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Voice to the Rain

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It was a bright Whitestone afternoon as they stepped through the Sun Tree, Orym's small legs hurrying to keep pace with Keyleth.

She paused beside the tree, lifting a hand to its bark, closing her eyes. Her lips curved into a fond smile, and as she stood there, distant and quiet, Orym hovered at her side. He took in the sight of the city of Whitestone stretching out around them, using the moment to orient himself. There were eyes on them, emerging as they had into a bustling noontime city center, but the people of Whitestone were clearly accustomed to the comings and goings of Vox Machina. There was only the slightest reaction, only the brief pause of passersby to whisper to one another, to gesture in Keyleth's direction before going about their business.

When Keyleth finally drew her hand from the bark and opened her eyes, Orym could see the sparkle of tears threatening to fall from them. He pretended not to notice as he looked toward the castle and waited for her to begin moving in that direction. When she did, he kept pace with her, his legs doing double time to keep up with hers, and he saw the moment when she noticed, slowing her steps to give him a reprieve. He raised his chin a little defiantly, picking up his speed, marching quicker toward the castle.

"Orym." She chuckled on his name. He slowed as soon as she spoke, spinning to walk backward, eyes on her. "We're not in a rush."

He nodded crisply. "No, Tempest," he agreed. He matched his gait exactly to hers.

She smiled down at him. "You've been on my detail before."

He relaxed a little at the indication that she remembered him, that he wasn't entirely unfamiliar to her. He nodded, turning to face forward again and settling into pace beside her. This time, she did not slow for him. "I have," he agreed.

She nodded. "And this is your first solo assignment?"

"It is," he agreed. He looked up at her, feeling some of the earnestness he felt creep into his words as he said, "I plan to keep you safe."

She smiled down at him. "Thank you, Orym, but you won't need to. We’re in Whitestone. Nothing’s going to happen to me here.”

He frowned. "Threats have made it into the city before,” he reminded her. He paced along beside her for a long moment before continuing. "Look, I'm not here to interfere," he assured her. "Your business is your own. You do what you’re here to do, and I’ll take care of keeping an eye out. That’s what I'm here to do.” He shifted his eyes away from her, sweeping them around their surroundings with practiced scrutiny.

She reached up to run a hand through her hair, following his gaze. "There's nothing there," she pointed out.

"Now," he said darkly.

She laughed. "You did train under Derrig, didn't you?"

He felt a chuckle rise up in him, fond and faintly exasperated. "I absolutely did," he replied. "For good and for worse."

She grinned. "I'm telling him you said that."

"Oh, don't – " he began, but when he looked up at her, he could see her eyes shining with teasing laughter. He let the words die on his lips. "You're funny," he said, dryly, which just made her grin harder.

She reached down to clap him on the shoulder. "Yeah," she affirmed, "I think you're going to do just fine at this."

The shy smile that tugged at his lips was interrupted by a call from the top of the steps as they reached the castle. There, at the head of the stairs, shining in the sun, was a figure that could only be Vex'ahlia de Rolo. Orym caught his breath at her beauty. She was dazzling in all the ways that wealth gave a person, but there was an internal brilliance to her as well, a quirk to her smile, a confidence to her stance that left him a little breathless at the reminder that both of these women were the stuff of myth and legend.

"Darling!" Lady de Rolo bounded down the stairs to fold Keyleth into an embrace, and Orym could see her strength evident in the tight clutch of her arms around Keyleth's waist. Keyleth curved down over her to press a kiss to a streak of silver in her hair, and Lady Vex'ahlia pulled away with a laugh.

"Oh, don't," she pleaded. "I get enough of that from Percival."

"You look distinguished," Keyleth told her.

Vex'ahlia gave her a saucy grin. "I always look distinguished, these days," she said. She leaned close to Keyleth's ear, as if what she was about to impart was confidential. "It's the money."

Keyleth laughed.

"Percy, of course," Vex continued as she pulled away, "was far too busy with something important to come greet you."

"That is a lie," Orym heard from somewhere off to the side, and he turned to find Lord de Rolo striding out from a lower entrance to the castle. "Nothing could possibly be more important." His eyes slid from his wife to Keyleth, keeping the same fond expression as he looked at each of them. "Keyleth," he said warmly, and strode forward to gather her up in his arms.

She beamed, pressing her face to his coat, meeting Vex'ahlia's eyes over his shoulder. "I'd say you look distinguished too," she said, and raised a hand to ruffle his hair, "but you've always looked like this."

"Well," he said, pulling away and holding her at arm's length, "that's because I've always been distinguished, dear."

He looked much the same as he did in the painting that Orym had seen of Vox Machina, with familiar white hair, and an intelligent sharpness to his expression. He seemed a touch softer now, maybe, less haughty, more settled, and Orym could see his age in the lines around his eyes as they crinkled up, the grooves that his smile carved into his face. He looked the same and yet different, changed in a more profound way than Keyleth and Vex'ahlia had been in the years since the portrait had been painted.

"Oh, I remember a few nights in a pub that may disagree with you," Keyleth said.

Vex'ahlia beamed, sweeping in close to them both, looping arms into theirs and tugging them back toward the house. "I expect we'll find all kinds of ways to be undignified during your visit, darling," she promised. "Come, we've gotten a new cook, and you’ve arrived just in time for lunch. Let's open a bottle or two and distract my husband and I from our very important work, shall we?" She glanced over her shoulder. "And I expect you'll be coming along, too?" she asked of Orym.

"Oh!" he darted his eyes over to Keyleth, surprised at having been acknowledged. "I…suppose so, yes." She gave him an encouraging smile.

"Yes, you can expect him to be following me most places," she agreed. "You know how it goes. This is Orym."

"One of Derrig's?" Vex'ahlia asked, more to Orym than Keyleth.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied. "Derrig trained me. I've been serving as a Tempest Blade for a few years now."

"Oh, don't ma'am me," Vex'ahlia said, dropping Percival's arm and waving a hand. "If you're going to be sticking to Keyleth as closely as the last ones have, you might as well start calling me Vex right off the bat." Her eyes fell to his weapon. "Hope you're good with that thing," she added before winking outrageously at him.

He flushed, but answered evenly, "I am."

"Oh, Vex, don't embarrass him," Keyleth objected. She turned back to Orym. "I'd tell you to ignore her," she said, "but I know better than most how impossible a task that is."

Vex laughed brightly, tugging Keyleth closer to her. "Come on, darling," she said, steering them toward the house. "I promise I'll leave your little bodyguard alone. I'm far more interested in what's been happening with you, anyhow."

They fell into conversation as they climbed the stairs together, and Orym settled into place a few paces behind them, following at a respectful distance as they made their way into the castle.

Even in the post-dinner bustle of de Rolos and staff, it was easy for Orym to keep his eyes on Keyleth, so he was the only one who noticed her fading into the background of the merriment later that evening, drifting closer and closer to the door to the outside until she found an opportunity to slip out of it, lean heavily against the outer wall, and let out a great sigh. She stayed there for a few moments, tilting her head back to look at the stars, before eventually gathering her cloak around her and making her way down the path from the castle toward the town.

Orym followed, keeping some distance behind her as she traveled along the edges of the wood, toward a corner of town that they hadn’t passed on their way to the castle. The path ended at the gate to a graveyard. He hovered at the entrance, expecting her to pause at a grave, perhaps, but her steps continued through the worn grass between the graves, winding toward a mausoleum looming in the darkness by the edge of the wood.

As she approached, he saw her flick her fingers toward the entrance, and two torches burst into flame on either side of the door. The door creaked open, and by the light of the torches, he could dimly see that the space inside was not a crypt, but a shrine, small but neatly kept.

She disappeared inside without glancing around her, and the door swung shut behind her.

Orym settled onto a nearby bench, reading the names on the headstones around him, looking upward to trace out images in the stars as he waited for her.

She was in the shrine for some time, and emerged looking haunted, but composed. She startled a little at the sight of him, but sighed, giving him a little nod and turning back toward the castle.

"Orym," she acknowledged. He nodded back wordlessly, settling into step with her. "You didn't need to follow me here, you know."

"Yes," he replied. "I did." He looked back over his shoulder into the shadowed darkness of the altar, where he could see the last embers of a fire dying behind them.

"Don't worry," she said, seeming to anticipate his concern. "It'll go out."

"I'm not worried," he said. "Doesn't appear to be much in there to catch, and I trust you know what you're doing."

She laughed a little sharply. "Do you?" she asked. "Because it doesn't seem like you do."

He winced. "It's not about not trusting you," he explained. "I know you can take care of yourself. So does Derrig, and the council. I know you can handle dangers better than anyone else in Zephrah. Probably better than anyone I've ever met. I'm only here to provide you…backup. Someone to be at your side, should you need it."

If anything, his words seemed to make a darker shadow pass across her face. "Of course," she agreed, a bit stiffly. "Because that's not something that I'm expected to have."

He winced. "I suspect – " he began, and let the words trail off.

She raised her eyebrows at him. "No, keep going," she said, a sharpness appearing in her expression.

He shrugged. "I suspect you would have been issued a detail whether or not you had…" he paused delicately. "A companion."

"Well." She gave him a matching shrug. "We'll never know, will we?"

"I suppose not," he agreed. His eyes strayed back to the altar for a moment, taking in the looming starkness of it against the natural beauty of the forest.

He could feel her eyes on him as he looked, and when he turned back to her, she raised her eyebrows, looking down at him. "You can ask," she prompted.

He shifted uncomfortably. "It's not my business."

"No," she agreed. "But you can ask anyway."

He frowned, looking down at the dirt beneath his feet for a few moments before finally asking, "The altar. Do you go there for religious reasons?"

"No," she replied. A soft, painful smile tugged at her lips. "Just sentimental ones."

He felt a matching smile twist across his own face. "I understand," he said simply. He expected her to challenge the statement, but she just nodded, turning back to look toward the castle.

They walked quietly for a while, but before they reached the steps, Keyleth paused beside him, looking down at him again. His eyes were on the woods around them, but his mind was elsewhere, caught on the softly dying flame they had left flickering against the walls of the shrine of death. Keyleth hesitated on the words for a moment, but eventually said, "I do know why Derrig assigned you to me, you know.”

Orym froze, feeling his jaw go tight, the muscles in his neck tense. "Oh," he said faintly. "He…” he began, and sighed. "Derrig’s a good man,” he finally said instead. His lips twisted into a faintly bitter smile. "He tries to do what he thinks is best for people.”

He saw an answering smile tug at Keyleth's mouth. "And his idea of what's best…" she trailed off.

"Is not always everyone else's," he said. He flinched, hurrying on. "Don’t get me wrong," he said quickly, his back going straighter, hand lifting to the hilt of his blade. "I'm dedicated to the assignment. I intend to protect you against any dangers that may come our way," he assured her. "But…" he shifted his eyes to hers, then away. "I suspect Derrig probably thought we might…talk, or something. We don't have to do that."

"No," she agreed. "We don't have to." The silence hung between them for a brief moment before she offered, "I am sorry, though. About your husband. I knew him, in passing. He seemed like a good man."

The tightness returned to Orym's jaw. "Best man I ever met," he said stiffly. He sighed out a painful chuckle. "A better man than I am, that's for sure." He looked up at her. "Thank you," he said earnestly. He felt his smile turn a little less bitter. "He would have liked to know that you remembered him, let alone favorably." He looked back down at his feet, watching each step he took against the path. "And, for what it's worth, I'm sorry for your loss as well."

"Thank you," Keyleth replied, choking on the words a little.

"There," Orym said with a half smile up at her. "We've talked about it as much as we need to, so I don't have to lie to Derrig. Now we never have to speak of it again."

She let out a small laugh. "Deal," she agreed, and held out her hand. He looked at it blankly for a long moment before letting out a matching laugh, a little startled. Her hand felt large around his as he shook it, but their strength felt matched. He knew it was an illusion, that her strength beyond the physical outweighed his in every way, but it was comforting nevertheless, that brief moment of matching, of understanding. She held his hand a little longer than he intended to keep it there, looking down at him with a furrow tugging between her brows. "I feel like I should be offended," she said, finally letting his hand go, "that you object so much to the idea of being my friend."

He frowned. The thought felt mildly scandalous, and was one that hadn't really ever crossed his mind. "I'm not here to be your friend, Tempest," he said. "I'm here to do a job. You have friends. You don't need – " me, he didn't finish. "Another one that you didn't ask for. I know I've been forced on you, and I know you'd prefer that I wasn't. My intention here is to make my presence as unobtrusive as possible. You don't need to think about me at all."

"And you need to think about me all the time," she replied. She settled her hands on her hips, looking down at him. "That hardly seems fair."

“That’s what I signed up for,” he pointed out. “Fairness isn’t exactly the point.” He gave her a faint smile. “I promise not to think of you any more than I need to, how about that?” he offered.

The laugh she gave him this time sounded genuine, less strained. “Yes, okay,” she agreed. “That sounds like a good compromise.”

He nodded firmly. “Done.”

“Well, to aid you in that, I suppose I’ll turn in for the night, and not make you sneak off after me anywhere else.”

He gave her a reproachful look. “I wouldn’t need to sneak if you didn’t try to lose me,” he pointed out.

“I wasn’t,” she replied instantly, then looked a little flustered. “I was trying to lose Vex and Percy. I know they worry. No, I - uh.”

“Forgot I was there?” Orym offered. Keyleth nodded sheepishly. He grinned. “Good. That means I’m doing my job.” He turned for the castle and waited for her to precede him up the stairs. When they reached the door, he held it for her, gesturing her up toward her room, and offering, "Sleep well, Tempest." He raised a hand, pressing his fingers to his lips.

She tilted her head curiously. "That's one of the ranger signs, isn't it? I'm not familiar with that one."

"Oh." He dropped his fingers, flustered, suddenly unsure how to articulate the sentiment. "It's…a promise, kind of. A vow. A sign that…uh. That I have your back. And…a wish, I guess, for you to stay safe."

A smile curved at her lips. "I like that," she said, and lifted her fingers lips in the same sign, looking to him for approval.

He felt an answering grin spread across his face. "Like this," he said, and repeated the symbol, slower, until she adjusted her index finger to match his. He gave her an approving nod and let his hand drop to his side.

"Thank you, Orym," she said.

He wasn't sure what she was thanking him for – the sign, the understanding, following her – but he nodded anyway. "Anytime," he said, and the smile she gave him told him that she knew he meant it.

The next few days passed comfortably, with Keyleth making the most of her time with the de Rolos, and Orym settling into his role as her quiet shadow, available but unobtrusive by her side.

On the third night, they passed Lord de Rolo's study on their way toward the sleeping quarters and found the door was ajar, lantern light still casting a warm glow across the room. Keyleth paused, peeking around the doorframe, and let out a giggle. She gestured for Orym to join her, and when he peered into the room, he found Percival there, propped in a corner of the sofa, still upright but snoring gently.

Keyleth crossed to him, Orym hovering watching from the door. Percy's glasses were askew, pressed uncomfortably into the pillow, and Keyleth reached out to pull them off his nose, setting them gently onto the table beside him. His eyes fluttered open as she turned back to him, a soft smile spreading over his lips.

"Hello, dear.” His voice was quiet, blurred with sleep.

“Good morning, sunshine,” she said. Her voice was low and teasing, a tone that Orym had never heard from her.

She settled onto the couch beside Percy, and instead of sitting up, he just lifted his legs, tucking them over her lap without any apparent objection. He tilted his face against the back of the couch, eyes intent on Keyleth.

"You took my book," he accused. He blinked owlishly. "And my glasses."

"You're not reading," she pointed out. "You're sleeping."

"I," he said in his most dignified of airs, "am resting my eyes."

Keyleth leaned back as well, tilting her head toward his, their voices dropping lower, confidential in the flickering light from the fire in the hearth. Orym stood there for another long moment before turning away, leaving them there alone together in comfortable familiarity.

He found himself smiling as he walked away, as the sound of Keyleth's relaxed laughter echoed into the hallway around him.

“Wow,” Orym said. "This is beautiful." He looked out over the expanse of the Alabaster Sierras spreading out from the cliff they rode along, his words nearly swallowed up by the swirling winds, but Keyleth nodded beside him.

Her smile was wide and wild as she turned to him, hair whipping out around her. “Almost like home, huh?”

He laughed. “Almost,” he agreed. He could feel his pony fighting to keep her footing beneath him, and he gave her a soft reassuring pat on the neck. “I guess this might not be as stunning to you,” he allowed. “You’ve seen all kinds of incredible places.”

“Yes and no,” she replied. She led her horse forward beside his so they could drop their voices a little. Ahead of them, Vex and Vesper had paused as well, Vex pointing to something up in the trees beyond them. “I’ve been places, but I don’t travel often, anymore. It's a luxury," she said, "for me to be able to come here like this. I left my father with our people for so long that once I returned, I knew I had to stay. And then last year…"

"She's wonderful," Orym said with feeling. Keyleth's eyebrows shot up, turning to him at the non sequitur. "Uh," he clarified, "your mother. Having her back has been so good for the people." He shifted awkwardly. "I mean, not that the people weren't doing well with you and your father. And not that what they think about her being back is any more important than what you feel about it. It's just…I should probably stop talking now, huh?"

Keyleth laughed. "She is wonderful," she said. "And losing her was a blow that our community has never recovered from. You're not wrong."

He nodded solemnly. "You know your people."

She winced. "I try," she said. "I'm learning more about them, every day. I feel like there's so much I missed."

"We all miss things," he replied practically. "We're all busy with our own lives, with jobs and family and tasks that have nothing to do with keeping up with what's going on in the wider community. The important part is that you've checked back in, after your adventures. You returned, and you've stayed. That matters. But it's also nice to see you more comfortable leaving, now that you can leave both her and Korrin in charge."

She smiled at him. It looked a little strained. "Thank you," she said. "I do feel better about it. He did such a good job with everything, when I left before, but knowing that he has her there with him now…it helps."

Orym nodded. "I can see that."

"Getting her back…" Keyleth trailed off, looking toward the horizon, and Orym waited patiently for her to continue. She smiled distantly. "For a while, I thought…I don't know, some days I still do, that maybe…" she trailed off.

Orym looked up at her. "I'd like to know," he said simply. "What you think about it."

She kept staring into the distant mountains for a long time before looking down at him. "I was alone for so long." The words came out a little strained, painful, like she was forcing them out, but she continued. "I lost him, and I thought…I thought that was it. I thought that meant I was intended to be alone. And so I stayed that way. I returned to Zephrah, but I kept myself apart. I worked with my father, but I didn't let myself lean on him too much. I tolerated Derrig and his security team, but I didn’t let any of them get close. I saw my friends, but never for long. Never enough. My mother returning…" her smile turned a little less rueful, a little softer. "It changed everything." She picked a blade of grass, twisting it between her fingers. "My relationship with the gods is…complicated, at best," she said. "But sometimes it feels a little bit like my mother returning was…a gift. An exchange. Like something - maybe not even the gods, but the universe perhaps - giving me something in return for…" She hesitated. "For taking Vax." She looked down at Orym. "And I know it doesn't work like that," she said hurriedly, a little defensively. "I know better than most that the deals they make are…" She winced. "Well, they're never weighted in favor of the living. But having my mother back…some days, it feels like some kind of balance being restored."

"I like that," Orym said. He smiled distantly, looking beyond her. "The idea that you've been given something in exchange for what you've lost, even if the two things aren't directly comparable. I'd like to think that maybe, someday…" he trailed off, darting his eyes back to her, feeling a sudden panic well up in him. "Not to say that our situations are the same, of course," he said hurriedly. "I know that…uh." He grimaced, at a loss for words.

She held up a hand, reassuring him. "You hope that someday," she said kindly, "you'll be able to find some happiness, beyond your sorrow."

He nodded. "Yes," he said simply. "I do. I hope for some kind of exchange. Maybe not directly comparable, but a gift. An adventure or an experience that the me who lived a different life where my husband had survived might not have encountered."

She smiled softly at him. "I hope that for you, too."

He could feel color rise in his cheeks. "Thanks," he mumbled. He looked down at his pony, at the mountain path beneath them, anywhere but at her. He was saved from needing to think of a more extensive reply by Vex calling for Keyleth ahead of them. Keyleth waved in response and turned her horse in Vex’s direction with a last smile at Orym.

He returned the smile, and settled his pony into step behind her, following her toward whatever came next.

It was only by chance that he saw Keyleth leave the castle that night. She’d retired to bed hours earlier, tired from the day’s long ride, and Orym had found himself pulled into a round of drinks and a hand of cards with some of the riflemen. They’d handily won his gold, but had also introduced him to their training grounds, which was where he found himself late into the night, practicing forms, building his muscle memory.

The shift of movement at the edge of the grounds might not have caught his eye if he hadn’t spent so long focused on Keyleth, on the ways that she moved and existed in the world, but as he stared off into the distance, twirling his blade around him, he knew almost instinctively that the figure moving down the path in the direction of the graveyard was her.

He sheathed his sword, darting to the edge of the practice ground and just catching the swirl of her cape as she disappeared around a corner. He followed swiftly, stealthily, and caught up before she reached the gate to the graveyard. He considered calling out to her, but he didn’t want to disturb her, so instead he took up a position by the gate, watching her cross toward the altar of the Raven Queen.

The shadow moved without sound.

One moment Orym was watching Keyleth reach out a hand toward the torches, a flame flickering at the tips of her fingers, and the next second she was on the ground, an impossible flurry of darkness and claws surrounding her as the flame sputtered out.

The only sound was the soft cry of surprise she let out as the wind was knocked from her.

Orym felt himself become a blur of motion, and the creature staggered back from Keyleth, letting out a gust of foul air at the impact of Orym small and solid against what may have been its chest. A spray of black blood exploded from it as Orym ripped his blade from its flesh. He launched himself back into a flip, landing in front of Keyleth, shield held out between her and the creature.

It roared and lunged forward, and there was a sharp drag of pain across his side. He felt the crackle of magic gathering in Keyleth's hands behind him, but before she could cast, it froze, lifting its head to sniff at the air and whirling for the treeline, distracted. It took a few bounding steps away from them, and vanished in a static burst.

"Did you do that?" Orym asked, not looking back at Keyleth, but he could still feel her magic gathering there behind him.

"No," she said, voice stiff and curt.

He stood over her, breath heaving, eyes wide as he scanned the darkened trees around them. She shoved herself upward, holding a hand outstretched, the magic slowly trickling away from her fingers as she followed his gaze and found nothing there. Eventually, she let the hand drop, breathing out a sigh. "I think we're okay,” she said. "It's gone.”

His fingers were so tight around his sword hilt that he was trembling, but eventually he let the blade fall heavily to his side. Only then did he feel the tug of pain against his ribs. He looked down to see red spreading out from beneath his armor.

"Oh!” Keyleth saw at the same time, lifting a hand toward him. "Orym - "

"I’m fine.”

"You’re not,” she objected. She knelt at his side, stretching her fingers toward him, and looking expectantly at him, waiting for his hesitant nod before pressing them lightly to the curve of his armor and sending a pulse of healing through him.

He swallowed thickly, eyes somewhere on the darkness behind her until she pulled her hand away, leaving behind an absence of pain. Only then did they flicker to meet hers.

"Thank you.” The words came out too earnest, even though he kept trying to school his expression into something impassive.

"Thank you,” she responded, pushing herself to her feet and brushing some of the dirt off her skirts. "I didn’t even know you were there.”

"You’re lucky I was,” he said shortly. He looked up at her, expression hard, feeling uncomfortably reminiscent of Derrig. "Don’t go off on your own like that.”

He saw her brow knit in frustration, and he knew he would deserve every sharp word she turned his way, but instead she seemed to wither a little, the fight going out of her as soon as it appeared. "You're right and I hate it," she muttered.

He forced out a painful chuckle, but his eyes didn't leave the darkness around them, scanning past her into the woods, his fingers still tight around his blade. "Do you have any idea what that was?” he asked.

"No,” she said, "but I know for damn sure it shouldn’t be in Whitestone. Come on, we should tell Percy and Vex to alert the guard to be on the lookout for whatever it is.”

He nodded wordlessly, lengthening his stride to keep up with her as she strode back toward the castle. For once she didn't match her pace to his, and he was grateful for it, his body still vibrating with tension and adrenaline as he hurried after her.

The castle was nearly asleep when they arrived, but the guards posted at the door snapped to attention immediately at the sight of Keyleth looking bedraggled, blood still smeared across Orym’s breastplate. The Lord and Lady were summoned at once, and Vex burst into the front hall in a whirlwind of practicality and concern.

She folded Keyleth into her arms, holding her close, her hands roaming across Keyleth's skin through her robes. "Are you alright?" she asked, a flash of healing running through her fingers into Keyleth without waiting for an answer.

"I'm fine," Keyleth told her, but she leaned visibly into Vex's touch. "Orym was hurt worse than I was."

"I'm fine," Orym echoed reflexively. He felt a warm rush of healing through his body as Vex's eyes flickered to him past Keyleth, and he felt his muscles relax in relief, letting loose some of the tension that had been winding through him. "Thank you," he breathed out, but Vex's eyes were already back on Keyleth.

"Off on your own like that, darling," she said, her tone admonishing but guarded, clearly knowing that Keyleth would object. "You could have been killed."

"You can't ask me not to go off on my own, Vex," Keyleth said, her voice cracking a little, her face pressing to Vex's shoulder. "It's not the same for me as it is for you. I don't have a Percy."

"You do," Vex objected. "Here, you do. You have Percy. You have me. You have that tiny boy who is so very determined to protect you." Orym felt Vex's eyes find him across the room. She didn't wink, but she gave him a half smile. "And you have any of the children who are around, as well," Vex continued. "You know they'd go anywhere you ask them to. You could ask any of Jarett's men, or Kynan's, to go for a walk with you. Please don't go off alone. Not while we don't know what this is, or why it's here."

Keyleth slumped against her, nodding, as Percival entered, breaking off his intent conversion with the captain of the guard to cross to Vex and Keyleth. He didn’t gather Keyleth in his arms like Vex had, but he did tilt her chin to look at him, asking her if she was alright in a voice so low Orym nearly couldn’t hear it. The nod she gave him seemed to reassure him, because he snapped back to business, calling the guard captain over, gesturing for Orym to join them, and for the next while, Orym lost track of time, recounting the experience, trailing Keyleth back to her room and leaning against the wall in the hallway to keep watch as Vex bundled her busily inside.

He must have fallen asleep there, slumped beside the door, because he woke some time later to the faint sound of a voice above him.

"Darling, I think you've misplaced something," Orym heard faintly. He wanted to open his eyes, struggled to do so, but the lids were so heavy, and the wall was so solid and comforting against his back. He could feel soreness already creeping into his neck from the angle it was bent at, but climbing to the surface of his hazy thoughts felt impossible. He felt a shift of movement by his side, someone kneeling beside him, and when Vex spoke again, her voice was closer, leaning over him. "He looks so young."

"He is," Keyleth replied, still sounding tall and distant. "Not much older than Vesper."

Vex's hand jostled his shoulder tenderly. His eyes flew open, hand darting to the sword at his back before his eyes focused on her. "My lady!" he forced out. His eyes darted between her and Keyleth. "I'm sorry, I – "

"Was exhausted," Vex finished. "Understandably."

He scrambled to his feet, dropping his hand from the hilt of his weapon. "I apologize," he said stiffly, shifting his eyes from her to Keyleth. "I'll be more careful."

"Orym," Keyleth said. Her voice was tired, but gentle. "The position you hold doesn't mean that I need to be in your sight all of the time." She let a smile tug at her lips. "In fact, that would be kind of creepy." He felt himself flush faintly. "I understand your concern," she continued. "I do. But I promise, you can be assured of my safety when I'm with my friends."

"I…" He looked back to Vex. "I apologize, Lady de Rolo. I wasn't aware you were still here."

"Well," Vex said easily, "I am. And Keyleth's right." She made no move to stand from her position at eye level with him. "I promise you, we will take the best care of her."

He nodded fervently. "I believe you," he said. "It's just, when she was alone before…"

"I'll see that she's not alone tonight," Vex promised. He could see Keyleth startle a little at that out of the corner of his eye, but Vex's eyes were still on Orym. She reached out to clasp him on the shoulder. "Thank you," she said, "for taking care of our Kiki." He felt the corner of his lips twitch in the tiniest hint of a smile at the nickname. "But for tonight, go take care of you. Clean yourself up. Go down to the kitchens and have them make you something to eat. Rest. Be ready to watch over her again in the morning."

He straightened a little, nodding crisply first to Vex and then to Keyleth. "I will," he said earnestly.

The walk back to his room felt endless. His fingers shook as he undid his armor and carefully cleaned it and his weapon until all traces of blood had been removed. He washed himself, quick and perfunctory, and then stood before the looking glass, leaning heavily against the counter, exhausted.

He regarded himself in the looking glass, hair rumpled and damp from washing, the grooves of his armor still fading against his skin, the jagged cut across his side just barely healed, the sharp lines of his tattoo spreading across his shoulder and down his arm. He reached to brush a thumb over the clouds twisting their way down his forearm, reaching outward from the shining sun above them.

He flopped down onto his bed, exhausted, and he lay awake well into the night, thinking of home.

The next few days, the skies of Whitestone were dark with freezing rain, giving Keyleth an excellent excuse to keep to the castle. Orym stayed diligently by her side, except for the times when he would leave her safely in the company of her friends to join the guard in their patrols of the city, searching for the creature.

Perhaps predictably, they found nothing.

Keyleth grew restless, wanting to help, and began poring through books in the study, trying to find a clue to what they were facing. It was late in the afternoon on the second day when she drifted off, stretched out on the couch with a pile of books beside her and one lying open on her chest. Orym paced the room, flipping through books without processing any of the words, feeling like he was beginning to wear footprints into the carpet before he heard a soft "Ah," behind him.

"Oh!" Orym snapped the book shut, settling it back into place. "I was just…" he said, and trailed off awkwardly.

"Perusing?" Percival offered. He leaned in the doorway, his arms smudged with grime, sleeves shoved up haphazardly, but even straight from the workshop, there was an air of dignity to him that Orym could never hope to achieve.

Orym straightened up, trying to match his composure. "You have quite the collection, here," he said. "I don't think I've ever seen so many books in one place."

"Oh, feel free," Percy said, waving a hand magnanimously around the room. "There certainly isn't anything sensitive kept down here. Anything here is free for the reading." He crossed to an alcove, retrieving a pair of glasses and clinking them onto the top of the bar beside an array of expensive looking bottles. "If you're a fan of books," he continued, "you should accompany her if she ever has to visit the Cobalt Reserve. If you think my collection is impressive, you'll be entirely overwhelmed there." He selected a bottle and raised it in Orym's direction, making a low questioning sound before turning to open it.

"Oh, uh, no, I shouldn't, I'm…"

"Looks to me like you're off the clock," he said. "Your charge is certainly not going to be getting into any danger right now."

Orym let out a quiet laugh, and paused to consider. "I guess. If you're offering. Thank you."

"I am," Percy assured him, and there was the quiet glug of wine into two glasses.

"I'm not much a fan of books, actually," Orym said, and when he saw Percy slant a questioning look his way, he clarified. "I've never been much of a reader, that is. But I think I wouldn't mind becoming one. I enjoy learning new things, it's just that the Ashari – especially the people I associate with there – are more about learning through doing rather than through reading what someone else has to say about things." Percy stepped forward, handing him a glass. Orym took it with a wordless nod of thanks, and felt a faint smile tug at his lips as Percy clinked their glasses lightly against each other. Orym lifted the glass to his lips, and all other thoughts fled directly from his mind. "Oh, wow."

Percy chuckled. "A gift," he said. "From someone across the sea who I'm much happier to have seen the last of." There was a pause, then he said, "Derrig, yes?" Orym raised his eyebrows at him. "The people you associate with, in the Ashari. I recognize your tattoo, and your fighting style. We've gotten used to Derrig and his people being Keyleth's shadow, over many years. We'll get used to you, as well. In time."

Orym managed to keep his voice remarkably steady as he replied, "I suspect I'll get used to you as well."

Percy laughed, and crossed to the couch, settling onto the opposite end as Keyleth. He dropped a hand to her ankle, curling there famliarly. "You don't trust me," he said to Orym. It was an observation rather than an accusation.

Orym paused for a long time before responding, "She does."

Percy smirked faintly. "Is that what Derrig taught you? Trust who she does?"

"No," Orym said tightly.

"Of course it's not," Percy agreed. "I've met the man." Keyleth shifted beside him, and he rubbed his fingers over her ankle absently, soothingly. "Good," he said. "Don't trust me. Don’t trust anyone. We've known people who can deceive with magic. Keep your guard up."

"I will," Orym promised.

There was a smile in Percy's voice as he responded. "You will. I believe that."

Orym sipped his wine again, looking around the room, considering. "You don't happen to have anything here that could help, do you?" he asked finally, scanning the shelves. "Something that might cover magical deception and trickery?" He felt a flush of embarrassment stain his cheeks as he admitted, "I'm not all that well versed when it comes to magic." He tapped the hilt of his blade. "I know this."

"Hm." Percy shifted, considering, looking around him. "You can try that section, over there." He gestured toward the far corner of the room. "There's a bit there on applications of the arcane and divine schools. Probably nothing as specific as you're looking for, but there may be some fundamentals you can pick up in some of those. I recommend the one with the green cover, for the most practical knowledge I believe we have available."

“Thank you,” Orym replied. He crossed to take the book, needing to stretch up on his toes to reach it.

The “thank you” he heard from behind him was soft, but distinct. He turned, looking inquisitively to Percy, who wasn’t looking at him at all. His eyes were on Keyleth, his expression soft and complicated as he rubbed his thumb soothingly across her ankle. “For trying to keep her safe.”

“Of course,” Orym replied. He opened his mouth to continue with something like, ”it’s my job,”, but instead what came out was, “She deserves to be.”

Percy’s eyes flickered up to his at that. “She does,” he agreed evenly, but Orym could see the deep well of emotion behind the words. “She does.”

Orym gave him a nod of understanding, and he left them there, Keyleth still asleep with Percy's hand anchoring her. As Orym gently shut the door to the study behind him, he could see Keyleth beginning to stir, curling closer to Percy almost instinctively, without waking.

The shift happened slowly, gradually, after the attack, in the days that Keyleth and Orym spent inside the halls of Whitestone, hiding from the rain and the threats outside the walls.

He posted up outside her door one morning only to be met by Vex'ahlia – rumpled and uncaffeinated but still unreasonably stunning – emerging from the room in her nightdress, yawning hugely. She gave Orym a wink before heading in the direction of the dining room, and Keyleth emerged a few moments later, looking decidedly more flustered.

A different day, Keyleth spent all of her time in the workshop with Percy, offering suggestions on his designs, helping him control the fire of his forge with pinpoint precision. She emerged at the end of the day coated in soot, fingers stiff with new calluses and sore muscles, but the smile on her face and the sparkle in her eyes didn’t fade for days.

Another night, the de Rolos had guests, and after dinner, as the children and guests traded lively shows of their musical prowess, Percy and Vex danced each other and Keyleth around the room in various combinations, each dance looking as comfortable and intimate as the last, with their hands familiar against each other's bodies, their eyes intent on each other's expressions, faint flushes appearing across each of their cheeks that may not have been entirely from the wine.

They revolved around each other, closer and more intense with each day, until the weather broke, and the tension broke with it.

It was evening, the sun just setting, and Orym was on his way back to meet Keyleth after patrolling with the guard. As he passed by the windows of the study from the outside, he paused, caught by the image of Keyleth and Percy that he could see illuminated in the gentle glow of the hearth. They were only standing there, separately, talking, backlit, but even at a glance, something about the moment felt too intimate for Orym to be witnessing.

The window was open, and Orym could hear that Percy's voice was low, earnest. His eyes flickered up to Keyleth's, and Orym could see her fingers twitch beside her, starting to reach to brush through Percy's hair, but dropping helplessly to her side instead. Her heart was in her eyes, shining out a reflection of the firelight, and Orym turned away, thinking they were about to kiss.

As he glanced back a final time, though, a painful sliver of light remained in the space between them, Keyleth's spine curving in a hunch as she lifted a hand to her own lips instead of Percy's. Her shoulders shook, painful, closing her in on herself, and she turned and fled the room, leaving him standing there, hand reaching out after her.

Orym ducked away quickly, careful not to be seen, and he circled around the building just in time to see Keyleth emerging from the back entrance to the castle. He expected her to be running, maybe to disappear off into the woods beyond, but instead she stepped out the door and seemed to freeze, all the instinct to flee draining out of her, leaving her standing there looking stunned and lost as the doors swung shut behind her. As he drew closer, he could see tears streaming down her face.

He hovered near the edge of her vision, not wanting to either intrude or startle her, and eventually she said without looking toward him, "Orym. Go back inside."

"Tempest…" he said hesitantly.

"I'm fine," she told him, her voice breaking on the words.

"Okay," he said easily. He crossed past her, settling onto the stairs a few steps above her. "but I think I'm going to stay here anyway. Just in case."

She turned, looking prepared to stalk off toward the forest, but as she stood there facing away from him, her shoulders crumpled, leaving her looking hunched and defeated. She stood there for a long moment, staring blankly out into the trees.

A spark of light flickered to life just at the edge of Orym's vision, and he whipped his head around to find that it was only a firefly, making its lazy way through the gardens. He watched it for a moment, before another lit up, and then another, until the grounds around them were alight with dancing sparkles. He turned back to find Keyleth's eyes still staring out into the darkness, but now instead of blank, they held a faintly bemused wonder.

She slowly stretched her arms out, fingers reaching toward the lights shining just out of her reach, and Orym felt dazzled by the beauty of her, of the night around them.

She sighed eventually, and with one last longing look back toward the woods, she made her way over to settle onto the stairs, a few steps down from him. He stretched his legs out in front of him, watching the dance of the lights through the darkness. She leaned back beside his legs, barely touching them, watching the bugs whirl and flash in the twilight.

He felt a sigh escape him. "It's beautiful," he said wistfully.

"It is," she agreed, her voice hushed in the dim light. Orym could still see the shine of tears on her cheeks, but they were drying, her emotions seemingly torn between the beauty around her and the grief that always simmered too closely to the surface. "How long has it been?" she blurted out, turning to him. "For you? Your husband? A few years, right?"

He startled, not expecting the question, but he kept his voice even as he replied. "It's been three years since I lost him. We were married for four."

"Do you…" she began, and sighed. "You don't have to answer this. But do you think…do you ever see yourself being able to…?"

"Move on?" he asked. "No." She let out a quiet choking noise before he continued. "Find love again? Yes, probably." He rocked his knee against her side, nudging her gently. "It's not the same thing, necessarily." He curled in on himself, propping his forearms on his knees. "I'm not there yet. I'm not ready to even think about it in any kind of real way. But have I considered if it might be possible? Someday? After some time, and some healing? Yeah, I have. And I think it will be." He turned his head, looking intently at her until she turned to meet his gaze, her eyes glittering in the shifting glowing light. "It's not a betrayal."

A sob rose up in her, and she buried her face in her hands. "Then why does it feel like one?" she choked out.

Orym was quiet for a long time, letting her cry, but eventually he spoke, low and steady, looking out at the glimmering forest instead of at her. "I didn't know him," he said. "The Champion. I probably saw him, as a boy, when he stayed in Zephrah, but the first real memories I have are of the celebrations when you returned from your journeys. I heard about him, though. You don't grow up in our community without hearing the stories. And you don't hear stories about him without knowing how much you meant to him. How much your happiness meant to him." He paused delicately until she looked up at him, finding his eyes on her. "And how much Lady de Rolo's happiness meant to him as well."

She shivered visibly, expression going hard. "What do you know?" she demanded.

He didn't look away. "No more than you've allowed me to see," he said simply.

"I didn't – " she began, but the words trailed off. She'd been hiding nothing from him since they arrived in Whitestone, and especially since the attack. There were things she could have been circumspect about, but she had allowed him to continue being her quiet shadow, knowing exactly what he would see from his place at her side. Knowing that she was too tired to care what he might do with the information he had. "I did," she corrected herself.

The smile he gave her was gentle. "I'm not here to know your secrets, Tempest," he promised. "It's just a side effect of being here to protect you. And I'm not here to give advice, either." He gave a rueful smile. "My husband always said I was shit at advice." He held his hands out. "But if it helps at all to hear it from someone who's been there, then no. Losing him doesn't mean you're meant to be alone. In fact, I think recent events have shown pretty comprehensively that that's unwise. Maybe you're not ready yet. I know I'm not. It takes time. But if you think you might be…" he trailed off.

"Time," she said, "is something that I'm very quickly running out of."

His brows knit together. "Forgive me, Tempest, but it seems to me like you have all the time in the world."

She let out a bitter laugh and folded up beside him, resting her arms on her knees and sinking her chin down onto them. She seemed to debate for a long moment whether to voice the next words, and when she did, they shook as they fell from her lips. "He doesn't." She looked out into the darkness instead of at Orym. "She has longer, but…not forever. None of us has forever. Not even me."

He nodded. "And is that something you're going to regret, do you think? Not taking the time you have?"

The fireflies had faded as quickly as they had appeared, leaving them both bathed in darkness, lit only by the lights of Whitestone Castle behind them. She leaned back on her arms, looking upward at the towering structure, at the stars above it.

"Yes." The word was quiet but sure as it fell from her lips. She looked faintly startled for a moment, but then repeated it, stronger, sitting up and looking at him. "Yes."

He felt a smile spread across his face. "Then I don't think you should be talking to me right now."

She looked at him with a matching smile, stunned and a little giddy, interrupted by her brow furrowing briefly. "I think…" she said, and hesitated. She looked out into the darkness, toward the graveyard. "Orym, would you take a walk with me? I think there's something I need to do first."

He grinned, standing and offering her a hand up. "You know," he said, "that's the first time on this whole trip that you've requested company to go somewhere."

She laughed, the sound a little choked with tears, and she kept her hand in his for just a moment too long, squeezing his small fingers tightly in hers. She didn't voice her thanks, but he felt it in the brief squeeze of her hand, and in the way she didn't try to outpace him at all as they walked in companionable silence toward the graveyard.

He waited for her outside the small temple, and when she emerged, her eyes were red, cheeks stained with tears, but by the time they arrived back at the castle, there was a resolve in her step, and something that might have been hope in her expression.

Once inside, he walked her to the top of the stairs, where she turned toward the de Rolos' wing instead of the guest wing.

"'Night," he said quietly, deceptively casually, and she breathed out a laugh beside him.

"Good night, Orym," she said, and only hesitated a moment before walking down the hall.

As he turned away toward his own room, he heard a door open behind him, followed by the soft welcoming murmur of Vex and Percy's voices.

Keyleth joined them, and the door closed behind her.

The second attack came on their last night in Whitestone.

They were both loose with drink and merriment as Keyleth stepped out into the night, catching her breath after a wild dance around the room with Vex, Orym pacing quietly beside her. The de Rolos' lavish party continued behind them, casting shadows out over the grounds, but around them was only darkness and the muffled echo of music and laughter.

Keyleth beamed, looking up to the moons, opening her mouth to say something, but before any sound could emerge, they were both engulfed in painful silent darkness.

Keyleth kept her feet this time, immediately sending the creature whirling back with a blast of magic, and Orym called out for the guard as he launched himself into the air, slicing into the darkness with his blade.

The battle was swift and fierce, and Orym could feel slices opening in his skin, could see Keyleth beginning to shift into another form beside him, but the spell fizzled around her. Her spells only connected occasionally, seemingly randomly, and he could feel his blade doing damage with each cut, so he danced around the creature, leaping and twirling, slicing into it until it was writhing, seemingly howling soundlessly at the sky. As another spell fizzled in Keyleth's hand and a gash opened across her ribs, a thin tether of magic appeared between her and the creature. She winced, holding the cut together as she tried to shift again, but the air around them seemed to swallow her spell.

Orym flung himself into the creature, his small form trying to pin it to the ground, feeling it struggling weakly in his hands. He pressed his sword to it and looked up at her.

"How do you want me to do this?" he asked.

"End it," she choked out, and he drew his blade across its form, tearing into it.

Keyleth crumpled.

He felt it more than saw it, felt the thud of her body hitting the ground by his side, the spray of her blood matching the noxious fumes that escaped the creature as it crumbled into nothingness in Orym's hands. He turned to her instantly, far too late, far too useless to do anything but call out for help and press the fabric of her dress to the wounds spreading across her skin – the wounds opened in her by his own blade.

There was a mirror across from him.

It had been propped against the wall opposite where he had crumpled down into a small bundle of limbs in the corner of her room, and he found himself staring blankly into his own eyes, hollow and dark in his pale face. He looked at himself because he could no longer bear to look at her, at the pain stitching her brow even in sleep, at the scars that he had left across her skin. His fingers clutched at the book that Percy had given him, holding onto it as if it were his blade, as if it could protect him, protect her.

Beside Keyleth, Percy's form was hunched, stiff from not leaving her side, the white shock of his hair pillowed against his scarred arms at the edge of the bed, glasses hanging askew from his ear as he let out gentle snores. Vex, of course, had not stopped moving for a moment, keeping herself impossibly busy making arrangements, consulting with the guard, with researchers and healers, doing anything in her power to keep from being still, to keep from being in this room.

Orym sat, and he waited.

At first, he thought the movement that he heard was Percy, and he was slow to turn, only registering after a long moment that Percy was still fast asleep, and Keyleth's eyes were blinking sluggishly at him over the covers as she struggled to sit up.

"Orym?" her voice croaked out, sounding like it was scraping her throat raw.

He shot to his feet. "Tempest!" He took a few steps toward her, his entire being flooded with relief and joy, before he remembered himself and stopped a few paces from her, shifting awkwardly. "Uh." He dropped his eyes to Percy, and cleared his throat loudly, making him jerk awake, his glasses tumbling to the floor.

His expression was fuzzy and lost for a long moment before his eyes settled on Keyleth and his face crumpled into a smile, overwhelmed with relief. "There you are, love," he said, and reached out to cup her face in his hands, drawing her in for a completely unabashed kiss.

"Percy," she breathed out against his lips. "What…?"

"You're alright," he told her, pulling back. His eyes flickered to Orym. "Go and fetch the Lady, would you?"

"Right away, sir," Orym agreed, and disappeared out the door without a backward glance in Keyleth's direction.

Vex'ahlia was in the hallway outside the room, in deep discussion with one of the clerics of Pelor as Orym came bursting out of the room. She took one look at his face and dropped the vial she was holding, letting it shatter on the floor as she darted past him into the room.

He helped the cleric clean up the mess.

It was something to do.

Derrig replaced him in Whitestone.

He arrived a day later, full of questions and concern, and Orym found that he had little to offer him by way of explanation. He shared what he knew, enough to inform Derrig of the threats at hand, and with Derrig's somewhat confused leave, he returned home. He spoke to no one, did very little, until the day that Keyleth and Derrig stepped back through the Raven Tree. Orym was not there to greet them with the rest of the village. Instead, when Derrig returned to the barracks, he found Orym waiting there for him, leaning against the edge of his desk.

"She's fine," Derrig said without preamble. "Those healers in Whitestone do some fine work." He gave Orym a hard look. "You should go look in on her. She's been asking about you." A faintly smug smile crossed his face. "I knew you two would get along."

Orym stood stiffly up from the desk and turned to lay his sword across it. Derrig's eyes flickered from it to Orym's face as he added the shield, his arm feeling bare and unfamiliar without the weight of it.

Derrig's expression darkened. "No," he said flatly. "I don't accept."

"My resignation isn't yours to accept," Orym replied. "It's hers. And she will." He stepped back, leaving the sword and shield there against the desk. "You know the oath we take. I broke it."

"You did exactly what you were there to do," Derrig objected. "You stood by her side in the face of danger."

"I won't do it again," Orym said flatly. He turned away.

Derrig let him get nearly to the door before he spoke again. "You don't have to do this." His voice was worn and exhausted in a way Orym had never heard before.

"Yes," he said, "I do."

He left.

He walked until dark, restless, unable to even think of going home. Instead, he built himself a campfire by the edge of the cliff, near a small stone marker wrapped in a flowering vine, and he sat beside it, legs dangling off the rock face toward the nothingness below, buffeted gently by the winds as he stared up into the stars.

"I wish you were here," he said finally, the wind stealing the words as quickly as they left his lips. "I fucked something up, and I think…" he trailed off, sighing. He looked down at his arm, tracing over the lines of his tattoo, frowning as his eyes fell on the sun, a symbol of something he no longer stood for. "I think some things are going to have to change." He leaned sideways against the stone, tilting his head to rest on the cool, rough surface. He picked a flower from the vine and let it go, sending it tumbling away in the wind, off the cliff, away from Zephrah. "I think everything's going to have to change."


He was on a roof when he heard her voice calling up to him, and it was only his swift reflexes that kept him from falling directly off in surprise. He took a moment to gather himself, closing his eyes, breathing steadily, before peeking over the edge to look down at her.

"Tempest," he said evenly. She looked strong and healthy, but still the shame that washed over him froze him in place for a long moment.

"What are you doing up there?" she asked, shielding her eyes in the sunlight.

"Work," he replied. "There's always something that needs to be fixed."

"You have a job," she told him. "It's not…" she waved a hand up at him. "This."

Orym shrugged. "It is now," he said. "My job is to do what needs doing. Today, this needed doing."

"I had a talk with Derrig," she said, an unfamiliar hardness in her voice. "He seems to be mistaken about some things."

"Is he?" Orym asked mildly. He finally regained enough of his coordination to scramble down from the roof. For perhaps the first time, he felt truly small beside her, weak and purposeless without his weapon or his role. His clothes were torn and shabby, sweat gathering across his back from working in the sun. Above him, she stood pristine and powerful. "What kind of things?"

"Orym," she said sharply. "You know exactly what he told me."

"I do," he agreed. "And you know exactly why it's not a mistake."

"I won't accept it."

His eyes fell everywhere but on her. "Yes," he said, looking down at the dirt between them, "you will. Because you know as well as I do that you need to trust the people who have your back, and I can no longer be trusted."

"That's not true," she said, her voice rising a little, indignant. "I can trust you. I do."

"You shouldn't," he said flatly.

"You don't get to decide that for me."

"It's decided," he said. "I'm not a Tempest Blade anymore. I do need your approval, but I think you'll give it, because you know that even if you can bring yourself to believe you trust me, I can't trust myself anymore."

"Orym, having you there saved my life. More than once. That sounds pretty trustworthy to me."

"I killed you!" he burst out, rounding on her, finally meeting her eyes and seeing them widen with hurt at the words. "My mission was to keep you alive at all costs, and I failed. Not only did I fail, I did exactly the opposite of what I was trained to do."

"I ordered you to kill that thing!" she reminded him. "Neither of us understood the magic at play. No one there did. It was necromantic magic, something none of us have ever studied. You did nothing wrong."

He let out a hollow laugh. "It was in the book, you know," he said. "The one Lord De Rolo lent me? I read it cover to cover while I was waiting for you to wake up, and there that spell was. I had all the information right there, right in my hand, and I didn't take it."

"Orym." She sighed, running her fingers back through her hair. "You aren't expected to know everything, to anticipate everything. You're trained to react with the knowledge you have, and everything you knew – everything we both knew – said that that thing needed to die."

"And the next time?" Orym asked. "The next time something comes at you and I have my blade to its throat? We don't know if this threat is over. You still don't know what that creature was, or if someone sent it after you specifically. If another comes, do you actually trust that I'll kill it without hesitating? Without stopping to wonder if it's cast the same spell and I'll be killing you again too? Because I don't. I don't trust that I can do that, and you need someone with you who can." Keyleth opened her mouth to object, but he could see doubt spreading through her expression. "I thought I was ready," Orym continued. "Derrig thought I was ready. We were wrong, and it nearly cost you everything."

"Orym," she said gently. "I'm fine."

"You got lucky," he replied. "I'm not willing to entrust your safety to luck again." He gave her a smile that felt twisted and painful against his lips. "You're not going to change my mind."

She swallowed. He saw her considering more objections, but eventually, finally, she nodded slowly, taking the smallest step back, away from him. "I'll respect your decision," she said. "But I need you to know that there is always a place for you in the Tempest Blades, should you change your mind."

He felt tears prickle at his eyes unexpectedly, and he blinked them harshly away. "I won't," he said, "but thank you. That means more than you know."

She nodded. Her next words seemed to come from her lips unbidden, and it hurt him to realize that she meant them. "I'll miss you."

The smile he gave her felt like it was breaking his heart. "I – " he said, and fell silent. It felt like too much, like an admission, so instead of repeating her words, he raised his fingers to his lips.

As he did, her eyes fell to the tattoo on his arm. He could see the moment that the realization crossed her face, that she registered that the design had been freshly touched up, and in the center of the swirl of clouds where the sunlight had once shone, instead there was the white curve of Catha and the small dark circle of Ruidus, eclipsing the sun.

"Got a job for you."

The words were stiff, rough, like Derrig still wasn't sure how to speak to him, still wasn't sure that he wanted to.

Orym sighed. The festival had always been his favorite time of year, but this year it felt hollow and pale. He sipped from his ale and looked up at Derrig, settled uncomfortably onto the bench beside him. "I'm not looking for work," he said.

"No, that's what I hear," Derrig said. "In fact, I hear you're leaving town."

Orym cursed under his breath. "I asked him not to say anything…"

"You just give your house away to someone, they're going to talk," Derrig said. "It was a sweet gesture. I'm sure Dolan and Azalea appreciate the wedding gift. But what, you were just going to walk out of here and not say goodbye to anyone?"

Orym shrugged. "I was going to try," he said with a rueful half smile.

"I've got a better idea," Derrig said.

"A job," Orym replied.

"That's right. A program we've been meaning to get started for years. And I think I've found just the guy to do it."

He reached across the table for a pitcher and refilled Orym's ale. Then, he began to talk.

The morning dawned bright and cloudless, and found Orym already at the Raven Tree, sitting at the base of it, looking out over the view from Zephrah for the last time.

He waited there for the ceremony to begin, for the gathering of the village, for Keyleth to appear, resplendent in her mantle, shining in the brilliant morning sun. The sight of her, strong and beautiful and healthy, made tears sting at Orym's eyes.

He approached her hesitantly, as trepidatious as he'd been on his first morning in the Tempest Blades, and she greeted him with the same reassuring smile. She held in her hands a blade and a shield. Not his blade and shield, he saw as he stepped closer, but a fine new set, sharp and deadly, inlaid with vines.

"Orym of the Air Ashari," she greeted him, her voice resonant and strong. "You present yourself today – and in all the days to come – as a representative of our people. A Tempest Blade among those who are not of our home." She held out the sword and shield and waited for his hands to close around them. His fingers were trembling. "You will be our hand," she proclaimed, "our friendship and our sword extended to the world."

He dropped to his knee in front of her, curling his body in a bow over the shield, the sword planted into the ground before him.

"Where our help is needed, we will send you, and those who will follow you into this role. You will be all that many know of the Ashari, and as such, you have a responsibility. To aid where you can, to serve where you can, and to be the face of your people, the shield of your people. Will you fulfill these responsibilities to the best of your ability?"

"I will, Tempest." He didn't raise his head, but his voice rang out nearly as strong as hers, rising above the wind.

He stayed there for a long moment, bent over the weapon, until he heard her voice again.

"Orym," she said, her voice gentle but commanding. "Stand up."

He kept his eyes on the ground as he rose, carefully slinging the scabbard onto his back, settling the blade into it. He kept the shield in his hand, familiarizing himself with the weight of it, turning it this way and that to catch the sunlight against it, admiring.

"It's beautiful," he breathed out, looking up at her for the first time and seeing none of the reproach he expected to see, none of the regret or sadness. Instead, there was only fondness and hope in her expression.

"Orym," she said softly, too low for anyone else to hear. She hesitated for a long moment, holding his gaze, then reached for him and dragged him into a fierce hug. He held himself stiff in her arms for a long moment before melting against her, clinging tightly, burying his face against her dress. He let the tears he had been holding in for so long fall, tears of shame and grief and regret, and when he finally pulled away from her he was more composed than he had felt in months. He lifted the back of a hand to swipe at the dampness on his face, drying it away.

"Thank you," he said, looking up at her, feeling his heart in his eyes. "For trusting me with this."

"Thank you for earning that trust," she told him. A tiny smile pulled at her lips. "And for not being stealthy enough to sneak out of town without a word. I think this is a better arrangement for everyone."

He breathed out a laugh. "I think it might be," he agreed. He looked around, taking in the beauty of the view, the trees, the wind ruffling through his hair. "I'm going to miss it here."

"You'll always be welcome," she told him.

He gave her a sad smile, wordless assurance that he would never return. Instead, he shifted the scabbard against his back, and he turned for the road, waving toward the villagers who were beginning to disperse, giving Derrig a last nod, and letting his eyes fall on Keyleth one final time before he walked away.

"Orym!" she called after him when he was nearly out of earshot. He turned, feeling small and alone in the middle of the road that led away from the village. "Those adventures," she said. "The ones that you never would have had in another life. I hope you find them."

He held her gaze for a long moment before the tiniest of smiles tugged at his lips. "And I hope you let yourself enjoy yours," he replied.

She laughed, bright and uninhibited in the air of their home, and the breeze carried the laugh down the road to him, as well as the soft words, "I'll do my best."

He stayed there looking at her for a long while, and just before he turned away, she raised her fingers to her lips in the sign of a wish, a promise.

Your people have your back, Orym of the Air Ashari. Stay safe.

He returned the sign earnestly, taking her blessing and that of their people with him as he turned away, and began walking toward the future that awaited him.