When he enters the dream, she is already waiting. This time he is not falling: instead, he is in a throne room, and his patron sits upon the cathedra at its center.
“What do you think of your champion?” Vax asks the porcelain masked goddess as dark tendrils encircle his waist. Her immortal form is far larger than him, and her long wisps of power reach him even at the base of the throne.
The goddess tilts her expressionless face at him like a curious animal, or like someone who has forgotten what it's like to be human. “Am I worthy?” he presses. Truthfully, he is afraid: afraid that perhaps he isn’t worthy, that maybe this has all been one massive mistake. Maybe the Raven Queen will take back the deal, and Vex will drop dead in the middle of the night, their deal undone. His heart clenches at the horrifying thought. No. I will not let that happen. Not while I still breathe.
The Raven Queen extends a hand, ephemeral and dominant. He could not move away from her touch if he tried. She cradles his cheek with just a finger and suddenly, he receives a series of visions from his past: the moment when he first laid hands on the Keen Dagger, the instant he slew his first enemy with the same blade. A strange, familiar feeling floods through him: the deep satisfaction of a weapon well-used.
That is what I think of you, she tells him. The mouth of the porcelain mask does not move. Instead, he hears her voice in his head: deep, feminine, and full of power. It could be worse. The overall sense he’s perceived from her is that he is an extension of the Raven Queen’s power in the mortal plane.
“Am I but a tool, then?” he asks her. “A weapon to be used?”
A dark tendril of power almost caresses his cheek, that is how gentle her touch is in this moment. You are more.
The grip that had held him in place relaxes. He finds himself walking up the steps of the rhone to pay deference at her feet. He’s not sure if this is the right move, but he is drawn to her presence like a star is tugged toward a black hole. It’s just gravity, and he’s just falling.
The last thing he remembers before waking up is the sensation of someone tugging his chin up out of his deferential stance to stare up into the heart of the goddess.
“I only speak with him,” the goliath growls, pointing at Grog, and the last thing Vax sees before blinking out into unconsciousness is the glint of the Titanstone Knuckles swinging toward his temple.
He comes back to himself on a different plane, lying prone on the floor, cradled in the lap of a familiar force.
Her voice is like a whisper in his ear. I do not grant you permission to die.
“Wasn’t my intent,” Vax slurs, curling into her embrace. She is not exactly warm, but she is comfortable beneath him, and he is very, very tired.
No, Vax’ildan. We have so much left to do. Conviction floods his body like a shot of adrenaline.
Vax wakes up with a start, Vex leaning over him, crying into his chest. Keyleth is looking at him like she’s seen a ghost. Kevdak is on the ground, decapitated, across the room.
“Did I miss the whole fight?” Vax wheezes.
“You were dead,” Keyleth says quietly. “You were dead, and then you weren’t.”
Vax looks at Pike, who seems wary as well. “You brought me back?” he assumes, trying to sit up, but Vex pushes him back to the floor.
“No, no, you’re staying right here,” she says, voice muffled by the Deathwalker’s Ward and her own tears.
“I didn’t do anything, Vax,” Pike tells him nervously. “And you—you were dead.”
The group is quiet until Grog says loudly, “So are we going to celebrate getting these knuckles or what?”
“Grog,” Pike chastens. “Vax almost died.”
Grog raises an eyebrow. “I mean, we can celebrate that too. Thought that would just be me doing the celebrating though.” He gives Pike an incredulous look before reaching into the bag of holding and bringing out a cask of ale.
“Did she help you?” Vex whispers in his ear as she helps him up. She hands him a greater healing potion that he glugs down gratefully before responding.
“She said,” he starts, biting his lip before continuing, “that I didn’t have her permission to die. So.” He gives her a small, private smile. “I might be a little immortal for now?”
Vex’s eyes widen in delight. “Shut up.”
“Does anyone else see that girl? I think she’s following us.”
Vox Machina’s return to Whitestone has been fraught with administrative difficulties that Vax personally despises. Percy, on the other hand, was truly born to rule: he takes the problems of the people and figures out a way for all parties to have a fair result. It’s a bit like he’s tinkering with the populace, seeing how people fit in certain places, examining how two different populations come together and form something rather different than before. Vax isn't sure what that means for Whitestone, but he's certain that they're going to find out very soon.
“The smiths from Emon can supplement the ones from Whitestone lost in the Briarwoods reign,” Percy explains excitedly, “and the Westruun potion makers guild will be an excellent influence on the Whitestone economy.” He pauses, giving Vax a strange look. “Wait. What girl?”
They’re in the middle of the city, now a bustling area full of commerce and life in stark contrast to the deadened town Vox Machina had come across not a few weeks before. Vax and Percy had discreetly left the rest of the group in the castle to find materials for Vex’s broom saddle. Percy wants it to be a surprise, and Vax hates sitting around.
He points at the dark haired girl in the dark cloak. “That one.”
Percy flicks his lenses down for far vision and stares in the direction of Vax’s finger, and Vax’s focus flickers to the callused hands manipulating the fine gold wiring of his glasses. “Who?” Percy asks, and when Vax’s head whips back to where the girl had been, it is to see only a raven sitting patiently on a fence.
He dreams of the same girl that night. When she appears to him, she can’t be older than twenty, with pale skin and dark hair that hangs loose around her face in an eerie sort of way. Every part of her seems sharp: her nose is pointed, her smile edged, her cheekbones gaunt enough to create hollows along the sides of her face. She even has daggers slung on the belt of her dress that make Vax’s mouth water: ornate and beautifully crafted, the blades themselves seem to be cut from the smoothest dark obsidian, shining in the low lamplight of the dream room—his bedroom, to be precise. The dream is, in fact, so realistic in comparison to the other visions he’s been sent that there’s a part of him that’s unsure if he's really asleep after all.
“This is how I began.” The girl gestures to her form with one hand, and Vax appraises her as best he can. She looks human to the untrained eye, but Vax knows better. The darkness of her hair seems to tremble as if, when disturbed, it could ensnare you in a gorgon-like grip.
“I was nothing, owned by scum, paying a father’s debt to a man who never planned to settle.” She sits down on the edge of Vax’s bed, and Vax finds himself sitting on the floor at her feet: he is paying deference, in an instant, he knows the woman before him. “They…hurt me. Used me. Over and over.” Vax’s heart clenches tightly in his chest. He wants to reach out and comfort her, but he does not know how to comfort a goddess. “They called me Reina to mock me. Little queen.” Her voice is curious, like she remembers feeling anger, but the emotion is beyond her now. “I came for them in the night.” She lets a finger trail around one of her daggers, and the sentiment is clear. “I waited for the right time. My blades were sharp.”
Vax offers his palms to her, face up, in total supplication. She unsheathes a dagger from her belt and drags it across his hands. It barely touches his skin, but a fine line of red blood follows the blade where it trails against his palms. “They remain sharp,” he nods.
“In that moment of life-taking, I became her,” she murmurs. She shakes out her shoulders, like she’s unruffling her own feathers, and runs a sweet thumb across Vax’s parted lips. “My vengeance drove me from your plane to a new one entirely. And now I am a true queen.”
“Why did you follow us today?” Vax asks. She gives him a knowing look, and he amends, “Why did you follow me today?”
She sinks down slowly from the bed to sit in his lap. “Come to me.”
“I’m here,” Vax offers.
“You dream,” she corrects. “Come to me in Vasselheim at your darkest hour.” Vax makes a noise, and the Raven Queen places a single finger across his lips to quiet him. “Give me an offering and I can aid you in your fight.”
Vax’s brows furrow. He’s not sure what he has left to give.
“Come to me, my fate-touched champion,” she murmurs, her voice now just a whisper against his lips. Her legs are wrapped around his waist in a bizarrely intimate closeness that leaves Vax confused but aching. “You will need me before this is over.”
“I already need you,” he finds himself saying. He’s not sure where the words come from, if they’re being bidden from him by her indomitable will, or if this craving is truly his own. It is, perhaps, both. He slides his palm against her cheek, leaving behind a smear of his own blood: an offering.
It’s easy enough to lean in and kiss her; to close his eyes and stop thinking; to just feel.
He wakes up hours before anyone else is risen and needs a cold bath to rinse away the odd tendrils of desire that lick at him from the inside.
“Sleep well?” Scanlan asks curiously when Vax joins the party at the breakfast table. “I heard some noises.” His eyes flicker to Keyleth, who is distracted by chicken target practice with Vex, and Vax makes a face. “No? Then that must have been some dream.”
Vax shrugs. “I keep on receiving visions from the Raven Queen,” he finally admits. It’s not exactly something he’s going to be able to keep a secret forever, so he might as well tell Scanlan. The gnome is oddly wise at times.
Scanlan elbows Grog. “For no reason at all, I think Grog should be a part of this conversation about evil entities influencing members of the party.”
“What?” Grog asks.
“Vax is having dreams about the Raven Queen,” Scanlan explains.
Grog waggles his eyebrows and raises his fingers to demonstrate a crude gesture. “Are you two… dream doing it?”
Vax puts his head on the table. “I don’t know.”
“That means they definitely are,” he hears Grog perceive astutely.
“Oh, buddy,” Scanlan sighs. "You're in deep."
There are days when Vax looks at Keyleth and sees only the sun. She is so, so bright.
“I’m worried about you,” she tells him.
“I’m worried about me, too,” he replies.
When the world has gone to such shit, it’s good to have people like Keyleth around you. She reminds you of the best parts of the world you’re trying to preserve. She gives you a reason to go on.
She takes his hand and he can breathe again.
“I’m worried she’s influencing me,” Vax admits. “That my actions, my choices, aren’t my own.”
It’s true that he’s been more reckless since his conversation with Vex about the past champions of the Raven Queen, since donning her armor, since the Raven Queen herself denied his death. Vax just hopes that that is as far as it goes. He is now an extension of her desires: to ignore that fact would be stupid to say the least.
He just wants to feel at home in his own body again.
“Well, we know she’s influencing you,” Keyleth says slowly. “She has the most power over you when you’re asleep.” Vax cocks his head at her and she smiles a little, pointing to her ears. “I’m not that oblivious.” Her grip on his hand tightens. “I’m not sure how much you remember about the tomb where we found the Deathwalker’s Ward,” and Vax’s whole body tightens at the memory, “but you made an exchange that night. You promised to give yourself in exchange for your sister. You sacrificed yourself to her.”
Vax remembers the ritual in the sunken tomb in fragments of emotion: relief at killing the beholder, terror at finding Vex dead on the floor, and grief, grief, grief so deep it pained him to move, to speak, to think—
“I remember,” Vax tells her. “And I’d do it again.”
“I know,” Keyleth tells him quietly.
Vax feels tears pricking at the corners of his eyes and he sniffs harshly. “I don’t want to hurt you. If I can’t be sure that my actions are my own, maybe…” The rest of the words die in his throat, but his intent is plain as day. Keyleth brings that out in him: he is as simple and direct with her as he can manage.
She retracts her hand. “I get it. I—I have to go.”
He dreams of Keyleth that night: beautiful, unreachable, too bright and high in the sky for hands like his to touch. She shines before him, and he is forced to turn away into the darkness behind him.
Come to me, a familiar presence repeats.
“Well, I’m fucking here, aren’t I?” Vax shouts into the void of the temple. Keyleth is heavy in his arms.
Heavy and cold.
He kneels, laying Keyleth on the floor. One of his plain cloaks is wrapped around her in a sorry attempt to keep the body warm. The body.
Vax wants to vomit. He does retch, but his stomach is empty. The Raven Queen’s temple is quiet, save the heavy breathing of his companions behind him.
“Perhaps not the best way to plead with a goddess,” Scanlan suggests, and Vax hears his sister shushing him tearfully.
They weren’t ready. Whitestone wasn’t ready. After months of calling the city a safe haven, after months of sending refugees there to hide, their hubris caught up to them. The white dragon came upon them in the night. Vox Machina had grown more powerful since the last time they fought the dragon at their keep: their quest for the vestiges had left most of their party outfitted with an item of immense power.
All save Keyleth.
They lost so many friends today. Vax is determined not to lose another.
“What’s going on?” asks a deep voice from the temple’s entrance.
“Kohren, you shouldn’t be in here,” Grog starts, but Kohren lets out a harsh, mirthless laugh.
“Where else should I be, goliath?” He pushes past the group to kneel beside Vax.
“My connection to her is broken,” Kohren tells Vax quietly. There are tears on his face, but his voice is unwavering. “There may—” His voice drops away and he clears his throat. “They may be nothing we can do.”
Vax looks into the cavern of the Raven Queen’s temple. It is as if it extends infinitely into the dark. “We might not be able to do anything, but she can.”
Vax glances back over his shoulder at his sister, and the look on her face tells him that she knows what he’s about to do. He mouths I love you at her and she puts her hand over her heart before breaking into a sob.
He clears his throat and shouts: “I will stay here, leave them,” he gestures back to his friends haphazardly, “for you. If you save her, I will do this.” He pauses. “I know you want this.”
The response is immediate.
I would not ask you to leave them, for they are a part of you.
From the gasps behind him, it’s clear that the Raven Queen’s power is amplified in her temple: every member of the group can hear the voice he’s been dreaming of for months.
“You are not asking, I am begging you to take me,” Vax implores.
“Bring her back,” Vax shouts, “or you no longer have a champion!”
The voice booms back in reply, drenched in power and annoyance: YOU ARE THE SUPPLICANT. I AM THE GOD. TREAD CAUTIOUSLY.
But Vax doesn’t give a flying fuck about treading cautiously, not when Keyleth is lying dead in his arms. “You have no power in life. That’s why you need a champion. You need me, Reina.” He spits the name like it's not worthy to move past his lips.
The Raven Queen’s own distaste for her former name is felt by all inside the temple as the temperature lowers dramatically. Vax gulps and just lays his head down against Keyleth’s corpse. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I'm scared. I'm sorry.
“What the fuuuuuuck,” Grog whispers behind him. Vax looks up.
The sharp faced girl walks toward him out of the darkness of the temple. Instead of the plain dress from his dream, this time she wears a gown made entirely from raven’s feathers, glittery and opalescent to the eye. Instantly, every priestess of the Raven Queen drops to her knees to pay deference. It’s obvious that their patron does not appear in her physical form before them often.
“I forgive you, my champion,” she tells Vax simply, and he lets out a small weeping noise in relief. There’s a chance, there’s still a chance that she might grant him this blessing. “I have power over death, but my true domain is the moment of passing. I need a...counterweight, in this case. It has been too long since she passed.” A shiver runs down Vax’s spine, and he nods. “There must be balance. There needs to be a sacrifice.”
“Me,” Vax immediately says.
“You are already mine,” the Raven Queen smiles sadly. “There is nothing left to give.”
The group is quiet until Kohren says softly, “I will be the sacrifice.”
Vax turns to the older druid in agony. “She will never forgive herself if she finds out that you did this.”
Kohren smiles. “This is the kind of thing parents do for their children, isn’t it.” It’s not a question, but a statement. He takes Vax’s hand. “And you’re right. So you’ll tell her I died in the dragon attack.” He squeezes Vax tightly, sealing the pact. “You’ll do this for me.”
Vax recoils at the lie but steels himself. It is a dying man’s last wish. He will honor it as best he can.
“Bring your daughter forward, Kohren,” the goddess commands. Kohren scoops Keyleth up into his arms and takes a brief moment just to hold her there. He lowers his forehead to her own and whispers in Elvish, “I will miss you, dearest.”
The Raven Queen leads him with a hand at the small of his back to the large pool at the center of the temple. “Enter the water and she will rise.”
Vex scrambles up to Vax’s side, putting a strong hand at the back of his neck in silent solidarity. He looks back at his companions, all of whom look terrified.
“I hope this works,” Scanlan nods with a look of understanding on his face. Vax wonders if he would do the same for Kaylie.
“I can’t watch this,” Pike says quietly, turning her face into Grog's leg.
A breathless cry draws Vax’s attention back to the pool. It is Keyleth, drenched in water, gasping for air. “What’s going on?” she shouts, and Vax can’t move, can’t think, just sinks against the floor in sheer, brutal relief. Kohren is gone, his body vanished into the depths of the sacred pool, and the Raven Queen herself has vanished. The rest of Vox Machina race toward Keyleth. Vex stays with him for a moment before racing off to hug Keyleth as well.
A priestess approaches him. “Champion.” She hands him a kerchief. “Your face.”
Vax wipes his face of sweat, tears, and blood before tilting his head at the priestess. “Is she good? Or evil? I can't fucking tell.”
The priestess is expressionless, save the two lines of tears running down her cheeks. “She is the path. She is the natural order of things. She is inevitable.”
“Vax?” Keyleth calls.
He looks to her, and fucking hell, that woman remains the goddamn sun.
“I’m coming,” he says.
Walking to the side of the chamber, Vax kisses his hand and then presses his finger tips gently against the lips of a statue of the porcelain masked entity.
He sleeps that night in the temple. When he dreams, he dreams he is a raven, flying above Vasselheim, a dark streak against the sky.
Beloved. It is time.
He knows that she is right. He has been ready since Vex’s true passing. He is ready now.
“Being yours brought me purpose, my lady,” Vax croaks out. He is in the in-between place, that transitional space between life and death that the Raven Queen rules. “I only wish I’d done more to help you.”
Hush, she sighs. She is in her porcelain masked form now, and she holds him tightly to her chest. You remained worthy through the end of your days, Vax’ildan. That is more than enough.
He closes his eyes as she pets back his hair, feeling the sweet release of death around his heart like a smothering blanket.
They call this the long sleep, my champion. I hope you dream of me often.