“Keyleth, darling, are you all right?”
Keyleth keeps her eyes on the plate of chicken in front of her. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You just seem a little preoccupied.” Vex’s gaze is heavy and Keyleth does her best not to squirm.
“I’m not… I’m just…” She puts her fork down. “Cerkonos visited me in my room last night.”
“Oh, yeah, he did,” Grog whispers a little too loudly.
“As my elder,” Keyleth says without looking at him. “My respected elder.”
“Say anything interesting?” Percy asks seriously, but his eyes are dancing behind his glasses.
“Well, he told me we had a little infiltrator.” Her left thumb brushes against the newest name carved into her staff. “Went by the name of Raishan.”
“Raishan?” Grog’s brow furrows. “But isn’t that the name of…?”
“The green dragon. Apparently she’s a shapeshifter. Or a sorceress.” The shadow creeps its way up her spine, resting heavy against her shoulders.
“Did he say anything else?” Vex asks.
“Nothing relevant.” The syllables are too sharp, but her hand is shaking where its curled around her staff. She clenches her jaw against the weight pressing on her shoulders, her chest.
“Keyleth…” Vax’s asks quietly. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine.” She barely keeps her voice in check, trying to think of anything other than green scales and fire. “Why does everyone keep asking me that?”
“Um,” Vex says eloquently.
“There’s smoke coming out of your fingers,” Scanlan says. “That’s not super normal.”
Keyleth looks down at the thin streams of shadow escaping from her fingers. Her breath catches on the weight in her lungs and she’s shaking, smoke spilling out of her palms, blood roaring in her ears.
She looks up to say something sensible, something reassuring, but her tongue is trapped in shadow, a reptilian snicker echoing in her mind.
“What’s going on?” Percy’s hand is gentle on her arm, but she jumps away from him, staff raised, hand out.
He flinches, more pained than surprised.
“I’m sorry,” she says breathlessly. “I’m so sorry.”
And she flees from the breakfast table.
Twenty minutes later, Vex quietly lets herself into Keyleth’s room.
“Are you going to hide out here all day?”
“No,” Keyleth says, muffled, face hidden in the pillow it’s buried in.
She hears Vex sigh and feels her settle on the bed next to her. “What happened out there?”
Keyleth glances toward her staff and squeezes her middle tighter, smoke still curling in her ribcage. “I’m sorry. I’ve never lost control like that before…not in a long time at least.”
Vex’s hand is hesitant on Keyleth’s shoulder. “Why was there smoke coming out of your hands?”
“I…was angry,” she says and it feels like a confession, but Vex’s brow only furrows further. “When my…. When I…” Her body unfurls from around the pillow as she struggles with words she’s never had to say aloud before. “When I left home, I was afraid and I- well, something…” She pauses to weigh the words carefully. “Druidic magic wasn’t enough to keep me alive, or- or sane. Dark magic is the only reason I’m still here.”
Vex drops her hand from Keyleth’s shoulder and weaves their fingers together, eyes searching for an answer. The weight in Keyleth’s chest wraps tighter around her lungs.
“I don’t think you’re being quite fair by not telling the whole truth,” Vex says finally. “Not to us or yourself.”
“I…” Keyleth starts, but lying to Vex has never been her strong suit, so she swallows and focuses on keeping the smoke at bay.
“We love you.” Vex squeezes Keyleth’s thigh with her other hand. “We know you’ve been hurt and we know that you’re running, but I’m not going to leave you behind.” She leans closer, eyes softening. “You don’t need to tell us everything. Just…come back to breakfast.”
Keyleth rolls her lip between her teeth, an ‘okay’ trapped under her tongue, but then the smoke starts to slither out of her fingers and she jerks her hand backward.
Vex pulls back sharply, fixes a button on her sleeve. “All right, then.”
“No, wait,” Keyleth says and Vex looks up hopefully, but the smoke is still swirling in her chest, leaking away from her fingers, and Vex is waiting for her to finish, but Keyleth’s hands are heavy and her mind is blank.
Vex stands and walks toward the door. “Just…come back when you’re ready.” And she slips out of the room like a whisper.
Keyleth’s whole body sags, darkness dragging her toward the bed, wrapping around her like a blanket. Her hands clench around the echo of Vex’s fingers and she breathes, slowly replacing each pang of guilt with the steady, pulsing rhythm of revenge.
No one brings it up after that. Keyleth’s on edge for days, keeps the smoke tucked away in battle as best she can, settles for lackluster spells and a lingering heaviness in her limbs. When they finally, briefly settle back in Whitestone, Keyleth sinks into her chair in Percy’s workshop, book in hand, like nothing’s changed, but her heart hangs heavy in the silence of the room.
“I didn’t mean to lie to you,” Keyleth says after a while, eyes still on the jumble of sentences in front of her.
Percy mumbles something, but he stays hunched over whatever mess of steel and violence he’s working on at the moment.
“I just didn’t think you all needed to know.” She hugs the book to her chest. “I didn’t want you all to know…”
Percy is quiet for so long that Keyleth flips the book back open, leans back into the chair.
“That doesn’t count as lying?” Percy says finally.
Tendrils of shadow curl around her fingers as she keeps her voice even. “What was I supposed to do? Show everyone my dark and evil powers the first week, so you could run away screaming before you got invested?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Keyleth waits for her breathing to slow and then waits a little longer, watching Percy’s shoulders move up and down to the rhythm of tinkering.
“It’s just…” she says, trying to fill the room with something other than companionable silence. “It’s hard for me to talk about.”
“Of course it is,” he says, like he’s trying his best to mean it.
She swallows around the heavy darkness in her throat. “The last time I saw my father he was lying in a pool of his own blood and begging me to run.”
Percy’s shoulders still.
“These people, they… I was supposed to be a leader and I-” She clenches her fists to keep the smoke at bay. “They took my home from me. They murdered my people.”
Percy’s hand twitches very briefly before he sits up straight and turns around. “Will you help me with this?” He gestures to the metal on the workshop table.
The tension in her shoulders drops and she nods, shuffles over.
“What’s not working?” she says softly.
“I need you to take a look at this middle piece.” He points to a little round disc as Keyleth squeezes next to him on the bench.
She takes the contraption in her hands and breathes the smoke out into it, wraps it through the gears and tugs the metal tighter together. Percy’s voice is soft, telling her which pieces to leave alone and where the device stops working. He inches her fingers up and down with his own and the familiar rhythm is calming enough that the smoke snakes away from the rest of Keyleth’s body, settling only in her fingers.
“I’ve read about demon deals,” Percy says after a long while.
The metal wobbles dangerously on her fingers. “What?”
“In all the stories I’ve read, they’re never worth it. They say even grief is better than whatever waits at the end of a pact.”
Keyleth looks up slowly, shadow coiling around her wrists like it does just before a fight. “You couldn’t possibly understand.”
“No,” Percy says softly. “I suppose I couldn’t.”
Keyleth counts her breaths as she waits for the smoke to still against her ankles, but the device is shivering, metal grinding together, and her hands are too heavy to fix the enchantment.
“I got there too late,” she whispers. “I got there and everything was on fire, the forest was on fire, and my father was…” The shadow presses against the roof of her mouth. “There was a girl who came to get me and she… and I…” Percy’s hand is on her shoulder, but the confession is tangled in shadow and she’s shaking and the metal is shaking and she’s fighting to keep her voice steady. “I was in so much pain…”
“You don’t have to run from it anymore.”
“I was running for my life!” she screeches and metal is flying everywhere, smoke bursting from her hands. She’s on her feet and Percy starts to say something, but screams and the crackle of fire are ringing in her ears.
So Keyleth does what she does best. She runs.
She spends a week and a half trying to fit the words “I’m sorry” in her mouth. And then Percy dies. And wakes up. And Keyleth sleeps dreamlessly for the first time in years.
“Good morning,” Percy says as she sits next to him at the table. “Sleep well?”
“Well, my best friend died a couple days ago, but yeah.” Keyleth risks a smile. “Yeah, pretty good considering.”
“Percy,” Pike calls from across the table. “You have to tell Keyleth what happened last night.”
“Oh gods,” Percy says, laughing. “I didn’t know my father could fuss like that.”
“Excuse me?” Seeker Asum calls from the doorway. “I don’t mean to interrupt, but…”
But he does. They all file away from the breakfast table and as they walk to the War Room, Percy presses a muffin into her hands. She wonders if that means I forgive you.
They get there and Asum talks quickly and confusingly, weaving his way around explanation, and Vex realizes seconds before Keyleth does, reaches for her hand and squeezes.
The pain doesn’t register. The room goes quiet as she steps away from Percy.
“You-?” she whispers.
Asum’s eyes flash green.
The smoke reacts before she does, but then her staff’s out and she’s blinking back shadow, half a dozen spells on her lips. Vex lunges between her and Raishan.
But Keyleth is screaming, fur bursting across her skin, teeth sharpening into points. She swings wildly with her staff, connects, but Raishan’s still across the room from her, grinning, Vex pulling her towards the door. Vines snap outwards from the walls. Lighting cracks against the ceiling. Scanlan’s counterspells bounce off of her and Vax pushes her into Percy’s arms, but Keyleth is fire, she’s shadow, she’s screaming.
Someone’s yelling and the smoke is clouding her vision and all she can see is the yellow-green eyes. The darkness is in her throat now, her mouth, her lungs, and she’s coughing, screaming, casting.
Percy clutches her closer and fire crackles from somewhere very far away, laughter and screams twisting together, shadow bringing her to her knees.
“Her eyes just moved!”
A golden light spreads outward from Keyleth’s chest and she sighs, the heaviness in her limbs floating away. “Hi,” she whispers as her eyes drift open.
“Welcome back to the world of the living.” Vex kisses the tip of her nose.
“Trying to steal the show from me?” Percy asks from her other side.
Keyleth can’t meet his eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Grog says. “That was the coolest shit I’ve ever seen.”
“I think what Grog means,” Pike says with a pointed look, “is that you scared us quite a lot.”
Grog looks offended by that interpretation, but Pike just sticks out her tongue at him.
“We’ve confiscated your staff,” Scanlan says, twirling it like a baton. “No more magic for you til we figure this out.”
Keyleth traces a fresh scar on Vex’s cheek, heart lurching for the easy comfort of rage. “I am sorry.”
“We know, darling.” And as Vex presses a kiss against her knuckles, a bud of hope nestles its way into Keyleth’s chest. “We know.”