Vex has a favorite spell.
She learned it shortly after Byroden burned. She and her brother had woken up that morning expecting to see Elaina, finally hear the happy lilt in her voice as she hugged them. But before they’d even reached town, they saw that something was terrible and wrong. The trees had started to char, blacken, then disappear altogether until there was nothing left. Nothing was familiar. Even with their skill and crystal-clear memories of that place, it was impossible to tell exactly where their little cottage had stood. Where their mother had hung laundry on the line. Where they had played airship in the yard.
So they took a guess. And at that spot, they began combing through the ash with their fingers. Searching for anything that was left. Any clue, a keepsake, a trinket. They came up with nothing. Nothing but a layer of gray dust on their hands and clothes.
Vax didn’t cry. Vex held on for as long as she could, until she saw their footprints in the ash. She thought of fresh snow, cobblestones, bone fragments, and she leaned forward and retched. The thought of leaving parts of themselves behind, and finding nothing to take with them, was too much. Too much on top of the rest. A dark pit in a piece of rotten fruit. Vex longed to leave nothing there. She wished they’d left nothing in the first place, that they’d taken their mother with them. Clung tightly to her and never let go.
From then on, she learned to cover their tracks. She followed her brother’s dark cloak in marketplaces, studying his ways. Learning how to leave no trace. How to take what you wanted, including your own imprints, peoples’ perceptions of you. How to disappear in plain sight.
So this, right now, she can do. She’s been preparing her whole life for it. She could not do it for their mother. Could not lay a hand on her shoulder and make her imperceptible, invisible. Shrouded in shadow, safe from fire. But here, she can do this. For her friends.
Vex whispers the spell, eyes closed as if it’s a prayer. As if she can harness a tiny bit of Pike’s power, the shining light cupped in her palm. Or the new power that her brother has, the way his face relaxes in the light of a burning pyre, calm settling over him like she’d never seen before. So that they may pass without a trace, she thinks—prays, beseeches a god she isn’t even sure exists—and when she opens her eyes again, the air is trembling with a nearby fury.
Thordak heard her. Now, he sees her. Laughs, as if he senses who she is, what she’s trying to undo.
And then they all burst into action, as they do. As they’ve always done.
In her brother’s boots, everything slows down. Vex hears a steady, measured thrumming in her ears. She takes aim as she runs. Fenthras responds, bending to her will. She lines up two arrows at the enormous beast bearing down on her friends. And in these spell-slowed moments, she thinks of her mother. She wonders if Elaina ever looked into these ember eyes, heard this foul laughter. Or if she was caught unaware, doing dishes, sitting outside on the porch when the cone of fire rained down. She wonders if Elaina had time to think. Of them. Of the life they might have had together. Or if it happened too quickly for thought.
She wonders if love can extend past a person’s life. If it’s accurate to think my mother loves me. Or if even that truth can be burned away.
Vex knows the face of death, knew it long before today. Not because she’s died, but because she’s lived and grieved. She’s sifted through the ashes of her life. She’s left behind tracks she can never erase. She’s missed someone into the shadows, into the deepest part of her heart, untouched. Now, she looks at the thing that stole what she can never retrieve. The thing that changed it all. Warped them into strangers, shells, empty and full of fear and revenge and hate.
And as she lets go of the arrows, as they hit their mark, she feels something else wrench free inside her. A crack in the dark husk of her past. Heaving into a pile of dust. Notching an arrow fireside, while her brother fiddles with a dagger nearby. Hot blood running down her forearm in a place she didn’t choose to be.
She holds Fenthras, but she shoots from sineath. From a place she hadn’t known was possible for someone like her. She shoots to forgive. Syldor, for taking them, failing them. The people and conditions that allowed Thordak to ruin their home twice. Herself, for not being older or stronger or braver. For not being able to protect. For only being able to leave small footprints on this earth.
And with forgiveness, she hopes this will be enough.
Vex isn’t sure about fate.
Vax believes. He told her that no matter what happened in the sunken tomb, he would have ended up here. At first, she thought it was just to comfort her, to convince her that she hadn’t condemned him to the dark. But she’s seen her brother meditate over the corpses of their friends. She’s seen the way he runs his hands along the black feathers of his armor when he thinks no one’s looking. He believes.
And she struggles. She’s not a paladin, nor a champion. She can’t even sense the faith her brother wields. She doesn’t want to believe that people have no control over their lives. Their deaths. All the magic in the world, all the strength, all the power, and none of it mattering in the end. How they can all be pulled taut, threads at the mercy of a god.
But here, now, in this tunnel, Thordak’s dying scream reaches her. And finally, she understands it. Feels it. The thing her brother has felt since he first visited the Raven Crest. Fate, burning and holy, filling her belly like whiskey. Of course. This is always how this was going to happen. A decimated village. The choke-hold of loss. Blue feathers tucked behind her ear. Fire from above and beneath. And this, too. Vex and Vax. Lost children that no one looked for. The twins, in the dark, alone with the destroyer of the life they should have had. Ending it once and for all.
She propels herself forward, hot wind in her face. And when she sees her brother, drenched with inky blood, standing above the specter of their grief, her heart lurches. “Vax!” she screams, and he turns and he’s running toward her. She flies off her broom, throwing her arms around him. He shudders, his face buried in her neck. “You did it,” she tells him. “You did it.”
And this, this is better than revenge. This is something separate, something larger. It’s not faith or magic or fate. It doesn't make her stronger or better or wise. But it’s something she can wield. And that, for now, will be enough.