t move. Vesper snapped a picture, her phone already raised.
“Ooh, nice,” Amani said.
“What is that?” Vex asked, frowning slightly. Vesper called up the picture, walking forward to show Vex. It wasn’t the best picture - most of them were squinting against the light or had hair in their faces, and Keyleth’s antlers were cut off - but it was fairly dramatic-looking.
“Oh, whoa, it’s like Tiberius’s old Image Capture spell,” Keyleth said, bending over to look and nearly hitting Vesper in the face with an antler. “Oops. Sorry.”
“It’s alright,” Vesper said, leaning out of the way. Pike tugged her arm down sharply to get a look.
“Don’t you look fancy,” Scanlan said, leaning over her shoulder. “But of course, you always do.” Pike playfully shoved him away. She was dressed in the armor from before, silver and brass plates making her gleam in the sunlight. She had a pack much larger than Vesper’s, with her shield and various weapons strapped to it. Most of the group, Grog especially, were positively bristling with bows and swords and other dangerous accoutrements, and Grog had found himself a pair of enormous gauntlets that looked like they were carved of stone. None of them seemed bothered by the size of their packs.
“I was thinking it would be good to have something to remember all this by,” Vesper said, locking her phone as she pulled it away from the group. Her dress had no pockets, unfortunately.
“Of course! What’s not to like about this place?” Scanlan laughed. Vesper waited until most of the attention had turned to him before stuffing her phone into her bra, which was the next most secure place she could think to put it. Not for the first time, she contemplated trying to learn to sew so she could put a phone pocket on a sports bra or something.
“You ask that when we’re about to go fight some dicks?” Keyleth pointed out.
“Are we supposed to not like that?” Grog sounded genuinely confused.
“Not everybody does, Grog.”
“Hopefully we won’t have to do much fighting,” Percy said. He was still looking out over the city. “Right now we’re just waiting on the Sanctuary.”
“Should we get a little closer before we start the distraction?” Vex asked.
“They said they’d give a signal, and then we’re meant to give one in reply once we’re close enough to get in quickly. We still don’t know where the closest entrance is.”
“I think it’s still the back of the knee,” Pike said. “That’s where Kima and I got in.”
“Everyone knows about that one, though,” Scanlan said. “I put it in the song I wrote. It might be guarded.”
“Guards we can deal with,” Grog said, grinning.
“Yeah, but we’re trying to be stealthy. Dealing with them isn’t my problem.”
“We could go invisibly,” Vex suggested. “Scanlan, you can do invisibility for all of us, right?”
“It’s going to have to be a pretty high-level spell, but sure, I think so,” Scanlan said. He glanced around, counting up the group. “Six of us plus Vesper - yeah, that’s manageable. Takes a lot, but manageable.”
“Are we going to cross the whole city invisibly?” Vesper asked skeptically.
“Yeah, fair point,” Vex said, pointing at Vesper but looking at Scanlan. “Even if we could get there, we’d still need to get up.”
“We could get up there the same way we did last time,” Keyleth said.
“If we had J’mon here, maybe.”
“I can be J’mon. Metaphorically.”
“Is that wise?” Percy finally moved, looking over at her. “You’d have to use a pretty powerful spell, right?”
“Once we’re done with all this I can rest before we go after Sylas. It’ll be fine,” Keyleth said confidently.
“I mean, if I’m making all of us invisible, I’m going to be doing basically the same thing,” Scanlan said.
“You are?” Percy frowned.
“Seven people is a lot of people to make invisible!”
“We’ve still got the carpet,” Grog said. “And Vex has got her broom.”
“That can carry two at most, though,” Vex said. “And you’re too heavy for the carpet.”
Vesper leaned towards Amani. “Are flying carpets real?”
“Rare, but yes.”
“Okay, so they’re not talking nonsense.” Vesper wondered where they could possibly be keeping a flying carpet. In the temple of Sarenrae?
“I didn’t imagine this much strategy talk was involved, I have to admit,” Amani said in an undertone.
“From what I saw, this is just how they work?”
“Let’s just go, I hate sitting around arguing about plans,” Vex was saying, throwing up her arms.
“We’re still waiting on the Sanctuary’s signal,” Percy reminded her.
“What was it, again?”
“Whenever the wyvern-riders take off, they said. They’ll go on patrol and get into place to wait for our signal.”
Vesper turned to look back at the Sanctuary just as there was a massive rustling noise, like a hundred pieces of paper being shaken at once, and the first dragon came over the roof.
A good fifty figures were suddenly flying over Vesper’s head, batlike wings extended. The dragonlike figures, smaller than she’d expected, were decorated in the colors of the Sanctuary. Vesper caught glimpses of the sun shining off armor, which was as much as she could make out of the riders from below.
The wyverns scattered across the sky of Vasselheim, splitting into smaller teams with an efficiency that had to be borne from long practice. They moved swiftly, shrinking into small shapes which whirled over the distant buildings.
“Wow,” Vesper said. “When you said you’d fought dragons, I wasn’t picturing those.”
“You shouldn’t,” Grog said. “Wyverns are easy pickin’s, dragons are fucking dangerous.”
“Yeah, wyverns are like...discount dragons,” Keyleth said. “Dragon minions.”
“We need to get going,” Vex said pointedly. “Go ahead and show her what you mean, Keyleth, if you’re going to.”
“Oh, right.” Keyleth shrugged her shoulder, where her raven was sitting, until he jumped off it onto her hand. Then she tossed the hand up, sending the raven off to soar in a large circle.
“I’m sorry?” Vesper asked in confusion. Keyleth was muttering under her breath, making purposeful signs with the hand that wasn’t holding her staff.
Keyleth rolled her shoulders, and her shape twisted and grew.
Vesper and Amani stepped back simultaneously as Keyleth rolled her shoulders again, making her wings sweep across the porch of the Sanctuary even though they were folded. Horns jutted up from her huge, reptilian head in the same shape as her antlered crown.
“I feel like I should have gone platinum,” Keyleth said, her voice rumbling in her throat. She pressed herself close to the ground, stretching out her sinuous neck. Her brass scales flashed in the light.
“We’ve never seen a platinum dragon, though,” Vex said. She’d backed up, too, and was standing near enough to Vesper to loop an arm through hers.
“She can turn into a dragon,” Vesper said faintly.
“Keyleth can do a lot of cool shit.” Vex tugged her towards dragon-Keyleth. “I can guarantee this particular dragon is perfectly safe.”
“Wait-” Amani caught Vesper’s hand. “Good luck, Vesper.”
On an impulse, Vesper turned back around and hugged her.
“Thank you,” Vesper said. “Um - galu?”
“Your Elvish accent is terrible.” Amani was smiling when Vesper released her. “Now go ride that dragon and become probably the coolest person I know.”
Vesper let herself be pulled away by Vex.
Grog and the two gnomes had already situated themselves between the blunter spines on Keyleth’s neck, just before the wings. Vex gave Vesper a foothold to jump up, and Pike caught her hand. Her gauntlets, Vesper saw, were incised with a scowling, sharp-toothed face and did not match her armor at all.
“Are you sure this is safe?” Vesper asked tentatively as Pike hauled her up, pulling her into the space between the armored gnome and the spine behind her. She stumbled in a few places, feet slipping on the smooth scales of Keyleth’s side. “We’re going to be kind of high up.”
“Hold on tight to me,” Pike said. “I’m not gonna let go of anything. And Keyleth’s flown in other shapes before, she knows not to pull any dumb tricks.”
“I can hear you,” Keyleth said. Her voice rumbled up through her body into Vesper, like the bass line at a concert.
“I’m not saying anything bad,” Pike said defensively. She rolled her eyes at Vesper, who was not in the right mood to commiserate, but made an effort at a sympathetic smile.
Vex leaped up last to situate herself and give Percy a hand up. As Keyleth raised her head, Vesper’s seat shifted. Vesper clutched at Pike, embarrassed with herself even as she was suddenly reconsidering agreeing to go on the journey.
“Scanlan, you ready?” Keyleth turned her head to look from one slit-pupiled eye.
“Born ready,” Scanlan declared, slinging his lute around to sit in his lap instead of hang from his back. He strummed thoughtfully, and then sang. “I’m lookin’ through you! Where did you go? I thought I knew you! What did I know?”
Bewildered, and more than a little off-kilter, Vesper tightened her grip around Pike as the draconic Keyleth - and the six of them - shimmered and vanished from sight. She squeezed her eyes shut, unable to comprehend staring at something that was in broad daylight and still not seeing it. Keyleth shifted underneath her with a rustle of what sounded like heavy cloth, and then with a deep rush of moving air took off.
Vesper had flown before - in planes. Planes seats were not the kind one had to sit astride on, and they didn’t shift underneath Vesper with deep breaths. Planes had walls to keep out the freezing chill of air that was nearly too thin to breathe. Planes did not turn or tilt downwards so suddenly that Vesper had to restrain from shrieking.
The flight was quick. Vesper could tell Keyleth was circling lower; the sudden turn that had startled her took them into a cooler area, under something’s shadow. The air around Vesper was suddenly close and dank, as Keyleth’s claws scraped against what sounded like stone and she ground to a halt.
Then Vesper’s seat fell out from under her.
There were a plethora of shouts as Vesper fell to the ground, hitting it hard. Something heavy fell on top of her arm, and Vesper hissed in pain, eyes shooting open again.
“Keyleth!” Percy sounded irritated.
“Sorry, I forgot!” The invisibility spell wavered, revealing Keyleth on the ground with only Vex still sitting with her legs over her. The rest of them were sprawled across the ground, having fallen when Keyleth changed out of her draconic form. Vesper sat up, rubbing the back of her head, and extricated her arm from under Pike.
“You always do this,” Percy muttered. He was propped up on one elbow, hair falling over his face. His cloak had been thrown over his head when he presumably fell.
“We got in, didn’t we?” Keyleth scooted out from underneath Vex and hurried to the entrance as the rest of the party picked themselves up. Vesper watched her go, and took in their current location.
The inside of the titan was dark and cool, the latter no different from the rest of Vasselheim. The entrance was only just wide enough to have accommodated Keyleth’s larger form, a gaping hole in the rock. The floor was gritty and damp underneath Vesper’s palms, so she got up before it soaked into her cloak. As she did, Keyleth thumped her staff three times against the ground. Vesper thought Keyleth was hissing, before the noise grew stronger and resolved itself into the patter of rain. The light from outside had grown greyer and darker in the last three seconds.
“There’s our signal done,” Keyleth said, stepping back. The rain was quickly soaking the ledge closest to the entrance. As she spoke, her raven swooped in and landed neatly on her shoulder, shaking water from its feathers.
“Your signal is rain?” Scanlan took a couple steps away as well.
“Who else in this city can make it rain on command?”
“Let’s get moving, then.” Grog swung his axe a few times experimentally, then tucked it back into his belt.
Keyleth gave Vesper a hand up as she came to rejoin the group. “We’ve got to go up first - the closest way into the other leg is, well, where legs meet.”
“I hope there’s no alternate paths,” Vex muttered. Scanlan snorted, and gave her a high five.
“Just like old times,” Percy said. His back was to the group as he faced where the shaft ran deeper into the titan’s leg. “Shall we?”
“Sure,” Pike said. “Humans in the middle. Grog, you wanna take point or rear?”
“I’ll stay in back.” Grog took a few steps back. Vex had already gone to join Percy, and Keyleth was moving to fall in next to her. Scanlan inserted himself in next to Pike, who was still behind Vesper.
“Why humans in the middle?” Vesper asked, as Keyleth elbowed Percy back a few steps.
“‘Cuz you’re the only ones who don’t see in the dark,” Grog said. “Fuckin’ pointless for either ‘a you to be leadin’.”
“Should I take point, or Keyleth?” Vex called. “Pike, are there still those wall monsters in here?”
“Not that I know of!” Pike said. “I never saw any, and we weren’t exactly being quiet.”
“But I thought-” Vex pointed vaguely at Vex, unsure. “You’re not-?”
“Only half human, darling,” Vex said with a grin. “It’s the other half that counts in times like this.” She turned, bow out and already strung, and led them deeper in.
Percy, directly in front of Vesper, hurried to follow. He still hadn’t turned to face her.
Vesper took a breath and followed.
The ground under their feet slowly rose, circling up at a gentle curve - Vesper assumed it was following the general outline of the leg. Behind her, Pike’s armor clanked gently against its other pieces. The ground gave way partly under their feet like loose dirt, meaning they all made faint shuf shuf noises as they walked. Compounded by seven, the walk was not quiet even though nobody was talking. Vesper’s imagination made the noise echo against the walls she couldn’t see, but imagined were too close on either side for comfort.
Only a minute or so into the walk, Vesper had to grope blindly in front of herself and grab at Percy’s cloak. He jumped - or flinched - slightly.
“Sorry,” Vesper whispered. “I can’t see anything.”
“...It’s fine.” His voice was equally quiet.
“Should we make a light?” Keyleth’s voice drifted down from up ahead. “There doesn’t seem to be anything we need to watch out for.”
“If there’s something we do, we don’t want it to be warned about us before we know it’s there,” Vex’s voice replied.
“I can’t believe we’ve never had to have this argument before.” Scanlan piped up from behind Vesper. “Like, ever.”
“Percy’s never said anything.”
“I trust all of you to turn on a light when I need it and tell me if there’s anything I’m about to trip over,” Percy said. “I’ve never exactly run headlong into a pitch-black cave. But we’ve only known Vesper two days, we can’t expect the same trust from her.”
“...Fair call,” Vex said. “Anyone got torches?”
“I can help.” A finger-snap followed Keyleth’s voice, and light flared. Vesper focused on it, and saw that Keyleth’s hands were on fire.
“Holy shit,” Vesper yelped, flinching back instinctively. Several people laughed. “Doesn’t that hurt?”
“Well, it’s magic, so no,” Keyleth said. Her staff seemed similarly invulnerable. “Can you see okay now?”
“A little.” It didn’t do much for light in general, but it gave Vesper an idea of where Keyleth was, and that helped her orient everyone else. The walls were not so close as she had imagined. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, of course.”
Their journey continued. Vesper wondered if it had been a trick of the light, or if she’d really seen Vex’s eyes flash green like a cat’s in the sudden spark of fire.
“What kind of magic lets you safely light your hands on fire?” Vesper asked, beginning to get a little out of breath. Her legs were aching already, but she’d been trying not to complain.
“It was a gift from the Fire Ashari, after I finished that stage of my AraMente,” Keyleth said.
“Every Headmaster on the Ashari has to go on a journey to visit the three other tribes to prove themselves worthy,” Keyleth explained. “It’s known as the AraMente. Each of the headmasters gave me something - knowledge, or a challenge, or both. Cerkonos, the headmaster of the fire Ashari, gave me a gift as well.”
“So now she’s got fire hands at her beck and call,” Scanlan added, “which is handy from time to time.”
“I was told briefly about the Ashari,” Vesper mused. “She didn’t mention that.”
“We can be a bit isolated. I wouldn’t expect many people who weren’t Ashari to know about it.”
“‘A bit’ means ‘maybe in a mountain range, maybe in the middle of an ocean’.” Vesper could hear Scanlan’s grin.
“Hey, you liked the Vesrah Ashari!”
“I do, but they still live out in the middle of the Ozmit. They’re not exactly neighborly people.”
“They can’t help where the Water Plane rift is,” Keyleth said defensively.
“Guys, stop talking,” Vex hissed. “How am I supposed to keep an ear out for anything in here if you’re making so much noise?”
A couple of muttered ‘Sorry’s were voiced. Conversation faded again. Vesper’s mind started focusing on how much her legs ached again.
The inside of the titan was cool, but not nearly so cold as the air outside the Sanctuary. Vesper wondered if it might even be warmer. She’d heard that some caves could maintain a very consistent temperature, so that in summer they were pleasantly cool and in winter comparatively warmer. Maybe that was what the titan was like.
She wondered what it had been like when it was alive. Terrifying, no doubt, but they’d all made mention of entering the titan before. Pike had come in to destroy undead that had lived inside it. Had that been while it was still alive?
Vesper shivered, and decided to try thinking about something more pleasant.
Nothing easily came to mind. Her mind kept drifting back to how badly her legs hurt, and how she wished she could sit down. She’d never walked so far without a break in her life, except that one time when she was fifteen and decided to take the bus home from a friend’s house without knowing where the right stops were and ended up walking twelve blocks to get home.
“Hold on,” Vex said, after what felt like an eternity. The line shuffled to a halt. “Keyleth, douse the hands for a sec.”
The faint firelight winked out. Vesper blinked a few times to readjust to the darkness, and realized it was not as dark as she had thought it would be. Faint, greyish light outlined a few corners up ahead.
“Stay here,” Vex said, even quieter than before. There was no more noise, but after a moment Vesper saw the faintest outline of Vex’s head and bow against the light, which vanished in the next second.
They stood in silence, waiting. Vesper’s legs shook with the urge to sit down.
In the darkness there were two sharp whistling noises, and two squelchy noises followed by thuds. Vox Machina as a whole simultaneously breathed in and straightened, and there were metallic rasps of weapons being drawn.
Vex’s head's silhouette appeared in the next second. “There were two guards,” she whispered. “But this place seems empty. There’s some hole or something that’s letting light in.”
“Just two guards?” Keyleth whispered. “Is anyone else coming?”
“No, they didn’t have time to call for anyone.”
“Let’s stop here for a moment then and figure out where we are,” Percy said.
“Alright. Keyleth, give me a hand.”
Vex and Keyleth moved off silently, Percy following more sedately. The dimly-lit room was a large cavern, with (oddly enough) stone ruins of buildings rising from the ground, still mostly stable-looking and complete. The sunlight was coming down from a hole in the wall, which was also dripping water regularly onto the floor. Tracks of dampness had slid down the side of the building directly under it, and a puddle had formed on the floor.
Vex and Keyleth were dragging two huddled shapes in black robes away, heaping them just inside one of the doors. As Vesper watched, feeling faintly ill, Vex retrieved her arrows from the bodies and tucked them back into her quiver.
“Are we high up enough that we can get over into the other leg?” Percy asked. He sat down on the edge of a broken building, the walls broken down to roughly waist-height, with a strained sigh.
“Why, you getting tired, old man?” Scanlan smirked at him.
“You’re more than twice my age, Scanlan.” Percy was quick as a whip with a reply.
“Yeah, and I’m still younger than you.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Vesper said. Scanlan shrugged.
“Maybe not, but compared to a human’s lifespan, I’m still just a young adult making my way in the world.”
“Oh - so gnomes are like elves?”
“We don’t live quite that long,” Pike interjected with a laugh, “but sort of, yes.” She walked across the room slowly, clanking the whole way. “I don’t think we’re far up enough to be able to get over yet. The titan’s pretty tall.”
Percy sighed again, bracing his hands on his knees. Vesper was struck again by how much older he was than her Percy.
“Are you okay?” There was an edge of a laugh in Pike’s voice.
“I’m forty-three, not dying,” Percy said dryly. “I can survive a walk we haven’t even been attacked on yet.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Vex yelled over. Keyleth was bent over the bodies and seemed to be investigating them. Vesper turned so that she could no longer see what they were doing. She wished she’d asked more questions about their methods before agreeing to come.
“We’re making fun of Percy!” Scanlan cupped a hand around his mouth.
“Thank you, dear,” Percy said loudly over the gnomes’ snickering.
“Can I ask,” Vesper said, to distract herself, “are there a lot of species that live longer than humans? I don’t really have any way of knowing.” Merry had mentioned the topic some, but that conversation might as well have taken place years ago. She sat down on a stray piece of rubble that looked to have fallen off one of the buildings centuries ago.
“Oh, sure, plenty,” Pike said. “My great-granddad is still alive, and he’s probably the oldest gnome I’ve ever known. Scanlan wasn’t wrong in saying he’s basically a young adult by human standards. I’m about sixty.”
“And you don’t look a day over thirty-five,” Scanlan said, in the tones of someone who was paying an over-exaggerated compliment. Pike rolled her eyes fondly.
“I’m like Percy, though,” Grog put in. “Agin’-wise. Goliaths got pretty short lives.”
“I see,” Vesper said.
“Dwarves and halflings have lifespans pretty close to gnomes, I think,” Pike said thoughtfully. “Seeker Assum still works for the Council, right? And he’s a halfling.”
“Oh yeah, he for sure is,” Scanlan said. “But he’s gonna keep doing his whole sneaky job shtick until he drops dead or gets assassinated, let’s be honest.”
“He’s not gonna get assassinated.”
“He is if he keeps trying to arrest Clasp members.”
“Why are we talking about getting assassinated by the Clasp?” Vex had walked over.
“You know, it’s just one of those fun conversational topics,” Scanlan replied flippantly. “Find anything?”
“Couple of necklaces, like we expected,” Vex said. “They had swords, but nothing that would let them hit us from a range, which is good for us if the rest of the guards are the same. Are we going to take a rest here?”
“I think we should,” Percy and Vesper said simultaneously.
“Whoa, shit, you sounded like the same person for a second there,” Grog said, eyebrows jumping up.
“I am so glad we brought you with us,” Scanlan said. “I have been waiting for this to happen.”
“I think I’m going to go see where the light is coming from,” Percy said abruptly, getting to his feet. “I thought the titan’s sides would be too thick to manage something like that. Vex, can I borrow the broom?”
“I put it in the bag of holding,” Vex said, looking expectantly at Grog. Grog pulled a large, half-empty looking bag off his belt, and stuck his hand in it up to the elbow. Vesper’s eyebrows were beginning to raise even before he pulled Vex’s broomstick, which was twice as long as the bag, out of it.
“Here,” Grog said, tossing it. Percy caught it easily and set off, turning on his heel.
“Don’t get lost!” Pike called after him. Percy raised one arm in acknowledgement. A shadow fell over him a moment later, and Vesper could no longer make out his shape.
“Seriously, though,” Scanlan said conversationally. “You technically grew up with him - what’s the most embarrassing thing he did as a kid?”
“I think ‘technically’ is the important word in that sentence,” Vesper said tactfully.
“Boring,” Scanlan muttered, before wandering after Pike, who had gone to speak to Keyleth. Vesper was left with Vex and Grog, unsure what to do.
Grog didn’t seem to have any similar compunctions. He sat down on Percy’s vacated seat, digging a flat-ish stone out of the ‘bag of holding’ and setting about using it to sharpen an already wickedly sharp-looking axe which he had on his belt. Vex stayed standing, one arrow ready at hand, casting glances back and forth across the room.
“There’s nothing more dangerous in here, is there?” Vesper asked. Vex looked like someone standing guard.
“Doesn’t hurt to keep an eye out,” Vex replied, glancing at her briefly before continuing her scan. “We’re probably not very close to where they’re holed up, but there’s no way to know that for sure.”
Vesper opened her mouth, closed it, and vacillated back and forth for a few moments before asking, “Is this how you normally do adventuring?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know...” Vesper gestured over her shoulder, in the vague direction of where the bodies still were. Vex looked confused for a moment, but understanding quickly washed over her face.
“Most of the time, yeah,” Vex said. “I don’t usually go around shooting people, but I’ve been through this titan and through the wringer with this group before. I’m not taking any chances, and I’m not wasting my time wondering if they’re secretly good people.”
“...I suppose you know your business better than I do.”
“If it helps, we’re not usually fightin’ people,” Grog said. “People can be like, talked to. Which I don’t do ‘cos I’m bad at it. But you can’t talk to a dragon and ask it nicely to stop fuckin’ everythin’ up.”
“It seems like dragons come up an awful lot when people talk about your adventures,” Vesper said, in an effort to change the subject.
“There have been a lot of them,” Vex said. “Mostly it’s because there was an alliance of five particularly old and dangerous ones we dealt with, and that’s the story most people have heard about us. In Tal’dorei, at least.”
“An alliance? I’ve never heard any stories of dragons behaving like that.”
“Normally they don’t,” Vex agreed, “but we had the luck to witness the exception.”
“And you just-?” Vesper drew a line across her throat.
“Well, yeah.” Vex looked amused. “You didn’t notice?” She tapped on her breastplate. Vesper frowned, looked closer, and saw that what she’d assumed were lines of decorations were the edges of pearly white scales, the largest half as wide as Vex’s torso. The sharp ends of her vambraces and greaves were the ends of scales with no others to overlap, only a little smaller.
“I think I might still have some ‘a the stuff we didn’t do anything with in the bag of holding,” Grog said thoughtfully.
“Haven’t you emptied it out at all in the last two decades?” Vex looked caught between being impressed and being disgusted.
“Nah, why would I? I can’t remember everythin’ that’s in there, and I can’t take it out unless I know what I want.”
“Stuff you ‘didn’t do anything with’?” Vesper questioned.
“Yeah, I mean, we took scales and shit usually, but we didn’t use all of it.” Grog stopped sharpening to drum his fingers and stare at the ceiling as if that would help him think. “I dunno...we got a bunch of red from Thordak, right?”
“We gave some of that to Gilmore, though.”
“Yeah, but there was a lot of scales on him.”
Vex shrugged. “I don’t know. You’re the one who remembers what’s in there best.”
“I don’t think we used ‘em for anything else except Percy when he was makin’ those little pieces.”
“What pieces?” Vesper asked. Vex reached up one-handed to her braid, and fumbled for a few seconds before tossing Vesper her pin. Vesper caught it and turned it over to see that the multicolored design she’d noticed before was a design made of tiny overlapping scales - red, green, white, black, and blue, set into finely wrought gold.
“Percy made this?” Vesper was impressed.
“Partly, at least. It was half done on commission from what I remember.”
“I thought it was just him.” Grog frowned, and looked down at his belt, where Vesper saw a similar pin (in a slightly different style) was affixed.
“No, remember, he got Keyleth to take him back to the City of Brass so he could ask Senokir about it?”
“No. You sure I was there for that?”
Vex paused. “That’s a good question. Maybe you weren’t.”
“That’s why, then.” Grog went back to sharpening, satisfied. Vesper gave the pin back to Vex, who put down her bow - Fenthras, had it been? - only for as long as it took for her to fix it in her hair again.
Percy eventually came back, though he returned the broom to Grog to put in their magic bag and then went to sit with Keyleth. Vex started pacing back and forth in order to better stand guard, which conveniently put her closer to Percy. When Vesper had only just begun to feel as though she had gotten her breath back, some unspoken consensus caused the whole group to get up and begin shouldering their packs again.
Vesper groaned internally, and accepted Grog’s helping hand to get back to her feet.
“Before we go,” Scanlan said as they were falling back into their order from before at the only exit from the cavern, “should we do something about those?” He jerked a thumb at where the bodies had been dumped in a ruined doorway. “Undead were such a hassle last time...”
“They don’t just spontaneously come back, Scanlan,” Pike said.
“In here? Are we sure?”
Vesper felt a shiver of dread climb up her back as the party gave each other wary looks.
“Last time Kima and I burned what we found, just in case,” Pike admitted.
“I can do that,” Keyleth said. Percy, who was closest to her, fairly leaped out of the way as she raised her hands, summoning up the burning effect with a snap at the same time that a sphere of fire burst into existence around the bodies. Something - some kind of wood thrown over them - went up in a flash, but Vesper hurriedly looked away before she could see if anything else had.
“Warn me before you do that next time,” Percy said aggravatedly, giving Keyleth plenty of space as she moved past him to join Vex at the head of the group.
“Don’t be so jumpy, Percy,” Vex teased. As she began to lead them deeper, the light faded behind them, and Vesper focused again on Keyleth’s fiery hands.
“Yeah, you’ve seen me do that before. And we need the light.” The light jumped as Keyleth gestured to illustrate her point.
“It’s probably the blackpowder,” Grog said matter-of-factly.
“I bought some blackpowder while we were out since I had none to bring with me,” Percy said. “Forgive me for exercising caution.”
“Geez, how much blackpowder do you have on you if you jumped out of the way like that?”
“Just don’t put your hands too near my bag while they’re still on fire in case you trip.”
“Well, put Vesper in between me and you then.”
“Hold on,” Vex said, as Vesper nearly ran into Percy as he stopped to do exactly what Keyleth had proposed and let Vesper go in front of him. “You’ve got your blackpowder pouch on your belt so you can reach it when you have to reload. What’s in your bag?”
There was silence for several moments.
“Just some things,” Percy said neutrally.
“Oh my god, how many explosives did you bring if you won’t even say a number?” Scanlan asked incredulously.
“How many what,” Vesper said.
“I thought you stopped making those,” Pike said before Percy had a chance to answer.
“I did,” Percy said, sounding both tired and like he was rolling his eyes. Vesper was familiar with the tone. “I may or may not have brought a few old things I had locked away in case I needed them, which given who you said was in Vasselheim, Vex, I thought I would probably need.”
“And you brought them for this trip?” Vex questioned, as Vesper became hyperaware that she had been standing behind Percy and his bag only a moment ago.
“What would you propose, leaving them at the Sanctuary? I trust myself to handle them carefully.”
“Is this why when you saw an explosion earlier, you assumed that was where Percy was?” Vesper asked. Grog snorted, dissolving into laughter which he muffled only poorly.
“Really, Vex?” Percy said.
“You just give it that personal touch, darling.” Vex’s voice had taken on a more amused lilt. “But I thought that was all blackpowder.”
“It was all blackpowder. I had to use half the stuff I’d just bought and it still didn’t kill the gloomstalker.”
“It was worth a try.”
“I’m sure. Now shh - I have to keep an ear out for anyone else.”
The walk continued.
“What time is it?” Vesper asked after what felt like hours, finally unable to keep from voicing any of the thoughts swirling around her mind. If she’d been with family, or in literally any other situation, she would have been complaining about the ache in her legs long before they’d taken their rest. She would have given a fortune to be allowed to sit down, or for the effort of walking to be relieved from her.
“Late,” Scanlan suggested. “I don’t know.”
“It seemed near sunset when we stopped in that cavern, going by the light,” Percy said. “It’s probably past that now.”
“I don’t know whether to be glad or suspicious that almost nothing’s happened,” Keyleth said.
“Don’t jinx it.” Vex’s voice was a low warning.
“Ah, shit. I hope I didn’t.”
They kept walking.
“Wait,” Vex said after an age. The group staggered to a halt. “There’s something - light, again.”
“I thought it was past sunset,” Keyleth whispered.
“Looks like firelight to me. I’ll be back in a sec.” Vesper only saw Vex move because she promptly vanished more thoroughly from Keyleth’s firelight, soundlessly fading into the shadows ahead. The only noise was the faint shuffle of the others shifting around, or the faint clink or rasp of a weapon being unsheathed and readied. Keyleth’s fire-hands showed Vesper that she had one raised, as if ready to cast a spell at a moment’s notice.
“I saw three of them,” Vex whispered, making Vesper jump. There had been no approaching footsteps, and she was half-hidden by shadow. “A couple grouped around a fire in that main area with all the buildings we passed through before, where most of the undead were last time. There might be more patrolling around or down the other leg.”
“Are they armed?” Grog whispered back; more of a stage whisper than a real one, but he was making an effort to keep his voice low.
“One of them’s got a crossbow, and I saw swords. I couldn’t tell if any were spellcasters. They look like they’ve been set up there for a couple days at least.”
“As long as they don’t have a Siphon, we should be good,” Scanlan muttered.
“Definitely didn’t see one of those.”
“You said they’ve got a fire,” Grog said. “Percy, you got anything you wanna surprise ‘em with?”
There was a sigh, followed by Percy’s resigned whisper. “Is that what we’re going to do?”
“We need to get in there somehow,” Vex said. “It’s the same big central space we came through before on the way up. I’m pretty sure we’re right around the...” She trailed off.
“Crotch?” Scanlan finished.
“Yeah,” Vex admitted. There were a couple faint snickers from behind Vesper. “My point is, we need to do something. Any ideas?”
“Grog’s was pretty good as far as surprising them goes,” Keyleth said.
“So, surprise them, rush in while they’re disoriented and trying to put out the flames?”
“I can do that,” Grog said immediately.
“I know, Grog.” Vex was quiet for a few moments. “Okay. Grog, come up here - quietly. Scanlan and Pike, can you two stay back with Vesper?”
“Yeah, okay,” Scanlan said, at the same time that Pike murmured an affirmative. Vesper pressed herself against the wall of the tunnel as Grog squeezed past, feeling the end of what might have been a sword or axe hilt poke into her shoulder briefly.
“...One moment.” There was a shuffle next to Vesper, and she could make out Percy readjusting his backpack so it hung from one shoulder over his chest, allowing him to rummage through it. Keyleth moved a little further away.
“There’s a little spur of rock up ahead that blocks some of the tunnel,” Vex said while Percy looked. “Pike, if you need line of sight to heal anybody, you can use that for extra cover. It should also prevent them from spotting anybody this far back, unless they throw some light in here. At least two of the three I saw are human.”
“At least?” Keyleth asked.
“I didn’t get a good look at the third, they had a hood on. Humanoid, as far as I could tell. Could be short for a goliath or tall for a halfling, or whatever.”
“Whatever the case, use this.” Percy had extracted a cylindrical metallic thing from his bag. “Keyleth, do not touch it.”
“I know,” Keyleth hissed, flattening herself against the wall as Percy held the thing out.
“Maybe just put those lights out,” Vex said.
“Oh, sure.” As the light died, like a fire quickly burning down to cinders and ash, Vesper felt an arm brush her from Percy’s side, and then fall away as the thing was handed over.
“Any instructions?” Vex asked.
“Throw it towards the fire and get the fuck out of the way before it gets there.” Percy shifted, presumably putting his pack back on. Vesper was still blinking and trying to see something in the darkness. Up ahead yellow light flickered around the edge of the spur Vex had mentioned. “And if you can, cover your ears first.”
“And take this just in case.” Percy’s arm bumped Vesper’s again. Evidently he was holding something out. There was a hiss like someone restraining a gasp.
“Percy!” Vex just barely avoided raising her voice. “You didn’t say you had more of your arrows!”
“I didn’t remember I had it.”
“I will absolutely take this, darling.” There were more noises Vesper couldn’t identify the source of - if it was an arrow, Vex must have put it in her quiver or on the string of her bow. “If you want to burst in guns blazing, feel free.”
“Love you.” Vesper heard one footstep as Vex stole away, and a hissed “Grog, wait until I’m done.” Then there was silence.
“Grog, here,” Pike said quietly. There was a mutter and a brief flare of yellow light from Pike’s Sarenrae pendant. “Just to be safe.”
“Thanks,” Grog said gruffly.
“Hands over your ears,” Percy said quietly. Vesper obeyed, nervous energy making her wish she could get away with curling into a ball. The situation seemed to call for it.
The explosion shook the world around her when it came.
Aftershocks rumbled through the floor as Grog roared and charged forward into the space which a second ago had been reduced to red-hot light and smoke. An acrid scent filled the air. Vesper risked opening her eyes when she felt Percy duck around her. Faintly she saw him duck behind the outcrop of rock. One hand was at his belt - or holster. Keyleth was already leaping past him, hands once again aflame and staff brandished.
The area just out of sight was full of yelling. Occasionally they turned to screams. The latter was always accompanied by disgustingly wet thwacks. Arrows or weapons were hitting their mark. Vesper couldn’t tell who was hitting who.
“Wait!” A desperate voice cried out. “Don’t - I have information-”
“Then start talking,” Vex’s voice replied, silky cool. “My friend here’s got a reputation and an itchy axe hand.”
“I-” The unfamiliar voice faltered a little. “You have to understand - if I say anything, He’s watching...but...” Their voice kept getting quieter.
There was only a moment between the end of their sentence and Vex’s scream.
Vesper flinched; so did Scanlan. Percy reacted so quickly that for a moment Vesper thought he’d stood before the scream. As the end of his cloak whipped out of sight along with the rest of him, there was another wet thunk.
“Mother fucker!” Was the next thing Vex said, which went a ways towards relaxing Vesper’s shoulders. Pike was already at the spur of rock, peering around it with her mace ready in one hand.
“What happened?” Pike demanded.
“Fuckin’ spellcasters,” came Grog’s voice. “C’mere, he got Vex with somethin’ nasty.”
As Pike went further in, Scanlan took a step forward and then caught himself, glancing back at Vesper.
“You alright?” He asked, too lightly. Vesper laughed breathlessly and slid down the wall until the ground stopped her from sliding farther. She realized, now that the ground was no longer shaking, that she was. “Hey - it’s cool, they’re gone.”
“I’m aware,” Vesper managed. Three people were now dead who had been living seconds previously. Maybe more of them would be soon.
Scanlan gave her a piercing look, and then called over his shoulder. “Hey, guys, I think we should rest soon! I’m getting a little tired, and if we run into any more of these guys I want to have all my spells on hand!”
“You’ve cast like one spell,” Keyleth called back, sounding put out.
“Then you need to get some back too!”
“We could rest here,” Grog suggested.
“Ew, where all these guys are lying around? Gross.” Vex made a fake-gagging noise.
“Fuckin’ help me clean up, then.”
Scanlan came and sat down next to Vesper, ignoring the continuing conversation and noises from beyond. “Wanna hear a cool song?”
“Shouldn’t you be helping them? It’s your group.” Vesper wished she could be alone for a few minutes, because she felt like she might like to cry a bit.
“This is how I help! My entire shtick is songs. Sometimes the songs make lightning, sometimes they do healing. It’s a roll of the dice.” The end of his sentence seemed a little abrupt, like he’d been about to say something else and then quickly decided against it. He started strumming contemplatively, then started going for it unexpectedly, rocking out far more adeptly than Vesper had expected from a gnome with a lute. “She took my arm! I don’t know how it happened! We took the floor and she saaaid! Pike, I need a partner!” Even the last part was sung as he stood.
“Now?” Pike appeared nonetheless, looking amused. There was dirt and other things on the edges of her boots.
“Now!” Scanlan hadn’t stopped playing, and he was grinning widely. “C’mon - we took the floor and she saaaid! Oh don’t you dare look back, just keep your eyes on me-”
Pike laughed as he sang, mirroring his movements with less grace and more clanking as Scanlan danced around her. She grabbed onto his shoulder in lieu of taking his hand, and occasionally Vesper felt as though there were more instruments being played than just Scanlan’s lute, like his music had summoned a whole backing band. He was stomping when necessary for a beat, working it flawlessly into the dance and essentially jumping around.
“This woman is my destiny! Whoo-hoo-”
“Shut up and dance with me!” Pike yelled the last line over him, evidently pleased at finally remembering it when she’d stumbled over the previous chorus. Her armor rattled with a particularly strong stomp, timed perfectly with Scanlan’s. Scanlan laughed, his fingers not missing a beat on the strings.
“Are you two going to party, or help out?” Keyleth’s voice was barely audible. Scanlan had a powerful presence, when he was playing. The two gnomes ignored her entirely, and Vesper was not inclined to do anything different. She just sat, and watched them forget about the danger and the killing and the guards with weapons who would have attacked if they had been given the chance to see Vox Machina coming.
It was not until later, when Vesper had been convinced to enter the larger cavern and discovered it was free of bodies and relatively free of blood (the exception being small smears on the cobbles), that she realized she had been distracted to the point of forgetting about the same things.
hope you enjoyed! poor vesper, she's really not used to vox machina's methods.
Amani's Elvish, for lack of a better linguistic source, is pure Tolkien elvish (though I can't say off the top of my head whether it's Quenya or Sindarin). I always use arwenundomiel for my Elvish sources, they've got a very lovely table full of hyperlinks to stuff like "handy phrases" and translations of movie and book Elvish.
Chapter 8: A Moment of Peace
yay, new chapter! i should have been studying for my art history final instead of writing this! My dorm neighbors will not be quiet to the point where even though I'm super tired I'm listening to music while posting this so I don't have to hear them shout-talk at each other!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Camp was made for the night - evidently Keyleth’s protest at Scanlan’s suggestion had been token at best. A fire was rekindled, but only after Percy had carefully inspected the remains of the old one, found nothing from the explosive, and still insisted that the new one be set up fifteen feet away. Vesper didn’t complain, because she didn’t want to be blown up and the ground around the old fire was all bumpy from some vine spell Keyleth had conjured that hadn’t quite undone itself all the way. Not to mention the faint traces of blood spatters that were smeared rather than fully cleaned up.
Vex was sitting curled over her arm the whole time, flexing her fingers while Pike further attended to what looked like nasty black infection that slowly receded (once she and Scanlan were done, at least). Keyleth rose a solid-looking stone wall to guard the entrance they hadn’t come in through, and retrieved her raven from where he’d hidden in an out-of-the-way corner.
Vesper followed the example of the group and got out her bedroll, but she tried to be distracted by the area around her rather than by the remains of a fight. They were in some kind of large town square, old and paved with cracked dusty stones. The buildings here were ruined and full of rotted wood but holding up far better than the ones she’d seen before.
At some point she realized that it wasn’t dust that coated the ground but ash, and stopped paying attention to her surroundings at all.
The fire was warm, and soon the black was gone from Vex’s hand. A mess of bedrolls was unrolled and packs pummeled into more comfortable shapes; Percy sitting on his next to Vex’s, and Keyleth on her other side, and Grog in some vaguely triangular pile with Scanlan and Pike. Vesper sandwiched herself into the circle only by dint of having done it faster than most. She felt as though she were interrupting a well-practiced routine, judging by the way half of them were undoing the buckles of armor as they unrolled their mats and put down their packs and weapons carefully.
“Ah, fuck!” Vex said. She had her armor off, and had grabbed at her neck after producing Trinket from a strange black crystal pendant. Vesper had become so used to assuming magic was at play she hadn’t even asked, and only thought that it was lucky she hadn’t set up her bedroll in the gap left between Vex and Keyleth. “My locket!”
“Did you drop it?” Percy jumped smoothly to his feet, moving as fast as he had in the fight.
“That asshole must have yanked it off when he got me with that spell. Fuck.” Vex looked genuinely upset.
Pike was already on her feet as well, dressed only in her padded under-armor layers, scanning the ground. Grog had leaned down until his nose was practically touching the stones. Keyleth started pushing dust and ash around with the end of her staff, moving it out of the way. Vesper was half rising herself when Pike shouted.
“I found it!” Pike snatched something silver off the ground. “Oh, no, it’s been stepped on.”
“Oh,” Vex sighed, mournful, as Pike stepped quickly across the campsite to tip the thing into her hands. Vesper could only see two halves of silver - no doubt the sides of the locket - mixed in with a strip of paper, purposefully folded. The paper was crumpled and stained with ash and dirt. “I really hate this place.”
“I can fix it,” Percy assured her, thought he’d grimaced slightly seeing the locket’s state. “I’ll trade you, in the meantime.”
“No, you keep yours,” Vex said firmly, pressing a hand over Percy’s as he began to draw out a fine chain from around his own neck.
“I’m holding mine right now, and I do intend to keep it.” Vesper blinked, and Percy was fastening the chain of another silver locket around Vex’s neck. “Besides, I’ve been meaning to redo the portraits. I can take first watch and have at it.”
Vex rolled her eyes, but didn’t protest. Percy was already kneeling down, rummaging through his backpack.
“You say that like you need an excuse to draw them more,” Keyleth said. “I’ve seen your sketchbook.”
“When have you seen my sketchbook?” Percy didn’t even turn around.
“I looked in it before we left Whitestone. You never share,” Keyleth protested when Percy did turn around to give her a flat look. “And you’re a really good artist! I just wanted to see!”
“You could have asked and I would have shown you the better ones.” Percy extracted a cloth roll of tools which he spread out on his bedroll, and then readjusted himself with a faint grunt so that he was sitting instead of kneeling.
“They’re all good, and you wouldn’t have shown me all of them.”
“Out of artistic pride, or embarrassment at the volume?” There was a mischievous turn to the laugh lines around Pike’s eyes.
“Probably both,” Keyleth said. “It was like, landscapes on three pages, and then the rest was Vex and the kids.”
“Kids?” Vesper said louder than she meant to, abruptly putting together several pieces and odd turns of phrase she hadn’t taken any notice of before.
“Is that a surprise?” Keyleth, along with most everyone else, was looking at her with interest and surprise. Percy was picking out tools, probably purposefully not looking up at all.
“Yes,” Vesper said. “My Percy and Vex haven’t been together that long.” She flushed slightly at the possessiveness - she hadn’t really meant it to come out like that, but there weren’t many other ways to phrase it.
“Weird,” Vex mused. She got up to sit down next to Vesper instead; Vesper hurriedly scooted over. “Wanna see? Percy does pretty good portraits.”
“Say no or you’ll never escape!” Scanlan suggested. Vex flipped him off, pulling the locket out from where she’d tucked it under her shirt. It was on a long chain, so Vesper didn’t have to lean awkwardly close to her boobs to look at it.
The locket was perhaps not silver, but certainly inlaid or set with it in the pattern of a tree encircled by six stars. Vesper frowned over that - the de Rolo crest only had five stars. It was a tiny detail to have changed, but it bothered her. There was no hinge on the locket either, only a series of what looked like gears set into a tiny, intricate system.
“You’ve got to turn this one,” Vex said. She flicked one gear at the corner which protruded more than the others, like she was sparking a lighter into flame. The wheel turned, and there was a series of soft clicks, before the locket fell open into two halves.
The paper in this one - Percy’s, a moment ago - was untouched and crisply folded. The way the locket had opened, two sections of it were presented, each illustrated with the same person.
Not the same person, Vesper realized in the next instant, but two very identical girls. Neither were smiling; they had the look of cheerful people who couldn’t be bothered to hold a smile for however long it had taken them to pose for Percy’s portrait. One wore dangling earrings, and the other a waistcoat and cravat like Percy’s, though neither was visible much below the bust. The pencil lines sketched themselves into nothingness and the delicate curling lines of a oval border. Vesper could not decide if they looked more like Percy or Vex; their ears were more like Vex’s at least, ever-so-slightly pointed.
“This is fascinating,” Vesper said.
“There’s another side.” Vex sounded amused.
“I mean, it’s been a while.” Vex grinned wider as Vesper turned the locket over. There were two portraits on the reverse of the twins’, and two more on the flat ends where the paper was stuck to the insides of the locket. “We had the time. Cassandra’s in there too, just for fun, since there was a spot left over.”
Vesper tilted the locket to see the square Vex pointed out to her as the latter spoke. Sure enough, one of the ends featured a similarly realistic pencil portrait of an older Cassandra - perhaps in her thirties. Her hair was dark, save for streaks which had been left unfilled by wavy pencil lines.
“What’s this?” Vesper asked, gesturing in the same places on her own head.
“Well, she’s got a little grey already. She and Percy have had some stressful times.”
“Oh.” Perhaps that should have been easier to guess, but Vesper had automatically thought of her Cassandra, who was only just entering her twenties and had never so much as thought about a grey hair on her own head. Cassandra’s portrait was not smiling either, and she looked a bit tired. Vesper turned her attention to the other portraits.
The three remaining - five children, good lord, that was typical for a de Rolo family but she hadn’t really expected it of Vex - were progressively younger than the two girls on the other side. There was a girl and a boy who looked to be close in age, the boy with surprisingly light hair and the girl with a grin and glasses. The last was a pudgy, very small boy who had been drawn with such loving care Vesper couldn’t help but smile looking at the portrait.
“I wasn’t expecting anybody so young,” Vesper commented.
“They’re all a couple years apart.” Vex shrugged. “I hate being really pregnant and having to sit around doing nothing, so I took long breaks in between kids. The twins are seventeen as of last month, and Freddie - he’s the baby - is six.”
“Yeah, I know. He gets it from my side, obviously.” Naked pride clung to every syllable. Vesper glanced up, and saw that Percy, now attending to the tiny gears of the stepped-on locket, was wearing his own small smile.
“Do you mind if I take a picture?” Vesper asked, turning her attention back to Vex. “Percy would get a kick out of how this works. My Percy, I mean.”
“With your little thing? Sure.” Vex watched curiously as Vesper dug it out and snapped careful pictures of both the locket and its contents. The lighting was terrible inside the cavern slash town square, but the fire helped some. Vex, when she asked, obligingly shut the locket and then reopened it so Vesper could record how it functioned, for only the price of Vesper letting her watch the resulting video several times over.
“That’s such a neat little tool,” Vex said eventually, handing it back. Vesper nodded, grimacing slightly when she saw the battery was nearly half gone.
“It can do a lot more, but most of its functions don’t work this far away from home.” Vesper locked the phone, but didn’t put it away yet.
“And it saves all the pictures you take perfectly?”
“Yes, unless I get rid of the bad ones.” Vesper paused, and unlocked her phone again. “I have some pictures of my own, like those, if you want to see.”
“I thought you said your versions of us didn’t have kids.”
“No - they don’t. I meant of the family in general.”
There was a metallic scrape and screech and grind, and Percy swore. When Vesper looked up, he was bent even more fully over the locket, left-handedly trying to fix whatever he’d just slipped and broke.
“I’d love to see,” Vex said, pulling Vesper’s attention away. Vesper obliged.
Vesper picked her way through the pictures to find the really good ones - which, of course, meant not the photographically best ones. It meant showing Vex the picture of Julius being dared to chug some canned beer by Ludwig because their parents had left the room with Percy to see some new project he’d been working on (taken at Percy and Vex’s engagement party). There was a particularly good one from the same party of Cassandra lying down on the floor, playing cards with a cut-off Whitney and Vex, with Trinket the dog lying on her legs and smiling dopily up at Vex with his tongue hanging out. Vesper was pretty sure he’d drooled on both the sofa and Cassandra’s jeans. Vex, of course, was most fascinated by Trinket.
There was a picture Vesper didn’t remember taking, of Whitney at the beach helping Oliver dig a moat around an elaborate sandcastle which Percy, visible only by one blurred hand, was attempting to work on. Another she did remember was of Julius in eight different scarves and a pair of sunglasses, pretending to model for her. It was terribly blurry because she’d been laughing too hard when she took it (he had bought the sunglasses, even though they were awful, and wore them all the time when he could think of an excuse to). Ludwig showed up in one of him in eclipse glasses from a few weeks ago, grinning widely and looking just to the left of the camera.
One Vesper stumbled across mostly by accident was of herself and Cassandra at the masquerade party. That had been so long ago, now. Vesper paused over it, trying to pick out the other partygoers. There was an old friend of hers in the background, next to a lady in a yellowish mask - oh, that had to be Vex in Percy’s gift. And there, in the background, was-
“Oh, hey, it’s Keyleth and your brother,” Vesper said thoughtlessly.
“Really?” Vex’s voice was sharp, all of the sudden. Vesper abruptly remembered what she’d learned about Vax only a day before - had it been only a day? “Where?”
Vesper pointed out the redhead in green and the black-cloaked figure with his back to the camera. They were half-hidden by the curve of Whitney’s head and the end of a fake feather sticking up from her mask.
“Do you,” Vex said slowly, “I mean...is he in any other pictures on here?”
“I don’t know,” Vesper said. Feeling nonsensically guilty, she added, “Probably not. But I’ll keep an eye out.”
Vex nodded, still slow, and then said “Keyleth, can you pass me Fenthras?”
Vex went about the mysterious process bow maintenance while Vesper looked for more interesting pictures. Up close, and actually paying attention, Vesper could see that it wasn’t just carved to look like it was made of vines. The stuff seemed actually, well, vine-y, with no hint of a polish or smoothed-out grain. Vex had a second bow fastened to her pack, regular wood painted sky blue, but Vesper had never seen her touch it.
Vesper found some pictures of Percy’s projects, plenty of herself, and some terrible shots where she’d attempted to photograph the back of her head to see how her hair looked. There was no Vax, and Vesper had scrolled far enough back that there was no Vex either. There was a shot of a magazine with Keyleth’s picture, but that didn’t seem interesting enough to share. The mood from before had dissipated. Vesper locked her phone and stuffed it back into her bra.
The mood of the group in general had become comfortable and sleepy without her noticing. Vesper kept having her gaze drawn back to Vex, who was going through the motions of what seemed like a well-practiced ritual. It was soothing to watch, for some mysterious reason. Vesper chalked it up to the little-understood workings of the human mind.
“Why is the bow like that?” Vesper asked, sleepy enough from the warmth of the fire and the calm surroundings that she had fewer reservations.
“What, Fenthras?” Vex looked up from carefully de-stringing it and winding the string around Fenthras’ length. “It’s just how it was made. Fenthras is my Vestige.”
“The Wrath of the Feywarden, so it was called.” Vex raised it and mimed firing. “Supposedly it took down titans like this one during the Calamity.”
“Maybe it was this one,” Scanlan suggested.
“That would be weird. We’ve already got Grog’s from this one.”
“You do?” Vesper looked at Grog with interest.
“Yeah, these babies.” Grog raised his gauntleted fists. “The Titanstone Knuckles. We got told they were ‘carved from the heart of an earth primordial’, and then we ran into it way later. It’s super cool, I can punch everything in here super good as long as it’s made of the titan.”
“So someone killed a titan with the bow Vestige, and then made a new one out of its remains?”
“Hey, maybe. That’s a good idea.” Grog paused to consider it fully.
“You don’t know?”
“We only were told brief snippets of history,” Vex said. “We were mostly concerned with ‘where is it now’ and ‘who’s going to try and stop us from taking it if we go there’.”
“Was there? I mean, I guess it makes sense that whoever owned them wouldn’t want to part with them easily.”
“Sure.” A complicated look crossed Vex’s face, which she quickly turned into a smile. “The Feywarden, for one. But obviously we got our hands on all eight.”
“I know yours,” Vex said, “and I know Scanlan’s and Pike’s, and Grog’s now. But that’s only four.”
“Keyleth has one too,” Vex said. Keyleth raised her staff, its green gem flashing. “The Spire of Conflux. We had to steal that one from a goristro.”
“What’s a goristro?”
“Fuckin’ nasty,” Grog said.
“It was pretty nasty,” Scanlan agreed. “Evidenced by the fact that the staff was inside it, since the goristro ate the previous owner and it with them.”
“Thanks for reminding me about the one thing I don’t want to remember about this,” Keyleth said. “I washed it about twenty times and it still grosses me out just thinking about that.”
Vesper looked at the staff, which was easily as tall as Keyleth, and then tried to picture something that could eat it. The result was not particularly friendly. “And the staff wasn’t damaged?”
“Magical items are notoriously difficult to break,” Scanlan explained. “That’s why they’re so easy to go on quests to find. You just look for someone making the right kind of trouble to be using what you’re looking for.”
“To be fair, we did meet a guy who told us what they were all called and roughly where to find them.” Pike spoke up. “He was super helpful. We couldn’t have heard about trouble in the City of Brass, or the Feywild.”
“Or the Abyss,” Scanlan added. At Vesper’s questioning look, he stage-whispered, “That’s where goristros are from.”
“Ah,” Vesper said, her mental image becoming distinctly un friendly.
“Yeah. We’re lucky we didn’t have to go there for it.”
“If you wanna know history, all I know about the Spire is that it used to belong to a champion of Melora, or something like that,” Keyleth said. “That’s why I got dibs.”
“Melora’s the goddess of the wilderness.” Keyleth shrugged. “I’m the most nature-y of all of us.”
“Certain Vestiges have predilections for certain kinds of wielders,” Scanlan said. “Mythcarver is a bard’s sword, which is the only reason I’m going around with a sword that I actually use. Pike’s the only one of us who’s good enough to wear plate armor and not get weighed down by it in the thick of things.”
“And I hit things a lot,” Grog added helpfully.
“And Grog is exceptionally good at hitting things. Especially with the Knuckles.”
“Once I punched a volcano.”
“A volcano?” Vesper couldn’t really think how to react except by staring.
“It’s a really long story,” Vex said, her laughter barely containing itself in the shape of words. “We had places we needed to get to.”
“Inside a volcano?”
“Listen, if the Allhammer wants to put his forge in a volcano, I don’t think any of us are in a place to complain,” Pike laughed.
“The Allhammer,” Vesper said flatly.
“That’s an even longer story.” Vex flopped backwards to lie down, still grinning. “I don’t know. Scanlan, you wanna try your hand at it?”
“It’s far too late for a proper story,” Scanlan protested. “I don’t have the time!”
“Well.” Scanlan thought for a moment. “You know about Vecna, right?”
“Vaguely,” Vesper said.
“That’s good enough. He was a pretty tough sonofabitch, so we had to get creative finding a way to fuck him up, even with all the Vestiges. At that point, he wasn’t ascended yet, but we knew he was trying. So we figured, hey, we’ve got some people who are in good standing with gods.” He gave Pike an affectionate shove on the shoulder. “So, step one became ‘seek help in a higher court than ours’. And that worked out pretty well. We met some people, got some favors, and most importantly got info.”
“Wait,” Vesper said. “So - so your move was to literally appeal to Sarenrae.” Holy shit.
“And Pelor,” Pike said. “He was in the same plane, it was convenient. And then we got advice to go to Ioun, who told us about the Trammels.”
“Which is what we went to the Forge for.” Scanlan picked the story back up smoothly. “Normally with such a dangerous enemy we’d just try and off them, but we were seriously outgunned, so Ioun told us of a way we could banish him instead - put him on the divine side of the Divine Gate. We needed the Trammels for that, but for that we needed to make them. So we needed the Forge.”
“I’m not familiar with Ioun,” Vesper said, caught between awe and curiosity. “Is she your goddess?”
“Only after we met her,” Scanlan said with a sideways smile. Was it Vesper’s imagination, or did his eyes gleam silver for a split second? “That was the extent of our friendly brushes with gods, anyway. The Forge had been abandoned since the Divergence. I assume whatever Outer Plane the Allhammer lives in, he’s got a better one there.”
“There was that guardian,” Pike reminded him.
“Not a deity, but true.”
Vesper whistled, for lack of a better option.
Scanlan laughed. “I guess it does sound pretty insane, laid out like that. Definitely the wildest week I’ve ever had.”
“I cannot fucking believe it was only a week,” Vex said.
“Well, eight days.”
“We have gotten so off topic,” Keyleth commented. Vex started laughing again. “This was a conversation about Vestiges a second ago.”
“Wait, no, I have a question still.” Vesper held up a hand. “‘Favors’? From gods?”
“Just a few of us,” Scanlan answered. “Pike is Sarenrae’s favorite, as she should be, and it sort of kept happening from there.”
“Like you and this Ioun?”
Scanlan gave her the sideways smile again. “Sure.”
“And you said Pelor, so...” Vesper hesitated before ‘Percy’ left her mouth. The Percy she knew was almost aggressively atheistic - or passive-aggressively, but still. She couldn’t say with certainty that that was different in her current world, regardless of Pelor’s association with the de Rolos.
“Me, darling,” Vex said, raising one hand. “I wasn’t going to let everyone else get all the cool blessings and just watch. Percy and Keyleth are the only ones who don’t care about stuff like that.”
“The one Vestige is enough for Percy,” Keyleth said, “and me.”
“What?” Percy finally looked up from the locket.
“We were talking about your Vestige,” Vex says, letting her hand fall back down. “Cabal’s Ruin.”
“...I know what it’s called.”
“I was telling Vesper that.”
Vesper tilted her head, trying to see where Percy might be keeping his Vestige. His armor didn’t seem to be nearly elaborate enough; it was simple toughened leather, not at all like Pike’s silver and brass affair. The way he was hunched over, it was difficult to see what he might be wearing on his belt.
“What kind of Vestige is it?” She asked, after frustration proved too much.
“Guess,” Percy said distractedly.
“What? No.” Vesper glanced around and saw that no one seemed inclined to intervene on her behalf. “Why?”
Percy made a vague ‘I don’t know’ noise, or perhaps just a grunt. Vesper knew what he got like when he was working, and evidently the locket was not fixed yet.
“I’ll give you a a hint,” Vex said. “You can see it.”
Pursing her lips, Vesper looked Percy over. He still had his embroidered glove, but that seemed like just a fancy glove. He had weapons somewhere under his cloak and jacket, but those were guns and explosives, and the latter were one-use-only. Somehow Vesper didn’t think anyone had been building guns eight hundred years ago.
“The boots,” she guessed eventually. They were decorated with tooled, spiderwebbing patterns and looked expensive, and possibly enchanted. The spiderwebs had to be purposeful.
“Nope,” Scanlan said gleefully. “Those are magic, though, good guess.”
“Aren’t these Vestiges weapons, mostly?” Vesper asked in exasperation.
“‘Mostly’, yeah.” Vex sat up. “Cabal’s Ruin, however, is a cloak.”
“Oh.” She’d completely passed over that one. Vesper frowned at it. It was vibrantly blue - a greener shade than his coat - but didn’t look very magical. “What does it do?”
“Cool lightning stuff,” Vex said, at the same time that Percy said,
“It offers some protection against hostile spells.” He snapped the halves of the locket back together, and a series of soft clicks sounded.
“How does a cloak - never mind.” Vesper decided not to go down that conversational path. “What makes it so that you got first dibs?”
“He was the only one who didn’t have one yet,” Vex said.
“Not true - we got Cabal’s Ruin before we fought Vorugal,” Keyleth countered. Vex nodded like that made sense. Vesper wondered who Vorugal was. Percy was tucking his tools back into their roll.
“Second to last, then. It still follows. Cabal’s Ruin wasn’t really your thing.”
“Yeah, I was holding out for the Spire, since we knew about it,” Keyleth admitted.
“So it was a process of elimination, and not because you just really liked it?” Vesper prodded a little further, since Percy was still doing his best to barely involve himself in the conversation.
“No,” Percy said tersely. “I’m the only one that died trying to get it.”
Dead silence followed.
“Way to bring down the mood,” Scanlan said, sounding alarmed. The ambient noise, except for the crackling of the fire, had ceased entirely.
“I’m going to take first watch and walk around to make sure nothing else is in here.” Percy, apparently ignoring Scanlan, stood and walked off.
“He can’t fuckin’ see though,” Grog muttered.
“Vex-” Keyleth began.
“Yeah, I got him.” Vex got to her feet and followed Percy, leaving her things behind. Vesper, who had been simply gaping after Percy, watched her go.
The conversation she’d had with Scanlan about resurrection spells rang in her ears.
“Really?” Vesper asked nobody in particular.
“Yeah,” Grog said gruffly. “It was pretty bad.”
Dead Percy. More dead de Rolos in this world. But he hadn’t stayed that way, at least. He was here, now, getting old and getting greyer.
“I’m going to bed,” Pike murmured. Scanlan followed her down to his own nearby bedroll, setting the lute carefully propped against his backpack before he curled up under his own cloak.
Reeling a little, Vesper followed suit.
Her cloak wasn’t so warm and the bedroll only sort of cushioned the rocky ground, but both were warm from body heat and the fire, which had been regularly maintained. It had accumulated white drifts of ash and piles orange embers around its base. Keyleth turned over to put her back to it. Trinket yawned, with a groaning bearish noise.
Grog was still sitting awake. He gave Vesper a thumbs up when he saw her looking.
“Do goliaths not sleep?” Vesper asked.
“I do. But I dunno how Percy thinks he’s gonna keep watch from so far away, so I’m gonna.”
“Oh.” Vesper’s backpack was really a supremely uncomfortable pillow. Vesper put her arm under her head, but all that did was put her arm in the same position. “Grog?”
She shouldn’t ask, because a lot of the conversations she’s been having lately have gone sideways and into uncomfortable territory that are making her wonder about the chapter in Scanlan’s book called The Feast again. But she would like to think about something other than that, and maybe one question will let her. “Percy’s only makes six Vestiges. You - Vex said there were eight.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Pause. “The other two were Vax’s. We don’t have ‘em anymore.”
“Oh,” Vesper sighed. That meant buried with him, wherever he was, probably. More images she would have been very comfortable not picturing.
“They’re not like Percy’s either,” Grog said, apparently under the impression that she wanted more information. “It was some armor and a dagger. Not like Pike’s armor, more sneaky-like. And it had feathers all over.”
“Yeah, it was a Raven Queen thing.” Grog’s gaze dropped slowly to the fire, a brooding look crossing his face. “He had a lotta stuff like that.”
He said nothing else. Vesper turned over, pulled her cloak close around her, and tried to sleep.
The cold didn’t bother her so much, but she couldn’t get comfortable. She tossed and turned and stared at the ceiling. Maybe if she just stayed still she could drop off despite the lumps poking at her, because she was tired. But by the time soft footsteps announced Percy and Vex’s return, she was still awake.
“Hey.” There was some shuffling, and Trinket gave another bearish groan, or maybe a snore.
“I said I’d take the watch,” Percy said quietly.
“Sure.” Grog grunted. “Oi, Vex?”
“Did you ever wanna use Whisper yourself?”
“...Why would you ask that?” Though she was keeping her voice low, Vex’s incredulity came through clearly. Someone snuffled and rolled over in their sleep.
“I was just thinkin’ about the Vestiges, is all.”
“Oh.” There was silence. “A little bit. But it was Vax’s, you know.”
“Yeah. Like the boots.”
“Yes. Like those fucking boots.”
After that there was no more talking.
When Vesper rolled over again, fruitlessly seeking a comfortable position, she was tired enough that the brief incident had exited her mind completely until she saw Percy sitting watch and Grog splayed out on his back. The long rifle he’d been carrying was resting across his knees.
She turned onto her back almost immediately, throwing an arm over her eyes to try and block out the light of the fire. Percy probably didn’t want to be distracted. He had to be at least as tired as she was. Vesper wished she could see the sky. Stars might help distract her, or give her an idea of how late (or early) it was.
“I should apologize for earlier.” Percy’s low voice was a surprise. “There were kinder ways to try and end a conversation.”
Vesper lifted her arm warily, not entirely sure he was speaking to her. But Percy’s gaze met hers evenly, if with reservation lurking in it.
“Or at least less unpleasant topics to use,” he added, when Vesper said nothing.
“I suppose,” Vesper agreed warily, just as quiet. Everyone else seemed to be fast asleep, but she’d grown up sharing a room with Julius because her parents had thought it would make them get along (it had, but they’d had twice as many fights as they otherwise might have). She knew how to tiptoe around someone sleeping nearby.
“It’s too easy to think about terrible things in this place.” Percy had his little notebook open on his lap, Vesper saw, on top of the gun. The stick of graphite was being flipped between his fingers, no doubt leaving grey smudges behind. She looked up, at the blank black expanse where she had wished there would be sky, and privately agreed with his sentiment.
“You don’t need to apologize,” she said. “I get why my being here might make you think of...such subject matter.”
“Nonetheless.” Percy finally bent his head and righted the pencil in order to put it to paper. Vesper watched him draw, wondering which one of his children he was illustrating. She wished she’d had the thought to ask Vex what their names were.
Percy glanced up from time to time, as though checking to see if she were paying attention. After the fifth time he caught her looking, he said,
“You can ask, if you want.”
Vesper flushed and looked away. She must have looked curious. She had been thinking about what he said earlier, but - “It seems pretty private.”
“I don’t promise to answer, but I’m not going to be offended by curiosity.” Percy bent his head back down. “Besides, if I never talked about bad things that happened to me, I’d never speak about anything but Vex.”
Vesper wasn’t sure whether to smile or go a little cold inside at the other half of that implication, so she did both. She shifted around again, putting her arm back under her head as she turned onto her side. “I guess I’m still...thinking through the implications. Scanlan told me before that spells for those kinds of things existed, but...” It would be a lie to say she hadn’t thought about how personal that subject could get for Vox Machina, but she had assumed alive meant alive, as in ‘never died’. That was how being alive usually worked.
“It’s not a thing we look forward to,” Percy said. “I can guarantee being on either side - victim or bystander - isn’t pleasant.”
Vesper thought of Vax and what she’d read at the end of Scanlan’s book. “Isn’t it...I mean, after it happened, didn’t any of you consider doing something less dangerous?”
“Well...” Percy blew out a breath. “Some of us, maybe. But there were always bigger things to consider.” For a minute there was only the scratch of his pencil. “Honestly it’s a miracle the six of us made it long enough to retire. We have Pike to thank for that, really.”
“She’s the resident healer,” Percy said. “More serious spells aside, it’s hard not to be grateful for that when you spend a long time getting shot at or attacked in general.”
Vesper cast a glance at Pike, who was fast asleep. Her hair was a faint gleam in the firelight. Scanlan had said something similar about her, hadn’t he?
“She must be very good at what she does,” Vesper said.
“Oh, yes. By necessity.” Scratch, scratch, went the pencil. “It was a heavy thing to ask of her, to be the one responsible for all our lives. I couldn’t have borne that weight half as well.”
“You’re getting dark again,” Vesper said, impulsively lighthearted, like she was scolding her own Percy for holing up by himself for too long.
Vesper opened her mouth, and then closed it. When Percy looked back up, he paused.
“Is that what I look like when I get really curious?” He asked. “Vex makes fun of me for it, but I’ve never had the chance to look in the mirror at the right time.”
“I don’t know.” Vesper slunk further under her cloak blanket, as best as one could slink anywhere while lying down. “It’s nothing.”
“If you say so.”
Vesper wanted, with a terrible morbid urge, to ask him what had happened to kill him. But she’d been raised better than that.
“Though,” Percy said, “Whatever you don’t want to ask I also might just not answer. And, understandably, there is a gap in my memory surrounding that particular incident.”
“Understandably,” Vesper echoed. For some reason, Percy looked like he was avoiding mentioning something. But it made sense that he wouldn’t be able to remember what had happened while he was - well. “But it really was nothing.”
“Was the cloak worth it?”
“I thought you said it was nothing.”
“That wasn’t what I was thinking of before.”
Percy looked at the ceiling. “Maybe it was,” he said. “The fight we had for it was.”
“But-” He’d died for that cloak.
“I know,” he said without looking back down. “But Cabal’s Ruin was stolen before we could get to it by an old ally of the Briarwoods’. Doctor Anna Ripley.” There was venom in his voice, reserved specifically for the name. “Maybe I died, but so did she. And she’s not the one who came back.”
In the silence that followed, Percy bent his head back to his sketchbook.
“Always the Briarwoods,” Vesper said quietly. She’d been really, really trying not to think about them, and so far it had worked.
Percy drew in a breath and let it out so slowly he might have been savoring it. Or stalling. “Well,” he said, “the problem is if that we can all come back, so can they.”
The scratch of his pencil nearly blended in with the crackle of the fire. It was beginning to die down, slowly consuming the small handful of wooden splinters claiming to be logs which hadn’t yet collapsed into embers. Percy continued to glance up on occasion.
“You shouldn’t worry about something like that happening now,” he said at length, when Vesper was beginning to drowse again. She opened her eyes fully with some effort. “Especially not to you. I won’t let it.”
“Thanks,” Vesper said sleepily. The day she’d had was beginning to really catch up to her. Darkness was inching closer as the fire crumbled into slowly cooling dots of orange light. Her eyes were drifting shut again when a soft, heavy thing was dropped on top of her.
Percy was sitting back down when she blinked them open again. He’d stripped down to his blue coat with its thin fur lining. The brighter cloak - the Vestige - was lying on top of her.
“Like I said, it offers protection against magic,” Percy said. “You could use it more than I do.”
“But it’s magic.” He couldn’t just give away something he’d died for. Vesper shifted, and the underside of the cloak sparked briefly with blue-white static.
“You can always give it back before you leave. But just in case.”
...It was very warm, and a comforting presence. Vesper pulled it up to her chin. “Thank you.”
Percy never did like to be thanked, Vesper mused. He liked to give people things in secret and watch them admire and use them. But he’d brag about making them as readily as he gave them away.
“Pst! Scanlan.” Percy’s voice was even quieter than before. Vesper wasn’t quite sure she hadn’t fallen asleep and then woken back up. “It’s your watch.”
“Ugh.” There was a shuffling, presumably of cloaks and bedrolls, as Scanlan was roused. “I forgot how much I hated this.”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Sorry.” There was a moment of silence, then a wooden clunk and a fiery crackle and snap. “Aren’t you going to sleep?”
“I’m not tired.”
“Would you like a soothing song?”
Vesper heard no more than a few quiet strums before she fell back asleep, and did not wake for a long time.
A Note: Percy and Vex's children are, as follows:
Elaina Katerina II and Vesper Julia II (twins, 17); Leonhard "Leo" Vax'ildan (13); Ofelia Cecile (10); and Percival "Freddie" et cetera, et cetera IV (6).
The naming conventions I imagined for the de Rolos involved a lot of taking of mothers' maiden names (so for example, 'von Musel' would have been Percy's paternal grandmother's maiden name, and Klossowski his mother's). However, Vex doesn't acknowledge her father's name, so maybe they'd use her mother's surname, but as that's never provided in canon, just add whatever that name is and 'Klossowski de Rolo (number if necessary)' to each of the names above. I would make up a suitable surname for Elaina, mother of Vex and Vax, but it's 10:30 here and I don't have time or energy for that.
an extra note: I imagine Ofelia is pronounced oh-FELL-ee-uh, not like Ophelia, though I've never heard it said aloud with that particular spelling so it could go either way probably. I just like the f spelling. Also 'Katerina' and 'Cecile' are both taken from previously-imagined middle names for Percy's siblings - Whitney and Ludwig respectively.
finally, I know it's very popular for people to headcanon Vex as naming one of the babies Vax'ildan as a first name, but I don't think she would. First of all that's my own little discomfort with naming your kids after dead people you personally knew, and for the earlier kids it would still be kinda fresh maybe? But also, I think Vex might be a little afraid of growing to associate the name with her child rather than her brother, or of unconsciously comparing the kid to him. Vax'ildan is always going to be Vax, Champion of the Raven Queen, to her. But maybe after long enough, she can follow the usual de Rolo tradition of recycling names constantly and use it as a middle name (Percy would be reminded of Vax just the same, but I also think he's used to names being recycled - there was probably at least one relative while he was alive who had the same name as someone in his family. Maybe Percival II.).
Chapter 9: Confrontation and Resolution
As you guys may have noticed, Accidents is now complete! Final page count on my Google Doc is 125, which is probably why it takes so long to load every time I have to reopen it.
I've stayed up...unwisely late the last couple of nights to knock this out. I also misspelled three words in the last half a sentence so maybe that is getting to me now, but it's fine, my class this block doesn't start until one so if I sleep in everything's good. I don't even have any alarms turned on.
But yeah! It's done! I finished the last bits! Side note, it's ALWAYS a good idea to have a playlist of Fight Music. Just in case you need some to write to. Or play d&d to, which is what I originally designed said playlist for. But in any case.
(Some song recs, along that vein, but spoilers: The Song of Durin by Clamavi de Profundis for the initial discussion scene, after Vex leaves; for the fight scene later on, The High Seas by Brian Tyler from Assasin's Creed: Black Flag)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
A scream jolted Vesper into awareness. She lay dazed and groggy while her brain tried to process the words that had been in the scream. The fire had burned down to nothing, and darkness consumed everything even with her eyes open.
“What is it?” Percy demanded over the noise of six people leaping to their feet at once. Light bloomed in the darkness as four shining orbs of light appeared, bobbing gently in a circle around an alarmed and wild-haired Scanlan. Next to him Pike was brandishing a mace, but still blinking the sleep from her eyes. Keyleth flinched away from the sudden stab of brightness, holding one hand up. Her Spire was already in her grasp. Percy was clutching at his long rifle, eyes darting around the square.
“Where did it come from?” Vex demanded. She was the one who’d yelled - Vesper, unfortunately, could recognize the sound of it.
“Where did what-”
“Who was on watch? Who saw it?”
“I woke up Pike for third watch,” Scanlan said, looking at Pike. Pike looked embarrassed.
“I must have fallen asleep,” she said. “I swear I didn’t think I was that tired. Who’s hurt? What happened?”
Vex pointed at the ground. Everyone looked; Percy fumbled to put his glasses on as quickly as possible. Vesper had to sit up to see what was being pointed at.
There was a dagger on the ground next to the remains of the fire.
Vesper opened her mouth to ask, but she looked up in time to catch the way everyone else had gone pale. Or almost everyone - Vex already was. Scanlan had taken a step back like the sight physically repulsed him. He didn’t look disgusted, though, or afraid, but uncertain in a terribly vulnerable way. The shifting of the magical lights that surrounded him cast his face in a stark yellowish light.
“Where did that come from,” Keyleth said. Her knuckles were white as she gripped her staff tightly.
“That’s what I was asking-”
“It can’t be the real thing,” Scanlan said. His gaze had not shifted a centimeter from the dagger. It looked like a very nice dagger, with a leather-wrapped grip and a handle that had evidently been made with some care. The blade shone in the light.
“It can’t be,” Keyleth agreed immediately, but the sentiment didn’t seem to comfort her.
“How did it get here?” Percy had gotten to his feet. “There’s - what’s the point of putting this here? If someone had snuck into our camp they could have slit our throats and been done with it.”
“Pike,” Grog began.
“I didn’t see anything,” Pike said. “I didn’t - I don’t know why, I fell asleep again.”
“Like an enchanted sleep?” Scanlan asked quickly. Pike opened her mouth, and then paused.
“I’m not sure,” she said.
“Is it cursed?” Percy asked. “Is it magic at all? What the fuck is the point of this?”
“What is it?” Vesper finally spoke. All six of Vox Machina jolted around to look at her, as if they’d forgotten she was there. “What’s so bad about a dagger?”
It was like she’d been teleported back to the night before, to the exact moment after Percy made his comment about dying. No one seemed to want to answer.
“There’s nothing bad about it,” Scanlan said eventually, into the waiting silence. “But it shouldn’t be here. There’s no way-” He broke off, still staring down at the weapon. It was a small thing to have caused such a stir; the blade wasn’t more than six inches long.
“I don’t understand,” Vesper said.
“It’s Whisper,” Grog said. “Vax’s dagger.”
And then Vesper understood, and joined the rest of the group in staring at the dead man’s blade that had no business being anywhere near the titan. Vesper looked, at the same time trying to stop herself from looking, for traces of where it might have come from. Maybe a smudge of dirt on the handle. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to find such a thing or not.
“It could be a fake,” Percy said quietly.
“Why put a fake here?” Vex demanded.
“How could anyone have left the real one?”
Keyleth’s raven cawed loudly, and everyone fell into silence again, staring at the bird now. Keyleth herself had frozen, still clutching her Spire.
Vesper still didn’t think she understood. There was a complex web of understanding linking the six adventurers that she had no knowledge of. The dagger was linked to Vax; Vax was the Champion of the Raven Queen; Keyleth had a raven. Somehow that list of facts circled back around on itself, but she was missing some kind of crucial fact that told her how it did. Everyone was looking at Keyleth’s raven like they expected answers from it. Maybe in this world, they could get them.
Keyleth’s raven cawed once more.
“Someone could try to use it,” Pike said. “Then we’d know if it was real. Only Whisper could do that teleportation trick.”
Vex took a deep breath, and stepped forward. The dagger’s blade clinked gently against the floor as she picked it up, balancing it in her hand. Vesper wondered if its weight meant something to her; if she was looking for some sign if it was real or not just from how it felt.
“I don’t know how this can be real,” she said, very quietly. Vesper barely caught the words. Vex was facing Percy; he reached out with his left arm and squeezed her shoulder.
Vex turned, and tossed the dagger to the floor.
It was not really a toss, because the dagger tore cleanly through the air and buried itself point-first in the ground about two feet away from where Vex was standing. There was a puff like smoke, and Vex vanished, reappearing just next to where the dagger had landed. Scanlan, if possible, went paler; Keyleth made a choked noise.
“How,” Vex said.
“You said you wanted it,” Grog said. When everyone rounded on him, he elaborated. “I asked last night if you ever wanted Whisper and you said yeah.”
“That’s not how this works, Grog.” Pike ran a hand through her hair, further deteriorating the loose bun it was pulled into.
“I need a moment,” Vex said, surprisingly calmly, and turned on her heel to walk away. Keyleth followed her, at a slower pace. No one attempted to stop either of them.
“If...” Percy tested the word out. “Considering the circumstances...could She have allowed something like this to happen?” Vesper could hear the capital of She.
Pike pressed her lips together.
“This might be a ‘me’ thing, but I don’t want any gifts from Her,” Scanlan said. He’d finally pried his gaze away from the dagger. “Especially not one like this.”
“Is it from Her?”
The silence seemed to thicken with things none of them wanted to say. Vesper found that she’d pulled the Vestige cloak closer around her shoulders without realizing. It was a comforting weight, still warm from her own body heat.
“Who else could it be from?” Vesper asked, just to see if they would name the name she thought they might. Percy shoved his glasses up the bridge of his nose, and did not answer. Pike and Scanlan looked at each other. Grog crossed his arms. “Do goddesses usually go grave-robbing here?”
Scanlan barked out a laugh. “If any of them were going to-!”
“Oh, don’t,” Pike cried suddenly. “I don’t even want to think about that happening! He doesn’t even have one for people to steal from!”
“Is that going to stop her?”
“I still don’t understand,” Vesper interrupted, finally inserting herself into the conversation. “At least - I don’t think I do. You mean Vax, don’t you? Why wouldn’t he have been buried?” It was an insensitive question to ask, but she was still half-asleep and confused beyond belief. The latter seemed to be becoming a theme.
“There wasn’t nothin’ left to bury,” Grog said gruffly. Scanlan closed his eyes tightly, a pained look crossing his face. “He left with everythin’ he had except that snake belt he gave Velora after everythin’ was finished.”
“Left?” The snake belt was an equally weird detail, but Vesper seized on the more important one. “I - I’m sorry if this is personal, but - I’ve heard a little of what happened. I thought he died.”
“He did both,” Percy said quietly. Both hands were balled into fists, and his leg was twitching like he wanted to shake it the way her Percy did when he got too full of energy. “It was - there was no killing blow. But there’s not much else leaving with the Raven Queen could entail. And we’ve never seen him since.” Percy dragged a hand across his face, and straightened his shoulders. “If Vax was going to pull something like this, he would not come as a thief in the night just to leave fucking Whisper for us.”
Past tense, present action. Vesper stared at the group of them, wondering how much they really believed that Vax could have done such a thing - and how much of that belief was reasonable.
“I’m going to make sure there’s no one but us in here,” Pike said tightly, and walked off, only pausing to snatch up her mace. Scanlan made to follow her.
“The light,” Percy called after him. Scanlan gestured sharply, and one of the four bobbing spheres of light split off and went to hover over where the fireplace had been.
Percy dug his sketchbook and pencil back out and sat down, hunching over his sketches. Grog, delicately, bent down and picked up the dagger. He turned it over in his hands a few times, as if inspecting it, then with equal care went over to where Vex’s armor lay and slid it into an empty sheath on her discarded belt.
Vesper, after a while watching the magical light bob gently in a nonexistent breeze, got up properly and got to her feet. Cabal’s Ruin, still an oddly heavy weight, she fastened around her shoulders with the silver pin that Percy had left in it. Its lining flickered with the same sporadic static from the night before. The old cloak, she dumped over Percy’s head.
Percy’s shoulders jerked with surprise; Vesper, expecting that, had waited until he’d taken his pencil off the paper.
“You still need a cloak,” Vesper said. She walked away again to start putting her bedroll away. She didn’t want to pressure Percy into another conversation with her. But she felt his eyes on her as she packed up her things for a while after.
Eventually, Vox Machina reconvened. It was a slow process, and those who returned earlier had time to don their armor and sort out their bedrolls before the others showed a hair out of the shadows which still cloaked the inside of the titan. Vex had made a complicated face when she saw Whisper in her dagger belt, but said nothing, only put it on with the rest of her dragonscale armor.
No one commented when Keyleth appeared with reddened eyes, but Percy put an arm around her shoulder in a reassuring squeeze, and Grog stuck close to her instead of staying at the back of the line like the day before.
“Is there a way for us to tell if the Sanctuary is still on schedule?” Percy asked as packs were shouldered and weapons straightened in their holsters. Trinket was making very little noise - he had gone back into Vex’s magical locket. “I know we planned with Vord in case this took more than a day, but I’d feel surer of myself if we had a way of knowing.”
“There’s no reason for them not to keep up their end of the bargain,” Pike said. “Besides, Vord might be cold, but he’s not an oathbreaker.”
Percy inclined his head, and did not press the subject. Evidently he considered Pike’s vouchsafing enough of an argument for the Sanctuary’s wyvern-riders. But Vesper wondered about them too, looking up at where she imagined the sky to be as they grouped around the stone wall Keyleth had raised the night before.
“I can bring it down,” Keyleth was saying. Her raven was not on her shoulder; it apparently had decided to favor Pike, or else Keyleth had shooed it away. “Just give me a minute.”
“You don’t gotta waste a spell,” Grog said. “Hold on one sec.” He shooed Keyleth a couple feet away, then wound up and punched the wall with one gauntleted fist. The blow shook the floor, and cracks spiderwebbed out from the impact. Grog delivered a second blow, and a chunk of stone fell out from the center.
It didn’t take long for Grog to smash a hole large enough for them all to traverse through. Vex and Keyleth led the way again, with him ducking through behind them and the rest of them following as they had lined up the day before. Scanlan extinguished his magical lights on the off chance that none of the other cultists had realized anything was off yet within the titan; they proceeded by the light of Keyleth’s fire hands.
The walk went quietly, aside from the sound of their feet on the gritty floor. The smell of ash bothered Vesper more in the tunnel-like space, which sloped gently downward, than it had in the open square. She tried pulling the hood of Cabal’s Ruin over her face, but it smelled like ozone and made her sneeze, so she resigned herself to the ash smell.
The sudden stop of the group caught Vesper by surprise, and she ran straight into Percy. He let out a small ‘oof’ as Vex’s voice came from ahead.
“There’s a drop-off,” Vex said. “Goes a little way down. I don’t see stairs, but there’s something at the bottom.”
“Something?” Percy questioned immediately.
“Looks metallic, but I can’t see anything else.” Vex turned around, her eyes going momentarily green like a cat’s in a flash of Keyleth’s fire. “I could check it out.”
“Of course.” Vex’s hand slipped to the sheath that held Whisper. “I can get out quick if I need to, anyway. Grog, the broom?”
“Can’t you use Whisper to get down?” Grog complained. “I keep havin’ to get it out ’a the bag and back into the bag-”
“Alright, you big baby.” Vex tugged the dagger out and held it in one raised hand for a moment, turning back around to judge her throw. Then her arm snapped forward, and she vanished in a puff of smoke.
Keyleth leaned over the edge with Grog, presumably to watch. Percy twitched, as if about to take a step forward, but maintained the space between him and them.
“Looks mechanical,” Vex called up. From the sound of it, she was a fair distance down. “I can’t tell what it’s supposed to do. It might - shit!”
The dagger appeared in a streak of silver, making Keyleth and Grog rear backwards. Vesper caught a glimpse of red on Grog’s cheek as Vex appeared out of a dart of dark smoke which had followed the dagger. From below, a streak of lightning crackled out of the darkness. It half blinded Vesper. She blinked spots out of her eyes just as a second, thinner one streaked up.
“I guess we know what it does now,” Keyleth said once the lightning had stopped and everybody had finished rubbing their eyes. “You said it was mechanical?”
“And magical, I guess,” Vex said. “Sorry, Grog, I had to get up here quick.”
“No biggie,” Grog said immediately, though he was still bleeding from a long cut across his cheek. Vex reached up to pat his face, and Vesper saw the cut close up.
“If we could get down there without being struck down, I could probably do something about that.” Percy had stepped towards Vex, and now risked a glance over the edge. “Though that is quite a long way down.”
“And the dagger doesn’t carry two,” Vex said. “I landed about as far away from it as I could get, but it activated as soon as I got closer.”
“About five feet away from it, maybe?”
“Theoretically, Scanlan or I could use an anti-magic thing on it,” Keyleth said.
“We could?” Scanlan asked.
“Beholders have anti-magic eye beams,” Keyleth clarified. “We aim that at the thing, and then Percy can have a moment to work on it.”
“That’s another ninth-level spell gone, though,” Pike said.
“So we rest again before we go find Sylas.”
“I’d rather keep mine on deck if necessary,” Scanlan said, with a wary glance around them at the titan’s stone walls. “But if you’d like to, feel free. There’s no reason it wouldn’t work.”
Keyleth made double finger guns at Scanlan. “I will.” She strode confidently over to the edge.
“Don’t turn into a goldfish on accident,” Vex said.
“Fuck you!” Keyleth went over the edge like an angry stone. There was a whoomph of displaced air from below, but nothing like anything Keyleth-sized hitting the ground far below.
“Do you want to take the broom?” Vex asked Percy.
“I’ll stick with the boots,” Percy replied.
“Suit yourself.” Vex again gauged her throw and vanished as soon as Whisper left her hand, while Percy clicked the heels of his spiderwebbed boots together. A flash of energy raced up the back seam. When Percy stepped over the edge, he went over like David Bowie in the Escher-style scene in Labyrinth.
“I wish I could see,” Vesper muttered. The ledge somewhere nearby seemed more ominous when she couldn’t see it. No sooner had she spoken, however, than the magical globes of light from before bloomed into existence again with a flute-ish trill. Vesper looked over her shoulder to see Scanlan lowering his shawm.
“Thank you,” she said.
“No problem.” Scanlan waved off the thanks. “Percy would probably kill me if you fell over the edge.” But the excuse was as irreverent as most of the things that came out of his mouth.
No more lightning came from below, only the faint murmur of voices. Vesper wavered between staying where she was, and taking a look over the edge to see what Keyleth looked like as a Beholder, whatever that was. But common sense won out - she didn’t want to fall, especially when the only way to tell how far down it was was to look.
In time, there was another heavy rush of air, and Vex was calling up for the rest of them to come down.
“How?” Scanlan hollered, walking up past Vesper. “Are there stairs?”
“Give us a second!”
“We could use the broom,” Grog said. “Or the carpet.”
“You can use the carpet, but we’d have to take turns on the broom,” Scanlan said.
“I thought the broom had an activation word,” Pike said.
“Yes, it does, which I know. I’m way ahead of you.”
“Oh, of course you are, Scanlan.”
“D’you want the broom then?” Grog stuck his arm deep into the large Bag of Holding and drew it out again. Scanlan caught it as Grog tossed it to him, only staggering a little.
“You and me can fit on that together, but we’ve got Vesper too, and the carpet can only hold Grog alone,” Pike said, as Grog stuck his hand back in the bag. His arm sank in up to his shoulder. Vesper watched him in fascination.
“I could go down with Vesper and come back up for you? Or I could turn into something winged with Polymorph.”
“Well, you know the broom’s activation word.”
“It’s just the Draconic word for candle.”
“Since when do you know Draconic?”
“Vex does, and I’ve heard her say it.” Scanlan made a noise like he was hacking something up and spitting it out, and the broom jumped to life in his hands.
“Oh, sweet! I’ll take this, then.” Pike clanked up and pulled herself up onto the broom as Scanlan took his hands off it. It stayed in place even with Pike in full armor weighing it down. “Vesper, squeeze on the back.”
“Sure?” The broom was floating about three feet off the ground. Vesper easily threw a leg over it, fiddling with her skirts to keep them in order and feeling childish and a little embarrassed. Her feet still touched the floor.
Scanlan winked and snapped his fingers, and with a flash of purple energy his shape warped into that of an enormous eagle like Vesper had seen Keyleth turn into. Or out of that shape, rather. His eagle form seemed ever so slightly smaller, though it was large enough that his head now scraped the tunnel ceiling.
Scanlan-the-giant-eagle turned and squeezed his way out over the ledge. As he swooped out of sight, Vesper saw that Grog had laid out a large, ornately patterned carpet, and sitting with his legs out in front of him he quickly followed Scanlan down. The lights remained with Vesper and Pike.
“Can you give us a shove?” Pike asked. Nervously, Vesper obliged. Just as the lights began to move over the edge and follow Scanlan down, the broom carrying the two of them shot over the edge and into a large, round tower of a cavern.
Vesper clutched Pike, tightening her legs around the broom. She was sitting on the back half of the seat and felt like she’d fall at any moment. Keyleth’s raven had taken off from Pike’s shoulder the moment the broom moved, cawing a protest. It was a black shadow against the stone walls.
Pike seemed completely at ease. She angled the broom into a gentle descent, circling towards the bottom like Scanlan was. Vesper risked a quick glance down and saw his brown shape, the bright red of the flying carpet, and a flash of white and greenish blue and green - that was Percy, Vex and Keyleth.
When they landed, Vesper’s feet hit the ground before Pike’s. Vesper slid off quickly, relieved to have a solid footing once more, and looked around.
The mechanical thing which had generated lightning, she could now see, was a construct erected over what looked like a pair of doors. It was a mess of iron bars and steel gears, but a large piece had been pried out and was lying on the floor amidst a scattering of nuts and bolts and smaller gears. Percy was inspecting the ends of some of the bars, which appeared to have had stuff attached to them, at least until Percy had gotten there.
“D’you want me to tear it down?” Grog offered. He was in the process of rolling the carpet back up. It was nearly as tall as him, and as thick around as one of his arms once he’d finished.
“I can deal with this,” Percy said. He had his roll of tools out again. “It only requires a little thought and investigation.” He reached up and twisted at a fastening with a small wrench; the bolt came loose, and a whole chunk of the contraption came crashing down. Percy leapt out of the way, and the pieces shattered and scattered on the floor.
“Well, at least we’re making a lot of noise and commotion,” Scanlan said sarcastically. He’d changed back to his usual gnomish shape.
“We need to get through the door somehow,” Percy retorted. The piece he’d removed had indeed unblocked a sizeable portion. “I think they open inward. If you can all climb up, we should be able to get through.”
“Let me try.” Grog hoisted himself up, making the remaining iron bars creak in protest. The machine trembled under his weight as he braced his feet against it, standing up and pushing heavily against the door. “It’s locked.”
“I’ll take a look.” Vex stepped forward. Percy cupped his hands together to give her a foothold, and Vex easily leaped up to stand next to Grog, who still laid a steadying hand on her shoulder.
“What if it’s barred?” Scanlan asked. “Remember when we were trying to get into the Pelor temple in Whitestone?”
“Don’t remind me,” Percy said. Vex had drawn something out of her pack and was on her tiptoes doing something to the door. Vesper suspected she was picking the lock; she’d seen Vex do something similar in her homeworld.
“There we go,” Vex said, as a soft click sounded. She crouched down, getting out of the way. “Go ahead, Grog.”
Grog pushed open the doors. Fire roared out of them.
Vesper didn’t so much hit the ground as get tackled onto it by Pike. The heat slapped her in the face, worse than the flare-up of Sarenrae’s sacred fire. There was an inarticulate roar of rage.
Vesper had hit the ground hard, and squeezed her eyes shut against the sudden light, but she saw the figure leap through the doors and onto the ground. She saw them slip on the scattering of bolts. She saw Percy’s arm come up, and a shadow leap up to follow the movement of his finger, wrapping itself around the stranger’s throat. At the same time that Keyleth raised her staff and Vex her bow, Scanlan bellowed out the words to music Vesper couldn’t catch over the noise of everybody shouting out in surprise and anger.
The stranger faltered midstep. The shadow was still around their throat, but now faint purple sigils flickered in a crown around their head. Scanlan had his hands raised, warily, but nobody moved.
“Nobody shoot him,” Scanlan said, slowly lowering his hands. “I’ve got this.”
Vex lowered her bow, without her distrustful expression changing. “Are you sure?”
“I know my magic,” Scanlan said. “You - who are you?”
“The Hand,” the stranger said in a monotone.
“The Hand?” Keyleth repeated.
“It’s a Vecna thing,” Pike said sourly, rising from where she’d been splayed over Vesper. Vesper sat up, relieved that the weight was now gone. With the armor on, she was surprised the broom had been able to support the gnome. “For his cultists, at least.”
“Great. And by the way - how are you still so fucking fast, Percy?” Scanlan turned to address Percy. “I thought you were supposed to be human-old.”
“Only technically,” Percy said. “And I have been chasing around children pretty much constantly for the last decade and a half, unlike you.”
“...Yeah, alright, that tracks.”
“What’s in the other room?” Vex demanded of the stranger. They turned their head towards Scanlan.
“Go ahead, say something. What’s in there?” Scanlan asked.
“What things? Show me.”
The stranger - the cultist - turned and walked back towards the door. Scanlan gestured frantically at Grog, who still glowered before stepping out of the way. His beard was singed, and his whole front covered with soot.
Percy coughed, bending double to brace his hand on his knee. Black smoke drifted from his mouth.
“Percy-!” Vex was at his side in an instant.
“I’m fine,” Percy said, spitting a few times. “Gah. I haven’t cast Hex in too long. It must have been catching up with me.”
“Guys!” Scanlan’s interjection prevented Vesper from asking what the fuck that meant. “They’ve got a hell of a lot of magic in here! Looks like we were on the right track!”
Sudden hope bloomed in Vesper’s chest. She hurried over to the doors and scrambled for a foothold on the remaining machinery. It took her a minute to clamber up over the edge and onto the floor of the room the fire had originated in.
It was empty of people, save for Scanlan and the cultist. An intricate circle covered the floor, and the walls were crowded with alcoves which held all sorts of things - including, Vesper shuddered to see, an empty space with candles at the edge spattered with what looked like bloodstains. An eye was drawn on the back of it with the same brownish stuff.
“Take a look at this,” Scanlan said. He was staring down at the circle. “Is this what you all have been using to summon people?”
“Yeah,” the Hand said, still monotone. His hood was still up, so Vesper could see only the edge of a beard. Scanlan’s lights cast stark shadows from where they were hovering around the ceiling.
“How does it work?”
Vesper tuned out the Hand’s explanation as she studied the circle. It was weird to think that such a thing could send her home, or that it could’ve brought her to this world in the first place. As she circled it, looking for some clue that might explain how its magic worked, Grog climbed into the room, and the rest of Vox Machina was close on his heels.
“Do you think you can work this, Scanlan?” Vex asked. Scanlan had been prowling around the edge of the circle, too, crouching low to the ground to examine the fine details of the array.
“I don’t see why not,” Scanlan said.
“Sure! Especially if I do this.” Scanlan made a sign with his hands, twisting them around, and a purple sigil opened on his forehead. It was in the shape of an eye caught in the blade of a sickle, ephemeral and almost floating over his skin. His pupils and irises dulled into a flat silver color, like Zahra’s.
“Eugh, you look so creepy when you do that,” Vex said.
“Take it up with Ioun.” Scanlan rolled his shoulders, then tilted his head as he looked back down at the circle.
“What is that spell?” Vesper asked, fascinated.
“It’s a blessing, actually,” Scanlan said. “Came in handy against that eyeless motherfucker, let me tell you.” He propped his hands on his hips, looking down again. “This circle is super weird, but it worked before so it’ll probably work again. Nobody touch it, just in case.”
“Are you absolutely sure?” Vesper hardly dared hope, but she asked anyway.
“Yeah, of course. Do you see me?” Scanlan gestured widely, then frowned and looked behind him when the gesture did not lead towards the Hand. “Hey, where’d he - get back here!”
The Hand had been walking down a short flight of steps which led to a crumbling doorway. It was a ragged gap in the side of the titan, but there was light coming through it, real moonlight. Something in Vesper’s heart eased a little to see it.
It tightened again when an arrow lodged itself in the Hand’s shoulder.
The purple sigils around his head sputtered and vanished, and the Hand tumbled to the ground with a gasp. Vesper pressed herself up against a clear part of the wall, regretting how close she was to the door. Trinket appeared with a rush of air and a growl as the first black-cloaked figure leaped inside.
The metallic rasp of weapons being unsheathed could not drown out the drum of Vesper’s heartbeat. She flinched when Trinket charged towards her, but he only skidded to a halt in front of her, facing the enemy. Percy’s pistol sounded, a deafening bang that filled the room with the acrid scent of gunpowder. Grog roared a challenge.
Vesper clutched the craggy bricks in the wall. She stayed on her feet instead of giving into baser urges and curling into a ball to hide behind Trinket. She might need to run.
She still ducked her head so she didn’t have to watch. Percy’s pistol shots were deafening enough that they almost drowned out the wet thuds of weapons meeting bodies and the ring of swords meeting. Occasionally there was a spellcaster’s cry, followed by a rush of air and crackle of fire or electricity.
“Get outside!” Someone yelled. Was it Vex? Vesper couldn’t tell. Her voice was drowned out by the fury of combat. “Trinket! Get her outside!”
Vesper was not prepared for Trinket. One huge paw swept her down to the bottom of the stairs, and another shoved her out the door. Vesper looked up, sprawled on the ground, and saw the company of archers.
She gasped, about to scream. A red-green blur whirled over her head. Keyleth’s staff struck the ground once, and her feet followed in the shape of brass claws. Trinket shoved Vesper to the side as Keyleth unleashed a torrent of fire on the archers.
Vesper scrambled to her feet. Her legs were shaking so hard she fell down immediately. Trinket still blocked her from the archer’s line of fire. His claws hadn’t touched her once.
One of the archers fell to a gleam of metal in his chest. Vex appeared where he had been standing. She whirled and put three arrows in the chest of the one who had been standing next to them. He collapsed before he could turn his head to look at her. Grog shoved past Keyleth, howling with rage. He slammed his fists together, and as he took two steps forward he towered even taller over the woman who was about to see the business end of his hammer.
A dark blur raced past Grog. He stumbled, a dart of red appearing on his chest. There was a man behind him who hadn’t been there before. He was dirty and ragged, and barely avoided the crackle of lightning that came at him from a Scanlan who had appeared out of nowhere.
Vesper took shelter behind a tree as Keyleth roared. It was terrifying, primal and screechy above the low rush of flame jetting out. Scanlan’s magical lights winked out. The forest outside the titan was blanketed in darkness. Moonlight came down intermittently through the trees.
Vesper’s whole body was shaking so that she barely noticed it, except the tree was still. The noise of arrows firing did not stop, the battle continued behind her, somebody could be running up to shoot her right now!
"You!” Percy’s voice was a furious howl, almost lost behind a succession of rapid pistol shots. Even from a distance, Vesper felt the heat of Keyleth’s fire that followed.
Maybe Vesper could get out of the way. If she was in one of the trees, they couldn’t see her to shoot at her. The dense pine branches could protect her. Vesper started wrenching at branches, trying to pull herself up. The needles scratched her palms and stuck to them.
“Fuck you!” Came a furious shout. Vesper startled and lost her grip. Pine needles and wood scraped her arms as she slid back down. Cursing, she shoved a foot against Trinket’s backside and used him to lever herself into the crowded safety of the pine branches. Trinket made a startled noise.
A flash of bright yellow energy caught Vesper’s eye. Pike was slamming down towards an unseen target. Pistol shots sounded as she plummeted. The light streaking out of her holy symbol almost looked like wings against the night.
“Where’d she go?” Vex’s voice was closer than Vesper had anticipated. “Scanlan, can you - oh, fuck! You fucker!” Bowstrings twanged from three different directions.
An arrow slammed into the tree near Vesper. She shrieked and lost her grip on the branches. The branches bludgeoned her as she fell, only catching herself a couple of feet above the ground. Her shoulders were wrenched heavily by her own weight.
“Get him! Keep hitting him!” Scanlan yelled.
“I’m trying! Someone get the lackeys!”
Two more arrows skittered past Vesper - one below her feet, the other getting tangled in the branches above her head. She curled her arms over her face as best she could. As if that would keep her from getting shot, she thought, semi hysterically.
A choked cry sounded from below her, and a fierce yell followed it. The yell turned into a wet gurgle. Keyleth roared again, but it trailed off strangely.
“Keyleth, what the fuck!” Vex sounded more worried than angry.
“Shapechange only lasts so long!” Came Keyleth’s more distant voice - her normal voice - then a yelp. Hurried footsteps darted away from Vesper. The clash of steel still sounded. At the bottom of the tree, Trinket growled.
One more arrow came, and it hit so close that it snapped against Vesper’s forehead as it buried itself in the wood. Vesper flinched away, and lost her grip.
She hit the ground hard, bruised and battered by the branches. Vesper scrambled to move away from where she had fallen. Her back hit the trunk of the tree again. Trinket was a looming shape in the darkness. He wrestled with an enemy she couldn’t make out in the night. She was glad for it when Trinket roared and did something that made whoever he was fighting wheeze wetly and collapse to the ground.
The battle raged. The space between the trees was a mess of figures. Many were lying slumped on the ground in dark puddles that shone with moonlight. Pike shone like a beacon, shadows of people flickering around her as Sarenrae’s golden light cloaked her. The light spread from her back in the shape of wings again, and she launched herself up to come down with a devastating blow. The cloaked figure who felt it collapsed under its force.
Keyleth was nowhere to be found. Vesper saw only the distant blaze of a fire. Then the fire moved, circling in a wide arc, and as it raced past she saw it had human shape and Keyleth’s horns. She left a path of burning grass behind her. Vesper stumbled to her feet and backed away as it began to lick eagerly at the tree that had been her perch.
She tripped over something. Vesper’s tailbone sparked with pain as she fell. She kicked the thing that had caught her foot away, and it was revealed to be a person with a dagger in their throat.
Vesper kicked the body away harder, shoving herself backwards. The ring of flame was rising higher, illuminating the chaos. Grog was bloodied, swinging his axe wide. Pike had ascended into the sky again. Percy was backed up against the fire by a swordsman.
The ragged man tackled Percy and they both went skidding across the line, rolling one over another towards Vesper. Percy threw him off with a grunt of effort. The man stumbled, but kept his feet. He’d dropped his sword. His eyes were lit with frantic energy, illuminated by the spreading firelight.
They were red.
His clothes were ragged finery, muddy and worn, and his face - his face-
Sylas Briarwood saw Vesper, and the shock passing across his face was followed by a wide, fanged grin.
“You,” he said, and took a step towards her.
Vesper would have screamed if she had any breath in her. But in the next second Sylas’s legs were yanked out from under him.
“Don’t you fucking touch her!” Percy kicked Sylas in the face, making his head snap back. Both of them were on the ground, in the mud and blood. Percy jammed the end of his gun into Sylas’s chest. Sylas grabbed his wrist and twisted viciously until Percy cried out and dropped it.
There was still a struggle within the fire. Nobody was coming to Percy’s aid. The two men struggling on the ground were black silhouettes against a fire that raged ever more. Vesper could barely see which was which except for Percy’s hair.
Percy cried out. He was pinned under Sylas, kicking desperately at the bulkier man. When Sylas’s head finally came up, there was something dark and wet smeared on his face.
Percy’s hand was clamped over his neck. His gun was still in the dirt, too far away. But there was a metallic rasp, and Sylas recoiled, and Percy scrambled to his feet with a blade in hand.
He lunged for Sylas. Sylas dived out of the way, coming up from the ground with his own sword. One of the trees had gone up in flames and another was headed the same way.
Percy was a good swordsman. So was Sylas. Their blades whirled and clashed. Firelight raced up and down the metal as they moved.
Percy feinted and went in for a desperate strike. Sylas swung his sword and caught Percy across the face with the flat of it. Percy hit the ground, but his blade struck true.
Sylas wrenched the rapier out of his chest and cast it aside. His foot stomped down on Percy’s neck with a sickening noise. Percy gasped like a drowning man. His free hand pounded at Sylas’s ankle. His breath was loud even over the distant, continuing sound of battle.
“I should have killed you when I had the chance,” Sylas sneered. Blood was still dripping from his mouth, a mockery of war paint over his chin. “Who knew such a pathetic child would become such a persistent pest?”
“You’re forgetting something,” Percy choked out. Sylas shifted his grip on his sword, and raised it.
“And that is?”
“You’re a fool,” Percy said, “and a dead man.”
He raised his hand. The gun gleamed in the light, and fired.
Sylas vanished. Only mist stood where he once had. Silvery wisps were lit with orange like clouds at sunset.
“Keyleth!” Percy bellowed. He’d propped himself up on one elbow. He was still gripping his neck.
“I got it!” It was Vex’s voice that answered. She appeared out of nowhere, heralded only by the silver flash of Whisper sinking into the ground. Vex was glowing, lit like a sun and shedding light in all directions. She rounded towards Percy, and saw the mist.
She ran through it to get to Percy. The mist dissipated in the face of her light, dispersing into smaller shreds and then into nothing as she fell to her knees next to him.
“Are you alright?” Vex demanded, cupping Percy’s face. “Pelor’s balls, he bit you!”
“I rather think he’s got more problems than me now,” Percy gasped out. His breath was still coming wheezy and slow. Vex’s hands sparked with green, and Percy drew in a deeper, quieter breath. Vex kissed him, worry written in the lines on her forehead.
“They’re running for it!” Keyleth sounded alarmed. Vex broke away from the kiss with a start. “Vex!”
“I fuckin’ got ‘em!” Grog’s voice was hoarse. Heavy footsteps pounded off.
“Are you two alright?” Vex had noticed Vesper. Vesper wasn’t quite sure what her own face looked like in that moment, but concern flashed across Vex’s.
Percy stumbled to his feet. There was blood soaked into his glove and down the right side of his neck and chest, staining the blue of his jacket. His cloak - Vesper’s cloak - had come undone at some point and was hanging awkwardly from the other shoulder.
He fell to his knees in front of where Vesper was still crouched and threw both arms around her, pressing his forehead into her shoulder.
“You’re alive,” he said quietly, and he sounded heartbroken.
That was it. That was all Vesper could take. She started crying, hugging Percy back and curling her fingers deep into his coat. Too much had happened in the last day, not to speak of the last week.
A gentle hand wreathed in light touched Vesper’s head, smoothing her hair down. The sting of the cut that the arrow had left eased. Percy breathed in deeply again, sounding just as choked up as Vesper was, despite his healed throat.
It began to rain.
By the time Vex came back from tracking down the remaining cultists to pull Vesper and Percy inside and out of the rain, they’d gotten thoroughly soaked. Rain hissed when it touched Vex like the light coming off her was true sunlight, and she seemed only damp. Vesper’s hair was plastered to her head, but underneath Cabal’s Ruin her clothes were mostly dry.
Inside the titan, in the room outside the door that led into the spell chamber, a fire was built and healing spells were doled out. Keyleth was soaked through as well, but she changed back into her fiery form to light the damp pile of wood they’d gathered, and it all steamed off of her in a flash. Grog seemed to consider the rain an alternative to actually cleaning the various wounds he’d received.
Pike was still glowing faintly, the ephemeral wings folded against her armored back. Scanlan’s eyes were still silvered over, and the purple eye run flashed on his forehead. He gave Vesper a somewhat forced smile.
“Guess bringing you was a pretty bad idea after all,” he said. Vesper offered a wan smile in reply, but didn’t agree out loud.
Scanlan was the first to move into the spell chamber to see what he could do to begin setting up. Vesper watched him go. It felt physically painful to wait a moment longer, when the promise of return was so close. Her throat was still tight, and her nose was running and she didn’t have any tissues.
In lieu of thinking about her situation for any longer, Vesper undid the silver pin which held Cabal’s Ruin. “You should take this back,” she said quietly. Percy, who had been hunched over staring at the fire, raised his head a centimeter. “I wouldn’t want to leave with it.”
Slowly, Percy’s arm moved to accept it. He was like an automaton that had just been wound up, taking a minute to wake up or out of his stupor before he could properly react. He sat up straighter, and picked the cloak she’d traded him up of the ground to shake it out.
“Don’t leave everything you were given behind.” He dropped the cloak onto her lap. Vesper nodded, folding it in half to make a smaller bundle. Privately, she was glad it was the one thing he’d managed not to bleed on, though Pike had cleaned up his coat a little with what she called a cantrip. The glove he’d given up on and stuffed into his pocket, leaving his wooden palm - faintly stained - visible.
“Vesper,” Percy said after a moment.
“You...you’re not the Vesper I knew. But...” Percy raked fingers through his hair. “You are still a de Rolo. Even here. And it’s...these days haven’t all been bad.” He took her hand. Vesper thought he wanted to hold it, until he pressed something round into her palm and curled her fingers around it. His wooden fingers were smooth and surprisingly warm. “Keep this. Please.”
Vesper took her hand back, and found she was holding his pocket watch. The back was engraved with a tree that held a constellation in its branches, and the front with the six-starred de Rolo crest. Six stars, Vesper realized, for the five past champions of Pelor, and one more for Vex.
“It needs to be wound,” Percy said. “The key is on the chain, and you have to open the back cover to put it in. There’s a little dial under the twelve that will tell you if it needs winding.”
“Thank you,” Vesper said. It was an expensive-looking gift.
“Yes, well...” Percy sounded a little distracted. He looked back at the fire. “I’m glad it was you.” There was a quiet edge in his voice, the same something she’d heard when he spoke to her just after Sylas was dead.
Vesper ached to see her own, very alive family again.
Over time, Pike’s glow faded, and Vex’s shadow returned as the sunlight wreathing her grew steadily weaker. When Scanlan finally returned, his eyes were brown and pupil-ed again.
“Well,” he said, and clapped his hands together. “No time like the present for experimental magic rituals.”
Vesper woke on the floor of her apartment.
The magic had sent her through darkness again; and again, she only realized the darkness was false and not real when she opened her eyes. The wooden floor was cool under her cheek.
Vesper sat up. She was still wearing the backpack, the cloak, the layers of dresses. It had been real. She pressed a hand to her chest, and felt where her phone and Percy’s gift were secured in her bra.
What a long, long time it felt like it had been. She got up slowly, and got to work.
It was not work, precisely, but there were things to do. Vesper got a box from the pantry where she kept a couple stored underneath the plastic bag full of plastic bags, and then went to her room. Her purse and heels came out of the borrowed explorer’s pack, which went into the box. The cloak went into the box. Amani’s careful square knot in her cloth belt was undone, and the dress went layer by layer into the box. Vesper put the leather shoes in upside down, since they were still muddy on the bottom, and stuffed the socks in on the side. Last went the book, taken out of her purse, and then Vesper put the top on the box and put the box at the back of the highest shelf in her closet.
She felt chilly, in her air-conditioned room wearing almost nothing. She’d begun to sweat a little in the heavy layers of Vasselheim, and now her skin prickled with goosebumps. Vesper found a pair of sweatpants in a drawer, put them on, then sat down and plugged in her phone. Its charging cord was still where she usually left it. The pocket watch went next to it, for now. Then she put on a clean bra.
Her hair was a mess, and Vesper knew she probably smelled terrible. But she stopped just inside the bathroom door. Opening the door was always a fifty percent chance of a surprise, because the mirror was directly opposite it and she still sometimes forgot and scared herself with her own reflection. But the idea of someone else being in her apartment wasn’t what made Vesper stop. She looked exactly like she always did - her usual clothes, the usual apartment background - but the symbol of the Slayer’s Take was still on her arm.
Vesper took a few steps forward to lean over the sink and poke at it. It didn’t hurt at all. The skin was shiny-smooth and as pale as the unburned skin around it.
Without it, she could have almost believed she’d imagined all of it.
Vesper took a shower. She went back into her room, and put a long-sleeved shirt on, and sat down and let her hair dry while she looked at her phone, like she always did.
There were a lot of messages waiting for her. Evidently everyone - including Vax and Keyleth - had texted her to try and figure out where she was before she’d been officially pronounced missing. Her phone informed her it was 7:48 PM, Yulisen, Unndilar 20th. Eight days after she’d left. That was less time than she’d expected it to be. From the reports she’d heard in passing, people had stayed three days and come home to find that one had passed, or conversely that two weeks had gone by.
Vesper texted Julius first. But she took a minute to think of something witty sounding to say before that.
Did I miss the trip to dagger bay 7:49
Vesper smiled so wide her cheeks began to hurt almost immediately. Julius’s side of the conversation was just typing bubbles for several minutes straight.
7:54 Where are you?????
7:54 Police said you might not be back for ages!!
My apartment 7:55
7:55 Was it magic??
7:55 No don’t answer that call mom first
7:55 No I’ll call her and say you’re back
7:55 I’m coming over
7:55 Are you ok??????????
I love you too 7:55
And yes 7:56
7:56 I’m still coming over
Don’t speed 7:56
7:56 I will speed if I want to to see my sister who thinks
it’s ok to send texts like that after being missing for
Don’t. I don’t want you to get hurt 7:56
Julius didn’t respond. He’d probably already dashed out to his car. Vesper couldn’t stop smiling.
But what would she say? Julius might be relieved enough that he’d accept that she didn’t want to talk about it. But what if police wanted to ask her, or her parents? Maybe she could leave the de Rolos of the other world out of the tale. She’d ended up in the same place everyone else had gone, and after some complications, she’d been sent back. They hadn’t explained much to her, so she couldn’t explain much to them.
The second half, Vesper mused, was about as true as the first, though there was a lot she wasn’t saying. But she’d been through stress, hadn’t she? They had to leave her alone if she was medically stressed. She was pretty sure that was how it worked.
She wished Julius were there already. Absentmindedly, she picked up the pocket watch and pressed the button which opened it. The front cover popped open. A folded piece of paper fell out.
Vesper unfolded it. It was ragged along one edge, showing where it had been carefully ripped out of a notebook. A pencil illustration covered the page. A castle was perched on a distant hill, towers rising high and flags fluttering from their peaks. Guards patrolled a wall. In the foreground, the canopy of a tree with shining leaves blocked part of the artist’s view. A few peaks of buildings were visible. On the distant castle gate, banners with the de Rolo sun, tree, and stars hung on either side.
At the bottom was scribbled Castle Whitestone in summer. Underneath that was a messy scribble that bore not the slightest resemblance to Percy’s name. Vesper would have recognized his signature anywhere.
She made a mental note to buy a frame.
Unndilar 26th, first day of summer - One week later
Vesper was in her apartment.
So was Julius, for that matter, arguing with Whitney and Oliver in the kitchen over whether it was appropriate to bring boxed wine to a picnic. Vesper couldn’t parse whether the argument was over the quality of boxed wine versus bottled, or over whether they should bring wine at all to a family picnic when Cassandra was still underage. Julius seemed to be arguing for champagne, though how that was better Vesper didn’t know.
The de Rolos as a whole had been invited to a beginning-of-summer picnic which had been Keyleth’s idea, upon seeing the forecast for clear skies and warm weather all week. Everyone had agreed, mostly because everyone - especially Johanna and Fredrick - seemed unusually eager to participate in group and/or family activities ever since Vesper had vanished and then returned. Vesper wasn’t complaining, though. Seeing them all so often was lovely. And Keyleth’s location of choice, Azalea Park, was beautiful.
So Vesper was busy making sure she had everything she needed. Ever since Vasselheim, she’d developed a tendency to cram things in her purse ‘in case of emergency’. Next to the inside pocket where Percy’s watch had taken up residence was a first aid kit, alongside a miniature swiss army knife. The picnic required, in her mind, sunscreen and a water bottle at the very least,and maybe some bug spray. And Vex had floated the idea of inviting Velora along, so in went a little deck of cards illustrated with cartoon animals in the place of kings and queens, which Vesper had owned ever since she was a kid.
On a whim, Vesper took out the watch and checked the time. The face of the watch was deep blue, and the Celestial numerals were contained inside gold-inked stars. Gold hands kept the time, and the little dial under the twelve did indeed tell her when it needed to be wound. A second dial, which rotated around the edge of the face, kept track of the phases of the larger moon.
The watch was never right, but Vesper kept it wound faithfully and never changed it. She had a feeling it was still on the time of the other Percy’s world. Looking at it, she saw that while it was nearing ten in the morning, the pocket watch thought it was eleven thirty. It also thought the moon was full, though Vesper had seen just last night that both were in the process of waning.
Vesper looked at it a moment longer, then snapped it shut and put it away. There was no time to dwell on the past. She had a family picnic to attend.
As she zipped up her purse, there was a shuffle from behind her.
“Julius, I swear, if you’re trying to scare me-” Vesper faltered as she turned around and saw no one. The door to her bedroom was still closed. Bewildered, she looked around for what could have made the noise. Nothing seemed out of place, so probably it wasn’t anything that had fallen over.
But when she went to get her phone, there was a thick folded paper lying on the desk next to it. It hadn’t been there a moment ago.
Vesper went to pick it up, and withdrew her fingers the next instant with a hiss as the paper discharged a heavy static shock. Sucking on her fingers, she hesitantly poked it with the other hand. When she wasn’t shocked again, she picked it up and turned it over.
It was smooth pale parchment, unmarked on the front but sealed on the back with a blob of deep navy wax. Impressed in the wax was a seal, dusted with gold; a tree with a sun in its leaves, and six stars among the roots. On the paper around the seal, meeting the folded edges of the envelope perfectly, was a watermarked array. A familiar magic circle which Vesper had seen only once before.
Vesper stared at the sealed envelope and array until Julius called for her from the other room. “Aren’t you coming, lazypants?”
“I am!” Vesper’s hand tightened around the envelope, and the parchment crinkled under her grip. “Aren’t you driving the twins? I’ll catch up with you!”
“What’s the holdup?”
“I need to change my shoes,” Vesper improvised wildly. She wasn’t wearing any yet. “I might want to walk around and these heels are too high. Just go ahead downstairs and wait for me in the lobby, if you really want to wait!”
“Alright, suit yourself!” Distantly, Vesper heard laughing chatter, and the sound of her front door opening and closing. She looked back down at the array, at the familiar wax seal.
She peeled the seal away from the bottom half of the envelope and took out the letter.
YES I AM SURE THIS IS THE END.
On that note, I AM planning to continue this Vesper's story in some way/shape/form. Alternate world crossovers are my favorite, and writing this story has just enamoured me even more (if possible) of Vesper de Rolo as a character and the relationships I've constructed. Also, nobody can prove that I cried a little while writing the post-Sylas scene(s). Nobody.
The other stories might take a while to come. I have some other WIPs that I've neglected for a while - Modern Legend, Orobouros (howeverhtefuck you spell it), and my Gabriel/Star Wars thing, to name a few - and I really would like to be able to spare some time to write/edit those properly and get around to finishing them like I've tied this one up.
And there are TONS of other stories I have on the back burner as well that I'd love to publish. I've got a continuation of I.P.R.E. and several taz/cr crossovers that I really wanna write out. But I'm gonna finish some stuff first, and since this is generally a series that's turned out to be short and largely self-contained, I may come back to it sooner than I expect! But for the moment, I think Vesper is gonna take a break from adventure.