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watch her fall / watch her burn / watch her rise

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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.

 


 

“Stubby.”

“Mmf.”

“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?”

No, Vex’ahlia.”

“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.

Jarrett nods.

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.

Ieliena nods.

“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.”

Vax nods.

“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.

“Vax?”

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.

Chapter Text

Their journey to find what Ieliena referred to as “Empty Stone Home” is easy.  Far too easy.  Easy in a way that makes every member of the traveling party nervous.  On a journey this long, it would be common to at least see something in the woods or slinking on the outskirts of a village, but nothing approaches them.

Grog remarks on this on their fifth day of travel. “Sure wish I had somethin’ to kill,” he mutters.

“Soon enough, big fella,” Scanlan says from his perch atop Grog’s shoulder.

Keyleth is the next one to say something, on the morning of the sixth day.  The air is frosty cold around them. “There aren’t any animals around here,” she whispers to Vax.

He listens, and within a moment or two he nods in agreement.  No birds, no squirrels or chipmunks darting through the undergrowth, no deer bounding off deeper into the trees.  Aside from Trinket, there’s no animal life.

They’ve been on the road a week when it starts to snow.  Wind whips around their forms angrily, as though even the weather is telling them to turn back.  Within a few hours it’s a veritable blizzard, and visibility drops to a few inches.  Vax loops one arm in his twin’s and the other in Keyleth’s; Keyleth links her other arm through Percy’s.  Grog struggles through with Wilhand on one shoulder and Scanlan on the other.  Allura hangs onto the back of Kima’s armor while Gilmore holds Allura’s free hand.  Zahra and Kashaw stick together, the cleric muttering under his breath, though his words are quickly sucked up into the wind.

“Can’t you do something about this?” Vax yells in Keyleth’s ear.

“I can try!” she hollers back.  She slows, the half-elf twins and Percy slowing with her, and raises her hands.  Focusing on the storm she sends out a pulse of energy.  It crackles into the sky and then seems to jolt back towards Keyleth.  She jerks her friends out of the way as it slams back into the ground.

“It’s a magical storm!” Keyleth yells. “Somebody made this storm!”

Grog trundles over and Scanlan leans down. “Hey, guys, Wilhand’s about to get frozen.  What are the odds we’re going to get out of this any time soon?”

“Not good,” Vax answers. “Thoughts?”

“I can try something else,” Keyleth says.  She raises her hands one more time, but instead of aiming them towards the sky, she just pushes them out in front of her.

Almost immediately the noise of the storm drops.  Vax looks around.  Keyleth has seemingly encased them in a bubble of wind, so that going forward they won’t be subjected to the storm battering at them.

“Oh, that’s nice,” Wilhand remarks.

“It’ll be just a little longer, grandfather, and then we’ll rest,” Vax says.

“You know, I didn’t think I would have anyone else call me ‘grandfather’ ever again,” Wilhand says.  He gives Vax an appraising glance. “I think I like it.”

They push on until dark, when Scanlan hops down from Grog’s shoulder and casts his magnificent mansion.  Dinner is provided and then the travelers mostly separate to their private accommodations.  Vax finds Keyleth curled up in front of the fire and sits down next to her, gently stroking her hair.

“Mmmf,” she mumbles. “Tired.”

“I know,” Vax says, thinking of how long she held up the spell that kept the snowstorm from swamping them. “Come to bed.”

She opens her eyes. “What was it like?”

“The snowstorm?  It wasn’t -”

She cuts him off. “No.  Seeing… seeing Pike again.”

Vax sits back on his heels.  It takes him a long time to try to put it into words. “It was heartbreaking,” he says at last.

“Tell me more,” Keyleth says. “Tell me what the book says.”

“The last time I told you, you threw up.”

“I know.” Keyleth sits up and looks at him seriously. “I think I need to know.  You’re here with me.  I won’t be… I won’t be blindsided by it again.”

She slips her hand into his.  Vax shakes his head. “I can’t, Kiki.”

“I need to know what we’re facing.”

“The worst people we’ve ever came up against, who thought it was all right to kidnap a beloved, pure-hearted gnome cleric from her family and take her away to be used as nothing more than a vessel for their god, someone who will speak prophecy into the world to tell them how they should cause evil.” Vax swallows. “The reason… the reason she’s scarred and blind and her memory’s gone is because she was too pure.  She was too much of a good force in the world - when their god took over and she was just left as a vessel, the fact that she was promised to Sarenrae is what saved her life.  If it had been someone not promised to a deity of light and good and redemption… it would have killed them.”

He puts his arm around Keyleth and scoops her up from the floor. “And after seeing her, or seeing her astral form, maybe that would have been the better option.”

“No,” Keyleth says firmly. “We’re going to find her, and save her, and bring her home.”

Vax kisses the top of her head. “And that’s one reason why I love you.”

She snuggles into his chest as he carries her into the room they're sharing. “Hey, ‘member when we were all fighting in Whitestone…”

“Mmmhmm.”

“And Pike showed up… all radiant and wonderful…” she continues drowsily.

“It was pretty fucking amazing, huh?”

“Let’s make sure… she can do that again, ‘kay?”

"Okay,” Vax agrees, setting her down on the bed. “That sounds good to me.”

She falls asleep against him, and for the first time in days Vax doesn’t succumb to nightmares of Pike being tortured as she waits for them.  Instead he dreams of radiant angel-winged Pike Trickfoot killing a wave of reanimated skeletons with a swath of golden light, and within his chest a seed of hope begins to grow.

 


 

“Whaddya think she’s like now?” Grog asks Scanlan.

From his position atop the dummy Grog’s punching, Scanlan tilts his head. “She’s probably still the same.”

“Vax said she’s different.”

“What does Vax know?”

“Well, he saw her.”

“It’s been seven years,” Scanlan says. “We’ve all changed.”

I haven’t.”

“Sure you have!  You got new boots.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“You trimmed your beard,” Scanlan goes on. “You broke your nose.”

Grog’s punching slows. “You got a lute.”

“I did.  Still haven’t played anything good on it.”

“I liked that one y’ did ‘bout the friends who go out drinkin’,” Grog opines.

Scanlan hops from the top of the dummy to Grog’s shoulder. “Are you worried that she’s changed so much that she won’t be your best friend anymore?”

Grog plops down in the middle of the training ring. “She’s still gonna like me, right?”

Scanlan slides down to stand in front of his friend.  Grog’s eyes are serious and there’s more than a hint of sadness in his expression.  He wants to tell Grog the truth, that if what Vax and Gilmore told them is true then Pike won’t even know who they are, but that falls away as he studies Grog further. “Yeah, buddy, she’s still going to love you.”

“Oh, good,” Grog says, sounding relieved. “Thanks, man.”

“Any time.”

 


 

Vex and Percy seek out Wilhand, finding him at the shrine to Sarenrae in what was once Pike’s room.  He’s on his knees before the statue, his expression very calm.  He doesn’t seem to be praying, though, and looks over at them as they enter. “I hope no one minds I am in here.”

“No one minds,” Percy says.  Vex nods in agreement.

“I know it hasn’t been her room for a very long time,” Wilhand says.  He looks back at the statue. “But to see our Dawnflower here… she feels very close.  They both feel very close.”

He struggles to get to his feet; Vex hurries over to help him up.  Percy grabs a chair from the corner and offers it to him. “Thank you,” Wilhand says.

“I have something for you.” Percy takes out the now-repaired symbol of Sarenrae and hands it to Wilhand.

The elderly gnome looks down at it. “This was… hers, wasn’t it?”

It’s not a question that was asked for an answer, so Percy and Vex stay quiet.  Wilhand studies it for a few beats, running his thumb over the well-worn metal.  His eyes seem to shimmer as a faint pulse of golden light radiates up from it. “I miss you, my dumpling,” he murmurs.

Then he looks up at Percy and Vex, and hands the symbol back to Vex. “Keep it,” he says.

“But it was hers,” Vex says, confused.

“It is hers,” Wilhand corrects her softly. “She will need it again.  Soon.”

Vex’s fingers close around the symbol.

“If you don’t mind, I’d like to sleep now,” Wilhand says. “Is it all right if I stay in here?”

“Of course it is,” Percy replies.

“We’ll let you rest,” Vex tells him. “Sleep well, Wilhand.”

They’re at the door when he speaks again. “Even if we do not find her… I thank you for everything you did for Pike.  She was… she is … my heart.  To know you are willing to sacrifice almost everything for her… I am grateful.”

“We’re grateful for you, too,” Vex says.

Wilhand smiles at them. “Good night.”

“Good night,” Percy answers, and he closes the door.

 


 

Cold.  It’s cold.  Her fingertips burn with it as she crawls across the stone floor.  Her chest aches and she coughs.  She’s too weak.  They’ve been trying to get more prophecies from her in the past few… days?  Hours?  She doesn’t know time any longer.

They want to know something.  They want her to tell them.

She’s fighting back.  She hasn’t told them anything.

She’s tried to map out the dimensions of her holding place before, but they slip through her mind like everything else.  She knows it’s cold.  Except sometimes it’s hot.  It’s mostly dark, except when it’s not.  Sometimes it’s small.  Sometimes it’s big.

Whatever it is, it is not her home.

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 drags herself forward.  Everything hurts.

After five body lengths her head gently bumps into something.  Her hands come up and she gropes whatever it is - a wall.  She turns to her left and crawls forward again.  Six body lengths.  A wall.  Left turn.  Nine body lengths.  A… a door?

Her hands touch wood.  It’s different from the stone of the walls and the stone of the floor.

She’s not sure she can get to her feet.  She doesn’t stand anymore.  The Gods’ Touched doesn’t stand, doesn’t walk - they are made to be punished, made to be crushed underfoot.  Crawling is the most physical activity she’s done in… in a long time.  She feels cold and hot at the same time, dizzy and woozy and breathless.

They’ll be here soon.

Her fingers grope upwards over the smooth wood of the door.  She coughs and chokes and gags and nearly quits, nearly sinks back down to the floor where she’s safe.

And then… then… her fingers touch cool metal.

A doorknob.

For the first time in her captivity, the Gods’ Touched feels hope.

 


 

They crest the hill on the morning of the ninth day, and the sight that immediately greets them is shockingly beautiful.  The sun, still rising, casts a pale golden light over the thick trees and the carpet of snow underfoot.  At the top of the hill is an imposing, sprawling stone fortress.  It seems to stretch out in every direction, tall wings and gabled overhangs as far as the eye can see.  It is, at once, both terrifying and pitiful.

“She’s in there,” Grog says as they stand at the top of the hill, looking down at the fortress.

“Sweet Pelor,” Vex mutters. “How in the hell are we supposed to find anything in there?”

“My guess is she’ll be someplace fortified,” Percy says.

“Are we doing like a split and search?” Scanlan asks.

“No,” Vax says firmly. “We’re up against these cultists - we have no idea what they can do.  We go room by room.  We take out everyone.”

“Sounds good t’ me,” Grog says, gripping his axe with relish.

“Wait.” Allura holds up a hand. “I think we forgot a part of the plan.”

Everyone else turns to look at her. “What’d we forget?” Keyleth asks.

Allura looks over at Gilmore, then sighs. “If we find her -”

When we find her,” Vax says.

“ - she is most likely going to be dehydrated and starved, extremely weak, and unable to stand or walk.  Add in that she’s mute and blind, and the fact that we have no idea what enchantments she might be under… she may try to fight us.  She might be extremely feral.  Or her heart might stop.  She could collapse in front of us.  Or all of that.”

“You’re telling us there might be nothing we could do,” Vax says softly.

Allura nods.

“Then we’ll be glad we’re all together to see her one last time.” Vax’s face hardens.

“We’ll try to heal her as best we can before we take her out of there,” Gilmore goes on. “But there’s no telling how much damage has been done to her.  It may not be enough.”

“Let’s all just agree, right now, that we all do as much as we can t’ get Pike out of there,” Grog says sternly. “Nobody half-asses this, all right?”

Seeing no argument from any of the party’s members, he nods. “I’ve got some of her clothes ‘n stuff in the bag of holding.  We keep her warm, we keep her safe, we take her home.  Anybody who stands in our way goes down.  Agreed?”

“Agreed,” the rest of the group says.

“Let’s do this.”

 


 

The Gods’ Touched groans as she tries to stand.  She feels numb and strangely disconnected from her body.  It’s not an unfamiliar sensation, as during a prophecy-speaking she is truly out of her body, communing with someone else in somewhere else.  She doesn’t know that person - that god? - and she doesn’t want to.  She wants nothing to do with this place or these people, her captors, ever again.

We’re coming to find you.

They’re coming.  

They’ll be here soon.

She has to get up.  She has to go to them.

She’s so tired.

 


 

Vex and Vax scout ahead of the group and find an entryway into the fortress that seems to be partially hidden by a large copse of trees, just a few meters from a pond, the surface of the water clear as a pane of glass.  Again Vax is struck by the beauty of the Empty Stone Home and the surrounding grounds.  If it wasn’t home to a group of women promised to an evil god who’d been torturing one of his family members for seven years, he’d be inclined to think it almost lovely.

They make their way back to the party and relay their findings.  Somehow they manage to all enter the fortress without being seen.

That changes within twenty minutes.  While opening a door into what looks like some sort of library, a bolt of red magical energy hits Kashaw in the chest.  He lets out a scream.  In the next few seconds five women in red robes are upon the group.  Bolts of red energy fly out of their hands.

One of the women steps to the front, her hands up, creating some sort of mystical barrier between the party and the rest of the red-dressed women. “Get Ieliena!” she yells to the women behind her.

Two of the women dart out through a door to the side of the room.  The third throws a sachet to the ground and disappears in a puff of smoke.

The final woman gives the group an appraising look. “You come here for the Gods’ Touched,” she says.

“Tell us where she is,” Scanlan says.

“You’ll find her soon enough.  And oh, it will be a pleasure to watch her kill you.”

The magical barrier drops, the woman shouts a word, and she disappears.

“Getting real tired of these party tricks,” Zahra mutters.

A few more winding hallways and handfuls of empty rooms later, Gilmore sighs. “We’re getting nowhere fast.  I think our best option is to split up.”

“That’s always a poor choice,” Kima grunts.

“There could be hundreds of rooms in here, and if we’re going to search them all one by one there’s a good chance they’ll just up and take her somewhere else,” Gilmore says. “If we spread out we’ll have a better chance of flanking them, converging in the middle, and finding what we came here for.”

“It makes a little sense,” Grog mutters to Vax.

Vax doesn’t want to admit it, but the sheer size of the fortress is quickly changing the original plan in his mind.  He looks over at Keyleth. “Can you scry for her?”

Without a moment of hesitation she nods. “We need something of hers.”

Vex reaches into her pocket and pulls out the holy symbol.  She passes it over to Keyleth.

“Close the door and guard the room,” Keyleth says softly. “This will only take a few minutes.”

She sits down in the middle of the mostly-empty storage room and holds the holy symbol tightly.  She murmurs something under her breath, moving her hands over the symbol.  There’s a long series of moments where nothing happens at all.  Then Keyleth’s eyes fly open and she screams.

Vax has just enough time to get across the room before Keyleth’s body arches backwards.  He grabs her before she can hit her head on the stone floor. “Hey, Kiki, talk to me.”

Her eyes flash bright white. “Oh, God, Vax, it hurts,” she gasps.

“Talk to me,” Vax repeats, holding her shaking body upright. “Tell me what you see.”

“I can’t see,” she chokes out. “All I feel is pain.  I’m… laying… on the floor?  Crawling?  There’s a rug, maybe?  It feels like… knives … in my chest.”

Keyleth frantically gulps air.  Her body practically vibrates and Vax’s strong grip is all that keeps her body from slamming back into the floor. “Keep breathing,” he murmurs to her.

She shudders. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers. “Pike, I’m so sorry.”

The holy symbol slips from her fingers and tumbles to the floor.  After another moment her shudders stop and her breathing seems to slow.  Her body collapses back into Vax’s arms. “I’m so sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Vax murmurs, and he kisses her cheek. “You did a great job.”

He picks up the holy symbol and hands it back to Vex.

Screams erupt from a place beyond their position.

 


 

Hands grab the Gods’ Touched, angry hands.  They yank her up from the floor and before she can even process what’s happening she’s thrown down again.  She lands, hard, against the floor and screams.  It feels as though every bone in her fragile body has been splintered.

Where are they? the voices scream out. We can feel one of them scrying - where are they?

The Gods’ Touched feels nothing except pain.  Feebly she reaches up, trying to grab one of them.  Her hands are slapped away in a blaze of red and gold and again she screams.

Tell us.  TELL US.

Words flow out of her mouth without her consent.  She doesn’t know what they are.  She doesn’t ever understand what she says.  They aren’t her words anyway.

Oh, Gods’ Touched.  Poor pitiful fool.  Poor worthless garbage fool.

Something in her snaps.  After seven years of torture, serving empty words for a power she doesn’t understand, her energy pools under her sternum and flows outward in a single, sharp, golden burst.  Her back arches and her fists slam into the ground.  She feels her knuckles scrape against the stone floor and she screams as the bright light leaves her body.  It’s different than any other light she’s felt around her - it doesn’t feel as though it’s burning her.  It feels safe and warm, like a comforting embrace.  It seems to whisper I’ve cared for you always, I’ve never forgotten you, I’ll keep you safe until your family finds you.

As the light dies down several somethings hit the ground around her.  She finds that she can stop screaming.  The room around her is silent.  She forces her body to crawl forward.  Her fingers nearly immediately touch fabric… and a body.

She’s killed them.  She’s killed… many of them.

Equal parts fear and glee course through her, coiling around her spine like steel.  She crawls forward to the closest wall and slowly, bit by bit, pulls herself upright.

For the first time in seven years, the Gods’ Touched is on her feet.

She feels woozy and nauseous.  Something else has changed, too.  There’s someone else in the prison.

They’ll be here soon.

Are they here?

With most of her weight braced on the wall, she takes her first step.  And another.  And another.

And hopes that wherever they are, whoever they are, they find her first.

 


 

The screaming comes from somewhere higher up in the fortress.  It goes on for far too long, and then stops abruptly.  They bolt from the storage room down a corridor and into an open atrium, doors and hallways leading off it in every direction.

“Split up,” Percy says, his tone low and serious.  Grog grabs Wilhand, Scanlan, Vex, Keyleth, and Kima and yanks them to one side.  Percy joins Allura, Gilmore, Kash, Zahra, and Vax and they choose another hallway.

Because of the acoustics of the atrium, it’s nearly impossible to tell where the screaming was coming from.  It doesn’t matter to Grog - he charges off down his chosen corridor, the rest of the small group behind him turning their heads left and right to see what they’re passing.  A kitchen, a sitting room, a formal dining room, another kitchen, some sort of weapons storage, a library…

“Wait,” Kima hollers from the back of the line, and they all slow.

She gestures to one side. “A chapel.  Or some sort of temple.  I can’t tell.”

Wilhand agrees with her opinion, taking in the pews, the altar, and the large open book on a stand near the altar. “I do not know if they would keep her here, however.  Perhaps it is too close to their area of worship…”

Vex waves Keyleth and Scanlan over. “There’s a trap door up there,” she says, pointing. “But I don’t see a ladder.”

“Grog,” Scanlan says over his shoulder, “gimme a boost.”

Grog obligingly scoops Scanlan up and allows the gnome to stand on his shoulders.  Scanlan reaches up for the trap door and pushes against it.  His entire weight does nothing. “I can’t budge it.  It doesn’t seem to be locked, though, more like there’s something heavy on top of it.”

He tries one more time, just so no one can accuse him of not being thorough.

“Is there another way up?” Keyleth asks.

“Scanlan could just jump up there,” Vex says.

Scanlan leans back. “I could,” he says.

“Find out what’s blocking the door, move it, see if there’s a ladder, drop it down…”

“Do we really think this is enough of a lead?  There’s like eight hundred rooms in this place, and for all we know this is where they keep their candles and statues and spare prayer books, and something just happened to fall over onto the trap door,” Kima points out.

“If that’s it, I’ll know in a few seconds.” Scanlan waves his hand, casts Dimension Door, and disappears.

He appears on the other side of the trap door and immediately freezes.  Nearly fifteen women in red robes lie motionless on the floor - one of them directly over the trap door.  He quickly rolls her off the door and opens it. “Um, there was some sort of a massacre up here.”

“What?” Vex demands.

“There’s a whole bunch of these cultists up here, and they’re all dead.”

“Is there a ladder?”

“Oh, yeah, let me check.”

Scanlan finds a somewhat grimy metal ladder to one side of the room and uses Bigby’s Hand to help him lower it down to his friends in the chapel.  Once they’re all in the room with the cultists, Grog pulls the ladder back up and Keyleth yanks the trap door closed.

“These women died recently,” Kima pronounces from the floor, where she’s kneeling next to one of the cult members. “And divinely.”

“Huh?” Grog asks.

Wilhand nods. “I sense our Dawnflower’s presence in the room.”

Vex and Keyleth exchange glances. “You don’t think…” Keyleth says.

“Fan out,” Vex says.

 


 

As the Gods’ Touched makes her way down the hallway, she feels her feet getting slower and heavier.  They seem hot as she brings them down, swelling with every step.  She props herself up against the wall, trying to coordinate breathing and walking and thinking.

Her mouth is open slightly and she feels words trail out from it.  They’re not her words, but they never are.  These words seem cleaner, clearer, softer, lighter.  She’s tripping them together, pushed by that warm something in her head.  She knows it’s called singing.  She’s pretty sure she’s done it before.

She’s pretty sure she likes it.

All of it’s a lot of work.  The song slows down as it becomes harder for her to breathe.  Her feet are definitely swollen now; they throb with her heartbeat.

She takes one more step forward, one more, one more, and suddenly she hears someone singing along with her, a lower, deeper voice that knows the words exactly…

… and then she’s falling through space.

 


 

Percy trails behind his group, letting Vax and Gilmore take the lead.  They slink down a maze of corridors, opening doors into empty rooms.  There’s plenty of books and artifacts and tapestries and some incredibly hideous statues, but there’s no sign of any cultists or a dungeon fit for torturing someone into spilling prophecy into the world.

They’re passing through a bell-tower attached to a small library when Percy hears something.  He slows, looking around.

Vax turns his head. “Percival?  You with us?”

Percy holds up one hand and tilts his head.

The rest of the group stops.  Percy moves back towards the center of the bell-tower and looks up at the ceiling.  There’s a platform overhead; he’d assumed it was merely for the bell-ringer to stand upon, but now he can see it’s attached to the second story of the fortress, disappearing back in a direction perpendicular to the one the group’s just traversed.

And coming from above, singing.  The voice is light but hesitant, as though the singer is having to take breaths between each phrase.

But Percy recognizes the song.  He recognizes the language it’s in.  Without hesitation, he joins in, harmonizing below the notes.  He matches the beat and the slowed-down tempo, finding himself breathing when the singer breathes.

The rest of the group stands transfixed, all of them looking up at the bell-tower platform overhead.

Then there’s a whoosh of air and a body comes tumbling down towards them.

 


 

Grog has just enough time to catch a glimpse of someone at the end of the hallway - small, unkempt, dressed in filthy rags - before they teeter and then drop out of sight.  He bolts forward, one giant hand out to catch whoever it is, but he’s too late.  And then he’s nearly falling, teetering on the edge of a platform, looking down at the rest of his friends and the tiny dirty person.

Gilmore’s snagged whoever it is out of the air, and they’re laying them out on the floor.  Allura steps forward, kneeling down, and she brushes hair away from the tiny person’s face.

Grog’s heart nearly stops.  He recognizes that face.  It’s dirty and scarred and the kind of thin that speaks of years of starvation, but he’d know it anywhere. “Pike,” he gets out.

“Get down here,” Vax calls up to him.

Without a second thought, Grog leaps from the platform.

 


 

It takes awhile, but they’re all eventually in the bell-tower.  Kash and Zahra block off the doors, keeping a watch for cultists.  Gilmore puts up some sort of magical barrier around them, though he cautions, “It won’t last forever.”

Grog kneels next to Pike.  Looking at her stabs him in the chest like he’s taken a great axe to the sternum, but he can’t take his eyes off her.  She’s real.  She’s alive.  She looks like hell, but she’s back with them. “Hey, buddy,” he says, and he reaches out.  He wants to touch her, wants to hold her hand, wants to scoop her up and hug her tight, but she looks so fragile.  Her skin’s all dirty, she’s scarred all over, and her eyes aren’t bright blue anymore - they’re bright white.  He can hear her breath whistle in her chest.

Allura carefully puts one hand to Pike’s wrist. “Pike, it’s Allura,” she says softly. “I just want to…”

She stops speaking as Pike’s head turns towards Grog. “My buddy Pike,” she says, her voice a perfect imitation of his.

Grog looks up at his friends.

Her head turns slightly, so she seems to be looking towards Keyleth. “Goin’ Minxy,” she proclaims, her voice brassy and pure Keyleth.

“Pike,” Vex says as she kneels down, “it’s us.  We’re here.  We’re going to get you out of here.”

Pike’s head slumps back a little further and when she speaks, her voice is Vax’s. “Yes, we’re coming to find you.  Just hold on.  Hold on, Pike, hold on.”

“That’s right,” Vax says softly, his voice choked with unshed tears. “You held on, just like I asked you to.  You’re amazing.  We’re here.”

Wilhand is the next to crouch beside Pike; he fills the spot Allura vacates as she stands up to talk to Gilmore. “Hello, my dumpling,” the elderly gnome murmurs, taking Pike’s hand in his. “I’m so glad to see you again.”

There’s a moment of silence as Pike rolls her head towards Wilhand.  Her expression is no longer blank; it’s not longer as though she’s merely a machine spitting out words that mean nothing to her.  Now she looks like she’s actively thinking.  Her forehead furrows and two words choke out from her mouth. “Pawpaw… Wilhand…”

The older gnome’s eyes fill with tears. “Yes, my dumpling.  Oh, sweetheart.”

Gilmore looks over at Vax. “That’s… impossible,” he says.

“Pike does a lot of impossible things,” Vax replies. “She’s not empty.  She’s not a shell.  She’s still in there.”

“She was worth coming all this way for,” Vex adds softly.

Pike starts coughing and Vax whips around, the sound all-too-similar to that which he’d heard when visited by her astral form in Westruun.  She forces herself up from the floor, a look of terror on her face.

Vax drops to the floor beside her, pulling her upright, trying to help her breathe.  She clings to him, her scarred hands digging into his sleeves as she chokes and gags and wheezes, the coughs wet and deep in her lungs.  As the first flecks of blood appear on her lips Wilhand reaches forward, his hands glowing with Sarenrae’s divine energy at the same time Vax murmurs a prayer to the Raven Queen.

Pike’s fingers dig in fiercely and she coughs harder.  Blood splatters over the front of his armor but Vax doesn’t let go of her.

“Shit,” he mutters.  Show me what to do, he begs the Raven Queen.

Pike’s lips move in between coughs.  Vax has to lean in to hear her. “Please.  Please.  Please,” she’s begging.

“We’re not leaving,” Vax promises. “We’re here.  We’ve got you.  You’re safe.”

Her hands jerk up from his armor sleeves and reach for her throat, as though she can physically stop what’s happening.  The coughs turn into deep retches, blood pouring out from her mouth.

“Allura!  Gilmore!  Wilhand…” Vax’s voice threatens to die his throat. “Please…”

But it’s Grog who steps forward, picking her up from the floor.  Her body flops limply.  Grog cradles Pike in his arms; she turns her head to one side, still trying to breathe as she coughs.  He takes a healing potion and holds it out to Vax, who quickly removes the lid with his shaking hands.

“Hey, buddy,” Grog murmurs to Pike. “Drink this, okay?”

He pours it into her mouth, the bright green of the potion mingling with the blood still streaming over her lips.  With a strength far above that suggested by her fragile form, Pike fights him, squirming against his chest and furiously clawing at her mouth as though trying to scrape the potion from it.

“What’s wrong with her?” Keyleth asks fearfully.

Pike shoves away from Grog, who nearly drops her.  She hiccups and retches again, bringing up a stream of blood and most of the potion.  As it dribbles down her front those closest to Grog can see the skin around her mouth and down her throat start bubbling as though it’s being burned.

“Shit,” Grog says. “Gimme a cloth, a rag, somethin’!”

Vex produces one and Grog begins frantically trying to wipe the rest of the potion off.  Pike shrieks at him as the rough cloth takes skin with it.  Her chin becomes a bloody mess.

“What do I do?” Grog demands of the room.

Allura leans in, her hands moving to cast a spell.  Gilmore does the same.  Pike screams again and claws at Grog, arms windmilling frantically.  She manages to get a few good hits in before her body goes limp and she slumps forward.

“What th’ hell happened?” Grog shifts Pike against him.

“I cast a healing spell,” Allura says slowly.

“I cast sleep,” Gilmore answers.

When the others in the room give him looks that range between confusion and disgust, he holds up his hands. “We just saw a healing potion burn her skin.  She isn’t well, and we’re not going to be able to help her if she decided to attack us.  Something tells me that traditional methods of healing beyond potions aren’t going to do much either.  These cult members have spent a great deal of time pouring magic and energy into Pike - I’m sure they’ve put safeguards in place to prevent anything like a rescue from happening… although I’m positive they never thought anyone would get this far.”

Keyleth approaches hesitantly. “Let me see her,” she says to Grog, her voice thin in the suddenly-silent air.

Grog hesitates but eventually kneels, allowing the rest of Vox Machina to approach their friend.  Keyleth is the first to reach out, gently stroking Pike’s hair away from her forehead.  A smattering of light rains from her palm, covering Pike’s head in little wisps of green for a few seconds.  The bubbling, burning skin looks less red, some of the damage healing almost immediately. “Hi,” Keyleth whispers. “I’m so glad… I’m so glad to see you again.”

Percy is the next to step up next to Grog, Vex at his side. “Hello, Pike,” Percy says, and those gathered around him hear just a hint of a tremor in his firm nobleman’s voice.

Vex doesn’t speak.  She slips her hand into her pocket and draws out Pike’s holy symbol, putting it around her friend’s neck.  Then she kisses Pike on the forehead.  When she steps back, Percy squeezes her hand tightly.

Vax puts his arm around Keyleth as he steps closer.  He takes Pike’s hand in his and rubs away a few drops of blood from the back of it with his thumb.

Scanlan’s last of all, and his expression is that of a broken man.  He can’t speak, but he reaches out and touches Pike’s shoulder carefully, as though she’s made of glass.  Tears stream down his face.  He strokes her shoulder, bowing his head, then begins to sing.  It’s a low, sweet song in a language most of those gathered in the room don’t understand.  The words wrap around the room in a velvety shawl and though the words are unfamiliar, the tune conveys comfort and safety and warmth.

In Vax’s hand, Pike’s fingers relax.  She leans into Grog’s touch and takes a deep breath.  Then another.  Instead of seeming like a fragile, broken collection of injuries and scars, she seems more like the Pike Trickfoot they love.  Just… asleep.  The holy symbol around her neck softly emits a golden glow, and for a brief moment everything seems just fine.

It’s then, of course, that the doors fly open.  Ieliena stalks in, one hand outstretched and glowing with powerful red energy. “Not our Gods’ Touched!” she screams. “She is ours!”

The red energy snakes out from her hand and swirls around Pike, grabbing her out of Grog’s arms.  She lifts in the air, floppy as a rag doll.  Ieliena waves her arm, and Pike’s body flies out of the room.  There’s a crash from the other room, followed by a pained wail.

Ieliena rounds on those gathered in the bell-tower.  Before she can speak a vine whips around her, holding her in place.  Keyleth steps forward, her face full of rage.

“You,” Ieliena spits. “You think you can stop what’s going to happen?”

“You asked us to come here!” Vax tells her. “You practically drew us a map!”

“You kinda did,” Grog adds.

“You weren’t supposed to get this far!”

“You underestimated us,” Percy says.

“And if we’re going to talk underestimating, you underestimated Pike,” Vex puts in.

Ieliena shakes her head. “No, we didn’t.  She’s nothing more than an empty shell.  I told you this at your keep.”

Vex just shrugs. “I guess if that’s what you think…”

A sharp blast of golden light pulses through the open doors, slamming into Ieliena with the fury of a giant divine cannonball.  The cult leader drops where she stands, her robe faintly smoking.

Then it dies down, and from the other room there’s nothing but heavy breathing.

“How did you know she’d be able to do that?” Vax asks, turning to his sister.

Vex takes a few steps forward into the next room and hauls Pike up from the floor.  The white-haired gnome clings to Vex’s neck, pressing her head into Vex’s shoulder. “Just call it a hunch.”

The symbol around Pike’s neck glows brightly, then dies down.  Pike’s fingers dig into Vex’s shoulders and she whispers, “Go.”

“Yeah, she’s right.  Let’s get outa here,” Grog says.

“What do we do with her?” Zahra asks, indicating Ieliena’s prone form.

“I can think of a few things,” Percy mutters.

There’s a sudden shift in the air in the room and the entire fortress begins vibrating around them.  Overhead the bells begin to shake; dust floats down to the floor, coating Vox Machina and their allies.

Gilmore moves towards Pike. “Is this… is this you?” he asks.

She raises her head from Vex’s shoulder and turns towards him.  Her strange white eyes are terrifying, but her expression is world-weary.

Gilmore steps back. “No,” he says softly. “It’s not you.”

Pike’s head returns to Vex’s shoulder.  She closes her eyes.

The vibrating grows stronger.  The largest of the bells slams into the wall of the tower, showering the floor below with splintered wood.

“Everybody out!” Grog hollers, and they run forward as the bell tower shatters and crumbles behind them.

Once in the corridor the vibrations push against sternums and shoulders like punches from an angered man.  It’s hard to breathe.  Vex turns around to see if Ieliena’s survived the collapse, but somehow she finds it doesn’t matter.

There’s another pulse of energy, stronger than the first, and against Vex’s neck Pike lets out a sob.

As they make it back to the atrium, they all draw up short.  It is no longer an empty space - at least twenty-five cultists fill it, all holding weapons that glow with strange red light.  And behind them, spinning and whirling through the air, is a wide ovular portal, glowing with the same red light.  Every few seconds it lets out a pulse of energy that smacks into the walls and bodies around it with the force of a bull slamming into a fence.

“Gods’ Touched!” one of the cultists calls out. “The time has come to prove your devotion!”

Pike’s fingers dig into Vex’s neck. “No,” she whispers.

“You have denied us for the last time!  You will bow to the god’s will and take your place within the portal!”

No!” Pike gets out, firmer.

Grog goes into a rage and runs towards the nearest cultist with his axe out.  Vax leaps into the fray, chucking a dagger at a cultist with a tall staff.  Lightning crackles overhead as Keyleth raises her hands.  Bigby’s Hand appears, moving in a menacing gesture.  Spells unfurl, weapons raise.  Vex’s fingers itch to pull her bow free, but she can’t let go of Pike.

“Ask Sarenrae to help you,” Vex murmurs to her. “Just like you did before.  Sarenrae will show them.”

But Pike slumps against Vex’s body, suddenly dead weight, suddenly choking and coughing once more.  Around her neck the holy symbol grows brighter.  Vex looks down and sees Wilhand standing next to her, his hand in Pike’s. “What are you doing?” she asks him.

“Sarenrae has shown me,” Wilhand answers softly. “Take good care of her, all right?”

He stands on his tiptoes and kisses Pike on the cheek.  For a series of long seconds he squeezes her hand. “I love you so much, my dumpling.”

Wilhand lets go of her hand, squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath, and runs straight for the portal.

 


 

Few things break Grog from a rage.  He can count on one hand - which, admittedly, is as high as he can count - the number of times it’s happened.  But when he sees Wilhand Trickfoot, his surrogate father, a man he reveres and adores, bolt towards the cultists’ portal, he stops short. “Wilhand!” he hollers.

A lightning bolt strikes the cultist to his right and Grog moves forward, trying to get to Wilhand.  One of the red-clad women steps in front of him, aiming a spell at his chest; he swipes her angrily with his blood axe and keeps moving. “Wilhand!  Stop!” he yells again.

Three cultists grab for Grog’s legs.  As though they were particularly aggressive tree roots trying to stop an afternoon hike, Grog shakes his legs, attempting to free himself.  He manages to get one off, though the other two hold firm.  Bigby’s Hand appears and swats a second away.  Grog brings his elbow down on the head of the third one and stomps towards the portal, now completely enraged.

The portal sends out another pulse of energy that Grog feels in all of his bones, but he won’t let it slow him down.  He can’t lose Wilhand.  He can’t let Pike lose Wilhand.  Not like this.

Ieliena slides in front of the portal, holding her hands up.  Her fingers crackle with red energy.  Grog charges towards her.  He’s not going to lose this fight.

“The portal needs a sacrifice,” Ieliena says in her snakelike voice. “It demands a sacrifice.”

“Sacrifice yourself, bitch,” Grog replies, and reaches out to grab Wilhand by the back of his robes.

His limbs freeze, suddenly surrounded by thick ropes of red energy.  He manages to turn his head enough to see Ieliena’s satisfied expression.  And suddenly it’s no longer rage in him, it’s no longer the desire to see this woman pay.  It’s confusion.  It’s… it’s utter sadness.

“Why?” he asks.

Ieliena tilts her head.

“Why would ya do this?  Why would ya -”

Wilhand’s two steps from the portal.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Ieliena gives him a sultry grin.

One step.

An arrow sinks into Ieliena’s throat.

Wilhand steps through the portal.

 


 

The Gods’ Touched feels the safe arms put her to the floor.  She feels pain sear through her limbs and she gets dizzy.  She knows something is happening, though - something on her chest is warm and safe.  She reaches up and finds it.  A necklace?  Something warm.  It makes her feel better.

A voice rises up her throat and she chokes, retching, thinking it’s another prophecy, thinking these people who tried to save her only want to use her.  She tries to fight it, but it’s big and angry.  It erupts from her. “NO!”

She’s screaming, but it’s not because of physical pain this time.  It’s… it’s in her chest.  It’s her heart.  It’s… loss.

The Gods’ Touched gets to her feet, still clutching her necklace, and yells out again. “STOP!” she screams.

Hot-white light bursts from her, her entire body flooded with power, and it’s the last thing she remembers.

 


 

Grog watches Wilhand disappear into the portal.  He watches another arrow slam into Ieliena’s side.  Then he hears Pike scream. “NO!  STOP!”

Before he can process it, the portal slams shut.  The pulses of energy cease immediately.  All of the cultists drop to the floor, dead, except for Ieliena, who continues to just smile at him.  It’s getting a little more unsettling, especially considering she’s bleeding profusely. “All of them just placeholders,” she says to him. “All of them useless, except for -”

Whatever she was about to say gets swallowed up by a cannon-blast of bright white light.  It slams into her, a runaway bull on a rampaging charge, and Grog takes a step back, unconsciously afraid of its power.  The guiding bolt grows to fill the atrium as though searing the cultists’ evil from the fortress.

One by one, Vox Machina puts down their weapons.  They turn to face Pike, stubbornly on her feet, hand gripping her holy symbol, scarred and blind body pulsing with this divine cleansing energy.

The light snaps back into her as though an elastic band has broken, suddenly and cleanly, and she falls to the floor, loose and limp.

When Grog turns his head to look at the atrium, he finds Ieliena’s body crumpled on the dais in front of where the portal was.  He takes a few steps towards it. “You never should have messed with a Trickfoot,” he says, though he’s not sure for whose benefit he says it.

A soft whuff of energy escapes from Ieliena’s mouth in the form of a small cloud of sickly-brown smoke.  Then the atrium is truly still.

 


 

Kash, Zahra, Gilmore, Kima, and Allura volunteer to go through the rest of the fortress for anything useful and to check that all of the cultists are dealt with.  Quietly they exit, and Vox Machina’s members turn to their true purpose in attempting this seeming suicide mission - Pike, alive, beaten and battered and far too broken, but most definitely alive.

Percy’s the first one to her.  He slides across the floor on his knees and grabs her from the floor, cradling her in his arms. “Pike,” he says gently, and brushes her cheek with his finger.

She lets out a whimper.  Percy forces himself not to recoil at the sight of her empty white eyes. “Pike, we’re here.  We’re going to take you home.”

Her brow furrows. “Pike,” she repeats.  Her voice is crackly and stiff, but it gets a little stronger as she repeats, “Pike.”

“Yes.  Would you like to go home?”

She brings up one of her scarred hands and points to her chest. “Pike?”

Percy stops breathing.  His heartbeat grows loud in his ears and he focuses on the task in front of him - not dropping Pike back to the floor.

“Yes, darling,” Vex says from over his shoulder. “Most definitely.”

“Pike,” she says once more, satisfied.

“‘Scuse me,” Grog says to Percy, stepping forward. “May I?”

It’s the most polite thing Percy’s ever heard Grog say, and he nods.  Grog leans in and scoops Pike up.  She puts her head against his shoulder, burrowing into his neck, and lets out a soft noise of what can only be described as happiness. “Pike,” she whispers.

“Yeah, buddy,” Grog mumbles, and he feels absolutely no shame in the tears streaming down his cheeks. "Y' sure are."

Chapter Text

“We need to get her out of here,” Vex murmurs to Vax and Percy.  Their eyes remain fixed on Pike, still curled into Grog’s neck.  The peace on her face is rapidly disappearing; every few minutes she coughs and winces, her entire body tensing with it.  Between coughing spasms her hands dig into Grog’s shoulders.  He brings his hand up and pats her back.

“Get it out,” he murmurs.

Vax nods in response to his sister’s observation.

“She looks like she could use a bath,” Percy agrees. “Some sleep.”

Pike coughs, deep and wet again, and this time her next breath in is a choke and she starts to retch. “Unnh.  Unnnh…”

She pushes herself up from Grog’s shoulder and starts jerking away from him. “Unnhh… unnhh…”

“What is it?” Vax asks, stepping forward.

Unnnhhhnnn… nnnn… nnnnorth …” Pike retches again.

“Is she…?” Keyleth turns to Percy.

“I think she’s speaking a prophecy,” Percy says tightly.

“How do you know?” Keyleth’s face wrenches with anxiety.

“Just a hunch.” Percy purses his lips.

Vax puts one hand on Pike’s shoulder. “It’s okay,” he murmurs. “If you have to let it out, it’s okay.”

Nnnorth…” Pike digs her hands into Grog’s chest. “Nnnorthh… glass…”

She retches and whimpers. “Please, please, please…”

“It’s okay, Pike,” Vax repeats.

Her head bobs around drunkenly, as though she has no control over it. “Glass… footsteps… in the snow…”

She chokes and her hands clench into fists.  "North… find…”

“God, she’s burnin’ up,” Grog mutters.

Pike’s back arches and Grog nearly drops her.  He makes a grab for her and she slams back into his chest.  She tips her head up, white eyes rolling in their sockets. “Pike?  Pike?”

“Pike’s right here,” Grog tells her. “Pike’s not goin’ anywhere.”

“Pike,” she sobs to him. “Unnnhh… glass… crushing… coming… now…”

And as though her body’s given permission for her to stop fighting, she goes limp against Grog, breathing heavily.  Grog brings up one hand and strokes her hair. “Shhh,” he whispers. “Shhh, buddy.”

“Glass,” Vex says.

Vax flicks his gaze towards her.

“The last time we heard about glass, Pike mentioned a monster as well,” Vex reminds him.

“North of here,” Scanlan says.

“Can you get Pike into your mansion?” Vax asks.

He nods.

“Keyleth and I will stay with her,” Vex says. “Try to make her a little more comfortable.  Keep her somewhere that’s… not here.”

“The rest of us will go sort out this glass monster situation,” Percy says.

“Kiki, that okay with you?” Vax turns towards her.

She nods solemnly. “Yeah.”

“Pike, Keyleth and Vex are gonna take care of you,” Grog says softly. “They’ll give ya some food, a bath and some new clothes, ‘kay?”

“Pike,” she chokes out.

“That’s right.  Yer Pike,” Grog agrees.

Pike!” she screams at him, body going absolutely rigid in his arms.  Then she begins coughing and retching again.  Tears stream down her face as she spits out more otherworldly words. “Four of them… swarming...

With the next series of coughs she brings up a stream of blood and actively seems to be choking.“NO!” she screams, words slurred as though she’s underwater, and begins beating her hands against her head.

“Hey, buddy, hey!” Grog panics, looking over at Vax, eyes wide. “Help me.”

Vax steps forward and grabs Pike’s hands.  Her blood-stained mouth opens in a silent howl and she coughs up another spurt of blood.  Her chest heaves as though she’s finished running a race and she slowly calms down until she’s just hiccupping, tears leaving streaks down her dirty cheeks. “Pike?” she asks him softly, timidly.

“You are always our Pike,” Vax tells her.

Grog leans in and kisses her on the forehead.  She doesn’t shy away from the touch and seems to lean into it. “Now, listen, buddy,” Grog says. “We’re gonna go take care of whatever’s out there runnin’ around.  I’ll come back an’ see ya when we’re done.  Go have a bath, ‘kay?”

Pike nods.

“We’ll wait for the others,” Vax says to Vex as Grog carefully puts Pike in Keyleth’s arms. “Go take care of her.”

 


 

Scanlan casts the mansion just outside a side exit of the Empty Stone Home, one that’s easily accessible and fairly memorable. “That place gives me the creeps,” he mutters to the women.

Keyleth can only nod, but Vex touches Scanlan’s shoulder softly and whispers, “I know.”

Once inside, Scanlan turns to the hovering servants. “Give them anything they need,” he says firmly, though his words ring with false bravado. “Keep them safe.”

If possible, the spectral servants look serious and forthright, as though they understand what they've been charged with.  Scanlan stands up on his tiptoes to give Pike a kiss on her forehead. “I'll be back soon.”

When he's gone the mansion’s foyer is very quiet, the women and the servants considering each other for long seconds, the silence broken only by Pike’s very audible breathing.  At last Vex takes charge. “You heard your employer.  We need a warm bath and a hearty meal prepared.  In that order.”

The specter who seems to be in charge nods and claps her ghostly hands.  The rest fan out.  Keyleth shifts Pike in her arms and they follow a handful of servants up the stairs to the luxurious bathing quarters.  Among other things, the room contains a giant porcelain bathtub, which the servants fill as quickly as possible.  The bathroom becomes immediately warm and steamy.  Vex strips down to her undergarments and nods at Keyleth to do the same.

Keyleth seems hesitant. “Um, I don't know…”

“We're going to have to get in the tub with her,” Vex points out as she takes Pike from Keyleth’s grasp. “Also, it's hot in here.  And if it makes you feel any better, she's blind and I've seen you in much less.”

Keyleth’s face goes red and she bows her head. “I didn't think about that,” she says with a small smile.

Vex procures soap and a pitcher, and makes sure plenty of towels are laid out and easily in reach. “Will you get her clothes out?”

Keyleth folds her dress and moves over to the bag of holding.  From it she recovers Pike’s underclothes, a tunic, leggings, and an over-dress, as well as a pair of cloth shoes.  She places these neatly on a shelf before climbing into the gigantic tub.

Vex looks down at Pike, nestled against her chest. “Okay, Pike, bath time.  We have to take your clothes off, okay?”

“Pike.”

“Yes, a bath for Pike.  But no clothes first.”

Vex sets Pike down on a chair to one side of the doorway and gently starts tugging at the filthy, ripped linen shift covering most of Pike’s body.  Before she can get either of Pike’s arms out, Pike freezes and shakes her head.

“It's okay.  I'm not going to hurt you,” Vex says gently. “I just want you to be clean.”

Pike shakes her head faster, hands digging into her legs.

“Pike, your clothes are filthy.  They're rags, darling.  Don’t you want to wear something else?”

Pike doesn't stop shaking her head no, but Vex can see it's only a reflex now. “We have new clothes for you,” she goes on. “Grog brought them.  He wants you to be comfortable.  We all want that.”

She goes over and takes the tunic from the shelf, handing it to Pike. “He brought this for you.  It's your blue one.  He knows how much you like it.”

Pike wraps the shirt around her fingers and brings it to her face.  She closes her eyes and smells the shirt.  Her expression becomes one of peace and utter calm.

“It smells like home, doesn't it?” Vex asks carefully. “You can wear it, but you have to be clean first, and to get clean you have to take your old clothes off.”

Pike raises her head, fingers still clenched in the fabric. “Pike?”

“Yes, you can wear it,” Vex says. “First bath.”

At that Pike holds out the tunic.  As soon as Vex takes it from her, Pike strips off the filthy dress and throws it on the ground.  A chuckle bubbles up her throat and she claps her hands merrily, obviously tickled by being able to throw away at least part of her captivity.

Vex and Keyleth merely stare at her, unable to move or speak.  The scars they've been able to see are nothing compared to the ones that had been hiding under the ragged shift.  A large patch of Pike’s torso is burned; it seems to be healed, but badly, as though the healer was more intent on leaving scars and pain rather than fixing the burn itself.  As she stands up, reaching out for Vex, she turns and they're able to see two long parallel scars running down her back.  These ones look freshly healed, but also as though they've been sewn back together repeatedly, as though every time they close someone rips back into the wound.

“Wings,” Keyleth blurts out before she can stop herself.  She's not quite sure where that word came from or how the scars even remind her of wings, so delicate and so purposeful - these scars are neither of those things.  But if Pike was an angel - and oh Keyleth remembers how many times they've called her that - these two scars would be in the perfect place for her wings.  Although now it seems that if she'd been granted flight, it was ripped away from her time and time again.

Vex recovers first and scoops Pike up from the floor, setting her in the tub.  Keyleth sees sorrow and pain in Vex’s face and can only assume it matches the ache in her own heart.

Over the next hour or so, Vex and Keyleth scrub Pike pink and nearly-raw.  Pike makes the best of it, threading her hands through the piles of bubbles.  She cries out a few times when an errant swipe with a washcloth hits a particularly tender area; her friends take extreme pains to make sure they’re delicate with her wounds and any especially bruised areas.

At the end of the bath Pike is radiant and clean.  Vex helps her put on the new clothes and watches with happiness as Pike wriggles into them.  Keyleth takes Pike’s heavy silver-backed brush and combs out every tangle and snarl in Pike’s hair, no longer dirty gray but once again pure white.  She braids it back, one single long plait, and puts her arms around Pike.  The hug lasts until Pike’s hot breath becomes faster and she whimpers; Keyleth pulls away immediately. “What is it?”

Pike just shakes her head, tears streaming down her face.  Her mouth opens and she tries to say something.  All that comes out is one tiny mew, followed by a heart-breaking “Pike.”

She grips Keyleth’s hand and leans her head into Keyleth’s shoulder.

“Shh, it’s all right,” Keyleth says. “You’re here now, you’re safe with us.”

“I wish there was some way she could talk to us,” Vex says.

“I could try a Greater Restoration, but… we saw a healing potion take her skin off.  I’d prefer Allura was here to bounce ideas off before I try any more magic.” Keyleth frowns. “Sorry.”

“No, it’s a perfectly normal response.”

“Let’s get you something to eat,” Keyleth says, and she stands up.

Pike tries to get up and takes the first few wobbling steps on her own before crashing into the floor.  She lets out a howl.

“Shh, shh, it’s all right.” Vex scoops her up and cuddles her, soothing Pike’s sobs by running her hand over Pike’s small head. “You didn’t walk much in there, did you?”

Pike shakes her head no, pressing in against Vex.

“In time,” Vex murmurs.

In the mansion’s luxurious dining room, a full dinner has been laid out, made of the finest chicken and chicken-related products.  Chicken wings, fried chicken, chicken pot pie, chicken and dumplings…

“Who’s going to eat all this?” Vex wonders as she stares at the feast.

“Well, the guys will be hungry when they get back,” Keyleth points out. “What we don’t eat…”

“... which will be most of this…”

“... they can have as a midnight snack.”

Keyleth prepares a plate for Pike and another for Vex.  She puts a spoon in Pike’s hand and moves it slowly towards the plate of pot pie.

Pike just sits, almost motionless, the spoon in her hand.

“I hope Allura was able to find more about what’s been done to her,” Vex says, watching Pike clutch the spoon. “I don’t think she’s used to any of this.”

She scoots over next to Pike and gently pries the spoon free. “Let’s start slowly.”

Vex scoops up a spoonful of the meal and brings it to Pike’s lips. “Eat, darling, okay?”

Pike mutely accepts the food, but the second it slips into her mouth she gags and spits it back out.  Her expression becomes absolutely panicked.  She chokes and frantically digs her fingers into her mouth.  The spoonful of pot pie comes up, gummy with spit.  With a terrified, pained howl, Pike gags and throws herself off the chair, scuttling under the table, shoving herself towards the corner.

 


 

She slaps her hands against her head over and over and over, until she sees stars behind the darkness, red and gold like she’s used to, gulping down air, fingers tugging at her newly-soft hair, screaming her throat raw.

The Gods’ Touched - no, she’s Pike, she’s Pike now - has she always been Pike? - she doesn’t know anymore - everything hurts and she’s so confused and she’s tired and she can’t breathe and she just wants it to stop -

A soft hand touches hers and a gentle voice says, “It’s all right.”

I’m sorry.

“Don’t apologize.  There’s nothing to apologize for.”

They’ve been so kind to me.  I’m nothing for them.

“Oh, my dear.” The gentle voice sounds amused. “You are everything to them.”

How?  How can I be everything?  I’m so… broken.  I don’t even know who I am.  I can’t eat, I can’t stand, I can’t -

“And yet they adore you.”

They shouldn’t.  They should leave me.  They should hate me.  I’m a monster.

A soft, warm light cups the back of her head and she sobs, this time in relief, as a child weeps with joy upon being reunited with its mother after being lost.

“They came all this way for you.”

It was stupid.

“No.  It was foolhardy and overconfident of them, but not stupid.  They love you, no matter who you are.  Just like I do.”

Are you… are you my mother?

“No, I’m not.  But you are my daughter.”

I’m so afraid.  I’m so tired.

“Do not be afraid.” The soft hand strokes her cheek. “I am always with you.  I will always be with you.”

The Gods’ Touched clings to the thin-linked chain around her neck. This is yours, isn’t it?

“Yes.”

She sighs, leaning into the warm touch. And who am I when I don’t belong to you?

“Oh, my daughter.  You always belong to me.  But your name is Pike, just as they have told you.  You can trust them.”

It’s so hard.  Where I was… I could never trust them.  They hated me.  They hurt me.  I was always scared there.

“I know.  And you are very brave.  This is your family, and they will make sure nothing like that happens to you ever again.”

I don’t remember any of them.

“Give it time.  Most things are not gone forever.  You already have so much more than when they found you earlier.”

I think… if I’m still the Gods’ Touched, I think I much prefer being your Gods’ Touched than theirs.

“You’re no longer the Gods’ Touched - if you ever truly were in your heart of hearts - but I know what you mean all the same.  Now, listen to me.  You need to take a breath, and then another, and another.”

The Gods’ Touched - Pike, she corrects herself - takes a deep breath.

“... and another…”

The noise in her head fades and she snaps back into her body.  There’s a hand on hers, another hand on her shoulder.

“Pike?” one of the voices asks carefully. “Are you back with us?”

Pike takes another deep breath and nods.

“Darling, do you remember us?”

She shakes her head.  It’s a movement followed nearly immediately by a long, protracted silence.

Then the voice who calls her “darling” speaks again. “I’m so sorry.  We didn’t even consider how much you might have lost.  Let’s start again, shall we?”

Numbly she nods again.

“I’m Vex.  Short for Vex’ahlia.  My twin brother’s out with the other guys, he’s called Vax.  I have a pet bear named Trinket.  He’s the most adorable fluffy buddy.  When we would go places, you’d ride on him.  I can bring him around later for you to meet if you’d like.  Let’s see… you’re one of my best friends.  You and me and Keyleth - this is Keyleth here with us too.  We’re best friends.  We read books together, we braid each other’s hair… you’re really good at it.” Darling - no, her name is Vex - squeezes her hand. “We fight together.  But we never fight with each other.”

There’s a squeeze from the other side. “I’m Keyleth.  I have red hair.  I’m a druid.  Umm… I like plants.  And animals.  And elements.  And the weather -”

“Keyleth,” Vex whispers.

“Sorry.  And you and I are really good friends.  I don’t really understand all the stuff about gods, but… I get pretty close most times.  And I still love you no matter what.” Keyleth wraps her arms around Pike.

Pike leans into the embrace.  She feels warm and pleasantly disconnected from everything.  For the first time in a long time, her body doesn’t hurt.  Her thoughts, though soft like taffy, aren’t punishing her, and she has more than three of them.  She doesn’t feel the slug-like pressure of a prophecy starting its way up her throat.  And she’s so tired.

As though they can read her thoughts, her friends say similar things at the same time.

“If you’d like to sleep, darling -”

“It’s okay to fall asleep.”

“Pike,” she says, and her fingers slide along the soft, well-worn cloth over the arms surrounding her.

“You’re safe,” Vex says, and presses a kiss to her forehead.

As she slips into a dream, she hears the gentle voice once again: See?  I told you they loved you.

 


 

“What’s the plan?” Kima asks as they trudge north, away from the fortress.

“Find the monsters and put them down,” Percy answers.

“And we’re sure there are monsters?” Kashaw sounds suspicious.  Vax can’t help but sympathize.

“We know it sounds crazy, but Pike told us there were.”

“That’s not Pike anymore” comes a mutter from the back of the group.

Vax turns around.  Of course, the dissenting voice emanated from Gilmore’s mouth. “This is ludicrous,” Gilmore says. “We came here.  We got what you’re willing to refer to as ‘Pike.’  And now, on her word, we’re going to fight off monsters that may or may not exist?  Those cultists wanted a prophecy-speaking weapon, so they made one.  And none of you stopped to think about this before we walked off into the cold afternoon - she could be walking us into a death trap and you all just immediately assume she’s your Pike again.”

Vax has a tirade of angry retorts on his lips, but before he can get any of them out, Grog steps towards Gilmore and puts one giant hand on the other man’s chest. “‘Scuse me,” he says. “Were you in th’ same place we were?  Just now?”

“Of course I was.”

“An’ y’ saw how Pike’s gran’father, Wilhand, was willin’ t’ give his life fer her?   He didn’t dither over whether or not it was her - he just knew it was, an’ he walked inta that portal ‘cause he knew they wanted her an’ he wasn’t gonna let that happen.  An’ he was real old, yet he walked all this way without complainin’, ‘cept when he was really cold.  He was willin’ t’ do what needed t’ be done, an’ he did it without any whinin’.  We’re not gonna talk about whether or not it’s Pike anymore.  We’re gonna think it’s Pike until we’ve got reason not ta, an’ we’ll figure that out when we get there.  An’ yeah, maybe she’s not our Pike ‘gain, not yet, but I don’t want anybody makin’ her feel like she’s less.  If yer not gonna help us, start walkin’ home.”

Gilmore looks over at Vax.

“What he said,” Vax says, and keeps walking forward.

They walk on for another twenty minutes or so before a soft series of sounds slithers through the woods around them.  When Vax turns around, he’s unsurprised to see Gilmore is gone.  However their friend left them, though, he’s not the cause of the noises - they continue, growing closer to the band of travelers, assaulting them from all sides.

The noises are odd.  There’s no definitive way to classify them.  “Clicking” would only be partially descriptive; “tinkling” would have a similar unspecificity to it.  At times they seem like a rush of water, in other seconds they have a more definite, stomping, prickly quality to them.

As they make their way into a small clearing there’s a sudden rush of air and the melange of sounds suddenly translate into a series of cymbal crashes.   Slam!  Slam!  SLAM!

And then, rising up out of a small valley on the far side of the clearing, something absolutely impossible veers into view.  Then two of them.  Then three.  And then, finally, another one - larger than the other three.

“‘Ey,” Grog says to Vax.

“What?”

“Wish I knew where Gilmore went.”

“What?  Why?”

“I’d like t’ see the look on his face right ‘bout now.”

 


 

The light in the dining room is soft and gentle.  Pike sleeps cuddled in a ball against Keyleth’s chest.  Vex has long ago encouraged the servants to remove the dishes and clear the rest of the room, and now the three of them sit under the table, the small space where Pike seemed to feel most comfortable, breathing almost as one.

Keyleth brings one hand up every now and then, casting little fairy lights that bob in the air for a few minutes, twirling lazily like falling leaves or slow fireflies.  Vex sits with her back against the wall, her hand stroking Pike’s head.

It’s very quiet, and that’s what makes Allura’s entrance so much more startling.  One minute the hallway in front of Vex is absolutely clear, and the next Allura’s standing there. “Vex?  Keyleth?”

Vex slides out from beneath the table and hurries out into the hall. “We’re in here,” she says quietly. “Pike finally fell asleep.”

Allura nods, taking a few steps into the room.  She bends down to see Keyleth and Pike.

Keyleth waves. “Hi.”

“What’s happening?  Why did you come back?  Is someone hurt?” Vex asks.

Allura shakes her head. “No.  We finished our search of the fortress.  Everyone else went to take care of the monsters we were alerted to, but I thought it best I come back here and give you some information… I thought it might help in her care, but I see now she’s doing just fine.”

“I mean, she’s still here,” Vex concedes. “But she doesn’t remember any of us, and she can’t talk to us.  We managed to get her clean without too much of a fight, but she wouldn’t eat and she was very upset earlier.”

“I believe I know a bit more about some things that have been done to her,” Allura says. “Nothing good, unfortunately, but we weren’t expecting this to be much of a pleasure cruise.”

She sits down on the floor and slips under the table next to Keyleth.  Vex resumes her original position, and they sit there in the glow of Keyleth’s fairy lights.

“We thought about casting Greater Restoration,” Keyleth mentions after a few minutes of silence. “To see if we could help her.  She looked really upset when she wasn’t able to talk to us.”

“But we didn’t.  Not after seeing what the healing potion did to her.” Vex tries her best not to look over at the still-raw wound on Pike’s mouth and throat.

“It’s good you didn’t,” Allura says. “It might have caused her unspeakable pain.  The Order put a lot of time and magic into their treatment of her, ensuring that anything anyone would immediately think of to try to ‘rescue’ her would backfire.”

“What assholes,” Vex mutters.

“So what do we do?” Keyleth asks. “If we can’t heal her with potions or with spells…”

Allura puts her arm around Keyleth. “We’ll figure it out.  She’s already done more today than I thought possible - she’s gotten a few words out, realized she belongs to her name, and tried to stand.  And there’s everything she did back in there…” She shakes her head. “I don’t understand it, but I’ve never felt Sarenrae’s light quite as powerfully as I did inside that fortress.”

“Me neither,” Keyleth whispers.

“There will be a fight to get her back, and it won’t be easy.  But we’ve already won the first major battle - she’s here, she’s alive, and we’re here to keep her safe.  Everything else is secondary.  Everything else can wait for now.”

 


 

There are no words to properly describe the glass monsters.  They seem to mostly resemble millipedes, if millipedes were ten feet tall and had plated backs with overlapping scales.  As they move they writhe from side to side, and the plates creak and slap against each other.  Their faces are blunt-ended with large, jelly-blob eyes that wiggle while they rove and search.  Tentacles, short and whip-like, emanate from their sides.

“Okay, Grog,” Scanlan says. “You said you’ve heard about these before.  How do we kill them?”

“Uhhh…” Grog stares up at the biggest one. “Uhhh… definitely not fire.”

“Okay,” Vax says. “Not fire.”

“Fire just makes ‘em… harder,” Grog says. “An’ poison’s only gonna work if y’ get inta where their soft bellies are.  Otherwise…”

He taps one finger against his axe head.   Thunk.  Thunk.  Thunk.

“Got it,” Percy says.  He raises his pistol and fires at the closest glass creature.  Immediately there’s a crack, followed by the sound of shattering glass.  A plate falls off the closest creature, slipping to the snow below with a soft thump.

“Save some for the rest of us, big guy,” Grog says, and he rages, charging off at another of the glass monsters.

He and Kima team up, axe and sword flashing and flaring through the late afternoon light.  Grog charges and slams; Kima follows behind, all fury and divine smite.

Scanlan thrusts forward a lightning bolt, which arcs into the largest of the creatures.  The lightning seems to spread over the outer glass plates, leaving dark black fractures.  Enraged, the creature takes a swipe at Zahra, who snuck up on its other side to take a swing at it.

“Oy!  Over here!” Scanlan hollers at it. “You’re so big that when you fell down some stairs, you weren’t laughing, but the stairs were cracking up!”

The glass monster’s head turns back towards Scanlan confusedly.  It’s just enough time for its massive front tentacle to miss Zahra entirely.  She raises her staff and casts a spell at it, pulsing something red towards its scaly - but glass-free - stomach.  The monster lets out a howl as streaks of black crust over its skin, transforming into tight bands wrapping around the creature’s stomach.  They pull inwards, digging into its stomach, which ruptures in several places.

The monster slumps forward; its mouth jerks out towards Scanlan.  Percy fires again, knocking off a part of its head, which shatters into a hundred tiny shards of glass that fly through the air like sharp rain.

Kashaw runs up to the creature being worked on by Kima and Grog and emits a blast of radiant light.  It coils underneath two of the monster’s overlapping plates and pops them off.  The monster lets out a scream and writhes around to face Kashaw.  Grog stomps up and delivers an axe strike to the side of the monster’s head.  Glass shatters, blowing back into Grog’s face.  He merely grunts and swings again, burying the axe into its head.

A divine thrust from Kima shears off the back end of the creature completely.  It explodes into tiny slivers, almost like tiny razored snowflakes.  Kima follows it up with a stab downwards that rams directly into the monster’s heart.  The rest of the glass corpse dumps itself into the snow, and they move onto the next one.

At the end of the battle glass shards are raining down from the sky.  Strange white steam curls up from the corpses.  Zahra approaches Vax and Grog. “Gilmore can say what he wants, but if those things had made it into the fortress…”

“We could have been fighting them and the cult members,” Vax finishes for her.

She nods. “Pike saved us.”

“Z, look at this,” Kashaw calls, kneeling next to one the monster corpses.

They trod over, boots leaving black prints in the snow.  Kashaw points out a blinking light just under one of the shattered plates of glass close to the creature’s heart.  Percy bends down. “It looks almost mechanical.”

“‘S red,” Grog observes. “Those crazy as fuck women were powerful with red…”

“I’d like to take a look at it,” Percy says.

“Well, hurry up - it’s as cold as balls out here and I’m ready for some chicken!” Scanlan grouses.

The glass slowly settles around them as Percy leans in and cracks the plate with the butt of Bad News.  It shatters away and he pulls the rest of the plate free. “I need a knife,” he says. “It’s under some sort of secondary membrane here.”

Zahra hands him her knife and Percy slits through the membrane, reaching into the squishy tissue underneath to pull out the small blinking component below.  He looks down at it and suddenly chucks it off into the forest as far as he can throw.

“What th’ hell?” Grog demands.

Percy holds up his hand and the air around them falls silent - two, three, four, five - before there’s a sharp crack and a fireball bursts out of the trees.

“Shit,” Grog says succintly.

“Do the rest of them have that?” Vax asks.

“I don’t know, but I do know I don’t want to be here to find out,” Percy responds.

They grab up their weapons and scurry out of the forest, heading back towards the fortress in the deepening evening.

 


 

The Gods’ Touched - no, she’s Pike, she’s Pike now - she keeps forgetting - but she’s been the Gods’ Touched forever and Pike for just a few hours - feels the thick, slug-like pressure of a prophecy begin crawling up her throat.  She whimpers.  She doesn’t want to wake up.  She’s so safe when she sleeps.

But it won’t stop, and she retches.  The pressure pushes back in on her throat, a hot gluey mass rising up her esophagus, and she tries again to spit it free.

“Pike?” a gentle voice asks her. “Are you all right?”

She tries to yell out no but only a retch comes out.  A hand slips into hers. “Pike, it’s Allura.  I know you don’t remember me, but I’m a friend.  You’re safe.”

Pike squeezes the hand and jams the fingers of her opposite hand into her mouth as though she can physically pull the prophecy out.  She feels the gentle hand carefully tug her fingers out. “It’s all right.  Keep breathing.”

Please,” Pike whimpers, and she gags.  The prophecy’s close to her tongue, to her lips.  She wants to swallow it.  She’s not the Gods’ Touched anymore - they’ve all said so.  Why won’t the prophecies leave her alone?

“Vex?  Keyleth?” the Allura-voice calls. “Has she done this before?”

Footsteps pound back into the room and Pike feels someone else’s breath on her cheek. “Yeah,” Keyleth says, close by. “She… a prophecy happened the last time she did this.”

“Oh,” Allura says, and someone strokes Pike’s cheek. “If it has to come out, let it come out.”

That’s what they always said.  Pike grips the hand in hers.  The prophecy fills her mouth and she spits and gags.  Drool runs down her face and she swipes it away. “Unnhhh… no… unnhhhh… man…”

Her stomach flares with pain and she screams, curling in on herself, smacking her ear with her hand as hard as she can stand.  More red and gold light pierces her eyes and she heaves.  Something stringy crosses her lips and she clamps down on the hand still holding her to earth. "Man… coming… unnhhhh… here…”

Pike swipes at her mouth, tears running down her face.  She forces her body away from anyone around her - she’s dangerous, she’s bad, she’s not to be trusted - and tries to coil into a ball on the floor. “ ... a knife… he has a knife… no, please…”

Pain lances her spine, red-hot, and she screams again.  This time she brings her head up from the floor and slams it back down.  The pain in her spine shifts, minutely, and she chokes out the last part of the prophecy: “ ... coming… for me… a knife… his hands… don’t let him take me…”

With that she clenches her hands into fists and punches herself in the stomach, trying to bring up whatever else is in there that’s causing her so much pain. “Pike?  Pike?” she pleads.

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Vex says, and arms wrap around Pike, hauling her upright, pinning her arms to her body and her legs to the floor.

My self hurts! she screams out in her head.  But there’s something comforting in the pressure holding her to the ground, and she finds that after a few minutes her breathing returns to normal and she can relax.

“Who’s the man?” Keyleth asks.

“No clue,” Vex says. “But nobody can get in here unless Scanlan let them know about the door, so... “

“We’ve never actually tested that theory,” Keyleth points out. “Could be a flaw in the system.”

“I trust Scanlan,” Vex says. “Allura, do you have any other information on what they did to her?  This is only the second prophecy we’ve seen and they both looked excruciating.”

“I brought some books out with me,” Allura answers. “Well, some books and a journal or two.  They might have some answers.”

Pike leans into Vex and clings to her friend.  She doesn’t want answers.  She wants peace, and she can’t find any.  She thought it would be easier with her captors gone.  Thought the mysterious they from her thoughts would keep her safe, would make everything better.

Nothing’s better if she’s still at the mercy of the monsters in her head.

 


 

Scanlan’s leading them back through the Empty Stone Home and around to the exit where he’s cast the mansion.  They slog along together, Grog and Kima comparing weapons and Zahra and Kash talking about something up near the front.  Vax lingers at the back in the falling snow.  As they crest a small hill, Vax feels a hand on the back of his neck - small, cool, gentle.  A quick tap of pain spears him in his temple and he hears a voice:

Go.  Now.  Go to her.

“What?” he murmurs.

She is in danger.  Go.  NOW.

“We have to go!” Vax calls out before he can stop himself.

“We are going,” Scanlan says. “It’s just right around -”

Vax takes off, running in the general direction Scanlan’s pointing.  Panic twists in his chest.  He grabs for his earring. “Vex?  Vex’ahlia?  Can you hear me?”

There’s no response, and as he sprints out into the woods he remembers, belatedly, that Scanlan’s mansion is on another plane.  His breath catches in his chest as he skids to a stop in front of the glowing front door. “What’s going on?” Vax wheezes to the Raven Queen.

She is in danger.  He’s -

It’s all Vax needs to hear before he bolts into the mansion.


 

The door opens and Keyleth looks out into the hallway. “Oh, hi, Gilmore.  Did you guys take care of the monsters?”

Gilmore nods.

“Oh, good,” Keyleth says, and turns to go back into the dining room. “We had some dinner, but there’s a ton of chicken left over if you’re -”

Before she can finish her sentence there’s an arm around her neck, a knife at her throat.  Keyleth lets out a soft shriek.

“Where is she?” Gilmore asks, his voice low and otherworldly.

Keyleth looks into his eyes and a cold spine of ice runs down her back.  This isn’t Gilmore.  There’s a change in his expression, a subtle difference in the color of his irises. “I don’t know,” she stutters. “I don’t… she’s not…”

“I know she’s here,” Gilmore says, and the knife presses into her skin. “She is here, and I want her.”

“Okay,” Keyleth says, automatically raising her hands. “Okay, I’ll take you to her.”

 


 

Man… knife…” Pike croaks, her fingers digging into Vex’s hair.  Her body sweats profusely, radiating heat. “Here… hurting…”

“There’s no one here,” Vex says softly.

Pike moans and her fingers twine further into Vex’s braid; she writhes, her face twisted in pain. “... can’t see… not him… she’s…”

“What can we do?” Allura asks, putting one hand to Pike’s forehead.

Pike winces and her body jerks back all at once. “Stop him… door open… a knife, a knife, a knife, red…”

“Tell us how we can help,” Allura says to Pike, moving her hand to Pike’s cheek.

Pike’s head bobbles drunkenly and her hands clench into fists. “Downstairs… masked face… dark hands…”

Red energy slips from between her fingers and coils around her arms.  Allura grabs Pike from Vex’s grip, setting her on the floor, and together Vex and Allura watch as the thin beams of red encircle Pike’s limbs like a suit of armor, lifting her up, making her taller, about the height of a human.  Pike’s arms stay outstretched, her face contorted in pain, fingers dangling limply at the end of her arms.  Her head still wobbles as though she can’t quite support it.  Somehow without her consent the magical framework supporting her body takes a step forward.  The thin beams solidify into stronger ribbons. It takes another step forward, and another.

“Pike?  What’s happening?” Vex demands.

Pike cries out in a tortured wail, and for a moment her voice reverts to normal again. “Vex?  Scared, Vex!”

“It’s all right, we’re here.  Just tell us what to do!”

The red construct turns, Pike’s body held up inside of it like a gift in a box, and though Pike’s mouth moves, it is no longer her voice.  Something deep and raw and dark emanates out: “Just stay out of my way.”

Chapter Text

Vex and Allura stand frozen as they watch the golem-like construct, the suit of red armor, with Pike’s body inside, as it marches its way out the door.  That inaction lasts for only a few brief moments before both of them jerk into action.  Allura bolts out into the hallway after Pike; Vex grabs her bow and follows suits nearly immediately thereafter.

Vax is downstairs in the front foyer, looking nearly hysterical. “Where’s Pike?”

“You didn’t see that… thing?” Vex whispers.

“What thing?”

Vex shakes her head. “It’s… I can’t explain it.”

“Where’s Keyleth?” Vax asks.

“I don’t know.  She was right here.”

Vax touches his earring. “Kiki?”

There’s no answer.

“Pike said something about a man coming here to take her,” Vex tells him.

“Shit,” Vax bites out.

“What is it?”

“Gilmore.”

“Why would Gilmore try to take Pike?” Allura asks.

“I don’t know, but he left the party after claiming Pike was nothing more than a prophecy-speaking weapon.”

“About that,” Vex says.  She quickly fills him in on the golem’s appearance.

“What the fuck did they do to her in that place?” Vax whispers.

“I don’t think she wanted it to happen.  I don’t think it’s painless for her, judging from the look on her face when it happened.  And the fact she cried out to tell Vex she was scared,” Allura says.

Vax’s hand tightens on his dagger hilt.

“Are the others behind you?” Vex asks her brother.

Vax nods. “But I don’t want to wait.  Not if…”

From somewhere low in the building there’s a loud thump.  Then a series of them - thump thump thump thump THUMP.

Somewhere between the first and second thumps Vax takes off, Vex hot on his heels.

“Tell the others where we are,” Vax tells Allura as they disappear down the stairs.

As they descend, Vax tries his earring again, whispering, “Kiki?”

Still no answer.

The stairwell down to the hot springs and training area is well-lit, and there are no signs of anyone.  Vex pokes her head into the wine cellar; it’s dim and similarly unaffected.  The thumping noises still continue as they move further down the hallway.

“I can’t tell who I want to be causing that noise,” Vex murmurs to Vax.

“As long as it’s not Gilmore, I don’t care.”

“You didn’t see Pike’s face.  She was genuinely terrified of what was happening.  I don’t think she can control the armor… or whatever it is.”

“As long as it’s not Gilmore, we can fix it,” Vax says.

The thumping stops abruptly as they find themselves moving towards a partially-opened door.  Suddenly there’s a whoomph as fire blasts through the corridor. Vax grabs Vex and tackles her to the floor.  Since they were still a few feet away from the door, the fire whooshes past them, flaring overhead in a bright, brilliant scarf of flame.

“That’s Keyleth,” Vex rasps into Vax’s ear. “I recognize it.”

The door - or what’s left of the door - opens and Keyleth stumbles out.  Vax is up off the floor in an instant.  He grabs her.

Keyleth shoves him away from her and her hands become balls of flame.  She bites out a curse in a language Vax doesn’t understand.

“It’s me!” Vax says, holding up his hands.

“Oh, Vax,” she whimpers.  Her hands extinguish themselves in an instant and she throws her arms around him.

“What happened?” he asks.

“Gilmore… he… something happened to him,” Keyleth gets out. “He…”

She pulls back from him, her hand going to her neck almost immediately.  Vax gently takes her fingers in his, looking at the spot she’d reached for. “Shit,” he says, looking at the still-bleeding slash.  He murmurs a few words to the Raven Queen and lays his hands on her neck; the wound glows and the skin knits itself back together.

“He had a knife,” Keyleth says.  She sounds stunned, as though she still can’t believe everything that’s happening.

“Did you see Pike?” Vex asks.

Keyleth shakes her head no.

Vex moves to the open door.  The room is empty. “Where does this room go?”

“He just… appeared,” Keyleth says. “I tried to get him away from me, but he’s… something’s happened to him.”

From upstairs there’s a thud, and Scanlan’s voice comes over the earrings. “Oy.  Tell us what’s happening.”

“Gilmore’s not Gilmore,” Vax says. “He attacked Keyleth.”

“And Pike’s technically… not Pike at the moment,” Vex adds.

Their statements are followed by a long pause.  Then Grog says, “Can you… repeat that… but like… not the smart way?”

 


 

Trapped inside the armor golem Pike tries to fight.  It’s hard.  The entire thing hurts.  It’s clamped around her body, sucking out her energy, her spirit in order to power itself.  She can barely keep breathing as it moves, seeking out the enemy it’s decided threatens the Gods’ Touched.

I am not the Gods’ Touched! she screams at it.  I’m Pike and I’m real!

The golem stomps forward, untouched by her pleas.

She tries to reach up for the pendant around her neck, seeking for the nameless motherly presence that had comforted her so well earlier.  As her fingers attempt to clutch around it, the inner workings of the golem clench her hand and she screams.  The golem doesn’t want her doing anything but powering it.  She’s fuel and nothing more.

I’m Pike and I’m real!

 


 

As Vex starts to rattle off an explanation through the earring, Grog catches movement out of the corner of his eye and whirls to face it.  He comes nearly face-to-face with the most terrifying thing he’s ever seen.

A red golem marches towards him, its steps plodding but fierce, and trapped inside its thick wire-wrapped chest is his buddy Pike.  Her arms and legs outstretched, some sort of pulsing cable coiled around her torso.  Her mouth is open in a scream, but no sound is coming out.  As the golem draws closer Grog sees tears streaking down Pike’s face.

“Holy shit,” Zahra says from behind him. “What is that?”

“Where is he?” the golem demands.  Its voice is low and gravelly.  As it speaks Pike’s body thrashes within its rib cage.

Kima steps up behind Grog, sword at the ready.

“Where is he?!” the golem roars.  It stomps towards them.

From behind it there’s a whiz and an arrow sinks into the golem’s head.  It whirls around and stares angrily at its attacker - Vex.

“Let our friend go,” Vex says, her voice steely.

Allura appears behind the twins and Keyleth.  She holds up her hands towards the golem. “We mean you no harm,” she says, stepping forward. “He is not here.”

Grog raises his axe and approaches the golem from behind.  As he raises it, the golem speaks. “He is not here?”

It sounds oddly contrite.

“No,” Allura says firmly. “There is no danger to your mistresses.”

Grog cocks his head and looks over at Scanlan.  Scanlan shrugs.

“If he is not here, why do I sense him?” the golem asks.

Allura freezes.  It’s clear she has no answer to that question.

Inside the golem Pike writhes, one hand jerking its way up to her holy symbol.  Somehow Grog knows she’s getting weaker.  He knows they don’t have much time.

“He will only hurt you,” the golem says.

“Please believe us,” Vax says, stepping up behind Allura. “We will not rest until we find him and stop him.  But you are hurting our friend.”

Pike’s spasms are slowing, her face nearly as white as the snow just outside the mansion door.

The golem bows its head. “I am sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Vax tells it. “Just please… let her go.  She has suffered so much already.”

“I understand,” the golem says solemnly. “If you need me…”

Inside the golem’s chest Pike’s fingers finally brush her holy symbol.

Nearly immediately the entire golem bursts outward, energy blasting out from Pike’s form.  She drops to the floor, gasping like a fish out of water.

Grog is the first one to her, scooping her up from the floor.  Her lips are scabby and dry and he can hear her breathing, slow and irregular; veins throb in her too-pale skin. “I gotcha, buddy,” he murmurs, holding her close. “Tell me what y’ need.”

Pike brings one hand up to his neck. “Pike,” she whispers.

“Water,” Vax says to one of the servants, still hovering nervously near Scanlan.

“And chicken broth,” Vex adds. “And some bread.”

The servant nods and floats off.

“Pike,” Pike tells Grog, limp against his body.

Grog looks over at Allura. “Y’ found some books in there, right?  ‘Bout stuff they did t’ her?”

“Yes.”

“We should know what they say,” Percy says. “To know what to do… should this occur again.”

“What about Gilmore?” Keyleth asks.

“We’ll find him, and we’ll deal with him,” Vax says.

“He’s not… Gilmore,” she mutters.

Two servants return with water, chicken broth, and bread, and they attempt, a bit hilariously, to herd the group into the dining room.  Vex takes the bread and begins ripping it into tiny chunks, which she drops into the broth.  Grog sits with Pike upright against him and Vax brings a cup of water to her lips. “Drink something, Pickle,” he murmurs.

Pike accepts the first sip of water, and as she swallows she brings her hands up to grip the cup.  Her next drinks are longer and longer, continuing until she’s drained the cup. “Pike,” she says softly.

“I’ll get you more,” Vax says, and brushes his hand against her cheek.

“That’s my brother,” Vex tells Pike as she slides into Vax’s spot. “His name is Vax.”

“She knows that,” Grog says.

Vex looks up at Grog, her eyes sad. “She doesn’t… she doesn’t remember us, Grog,” she says in a hushed tone. “We asked her.”

Grog’s expression turns to someone just slapped in the face. “She… y’ don’t…?”

He looks down at Pike. “But… but y’ have t’ know who I am.”

Accusingly he looks back up at Vex. “Y’ heard her talk in my voice back in th’ crazy house!  She knew me then!”

“It was an imprint, Grog.  She didn’t understand it or know what it meant,” Allura says carefully. “It was something left over from before… before they wiped her memory.  She kept it, but they took away its meaning and significance.”

Vex watches as Grog’s eyes fill with tears. “It’s all right,” she says, putting a hand on his arm.

“No, it’s not,” Grog gets out. “They took…”

“They took everything,” Vex agrees. “But we’re going to give it all back to her.”

Grog bows his head.

Somehow Vex knows the conversation’s over.  She watches as tears drip down Grog’s face and into Pike’s hair.

Pike, to her credit, seems to understand part of Grog’s sadness.  Her fingers stroke his arm. “Pike,” she whispers tenderly.

“Pike, darling, let’s try giving you something to eat,” Vex suggests.  She dips her fingers into the tureen of chicken broth and fishes out one of the now-soggy bread chunks.  Carefully she touches the side of Pike’s mouth.

Like an infant her head turns towards the stimulus, and Vex slips the broth-soaked bread into Pike’s mouth.  There’s a terrifying instant where Vex thinks Pike will vomit it up the way she did the pot pie earlier, but Pike closes her mouth and swallows, then lets out a soft, appreciative sigh.

“Another?” Vex asks.

Pike nods.

“I’ll do it,” Grog rumbles from above them both.

“Are you sure?”

“‘Course I’m sure.  Fed her all the time when she was sick,” Grog answers.

“At least let me wipe your hands first,” Vex says.

Grog rolls his eyes, clearly indicating what he thinks about that request, but patiently waits for Vex to procure a wet washcloth from one of the servants.  When his fingers are cleaned to Vex’s satisfaction, he dips into the tureen and brings out another morsel of bread. “Now, I’ve just been told y’ don’t know who I am,” he says as he feeds it to Pike, “an’ that’s sad.  So I’m gonna tell ya. I’m Grog, an’ I’m yer best friend.”

Like a mother bird feeding her chick, Grog manages to feed Pike nearly an entire loaf of bread soaked in chicken broth until it’s nearly falling apart.  In between bites he tells her of their friendship, of how it started with her rescuing him, of growing up together in Westruun, of their adventures since.  About Sarenrae (at least as much as Grog can remember), and Pike’s devotion to her.  Of Wilhand, and how important he was to both of them.  Of everything Wilhand sacrificed for her.  For them.  For all of them.

The others leave the two of them alone for the duration of the meal.  Vax only approaches periodically to give Pike more sips of water, then withdraws to the corner of the room with the rest.

When the food is gone Pike tilts her head back, and though her eyes are still blank, Grog somehow knows she’s looking right at him. “I missed ya so much,” he murmurs. “I never… I never stopped hopin’ y’ were still alive.”

“Pike,” she tells him drowsily.

“Yeah, buddy,” Grog says. “C’mon, I’ll find ya a bed.”

Pike comes a little more awake at that and shakes her head. “Pike,” she says, a little more firmly.

“Y’ just want… t’ stay here?”

“Pike,” she answers, and curls up against him.

“Well… okay then.”

When it’s clear she’s asleep, Grog looks over at Allura. “Start talkin’,” he says.

 


 

“The process to transform her into the Gods’ Touched was absolutely torturous,” Allura says. “It took months, perhaps even a whole year.  I do know that she fought them every single step of the way.”

“Good,” Vax says tightly.

“At first they started with actual, literal torture,” Allura goes on.  Seeing the aghast faces around her, she says, “I can stop at any time.”

“We need to know this,” Percy says.

Keyleth slips her hand into Vax’s and bows her head.

“All right,” Allura says. “I’ll try to be as kind about this as I can be.  They beat her within an inch of her life and then brought her back.  As many times as they needed to.  They needed her to fear them, and then they needed her to need them.  They starved her.  They would leave her injured for days at a time before helping her.  They kept her in the dark, naked.

“When her body could physically take no more, she slipped into some sort of… ‘between’ state.  She was still alive, but unresponsive.  Her mind was broken.  That was when they brought in their leader, that Ieliena.”

Everyone in the room seems to freeze at that name.  Kima’s fingers curl around her sword.

“She was the one who wiped Pike’s memories.  She was the one who put the magical restrictions in place in Pike’s body that cause healing potions to burn her.  She created a barrier between Pike and certain spells - like greater restorations.  Those would probably kill Pike at this point.  And then, when her body was emptied and her mind was emptied, they called down their god and let her inside.”

Allura looks at Kima and they share a wordless conversation.  Kima passes over the closest mug of ale and Allura takes a very long drink before she continues. “That was when Pike went blind.  Something in her was still there, something of Sarenrae’s champion was still fighting back, and when those… those evil women attempted to fill Pike with their god, Pike and Sarenrae fought back.  It should have wiped whatever was left, but there was enough goodness in Pike to keep going.”

Scanlan raises his hand. “How do we know for sure that… that this is really, truly Pike?”

Heads turn towards him.  Immediately he puts his hands up. “I know I sound like Gilmore right now, but… if she doesn’t remember any of us, and if a tiny bit of whoever was the only reason she lived, who’s to say that tiny bit isn’t… actually… her?”

The room goes silent.  Finally Grog speaks up. “She knew Wilhand.”

“And Sarenrae’s worked through her,” Keyleth adds softly. “If that evil god was all that’s in there…”

“I mean, I don’t want to break anyone’s heart, but a golem just took over her body and tried to attack us,” Scanlan says.

“It only attacked Gilmore,” Vex tells him. “Or, technically, the thing inside Gilmore.”

“About the golem,” Allura says, and attention turns back to her. “They created that as a self-defense mechanism.”

“She did tell us they had no need for guards,” Percy murmurs.

Allura nods. “I’m not sure what it was that made its way into Gilmore, but the golem was supposed to be activated when any of the members of Ieliena’s order were in danger.  I’m guessing its purpose has now shifted to fight off anyone who threatens the Gods’ Touched.”

“She’s not the Gods’ Touched,” Grog mutters, and gently strokes Pike’s head.

“I know that,” Allura says, “but I don’t think the magical activation cues they placed into her body know that.”

“You’re saying it’s going to attack… us?” Vax asks.

Allura shakes her head. “I don’t think so.  So far you all seem to be protecting Pike.  It should leave you alone.  But I wouldn’t try to put her in any situation that would cause it to come out, at least until we get rid of it, because according to the journals, it uses Pike’s life force to work.  Too much use of it could conceivably kill her, though Ieliena’s journals all state it was very effective and was rarely needed for any longer than a few moments.”

“What can we do?” Percy asks.

Allura sighs. “Until we get her somewhere else, perhaps back to Emon, and can have someone with more magical experience take a look at her, nothing.  If they can even do something, it will be a long and arduous process.”

“Any thoughts on that portal?” Zahra leans in.

“None,” Allura says. “That, too, will require research.”

“I did some sketches of it,” Kash offers.

“Thank you,” Allura says.

Scanlan looks over at Vax. “You said you chased Gilmore into the basement, but he just disappeared.  Does that mean he’s still in the house somewhere?”

“Unless your magnificent mansion kicked him out, yes.”

“And this place doesn’t have a prison?” Vex asks.

“Maybe some sort of obstacle course of traps?” Percy adds.

Scanlan thinks about this. “No time like the present.”

There’s a bit of discussion about what kinds of traps would be the most effective for the mansion, and a bit of hilarity ensues as the traps become more and more outlandish.  Someone goes into the kitchen to refresh the mugs of ale.

Keyleth waits for a quiet moment before she moves towards Allura.  The older woman looks up at her. “What can I do?” Allura asks.

“The prophecies…” Keyleth says, unsure of how to put into words her worry. “Since we found Pike she’s gone through two of them.  Neither time looked pleasant.  Now that she’s not with them anymore… can we turn them off?”

Allura turns her head to look at Pike, still cradled in Grog’s lap. “Of that I’m not sure.  It will be a question to ask whatever magical practitioner we’re able to find once we return home.”

Keyleth nods.

“Until then, we keep her safe and we listen,” Allura says. “Today one prophecy alerted us to the presence of the glass monsters… and if we’d known how to listen, we might have understood the golem and Gilmore’s attack.”

One of Keyleth’s hands moves towards where the slash on her neck was.

“I know it must be frightening to see her like that,” Allura says, a little more gently.

“All of this is frightening,” Keyleth murmurs. “The fact that someone wanted to be so close to their god that they’d… torture someone to get answers…”

“It’s incredibly wrong,” Allura agrees. “But no matter how dark that other god was, Sarenrae still beat them.”

“Sarenrae and Pike,” Keyleth says.

Allura nods. “They fought until we got here.  Now it’s up to all of us.”

 


 

Pike wakes in a comfortable nest of blankets.  Things are silent around her.  She feels the pressure of a prophecy deep in her stomach, but it’s not close enough to worry her.  Soon, though.

She sits up and crawls forward, but only makes it a few feet before slumping back down.  Her entire body screams with the effort.  She’s done more in the last few hours than she’d done in the previous years.

A voice speaks, somewhere across the room: “Pike?  You all right?”

It’s a voice from earlier, the one who gave her water, the one who called her “Pickle.”  She turns her head. “Pike,” she tells him.

“Do you need anything?” The voice comes closer and an arm touches her shoulder.

She suddenly wants to be held, to be touched without pain, to be cradled in safety.  Helpless to explain that, she simply holds out her arms.

Thankfully it seems to be a universal concept.  Arms wrap around her body and she’s pulled up onto someone’s lap. “Hi,” the voice says. “I’m not sure if we were re-introduced.  I’m Vax.  Twin of Vex.  It might be confusing.”

Vex is “Darling,” Vax is “Pickle.”  Pike smiles.  It won’t be confusing at all.

“For awhile I thought I might want to follow Sarenrae, like you do,” Vax says. “I was all set to come and talk to you, find out how to do that.”

Sarenrae.  Pike thinks about this.  The big guy, the one they’d all called “Grog,” mentioned Sarenrae.  She reaches up and touches her necklace.

“Yes, that’s her,” Vax confirms. “The things you could do with your faith in your god… they blew me away.  You were so wonderful and good.  I wanted to find redemption in faith, and you told me Sarenrae had that.”

He shifts her and she snuggles into him. “And then my sister died.  And while she was dead, while we were trying to bring her back, I made a promise to the Raven Queen.”

Pike doesn’t know who that is, but she can tell by the tone in his voice that it’s something he didn’t really want.

“Things have sorted themselves out now, it’s been a long time since I began to follow her, but at first I was so embarrassed and ashamed,” Vax goes on. “I thought I was so close to redemption, and somehow I felt that when I had to give up my ideal of following Sarenrae I was… I wasn’t worthy anymore.”

He strokes her hair. “But you… you gave me some wonderful advice, and you never stopped loving me no matter what.”

The pressure pushes down into her stomach and Pike lets out a small whimper.  Her hands dig into Vax’s arms.

“What is it?” he asks gently.

She shakes her head.  This moment is so wonderful and safe and she feels so whole.  She won’t let the prophecy -

It slams into her gut like a red-hot stone and her entire body rocks with it.  It’s huge, a big prophecy.  It doesn’t creep up her throat like the others have - it hurls itself up and Pike finds herself nearly catapulted into Vax with the pressure.  She wraps her arms around him as the retching and the out-of-body experience starts.

This time, though, it’s different - someone is holding her.  For the first time since she started speaking prophecy, she actually feels… safe.

“It’s all right, Pike,” Vax whispers into her ear. “Whatever happens, you are loved.  You are cared for.  I will be here when you come back.”

The red-gold light flashes behind her eyes; the prophecy, gluey and hot, spills from her mouth: “... unnhhh… home… not home… nnnnn… tomorrow?  A woman… lying… nnnnn… in the wind…”

She gags and clenches into Vax’s shoulders. “From a tree… unnhhh… her hands… no… no… please…”

Pike feels her body shaking now with the weight of the prophecy.  Blinding pain shoots through her head.  Something about this feels different. “Pike?” she chokes out.  Something compels her to turn her head to one side and she vomits.  The red-gold light wraps around her head and the pain sears down her spine.

“Stay with me,” she hears Vax say. “Stay with me, Pike.”

She hears him holler for some other people, but she’s gone.  She keeps vomiting, words spilling out in between spasms. “... away?  Away?  Take her.  Unnhhh…”

Arms wrap around her and she’s being lifted into the air. “Pike?”

It’s Grog.  She rolls her head towards him and vomits again, then tries to apologize.  A somewhat-rough cloth swipes over her face. “‘S all right, buddy,” Grog murmurs.

“What the hell is happening?” Pike hears Vax demand of someone.

“We need to do something,” Keyleth says.  She sounds scared.  Pike can’t blame her.

“Allura?” That’s Vex.  She sounds worried, too.

Pike’s finding it hard to keep things straight in her head.  The world around her’s getting sort of swimmy.  She hiccups.  The cloth wipes at her face again.

“Pike, buddy.” Grog’s voice is a little louder. “Hang on, buddy, it’s gonna be okay.”

“I know you said not to do a greater restoration, but - we can’t do anything?” That’s a voice she doesn’t know yet.

“I don’t know!” Allura’s voice. “I’ve never come across anything like this before!”

“We need to get her home.  To Emon.  To the Temple of Sarenrae,” Vax says.

Pike tries to speak but only vomits again.  She tries to reach out to that warmth, that loving embrace, but something’s blocking her.

“Shit,” Grog says above her. “That’s a lotta blood.”

“Pike,” she sobs at him, her speech slurred, her mouth still half-full.

“Kiki, can you take us through a tree?”

“Yeah… yeah… I mean, I can.  Yeah.  Of course.”

“Let’s go, then.  Right now.”

A hand touches her arm, cool and gentle. “Pike, I need you to hang on,” Vex says. “I know things are so totally fucked right now, but we’re going to get you somewhere safe.  With people who can help you, darling, okay?  I know too many people have asked too much of you lately, so I’ll only ask for two little things.”

“Pike,” she whimpers in assent.

“I want you to keep breathing, and I want you to trust us,” Vex says, closer to her ear. “I promise you, we did not come this far to abandon you now.”

“Pike,” she breathes.

A hand slips into hers and squeezes. “I love you, darling.  If you have to… slip out for awhile… I promise you’ll wake up soon.”

The red-gold pain eases around her head and Pike realizes she’s being cupped by that golden comfort.  She tries to whisper something as it wraps around her like a shawl, but the gentle care in the beautiful light takes all of her words away.  She leans into it and falls away from herself.

 


 

They burst out of the tree in the temple of Sarenrae at their keep, Pike limp in Grog’s arms.  Blood trails from her mouth, but she’s still breathing.

There are no words, just haste.  Somehow as one they bolt towards the town center, to the large temple to Sarenrae.  It’s just after dawn and there are two clerics inside, kneeling before the altar.

Candles flicker and the light wanes as Grog strides up the aisle towards the altar. “Help.  Help her, please,” he begs.

The clerics both rise, looks of confusion on their faces.  Cleric Tristan is the first to approach Grog; Grog kneels and shows Tristan his precious burden. “Please,” he repeats softly.

“She’s… she was dead,” Tristan says solemnly.

“No,” Vex says from behind Grog. “Kidnapped, tortured, and forced to speak prophecy for an evil Order of women.  Sarenrae kept her alive.”

The other cleric, a young nervous-looking human woman clearly reconsidering the life choices that have brought her to this moment, wrings her hands. “Can we… can we even…?”

“Please,” Vax repeats.

Tristan nods. “I assume you’ve tried the traditional ways?”

“A healing potion burned her skin off,” Vex says. “And Allura Vysoren found some research on what was done to her and says a greater restoration spell would kill her.”

“Then there’s nothing we can do,” the young woman cleric blurts out.

Tristan gives her a serious look. “Now, Emilia, we are not mere tools of medicine and spellcasting.  Our work is divine.”

He gives Pike’s still form a long look. “Bring her,” he says decisively. “And two of you.”

Looks are quickly exchanged, and Vex steps forward. “I’ll go,” she says softly.

“Me too,” Grog says.

“This way,” Tristan says. “Emilia, I will need some holy water, several blankets, and the wooden box of spell components from the storeroom.”

Emilia nods and quickly runs off.

Grog and Vex follow Tristan down a short hallway to a smaller temple, a tall-ceilinged room with stained glass windows.  In the center of the room is a large table, waist-height for Tristan and Vex.  The head cleric nods to it, and without question Grog lays Pike down.

She looks far too fragile and floppy, blood smeared down her front, breaths shallow and slow.  As Grog releases her she curls to one side and whimpers.

“Be at peace, my dear,” Tristan murmurs, and touches the top of her head.

Pike’s next inhale is sharp and her entire body contracts in on itself.  Her whimpers get louder and her hands dig into fists.

Tristan takes a step back. “What did they do to her?”

“We don’t know,” Vex says.

“You’re still gonna help her, right?” Grog asks, his face dark.

Tristan nods, but he seems far less confident now.

Emilia bustles in with the supplies Tristan asked for, and the two clerics go about setting up their components on a smaller table nearby.  They speak softly for several long minutes.  Vex keeps her eyes on Pike’s chest, taking some sort of tiny comfort in watching it fall and rise, no matter how shallowly. “Just keep breathing,” she murmurs.

“Vex,” Grog says from beside her.

“Hmm?”

“I can’t… I can’t be in here like this.”

“They asked us to be here.”

“I know, but… I’m not the kinda guy who’s s’posed t’ be in here.”

“She needs you, Grog,” Vex says firmly, turning to look at him. “She needs someone who’s known her, who believes in her, who loves her.  And I’m here, and you’re here, and we fight, and we fight now.”

“There’s nothin’ t’ punch,” Grog says desperately. “I can’t... I’m not any good at these kinda fights.”

“You’re only as good as you believe you are.”

“An’ I’m believin’ I’m not!” Grog says, panicked.

Vex reaches up and grabs him, getting close to his face. “We.  Fight.  Now,” she repeats firmly. “You are too big of a man to walk out on your best friend, Grog Strongjaw.  You love her, and I know it.  Now fight for her.”

Grog’s eyes go wide and Vex sees some sort of understanding drop into his expression. “Can you do that?” she asks.

“Yeah.  Fer her.”

Tristan turns to them. “I need one of you to hold her,” he says, and as they look back at Pike they see she’s shivering, writhing on the table, starting to retch again. “We can’t do this if she won’t hold still.”

Without further instruction Grog climbs up onto the table and scoops Pike back into his arms. “Okay, buddy.  You ‘n me, monstah.”

Her eyes flicker beneath her lids and she spasms in his arms.  Blood spills up over her lips.

“Gimme a cloth,” Grog mutters to Vex, unwilling to let Pike’s face remain dirty.

Vex nods and hands him something, something a little softer than the last thing they’d used.  Grog gently mops the blood from Pike’s lips. “It’s okay, monstah,” he says.

“When the ritual starts I cannot stop,” Tristan says, drawing their attention to him. “No matter what happens to her, you cannot let go.  She may scream, she may fight you, she may appear to… to die, for lack of a better word.  But you cannot let go.”

He nods at Vex. “Give her your hand.”

Vex steps up and takes Pike’s hand in hers.

“Let us begin.”

Chapter Text

In the temple proper the rest of Vox Machina waits.  Since Vex and Grog followed the clerics into the back the air seems to have gotten colder.  Sharper.  Everything seems a little more painful.

Vax walks up the aisle to the altar and kneels before it. “Forgive me,” he murmurs to Sarenrae. “I know we haven’t spoken in awhile, but I hope you won’t find it too much of an imposition if I use your temple to speak to my patron.”

There’s no response, but he feels something like a warm hand cup the top of his head.  He nods. “Thank you.”

Vax brings his hands together and turns his attention to the Raven Queen. “You’ve brought me this far,” he whispers. “I’ve followed you through things I don’t need to recount, and in return you’ve helped me struggle through difficulties.  You’ve allowed me to give friends a safe and welcome final journey, and for that I am grateful.  If it is Pike’s time, please allow me to carry her those final steps to you.  And if it is not her time, I ask you to instill in me the power to help these clerics do anything necessary to keep her safe.”

A hand touches his, and he hears the familiar voice in his head.  There is a battle for her soul, my champion.

“I know.”

And for once, I am on the side of her life.  I stand at the side of her Sarenrae, and we will fight this as allies.

“Tell me how I can help.”

When the time is right, you’ll know.

“Thank you.”

There are many who deserve to suffer, my champion.  She has never been one of them.  If I thought it could be comprehended, I would explain to you the incalculable metrics of why she did not cross the veil to come to me for these seven years.  Since I cannot, I will tell you it is an honor to fight for her soul.

Tears well in Vax’s eyes.  It is not the most bizarre thing he’s ever heard the Raven Queen say, but it’s one of the kindest.  He bows his head and says a prayer of thanks.

 


 

Emilia moves towards the table. “She’ll need her clothes off,” she murmurs. “Just down to her underthings.  I’ll give you some blankets.”

Vex nods and begins carefully removing the clothes they’d put on Pike just a few hours before.  The favorite blue tunic, the dress, the little cloth slippers, and everything else comes off, until Pike’s scarred body lays in Grog’s arms in her underthings.  She looks far too small and far too broken.  Vex wraps her in one of the blankets, leaving Pike’s arms and her upper chest free.  She slips her hand back into Pike’s and turns towards the clerics.

Emilia hands Tristan what looks like a pair of brass goggles.  He puts them over his eyes.  Dark lenses peer out at the room as Tristan raises his hands.  In his right hand Emilia puts a long brass wand.  In his other she places a large blue crystal, about the shape and size of an apple.  As he stands motionless, she takes salt from the box of spell components and begins to draw a circle around the table, enclosing Vex and Grog and Pike.

The circle closes and Tristan speaks, his voice radiant and strong.  Vex understands none of it, but she recognizes the cadence and general word sounds as Celestial.  She clings to Pike’s hand, trying to pray with her not-quite-entirely-a-believer heart.  On the table next to her, Grog’s mouth moves and he rocks back and forth with Pike in his arms.

Emilia replaces the salt in the box and takes out an incense burner.  She lights it before joining in Tristan’s prayer.  Together their voices rise and harmonize, flowing back and forth.  The prayer goes on for several long minutes and then abruptly stops.

Vex looks up.  The crystal in Tristan’s hand is glowing now, pulsing with blue light.  As she watches he raises the brass wand and begins to move it through the air, a conductor’s baton for an unseen, silent orchestra.  From the wand’s tip blue light emanates, as though the brass rod itself is drawing blue energy from the crystal in the cleric’s opposite hand and weaving it in the air.  The energy forms into sigils and glyphs before pulsing and disappearing.

Tristan brings the wand down in a firm slash.

Pike cries out.  Vex whirls back towards the table.  In Grog’s arms Pike is writhing.  A long line of blood runs down her chest, seeping through her undertunic.  Vex leans over and sees an actual incision just under the cloth, and a chill runs down her spine.

The air is suddenly full of blue energy, so near that it seems like rain in the room.  Vex takes a breath in and finds it chilly and almost minty.

Grog brings his head down, closer to Pike’s ear, and murmurs something.  Pike’s cries become softer, but her breathing remains erratic.

Tristan moves the wand to one side and flicks it up.

On Pike’s bare arm a precise cut appears.  Then another.  And another.  Blood begins to run down her arm.  Somewhere between the first and the second cut Pike starts screaming.

Vex clings to her hand and Grog keeps talking into her ear.  Pike’s back arches and she starts fighting against Grog’s grasp.

Cuts open up on her other arm.  She thrashes against Grog, feet pounding against the table, her free arm swinging towards him.  Blood splatters the three of them and their surroundings, falling to the floor and burning out of existence as it hits the salt circle.

Tristan leans towards them and brings the wand back down, keeping it horizontal.  With a swift movement he shoves the wand forward.

Pike screams as her body jolts backwards into Grog’s.  The incision on her chest gets wider, and something other than blood begins to spill from it.

Vex can’t believe what she’s seeing.  Something black and oily pours from Pike’s chest, dribbling out of the widened incision and from the cuts on her arms.  As it touches her skin it burns and hisses.  Vex resists the urge to reach up and wipe it away.

Tristan reaches up with the hand holding the crystal and moves it towards them, then pulls it back towards himself.  The black droplets fly through the air, disappearing into the crystal.

Pike jerks upright and her screams get choppy, sounding almost like words.  Then Vex realizes they are words, being screamed: “Grog!  No!  So sorry!  Please!  Please!  Make it stop!”

“‘S all right, buddy,” Grog says firmly. “We’re gonna fix it.”

“Grog!  It hurts!  Please!  Make it stop!”

“It’ll stop when it’s finished,” Grog tells her, and Vex is surprised by how steady his voice sounds.

“I hate you!  I hate you!  Fuck you!” Pike screams.  She shoves at Grog with her free arm and nearly makes it out of his embrace.

Vex clamps down on Pike’s hand and jerks, just a little bit.  It’s enough of a distraction to give Grog the spare seconds he needs to reassert his grip. “You don’t hate me,” Grog says.

“Fuck you!  You left me with them!”

Vex isn’t sure if this is really Pike speaking, but whether it is or not, she watches the statement slam into Grog at a million miles an hour.  When he speaks again, Grog’s voice is shaky. “I love ya, an’ I’ve always loved ya.  Yer not thinkin’ right, an’ that’s okay right now.  I’m still gonna love ya.”

“Fuck you!”

The amount of black fluid dripping from the wounds increases.  It runs down Pike’s arms in sheets, pours down her chest like a river, and still she tries to get away from Grog. “Let me go!” she howls.

“I can’t do that right now,” Grog says.

Pike swings at him and connects with his shoulder.  Droplets of black splatter over Grog’s skin and sizzle, but he doesn’t react. “Yer my buddy an’ I love ya,” he repeats.

“They’re going to come for you!  They’re going to kill all of you!” Pike swears. “And I’m going to let them!”

“I love ya,” Grog says, keeping his voice steady.

The black ooze flies through the air towards Tristan in a wave.  Vex realizes Emilia’s chanting now.  Tristan remains steadily upright, the wand jerking through the air at infrequent intervals; each movement opens up another wound on Pike’s body and each wound bleeds the black oil.

Pike wrenches herself free from Grog, her body slippery with blood and the strange black liquid, and nearly makes it off the table.  Vex boosts herself up onto the tabletop and tackles Pike. “Stay here.  Let the ritual finish,” she says into Pike’s ear.

“I’m sorry,” Pike sobs. “I’m so sorry.  I don’t know what’s happening.  I’m so scared.”

“I know,” Vex says. “I’m scared too.  But you’re going to be okay.”

“It hurts,” Pike whispers. “Please, make it stop.  Make it stop.”

“It’ll be over soon,” Vex tells her. “Hang on.”

“I don’t…” Pike retches and coughs and chokes.

Grog reaches around Vex and scoops Pike back into his arms. “I gotcha, buddy.”

“Grog?  Please…” Pike coughs again, then vomits, more of the black fluid pouring up over her lips.

Vex grabs the closest blanket and begins trying to wipe off Pike’s body.  It’s a futile task and she lets the dirty blanket fall to the floor after only a few moments.  Instead she clings to Pike’s hand, repeating “It’ll be over soon” as best she can.

“...’og?” Pike chokes out.

“I’m right here,” Grog says, unshed tears in his voice. “I’m right here.  I promise.”

Her body writhes against his, her back arching, and her limbs contort as spasms wrack her form.  Over and over she convulses, choking noises escaping from her mouth.  Then she goes absolutely limp, falling still in Grog’s arms.

Vex turns to look at Tristan, his expression inscrutable behind the goggles.  The once-pristine blue crystal is now slushy and ashy in his hand, more of the black ooze flying to it every second.  The air in the room is heavy and dense and Vex is suddenly exhausted.

“I’m right here,” Grog murmurs again, and he bows his head.

 


 

They’ve been sitting in the main temple for more than two hours when Vax hears the voice again.  She needs you.

Without a word to his other party members, he stands and moves down the hallway, following the path taken when the others left.  At the end of a short corridor he finds a closed wooden door.  From behind it he hears a voice, a woman’s voice, low, chanting.

Vax opens the door.

The scene within is unlike anything he’s ever observed or come upon in his life.  The cleric Tristan stands at one end of the room, shrouded in the softest golden light Vax has ever seen, holding a wand in one hand and some sort of strange rock in the other, goggles over his eyes; behind him his fellow cleric chants, her eyes closed.  In the center of the room - an even stranger tableau, Pike splayed in Grog’s arms covered in some sort of oily black goo and her own blood and Vex and Grog close to her dripping with the same substances.  There’s a strange miasma in the air, part blue energy, part black oil.

It takes Vax just a handful of seconds to see the problem - although the entire thing seems wrong in one way or another - Pike isn’t breathing.

She needs you, the Raven Queen tells Vax once more.

There’s a sudden jolt of energy in Vax’s arms and he finds he’s striding forward.

“Don’t break the circle!” Emilia yells at him.

But Vax’s motions aren’t his own anymore.  He moves through the salt circle on the floor, somehow avoiding all of the black liquid flying through the air towards Tristan, and gets right up close to the table.  Grog is bent over Pike’s body, speaking in her ear: “I’m right here.”

Your hands, the Raven Queen murmurs to Vax.

His hands are shaking as he gets down close to Pike.  He can’t stop himself from saying, voice trembling, “Oh, Pickle.  I am so sorry.”

Vax waits for a response, waits for a movement, for something.  But there’s nothing.  Nothing except the slow drips of blood and whatever the hell that black ooze is, pouring from open wounds all over Pike’s body.  She’s still not breathing.

Your hands, the Raven Queen prompts.

Vax looks down and finds his fingers glowing slightly.  That same impulse that drove him across the room now tells him to put his hands on Pike’s chest.  Spreading his fingers out across her bloody torso, he closes his eyes and waits. “Show me what to do,” he breathes to the Raven Queen.

A pulse of energy blasts from his hands into Pike’s chest.  Under his fingers her body bucks.  Grog’s arms keep her from falling from the table.  She looks like a rag doll, but as the convulsion ceases, Vax hears the one sound he was missing -

Pike takes a breath.

The pressure in Vax’s head decreases immediately and he falls to his knees in front of the table. “Thank you,” he gasps.

Pike takes another breath, and a soft moan slips from her mouth.  She pulls her arms into her body and curls towards Grog.  He brings his hand up and strokes her head.

Tristan lowers the wand and the crystal and moves towards the table.  As he strides across the room the rest of the black droplets are sucked into the crystal.  Pike takes a deep breath and seems to relax even further.

“What you did was ridiculously dangerous,” Tristan says to Vax in a low voice.

“Take it up with the Raven Queen,” Vax says without looking up.

Seeing he’ll get no further answers from Vax, Tristan turns to the three on the table. “That should have removed the magical barriers from her body, or at least decreased them enough so that a healing potion won’t take her skin off.  It’ll take effect slowly, over time.  Until then…”

He removes the goggles. “We’ll provide what care we can.”

“What is that… fluid?” Vex asks.

“Evidence of the evil that was trapped within her,” Tristan replies. “But there is no darkness our Dawnflower cannot destroy.”

He stumbles as he moves forward. “I… I need to rest.  I will send you someone to assist with cleaning her.  And stitching her up…”

Emilia darts towards Tristan and holds him up. “Excuse us.”

When the clerics are gone, Vax hauls himself to his feet and leans over Pike. “Hang on, Pickle,” he murmurs, and casts Lay On Hands.

A split second later he remembers Tristan saying the ritual would take effect over time, but it’s too late to call back the spell.  As it is, he doesn’t have to worry; the light and power flows into Pike’s body and he sees one of the bloody slashes across her scarred body close up.

It’s all he has, but it seems to bring some comfort to Pike.  Her eyes flicker open.

“Why’s she still…” Grog looks down, puzzled. “She’s still…”

“Blind,” Vex says softly.

“Why didn’t it fix it?” Grog sounds unbelievably sad, like he’s about to cry. “It was s’posed t’ fix it!”

Pike murmurs something.

“Sorry, buddy,” Grog says, seemingly chastened.  He bends down. “Say it ‘gain.”

Pike’s hand drifts lazily over Grog’s arm. “Pike,” she breathes.

At this Grog really does start to cry. “They didn’t fix anythin’!”

“They did,” Vax hurries to say. “They did.  I was able to heal her.”

“I can do it too,” Vex says, and she places her hand on Pike’s shoulder and casts a healing spell.

Pike smiles dreamily.

“See?  It didn’t hurt her,” Vex tells Grog. “The ritual worked.  We’ll figure everything else out.”

Pike turns her head towards Grog and says something.

“What?” Grog asks.

Pike smiles again and repeats herself: “‘Og.”

The room goes utterly still.  Pike runs her hand over Grog’s arm. “‘Og.  Pike.”

“It’s raining!” Grog swoops Pike up against him and hugs her tightly.

“Ow,” she says into his neck.

“Oh, sorry, buddy!” Grog carefully props her up. “Yeah, let’s get you some more help.”

“‘Og,” Pike says gratefully.

 


 

It takes several hours, but under the watchful guidance of the majority of Vox Machina and their allies, Pike is cleaned, her hair washed, her limbs rinsed free of blood and the remainder of the black fluid.  Her major wounds are stitched back together and several poultices are applied.  Her body is wrapped in yards of clean white gauze.  At the end of it all she’s dressed in another set of clean clothes Percy fetched from their keep, and sleepily cuddled up in Keyleth’s arms.

“Let’s take her home,” Scanlan says. “It’s not like they can do anything else for her here right now.”

“She’ll probably sleep eighteen hours or so,” Allura tells them. “You can dribble a healing potion diluted in some cider into her mouth every few.  That bread and broth combination will be good to feed her when she wakes up.  I’ll stop by tomorrow to check on all of you.”

“Thank you for all your help,” Vex says, squeezing Allura’s hand.

“Anything,” Allura says, and she kisses Vex’s cheek.

She and Kima walk towards Allura’s tower, while Kash and Zahra accompany the rest of the group to their keep.  Vex and Grog go immediately to get cleaned up from the ritual, having not been able to do so at the temple.  Percy drifts into the kitchen and halfheartedly begins making breakfast.  Vax joins him.  Scanlan shows Zahra and Kash to the keep’s guest quarters.  Keyleth sits in the kitchen at the end of the table, Pike in her arms.

Pike’s clearly drifting.  Her tiny fingers languidly stroke Keyleth’s arm, her most reassuring gesture.  It nearly breaks Keyleth’s heart to see that no matter how much was taken from Pike during her captivity, one thing her captors could never take was Pike’s innate desire to care for others.  Pike’s physically devastated, deprived of one of her senses, and unable to speak beyond a few utterances, but she still wants to show her friends she’s thinking about them.

“You can sleep, Pike, you know?” Keyleth says. “You don’t have to stay awake.  I mean, I know things tend to happen that go bad when you fall asleep, but we’re home now, and we’re going to keep you safe.  Oh, I mean, I know this wasn’t your home originally… but it’s where you can live now.  With us.  It’s your home now.  Where you can sleep.”

Pike thinks about this.  She snuggles her head into the crook of Keyleth’s arm and runs her fingers over Keyleth’s palm. “Pike,” she says, the one word stretched out drowsily.

“Well, okay.  You can sleep if you want,” Keyleth says. “Or not.  You can stay awake too.  We won’t leave you alone.”

Pike sighs contentedly.  Over the next several minutes, her eyes close, her breathing evens out, and the fingers stroking Keyleth’s arm still.

Keyleth smiles and leans down to kiss Pike on the forehead.

Vax comes over to the table with a tureen of oatmeal. “You look happy.”

Keyleth looks up at him. “She’s home,” she says to Vax. “She’s here, and she’s alive.  And she’s with us.”

“It’s pretty fucking great, isn’t it?” Vax kisses her on the top of the head.

Everyone trickles back into the kitchen over the next few hours to eat and talk.  Once Grog has shoveled away oatmeal and toast, he takes Pike from Keyleth’s arms and moves into the temple with her.  For awhile he sits in front of the largest stained glass window, just stroking her hair. “I missed ya so much, buddy,” he whispers. “I waited an’ waited an’ I never gave up.  An’ Wilhand… he didn’t believe me at first.  But he came too, an’ he was gonna… he was gonna be just as happy as I am.  I know it.”

Pike sighs and curls into him.

“An’ we’ll go back t’ his house in Westruun.  Soon.  An’ we’ll figure out where he’s gone, an’ we’ll bring him back.  I promise.  Just like I promised ya I wouldn’t give up.”

He brings her up against his shoulder.  She tucks her head into his neck, her little breaths making his skin warm.

It’s the very best thing Grog has ever felt.

 


 

Though Allura said Pike would sleep for eighteen hours, they gather around Grog and Pike, all doing things they would normally be doing apart from each other.  Percy sketches, Vex makes arrows, Keyleth reads.  Vax spends time cleaning up the temple, something he’s done faithfully since it was completed several years ago.  Scanlan plays music for all of them.

Grog just holds Pike.

And Pike just sleeps.

The day waxes and wanes.  Meals are eaten, errands are run.  People slip out in duos or by themselves to do research, or to sleep in their own beds.  Little knots of neighbors come by with covered dishes of food or loaves of bread; they stop in the temple to kneel near Grog, gently touching Pike’s face as they breathe their happiness to the keep’s residents.

“It’s so wonderful,” a tiny elderly woman says as she presses a gold coin into Pike’s hand and puts a chain of braided dried flowers around Pike’s neck. “Such a blessed day that she’s returned.”

“Thank you,” Grog says.  It’s what Vex told him to say.

The little woman give Grog a kiss on his cheek and bows before the statue of Sarenrae on her way out.

Vex approaches with a bowl of cider and a spoon. “How is she?” she asks softly.

“Haven’t heard a peep,” Grog says.  He carefully pries the gold coin from Pike’s grip. “No coughin’, no fever, no weird words.  Just… sleepin.’”

It starts to rain as Vex carefully pours a healing potion into the bowl and stirs the contents, then begins dripping it into Pike’s mouth with the spoon.  She and Grog listen to the rain splatter the roof and the cobblestones outside.  Like a cat Pike languorously stretches towards the spoon; her eyes flicker but she seems unconcerned and never fully rises to consciousness.

Vax sits down next to Vex. “Before things fell apart last night… I suppose it would be last night, anyway… Pike spoke another prophecy.  I think we should get it figured out so we’re not caught unawares.”

He holds out a piece of parchment.  Vex turns her head and reads “Home, not home.  Tomorrow?  A woman lying in the wind.  From a tree.  Her hands.  Away?  Away?  Take her.”  She reads it out loud so Grog can follow along.

“I don’t understand any of it,” Vax says with a sigh.

“Could be Keyleth,” Grog says, scratching his chin.

“What?” Vex looks over at him.

Grog shrugs. “Keyleth’s a wind woman, an’ she comes through the trees sometimes.”

“I don’t think Keyleth is going to hurt Pike.”

“Maybe it’s not ‘bout hurtin’,” Grog says.

“You think someone’s going to take Keyleth?” Vax asks.

Vex finishes spooning the cider into Pike’s mouth. “And why would they talk about her hands?”

“None ‘a this means anythin’ t’ me,” Grog tells them. “‘S all a big puzzle, an’ I’m not good at those.”

He looks over at the statue of Sarenrae, then down at Pike. “Vex.”

“Hmm?”

“When we were in th’ temple… an’ they were doin’ the ritual… d’ ya remember Pike talkin’ t’ us?”

Vex nods.

“She said… some stuff… an’ I don’ know if it was really her…”

Vax makes a questioning noise.  Vex puts the spoon back into the bowl. “She said she hated us, that we left her with the cultists.  And she said they were coming for us, to kill us, and she was going to let them.”

“Oh,” Vax murmurs.

“But she was usin’ real words, and it wasn’t just her sayin’ ‘Pike,’” Grog goes on. “So maybe… it wasn’t her?”

In his arms Pike tenses, lets out a short, frightened whimper, and sits up slightly.  Her arms reach out for something, fingers fluttering in the air.  Without thinking Vax reaches out for her and scoops her into his embrace.  She burrows into his grip, pressing her face into his chest, softly gasping.

“It’s all right,” Vax murmurs. “You’re all right.”

“Perhaps it was her subconscious mind,” Vex suggests. “When Vax and and I saw her astral form in Westruun, she was able to speak clearly.”

“So she really does believe all that?” Grog looks heartbroken at the very suggestion. “That we left her there?”

“People in pain say a lot of strange things,” Vax says. “I spoke with Emilia at the temple after the ritual was finished.  She told me it’s called ‘Radiant Scalpel,’ and she’s only seen Tristan do it once before, and the other time the man died before the ritual was even complete… and according to her, he was in much better shape than Pike was.  She says it’s extremely painful and the physical shock to the body is equally as likely to kill a person as the ritual itself is.”

“If she was suffering, Grog, she might have been saying anything.  Or she might not have known what she was saying,” Vex says softly.

Grog looks down at his hands. “She knew me well enough t’ say my name.  T’ blame me fer leavin’ her there.”

Vax passes Pike to his sister. “I’m going to check on Keyleth.”

“Let’s have a slumber party,” Vex suggests. “Get some blankets and we’ll all set up in the common room.”

“Ooh, good idea.” Grog perks up. “I’ll get some pillows an’ some popcorn.”

When they’re gone the temple is quiet, just the rain sluicing down outside.  Vex holds Pike against her, rocking the other woman back and forth.  Pike is warm and her weight is comforting.  Vex puts her cheek against the top of Pike’s head.  Thanks to the bath after the ritual, Pike smells like lavender and the spicy herbal scents of the poultices rubbed into her wounds.  It’s an intoxicating combination.

“I’m so happy you’re here,” Vex whispers into Pike’s ear. “It doesn’t matter to me what you went through or what’s going to happen now… we’re back together and you’re safe and we’ll figure it all out.”

They sleep in a big pile that night, Pike in the middle of all of them, the rain pouring down outside.

For the first time in seven years, Vox Machina is whole.

 


 

Allura comes with the sun and enlists Vex and Keyleth to help her change the dressings and poultices on Pike’s wounds.  Percy’s awake as well, and he carries Pike to her bedroom while Allura gathers the supplies required for the healing work.  He kisses Pike’s forehead and watches as her eyes open sleepily.

“Pike?” she asks softly.

“Good morning,” Percy says. “I haven’t said a proper hello to you since we found out that you… don’t quite remember us.  I’m Percy.”

“Pike,” she says, and reaches up.

He hugs her. “Allura’s here, and she’s going to do some healing.”

“Pike,” she says, a little more urgently, and her eyes go wide.

“Nothing like yesterday,” Percy hastens to reassure her. “Somewhat more… maintenance.”

“‘Og?” Pike asks.

“Grog’s not awake yet,” Percy says. “He doesn’t like to wake up very early if he doesn’t have to.  I’m sure he’ll stop by once he’s up.”

She nods.

Allura approaches and puts a hand on Pike shoulders. “Pike, it’s Allura.  We’re going to get started now.”

Percy leaves, saying he’ll start breakfast.  Vex steps up next to the bed and puts her hand on Pike’s shoulders as Allura and Keyleth begin removing dressings and washing away poultices. “Pike,” Vex says carefully, “do you remember the last time you spoke a prophecy?”

Pike’s body tenses and she turns her head towards Vex. “Pike,” she says hesitantly.

“You were talking about a woman,” Vex goes on. “A woman in the wind, and a tree.  Can you… tell me a little more about that?  I don’t know how it works, but any more information could help.”

Pike thinks about this.  Her eyes close.  As Allura breathes a healing spell, pressing energy down into the largest wound on Pike’s chest, Pike gasps, her back arching in response to the pain, and a series of words slips from her mouth: “Mother.  Seeking.  Wrong answers.”

The healing spell fades and Pike relaxes. “Pike?” she whimpers.

“Good job,” Allura says, smoothing hair away from Pike’s face.

“That was… that wasn’t scary at all,” Keyleth says. “Can all of the prophecies be like that one?”

“Hopefully they’ll stop altogether,” Vex says.

Allura moves in to attempt another healing spell and Pike shoves herself up, shaking her head. “Pike, Pike, Pike,” she grunts.

“It’s all right,” Allura says. “I just want this wound to close a little more before we dress it again.”

She starts the spell again, fingers aglow with purple light, and brings them down towards Pike’s chest.  Pike screams and reaches up, trying to push Allura’s hands away from her.  Vex grabs Pike’s fingers in an attempt to let Allura’s spell finish; she realizes, belatedly, that the spell seems to be burning Pike’s skin.

“Stop!” Vex orders.

Allura drops her hands. “What is it?”

Pike screeches and shoves herself off the bed.  She scuttles away from her friends, hands up, bowing in over her body.  Hunched and breathing heavily, she crams herself into the corner of the room. “Pike!” she screams at them.

“Vex?  What happened?” Keyleth asks shakily.

“You burned her,” Vex says. “The cleric - Tristan - he said it would take awhile for her body to be able to handle a lot of healing magic.  I think we found the limit.”

Pike gasps and heaves.  The skin on either side of the long incision on her chest is bright red and as Vex draws closer, she sees blisters popping up. “It’s all right, Pike,” she says softly.

Air woman… hands out… long journey,” Pike answers.  She brings her head up. “Vex?”

Everyone in the room freezes.

“I’m right here, darling,” Vex says, and she touches Pike’s hand gently.

There’s a knock at the bedroom door. “Keyleth?” Percy calls.

“Yeah?”

“You might want to come downstairs.”

“Can it wait a minute?”

“Um, well, not necessarily.”

Keyleth opens the door. “What is it, Percy?”

“Your father’s downstairs,” Percy says, trying very hard not to look at the naked-from-the-waist-up Pike holding her hands up, a blood trail tracing her location across the floor.

“My father?  Why?”

“He didn’t say,” Percy answers, “just that it was urgent.”

Keyleth looks over at Vex and Allura.

“Go,” Vex says. “We’ll be all right.”

Keyleth follows Percy out of the bedroom, closing the door behind her.  At the bottom of the steps Kohren stands, twisting his hands nervously in the sleeves of his traveling cloak.  He embraces Keyleth, but his face as he draws back is solemn. “Good morning, Keyleth.”

“What are you doing here?  Are you all right?” Keyleth asks.

Kohren nods, a bit distractedly. “I came to tell you… Zephra was raided last night.”

“Raided?  I don’t… I don’t understand.”

“Neither do we,” Kohren says. “She… she came in the middle of night and stole books… took artifacts…”

Who?” Keyleth asks.

“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes,” Kohren says. “But Keyleth, it was your mother.”

Chapter Text

“Vex?  Vex?”

“I’m right here,” Vex says, keeping her hand on Pike’s arm. “I’m right here.  I won’t go anywhere.”

“Vex,” Pike says, and she reaches down with her free hand to touch the newly-formed blisters on her chest.

“We’ll get those taken care of,” Vex tells her. “Don’t touch them, darling.”

Pike’s legs wobble and Vex reaches up and pulls Pike towards her.  Pike lets out a soft mew and her arms wrap around Vex’s neck. “It’s all right.  I know, you’re very weak.  Let Allura and I help you, all right?  Then we’ll get you something to eat.”

“Pike,” she murmurs.

Vex stands up and brings Pike back to her bed.  She carefully releases Pike and stands back, fully aware she’s once again covered in blood that’s not her own.  Together she and Allura clean and re-dress Pike’s injuries, applying ointments and salves before covering the open wounds with more clean bandages.  At the end of it Pike is breathing heavily, tears streaking down her face, her fingers clenched in her braid, but dressed and ready for the rest of the day.

“We’re all done, Pike,” Allura says softly. “Vex and I need to get cleaned up and pick things up around here.  Will you be all right for a few minutes?”

“I don’t want to leave her alone,” Vex says. “Come on, darling, we’ll find someone to stay with you.”

“Vex?”

“Yes, darling?”

Pike just holds her arms out.

“Oh, darling, I can’t.  I’m… somewhat gross.  Let me get you someone.” Vex pokes her head out into the hallway and sees Percy coming up the stairs. “Hey.”

“Yes?”

“Will you come and sit in here with Pike for a bit while Allura and I get cleaned up?”

“I’d be happy to.” Percy follows Vex into the room. “Hello, Pike.”

She turns towards him and holds her arms out in his direction.

“Why, yes, of course,” Percy says, and he scoops Pike up from the bed.  She wraps her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist. “Goodness, that’s very… tight.”

Pike presses her face into Percy’s neck.

“Are you hungry?”

“Pike.”

“All right, then.” Percy makes his way, only a bit awkwardly, towards the stairs and carries Pike into the kitchen, where Scanlan and Grog are eating eggs and toast with jam.

“Hi Pike!” Grog calls out, splattering Scanlan with toast crumbs.

“‘Og,” Pike says.

Grog hurriedly finishes up his breakfast and retrieves some chicken broth and bread for Pike.  He settles back at the table with her in his lap and carefully feeds her.  Through the meal, Percy and Scanlan both re-introduce themselves, telling stories of their adventures together.

When Scanlan gets to the part where Pike showed up in Whitestone and leapt radiantly into an army of skeletons - of course, embellished flagrantly, as is the bard’s tradition - Pike looks up suddenly.  Grog misses her mouth with the latest bite of broth-soaked bread and she splutters for a second before turning back to Scanlan. “Pike?” she asks him in soft awe.

“Yes, it’s completely true,” Percy tells her.

“Pike,” she breathes, her expression one of wonder.

“You had wings,” Grog says.

At this she furrows her brow, and one of her hands comes up to touch her back, somewhat hesitantly.

“And then I tried to leap to you, my lady,” Scanlan goes on, hurriedly picking up the story to distract her. “And I fell flat on my face.”

“He did,” Grog agrees.

Pike turns her attention back to eating, and Scanlan quickly moves onto other stories.  Percy talks about Pike going away to sea, and that seems to cheer her quite a bit.

“Do you remember that?” he asks her, seeing her expression become nearly wistful.

She chews thoughtfully on a morsel of bread. “Pike,” she says at last.

When the bread and broth are gone, she taps her lips. “Pike?”

“You wan’ somethin’ else?” Grog asks.

She nods.

Keyleth comes in as Percy gets up to find something delicious for Pike to eat.  She slumps into a chair, looking confused.

“What is it?” Scanlan asks her.

Keyleth shakes her head. “My father wants me to come back to Zephra.”

“What for?” Grog takes a drink from his mug of ale.

“There was an… event last night,” Keyleth says. “A lot of valuable books and artifacts were stolen, and… he thinks there might be trouble.”

“Trouble he thinks you can avoid by… being back there?” Percy returns with a soft oatmeal cookie and passes it to Grog.

Again Keyleth shakes her head. “I just don’t know what to think.”

Grog pokes part of the cookie into Pike’s mouth and takes a bite for himself.

“That’s for her,” Percy scolds him.

“‘S fer me too,” Grog says, mouth full.

“Mmmm,” Pike says. “Pike?”

Grog obligingly gives her another piece.

“What do you want to do?” Percy asks as he sits back down at the table.

Keyleth shrugs. “I don’t know.  I need some time to think on it.  I don’t think we’re in any danger here, at least, nothing we can’t handle.  The last couple of days have proved that to me in countless ways.”

She reaches out and strokes Pike’s head.

“Pike,” Pike agrees. “‘Og?”

Grog sticks another piece of cookie in her mouth.

“I told him I’d know by the end of the day, and I showed him to a guest room,” Keyleth says. “I guess we can talk it over.  I think… I think I’ll just go take a walk.”

She stands up and gives Pike a kiss on the top of the head, then walks out the side door and into the yard.

Pike yawns and leans back against Grog. “Pike?” she asks him sleepily.

“You wanna take a nap?  Yeah, I bet yer still pretty tired,” Grog says.  He picks her up, putting her against his shoulder.  Pike snuggles in against him. “Tell ya what, let’s go upstairs, I’ll put ya in bed, and I’ll stay with ya the whole time yer sleepin’.”

“Pike,” she murmurs.

“‘Kay,” Grog says.  Turning to Scanlan and Percy, he says, “Gentlemen, nice havin’ breakfast with you.”

“And with you,” Scanlan replies, tipping an imaginary cap.

“Lemme know if we’re goin’ to Druid Town,” Grog says, and he carries Pike out of the kitchen.

 


 

Pike curls up in her little gnome-sized bed and Grog pulls the covers up over her.  She looks so little, her face just barely poking up over the edge, that for a moment Grog just wants to scoop her up and hold her and never put her down.  But he stops himself. “Pike?” he asks. “Y’ okay with sleepin’ in bed?”

She yawns. “‘Og.”

It seems to be an affirmative answer, one way or another.

“Well, okay,” Grog says. “I’ll just… sit on the floor here.”

And he does.  He sits back against the wall under the window and watches her sleep.  It’s boring, for the most part, but he doesn’t care.  He thinks about Wilhand and wonders, not for the first time, where the portal might have taken the older gnome.  He thinks back on happy memories of spending time with Pike and Wilhand in Westruun.  He thinks about the things still in Wilhand’s house - who owns them now?  Pike?  Does Pike own Wilhand’s house?  What happens if Wilhand’s not dead?  Should they just leave things like they are?

In the middle of that distracting train of thought Vex opens the door and creeps silently across the floor to him. “Hello,” she whispers.

“Hi.”

“How is she?”

“Sleepin’.”

Vex gives him a wry smile. “I know that.  Did she eat?”

Grog nods.

“Good.”

“D’ y’ think Wilhand’s dead?” Grog asks her.

Vex shimmies up against the wall next to him. “I don’t know.  I think that will depend on what kind of a portal it was, and where it might lead.  Allura said she’s going to do some research with Kash’s drawings to help her.”

She hesitates. “Do… you … think he’s dead, Grog?”

“I don’t wan’ him t’ be.”

“I think that’s the right attitude, at least until we know more.”

Grog nods and looks down at his hands.

“Is there something else?” Vex asks him.

He shakes his head, then reconsiders. “I’m just still… thinkin’ ‘bout what she said t’ us durin’ the ritual.”

“Oh, Grog,” Vex says quietly. “I don’t think that was really Pike.”

“But what if it was?   What if it was her, and she just can’t say it now ‘cause her voice doesn’t work right?  I mean, she’s only got a couple’a words right now, but what if every time she says ‘Pike’ she’s really sayin’ those awful things again?”

Vex looks over at the bed.  Pike is mostly buried under the covers. “Well, when she wakes up, you should ask her.”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“Well, first of all, ‘cause she can’t answer me right.  An’ second… if it’s not her, I don’t wanna make her think I’m mad at her.”

“She’ll nod her head for yes and shake it for no,” Vex points out. “She did for me and Keyleth.  And Grog, you saved her life.  Even if she was mad at you, I think she’ll figure out in time that you’re the reason she’s still here.”

“Wasn’t me,” Grog mutters. “Was that cleric guy.”

Vex puts a hand on his arm. “No, Grog,” she says gently. “You saved her.  You loved her despite everything else that was happening to her, and you kept her safe.  The cleric’s work wouldn’t have mattered if you hadn’t been there to tether her back to reality.”

“It still hurt her,” Grog points out. “She’s still all cut up an’ hurt an’ tired an’ weak an’ blind an’...”

Vex cuts him off. “And alive.  Everything else is secondary to that.  We can work through everything else.”

“Y’ keep sayin’ that, an’ so does ever’body else,” Grog says, looking away from her. “But she’s got nothin’.  No eyes, no walkin’, no voice… it’s not what Pike would want.”

“What are you saying?”

Grog frowns and looks down. “I’m just sayin’... I’m sad.”

“Oh.” Vex hugs him. “Me too, Grog.  And I think we will be for a long time.  I think Pike’s sad, too.  She doesn’t remember us.  We’re like strangers to her.  She’s never been to this keep before.  We told her this is her bedroom but she’s never slept here before.  She’s been sick and almost dead since she joined us.  I think she just wants to be held and loved.  Can we do that?”

Grog nods, still not looking at Vex.  She sees tears gathering in his eyes.

“I love ‘er,” he mutters. “I love ‘er a whole lot.”

“I know,” Vex says softly.

She leans back against the wall and doesn’t say anything else.  After a while Grog seems to relax.  The late morning sun casts long shadows against the wall and for those moments, things are peaceful.

 


 

Coming back up the road towards the keep, Vax sees Keyleth, walking a bit ahead of him.  She seems distracted, a state of mind confirmed when Vax gently touches her shoulder: she jumps and screeches out, “What?!”

“I’m sorry,” Vax says.

“Oh,” Keyleth says, and she slips her hand into his and squeezes it. “I’m sorry, too.  I just… I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Where are you going?”

“Nowhere.  Just… wandering.”

“Is something wrong?”

Keyleth shakes her head. “No.  Not really.  Where did you go?”

“Into town.  I wanted to talk to Shari and see if Gilmore had come back.”

“And?”

“She hasn’t heard from him since he left with us.  She said he did talk about visiting his store in Vassalheim once we were done with our mission, for whatever that’s worth.”

Keyleth nods.

“Now, are you going to tell me what’s really going on, or do I need to start guessing?”

“My father’s here.”

Vax raises an eyebrow. “Is he trying to tell us, not-so-subtly this time, that he’s not getting any younger and he’d appreciate some grandchildren?”

That brings a smile to her face. “No.  At least, he hasn’t brought that up yet.  If he’s here long enough, I’m sure he’ll get around to it again sooner or later.”

“At the moment I think we have enough on our hands without thinking about that.”

“He’s here because Zephra was raided last night,” Keyleth says. “Someone broke in and took a lot of books and magical artifacts.”

“That’s… distressing.”

“The first time something like that’s happened,” Keyleth agrees. “At least, the first I can remember hearing about.”

“What’s the rest of it?”

“Hmm?”

“There’s something you’re not telling me.” Vax squeezes her hand. “I can see it in your face.”

“My father says the person behind the raid was my mother.”

Vax stops in the middle of the path. “That’s…”

“Not possible, I know.”

“I was going to say ‘distressing,’ but I suppose both are logical responses.”

“My father wants me to come back to Zephra with him.”

“Does he think we’re going to be attacked?”

“I don’t know.”

“And what do you think about that?”

Keyleth stops. “We just got Pike home.  She’s not ready to go anywhere else for a little while, and if something does happen we’re all going to be needed to keep her safe.  And yet I worry about my father and about Zephra.”

“We don’t have to decide right now.  We can talk about it with the others, see what they want to do.”

“And then there’s Gilmore to worry about - he’s still out there.  He didn’t get what he wanted…”

“It wasn’t Gilmore,” Vax reminds her.

“Which is even worse!  That means Gilmore’s either somewhere else or trapped inside his own body with whatever it is…”

Vax cuts her off, kissing her on the cheek. “We’ll figure things out.  One step at a time.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

He kisses her again, and she smiles.

“That’s better,” Vax says quietly.

“Yeah.”

“Now, let’s get home so your father can once again remind me how gorgeous our children would look.”

Keyleth laughs.

 


 

Pike dreams, and in the dream she can see.  She’s heavy, though, and loud, strange armor covers her body with an unfamiliar sensation.  The sun is high overhead and she sits on a bear - a bear? - as it strolls through the forest.  Her friends are around her, almost too bright, the colors of them saturated beyond any imagination, bleeding into her brain with an unspeakable beauty.  They laugh, and though it’s clear they’re talking, she can’t understand their voices.  It doesn’t panic her, though; she knows she is one of them, she knows she is loved.

She turns to look at Vex, striding alongside the bear - dark hair blue feathers tall thin bow laugh like sparkling water.  Then Vax, on her other side - dark hair dark feathers daggers smile like a crescent moon.  Ahead of him, skipping backwards somewhat, Keyleth - red hair antlers staff flowing clothing crackle of leaves in her laugh.

On the bear’s other side, Percy - blue coat glasses gleaming white hair content smile long stride - laughs and says something else before turning to Vex and tugging on her sleeve.  She responds with a sentence or two and points to Scanlan - purple gold brown hair sword at his side lute in his hands charming smile - who in turn points at Grog.

Pike looks up at Grog and her heart breaks, because when she’s not in this dream, she can hear in his voice how much he cares for her.  He remembers all of their history together, and she doesn’t.  She was a huge part of his world, and in her world, nothing much exists before a few days ago.  He’s tall muscles tattoos big arms big heart giant smile and she knows he’s so much more than that, but she can’t remember it all.

Dream-Grog reaches down and scoops her off the bear.  Her armor clanks and clatters as he lifts her up on his shoulder.  She laughs, a sound of pleasure and happiness reverberating through her chest, and she feels her voice say something, a full sentence, and her heart breaks further as the rest of her friends laugh.  She wants to know what that’s like, to be this person she was to them.

A breeze streams through the dream, carrying on it the scent of the ocean, faraway brine.  She turns her head and suddenly she’s standing on the deck of a boat, no longer surrounded by her friends.  In front of her is nothing but ocean, and it’s… it’s beautiful.  The water is calm, small rippling waves stretching out to the horizon, blue and turquoise and aquamarine and so many other facets of beautiful color under the noonday sun.  She hears the creaking of the boat behind her, the snapping of sails, the far-off cries of seagulls.

And then, next to her, she hears a voice: “You remember this, don’t you?”

Pike turns her head and sees a woman there, tall, sun-weathered, with dark hair wound into a tight, fat bun atop her head.  She doesn’t remember this woman, but she does remember the ocean, so she nods. “What does it mean?”

The woman shrugs. “Does it have to mean anything?”

“Was I ever really here?”

“Yes.  You were here.”

“A long time ago?”

“After you died,” the woman answers.

Pike doesn’t remember that part. “Why can I remember this and not my friends?”

At this the woman leans on the railing in front of her, surveying the water. “Memories can be like popcorn kernels.  All the potential of popcorn stored in tight little nuggets.  Sometimes, no matter what heat or pressure is applied, there are kernels that just refuse to bloom.  Other times, they practically leap out of the pan, fat and puffy.”

Pike isn’t quite sure she knows what popcorn is, but she doesn’t want to tell the woman that. “I don’t feel right here,” she says instead.

“You’re not supposed to,” the woman says with a laugh, and she pushes herself off the railing and takes a leap towards the rope netting behind Pike.  With an easy swing of her lanky body, she starts to climb upwards. “It’s a dream!”

 


 

Pike opens her eyes and sees nothing.  She’s back in her body, awake now.  She pushes off the covers and slides to the edge of the bed, hesitantly feeling for it with her hands.  She can hear snoring from somewhere in the room, and judging from the tone of it, Grog is asleep somewhere not too far off.

Carefully Pike slides off the bed.  The floor isn’t too far from the bed, and she lands with a soft and painless thump.  Rocking to her knees and hands she crawls a few feet forward.

“Darling?” Vex is on the other side of her. “Are you all right?”

“Pike.”

She hears Vex move closer. “Did you fall?”

Pike shakes her head.

“All right.”

Pike crawls a few more feet forward and takes another break.  Her body aches and she’s immediately tired again.

“Would you like some lunch?” Vex asks.

Pike nods.

“Is it all right if I carry you there?”

Again she nods.

“Good.” Vex scoops her up from the floor.  Pike puts her head against Vex’s shoulder. “We’ll just leave Grog to his nap.”

“Vex?” Pike asks, and there she stops, because she has no way of telling Vex that she saw her, saw her, with her eyes, in a dream, and she knows now how beautiful Vex is, and she wants so desperately to remember everything Vex is to her, and yet she can’t, and that makes her sad.

“Yes, darling?”

Pike sighs. “Pike,” she says, a bit lamely.

“I know,” Vex answers gently, and Pike wants to believe her.

They go downstairs and into a room with more voices.  Something smells delicious.  Vex says, “Sit with Scanlan for a few minutes while I get you something to eat,” and sets her down on a bench.

“Hey, baby,” Scanlan says, touching her arm. “Sleep well?”

“Pike,” she answers.

He puts his arm around her, and she realizes they’re nearly the same size.  It hadn’t been too apparent in the dream… or maybe she was too overwhelmed with seeing everyone and their giant personalities to take notice. “Good.  Glad to hear it.”

Then there’s another voice, one she doesn’t recognize. “Hello, Pike.  I’m glad to see you again.”

“Pike, darling, this is Keyleth’s father,” Vex says, sitting down next to her. “His name is Kohren.  He’s here for a short visit.”

“I haven’t spoken too much to Keyleth about your return home,” the new voice goes on. “But I’m certainly happy you’re here.”

“Pike,” she agrees.

Vex brings one of Pike’s hands up and puts it on a bowl in front of her. “I brought you some broth and bread again, but I thought you might want to try a spoon so you could feed yourself… have some more control over eating.”

Her other hand is gently curled around a spoon, and Pike clenches it, her body suddenly jerked back -

- spoon clicking against her teeth arms holding her down arms and feet and legs kicking kicking no let me go red-gold hot down her throat they want they want -

She screams and shoves, flails out with her arms, trying to get it all away from her.  Pike hears her voice, raw, yelling: “No!  No!  No!”

Her hand flings the spoon away from her and without her consent her arms come up, her fingers clenched, and beat her hands against her head, over and over, red-gold behind her eyes, chest heaving, sobs jerking their way out of her.  Her body aches and she just wants to punish it.

Arms wrap around her body and she’s lifted into the air.  Pike tries to fight against whoever it is, but a second later those same arms hug her tightly and she realizes it’s Grog.  She screams at him, hands still slamming against her head.

“Shh, buddy,” Grog says. “‘S all right.”

She kicks out, but her feet hit something hard and immovable - Grog’s body.  Her fists leave her head and make their way up to the same immovable stronghold, pounding against it. “NO!” she screams.

“‘S all right,” Grog repeats, and the pressure around her body increases subtly.

Pike wails again and her fists slam into Grog’s chest.  She feels someone else’s gentle arms on hers, pulling them down, putting them against her body, and then Grog’s embrace tightens again.

“We’re not gonna let ya hurt yerself,” Grog says, quietly but firmly, into her ear. “‘S all right t’ be scared, but y’ mean too much t’ us.  We’re not like them other ladies.  We’re never gonna hurt ya, and we won’t stand fer ya doin’ it to yerself.”

She wriggles against him, feet still flailing in mid-air.  She feels hot tears rolling down her cheeks and her body hurts.

“Take a deep breath.” That comes from Vax, next to Grog, and she feels his hand on her back. “Try to calm down.”

His voice is so gentle and she remembers how he made her feel when she was so scared - safe, and loved.  She wants to feel that way all the time.  Despite the pain in her chest she takes a breath, and another.  Soon she’s breathing slowly, rhythmically, and she feels her body go limp against Grog’s.

“There ya go,” Grog murmurs. “That’s better.”

He sits down, keeping her against him. “Would’ja like somethin’ t’ eat?”

She nods.

“All right.  Vex, can I have a washcloth fer my hands?”

“Of course, darling,” Vex says, sounding slightly amused.

After a few minutes Pike feels something touch her lips.  She’s still terrified it will be the spoon, but she’s so hungry.  She opens her mouth and a chunk of broth-soaked bread slips in.  She swallows and sighs in relief.

“Good?”

She nods.

“‘Kay,” Grog says.  

A few seconds later another bite touches her lips, and she accepts that one, too, settling back against Grog.

“So, note made, no spoons,” Vex says, and although it’s obvious she’s trying to keep her voice light, Pike hears stress in it as well.  That makes her sad - she knows she’s the cause of that stress, and she wishes she wasn’t.

“Never liked spoons anyway,” Grog opines, putting another bite in Pike’s mouth.

The conversation turns to other things; Vax talks to the rest of the group about someone named Gilmore and a place called Vassalheim, Kohren praises Keyleth on the keep’s gardens, and Percy mentions a letter he received from a friend while they were gone.  Pike drifts for a bit, letting the only sensory stimuli reaching her be the gentle pressure of Grog’s hand around her stomach and the bread slipping into her mouth.

At some point Grog murmurs, “We’re all done, Pikey.  Are ya tired?”

She is, and she hates that she is.  She wants to stay awake.  She wants to interact with these people, to be in this space with them, but her body has other ideas.

Slowly she nods.

“That’s okay,” Grog says. “I’d be tired, too.”

“I’ll take her,” Vax says. “Give you a break, Grog.”

“I can do it,” Grog says.

“I know you can, big man, but you don’t have to.”

“Trinket could use some exercise,” Vex puts in.

Grog hesitates. “Well, I guess that’d be okay.”

He leans down, closer to Pike. “‘S that okay with you?”

She nods again.

“‘Kay.” He hugs her, and she squeezes back as tightly as she can.

Vax leans in and picks her up. “Hi, Pickle,” he says quietly.

Pike puts her head on his shoulder.  She doesn’t mean to, but she feels herself drifting again.  She closes her eyes and lets the safety of the arms around her lull her back to sleep.

 


 

When Vax and Pike are gone, Vex says, “What the hell happened?”

“She got mad at a spoon,” Grog replies. “Where’s Trinket?  We’ll go take a run.”

Vex puts a hand to her forehead. “He’s outside, probably eating the strawberries out of the garden.”

“‘Kay.”

“Wait,” Keyleth says. “We need to talk about what we’re doing.”

“‘Bout what?” Grog asks, already halfway out the door.

“My father’s asked me to come back to Zephra,” Keyleth says, “but after seeing what just happened…”

She turns to Kohren. “We need to be here to keep Pike safe.  And something tells me that if it really was… my mother, she’s after something bigger.  I don’t think she’ll go back to Zephra.”

“Have you scried on her?” Vex asks.

Kohren shakes his head. “I asked some of our elders to do so in my absence, and sent word to the headmasters of the other tribes to keep an eye out for anything suspicious happening around their settlements.”

“What kinds of things were taken?” Percy wants to know.

“Several books…”

“I’m out,” Grog says, and pushes his way out the side door. “I’ll do whatever we decide.”

The door swings closed.

“As I was saying, several books of our history, a book of maps, and two of our magical artifacts.  One is a Ring of Storm-Bringing.  The other is more complicated - it is a wand able of creating portals between many different planes and dimensions.”

“Could either of those be used to cause harm to someone she considered an enemy?” Percy asks.

“Anything could be,” Kohren says. “She used a powerful variation on a ‘hold person’ spell to restrain several people, and she injured two young people who were just outside the village returning from a patrol.”

Keyleth looks at him in alarm.

“They’re all right,” Kohren says. “Everyone is more shaken up than hurt.”

“I think you should go back with him,” Vex says to Keyleth.

“Really?”

Vex nods. “You’re technically their headmaster, even if you haven’t assumed your title yet.  It might do your people good to have you there.”

Keyleth considers this.

“You could just pop over and pop back,” Scanlan suggests. “Go over, kiss some babies and shake some hands, sign some official paperwork with people looking on, and then come on back.”

“What does that even mean?” Percy asks.

Scanlan shrugs. “Be a politician.”

“And you won’t go anywhere without me?” Keyleth looks between Vex and Percy.

“You have our word,” Percy says.

“... because Vax was talking about going to Vassalheim to look for Gilmore.”

“We won’t go without you,” Vex says. “Pike’s not in any shape to go anywhere for a bit.”

“I just feel bad about leaving you guys,” Keyleth says. “I mean…”

“She’ll be here when you get back.  I promise,” Vex tells her. “We’re not going to let anyone take her away from us.”

“Again,” Percy adds softly.

“Again,” Vex agrees.

“Okay,” Keyleth says.  She turns to her father. “Let me get a few things, and I’ll be ready to go.”

He nods. “Thank you.”

She kisses his cheek. “I want answers to this as much as you do.”

“I’m sure that’s true.”

 


 

When Vax tries to put Pike in her bed, she rouses a bit from her slumber and grabs onto him, whimpering, “No, no, no,” so he sits down on the bed and keeps her in his arms.  Whatever fear that stirred in her mind lets her go, and she becomes peaceful once more.

You saved her, my champion, a familiar voice murmurs in his head.

“I had a lot of help,” Vax says. “Vex and Grog did a lot of it.  Tristan, too, and I’m sure he’d say Sarenrae had something to do with all of it.”

All right, then, the Raven Queen says, sounding a little amused.  You were one piece in a much larger puzzle that saved her.

“And if I recall, you helped, too.”

I did.

“Thank you.”

As I told you, my champion, I was honored to fight for her life.  She has more work to do here.

“Anything I can tell her about?”

Not at the moment.

A thought hits Vax. “Wait.  You know she has more work to do, and you helped to save her life.  Does that mean…?”

He hears a gentle laugh in his head.  No.  She’s not mine.  Her life was put on hold for seven years - it was not her own.  I look over the realms of life and death; she was not technically dead, but neither was she alive.  Those things she should have been doing for those seven years still belong to her.  They may have changed, but she has much more life to live.  Sarenrae believes in redemption - and Pike has earned it.

“Oh, good,” Vax says.

Are you saying that a life in my service is not something you’d recommend? the Raven Queen asks, amusement in her voice.

“It’s not for Pike,” Vax answers.

I know.

“Thank you for your help,” Vax says.

It is in my best interest to aid my champion when he calls upon me.

Pike shifts in his arms, and Vax looks down at her.  By the time she’s righted herself, the Raven Queen’s presence has faded entirely.

 


 

"You said you got a letter from a friend," Vex says to Percy when they're alone in the kitchen.

"I did."

"And you didn't say much more than that.  Anything you'd like to share?"

"Well, it's really not that interesting," Percy answers. "But we'll be having a visitor here shortly."

"Another one?"

"At least this one's expected."

"Will you at least tell me who it is, darling?"

"Well, of course I will.  It's Taryon Darrington."

Chapter Text

That afternoon a giant storm rolls in over Emon.  The skies go dark, pitch black, hours before the usual sunset time.  Thunder and lightning rock the heavy clouds, and rain pours down in sheets.  From the front door of the keep, the visibility drops to almost nothing; even the keenest eye would struggle to see the gate in the keep’s wall or the end of the road leading to town.

Pike gets restless with the first roll of thunder.  Grog’s arms around her suddenly feel like restraining iron bands and she shoves against them, protesting unhappily.  Her voice, no longer quiet, wrenches itself from her throat in a helpless, angry keening.  She slaps at him, voice rising.  Her skin itches all over, her head heavy and aching.

“What is it, buddy?” Grog asks.

Pike wants to have the right words to tell him.  She just feels wrong.  The itching on her skin turns into burning and she screams, slapping her hands against her head.  She wants to see stars, wants the red-gold in her head to pulse out into nothingness.  Help! she calls into the ether.

Two streams of fire flare up her back and she cries out in pain, grabbing at her hair and trying to rip it from her head.

Hands, cool ones, wrap around hers and pull them away from her hair. “You do not hurt yourself,” Vax says, close by.

Pike pulls her legs into her body and kicks out fiercely, hitting Grog squarely in the stomach.  She hears an unh and for a few brief seconds she’s falling through space.  Then Vax’s hands seize her wrists and catch her.

The twin trails of pain down her back dig harder into her spine and she screams, flailing back and forth.  Someone grabs her around the waist and tries to bring her back to the ground.  Pike reaches up and claws out into the air in front of her; her hand connects with something solid and she hears Vex bite out a curse.

Her back is pulsing now, the ache in her head joining it.  She wraps her fingers into her hair again and tries once more to pull, to somehow create more pain than her body is emitting.

Again she hears Vax’s voice. “No, Pike.  We won’t let you hurt yourself.”

She tenses, awaiting his hands on hers.  As she feels him lean in, she pulls her head back and spits at him.

There’s stunned silence, followed, after a few beats, by Grog’s voice: “Pike!”

He sounds angry, but Pike doesn’t care.  She puts her hands on the floor and pushes herself back away from her friends.  Her spine is wrapped in molten lava; she curls, hunching over, the pain overwhelming everything.

Hands come down, resting gently on her back, and she feels energy pulse through her, taking the pain down a few notches.  It’s enough for her to take a deep breath, and she shudders, feeling sweat drip down her face.

A hand brushes her face, and Vax speaks, closer to her. “Can I hold you, Pickle?”

His voice is so soft and caring, despite everything she’s just done to them, to all of them, that she bursts into tears.

“Okay, okay,” Vax says, and he gently picks her up, pulling her close to him.  Her legs still tucked against her body, she balls up against his body.

Another hand gently touches the back of her neck, and she feels another warm lick of energy flow down her back.  Again the pain releases by a few degrees.  Pike slumps into Vax.

“I wish you could tell us what’s wrong,” Vex says.

Me too, Pike thinks miserably. “Pike,” she whimpers into Vax’s neck.

“I know,” Vax murmurs, and rubs her back. “Shh, it’s all right.”

But something is wrong, somewhere.  Her skin still itches, as though little bugs are crawling somewhere just beneath the top layers.  The healing spells delivered by her friends have taken the edge off and the panic and spine-wrenching pain are fading in little waves, leaving her floppy, disconnected, and floating somewhere beyond her body. “Pike?” she murmurs.

She wants to find the answers to what’s gone so wrong, what’s gotten her so out of sorts, but she’s nearly drunk with exhaustion and disorientation.

“Sleep now,” someone murmurs, and without further provocation, she drops like a stone into the deep pools of unconsciousness.

 


 

As Keyleth steps through the tree portal in the middle of the afternoon, following her father out of Emon, she emerges into another space, another area.  The skies overhead are cloudy and the air seems oppressive and still, so unlike the normal winds that whip around Zephra.  Seconds later, she realizes the landscape is all wrong.  The trees are different, the ground is different, even the noises of animals around them are not as they should be.

A knot of anxiety balls into Keyleth’s stomach.  Gripping her staff she turns, not towards her father, but away from him, trying to discern her location.  It’s all simply bland and gray - wherever this is, it’s completely anonymous, seemingly leached of all color and substance.

“Where are we?” she asks, attempting to keep a tremor out of her voice.

“Do you know why I brought you here?”

“What do you mean?  You told me we were going to Zephra,” Keyleth says.

“I did, didn’t I?”

The ball of anxiety blooms like a flower reaching its way up her throat. “What’s going on?” she asks, her voice low.

“The Gods’ Touched was meant to protect us,” Kohren says, but his voice is no longer one Keyleth recognizes as her father’s. “She was meant to give her life, if that was what required, to keep us safe.  And you just waltz in and take her -”

Before the person who is not her father can continue, Keyleth whirls her staff around, casting a fireball directly at them.  She bolts backwards as the flame wraps around the figure, hands already moving to cast the transport via plants spell that will take her back to Emon.

There’s a heart-pounding second of terror as she realizes the figure’s still moving back towards her, the fireball dissipating too quickly.  Its face is shifting between Kohren’s and a female Keyleth knows all too well - Ieliena.

“We… we killed you,” Keyleth gasps, readying her staff.

“Did you?” Kohren’s form drops entirely, leaving Ieliena standing in Kohren’s robes before Keyleth. “Bodies are transient, Keyleth, surely you know that.”

Keyleth keeps moving her hand, trying to cast the spell to get her out of this gray nowhere place.  Something’s not working.  She feels like she’s moving through syrup, her thoughts getting gluey.

“I wonder if she’s killed any of your friends in our absence,” Ieliena says, as calmly as if she’s talking about the weather. “It’s what we charged her to do, you know.”

“She’s not yours anymore,” Keyleth says.  She knows that as surely as she knows anything else.

Ieliena tilts her head. “It’s touching you think that,” she says. “But we…”

“I know what you did,” Keyleth says fiercely. “And you failed.”

This stops Ieliena. “We -”

“A cleric of Sarenrae undid in a handful of hours what you and your cult did in seven years,” Keyleth spits. “Seems like you didn’t put your best work into your pet project.”

“That’s…”

“Impossible?” A grin spreads across Keyleth’s face, mean and sarcastic. “You might have taken her, held her hostage, and tried to break her, but you never knew Pike.  She doesn’t quit.  She waited for us, and she’s safe now, and we’re never going to let you get your hands on her ever again.”

“She’s never going to be yours, no matter what you do,” Ieliena swears. “Somewhere in the back of her head, she’s still our Gods’ Touched - and she still remembers the task we gave her.  There’s no cleric in the world who can erase what we did.”

Keyleth bows her head.  She doesn’t want to believe it.  She can’t believe it.

Suddenly there’s the memory of fingers brushing along her palm, and Keyleth hears Pike’s little voice in her ears, gentle and kind.  She remembers Pike’s grateful embraces, the soft breaths of satisfaction, even the way Pike trusted them despite everything happening to her body against her will.  Keyleth can feel Pike in her arms, hear her murmuring “Pike,” see her sitting in Grog’s lap looking content and whole and home.

And she suddenly hates the way this horrible woman has used her father and her mother against her, broken into their home, their sanctuary, with a made-up crime committed by a woman long-dead, taken the face of her beloved father, lied to her face, and kidnapped her.  Rage blooms up her throat and something in her sticky thoughts and tacky movements breaks free, and she whips another fireball at Ieliena while bringing up one hand to open the portal back to Emon.  This time she sees an opening in the large tree, and she doesn’t wait to see Ieliena react to the fireball - she scrambles up the hillside towards it and, at the last second, flings herself through it.

 


 

Vex slips back into Pike’s room and sits down next to Percy.  She slips her hand into his and leans up against him, putting her head on his shoulder.

“Hello,” he murmurs.

“How is she?”

“Not well, I’m afraid.”

“I sent my brother to the temple, and then to Allura’s,” Vex says. “We need help.”

“Good.”

On the bed Pike lets out a soft scree and lurches upright.  Percy’s on his feet within a few seconds, moving towards the bed. “It’s all right, Pike.  It’s all right.”

In the dim light from the lantern in the corner Vex sees Pike’s hands fly up to her head, clawed fingers reaching for her hair.  Percy’s hands intercept them, and he pulls her in close to him.  Pike lets out an indignant howl, and Percy shushes her as gently as a father with a child.  She lashes out at him, arms flailing, and Percy rocks back and forth with her.  Over her outbursts, he begins singing.

The mood in the room changes dramatically.  The Celestial words wrap around the duo on the bed, and Pike’s frustrated movements and cries slow.  Percy continues to rock and sing, and Vex feels sleepy in the low light.

After a time the song stops and Vex comes back to full awareness. “Is she asleep again?”

“Yes,” Percy answers.

Vex sighs. “What are we going to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“I thought this was going to be easy,” Vex says brokenly. “I thought…”

“We all thought,” Percy answers gently. “We all thought that just getting her out of there was going to be enough.  And it wasn’t.”

“No,” Vex whispers.  A horrible thought grips her. “Percy… should we have saved her?”

Percy stops rocking.  Against him Pike moves, one hand coming up to grip his shirt. “Oh, Vex,” Percy murmurs.

“I mean, I know… I know that somewhere in there she’s still our Pike - Grog’s best buddy and Vax’s ‘Pickle’ and…” Vex stops, nearly breathless with the weight of her words. “... but if we can’t help her, what good was rescuing her?”

Percy considers this, looking down at Pike. “We did it because… because she’s ours, Vex.  Broken and sick and whatever else she is… we did it because she would have come for any of us.”

“She would have,” Vex agrees in a whisper.

 


 

Vax bangs on the door of Sarenrae’s temple.  He’s soaked to the bone and his legs burn with the exertion of running from the keep to the center of Emon.  His breaths rip through his chest as he yells out, “Help!  Help!”

His fists slam into the door - once, twice, again - and yet there’s no answer.  He bows his head, hand still against the door, trying to feel any sort of warmth, any response.

The door opens just a few inches, and in the flickering of a single uncovered candle he sees the drawn face of the human cleric, Emilia.  She looks at him distrustfully. “Why are you here?”

“We need help,” Vax pants. “Pike… there’s something wrong with her.  She’s getting worse.”

“We gave her everything we had,” Emilia spits at him. “If that is not enough, then there is something in her Sarenrae cannot heal, and she has fallen beyond the Dawnflower’s gracious reach.”

She gives him an up-and-down glance, scornful. “Perhaps your Queen might have more to offer you.”

It’s like a slap in the face.  Vax wants to scream at her, to throttle her, to fall at her knees and beg - but his body won’t let him do any of those things.  He merely stands in front of Emilia, absolutely gutted.  He can’t even find words to express to her how much this feels like the end of the line for Pike, that if he cannot bring help back to their keep, they will lose Pike again.

“If that’s all…?” Emilia starts to close the door.

Vax lets her.

In the dark of the temple square he hangs his head, shoulders slumping, and weeps.

He’s still standing there when the door of the temple opens again and a figure with a hooded lantern moves slowly towards him.  A hand comes up to touch his soggy shoulder. “Our Lady’s peace be upon you,” Tristan murmurs. “And I apologize for my young apprentice’s attitude this night.”

“You should be resting,” Vax says.

Tristan gives him a dismissive hand-wave. “Resting is for the dead.”

“Is what she said true?” Vax asks him. “Is Pike gone to us?”

Tristan thinks about this. “In a few hours, you can bring her back to me and I will attempt the Radiant Scalpel again.  And I have sent messages to many temples of Sarenrae around the continent - they will reply to me if there is something else that can be done.”

“I don’t think she’ll survive another one of those,” Vax says.

“Neither do I,” Tristan replies. “But it is worth trying.”

Vax shakes his head. “No.  Not if it kills her.  I will not do that to her, and neither will the rest of us.”

Tristan nods slowly. “I understand your reluctance.  Perhaps when she heals…?”

“No.  Never again.  We will never put her through that again,” Vax says, his voice low and firm. “She does not remember us or anything that we went through together.  She doesn’t remember her best friend - the man she grew up with.  She remembered her grandfather for a split second before he jumped through a portal to the unknown to save her life.  We took her out of a place that had been her home for seven years, despite the fact that all they did to her was torture her; it’s the only place she remembers.  Everything we’ve done to her so far has hurt her.  We’re lucky all she’s trying to do is fight back.”

“Keep her safe,” Tristan says. “We will wait for answers.”

He removes something from within his robes and puts it into Vax’s hand. “Perhaps this will help.”

Vax looks down to see a palm-sized piece of worn turquoise sea glass, roughly heart-shaped.  There are a few markings on it, but the strangest of them is the largest - it seems to be the sun icon of Sarenrae. “What is it?”

“We call them heart-stones,” Tristan says. “They’re incredibly rare and incredibly expensive.  Found every so often on the shores of places far away from here.  They are full of power and Sarenrae’s grace.  They’re usually given to high clerics upon their ascendance to their position; they’re meant to inspire one to serve all, for if our Dawnflower’s influence can be found in places where one has never been, then who are we to ignore those places?”

“I can’t accept this,” Vax says.

“So don’t,” Tristan says, a bit wryly. “It’s not for you.”

“I mean, I can’t accept this on Pike’s behalf.  Not if it was given to you as an honor of your… station.”

“It wasn’t given to me,” Tristan tells him. “It belonged to my grandfather, high cleric of Sarenrae in a city that, like him, no longer exists.  Upon his death he gave it to me, with instructions to pass it along when I found a need in the world.  I have found it.”

Vax grips the stone tightly. “I cannot thank you enough for everything you’ve done.”

“And I you,” Tristan says. “Now, go home to her.  Hold her.  Keep this on her.”

“Nothing we do helps,” Vax says, slipping the stone into his pocket.

“Eh - forgive an old man his eccentricities - but there is one thing I have always believed,” Tristan says, “and that is, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again.”

He smiles at Vax, bows his head, and retreats into the temple.

 


 

The red-gold pain clamps around Pike’s limbs and she whimpers, trying to keep herself in the safe in-between space of sleep.  Her body wants something from her.  It wants her to wake, it wants her to rise, it wants -

A cool hand touches her forehead. “Pike?  Can you hear me?”

She moans and tries to turn her head away from the touch.

“Pike, Vax went to get…” There’s a pause in Vex’s voice. “He went to get someone to try to help you.”

Red-gold bands grip her wrists and try to bring her arms up.  Pike clenches her fingers in the bedcovers.

“I need you to open your eyes, Pike,” Vex says, her tone just a bit louder. “We want to try to understand what’s happening.”

Getupwantgetupwantgetupwantslashslashslash.

Pike grits her teeth as the red-gold pain turns into a red-gold voice, seductive and low, cradled in her belly the way a prophecy sometimes is.  It bounces up her spine like little balls, puddling at the back of her skull.

WantgetupgetupgetupnowgodstouchedgetupslashslashSLASHKILL.

"NO!” Pike screams, and her red-gold bound arms leave the blankets.  She forces her fingers to turn back towards her own body instead of out towards her friends, digging her nails into the soft skin of her neck and raking downwards.  Some of the fury floods out of her, some of the impetus to slashslash dies, but it’s not enough.  She raises her hands again, turns them into fists, aims them at her stomach.  She punches over and over, waiting for the sickening release of the red-gold pain to drop her into unconsciousness -

And instead feels hands on hers.

Pike growls, low in her throat.  She can’t make them understand that her body’s trying to hurt them.  She can’t make them understand that by hurting herself, she can keep them safe.  She can’t make them understand that her body hasn’t been hers for as long as she can remember - what does it matter if she hurts it?  She can’t ever hurt it worse than those who kept her in captivity did.

The pain bursts out of her - her eyes narrow - and the red-gold bouncing around in her head slides in front of her eyes and the room lights up for her.  People and objects flare into a wobbly, fiery view.

Ahhh, you want to, the sneaky red-gold voice whispers in her ears.

“No,” she whimpers. “No.”

Ahh, but you do.  I can hear it in your heart, little rabbit.  You want to take them down, one by one, watch them bleed at your feet, taste their life force as it flows from them.  And who could blame you, Gods’ Touched?  It would bring you home.  It would set you free.

“NO!” Pike screams again.  Her fingers find her neck, find that necklace there, and she clenches onto it, drowning in the flames visible only to her.   Please… she begs.  If you’re still there… I’m so sorry.

“Pike,” Percy says calmly, gently, rationally. “We need you to take a deep breath.”

“Coming… now… eyes open,” Pike gets out. “Hurting… moving… run fast… leave her.”

She feels the heat pouring up her back, licking her ears, swirling around the nape of her neck.  She coughs out the prophecy again, raising her voice: “Coming… now… eyes open.  Hurting… moving… run fast… LEAVE HER!”

Her head is pounding now, fingers clenching that necklace.  Please, if you can give me my voice… my real voice… for just a few seconds… I could tell them…

Pike bows her head.

 


 

Then things go still and quiet, and the warm, gentle hand touches the top of her head. “You don’t wish me to take this away from you?”

This evil they put in me… you are too wonderful to hold it.

“As are you.”

I just need to tell them to put me somewhere safe, where I can’t hurt them.

“I could tell them.”

Please.  It doesn’t matter to me.  But I know I’m supposed to remember them, and even though I don’t, I already know they’re important, I know they love me… and I know I love them.

The warm hand strokes her cheek. “You are beautiful, my daughter.  I will do my best to alert them in time.”

Thank you.  I think… I think I love you too.

“In time, you will remember that you do.  And that I love you as well.”

 


 

As Pike stops moving, bowing her head on the bed, Vex takes a hesitant step towards her. “Pike?”

There’s no response.

“Pike?” Vex reaches out, ready to touch Pike’s arm.

Pike’s head jerks up, and Vex jumps backwards, stunned by what she sees.  Pike’s eyes are vibrant, alert, bright blue.  Her face is clear and certain.

“What’s happening?” Vex whispers.

“I only have a few seconds, granted by Sarenrae’s grace.  I need you to take me somewhere safe.  Somewhere I can’t get out of.  A cell.  A place like that.  There’s something still in me that’s trying to fight its way out, trying to get me to kill all of you.” Pike speaks rapidly, but her expression is steady and solemn. “I don’t know what it is I don’t know how to get rid of it, I only know what it wants me to do, and I know I can’t do that.  I know…”

Her voice breaks. “I know I love you, and I want to come back to you, even if I’m never the Pike I was before.”

“You don’t have to be the Pike you were,” Percy says, tears in his voice. “You can just be…”

I don’t have time,” Pike tells him fiercely. “I need to know you’ll do what I’m asking you.  Leave feelings out of it.  I’m not safe right now.  I’m a weapon.  Lock me up.”

A look of pain flits across her face and she grits her teeth. “Please, promise me.  I don’t…”

She lets out a soft growl.

“We’ll do it,” Vex says.

“What?” Grog sounds stunned. “No - we’re not gonna lock y’ up!”

“I am a weapon!” she screams at him.

“If we don’t do this, we’ll have to fight her,” Percy says softly.

“We might kill her, Grog,” Scanlan adds, putting a hand on Grog’s knee.

Grog looks back at her. “Are y’ th’ real Pike?”

“I’m something,” she says, hands clenching into fists. “I’m… all mashed up right now.  I’m… a whole lot of things fighting themselves.”

“If yer th’ real Pike, can I ask y’ a question?”

Pike nods. “Just… make it fast… this is…”

She whimpers and brings one fist up to punch her opposite shoulder.

“When y’ said y’ blamed us… blamed me … fer leavin’ y’ there… was that…?”

“No,” Pike says, shaking her head. “I don’t blame you.  I know you couldn’t have done anything more than you already did.”

“We promise,” Grog says, although he sounds broken.

Pike punches herself again and looks up directly at him. “I don’t… I don’t… hnnn … know… when… hrrrr … I can come back… no, please, don’t… but I love you.  I love you, Grog.”

With that her eyes blaze white, her fingers reach for her hair again, and she screams at them.

“C’mon,” Scanlan says to Grog.

“I can’t.”

“We promised her,” Percy says.

“But she’s…” Grog shakes his head.

“She asked us to help her, and she told us how,” Scanlan says gently. “We need to do that.”

“Where do we take her?” Percy asks.

“There’s a cell here,” Vex says, although she sounds reluctant too.

“We promised,” Percy repeats. “Grog, pick her up, please.”

For a few seconds the request doesn’t seem to register.  Then Grog, woodenly, takes a few steps forward and scoops Pike up from the bed.  She slashes at his face; he lets it happen.  She slaps him; he takes it.  She screams at him, wordlessly; he kisses her cheek.

They put her in the cell in the basement of the keep, never used.  Vex and Scanlan scurry to bring in a pile of blankets and pillows, some bread, a jug of water.  Grog sets her down and, despite her flailing arms and slashing hands, manages to kiss her on the top of the head. “I love ya too,” he says softly. “An’ we won’t leave ya alone, an’ we’re gonna figure this out.”

The door shuts with a hefty clang, followed by something slamming into the cold iron.  They hear Pike let out a whimper and then another series of screams.

Grog drops to the floor and puts his head in his hands.

“Can I heal your face?” Vex asks softly, kneeling down next to him.  She gently reaches out and touches the bleeding lines carved by Pike’s fingernails.

Grog brings his hand up and carefully takes Vex’s from his cheek. “No,” he says, his voice low. “Leave ‘em.”

 


 

Keyleth falls through the tree in the temple of their keep, gasping and choking.  Her knees skid across the stone floor; her bag and her staff go flying.  It’s all she can do to keep her head from impacting the ground.  She lays there, utterly defeated, listening to rain batter the roof overhead.  She’s so stupid, so easily trusting - she could have been killed.

As she sits up, readjusting her headdress, she reconsiders.  Why did Ieliena go to all the trouble of kidnapping her?  Why didn’t Ieliena just take back Pike?

Because she wants Pike to kill us, Keyleth reminds herself, which leads her right back to her original question: What did Ieliena want specifically with her?

After a few moments of introspection that lead nowhere, Keyleth gets to her feet, straightens her clothing, and grabs her things.  She sighs; the keep around her is dark and quiet.  Time to eat, and then time to go to bed and forget everything stupid she’d done.

She’s halfway to the kitchen when the front door opens and Vax bursts in, followed by Allura.  They’re both soaked to the bone.  Vax looks confused. “What… what are you doing back here?”

“It’s a long story,” Keyleth says. “Were you two out for… an evening tryst or something?”

Allura rolls her eyes and casts some sort of cantrip that makes her immediately dry. “Nothing quite as exciting, I’m afraid.”

To Vax, she says, “Where is she?”

“Upstairs,” Vax answers.  Allura nods and moves down the hallway towards the stairs.

“What’s going on?” Keyleth asks, concerned.

“After you left, things went downhill with Pike.  She was… she was almost feral,” Vax says quietly. “She tried to attack us…”

“Did she hurt anyone?”

“Only herself.”

“Oh, good,” Keyleth says.

Vax gives her a sharp look. “That’s good?”

Keyleth shakes her head. “No, it’s not good.  I mean, it’s good for all of us.  For you.  It’s not good for her.”

“What’s going on?  Why are you back here so soon?” Vax takes a step towards her.

“For starters, it wasn’t my father who came here,” Keyleth says.

“Wait.  Before you go any further, tell me something only the real Keyleth would know,” Vax says.

“You know that if Ieliena came here, looking like my father and claiming that my mother attacked Zephra, I’m pretty sure she can use the rest of our memories to convince anyone she’s anyone,” Keyleth says. “But if it’ll make you feel better, I know what you want to name our daughter, if we have one.”

She leans in and whispers it in his ear.

Vax takes her hand. “All of those things you said… about it being Ieliena… is that what happened to you?”

Keyleth nods as she pulls back from him. “She took me… somewhere.  I don’t know where.”

“How is she still alive?  We saw her die!”

“I know,” Keyleth says. “I don’t understand it.  But she took me to this gray place and told me that no matter what we do, we’ll never get Pike back, because they gave Pike a directive that she has to follow, no matter what.  And she seemed surprised that Tristan was able to help Pike at all, since there’s that one task they’ve given her to do that can never be erased.”

“What was she talking about?”

“Pike is supposed to kill us.” Vex’s voice rings out, a bit unsteadily, from the stairs leading to the lower level of the keep.

Vax and Keyleth turn to see her there, holding a bottle of something in her hand. “Vex’ahlia?” Vax takes a few steps towards his sister.

She holds out the bottle. “You’re going to want this.”

“I feel like you’ve made a good start on it already,” Vax says, but he takes it from her anyway. “Why were you in the basement?”

“‘Cause that’s where we all are now,” Vex answers, her voice only somewhat slurred.

“Why are you all in the basement?”

“‘Cause that’s where Pike told us to put her,” Vex replies. “An’ Grog won’t leave her, an’ Scanlan won’t leave Grog, an’...”

She hiccups.

Vax gently brings her towards a chair. “You need to start over,” he says. “Keyleth, will you go get Allura?  I’m afraid we sent her in the wrong direction.”

Keyleth nods and hurries off.

Vax turns back to his sister. “What happened after I left?”

“She slept… she screamed… Percy sang… he’s got such a lovely voice…” Vex trails off, sighing.

“Keep going,” Vax encourages her.

Vex looks up at him, her eyes suddenly full of tears. “She hurt herself, Vax.  An’ then…” - she hiccups again - “... an’ then she talked to us.  In her real voice.  In her real Pike voice.  An’ you could see her eyes…”

“It’s true,” Percy says as he approaches.

“How drunk are you?” Vax asks him.

“Stone sober,” Percy replies. “It seemed imperative that one of us kept a collective consciousness.”

Vax nods.

“Pike told us that Sarenrae was somehow giving her the grace to speak to us,” Percy tells him, “and that we needed to put her somewhere that she couldn’t hurt us.  The cell in the basement was the logical choice.”

“Oh!  An’ tell him… tell him…” Vex interjects, raising one finger in the air, “how she hurt Grog.”

“She hurt Grog,” Percy repeats obediently, obviously humoring Vex.

“An’ he wouldn’t let me fix it,” Vex says, her voice dropping into a whisper. “He said he wanted them there.”

She starts crying.

“Is Grog all right?” Vax asks Percy.

Percy nods.

“Is Pike all right?”

“We heard some banging and screaming for quite awhile,” Percy answers. “Then nothing.  I peeked through the window about an hour ago and she was passed out.  What did you learn at the temple?”

“Emilia the cleric is a bitch,” Vax says frankly, “although in this circumstance, I can’t really blame her.  Tristan’s a good egg, though, and he gave me something that might help.”

Keyleth and Allura pass by them.

“Allura,” Percy says, reaching out one hand to stop the arcanist. “There’s nothing more you can do tonight.  It wouldn’t be safe.”

She gives him a questioning look.

“It’s very complicated, and unfortunately, no one here is in the right frame of mind to explain it all,” Percy goes on. “Would you mind waiting until morning?”

“As long as I can stay here.  I’m not going back out into the rain,” Allura answers.

“Of course,” Percy says. “Please, take any of the guest rooms.”

“Thank you,” Allura says. “I’ll let Kima know I won’t be returning.”

She goes back upstairs.  Keyleth gives Percy a questioning look.  He responds with an inquisitive glance of his own.

“I think we have a bit to talk about,” Percy says.

“We do,” Keyleth answers.

“Can it wait?”

She nods.

“Good,” Percy says. “I’m exhausted, and Lady Bottom-of-the-Bottle here needs to rest as well.”

He helps Vex to her feet. “Come, darling, let’s go to bed.”

“I just wanted to help her,” Vex cries.

“I know, dear,” Percy says. “We’ll try again in the morning.”

Vax watches them go, then turns to Keyleth. “I need you to help me.”

“Okay,” she replies immediately.

“Tristan the cleric gave me something he said would help Pike.  I don’t know if it will or not, but I’m sure as hell not waiting until the morning, not if it could end her suffering tonight.  I need you to keep watch while I give it a go.”

“Of course.”

They move swiftly down the stairs and realize there will be no need for Keyleth to keep watch - Grog and Scanlan are both passed out, drunk, in the hallway opposite the cell.  Scanlan’s on top of Grog, using the much-larger man as a mattress; neither stirs as Vax and Keyleth approach.

Vax draws back the small window on the cell’s door and looks in.  By the light of the small enchanted lantern in the corner, he can see Pike, curled up in the center of a pile of haphazardly strewn blankets.  Her eyes are open. “Pike?” he whispers.

Her head moves slightly but she doesn’t respond.

“Pike, it’s Vax.  I have something for you, and I’m coming in to give it to you.  I trust you, and I know you won’t hurt me while I’m here.”

He swallows. “I realize now why you were trying to hurt yourself - you were trying to keep us safe.  I’m so sorry I couldn’t understand that earlier.  Thank you for doing the best you could.”

Vax takes the key from the ring next to the door and unlocks the cell.  He opens the door slowly, half-expecting Pike to charge at him.  She merely lays there, though, and Vax kneels down next to her. “Can I hold you?” he asks.

“Vax,” Keyleth says, a tad warningly, from the hallway.

“If something happens, feel free to take care of it,” Vax tells her, his eyes still on Pike. “I trust you, too.”

“I don’t want to hurt either of you,” Keyleth says.

“Then let’s make sure it doesn’t come to that.”

“Pike,” Pike whispers at him, and she raises one hand limply.

Vax sits down and pulls her into his lap.  She feels lighter, somehow; almost frailer.  Her head flops against the crook of his arm and he cradles her. “The cleric Tristan gave me something for you,” he tells her.

“Pike,” she says.

“Yes, for Pike.” He reaches into his pocket and takes out the heart-stone, which he places against her palm.

Pike’s fingers clench around it and she brings it up to her chest.  The stone glows softly as it rests near her holy symbol. “Oh,” Pike breathes softly, and in that one sound is awe and peace.

“Does it help?”

Pike nods.

“Good,” Vax says, and he strokes her hair.

Pike settles it on her chest and wraps her arms around it like a child would a doll.  The stone, which was palm-sized for Tristan and Vax, is nearly the size of a book against Pike’s frame.  It’s an odd comfort object, but it seems to leach more calm into the room the longer it touches Pike’s body.

“Can you rest?”

She nods again.

“Do you want me to stay?”

One more nod.

“Then I’ll stay.”

Pike’s breathing slows, and Vax waits until her eyes close before he moves her back into the nest of blankets, making sure the stone never loses contact with her body.  He covers her up and then arranges more of the blankets and pillows into a makeshift pallet. “You coming?”

Keyleth looks at him. “You want me to sleep in there?”

“We’ll leave the door open.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Are you scared?”

“Forgive me, but I was kidnapped today by someone wearing my father’s face,” Keyleth replies tensely. “That someone told me that someone I know I’m supposed to love, someone who looks so broken and innocent, has been programmed to kill me, and you want me to sleep in a cell with her?”

“I told you, we’ll leave the door open, and you can sleep next to the wall if it’ll make you feel better.” Vax stands up.

“Nothing will make me feel better about this,” Keyleth says. “I can’t trust anyone, I can’t trust anything about this.”

Vax puts his arms around her. “You got away from Ieliena.  You came back here despite what she told you.  What were you thinking about when she told you of her nefarious plan?”

Against him Keyleth sighs. “I don’t know.  I was… I was thinking of how Pike’s been since we got her here.  She’s been… so confused and hurt.  And I just kept seeing her with Grog, and how good he is with her, and remembering how it felt to have her here again, even though she was so different than she was before.  I wanted more of it.  I wanted more of her.  Is that totally stupid?”

“No,” Vax answers, and he kisses her on the top of her head. “It makes sense.  And honestly, I don’t know what I feel about this, other than that Pike’s not the most dangerous one in this equation.  Ieliena can say Pike’s been charged to kill us, but all it makes me want to do is protect her.”

Keyleth nods into his chest.

“For whatever it’s worth, and I don’t completely understand how things like this work at all, but I happen to know that we’ve got two of the world’s best on our side.”

“Scanlan and Grog are both passed-out drunk,” Keyleth says, pulling back from him a bit to look him in the face. “It’s not like they’re going to be much help if something happens.”

Vax shakes his head. “I was talking about Sarenrae and the Raven Queen.”

“Oh, yeah, they’re much better,” Keyleth says, and she laughs.

“Now, c’mon.  It’s late.  I need sleep if I’m going to continue to look this haggard and unapproachable in the morning,” Vax says.  He tugs her into the cell.

Keyleth looks around as she takes off her headdress. “Y’know, this isn’t the weirdest place we’ve spent a night together.”

“Nope.  Not even close.”

Chapter Text

Vax wakes to find Pike’s entire body coiled around his arm, hugging it as if she needs it to breathe.  She’s boiling, uncomfortably hot, her dress soaked through with sweat.  Her eyes are open.  She looks exhausted.

“Hi, Pickle,” Vax murmurs.

“Pike,” she gets out.  Her voice is raspy and she pushes her tongue up against her front teeth repeatedly, making several dry sucking noises.

“Water?” he asks her.

She nods.

Vax carefully detangles her from his arm and rolls to one side, getting to his feet as quietly as possible.  He grabs the jug of water and the cup from the corner of the room and brings it back to Pike.  He pours a cup and scoops her into his lap. “Have a drink.”

Pike’s hands are shaking; he steadies them and helps her get the cup to her mouth.  She gulps it down thirstily and immediately pushes the cup back into his hands.

“More?”

She nods.

Vax fills the cup again and Pike drinks once more, slower this time.  She chokes halfway through and retches.

“Hey, slow down,” Vax says. “It’s all right.  You can have as much as you want.”

Pike gags and shoves the cup at him.  He’s not fast enough to catch it, and it tumbles to the floor.

“It’s all right,” Vax repeats, softer.  He puts one hand to her forehead - her skin is so hot. “We’ll get someone to take a look at you, all right?”

She murmurs something.

Vax picks her up and she clings to him immediately, butting her head into his chest like a small rutting kitten. “What’d you say, Pickle?”

Pike repeats it. “Vax.”

“Oh,” Vax says, heart full of love. “Thank you.”

He shifts his position on the floor and picks up the heart-stone, resting it against her chest.  Pike brings her hands up and strokes the turquoise glass. “Hmm,” she breathes, and her eyes close.

Vax holds her, feeling the heat pulse through her body.  He drifts for a bit, humming softly as Pike sleeps against him.

When Keyleth wakes she nudges him. “Hey.”

“Yeah?” he murmurs.

“We need to get out of here.”

“The cell?  I was thinking we could go upstairs for breakfast…”

“No, not this particular cell.  Well, I mean, we need to leave the cell, obviously, but… if Ieliena got to us here, we’re vulnerable.  I want to check in with my father… we might need to get to someplace where we can do research on places the portal could have taken Wilhand…” Keyleth rolls her shoulders. “There’s a lot we need to do, and we can’t do any of it from here.”

“There’s at least one thing we can do,” Vax says. “Allura’s still here, and I want her to take a look at Pike.”

 


 

Breakfast is already underway, Percy at the helm of the cooking enterprise, when Vax carries Pike into the kitchen, Keyleth at his heels.  Vex is at the table, her head down, a glass of water next to her.

“Good morning,” Vax says to her.

“Mnnn,” Vex replies.

“I love you, Stubby,” Vax says with a grin.  To Percy, he says, “You seen Allura yet this morning?”

“I’m here, I’m here,” Allura says as she breezes in. “Good morning to all.”

“Will you take a look at Pike?” Vax asks her quietly. “She’s been feverish since she woke up.”

“Of course.” Allura looks down at Pike’s small form. “Hello, Pike.”

Pike blinks and winces. “Hmmm,” she says distantly, and she closes her eyes again.

Vax carries Pike into a sitting room just off the kitchen and sets her down on a chaise lounge.  Once free from his grasp, Pike curls in on herself, knees to her chest, fetal-positioned around the heart-stone.

Allura sits down next to Pike and strokes the hair away from Pike’s face before putting her hand flat on Pike’s forehead. “A very high fever,” she murmurs to Vax. “I’ll need some draughts from my bag.”

“I’ll get it,” Vax says.

“Upstairs, next to the bed.” Allura turns her attention back to Pike. “Can you open your eyes for me?”

Pike struggles to get her eyes open, but she does so.  The blank whiteness is shot through with bright red veins, and as she turns her head towards Allura, she reaches up. “Hmm?”

Allura gently takes Pike’s hands. “It’s all right.  We’ll figure things out.”

Pike’s eyes close again, and she tucks herself in tighter around the stone.  The sitting room is quiet for a moment before Vax returns with Allura’s bag.  He hands it to the arcanist. “How is she?”

“I’ll see if I can bring the fever down,” Allura says, in lieu of an actual answer.

“Allura.”

“She’s…” Allura sighs. “This is beyond anything I’ve ever seen, Vax’ildan.  If we can bring the fever down, we can work from there.  Everything else is moot until then.”

She removes a small bottle from her bag and pulls the cork. “Pike, I’m going to give you something to drink.  I need you to drink the whole thing, and it has to stay down.  Vax is going to get you some water, and you can have that immediately afterwards.”

Pike’s fingers clench around the heart-stone as Allura helps her sit up.  Vax ducks back into the kitchen for a glass of water.

“All right, one big gulp,” Allura says, and brushes the bottle against Pike’s fingers.

Pike lets go of the stone with one hand and grasps the small bottle with the other.  She shakes it gently, as though attempting to discover the consistency of the liquid within, then brings it up to her mouth and drinks.

She gets one long sip down before her stomach rebels and she retches and gags.

“It has to stay down in order for it to work,” Allura says, and she strokes Pike’s hair.

It doesn’t make the nausea fade, and Pike’s positive she’s going to vomit.  She trusts Allura, though, and so she brings the bottle back up to her mouth.

This time the sip is much smaller and she has only a few seconds of processing time before she does vomit.  Bile burns the back of her throat and she drops the bottle, clinging desperately to the heart-stone. “Vax?” she slurs out, her mouth sticky and spitty.

“I’m here,” Vax says, gently touching her shoulder.

“Vax,” Pike tells him. “Vax, no.”

She hiccups and vomits again. “No,” she whimpers.

Arms reach down and lift her from the lounge. “Just breathe,” Vax whispers in her ear. “Just breathe.  That’s all you have to focus on right now.”

Pike lays her head on his shoulder and lets her mind go blank.

 


 

“What are we going to do?” Vax asks Allura.  Pike’s still-boiling body rests heavy on his shoulder.

Allura shakes her head. “I’m at a loss, Vax’ildan.  If she can’t drink… a cold bath, maybe.”

Vax nods.  He bows his head. “It wasn’t supposed to be this hard.”

“You rescued a Gods’ Touched,” Allura says, her tone wry. “It’s never been done.  We’re in uncharted territory here.”

“I don’t want to lose her twice,” Vax says.

“Then let’s make sure we don’t.”

 


 

 

Grog fills the wash tub with cool - not cold - water, but leaves Keyleth and Vex to undress Pike and lower her carefully into the tub’s shallow embrace.  Pike is somewhere beyond consciousness, though her eyes are open.  She doesn’t fight when Keyleth carefully pries the heart-stone from her grasp, and goes limp as Vex picks her up and climbs into the tub with her.

“Pike, we’re going to try to take your fever down,” Vex says.  Something about the entire thing feels almost sacred; they’re all speaking quietly, caring for their suffering friend.

Vex makes sure none of Pike’s larger wounds are pressed upon by their position in the tub, and sits back, bringing cupped handfuls of the water up over Pike’s limbs.  She hums a soft tune, looking over at Keyleth, who looks nervous.

“It’s going to be okay,” Vex says.

Keyleth just shakes her head, not meeting Vex’s eyes.

“Keyleth,” Vex says, a little more firmly. “We’re going to make it okay.”

“I don’t like to watch her suffer,” Keyleth murmurs.

“Nobody likes it, Kiki,” Vex says, trying to keep her voice light. “Least of all Pike, I should think.  But she’s still here, and she’s still trying to fight.”

“I don’t want to fight.  She’s suffered enough.”

“What are you saying, Kiki?” Vex turns her head.

Keyleth shakes her head.

“No, you can tell me,” Vex says.

“This isn’t Pike.”

Vex shifts Pike in her arms. “First Grog, now you.”

“I’m sorry, Vex,” Keyleth says. “I don’t mean it like that.”

“She’s Pike, just… different,” Vex says. “Just like when Scanlan came back to us.  He was different.”

“He wasn’t like that, though,” Keyleth says, her voice rising. “His personality was changed, but he wasn’t tortured and broken and blind and…”

“Key,” Pike says, cutting off Keyleth’s tirade.

Keyleth whirls back towards the tub. “What?” she whispers.

“Key,” Pike repeats.

Keyleth drops to her knees next to the tub. “Oh, Pike,” she breathes.

Pike raises one hand, dripping, from the water, and reaches out for Keyleth.  Keyleth intertwines their fingers, her head bowed. “I’m so sorry,” she says, sobs in her voice.

“Key,” Pike says, as though she’s saying There’s no need to apologize. “Vex, Key?”

“She’ll be all right,” Vex responds. “Give her a few minutes.”

“Pike.”

The rest of the afternoon’s bath is spent in quiet, reverent communion with each other, healing.

 


 

At the end of the bath Pike feels cooler.  Vex clothes her in the lightest, gauziest of her dresses and takes her upstairs to her room, where the windows are open.

“Pike,” Pike says, stretching out on her bed.

“Do you want to sleep?” Vex asks.

“Vex?” Pike taps the bed next to her.

“Of course, darling.” Vex sprawls out.  She pulls Pike’s heavy hair up, spreading it out like a starfish above Pike’s head, and begins running her fingers through it.

“Mmm,” Pike says, obviously pleased.

Birds sing outside the window as the afternoon fades into the evening.  Vex listens to Pike’s soft breathing until she knows her friend is asleep, then covers Pike with a light blanket and heads back downstairs.

The rest of Vox Machina are waiting, sitting around with mugs of ale and some cookies.  She nods at her brother before heading over to sit by Percy.

“We all know why we’re here,” Vax says at last. “It’s obvious nothing we’re doing is helping Pike.”

Keyleth nods, her hand tightly in Vax’s.  Grog looks out the window.  Percy furrows his brow.

“We have a couple of options,” Vax goes on. “We can take Pike somewhere safe while we go back to the Empty Stone Home for more information.  It’s possible we missed something while we were there, and we might be able to find out more about the portal that took Wilhand.  Keyleth offered to take her to Kohren and the Ashari.  We could also hide her in Westruun at Wilhand’s house, but one of us would have to stay with her.  Percy suggested Whitestone as another option.”

“JB’s in Whitestone,” Vex says quietly. “She might… I mean, we never told her that Pike is still alive.”

“You’re right,” Percy says. “She deserves to know, too.”

“Then we’ll send her to Whitestone?” Keyleth asks.

“She likes it there,” Grog says.  He takes another cookie from the plate in the middle of the table.

“She does,” Vex says, and she leans into his shoulder.

He nods his head in acceptance of her closeness.

“Keeper Yennen is still there,” Percy says, “and Zahra was headed back there.  I know they’ll be able to keep an eye on Pike.”

“What about Gilmore?” Scanlan asks.

“What about him?” Vax answers.

“Are we going after him?”

“We don’t know what happened to Gilmore,” Vax says steadily. “Our best bet now is to get more information about what goes on at the Empty Stone Home, and use it to try to find both Gilmore and Wilhand.  And how to help Pike.”

The kitchen is silent for a few beats, and then Keyleth speaks up, her voice small. “And what happens if we can’t?”

There’s another pause before Scanlan speaks up. “Then we keep her safe, and we love her, and we make sure she’s happy and comfortable for whatever time she has left.”

“I don’t want to think of it that way,” Keyleth says, anguished.

“Nobody does, darling,” Vex says. “But we have to start thinking realistically here.”

“She’s not gone yet, Kiki,” Vax puts in. “We have a chance to make this right, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Grog looks up. “I wanna stay with ‘er.”

“What?  You don’t want to come out and maybe kill something?” Scanlan asks.

“Or help us find Wilhand?”

Grog shakes his head. “Nope.  I waited seven years t’ get ‘er back.  I’m not leavin’ ‘er anymore.”

“Okay,” Vax says. “Sounds good, big man.”

They hammer out the rest of their plan, including squaring things away with Allura and asking if Kima could join them, and the group breaks up to pack and prepare.  Grog stays at the table, sipping from his mug of ale.  Vex waits until the others have gone before she sits down next to him again. “Grog.”

“Mmm?”

“Are you going to be able to do what needs to be done, if you’re alone with Pike in Whitestone?”

“Won’t be alone,” Grog points out. “Cass ‘n JB’ll be there, an’ Yennen an’ Zahra.”

“I know,” Vex says, “but at the end of the day, you’ll be alone with her.  You’ll have to feed her, and dress her, and help take care of her wounds.  She’s… very fragile.”

“You wanna stay with me?”

“I think we should leave only one of us with Pike,” Vex says.

“An’ you think it should be you?”

“I didn’t say that.”

Grog thinks about this, taking another cookie from the plate.

“I don’t want to make a decision for you,” Vex tells him.

“What happens if she dies while we’re gone?” Grog asks.

“We’ll get Yennen to bring her back.”

At that Grog’s face jerks towards her. "No,” he says, his voice a low growl.

Vex reels back from him.

“If she dies from this, we let ‘er go,” Grog says sharply. “This is hell for her, an’ if her body gives out, I am not puttin’ ‘er back inta it so’s she can suffer ‘gain.”

He seems to realize he’s shouting at Vex and he shrinks back. “Sorry,” he mutters.

“It’s all right,” Vex says, recovering her voice. “I think we’ve all been thinking about it, but I don’t think anyone’s put it into words like you have.”

“Yeah, well, ‘s all I been thinkin’ ‘bout.” Grog sighs.  He stands up. “You stay with ‘er in Whitestone.”

“Are you sure?”

“When she comes back t’ ‘erself, she might be a bit embarrassed t’ find out I was th’ one takin’ her t’ th’ privy an’ bathin’ ‘er,” Grog says. “I mean, she idn’t too squeamish ‘bout much, but that might do it fer her.”

He sets his mug down. “I’m gonna go spend some time with ‘er.”

“Grog?” Vex says as he’s heading out of the kitchen.

“Yeah?”

“We’re going to fix this.”

“How can y’ be so sure?”

“Because you still have hope that she’ll come back to herself.”

“She’s gonna,” Grog says. “‘M not thinkin’ any other way.”

 


 

He finds the door to Pike’s room open and her bed empty.  A moment of panic seizes his heart and then he sees the sheets, trailing off the bed towards the floor.  Another few steps into the room and he realizes Pike’s crawling towards the door.

“Pike,” Grog says.

Her head comes up. “‘Og?”

“You goin’ somewhere?”

She crawls another few feet forward and stops, takes a few seconds to breathe, and begins to crawl again.  Grog stands in the doorway and watches her make her way towards him.  She brings one hand up frequently to check for obstacles around her, and remarkably, she makes good progress before she sits back on her heels and puts her arms up. “‘Og?  Pike?”

“Yeah, buddy.” Grog scoops her up from the floor.  She wraps her arms around his neck and lets out a soft sigh of happiness. “Pike, are you happy?”

“‘Og.” She nods against his neck.

“You’re happy with me?”

“‘Og.” A second nod.

“An’ it’s okay, bein’ here with us?”

“‘Og.” She nods again.

“An’ you trust us?”

Another nod.

“‘Kay.  I haveta tell ya somethin’,” Grog says.

Pike tenses in his arms.

“Now, it’s nothin’ too bad,” Grog goes on. “We’re gonna go look fer some more information ‘bout what they did t’ ya in that place where y’ were.”

Pike gets squirmy and pushes back from him.

“Calm down, we’re not takin’ ya with us,” Grog says, and he cups the back of her head. “Yer gonna go stay in Whitestone.  Vex is gonna stay with ya, an’ you’ll go see yer cousin JB an’ some other folks we know.”

“Pike,” she says, pushing back hard against his hand.

“Hey, now, knock it off,” Grog chides her. “We’re not gonna be gone long, and when we get back, yer gonna feel lots better.  Maybe not so much…”

Before he can continue his sentence, Pike’s body goes rigid and her mouth drops open, choking noises spilling out into the room.

Grog’s first thought is to freeze.  Luckily some steel in his spine keeps him processing and moving.  He immediately brings Pike down to the bed. “‘M right here,” he tells her. “It’s gonna be okay.”

He touches his earring. “Guys?  I think we’re gettin’ another prophecy.”

 


 

Pike can see Grog - sort of - the red in front of her eyes a bloody scrim of distant bobbing depths of light.  She feels movement, and the pressure of a prophecy rising up her throat.  She’s so tired.  She tries to swallow the prophecy and a bright red hand of pain wraps around her throat.  She screams and claws at her skin, desperate for the words that aren’t hers to leave her alone.

A hand touches her face.  Scanlan. “Hey, baby,” he says. “If you’ve got sweet words, just tell ‘em to ol’ Scanlan, okay?”

Again,” Pike gets out, trying to fight the prophecy. “... in the… again… double…”

She retches and feels bile arc up her throat. “‘Og?”

“I’m right ‘ere,” Grog says, on her right side.

“... fighting… himself… cold…” Pike gags once more and the prophecy releases her.  She slumps forward.

Scanlan catches her. “It’s okay, Pike.  We’ve got you.”

She wails, her heart broken.  Nothing is normal.  Nothing feels right.  The last time she felt like she belonged in her body… she can’t even remember.  Her body isn’t hers anymore - it’s not her words she speaks, she doesn’t have the abilities she knows she should, she can’t tell her friends what’s wrong or how to keep her safe.  She’s a puppet, controlled by outside forces, pulled in so many directions at once that it’s hard to keep track of who’s in charge of the strings.

She sobs, feeling Scanlan’s arms around her.  She hears him turn to the others and say, “She’s feverish again.”

“I’ve got an idea,” Keyleth says. “Where’s that wash tub?”

“Downstairs,” Grog says, his voice a low rumble. “I’ll get it.”

“It’s going to be okay, Pikey-pants,” Scanlan tells her gently.

That nickname flares in her mind, a little point of light, and she remembers him singing for her.  Remembers him playing the most beautiful of music.  Holding her hand.  Making her laugh.  Proposing to her.  Pike furrows her brow and brings one hand up, looking for his face.  She finds his lips and leans forward, kissing him.

“Whoa,” Scanlan says, pulling away from her.

“Pike?” She’s terrified she’s offended him.

“No, no, it was… it’s just… we haven’t done that in… in forever,” Scanlan says. “And I don’t want you to do that just because you think…”

He trails off, seemingly unable to tell her what he’s thinking. “You don’t have to be affectionate for us to still love you.”

Pike can’t figure out what she feels.  Her head is swimming.

Scanlan touches her face. “Hey, it’s all right,” he says carefully. “I know you’re all out of sorts right now.”

He starts to sing, still keeping his hand in contact with her cheek, and the ache in her body, the leftover pressure of the prophecy, the throbbing of her wounds, the exhaustion - they all start to lessen somewhat.  She feels soft and pliable and calm. “Pike?” she murmurs.

“Everything’s going to be all right,” Scanlan tells her.

She leans into him, finding his hand with hers, and squeezes his fingers.

“It’s going to be okay,” Scanlan reiterates, and he squeezes back.

Grog returns with the wash tub, filled partway with water.  Keyleth follows behind him, carrying a bucket of water.  Scanlan looks over at them. “When did this turn into a group bath?”

“It’s not a group bath,” Keyleth says, looking only mildly scandalized. “It’s for Pike.  I’m going to make some ice with the water in the bucket and put it in the tub.”

Pike squeezes hard. “No,” she whispers.

“Pikey, you’re sick,” Scanlan says logically. “This might cool you down, stop your brain from cooking.”

“‘Og?” Pike asks.

“I’ll be right here,” Grog says, and he picks her up.  She nuzzles against him.

“Yer burnin’,” Grog says as their skin touches.

He feels so cool that Pike wants the embrace to go on as long as possible, but eventually she realizes Grog is lowering her into cool water.  She clings onto his arms, clawing in with what’s left of her fingernails. “No!” she screams.

“Monsta, listen,” Grog says, and she goes down further into the cool water despite her scrabbling hands. “Yer burnin’ up.  Yer gonna be real sick if we can’t fix it.”

Pike tries to fight, but his arms are steady and strong, and she’s weak.  She tries once more, digging in with her fingers. “‘Og!” she pleads.

There’s a sudden blast of power from her hands and Grog is shoved away from her.  Pike cries out, terrified she’s hurt her friend.  Water sloshes around her and she tries to stand up. “‘Og?!”

“It’s all right, Pike, you just stunned him,” Keyleth says from nearby.

Pike lurches to her feet and slams her knees into the side of the wash tub.  She’s hot, too hot, and her head aches.

“Pike,” Vex says, and a hand comes down on her shoulder. “You’re bleeding, darling.”

“Nnn,” Pike says faintly.  All that matters now is getting to Grog.

“Give me something to clean her face,” she hears Vex say to someone else in the room, and after a few seconds there’s a cloth against her face, wiping under her nose.

Pike doesn’t care; she’s still trying to navigate the tub, still trying to find Grog. “‘Og?!” she shrieks.

“‘M all right,” she hears Grog say as she throws herself against the side of the tub, trying to get out.  With the last of her energy she manages to shove herself over it, tumbling onto the floor soaking wet.

Sobbing, she crawls towards Grog’s voice.  Her body is too heavy and she feels nauseous again.

Arms catch her before she gets anywhere close to Grog, and she tries to whack whoever’s picked her up.  The embrace tightens again and Vax says, close to her ear, “Pickle, you have to calm down.”

Pike tries to ask for Grog again, but all that comes out of her mouth is an urp that feels suspiciously like a precursor to vomiting.

“Breathe,” Vax coaches, his voice gentle. “Take a deep breath.”

She’s losing control, she’s losing her grip on reality again.  Red-gold memories flash through her brain - they’re too fast and shiver like lightning.

Hands on her skin - holding her down - blazing scars into her body - fingerprints - spoon shoved into her mouth - liquid fire spooling down her throat - setting her belly ablaze - spine bowing - screaming - screaming - always screaming - no one listening - those words -

Slashkillslashkillslashkilltakethemtakethemnow!

With a furious yell she pushes herself at Vax, arms flailing, hands curled into fists, trying to connect.  She gets in a few good punches before he drops her.  She lands on the floor, the wind knocked out of her.

“A little help here!” Vax wheezes.

“Got it,” Keyleth says.

Pike gets to her feet unsteadily, feeling for the vibrations around her, and launches herself towards the closest, sharpest blob in her red-gold vision.  Her arms burn - slashkillslashkillslashkill - and she howls.

There’s a split second when she thinks she’ll connect, and then suddenly she’s restrained, something rope-like wrapped around her limbs.  Her head slams against the floor and she lays there, defeated, panting.

“Did you have to yank her down like that?” Percy asks.

“She was going after Grog!” Keyleth protests.

“I think Grog can handle himself,” Scanlan points out.

“‘M still… little woozy,” Grog says.

There’s quiet for a moment, and then Pike hears Vax’s voice, closer to her ear. “Pickle, you okay?”

“Vax,” Pike whimpers. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Vax says, and he strokes her hair.

“Pike,” she tells him, trying to say I’m in so much pain.  My body’s on fire.

“Shh,” Vax says, and the next time he strokes her head she feels something light pour into her.

“Oh,” Pike says as the pain lessens.  She feels drunk, woozy, unsure of herself.

“Pike, we’re going to take you to Whitestone,” Vex says from her other side. “I know you don’t remember that place, but it’s safe.  I’ll be with you.  The others are going to find answers for you, so we can help you.”

“But we need to keep you safe until you can get there,” Vax puts in. “So…”

There’s a kiss on her cheek. “It’s going to be okay, Pikey-pants,” Scanlan says, and a wave of something purple-blue and hazy washes over her.

She sleeps.

 


 

The group going to the Empty Stone Home leaves first, sent through the tree in the temple.  Vax kisses Keyleth goodbye, taking one of the gate stones with him.  She gives him a peck and shoves him after the others, calling out, “Six seconds!” as she does when she feels like her friends won’t make it.

When the portal closes she looks at Vex and Allura. “I can only do another one of those today.”

“We know,” Vex says. “Allura’s going to send us to Whitestone.”

“Oh,” Keyleth says. “That’s a good idea too.”

She hugs Vex and murmurs, “We’re going to figure this out, right?”

“Yes,” Vex says firmly.

“I don’t want her to suffer anymore,” Keyleth says, her voice breaking.

“She won’t,” Vex answers, though she has no way of keeping that promise.

Keyleth knows it, and as she releases the hug she squeezes Vex’s hand.

“Find some way to send a message to me once you’re done with the Ashari and you’re headed off to join the others, all right?”

“I will,” Keyleth promises.  She shoulders her pack and casts the spell again.  The portal in the tree opens and Keyleth takes a few hesitant steps forward. “Fix it, Vex.”

“Six seconds!” is Vex’s response, grinning at her friend.  Then her face grows more serious. “I promise, Kiki.”

There’s a whoosh and Keyleth disappears, the tree closing behind her.

Vex turns to Allura. “And then there were three.”

 


 

They emerge in Whitestone in the middle of the afternoon, landing just outside the Slayer’s Cake.  Vex looks at it fondly; she can smell cakes and cookies baking.  It’s only been a week or so since she stopped in to check on it, and things look fine.

Pike shifts against her, and Vex readjusts the tiny gnome’s position.  Scanlan’s sleep spell still has a good few hours before it wears off, and Vex wants to make sure she’s prepared for that situation.  She sighs and heads up the hill towards her house.

Before she can get too far, a guard stops her. “Lady Vex’ahlia, is everything all right?”

“Hello, Gerald,” Vex says. “Yes, things are fine.  I’ve just returned for a stay.”

“And the rest of Vox Machina?  Are they with you?”

“No, not at this time.  They were called away to another mission.” Vex shifts Pike again, and the guard gasps.

“How… where…?”

“It’s a long story, Gerald, and I’m rather tired.  Can I tell you more later?”

“Yes, of course, my lady.  Shall I let Lady Cassandra and Miss JB know that you are here?”

“Please inform Lady Cassandra, yes.  I assume JB will be at the house when we get there,” Vex answers.

“As you wish,” the guard says. “May I be of any further assistance?”

Vex suddenly feels exhausted. “Could I ask you to carry Pike to my home?”

“Of course, my lady.”

Vex transfers Pike into Gerald’s arms.  As they walk, Gerald looks at her curiously. “Pardon my interest, my lady, but this other mission Vox Machina has taken, is it related to Miss Trickfoot’s rescue?”

“Unfortunately, Gerald, it is,” Vex replies. “And it’s all very complicated.”

“I understand.  If you need anything while you are here, please do not hesitate to call upon myself or any of the Pale Guard.  We will be pleased to come to your aid.”

“Thank you, Gerald.”

They walk the rest of the way in silence.  Vex goes up the porch first and unlocks the door. “JB?” she calls.

“I’m up here!”

“I can take it from here, Gerald,” Vex says, turning to the guard. “Thank you.”

Gerald carefully transfers Pike back into Vex’s arms. “As I said, my lady, please let me know if there’s any other way I can assist you.”

Vex nods.

“It is nice to know Miss Trickfoot is safe,” Gerald says.  He tips his helm and leaves.

Pike is hot and heavy against Vex, her breaths warm on Vex’s neck, but she doesn’t stir.  Vex goes through the open door and into the foyer.  She can hear little footsteps making their way towards her, and after a few moments JB Trickfoot appears in the hallway. “I didn’t think you’d be back this week,” she says. “Isn’t this the week of…”

She stops short. “What?  Is that…”

Vex closes the door behind her and crosses the hall to JB, kneeling down in front of the gnome. “I wasn’t sure how else to break the news to you, JB, I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s all right,” JB says faintly.  She leans forward and brushes hair away from Pike’s face. “Is it really her?”

Vex nods.

“She’s so…” JB puts one hand over her mouth, and Vex sees tears forming in her eyes.

“A lot happened to her,” Vex says gently. “More things than I can even fully express at the moment.  I’m very tired, JB.  Could you sit with her while I get some rest?”

Immediately JB nods. “Of course.  Of course I can.”

“Good.” Vex stands up, shifting Pike again, and carries her friend up the stairs, JB hot on her heels.

In the guest room Vex lays Pike on the bed like a white-haired rag doll and watches while JB crawls up next to her. “You’ll be all right?”

“Yes,” JB whispers, her eyes fixed on Pike’s face.

“Wake me in a few hours,” Vex says. “I’ll tell you more then.  Or if anything goes wrong, wake me sooner.”

“What might go wrong?” JB asks, suddenly worried.

“Trust me, darling, you’ll know.”

 


 

Vex doesn’t remember leaving the room, but the next thing she knows, she’s back in her familiar bedroom.  She pops Trinket out of her necklace and tells him, “You wanna nap, buddy?”

Rowwrr,” Trinket says.

“Good.  C’mon, cuddle up with me.”

She shucks off her boots and crawls into bed.  Trinket flops up next to her.  She’s asleep before she has time to register that it’s raining again, loud on the roof.

 


 

Keyleth steps out of the tree to the north of Zephra, grateful to see that she’s truly back on familiar ground.  She watches the portal close before she heads into town.

She passes the shrine to the Raven Queen and stops for a few moments to bow her head, running her fingers over the feathers of the roof. “Hello,” she says quietly. “Please keep Vax and the others safe.  Oh, and Pike and Vex.  Just… everyone.”

Keyleth receives no answer, but a raven in a tree high above lets out a caw.  She figures it’s good enough.

There’s some sort of hubbub in the village square, and as Keyleth draws closer she sees two young women standing on a wooden box.  They’re both talking very fast, and some members of the crowd gathered around them are yelling and waving their fists.  She doesn’t see her father or any of the elders.

Keyleth strides into the midst of the crowd and hits her staff on the ground.  She doesn’t expend the entire charge, just enough for power to pulse out of the spire and cause a sharp clap of thunder.

As expected, the sudden noise and the shaking of the earth gets everyone’s attention, and the gathered Ashari turn towards her.

One of the women on top of the box, a human named Oura, looks extremely startled. “Headmistress!” she exclaims. “We were just…”

“Where’s my father?” Keyleth asks, cutting Oura off.

“He’s… he is with the other elders,” the other woman, a dragonborn called Tizra, tells her. “There was a… disturbance a few nights ago.”

“He’s going to take my son away!” someone in the crowd calls out, sounding panicked. “It wasn’t his fault!”

“Kelan was just doing what he thought was right!” another voice pipes up.

“Kelan and Zela almost got us killed!” a third voice hollers.

Keyleth slams the staff into the ground again and silences the crowd once more. “Quiet.  If there are matters that need to be solved, rest assured that Kohren and the elders will solve them.  Oura, tell me where they are.”

“They’re in Kohren’s home, Headmistress.”

“Thank you,” Keyleth says to Oura.  To Tizra, she says, “Keep this from becoming a riot, okay?”

Tizra nods, and Keyleth walks away from the crowd, heading for her father’s house.

 


 

They appear at the Empty Stone Home to find it just as it was before - desolate and ominous, standing above the glass-clear lake.  Vax scouts ahead and comes back to report no activity surrounding the fortress. “We’re clear.”

“I’d think we’re clear,” Scanlan remarks. “We killed everybody who worked here.”

“We didn’t really… kill them,” Percy points out. “The portal took care of that quite nicely.”

“Nice fer ever’body ‘cept Wilhand,” Grog grunts.

That puts a damper on the conversation nearly immediately, and they set off for the fortress, feet crunching into the snow.  Scanlan struggles through for a bit; after a few minutes Grog picks him up and sets him on his shoulders without a word.

Vax leads them back through the door where they’d entered previously, and they take a few minutes to let their bodies warm back up after trudging through the snow for so long.  Grog sets Scanlan on the ground; as he straightens up he comes face-to-face with a tall shelf of hand-bound books. “Did we check any of this before?”

Scanlan comes over and boosts himself up to see the first shelf. “This looks like a whole lot of ‘Dear Diary’ to me.”

“Never much saw the importance in keepin’ a diary,” Grog says.

“Yeah?  Why’s that, big guy?”

“Well, Tary was with us fer so long… I just got used ta’ him sayin’ ‘Doty, take this down’ and I assumed I’d always know what happened,” Grog says. “Doty kept track so’s I didn’t haveta.”

“I think Pike’s cousin is writing the memoirs of Vox Machina as well,” Percy tells them. “She seems very dedicated.”

“Hope there’s a big ol’ chapter ‘bout me defeatin’ Kevdak.”

“Grog, that was years ago.”

“Yeah?  It’s still good.”

Percy takes one of the books from the shelf and flips it open. “‘The Collected Annals of The Order of the Night Sun.’  This one’s dated seven years ago.”

“That’s when they first got Pike,” Vax says.

Percy thumbs through a few pages. “Boring, boring, unrelated… there’s a lot in here about someone who figured out how to put together a greenhouse, and whoever wrote this was quite excited about having cucumbers in winter.”

“Idn’t it always winter ‘round here?”

“You know, Grog, I think you’re correct.” Percy flips through to the end, and, seeing nothing of significance, moves onto the next one. “Ah, yes.  Here’s something about Pike.”

He reads for a few pages. “When we were here earlier, did we come across a… they call it a ‘safety deposit room’... of any kind?  It says here there’s a crescent moon painted on the door.”

“I think I remember where that is,” Vax says. “Why?”

Percy looks up. “It’s where they put Pike’s armor.”

 


 

Pike wakes.  The room smells different; the acoustics are different.  It’s raining again.  She hears someone breathing near her, but it’s short, little breaths.  Sort of like Scanlan’s, and sort of like hers, but not.  She rolls her head to one side. “Hmm?” she asks.

“Oh!” The voice is a little squeak, feminine and high. “Pike!  You’re awake!”

“Vex?”

“Oh, of course!  Let me get her!”

The bed shifts, and Pike hears a small person’s footsteps go further away from her, and the voice calls out, “Lady Vex’ahlia!”

Two sets of footsteps come back, and Vex touches Pike’s cheek gently. “Hello, darling.  Are you all right?”

“Pike.”

“We’re in Whitestone,” Vex says, as though Pike asked a question. “And I know you don’t remember, but this is your cousin, JB.”

“She doesn’t… remember?” The new voice sounds shocked.

“She forgot almost everything,” Vex says apologetically. “We’re trying to help her remember, but it’s an ongoing process.”

She strokes Pike’s back. “She has a few more words than she does when we found her, but not much else.  And she’s been very ill.  That’s why the others went to look for some answers.”

There’s silence for a few minutes.  Then the new voice speaks again. “Is she… would she be hungry?”

“I think she must be,” Vex says.

“I’ll fix her something,” JB says.

“We’ve had luck with chicken broth and bread.”

“I’m on it.” The bed shifts again, and Pike hears the little footsteps head out.

“And no spoons!” Vex calls after her.

“Vex?” Pike asks.  Her throat feels raspy.

“It’s going to be all right, darling,” Vex says.

Pike knows that’s not true.  But she also knows that her friends want it to be true.  And she loves her friends.  At least, that’s what her dreams and pieces of memory are telling her, and she has no reason to doubt them.

What can the harm be in letting them believe that… just for a little while longer?

Chapter Text

JB watches as Vex carefully places each bite of broth-soaked bread in Pike’s mouth.  Pike seems to be working extremely hard to chew and swallow; after every mouthful she clutches Vex’s arms and breathes heavily.

“How did you find her?” JB asks softly, gently playing with the ends of Pike’s messy hair.

"A woman came to us,” Vex answers. “She claimed she was part of a cult who’d kidnapped Pike, and that she’d escaped to tell us about our friend.  Turns out she lied about only half of that.”

JB nods.

“So we went after her.  Found out this mysterious woman was actually the leader of the cult, and they’d been torturing Pike for seven years.”

JB’s face hardens. “Why?”

“They wanted a conduit to speak to their god.  They thought Pike might be that conduit if they broke her open enough.”

“But she’s so… good,” JB says, aghast.  She reaches up and squeezes Pike tightly.

Pike reaches up and touches the arms around her. “Vex?”

“She’s missed you,” Vex tells her. “We all missed you.”

She tries to give Pike the next bite of bread, but Pike shakes her head. “No.”

“Pike, you barely ate anything,” Vex says, and she touches Pike’s lips with the bread again.

No,” Pike says, a little more firmly, and as though to prove her point, she coughs wetly.

“All right, all right,” Vex says, and she sets the bowl on the bedside table.

Pike turns in her embrace and wraps her arms around Vex’s neck. “Vex?”

“I’m here,” Vex says.

Pike yawns. “Pike.”

JB waits until Pike is asleep against Vex’s shoulder before she speaks again. “She isn’t going to get any better, is she?”

Vex turns slightly, laying Pike down on the bed.  She strokes hair away from Pike’s forehead and covers the tiny gnome with a blanket before picking up the bowl and motioning for JB to follow her out of the room.  Vex closes the door and kneels down before JB. “I know it’s a lot to take in.”

“She looks… she looks like a broken puppet,” JB says, looking down at her hands as though she can’t believe the world around her is real. “And her body… they ruined her.”

She looks up at Vex, anguished. “What was so important for them to hear from their god that they took everything about her away?  Wasn’t there some sort of thief or whore whose body and mind they could have destroyed?”

Then she seems to come back to herself, taking a deep breath and balling her hands into fists. “Okay.  Okay.  There has to be something we can do.”

“That’s the spirit,” Vex says, patting JB on the shoulder.

“I’ll go down to the apothecary,” JB says. “There’s gotta be salves and things that’ll help her scars look better, and make those wounds heal cleaner.  Maybe something for her to eat that’ll be a bit more strengthening than broth.”

Vex is immediately touched. “That would be wonderful, JB.  Do you need some money?”

JB shakes her head. “No.  I’ve got some.”

Vex stands up. “Can I do anything while you’re gone?  Do you want anything for dinner?”

“Oh, no, that’s all right,” JB says. “We can figure that out when I get back.”

She slips on her cloak and goes out into the rainy evening.

Vex washes the bowl and puts away the bread, then turns to look at Trinket. “What do you think, buddy?”

Trinket tilts his head.

“You want to go out and play in the garden in the rain, don’t you?”

Rawwrr.”

“Well, go ahead,” Vex says.

Trinket gladly lopes over to the spring-hinged door and disappears out into the back garden.

The house feels suddenly too quiet.  Vex wishes Tary was there, tinkering with Doty, or that she and Percy were sharing a few warm moments by a fire.  Or even her brother and Keyleth, trying to teach her some new board game from Zephra.  They’d all had so many wonderful memories in her house - even Pike, before her abduction.  To feel her home so quiet and still around her is a bit unnerving.

She sighs and plucks a book from the library shelf, settling down in a comfortable armchair to flip through a few pages and pass the time.

 


 

Pike wakes, her head heavy and her mouth sticky.  She pushes the blankets back and slides off the bed.  She always feels safer on the floor.  The room smells different; the air smells different, too.  Sometime between the last time she fell asleep and the last time she woke up, she somehow traveled a great distance.  She’s not sure how she knows it, but she does.

She wonders if she’s spent time in this place before.  It doesn’t feel familiar, but then again, nothing does.  For a moment she thinks about going back to the only place she does remember: those cold stone floors, those red-gold hands on her body, the pain.  Would she trade that familiarity for the safety but anonymity of the world she now inhabits - this one, here, with the strangers she’s trying to remember?

Pike presses at her eyes.  She wants to be able to see.  She remembers the exact moment they took her sight, when the feeling of else roared through her body, when everything before was burned away.  It’s not an event she considers with any malice - it’s simply something that happened, like the eating of a meal.  She’s pretty sure that’s not how one is supposed to feel about losing a vital sense.

She hears rain slapping at a window, but doesn’t hear anyone around her.  Rocking forward onto her hands, she crawls towards the sound of the rain.  As it grows closer, she puts one hand out to find the wall; her fingers touch it and she reaches up for the windowsill she knows is there.

Pike pulls herself to her feet and presses her fingers against the cool glass.  She rests her forehead against it and feels a little better.  Some things are unforgettable, even after a long time without them; apparently rain is one of them.

Her fingers crawl over the surface of the window, tapping it in time with the rhythm of the rain.  As she dances them around the panes, her fingertips find a rounded metal piece near the middle.  It moves a little as she touches it, and she hyper-focuses on it, rocking it back and forth in its casing.

Suddenly it moves upward with a firm click and the panes of glass swing out and away.

Her entire body pressed against them, Pike swings with them.  She has a brief second to feel rain on her face before she’s falling, and another split second before she screams.

 


 

Keyleth enters her father’s house to find him in quiet conference with a group of elders.  He looks up as Keyleth comes in. “Headmaster,” he greets her.

“Father.  Esteemed elders.”

“Is Vax’ildan with you?” Kohren asks.

“No.  Unfortunately not,” Keyleth answers. “While we were back in Emon for the anniversary… events occurred that required his attention elsewhere, and I will be joining him when I’ve finished here.”

She takes a seat at the table, greeting each of the elders in turn.  A small, elderly woman named Gloriana squeezes her hand. “I am glad you are here, Headmaster,” she says softly. “We’ve had our own difficulties here lately.”

“I’ll be more than happy to assist in any way I can,” Keyleth says.

Kohren stands and brings over a pitcher of water and some cups. “Tell me about these other events that have taken Vax’ildan away.  The children are missing their Raven Boy.”

Keyleth smiles at the nickname Zephra’s children have given Vax.  Vax adores them just as fiercely, teaching them to throw blunted daggers at wooden targets and to stealth around the village. “As you know, Vox Machina returns to Emon every year to commemorate the anniversary of the abduction of one of our party members,” she says, addressing the entire table. “Which we did without much fuss.  A few days later, however, a woman came to us claiming to have information about our friend Pike.  We followed up on that information and were able to… to rescue Pike.”

“Oh,” Kohren says. “Oh, that’s marvelous, Keyleth.  She’s been gone for so long.”

Keyleth traces the rim of her water cup. “At first we thought it was good news, but it… it is very complicated.  The women who kidnapped her transformed her into something called a Gods’ Touched.”

Gloriana lets out a soft, sad noise. “I am so sorry, Headmaster.”

The other elders look confused.  Gloriana leans forward. “Our Headmaster’s friend was used as a vessel for an evil god.  It most likely destroyed her mind and her body.”

“Is she alive?” an elder named Tyer asks.

Keyleth nods. “Yes.  But she’s very different, and very sick.  Vax and most of the rest of Vox Machina went back to the fortress where she was held to see if they can find more information.  Vex took Pike to Whitestone to keep her safe.  I came to you to see if there’s anything you might know about the type of magic that was used on her… and because I had another unsettling experience that caused me to wonder if things were all right here.”

She takes a sip of water before explaining about Ieliena’s impersonation skills.  Kohren goes pale and squeezes her hand. “I’m so sorry,” he says.

Keyleth shrugs. “I was able to take her.  It just made me… it made me hopeful for a few seconds before I realized something was wrong.”

She forces a smile. “But I should have known it wasn’t really you, Dad.  You didn’t ask me and Vax about when we’re having children.”

The group seated around the table laughs, and it breaks the tension.

“I’ll see if we can find any information that might be able to help you,” Gloriana says. “The others will be able to tell you about what’s been going on around here.”

She pats Keyleth’s shoulder as she stands. “And with you to help her, I know your friend is already being well cared for.”

“Thank you,” Keyleth murmurs.

After she leaves, Kohren pours himself more water. “It is most interesting that you tell me about this imposter,” he says eventually, “as we had a disturbance here that mirrors the timing of the events you described.”

He indicates the woman sitting next to Tyer. “Shula was out on an evening patrol with some of the younger members of the tribe - Kelan and Zela.”

“They’re a bit impetuous,” Shula says.  She’s a sturdy half-orc, her face serious as she taps her fingers on the table. “I thought going with me might impress upon them some of the duties necessary as one moves towards adulthood here.  For awhile things went fine - they were squirrely, though, and not paying attention as well as I thought they should be.  As we were rounding the far side of the cliffs to the east, there was a small explosion behind me.  I was in the lead, they were behind me.  I was worried for them, so I turned around.”

She sighs. “Kelan was the one who’d caused the explosion.  He got ‘bored,’ as he said.  He’d misjudged the power of the spell, though, and the explosion caused part of the cliff to give way, dumping Zela over the side.  I had to scramble down to grab Zela before she fell into the ravine, and when we both got back up, Kelan was standing in front of a glowing woman.”

“A glowing woman?” Keyleth asks.

Shula nods. “I don’t have any other way to describe it.  She was just… glowing.  Kelan seemed to be enthralled by her.  He was answering questions for her.”

“Did you hear any of the questions?”

Shula shakes her head. “No.  Just his answers.  And not all of them.  It took us a good few minutes to get back up the cliffside.”

She passes a small piece of parchment over to Keyleth, who reads Not today.  Not for the last few days.  I don’t know.  He comes sometimes too.  They’re usually together.  I don’t know anything about that.  She’s really powerful.  The staff - before she looks back up at Shula. “The woman was asking about me.”

“I believe so, Headmaster.”

Keyleth turns to her father. “Where’s Kelan now?”

“He’s been sequestered,” Kohren responds. “His mother’s none too happy about it.”

“I’d like to speak with him,” Keyleth says.

“It’s about his dinner time,” Tyer says. “I suppose we could have the Headmaster bring him something to eat.”

Kohren nods. “Sounds fine by me.  I’ll go speak to the populace.”

“May I keep this?” Keyleth asks Shula, indicating the parchment.

“Of course.  I hope it helps you come to a better understanding of the situation.  And please, let me express my congratulations to you on rescuing your friend.”

Keyleth can only nod. “Thank you,” she says, though she’s thinking that one type of rescue has definitely been completed, but Pike still isn’t out of danger yet - apparently none of them are.

 


 

“Here’s a door with a moon on it!” Scanlan calls.

“Is it a crescent moon?  Because the last two doors you said that about turned out to be not moons at all,” Percy calls back.

“Looks like a crescent moon - and it’s got some awesome locks on it too!”

The rest of the group rounds the corner and finds Scanlan standing in front of a door that, true to his words, has a crescent moon carved into the wood.  Also in agreement with his statements, five locks dot one side, each one more impressive-looking than the last.

“Huh,” Kima says. “Whaddya think’s so important?”

“Not Pike’s armor, not if it’s been in there for seven years,” Vax says. “It’s probably all rusty now.”

“Oh,” Grog says, the thought like a punch in his gut. “We can make it fancy ‘gain, right?”

“Of course we can,” Percy tells him.

“Good.” Grog reaches into the bag of holding. “Now, I got somethin’ from Tary that I think’s gonna help us with this whole ‘five locks’ situation.”

“At least let me check it for traps first, Grog,” Vax says.

“Well, yeah, ‘course.”

Vax moves forward and carefully inspects the door.  After a moment he pronounces it untrapped. “Go for it, big man.”

Grog holds up the chime of opening. “After Tary got one ‘a these, I thought it might be real helpful, so’s I bought one too.”

He flicks one fingernail against the chime.  It releases a clear peal into the air, and as one, the locks all shunk open.

“That’s a glorious sound,” Scanlan says.

Vax opens the door carefully.  The room is cool and dark, and seems to feature shelving units against all four walls. “Get some light in here,” he says.

Kima passes a torch forward.  Vax slots it into a holder near the door and the small room is thrown into a soft glow.

Most of the shelves are empty, but one eye-level shelf directly across from the door is contains three small wooden chests; a shelf just below that holds a larger, longer box.  Faded parchment labels on them are inscribed with a date seven years ago, the ink spidery and fine.

“Let’s start there,” Vax says.  He pulls one of the smaller chests off the top shelf and again checks it for traps. “Nothing.  Go ahead and open it.”

Scanlan does so as Vax moves down the line, checking each chest and box for traps and locks.  Inside the first chest is a small pair of shoes, some bracelets, a pair of stockings, a handful of small glass and bone items that on closer inspection turn out to be beads. “Grog,” Scanlan says slowly. “Do you recognize…?”

Grog bends down.  Kima sets her lantern down next to the chest as the goliath studies the items.  He reaches in and carefully caresses one of the shoes with a large finger. “Might be,” he says. “These are pretty basic shoes.  I mean…”

Then his fingers trail over the bracelets and the beads. “Yeah.  Yeah, these are hers.”

He picks them up and slips them into the bag of holding, his face carefully blank.

Percy has the next chest open, looking down at a faded gambeson, breeches, under-tunic, underclothes, and a very familiar blue scarf. “These are too.”

Vax sets down the third chest, its lid open. “Her bag.  And what looks like a journal they let her keep before… before things…”

Without another word Grog picks up the items and shoves them in the bag of holding.

They open the largest box and find Pike’s armor.  It looks shockingly like a body in a coffin, and for a moment no one speaks; they just stare down at it.  Grog just shakes his head. “Why’d they keep this stuff?” he mutters. “‘S not like they were ever gonna give it back.”

“Maybe they were going to sell it,” Scanlan suggests.

“More like they were going to use it against her,” Kima says.

Heads turn towards her.

“You’d be surprised what magic you can do against somebody when you have some of their possessions,” Kima says darkly.

It’s a sobering thought, one only broken when Grog leans in, tears in his eyes, and starts picking up the armor, piece by piece, storing it away to take it back to Pike.

 


 

Vex hears a scream, followed immediately by a panicked “VEX!”  She bolts up the stairs, grabbing her bow from its place by the landing, in time to see Pike’s feet disappear over the edge of the windowsill.

She darts forward and takes careful aim at Pike’s shoulder, firing an arrow as her friend tumbles through space.  The arrow springs out with a tense zing, and brambles dart out from its tip as it nears its mark.  Vex reaches out to grab the ends of the brambles, bracing her feet against the wall underneath the window as she feels the rope-like strands wrap around Pike’s body and catch her.

Vex stands there, panting, wrapping the bramble vines more firmly around her hands. “It’s all right, Pike!” she calls down. “I’m going to bring you back in the window!”

Vex,” Pike wails miserably.

“It’s all right, dear, I promise,” Vex says.  She grits her teeth and pulls.  She feels Pike’s body rise a few feet; she braces again, wraps the vines once more, and repeats the process.

After a few attempts - and one near-drop - Pike is close enough to the window for Vex to grab her by the back of her dress.  She does so, hauling her friend into the room.  Pike tries to stand, but her legs are like liquid and she collapses, soaking wet and covered in vines, to the floor. “Vex,” she sobs.

“I’m here,” Vex says.  She immediately begins yanking the vines from around Pike’s body.  Once Pike is freed, Vex presses a healing spell into her shoulder. “I’m so sorry, darling.  I shouldn’t have left you alone.”

Pike puts her hand up to the spot where only seconds before, an arrow wound had marred her skin, and she turns her head towards Vex. “Pike?”

“I fixed it,” Vex tells her.

Pike looks confused.  Her fists clench and her breathing picks up, and the confusion turns to panic.

Vex reaches out and grabs her shoulders. “You’re all right.  I’m so sorry you fell out the window.”

One arm raises towards Pike’s face, and Vex tenses, thinking something worse is coming.  She carefully puts two fingers on Pike’s arm. “Please don’t hurt yourself,” she says softly. “I know sometimes you have to, but…”

She shakes her head.  Pike brings the arm up to her mouth, pressing her lips against it, and she lets out a scream, only slightly muffled by the presence of her arm.  It’s long and high and terrified, and Vex is too heartbroken to figure out how to stop it.  She just holds Pike and lets her scream.

“I can’t imagine what this is like,” she murmurs into Pike’s ear. “Nothing is the same, nothing is familiar.  I wish I knew how to help you.”

Pike screams and screams, the sound awful as it rips through the room.  She barely pauses for breath.

Vex notices a slight glow on Pike’s chest, and she slips her fingers around Pike’s holy symbol, bringing it up and touching it against the arm covering Pike’s mouth. “Sarenrae, if you can hear me… please… please help her.”

Pike’s free hand comes up and snatches the medallion from Vex’s grip.  The glow brightens and the scream stops abruptly.  Pike’s body goes limp, and her head tilts to one side.  A soft “oh” escapes from her mouth, and her expression becomes distant.

 


 

The golden glow envelops her senses, and she hears a voice. “I could take this from you.  I could bring you to me.”

But that would mean…

“You’d have to leave them, yes.”

But they love me.

“I didn’t say it would be an easy choice.  But I can bring you to me.  I can make the pain go away.  You have earned rest, my daughter.”

The Gods’ Touched - for in that moment she isn’t Pike at all - thinks of how many times she pleaded for death.  She thinks of how tired she is.  How broken her body feels.  How everything aches.  Of being hungry for something she knows she can never have, because her friends love her and she knows she should love them and she’s positive that killing them would release her from the curse inside her but would break her world entirely and leave her just as as lonely and uncertain as before she was found.  Of the wounds dotting her body, the scars knitting her together, the emptiness filling the rest of her.

And then she thinks of Grog.  Of the giant man who loves her with everything he has in his gigantic heart; of his gentle touch and his careful embrace.

Of Vex - her soft hands and her lovely voice.

Of Vax - his surety, his steadiness.

Of Keyleth - the brightness in her voice and her touch, the green and gold lights that heal, not harm.

Of Scanlan - small but strong; his music felt like a caress.

Of Percy - his calming voice, his logic.

They’d be devastated.  They knew her before she was the Gods’ Touched.  They found her in that place, they held her when she screamed and hurt herself, they put her through that ritual that, though it hurt beyond anything she’d ever felt, allowed her to be healed.

They want to know her as whoever she’s going to be after being the Gods’ Touched.

They gave her back her name.

Pike looks up at the light and sees, for the first time, a soft face.   Is that you?

“It is one facet of me.”

You don’t look anything like I thought you would.

“You don’t want to come to me, do you, my daughter?”

Not right now.  I think I have… I think there’s more to do here.  Pike thinks about it.   But… someday?  Can I come to you someday?

“I will be here whenever you need me to comfort you or fight for you.  And when the time is right, you will be able to stay in my heart.”

There’s a sweet caress all over her body, like a hug from head-to-toe, and it nearly takes Pike’s breath away with how much she loves it so much.  Tears form in her eyes.   Oh.  Oh, that’s beautiful.  Thank you so much.

“I love you very much, my daughter, and I am always proud of you.”

Pike leans into the embrace.

“When you return to your body, you will be calm.  You will know peace for now.”

 


 

“Pike?”

Pike opens her eyes.  The red scrim is gone, and she’s back to blank nothingness.  It’s almost reassuring.

She feels the curves of her necklace in her hand, and the soft touch of Vex’s hand on her cheek.

“Vex?” she whispers.

“Yes, darling,” Vex answers, sounding relieved. “Are you all right?”

Pike nods.

“Would you like to do something together?”

Pike thinks about this.  She doesn’t really know what people do together. “Hmm?”

“I could read you a book… or brush your hair… or I could go raid the supplies Keyleth left here the last time she visited and we could make jewelry.  Or perhaps you’d like some cake.”

Pike touches her hair hesitantly.

“All right.  I’ll get your brush.”

She owns a brush, and it’s here, at this house, where she can’t remember ever being before.  This doesn’t shock her as much as it could have.  She listens while Vex moves away from her and opens and closes what sounds like a drawer nearby, then settles down on the floor near her.

Vex’s hands carefully touch her hips, turning Pike gently. “Let me know if it hurts, all right?”

Pike nods.

The first stroke of the brush through her hair causes a frisson of a new sensation to run down her back.  It pulses through her scars and settles around her waist.  The second stroke is more pleasurable.  The third feels just right.  Pike allows herself to get lost in the repetitive feeling, lightly scritching her nails along the floorboards at the same time.

“A long time ago,” Vex says after several quiet minutes, “we went on a vacation to a place called Marquette.  We went to a beach.  It was beautiful there.  It was just… it was perfect.  And you and Grog went to a fancy hair place, and you got blue streaks and beads put in your hair.  Grog got beads in his beard.”

Pike laughs.

“We went swimming in the ocean, and Percy and Vax found pearls.  You found a sea cucumber.”

Pike wonders what that is.

“On one of our last nights there, we all laid out on the beach.  It was a perfect, clear night, and the sand was warm underneath us.  We could hear the ocean, and there were these little birds that were singing.  We all watched the stars.  It was so calm and peaceful.” The brush strokes downward again. “At some point I looked over at you… and you were asleep.  I just want you to be that calm and happy and peaceful again.”

Pike furrows her brow and closes her eyes.  She tries to find that memory.  She knows the dark.  She thinks she knows what stars are.  She can imagine being somewhere safe with her friends.  She licks her lips and tastes salt. “Ohh…”

“And if we have to go back there to help you feel that way, we can do that.”

“Ocean,” Pike says with utter clarity, and in that one word she’s shoved through space and time to that memory.  Her fingers curl into warm sand, she hears the calm breathing of her friends around her; she feels so full and satisfied and… happy.

The brush clatters to the floor. “Pike?”

“Ocean, Vex,” Pike says, as though it’s obvious.

Arms wrap around her with a fierce strength, and something warm comes down on her head.  She realizes it’s Vex’s head when her friend whispers, “Oh, darling.  That’s… you’re amazing.”

Pike doesn’t know what else she’ll remember or forget, but she has a handful of memories now.  And while the love of Sarenrae felt so good and warm, Pike knows her own words are true: there’s more to do.  She wants to be here to do it.

She squeezes Vex’s hand. “Vex.”

“Pike,” Vex replies, tears in her voice.

 


 

Keyleth knocks on the door of the little cottage where Kelan is being “sequestered,” as her father put it.  The door’s opened by a lithe-looking woman with dark skin and large, liquid black eyes. “Headmaster,” she says briefly.

“Hello, Lian,” Keyleth says. “I’m here to talk to Kelan.”

Lian nods. “I see you brought dinner.”

“There’s enough for you, too.”

At that Lian finally cracks a smile. “Finally, something good’s going to come out of spending all day with this brat.”

Keyleth enters the cottage and closes the door behind her. “So, you know him well?”

“Everybody around here knows Kelan.  Most people have a strong opinion of him.  Nobody’s in the middle,” Lian answers.  She takes the basket of food from Keyleth. “His mother and sister think he hung the stars and moon.  So does his girlfriend.  He’s pampered and spoiled.  The rest of us… even that girl who was on patrol with him, Zela… think he’s lazy and stupid, even if we’re too polite to say it in those terms.  No wonder your father and the elders wanted to teach him a little responsibility.”

“Is Zela all right?”

“She’s fine.  No severe after-effects from falling off a cliff in the middle of the night,” Lian says.  She opens the basket and removes soft bread, apples, hard cheese, and several twists of brown-sugar candy.

“The candy’s for you and me,” Keyleth tells her.

“Bless you, Headmaster.” Lian pops one in her mouth. “Well, I suppose you’d better go and talk to the laziest Ashari.” She sighs. “Even my baby cousin works harder than he does, and now he’s getting pampered, stuck up here in this cottage doing what he always does - nothing.”

Keyleth gives her a knowing smile. “I get it.  But if it turns out that what Kelan experienced is related to some larger things going on in the world, we might all be grateful for his stupidity.”

“Just this once, though, okay?”

“Just this once.  Enjoy your dinner.”

Keyleth puts half of the food on a plate and goes to the closed door of the cottage’s back bedroom.  She knocks.

“Who is it?”

“It’s the Headmaster.  May I come in?”

There’s a stunned silence from the other side of the door. “What are you doing here?”

Keyleth has the sudden urge to bring down a lightning storm on the cottage.  She forces herself to take a deep breath. “I’d like to speak with you about the events of the other night.”

“Yeah, sure, whatever.” The door opens and a gangly, redheaded, freckle-faced youth stands in front of her, slouching and scratching at his shoulder.

Keyleth is both simultaneously irritated and impressed.  The rest of the Ashari in the village treat her with reverence, but also seem a little afraid of her.  This boy seems like he couldn’t care less about who she is, but his eyes light immediately on the food in her hand. “I’m starved!”

He practically grabs it from her hands. “I’ve been so bored up here.”

Kelan goes back to a chair in the corner of the bedroom and flops down into it, stuffing a chunk of the cheese in his mouth.

Still a bit stunned, Keyleth sits down on the edge of the bed. “I got the basic story from Shula.  I wanted to ask you a bit more about the glowing woman.”

“She was gorgeous,” Kelan says, his mouth full.

Keyleth’s really glad her father or one of the elders isn’t here - they’d be, at the very least, slapping this boy for his disrespect towards her.  It’s getting less refreshing by the second. “Did she give you a name?”

“Nope.”

“She just wanted to ask you questions.”

“Yep.”

“Why you?”

“Well, I was the only one up there,” Kelan says, as though it’s obvious.

“So you caused an explosion… for fun… and then a woman shows up out of nowhere to talk to you?”

Kelan burps. “That’s about it.”

“What kinds of things did she ask you?”

“Nothing important.  She wanted to know about you and Raven Boy, and about your staff.” He jerks his head towards it, in its place by the door. “And she asked about some of the wards up around Zephra.”

“Did you tell her about them?”

“Nah.  I don’t know anything about them.”

Keyleth silently thanks Sarenrae, Melora, the Raven Queen, and anyone else who happens to be listening.  This might be the first time Kelan’s stupidity was going to pay off for anyone else. “Did she give you any instructions?”

“She wanted me to get some stuff and bring it back up to the cliffs.” Kelan takes a crunchy bite from the apple.

It was like trying to get answers from a rock. “What kinds of stuff?”

“Like… an amethyst… some kind of sand… two palm fronds… a bunch of other stuff.  I didn’t know how to get most of it, so I kinda tuned that part out.”

“Did she tell you she’d reward you for that?”

“She said she’d be really happy, and when she was happy…” He trails off, giving Keyleth a lascivious look and a nod.

“Anything else?”

Kelan shrugs. “Nope.”

Keyleth sighs. “All right.  Well, thanks for your time.”

“Wait.” Kelan stands up, his apple somewhat forgotten. “Is she coming back?”

“You really liked her?”

“Like I said, she was gorgeous.”

“I heard you have a girlfriend.”

“But she’s nowhere near as good-looking as this woman.”

Keyleth resists the urge to roll her eyes.  She picks up her staff. “Enjoy your dinner.”

“Um, wait.  She did ask me to give you a message,” Kelan says.

That’s what he should have started with, Keyleth thinks angrily. “And what was that message?”

“She said you’re looking in all the wrong places,” Kelan says. “And there’s nothing you can do to protect a touched heart once it’s been set afire… and then something about that heart working too hard and exploding.  I didn’t get it.”

He crunches into the apple again.

Keyleth feels panic worm its way down her spine.  She gives Kelan a nod and hurries out of the cottage, saying a quick goodbye to Lian on the way.

She has to figure out how to get a message to Vex.

 


 

“This is borin’,” Grog says. “We been all over this place, and so far the most interestin’ thin’ we’ve found is that closet full’a like a million candles that fell on Kima.”

“I’m fine, thanks,” Kima says from behind him.

“We also found that box of exploding cookies,” Percy points out.

“They didn’t taste half bad,” Grog says.

He rubs his forehead in frustration. “I just… I wanna know more ‘bout these ladies.  Wanna figure out how they did stuff t’ Pike, even though I’m not gonna understand it.”

Vax opens the next door. “Uh, well, this is potentially interesting.”

He shows them a flight of stone stairs leading down into darkness.

“Probably just gonna be more candles,” Grog says.

“Or more cookies, if we’re lucky,” Scanlan says. “The look on your face!”

“Yeah, what about it?”

They proceed with caution down the steps, Vax in the front, Kima directly behind him with the lantern.  The stairs bottom out into a wide stone room with a few doors and one barred cell.  There’s water dripping somewhere, and some of the walls are covered with dark green moss.

“Charming place,” Percy remarks.

“Let’s find out what’s in those rooms,” Vax says.

He checks the doors, and discovers them all to be unlocked.  While Scanlan, Percy, Kima, and Vax start to investigate the rest of the space, Grog moves towards the cell in the corner.  Something like a knot of knowing is pressed up against his sternum, and the cell draws him in like a many-fingered beast.

The light is low, but Grog can see enough to pry the cell bars apart.  He figures a little destruction doesn’t matter; this place hurt his buddy and, what’s more, none of those ladies are ever coming back.  When he’s cleared enough of an opening to get himself in the cell, he braces himself with a deep breath before stepping inside.

It seems like an ordinary cell.  Three stone walls.  One barred wall.  Fuzzy moss growing up the back wall.  No windows.  A lumpy pile of sackcloth in the corner that could be a bed.  A wooden bucket whose purpose Grog doesn’t really want to consider.  Half of a hard loaf of bread.

Grog bends down close to the sackcloth.  His eyes roam over it.  At last he sees what he’s looking for, and he reaches in with his giant hands to pick up something small and soft and delicate.

It’s a few strands of white hair, and they hurt worse than being blasted apart by a million exploding cookies.

Chapter Text

Vax swallows as he looks around the room.  It’s full of equipment whose purposes can only be malicious, and all of the equipment is tiny.  In the center of the room, directly under some sort of darkly-glowing arcane lamp, is a wooden table, marred by dark stains and nicks and gouges.

From his position near the door, Percy says, “Nothing good ever happened in this room.”

“No,” Vax agrees solemnly.

“Perhaps there’s some sort of record of the things they did to her,” Percy goes on.

“Not in here.” Vax is finding it hard to get the words out.

“I’ll look.  And that journal we found with her things, there might be some answers in there.”

Percy leaves, and Vax stands in the middle of the room.  Unconsciously his hand rises up and touches the table.  Nearly immediately a sharp slap of energy roars through him.  It’s pain, it’s grief, it’s terror.  He nearly falls to his knees.  Nothing good ever happened in here.

Grog enters, something clenched in his fist. “I don’ wanna be here anymore.”

Vax looks up. “Nobody does, buddy.  What have you got there?”

Grog bows his head and then slowly approaches Vax, opening his fingers one by one to show Vax strands of white hair. “Found where she was livin’.”

“If you can call it that,” Vax mutters.

“Can you… put these somewhere safe?” Grog asks brusquely.

Vax nods. “Of course.”

He gently takes the hair from Grog and twists them into a looping knot of sorts, then tucks it into an inside pocket of his armor. “Can you get that journal for me?”

Grog reaches into the bag of holding and retrieves the small leather book. “I tried to read it,” he says. “It’s just…”

Vax moves out into the corridor, where the light is better, and opens the journal.  He immediately sees what caused Grog’s confusion - the handwriting is scratchy and jagged, as though the writer was hurried… or terrified.  It’s nothing like the usual printing in the books Grog reads. “I’ll see what I can make of it.”

He bends over the journal, tracing the first words with his finger.  I don’t know where I am.  It’s very cold here.  I’ve never been to a place like this before.  So far they’re not treating me badly, but no one has told me why I’m here.  I have hope that my friends will find me soon.  Sarenrae is with me, even here.

The next entry: They have told me why I am here, why they wanted me.  It doesn’t make any sense.  I am frightened.  Please… - and here the writing is scribbled out - … coming soon.

The next: … started… today.  … too much.  Pain.  Please…

The following entries are more of the same, the word “pain” written over and over, the word “please” written nearly as often.

The last entry is halfway through the journal, and the letters are all of different sizes, overlapping each other.  It takes Vax several tries to read the message, but it becomes easier when he realizes Pike wrote it after she was made blind.

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.

It’s those lines that punch him in the chest, and he slams the book closed and shoves it back at Grog.

Grog watches Vax’s expression. “Why’d they even let ‘er keep it?”

“What?”

“Why’d they let her write stuff down?”

“Maybe they thought it would keep her from getting too worried.  Maybe they thought it would distract her from what they were about to do.  I don’t know.”

Scanlan pokes his head into the room. “We found some… treatment manuals.  There’s a lot of them.”

“Can we eat ‘fore we read anythin’ else?” Grog says.

“Well, I saw a few pages of one of them, and… that might be a bad idea.”

 


 

Vex doesn’t realize the window’s still open until a raven flutters through it and lands on the floor. “Hello,” she says to it, only a bit confusedly.

The raven hops over to her and pecks at her hand.

“Did my brother send you?”

The bird opens its mouth and shows Vex a small parchment scroll.

“Oh, a message.  Aren’t you a wonderful thing?” Vex gently scritches the bird on its head before she unrolls the parchment.

“Vex?” Pike asks.

“Sorry, Pike.  A bird flew in through the window.”

“Ocean?”

“There were birds at the ocean, but not like this one.  This one’s a raven - a symbol of the god that my brother follows.  Apparently this one’s from Keyleth, though.”

“Key?”

“Yes, she’s…” Vex’s throat goes cold as she reads the letter.  She swallows hard and most of it dissipates. “She’s… just updating us on a situation.”

“Pike.”

“Just something that happened in Zephra.  That’s where she lives.”

“Hmm?”

“Nothing to worry about,” Vex forces herself to say. “Are you hungry again?”

“Pike.”

The bird lets out a quork.

“I’ll find something for you, too,” Vex says.  She scoops up Pike from the floor. “Follow me downstairs.”

She’s not expecting it, but the bird seems to listen and hops after them.

In the kitchen Vex sets Pike carefully on a chair and turns to the raven. “Would you like some corn?”

It stares at her.

“Some greens?”

Another long stare.

“A cookie?”

Quork!

“So predictable,” Vex says with a rueful grin, and she fetches a soft ginger cookie from the cupboard and sets part of it on the floor.

The raven pecks at it and then takes a few nibbles before appearing to bow low; it then hops over to the door expectantly.

“Tell Keyleth I’m grateful,” Vex says softly.

Quork!

She opens the door and the raven flies out into the rain.

A few seconds afterward, JB arrives.  She’s carrying a basket and looks happy. “Oh, hello!”

“Welcome back.  We were just starting to think about dinner.  Did you have a successful trip to the apothecary?”

“It was wonderful,” JB says. “I do like Cecilia so much.  She always knows the right things.”

She blushes a bit as she says that, and Vex gives her a gentle smile. “I’m glad to hear that.  What sort of wonderful things did you bring back?”

JB pushes herself up onto a chair at the table and opens the basket.  She takes out a fat pot with a wax-sealed lid. “This is a very special honey.  Apparently it’s both good to help wounds heal and as a strengthener when eaten.”

“Who knew bees were so powerful?”

“Cecilia did,” JB says with a grin. “I’ve got some other salves in here as well, just in case the honey doesn’t work, or for deeper wounds.  And this is a tincture for restful sleep.  I also went to the bakery and had them give me some of the rich loaves and one of the little cakes.  If she’s going to get better, she’s going to need more to eat.”

Vex feels tears in her eyes. “JB, you’re marvelous.”

JB ducks her head. “I just… I want her to be well again.”

Vex kisses JB on the crown of her head. “She will be.”

“Where is she?” JB asks.

“She’s right here,” Vex says, turning to look at the chair where she’d set Pike. “Or… she was…”

“Pike?” JB calls out.

Panic punches into Vex’s chest.  The note from Keyleth rings hard in her ears.  It’s her heart.  Something about her heart.  If she gets sicker, if she goes into another one of those feral fits… I don’t know what to tell you, Vex, but something tells me it’s going to start adding up, it’s going to make her worse and worse.  I don’t have any solutions yet.  Please just keep her safe.

“Pike!   Pike!”

 


 

Pike listens to Vex move around the kitchen, talking to the bird.  She’s unsteady on the chair, unsteady and uncertain.  She doesn’t feel safe.  She slides to the edge of the chair and drops onto the floor.  She reaches out, feeling table legs near her.  There’s a door nearby, too - she can hear rain, sounding closer.

It’s where she decides to head.  Rocking forward onto her hands and knees, she crawls towards the open door.  Her body doesn’t feel as tired or as painful, but she’s still fuzzy and slow.  Moving as fast as she can, she continues towards the sound of the rain.

At last she feels the rain on her fingertips, and the wood floor under her fingers turns into stone.  She gropes around, discovering that the stone is a step just outside the door.  She boosts herself down the step and sits in the wet grass, letting the rain stream down onto her.

It’s peaceful.  She loves the rain sounds.  She still feels fuzzy and distant, but sitting on the ground is nice.  There’s something familiar about the grass under her and the slick of rain on her arms.  She can’t remember the last time she felt rain.

Pike laughs and tilts her head back, opening her mouth to let rain fall inside.  It tastes sweet and feels cool as it runs down her throat.  Raindrops fall on her cheeks and her eyes, and each drop is like a little kiss.

Then she hears something moving towards her through the grass.  It’s not Vex, coming up behind her, but something in front of her.  Pike stretches out her hands. “Hmm?”

Fur brushes against her palms, and a wet something pushes into her neck.  Warm breaths hit her back and shoulders.

“Pike?” she asks whatever it is.

Rowwrr?” the something responds.

“Pike,” she answers.

There’s a slurp and something rough and wet streaks down her cheeks.  It feels so bizarre that she laughs. “Pike!” she tells it firmly but happily, pushing the furry thing away from her.

It lurches in again with a rowwr! and slurps away again at her face.

Pike bursts out in giggles.

From behind her she hears her name. “Pike?   Pike!”

“Vex?” Pike replies.

Footsteps pound towards her, and then hands touch down on Pike’s shoulders. “How did you get out here?” Vex asks, sounding panicked.

“Vex!” Pike says gladly, and she rubs the furry thing in front of her.

“Oh, Trinket,” Vex says. “I should have known you’d find her.  Pike, this is my bear, Trinket.”

“Vex,” Pike says, and snuggles into the furry wet thing.  Rain splashes down on her and she just laughs and laughs.

 


 

Vex turns to Trinket and quickly casts Speak With Animals. “What do you think, buddy?”

You found her!” Trinket exclaims with glee. “You brought her home!  You brought her back!”

“We did,” Vex says, feeling tears form in her eyes.

The bear leans in and gives Pike’s face another lick. “She smells different, though.  She smells sick.”

“She is,” Vex says softly.

“But you’re going to fix it, right?”

“We’re going to do our best.”

“How come she can’t talk?”

“It’s a long story, buddy, but she was… tortured.”

Trinket huffs. “Did you get the bad people who did it?”

“Yes.  Most of them.”

“Do I need to go get the rest of them?”

“No, buddy.  Vax is helping Grog and Scanlan and Percy and everybody else with that.”

“I’ll stay here and protect her.”

“Good.  I’m glad to have you.”

He snuffles. “How come bad stuff happens to people who are good like Pike?”

“Because nothing’s fair.”

Trinket seems saddened by that remark. “I only want good stuff to happen to Pike.”

“Me too.  Can we work towards that?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay.”

“Tell her I love her.”

“I will.  I love you.”

“I love you too.

 


 

Vax has no idea how much time passes.  He stares down at the pages of the thick book in front of him, each one seemingly worse than the last.  He can’t tell what’s worse - the diagrams or the handwritten notes.

At last he becomes aware of a hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you take a break?” Percy asks softly.

“We have to… we have to figure this out,” Vax says numbly.

“You’ve been in here for about an hour,” Percy tells him. “Just step back for a few minutes.  Come have some water and something to eat.”

Vax turns another page.  His fingers don’t feel connected to his body anymore.  The images on the pages sear into his mind.  The exquisite detail.  The blood.  The flayed open rib cage.  The things -

The book closes on his hand, and he jerks upright, the spell suddenly broken as he snaps back into his body.

“Take a break,” Percy repeats, a little more firmly.

Vax looks back down at the book.  Whatever gripped him is gone.  It’s just a book again.

“I’ll take a break,” Vax whispers.

Percy leads him upstairs and out of the fortress, into the late afternoon cold.  It’s bracing against their cheeks.  Vax likes the bite of cold air into his lungs; it feels like each breath is purifying him, taking away the toxins of the book.

“Here,” Grog says, and passes him an apple.

“Thanks.”

The apple is crisp and sweet, and Vax feels more life flooding back into him.  He blinks and for the first time doesn’t see the precise drawings flash behind his eyes.

“Who has the next turn?” Percy asks the group.

“I’ll take a turn,” Kima says.

“For what?” Vax must have tuned out the beginning of the conversation.

“You’re done with that book,” Percy says. “It’s doing something to you.”

“We need to figure out what’s in there!” Vax protests.

“Yes, and we’ll do it separately.  You have the information you read, and now Kima can take a turn.  I’ll do one and so will Scanlan.  And Keyleth, when she gets here.”

Something surges through Vax’s blood. “I wasn’t finished with it!”

Grog steps in front of Vax. “Percy says yer done with it, yer done with it.”

“The book is as evil as the women who wrote it,” Scanlan adds.  His voice gets softer, though, and he says, “I know you just want to help Pike, Vax.  We all do.  But we can’t help her if we succumb to evil or to anything that’s going to hurt us.”

“Have ‘nother apple,” Grog says, and puts another piece of fruit in Vax’s hands.

Vax forces a smile. “Dare I ask where you keep getting these?”

“Ask if you wanna know, but I don’t think y’ do.”

“Do you want to know what I’ve learned?” Vax asks as he sits down on a log outside the door.

“Only if it won’t make me hurl,” Kima says.

“This whole places makes me want to hurl,” Scanlan says.

Kima nods at that.

“They opened her up,” Vax says.  A piece of apple sticks in his throat.  “They were trying to make sure she was strong enough for their god to inhabit.  They…”

He draws one finger down his chest.

“Tha’s not a big deal,” Grog says. “That cleric guy did that t’ her the other day.”

“They cracked her ribs,” Vax says, turning towards Grog. “Pulled her apart.”

Grog goes quiet and his hands clench into fists.

“They lit her on fire,” Vax goes on, his voice gathering speed and volume. “They held her underwater.  They pulled out her fingernails.  They beat her, they whipped her, they -”

“Vax,” Percy says, putting a hand on Vax’s shoulder.

The touch stops him, and Vax finds he’s panting, tears running down his cheeks.  He turns to Percy. “Why?” he rasps. “Why would they do that to her?”

“I don’t know,” Percy answers evenly. “But it is in the past, and we cannot let it consume us if we’re going to be any help to her.”

“How can she even bear to be with us?” Vax asks. “How can she trust any person ever again when the last ones she lived with did… did… that to her?”

“‘Cause we love ‘er,” Grog says. “We’re never gonna hurt ‘er.”

“We haven’t been able to fix anything,” Vax spits out. “She is helpless and broken and empty and -”

At that Grog gets right in front of Vax and plants his hands on Vax’s shoulders, pushing down just hard enough to make a point. “Listen,” Grog says, his voice dangerously quiet, “we’re not gonna talk ‘bout Pike like that anymore.  She’s only as helpless an’ broken as we let ‘er be.  An’ we all know she’s not empty.  She knows my name, an’ yers, an’ Vex’s, an’ part ‘a Keyleth’s.  She knew Wilhand.  Sarenrae’s been helpin’ ‘er.  That’s not empty.”

Vax looks up at Grog. “How are you not in a constant rage over this?”

Grog shrugs. “I could do that all day long.  ‘S not gonna help her.”

“You’re not mad?”

“‘Course I’m mad.  When we first got ‘er back t’ Emon I told Vex it wasn’t like havin’ Pike around again.  Now I know it is, it’s just gonna be different.  An’ so I’m not thinkin’ ‘bout everythin’ else.  I wanna just get all the information we came for, then go back t’ her.”

Grog takes his hands off Vax’s shoulders and instead wraps his arms around Vax, hugging him tightly. “Yer a good bird boy… but yer stuck in yer head.”

“Fanks,” Vax says into Grog’s chest.

 


 

Keyleth finds her father sitting at the edge of a cliff, looking out towards the sunset.  She sets down her staff and sits beside him.  He looks up at her. “Hello.”

“Hey.”

“How did you find our delinquent?”

“A little too angsty for me.”

Kohren laughs. “Yes.  For most of us.  Did he at least tell you anything that will help?”

“Maybe,” Keyleth says. “In any event, I think the wards around the village should be strengthened.”

Kohren nods. “I can handle that.”

He picks up a book from his side and hands it to her. “Gloriana found this for you.  It’s a journal kept by someone who rescued a Gods’ Touched.”

“I didn’t think anyone had done that,” Keyleth says. “That woman told us so.”

“Gloriana… has quite the extensive library.  It’s possible she has resources beyond what some evil bat from a wintry fortress knew about.  Maybe it will help Pike.”

Keyleth has to laugh at his description of Ieliena.  She tucks the journal into her bag. “I have to go soon,” she says. “Vax and most of Vox Machina are back at the fortress trying to find more information to help Pike… and to figure out how to get rid of Ieliena.”

“Is that who came here?”

“I think so,” Keyleth says. “She asked Kelan about me and Vax, and about the wards around here.  She also asked Kelan to bring her some things, but he was so blinded by her beauty that he couldn’t remember what she asked for.”

“I guess he’s good for something.”

“Maybe when all of this is over… when we’ve defeated Ieliena… we could bring Pike here for a bit.”

“I’d like that.”

“She’s got a lot of work to do to get healthy, and it’s nice here.”

“She would be welcome any time,” Kohren says.

As he speaks, a raven soars down, riding the air currents, and lands at Keyleth’s side.

Quork! it informs her.

Keyleth casts Speak With Animals. “Did you give her the message?”

Yes.

“And they’re all right?”

Yes.  They’re all right.

“What was happening when you were there?”

The white-haired one and the dark-haired one were sitting on the floor.  The dark-haired one thought I was from her brother.  The white-haired one said “ocean.”  The dark-haired one thanked me and gave me a cookie.  Ginger.

“She said ‘ocean’?”

Yep.

“Oh,” Keyleth breathes. “That’s wonderful.”

Do you have a cookie for me?

“I can find you one later,” Keyleth says.

I guess that’ll do.

“Thank you for taking that message.”

You’re welcome.

With that, the raven flies off.

“Good news?” Kohren asks.

“Yes.  Very good news.” Keyleth sighs. “I have to go.”

“I understand.” Kohren stands and helps Keyleth to her feet. “Stay safe, and bring Raven Boy back for the kids… and for you.  And Pike, when she’s ready.”

“I will.  We might be visiting the ocean first, though, if what I heard from the raven was correct.”

“That’s a beautiful place too.  Vesra would put you up in handsome accommodations, I’ve no doubt.”

“It would be lovely to be there again.” Keyleth leans in and kisses him on the cheek.

Kai tiaki, my tempest.”

Kai tiaki, Father.” Keyleth picks up her staff, reaching into her bag for the gate stone as she does so.  She clutches the stone in her hand and concentrates, thinking of Vax and of the stone fortress far away on a snowy, silent plane.

She has one final glimpse of her father and the sun sinking low over the horizon before the arcane swirl of energy surrounds her body and she vanishes from Zephra.

 


 

They feed her, and JB drips something into her mouth that dulls the pain and makes her feel soft and fuzzy, like she’s floating just above her body.  Vex carefully undoes the bandages over her wounds and Pike hears JB cry.  She’s too far away from her body to respond, to make JB feel better.  She really wants to, though.  She doesn’t feel bad about her body, because she can’t see it, and it’s not hurting right now, but she does feel bad when other people do.

“Pike, we’re going to give you a bath,” Vex says softly, “and redress your wounds.  Is that all right?”

Pike nods, trailing her fingers through her hair.  She’s never noticed, but her hair is soft.  It feels amazing.  She likes it.  It feels like her fingers are swimming in her hair.  She giggles.

“Pike?”

“Pike,” she agrees, her fingers coiling in the soft smoothness of her hair.

“Okay.  You let us know if anything starts to hurt, okay?”

“Pike.”

She closes her eyes and drifts some more.  At some point she feels water poured over her arms and legs, and the pressure of a cloth against her skin.  Some of the pressure feels dangerously like pain, but Pike can’t bring herself to care too much.  Then something slams into her sternum and pain roars through her.  She cries out.

“Sorry, sorry,” Vex says, close to Pike’s ear. “The wound on your chest is looking a tad dodgy, so I wanted to scrub it better.”

“Open your mouth,” JB says from her other side, and Pike does, desperate to escape the pain.  Something dribbles into her mouth and the pain ebbs and fades.  Again she’s floating outside her body, and she relaxes.

Eventually she feels gentle warmth around her, and realizes she’s wrapped in a towel, being carried.  She’s set down on something else soft - the bed - and closes her eyes and drifts some more as JB and Vex start to manipulate her limbs.  She smells different salves and feels careful fingertips as they dress her wounds.

A firm pressure builds in her stomach.  Saliva pools in the back of her throat and she coughs.  She tries to roll to one side.

“Lay still, all right?” JB says.

Pike coughs again and tries to push herself up.  She manages to turn her head slightly; drool runs out of her mouth. “Vex?” she slurs.

“Pike, we’re almost done,” Vex says.

More drool fills her mouth and the pressure moves up her throat.  Pike coughs, spit trailing down her chin. “Unnhh…”

“Shit.  Sit her up,” Vex says urgently, and Pike feels hands on her back as JB helps to haul her upright.

“What’s happening?” JB asks.  She sounds worried.  Pike feels bad about that.  She hates making people worried.  But she can’t get her thoughts together to try to reassure anyone.

“Pike, it’s all right,” Vex says, touching her cheek. “Just please… this time… don’t hurt yourself.  Just try to stay with us.”

“What’s happening?” JB asks again, a little louder.

Unnhhh… ” Pike retches.  Her fingernails dig into her palms.  She’s cold, and then she’s hot, and then cold again.  The room feels like it’s spinning around her. “... a lake.  A trap.  A bell.  A lake.  A trap.  A bell.  Falling snow… unnhh… blood in the snow… unnhhh… unnnhhh…”

She chokes and retches.  Her abdomen muscles contract, hard, and she screams.

“Help her!” JB cries.

“It’s all right, JB.  It’ll be over in a minute,” Vex says.

Pike clenches her fists tighter as the red-gold lights flood her vision. “No,” she whimpers.   Please don’t make me hurt them.

You’d like to, wouldn’t you? the sly voice whispers in her ears.

No.” Pike rocks back and forth. “No.”

“Pike, stay with us,” Vex says, and a hand touches her shoulder. “Listen to me - you’re safe.  We’re right here.  We know you’re not going to hurt us.”

“What’s going on?” JB sounds terrified.

“Pike, talk to me,” Vex says. “Tell me about the ocean.”

You could hurt them, the sly voice reminds her. You could use all that power in your body to destroy them, and you know it.

“Vex,” Pike says tentatively.

She’s the one you want to hurt first?

“NO!” Pike screams.  She slaps her head, hard.  The red-gold light flares into stars and she gasps.

“Please, Vex, do something!” JB begs.

“Pike,” Vex says, her voice gentle. “Do you remember the ocean?  Think about the ocean, darling.  Can you hear the waves?  In… and out.  In… and out.”

Pike clenches her fingers in her hair and bows her head.  She tries to remember the ocean, the one Vex told her about, the one she can almost remember.  Water.  Sand.  Safe.

She tries to breathe with Vex’s ins and outs, trying to slow her thoughts.  Her head throbs and the rest of her aches.  On her next breath in a starburst of pain explodes across her chest. “Vex!” she gasps.

“I’m right here,” Vex says, and she cups Pike’s cheek with her hand. “Stay here.”

I can’t breathe! Pike thinks, her mouth falling open as she tries to suck in air.

“Pike?” Vex sounds worried now too.

You don’t hurt them, we hurt you, the sly voice tells her.

No!” Pike wheezes.

“Pike, breathe,” Vex says firmly, and a hand comes down on Pike’s chest.

Do it, the voice says.

Pike wants to.  She wants to make this stop.  She wants to do whatever will allow her body to get air.  But she can’t move.

Do it.

“Should I get someone?” JB asks tentatively.

Pike feels power rising in her arms, tension and pain and anger all at once.  Her hands come up and she struggles to put them down.  She doesn’t know what’s going to happen, but she knows it won’t be good.

Do it, the voice orders.

“Vex,” Pike chokes.

A flood of power blasts out of her hands, blaring bright gold, hotter than she can stand.  Pike screams as she feels that power slam into someone.  Her chest burns and it feels like all of her ribs are cracking.  She wants it to stop.  There’s a loud roaring noise in her ears.

“Pike, it’s okay!” Vex tells her. “Pike, please, just take a breath.  It’ll…”

Another burst of power flows out and Pike tries to scream again, but there’s no more air in her lungs.  Her entire torso is on fire.  Her body’s burning.  Her brain is seized with pain and her spine is a hot stream of torture.

There’s a crack and Pike’s mind goes dark.

 


 

Keyleth arrives in the Empty Stone Home’s kitchen, where the rest of the party is gathered at a large table, eating dinner.  She immediately wraps her arms around Vax.

“Hi, Red,” Vax greets her.

Keyleth just groans.

“Rough time in Druid Town?” Grog asks through a mouthful of bread.

“There’s more going on in the world than I thought possible,” Keyleth murmurs into Vax’s shoulder. “Please tell me that we found something so we can go to Whitestone.”

“What’s wrong?” Vax nudges her.

“Zephra did have a break-in,” Keyleth says, “but it wasn’t who we thought it was.  And Pike’s even worse off than we thought she was.”

“Wha’?” Grog demands.

“I got word to Vex,” Keyleth tells him, “but I don’t know if she’ll be able to do anything.  I don’t know if there’s anything we can do.”

“Eat something,” Kima says, and puts a plate of dinner on the table, pushing it towards Keyleth.

“I just…” Keyleth shakes her head. “I’m so scared, and I’m so tired.”

“We found some things,” Percy says, “but there’s a lot more reading to do.”

“Oh, speaking of reading,” Keyleth says, and she digs into her bag. “I did get this while I was in Zephra.  A woman there had this - it’s a journal from someone who rescued a Gods’ Touched.”

“I thought…” Vax gives her a quizzical look.

“I thought so too,” she answers.

“Were they any better at it than we were?” Scanlan asks.

“I haven’t read it yet,” Keyleth answers.

“No more readin’ ‘til we’ve eaten,” Grog says loudly.

Vax nods, and Keyleth manages to eat a few things, despite not being too hungry.  

After the meal, no one really wants to go back into the dungeon to read more of the torturers’ journals, so Scanlan casts the mansion, putting its door inside the kitchen.  They split up to pursue their respective after-meal pleasures - Grog and Kima to the fighting pit, Percy to his laboratory, Scanlan to his music room.  Vax takes Keyleth’s hand and leads her down to the hot baths.  She doesn’t argue when, after they’re both undressed and in the water, he starts scrubbing her hair.

“I like this,” she murmurs.

“I know,” he answers. “What are you so afraid of?”

“I can’t shake the feeling that we’re not going to be able to save her,” Keyleth answers softly. “That she’s too far gone.”

“Do you want to hear something Grog said to me today?”

“Did he do something stupid?”

“Probably,” Vax says, “but that’s not it.  I was… some of the things in the book I read today just wouldn’t let me go.  I was unable to separate what they did to Pike from who she is.  And Grog reminded me she’s only as helpless and broken as we let her be.”

Keyleth sighs as Vax pours water over her head to rinse out the suds, and though it’s clear there’s more on her mind, she doesn’t say any more.

When they’re back in their room, dressed for the night, Keyleth sets her headdress on the dresser, knocking Vax’s armor off the chair next to the dresser.  As it tumbles to the ground something bright falls out onto the floor.  She bends down and picks it up - a twisted loop of white hair.

“Vax?”

“Yeah?”

“What’s this?”

Vax looks over. “Oh.  Grog found that… in the cell where they were keeping her.”

Keyleth stares at it, her heart breaking. “Grog was wrong,” she says.

“What?”

“She’s only as broken as they made her.”

“Oh, Kiki,” Vax murmurs.  He comes over to her and takes the hair twist from her hand.

“Don’t,” Keyleth says.

“What?”

“I… don’t put it away.”

“What do you want me to do with it?”

“I don’t know.” Keyleth feels tears in her eyes.  She knows she’s just too tired but she can’t figure out what’s wrong with her, what was broken by seeing this hank of hair. “Just…”

“C’mon,” Vax says, and he leads her to bed.

When she wakes the next morning it’s to a note on the dresser near her headdress.  She unfolds the piece of paper, seeing Vax’s firm handwriting: I thought you might want this to remind you of what we’re fighting for.

Inside the paper, under a fold, is the hair, now woven into a braided bracelet.

We’re going to do make things whole from these pieces, and we’re going to do it together.

Chapter Text

Allura carefully runs her fingers over Pike’s arm.  She looks over at Vex. “It’s true.  It’s broken.”

“Oh,” JB says softly from the corner, her voice horrified and sad.

“She… she was just sitting there,” Vex says, stunned.

Allura strokes Pike’s forehead.  Pike whimpers and her hand reaches up to clamp onto Allura’s arm. “It’s all right,” Allura murmurs. “Shh.”

“She was upset,” Vex says, still trying to parse this, “but she didn’t even touch her arms.”

Allura gently slides Pike’s sleeve up. “She didn’t have to.”

Vex leans in carefully, seeing what Allura’s indicating: there’s a clear golden line seared into Pike’s arm, edges of that line blackened and burned - the line somehow acting as beautiful decoration for a jarring, obviously broken arm, snapped at that golden streak. “She… broke her own arm?”

Allura nods.

“From the inside out?” Vex touches the obvious deformity.  Pike whimpers again and the fingers on her opposite hand clench tighter on Allura’s arm.

“The last few times she’s… dissociated, for lack of a better word, has she used magic indiscriminately?” Allura asks.

Vex thinks back. “She shoved Grog away from her when we were back in Emon.  There was magic in that.  Mostly she’s just been using her fists.”

“But she didn’t want to use it,” Allura says.

Vex shook her head. “It didn’t seem like it.”

“She broke her own arm,” Allura says. “With magic.  Power that was flooding through her, that she couldn’t control.”

Vex puts her head in her hands. “It’s the same thing with the self injury.  She wants to hurt herself to make sure she doesn’t hurt us.”

“And this time she was going to use magic against you, so…” Allura sighs.

“You can fix it, right?” JB whispers.

“I can fix her arm.”

“No, fix all of it.” JB’s voice rises. “Fix her.”

“We’re trying,” Vex says gently.

“No, you’re not!” JB protests. “You’ve done nothing!  Nothing to help her!”

Vex gets to her feet and moves towards JB’s seat in the corner.  She kneels down in front of the shaking gnome. “I know this is hard for you to believe, but we have done a lot.  It doesn’t look like it, but we have.  When we first got to her, a healing potion took her skin off and she threw up the food we tried to give her.  A greater restoration would have killed her.  She went through an absurdly painful ritual that allows us to heal her without hurting her.  She was only able to speak her name when we got to her, but she didn’t know what it meant.  Now she knows several other names, and she said ‘ocean’ earlier.  She’s clean, she’s able to eat, and she trusts us.”

“But she is suffering!” JB screams.

“I know,” Vex says. “You have to know this breaks our hearts too.  We’re not going to give up on her.  We want to do everything we can to help her get back as much as she can.  It’s not going to be easy.  No one has ever rescued a person in Pike’s position before.  They’re made to speak the words of a god and never be out of the control of those who made them that way.”

Pike’s fingers clench on Allura’s arm again.  Her eyes don’t open, but her mouth moves.

“Say it again,” Allura says, leaning down towards Pike.

“Vex,” Pike whispers.

“I’m right here,” Vex says, and she crosses the room to where Pike lays on the bed. “I’m right here.”

“Vex,” Pike repeats.  Her brow furrows. “Hurt.”

The new word both surprises Vex and chills her.  Pike’s words come slowly to her, seemingly situational or driven by some heart-breaking emotion.  This one twists in Vex’s stomach like a knife; it’s a simple syllable she hoped Pike wouldn’t have to re-learn this early.

“I know,” Vex breathes. “I’m sorry.  We’re going to try to help you.”

Allura’s already moving her fingers in the air, trailing wisps of gold and purplish-blue energy as she murmurs an incantation under her breath.  Pike’s next inhale is sharp and her fingers, freed from Allura’s arm, dig into the skin on her neck.  She whimpers and then lets out a pained moan.

A sharp crack fills the room again, as it had less than an hour before.  Pike screams and then falls still on the bed.

Vex leans in and carefully pulls up Pike’s sleeve.  The arm is straight; the golden burn mark is still there.

Allura picks up the small brown bottle from the bedside and drips a few drops of the pain-reduction draft into Pike’s mouth.  As she swallows, Pike’s body relaxes slightly.  Her breathing becomes easier.

“We have a few options,” Allura says softly. “One is to keep going with things the way they are.  Try to keep her out of pain as much as possible.”

Vex nods.  JB doesn’t raise her head.

“The other is to put her in some sort of magical… stasis, as it were,” Allura goes on. “It’s not sleeping, per se - it’s somewhere between consciousness and not.”

“Would she be in pain?” JB asks, still looking down at her hands.

“No.  It would also remove whatever ability the forces still holding onto her have now, including the prophecies and the drive to hurt you and herself,” Allura answers. “The only downside is that we may not be able to bring her out of it easily.”

Vex stroke’s Pike’s forehead. “What is your recommendation?”

“Since we don’t know how long it will be until the rest of Vox Machina returns, and we don’t know what kind of answers they’ll have for us, and seeing how she’s progressed from merely slapping out at people to breaking her own bones…”

“... and the note Keyleth sent us about her heart possibly being impacted,” Vex puts in.

“... I’d say stasis would be the safest option.”

“What happens if we can’t get her out of it?” JB asks.

Allura looks over at JB. “We’ll bring her out.”

JB hops down from the chair in the corner of the room and comes over to boost herself up on the bed. “You should ask her.”

“I suppose that’s a good point,” Allura says.

Vex gently rubs Pike’s cheek. “Pike, can you hear us?”

“Vex.”

“We want to keep you safe… and it’s getting harder for us to do that.  We can keep things how they are… or we can put you in kind of a dream state.”

“You wouldn’t be aware of how long you were in there,” Allura adds. “You would not feel any pain or distress.”

Pike’s eyes open and her brow furrows. “Pike… hurt Vex?”

Vex considers this. “It would make me sad to do this, yes,” she says after a moment, “because I know how hard you’re working to stay with us.  But I also see how much it’s hurting you, and that’s what I care about.  I want to make you safe and comfortable.”

Pike shakes her head. “No.  Pike hurt Vex?”

It takes a second before Vex realizes what she’s asking. “No, darling, you didn’t hurt me.”

“Pike… hurt… ‘Og?” Pike’s words slow down, and Vex sees she’s struggling to stay awake.

“No.”

“Pike… hurt… Vax?”

“No, darling.”

“Pike… hurt…” Pike’s eyes close, and she murmurs, “... Key?”

“No.  You haven’t hurt any of us.  I promise.”

“Pike…” Her body relaxes further and her breathing slows. “... hurt… Pike?”

“Yes, darling, and that’s why we want to do this, so we can keep you safe until we can figure out how to make things better.  Do you want us to do this?”

Pike’s breathing gets slower, and Vex reaches out to touch her hand. “Pike?  Do you want us to do this?”

It’s the barest of nods, but it’s there.  Vex leans down and whispers, “I promise, we’ll wake you up soon.”

“Vex,” Pike gets out, and then she’s asleep.

Vex and JB sit in the room, watching Pike sleep while Allura goes back to her home for supplies she’ll need for the stasis ritual.  They don’t speak, but Vex slips her hand into JB’s and squeezes it when JB’s shoulders start to shake with sobs.

Trinket pads into the room at some point and looks questioningly at Vex.  She turns to him and casts Speak with Animals again.

What’s wrong?  She looks worse.

“She is worse, buddy.”

Fix her.

“I want to.”

So do it.

“It’s not that simple.”

You said only good things were going to happen for Pike.

“They will.  Soon.” Vex strokes his head and scratches behind his ears. “She’s going to be sleeping for awhile.  Can I count on you to help us watch over her?”

Yeah.  I’ll stay right here.

Trinket flops down on the floor in a position where he can see both the door and Pike’s still form resting on the bed.   Nobody’s gonna hurt her, he tells Vex. Not if I can do anything about it.

“Thank you,” Vex says softly.

 


 

When they emerge from Scanlan’s mansion in the late morning, well-rested and fed and prepared for whatever the day brings, there’s something different about the Empty Stone Home.  For one thing, there are bells ringing.

“Didn’t we knock down that bell tower last time we were here?” Scanlan asks, tilting his head.

“It doesn’t sound like it’s coming from inside where the bell tower was,” Percy says. “It sounds more like it’s coming from outside.”

“Maybe to lure us out?” Vax suggests.

“Maybe.”

Scanlan frowns. “Who knows we’re here?”

“Vex, Pike, Allura,” Kima ticks off on her fingers.

“My father,” Keyleth says.

“Y’ think there’s s’more a’ those ladies?” Grog asks. “An’ they’re comin’ back home?”

“What about Gilmore?” Scanlan puts in. “We don’t know where he ended up.”

“Let’s at least find out where the bells are coming from,” Vax says.

They leave the kitchen, taking their time combing through the hallways and rooms leading to the front door of the fortress.  As they move towards it, the bells get louder, and when they open the door there is a blast of sound, almost physical in its nature, that greets them.

Looking down from the front door of the fortress it’s easy to see the frozen lake down below, as smooth and placid as it ever was.  There are no footprints or tracks in the snow to suggest that someone has arrived at the fortress to take it by force.  Besides the falling snow there’s nothing in the way of movement in the forest.  Just the silent, sturdy trees and the sound of cacophonous bells.

Vax sees it first. “There’s something out on the lake,” he says.

The others, following his critical eye, notice it as well - where before the lake was a pure sheet of frosty ice without interruptions, there’s now a small shack built upon it, almost halfway across.  The far shores of the lake disappear into a foggy nothingness, leaving the shack stark against the blank mist and the ice beneath it.

There’s a crunching noise as they step out onto the snow, and as Grog, bringing up the rear of the group, crosses the threshold, the door slams shut behind them.  The noise of the bells stops immediately.

Grog grabs for the door handle and tugs. “It won’t open!”

“Just another day with door problems,” Percy groans.

“Use your chime of opening,” Vax says.

“Oh!  Good thinkin’!” Grog digs into the bag of holding and brings out the chime.  He taps it and the peal rings clear into the snowy landscape.

There’s a weak thunk and the door opens a few inches.  Kima grabs a stout stick from the ground nearby and Grog helps her wedge it into the door, making sure it will stay open.

“Do we really need to go back in there?” Scanlan asks.

“If we want to take any of their ‘research’ with us, we do,” Vax tells him.

“I’m not puttin’ any a’ that stuff in the bag a’ holdin’,” Grog says firmly. “Who knows what it’ll do in there?”

“We’ll figure it out,” Vax says.

He leads the way down the hill towards the lake.  Grog keeps looking over his shoulder, back towards the fortress, concerned that there's something watching them, waiting for their return. “Hey, d’ we think this is a trap?”

“A creepy shack out on a lake of ice?  It's totally a trap,” Scanlan says.

“Then why’re we goin’?  Let's go get the rest a’ that stuff an’ get outa here!”

“We’re trying to find information to help Pike,” Keyleth says.

“‘M pretty sure it id’nt gonna be out there,” Grog grumbles.

But he says nothing more as they make their way to the shore of the lake.

Vax takes a hesitant step onto the ice.  It seems to hold his weight.

“If it's a trap, which I'm positive it is, maybe we shouldn't just walk out there,” Scanlan says.

“Yes, agreed,” Percy says.

“I can solve that,” Keyleth says.  In a brief second she's a raven, and she flies up to land on Vax’s shoulder.

“I think the winged one is proposing she flies out there and checks it out,” Vax says.

Caw, the bird agrees.

“Sounds good to me,” Kima says.

Keyleth gives another caw and takes off, heading out towards the shack.

They watch her fly, keeping a good distance above the shack, doing a few circles around it.  She dips low to look at a darkened spot on the building that might be a window or a door’s opening.  For a brief moment she lands on the roof and bends her head over, looking curiously at the window/door.  Then she seems to pick something up, tilt her head curiously, and take off again towards them.

Keyleth lands on Vax’s shoulder and holds out what she picked up - a small roll of parchment.  He takes it and she hops off his shoulder, transforming back to Keyleth as she falls. “What is it?” she asks as Vax unrolls it.

“What did you see?” Percy asks her.

“There's a window, and inside there's just stairs leading down.”

“Down… under the lake?” Kima raises her eyebrows.

“Wha’s on th’ note?” Grog leans over Vax’s shoulder.

Vax reads it aloud. “‘I know you're looking for answers.  I may have some.  It is not safe to go back into the fortress.  I will try to keep the ice frozen over as long as I can.  Hurry.’  It's signed ‘the one who took her wings.’”

“We’re goin’ swimmin’?” Grog frowns. “It's too cold for that.”

“We can wind walk over there,” Keyleth says. “Then whoever this is wouldn't have to worry about the ice.”

“Let's see… be a cloud, or potentially drown,” Kima says. “I can't tell which one I like less.”

“What's wrong with being a cloud?” Scanlan asks her.

“It just seems… undignified.”

“I'd rather be undignified than drowned,” Grog says. “Make me a cloud!”

It takes a few moments more to convince Kima of the safety of travel by cloud, including the reassurance that “it’s only a few hundred feet,” but eventually they all transform into mist and cross the icy lake, somewhat blending into the fog creeping across its hardened surface.

As clouds, each of them cross the threshold of the little cabin before transforming back into their solid selves.  Grog is the last one in, and he misjudges the dimensions of the cabin slightly, changing back right before the doorway.  His solid feet hit the ice and there’s a loud crack that ricochets across the lake.  Under his feet the ice gives way.

Grog lets out a bellow as he feels himself start to fall; he lurches out with his blood axe and manages to grab purchase with the blade on the shack’s wall.  His hand slips, though, and he goes through the hole, sinking into the water.

Scanlan whirls, seeing Grog rapidly disappearing beneath the ice.  He hollers out, “Bigby’s HAAAAND!”

The mystical purple hand appears and grabs Grog by the shoulders, heaving him up and out of the ice water and into the cabin.  Grog lays panting and only slightly damp on the floor of the shack. “Turns out… I can be undignified… an’ drowned… an’ a cloud.”

 


 

Pike dreams, and in the dream she’s healed and standing on her own two feet.  She’s able to see, she’s standing at the edge of a cliff at sunset.  Her hair is loose and flows around her shoulders in the evening breeze.  The air smells sweet and the ground is soft beneath her bare feet.  She’s wearing a dress, floaty and soft blue.  There’s a bracelet of sparkling beads around her wrist, and her holy symbol hangs around her neck.  She is calm.

The sky above her is purple and orange, lavender and blue, mauve and navy, colors swirled together as the night comes on.  There are voices from behind her, little sounds of happiness, of laughter and shrieks, like children playing.

She looks down at her skin and marvels at how smooth and beautiful it looks, unmarred by scars.  Nothing hurts.  Breathing is easy.  She wonders if she’s ever been this way before, though some part of her knows she has, she just can’t remember it.  She feels full, satisfied, content.

Someone walks up from behind her. “What are you waiting for?”

Pike turns to see Vax, standing tall above her, a true emissary of the night in dark black winged armor. “I was waiting for the moon,” she says, and her voice is light and sweet and she misses it.

“I understand,” Vax says. “The world looks different then, doesn’t it?”

Pike nods.

“You know, Pickle, we don’t have a problem with you going, but we need you to come back,” Vax says, sitting down on the grass next to her.

“I’ll come back.”

He gives her a disbelieving look.

“I will!  I have to come back.”

“But what if the moon shows you something wonderful, and you want to stay?”

“What’s more wonderful than what I have right here?”

“The world by moonlight is sacred and secret,” Vax answers. “Who am I to say what you might find?”

“I’ll come back.”

“What if Sarenrae keeps you?”

“I’ll tell her I’m needed here.”

“What if the darkness eats you?”

Pike reaches up for her holy symbol, and it glows a bit. “There is no place I can be that will stay forever dark.”

Vax doesn’t say anything more, but he pulls her to him and kisses her on the forehead. “We love you, Pickle.  We can’t keep you here.”

“I know,” Pike murmurs.

“Go,” he says softly, his lips close to her ear. “Be free.”

And the moon suddenly shines brightly and she steps away from him off the cliff and for a moment her real-self panics though her dream-self seems to know what’s going to happen because she doesn’t fall, she soars away from the edge, wings white and golden holding her high in the sky.  The moonlight seems to caress her skin as she goes higher and higher, trees and plants and the ground below becoming blurs steeped in that same magical light.

She wants to turn around, wants to reassure Vax she’ll come back for him, for all of them, but she finds that when she turns she’s looking out over the vast ocean, and Vax is gone.  Below her the ocean’s waves ripple, white-tipped by the glowing moon like pearls scattered on ridges of black velvet.  The air is light and salty and the in-out of the waves sounds like fragile, beautiful breathing.

Pike flies over all of this, lighter than she knows she should be, stronger than she knows she is, better than she’s felt in a long time.

She also knows none of it is real, that her real self is trapped somewhere inside a burned, scarred body in a house she doesn’t remember in a city she doesn’t remember, surrounded by one person she barely remembers and some people she doesn’t recall at all.

She likes this better.

Nothing hurts.  No one wants anything from her.  Nothing in her head is telling her to hurt herself or her friends.  She doesn’t have to feel guilty about what she can’t remember, what was taken away from her by forces outside her own abilities.  She doesn’t have to feel the deep want in her belly that comes with the desire, no, the need to be someone she doesn’t believe she ever was.  No one’s asking her to be something she isn’t, which is strange, because she’s definitely something she isn’t, at least in this dream.

She soars over the ocean as the moon dances over her skin, wondering if it’s possible to stay in a dream-world forever.

Her wings dip her towards an island as she remembers Vex’s voice: … we can put you in kind of a dream state.

Apparently it worked.

Pike’s not sure how she feels about knowing it’s all a dream.  That at some point someone will come to wake her up and she’ll be shoved back into a body twisted and broken by someone else’s hands, blinded by the weight of an evil god, her thoughts slowed and her words taken.

Maybe I’ll just stay, she whispers to herself.

She flies on, pushing her promise to Vax to the back of her mind. Maybe I’ll just stay.

There’s nothing back there for me anyway.

 


 

Vex leaves the room while Allura does the stasis ritual, leaving Trinket and JB to oversee the proceedings.  She isn’t sure where she needs to go, only that she can’t stay in that room anymore.  Something about Pike’s broken arm has shattered something within her.

She walks without having a particular destination, passing shops and taverns on the main streets before coming to the Sun Tree.  With night falling and the rain still sprinkling down, there aren’t many people about.  Vex sits at the foot of the tree and leans back against the weathered trunk.  She touches it gently. “Sorry I can’t be Keyleth, Sun Tree.  But I’m sure she misses you.”

She doesn’t get a response, which is fine, because she’s pretty sure Keyleth’s the only one with a special relationship with the Sun Tree.  She just wants to be away from all of the noise in her head and the implications of what Allura’s doing back at the house.

Vex sighs and fiddles with the end of her braid.  She can’t remember a time like this, when she and the rest of Vox Machina were literally stumped by the problems facing them.  Sure, the plans they had were usually terrible, and usually ended up scrapped in favor of just half-assing something in the heat of the moment, but… they’d fought dragons.  And devils.  And liches.  And necromancers.  And…

“Vex?”

Vex looks up to see Zahra making her way towards her. “Hello,” she says, only a bit lamely.

“What are you doing sitting out here like this?”

“I just needed… a moment,” Vex says.

Zahra nods. “Can I interest you in a drink or two?”

“I don’t know if I should,” Vex answers.

“Are you here alone?”

Vex shakes her head. “No.  Pike is here.”

“She is?  How is she?”

Again Vex shakes her head, and she feels the weight of everything of the past few days hit her solidly on the shoulders.  She clenches her hands into fists and tries to keep from breaking down.  She suddenly misses Percy, his solid warmth and his unfailing honesty.  He’d know what to do, even if he didn’t.  He’d make her feel better about all of this, and tell her it wasn’t her fault that they couldn’t help Pike.

Zahra sits down next to Vex and puts an arm around her shoulder. “I think your silence is telling me more than any words could hope to.”

Vex nods and feels tears in her eyes.

“Can I help with anything?”

Vex whispers, “No,” and leans into Zahra.

“Whatever’s happening, I’m sure it’s not because you’re not trying,” Zahra says, stroking Vex’s hair. “You’re all working so hard to make things better for her, even if it doesn’t seem like it right now.”

“It’s not better,” Vex murmurs.

“No, not right now,” Zahra agrees. “But it’ll be better.”

She presses a kiss to the top of Vex’s head. “I’ve been trying to do some research.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of answers.  Perhaps when all of this is said and done, you can write a book about Pike’s experiences, in case there are others who rescue a Gods’ Touched.”

Vex half-snorts at that. “Nobody else would be as stupid as we were.”

“It’s not stupid to love someone.”

“No, but it’s stupid to go and do something that’s never been done at the risk of that beloved someone’s life.”

“Here’s the thing,” Zahra says. “If you hadn’t gotten her out of there, she would have been dead within in the next two to three years anyway.  Again, there’s not a lot of research, but all of it says Gods’ Touched don’t live more than ten years once they’ve been fully given to a god.  Pike was gone for seven.  She was living on borrowed time.”

“So we brought her back here so she could suffer among strangers,” Vex says sarcastically. “We’ve made her sick, we put her through a ritual that, by all regards, should have killed her.  We’ve caused her so much stress that she’s hurting herself to the point of breaking her own bones.  And she’s still speaking prophecies for the god they opened her up for.”

“Six of one, half a dozen of another,” Zahra says. “Except in this timeline, here with you, she might have a chance.  Those women were always going to kill her - whether through the procedures they needed to do to keep her a vessel for their god or through their mistreatment of her, it was always going to end in her death.  But you - despite everything that’s happened so far - you might be able to turn this around.  And that would be worth documenting.”

Vex rolls her eyes. “Then I suppose it’s good that Tary will be visiting sooner or later.  He’s our master chronicler.”

Zahra squeezes Vex to her. “I’d like to say I know how difficult this is for you, but the truth is, I don’t.  No one knows.  We don’t even know how difficult this is for Pike.  What I do know is this: she is damn lucky to have you.”

“We just… we thought it would be easy,” Vex gets out, her voice breaking. “We thought she’d be the same once we got her out of there.”

“I know.  And for your sake, I wish it could have been that easy.  But it wasn’t.”

“No,” Vex says, rubbing her arm at the spot where Pike’s was shattered just an hour or so before. “No, it wasn’t.  It kind of makes me lose any faith I had in any god.  If Sarenrae couldn’t save her…”

“We don’t know who was there or who wasn’t,” Zahra says. “But we know who’s here now.”

Vex thinks of Pike, asleep on the bed, about to be swallowed up by Allura’s stasis ritual, to be put into a dream-state, waiting for answers that might not be coming.  She closes her eyes, hearing Pike hurt Vex? in the darkness behind her eyelids.

“Come on.  Let’s have a drink,” Zahra says. “Maybe two, if that’s what it takes to blur off the sadness.”

Vex can’t think of a reason to say no.

 


 

Once they’re all inside the little shack, Vax surveys the stairs in the floor.  He can’t find any traps on them, and apart from the fact that they’re a flight of stairs leading down below what they know is a frozen lake, there’s not an odd thing about them at all.

“Let’s go,” Grog says, having recovered from nearly drowning, and he heads for the stairs.

“Wait,” Vax says.

“What?  Y’ just said they weren’t trapped,” Grog says.

“They’re not,” Vax answers. “I just… do we really need to do this?”

Everyone turns to him.

“There’s someone down there who knows something,” Kima says.

“We don’t know what’s down there,” Vax points out. “We don’t know if there will be anything useful to us down there.  We might be wasting valuable time here.”

“Do you think we got enough information back in the fortress?” Percy asks him.

“No.”

“Do you want to go back there?”

“No, because there’s nothing that’s going to help us.  They weren’t interested in ever turning Pike back into Pike - they had what they wanted.  That documentation was for them, records of what they did so they could do it again someday.  There wasn’t anything I saw that would help us ‘reverse’ any of it.”

“You want to go to Whitestone,” Keyleth says.

“I just want to not be here,” Vax says, opening his arms wide to indicate the shack specifically, but seeming to encompass the larger frozen world around them as well. “This seems more and more pointless.”

“We didn’t find anything out that would get Wilhand back or help us understand what happened to Gilmore,” Scanlan offers. “What if there are still answers to that somewhere here?”

Grog stops, already most of the way down the circular opening in the floor. “I get not wantin’ t’ be here anymore, ‘cause let’s be honest… this place is fuckin’ awful.  But I wanna make sure we get everythin’ we can t’ help Pike.  An’ also… y’ at least gotta be curious ‘bout stairs under a lake.”

Vax is about to argue that he’s seen enough and done enough to no longer be curious about anything, which is mostly true, but he sees the look in Grog’s eyes and stops himself.  Grog is just as frustrated about the entire situation as Vax himself is, he’s just not saying anything.  Grog knows it’s futile to be here, wants nothing more than to be back in Whitestone holding onto Pike and trying to make her feel better, but he’s clearly resigned himself to staying and trying to be as helpful as possible.  Vax suddenly feels ashamed for even suggesting they stop.  If Grog can suck it up and deal with the circumstances, so can he.

He puts a smile on his face. “You are absolutely right, Grog.  Stairs under a lake are something I definitely have not seen in awhile.  If ever.”

Vax’s words relax everyone else in the group.  Grog gives Vax a knowing smile, and continues to lead the way down the stairs.

The world below the shack floor is blue and cold.  The stairs lead into a short-ish hallway with a stone floor.  The walls are slick ice, running from the level of the floor all the way up to an overhead arched ceiling, like a frozen chapel of sorts.  At the end of the hallway is a dark opening, roughly door-shaped.  There is no noise, no sign of any living creatures, no objects - just a cold walkway.  Strangely enough, it’s not dark; light filters in from some unknown source, giving the entire assembly a watery glow.  There’s no conversation once they’re all in the hallway.  It’s as if everyone is holding their breath as they descend into the unknown.

The doorway on the far end of the icy hallway leads down another, shorter flight of stairs.  Grog, leading the group, is the first to see the new circumstances in which they find themselves.

Somehow, under a tiny shack on a frozen lake, there’s a room full of moving water, full of fish and swirling bubbles.  Grog’s mouth drops open.  It’s like looking into one of the fish tanks - no, it’s like being in one of the fish tanks - at Whitestone Castle.  Except he’s not wet.

As the others file in behind him, stepping into the greatly expanded space, he hears their murmurs of surprise.  He can’t take his eyes off the fish swimming around the underground room.  In comparison to the still, cold world they’ve left behind above, it’s almost too much movement.

Then he sees it - through the bubbles and glittering fish, there’s something larger purposefully making its way towards them.  It’s faintly glowing, but as it draws closer Grog sees it resolve into a woman with white hair and very pale skin, swimming towards one of the watery walls of the room.

She looks young, but Grog’s known several young-looking magical creatures that are thousands of years old.  There’s experience in her eyes that belies her naive appearance.  She swims up to the wall and puts her hand on it.

“What… is… that?” Kima breathes from behind him.

Grog steps forward. “Um, hello,” he says, trying to figure out the right tone of voice for a strange watery woman.  She doesn’t have a fish tail, as far as he can see, which means she’s not a mermaid.  But she looks… underwatery.  He isn’t sure what kind of voice that demands.

The woman tilts her head, keeping her hand on the glass.  Her mouth doesn’t move, but Grog hears a voice in his head.  Hello.

“We got your note.  I mean, if it was from you.”

It was.  I’m glad you got it.

“Um, d’ y’... I mean… y’ said y’ know some stuff that could help us.”

I do. She tilts her head the other way, studying him.  Her eyes are extremely intense and Grog doesn’t like it.  He forces himself to keep his eyes on her face, though.   It is an honor to finally meet you, Grog Strongjaw.  I didn’t think I ever would.

At that he takes a step back. “Y’... y’ know my name?”

It was one of many things I took from her.

“Oh,” Grog says, the sound that of someone being punched in the gut.

I am glad you are here, though, because it means she is free.

“Free but not well,” Grog says.

No.  And I am sorry for that, the woman says, actually sounding contrite.

“We’d like t’ go home t’ her,” Grog says. “So if… y’ can help us, please…”

The woman nods.  I’ll try to give you as much as I can.  I understand what it’s like to be a captive.

“So… yer not… like, a mermaid?”

She shakes her head.  No.  I am as much a prisoner as your beloved friend was.

“I’m sorry.”

So am I.  She seems sad for a moment, but then shakes her head.  It is neither here nor there.  I will help you with what I can.

“Thank you.”

One of the first things they did to her, after they’d beat her and starved her and kept her in the dark, was to bring her here to me.  She was out of her mind in pain and fear, which makes my job easier.  Not emotionally, you understand.  Just procedurally.  I take these victims, these kidnapped, and I take their memories from them, I twist them, and I put them back in.  Then I drown them.

“The… memories?”

No.  The person.  It’s what makes the changes stick.  Then I do it again, except I take out a memory each time I do it, until I’ve removed everything.  It’s a bit like washing clothing in a river.  Eventually they’re blank, and they’re ready for whatever those horrid women do next.  She sighs, but underwater, it just looks like a stream of bubbles emanating from her mouth.   My secret is that I keep everything I take.

“You have Pike’s memories?”

Grog jumps at the sound of Percy’s voice from behind him.  He wasn’t sure if the others could hear the underwater woman.

Yes.  I have all of them.

“Can we take them with us?”

I have never had to do that before, the woman answers.  I keep them because I am selfish, because I do not want those women to have any more of their victims than they can.

“How do you store them?” Percy steps forward until he’s next to Grog.

I keep them like bubbles, here with me.

“We could… we could use a jar, or a tube… something to filter them out.” Percy already sounds like he’s making plans. “Can you put the bubbles into some water?  She could drink them.”

The woman looks thoughtful. You are very clever.  Pike liked that about you.

“We could whip the air into some butter,” Scanlan says.

The woman frowns at him; Percy and Grog just turn to look in his direction.

“Just so I’m not accused of being clever,” Scanlan says, and shrugs.

I can try to give the bubbles to you in water, the woman says, obviously done with Scanlan, but if you lose even a single one of them, that will be a memory she cannot get back from me.  You would have to give it to her, teach it to her until she remembers.

“We’ll do our best,” Percy tells her.

“What else can you tell us?” Vax asks. “You said you were the one who took her wings.”

At this the woman looks sad again. Yes, and I felt terribly about doing it.

“Her wings,” Keyleth says slowly. “The scars on her back.”

The woman nods. It has been a long time since those women found a subject already blessed by a god.  Sarenrae’s power over Pike… it was incredible.  And when I found that gift Sarenrae gave her… those wings…

She bows her head, and the voice in their heads is one of utter anguish.   I didn’t want to take them!  Please, please forgive me.  I know what they do is horrible and wrong, but they are my captors too.

“It’s okay,” Keyleth says. “It’s… we understand.”

Sarenrae must be so powerful, must love Pike so much, the woman goes on, because every time I tried to take those wings they came back.  The women here were furious.  They punished her for it.  They punished me for it.  It was as though Sarenrae could not handle losing Pike.

“No,” Keyleth whispers. “She can’t.”

At last all that was left were those scars, because the women lost faith in me and they cut them out of her, the watery woman says, her voice choked.   But even then, they wouldn’t stop.

“How can we help Pike?” Vax asks gently.

The woman looks absolutely heartbroken.  I don’t know.  I just… they took everything from her, and for some reason she’s the only one who I actually pitied.  Who I actually liked.

“You said you can give us the memories,” Percy prods.

Yes.  I can.  Have her drink them, and then… She thinks. … and then you’ll have to drown her.  It’s the only way.  It’s how the ritual works when I take them…

“Will she get her voice back?” Keyleth asks.

Her speech wasn’t taken by me.  That was done through torture.

“An’ her eyes?” Grog leans in.

Again, I didn’t do that.  I only have her memories.  Everything else they took from her.  She should regain her voice, her strength, with time.  As for her sight… She shakes her head. That may be gone forever.

She looks over at Percy.  Do you have a jar?

Percy looks at Grog, who sighs and starts rummaging through the bag of holding.  He pulls out a small potion bottle and holds it up to the woman.

She shakes her head.  No.  Bigger.  It’s a lifetime’s worth.

Grog goes rummaging again and comes out with something reminiscent of a pickle jar, with a sturdy lid.

This time the woman nods.  That should do.

Grog unscrews the lid and holds it up to the water wall.  The woman frowns and then pushes her hand out towards him.  A pale, fish-belly-colored hand and arm splash through the wall and little dribbles of water, like small pearly bubbles, drop into the jar.

They watch as the jar fills up.  There’s nothing particularly reverent about the moment, just water filling a container as so many have been filled before, but there’s something about the contents of the jar that causes a silence in the room.

At last the bubbles stop flowing.  Grog holds the jar steady as he puts the lid back on it. “Thank you,” he says, surprised by how gruff his voice is. “This… this is everythin’.”

“What about you?” Keyleth asks.

The woman pulls her hand back through the wall with a short suck and looks at them all.   What about me?  I stay here.

“The cultists are gone,” Scanlan tells her. “You could, y’know, come to dry land.”

She laughs, which just seems like more bubbles.  I have not been there for quite some time, sir bard.  I do not think the land creatures would accept me.

“Are you sure?” Keyleth asks. “We could… we could try to help you.”

I need to stay here with what I’ve done, the woman answers.

“Nothing could be worth this punishment,” Vax says.

She shrugs.  Knowing those women are gone is reward enough for me.  That, and knowing that your friend will have her memories.  Go, take them to her.

“Will you at least tell us your name?” Keyleth asks.

The woman nods.  For what it’s worth, I was once called Ondine.

 


 

When they come through the tree in Whitestone it’s early morning.  Percy stops the first guard he sees. “Is Lady Vex’ahlia here?”

“Yes, sir.  I last saw her and Lady Zahra heading back towards her home.”

“When was that?”

“Not more than two hours ago, sir.”

“Thank you.” Percy turns to Grog. “Go.  Give those back to her.”

“Um, but that lady said we’re gonna haveta drown her.”

“That’s why Vax and I are going to get a horse trough from the stables.”

“I bet you can have someone do that for you, Percy,” Scanlan points out.

“Also, Vex’s house has a bathtub,” Keyleth adds.

Percy frowns.

“This is weird fer all’a us,” Grog says. “But we should all be there t’gether t’ do this.”

“You’re right,” Percy says softly.

In the slow sunrise they walk up the road to Vex’s house.  Percy knocks as a formality, but isn’t surprised when no one comes to the door.  Allura appears in the hallway immediately after they enter, as though she was just coming to open it. “Oh!  You’re back.”

“With good news,” Keyleth says. “Where’s Pike?”

“Upstairs.  I just sent everyone else to sleep,” Allura says.

“Can we wake them up?” Percy asks. “We have… really good news.”

Grog holds out the jar. “This is her memories.”

Allura seems confused, but takes the statement at face value. “You can wake up Vex and JB and Zahra,” she says, “but Pike’s in a form of stasis.”

“A what?” Vax asks.

“She broke her own arm,” Allura says, “so it was decided that she should be put into a safe state.”

“She what?” Grog growls.

“It’s a long story,” Allura says. “I can try to bring her out of it, but it’ll take a little while.  And sometimes… sometimes people in stasis try to fight coming back.”

“She’ll wanna come back,” Grog says firmly.

 


 

Pike hears Vax’s voice, distantly. “You promised you’d come back to us,” he calls.

She did.  And she feels bad about lying to him.

But she’s beautiful, and she’s free.

There’s nothing about being empty and sightless and broken and scarred that she wants.

“Not even us?”

Vax’s voice makes a convincing argument, and for a moment Pike stops her flight.

“You promised.”

“And you promised you’d never stop looking for me,” Pike says.  She doesn’t know how she knows that, but she does.

After that, there is silence.

She flies on, a moonbeam under ink-black skies.

Chapter Text

Allura looks down at Pike. “Pike,” she says firmly, “it’s time to wake up.”

Blue and purple swirls of energy surround her hands as she leans down, pushing the magical force down into Pike’s chest. “I call you back, Pike.  It’s time to wake up.”

There’s no response.  Pike’s breathing doesn’t change.  She doesn’t move.

Grog, clutching the precious jar of memories, leans in, watching as Allura moves her hands over Pike’s body.  He’s barely breathing, his eyes on Pike’s face.

“Pike, I call you back.  Open your eyes.”

Pike’s hand twitches.

“That’s right.  Come back to me.”

The hand stops moving.

Allura presses the pulses in.  The energy swirls around Pike’s body in a larger tempest of blue and purple, enveloping her in a throbbing cocoon.

“Pike,” Grog whispers. “I know you’re in there, buddy.”

 


 

Adrift over the ocean as the sun rises, Pike feels worshipped by the oncoming day.  The light bathes her skin and she feels whole.  And maybe holy.

She can hear whispers in the back of her head.  It’s bothersome.  She wants the noise to stop.  She knows it’s some do-gooder trying to force her back into that body full of pain and sadness.  She wants them to stop.

She wants them to let her go.

PikeIcallyoubackcomebacktome.

Whooosh is all she hears.  It’s all she lets herself hear.

Barefoot and free, wearing the sun like golden robes, she flies on.

 


 

Allura turns to look at Grog.  He looks as sad as she’s ever seen him, the jar tightly gripped in his hands. “Where is she?”

“She’s right here,” Allura answers, curious about what he meant.

He shakes his head. “No.  I mean, is she just in her head?  Is she somewhere special?”

“It’s impossible to say,” Allura says. “Why?  Do you know where she is?”

“No.”

“Do you want to talk to her?”

Grog frowns. “Why?”

“If she knew it wasn’t just me asking her to wake up, she might listen.”

“We’ll all do it,” Vax says from behind Grog. “You start, big man.”

Grog hands the jar of memories to Percy, which seems strange to the other members of Vox Machina gathered around the bed.  Then he kneels down and looks seriously at Pike. “Y’ might not remember this, ‘cause y’ were pretty sick at the time, but when y’ were a l’il bit, ya stopped breathin’.  And I watched Wilhand do this.  Um, an’ I’m sorry if it hurts, but… I need ya back.”

Without another word, Grog makes a fist, stands up, and slams his hand down like a hammer, directly into Pike’s chest.

 


 

It’s as though a giant hand swats her out of the sky.  Her wings disappear and Pike falls, falls, falls, crashing into the ocean, plummeting below the waves, gasping for breath, dark tendrils of nothingness grabbing her and pulling her downwards.

She jerks back into her body with a gasp and opens her eyes.  Darkness.  She can hardly breathe; pain pushes down on her sternum.  She chokes out something that sounds like a word and hears other people in the room react.

“Pike?” It’s the Allura-voice.

“Hurt,” Pike wheezes.

There’s a dropper at her mouth and energy pulsed into her body and the pain eases.

“Oh, buddy, I’m so sorry.” It’s Grog, at her side, and he starts weeping.

“Hurt,” Pike repeats.

“I know.  I’m so sorry.  I didn’t wanna do it, but…”

“Grog, you could have killed her,” Vax says.

“I know,” Grog sobs.

“Pike,” Vex says, from Pike’s other side, “everyone came back from the… from that other place.  They have something for you.”

“We have your memories,” Percy says softly, and someone touches her arm.

“Pike?”

“They’re contained in bubbles, in water, and we have them here so you can drink them.”

It doesn’t make any sense, and she knows she doesn’t have the words to ask how or why or from who? so she doesn’t.

“But there’s another part to it,” Vax says. “After you drink it, we… have to drown you.”

Pike’s immediately jerked back to that hand swatting her out of the sky, to writhing under an endless black ocean, and she hurriedly sits up.  Pain seizes her and her mind goes to static for a moment before two hands grab her and lower her back to the bed.

“Easy,” Keyleth says, and more energy flows into her body.

“No,” Pike says, woozy and limp.

“She might need some time to rest,” Allura says.

“She was just sleepin’!” Grog points out.

“It’s not sleep as we usually think of sleep,” Allura tells him.

Grog doesn’t say anything else, and Pike’s pretty sure that’s because he’s confused.

“Please, Pike,” Percy says. “Let us try this.”

“We’ll be right beside you the entire time,” Vex adds.

Pike really, really doesn’t want to.  But part of her is a little bit curious.  Do they really have her in that water?  Is it really that easy?

“Pike?” she asks, holding out her hands.

Someone takes her hands.  She shakes her head. “Pike?”

This time she moves her hands in space, defining what she thinks such a container of memories would look like.

“Oh,” Scanlan says. “She wants the, uh, the jar.”

After a few seconds Pike feels someone sit her upright, and a glass container is placed into her grasp.  She runs her fingers over it, stroking the lid, shaking its contents, putting her cheek up against the cool side of it.

“Pike?” she asks, tapping the lid.

“You’re in there,” Vax says. “Do you want to remember who you are?”

You’re not whoever’s in there, a sly little voice whispers in her head. You’re something else now, someone else now, and they’ll never find you.

She shakes her head.

“You don’t?” Keyleth sounds confused, and Pike can’t blame her.

“Pike,” she says, waving one hand as though to erase her previous head-shake, and tries to get the lid off the container.

“Oh, okay, easy,” Vex says. “We need to get things set up first, all right?”

“Pike.”

“Give us a few minutes, Pickle,” Vax says, and someone kisses the top of her head.

She clutches the jar to her.  It doesn’t feel like anything special, but she can’t help but wonder if the little voice in her head is wrong.  Am I in there?

Pike tries to scoot herself to the edge of the bed.  A hand comes down on her shoulder. “Just wait,” Scanlan says.

She wants him to understand that she needs to get up.  She suddenly feels like she’s been asleep for years.  Her body is screaming for exertion.  She tries to hand him the jar.

Someone takes it from her. “Stay here, Pike,” Keyleth says.

Pike shakes her head and keeps going.  She finds the edge of the bed with her hands and pushes herself off it, onto the floor, into a heap.

“Pikey,” Grog says from somewhere above her. “Please, just… wait.”

Pike turns herself back towards the bed and grips the top of it, pulling herself to a standing position.  Using the bed as a support, she walks the length of it.  Her legs burn and her body throbs, but she makes it to the end of the bed, finding the footboard with her fingers.  There’s some sort of ostentatious carving - she thinks it’s a bear - on the bedpost, and that makes her smile.

Then she lets go of the bedpost and takes her first wobbling step out into the unknown.

“Pike, just, please wait,” Keyleth says from behind her.

Pike finds her voice. “No.”

“Let ‘er go,” Grog says softly.

“She could hurt herself!” Keyleth protests.

“Think she’s already done that,” Scanlan opines. “How much worse could this get?”

Another step.  Another.  Everything is throbbing now, and she feels shaky and rickety, like she’s going to tumble into a pile of bones if she keeps going.  For some reason it’s almost exhilarating.  The thrill of moving on her own power - upright! - makes her nearly drunk with joy.

With her hands out in front of her she discovers the door and the doorframe, and she reaches up to try to open the door.  A larger hand covers hers, and for a moment she thinks whoever it is will try to stop her, but she touches the hand and discovers it’s Grog’s.

“Keep goin’,” Grog says, tears in his voice, and the door swings open.

The sudden movement of the door nearly dumps her onto her face, but she stands still for a moment and wobbles a bit to stay up before she continues on.  Another step.  Another.  One more.

Pain flares through her and she cries out.  Two large hands wrap around her waist, steadying her. “You got it, monstah,” Grog says.

Held upright by Grog, Pike manages to take two more steps forward before the pain floods her in a wave and she crumples.  She doesn’t hit the floor, though; Grog’s supporting grasp sweeps her off the floor.  She finds herself lifted against his chest, and she puts her head on his shoulder.

“That was amazin’,” Grog says softly.

“Tired,” she breathes into him.

He freezes and for a moment she thinks she’s done something wrong.

“‘Og?”

“It’s just… y’ said…”

“Tired,” Pike repeats. “‘Og, ocean?”

She feels his head turn. “Vex?” he hollers.

“Yeah?”

“Did she learn to talk while we was gone?”

“She got a few things,” Vex answers, coming closer. “Why?  What’d she say?”

“Tired,” Pike says once more.  She’s feeling something more than tired now, though; it’s a swirling nebulous pulsing in her head.  She’s dizzy and floppy and her thoughts are getting slow and drippy. “‘Og…?”

“We’re ready,” Vex says.

Grog carries her forward, and Pike hears water running.  She knows she should be at least mildly concerned about what’s coming next, but she can’t summon that feeling.  Her body is too heavy for her to hold up or even focus on.

“This is going to be interesting,” Percy says as Grog stops moving.

“Pickle, do you understand what’s going to happen?” Vax asks, and a hand touches her cheek.

Pike tries to say something but her lips are like rubber.

“We’re going to put you in the tub and hold you down,” Vax says.

“That sounds so terrible,” Keyleth frets.

“You’re going to drown,” Vax goes on.  He’s matter-of-fact and Pike likes that. “It might be painful.  It might be… unsettling.  But we will bring you back.”

Pike nods, or she tries to.

“We’ll be right here, buddy,” Grog says, and then he’s lowering her rubbery floppy body into the water.

“Let me know when you’re ready, darling,” Vex says, and fingers lace through Pike’s.

“When you come back, you’ll know who you were,” Scanlan says.

“Pike,” she manages to whisper.

Someone puts a jar into Pike’s hands and guides it to her lips.  She drinks.  The water is sweet and cold and clear and seems to flow into her body without much work.  She drinks as though she’s been in a desert for years and years, as though she’s nothing but a dried husk, and it fills her from head to toe.

Then the water stops.  The jar is empty.  Pike lowers it from her mouth and someone takes it from her hands. “Pike?” she asks the room around her.

There isn’t an answer, but big hands grab her by the shoulders and hold her down, shoving her head below the water.

 


 

Pike fights back.  Vex isn’t sure what she expected, but this seems the most normal, Pike-like thing Pike has done since being rescued.

“Don’t hurt her!” Keyleth cries as Grog keeps his hands on Pike’s body.

Pike thrashes in the tub, hands swinging out to try to hit Grog.  Bursts of golden power explode from her hands and ricochet around the room.  Beneath the water Vex can see Pike’s mouth open.  Above the water she sees Grog’s eyes filling with tears.

“What if that woman lied to us, Stubby?” Vax whispers in Vex’s ear.

“Then the plan is still the same,” Vex says firmly, although she wishes she had half the conviction her voice conveys.

It takes more than four minutes for Pike to stop thrashing in the tub.  At last she goes limp and Grog lets her go.  He crumples back against the wall.

Keyleth swoops in and scoops Pike’s drowned body out of the water, laying her on the floor. “Okay, Pike,” she murmurs.

Vax joins his hand in hers and they both begin to construct their various resurrection spells.  The process flows like second nature and within moments their combined energies are channeled down into the tiny body on the floor.

There’s a pulse of gold-green-purple-black magic that seems to burst out from Keyleth and Vax and shove its way into Pike’s body, and then for a few terrifying seconds there’s absolute silence in the bathroom.

Then there’s a gasp, a choke, and an extremely inelegant vomiting of water as Pike pushes herself upright, back from the edge once more.

 


 

When she jerks back to life her head is full - full of her friends, of her grandfather Wilhand, of growing up in Westruun, of defeating monsters, of black hair and white hair and her first death, of friends gained and lost, ale drunk over scummy tables, songs sung, lives changed, seas sailed, and -

“Pike!” she screams at them happily.  Then she chokes and vomits water again.  Feeling sick and wiped out, she puts her head back on the floor.

“Okay, okay,” Vax says, and a hand comes down on her shoulder, pushing healing energy into her.  It relieves the sick feeling but doesn’t alleviate the utter joy.

“Pike, do you remember us?” Keyleth asks softly.

“Key… leth,” Pike answers, nodding, her eyes full of tears. “Key… leth.”

“Oh,” Vax says, next to her, and his arms are around her in an instant, squeezing her so tightly she thinks she’ll vomit up more water. “Oh, Pike.  Welcome back.”

“Vax,” she says, awkwardly patting his neck.

They pass her around like a good luck charm, everyone crying and laughing and touching her face and kissing her.  She laughs and touches whatever she can - faces, ears, shoulders - trying to reconnect with them.  She feels like she was gone forever.

“Pike,” she says at last, when she’s settled, it feels like, into a giant puddle of them, all damp and sweaty and happy. “Pike… is… home.”

 


 

They take her to Zephra, Pike and all of her memories.  Vax carries her through the Sun Tree with Keyleth close behind him, and as Pike feels the wind on her face she looks up. “Pike… here?”

“Yes, you’re here.  We’re here with you,” Vax says quietly.

Pike shakes her head. “Pike… was … here?”

Her speech has gotten somewhat better in the last week or so, as though her words were reborn after the drowning like the majority of her personality.  She’s still slow to speak, hesitant sentences creeping their way out of her mouth word-by-word, and everything she says is small and questioning.  She still manages to make herself understood, though, and only stops trying when she’s exhausted or unhappy.

In the week since her rebirth-by-drowning Pike’s entire condition has much improved.  The feral fits dropped off considerably, with only one happening since she regained her memories.  She keeps more food down, sleeps more comfortably, and seems to be getting stronger physically.  There are still nightmares, though, and meals she vomits up, and terrifying moments each day where she seems beyond reach.

Now Vax strokes her head. “Yes, you’ve been here before.”

“And you’re going to stay until you’re better,” Keyleth adds. “Until you can walk, maybe even run.”

She looks at Vax.  The rest of their little family has gone off to find Gilmore.  Neither of them wanted to stay behind, but in the end it was agreed that it was less likely for Gilmore to show up in Zephra, even possessed Gilmore, and Keyleth and Vax would be the ones best suited for a long haul with the Air Ashari.

“Fly,” Pike says decisively, and she lays her head on Vax’s shoulder, as though the six-second trip through the Sun Tree has exhausted her.

She’s sleeping by the time they walk into the village, so they go directly to their house, a somewhat larger dwelling farther up on a hill near the edge of the settlement.  Kohren and Gloriana are waiting in the entry hall when they arrive.

“It’s so good to see you,” Kohren says, and he kisses Keyleth’s cheek and shakes Vax’s hand.

“This is her,” Gloriana says, a statement rather than a question, and she strokes Pike’s cheek gently.

“This is her,” Keyleth agrees softly.

“What good you’ve done for her,” Gloriana says.  She puts one hand to the back of Pike’s neck, a suddenly delicate place left exposed by the gnome’s head position and the thick white braid coiled around Pike’s head, pulling her hair up. “She is so calm.”

“We were able to get her memories,” Vax says, “and restore them to her.  You’d be surprised how much it helped.”

Gloriana smiles at him. “I am old.  Not much surprises me any longer.  But she does… this one wants to live.”

Keyleth finds tears rushing to her eyes and turns her head, unable to speak.

“We brought you some things for dinner,” Kohren says. “I hope I’ll see you in the morning, Keyleth.  If not, and you prefer to sleep in, I completely understand.  I spoke to our healers to make sure that at least one of them would speak to you about helping Pike regain her strength.”

“Thank you,” Vax says, and Keyleth nods.

Gloriana bows her head. “I will be available as well.  Please do not hesitate to call upon me if I can help you in some way.”

She touches Pike once more, as though reassuring herself Pike is real, then exits with Kohren.

“I think Gloriana knew someone who was a Gods’ Touched,” Vax says as Keyleth shuts the door behind their visitors.

“Yeah?”

“Just in the way she speaks, the way she touched Pike,” Vax says. “Maybe it’s good for her to see Pike.”

Pike shifts against Vax’s shoulder and mumbles something into his neck.

“Say it again, Pickle,” Vax tells her.

“Wanna… sleep.”

“Okay.  We’re in a new house now, but you’re safe here with me and Keyleth.  If you wake up in the middle of the night don’t be upset - just call out for one of us and we’ll come get you.”

“Sleep… together?”

Vax grins. “Or we could do that.”

He’s ready to ask Pike another question, but the soft snore he hears next clues him in that she might be beyond answering.  Instead he carries her upstairs to the master bedroom and lays her in the center of the bed. “Is this all right with you?”

Keyleth’s already taking off her headdress. “If it’s what she needs…”

“Yeah, but what do you need?”

“I need to know we’re doing the most we can to bring her back to us,” Keyleth says, her voice soft. “And if I’d been through half of what she’d been through, I wouldn’t want to sleep alone either.”

They lay down in the deepening evening, Pike between them, and Vax knows immediately this was the right choice.  Pike curls into Keyleth, little hands clutching Keyleth’s night-shift, and instantly becomes a warm and comforting weight in the middle of the bed.

 


 

All of the days in the following weeks are like a balm over Pike’s wounds.  She sleeps as much as she wants.  When she wakes, people feed her a variety of delicious things.  She eats what she can and no one tries to force more upon her.  She drinks cold, clear spring water, she lets the juice of different fruits run down her chin, she laughs a lot.  She swims in a warm spring, holding tightly to either Vax or Keyleth, and lays in the sun on a big warm rock.  At night she sleeps solidly between Keyleth and Vax, clinging to one or both of them.

Ashari healers work on her open wounds and her burns, aided by Keyleth.  Together they manage to keep the wounds from the scalpel ritual closed and clean, and one of the more adventurous healers tries a new treatment on some of Pike’s burns and scars, which seem to look smoother and less horrifying day by day.  The only ones that refuse to close are the two long lines down her back, which can go from normal-looking white scars to open draining wounds within the confines of a day or so, without provocation or much reason.

At some point during the day Vax takes Pike out to the training grounds, where he once taught her to be stealthier.  Now he’s training her to walk again.  He sets her up against a balance beam that hits about waist-height for her, and takes one of her hands, leading her down the length of the beam.  At first she can only manage a few steps before she starts crying in pain.  One morning when he tries to pick her up she hauls off and hits him. “No!  Pike… does it!” she screams.

“I want you to do it,” Vax gasps out, reeling from where she punched him in the shoulder. “Gods, Pike, how are you still so fucking strong?”

Pike grits her teeth and yanks herself back upright, gripping the balance beam tightly.  She’s surprisingly strong, as Vax has come to realize, and extremely determined, almost the point of hurting herself from exertion, which is usually when he has to stop her and carry her back to the village.

As she gets back to her feet a strange look comes over her face, one Vax has seen only a few other times, and her body goes limp as she starts to retch.

“Shit,” Vax mutters, and he catches her before she can hit the ground. “It’s okay, Pickle - talk to me.”

He’s waiting for a prophecy, but instead she just vomits and whimpers, “Vax?”

“I’m here,” he tells her.

“In… head,” she gasps out.

“Would it help to speak it?”

Pike shakes her head and moans.  She chokes and vomits again.  Vax holds her up.  After she sags back against him, she seems to relax.  He strokes her forehead. “It’s all right, Pickle,” he murmurs. “You’re too good for this.”

“Sorry,” she whispers.

“No need to apologize,” Vax tells her. “What do you think?  You done enough work for today?”

Pike nods, and Vax scoops her up.  Back in the village he cleans off her face and changes her out of her “work clothes” before laying her on the bed. “Do you want a nap?”

“Yeah,” Pike says drowsily.

“I’m going to go talk to Keyleth.  We’ll be right downstairs.  Is that all right?”

“Yeah.”

“You’ll call out for us if you need anything?”

“Yeah.” Pike fumbles around on the bed for a moment.  Vax tilts his head, trying to figure out what she’s looking for.  Then, on a whim, he picks up one of his clean shirts from the bureau and puts it on top of her hand.  With a grateful sigh, she wraps her hands in it and curls in on herself.

Interesting, Vax thinks as he goes downstairs to greet Keyleth.

She’s taking off her headdress when he finds her. “What happened?”

“Something new with Pike.  Just when I thought we’d seen it all,” Vax tells her.

He brings her a cup of water and stands behind her, rubbing her shoulders, as he explains what happened at the training ground.

“A prophecy that wasn’t a prophecy?” Keyleth frowns. “Did she tell you what was in her head?”

“No.  Not while it was happening.  And when it was over she was too out of it to talk much.  We just came back here and I got her out of her gross clothes and she’s napping.”

“Maybe we can ask her later.”

“Do you think the prophecies are going to help us any further?”

Keyleth shrugs. “Anything’s possible.  If they haven’t let her go, there must be a reason.”

“I wish I was as hopeful as you, Kiki,” Vax murmurs, and kisses her.

But Pike doesn’t wake that night, not even when they come to get her up for dinner.  Her face flushed, her hand still tightly clenched around Vax’s shirt, she sleeps so deeply that their voices and their touch do not bring her to awareness.

A healer and Kohren are summoned from the village.  Neither can find anything wrong with Pike, though the healer mentions that Pike does have a fever. “Could be a common illness,” she says with a shrug. “Let her sleep.”

They lay in the dark that night, the curtains blowing in the breeze, Pike like a hot meteor between them.  They’ve started to hear little whimpers, as though Pike is caught in some sort of nightmare.  Keyleth strokes her forehead; Vax holds one of her hands.

Both of them eventually find restless sleep, Pike still whimpering and boiling between them.

 


 

Very early in the morning Keyleth wakes to three words being repeated over and over into her ear: “Keyleth.  Hurt.  Hold.  Keyleth.  Hurt.  Hold.”

She rolls to one side and without really waking up, scoops Pike into her arms and squeezes Pike to her.  The heat that bursts over her skin awakens her immediately and she jerks backwards.

Pike moans as Keyleth pulls back from her.

“Vax,” Keyleth says, shaking him as she tries to pull Pike back against her. “Vax, wake up.  Something’s wrong.”

Vax is up immediately and lights the lantern in the room.  Pike moans again and for the first time Keyleth can hear her teeth chattering. “Keyleth.  Hurt.  Hold,” Pike begs.

“I am, sweetie,” Keyleth promises, and shifts Pike against her, hugging her tightly.  The heat of Pike’s skin feels like palms to a candle.

“She’s got a rash,” Vax says, gently pulling at the sleeveless tunic Pike wears.  Her back is covered in a spiraling, scaly rash that coils around her scars.  As he tentatively touches her, Pike tenses and screams. “Sorry, sorry, Pickle,” he murmurs, and casts Lay on Hands as unobtrusively as possible.

“Her heart is racing, Vax,” Keyleth whispers. “It’s… it’s like a hummingbird.”

Pike retches. “Hurt.  Keyleth.  Hold,” she whimpers.

“It’s okay,” Keyleth says, and she casts a healing spell.

If it has any effect, she doesn’t see it in Pike’s attitude or body posture; within her grip Pike doesn’t seem to cool or relax at all.

“Who do you need me to get?” Vax asks softly.

“We brought a basket of potions and salves and stuff back from Whitestone,” Keyleth says. “It’s possible something in there could give her enough relief to sleep.”

She puts one hand on the back of Pike’s neck. “Vax, feel her heartbeat…”

Vax gently touches Pike’s neck and isn’t surprised to feel a throbbing pulse that seems about ready to burst out of Pike’s skin. “Gods.”

“When Ieliena came here, that’s what she threatened me… well, indirectly me... with,” Keyleth says. “Something about Pike’s heart not being able to withstand the pressure on it.  Is this…”

“We don’t know what this is,” Vax says firmly. “I’ll get the potions and we’ll go from there, okay?”

“Okay,” Keyleth says softly.

Vax gets up and leaves the room.  Keyleth druidcrafts some raindrops and gently shakes them onto Pike’s face.  Pike writhes restlessly, occasionally murmuring “Hurt” or “Hold” as the rain tries to cool her body.

When Vax returns Pike’s entire body seizes in a spasm and Keyleth cries out.  Vax drops the basket of potions and rushes to the bed.  Pike wails; Keyleth tries not to drop her.

“Pickle?” Vax leans in, trying to look into Pike’s eyes. “Pickle, stay with us, okay?”

Her pupils are huge in the light of the lantern, her expression distant and glassy.  Vax feels her heartbeat, somehow faster than before, and bows his head. Give me a sign.  Let me know how to help her.

A split second later he sees Pike’s holy symbol glow and hears a voice unlike the one he normally hears. Slow her heartbeat.  I will give you my hands.

Vax looks down and sees a soft golden light exude from his palms.  Keyleth sees it too. “What, one goddess isn’t enough for you?”

“I’m not quite… sure… what’s happening?” Vax says helplessly. “I think Sarenrae wants me to…”

He hears a gentle laugh in his ears. She does, son of the Raven Queen.  Step forward and help my champion.

“This is not the weirdest thing that’s happened to me, but…” Vax moves forward, finding a tingling sensation in his palms that seems to get stronger as he moves his hands towards Pike’s chest.

She seizes again, body arching backwards in Keyleth’s arms, but Vax carefully sets his hands on her chest.  The soft gold light perfuses the area, lighting up Pike’s body with a gentle gleaming shawl. “Let me know what her heart’s doing,” he murmurs to Keyleth.

Keyleth puts her fingers on Pike’s pulse.

Vax keeps his hands on Pike’s chest.  Heat rises from her body into his palms, and he has no way of telling if what he’s doing is helping or not. “Sarenrae,” he says out loud, “can you tell us what’s wrong with Pike?”

There’s no answer, and Vax wonders if he imagined the voice from earlier.  He spreads his fingers a bit more.  As he adjusts, he hears the it once more: There are many things fighting for control in her, son of the Raven Queen.  It seems as though once one problem abates another rises up.

“It’s not right,” Vax says.

No.  There’s only so much I am able to do.

“What if we brought her to you?” Vax asks.

Keyleth looks at him oddly.  Pike bucks against her again, a twisted groan escaping from her mouth.

“What if we brought her back to you?  To the Isle of Renewal?  Could you do anything we cannot?”

Again there’s a pause.

“Her heart rate’s slowing,” Keyleth says to Vax as he keeps his head tilted towards the ceiling.

I don’t know if she could survive bridging the planes to me, fate-touched  Sarenrae says at last. I am uncertain about the strain on her heart.  I am uncertain as to what other magics might be in her body.

Pike goes limp. “Sarenrae,” she whispers.

Well done, fate-touched, Sarenrae says to Vax. Her heart is safe for now.

“Can we bring her to you?”

There isn’t an answer.  The glow fades from Vax’s hands.  He isn’t sure how to feel.

They manage to get a healing potion into Pike, and some of the pain draft, and a good quantity of water.  Keyleth wants to feed her, but Pike’s sleep-drunk and swaying in Vax’s lap by the time she’s finished all of the liquid components.  They go back to bed just as the sun starts to peek over the horizon.

 


 

Vex creeps through the forest, tracking her prey with a keen eye, managing to stay high above the path, assured she’s unseen.  As the object of her interest proceeds down the hill and heads for the lake, she touches her earring. “He’s coming your way, guys,” she murmurs. “Get ready.”

With that she nocks an arrow and urges the broom downward.  Gold and purple robes gleam for a moment in the sun before disappearing between two trees.  She grits her teeth and ducks lower to follow.

The target reaches the bottom of the hill before she does, but it doesn’t matter - she shoots a bramble shot at Gilmore just as Trinket jumps out of the bushes, knocking the man off balance, as Grog and Percy run up, as Scanlan extends his hand and summons Bigby.  With their combined efforts acting upon their one foe, it’s mere seconds until Gilmore is held to the ground in a variety of ways.

Vex lands and stows the broom.  She stomps over to Gilmore.

He looks up at her, eyes wide. “Vex’ahlia?”

Vex is so angry that she barely processes the fact that he knows her name.  Percy stops her, though, touching her shoulder. “He knows who you are.”

“He knew who Kohren was, too, and he’d never met Kohren,” Scanlan points out.

“He didn’t know Kohren’s name,” Vex says. “Just that he was Keyleth’s father and there was something hinky with her mother.”

She looks down at the man at her feet. “If you’re actually our true friend Gilmore, tell us something only he would know.”

His gaze flicks between those gathered over his body. “I made something for Pike… that she never picked up…”

“And?  What was it?” Grog asks, pointing the tip of his axe at Gilmore.

“A suit of armor.  Quiet armor,” Gilmore answers hurriedly.

“I think it’s him,” Scanlan says.

“I don’t know where I am, I swear to you,” Gilmore says, his hands still up. “I woke up about a mile from here and I was trying to walk until I found a town or something.”

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Percy asks.

“Being in that fortress,” Gilmore answers.

They exchange looks.

“What?”

“It’s been three weeks since then,” Vex tells him.

Gilmore goes pale.

“Who knows what he did in that time,” Percy muses.

“Is there any way to find out?” Vex asks.

“If you’ll let me up, and take me back to Emon, I believe I have something in my shop that actually might,” Gilmore says.

They exchange another round of looks.

“You can tie my hands if you’d like,” Gilmore offers.

“You’re a magic user,” Grog says. “Feel like that wouldn’t do much.”

“It would make me feel better,” Percy says.

“How’d you find me?” Gilmore asks as Grog hauls him up from the ground.

“Turns out Shari is good for more than soup-in-a-bread-bowl dates,” Scanlan says. “She put some sort of Gilmore locator on you a few years ago.”

Gilmore goes red; it’s apparently the first he’s heard of that system. “I believe she and I will be having a talk about that once I see her again.”

“You can have that chat in just a few minutes,” Vex says.  She takes the gate stone out of her bag and holds it out, indicating for the others to gather around and touch it. “Think of Emon, friends.”

Chapter Text

When they tromp into Gilmore’s shop in Emon, Shari lets out a shriek that is half-relief, half-anger.  She bolts from behind the counter and throws her arms around Gilmore. “I’m so glad you’re alive!” she cries, and then in the next second slaps his face. “Don’t you ever do anything like that again!”

Gilmore laughs. “I didn’t have much to do with it the first time,” he says. “But the next time I’m possessed by a force I don’t understand, I’ll definitely tell them I need to get permission first.”

“When Vox Machina came in here telling me you’d been taken by some cult’s wacky spirit at first I had no idea what to do,” Shari says. “After they’d left I remembered that several years ago I cast a protective circle spell over you - one that meant I could find you.”

“I’m both touched and a little irritated,” Gilmore says.

“You’re the one who pays me!” Shari tells him. “I wanted to make sure that relationship would continue.”

“Very practical.”

“We’re hoping we’d be able to find out where he was for the last three weeks,” Vex says. “Any way you could help us out, Shari?”

Shari looks at Gilmore. “There’s a number of ways I can think of.”

She turns her attention to the rest of the group. “You’re sure whatever got to him isn’t in him anymore?”

“I mean… we’re relatively sure,” Percy says.

“We can check for that too,” Shari says.  She bustles back behind the counter and starts scooping up books and potion vials and baskets and carrying them to the back of the store. “Come, come, back here!  We’ll get it sorted out in no time!”

Grog looks at Scanlan. “You wanna get outa here?”

“Do you?” Scanlan asks, looking up at him.

Grog’s expression changes slightly; his brow furrows a bit. “There’s somethin’ back at Greyskull I wanna get.”

“Okay.” Scanlan sticks his fingers in his mouth and whistles.

Vex and Percy turn around. “Yes?” Vex asks.

“We’re going to take a walk,” Scanlan says.

“Okay,” Vex says.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Percy adds.

“No promises!” Scanlan says gaily, and he and Grog leave the shop. “Good idea, big guy - I bet they’re about to watch three weeks of Gilmore wander around a forest and do absolutely nothing.”

“What?” Grog asks.

“You’re a little more distracted today, huh, buddy?”

“I should’a gone t’ Zephra,” Grog says.

“You wanted to go to the windy city?”

“I just should stop leavin’ Pike,” Grog mutters.

“You don’t trust Vax and Keyleth to take care of her?”

Grog sighs and rubs his forehead. “‘S not that.”

He doesn’t say anything more as they walk towards Greyskull Keep, and Scanlan doesn’t press him.

It’s been a long time since Greyskull has been their primary base of operations, but they rebuilt it following the dragon attacks for a very specific reason: if Pike - when Pike came back, they wanted her to come home to a familiar place.  They always return once a year for the anniversary of her disappearance, and since Grog spends the most time there, he keeps things tidy and organized, just as they were before Pike was taken.

He now realizes it didn’t matter, none of it did.  They weren’t expecting her to come back with her mind wiped.  They could have told her any place once was her home, and she would have believed them.

That makes him sad.

When they reach the keep Scanlan goes into the kitchen on the pretense of seeing if there are any cookies left, but Grog knows he’s just giving him space.  Grog goes into the temple and bends down in front of the Sarenrae statue.  Not in prayer - no, that’s not him - but because he’s got a hidden compartment in the base of the statue.

He carefully undoes the latch on the panel and it swings away, revealing the metal box kept inside.  Grog pulls it out and replaces the panel.  He sits down in the middle of the temple and for a short moment looks up at Sarenrae. “Um, hi,” he says. “I hope this whole… keepin’ stuff in you… isn’t bad.  Pike prob’ly wouldn’t like it much, but… she’s different now.  An’ all this stuff is fer her anyway.  Um, so, I’m sorry she’s not who y’ had before, but we’re all comin’ t’ terms with that.”

He looks down at the box. “An’ I had t’... I had t’...”

And there Grog stops, because he can’t even utter the words I had to drown my best friend.  They won’t come out of his mouth.  He can’t let them come out, because if he does, what he did is real, and it’ll stick.

“She didn’t deserve it,” he whispers, and he closes his eyes, head bowed in front of Sarenrae, tears streaming down his face. “She trusted me, an’ I… I held her down.”

Grog isn’t sure how long he sits in front of the statue, crying, but at last he feels a touch on his shoulder.  He hurriedly looks up, wiping tears from his eyes, but sees no one there. “Scanlan?”

There’s no answer.

Grog turns his attention back to the statue, frowning. “That’s not… yer not…”

Sarenrae’s outstretched statue hands have not moved, and yet Grog knows he just experienced something beyond explanation.

“Um, thanks,” he mutters, brushing away the rest of the tears.

He opens the box and looks down at the treasures within: a beautiful shiny rock Vex called an “amethyst,” a braided flower wreath Keyleth magicked so it hasn’t withered, Tary’s book, a leaflet from the Westruun Sarenrae shrine’s hundred-year birthday.  A rock Grog found that he thinks looks like Pike’s face, at least from the side.  A belt of coins Gilmore made - they’re glittery and make beautiful little noises when they rub together.

He’s been saving them for Pike, for when she came home.  And now she’s home, and Grog suddenly realizes they’re nothing special.

He puts the lid back on the box and shoves the box in the bag of holding.

He yells out to Scanlan that they’re leaving, and without waiting for his friend heads back outside.  He’s still waiting for the part of all of this where things start to make sense again.  His skin’s itching.  He wants to go to Zephra.  Something’s happening with Pike, and he’s not going to be there again.

 


 

Pike wakes between Keyleth and Vax and smiles.  It’s very early in the morning, or maybe not so early, but it’s morning.  She can tell by their breathing that they’re both still asleep.

Very carefully, Pike moves her way to the end of the bed.  With each wiggle she checks to see if she’s gained the attention of either of her friends.  Each time she hasn’t.  She reaches the end of the bed, turns her body around, hangs onto the sheet, and lowers herself down.  The sound of her body hitting the ground doesn’t awaken them, either.

Pike grins.

She reaches out for the dresser next to the bed and uses it to pull herself to her feet.  She’s getting better at standing from the floor, but not early in the morning when she’s still floppy and tired.  Once she’s upright she makes her way down the length of the dresser.  At the end of it is supposed to be the staff Vax is teaching her to use as a cane.

Pike’s not very good at it yet.  She gets tired too quickly.  It’s also a lot of work to keep the cane scanning the ground in front of her side-to-side to detect obstacles while she’s also concentrating on keeping herself upright.  So far she’s fallen over the vast majority of rocks in the area, a crate or two, and a small child lying in the grass playing hide-and-find.  And all of the chairs in the kitchen.

Her fingers find something that feels like her cane.  She wraps her fingers around it.  Instantly she knows it’s not hers - it’s heavier, for one, and taller, and smoother than the stick Vax gave her.  Pike reaches up as far as she can, trying to figure out what it is.

A memory slams into her and she gasps.   Keyleth - tall, lithe Keyleth - a staff - tall staff - staff is a Vestige - a Vestige is power - Spire of Conflux - and -

The memory slows as Pike tilts the spire down towards her, running her fingers over the carving and the crystal embedded in the top.  Beneath her palm the entire thing thrums with power.  It’s intoxicating.

It’s also not hers.  Pike sighs and lays the spire on the floor, then reaches out for her own smaller, less powerful, staff.

It’s not there.

Pike frowns.  She feels around again.  Still no cane.

What’s the point of waking up early to go do a thing if you can’t even find the stuff you need to do the thing?  Pike groans, then claps a hand over her mouth to quiet the noise.

I could just… She reaches down and touches the spire again.  It’s a staff.  It’s cane-shaped.  It’s heavier than hers, but she could just… borrow … it.  Get back before Vax and Keyleth wake up.

Pike likes that idea.  She brushes her hands over the spire and picks it up.  She leans it against her shoulder and begins moving it side to side, side to side, just the way Vax taught her.

With the spire over her shoulder, she finds the door and opens it.  She finds the stairs and slides down them on her front, sliding the spire down next to her.  She gets back to her feet and pulls the staff up beside her.  She canes her way to the front door and opens it.

Immediately the sounds of Zephra flood her ears.  There’s the sound of water being drawn from the well, of people talking, of a cart being pulled over the ground, of children giggling, and over all of that, there’s the sound of the wind.  It sings.  It has ever since Pike came to Zephra.  She likes that.  It smells good too, fresh and clean and honest.  It never smelled like that in the fortress, back with Ieliena and her disciples.

Pike closes the front door behind her and takes a moment to consider her plan.  She maps out the route to the cliffs in her head.   Forward until I hit the rock that feels like a circle, left then until I go down a hill and can tap a tree with my right hand.  Then turn right and walk for seventy steps, sit down, reach out.

She squares her shoulders and readjusts the spire, tilts her head up to feel the sun on her face, and starts walking.

 


 

“Vax,” Keyleth says, shaking him. “Vax, Pike is gone.”

“What?” Vax mumbles.

“She’s gone.”

Vax’s eyes fly open. “Where’d she go?”

“If I knew that, why would I be here telling you she’s gone?”

Vax shakes his head.  Of course she’s right about that.  He sits up.

“And the spire’s gone,” Keyleth says.

“What?”

“It was there next to the dresser,” Keyleth says.  There’s nothing there now, but Vax can see Pike’s cane on the floor under the bureau.

“Is it possible she just thought it was her cane?”

“Why would she have thought that?” Keyleth asks. “It’s different in nearly every way.”

“Maybe she thought she could use it instead,” Vax says. “Is she in the privy?”

“I checked everywhere, Vax,” Keyleth answers. “She’s not in the house.”

“Has anyone outside seen her?”

Keyleth shakes her head.

“How long has she been gone?”

“I don’t know.” Keyleth sounds close to tears.

“Let’s go look for her,” Vax says. “I’m sure she couldn’t have gotten far.”

He throws on his armor and his boots and heads downstairs.  Outside the front door he sees a small divot in the dust, and bends down. “Kiki, does that look like the end of the spire?”

Keyleth stands next to him. “I guess so…?  I mean, I don’t really think about it that much.”

Vax stands and looks approximately a foot in front of the first divot.  There’s another one.

“What are you looking for?”

“I taught Pike how to move around with the cane,” Vax says. “I think I can track her.”

 


 

Pike finds the tree with her right hand and makes the turn.  She counts in her head, keeping the spire moving from side to side.   … forty, forty-one, forty-two…

It feels amazing to be moving on her own power.  She’s had to stop and rest a few times, but she’s always gotten back to her feet.  That in and of itself is a victory.

At fifty-six steps she’s breathing heavily and she wants to sit down, but she leans on the staff and keeps going.

… sixty-two, sixty-three, sixty-four…

Pike’s legs feel like lead, and she drags herself through the last six steps.  At her destination finally, she drops to the ground, letting the spire fall into the grass next to her.

 


 

Halfway across the courtyard to the well, Vax bends down again.

“What do you see?” Keyleth asks.

He looks up at her and realizes that for the first time in a long time, she’s out in public without her headdress.  He’s forgotten how her hair gets curly, in wisps, around her face. “It’s a gnome butt print.”

That clearly wasn’t the answer she was expecting. “What?”

“She sat down.”

“Then where is she?”

Vax points about a foot ahead of them. “She got back up and kept going.”

 


 

Pike scoots forward, reaching out with her hand the same way she did to find the end of the bed.  Once her fingers find empty space, she stands up and tentatively slides her feet forward.  Her bare toes find the edge of the cliff.  She raises her hands and lets the breeze play with her fingers.

She takes a deep breath. “Sarenrae?”

There’s a warm pulse in her head.   Yes, my daughter?

“Pike remembers… remembers a thing.  A thing… you gave her?  Once?  In a place…” Pike tilts her head. “... with pearl beaches?”

That is the Island of Renewal.  You have been there.

“You gave Pike… wings.”

I did.

“Does Pike… still have those?”

There’s silence.

“Because Pike… had a dream… that they tried to take her wings,” she says. “But… she wouldn’t let them.”

No, my daughter.  No one took your wings.

“Can you fix… Pike’s wings?”

Silence.

“Can you fix… Pike’s eyes?  If Pike comes to you?”

Fixing things takes time, my daughter.  It is all a process.

“Pike… wants to be fixed.”

Pike takes a deep breath.

You are not broken.

From behind her, she hears, “No, Pike!  Don’t jump!”

She takes another deep breath, curls her toes over the side of the cliff, and leaps.

 


 

Keyleth sees her first, standing at the edge of the Cliff of the Winds, where visitors arriving through Transport via Plants end up.  Pike is at the edge of the cliff, her toes just over it, her hands raised.  She looks like a star, the sun radiant on her messy white braid, her white night-shift faintly glowing in the mid-morning light… although the light almost seems bigger than that, bigger than just the sun.  She sees Pike’s lips move and wishes Vex had taught her to lip-read.

Vax draws up next to her and scans the situation. “No, Pike!  Don’t jump!” he hollers, and he takes off down the hill.

Keyleth has just a second to see a smile on Pike’s lips before she does exactly what Vax told her not to.

 


 

The wind catches Pike and she feels it wrap around her like scarves of air.  For a moment she thinks she’s falling - and then she truly is.  But there’s no fear.  No fear whatsoever.

“Sarenrae!” she calls. “Show her!”

There’s nothing.

“Pike has wings,” she whispers.

And then there’s a whoosh and a catch as something flares out of her back.  She screams.  The air grabs her and she’s tumbling end-over-end.

You wanted them, a voice reminds her.  Now use them.

Pike screams again as the pain sears through her body.  Something in her mind clicks, though, and somewhere deep in her unconscious mind she remembers how to move the wings, to stop herself from tumbling, to catch herself from the fall.  She rises and feels the sun on her face again.  The wind stops twisting around her like forgotten sheets and she can breathe.

“Pike has wings!” she screams happily.

 


 

Vax jumps off the cliff, too, his wings already extending from the armor. “Pike!” he yells.

He watches as she falls, tumbling downwards, arms flailing.  He sees her face pinched with worry, sees her lips move.

Then in a giant flash of light wings explode from her back and she jerks up, flying.

“Pike has wings!” Pike shouts with glee.

Vax watches as she recovers, flying with purpose. “Pike!” he calls to her. “Pike, what are you doing?”

“Pike has wings!” she calls to him, and there is a look of such peace on her face that he doesn’t have the heart to castigate her for scaring the shit out of him and Keyleth.

“How are you going to fly if you can’t see?” Vax asks.

She spreads her arms wide. “Sarenrae… will show me.”

Just the same, Vax flies closer to her and takes her hand.

“Hi,” she breathes to him.

“Hi,” he answers. “Why did you have to run out here to do this?”

Pike frowns. “Pike… wants Sarenrae… to fix her.”

“You’re not broken, Pickle.”

Pike rolls her eyes.  It’s still unnerving, the white empty expanses marked with a few red veins, but he sees in it her traditional snark. “Pike… needs eyes.”

“Oh, Pickle.”

“Pike thought… Sarenrae…” Here her expression darkens. “... fixed wings… could fix… anything.”

Vax is suddenly sad. “Oh, Pickle,” he repeats. “You aren’t broken.  Not to us.”

“Pike… can fly,” she tells him. “Why can’t… Pike see?”

Vax tugs her gently downward, back towards the cliff edge. “I don’t know yet,” he says. “But we’ll work on it, okay?”

“Can Pike fly… again?”

“Yes.  But please… just tell us first, okay?”

Vax’s feet touch the ground and he reaches up to bring her back down safely.  Keyleth immediately wraps her arms around Pike as her wings disappear. “You scared us so much,” Keyleth breathes.

“Pike is sorry,” Pike murmurs.

“I won’t even say anything about you stealing the spire,” Keyleth says.

“Pike improvised.”

Keyleth just hugs her tighter.

 


 

Grog sits outside the keep that night.  Vex and Percy are busily scribbling on a map of the area, tracking Gilmore’s movements from what Shari was able to tell them.  Somehow they’re hoping to find Ieliena.  Grog doesn’t understand it.

On his lap he has one of the first books he learned to read, a gift from Pike.  It has simple illustrations with a word under each picture.  Each word starts with a different letter of the Common alphabet.  Now Grog bends over it with a tube of quick-drying adhesive Percy gave him.  With tongue-in-teeth precision, he traces the word below the first picture.

A.  Apple.

The adhesive hardens, leaving behind a raised line.  Grog trails his finger over it. “A is for apple,” he says softly.

He goes through the rest of the book, drawing the adhesive over each letter and outlining each picture.

Scanlan opens the door at some point, a mug of ale in his hand. “What’re you up to, big guy?”

“I’m makin’ a book fer Pike,” Grog answers.

“How’s that?”

Grog holds the book up so Scanlan can see it. “I made it so she can touch th’ letters.  She’s gonna haveta learn t’ read again, an’ I figured she can do it with her fingers.”

Scanlan looks like he’s going to make a very dirty joke, but he quickly takes a sip of ale to cover that. “That’s wonderful, Grog.  I think she’ll really like it.”

“Can we go there now?” Grog asks.

“Where?  To Zephra?”

Grog nods. “I’m done bein’ here.”

“I don’t actually know how we get there without Keyleth,” Scanlan answers.

“I’ll walk.”

“It’s not that kind of a place, buddy.”

Grog growls.

“But we can figure it out,” Scanlan says.

“We came here t’ find Gilmore.  We found ‘im.  That’s it,” Grog says. “Bein’ away from ‘er… it’s makin’ my skin itch.”

The door opens again.  Quickly Grog puts the newly-adapted book into the bag of holding.

“What are you doing out here?” Percy asks.

“Havin’ a gentleman’s club meetin’,” Grog answers. “Listen, I’m done bein’ here.”

He stands up. “Where’s Gilmore?  I wan’ him t’ send me t’ Druid Town.”

Percy looks at Scanlan, who shrugs.

“Let’s talk about this,” Percy says.

“Done talkin’, too,” Grog says. “I wanna be with Pike, and she’s not here.”

“If we keep dividing ourselves we’ll be vulnerable.”

“Then we can all go t’ Druid Town,” Grog says. “If that Ieliena woman’s comin’ fer Pike then we should be with Pike anyhow.  You can do yer research in Druid Town too.”

Percy looks up into Grog’s face. “All right.  I’ll talk to Vex.”

 


 

They arrive in Zephra just after nightfall.  Pike, Vax, and Keyleth are waiting for them, sitting on a blanket near the tree entrance, having a picnic.  Pike is the first one to turn her head towards the arriving group, and Grog wastes no time scooping her up and squeezing her.

“Grog!” she says, laughing, pushing back away from him.

He holds her tightly and kisses her cheek. “Missed you,” he murmurs into her hair.

“Pike is… here,” she says.

Grog’s sure they talk about important things, about that crazy woman and what Gilmore did while he was possessed, but he doesn’t pay attention.  He sits with Pike in his lap and just keeps his hand gently on her head.  She’s real, she’s there in front of them.

“Pike had an interesting morning,” Vax says, and that finally gets Grog’s attention.

“Yeah?”

“Pike… has wings,” she tells him, a grin on her face.

Grog looks over at Vax, confused.

“Ondine told us they took her wings,” Percy says slowly.

“Sarenrae’s bigger than Ieliena and whatever god she serves,” Vax says.

Pike smiles almost drunkenly. “Sarenrae… fixed.”

She leans into him. “Grog…”

“Hmm?”

Pike closes her eyes. “Happy,” she breathes, and rests her head on his arm.

A few minutes later he carries her back into the village, and at Keyleth’s request puts her into the bed Keyleth and Vax share.  He falls asleep on a pallet of blankets in the common room of the house, his skin no longer itching.  He’s here.  He’s with Pike.  Whatever’s coming is going to have to get through him.

 


 

Red mists drift over Zephra.

No one sees them.

Not the druids on patrol.

Not Korren, sitting near his fire reading.

Not Gloriana, mourning for someone the rest of the world forgot.

Not the members of Vox Machina, asleep in what they perceive as relative security.

No one sees them, but they drift through windows and under doors, reaching like prying fingers until their targets are spotted.  Then they spool down throats, red ribbons silky and insubstantial, implanting in stomachs and sprouting upwards like trees reaching for the skies.  They roll out through veins, rush through bloodstreams, leak from eyes like bloody tears.

And when they’ve swept through the Ashari, they wind around Pike’s neck as a scarlet noose, and tug tightly, tighter, tighter -

- and her eyes fly open.

They’ve come back for her.

Chapter Text

Pike clenches her fingers in Vax’s shirt and she tries to speak, tries to call his name.  Nothing comes out.  She digs her hands into his skin, tries to yell, to scream.

He wakes and turns towards her.  Sleepily he murmurs, “What is it, Pickle?”

Her mouth moves Vax, she feels the word, but no sound leaves her mouth.

Next to her he’s upright like a flash, grabbing her arms. “Keyleth,” he says urgently. “Keyleth, wake up.”

Pike tries Vax again.  His hand on her elbow tightens as he leans across her to shake Keyleth. “It’s okay, Pike,” he says.

Pike frowns.  Vax she tries.

“What is it?” Keyleth asks blearily.

“Pike, try to say something,” Vax says.

Vax, Pike screams.  Nothing happens.

“Oh, that’s not good,” Keyleth says.

How is she supposed to tell them?  Pike clenches fingers into her hands. They’re here! she screams.

“Uh, I’ll go wake up the others,” Vax says, and Pike feels him let go of her.

“Pike, don’t be afraid,” Keyleth says, trying to keep her voice steady, “but… there’s red smoke coming out of your mouth.”

How am I not supposed to be scared by that? Pike would be a lot more frightened if she wasn’t sure there are worse things going on.  She tries to get up.

“Stay here,” Keyleth says.

Pike shakes her head.  She wants to scrawl letters on her thigh to tell Keyleth what’s wrong, but she doesn’t know letters anymore.  She tries to scream.  Nothing comes out.

Heavy footsteps pound into the room. “Show me,” Grog demands.

Grog! Pike yells.

“Bloody hell,” Grog says.  He picks her up. “Does it hurt?”

Pike shakes her head no.

“Well, I guess that’s good…?”

Pike feels the red mists in her belly.  They twist into her gut and she tries to vomit them up.

From somewhere outside the house there’s a loud whoomph.  Keyleth moves towards the window.

“What was that?” Pike hears Vex ask.

She leans into Grog, finding his face with her hands.  She presses her forehead against his, trying to somehow send him her thoughts.  They’re here.  They came back for me.  I don’t want to go with them.

But he doesn’t say anything, gives no sign of having heard her.  Pike’s shoulders slump.

“Let’s go check it out!” Scanlan says.

“No one else is coming out,” Percy observes.

“What do you see?” Vex asks.

There’s a click of something mechanical, and Percy says, “There’s just… red mist.”

“Like Pike’s red mist?” Grog asks, his voice slightly muffled by Pike’s head still being against his face.

“No,” Vex says quickly.  Too quickly.

Pike puts her head down again and tries to give her thoughts to Grog.  They’re here.  I don’t want to go with them.

He pulls her back a bit. “Pike, yer hurtin’ me.”

At that Pike goes limp and he drops her.  She tumbles to the floor and scrabbles across the room towards the door, where her cane is waiting.  She picks it up and starts heading out of the room.  Something is calling her now, two somethings, one competing with the other.

“Pike, wait!” Scanlan calls after her.

Pike finds the stairs and makes her way down to the main floor.  The other thing in her head is getting louder the lower she goes, swirling with the red mists for priority.  She closes her eyes tightly and tries to listen.

From outside she can hear Gods’ Touched, here for you.  Gods’ Touched, here for you.

The inside something is softer, gentler.  It’s almost wordless, but it breathes: You had this once.  You can have it again.

Pike furrows her brow and moves towards the softer voice.  She follows its path through the house, and trips over a pile of blankets in the middle of the floor.  As she goes to the floor her hands meet something canvas, and she drops her cane to more fully explore it.  She can hear the others coming down the stairs, but she doesn’t care.  Her fingers deduce the shape of a bag, and as she opens it the voice gets louder: You had this once.  Find all the pieces.  You can have it again.

Pike sticks her hand into the bag.  At first there’s nothing.  Then her fingers meet metal.

“Pike, what are you doing?” Grog asks from the doorway.

Pike pulls out the metal thing and puts it on the floor next to her.

There’s more where that came from, the bag says to her.

She shrugs and digs her hand in again.  Another metal piece, this one differently shaped.

Something grows inside her.  She knows these pieces.  She knows that at some point in time they were hers.

Armor, she tries to say to Grog, though she knows only red mist comes out.

“That is yours,” Grog says grudgingly.

From outside there’s a whoomph and a wave of force pushes in against Pike’s sternum.  She feels faintly nauseous and the room sways.  Her fingers, still inside the bag, drop whatever she’s holding.

Grog kneels next to her and takes the bag from her. “Y’ don’t need that,” he says gruffly.

The wave of force slams into her again and Pike reaches out for something to hold onto.  Grog catches her around the chest and it feels almost as though she’s being yanked away from him.

Grog! she mist-screams.

There’s a pounding in her head that’s throbbing with her heartbeat now.  Gods’ Touched, here for you.  Gods’ Touched, here for you.

She clenches her fingers into whatever she can grasp, wrapping her arms around Grog’s much larger arm, as her body is tugged towards the windows.  Tears stream from her eyes and she’s begging with every silent word she has for Grog to just save her, to hold her, to make it stop.

“It’s gonna be okay,” Grog says, but she can hear in his voice how hard he’s straining to keep her against him.  He repositions his body, curling it around her.  The force seems to push in harder, Pike gasping with the effort of staying conscious as the words of her captors pulse in her head.  She knows if Grog let go she’d fly out through the window, be caught up in the red misty tendrils of the Order of the Night Sun, and she’d never see her friends again.  Everything in her head would be gone again; she’d be a blank slate, open to whatever selfish whims they forced upon her.

Grog, she pleads silently, and as though he can understand her terrified thoughts he pulls her in tighter.

“It’s gonna be okay,” he repeats, and presses a kiss to the top of her head.

There’s a crackle and a sizzling noise somewhere outside the window, and Pike feels a spear of pain shoot through her head.  She feels her fingers start to loosen from Grog’s arm.

“Stay with me, Pikey,” Grog orders, and he starts moving.

After that there’s noise, and running, and Pike hears the shouts of her friends around her.  She is conscious of Grog’s body around hers, holding her close, and of what she figures is combat, fighting the women who have come to reclaim her.  Things get muddled, and she merely tries to stay awake.

At last Pike becomes aware of Grog’s body peeling back from hers, and of a cool hand on her cheek, and Keyleth saying, “Pike?  Can you hear me?”

She nods mutely.

“She looks half-dead,” Vex says bluntly.

“There were way too many of those cultists,” Scanlan says. “I thought that portal took care of them all.”

“Keyleth got one tangled up,” Vax says. “I suppose we can ask her about all this nonsense.”

“Pike,” Keyleth says again, and there’s another tap on her cheek. “Will you… try to say something?”

“Keyleth,” Pike chokes out, and she loves her voice in that moment, even though it’s scrawny and pinched and raspy and awful.  She rolls to one side and vomits. “Please… don’t let them… take Pike.”

“No one’s takin’ ya anywhere,” Grog says fiercely.

“Why don’t you take Pike back to bed, Grog?” Percy suggests. “We can go… have a conversation with this woman.”

“I’ll come, too,” Vax offers. “That sound okay, Pickle?”

“I had t’ miss out on th’ battle an’ now I gotta miss out on th’ ‘terrogation?” Grog sounds disappointed.

“Grog, it’s not as though you were deliberately kept out of things,” Vex tells him. “You were protecting Pike, and from the looks of things, you were the only one strong enough to keep her from being sucked into whatever that… misty downspout sort of thing they conjured was.”

“Let the big guy have some fun,” Scanlan opines.

There’s more discussion, but Pike doesn’t hear it.  She feels Vax lean in and scoop her up, and she closes her eyes.

 


 

Grog hauls the woman up from the ground, ripping the vines Keyleth wound around her from the ground without much difficulty. “Let’s see what she can tell us,” he says gruffly.

To her credit, the cultist doesn’t look scared of Grog - the expression on her face is one of rage, not fear.  As Grog sets her down on a chair and Vex moves behind her to tie up her hands, she spits at Grog.

“Now, now,” Grog says mildly. “Haven’t even gotten started yet.”

“Give her to us,” the cultist sneers. “You don’t know what to do with her.  Can’t fix her.”

“She’s not broken,” Grog says, keeping his giant hands on the woman’s shoulders as Vex finishes tying her to the chair. “So ruins that argument, I guess.”

“She’s ours.”

“She doesn’t belong to anybody,” Scanlan says fiercely.

Percy puts a hand out to stop the rest of his family from speaking.  He carefully approaches the woman. “Now, I assume this whole Gods’ Touched thing works better when you have a blank subject.”

The woman turns her head towards him, confused.

“It seems to me that you don’t have any control over her any longer, now that she’s been given her memories and her agency back.”

The cultist in the chair cycles through a series of expressions, her face going pale.

“Pretty sure that’s not what you thought would happen,” Vex says.

“What did you think you were going to accomplish here tonight?” Percy asks. “Knock out all the Ashari with some sort of mass sleeping spell, steal Pike back from us… what happens when you found out she was restored to herself?”

“We could make her ours again.”

“But she’d fight back.  She’d… possibly take out untold numbers of your order,” Percy says.

“She’s done a number on all of us,” Grog says. “Knocked me clean out.”

“Broke her own arm.  With magic,” Vex adds.

“And where would that leave you?” Percy picks up the conversation. “I assume you came back to that Empty Stone Home and discovered the majority of your fellow cultists dead, your leader gone, and the one thing you’d all worked so hard on missing.  And now you get here, the last surviving band of you… and now it’s just you.”

“And you’re never getting Pike back,” Keyleth says.

The woman turns her head towards Keyleth. “I see you didn’t listen to what Ieliena told that little boy.”

Keyleth freezes.

“You didn’t protect her heart, Tempest,” the cultist goes on, shaking her head. “You didn’t protect her heart… that beautiful little -”

Vex grabs for her earring. “Vax.”

“What, Stubby?”

“How’s Pike?”

“Unconscious.  I think that downspout thing was sucking the life out of her.”

“Just… don’t take your eyes off her.”

“Wouldn’t let her go to sleep,” the cultist singsongs. “Wouldn’t let want anything to happen to that tiny… little… beating… heart… of hers.”

“That’s ‘nough’a that,” Grog says firmly.

“What’s our end-game here?” Scanlan asks. “We let her live, she runs back to Ieliena and spills everything.  We kill her…”

“It feels wrong,” Keyleth murmurs.

Vex turns to look at Keyleth. “Can you feeble-mind her?” she says softly.

“Then what?”

“Then… then we let her go.”

“Into the wild?”

Vex shrugs. “She’s not our problem after that.”

Keyleth looks over at the others. “What if she can be of more use to us?”

“Then we need to figure that out quickly, because -”

The cultist tries to lurch to her feet, her hands up and moving to cast a spell.

Keyleth is first: her hands jerk out into the feeble-mind spell before she can realize what she’s doing.  There’s a pulse of sickening green energy and the cultist stops where she is, a dull, glazed expression sliding over her face.  She slumps back into the chair.

“I guess we made that decision, huh?” Vex murmurs.

“I didn’t… I don’t know…” Keyleth throws her hands up.

“I’m done with people tryin’ t’ hurt Pike,” Grog says firmly. “Y’ did the right thing, Keeks.”

Percy reaches for his earring. “Vax?  How’s Pike?”

“Still unconscious.  What’s happening down there?”

“It’s… we’ll explain in a bit.”

“Her heart, Vax,” Keyleth says. “Her heart.”

There’s a pause.

“So far, it’s all right,” Vax answers eventually. “It’s… almost slow.”

Keyleth nods, though Vax can’t see her, and lets out a breath she’d been holding. “Okay.”

“Are you all right?” Vax asks.

“It’s complicated,” Vex answers.

Scanlan trots back over from his quick expedition to the closest Ashari dwelling. “Yep, they’re all asleep.”

He looks at the cultist, gone slack-jawed with the spell. “And I’m guessing she’s not going to be able to tell us how to get them out of it.  Good work, everyone!”

 


 

A silent Zephra is odd, Vax thinks as he watches Keyleth and Pike sleep.  He tells himself he’s awake to keep an eye on Pike’s heartbeat, which in her unconsciousness hasn’t changed much, but there’s something else in his chest.  It’s a pulse, a dull low aching hum just beneath his breastbone, somehow amplified by the absolute silence of the village just outside their windows.

Vax heard from the others about the cultist’s feeble-minded state, and though he wasn’t there when she was let loose to wander off, away from Zephra, he heard no hesitation in any of his family members’ expressions or voices.  It had been the right thing to do, to effectively remove from the board anyone who continued to stand in the way of Pike’s safety and restoration to herself.  With the cultist’s mind gone, there was no chance she could return to Ieliena and stand at the side of the Order of the Night Sun’s mistress as Ieliena pursued their gentle friend through space and time and all sanity.

Now he sits at the side of the bed, fingers on Pike’s pulse, looking at her body starfished out next to Keyleth, and feels that hum resonate through his torso.

It surprises him but doesn’t when he hears his patron’s voice ring through his mind.  You have done much since we last spoke, my champion.

“It seems like it’s been a very long time,” Vax answers softly.

And yet she seems to have come so far.  There is no question to whom the Raven Queen is referring.

“In some moments it doesn’t seem far enough.” Vax bows his head, keeping his fingertips against Pike’s wrist. “Is there something I can help you with?”

Not at the moment.  Why?

“You… you helped Pike during the scalpel ritual.  I thought…”

You thought there might be something required from you as payment for that assistance?

“It crossed my mind, yes.”

He feels Pike’s pulse start to speed up, and brings his head up slightly.

As I told you, it is an honor to stand at the side of her Sarenrae, the Raven Queen informs him gently but firmly.  Over the seven years she was gone to you, she flickered between planes quite frequently.  Some moments it seemed that we shared her, almost, Sarenrae and I.

“You said she wasn’t yours,” Vax says, almost accusingly.

And she is not.  But ask yourself, Vax’ildan, is she truly yours?  All of the things she has suffered and the trials she has borne, would it not seem plausible that there would be powers higher than your own interested in what happens to her next?  I am not the darkest of those powers looking over her, but I am the only one who can speak to you.

Vax has no reply to that.  He looks over at Pike, her free hand twitching and her eyes jerking beneath her eyelids.  He wonders if she can still see in her dreams, if the blindness only extends itself to the waking world.  He wonders if this inelegant game of cat-and-mouse will ever cease, if at some point all of the grabby fingers insistent upon claiming Pike will drop away, leaving her free.

Beneath his fingers her heart is racing once more, her skin burning with some internal flame.  Vax closes his eyes and prays for it to pass.

 


 

Scanlan looks over at Grog.  They’ve been sitting up for awhile now, watching as the sun starts to rise over the horizon.  In the kitchen were the fixings for tea, so Scanlan made some of that and now they’re outside, propped up on tree stumps for seats, drinking tea from mugs that are either way too large - for Scanlan - or way too small - for Grog.

“This tea tastes like balls,” Grog says.  A bird chirps and lands on the ground a few feet away.

“Yeah, it said ‘peppermint’ on the box, but…” Scanlan looks down into his mug. “It was more to give us something to do.”

“Could’a killed something,” Grog says, and he looks meaningfully at the bird.

“Sometimes it’s just better to sit.”

Grog takes another sip of the tea. “Hey.”

“Yeah?”

“Y’ think I was right?”

“About what?”

“‘Bout… Pike not bein’ broken.”

“Of course you were right.”

“That lady didn’t believe me.”

“What does she know?”

“Well, nothin’ now, since Keyleth gave her the mind melt, but…”

“Grog.”

Grog looks over at his friend. “Whatever that was… the big down-spout thing made’a red mist, I couldn’t… I couldn’t do anythin’ ‘bout it, an’ it wanted t’ suck Pike in, an’...”

He turns his head. “What if I couldn’t’a held ont’a her?”

“But you did,” Scanlan says.

“It doesn’t feel like I’m doin’ enough.”

“Me, neither,” Scanlan says softly.

“What happens when what we’re doin’ isn’t enough an’ we lose her?”

“Oh, big guy.  I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

“It almost did!” Grog protests. “I tripped an’ felt her fingers let go an’ I was gonna lose her an’ I can’t let that happen any more!”

He feels something shatter against his fist and looks down, shocked, as mug shards drop to the ground, tea dripping from between his fingers.

“Well,” Scanlan says, “you did say it tasted like balls.  So… no big loss?”

 


 

Vax goes to sleep when Keyleth wakes, laying down in the warm hollow left by her body, transferring Pike’s hand nearly seamlessly from Keyleth’s nightgown to his shirt.  He looks sleepily up at Keyleth as Pike curls into him, and feels suddenly sad for no reason he can think of.

“It’s all right,” she murmurs, and presses a kiss to his temple. “We’ll figure things out.”

“I tried,” Vax says, but he can’t remember what he was trying to do or if he even tried at all.  Time feels syrupy and slow, streaming past him in thick, gluey waves.  There’s something wrong about what’s happening but he isn’t quite sure what. “I just…”

“Shh,” Keyleth says. “Just rest.”

And because he loves her, because he listens to her, because he trusts her, but mostly because he realizes he has no other choice, he sinks into the quagmire of slowly roiling tar and goes under.

 


 

“Vax,” a soft voice says, and there’s a small hand on his cheek. “Vax, you have to wake up now.”

It takes him a moment to figure out who’s kneeling next to him.  It’s dark, for one, wherever he is.  And there’s the voice - he hasn’t heard it speak with such clarity in a very long time.

“Vax, please.  I’m so scared.”

“It’s all right, Pickle,” Vax says, somehow able to express what he thinks before he can fully comprehend what’s happening.  He reaches up into the darkness, and takes the small hand in his. “Stringbean’s here now.”

He sits up, dizzy, ears ringing, body aching. “Was there a fight I missed?” he asks.

The hand in his tenses a little. “No,” Pike whispers.

Vax tries to remember something, anything, but all that comes up is Keyleth’s face, telling him they’d figure things out. “Pickle, where are we?”

He turns towards Pike’s voice, or at least where he thinks she ought to be, and sees something that might be her holy symbol, faintly bobbing with a soft glow. “Pike, what happened?”

“I couldn’t fix it,” Pike whispers.

She gets closer to him, bobbing into view, and Vax recoils. “Pike… where are your eyes?”

Pike slumps down next to him, and for the first time Vax sees, fully, her face - two dark scooped-out hollows where her eyes should be.  Her forehead and cheeks are spattered with blood; it drips down her face, some of it pooling stickily in the corners of her lips.  When she speaks her lips peel apart, crimson cracking open, and Vax has to force himself to listen to her words.

“I couldn’t fix them, Sarenrae couldn’t fix them… maybe it’s better that they’re gone.”

“No, Pike, why?” Vax reaches forward and grabs her, casting Lay on Hands.

He feels the energy pulse through her, and her body jerks forward a little, and then, to his horror, he sees the energy come back out towards him, escaping through those gore-spattered eye sockets.

“Pike, how do you feel?”

“... a little… floaty…” comes the answer, drunk and soft. “Just… just wanted…”

Vax cuddles her close and murmurs into her hair, “It’s all right.  Just don’t move too much, okay?  We’ll figure out what happened…”

As he holds her, the darkness around them stretches and bulges and seems to split, and Vax’s fingers slide away from Pike’s body.  He cries out and tries to grab for her, but she’s gone.

 


 

His eyes fly open.  Keyleth stands over him, a worried look on her face. “Are you all right?”

“Where’s… where’s Pike?” Vax gasps out.

“Downstairs with Grog and Scanlan.”

“Is she all right?”

“Last I knew, yeah,” Keyleth says. “Are you all right?”

Vax takes a moment to breathe, trying to get his racing thoughts together. “How long… how long was I asleep?”

“A few hours.  Why?”

Vax shakes his head. “I just… I had a really bad dream.”

“Well, it’s over now.” Keyleth sits down on the bed next to him and kisses him.

It melts the little nugget of ice-cold terror in his stomach, but Vax can’t shake the feeling that something’s radically changed since he fell asleep.

 


 

“I think I want to make some pancakes,” Scanlan says.

“You can’t cook here,” Grog tells him. “Nothin’s the right size.  ‘S all made fer Vax an’ Keyleth.”

“Well, you could,” Scanlan says.

“Nope, ‘s all too small.”

“That’s how you get out of cooking when we’re at home,” Scanlan says.

“Works the same in many places,” Grog replies.

“I’ll just go wake up Vex,” Scanlan says.

“Oh, no, don’t wanna do that,” Grog says. “‘Member last time y’ did that?”

“How was I supposed to know she and Percy were… doing the horizontal tango?”

“I thought they were just fuckin’.”

Scanlan resists the urge to face-palm. “Let’s just ask Pikey if she wants pancakes.  I’ll bet she does.  Hey, Pike…”

He sticks his head into the front room where he and Grog spent the night and where, the last time he checked, Pike was laying on their blankets, all of her attention focused on the alphabet book Grog gave her.

“Oh,” Scanlan says as he registers the empty front room.  Pike’s gone.  The book’s gone.  And her cane, which she used to get from the upstairs bedroom down to the first floor, is gone.

“Y’know she’s gonna say yes, just t’ be polite,” Grog says from behind him. “Pike, y’ don’t haveta…”

He stops short behind Scanlan, nearly knocking the other man off his feet. “Where’d she go?”

“That is the question of the hour,” Scanlan says. “I think we need to wake up the others… I don’t care what activities they’re engaging in.”

“Okay, but yer still gettin’ Percy an’ Vex.”

 


 

“Grog?” Pike asks.  She knows the person holding her hand and leading her away from Keyleth and Vax’s house isn’t Grog, but she’s having a hard time keeping her thoughts straight.  It could be Grog.  It’s not, but it could be.  She’s supposed to be with Grog.  Grog and Scanlan.  They were in the house where she was.  She was supposed to be there.

“I’m sorry, no, sweet thing.” The voice is soft, feminine, older.

“Pike… wants to go… back to Grog.”

“Not right now.” A gentle hand comes down and pats her head.

Pike doesn’t like that.  She likes when Grog does it, or when Vax strokes her hair, or when she gets snuggled by any of her friends.  But this feels like a patronizing touch.  This makes her feel like she’s an object. “Pike… wants to go… back to Grog,” she repeats, a little more insistently.

“No.” The voice gets sharper; the hand tugging her along gets a little more hurried. “I’m sorry, but we have a limited amount of time before everyone else wakes up, and before your friends realize you’re gone.”

“Time… to do what?”

“I need to figure out why you survived.”

This sounds dangerously like someone who wants to know about what they did to her back in the place she doesn’t like thinking about, and Pike’s pretty sure she wants no part of this.  She tries to tug away from the restraining hand.

Her arm slips free and she wheels around and bolts back up the path the way they came.  Without her cane - which she’s pretty sure this woman threw away - she can’t figure out exactly where she’s going, but she holds her hands out in front of her to make sure her face doesn’t whack into any obstacles.

“Grog!” she screams. “Grog!”

“No!” the woman shouts from behind her.

“Grog!” Pike screams.  A tree branch slaps her face and she feels something wet start dripping down her cheek but she doesn’t stop.

She feels a hand grab at her back, but she jerks forward and somehow she slides free.  Her fingers tingle with something, nervous energy - or magic? - fluttering up through her fingertips, and Pike forces her feet to keep moving.  It’s getting harder to think and to breathe, and she knows that at some point she’s going to make it back to the top of the hill and be back in the village and absolutely lost.  With no one outside in the village to talk to - she heard her friends say all the Ashari were asleep - she won’t know where to go.

She just has to make it up there and hope Grog hears her. “Grog!”

 


 

“You didn’t see her leave?” Keyleth asks.

“No,” Grog says.

“You were supposed to keep an eye on her!” Vex says, throwing up her hands. “We were just sleeping, just for a little bit!”

“We were keeping an eye on her!” Scanlan retorts. “We went into the kitchen to talk about breakfast, and we came back in here and she was gone!”

“Let’s go,” Vax says, already most of the way to the door.

“Do you think she just left?” Percy asks.

“Of course not,” Vax replies. “Somebody probably snagged her.”

“Ever’body else here’s asleep,” Grog says.

“We don’t know that.”

“I know that!” Scanlan says. “I went to at least, like, four houses.”

Vex rolls her eyes.

Grog opens the front door and scans the lane in front of him.  No sign of Pike.

Vax moves out next to him. “Let’s split up.  Grog, you go -”

“Grog!”

“I heard ya the first time,” Grog says. “Just tell me where t’ go.”

Vax frowns. “What?”

“You said my name twice.  Y’ didn’t haveta.”

“I only said, Grog, you go -”

“Grog!”

“See, ya did it again.  I’m not an idiot.”

Vax holds a hand up.

“Grog!  Help!”

In an instant they’re off towards the sound of the screaming, down the lane in front of Keyleth and Vax’s house and into a small ridge where several paths diverge out into different parts of the village.  Grog whips his head back and forth, trying to figure out where his Pike is.

“Grog!” she screams again, and then he sees her tiny form burst out of the treeline.  She’s filthy and her face is bleeding, and Grog wants to immediately destroy whoever did this to her.

An old woman, seeming not much bigger than his Pike, darts out of the forest after her, and grabs Pike by the shoulders, scooping her up before hurrying back into the trees.  Grog growls and charges after them.

 


 

The ground beneath her feet slips away as someone grabs her by the back of her nightgown and hauls her into the air.  Pike spits out, “No!”, heartbroken, as she realizes she’s not being grabbed by one of her friends.

“I am so sorry,” the woman says. “But we really are running out of time.”

There’s a sharp crack across Pike’s consciousness and pain ricochets from ear to ear.  She lets out a howl of pain, but her voice is sucked up into a whirlwind of some sort, air rushing into her mouth and wrapping around her body in a tight hug.  For a moment she can’t sort out up from down, and she feels jumbled beyond all reasoning.

Then it stops, and she’s tossed onto a hard wooden surface.  Before she can process what’s happening, there are restraints around her ankles and wrists.  Pike wrenches her body to one side, her heartbeat pounding loudly in her ears. “No!” she pleads. “Pike… Pike is done.  Please… please… let Pike go.”

She hears the woman moving around and suddenly she’s back on the table in the dungeon at the Empty Stone Home, her torturers gathering around her.  It’s hard to breathe.  She digs her fingers into the wood beneath her and tries to take in little sips of air.

“Oh, sweet thing,” the woman says. “Do not be worried.  I am not like them.”

A warm hand pulls her nightgown up and there’s a sudden rush of air over Pike’s stomach.  She tenses and feels those red mists twisting in her belly again.  She yanks her hands down, trying to free them from the restraints.  Something pierces her chest and Pike screams.

The woman is saying something but all Pike feels is the pain.  It grips her rib cage and yanks it open, as though she’s a toy in the hand of a particularly brutal child.  She tries to breathe deeply but can’t; she tries to cry out but finds all sounds trapped within her.

Pike brings her head up a few inches and slams it into the table underneath her, just to feel something of her own volition rather than something being done to her.  It muddles whatever thoughts she has left, though, and caught in a symphony of pain and confusion, of the woman’s voice and the sharp chill on her skin, she passes out.

 


 

“Who was that woman?” Grog demands of Keyleth.

“That’s… that’s Gloriana,” Keyleth stammers.

“An’ where’d she take Pike?”

“I mean, they could have gone anywhere, but… why would she take Pike?”

“Don’ really care much ‘bout the why ,” Grog says.  He hefts his axe. “Where’s she live?”

Grog’s not sure how he’s raging without actually raging - because it doesn’t make much sense - but he’s not in that battle-state he knows is “rage.”  He’s feeling that itch under his skin again, the stuff that means Pike isn’t safe and he’s not doing enough.  He barely hears Keyleth as she guides them to Gloriana’s house - there’s too much blood pounding in his ears.

“... I don’t know why she would do this, so let’s not make any assumptions, Grog, okay?”

Grog kicks in the door.

“Grog!” Keyleth says.

“She.  Took.  Pike,” Grog informs her shortly.

“He’s right, Kiki,” Scanlan says from somewhere behind Grog, and Grog takes a tiny bit of pride in knowing that he’s got backup.

But just, like, a tiny bit, because the rest of him is slamming through the house.  He throws open a door and finds the old woman standing in front of a big table, covered in blood.

It’s not her blood.  Not at first.

Grog changes all that.

Chapter Text

“Grog!  Stop!” Vex demands.  She gets right in front of him, not even flinching as he raises his axe once more. “You’ve done enough - she’s not going to to touch Pike anymore!”

The axe, dripping blood, arcs into the air, and Grog grits his teeth. “She - hurt - Pike,” he gets out.

“I know.  And you’ve taken care of her,” Vex says sternly. “I need you to stop so we can help Pike now, okay?”

“Pike.”

“Yes,” Vex says. “If you want to help Pike, put the axe down.”

The axe clatters to the floor.

“Thank you,” Vex says softly.

Vax and Keyleth hurry in to attend to Gloriana; Percy boosts Scanlan up on the table to start working on Pike.

“I didn’t… I didn’t wanna kill her…” Grog says, his eyes locked on Pike.

“I know,” Vex says.  Her eyes cut to the crumpled form of the old woman on the floor.  Gloriana is still breathing and making little noises, so Vex knows she’s not dead.  She’s not going to mention that to Grog, though.  There’ll be time enough later. “Why don’t you go see to Pike, okay?”

Grog nods and slowly shuffles forward. “Pike,” he says, his voice breaking.

Percy turns. “She’s still alive,” he says.

Scanlan’s hands and lips are moving, and there’s purple energy swirling around Pike’s body.  Grog reaches out and touches her hand.  Her fingers twitch and her head lolls towards him.  He wants to look at what happened to her, what that old lady was doing, but at the same time he really, really doesn’t.  He can see that her nightdress is ripped open and her chest is all bloody, and that’s enough to know that she was being hurt.

Her mouth opens and she whispers something.  Grog leans in closer. “What, buddy?”

“Water,” she rasps.

“I’ll get ya some in just a minute, ‘kay?” Grog strokes her hair. “Let Scanlan finish what he’s doin’ and we’ll get ya some water.”

Grog isn’t sure how much time passes, but Scanlan eventually stops casting spells and turns to Percy and Grog, nodding.  Grog scoops Pike into a cradle against him and takes her outside, away from the house, away from the place where she was pinned down and hurt.  He finds a grove of trees and sits down with his back against a big tall tree, holding her oh-so-gently.  While Scanlan was working Grog found a cloak and the water canteen in the bag of holding, and now he carefully wraps Pike in the cloak before bringing the canteen to her mouth.

She drinks thirstily and when more than half the water is gone, opens her eyes. “Grog?”

“Yeah, buddy?”

“Pike… wants to go.”

“Okay,” Grog says immediately. “Where d’ ya wanna go?”

Pike’s brow furrows and she snuggles further into the cloak, wincing slightly. “Home.”

Grog has to think about that one. “Home,” he says slowly.

“Mm-hmm.”

Grog knows where his home is - it’s wherever Pike is.  Technically speaking, he is home: she’s with him.  But he’s pretty sure that’s not what she means. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s go.”

And he stands up and starts walking.

To get to Druid Town, as Scanlan not-so-politely refers to it, they had to get Allura to send them.  Allura’s not here, though.  Keyleth could send them out of here, but she’s inside helping the old woman Grog didn’t kill.  And he’s pretty sure they want the group to stay together.

Grog’s still puzzling on this when he reaches the top of the hill.  The whole town is still really quiet, but now Grog sees there’s at least one other person awake - a nervous-looking young man who’s running towards them. “Sir!”

“Yeah?” Grog asks.

“Sir, what’s happening?”

“Um, there was some sort of big slumber party,” Grog answers. “Hey, listen, can I ask you for a favor?”

The young man nods.

“Do you know how to do the thing where people can walk through trees and go other places?”

“Of course,” the young man answers.

“Awesome.  Where’s the farthest place from here you’ve been?”

“I’ve been lots of far places.”

“Like where?”

“I’ve been to Vesra and Pyrah, and Terra, and Emon, and Whitestone, and Westruun -”

“Perfect,” Grog interrupts him. “Can ya send us both t’ Westruun?”

The young man looks at him suspiciously. “I guess so.  Doesn’t the Headmaster usually arrange your travel?”

“Things are kinda busy ‘round here,” Grog says.

The young man looks around, seeing absolutely no evidence to confirm that.

“I mean, she’s kinda busy,” Grog hurries to say. “I wouldn’t wanna bother her.”

“Oh.  Well, okay, I guess.  I can send you through to Westruun.”

“Okay, uh, first - d’ ya know how t’ write?”

 


 

When Gloriana is safely in her bed and her house is cleaned up, Keyleth finally turns to her friends. “I don’t understand,” she says. “For years she was just a normal old lady.”

“Where’s that book?” Vax asks. “The one she gave you about the people who rescued a Gods’ Touched?”

“I gave it to Grog to hold onto,” Keyleth answers.

“I’ll go see where he’s gotten off to,” Percy offers, and leaves the house.

“I told you earlier that I think she knew someone who ended up as a Gods’ Touched,” Vax says, “and I stand by that.”

They stand in the kitchen, now mostly scrubbed clean of the evidence of what occurred, and wait until Percy returns, dragging along not Grog but a clean-shaven young elven man.

“If we’re trading in for a new Grog, I accept,” Scanlan says with a grin and a wink.

“This young person says he has a message from Grog,” Percy says.

“Alethir, what’s going on?” Keyleth asks.

“I met your friend Grog as he came up the hill,” Alethir answers.

“Wait - how are you awake?” Vex asks.

Alethir shrugs. “I remember a red mist coming in the window… then sleeping… and then I was waking up in the morning like I always do.  I met your friend Grog at the top of the hill.  He asked me if I could use transport via plants to send him to Westruun.”

“Oh, no, you didn’t,” Keyleth says.

“He said you were busy and that he didn’t want to bother you with asking for help to leave.”

“Why would he leave?” Vax asks.

“I don’t know.  But he did leave you a message,” Alethir says, and hands Keyleth a piece of parchment.

Keyleth takes it. “‘To my friends - I am happy we kept Pike safe here for as long as we did but she is not safe here anymore.  I am taking her away from here.  She says she wants to go home.  My home is wherever she is but her home is in Westruun.  Please do not come after us.  She will be safe with me.  I will take care of her.  Nobody is going to hurt her while I am with her.  When she is better we will come back.  Grog.’”

“Oh, no,” Vex whispers.

“And you just sent them?” Keyleth demands of Alethir.

“Forgive me, Headmaster, but he looked like he could crush me with one hand,” Alethir says. “I might be a powerful druid but I’m not dumb enough to say ‘no’ to a guy like that.”

“I guess that’s fair,” Percy says.

“Is there something else I can help you with?” Alethir asks.

“Unless you can figure out how to wake everyone up… no,” Keyleth replies.

“Cold water does the trick,” Alethir says. “It’s how I woke up my parents and my sister and her husband.”

“Okay.  Then, as of now, I’m designating you Cold Water Captain,” Keyleth says. “Start with the elders and work your way through the village.  Let the elders know I’d like to meet with them in an hour at my house.”

“Yes, Headmaster!” Alethir flies out of the house, seemingly gladdened by the task in front of him.

“What are we going to do?” Scanlan asks.

“Obviously we have to go after him,” Percy says.

“No,” Vax says.

“What?”

“He told us not to.”

“But he’s -”

“He’s Grog,” Vex says. “He knows Pike better than any of us.  It’s caused him unspeakable anguish to see her hurt - to him, this was just another failing from people who were supposed to keep her safe.”

“We’ll give him time to cool off,” Vax says. “And he said himself that they’d come back when Pike was better.”

“And we believe him?” Percy raises an eyebrow.

“Grog cares about us,” Vex replies. “He knows how much it meant for all of us to rescue Pike.  I don’t think he’s trying to keep her away from us… he’s just trying to keep her safe, in the simplest way he knows how.”

“And who knows - maybe this will give us time to find Wilhand, or more information about Ieliena and her gang of merry murderesses,” Vax adds.

Keyleth rubs her forehead.

“Go have your meeting.  We’ll stay here and guard Gloriana,” Vex says.

“I doubt she’s going to do much of anything,” Keyleth says.

“I know.  But I have some questions for her when she wakes up,” Vex says. “And I’m pretty sure everyone else does too.”

 


 

Grog carries Pike into Wilhand’s house and up the stairs to her bedroom. “Okay, Pike,” he says. “I want ya t’ sleep fer a bit while I go ‘n get some supplies, ‘kay?”

Pike barely raises her head from his shoulder. “‘Kay,” she murmurs.

“Yer safe here.  I promise.” Grog lays her on the bed and pulls up the blankets over her. “An’ when I get back, we’ll have a scrub, get ya clean an’ in some clean clothes, an’ we’ll have a bite t’ eat, ‘kay?”

“‘Kay.” Pike closes her eyes.

Grog stands in the doorway watching her for a few minutes before he closes the door and goes back downstairs, where he fishes the spare key out of the cookie jar in the kitchen.  He takes it with him and locks the house securely as he leaves.

At the market he sees lots of people he knows, or people who look familiar.  They greet him with smiles and try to engage him in conversation.  He tries to make small talk but it falls somewhat flat as he goes through the motions of buying food, and soap, and other things he thinks Pike might need or he might need to take care of Pike.  He gets sweet buns, and bread, and ale, and some apples, and figures he’ll figure out the rest of it later.

As he’s walking back to the house he spots a familiar figure walking down the street - an older man who greets him with a broad smile and open arms. “Grog!  It’s wonderful to see you!”

“Hey, Kerr!” Grog responds.

“How was your week in Emon?” Kerr asks, falling in step next to the goliath.

“Oh, shit, that’s right, y’ wouldn’t’ve heard,” Grog says.  He shifts his packages from one arm to the other.

“Heard what?”

“We… uh… we went an’ got Pike,” Grog says.

Kerr stops in the middle of the street. “What?  Where was she?  Where is she now?”

“‘S a long story,” Grog says. “But… she’s at Wilhand’s house now.  Y’ wanna come over fer a drink?”

Kerr looks gobsmacked. “Yes, of course!  I mean… I have to finish a few errands first - would that be all right?”

“Yeah, ‘course,” Grog says. “I gotta give ‘er a bath an’ stuff, an’ she’s pretty tired, so maybe in a bit would be better anyway.”

Kerr nods. “All right, all right.  I’ll… I’ll bring dinner.”

“Sold,” Grog says.

“And she’s… all right?” Kerr asks, brow furrowed.

“Tha’s… a long story,” Grog answers. “Like, two drinks minimum.”

Kerr gives him a small smile. “All right.  I’ll look forward to that this evening, then.”

Someone calls to Kerr from the marketplace and he nods at Grog before hurrying off to attend to his other business.  Grog takes himself back to Wilhand’s house; he unlocks the door and dumps his packages, hurrying upstairs to find Pike in the same place he’d left her.  If she slept while he was gone, he's not sure, but she’s awake now, eyes open but motionless in bed.

“Grog?” she asks in a whisper as the door opens.

“Yeah, ‘s me,” Grog answers. “You okay?”

Pike nods, very small. “Grog?”

“Yeah?”

“Hold.”

“Yeah.” Grog crosses the room and sits down on the floor next to Pike’s tiny gnome-sized bed; he scoops her up.  She puts her arms around his neck and hugs him tightly.

“Pike and Grog… are safe?” she murmurs into his ear.

“Pike and Grog are safe,” he repeats.

“Okay.” Pike rests her head on his shoulder.

They sit there together for quite some time as shadows lengthen across the floor of the room.  Grog just holds his best friend, relishing in the solid feeling of her body and each of her little slow breaths.  Pike hums something softly, the vibrations emanating across his skin, and then falls silent.

“D’ ya think… it’d be okay… if we gave ya a bath?” Grog asks eventually. “An’ some new clothes?”

Pike nods.

“Okay.  I’ll go get th’ tub ready.”

He starts to put her on the bed but she clings tightly to him.  Grog laughs. “Okay, you can come with me.”

Downstairs, Pike clinging to him, Grog lights the lanterns, makes a fire in the hearth, and pumps water into a big pan, which he sets on the stove to heat.  Somewhere in the midst of these chores he starts telling Pike a story about an adventure he and Scanlan went on, something without many serious details, just designed to make her laugh and to take her mind off things, and the words rise up in the darkening evening.  He feels her body relax against his, and by the time the water is warm and he can lower her gently into the washtub, he sees, for the first time in a long time, a small smile on her face.

Carefully Grog peels off the ripped and blood-stained nightgown and pours water over Pike’s body. “‘S this weird fer ya?”

She shakes her head.

“‘Kay.  Will ya tell me if it is?”

She nods.

Grog takes up a cloth and the new bar of soap he bought at the market and carefully washes Pike’s body.  He tries to read her feelings in her face, and moves the cloth gently around her wounds.  Whenever he sees Scanlan again, he’ll have to thank his friend - Pike’s newest injuries seem to have healed extremely well.

Pike hisses with discomfort and Grog yanks his hand away from her body. “Sorry,” he says.

“It’s… chest,” Pike says, and she points at her sternum, to an area mottled with scars from burns, fingerprints seared into her skin, bruises, and now the newest series of wounds.

“I can try ta find somethin’ fer ya,” Grog says. “I took most ‘a the medicine Keyleth was usin’ fer ya.”

Pike shakes her head. “Makes Pike… floaty.”

“‘S that bad?”

Pike frowns. “Pike wants… to be here.  With Grog.”

“But if yer really hurtin’...”

She shakes her head again. “Maybe… later.”

“Okay.  Promise you’ll tell me if it gets too bad?”

“Promise.”

Grog dresses her wounds, helps her put on her clothes and brush out her hair, and carefully feeds her two of the sweet buns and most of an apple.  As they sit in front of the fire a thought occurs to Grog. “Pikey.”

“Hmm?”

“D’ ya want some ale?  Might take th’ edge off things.”

Pike considers this, her fingers stroking his arm thoughtfully. “No,” she says at last. “Just… wanna be here.”

“Okay.”

Grog holds her, warm against him, until she goes a little soft and limp; he looks down to see that she’s fallen asleep.  He knows he should probably put her back in bed, because she’d be more comfortable, but there’s something incredibly safe about having her within touch range.  So he doesn’t move.

Then there’s a knock at the door.  Part of Grog immediately flies into a panic - Who is it?  Who figured out where he and Pike were? - and part of him gets mad - Whoever it is, they’re getting beat, ‘cause this is special and she’s finally safe and - and then he remembers meeting Kerr at the market.  He shifts Pike and gets up to open the door.

It is indeed Kerr, holding ale and a warm chicken pie.  He enters at Grog’s invitation, his eyes locked on the gnome sleeping against Grog’s chest. “You… you really did it,” Kerr says, voice hushed with awe.

He reaches out and touches her face.  She stirs slightly and her eyes open. “Hmm?” Pike asks softly.

“Hello, Pike,” Kerr says.

“Pike, this is Kerr,” Grog says. “He’s a friend of ours.”

“Pike and Grog… are safe?” Pike murmurs.

“Yes,” Grog tells her. “Very safe.”

“‘Kay,” Pike says, and she closes her eyes again.

Kerr looks aghast. “Oh, Grog.  What happened to her?”

“Some bad stuff,” Grog says. “None ‘a it’s really important.”

Kerr takes this in. “But she’s getting better?”

“Tha’s not really important either.  She’s Pike, an’ she’s here - tha’s wha’s important.  An’ we’re safe, an’ yer here, an’ yer a friend, an’ tha’s pretty important too.”

“Fair enough,” Kerr says after a beat. “Drink?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

 


 

At the end of the day Keyleth finally has the time to get back to the house she shares with Vax.  All of the medicines and bandages and salves and most of the special foods they’d procured for Pike are missing.  So are Pike’s clothes.  In their place, the book Gloriana gave Keyleth not too long ago, with an attached note from Grog: “Mite need thiz.”

“What are we going to do?” Keyleth asks Vax.

He looks up from his supper. “Might as well read that,” he says, indicating the book with his chin as he chews.

“How could we have let it get to this?”

“Kiki, you can’t seriously blame yourself for this,” Vax says. “Nobody knew Gloriana was going to hurt Pike.”

“But she was safe here.  We were safe here.”

Vax puts down his plate. “I have full confidence that wherever she is now, with Grog, she’s safe.”

“We know where they are, Vax,” Keyleth says. “So it’s not really ‘wherever.’”

He puts his arm around her. “Stop blaming yourself.”

“You say that like it’s easy.”

“I’m not blaming myself.”

“But it’s not your fault.”

“And it’s not yours, either.”

Keyleth sighs.

Vax strokes her hair. “It’s okay.  I feel just as confused as you do.”

“I guess there’s nothing to do but read that book and wait for Gloriana to wake up,” Keyleth says.

“We could talk about what we’re going to do after all of this dies down.”

“Like, tomorrow?”

“Maybe a little further beyond that.”

Keyleth turns to look at him. “What are you talking about?”

Vax shrugs. “We talked about what was going to happen if we ever got Pike back.  Now we did…”

“You mean having a family?”

Vax nods.

“Do you really think this is the time to talk about that?”

“I’m just trying to take your mind off what happened today.”

Keyleth gives him a small smile. “I promise, we’ll talk about it.”

She squeezes his hand. “Believe it or not, I’ve been thinking about it too.”

“At the very least, any child we have won’t be as much work as Pike,” Vax says.

“That’s because Pike is, even like this, still a headstrong monstah,” Keyleth reminds him. “She’s not a baby.”

“According to Alethir, it was her who demanded to leave.”

“Alethir.” Keyleth sighs. “Why would he do that?”

“Too many questions,” Vax says.

Keyleth picks up the book. “I guess it’s time to start looking for the answers.”

 


 

Pike wakes, her stomach sloshing with nausea.  Panic spikes into her chest and she lets out a whimper. “Grog?”

There’s no answer.  A wave of heat and pain sweeps over her body; she clenches her fingers into fists and tries to curl in on her body.  Her body throbs and aches as she moves, and her head swims. “Grog?”

She hears something, footsteps maybe, and there’s a voice at the door: “Pike?  Are you all right?”

It’s not Grog.  It’s a voice she vaguely remembers from earlier. “Grog,” Pike says.  Thick spittle rises in her mouth and she resists the urge to slap herself in the head as it becomes an overwhelming impulse. “Please… Grog?”

“He’s asleep,” the voice says.  It’s calming, gentle, but it’s not the one Pike wants to hear. “He asked if I would stay awake and check on you.”

“Please,” Pike pleads.  She chokes and the nausea surges up into her throat. “Grog.  Now.”

“Can I help you?”

Pike shakes her head.  There’s a pile of hot coals in her gut as she drags herself forward.  Under her body the bed shifts and she feels her feet dangle over the edge.  Her stomach flip-flops and she retches.

“Okay, okay,” the voice says, and two careful hands pick her up.

“No,” Pike moans, and she tries to slap out at whoever it is.  There’s a pulsing pounding in her head, though, and she can’t connect as effectively as she’d like to.

“It’s okay,” the voice says, and Pike finds herself shifted against a body, a bigger body than hers but smaller than Grog’s. “I’ll try to do my best.”

Pike grips into this stranger and feels the pain explode in her belly. “Unnhhh…” she grits out.  The room is tilting and she desperately wants to be anywhere else. “Grog?” she tries once more.

“Yeah, all right.”

They’re moving and sharp gold points of light stab Pike in the eyes as she tries to hang on. “Unnnhh… no… she’s gone, he’s gone…”

Her breathing picks up and she’s desperately trying to keep it together until they get to wherever Grog is, but she’s sliding and things are colliding and she doesn’t want to hurt whoever this nice man is, she’s sure he’s nice because he hasn’t tried to hurt her and he seems to care about her and he knows Grog and -

“Hey, monstah,” a familiar voice says, and Pike lets out a sob of joy as she’s transferred into Grog’s embrace. “What’s goin’ on?”

Her fingertips tingle and she has just a moment of clarity before the rest of the prophecy spills up her throat: “In the forest… under the sawmill… openings there… take her home, take her home…”

She vomits and spears of pain impale her forehead.  She’s crying now, shaking and sobbing and trying to get out of her body, arching her back like a distressed cat.  She brings one fist up to beat against her head but feels two of Grog’s fingers, gentle and calm, carefully redirect it.

“Tired,” she cries. “Tired.”

“I know,” Grog says softly. “I know.”

He strokes her forehead and red-gold beads dance in front of her sightless eyes.  Pike moans and Grog carefully repositions her body.  A cloth comes to her mouth and wipes her face; then she feels a cup against her lips. “Drink somethin’, ‘kay?” Grog suggests.

Pike tries to reach up for the cup, to help hold it, but she’s all limp noodle arms.  For some reason that makes her start to cry again, and suddenly she can’t get a breath in.

“Shh, Pike,” Grog murmurs.

“Tired!” she screams at him, trying to somehow impart that she doesn’t just mean from a lack of sleep. “So tired!”

Her body contracts in on itself and she gets one of her noodle arms up to punch herself in the head.  There’s pain as the red-gold starburst impacts, but it dissipates and it’s over much too soon.  She tries again, but feels Grog’s hand on her arm.

“No, buddy,” Grog tells her gently. “You don’t haveta fight, ‘kay?  We’re safe.  Yer safe.”

Pike wants to fight; she wants to feel something, she wants to do something.  She screams wordlessly at him, hoping he’ll get angry at her and she can fight him.

But there’s only a calm hand on her cheek, and she feels the cup at her lips again.

Pike reaches up and grabs it, chucking it away from her.  Her body jerks forward and she punches Grog’s chest. “Want… want…”

Pain grabs her spine and she screams again.  She crumples against Grog, sobbing.

“All right,” Grog says, and he pats her back. “Kerr, thank you fer stayin’.”

“It was my pleasure,” the other voice says.

They continue talking, but as the stress of the prophecy leaves Pike’s body most of it fades away, the conversation reduced to the vibrations she feels through Grog’s chest of the words he’s saying.  She closes her eyes and balls up small, letting those pulses travel through her body, competing with her racing heartbeat.

At some point the rumbly burrs of his talking stop, and she whispers, “Grog?”

“Yeah?”

“Sorry.”

There’s silence, and Pike moves one hand. “Sorry?” she tries again.

“No, monstah, don’t ever apologize,” Grog says, low and sad, and Pike hears something foreign and tearful in his voice. “This isn’t yer fault.  I wanna make it better fer ya, but I don’t know how.”

“Pike… wants… to be… better.”

Again there’s a pause, and when Grog speaks again Pike can hear he’s truly crying. “Yer perfect,” he tells her. “Yer amazin’, an’ wonderful, an’ so brave.  Tha’s all ya need t’ be, ‘kay?”

“‘Kay,” Pike whispers.

He takes her back to the bed and sets her down. “You wanna sleep some more?”

Pike nods. “Stay?”

“Yeah,” Grog answers. “Yeah, I’ll be right here.”

Chapter Text

“This woman is boring,” Vex announces.

“Will you stop rummaging through her things?” Percy asks without raising his gaze from his book. “What do you think you’re going to find?  A blood-soaked manifesto?”

Vex pauses, her hands on two of Gloriana’s books she’s removing from the shelf. “Don’t joke, Percival.  She hurt Pike.  There has to be a reason.”

“But do you really think she wrote it down?”

“No,” Vex says softly.

“So your frantic machinations about the room are…?”

“Making me feel better by destroying a part of her humanity just as she destroyed part of Pike’s.”

“Ah, yes, there is my wife.”

“How are you so mild about this?” Vex yanked two more of the books from the shelf and dumped them on the floor with the others. “You were madder about Grog taking Pike back to Westruun.”

“Because it’s Grog, on his own, with Pike."

A slip of parchment floated out of the next book Vex tossed to the ground, brushing her boot toe.  She bent down to pick it up, and without looking at it, she said, “What does it matter?  Pike’s not here to be hurt by the likes of kindly Grandmother McStabbyPants here, and Grog can take care of them both.”

“You weren’t convinced of that when we left Pike in Whitestone with you - that’s why you stayed instead of Grog, remember?”

Vex looks down at the parchment in her hand. “Oh,” she says softly.

“What?” Percy finally looks up from his book.

“I think I may have figured out a piece of this puzzle.”

 


 

Grog waits until Pike’s been asleep for a long time before he gets up and rustles up a bedroll, blanket, and a pillow for himself.  He sets up a nest on the floor next to Pike’s bed and tries to settle down.  His head is buzzing, though, and all he seems to hear is Pike’s voice.  Sorry.

Grog wishes somebody else was there.  Maybe Kerr, because Kerr’s so steady and solid and a good advice kind of guy.  And good at drinking.  Or maybe Wilhand, because Wilhand’s known Pike his entire life.  Wilhand would know what to do.  He misses Wilhand.

Maybe he’s overthinking this.  Maybe this isn’t a thinking thing.  So far things are going pretty good, right?  He’s gotten Pike away from the crazy old lady, and given her a bath, and that wasn’t as weird as Vex made it sound like it was going to be, and apart from cleaning up vomit - which he seems to be doing more of lately - nothing’s been too bad.

He lays back down.  From his position on the floor, he’s nearly level with Pike’s little bed, and he can look right into her face.  She’s sleeping, peacefully it seems, her body all balled up under the quilt.  Grog likes that.  He likes that she’s right here.

He reaches up and touches her face.  She opens her mouth a little and turns her head towards the touch, but she doesn’t wake up.

“Just checkin’,” Grog says softly, and then he pulls his blanket up and tries to get some sleep.

 


 

“You found this where?” Keyleth looks up at Vex.

“In a book.  At Gloriana’s.”

“Why were you going through her stuff?”

“I was kind of… well…”

“She was attempting to achieve emotional catharsis through rearrangement of a stranger’s personal property,” Percy says.

“You were messing up her house to make yourself feel better?” Keyleth raises her eyebrow.

“Yes.”

“And did it?”

“Kind of.”

“Oh.  Well, I guess if we have everything picked up before she wakes up…” Keyleth shrugs. “I can’t blame you.”

Vex grins and sticks her tongue out at Percy.

Keyleth smooths out the piece of parchment on the table, reading the words written in a large, sprawling, childish hand: Mommy!  I love you so much you are the BEST MOMMY and I love you forever.  Your daughter Alora.

“Once we found the first letter I thought there might be more,” Vex says, and she puts three more pieces of parchment next to the first. “They’re all from Alora, all addressed to her mother.”

“The last one talks about going to be an apprentice to the Order of the Night Sun,” Percy says, and sets down one final letter. “She was excited about it.”

“So it was her daughter,” Vax says. “Gloriana wanted to hurt Pike because of what the Order did to her daughter.”

Keyleth leans back in the chair. “That book you got from Gilmore, the one about the Gods’ Touched - it said they stopped picking Gods’ Toucheds from among the Order.  Why did they do that?”

“They weren’t worthy enough,” Vax answers. “Something like that.  I’d have to dig the book out.”

“Translation: it wasn’t giving them the results they wanted,” Percy says.

“So is Gloriana jealous?  Because her daughter got all excited about being a cultist and couldn’t achieve the highest goal of the Order, while some scrappy little nobody - gnome body - could?” Scanlan asks.  He grins, obviously pleased at the pun he’s made.

“I think Gloriana was more concerned with why Pike survived and her daughter didn’t,” Vax says quietly.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Scanlan tilts his head. “Pike’s got us.”

The twins exchange a glance.  Keyleth shuffles the letters.

“That’s not it?”

“Pike’s got Sarenrae,” Vax says.

“Nobody knows why,” Percy says.

“But it was enough to make Gloriana angry,” Vex says, and she takes out the small book. “When she went and rescued her daughter, Alora was still alive.  But she was… different.”

“Different like Pike?” Scanlan reaches for the book.

“No,” Vex says. “Worse.”

“Alora was cannibalistic,” Vax says. “Feral.  She ate a hand.”

“Her own?” Scanlan looks up, eyes wide.

“No, it was her uncle’s.”

“Still, that’s awful.”

“They ended up keeping her in what was basically a safe room - not too different from the dungeon they broke her out of,” Vax says. “She couldn’t be let out because she was too aggressive.  She never slept.  She rarely ate.  She had to wear restraints most of the time, because otherwise she’d try to eat her own flesh.  She would rub her head on the floor until it was raw and bleeding.”

Scanlan freezes with Gloriana’s memoir in his hands.

“Alora lasted eight months on the outside,” Vex says. “After that Gloriana asked Kohren for a potion to…”

“... to end her suffering,” Keyleth says.

“Wait - your dad knew about this?”

“He knew Gloriana’s daughter was rescued from a bad situation.  He didn’t realize it was the same bad situation as Pike’s until we read the book earlier,” Keyleth replies.

“He’s worried something similar might happen to Pike,” Vax says.

“That’s ridiculous,” Scanlan says, looking between his friends. “We’ve made Pike so much better.  She hasn’t tried to eat any of us.”

“I know.  We’re all kind of in agreement on this - Alora was a totally different case.  But there’s fear here now, since Gloriana has been for all intents and purposes a harmless old lady her entire time here,” Keyleth says. “They’re a little afraid of how things could have gone worse.”

“Worse than everyone falling asleep?” Scanlan raises his eyebrow.

“Nobody saw what actually happened last night except for us,” Percy says. “So yes, a lot worse.”

Scanlan sets the book down next to him. “What now, Kiki?”

Keyleth shrugs. “We go back to our ‘real lives,’ I guess.  Vax and I stay here… Vex and Percy go back to Whitestone… you’re free to get back to your tour, or staying with Kaylie, or whatever you want.  We’ve done what we can.”

“This is it?”

“There isn’t anything else to do, Scanlan.  Grog’s made it clear that he doesn’t want anybody around until Pike’s better, and only he knows what metric that’ll follow,” Vax says.

“We can’t all just wait around forever,” Percy adds.

“What about Wilhand?” Scanlan asks.

“We won’t stop looking,” Keyleth says. “But we don’t have any leads.”

“This feels way too much like an end,” Vex says, and she sits down, heavily, across from Keyleth.

“You said it,” Scanlan says.

“It’s not a bad end,” Percy opines. “It’s pretty much the best one we could have hoped for, all things considered.”

“So that’s it.” The words taste tinny as they come out of Scanlan’s mouth.

“For now,” Keyleth says.

“For now,” Scanlan says softly.

 


 

Pike opens her eyes to familiar blankness, her heart speeding up as she comes to half-consciousness. “Grog?” she asks blurrily.  Her body feels heavy and she thinks she could sleep for a few more hours, but she’s restless and panicky and she wants some reassurance first.

“‘M here,” Grog says, and she feels a hand on her head. “Whaddya need?”

“Hold.”

“‘Kay.” The hand leaves her head and there’s some noise, like the sounds of bedding moving, and then she’s lifted out of bed.

“Sleepy,” Pike tells him as she snuggles against his neck. “That’s… okay?”

“Yep.”

“Pike and Grog… are safe?”

“Pike an’ Grog are safe.”

With a sigh of satisfaction, Pike closes her eyes again.

When she wakes for the second time, she’s laying on something sturdy and firm.  She reaches up and realizes it’s Grog’s chest, covered by some sort of quilt.  There’s soft snoring, and Pike has to smile.  She readjusts her body a little, shifts the quilt over her, and puts her head back down, letting Grog’s snores vibrate her body.

She thinks back to their flight from Zephra, and feels guilty.  Maybe they didn’t need to leave their friends the way they did, without any discussion.  And she was happy in Zephra, for the time she was there.  Keyleth and Vax took good care of her; she misses the safety of sleeping between them.

Pike wants things to be less confusing, but she’s pretty sure that’s not going to happen.  A tiny part of her misses the blank simplicity of her existence before she got her memories back, but just a tiny part.  Things are mostly much better now that she knows who she is.  She’s safer, for one.  She doesn’t have to worry that being captured by Ieliena’s minions would mean an immediate return to a Gods’ Touched state.  She might have a fighting chance.

Grog shifts and the snores stop.  A hand comes down to stroke her head. “Pike?” he says softly.

“Yeah?”

“Are ya hungry?”

“Yeah.”

“Should we have breakfast?”

“Yeah.”

Grog scoops her up and carries her through the house, setting her down gently on a chair.  He walks away from her and is gone for a few minutes, then comes back.  Pike feels him settle down on the floor next to her, and then his hand gently touches her mouth.  She turns her head and he slips a bite of sweet bun into her mouth.

She eats a sweet bun and an apple, and drinks some cold water, and feels much better. “Grog?”

“Yeah?”

“Can Pike… brush her hair?”

“Yeah!  Of course!  Lemme figger out where I put yer brush…”

Pike drinks the rest of her water and waits for Grog to come back, and eventually he does.  He puts her brush into her hand. “You need help?” he asks.

She shakes her head. “Pike wants… to try it.”

And she does.  Her arms aren’t used to the exertion, but she’s stronger than she was even a few days ago.  She moves the brush carefully through her hair, taking time to work out all the knots and tangles.  When it’s silky smooth again she turns towards where she knows Grog is sitting. “Can you… show Pike… how to braid it?”

“Uh… I can try,” Grog says.

His large hands take her small ones, and he gently takes her through the motions of separating her hair into three strands and weaving them together. “‘S a bit messy,” he says when they’re finished, “but…”

She interrupts him. “It’s very good.”

Pike stands up and turns towards him.  She stands on her tiptoes and reaches up with her hands.  When she finds his face, she kisses it.

“Oh, Pikey,” he says.

“Pike wants… to go… for a walk,” she says.

“That sounds like a real nice idea.  Um, but let’s put on some clothes first, ‘kay?”

 


 

“Vax?”

“Hmm?”

“Are you awake?”

“I wasn’t.”

“Oh.  Sorry.”

“It’s all right.  What’s going on?”

“I just… I miss Pike.”

Vax turns towards Keyleth and opens his eyes.  It’s still dark in the room, sort of, probably very early in the morning.  She’s on her side, closer to him than she’s been able to sleep in quite awhile, since there’s no Pike in the middle of their bed.  He reaches out to stroke her cheek. “It’s going to be okay, though, Kiki.  You know that, right?”

Keyleth sighs. “I was just… really happy with her here.”

“She was happy, too.”

“And you?”

“Of course I was happy.”

“When she’s… better… or when Grog’s ready to give her up, can we bring her back here?  For good?”

Vax smiles. “I think that’s up to Grog,” he says.

“Nope,” Keyleth says. “She’s coming here.  She belongs here.”

“Again, I think Grog might have some other ideas.”

“But you were helping her to get better.  And she found her wings here, and there’s places here for her to fly safely if she wants to, and the healers were doing pretty well with all her scars…”

“Kiki, you don’t have to convince me,” Vax says with a grin. “But tell you what - when we see her again, we can ask her.”

Keyleth sighs. “Fine.”

There’s a few beats of silence where Vax closes his eyes and tries to go back to sleep.  Then he hears voices outside.  They’re getting closer.  They sound upset.

Knock knock knock.

Keyleth groans.

“If we ignore them, maybe they’ll go away,” Vax whispers.

“I wish.”

Knock knock knock.  “Headmaster!”

“That sounds like Shula,” Vax says.

“Ugh,” Keyleth says.  She pushes back the covers and gets up.

Downstairs she opens the door to find Shula and another of the elders, Ayla, standing on the doorstep.

“Headmaster, we’re sorry to disturb you this early in the morning,” Shula says apologetically. “But Gloriana’s awake, and she says she’d like to speak with you.”

Keyleth looks between them, both wearing serious expressions. “All right.  Give me a few minutes to get dressed, and I’ll meet you there.”

She goes back upstairs to where Vax is dozing, and kisses him. “I have to go.  Gloriana’s awake.”

“Oh,” Vax says. “Okay.  Have a good time.”

He rolls over, already fully asleep.

Keyleth throws on a dress, runs a comb through her hair, dons her headdress and her sandals, grabs her staff, and heads down to Gloriana’s house.

Her father is standing on the porch with Shula and Ayla.  His face is grim. “She’s awake,” he says. “Do you know what you’re going to discuss with her?”

“Honestly, I’m still too upset to think through any questions,” Keyleth says. “I was planning on just letting her talk.”

Kohren nods. “Would you like to have us accompany you?”

“Yes,” Keyleth says. “You’re reserved from the situation, at least a bit, and you might be able to ask her things I might forget about.”

“Good idea,” Shula says.

Keyleth enters the house first and goes into Gloriana’s bedroom.  The older woman is sitting up in a rocking chair.  Her hair and clothes are less wild than they were when they found her torturing Pike, and she looks at Keyleth with a steady, even expression. “Headmaster,” she says, her voice neutral.

“Gloriana,” Keyleth says.

“Thank you for coming to speak with me.”

“It is my duty as the Headmaster to investigate any crimes committed against the Ashari or their guests,” Keyleth says.  She feels anger pulsing in her stomach, near the base of her spine.  She forces it down, trying not to give into it.

“Yes.  I suppose that’s what I did,” Gloriana says.

“We found your letters from Alora,” Keyleth says. “My friends went through your things while you were asleep.  We wanted to figure out why you might do something to someone so vulnerable as Pike.”

Gloriana shakes her head. “She’s not vulnerable.”

“She’s blind and still re-learning to walk,” Keyleth says. “This isn’t her home or anywhere close to it.  Without someone to guide her, she is extremely vulnerable, and the fact that you took advantage of her disgusts me.  You took her from my home - from my home - and as your leader I find that intolerable.”

“She survived!” Gloriana spits out, her voice rising for the first time. “She lived through that hellhole that took my Alora!  All I wanted was to figure out how!”

“By cutting her open?” Again Keyleth pushes the rage down inside her.  She thinks of Grog then, telling her how to channel her fury.  She thinks of Grog holding Pike in his arms, and how difficult it must be for him to look at his best friend and see who she used to be, when now in front of him is just a half-broken (but recovering, her mind pulses at her) someone else.

Gloriana’s eyes seem to blacken with anger. “I have the notes of what they did to Alora.  They put things in her.  They took things from her!  I would never cut your friend open.”

“We found you in the middle of doing just that!” Keyleth snaps, the rage making its way to her words for the first time.

“No,” Gloriana says firmly. “I needed her blood for the ritual.”

Keyleth turns to look at her father and the two elders.  She’s heard of blood magic before, but she’s never known any Ashari who practice it.

“Can you describe to us the ritual?” Kohren asks.

Gloriana looks down at her hands, then back up at her panel of interrogators. “The subject’s blood is used to see inside of them - to see their vital systems.  Other than getting the blood from them, it doesn’t cause the subject any pain.  She would have been asleep right after it started, except we were interrupted.”

“Why didn’t you just ask her?”

“Do you really think any of you would have let her participate in this?” Gloriana scoffs.

“Pike is her own person,” Keyleth says. “If you asked her, and told her why, the odds are good she would have said yes.  All she ever wants to do is help people.  It’s who she’s always been.  Instead you abduct her, take her to a strange place, and strap her down to a table - which is exactly what they did to her in captivity.”

Gloriana shakes her head.

“I know that you were hurt in the aftermath of the abduction, and for that I am sorry.  We healed you, though, and I hope you won’t have any after-effects from that trauma.  But I can’t let this go unpunished, Gloriana,” Keyleth says. “I need to speak with the council of elders, and we will determine a suitable punishment for you.  And if you have any information on where to find Ieliena or the Order of the Night Sun, I am ordering you to turn it over to me immediately.”

Gloriana moves to get up.  Kohren puts his hand up. “I’ll get it, Gloriana.  Just tell me where it is.”

“There’s a loose floorboard under the window in the front room,” Gloriana says grudgingly. “That’s where I keep all of my research.”

Kohren nods and goes into the front room.

Keyleth looks over at Shula and Ayla. “Anything you’d like to add?”

They shake their heads.

Kohren returns, holding a leather-bound tome and a small wooden box.

“I will take these materials and review them,” Keyleth says. “I will come back if I have any further questions for you, and I will have an update for you as to the decision of the council on your punishment.  Until then, I order you not to leave this house.”

“Yes, Headmaster,” Gloriana says quietly.

“We’ll have a guard outside.  If you need anything, you can let them know,” Keyleth says.

Gloriana nods.

Keyleth picks up her staff and leaves.  Kohren, Shula, and Ayla follow her out.  When they’re a bit away from the house, Keyleth says, “Find Oreg and ask him to stand guard.”

“Yes, Headmaster,” Shula says.

“Thank you for your support here this morning,” Keyleth says. “I need… to go home and sleep a little more.  Can we meet to review Gloriana’s stuff in a couple of hours?”

“Of course,” Kohren says. “I’ll take it with me to my home.  Whenever you’re ready, we can look over it.”

“Okay.  Great,” Keyleth says. “I’m sorry, Dad.  I’m just so tired.”

“I understand,” Kohren says, and he kisses her on the cheek.

They separate at the bottom of the hill leading up to Keyleth’s house, and she climbs up alone.  Back in the bedroom she slips out of her shoes and headdress, and crawls back into bed next to Vax.

“How’d it go?” he murmurs.

“You’re never going to believe what she claimed she was doing,” Keyleth says, and she fills him in on Gloriana’s supposed ritual plans.

“And you believe her?”

“I don’t know what to think,” Keyleth says. “It’s been a long couple of days.”

“Just… rest for awhile,” Vax says. “Stay here with me.”

“Okay,” Keyleth says, and smiles, and cuddles up next to him.

“Took a lot of convincing there,” Vax says, and kisses her cheek.

 


 

Grog finds a broomstick in the kitchen, and with a little hacking and chopping, cuts it to the right size for a cane for Pike.  He hands it to her. “That okay?”

She tests it out, moving slowly across the room.  Her legs get wobbly halfway across.  Grog, right behind her, takes her free elbow. “Easy.  No hurry.”

“Cane… is fine,” Pike says.

“Good.  We’ll walk as slow as y’ want,” Grog says. “Anywhere in particular you wanna go?”

“Temple,” Pike answers.

“Are y’ sure?  That’s…”

“Temple,” Pike repeats, a little more firmly.

“Got it.”

Grog locks the house behind them and they set off.  Pike moves her cane side to side, tapping the cobblestones.  Grog notices how she weaves a little bit, not having any frame of reference for where the edges of the road are.  He catches her whenever she stumbles, setting her upright with gentle hands.

“Pike, I know y’ got yer memories back from that watery lady… but is there anythin’ y’ don’t remember?”

Pike slows to a stop and tilts her head. “How would Pike… know… if she doesn’t… remember something?”

Grog thinks about this. “I guess that makes sense.”

They walk on in companionable silence.  Grog takes Pike’s hand and squeezes it.  She turns her head and smiles at him. “Pike… is happy,” she tells him.

“Grog is happy too,” he replies.

The temple, though not particularly bustling in the morning hour, has a few clerics and a few worshippers inside.  Grog stops Pike at the door. “D’ you remember buildin’ this?  Before… before you went away?”

Pike nods gravely.

“So they’ll all be real happy t’ see ya,” Grog goes on. “An’ they might wanna make a fuss over ya.  Lemme know if y’ don’t want that.”

“Pike… wants to talk… to Sarenrae.”

“And only Sarenrae?”

She shakes her head. “Other people… need to talk… to Pike.  And that’s… okay.”

“If ya look like yer gonna go… weird…” Grog pauses. “... I’m gonna take ya outa there, though, okay?”

“Okay,” Pike says, and she squeezes his hand.

Sure enough, Pike’s entrance in the temple causes a near-uproar of everyone inside, and they gather around her in a vibrant chattering circle, patting her cheeks and touching her shoulders like she’s some holy relic.  Grog tries to explain things as fast as he can - “She’s blind, so she can’t see ya” and “She’s not too steady on her feet, so can we get ‘er a chair?” - and keeps his eyes on Pike’s face.  She doesn’t show any signs of spiraling off into a feral fit, and he feels the tension in his chest loosen as each moment passes.

Someone brings Pike a small cake and a mug of a sweet lemon beverage, and they offer some of the same to Grog, but he’s too preoccupied to enjoy the snacks much.  The head cleric, a beautiful elven woman, takes up a position at Pike’s side, holding her hand and re-introducing people to Pike as the group moves in to speak with her.

At some point Grog takes a few steps back, confident that Pike is all right, and backs into the large Sarenrae statue in the center of the small chapel, where they’ve set up the meet-and-greet.  He bows his head. “Sorry,” he says. “Just… tryin’ t’ get outa the way.”

There’s a gentle touch on his shoulder, and he swears he sees the statue smile.  But then it’s gone.

“Grog?”

He hears Pike’s voice from across the chapel, sounding a bit worried, and he hurries back towards her.

“Grog’s here?” Pike says before he can get to her, and he sees her face, suddenly pinched.

“Grog’s here,” he tells her, and touches her shoulder.

“Pike… needs…” She chokes.

The head cleric goes white.

“‘S all right,” Grog says. “We’re just gonna… take a little break, ‘kay?  We’ll come back in a little bit.”

Before anyone can protest, he grabs Pike and her cane up from the chair and bolts out to the courtyard with her.

She’s breathing heavily and there’s a thick strand of drool spilling from her mouth by the time he sets her down again.

“Can y’ still hear me?” Grog asks as he wipes her mouth.

She nods, gripping his arms. “Pike… doesn’t want to go,” she pants.

“Then don’t,” Grog says. “Stay here.  Fight it.”

He realizes as he speaks that he has no idea if that’s even possible, and he feels bad the second the suggestion leaves his mouth. “Sorry.  I know y’ can’t… control it.  ‘S okay if ya haveta leave.  I’ll be right here.”

“Pike wanted…” She heaves. “... Sarenrae… to fix.”

She digs her fingers into his arms, whimpering. “Please… please…”

The prophecy slams into her body and she goes rigid.  Grog holds her up, watching as her facial expression changes. “‘S okay, Pike.  Tell me whatever ya haveta say.”

Pike wriggles as though trying to shake bugs from her body.  Her back arches and she chokes, retching and gagging, thick spittle dripping down her face.  Grog tries as best he can to mop her face clean, but it becomes a losing battle. “... down… forgotten… wheel turning, water crushing… in there, in there…”

She screams and Grog’s heart breaks.  The old woman he could handle.  This… he has no idea what to do.

Pike jerks back from him, her body spasming, and Grog watches, terrified, as she falls backwards into the grass of the courtyard, caught in some terrifying episode.  It’s worse than anything he’s seen.

“Help!” he yells into the temple. “Help!”

Still on her back, still twitching and jerking, Pike throws up.  Grog grabs her body and rolls it away from him, letting the vomit drain from her mouth.  He’s shaking, and he doesn’t like that.  But he likes what’s happening to Pike even less.

People come running from the temple, and as they bend down, hands moving with magic and mouths moving with words, Grog closes his eyes, Pike still spasming under his fingers, and something like a prayer leaves his lips.

He’s not sure what it sounds like, or who it’s going to, but he knows it needs to go out into the world.  He can't keep it inside anymore - it's not doing any good in there.

 


 

Scanlan reaches Westruun near the noon hour, and, as he is starving, takes it upon himself to visit the market first.  He gets two apricots and a pretzel sandwich, perches atop the cement lip of a fountain, and enjoys his lunch while people-watching.  Everyone in Westruun looks pretty normal, and Scanlan likes that about them.  There’s no drama - or, at least, it’s the kind that people keep under wraps and in their homes.  And by drama, he means “dragons” or “demons” or anything quite as invasive.

Eventually he’s finished, and he starts walking towards Wilhand’s house.  On the way he passes two women in simple dresses, and he smiles at them as they go.  They seem preoccupied, though, and barely notice him.  As they go by he hears snatches of their conversation:

“ - never seen anything like that.”

“Poor dear, I hope she’s all right.”

“She used to be the leader of that temple, and to see her like that…”

Something in Scanlan’s chest seizes, and he turns back towards the women. “Hey!”

They turn around.

“Which temple are you talking about?”

“Sarenrae’s,” one of the women says.

“The little gnome woman, the one who helped build it, she’s -”

That’s all Scanlan needs to hear.  He turns and bolts towards the temple.

A thin elven cleric looks at him skeptically when he arrives, out of breath, lute slamming against his back with every step. “You’re who?”

“I’m a friend of Grog and Pike’s,” Scanlan says. “And Wilhand’s.  Is Pike… is she still here?”

Again the cleric hesitates.

“If she’s sick, I can help,” Scanlan says.

“Let me just check with…”

“Please,” Scanlan says.

The cleric looks down at him, something like pity in her eyes, and she says, “Come with me.”

She leads him down a cool, dim hallway to what seems like a small hospital ward attached to the temple, and opens the door into a similarly cool, dim room.  Grog is kneeling next to a cot.  Scanlan takes a few hesitant steps into the room, and the cleric closes the door behind him.

“She’s all right,” Grog says without turning around, and Scanlan realizes he must think the cleric has reentered.

“What happened?” Scanlan asks.

Grog turns at the sound of his voice. “What’re ya doin’ here?  I was clear on -”

“Something’s obviously happened,” Scanlan says.  He takes another few steps forward.  Pike looks absolutely wrecked.  Her body lies somewhat brokenly on the cot, and as he watches, a tremor runs through it.  There’s something that looks suspiciously like dried blood on her lips.

Another spasm jerks Pike’s body, and a low moan escapes her mouth.

“She… a prophecy happened,” Grog says, his voice low. “‘Cept she didn’t come back.  Kept throwin’ up, ‘til she was throwin’ up blood.  The clerics… sorta got it t’ stop, but…”

He bows his head, and turns away from Scanlan.

“What can I do?” Scanlan asks.

“I dunno,” Grog says. “Maybe there’s nothin’.”

But Scanlan’s already taking steps forward, his hands swirling with purple energy as he searches for a song, to help in the only way he knows how. “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world below… there is no sickness, no toil, no danger… in that bright land to which I go.”

Pike’s next breath seems to be easier, and something in her tense and spastic body position relaxes.

“I’m going there to see my father, and all my loved ones who’ve gone on… I’m just going over Jordan… I’m just going over home.”

He watches as Pike whimpers, but relaxes further.  Scanlan turns to Grog. “She didn’t come out of it at all?”

Grog shakes his head. “No.  Tried wakin’ her up an’ she’s just gone floppy.  That cleric said ‘unresponsive.’”

“What was the prophecy?”

“She had one yesterday, too,” Grog says, “an’ I think they’re connected.  She was talkin’ ‘bout a sawmill.”

Scanlan sits down at the edge of the cot and strokes Pike’s head. “Are there any sawmills around here?”

Grog shakes his head.

“We need everybody else,” Scanlan says.

“No,” Grog says, his voice low. “We’re keepin’ Pike outa danger.”

“Grog, buddy,” Scanlan says softly. “She’s in danger.  And it’s not from anything outside now, not an old lady or those cultists.  Right now, she’s the danger.”

Grog looks away from him, to Pike’s still form. “Let’s take ‘er home, and I’ll think on it.  Fer right now I just wanna be home, with her.”

He leans in and picks Pike up.  She moans a little, and Grog gently pats her back. “‘S all right, buddy,” he says. “I’m here.”

“Grog,” Scanlan says. “You know we can’t solve this alone.”

Grog turns to look at Scanlan, and he has tears in his eyes. “I know.”

Chapter Text

Against the advice of the clerics, they leave the temple of Sarenrae.  On the way back to Wilhand’s, Pike’s body jerks again in another seizure and blood pours from her mouth.  Scanlan steps in immediately, his hands and voice moving to heal her.  She twitches and falls limp against Grog.

Scanlan looks up at his friend. “This is bad, Grog.  We should take her back to the temple.”

“They can’t do anything for her,” Grog says firmly. “You can do it.”

“Yeah, but I have to sleep sometimes,” Scanlan retorts.

He softens his tone. “At least until the others get here, Grog.   Please.”

“No,” Grog says, and he starts walking again.

Scanlan trots after him for several blocks, and catches up just as Grog opens the door to Wilhand’s.  Grog stops immediately inside and Scanlan nearly runs into the back of his knees.  Grog lowers Pike to Scanlan’s level and Scanlan can see the tremors starting to run through Pike’s body again.  He sighs and begins casting another healing spell.

By the time Scanlan gets out a message to Vex and Percy, one to Keyleth and Vax, and another to Allura, Pike’s gone through four more episodes.  The last one goes on the longest, her body contorting, her eyes rolling back into her head, and a look of absolute terror on her face.  Scanlan finally casts Sleep, only to see what happens.  Pike drops into unconsciousness, and Scanlan tries to take a deep breath.

“Grog, this isn’t safe,” he says, somehow ignoring how fast his heart’s pounding in his chest. “Something’s going to happen.  She’s going to choke on her own blood, or we’re not going to catch one of these… things and she’s going to hurt herself.  We can’t stay awake the entire time.”

“So sleep now,” Grog says gruffly. “I’ll wake ya up.”

Scanlan sighs. “That’s not the point.”

“Then what is it?”

Scanlan kneels next to Pike’s bed and gently unsticks some wisps of hair from the blood wreathing her mouth. “Never mind,” he says softly. “Can you… get a washcloth or something?  We shouldn’t leave her like this.”

“Yeah,” Grog says, and he leaves the room.

Scanlan kisses the top of Pike’s head. “I’m sorry,” he says. “And I’m sorry for whatever’s going to happen next, because no matter what, it’s not going to be good.”

 


 

Vex wakes to a message from Scanlan, and finds Percy entertaining Tary and Tary’s entourage in the dining room.  She flings her arms around her friend. “Tary, darling!  When did you get here?”

“Oh, not but a few hours ago,” Tary answers, looking at his husband, Lawrence, for confirmation.

Lawrence nods, and Doty says, “Tary.”

“Hello,” Vex says to Lawrence, and she smiles at Doty before leaning over Percy’s shoulder to whisper in his ear: “Did you get the message from Scanlan?”

He nods, his face becoming grave.

“What is it?” Tary asks. “Strife in your marital endeavors?”

“Fortunately, no,” Percy says, smiling. “It is… quite a long story.”

“Well, we’re here now, and it’s breakfast time, is it not?” Tary turns to look at one of the clocks in the dining room. “Tell us over a meal, and let’s see how we can help.”

Vex just shakes her head, a small smile on her lips. “You don’t even know if it’s a problem that can be solved.”

“With Taryon Darrington on the case - nothing is too far out of reach.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Percy says, and he gets up to order breakfast.

When they’re settled with eggs and breakfast meats and biscuits and the other trappings of a traditional Whitestone meal, Percy looks at Vex, who nods and wipes her mouth. “Tary,” she says, “I’m sure you remember Pike.”

“Daughter of Sarenrae,” Lawrence says, surprising everyone at the table.

“You’ve heard of her,” Percy says.

“I’ve heard all of Tary’s adventures,” Lawrence answers. “Of course, they get significantly better after I started co-starring in them.”

That gets a round of chuckles, and Tary tells Doty to take that down before he turns back to Vex. “Yes.  I’ve always been sorry that I couldn’t make it to any of the memorials you have for her in Emon, but our schedule with the Brigade is often so… unpredictable.”

“It’s all right,” Percy says.

“You were there in spirit, I’m sure,” Vex adds.

“It was last month, if I’m correct,” Tary says.

“It was,” Vex says. “And afterwards… we got some information that Pike was still alive.”

Lawrence puts down his coffee cup. “Credible information?”

“Upon follow-up, yes,” Percy says.

“And?  Where is she now?”

“In Westruun, with Grog and Scanlan,” Percy says.

“Wonderful!” Tary says, a big smile on his face.  It falls as he looks between Vex and Percy. “It’s… not wonderful, is it?”

Percy sighs.  Vex squeezes his hand. “She was… tortured, Tary.  For a very long time, for some very nefarious purposes,” she says. “As you can imagine, it was extremely rough on her mind, body, and soul.  We’ve been struggling over the last month or so to try to bring her back to normalcy, and just when it seems we’re getting even close, something else happens…”

She cuts herself off abruptly, thinking of the panic she heard in Scanlan’s message.  Percy takes over. “And we received a message this morning from Scanlan that seems to say things have taken a turn for the worse.”

Tary puts down his fork. “Then what are we still doing here?”

“We don’t know if there’s anything we can do,” Percy says.

“But don’t you want to be there?”

“Of course we do,” Percy answers.

“Then I shall say again - what are we still doing here?”

Vex gives him a sad smile. “Grog asked us to give him and Pike some space.”

“But if Scanlan’s there… and things are going badly…” Tary trails off, looking between Percy and Vex.

“We’ll go,” Lawrence says. “Whatever the problem, we can handle it.”

Tary’s still watching Percy and Vex. “Right?  You’re going to go?”

“Of course,” Percy says. “It’s just… we’re very tired, Tary.  It’s been very difficult to watch Pike go through this.”

Lawrence puts his arm on the back of Tary’s chair. “How’s it been for her?”

Percy wants to punch Tary’s husband, but as a De Rolo and a nice man, he doesn’t.

“Obviously difficult,” Vex says, seemingly dealing with the same emotions Percy is. “Nothing we were doing is helping her.  It all seems worthless.”

“Being with her isn’t worthless,” Percy hurries to say. “Just…”

“It isn’t the joyous reunion you were hoping for,” Tary says. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth it.”

“No one’s arguing it’s not worth it,” Vex says. “But it’s like our lives have to stop to take care of this, and we weren’t prepared for the scope of work this is taking to make her better!”

“That seems selfish, Little E.G.,” Tary says. “How much time of her own did Pike spend to bring all of you back to life?  Your brother, Percival, Scanlan - how much time?  How often did she put her body through things none of us truly understood in order to sacrifice a small bit of her humanity to bring members of Vox Machina back into the land of the living?  How often did you thank her for that, instead of just thinking that’s what her job was?”

Percy grips his teacup tightly.  Vex puts her hand over his. “That was her job, Tary.  One of them.”

“Right.  And she did it without complaint, day in and day out, taking care of all of you.  And now that she needs the favor returned, you’re realizing how much work it is, how demoralizing it can be to see someone so intimately broken and in need, to be so close to someone’s suffering, you’ve decided it’s too much for you.  If you ask me, Grog and Scanlan are the ones we should admire.”

“You don’t know anything,” Vex snaps at him. “I took care of her while they were gone, trying to find more information on what was done to her.  Percy took care of her.  We all took turns.”

“And yet from the way you’re talking about her, she’s not better, and you’re here, back in your comfortable life,” Tary says.

Percy puts his cup down on the table, perhaps with a bit more force than he intended. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Tary shrugs. “Seems to me there’s only one place you should be, and it’s not here.”

He eats the last bite of his toast and wipes his mouth daintily. “Doty, see to our belongings.  We’ll be heading to Westruun at the first available opportunity.”

“Tary,” Doty says, and creaks out of the room.

“I’ll freshen up and we’ll be on our way,” Tary says to Lawrence. “Hopefully we won’t be making this journey alone.”

“Quite,” Lawrence says, and drinks the rest of his tea.

They exit the dining room, leaving Percy and Vex alone.

“We’re assholes,” Percy says quietly.

“No, we’re tired,”  Vex says.

“No, we’re assholes,” Percy repeats. “When we got that message from Scanlan we should have been out of here immediately.  He was talking about her like she was dying, and Scanlan’s not much for hyperbole, at least when it comes to Pike.  We’re selfish.  Your brother and Keyleth are probably already there.”

Vex puts her head in her hands.

“You’re not a bad person,” Percy says. “It’s all right to let this get to us.  It’s how we handle it that speaks to who we are now.”

“How are you such a good man?”

Percy shrugs. “Had a lot of positive experiences with a very good woman.”

“I’ll have to meet her someday.”

 


 

Scanlan almost cries with joy when the door opens to admit Keyleth and Vax.  He’s exhausted from kneeling over Pike’s twitching, jerking, spasming body for the better part of the night.  After she fell out of bed while both Scanlan and Grog were napping, they moved her to a pallet in the middle of the living room.  Since then she’s gone in and out of episodes, vomiting blood and sobbing.  Anguish and fear are on her face when she breaches the surface of consciousness; otherwise she seems to drift in a daze.

Keyleth immediately goes to Pike’s side and Scanlan sees Keyleth’s hands light with soft green; she presses her fingers to Pike’s forehead and murmurs something into Pike’s ear.  Pike coughs and her eyes flicker.

“Shh,” Keyleth whispers. “It’s all right.  I’m here.  You’re safe.”

Pike’s lips form a question, her blank eyes roll towards Keyleth, and she winces.  Her hand in Keyleth’s twitches, and then she goes limp.

Keyleth looks up at Grog and Scanlan. “Go get some sleep.  Vax will wake you if there’s any change.”

Grog looks uncertain. “But if she’s…”

“The second anything changes, big guy,” Vax promises. “We’ll take good care of her.”

Scanlan, beyond tired, is already halfway up the stairs before he hears Grog behind him. “Good call,” he says.

“‘M only gonna sleep fer a little bit.”

Scanlan’s pretty sure Grog’s asleep before he is.

Downstairs Keyleth looks at Vax, her eyes filling with tears. “What happened?” she asks him, her voice cracking. “She left two days ago.”

“I don’t know, Kiki,” Vax says, and he puts his arms around her.

“I don’t want to lose her,” Keyleth sobs into his shoulder.

“We’re not going to lose,” Vax tells her firmly.

Behind them Pike’s body jerks, her back arching.  She retches and bloody bile spills from her mouth.  Keyleth pulls back from Vax and grabs Pike, trying to sit her upright.  Pike moans and coughs, her body flailing against Keyleth’s grasp.

“Set her down,” Vax says gently, and helps Keyleth put Pike on her side.  Fluid drains from Pike’s mouth, and she breathes as though she’s been running for a very long time.  Vax brings his hands up and casts Lay on Hands.

She needs help, he tells the Raven Queen.   Please.

I’ll see what I can do, comes the response.   But she’s very close to me, my champion.

“I know,” Vax murmurs. “Push her back.”

I’ll see what I can do.

A soft glow emits from his hands and he hears Pike’s breathing even out.

“Thank you,” Vax breathes.

He looks up to see Keyleth still sobbing. “I can’t,” Keyleth chokes out. “This is too much, Vax.  She’s… she’s…”

“She’s still here, and she’s still fighting,” Vax tells her. “So we fight too.”

Keyleth just strokes Pike’s hair, seemingly ignorant of the tears dripping down onto the strands of white.

Vax holds Pike’s hand and whenever the twitches radiate down into his palm, he casts another round of Lay on Hands.  At some point he feels the thrum of the Raven Queen’s energy beneath his breastbone, and he focuses on it, asking for just another minute.  And then another.  And then another.

He hears Keyleth’s sobs stop, and looks up to see her casting another healing spell over Pike’s still form.

“What do we do, Vax?” Keyleth asks softly, not looking at him.

“One more minute,” Vax says. “We go one more minute.  And we figure out the next minute after that.”

Keyleth bows her head again.

One minute.  One minute.  One minute.

No twitches.  Pike’s breathing is even.

One minute.  One minute.  One minute.  One -

Pike lets out a tiny mew, reminiscent of a drowning kitten.  She squeezes Vax’s hand.

“We’re right here, Pickle,” Vax murmurs, getting close to her ear. “Thank you for holding on.”

A spasm rolls through her body.  She coughs, low and in her chest, and blood spatters her lips.  Then she’s still.

One minute.

Pike’s head slams back into the pallet as her arms jerk towards her body.  She goes rigid, and her mouth opens, letting out a howl of pain and anguish.

Vax clenches her hand and casts Lay on Hands.  It doesn’t seem to have any effect.

Keyleth casts another healing spell, pulsing green energy into Pike’s chest.  Pike’s howl softens, and her body relaxes, then tenses and seizes again.  She screams, and her legs pull up towards her chest. “... open it, she walks through.  Open it, he comes back.  Down below… river rushing… tallest trees…”

As though she’s been struck with a bolt of lightning, Pike’s entire body jerks up from the pallet, getting her nearly into a sitting position.  Her eyes wild, she grabs out for support.  Vax takes one hand, Keyleth clutches the other.

“Scared,” Pike rasps out.  They have a second to process that before more blood pours out of her mouth.

Keyleth yanks up a cloth from the pallet and starts trying to mop the blood away.  Pike’s entire body is thrumming with energy, vibrating, and her breathing grows faster and faster. “Pike… just wanted… to come home,” she cries. “Pike… please… keep her!  Pike… help her!”

She screams again, and beats her hands against her head. “Please!  Please!   Please - NO!”

Vax intercepts her hands. “Pickle, we’re here,” he promises. “Come back to us.  I know you can hear me.  We’re right here.”

Pike vomits up another stream of blood and bile and sobs. “Let… her… go,” she chokes. “Let… her… go.”

“Never,” Vax says firmly.

“Tired,” she pants. “Tired, Vax.  Hurts.”

“I know.  We’re trying to make it better for you,” Vax says. “Keyleth and I are trying to do all we can.”

“We’re here,” Keyleth adds softly.

“Hurts.  Just… wants… sleep.”

Can you do that? Vax asks the Raven Queen silently.   Help her sleep?

Not the way you want me to.

Vax looks down and sees Pike’s holy symbol glowing.  It’s spattered with blood like everything else she’s wearing, but he can see the light nonetheless. “Sarenrae,” he says out loud, “she needs you.”

“Please,” Pike whispers, but he isn’t sure if she’s talking to him and Keyleth or to Sarenrae.

A seizure roars through her body.  Vax lets go and she falls back to the pallet.  As soon as she hits, she goes limp and her breathing goes soft and steady.

“Thank you,” Vax says to Sarenrae.

The glow on Pike’s holy symbol blinks, and then goes out.

 


 

Vax and Keyleth are huddled together on the floor near Pike when Tary, Lawrence, Vex, and Percy arrive, Doty in their wake.  Since Sarenrae’s intervention Pike has not stirred.  Her sleep seems to be deep and untroubled.  Minus the crime-scene-worth of blood around her and her wild blood-soaked hair, she looks peaceful.

Vax embraces his sister immediately.

“I’m sorry,” she says to him.

“Why?  What for?”

“It’s complicated,” Vex says. “But we’re here now.”

“What can we do?” Percy asks.

“We should clean her up,” Keyleth says.

“I’ll get the washtub,” Percy replies, nodding.

Tary has stopped in the doorway, frozen, looking down at Pike’s body. “Oh,” he says, taking in her scars, the blood, her twisted position. “Oh, dear.”

“Tary?” Doty asks from behind his master.

“No, Doty,” Tary answers. “It’s…”

Lawrence takes Tary’s hand. “Doty, go help Percival with the washtub.”

“Larry,” Doty says, and shuffles off.

“Neat trick,” Vax says, nodding to Doty.

“He’s had some work done,” Tary says unconsciously. “Little E.G., you told me it was bad, but…”

“Now you realize we were telling you the truth, Goldie,” Vex says softly.

“I apologize.”

By the time Grog and Scanlan wake up, the rest of Vox Machina have bathed Pike, dressed her in clean clothes, picked up the bloody pallet, resettled her on a clean pile of blankets and pillows, cleaned up the house, and made breakfast.  Doty makes an interesting sight in the kitchen flipping pancakes.

“Hey,” Grog says. “Yer here.”

“Where else would we be?” Vex asks.

Keyleth squeezes her hand.

“An’ she’s… sleepin’?” Grog bends down next to Pike.

“Some divine intervention occurred,” Vax tells him.  Pike hasn’t woken, hasn’t had any more seizures, hasn’t vomited blood since Sarenrae’s assistance.

“Oh.  Good.” Grog leans down and strokes Pike’s head gently.  Then he stands up and proceeds to eat many of Doty’s freshly-made pancakes.

They gather around the table, except for Keyleth, who stays on the floor with Pike.  Vax tells everyone about the latest prophecy, and they compare notes.

“She keeps talking about a sawmill,” Scanlan says. “Where’s the closest sawmill?”

“Not just the closest,” Vex says. “It has to have tall trees nearby… and it’s abandoned.”

“Water crushing,” Scanlan muses.

“Is there someone around here who would know local history, Grog?  Could tell us where some sawmills around here are?” Vax asks.

“Somebody in th’ map-maker’s office might,” Grog says.

“There’s a map-maker’s office in Westruun?” Tary asks.

Grog nods. “‘Least, that’s what they say they’re doin’ in there.”

“All right,” Tary says, accepting that. “We’ll go there straightaway.”

“And then what - just go to a mysterious sawmill?” Keyleth wants to know.

“Seems like that’s the next step,” Percy says.

Vax looks over at Keyleth. “There’s something else,” he says.

The others turn to him.

“When Pike was staying with us in Zephra, she repeatedly asked us to take her to Sarenrae.  She thought… she thought Sarenrae could fix her.  She was never really specific as to what needed to be fixed, except for her eyes, so I don’t know if there’s anything else,” Vax says. “After watching her earlier, I’m wondering if that’s what needs to happen.  That maybe two of us should take her to Sarenrae.”

“Plane-shift her there?” Keyleth takes this in. “Yeah, we could do that.”

“An’ then what?” Grog wants to know. “Sarenrae fixes her an’ sends her home?”

Vax shrugs. “It can’t be worse than what we just watched her experience.”

Scanlan puts down his coffee mug. “What happens if Sarenrae decides to… keep her?”

That’s a question no one has an answer to, and it hangs in the air like a fog.

Finally Keyleth says, “Would that really be so bad?”

She gently strokes Pike’s cheek; it’s warm and soft and Pike is so refreshingly there that it hurts Keyleth’s heart just a little. “Maybe if she can’t stay here, staying with Sarenrae wouldn’t be the worst thing.”

“Let’s not make that our first choice, though, all right, Kiki?” Vex says, trying to keep her voice light.

Keyleth nods.

“I’ll go to the map-maker’s office,” Tary says gamely. “Sounds like the place to find our mysterious sawmill.  Doty, remind me, have we been to a mysterious sawmill?”

“Tary,” the construct replies.

“As I thought.  Oh, I love a new adventure!”

Vax, having written down Pike’s most recent prophecy, looks up. “I think if we’re successful… we may find Wilhand.”

“Wha’?” Grog asks, mouth full of pancakes.

Open it, he comes back,” Vax reads.

Vex leans over. “And apparently Ieliena, too.  Open it, she walks through.”

“We don’t know that’s Ieliena,” Percy opines. “Perhaps it’s Pike, or Vex or Keyleth.”

“I don’t think we’re ready to deal with Ieliena again,” Scanlan says. “Let’s be honest, she’s kicked our asses in every confrontation we’ve had.  Her, or her minions.”

“I just think she hasn’t… y’know… experienced all ‘a my capabilities,” Grog says.

“So we stack the deck,” Vax says. “Take out any possibility of it being anyone but Ieliena, and be ready to bombard her once she comes through.”

“Tary?” Doty asks, offering Grog more pancakes.

“Doty, that’s enough pancakes for now,” Tary says. “Let’s head off to the map-maker’s offices!  Post haste!”

Lawrence, Doty, Tary, Percy, and Grog offer to go to the map-maker’s; Grog to do the official introductions and the rest to look over the documents.  Vex heads into the kitchen to clean up from Doty’s pancake-making endeavors.  Scanlan, claiming exhaustion - which can clearly be seen in his face - goes back upstairs to rest.

On the floor, Pike frowns, shifting uncomfortably.  She starts whimpering softly.

“C’mere,” Keyleth says to Vax.

“Hmm?” he asks, still focused on the prophecy parchment.

She tugs on his pant leg until he looks over at her and Pike.  Keyleth lays down next to Pike and Vax suddenly understands what she wants.

He lays down on Pike’s other side, picking up one of Pike’s hands and gently snuggling it into the material of his shirt.  Keyleth takes Pike’s other hand and rests it against her chest.  Almost immediately Pike’s whimpers stop.  She sighs and rolls towards Keyleth, keeping her fingers wound in Vax’s shirt.

“I missed this,” Keyleth says.

“Me too,” Vax says.

“I don’t want her to stay with Sarenrae,” Keyleth says.

“I don’t think anybody wants that, Kiki.”

“I just think… maybe if Sarenrae sees her… she’ll realize how badly Pike’s hurt.  And maybe she’ll just want to keep her.”

“We won’t know until that happens,” Vax says.

“I mean, I’ll try to talk Sarenrae out of it.  Can you talk gods out of things?”

“No,” Vax says, because in his experience, you can’t.

“Sarenrae has to know Pike’s still got stuff to do here, though, yeah?”

Pike shifts her fingers on Keyleth’s chest, her tiny fingers warm and comforting.

“Maybe we’ll just have to tell her,” Vax says.

 


 

“Grog!”

The map-maker’s office is filled immediately with a joyous shout as a tiny halfling woman leaps down from a tall stool.  She bolts over to Grog and throws her arms up in the air. “It’s been too long, you scallywag!”

“Aww, Nessa, y’ know how t’ talk t’ a guy,” Grog says.  He gives her a vigorous high-five. “Now, see, these are my friends, an’ we’re interested in findin’ information ‘bout a sawmill in the area.  Y’ know any place like that?”

The woman tilts her head. “Hmm.  Not off the top of my head, but… there’s bound to be at least a few.  Come in, come in - I’ll take a look!”

The group steps into the map-maker’s office and immediately sees a long, low-ceilinged room filled with studious-looking individuals of all ages and sizes.  There are two other halflings, working at a low table in one corner.  A tall elven man speaks with a muscular dwarf near a bookshelf.  In the back corner, a tabaxi woman lays on a table while flipping the pages of a large book.  It’s a softly-lit place where the conversations are quiet and where everyone seems to be extraordinarily focused.

Nessa leads them over to the two halflings at the low table. “Bert, Oskar, these folks are looking for sawmills.  I know you’re the best in the business.”

The one she addressed as Oskar pushes up his gold-rimmed glasses. “We’re the only in the business.”

“That’s right,” Bert adds. “Demographic features.  That’s all we do.”

“Fine, fine, you’re the only in the business.  That makes you the best,” Nessa says, rolling her eyes. “Can we help them or not?”

“Oh, well, of course we can,” Bert says.

“It’s almost insulting,” Oskar says.

They immediately hop up and go over to a series of low shelves forming a honeycombed warren near their table, and start rummaging through maps and charts.  Nessa turns to Grog. “Word on the street is your sister’s home.”

“True,” Grog says, a bit guardedly.

“I always liked her,” Nessa says. “I’m glad she’s back.  I’ll have to bring over a pie or something.”

Grog goes a bit misty-eyed, so Percy leans in. “That’s awfully kind of you.  We might be heading out of town for a bit, though.”

“Or some cookies,” Nessa says with a shrug. “Something that’ll keep.”

Grog just scoops Nessa up from the floor and hugs her. “How come little people are th’ nicest?” he says into her shoulder.

“Not much room… for unhappiness?” Nessa suggests, trying to push back from Grog to open up her airway.

Bert and Oskar return from the shelves and look up at their coworker, being smothered by Grog’s arms. “Oh, dear,” Bert says. “He’s done it again.”

“Hey!  You!  Oaf!  Put her down!” Oskar orders, whapping Grog’s shin with one of his rolled-up maps.

“Sorry,” Grog mutters, and puts Nessa back on the floor.

“Leave him alone,” Nessa says to the two halflings. “Not like either of you ever give me the time of day.”

Bert goes bright red at that and starts to protest.  Oskar attempts to cover by unscrolling some of the maps on the table. “There are several sawmills in the area.  Do you have some additional details about the one you’re looking for?”

“Near a strong river,” Percy says.

“And tall trees,” Tary adds.

“Hmm.” Oskar rolls up one of the maps and pulls another to the forefront. “Anything else?”

“Abandoned,” Lawrence says. “It’s abandoned.”

“Oh!” Bert pushes two of the maps out of the way and yanks out a third. “You’re looking for the Samsfield Crescent Mill.”

He points to a location on the map.  Those gathered lean in to see the area he’s indicating.

“It’s near a branch of the Skulldigger River,” Oskar says. “That area is known for rushing rapids, fertile soil, and extremely tall trees.”

“The mill is just above the natural bridge formation known as Priest’s Steps,” Bert adds. “It’s a very lovely area.  Perfect for picnics, outdoor ceremonies, and the like.”

“We’re thinking a little more battle and a little less wedding, but we’ll take your advice all the same,” Tary says.

“Well, to each their own,” Bert says practically.

“Could we borrow that map?” Percy asks.

“Well, no!” Bert says.

“Absolutely preposterous!” Oskar sputters.

“Shut up,” Nessa tells them.  She looks over the group, and then back at her halfling coworkers. “Is this gonna help Pike?” she asks Grog.

Grog nods.

“Take it,” Nessa says.

“Nessa!” Oskar protests.

“No,” Nessa says firmly. “Grog’s always been good to us.  We don’t often get a chance to do things for others, what with all our academic pursuits and whatnot… this might be the closest we’re ever going to get to actually going on an adventure ourselves.  And plus, it’s the right thing to do.”

Oskar and Bert reluctantly nod, and Nessa takes the map from the table. “It would be our honor,” she says to Grog.

“Thanks,” Grog says, and he leans down to give Nessa a kiss on her cheek. “Gentlemen.”

“Is there something your office might need?” Tary asks. “Supplies or equipment?”

Bert and Oskar share a look.

“It would be the honor of the Darrington Brigade to provide you with a small-business-owner’s grant,” Tary elaborates. “Some new compasses, perhaps?  A clock?”

The two halflings’ eyes are wide.

“Think of it while we’re gone,” Lawrence suggests. “We’d be more than happy to help you.”

They leave the map-maker’s office to the tune of two gleeful map makers exclaiming over their good luck, with the prize map held in Grog’s fist.

“They are the nicest,” Tary says. “Do you go there often, Grog?”

“Nah,” Grog says. “I used t’ drink with Nessa.  That’s about it.  Don’t know why she’s workin’ there, since she’s never shown any innerest in maps or map-makin’.”

“Ah,” Tary says.

“So, what do you think, big guy?” Percy asks Grog. “We have a quiet evening in and then leave in the morning?”

Grog nods. “Seems good t’ me.  D’ y’ think we’re gonna be gone long?”

Percy considers this. “I’d like to say no… but I don’t actually know.  I think that depends on a lot of different factors.”

“Like what?  We go there, we kill that lady, an’ we come home.”

“I suppose that could also be true,” Percy allows.

“I just… I don’t wanna be gone from Pike too long, ‘kay?”

“Nobody wants that, Grog.”

 


 

By the time they get back Pike is feverish and restless on the floor between Keyleth and Vax.  Grog scoops her up and cradles her. “We’re gonna go away fer a bit, Pikey,” he says softly. “An’ then we’re comin’ back.”

Her eyes flicker and she frowns. “Pike… and… Grog…?”

“Are safe,” Grog finishes for her. “Pike an’ Grog are safe.”

“‘Kay.”

“Pikey… can y’ promise me somethin’?”

“Hmm?”

“Promise me you’ll come back.”

“Hmm.”

“No, promise.”

“Pike.”

Grog leans in and kisses her forehead. “If y’ don’t come back… I’m comin’ t’ get ya.”

Pike sighs and curls in against Grog.

“She’s hot,” Grog says to Vex, who’s watched the entire exchange.

“We’ve got some of the fever reduction draft,” Vex says, and she brings him the bottle.

Grog holds Pike upright and Vex tips the bottle up to Pike’s lips. “Take a drink, darling.”

“No,” Pike says faintly, but as the bottle presses against her lips she does as Vex asks, swallowing a generous dose.

“Let her sleep, Grog,” Vex counsels as she recaps the bottle. “There’ll be trouble enough when she wakes up.”

Grog grumbles, but he sits back and lets Pike rest.

Chapter Text

Pike’s dancing.  Dancing with Scanlan.  He’s holding her close.  She likes that.  His hands are remarkably soft, except for the places where she can feel calluses, maybe from playing his lute.  His eyes are beautiful up close.  She can see.  She doesn’t understand why her brain registers that separately, or why that should be odd.

They’re in a pavilion, something carved wood and very fancy.  Outside the pavilion she can’t really see anything.  Maybe it’s foggy.  Everything seems to be fuzzy and white and gold, but she’s not scared by this.  Things seem to be exactly how they should be.

There’s music, too, something light and lilting.  Pike likes it.  She can’t see where the musicians are.  Maybe Scanlan’s singing it.  She isn’t sure, but that doesn’t matter either.

“Where are we?” she asks him.  Her voice comes out cleanly and plainly, without any struggle.  Her thoughts are quick.  She isn’t sure why that’s weird, either.

“Does that matter?”

It does and it doesn’t, but Pike can’t figure out why.

She notices bubbles floating through the air, round and iridescent and perfect.  They float in, a few at first, drifting through the breeze.  She can’t see where they’re coming from, but again, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Then there are more of them.  They start crowding the pavilion.  They’re getting thicker, and heavier, less iridescent, more opaque.  Her vision’s getting blurry.  It’s harder to see Scanlan, and he’s right in front of her.  She only knows he’s still there because his hands are in hers.

“What’s happening?” Pike asks.  She doesn’t sound scared, even though she’s feeling that way.

“It’s going to be okay,” Scanlan says, which definitely isn’t what she asked.

The bubbles surround her.  They press in, pushing hard against her skin.  They feel like little bullets stinging her arms and legs.  Pike tries to take a deep breath but can’t.

Her mouth opens as the bubbles squeeze her tighter, and she feels a bubble go into her mouth.  Suddenly her airway’s closed off.  She chokes.  The bubble pops and Pike waits for her airway to open back up, but it doesn’t.  It feels like her throat’s getting hard, like the bubble was made of something sticky and cloying and now it’s going down her throat and into her lungs.

“Scanlan,” she says, or she tries to say, and she feels his fingers slip out of his.  She leans forward, pushing the bubbles away, and tries to grab for him.  He’s gone.

“Scanlan!” she screams, and a cluster of tiny bubbles, pearl-sized, enter her mouth and her throat and she can’t breathe and she’s suffocating and -

 


 

Pike gasps her way back to breathing, to the now-familiar blackness of visual loss, to feel two people holding her hands.  There’s pressure on every part of her body from the neck down, a weird kind of pressure that she can’t figure out.  Lots of little things are pushing in against her, and for a moment she thinks it’s the bubbles from her nightmare.  She can’t figure out what it is, what they are, and she yanks her arm up through the whatever-they-are, letting out a scream as she does.

“Pike?” Vex says, and squeezes her left hand. “Pike, it’s all right.”

“We’re on the Island of Renewal,” Keyleth adds from her other side. “That’s where Sarenrae lives.”

Pike doesn’t feel renewal, though.  She feels like she’s drowning.

“We’re glad you’re awake,” Vex says, trying to sound chipper. “Sarenrae… apparently didn’t appreciate us coming here without her champion being conscious.  We’re a little buried right now in some of the pearl sands, but I’m sure you can… help figure this out.”

Pearls.  Pike moves her arm through the space again, and feels the pearls move over her skin.  She doesn’t like it.  She doesn’t feel like she belongs here.

“We’re in a cavern,” Vex goes on. “The entire place sort of sank beneath us.”

“We’re all okay, though,” Keyleth says.

They don’t say anything else, and then Vex says, softly, “Are you all right, darling?”

“Pike… is scared,” she says, her voice little.

“I bet,” Keyleth says, and she squeezes Pike’s right hand. “But you’re here, and you’re with us, and we’re going to make things okay.”

“Do you remember anything about what happened… before we got here?” Vex asks hesitantly.

Pike thinks about this.  The pearls are starting to itch against her skin.  She remembers being with Grog, and being happy.  She remembers being at the temple, and being reintroduced to lots of people she used to know.  Then things get a little blurry.  She remembers nausea, and pain, and feeling how scared Grog was.  And maybe Scanlan?  And then Keyleth and Vax cuddling her?

She nods, because she can’t figure out how to express all of that.

“How do you feel now?”

“Empty,” Pike says, because it’s the truth.  She feels drained, like she’s a shell.  She wants to cry.

There’s a rustling noise, thousands upon thousands of pearls shifting around her, and Pike feels her body move towards Keyleth’s side of her.  Arms wrap around her, and she’s lifted up and out of the pearls.  They drip from her body like rain, and Pike feels her fingers slip away from Keyleth’s.  It reminds her of Scanlan being pulled away from her, and she cries out, “Keyleth!”

Gold light swirls around her and the panic in Pike’s chest dies immediately. “Oh,” she breathes.

“Hello, my daughter,” a warm voice says.

Pike starts crying, but she doesn’t know why.  She’s so comforted, and so safe, and so loved that it hurts.

“What has upset you?” the voice asks, sounding genuinely concerned.

Pike can’t figure it out. “Pike… wanted Sarenrae… to fix,” she wails.

“Fix what, my daughter?”

“All of it,” Pike sobs.

A burst of warmth touches her forehead, like a kiss from someone very large, and Pike leans into it.  She wants the warmth to swallow her up, to hold her, to keep her.

“Is that what you want?” Sarenrae asks softly. “You want to stay here with me?”

Pike shakes her head, because she isn’t actually sure what she wants. “Pike… Pike wants… safety.”

“You are safe here.”

“Pike wants… to be safe always.” She’s trying hard to focus, trying to get out the right words, but she’s worried she’s not making any sense.

“There is no place you can go that I won’t protect you.”

“Just fix it,” Pike pleads.

“Why don’t you stay with me for awhile?” Sarenrae murmurs, and Pike feels the warmth, like wings, enfold her, lift her up, cradle her, and she relaxes fully.

Pike closes her eyes and lets the world around her fade.

 


 

Keyleth and Vex look up at the giant visage of Sarenrae before them, and they both instinctively drop to their knees.  The pearls shift and crunch beneath them.  It’s suddenly reassuring to see the Island of Renewal this way, with the sun soft on their skin, as opposed to in the cavern beneath the earth they ended up in following the plane-shift spell.

“Hello,” Vex says, keeping her head bowed.

“Um, hi,” Keyleth adds nervously.

“Hello,” Sarenrae says. “Thank you for bringing her to me.  I apologize for the circumstances of your arrival, but… I was concerned about your intentions.”

Vex risks looking up.  Instead of the giant visage, Sarenrae is now a human-sized avatar in front of them. “Yes.  Well.  Something went wrong during the plane-shift, and… we didn’t have a lot of time to figure out how to correct it.”

Sarenrae holds her hands out to Vex and Keyleth, and helps them stand up. “It’s all right.  I see now you have only pure intention in your hearts.  Will you have tea with me?”

Keyleth looks around. “Where’s… where’s Pike?”

“I have folded her into my heart for awhile, for some healing,” Sarenrae responds. “She is safe.  I will return her to you before long.”

“Can you fix her eyes?” Keyleth asks.  Realizing how forward she sounds, she flushes and mutters, “That’s what she really wanted.”

Sarenrae tilts her head, and for a moment she looks impossibly old and sad. “Let’s talk,” she says.

She doesn’t move further, but within a split second they’re inside a tall crystalline tower, sitting in a softly glowing room.  A mostly-formless being bends over a small table, leaving a tea set on a platter before simply disappearing.

Sarenrae indicates some low couches, and Keyleth and Vex tentatively sit down, watching as the god of redemption, healing, and second chances pours them tea.  Steam rises from the cups, fragrant and twining into the golden light of the room.

“I remember my joy when you found my champion in that hellhole,” Sarenrae says.  Her voice is gentle and kind. “I remember my joy when her grandfather touched her hand, when Grog held her again.  I remember how ecstatic I was when her memories were restored to her… when her wings returned to her.  She is so pure, so gentle… so broken.”

Sarenrae turns her head to look out the window.

“No matter what they did to her, she remained good,” Vex says. “We’ve been attributing that to your guidance in her life.”

“That may be true,” Sarenrae muses. “It may simply be her innate nature.”

She turns back to them. “She and I have spoken often, even throughout her captivity when everything was wiped away from her, when she didn’t have words to tell me how she was hurting.  There were many times I almost brought her to me.”

“Why didn’t you?” Keyleth asks.

“It was not her time.  She had more to do.”

“Had?” Vex leans forward. “As in… she’s done?”

“No.  She can choose to stay with me now, if that’s what she decides, but my darker sister hasn’t come to bring her to stay.”

“Is that what you want?”

Sarenrae shrugs. “It is not about what I want.”

“She’s tired,” Keyleth says.

“She is.”

“She wants to see.”

“She does.”

“She’s scared, and frustrated, and weak,” Keyleth says.

“I see all of these things.”

“Can you help her?”

“I can try,” Sarenrae answers. “I can ease the trauma of the prophecies.”

“But you can’t stop them?” Vex frowns.

“Not at this time.” Sarenrae takes a sip of tea. “I can give her rest, for awhile, and strength.  But I cannot fully restore her.”

Keyleth feels something pulse in her heart, a sudden bloom of sadness. “You can’t fix her eyes.”

“I’m sorry,” Sarenrae says. “I only have so much I can give her, and there are things even I cannot repair.”

“She’s still going to love you,” Vex whispers, but she’s not sure where that statement came from.

Sarenrae smiles. “I know.  And I will still love her, and cherish her.  But she has more that I cannot give her - and that is what you give her.”

They sip tea for a long time, listening to the waves crash up over the pearly shores of the island.  There is an aura of sadness over the meeting, but somehow neither Keyleth nor Vex feels acutely saddened - merely comforted.

At long last Sarenrae stands. “I will bring her to you,” she says, and a bright glow swallows the room.  When it fades, Sarenrae reappears before them, holding Pike in her arms.

Keyleth finds herself on her feet, taking Pike from Sarenrae.  She looks down into Pike’s face, so soft and peaceful, and feels that bloom of sadness flood through her body. “Oh,” Keyleth murmurs.

“I wish I could do more,” Sarenrae says, and she sounds truly sorry.

Pike is as relaxed as Keyleth or Vex have seen her in recent weeks.  Her breathing is soft and even.  As Keyleth shifts Pike, she realizes that many of Pike’s scars have faded on her arms and chest, and the ones that haven’t faded - several fingerprints and a few of the more jagged, wide cuts - are golden.  Pike looks… healthy.

“Pike?” Vex says gently.

“Hmm,” Pike says.

“How do you feel, darling?”

“Sleepy.”

“Anything else?”

“Hmm.  Floaty.  Heavy.”

“But all right?”

“Safe.  Comfy,” Pike answers, and a sleepy, satisfied smile crosses her face.

“All right,” Vex says.  She looks up at Sarenrae, and suddenly they’re no longer on the Island of Renewal, but back in Wilhand’s front room.

Keep her safe, comes a soft whisper in the back of their heads, and a handful of pearls drop to the wooden floor like heavy raindrops, loud in the still room.

 


 

“Those two little gentlemen were right,” Tary says as they tromp through the forest. “This area is strikingly beautiful.”

The trees around them are tall and leafy, and the sunlight dapples the ground below in shifting patterns that dance in the soft breezes.  To their left is a roaring, rushing river that burbles and chatters over stones and goes around bends, dropping down over short falls, splashing up in bright drops.  The ground is covered in thick moss, and small animals bound here and there as they walk through.

“Doty, take this down,” Tary continues. “‘As we made our way across the natural splendor of the forest, our thoughts turned to the mysterious sawmill we would soon be encountering.  Could it be condemned to crumbling decay by the excesses of time and abandonment, or has the beauty of this region given it a new life with a flourish of fauna and flora?’  That’s all for now.”

“Tary,” Doty says, and stows the book.

“We goin’ the right way?” Grog asks Vax.

Vax looks down at the map. “Yep.  We’re going to get out of the forest in about a mile or so, and then it should be just beyond that.”

“‘Kay.”

Vax rolls the map back up.

“Y’ think they’re doin’ okay?”

“The girls?” Vax looks up at Grog.  Scanlan’s up on the goliath’s shoulder, playing his lute and humming absently.

“Yeah.”

“I think they’re probably just fine,” Vax says. “Why?  What do you think?”

Grog frowns, focusing awfully hard on walking through the trees. “I want ‘em t’ come back safe ‘n’ sound.”

“We all want that.”

“Yeah, but…” Grog trails off, somehow unable to describe how it’s different for him.

“I get it, big guy,” Vax says.

“Sarenrae’s not gonna make ‘er stay, right?”

“I can’t say.”

“Y’ don’t think Pike wants t’ stay, right?”

“Did you ask her?”

“Yeah.”

“And what’d she say?”

“She said she’d come back,” Grog mutters.

“All right.  Then let’s give her the opportunity to do just that.”

Percy catches up. “Are we going to be there soon?”

“Why?” Vax asks.

“Tary and Lawrence are… getting a little frisky.”

“Well, at least they’ve got a metal chaperone,” Scanlan says.

He looks over to see Lawrence and Tary chastely kissing. “Percy, brother, you have got to spice up your romance game if that is what you call frisky.”

Grog stumbles.  Vax chokes on his next breath of air.

“I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em,” Scanlan says loftily, and starts picking out the next tune.

They walk on for a bit before the river arcs sharply towards them, widening dramatically before dropping away into a tall series of waterfalls, and then they see it: at the top of a hill, the sawmill.

“We have arrived!” Tary cheers.

“I don’t see anything special about this place,” Scanlan says.

“Let’s get a little closer,” Vax suggests.

They make their way up the hill towards the sawmill, cresting the top as a cloud covers the sun.  The mill itself is nothing special - a house-shaped building, a large water-wheel harnessing the power of the river, some low stone walls indicating what was probably once a storage shed or something similar - but it’s not that particular feature that draws everyone’s attention.  After the river pushes through the water-wheel, it drops off dramatically once again, plunging down the tallest waterfall yet, to a plateau at the bottom of the hill that’s wide - perhaps half a mile or so across - and spanned by large, table-sized stones.  At the center of that natural bridge is one taller stone, lightish pink where the others are dark gray, with a giant tree sprouting seemingly from within the rock.

“Wow,” Grog says. “Tha’s a pretty tree.”

“That’s what Bert and Oskar were talking about,” Vax says. “The Priest’s Steps.”

“Priest with some big feet,” Scanlan says.

“So, fellows, what are we doing here?” Lawrence asks as they stand near the old mill.

Vax rolls up the map and hands it to Percy, then digs the prophecy-covered parchment out of his bag. “Seems like there’s weirdness everywhere around here,” he says. “Pike’s prophecies mentioned something inside the sawmill, so… perhaps there?”

“Doty, take this down,” Tary says. “‘As we came upon the abandoned sawmill, plans were made to enter the building itself to determine its contents.  Who knows what sort of mysteries we may encounter within its hallowed depths?’  That’s all for now.”

Whatever Tary’s hopes were, they’re almost immediately dashed when they enter the sawmill to find… absolutely nothing.  The interior is dark; there are mushrooms growing in the corners.  Any signs of progress or industry are long gone.  They take their time making their way through it, looking for anything odd, out of place, or even remotely useful, but the sawmill has been completely turned to empty, silent, useless space.  It contains nothing magical or anything even vaguely spooky or esoteric.

“Fantastic,” Percy says as they all emerge, dusty and dirty, from the basement of the mill.

“Well, nobody’s doin’ anythin’ terrible in here,” Grog observes. “Wha’s next?”

They stand outside the mill, resting against one of the low stone walls, drinking water and discussing their next options.  A few birds fly overhead, singing and chirping as they dip down towards the river to drink.

“None ‘a them are goin’ near the tree,” Grog tells Scanlan, watching the birds land on all of the other rocks.

“Huh,” Scanlan says.  He hadn’t noticed it, but Grog is completely right.

A bird seems to miscalculate the landing and tries to perch on one of the gray rocks, but instead slams into what appears to be a force field surrounding the pink rock.  It falls back, limply, into the rushing water.

“Didja see that?” Grog asks Scanlan.

“Yep,” Scanlan replies.  He sticks his fingers in his mouth and whistles, getting the attention of the others. “I think the sawmill may just be a convenient location for the prophecies to fixate on.  We just saw some sort of force field around that pink rock.”

“If I was going to pick a location for an extra-planar portal… it’d be a place like that,” Tary says.

“Guess we’d better get down there,” Scanlan says.

It takes a little bit of maneuvering, but they slide down the mossy bank towards the river, which grows louder and louder as they approach.  The tree in the center of the pink rock glimmers a bit, seeming shiny in the light of the sun as it makes its reappearance from behind some clouds.

“This would be lovely if we weren’t here to deal with some horrible cult woman,” Percy observes.

“We should’ve brought a picnic,” Vax agrees, giving Percy a sly grin.

They cross the flat gray rocks, Grog carrying Scanlan over the gaps between them and Tary and Lawrence spotting the easiest path for Doty to traverse.  Water tumbles over the smaller rocks, little fish flipping up into the air before disappearing back into the blue-gray depths.  The entire thing remains shockingly beautiful.

When they reach the gray rock before the pink rock, they stop.

“What’s our plan?” Vax asks.

Grog reaches into the bag of holding and pulls out what looks like a small, squashed egg.  He whips it at the tree in the center of the pink rock.

It doesn’t make it that far - it bounces against the force field and ricochets back towards the group.

“Duck!” Grog hollers, and yanks Vax out of the way.

The egg whizzes overhead, avoiding all of those gathered on the rock, splashing with a thud into the river beyond.

“Okay, so, that’s our first obstacle,” Tary says as Percy adjusts his glasses.

“Got any tricks?” Vax asks Tary.

“I do not,” Tary answers, “but perhaps my darling husband could be of more assistance.”

Lawrence steps forward. “Hmm.  I’d love to see how the field is created, what’s holding it up…”

As he’s musing on this, Scanlan raises his hands, casts Dimension Door, and disappears, ending up on the other side of the force field, some twenty-five feet away, standing in the moss on the pink rock’s surface.

“That was super dangerous,” Percy says, touching his earring. “What would have happened if the force field cut you into cubes?”

“Then there’d be more of me that’s cube-shaped,” Scanlan replies easily. “While Lawrence is looking on that side, I can look on this side.  Between the two of us, we’ll figure it out.”

“Grog,” Vax says, “don’t even think about running straight at it.”

Grog looks over at him guiltily. “I wasn’t thinkin’ ‘bout that.”

Vax frowns.

“Okay, I was maybe thinkin’ ‘bout that.”

Scanlan does a quick trip around the tree, then reports, “There’s some runes here.”

Tary perks up at that. “What kind?”

“Y’know, your basic… rune-y ones.  This one means ‘hold in place’ and this one means ‘barrier’ and this one means… oh, yeah, hang on.” Scanlan rubs his hands together, creating a purple glow between them, then fires a short lightning bolt at the ground a few feet in front of him.  There’s a poof and a crack and little bits of rock dust fly up into the air.

Those gathered on the gray rock see the air shimmer in front of them, and hear a soft whine.

“Grog, try throwing something else at it,” Vax suggests.

“But y’ told me…”

“I told you not to run at it.”

“Oh, yeah.” Grog perks up and takes out another small egg-shaped thing from the bag.  He whips it at the tree.  This time the egg sails over the pink rock, landing near Scanlan’s feet. “Bitchin’.”

They make their way up onto the pink rock and join Scanlan, who stands near the tree, admiring his handiwork with the runes on the rocks.

“Tricksy little whoever,” he says. “Nothing a lightning bolt couldn’t handle, though.”

Tary bends down, looking at the other runes Scanlan didn’t explode. “Fascinating,” he says. “I haven’t seen runes like this in quite awhile.  Doty?”

The construct, who had to be helped up onto the rock with some very engaged assistance from Tary and Lawrence, creaks over, taking Tary’s book from his chest compartment as he does so.  He flips through the book for a few pages, then hands it to Tary.

“Ah, yes, six years ago, far to the north,” Tary says as he reads the passage.

“How far?” Percy asks.

“Hmm,” Tary says. “Doty must have not been too detailed in his note-taking that day, but quite north.”

Vax, Percy, and Scanlan exchange glances.  Grog says, “We was far north not too long ago.”

Before anyone can respond further, there’s a loud sucking noise, followed by a whoomph, and a portal starts to crack open just in front of the tree.

“Shit,” Vax says. “Uh, guys, plans?”

“Attack it valiantly!” Tary says boldly.

“Okay, well, any good plans?” Vax says.

“We don’t even know what it is,” Scanlan says. “It could be -”

The portal slams open with a blast of energy that sends them sprawling - minus Doty, who wavers a bit on his wide metal feet and then says, “Tary?”

As the group recovers from their prone positions, Ieliena appears from within the portal.  It snaps shut behind her.  She surveys the men on the ground, a slow smile crossing her face. “Well, well, well.”

Grog's up first, and he charges at Ieliena with his blood axe out.  Scanlan’s up next, already singing and waving his hands.  Vax ducks into the shadows, springing up nearby rocks like a cat; Percy steps back, taking aim.  Tary grabs a gem from his helm while Lawrence, nearby, removes a thin wand from the sleeve of his traveling coat.

But Ieliena merely sidesteps Grog’s attack, and addresses them. “This is pathetic.  You’ve all come here at the defense of that tiny, battered creature you call a friend.  She was nothing more than an object to us - we left her that way - and you presume to come here, preserving your memories of someone who no longer exists.”

Grog swings back around and slams the blood axe into her.  Percy fires off a shot.

Ieliena reels from the hit, though the shot goes wide.  She brings up her hand and pulses off a bolt of red energy at Percy.  He doubles over, retching.

Lawrence shoots a stream of sparks at Ieliena; they expand into clods of something gooey as they fall.  One of them hits her face and starts spreading.  She hollers out a series of curses, trying to mop it off her skin.  It sizzles and burns.

Vax gets up behind her, daggers flashing, as Scanlan casts Hold Person on Ieliena.  They watch as purple ropes swirl out of his hands and grab the red-cloaked cultist.  She floats, just off the ground, as they gather around her.

“Percy okay?” Vax barks at Tary, who’s closest.

Tary helps Percy up, passing the hunched-over man a tonic in a glass bottle. “He’ll be right as rain in a few moments.”

“You fools!” Ieliena howls. “Release me!”

“I think you’re just fine where you are,” Scanlan says.

Vax approaches. “Why, Ieliena?  Why are you still coming after Pike?  We’ve made it clear you’re not getting her back.”

“She was all we had,” Ieliena spits. “She was our last hope of connecting with the Ancient One, of finishing the ritual.  And you took her!”

Red tendrils of energy blast from her fingertips, but because she’s held in place, they fizzle out.  For the first time they see her slump, her face falling. “She was so strong.  So powerful.”

“Y’ took everythin’ from her,” Grog says sharply. “Y’ broke her.”

Vax is surprised to hear those words coming from Grog’s mouth, particularly since not too long ago, Grog had told them not to refer to Pike as broken.  But as he looks up into Grog’s face, he sees a hard mask of rage, and under that, delicately layered sadness and regret.

“Y’ took seven years ‘a my best friend’s life,” Grog goes on. “Y’ took seven good years ‘a my life ‘cause I spent it lookin’ fer her.  Y’ ruined our family.  Broke Wilhand’s heart.  Made ever’body put their lives on hold while we tried t’ figure out if she was ‘live or dead.”

He points at Vax. “He could’a been havin’ kids.  Or buildin’ a temple or somethin’.”

He points at Percy. “He could’a been havin’ kids.  Or workin’ more on his clocks.”

He points at Scanlan. “He could’a gone back on tour, or gone t’ see his daughter, or maybe even married t’ Pike if that’s what they wanted.  But we’ll never know.”

Grog lifts the blood axe. “Tell me one good reason why I should let ya live.  Y’ took so many lives from all ‘a us.  From Pike, too, an’ she’s worth a hunnerd times more’n you.”

Ieliena seems to shrink at Grog’s words. “Fine.  Kill me.”

Percy puts up a hand to stop Grog. “Where’s Wilhand?” he asks.

Ieliena looks confused.

“The elderly gnome man who jumped through the portal back at your cult’s fortress.”

“He’s in the Ancient One’s domain,” Ieliena says. “He’s as good as gone.”

“As gone as Pike was?” Vax asks.

Ieliena sighs. “Apparently nothing’s gone for you,” she scoffs.

Percy approaches Grog. “What do you want to do?” he asks quietly.

“I wanna kill ‘er,” Grog grunts, not looking at Percy.

Percy nods. “I don’t think anyone would blame you.”

Grog hesitates. “Feels wrong, though.”

He turns to look at Percy. “But what else are we gonna do with ‘er?”

It’s not a pretty death.  Grog makes sure of that.  But his heart isn’t in it - there’s no spirit of the battle, of the hunt, in it.  He’s just destroying something that hurt Pike.

When it’s over he walks away, lets the others go through Ieliena’s belongings.  He sits at the side of the large pink rock and cleans off the blood axe in the river.  He doesn’t feel anything.  He just wants to go home to Pike.

 


 

“This is nice,” Vex says.

“We did it all the time in Zephra,” Keyleth says. “It started the first night she was with us, and after that she didn’t want to do it any other way.”

Vex turns her head slightly, looking fondly at Pike, who lays between her and Keyleth, hands clenched in both of their clothes. “I like it.”

“You always were a sucker for cuddling,” Keyleth says with a grin.

Vex smiles and winks.

“Did you like being… with Sarenrae?” Keyleth asks after a few minutes.

“After she pulled us out of the underground cavern filled with pearls, you mean?” Vex snorts.  Then she softens. “Yes.  It was… soothing.  And despite not being able to fix everything for Pike, she seems to have done some good.”

“And she didn’t want to keep Pike.”

“No, she made it quite clear that it was Pike’s choice to stay or to come back.”

From between them they hear a quiet voice. “Pike wants to stay.”

They both jump and look down.

Pike opens her eyes and lets out a gasp.

“What?  What is it?” Keyleth asks, sitting bolt upright.

Vex points to Pike’s eyes. “Pike, darling, can you…?”

Pike turns her head a little, and Keyleth sees what caught Vex’s attention: one of Pike’s eyes is no longer white - it’s a cloudy marbled blue. “Pike, can you see?” Keyleth asks.

Pike furrows her brow, and her eyes scan the area in front of her, white eye and marbled eye moving at the same rate. “You don’t have your antlers on,” she says.

Keyleth and Vex both squeal with excitement, and they throw their arms around Pike.

“You can see,” Vex cries.

“Pike can see some things.  Blurry things,” Pike says, a smile growing.  She whips her head around to look at Vex. “No feathers today.”

Vex reaches up to touch her hair. “No, I took them out earlier while I was doing up the dishes.”

She kisses Pike on the cheek. “You’re so wonderful, darling.”

“Where’s Grog?” Pike asks.

“He and the others went to do some -”

Downstairs, the door opens.

“Never mind, I think they’re home,” Vex says.  She scoots off the bed and scoops Pike up. “Let’s go greet our conquering heroes.”

The men - and Doty - crowd into Wilhand’s front room.  Grog’s the first to approach Vex, and he doesn’t say a word, merely holds out his hands to take Pike from her.

“Your face is big,” Pike says. “Your beard got long.”

Grog freezes. “How d’ ya know that?”

Pike reaches up and strokes his beard. “Pike can see it.”

Grog whirls around to look at Vex, who now stands near Percy. “What’d y’ do t’ her?”

“We took her to Sarenrae,” Vex says simply. “Ask her about it.”

“Izzat true?” Grog demands of Pike.

Pike nods.

Grog just holds her close.

Vex looks at Vax and Percy. “What happened?”

“It’s over,” Vax says.

“Did you find Wilhand?” Keyleth asks.

Percy shakes his head. “But we won’t see Ieliena anymore.”

Keyleth frowns.

“There really wasn’t a better choice, Kiki,” Vax says softly, touching her hand.

“Grog did it,” Percy says. “But it was like he was a machine.  No rage.  Just… as though it was a job for him.”

Tary approaches. “We recovered several interesting items from the sorceress,” he says.

“Can we save those for another day?” Vex asks, suddenly feeling exhausted. “I know you all had a battle today, but I feel as though we were in one as well.  Let’s… find the closest pub and eat something and drink until we’re tired enough to fall asleep.”

“Sounds amazing,” Percy says. “We’ll show Lawrence all of the nightlife of Westruun.”

“Does Westruun have nightlife?” Keyleth muses.

In the corner Grog sits with Pike, stroking her hair.  For a long series of moments they say nothing.  Then Grog says, “I haveta tell ya somethin’.”

“Yeah?”

“Pike an’ Grog… are gonna be really safe.”

“Pike and Grog are safe,” Pike tells him.

“We found that bad lady,” Grog says, and there he chokes up.

Pike touches his cheek.

“It felt wrong t’ kill ‘er,” Grog says, his voice clotted and straggly. “I didn’t wanna do it but I didn’t see how not t’ do it.”

Pike’s face is serious. “Pike would have done it.”

“You would’a?”

Pike nods gravely. “Would have made her into nothing.  Some people don’t… deserve second chances.”

“It made me angry… but it didn’t make me wanna rage,” Grog says. “Y’ know what I mean?”

“No, but Pike knows you know,” Pike says. “And that’s enough.”

“She could’a been good.”

“Some people just aren’t.”

“That makes me sad.  An’ it didn’t used’ta.”

“Maybe you’ve grown,” Pike says, and it takes Grog’s breath away how wise she sounds.

“Yer never gonna be bad, right, Pike?”

“I hope not.”

All conversation in the room stops.

“Say that again,” Grog says gently.

“I hope I’m not bad,” Pike says.

“Oh, darling,” Vex says from across the room.

“What?” Pike asks, turning her head so she can see Grog.

“Y’ didn’t say ‘Pike hopes not,’” Grog tells her, his voice reverent.

“Oh,” Pike says, surprised. “I guess I didn't.”

And then she laughs, laughs until she cries with joy.

 


 

Vox Machina, minus Tary (who chooses to sleep with his husband), sleep in a cuddle puddle in the middle of Wilhand’s front room.

Pike has a giant grin on her face as she falls asleep…

… and a bracelet of pearls around her wrist.

Chapter Text

Over the next few days things are calm and quiet.  Pike spends much of her time with Percy, who has begun making a series of new inventions to help her.  He fits her first with a thick, amber-colored lens that bobs over her marbled-blue eye, to help her focus and clarify what she’s seeing.  When that proves to give her headaches and nausea, he refines it, making a set of glasses with one amber lens and one dark lens; the dark one sits over her still-blind eye.

It helps, a little.  Her vision is still painfully inaccurate, and trying to force it better still causes blinding pain in her head and her stomach to swim with nausea.  She prefers to stay inside, where it’s dark, and to move around with her cane and her hands to guide her.  Percy tells her that once he’s back in Whitestone, he’ll work on refining the glasses; his workshop there is much better suited to glasswork.  (Tary says he’ll help.)

Next Percy builds her a writing frame - a long straight piece of wood with two parallel rods of metal hammered into them, about two inches apart.  A piece of parchment can slide into place underneath, and by using her fingers to space the letters and the rods at the top and bottom to tell her where to stop and start the letters, Pike practices writing her name with a grease pencil.

It turns out to come in handy when she wakes one morning with her head pounding and her stomach roiling, the all-too-familiar pressure of a prophecy growing in her throat.  But instead of the desire to hurt herself, she just wants to… write.

Pike crawls down the hallway and down the stairs, not trusting her feet to carry her.  She crawls across the floor to the table and retrieves the writing frame and the pencil.  Her hands shaking, she pulls the parchment through until her fingers find smooth, unblemished parchment.  She presses the tip of the pencil to the board and starts to write.

The prophecy flows over her.  Her fingers work the writing frame, grease pencil gripped tightly between her sweaty hands.  The room slides away from her, and she doesn’t know how long she writes, pulling the parchment up as she gets to the end of it, writing and pulling, writing and pulling.

Then it ends, and Pike feels woozy and dizzy.  The pencil still stuck to her palm with sweat, she limply flops to the floor and closes her eyes.

 


 

“Pike,” Vax says gently, stroking her cheek. “Pike, can you hear me?”

Pike stirs. “Hmm?”

“Are you all right?”

“I feel sick.”

Vax bends down and scoops Pike up from the floor.  She moans slightly as he sets her upright against his shoulder, and she curls into herself, closing her eyes again. “What happened, Pickle?”

“I had… a prophecy,” Pike mutters. “Came out… to write it down.  Stomach… sloshy.”

She groans a little and tucks her knees tighter against her chest.  Vax rubs her back. “Did you get it all out?”

“Uh-huh.”

“What do you need?”

“Hold me.”

“You got it.”

Vax listens to Pike’s breathing slow over the course of the next hour or so, as she relaxes against him. “Pike,” he says at last.

“Hmm?”

“Where would you like to go?  I don’t think we’re staying here in Westruun much longer.  We need to do some research on Ieliena’s god, to see if we can get Wilhand back, but it’s not happening here.  Vex and Percy have to go back to Whitestone, and Keyleth and I need to go back to Zephra.”

“Where’s Grog going?”

“I think he’d go wherever you do.”

Pike rolls her head to one side, her face flushed as she nuzzles into Vax’s neck. “If I go back to Zephra… can I still sleep with you and Keyleth?”

“Is that what you’d like?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I think we could make that happen.”

“Good.” Pike rolls her head to the other side, and kisses his cheek.

“How’s your eyes today?”

“Haven’t opened ‘em much yet.”

“Can I look at your prophecy?”

“Yeah.”

Vax shifts her to one side and pulls the parchment out of the writing frame.  You will not find him in books.  He will not come home under night’s embrace.  He is not underneath the stars nor in the moon’s bright smile.  Bring him home?

“Who’s this about, Pickle?”

“Dunno.” She shifts again, wearily. “I’m tired.”

“You can sleep if you’d like.  It’s still very early.”

“‘Kay.” She tucks her head into his neck and sighs as she falls asleep.

 


 

Pike sleeps through the rest of the day.  For awhile she stays against Vax’s shoulder, drooling onto his tunic; when Vax tries to wake her and she refuses to return to consciousness, they lay her in bed.

“Sarenrae said she could ease the trauma of the prophecies,” Vex tells Vax softly as they stand in the doorway, watching Pike sleep. “Maybe this is what she meant.”

“If writing and sleeping is going to replace self-injury, I’m all for it,” Vax answers.

Tary and Lawrence, accompanied by Percy and Scanlan, go off to the library in Westruun, hoping to learn more about the Ancient One.  Grog sits with a book at the foot of Pike’s bed.  Downstairs, Vex, Vax, and Keyleth discuss their next steps.

“We have to go home,” Vex says. “JB deserves an update, and Percy’s got business to attend to with the council.”

Vax nods. “I’d like to check in with Gloriana.”

“Oh, shit, that’s right,” Keyleth says. “Hey, I bet she’ll know something about the Ancient One.”

“Where’s Pike going to go?  With you or with us?” Vex asks.

“She says she wants to go with Grog, big surprise there,” Vax says.

Vex rolls her eyes. “Okay, where’s Grog going to go?”

“Maybe he’ll just want to stay here with Pike,” Keyleth says.

“Yeah, not likely,” Vex snorts. “That didn’t go so well.”

“Scanlan could stay with them,” Vax says.

“I was hoping Scanlan would go and see Ioun,” Keyleth says.

The twins stop talking.  Vex nods, processing Keyleth’s words. “That’s a fantastic idea.”

“I have my moments,” Keyleth says with a shrug.

From upstairs they hear Grog shifting around, and then his voice calls down, “Hey, um, Pike just threw up an’ she’s pretty upset so can I… get some help ‘ere?”

Keyleth gets up. “I’ll go.”

She heads up the stairs to find Grog holding Pike away from his body and above the bed.  Pike is splattered with vomit and sobbing. “Tell me how I can help,” she tells Grog.

“She says ‘er eyes hurt,” Grog says, still holding Pike away from him. “An’ there’s the vomit part.”

“I’ll get a washcloth,” Keyleth says. “And some clean clothes.”

They clean Pike up, and help her get redressed, and Grog changes the bed linens while Keyleth sits with a much-calmer Pike, looking at her eyes. “Pike, can you see me?”

“‘S blurry,” Pike slurs.  She seems disoriented and tired. “Your face is blurry.  It hurts to look at you.”

“That’s probably because I’m too pretty,” Keyleth says, and kisses Pike’s forehead while she casts a healing spell.

Pike smiles drowsily and closes her eyes, seeming to get some relief from the spell. “I want to… be able to see.”

“I know,” Keyleth says gently. “But you’ve been blind for a very long time.  I think it might take awhile for your sight to get better.”

Pike opens her one marbled eye and furrows her brow, trying to focus on Keyleth’s face.  She winces. “Why didn’t Sarenrae... fix both of them?”

“It’s a lot of work to fix an eye!” Keyleth says with a smile. “Maybe it’s like a one now, one in a little while deal.”

Pike rolls her eye.

“Yeah, it sounded stupid to me too,” Keyleth says, and she laughs.

“I want to… go back to Zephra with you,” Pike says.

“Okay,” Keyleth says, selfishly glad.

“We gotta go t’ Druid Town?” Grog asks from the doorway.

“You can go wherever,” Pike says tartly.

“Naw, I’m comin’ with you.”

“Then yes… we’re going to Zephra.”

Keyleth smiles.  That’s the Pike she knows.

 


 

Over dinner Tary regales them all with tales of the interesting librarians and library patrons, and then says, a bit regretfully, that they weren’t able to find anything on an Ancient One that connected to Ieliena’s Order.

“Plenty of information on ancient ones in general, though,” Lawrence says.

“Yeah, did you guys know the oldest living human man was a hundred and four?” Scanlan adds. “That’s old, right, Percy?”

“It is indeed,” Percy answers.

“There’s a statue in Marquet called ‘the Ancient One,’” Tary says. “It’s rather unfortunate-looking.”

“And there’s record of a band of elderly bards who called themselves the Ancient Ones,” Percy says. “Reports say they were… not very good.”

They drink and talk late into the night.  Pike is convinced, for the very first time since being recovered, to have a few sips of ale, and her cheeks flush with genuine pleasure.

She sleeps well, but falls asleep wondering if all these nice things are actually going to last.

 


 

In the morning they leave Wilhand’s house in groups.  Lawrence and Tary (and Doty) go with Vex and Percy back to Whitestone, taken through Lawrence’s arcane means away from Westruun.  Percy holds Pike very close and tells her he’ll work on some glasses for her, and they’ll be ready the next time they meet.  Pike’s eyes are already burning, but she leans in and lets him kiss her forehead.

Scanlan disappears next, plane-shifting to see Ioun.  When he’s gone, Keyleth leads the rest of them through the tree in the backyard of Wilhand’s house, and they arrive in Zephra to a windy, rainy afternoon.

The rain feels like little stinging bites on Pike’s face, and she nestles down into Grog’s embrace as they climb the hill to Keyleth and Vax’s house.  She keeps her eyes closed and eventually feels someone wrap a blanket around her.

“Lay her down,” Keyleth says softly.

“Eyes,” Pike says, but she can feel herself falling asleep.  Her eyes feel like they’re full of sand and she just wants to sink down into the bed and not wake up.

“It’s okay.  Just take a li’l sleepy,” Grog says. “We’ll do more…”

But she’s asleep.

Grog looks at Keyleth.  She looks at him.

“‘S there somethin’ y’ want me t’ do?” he asks her finally.

“Like, ever?  Or right now?”

“I mean, while we’re here.  T’ earn my keep?”

“Grog, you don’t have to earn your keep,” Keyleth says. “You’re my friend.  My family.  You’re always welcome here.”

“I just meant ‘cause like Pike’s… she’s special t’ ya, an’ I’m… just… here…” He looks more and more uncomfortable as he goes on.

“You’re special to me too, Grog.”

“Yeah, but I’m not gonna sleep in yer bed.”

“Yeah, there’s not really enough room for that,” Keyleth says. “But you’re a guest here.  You can do whatever you want.”

Grog’s eyebrows raise and a smile crosses his face.

“... within reason,” Keyleth says. “Nothing weird or gross or… illegal.”

He’s still smiling.  Keyleth gives him a nudge. “Y’know, I haven’t gone Minxie in awhile.  We could wrestle or something.”

“That sounds amazin’.”

“Let’s wait until it stops raining, though,” Keyleth says.  She sighs. “I should probably go do Headmaster things.”

“I’m gonna take a nap,” Grog says.

“Don’t go do Headmaster things,” Vax says, coming up the stairs. “C’mon, you know rainy days are for naps.”

Keyleth grins. “Well, I suppose if that’s what they’re for…”

“Hey,” Grog says at the head of the stairs, “you guys are gonna take good care ‘a Pike, right?”

“What do you mean, big guy?” Vax asks.

“Well… just seems like she wants t’ be here with ya,” Grog says. “An’ if I leave an’ go… somewhere, I don’t know where, I wanna know she’s bein’ taken care of.”

“Where would you go?” Keyleth asks.

“I dunno, that’s not really th’ point…”

“Of course we would take care of her,” Vax says. “But I don’t think you need to go anywhere.  You’re welcome to stay here as long as you want.”

“And if she doesn’t want to stay, and you want her to go back with you to Westruun, or even to Emon, we’re cool with that,” Keyleth says.

“Yeah, we love having her here, but she’s her own person,” Vax says. “We wouldn’t keep her here if she doesn’t want to stay.”

“‘Kay, that’s good, but if I haveta go somewhere… promise me you’ll take care ‘a her.”

“We will,” Vax says.

“Good.” Grog nods, and goes downstairs.

They hear him moving around for a bit, rearranging their furniture, and then things go quiet.

“What the hell was that about?” Vax asks as he and Keyleth go into the bedroom.

“Your guess is as good as mine,” Keyleth answers.  She takes off her headdress and kicks off her shoes.

Vax is still puzzling over it as they get into bed, as Pike rolls towards him and without even opening her eyes, snuggles into his side, as he closes his eyes and sinks into a dream.

 


 

Vax opens his eyes and it’s dark, night-black walls pulsing around him like an off-kilter heartbeat.  He tries to sit up, tries to push himself up to a standing position, but he can’t. “Hello?” he calls.  His voice goes nowhere, thickly blending into the warm embrace of the walls around him.

“Vax,” comes a kitten-weak cry. “Vax… I’m so sorry.”

He rolls over and starts crawling on his elbows and knees towards the voice. “Pike?  Pike, is that you?”

“Vax… I tried.”

“It’s okay, Pickle.  Whatever happened, we’ll fix it.”

“I couldn’t take it anymore,” she whimpers.

Vax drags himself along, body slowly moving over the soft, pliable ground. “Keep talking, Pickle.  Let me find you.”

“I thought I wanted to see again,” Pike says, her voice pinched. “I thought… I was wrong.”

Vax suddenly remembers this dream, remembers what she’s talking about. “Pike, leave your eyes alone,” he says, sharpening his voice. “Hold onto your symbol.  Talk to me.”

“I just… things are getting better… but they’re not, Vax, they’re not.  It’s not safe here.  I can’t… I can’t… I can’t do this anymore.” She goes quiet, and then Vax hears her sobbing. “I’m so tired, Vax.  Sarenrae didn’t make it better the way I wanted.  She just gave me more time with all of it.”

“I’m sorry it’s not what you wanted,” Vax says.  He thinks he’s getting closer to her. “We can work on it, okay?  But we can’t work on anything if you hurt yourself, or take your eyes out.”

“They don’t work,” Pike sobs.

“We’ll fix it, Pickle,” Vax promises. “But you have to leave them alone for now, okay?”

He pulls himself forward once more and his hands meet something soft. “Pike?”

She rolls towards him, and he sees her white hair and the soft glow of her holy symbol come closer. “I tried, Vax.  I really, really tried.  I wanted to get better.”

“You don’t have to be any better,” Vax tells her.  He pushes himself one more body length towards her, and scoops her up.  He brushes hair away from her face and sees, with some relief, that she still has her eyes.  As he looks down, though, he sees something grainy and red emerging from her eyes, moving slowly down her cheeks like gritty tears.

“I’m so sorry,” Pike whispers.

Vax cradles her as the red grittiness scrolls over her body, and then she dissolves into handfuls of sand.

He tries to stand up, but the sand swells over him, tugging him down.

 


 

Vax’s eyes open and he looks into Pike’s sleeping face.  She’s curled up against him, both of her hands clenched into his shirt.  Her eyes are closed, but below her right eye he sees reddish granules.  He reaches up and brushes a few of them away.  A slow line of blood-red liquid trickles down her cheek.

“Oh,” Vax says softly, and he tries to stem the flow of liquid, bringing up the edge of the sheet to dab at her face. “Pike?”

She doesn’t wake.

He reaches over and shakes Keyleth. “What?” she murmurs.

“Something’s wrong.”

“When isn’t it,” Keyleth mutters, but she rolls towards him and opens her eyes.

Vax puts Pike on her back and shows Keyleth the red granules, the red drainage.

“Shit,” Keyleth says. “What is that?”

“I don’t know,” Vax says honestly.

As they watch, the liquid suddenly branches out, crisscrossing her cheek in a pattern of bizarre lines and curves.  The intricate markings last for a second and then disappear.  Pike takes a few breaths, and it happens again - the blood-red liquid seeps from beneath her eyelid, making those same lines and curves, then drying into red granules.

“That looks like… a map,” Keyleth says slowly.  She rolls out of bed and grabs a parchment and quill from the desk in the corner, then returns to the bed.  Vax turns Pike towards her and Keyleth quickly sketches down the pattern on Pike’s cheek.

Vax gently shakes Pike. “Hey, Pickle.  Can you wake up for us?”

Pike licks her lips. “No,” she says quietly.

“Why not?” Vax asks with a smile.

“My eyes…” Pike frowns.  Her body tenses, and Vax hears her breathing pick up. “They hurt so bad, Vax.”

Vax caresses her head and casts Lay on Hands.  Pike relaxes a little, and opens her blind eye. “I’m tired.”

“You can go back to sleep,” Vax says.

“No, I’m tired,” Pike says, and Vax hears deep-seated exhaustion in her tone.  She drops her voice to a whisper. “You understand, don’t you?”

Next to them Keyleth is snoring softly again, the parchment and quill still loosely in her grasp.  Vax leans down. “I do,” he whispers to Pike.

“Something hurts all the time,” Pike goes on, her voice matter-of-fact but still quiet. “Sometimes… it’s like the weight… of all the prophecies… still in me are going to… drown me.”

She shifts and opens her other eye. “Now I’m trying… to be able to see again… and it hurts.  And walking… hurts.  Sometimes… breathing hurts.  And I’m so tired… of all of it.”

“What doesn’t hurt, Pickle?” Vax asks.

Pike looks up at him, her expression exhausted. “Sleeping.”

“What else?”

“Being held.”

“Anything else?”

“Being… with Sarenrae.”

Vax gently lifts her from the bed and cradles her against him. “What do you want us to do?”

Her expression clouds as he watches her think. “You could… let me go.  Take me… to Sarenrae.”

Vax finds a fist clenched around his throat.  Pike, sensing something has changed, reaches up to touch his face. “I’m sorry,” she says softly. “You all… did so much… to save me.  And now… I don’t know… if it was worth it.”

Her words loosen Vax’s throat. “It was,” he tells her firmly. “It was.”

She makes a soft noise of approval.

“We’ll find you someone to help with the pain,” Vax says, though he has no way of knowing if that’s even possible. “We’ll get the prophecies out of your body.  If we can do that…”

His voice trails off before he can say would you stay with us?, but Pike seems to understand all the same.  She closes her eyes, letting her fingers trail down to his mouth. “Yeah,” she whispers.

Vax waits until her arm drops from his face and she goes limp before he truly starts breathing again.  He puts her on the bed next to Keyleth, covers her with a clean blanket, and goes downstairs.

Grog’s sitting in the living room with his back against the wall, bouncing a small ball off the wall in front of him.  It thwaps back into his lap as Vax approaches.

“Hi,” Vax says.

“Hey,” Grog says.

Vax sits down next to him, watches as Grog sends the ball bouncing again.  For a few minutes they don’t speak, just keeping their eyes on the ball’s path across the room and back to Grog’s lap.   Thunk thunk thwap.  Thunk thunk thwap.

“I’m thinkin’ a’ leavin’ ‘er here,” Grog says at last, not looking at Vax but at the ball.

“Yeah?”

“Goin’ back t’ Westruun.  Stayin’ at Wilhand’s.”

Vax just listens.

Thunk thunk thwap.

“She’s not doin’ well,” Grog goes on. “What if it’s ‘cause ‘a me?”

“Do you think that’s what it is?”

Thunk thunk thwap.

Thunk thunk thwap.

“No,” Grog says.

“And don’t you think that leaving might make her very sad?”

“Yeah.”

“But you still want to leave.”

Grog sighs. “I’m not any use sittin’ still.”

“So don’t sit still,” Vax says. “Go for a run.  Go kill something.  Come back and we’ll talk again.”

Grog tosses the ball again and lets Vax catch it. “‘Kay,” he says, hefting himself up from the floor.

At the door he looks at Vax.

“She really would miss you,” Vax says. “So come back.”

“Yeah,” Grog says, and then he’s gone.

 


 

Pike drifts.  She dreams.  She sees her friends, blurrily, the way she’s been accustomed to seeing them now through the one eye that sometimes works.  But she hears them blurrily, too - snippets and snatches of conversation float overhead like smoky ribbons.  Pike tries to reach up for them, but her hands are insubstantial too.

She blinks.

“... she wasn’t like this before.”

“Maybe she’s…”

“... take her with us?  Take her home?”

“She’s still alive?”

“I thought she wanted… to leave.”

“... selfish.”

“Selfish?”

“Selfish.”

Pike reaches up and tries to pull selfish towards her.  It breaks into little clouds, those clouds sucked up into the whirlwind around her.

I’m scared, she thinks.

I’m tired, she thinks.

I’d like it all to stop, she thinks, and then it does.  Gritty red sand flows over her in waves, wrapping around her like shawls, like scarves, like blankets.  She lets it take her; she breathes in and goes under.

 


 

It’s night when Percy is alone in his workshop.  He and Tary have been bent over the workbench all day, grinding and refining lenses for Pike’s glasses.  They’ve spent much of their time joking and discussing new scientific theories; Tary’s heard a few doozies in his travels with the Brigade.  Percy gave Tary a rundown on the “experiments” the Order of the Night Sun were conducting using Pike as their prized specimen.

Now the castle is quiet; Tary has long since gone upstairs to eat dinner with Lawrence, leaving Doty to, in his words, “assist Percival in any way necessary.”  Percy has left Doty in the corner, though.

“Come to bed,” Vex says, startling him.

For a moment Percy thinks Doty’s learned to speak - he jerks up from his calculations and figures only to see his wife standing in the doorway. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Who did you think it was?”

Percy gestures to Doty, holding a set of pliers in one hand and a roll of wire in the other.

“Oh,” Vex says. “Do I sound like him?”

“No, it’s just…” Percy runs a hand through his hair.

Vex kisses him on the cheek. “Come to bed, darling.”

She looks down at the tiny wire-framed glasses held in a delicate clamp on the bench before Percy. “These are adorable.”

“They’re coming along.”

“Are you still sticking with the different-colored lenses?”

“Mmhmm.  Tary met with a glassmaker in Wildmount who was talking about ‘restorative lenses’ for eye conditions.  We’re trying to figure out how to dye one of the lenses the correct color…”

“Work on it in the morning,” Vex says. “Tary’s already taken Lawrence out for a little stroll in the gardens…”

“And?”

“And the castle is ours…” Vex grins at him.

Percy returns the smile. “And we haven’t heard anything from anyone, meaning there’s no immediate crisis we need to go solve, I assume.”

“You would be correct, Mr. DeRolo.”

“Well, then, Mrs. DeRolo, let us adjourn upstairs.”

As they’re headed up to their bedroom, Percy frowns and sighs.

“What is it?”

“I was just thinking of something Grog said before he killed Ieliena.”

“And?”

“He seemed so… sad that our lives weren’t our own for the seven years Pike was missing.”

“What’s wrong with that?  I’m not exactly thrilled about it myself.”

“Right, but this was Grog,” Percy says. “He told her that in those seven years we all could have been doing different things - he said we could have been having children, and Vax and Keyleth too, and…”

“He’s right.”

“I know,” Percy says, frustrated by his inability to get his point across. “I just… I never thought Grog would think about those things.”

Vex stops next to him, looking somber. “It’s telling, isn’t it, what leaps of thoughts we all make when the world becomes strange and untenable.”

Percy shakes his head. “Maybe he was just trying to say that by getting rid of her, we’re allowed to move on with all of this - Pike included.  Once we work all these kinks out, when we get Pike back to who she used to be -”

“Percy, darling,” Vex says gently, sadly. “You don’t really think she’s going to be who she used to be, do you?”

Percy’s head is still partially with Grog on that island, looking at Ieliena, and partially down in his  workshop with Pike’s new glasses, so it takes a moment for him to fully comprehend Vex’s question. “If she can see… and walk…”

Vex shakes her head. “I know you think that, darling, and it’s wonderful to be so hopeful.  But the most at-peace I’ve seen her since we rescued her was on Sarenrae’s island.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that there are some things you can’t fix with inventions,” Vex says. “Some things are just unfixable.  They might still work, but it’s not quite fair to keep using them when you know they’ll just become more broken in the process.”

Percy stares at her. “You’re…”

“I’m saying that we keep thinking there’s going to be an endpoint to all of this,” Vex says. “That we’ll find all of this magic help that’s going to fix Pike, to bring her back to the Pike she was before she was kidnapped, but the evidence is showing that’s not possible.  Her body is struggling, Percival… Vax told me how long she was vomiting blood before we got to Wilhand’s house.  If that happens again… or if she’s alone and something happens to her, or if she gets sick, or if another one of those feral fits takes her and her heart gives out...”

Percy can’t figure out what to say to make any of this better.  He sees tears in Vex’s eyes. “So that’s it?” he says at last. “We just give up?”

“It’s not giving up to accept how things are,” Vex says.

“But to never try to make any of it better?”

“I didn’t say we couldn’t try to make things better,” Vex says. “Those glasses, for instance - those will help her, keep her eyes from being so painful.  But thinking that once she can see and walk again without any effort she’ll be ready to go off on her own and build another temple is just… it’s just wrong.”

She leans back against the wall. “Maybe we didn’t have children while she was gone because somehow we knew this was what it was going to take once we got her back.”

“We couldn’t have known,” Percy says, his lips wooden.

“And maybe we should offer to take her part time from Vax and Keyleth, so they’re not doing all of the work,” Vex goes on. “We have enough support here to help take care of her.  If we can’t make her who she used to be, maybe we should just be part of her new normal in the ways we know how.”

She sighs. “I’m sorry, darling.  I didn’t come downstairs to find you and tell you all of this.  It’s just been on my mind since we returned from Westruun and I haven’t known who to tell…”

“It’s all right,” Percy says, finding his voice again.  He steps towards her and kisses her on the cheek. “We should talk about this.”

He forces a smile. “Who gets custody of Grog?”

 


 

Grog runs through the woods, rain beating down on his shoulders, and he tries not to think about anything.  Instead he thinks about a lot of things.

He thinks about the map.  Which led them to Ieliena.  Who he killed.

He thinks about Ieliena.  Who he killed.  To make Pike safe.

He thinks about Pike.  Who is safe now.  Except she’s not.  Because she’s still broken.  But he hates thinking about her like that.

He thinks about Pike coughing up blood outside the temple.  And how helpless he was.  And how small that made him feel.

He thinks about how killing Ieliena didn’t make him feel any bigger.

He stops abruptly at the edge of a river and looks down at its surface, pocked by falling raindrops.  His face is a blurry dark mess.  He wonders if there are fish in this river, and if they can see him.  He wonders what fish worry about.

Grog sits down at the edge of the river and lets the rain cascade over his muscles, flow down his neck and his back, stream down his arms to the ends of his fingers.  He likes how it feels.

Something rises up in him and he finds that he’s speaking. “Sarenrae?  I don’t know if yer around, but… ’s me, Grog.”

There’s no answer except for the raindrops falling into the river.

“I know we don’t normally talk, ‘cause that’s what Pike’s for, an’ she does a really good job of it.  Usually.  Um, I just wanted t’ let ya know…”

And there Grog stops.  What did he want Sarenrae to know?  That he was frantic at her temple when he couldn’t fix Pike?  That he was terrified of Pike staying with her and never seeing him again?  That sometimes he wonders why she can’t just come down and take care of everything that’s wrong with Pike instead of letting his best friend suffer so much?

But that’s not what comes out of his mouth.

“... that I’m glad she’s here.”

The words sound wrong when they leave his mouth, tinny and small.  They echo over the river and are caught up in the splattering rain.  He can’t figure out why they’re not the right words.  He is glad Pike is here.  Why isn’t that enough?

A small piece of Grog knows it’s because he wants to get angry at Sarenrae, to demand answers, to maybe even rage at her until she knows how hard this all is.  She’s supposed to be protecting Pike - where has she been for the past seven years?  Why didn’t she help Pike escape, or tell Vox Machina where Pike was?  If Sarenrae loves Pike so much, why would she let those kind of horrible things happen to Pike?

Grog heard a cleric once talk about “being the bigger person” when bad things happen, but he doesn’t understand that.  He’s the biggest person he knows.  Somehow it hasn’t made any bad things feel better, or hurt less.  How big does he have to be in order for these kinds of things to make sense?

 


 

Pike sleeps on, caught in a blank dreamless state, selfish pounding in her ears in a thousand silent languages she doesn’t speak and can’t hope to understand.

Chapter Text

The rain stops in the early evening and Grog returns to the house, wet but satisfied with his exertions.  He finds Keyleth just about ready to leave.

“I’m going to see Gloriana,” she tells him. “I’d ask if you want to come, but…”

“Yeah, no, tha’s not fer me,” Grog says. “I’m gonna go see Pike.”

The run back to the house has dried him significantly, and he leaves almost no squelching footsteps as he comes back inside.  He sees Vax sitting at the kitchen table. “‘M back.”

“Good,” Vax says. “Do you want some cocoa?”

“Nah, I’ll wait fer later.  ‘S Pike up?”

Vax shakes his head. “Still sleeping.”

“She’s doin’ that a lot,” Grog says.  He tries very hard not to think about what that means, and looks over sideways at Vax. “‘S it okay… if I go an’ sit with ‘er?”

“Of course,” Vax says, sounding surprised. “You can be with her whenever you want, Grog.”

“Oh.  ‘Kay.”

Grog goes quietly up the stairs to the bedroom and finds Pike sprawled out on Keyleth and Vax’s bed, holding a shirt in one hand.  He stops in the doorway and just looks at her.  She looks peaceful.  He doesn’t want to wake her up, but he wants to make sure…

He doesn't know what he wants to make sure of.  He awkwardly steps over the threshold and lifts her up.  She sighs softly and curls up against him.

It suddenly feels like the room is too small.  Grog can’t breathe.  He wants to put Pike back on the bed but he can’t because his arms won’t move.

“Grog,” Pike says softly.

“Yeah?” he chokes out.

“I love you.”

At that Grog starts to weep. “Oh, no.  No, no, no.  That’s too much, Pikey.”

“It’s just enough,” she says sleepily, and she rubs her face on his cheek.

Grog sobs and Pike just strokes the back of his neck with her little fingers, not understanding what made him so heartsick but understanding his need to express it all the same.

 


 

The little old man drags himself through the red sand, one more step one more step.  He has no idea of time, of space, of self.  He has no idea when he lost his sight - the whole world is red and gritty.  Sometimes he’s not even sure what’s up or down anymore.  He crawls forward when he has to, on his knees, on his elbows.  Grains of sand fill his mouth, his throat, his lungs.  There is no day, no night, just the red blowing sand around him like a cocoon of blistering particles.

He doesn’t know where he’s going.  If he knew at one time, he has long since forgotten.  Some part of him wonders if he ever had a destination in his sights, or if his entire existence has been nothing but this crawl across an endless desert inch by inch, breathing and feeling and knowing nothing but sand.

In his hand he clutches a piece of delicately-worked metal, its edges smoothed and worn by the constant blowing sand.  It is attached to a chain around his neck, or he would have lost it long ago in the maelstrom of the winds around him.  He isn’t quite sure who it belongs to; it might be his, but maybe not.  He thinks he knew someone who had one like it once, but he? she? is lost to the sands like everything else.

He holds that smooth remnant of who he used to be and sometimes he thinks it glows faintly.  He likes that.  He thinks whoever he used to know who had a metal thing like he did would like it too.

He hopes someday he’ll meet that person again.

But for now he is nameless, sightless, voiceless, crawling across an endless desert under an unceasing sun in a hot red sky, skin burning and rubbed raw by the forever blowing grains of gritty crimson sand.

It is what he has always been, he thinks, and what he always will be.

 


 

Keyleth finds her father eating dinner with Gloriana and a young Ashari woman, obviously Gloriana’s guard for the day.  They seem to be coexisting in a respectful, if not overly friendly, manner.  None of the three seem surprised to see her.

“Welcome back,” Kohren says. “Would you like to join us?  There’s plenty of food.  Mel’ith cooked.”

“It’s all delicious,” Gloriana says softly.  Kohren nods in agreement, and Mel’ith flushes under the praise.

“No, thank you,” Keyleth says. “I’ll wait to eat at home.  And I don’t want to intrude on your meal.  I just had a few questions.”

“Of course,” Gloriana says.

Keyleth has no idea what transpired while she was gone, but Gloriana’s demeanor is markedly changed.  No longer the aggressive, accusatory woman with nowhere to turn, she seems resigned but cheerful.  Part of Keyleth is troubled by this.  The rest of her is just grateful for the switch in attitude. “I promise I won’t take up too much of your evening.”

She sits down at the table and takes out the piece of parchment on which she drew the strange map that appeared on Pike’s cheek while they slept. “Have you seen anything like this before?”

Gloriana studies the markings.  She swallows her last mouthful of dinner and sets the parchment down on the table next to her plate.  With one finger she traces the arcs of the pattern.  Eventually she nods. “Yes.  I have a book in the sitting room…”

She looks around at the table.  When no one moves to stop her, she gets up and goes into the next room, returning after a few moments with a thin volume.  Keyleth sees the title on the worn red leather cover - she can’t read it, but it looks like it’s written in a variant of Sylvan.

“‘In The Sands of the Ancient One,’” Gloriana says, setting it down in front of Keyleth.

“The Ancient One,” Keyleth says. “That’s… that’s where Wilhand went - to the realm of the Ancient One.”

Gloriana nods. “The Order of the Night Sun’s deity.  Not much is known about the Ancient One now, except to the members of the Order… and from what I’ve heard, not many of them are around.”

“We took a lot of their literature with us,” Keyleth says. “But it’s all… fairly out there.”

“Where did you get that map?” Kohren asks, nodding at Keyleth’s parchment.

“It’s… a long story,” Keyleth says. “Gloriana, is it possible to go to the realm of the Ancient One?”

“Anything’s possible,” the older woman says with a shrug.

“Is it advisable?”

“Definitely not.  It is a realm of sand and wind and constant sun.  Those who go there are lost immediately.  There’s no way to track movements.  There are presumably settlements,” Gloriana says, “or at least a temple of some sort, but that is merely conjecture - no one’s ever seen it.”

“So we couldn’t rescue someone who’s there?”

“Vox Machina does impossible stuff all the time,” Mel’ith says softly, but with a look of quiet courage on her face. “I mean, you did.  Before… I mean, you could still do impossible stuff now.  ‘Cause you used to.”

“The young think they can do anything,” Gloriana says with a derisive but gentle tone.  Kohren gives Keyleth a fond smile.

“If this is the next step in this process, then it is worth pursuing,” Kohren says. “You will have my assistance in whatever way I can provide it.”

“We might just need someone to stay with Pike,” Keyleth says.  She pointedly doesn’t look at Gloriana.

Kohren nods. “We’ll talk about it.”

“May I take this book with me?” Keyleth asks Gloriana.

“Of course.  I hope it will help you.  I just ask that you please return it when you’re finished.”

“I will,” Keyleth says. “Thank you.”

She goes out into the falling evening as walks back up the hill towards her house.  The lanterns are lit and everything looks welcoming and warm.

Inside Vax is cooking and Grog is sitting on the floor just outside the kitchen, holding Pike in his lap.  Keyleth realizes that none of the chairs in the house are the right size for Grog.  They’ll have to get something figured out.

She sets the book on the hall table, fully intending to tell Grog and Vax all about it, but then Vax turns, hearing her enter, and smiles, and asks her a question, and she forgets all about it.

 


 

Scanlan finds himself in the front hall of Ioun’s library and starts the long walk to find the mistress of knowledge.  It seems there are more books than the last time he visited, but he can’t exactly remember when that was.  More parchment scrolls, too.

He finds the Knowing Mistress surrounded by tall stacks of books, a cup of tea in one hand as she pages through a large tome.  She doesn’t even look up, but greets him: “Mr. Shorthalt - you’ve rewritten some interesting history since last we spoke.”

“Yeah, that’s why I’m here.” Scanlan approaches her sitting area and hefts himself up onto a pile of books.

Ioun puts down the book she’s reading and picks up another, handing it to him.  Scanlan leans forward on the pile of books and props the large tome up on his knees.

Pike Trickfoot, it reads.

Scanlan flips to the end and then a bit before that.  There’s a giant swath of blank pages.  He looks up at Ioun. “So, she wasn’t her when she was gone?”

“She was and she wasn’t… but she was no one who could write.  Her history in those years is contained in someone else’s book.  Tea?”

Scanlan shakes his head, paging through Pike’s book to the point where she was taken.  Ioun seems to understand what he’s looking for and goes quiet, picking up her own book.

Over the time he’s been the champion of Ioun, Scanlan has learned how to ‘read’ the histories of people whose life stories are kept in Ioun’s library.  They aren’t written in any traditional style, and can be difficult to read without a critical eye and some background knowledge.  Parts may vary in their language of recording; some histories have pictures interspersed with text or no text at all.  Scanlan’s opened at least one history and had dried flowers fall out onto his lap, or silken fabric, or hammered gold bangles.

Now he traces the last few weeks before Pike’s disappearance.  Nothing pops out at him.  He keeps turning pages, flip flip flip flip, until he slows at the page before the one where he knows she’s taken.  Part of him wants to turn the page, to find out who took her and where and why.  Part of him would be happy never to find out how it happened.

“Scanlan,” Ioun says, and he looks up. “Something tells me that you didn’t come here to look at Pike’s book.”

“I didn’t,” Scanlan says, but his words sound far away. “I came to ask you about something else.”

“You don’t have to look,” Ioun says, and a gentle elderly hand comes down on the page. “You can leave it here.  I know, and that is all that matters.”

Scanlan looks up into Ioun’s soft eyes. “But if I know…”

“It might not change anything,” Ioun says.

“Or it could change everything.  We could go find them… we could…”

“Whoever it was that took her for the Order, something tells me they’ve already suffered enough.”

“Not as much as Pike,” Scanlan says.

“No,” Ioun says gently. “But suffering isn’t a comparison, a competition.  It isn’t about the amount of suffering one endures, but of how that suffering can be relieved.  Now, ask me what you came here to ask me, my champion, and we shall speak no more of this.”

She leans in and tries to take Pike’s book from him.

“Wait,” Scanlan says, tightening his grip on it. “I… I want to look at that again.  Not that part, but…”

Ioun nods, understanding.

“I came to ask you about the Ancient One and his realm,” Scanlan says. “That’s where Wilhand - Pike’s grandfather - was taken.”

“Ah, the Ancient One,” Ioun says.  She sets her teacup on one of the piles of books, stands up, and moves over to a stack of books behind her chair.  She runs her fingers down the spines, stopping at a deep green volume with faded silver text.  She tugs it out and shows it to Scanlan.  It’s almost as big as he is, and he isn’t quite sure what the language on the front is.

He leans forward as Ioun opens the tome and slowly flips through it.  Scanlan frowns as he tries to read it.  He’s sure it’s one of the elven dialects, but he can only catch every fifth word or so. “What’s this written in?”

“A language long forgotten.”

“Helpful.”

“I’m not a box of answers, Mr. Shorthalt.” Ioun turns another page.  A map appears, and Scanlan gently pulls the book slightly closer to him to look at it. “This says… to open the… gates?  Portal?  Entrance? … to the realm?  House?”

“Realm is closest,” Ioun says.

“... be fragrant?  No, that can’t be right…”

“Would you like to take this with you?  There are some in the world who may have more answers than you on this language,” Ioun says.

“You’ll let me take this?”

“I’ll allow you to borrow it.”

“To help Pike?”

“That’s what you came here for, isn’t it?”

Scanlan nods.

“You want to help write the ending here,” Ioun says, and she closes the large green book; at the same time she snags Pike’s book out of his lap. “You have a chance to make it anything you want.  Stop focusing on what was, all right?”

“It’s kind of hard to do,” Scanlan says.

“Stories need heroes,” Ioun tells him tartly. “Go out there and be one… and better yet, help her to be the hero of her own story.”

She hands the green volume to him; it seems to shrink as it leaves her grasp, until it’s a manageable size for Scanlan to slip into his pack.  He stands up, and Ioun bends down to kiss him on the forehead. “I am still so very proud of you, my champion.  Thank you for all you do.”

“It’s a pleasure, milady,” Scanlan tells her, and he bows deeply.

When he comes out of the bow, he’s standing in front of the small house where Kaylie’s set up her life.  She gives music lessons when she’s not touring, and her tiny herbalist witch wife - who Scanlan adores - has taken up the front and back gardens with what seem like thousands of different plants.

He goes up the front walk and knocks at the door.  A few moments pass and then Kaylie’s head peeks out. “Dad!  What are you doing here?”

“Sorry, are you indisposed?”

“No!  Just… surprised,” Kaylie says.  She opens the door all the way and throws her arms around him. “You look good, old man.”

“Thank you?”

“So, you just decided to stop by?”

“That’s about it,” Scanlan says.  He’s still thinking about Ioun’s library and the advice she gave him, and about the book he now carries in his bag.  There are very few people he knows in the world who specialize in dead or forgotten languages - Vex is one, and Kaylie’s wife is the other. “Is Kally here?”

“She just went down to town to run some errands,” Kaylie says. “What’s this about?  Are you still ticked she didn’t ask you for my hand in marriage?”

“As I recall, I was half-trapped in lava when she told me she was going to marry you,” Scanlan says, smiling fondly. “There wasn’t really any asking about it… and as it turned out, my agreeing was conditional to getting released from said lava.”

“She’s always been sort of a take-charge kind of gal,” Kaylie says, grinning. “Come on in.  I’ll get you something to eat.”

Scanlan follows Kaylie into the house.  It’s warm and cheery, everything Scanlan would have wanted for his daughter.  There’s a fire in the hearth, and there are two rocking chairs with puffy cushions set before it.  A big bookshelf lines one wall, filled with books, knickknacks, and small musical instruments.  Scanlan knows there’s a little room at the back of the house where Kally prepares tonics, salves, and other herbal remedies for the town, and one where Kaylie gives music lessons.  It is a soft place to be, a welcoming place, and Scanlan is touched that his daughter has made her home so pleasant.

“You going to stay for awhile?” Kaylie calls from the kitchen. “I just got new sheets for your bedroom.”

That’s another thing Scanlan likes about Kaylie’s house - he has his own bedroom.  They call it “the father-in-law suite,” despite him being only Kally’s father-in-law. “I might,” he says.  There’s really no rush to get back to Zephra or wherever the rest of Vox Machina ended up, at least not until he can get the book translated.

Kaylie appears with a plate of bread and cheese; she hands him a mug that turns out to contain fresh apple cider.  She sits down in one of the chairs and beckons him over to the other. “What have you been up to?  I thought I wouldn’t see you until the Winter’s Crest festival.”

“It’s an interesting story,” Scanlan says.

“All of yours are.  Well, except for that one where you and Grog went to what you thought was going to be an underground fight club and it turned out to be a knitting society.”

“That’s still a good story.  Makes people laugh.” Scanlan takes a sip of cider. “Pike’s back.”

Kaylie nearly drops the piece of cheese she’s holding. “What?  Your lady love reappeared?”

“She didn’t reappear as much as we had to go fight for her,” Scanlan says. “And she’s not my lady love, she’s…”

He sighs.  How best to tell Kaylie that for the majority of her time back with Vox Machina, Pike was not much more than a fragile child? “She’s different.”

“Did she just get sick of all of you?”

“No,” Scanlan says. “She was taken and tortured.”

Kaylie’s traditional smirk falls from her face. “Oh, man.  I’m so sorry.”

She puts a hand on his shoulder. “Can I do anything to help?”

He turns and kisses her cheek. “You’re a sweetheart.  I actually came here to ask Kally for help.”

“So I’m not good enough for you?” Kaylie’s smirk is back.

“Unless you started reading dead languages while I’ve been gone…” Scanlan tries to smile. “I got a book that might help us with our next steps forward, but the language has been gone for awhile.”

The door opens and a large basket enters, followed by Kally’s smiling face. “I’m back!” she sings out. “Oh, hello, Mr. Shorthalt.”

“You can call me Scanlan,” he says, as he always does.  He loves Kally’s humorous formality, though.

“You shouldn’t be carrying that!” Kaylie says, and leaps up from her seat.

“It’s not heavy,” Kally protests. “Just some linen and ribbon.”

“Still.  I should have gone with you.”

Kaylie takes the basket from Kally and for the first time Scanlan can see his daughter-in-law fully, from her bright red hair and the freckles on her face to her very round, very pregnant belly.

“What?” he chokes out. “When did you… Kaylie - why didn’t you tell me I was going to be a grandfather?”

Kaylie goes bright red.  Kally grins.

“And how did you two…?”

“Yeah, stop right there, old man,” Kaylie says, recovering her ability to speak. “That is a question for the ‘never’ box.”

“It’s amazing what magic can do,” Kally says.  She crosses the room and plants a kiss on his cheek. “Good to see you.”

Scanlan just stares, a bit open-mouthed.

“Dad, didn’t you have something to ask Kally?”

“When are you due?”

“Dad.”

“In a few weeks,” Kally says.  She rubs her back. “Not soon enough, if you ask me.”

“Go sit down,” Kaylie says. “Dad’s got a problem.  I mean, like, one you can help with.”

“Sounds good,” Kally says. “Hit me.”

Scanlan takes out the book. “I need this translated.”

Kally’s expression changes to one of focused curiosity as she takes it and flips it open. “I haven’t seen this script in ages.”

“Can you read it?”

“I can… give you an approximation,” Kally answers. “It might take some time.”

“That’s all right,” Kaylie says. “Dad told me he can stay for awhile.”

“Oh, would you?” Kally looks up, her eyes bright. “That would be wonderful!”

“I guess I’m your house guest,” Scanlan says. “I’ll need to check in with… everybody, but…”

“You’re welcome here as long as you want,” Kally says, “but you know that.  And I’ll get this translated as fast as I can.”

“Well, make me useful,” Scanlan says. “What would you both like for dinner?”

“You can cook?” Kaylie asks, giving him a frown.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”

“Yeah, not that much…”

“That sounds wonderful, Mr. Shorthalt,” Kally says, only somewhat distractedly. “Haven’t had a nice chicken pie in awhile…”

“I’m on it,” Scanlan says. “Kaylie, what would you like for dessert?”

“I’ll make dessert,” Kaylie says. “You shouldn’t have to do all the work - and it’ll give us a chance to catch up.”

“Babe, can you grab me some parchment and a quill?” Kally asks.

“I’m on it.”

As Scanlan goes out into the kitchen to start gathering up ingredients for dinner, he looks back at his daughter and his daughter-in-law, and his heart is full of so much love.  He’s been much less cynical since Pike came back, and he’s getting used to it.

It feels pretty good.

 


 

A week passes.  Then another.

Pike falls back into the rhythm of Zephra.  She sleeps when she wants, either between Vax and Keyleth or cradled in someone’s arms; she wakes when she’s able to and nobody tries to force more out of her.  She eats what she wants.  She goes for walks with Grog, or with Vax, or with both of them, when Keyleth is off doing Headmaster things.  Her skills with the cane don’t get any better, and she seems to tire more quickly.  No one says anything, though, and Grog just picks her up and carries her wherever she wants to go when she can’t walk anymore.

Some of the Ashari healers make up a pain reduction syrup that makes things a little floaty but mostly just bearable.  Her body doesn’t throb with pain, her scars don’t burn, breathing remains easy.  Her eyes still hurt, but with the screams of pain dampened to just a dull roar, she finds even that is manageable.  And Keyleth tells her that any day, Percy will come to visit with her new glasses.

Vax introduces Grog to the wonders of Zephra’s hot spring, and after that they go almost every day.  Pike likes floating in the water on her back, moving her fingers through the water.  She closes her eyes and sometimes falls asleep there.  When she wakes someone’s usually wrapped her in a big fluffy towel and she’s either back at the house or lying in someone’s lap at the side of the spring.  It’s like heaven.

Keyleth brushes her hair every morning and every night and they have “girl talk” when Grog’s out tramping through the woods and Vax is doing Vax things.  Nobody presses her for answers she doesn’t have, or pushes her too hard to do anything or say anything or try anything, and Pike loves them so deeply for all of it.

She knows it can’t last.

Nothing this good ever does.

 


 

On a windy morning Pike wakes with the pressure of a prophecy roiling in her belly.  She feels tears form in her burning eyes and she wants to scream, but she’s too tired.

She rolls to one side and gently touches Vax’s shoulder. “I… need…” she gets out before the pain in her stomach causes her to whimper.

Vax is immediately awake. “What is it, Pickle?”

“I… need…” Pike tries again.  The pain is too big.  She needs to get out of her body.

Vax sits up and she feels him moving around, then a spoon touches her lips.  Obediently Pike opens her mouth, swallowing down a dose of the pain reduction syrup.  It’s supposed to taste like cherries but she’s become accustomed to it to the point of no longer tasting it much at all.

“Better?” Vax asks softly.

Pike shakes her head. “I… need… to write.”

“Oh,” Vax says.  He picks her up and carries her out of the bedroom, down the stairs, and into the front room, where he sets her on a chair.  He goes away for a second and then returns, putting the grease pencil in her hand and the writing frame on her lap. “Good?”

The syrup is making her floaty and the prophecy is swarming her brain, but Pike manages to nod before the pencil touches parchment and she’s gone.

 


 

Vax watches as Pike’s hands move over the writing frame, marking out a prophecy one letter at a time.  It’s an excruciating thing to watch, but he knows it must be much worse to endure.

G. O.  I.  N.  G.

She pulls the parchment up.  Vax resists the urge to just ask her to speak the prophecy; he has no idea what would happen if he interrupted her now.

T. O.  H.  U.  R.  T.

He hears Grog snort and roll over from his bedding on the far side of the front room and thinks, not for the first time, that they should really get Grog a better place to sleep.

G.  O.  I.  N.  G.

Keyleth comes downstairs with her robe wrapped around her, looking confused. “What’s happening?” she whispers to Vax.

“Prophecy,” Vax says.

Pike pulls the parchment up.

“Oh.  Okay.  Do we need to do anything?”

T. O.  L.  O.  S.  E.

“I think we just let it happen.  Maybe get some clean clothes ready in case she throws up like she did last time.”

G. O.  I.  N.  G.

Pike stops there for a moment, breathing heavily, her head lolling forward, and Vax almost darts forward to catch her.  Keyleth puts a hand on his arm.

T. O.  D.  R.  O.  W.  N.

Pike pauses again and the pencil trembles in her grip.

“Where are you going to drown?” Vax asks before he can stop himself.

It’s the first time any of them have attempted to intervene in a prophecy, and Vax kicks himself mentally for even trying to interrupt.  But as though his question has somehow propelled the next words out of her, Pike pulls up the parchment and her grasp on the pencil tightens.

A. L.  O.  N.  E.

“Can we do anything to stop it?”

H. O.  L.  D.  H.  E.  R.

Pike yanks the parchment up again and a soft, low humming emits from her mouth.

G. O.  I.  N.  G.  A.  W.  A.  Y.

“We’re not going to let anyone take you away,” Keyleth says firmly.

H. E.  I.  S.  B.  U.  R.  I.  E.  D.

The last three letters seem to take an hour, but when she finishes the final one, Pike drops the pencil and crumples forward over the writing frame.  The pencil clatters to the floor and Pike lets out an anguished groan.

Keyleth picks up Pike; Vax rescues the writing frame and the parchment.  Pike grunts and pushes back from Keyleth. “I… want… Grog,” she says.

“Okay,” Keyleth answers, and takes her over to Grog’s bed in the corner.  She kneels at his side. “Grog, wake up.”

“Huh?”

“Pike wants to lay here with you.  Is that all right?”

“Yeah, ‘course,” Grog says blearily. “C’mere, monstah.”

He sits up a bit and spreads out a quilt on his chest.  Keyleth lays Pike down and puts another quilt over her. “You okay?”

“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Grog says. “Right, Pikey?”

Pike twitches a bit, settling into the blanket sandwich. “Pike and Grog… are safe?”

“The safest,” Grog tells her, and strokes her head. “You just have some more sleep, ‘kay?”

“‘Kay,” Pike murmurs, and her eyes close.

Grog looks over at Keyleth. “What happened?”

“Another prophecy,” Keyleth says. “Then she asked for you.”

“She’s not gonna throw up on me, is she?”

“Anything’s possible,” Keyleth says with a grin. “Just don’t move too much.”

Grog lays rigidly, almost comically still, under the blanket, his eyes frantically darting over to Keyleth. “‘S this good?”

“I think you can relax a little, big guy,” Vax says from behind Keyleth. “She’s probably just going to sleep for a few hours.”

Grog relaxes his posture slightly and resumes stroking Pike’s head. “Wake me up if somethin’ excitin’ happens, ‘kay?”

“You got it,” Vax says.

Vax watches Grog stroke Pike’s hair until Grog drops back off to sleep, then he looks up to Keyleth. “Well, shit.  What do we do now?”

Keyleth sighs. “Wait for her to throw up or for the pain syrup to wear off… then go from there.”

Vax looks down at the parchment in his hand. “What does this even mean?”

He walks over to the kitchen table and spreads it out. “‘Going to hurt.  Going to lose.  Going to drown.  Alone.  Hold her.  Going away.  He is buried.’”

“Buried,” Keyleth murmurs, and then a look of recognition crosses her face.  She goes into the hall and comes back with a book.

“What’s that?”

“Gloriana loaned it to me,” Keyleth says. “It’s about the Ancient One.  Apparently his realm is all sand.”

Vax looks over at the book. “I can’t read that.”

“Neither can I,” Keyleth says. “I was hoping maybe your sister could, when she and Percy come to visit.  But there’s some maps in there.”

“You think the prophecy is about Pike drowning in sand?”

“I think it’s reminding us about Wilhand, who, if he’s still alive in the sands of the Ancient One, is probably buried.”

“So we can go to this sandy place?”

“Gloriana thinks we’d be foolish to try.”

“We’ve done worse.  I mean, rescuing Pike wasn’t exactly ‘not foolish,’ but we did that.”

“We don’t actually know anything about the Ancient One’s realm other than it being sandy.  Going there right now would definitely be foolish.  Like, more than foolish.  What’s more than foolish?”

“Ridiculous?”

“Sure, that.” Keyleth goes over to the stove and starts boiling water. “I’m making tea.”

“Sounds good.”

They sit in silence for awhile, Vax flipping through the book’s incomprehensible pages, Keyleth keeping her eyes on Pike and Grog.

The sun rises, and a new day begins.

 


 

Vex and Percy arrive on the afternoon of the windy day, making their way up the hill to Keyleth and Vax’s house, led by the irrepressible Alethir, who delights in giving them a tour of the village, as though they haven’t been there many times before. “We’re thinking of putting in a new path to the swimming hole in the spring, and…”

Another Ashari man comes up to Alethir and they exchange some low conversation.  Alethir looks up apologetically at Vex and Percy. “I need to take care of some things.  Will you be all right getting to the Headmaster’s house?”

“I think we can handle it, darling,” Vex tells him.

He nods at them, and hurries off with the other man.

“Thank Pelor,” Percy murmurs once they’re gone. “If he told us again how proud he was of the new meetinghouse…”

“But dear, he worked so hard on the roof.”

They laugh as they stroll the rest of the way to Keyleth and Vax’s house, the wind teasing their hair and clothes.  The air is cool but smells fresh.  It’s a lovely afternoon.

That feeling is almost immediately shattered when they open the door to the house and find Vax walking the length of the hallway with Pike in his arms.  Pike is keening unhappily in between letting out fragments of words.

“Hi,” Vex says softly.

“... wasn’t… she hurt…”

“Hi,” Vax says with an apologetic smile. “Things were okay, but…”

“It’s all right,” Vex says. “Hello, Pike.”

Pike’s head lolls towards Vex, and she frowns. “Vex?”

“It’s me, darling.  Percy’s here too.  He brought your glasses.”

Percy reaches into his coat pocket and draws out a small case. “Now, we might have to adjust these, but I think they’ll really change things.”

He takes out a tiny pair of gold-rimmed spectacles with one dark lens and one lens that seems to be a clear violet. “Pike, I’m going to put these over your face, all right?”

“... just… she was…” Pike jerks her head towards Percy. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right,” he says gently, and he puts the glasses on, hooking the earpieces around her soft ears and settling the bridge on her nose.

Vax shifts Pike in his arms, propping her head up a little better, and looks down at her. “What do you think, Pickle?”

Pike is quiet, turning her head from Vex to Percy and back again. “Oh,” she says after a few minutes.

“Can you see?” Vex asks.

“Oh,” Pike repeats. “I like that.”

“Do your eyes feel any better?”

“They don’t… feel as sore,” Pike says. “I like that.”

Keyleth appears, holding a bottle and a spoon. “Oh!  Hey!  You’re here!”

She throws her arms around Percy first, then Vex. “It’s so good to see you.”

“Keyleth,” Pike says seriously, “your hair…”

“What?” Keyleth asks, turning to face her.

“... needs a haircut,” Pike says, a grin spreading across her face.

“Oh!  Look at those!” Keyleth exclaims.  Then she seems to register Pike’s words, and self-consciously touches her hair. “Does it really?”

“You look lovely,” Vax tells her. “Come on in, guys, we’re just sitting here.”

When they’re sprawled out in the sitting room, Keyleth pours Pike a spoonful of syrup, which Pike swallows without complaint.  Vex raises an eyebrow.

“It’s for pain relief,” Vax says softly.  Pike nuzzles into his neck and seems to settle. “We had a talk and realized… she’s been in a lot of pain.”

“Why didn’t she tell us?” Percy asks.

“She didn’t want to be a burden,” Vax says.

“We got the Ashari healers to create this stuff for her,” Keyleth says. “It’s seemed to work.  Keeps her functional but apparently takes away most of the pain.”

“Oh, Pike,” Vex whispers.

“Hold?” Pike asks, turning towards Vex.

“Of course, darling,” Vex says, and she takes Pike immediately from Vax, letting the other woman snuggle into her.  Pike sighs with pleasure.

“Tary and Lawrence have headed off on their next journey to Wildmount,” Percy says, “but they told me to keep them in the loop, in case we need some… how did Tary put it?  Ah, yes, ‘simply unmatched prowess and skill from the Darrington Brigade.’”

Vax laughs. “Completely confident in his skills, that one.”

“We’ve found out a bit about the Ancient One,” Keyleth says. “I was really hoping we’d have heard from Scanlan by now, but… he hasn’t been back.”

“Maybe he and Ioun are having an extended book club meeting,” Percy says with a chuckle.

Pike tilts her head a bit and the shadows in the room slide towards her, purple and lavender and amethyst.  Her sighted eye doesn’t burn, and her blind eye isn’t trying to work to focus itself.  She can see things a little more clearly, like faces, and…

There’s something in the corner gleaming gold.  Pike turns her head towards it and it glitters. “What is…”

The gold shines, glittery and ephemeral, and then fades.  Pike pushes herself up on Vex’s lap a bit to try to see what it was, but all she sees is the edge of a table - nothing else there.

She’s getting sleepy, and she knows the pain syrup is kicking in a bit more strongly.  She turns back towards Vex. “Do you see… the lights?”

Vex looks down at her. “What lights, darling?”

“Never mind,” Pike says, and she closes her eyes. “Maybe… they’re not there… anyway.”

The little golden flashes dart behind her eyes.  She isn’t sure she likes them, but they’re not whispering selfish like her other dreams, or trying to drown her like the red sands, so she lets them wrap around her like Sarenrae’s wings and carry her to sleep.

Chapter Text

Scanlan hears a soft knock at the door of the “father-in-law suite,” and he opens his eyes.  Judging from the light in the room, it’s close to dawn. He’s hoping this is Kaylie, back from a “mission” with some townsfolk she’d undertaken to rid a close-by warren of caves from a group of rabid wolves.  He knew his daughter was loathe to take on such an endeavor with Kally so close to her due date, but the hands of the town were forced after one of the wolves carried off and killed two elderly citizens.

He slides out of bed and is most of the way to the door when he hears Kally’s voice: “Mr. Shorthalt?”

In the two weeks he’s been with Kaylie and Kally, Scanlan has gotten used to the various tones of their voices, cataloguing the gamut of emotions and expressions.  He hasn’t previously heard this particular timbre. “Coming!” he calls.

When he gets the door open he sees Kally leaning heavily against the wall just outside the room, panting.

“Oh.  Uh. Good morning,” Scanlan says. “Let me guess, you need me to get the midwife.”

Kally looks up at him with a tired grin.  Her face shines with a sheen of sweat, little wisps of red curls spiraling away from the tight bun atop her head.  She’s dressed in a loose white shift, barefoot, and as Scanlan watches she grits her teeth and leans forward. The panting escalates for a few seconds, and then she seems to relax. “Oh, Mr. Shorthalt.  You beautiful muffin. We’re a very small village - I’m the town midwife.”

This spikes sudden panic into Scanlan’s chest. “And you don’t have, like, an apprentice?”

At any other time he’d be mortified by the sudden rise and squeak of his voice, but he barely notices it.  He puts a hand to Kally’s shoulder. “Somebody to help you?”

“I was training…” Kally leans against the wall, panting.  Scanlan waits patiently for her to recover. “... Kaylie to help me, but she’s not here.”

A look of pain flits across her face and all of Scanlan’s panic shoves itself into a knot, which he buries somewhere in his feet.  Watching Kally suffer is nearly as bad as watching Kaylie in pain, and he suddenly knows that whatever needs to happen, he’s going to have to step up and handle it.

“Tell me what you need,” Scanlan says.

Kally reaches out for his hand and squeezes tightly as she grits her teeth, panting.  When the contraction ends, she grins at him. “Are you sure, Mr. Shorthalt? We’re going to become very intimately acquainted here.”

Again Scanlan feels that panic try to rise up.  He forces it back down and puts a smile on his face. “I’m sure, Kally.  But I have to say, after this, I’m hoping you’ll stop with all the ‘Mister’ nonsense.”

She squeezes his hand, not in a vise grip this time but in the gentle touch of a comrade. “That, my good man, will depend entirely on how good of an apprentice you are.”

 


 

The night is calm and still when Pike wakes.  Her sighted eye burns, but she doesn’t want to wake Vax or Keyleth.  She doesn’t want another dose of the syrup. Not now.

Pike turns towards Keyleth and tries to make out the planes and lines of her friend’s face.  It’s dark in the room, too dark for any clear vision, but something tugs at Pike’s heart. Things are going to change for Vox Machina; she feels that clearly, somewhere within her.  They’re going to go places and change the world, or maybe the world’s going to change them, she isn’t quite sure. But she knows their world was supposed to be bigger than this, bigger than taking care of her.  A selfish friend would revel in this necessary doting; Pike hates it. She wants nothing more than to get out of this bed, to go back to Wilhand’s, to resume her life where she left it more than seven years ago.  She wants to walk with confidence, to speak with clarity, to see Sarenrae’s world around her, to build temples and heal others and be the monstah Grog remembers.  She wants her friends to have the lives she knows they were supposed to have without the burden of her.

There’s a heaviness in her chest and Pike can’t stay in bed any longer.  She moves to the end of the bed and slides to the floor. She crawls across the floor to the door, pulls herself upright, and takes her cane from the corner of the room.

When she makes her way downstairs she can hear Grog snoring in the corner of the front room.  Pike moves across the room to the low table in the corner and picks up her glasses case, a heavily-carved wooden box Percy made.  She puts on the glasses, even though the room is dark, and looks around. There are a few golden sparkles in the corners of her vision, but they don’t seem to be indicating anything special.

Next to the glasses is the writing frame and her pencil.  Pike holds it close to her face to find the fresh spot of parchment, then sets it down and writes a small message to her friends: W.E.N.T.  W.A.L.K.I.N.G.

She puts it on the table, picks up her cane, and walks towards the door.  Her heart is heavy in her chest. She needs to move, to get out of the house, to be somewhere all of the weight of her as a burden isn’t, but she’s suddenly nervous.  Zephra is safe, as far as Pike knows, especially since Gloriana is confined to her own house, so it isn’t that. She just hasn’t been… alone in so long.

That thought decides it for her.  She wraps her fingers around her holy symbol and steps out onto the porch.

Outside there’s a gentle breeze and the air is sweet.  Pike immediately feels safe and comforted. She closes the door behind her and then steps out into the night.

The world opens up before her.

 


 

Whatever Scanlan thought being a not-really-a-midwife’s-apprentice was going to be like, it wasn’t like this.  And he knew Kally was made of steel - one had to be to go toe-to-toe with Kaylie Shorthalt - but he is completely in awe of his daughter-in-law.  Scanlan’s pretty sure labor generally involves a lot more screaming (not that he knows, not really, but somewhere in his head he’s made that connection at one point); so far Kally doesn’t seem to be doing a lot of that.

He estimates they’ve been at this for about an hour now, and he knows from Kally’s own estimation that she’s been in labor for three hours or so before that.  She shows no sign of wanting to lay down, no sign of being overly tired; all she wants to do is walk around the house in the oncoming dawn - around and around and around, the same endless loop of the stone pathways through her gardens.

“Tell me… another story,” Kally requests as she leans against his back, panting through a contraction.

Scanlan nods, picking out another light tune on his lute.  He isn’t sure if Kally’s noticed, but he’s been attempting to put as much healing magic into each song as he can, easing her pain.  He’s never healed someone in labor before, so he has no idea whether or not it’s working. “Sure. Did I ever tell you about the time Grog and I accidentally joined a knitting club?”

“Nnnn… no,” Kally grits out.

Scanlan gets his fingers moving a bit faster, playing an intricate song he’s particularly fond of. “We thought it was an underground fighting club,” he says over the soft music, “but when we got there…”

Kally lets out a low moan, protracted and pain-filled, and as Scanlan turns towards her he sees her squatting slightly in the middle of the yard. “What can I do?” he asks.

“I don’t…” Kally groans again, her hands moving to her belly.  She hunches in, squatting a bit lower, and suddenly there’s a soft splash; a puddle of water forms beneath her.  She looks up at Scanlan, bright red.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Scanlan says. “That just… uh… that means things are really getting heated up here, right?”

Kally nods and starts panting again. “Mr. Shorthalt, I believe… we are getting… more acquainted…”

She moans and her knees almost buckle.  Scanlan catches her and she sways, leaning on his shoulders. “Let’s head back into the house,” he suggests. “More things to lean on.”

“You’re not… up for the job?” Kally asks, a snarky grin on her face even as another contraction seems to roll over her.

“And there’s probably something I can mop your brow with,” Scanlan adds. “I’ve been told I’m great at brow-mopping.”

“No offense, but I think I’d like my wife back,” Kally says.

“You and me both.”

 


 

Pike walks down the hill, the night wrapping her up in a warm blanket.  Little golden flickers at the edge of her vision lead her downwards; there’s soft whispers of wind in the trees.  She vaguely knows where she’s going, or at least, she thinks she does. She’s traversed lots of Zephra with Vax and Grog lately.  She knows this part pretty well. At least, she thinks so.

The path twists and twines around some large rocks; Pike finds them with her hands.  She hears the rush of the river coming closer and the sparkles at the edge of her sight coalesce as though leading her towards it.

As her fingers caress the final rock before the river’s edge, a sudden wave of nausea and pain sweeps over her and she stumbles, dizzy, crashing to the ground.  Pike lets out a wail; her cane goes flying and she smacks, hard, into the rocky path. Her glasses shatter and she feels pieces of the lenses slice into her face.

For a moment she lays there, disoriented, her knees and elbows and shoulders and forehead throbbing.  Nearby the river rushes on, babbling as it flows, and for a moment it pulses like her heartbeat and her aching body while she lays there, sobbing.  She can’t remember why she wanted to come out here or what she was looking for or what she was going to do when she found it.

Pike isn’t sure how long she lays by the river and cries.  It feels like a long time. She cries for everything she’s lost, everything her friends lost in her, and everything she’ll never have.  She cries for the prophecies in her body, the pain in her bones, the exhaustion in her soul. She cries for everything that’s hurt since she came back, everything she can’t understand or do any longer, every time she’s known her friends are suffering because of her.

At long last she’s gasping in the dark, utterly wretched and exhausted, and she can’t cry any longer.  She doesn’t feel Sarenrae out here, and the golden glimmers that led her downward disappeared when her glasses broke.  Nausea flows over her in waves and she digs her fingernails into her palms in an attempt to keep from vomiting.

It’s just her and her gasping breaths and the water rolling by, and Pike doesn’t want to get up.

So she doesn’t.

 


 

In the house, between contractions, Kally directs Scanlan through taking out some tarps and putting them on the floor in her workroom.  She also gets him to light a scented candle - “for some ambiance, Mr. Shorthalt” - and tells him, quite sharply, to send a Message to Kaylie.  (He does so; it’s the fifth one he’s sent and he’s getting just about as irritated with his daughter as Kally seems to be.)

Then they’re on the floor together, Scanlan kneeling, Kally squatting, her entire body braced on his shoulders.  He isn’t sure if he’s helping anymore, but he’s singing soft lullabies in gnomish as she moans and rocks. He doesn’t know the exact translations to Common, since they’re all ancient as fuck, but he gets the concepts.  Under the honeysuckle I will cradle you, my darling dear, I will hold you close and sing that you are mine.  Under the honeysuckle I will dance with you, my darling love, I will kiss your cheeks and sing that you are mine.

There’s a quiet moment where Kally is panting and Scanlan can’t remember the next verse of the honeysuckle song, and in his mind’s eye he suddenly sees a picture of something that never happened, something that won’t happen now, of him and Pike, happy and together and in the future, married maybe, living together, and there could be a baby - he sees it, feels it, viscerally, far beyond any daydream or actual dream, and it breaks his heart.

He wonders about a baby he and Pike could have had.  He wonders when he started wanting things like that.

“Mr. Shorthalt… you are… miles away,” Kally pants.

“I’m sorry,” Scanlan says. “What can I -?”

She grips into his shoulders, tighter, and seems to lean into the squat. “Get ready… to catch,” she orders him.

And somehow, leaving behind those thoughts of what-could-have-been and what-might-never-be, Scanlan finds his hands moving into the perfect position to be the very first thing his granddaughter touches as she slides into the world.

She’s tiny and wrinkled and bloody and so angry about this whole birth thing, and she comes into the early morning light with her rosebud mouth open, squalling like a windstorm.  She’s ruddy and wizened and freckly, and the hair matted to her head is red like Kally’s. She is the most gorgeous thing Scanlan has ever seen.

Kally, her hands firmly on Scanlan’s shoulders, says, “Not bad for an old man, Grandpa.”

They’re both still in the workroom when Kaylie returns an hour later, the baby at Kally’s breast.  Scanlan’s cleaned up the birth debris by rolling the tarp into a ball. He cut the cord, fetched Kally a mug of cold water, and now sits near her, staring into the face of absolute perfection cradled in her arms.

“You couldn’t have waited?” Kaylie demands, only half-kidding, as she bursts into the room and hurries over to her wife.

“She wanted a private audience with Grandpa,” Kally replies, a grin on her face.

They kiss and Scanlan’s heart feels almost too full.  He thinks that he could stay here with these two and his granddaughter - his granddaughter! - and never miss whatever he was doing before.

“Hey, old man,” Kaylie says. “We wanted to ask you something.”

Scanlan looks up at his daughter and daughter-in-law.  He finds it hard to speak, to break the awe and wonder in the room, but he manages to get out, “Yeah?”

“Would you be all right with it if we named her Juniper?” Kaylie asks.

A sudden flash of the baby that’ll never be - white-haired, for some reason, like Pike - swims through his head hazily, and for a moment Scanlan hesitates.  He can’t say what he’s saving that name for, why he’d tell the two people he loves the most in the world that this third amazing person they love the most in the world couldn’t have a legacy they want, just because maybe at some point he wanted something like they have, something he can’t have now.  So he doesn’t say any of that.

“I’d be honored,” Scanlan says huskily.

Once the baby’s fed and placed into a waiting cradle, Kaylie hauls Kally up from the floor. “Okay, Momma, nap time.  Dad and I’ll keep watch on Juney - you get some rest, okay?”

Kally’s helpless to protest; she smiles as Kaylie leads her into the bedroom. “It wasn’t so bad,” she says. “Scanlan and I… we made it work.”

It’s just another firework of happiness in a conglomeration of joy going off in Scanlan’s heart.  He leans down to the cradle and whispers, “Juney, you’re going to absolutely adore this world.”

 


 

Pike’s next conscious thought is that someone is carrying her.  It’s a sturdy someone, someone who doesn’t smell like or feel like anyone she knows.  She opens her eyes.

Light flares down into her sighted eye and pain stabs into her skull.  She screams.

“It’s all right.  I’m taking you home,” a gravelly voice says. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Pike tries to tell whoever it is that she’s not screaming because she’s upset about being carried, that it’s because of the light and her eyes, but she can’t make words.

“It’s all right,” the person repeats. “My name’s Tizra.  I’m one of the guards. I’m taking you back to the headmaster.”

Pike lets the scream die in her chest and she reaches up, twining her fingers into Tizra’s robes.

“There you go,” Tizra says. “I’m sorry if you’re in any pain.  I tried to fix up what I could, but you’re… you’re an interesting case.”

“I need… I need…” Pike tries to breathe.

“It’s all right,” Tizra says placidly, gently. “You’ll be home soon.”

There’s a golden flash of light over Pike’s eyes and she tries to focus on it.  The pain in her eyes solidifies and beams down her spine and something akin to an ungodly howl wrenches free from her chest.  Tizra nearly drops her and Pike feels the nausea return as her world goes topsy-turvy.

“Headmaster!” Tizra yells.

She hears Keyleth’s voice then: “Tizra!  What - ”

The golden light wraps around Pike’s head and the pain engulfs her body.  She tries to stay awake long enough to see Keyleth, but she can’t; she’s swept under.

 


 

A strange sound breaks through her dreams, and then a voice wakes Keyleth: “Headmaster!”

She recognizes it nearly immediately - it’s Tizra, a placid dragonborn who never sounds alarmed about anything.  The panic in her voice is something absolutely foreign, and it sends chills down Keyleth’s spine.

Then she realizes Pike isn’t between her and Vax in the bed, and the panic in Tizra’s voice seems to become Keyleth’s own.

She bolts out of bed and downstairs, throwing open the door and stumbling outside in her nightgown to find Tizra coming up the path with Pike in her arms.

“Tizra!  What happened?”

“I don’t know,” Tizra answers. “I found her down by the river.  She was pretty beat up. I tried to patch her the best I could, but…”

She stoops slightly and Keyleth can see, for the first time, the multitude of small bandages on Pike’s limbs and the slightly more concerning matter of the glass shards embedded in Pike’s face, including one thumb-sized piece jammed directly into her left eye.

“Shit,” Keyleth says.  She touches her earring. “Guys… things are… Pike’s…”

To Tizra, she says, “Did it look like there’d been a fight?  What was she doing out there?”

“Headmaster, I don’t know,” Tizra says. “She was alone.  She was bleeding. I tried to do what I could.”

Keyleth forces some of the panic away. “Thank you.  I’m sorry. Will you bring her inside?”

Tizra nods.

By the time Pike is laid on the sofa in the front room, the rest of the group are gathered around.  Grog looks immediately like he’s going to rage, and Vex puts a gentle hand on his arm.

“The glasses,” Percy says in disbelief.

Vax notices the writing frame with Pike’s note. “It says she went for a walk.”

“And what, met up with an angry something-or-other?” Keyleth asks, her voice pinched.

“I’m going to go back to patrolling,” Tizra says. “I’ll alert the town if I see anything out of the ordinary.”

“Thank you, Tizra,” Keyleth says absently.

“The glasses,” Percy repeats as Tizra leaves.

“You made two pairs for a reason,” Vex reminds him, her hand still on Grog’s arm.

“Not this reason!”

Vax puts the writing frame back on the table and kneels down next to Pike. “Hey, Pickle,” he says. “Can you hear me?”

“She’s got glass through ‘er eye,” Grog mutters. “Let ‘er sleep.”

“Should we take it out?” Keyleth frets.

“The light,” Pike mumbles.

The room goes quiet.

“Why can’t… you all see it?” Pike’s brow furrows. “It’s so bright.”

Her hand lazily moves towards the eye with the glass shard in it.

“No,” Vax says softly, and tries to block it.  He has a gnawing pit in his stomach as he remembers the dreams he’s had, him and Pike in the dark, one where her eyes were gone.  Though the morning is light around them, the room seems to press in as he leans down towards Pike.

“What do we do?” Keyleth asks, twisting her hands together.

Vax turns to look at her, and in the second he looks away from Pike he knows it was the wrong thing to do.  He feels more than sees her hand fly up and he’s too slow to stop it as she yanks the glass from her eye.

The scream that immediately follows causes the windows to shake in their frames.  The room seems to spin and shake and the world half-tilts. Golden lights fills up the space and for a few seconds everything is consumed in just that - the light and the scream.

Vax is conscious of Vex leaning forward, fighting the tilt and the scream, and another flare of light rises up to touch what’s emanating from Pike’s entire body, and the sharp angry point of the screaming light is swarmed by light radiating from Vex, and it smells like apples and soil and it reminds him of Pelor’s realm -

- and as though someone clapped a giant lid over a boiling-over pot, the light snaps out of existence.

 


 

“Hey, old man,” Kaylie says.

Scanlan looks up.  He’s been dozing for a bit in one of the chairs in the front room, trying to make himself “present” in case something needed to be done - he can’t imagine what, exactly, but as a newly-tenured midwife’s apprentice he’s imagining things like making food or drawing baths, despite no one asking him to do either of those things yet.

“Kally’s sleeping, but she wanted me to tell you that she finished the translation earlier,” Kaylie says.  She hands him Ioun’s book and a small packet of parchment. Her face is serious. “Dad, I think you need to get back to Vox Machina.”

Scanlan takes the book and Kally’s translation. “Why?”

Kaylie shakes her head. “Just something I’m feeling.”

“I don’t want to leave you,” Scanlan says. “Not now.”

“We’re going to be fine,” Kaylie tells him. “Your other family needs you.  Don’t ask me how, I just know.”

“Did you read this?” Scanlan asks, indicating the translation.

“No.  There’s some things you don’t need a lot of knowledge for.” She shifts on her feet. “There’s a man in town who can send you wherever you need to go.  He likes Kally’s elderflower honey, he’ll do a lot of favors for a few jars.”

“You want me to go now?”

“Something’s coming,” Kaylie says.

“When did you get all prophetic?”

Kaylie shrugs. “Maybe I’ll never have another feeling like this, but right now I can’t ignore this one.”

She smiles at him, only somewhat halfheartedly. “You’ll come back.  We’re not going anywhere. I mean, I worked super hard making this house look as good as Kally wanted it to.  No way we’re not going to be here when you get back.”

Scanlan studies her face. “If this is what you think…”

Kaylie nods.

“I’ll get my things.”

Scanlan packs up the father-in-law suite and straightens the sheets, pulls the coverlet up over the bed.  He sets his bag near the door of Kally and Kaylie’s room and steps in, bending low to kiss his daughter-in-law’s forehead. “You’re wonderful,” he whispers.

“You too,” Kally murmurs.

“Yeah, well, it takes all kinds,” Scanlan says with a smile.

He picks up his bag and moves over to the cradle. “Now, Juniper,” he says, “I’m leaving you in charge.  Try not to get too amazing while I’m gone.”

He might be imagining it, but he thinks he hears a soft little song as he stands up once more, the universe singing back to him the lullaby he gave Juniper in the moments just before she was born.

With that Scanlan turns to Kaylie. “I’m ready,” he says.

Kaylie hands him two jars of honey. “Take these to the house next to the blacksmith’s.  Ask for Zhev.”

He responds by hugging her tightly.

“Hey, old man, now’s not the time,” Kaylie tells him tartly. “You’ll be back before I know it, pestering me about something or another.”

“Take care of them,” Scanlan says.

He takes the honey, squares his shoulders, and leaves the little house.

He hopes it isn’t the last time he’ll see it.

 


 

“Shit,” Vex wheezes as she drops to her knees.

“What was that?” Percy demands.

“Anybody else smell apples?” Grog asks.

Vex coughs, hard, and lays herself out on the floor.  Vax darts into the kitchen and returns with a pitcher and a glass of water; his hands shaking, he pours the glass full and hands it to Percy, who kneels next to Vex, handing it to her.

Keyleth puts her hands to Pike’s face and casts the strongest healing spell she has, pushing the energy into the tiny gnome’s body as she struggles to look directly at the bloody, pulsating, wrecked mass that is Pike’s left eye.  “Why, Pike, why?” she murmurs.  The bleeding slows and some of the warped and peeled skin softens and knits back together.

Grog, obviously having finished his musing on apples, bends down and scoops Pike up, cradling her.  He looks at Keyleth, almost accusingly, and then down at Pike, his face softening. “Oh, buddy.”

Still holding the pitcher, Vax says, “Anybody want to talk about what just happened?”

“I asked… Pelor… for help,” Vex croaks out from the floor.  She pushes herself upright and takes the cup of water from Percy, draining it before she speaks again. “Apparently what he heard was ‘Let me shove power through you.’”

“Welcome to the party,” Vax says.

“Well… that was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before,” Percy says.

Vex hands him her cup, he passes it back to Vax, who refills it and passes it back.  She drinks it down once more. “I’ll never do that again if it feels like that.”

“Grog, will you put her down?” Vax asks gently. “I want to take a look at her eye.”

Grog looks a little defensive, Pike limp in his embrace.

“I won’t hurt her,” Vax promises.

Grog sits down on the floor and cautiously shifts Pike against him.  Vax approaches, trying not to wince at the mangled eye.

“You gonna fix it?” Grog asks him.

“I’m going to try,” Vax says.  He bends down. “I need some help here.”

My champion, you know there is very little I can do.

You helped her once before, Vax reminds the Raven Queen.

When she moved between her Sarenrae’s light and my embrace.  She is not there any longer. She is merely suffering in your world.

Vax bristles at the tone of “merely suffering,” but he goes quiet, choosing instead to Lay on Hands.  The bleeding and slashed skin glow with his dark light, but Pike’s eye seems irreparably mangled. “Fuck,” he mutters.

He leaves his hand on Pike’s head, feeling suddenly exhausted.  His fingers let out another pulse of energy and he looks down, confused, as the purple-black light slides up and into her eye socket.  In seconds there’s a golden glow rising to meet the light and they seem to coil around each other, swirling over the left side of her face.

“Pike?” Vax says tentatively, touching her cheek.

The swirl of lights gets brighter and then there’s a soft poof.  Vax rolls Pike towards him and sees that her left eye no longer even resembles an eye, really, but a clear glassy lens placed over an eye.

“Whazzat?” Grog asks.

“I don’t know,” Vax says.  He shifts position and motions Keyleth over.

She bends down, looking at the slightly rounded clear protrusion. “I can see things in there,” Keyleth says.

“What?  That’s preposterous,” Percy says.

They’re all bending over Pike when the door opens, admitting Scanlan. “Hey, guys, I’m here - what’s going on?”

“Pike’s gotta crystal ball fer an eye now,” Grog tells him frankly.

“Glad to see nothing about this situation’s gotten the least bit more comprehensible,” Scanlan says.

 


 

The little old man stops to rest, his exhausted body screaming with the exertion of the crawl through the sand he’s been doing for… for as long as he can remember.  He puts his head down, blocking some of the wind from his raw, chapped face, and tries to listen to his heart beating. He keeps his fingers wrapped around the medallion that hangs around his neck, somehow comforted by its presence.  He wonders what it would be like to stay here, to let the sands wash over him in waves, cover him, bury him, and forget him.

That reminds him of something he once knew, something that blurrily floats through what’s left of his thoughts - small white flakes falling from the sky.  They’re cold; he remembers them piling up outside his… his home? He remembers someone he once knew laughing as they fell, letting them fall on her tongue.

“Pike,” the little old man breathes, his sand-crusted lips moving slowly.

In that single word is those white flakes, their cold touches on skin, and a white-haired woman who he knows.  And the light all around her - he can see it.

He raises his head and yes, he’s right, there’s light shining up from the ground just before him.  He forces his body forward a few more feet.  There, in the red shifting sands that have never before been anything else, is a small hole.  It glows with light, golden and somehow familiar. It’s warm and comforting, and the little old man puts his head directly over it.

His raw face is immediately softened, and he can breathe easier.  He can open his eyes further, and he sees a blurry room down there, with some people-shaped blurs moving around in it. “Help!” he yells, and he brings up his roughened hands to try to scrape the sands away from around the hole, trying to make it bigger, trying to fight his way into what looks like safety.

But the hole grows no bigger, and all he can do is watch, helpless but somehow comforted by the small opening’s light, as the people-shaped blurs move back and forth.  He puts his head down, curling into its warmth, and waits for them to find him.

Chapter Text

Pike’s head is heavy.  There’s something wrong with her eyes.  She feels sick. She tries to pick her head up. “Keyleth?” she murmurs, unsure of where she is.

There’s a soft touch on her cheek. “Sorry, dear,” Percy says. “Keyleth went to talk to her father.  She’ll be back soon. Can I help you?”

“I feel… wrong,” Pike says.

“What can I do to help?”

Pike tries to sit up.  The world tilts and she vomits.

“Oh, Pike,” Percy says. “Vex?”

Footsteps approach and someone lifts Pike up.  She feels the world tilt again and red-gold light flares in her vision.  Whatever’s putting pressure on her left eye seems to suck inwards and she sees a bright red world around her.  It’s hot, it’s windy, and she feels paralyzed. She tenses and screeches, “Hold me!”

“I’m right here,” Percy tells her.

Pike can’t breathe.  Everything seems upside down.  The red-gold light pours through her, beaming from her eyes, running down her throat, streaming from her toes and fingertips.  There’s a rush over her like a great push from nowhere, and her entire body contracts, red and gold and hot and empty and -

“Pike,” someone says gently, and she can breathe again.  Her brain isn’t working, though - everything’s fuzzy.

“‘Og?” she slurs out.

“No, darling,” Vex says, and a cool hand brushes over her forehead. “Can you raise your head?  I want to give you some water.”

As it turns out, she doesn’t really need to, because someone carefully lifts her head up.  Things swim and the light in the room dims as Pike’s head throbs. A cup touches her lips and she automatically drinks, cool water spilling down her throat.  A little of it trickles down her chin and that feels nice, too. Something crackly is on her face, and the water seems to make it dissipate slightly. Pike brings one hand up to her cheek and her fingertips feel something gritty.  Her skin feels tight - her arms, her legs, her chest. Everything seems a little… off.

“Vex?” she asks, confused.

“Yes, darling, it’s sand,” Vex says. “We don’t understand where it came from, either.”

Pike closes her eyes. “Need a bath,” she mumbles.

“Just relax for a few minutes,” Vex says, “and we’ll get it figured out, all right?”

“Glasses?” Pike grunts. “Eyes… hurt.”

Whoever’s holding her head gently lowers it, and Pike keeps her eyes closed.  A few minutes later there’s a few careful touches to her face, and she feels someone hooking a pair of glasses over her ears. “Better?” Percy asks.

Pike opens her eyes and sees blessed darkness.  No gold sparkles. Just a hint of deep purple over her right eye.  Her left eye, the one pulsing with some strange pressure, retreats into soft emptiness, and Pike lets out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Better,” she mumbles.

“Try not to break these ones, will you, dear?” Percy says, a hint of mischief in his voice, and someone’s lips press against her cheek.

It reminds her of the grittiness all over her skin, and she says again, “Need a bath.”

“We’ll take you,” Vex says.

“C’mere, monstah,” Grog says, and Pike’s lifted into the air.

“I saw… something,” Pike says into Grog’s neck.

“What was it?”

“Place… I haven’t been.  Hot. Windy. Gritty.”

“See anybody we knew?”

“I just saw… sand.”

“Sounds boring.”

“Think I was… supposed to be there.”

Cool air hits her face and Pike leans harder into Grog’s neck as they make their way down the path from Vax and Keyleth’s house towards the hot springs. “Grog?”

“Hmm?”

“‘S this… ever gonna be over?”

“Whaddya mean?”

Pike keeps her eyes closed and she tries to think of how to explain to Grog what she’s trying to say.  She can’t - it’s too big. She’s asking for things she’s not quite sure she even deserves anymore: stability, peace, a calm mind, a healed body.  She wants a home. Safety. Gentle touches. Security. Deep sleep.

“I want things… to be… like they were,” Pike whispers to him.

Grog doesn’t answer for a bit as they make their way through the forest glen. “Not gonna happen,” he says after a few minutes, and Pike’s almost fallen asleep to the sounds of his big feet crunching over the gravel path. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t have good things now, with things th’ way they are.”

“No,” Pike says.

“Yeah, we can,” Grog says.

“But I don’t want it that way!” Pike cries.  She feels gritty sand crack along her elbows as she jerks her arms in towards her body. “Want it the same!”

“Not gonna happen,” Grog says practically. “Gone too many places, done too many things.  What we have now doesn’t haveta be any less.”

Pike buries her head in his shoulder and sobs.

“It’s gonna be okay, Pikey,” Grog says gently.

By the time they reach the hot spring Pike is exhausted.  Grog wades in with her on his shoulder, and they sink into the waters.  The gritty sand comes off of Pike’s skin with gentle scrubbing, and Grog just leans her against him when she’s clean.  She lays her head on his shoulder.

“You wanna go back an’ lay down?” her asks her softly, watching her hair drift across the surface of the spring.

“Wanna…” Pike cuts herself off and shakes her head.

“What?”

“Wanna be done,” Pike mumbles.

“Here?  Y’ wanna be done here?” Grog stands up, obviously preparing to leave.

“No,” Pike says. “Wanna… be… done.”

Grog freezes.  He’s definitely not prepared for this conversation. “I think yer really tired, Pikey.  Let’s go home fer a bit an’ y’ can have a nap, an’ we’ll talk ‘bout this later, ‘kay?”

Pike lets out a soft sigh and just leans into him.  She doesn’t say anything else, and when Grog looks down again he sees her eyes have closed.

 


 

Back in Keyleth and Vax’s house, Grog sets Pike on the nearest sofa and sits down next to it.  He takes the bag of holding in his lap and starts pulling out the pieces of her armor. He examines them critically as he removes them, noting things like rust, tarnish, and loose parts.  Nothing looks out of his abilities to repair.

He gets up and finds Percy and Vex in the kitchen.  To Percy, Grog says, “I need some supplies.”

“For what, big guy?” Percy asks.

“I wanna fix up Pike’s armor.”

Percy and Vex freeze.

“She seems like she needs somethin’ like that t’day,” Grog says.

Percy recovers first. “Of course, Grog.  I’ll get you some things. Whatever I don’t have, I’m sure someone in town can provide.”

A few minutes later, Grog sits back against the couch with some of Percy’s tools, a few soft cloths, metal polish, and a small bucket of water.  He picks up the first piece of the armor and begins carefully chipping away at the rust.

He works smoothly and carefully for awhile, only looking up when Vex comes into the room.  She takes the bag of holding from its place on the floor next to him and reaches in, coming out with Pike’s faded gambeson and the other clothes Pike was wearing during her kidnapping.

“What’cha doin’ with those?” Grog asks.

“I’m going into town to see if someone there can help me make these… better,” Vex answers.

“Might as well just get ‘em replaced.”

“I might.”

“She’s smaller now,” Grog points out. “Less muscles.”

Vex nods, looking over at Pike’s sleeping form on the couch. “I’ll take that into consideration.”

She leaves, and Scanlan comes in with a mug of ale, which he hands to Grog. “Drink up, buddy.  It’s been a few hours.”

Grog sets aside the chest piece and takes the ale. “You have a good visit with Ioun?”

“I had an interesting visit with Ioun,” Scanlan says, popping up onto the couch at the empty end. “And then I had an interesting visit with Kaylie.”

“Yeah?”

Scanlan smiles, a bit dreamily. “I’m a grandpa now, Grog.”

Grog stares at him. “Wait.  What?”

Scanlan’s grin widens. “They had a baby.  I mean, Kally did. While I was there! I was the first person to ever touch her - oh, it was so amazing, Grog.”

“A baby?” Grog gets a little misty-eyed.

Scanlan nods.

“Oh,” Grog whispers. “A teeny-tiny gnome baby.”

Scanlan just keeps nodding.

Grog starts crying.  He puts the ale on the floor next to him.

“Buddy?” Scanlan asks, gently leading forward to touch Grog’s shoulder.

“That should’a been you,” Grog sobs.

“What?”

“You an’ Pike should’a had teeny-tiny gnome babies!”

“Oh, buddy,” Scanlan says. “We don’t know what would have happened.”

But he can still remember his vision right before Juniper’s birth, when all he could see was a little white-haired gnome baby cradled in Pike’s arms, and it hits him like a punch to the chest. “We don’t know how it would have gone,” he says to Grog.

Grog shakes his head. “‘S all I wanted.”

“I know.”

“I wanted t’ live with you an’ Pike an’ have lotsa little gnome babies t’ play with,” Grog sobs. “An’ it’s not gonna be like that, is it?”

“We can still live together,” Scanlan offers. “I think that would be really nice.  We can take care of Pike, and go on trips, and be happy, if that’s what you want.”

Grog just shakes his head. “She was s’posed t’ be so much more.  She was s’posed t’ have so much more.”

Scanlan understands exactly, but he doesn’t know what else to say.  He slides off the couch and picks up a shoulder pauldron from the floor, now shiny and gleaming. “You’re doing a really good job here, Grog.”

Grog snuffles. “She just… she needs it.”

“Grog,” Scanlan says, still looking at the pauldron, “if we did have a teeny-tiny gnome baby, what would you want to call them?”

Grog thinks about this, taking the opportunity to wipe his nose with one of the already-dirty cleaning cloths. “You’d let me name one?”

“I’d certainly consider any suggestions you had,” Scanlan answers.

Grog takes another drink of ale. “Julia,” he says after a moment.

“That’s a beautiful name, Grog.”

“But it’s not gonna happen, so why’s it matter?”

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Scanlan says. “Ioun reminded me of that.  We have to write our own endings instead of looking back at what’s already happened.”

He gets up. “You want a refill?”

Grog silently passes him his mug.  When Scanlan has gone from the front room, Grog reaches into the bag of holding and takes out parchment and one of Gilmore’s colored wax sticks.  Putting his tongue between his teeth, he carefully writes J-U-L-I-A on the parchment. He looks down at it and frowns, fairly sure it’s not what Scanlan - or Ioun - meant, but he likes how the letters seem real on the parchment.  He carefully rolls it up and sticks it in his belt pouch.

Then he picks up the next piece of armor and continues his delicate work.

 


 

Pike dreams.  She’s hot. Her skin feels like dry paper.  Her lungs aren’t working right and every breath feels like glass shards in her lungs.  She’s crawling across the floor, which she remembers from her days being the Gods’ Touched.  The ground under her is rough and hard and hot.

She’s blind, too, completely blind, not the somewhat-vision she recovered after being with Sarenrae.  As painful as it is to “see” how she does now, being back in total darkness hurts.

“Grog?” she rasps out. “Vax?”

She reaches out in front of her, feeling the next six inches or so before she moves forward.  It’s very hard to keep going and everything hurts. She feels somewhat drunk. “Grog?”

She hears a voice somewhere above her.  It’s warped, as though she’s underwater, but she hears, faintly, “Pike?  Pike, open your eyes.”

“I’m so sorry,” she whimpers.  She isn’t sure why she’s apologizing, or what for.

Hands come down and try to pick her up.  It sends ripples of pain through her body and she screams. “No!  I’m sorry!”

“Pike,” the underwater voice says. “Pike, it’s all right.  You need to breathe.”

Pike can’t breathe.  She feels the pressure of a prophecy rising up her throat and it presses against the glass shards in her lungs and the entire combination pulls her arms and legs into her body, wraps her into the fetal position. “I can’t… I can’t… I can’t…” she hiccups, her body paralyzed in pain and fear. “Please… please… don’t make me…”

The prophecy tries to make its way up her throat and she gags with it, swallows it back down.  Her chest burns. The pulsing of her eye grows stronger and the room seems to bend around it. “Please, Grog, please don’t make me go.”

She rocks back and forth, her body a stone in an endless ocean of pain, her voice somehow tripping from her mouth without trying: “Please, I don’t want to go… don’t make me go…”

And then she’s there, in that hot windy place with sand blasting her exposed skin, and she screams into the wind, a tortured horrified noise wrenching itself out of her chest like a beacon of misery.

And then she hears a voice: “Pike?  Pike! I’m here!”

The scream flares and ebbs and dies and Pike finds the strength in her sand-whipped lungs to gasp out two words: “Pawpaw Wilhand?”

 


 

Vax holds Pike, Pike’s entire body crumpled into a tense ball as she screams and babbles.  Grog sits next to him, stroking Pike’s hair and trying to say things that are comforting but he’s not quite sure what’s going to comfort her.

Then she says two words, very clearly: “Pawpaw Wilhand?”

And it’s as though those two words are the fix for everything, because she immediately relaxes, going limp.  Then her body contracts once more and she coughs. Vax turns her to one side and Pike hacks and wheezes. She gets one hand up to her mouth and rips something out of it.

“Did she just…?” Vex bends down.

Keyleth takes Pike’s hand in hers.  It’s covered with saliva and sand, but Keyleth doesn’t care. “Pike, did you see Wilhand?”

Pike blinks up at Keyleth, the dark purple keeping her eyes from burning. “No,” she whispers. “But… he was there.”

“It’s a map,” Vex says.

They turn to her.

“What’s a map?” Scanlan asks.

She holds up a spit-covered piece of parchment. “I mean, there’s perhaps a bit more drool than a normal map might have, but…”

“Did she cough that up?” Percy leans forward.

“Wait,” Scanlan says.  He gets up from the floor and goes over to his things near the door.  He returns with a packet of papers, flicking through them. “That looks like… this.”

He holds up one of the sheets. “At least, it looks like part of it.”

He lays the parchment on the floor, showing them part of a map drawn in thick green lines. “And that one…”

Vex unrolls the saliva-covered parchment and sets it next to Scanlan’s. “Seems to match.”

“Oh,” Keyleth says.  She gives Pike’s hand to Vax and gets up, hurrying into the hallway, returning with a book. “This one!”

She lays out a hand-drawn parchment next to Scanlan’s, and opens the book to show a fourth part. “Is this the Ancient One’s realm?”

“It’s better,” Scanlan says, looking up at them with bright eyes. “It solves the issue of how we get there, and how we find Wilhand.”

“How do you know that?” Percy frowns.

“Well, I’m no expert, but I peeked over Kally’s shoulder while she translated some of it, and I’m also quite a language buff -”

“Don’t keep us waiting, man,” Vax butts in.

“ - and it says, unless I’m off my game -”

“It says ‘entrance and pathways,’” Vex says, rolling her eyes at Scanlan’s dramatics.

Grog touches Pike’s hair one last time and scoots back over to the pile of her armor, picking up the next piece and getting back to work.

“What are you doing?” Keyleth asks.

“Idn’t it obvious?” Grog looks up at his friends. “She’s gonna need this, now we know where we’re goin’.”