They all handle the day differently.
Percy goes to his workshop. He stays there the entire day, refuses all visitors or offerings of food and water. He sings, in Celestial. He crafts a lot of different things - or so he swears; everyone else thinks they all look the same. Everyone else thinks they all look like her medallion. When the next morning comes, he melts them all down.
No one really knows what Scanlan does. They assume he visits Kaylie. Whatever he does, wherever he goes, he doesn’t talk about it and they don’t ask.
Grog goes to Westruun. No matter where they are in the world, they manage to somehow get him there. He and Wilhand eat together, drink together, saying very little but somehow communicating oh so much. At the end of the evening they go to the shrine together, and Wilhand lights all of the candles, his hands shaking and tears streaming down his face. Grog doesn’t like the way he feels when he watches Wilhand do this, so instead he just looks up at the statue of Sarenrae, watching it get brighter and brighter as the shrine fills up with light. He wraps his hand around the broken medallion pieces he keeps in his pocket and maybe he cries.
Vax goes to Gilmore. They have tea and take a very long walk. They don’t talk. At dusk Vax goes alone to the caern he built for her outside their new keep, a place she never got to be, and sits with his back against a boulder placed there for exactly that purpose, and waits for Keyleth. In the moonlight she slips up the hill and sits next to him, hand twining into his. They don’t speak, either. Vax is all out of words.
Keyleth and Vex spend the day together. They do different things, things to take their mind off what day it is. Once they go to a museum. Once they visit an orphanage and Keyleth druid-crafts flower crowns for all the children and Vex lets them ride Trinket. When they’re close to Whitestone they spend the day with Allura; she pampers them and insists on doing silly things for them, like brushing their hair or buying them things. Vex claims to hate it but secretly Keyleth knows she loves it - it makes her feel safe, a safety they’ve been denied for a long seven years. They talk a lot about things on the anniversary, promising themselves there won’t be any secrets between them, between the women of Vox Machina. There never were, and Keyleth won’t have them starting now.
At night they go their separate ways. Keyleth goes to the hillside to sit with Vax, and Vex goes… away. She slips into the night with Trinket and they run through the woods for hours, until her lungs are burning from a lack of air. It’s there, at the end of the day, at the end of those crushing hours, at the end of her very stamina, it’s there she finally allows herself to sink to the ground and sob. Trinket licks her face and she leans into him and somehow she knows, deep in her soul, that Trinket’s grieving too. (Sometimes, when she casts Speak with Animals, he asks her about it. Vex never knows quite what to say. She gets the feeling that all of her lies and excuses are telling him much more than the truth ever could.)
Keyleth doesn’t speak, just sits near the caern with Vax. She grows little flowers up around it, her fingers pulsing with golden energy, and if she focuses really hard on the blossoms and blooms, it’s impossible to tell if she’s crying. She always is.
They return to the keep close to midnight, and with no formal agreement between them, they sit in the shrine with a bottle of Wilhand’s Trickfoot Special and seven glasses. Grog pours. They all wait until he’s poured the seventh glass and set it at the feet of the Sarenrae statue before raising their own in a silent toast.
And as though the sip of the rotgut whiskey’s unlocked his tongue, Vax speaks for the first time in nearly twenty-four hours. He always says the same thing: “Sarenrae, we know you can hear us. We don’t care where she is or what’s happened to her. Send us back our heart. It’s not too late to set this right.”
A chorus, then of Vox Machina’s voices, from Grog’s sedate but wobbly baritone to Keyleth’s tearful whisper - “Send her home.”
No matter what anyone says, it’s always the longest day of the year.
Far away, as removed from anniversaries and mourning as anything could be, the Gods’ Touched writhes, screams, seizes.
She no longer knows pain - or, rather, it is the only thing she knows.
Her blood boils through her veins, her fragile tiny body coursing red hot and dangerous. They hold her down, yelling the same empty phrases she always hears - It’ll be over soon/Just give us the prophecy and it’ll stop/Don’t fight it - their grip on her arms and legs burning their fingerprints into her too-pale skin, scars overlapping more scars. Her voice pitiful and destroyed; she no longer knows what she’s begging for.
And when she finally lets the prophecy out, finally gives them what they want, they fall away from her, leaves from a tree, red and gold and overjoyed. They dump water over her and she splutters and coughs and chokes. They throw bread at her but she does not eat. There should not be bread in hell.
They leave, and she collapses, broken body cradling itself as she rocks back and forth. Her brain pulses with exhaustion and terror, her entire self lost beyond one very clear thought:
They haven’t forgotten me. They’re coming for me. They’ll be here soon.
And when they get here, they’re going to make you pay.
“There’s someone outside.”
In an instant Vex rolls over, wide awake. She grabs her bow and with footsteps as light as any cat’s, meets her brother at the window. “Who is it?”
“I don’t know. They’re wearing a cloak.” Before Vex can tell him not to, Vax has the window open.
“Where are you going?”
“I think we both know where I’m going.”
“Brother. Should I recount for you the last time you hauled your ass out of a window?”
“As I recall, it ended with you sprawled on some cobblestones below, cursing the fish merchant who’d had the absolute gall to take in his awning a few minutes early.”
“That man never changed his schedule,” Vax growls at her in a low voice.
“Just go out the door,” Vex says. She looks out the window. The cloaked figure is gone. “Anyway, it appears they’ve moved on.”
A few minutes later there’s a knock on the bedroom door, and Jarrett sticks his head in. “Pardon my interruption,” he says, “but there’s someone here asking to see you.”
“Foes don’t generally come to the door,” Vax muses.
“And it’s quite late,” Vex tells Jarrett, yawning. “Can’t they come back in the morning?”
Jarrett’s expression, so normally stoic, shifts slightly. The twins, for all their knowledge of Jarrett, have never seen it before. At last the guard speaks. “She claims to have information.”
“Most people do, when they show up here,” Vex says.
“I don’t think you understand,” Jarrett murmurs.
But Vax’s drawn himself back from the window. “About…” he breathes.
Vex exchanges a glance with her twin.
He speaks first. “Wake the others.”
The half-elven woman who’s interrupted their rest reminds Keyleth of a terrified sparrow with a broken wing - unsettled, out of her element, unable to leave, kept in place by something heavy and unknown. Her eyes jerk around the room, never settling on any one face, her breathing is quick and shallow, and her hands twist together in the shadow of her wide cloak sleeves.
Percy brings the woman a cup of tea. When she tries to raise it to her mouth her hands are shaking too badly and tea slops onto the table. She puts it down, looking immediately sorrowful and apologetic.
“Don’t worry about it,” Percy says softly.
Keyleth sits down in a chair close to the woman and takes one of her hands. “It’s all right. You’re safe here.”
“Think that depends on what she has to tell us,” Grog mutters.
Keyleth gives him a dirty look.
“Kiki, you know he’s right,” Vax says. “It’s been seven years. If she’s known something all this time, why hasn’t she come forward until now?”
“Please… please forgive me,” the woman whimpers. Her voice is strange, both heavy with an accent and somehow twisted and squeaky, as though very large hands once grabbed her voice-box and wrenched it out of sorts. “I am not able… was not able… to come. They are always watching me.”
“How did you manage to get away?” Vex asks.
“Let’s start with an easier question,” Keyleth says gently. “What’s your name?”
The woman raises her head, tears glimmering in her brown eyes. “Ieliena.”
“Tell us, Ieliena - how did you manage to get away?” Vex raises an eyebrow.
“I still am not sure. But when I heard the latest prophecy… I knew I had to try.” Ieliena shakes her head. “They will kill her.”
Grog’s expression shifts to one of near-rage.
“This is all very well and good, but how can we trust you?” Vax demands. “Everyone around here has heard about what happened - how do we know you’re not just some looky-loo coming in here to tell us fancy stories and watch us salivate over what might be?”
“Or seeking the reward money,” Percy adds.
Ieliena reaches into the sleeve of her cloak and draws out a small item. Her hand covering it as she sets it on the table, she looks from face to face. “I cannot make you trust me. But perhaps this will help.”
She releases her fingers and a small piece of metal clicks against the table.
Keyleth, the closest to it, goes white. “No,” she breathes. “It can’t be.”
Grog steps forward and, his expression set now in crushing sorrow, begins pulling more metal from his pocket, arranging his pieces around Ieliena’s in a ragged circle. Keyleth reaches up with shaking fingers and slides them closer together. They fit together like hands into gloves, like they were made for each other.
In the low lantern light, glinting like a star falling from some distant plane, lies a now more-or-less complete holy symbol Vox Machina thought they’d never see again. At the center of it all is Ieliena’s contribution - the body of the winged goddess Sarenrae.
Vex swallows. “All right, you’ve made your point,” she manages to get out. “Brother, will you get us some ale?”
Ieliena tells them she comes from an order of holy women in the north. “Our entire lives, they spend preparing us to serve the Gods’ Touched.”
“The who?” Percy asks.
“It is… a person chosen because of their…” Here she stops, brow furrowed. “I do not have the words to explain it. But they…”
Her head turns towards Vax. “You know.”
“I’m fate-touched,” Vax says grimly, a sardonic smile on his face. “It’s different.”
“And yet still I see…” Ieliena falters again. “You understand more than most, I am saying.”
“And… our friend… she is this Gods’ Touched?” Vex asks.
“What does this entail?” Percy looks up from the parchment he’s scribbling on. “How did they get ahold of her?”
“Where is she?” Grog puts in, voice gravelly.
“How do we get her back?” Vax demands.
Ieliena turns to them. “Oh, dear hearts. You are misunderstanding why I am here. You do not… rescue a Gods’ Touched.”
“Like hell we don’t,” Scanlan says.
“She is not your friend any longer,” Ieliena tells him. “The women of my order, what they do to the Gods’ Touched… it erases everything.”
Vax stands up and leans across the table, getting very close to Ieliena. “Listen to me,” he says, his voice razor-sharp and twice as deadly, “if Pike Trickfoot is still alive, we’re going to find her, we’re going to bring her home, and we don’t care how many of your fucking friends we have to kill in the process.”
Silence falls in the dining room. For the first time in almost five years, one of Vox Machina’s own has spoken a name they’ve tried not to bring into conversation, for fear of what it would do to any one of them.
It hurts nearly as much as they were all expecting.
Vex turns her head to hide tears streaming down her face. Keyleth slips her hand into Vex’s and squeezes. Percy puts his hand over Keyleth’s free one. Scanlan boosts himself onto the table so he can lean against Grog’s shoulder.
“Why did you come here, if not to tell us how to get her back?” Vax asks, his eyes still boring holes into Ieliena.
Ieliena thinks about this, idly toying with her half-empty mug of ale. “Absolution?” she suggests. “I have already left my order, doomed myself to be hunted down by their best protectors, consigned my eternal soul to one of the nine hels, brought shame down upon my family who were so proud of my place in the order…”
“And you thought by coming here and dangling this information in front of us like some sort of shitty prize, we’d just… forgive you?” Vax snorts.
“I do not seek your forgiveness,” Ieliena shoots back. “Nor anyone’s forgiveness. I did this all of my own will. And I will tell you what you need to know, should you wish to carry out this rescuing attempt. But you will not like any of it.”
As Ieliena talks, Keyleth revises her first impression of the woman. Ieliena is no broken-winged sparrow. She’s a snake, someone more than capable of deception as long as she gets what she wants. With the weight of her eternal soul’s downfall on her shoulders, Ieliena definitely seems to be baiting them.
“You will need a healer,” Ieliena says. “A good one. A strong one. And even they might not be enough.”
She shifts in her chair. “They are keeping her in a compound the order runs… it is called Widow’s Wing but we always called it Empty Stone Home.”
Seeing no amusement on the surrounding faces, Ieliena shrugs. “It is funnier in the local dialect.”
“I assume there are guards at this empty stone home,” Percy says.
“No. We do not need any.”
This is cause for a round of suspicious looks.
Ieliena shrugs. “The Gods’ Touched tells us when danger is coming. It is why she is there - to spill prophecy into the world.”
“No guards,” Percy says delicately, writing this down.
“You know, there are people who make it their life’s work speaking prophecy,” Scanlan says. “Why not just… hire one of them? You know, instead of kidnapping one of our family members?”
Ieliena gives him a smirk. “You think these people, these arcanists with their book-learning and their hands always out for coin, would be stronger? Would submit to the order’s ways?”
“Pike would never submit,” Grog says.
“No, she did not. At first,” Ieliena says. “Killed four members of my order and wounded twelve others.”
“That’s my buddy,” Grog murmurs, sounding proud.
“Oh, but they took that out of her soon enough.” Ieliena raises her gaze to him. “Now she does not even know her own name - we have taken all of it.”
Keyleth grips Vex’s hand tighter.
“Why Pike?” Vax demands. “Out of all the people in the world, why her?”
“Ah, fate-touched,” Ieliena muses. “I would have thought you smarter than this.”
In an instant Vax is in front of her, dagger to her throat. “We’ve let you in here to help us, and so far you’re not doing a very good job of it,” he whispers to her. “Now, you can tell us what we want to know, or we can eliminate the problem of you being hunted by your order right here and now.”
Ieliena’s expression doesn’t change. “She was raw power, untapped. She was seeking. She was half-promised to a deity but still with so many questions about her place, about her god - close enough to allow us to open her up fully for what we needed. She was a fighter - strong enough to withstand what we have had to put her through. And do you know the real reason we took her, fate-touched?”
Vax’s grip on her doesn’t lessen.
“She was vulnerable,” Ieliena hisses. “Empty and vulnerable. My order… we specialize in those types.”
Vax struggles to keep his voice steady. “You’ve already told us all we need to know to find her. If you’d like to have something more useful as your last words, hurry up and say it. Otherwise…”
Percy holds his hand up, still writing. “A few questions first.”
He looks up at Ieliena. “You haven’t left your order.”
“That is not a question.”
“No, I suppose it isn’t. How about, why did you lie to us and tell us you’d left your order?”
“Someone wants us there,” Vex says, some of the blanks hurriedly filling in.
“Wants us there for what?” Keyleth asks.
“For whatever they’re going to do to her,” Vex answers, her voice stony. “You told us when you came here that’d you’d ‘heard the latest prophecy’ and that ‘they will kill her.’ Someone wants us there when they do it.”
Ieliena tilts her head. The blade of Vax’s dagger sinks into her neck, just enough for a thin trickle of blood to run down her throat. “Do they? Perhaps now you are projecting.”
“But she’s not wrong, is she?” Percy taps his pen on the table.
“That was a question, in case you didn’t notice,” Vax murmurs in Ieliena’s ear.
“No, she is not wrong,” Ieliena responds readily. She remains silent for a few beats, looking from face to face. “Do you know what I found the saddest? Even months in, years in, when she should have been completely broken, she would still try to fight. And she would still try to tell us that her friends were coming.”
She laughs, then, and it’s spine-chilling. “As if you could take her from us now.”
Ieliena reaches into the folds of her cloak and holds up a small sachet. “But it will be most intriguing to watch you try.”
And before anyone can stop her, she throws the sachet to the ground, yells out a word they have never heard before, and completely disappears.
They haven’t forgotten me. They’re coming for me. They’ll be here soon.
And when they get here, they’re going to make you pay.
Though it’s the wee hours of the morning, and it’s pouring rain, Vax does what he does best - he walks away. He goes out into the streets, walks to Gilmore’s. Picks the lock on the back door, walks up the back stairs to the secret study where Gilmore does his “best work” - or so the glorious man claims. The door is closed, but light seeps out from beneath it.
Before Vax can knock, a drawl comes from inside the room. “I know you’re there, Vax’ildan.”
Vax opens the door. Gilmore’s sitting at a large worktable, his back to the door. On the table is a suit of armor, very small in size. The sight of it twists like a knife in Vax’s heart.
“What are you doing here so late?” Gilmore asks, turning to face Vax.
“We had a visitor,” Vax says, aware for the first time that he’s shaking.
Gilmore instantly gets to his feet and wraps his arms around Vax despite the rainwater dripping off Vax’s cloak. The shopkeeper doesn’t speak, and Vax finds himself sobbing into Gilmore’s silken shirt. “She said…” he hiccups. “She said…”
“It’s all right, my friend,” Gilmore murmurs.
Vax shakes his head. “No, it’s not. She told us Pike is still alive.”
Gilmore freezes in the embrace. “That’s impossible.”
“And she says these women… this order she belongs to… is keeping Pike somewhere in the north. She called her Gods’ Touched.”
There’s no response from Gilmore, and Vax pulls back slightly to look his friend in the eye. Gilmore’s face is ashen. “Oh, Vax’ildan,” he whispers.
“What? What is it?”
Gilmore shakes his head. “There are legends about the Gods’ Touched. It is a hellish existence. And it is not a survivable condition… at least, not for very long.”
“They’ve had her for years,” Vax says. “She’s still alive. We can still go get her, bring her home!”
“No,” Gilmore says. “No, that’s not how it works.”
“Of course that’s how it works!” Vax tells him. “She’s alive, we’re going to get her. I came here to ask you for your help as a healer and as a friend.”
“Vax’ildan, you know I love Pike as much as anyone,” Gilmore says, putting a hand on Vax’s shoulder. “But the Pike we all know is, for all intents and purposes, gone. She’s someone else - no, something else. And she’s not something that can be rescued.”
He goes to one of the bookshelves in the corner of the room and glances over the titles before pulling out a large tome. He flips it open, pages through it, and returns to Vax. “This might tell you a little more.”
Vax takes the book from him and absentmindedly drifts over to a chair.
“I’m so sorry,” he hears Gilmore say softly.
The world falls away as Vax falls into the contents of those pages. He’s not sure how long he stays there, transfixed in horror, but eventually he reaches the end of the chapter and looks up into Gilmore’s brown eyes. Vax finds his body tense, his jaw aching from being clenched for so long, all of his joints locked and his entire self full of rage. It takes all of his strength not to punch Gilmore in the face, despite the fact that Gilmore is not responsible for the contents of the book nor their damaging repercussions on the rescue mission Vax had planned before he dove into its pages.
“I have to go,” Vax says distantly, sick to his stomach. “Vex needs to know… they all need to know…”
He takes two wobbly steps towards the door before Gilmore places his hands on Vax’s shoulders. “This is not your fault, Vax’ildan. You tried everything to find her. I’m sure she knew that.”
“Stop… talking about her… like she’s dead,” Vax whispers. “She’s not dead. We’re going to get her.”
Gilmore nods. “I supposed you would say as much. Then, my friend, it will be my honor to join you in your attempt.”
“Thank you,” Vax says, his voice barely above a whisper. He holds up the book. “I’m taking this.”
“I supposed that too.”
“I don’t deserve you. None of us do.”
“Then I suppose it’s good that in life we’re sometimes given things we know we do not deserve,” Gilmore replies. “We’re given them to prove that the world is not as cruel as it sometimes appears to be.”
Vax wobbles towards the door, fingers clenched around the book.
“And for what it’s worth,” Gilmore says, “if anyone can be the first to rescue a Gods’ Touched, it will be you and Vox Machina. I believe in you, my bird.”
Vax bows his head and disappears into what’s left of the night.
When he returns to the keep coffee’s been made and Allura is at the table with Keyleth and Vex. The arcanist looks up at Vax when he enters. “I assume you’ve been to Gilmore’s.”
Vax nods and puts the book on the table.
“We asked Allura here to help us,” Keyleth says. “She wants to come with us.”
“What did Gilmore say?” Vex asks.
Vax mutely points at the book, still too stunned by its contents to parse out much in the way of speech.
Vex sees the look in his eyes and immediately reaches for the book. She finds the pages Vax has marked and begins to read aloud. “‘Since the beginning of time there have been those individuals who are chosen to be Gods’ Touched, and as long as there have been these individuals, there have been women of the Order of the Night Sun who train them and care for them.’”
“They make it sound so fucking kind,” Vax mutters. “As though they’re doing some sort of favor.”
“‘These individuals are not Gods’ Touched from birth, as it is a condition brought upon them by the Order of the Night Sun. Some of these individuals agree to this transformation, and for a while these individuals were brought from within the Order of the Night Sun. This tradition was discontinued after the Divergence, when the Order of the Night Sun was nearly completely wiped out, and Gods’ Touched individuals are now plucked from the community by the Order.’”
“Plucked. They fucking kidnapped her,” Vax growls.
“‘The transition period is not an easy one to withstand, and many of those chosen to become Gods’ Touched die during it,’” Vex continues. “... and then this part ends.”
“It was all that remained of an article written by some shill for the Order,” Vax says. “The next part gets worse… since it was written by a historian who visited a Gods’ Touched. It’s… grisly.”
If possible, Keyleth goes even whiter. Allura reaches across the table and squeezes Keyleth’s hand. “They always make it sound worse than it is. Historians get paid to be sensational and relentless.”
Vax drops, heavily, into a chair at the table. “She’s blind and mute, except for when she speaks prophecy,” he says, his voice emanating from his mouth without his consent. “Her memory’s been wiped, or if she’s got anything at all it’s probably one thought that rings over and over in her head; she can’t get away from it. She’s probably horrifically scarred, as most types of touch or light burn her skin now. Beaten and starved - it’s how they claim the god gets in at first… they think it opens up a window to the divine. And she’s been forced to undergo almost daily torture to provide these demon women with prophecies. Whatever they do to invoke a prophecy - the book’s not quite specific about it - causes high fevers, convulsions, and something called ‘spinal inflammation.’”
Keyleth bolts from the table, shoving out the side door into the yard. They hear her vomiting.
Vex gives her twin a dirty look. “Really, brother?”
She stands up and goes out into the yard. After a moment Allura and Vax hear her murmuring softly to Keyleth.
“I wouldn’t have said all that,” Allura says, lifting her coffee to her mouth.
“They need to know. They all do,” Vax says. “We all deserve to know what she’s going to be like - if she’s even able to come back with us. Or if the merciful thing to do would be to…”
He swallows, hard, and lets that sentence finish itself in silence.
Allura puts her cup down. “Nobody’s worth giving up on, Vax.”
Vax shakes his head.
“We’ll do our very best,” Allura says softly. “That’s all Pike could ask of us.”
“It’s all she ever gave to us.” Vax closes his eyes and pretends like he can’t hear Vex comforting Keyleth in the yard, or the sound of rain dripping down into the gutters.
She hears them come in, tries to brace her fragile body for what she knows is coming. She gulps air and frantically tries to push away from her captors. Their hands grip her arms and she cries out in pain.
It’ll be over soon/Just give us the prophecy and it’ll stop/Don’t fight it, they cry, and she feels her stomach tense, as though the prophecy they want is something she’ll literally vomit into the world; sometimes that’s how it feels. The room burns around her, flashes of golden light against her sensitive eyes.
She feels the bubble of the prophecy rise into her mouth and for the first time in all the time she can remember, she fights back. She clenches her fists and swallows the prophecy down, feels it slide down her throat like a slug. Pain streaks down her arms and legs and she convulses harder, her head cracking back against the stone floor. Her mouth opens and she coughs, choking, and then six different voices, one after the other, all emanating from her vocal cords, fill the room:
“Darling - dagger dagger dagger - oh my buddy Pike - goin’ Minxy - but you can call me Percy - Scanlan make you feel real good…”
She gasps and wrenches herself away from them, and then she truly does vomit, heaving and retching until she’s empty. She doesn’t understand the words she’s spoken any more than she understands any of the other prophecies she speaks, but she knows they mean something.
And as she coughs up something stringy, breath coming in shallow wheezes, she turns her head in the direction of her captors and spits out her last stream of words, these three in her very own voice, a voice that hasn't spoken in years, a voice for a gnome cleric who doesn't actually exist any longer. It's just another foreign voice to her.
“I’m a monstah.”
The mood in the room shifts violently, but she doesn’t understand why. She can’t make the connections, and anyway her body’s given up for the day, dropping her into sleep like a stone into a deep well.
She cradles her one last thought like a security blanket, whispering it to the now-empty room.
They haven’t forgotten me. They’re coming for me. They’ll be here soon.
And when they get here, they’re going to make you pay.
“We should tell Wilhand,” Grog says as they stand outside the keep. It’s early, far too early for any other mission than a desperate last-chance rescue.
Vex looks around at their assembled group - at their family, she realizes. All of Vox Machina, accompanied by Allura, Kima, Gilmore, Zahra, and Kashaw, has gathered for what might be their very last journey. She has a lump in her throat as she considers what it means for each of them to be here, for what it means for them all to love Pike so fiercely that after seven years they’re still willing to grasp at straws to get her back.
“There’s a lot of people we should tell,” Vex murmurs past the lump in her throat.
“Right. But we should tell Wilhand,” Grog repeats. “He deserves to know.”
“That’s why Westruun’s our first stop,” Vax says, coming up behind them. “Once he hears, he’s going to want to come with us.”
“Are we prepared for that?” Vex asks.
“It’s not our place to feel one way or the other,” Vax answers. “He’s family. And what’s more, he’s older than any of us. He can make his own decisions.”
“He’s gonna wanna be there to light one of them women on fire,” Grog adds. “Maybe more than one. What’s more than one?”
“Two?” Vex suggests.
“Yeah. Two,” Grog agrees with relish.
They step through the Sun Tree and emerge in the town square of Westruun. Grog leads them to Wilhand’s home, which looks the same as it ever does. The elderly gnome is standing outside talking with a neighbor, but his face splits into a smile as he sees the travelers approach.
“Well, isn’t this a surprise!” Willhand says. He steps forward and reaches up to hug Grog. “I just saw you not more than a week ago!”
Grog nods. “We’ve got some news for you.”
“Good news, I hope!”
“It’s… very complicated news,” Vex says.
“Well, well, then come in, all of you,” Wilhand says. “I’ll get us some drinks.”
He does so, and a few moments later they’re seated in the fairly spacious dining room of Wilhand’s humble home. Vax looks around at the group and nods at Scanlan.
The gnome clears his throat. “You know we wouldn’t be here if things weren’t… serious,” he says, and for the first time in their lives together, those gathered hear no charisma, no suaveness in his voice at all. He’s raw, exposed, simple. “We have some very reliable information…”
Keyleth reaches over and takes Wilhand’s hand in hers.
“... that Pike is still alive,” Scanlan says.
Wilhand drops his glass. Thankfully, it lands in his lap, splattering his trousers with some of the Trickfoot Special but not shattering on the floor. “No,” he whispers. “No, it can’t be.”
Scanlan nods and continues. “A woman came to see us and she told us some things about where Pike is and what’s been done to her.”
“No,” Wilhand repeats, a little louder. “No, please. I don’t want to hear any more.”
“All right, grandfather,” Vax says. “It’s all right. We don’t have to tell you any more.”
“But we’re going to get her,” Vex puts in. “We thought you should know.”
“An’ these ladies that have her… they’re not nice,” Grog tells him. “We’re plannin’ on gettin’ rid of all of ‘em. An’ if you’d like to be there…”
“She’s dead,” Wilhand says flatly. “She’s been dead. That’s the only thing we’ve known, the only thing we can accept.”
He puts the glass back on the table and stands up.
“Can we get you anything?” Keyleth asks gently.
“No,” Wilhand answers flatly. He moves to the front door, then hesitates and turns back to his guests. “Just… what you’ve told me… it’s hope, you know? And I’ve gotten used to living without hope. And you come here and tell me there’s a sliver of it still in the world - it’s different. It hurts. Pike used to be that for me, proof of goodness in the world, and she’s been gone. I’ve had to look elsewhere for it, and mostly I haven’t found it.”
He bows his head. “Knowing she’s still alive will take some getting used to. Let me think on it, all right?”
“Of course,” Scanlan says.
Wilhand’s face softens. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you’re all here. You all mean so much to me, even though I don’t know some of you as well as I’d like. But the fact you’re all willing to fight for Pike… that does an old heart good.”
He opens the door. “I’ll be at the temple. Please, eat or drink anything you’d like here. And again, thank you.”
It’s night before Wilhand returns. He’s not alone; a lithe young man accompanies him. Wilhand introduces him as Dellon, a cleric from the temple. In the dark of the little house they both look haggard and drawn.
Vox Machina is sprawled across the floor of Wilhand’s sitting room, a giant pile congregating mostly around Trinket in the middle. Kash and Zahra are huddled in one corner, talking quietly. Gilmore stands at the window, thoughtfully considering the streets.
“I have some questions,” Dellon says.
They light the lanterns. Wilhand brings more of the Trickfoot Special, although no one seems to drink it. The cleric sits in their midst, looking from face to face. “I hear you have news of Pike.”
“Wilhand seems to think it is not good.”
“It isn’t,” Vex says.
“Have you heard the term Gods’ Touched?” Keyleth asks.
Nearly as one, Vox Machina turns to her. “Really?” Vex hisses, and Keyleth goes red.
Dellon doesn’t notice. His attention goes to Wilhand. “I have never been one to doubt you, Wilhand,” he says to the older man. “Nor our Dawnflower. Your guests have confirmed for me what I saw.”
“As I thought,” Wilhand murmurs softly.
Dellon stands up. “May you not go where She cannot follow.”
“Thank you,” Wilhand whispers.
Before anyone else can say anything else to the cleric, he leaves.
“What was that about?” Grog asks.
“I will go with you,” Wilhand says. Awkwardly he swirls the liquor in his glass. “Sarenrae has ordained it.”
With that he chugs down the rest of the alcohol and leaves the room.
Vax wakes with a cool hand on his cheek. Drowsily he opens his eyes; he sees no one around him. Wilhand’s sitting room is quiet and still, though he can hear the various noises of sleep and dreaming around him. He sits up.
A soft voice in his head murmurs, Outside.
Vax doesn’t quarrel. He’s been a paladin of the Raven Queen long enough to know that when she speaks, he listens. He gets to his feet and stealthily exits the little house.
Look, the Raven Queen whispers.
Vax takes a few steps into the street. Everything around him is dark and silent. The lanterns down the street offer a few beads of light, and somewhere in the city he knows guards walk their paths, but beyond the faint light of the moon, Vax seems to be alone.
Look, comes the whisper again.
Vax turns to his right just in time to see a smattering of gold light pulse in and out of existence. The lights grow larger, wobbling in space, and then there’s a loud sucking noise and a golden flare, bright as an explosion. He covers his eyes.
He knows that voice, and brings his hands away from his eyes. “Pike?”
There before him, in her radiant astral form, is Pike Trickfoot. She seems smaller, hunched, almost feral. Her eyes glow terrifyingly white and his heart sinks when he sees hundreds of scars crossing nearly every inch of her skin - long jagged lines, short but wide gashes, and handfuls of small dots that, when he gets closer, resolve into fingerprints seared into her arms. He swallows. “Pike, is that you?”
“I don’t” - the projection jerks in and out - “much time. They’re” - jerk - “for me. Please” - a flicker - “so sorry.”
“Pike, hang on,” Vax pleads. “Just hang on. We’re coming. I promise.”
“It hurts, Vax” - flicker - “I can’t” - flicker - “sorry.”
She starts to cough, a heart-wrenching wet sound. Vax steps towards her as though somehow he can help her, though he knows there’s literally nothing he can do. He stands in the street as Pike flickers in and out, coughing and choking, his eyes never leaving her.
Please, he begs the Raven Queen, though he’s not quite sure what he’s asking for. Please, let her know she’s not alone. Please don’t let her suffer any longer, if that is your will.
At last Pike sinks to her knees, seemingly unable to get any air into her lungs. She looks up at him, her empty white eyes somehow pleading with him, and as she coughs again blood pours over her lips.
Vax goes to his knees in a mirror of her posture, his heart breaking. “I’m so sorry, Pike. Whatever you had to risk to be able to do this, I’m so sorry.”
“There’s - monster - front? Glass - footsteps!” She retches and coughs, and she manages to speak a few more words, her form still blinking in and out. “Vax - coming - find me?”
“Yes. Yes, we’re coming to find you. Just hold on. Hold on, Pike, hold on,” he begs.
With a final flicker there’s a loud pop and Pike disappears.
Vax finds he’s sobbing. She’s never been so close and yet she somehow feels further away.
Arms wrap around him and he hears Vex breathe, “She’s still alive.”
“She’s suffering,” Vax gets out, shaking. “She’s in so much pain.”
“I know,” Vex whispers against his neck. “I know. It’s okay. We’re going to get her. We’re going to bring her home.”
They rock together on the cobblestones. Vax sobs into his sister’s shoulder and she whispers reassuring things into his ear. At last Vax just grips her hands. “She… she kept apologizing.”
“You know Pike,” Vex says. “Always more concerned with everyone else’s suffering than her own.”
Something in her voice finally breaks through his crushed spirit, and he turns his head. “You saw it all too, didn’t you?”
Vex nods, not quite meeting his eyes.
Vax leans in and presses his forehead against hers.
They tell the others over breakfast, taking great care to make sure that Wilhand isn’t in the room. Keyleth goes white and Vax wraps his arms around her, whispering things in her ear. Vex squares her shoulders. “She was somehow able to communicate with us.”
“I haven’t ever heard of that being possible,” Gilmore opines.
“Pike does a lot of things that are seemingly impossible,” Vex says. “Like living through whatever hell they’ve got her in.”
“Point taken,” Gilmore concedes. “The fact still remains that the Gods’ Touched, after seven years, are nothing more than vessels. They no longer have their memories or their abilities -”
“And maybe I’d be able to believe that, except Vex and I both saw it,” Vax says calmly. “It was real.”
“How come you got t’ see it?” Grog demands. “How come it wasn’t…”
He waves his hand at the rest of Vox Machina, but his expression clearly seems to say, How come it wasn’t me?
“I don’t know,” Vax says. “Maybe it’s because we’re both pledged to gods. Maybe there’s a spiritual connection.”
“Then how come Vex saw it?”
Vex sighs. “We could debate this all day, Grog. Isn’t it enough we saw her?”
Grog mutters “yes” but his expression tells a different story.
“What was she wearing?” Scanlan asks, obviously trying to lighten the mood.
Gilmore rolls his eyes. “Did she tell you anything specific to Pike? Anything only Pike would know?”
“If you think they’re trying to lure us there, it’s too late. We’re already lured there. We’re already coming.”
“She knew his name,” Vex says softly.
Everyone turns to look at her. She nods. “She knew Vax’s name. If that woman who visited our keep was trying to play some sort of cruel trick on us, she wouldn’t have been able to use that - we never told her our names.”
“That’s right,” Keyleth says, realization dawning on her. “She told us hers…”
“She said monster,” Vax adds.
“She’s a monstah,” Grog says softly. Then his head jerks up. “What else did she say?”
“We told you everything,” Vex says.
“No, what kind of monster?”
Vax tries to remember Pike’s exact words. It turns out he doesn’t need to; from next to him, Vex speaks, her eyes closed. “There’s… monster… front. Glass… footsteps.”
Grog nods furiously, a smile creeping across his face. “It was Pike.”
“What the hell does it mean?” Percy asks.
“Wilhand used t’ tell us a story ‘bout a glass monster that went huntin’ fer little bitties,” Grog explains. “Nobody but kids could see ‘em, but everybody could see their footprints. It was our favorite story. He used t’ do really good voices an’ sometimes when he’d had a bit t’ drink he’d throw glasses ‘round ‘n say that’s what it sounds like.”
“Is it real?” Keyleth asks.
“Dunno. Wilhand seemed t’ think so. Me an’ Pike never saw one.”
“Why would she tell us that?” Vex rubs her forehead.
“Iddn’t it obvious? Them horrible women have got one of ‘em, and she was warnin’ us. Don’t worry, I know all the tricks fer gettin’ rid of ‘em.”
“Or it could be some sort of trick, something gleaned from your mind when one of the Order of the Night Sun sat in your kitchen,” Gilmore argues.
“What does it matter if it was her or not?” Kashaw mutters. “They’ve got a reason to keep fighting. To me that’s better than anything else.”
The Gods’ Touched burns, but no longer with the searing agony of a prophecy being induced within her. For the first time in years she’s no longer dying from the inside out. She doesn’t know why, she doesn’t know what it means, but she feels… calm.
She might not know her name. She might be in eternal golden darkness. She might be lost within a hole of unknowing and rage and exhaustion - but now, instead of just her one thought, she has another to keep her safe.
They haven’t forgotten me. They’re coming for me. They’ll be here soon.
And when they get here, they’re going to make you pay.
Yes, we’re coming to find you. Just hold on. Hold on, Pike, hold on.
She doesn’t know “Pike,” she doesn’t know who “we” refers to, she doesn’t know anything else than holding on.
She ties a knot in her consciousness and grips it tightly.