Dragon From Ash - Legacy (Not Updated) - Mortigaunt (2024)

Chapter 1: Northbound

Chapter Text

Doom…doom-DOOM… doom-DOOM…doom-DOOM…doom-DOOM…

Part 1

Outlander

"The music of the Divines is the material of creation, from which is spun the Aurbis of all that we can comprehend. The Dwemer managed to manipulate a shard of their own tuning into the music, and with it created the unknowable craft they called Tonal Architecture. The Ansei of the Ra Gada sung swords into being that could shatter the earth itself. And, perhaps most famously, the Nords harnessed the Thu'um, and shouted their own voices into the music, reshaping reality with naught but their tongues. The music of the Divines is their message to the world."

-Kurmuk of the Imga, Enlightened Baron of Broken Falls, Introduction to Warp and Weave of the Wheel

"Anyone who tries to tell you how the Aurbis works is inevitably insane, lying, or a fool. Sometimes all three."

-Dealean Endermond, High Wizard Emeritus of the Northpoint College, Ramblings

Chapter 1 – Northbound

"My Thane, a question if I may."

"After all you have done, it is for a question that you want permission? Ask."

"Did you truly hate Skyrim so much when you first arrived?"

"Ha! You know, I did. But consider my position. Caught in a trap by the Empire, accused of being a Stormcloak of all things, and then only spared the block by a dragon attack. How would you feel if that were your introduction to a new land?"

"Fair enough, my Thane."

"And the land was infested with Nords, on top of that. Truly a deplorable scene."

"And you wonder why they were going to kill you."

The wind began in the land that was once called Elsweyr, born out of the desert badlands. It raced north, ruffling the fur of the soldiers who patrolled the border with the Empire. Raj'haara had been gazing south, towards the village from which she hailed, as the wind came upon her. She tasted the flavors of home, sun and stone and bright sweet sugar, and then the wind was gone. She turned back to the north with a sigh, and resumed her watch, lest the Empire break their fragile peace.

Sweeping into the heartland of Cyrodiil, the wind rippled the banners over the walls of the Imperial City and pulled at the cloak of Titus Mede as he surveyed his city from high atop the White-Gold Tower. The warm breeze led his mind to wander, but his thoughts soon returned to the many challenges facing his Empire. Rebellion in Skyrim, the entire province of Morrowind beyond his control, and of course the looming threat of the Thalmor and their Aldmeri Dominion. Below, his Empire waited, and Tamriel waited with it. The wind left the old man there, deep in thought.

Ever northward raced the wind, until it left Cyrodiil behind, and entered Pale Pass. Now bitter cold and howling bleak, it wrapped around ancient ruins and took from them the scents of long ages and distant lands across the sea. The wind roared down the northern slopes, and towards a burning town, where it lifted the wings of a great black dragon as it rose into the sky, its first battle in untold ages over too soon. As the dragon roared away to the north, its wings propelled an eddy of the wind downward, where it curled about the mouth of a cave, and the figures who stumbled out. The final gift of this long-traveled breeze was spent on a ragged Dunmer, clothed in rags, in bloodstained boots and a singed cape, with a sword on one hip and a bow slung across his back.

Shielding his eyes from the sudden light, Velandryn Savani, for a brief moment, felt a warm wind upon him. It smelled of ash and ruin, of fire and blood. To be greeted with an ashen wind here, in Skyrim, was something he had not expected. He shut his eyes and thought of the home that he was growing increasingly unsure he would ever see again. All too soon, however, the wind died away, and the maddening chill that seemed omnipresent in this wretched land returned. And with it, as ever, came the Nords.

"Shor's bones! It truly was a dragon!" The Imperial Legionary was named Hadvar, if Velandryn recalled correctly. He had been halfway decent to the Dunmer, which almost made up for his ridiculous accent and blindingly obvious observations. Thus far, he had managed to notice giant spiders, a locked gate, and a bear. The list of allies Velandryn had in this blighted land was short, however, so he would just have to make do.

"You two, what do you know of this? Speak!" Ralof, by contrast, for all his bullheaded bravery, seemed to have a certain shrewdness to him. He had reacted quickly when the dragon attacked, and when the three of them had met up during the chaos, he had been willing to work with them to navigate an escape. Now that they were free, however, Velandryn could not help but see the Stormcloak colors the man wore and worry. Those who had followed the Jarl of Windhelm into rebellion often shared his view on mer: that they were unwelcome in Skyrim, and should be encouraged to leave by any means necessary. Although Ralof had not yet said anything overtly hostile, he bore watching.

"Less than you, traitor, but I wager your Jarl is mighty happy it showed up." Hadvar, clearly, was also less than enamored with Ralof's allegiance, and not even a dragon could mend that divide.

Ralof snorted. "As if we need a dragon to drive out the Empire. You and your masters will not hold the Nords of Skyrim to your craven treaty!"

"Hah! We captured Ulfric once, we will do it again, and all you rebels will get the block like you deserve!"

"You're dreaming, Hadvar. We are the Sons and Daughters of Skyrim, and already thousands are marching beneath our banners. In every village and town, they raise glasses to the true High King. Ulfric Stormcloak is the champion not only of Talos and Skyrim, but of all mankind!"

Hadvar's angry retort was lost to Velandryn as he took stock of where they had emerged. Helgen was above and behind them, burning well by this point. They had emerged near the bottom of a cliff, the cave entrance half-hidden from the road below them by low brush and scattered rocks. Assuming they did not want to return to Helgen, the only other choice was downhill, into the valley. By the look of the sky, it was nearing midday, and, now that there was no immediate risk of death by Stormcloak, Imperial, or dragon, he realized he would soon need to find food and drink. The Imperials had given them bread and water on the wagons, but the last of that had been nearly a full day past.

Velandryn noticed the silence suddenly, and looked at the humans. They had ceased their bickering, and were watching him. Hadvar looked expectant, Ralof skeptical. No doubt they were expecting him to say something. Fitting, considering he had grabbed the two of them and argued them into submission when the idiots had tried to split up entering the keep.

"Well?" Ralof had clearly asked a question, but Velandryn had no clue what. He said as much, and Hadvar responded.

"We need to warn people that there is a dragon loose in Skyrim. We should go to Riverwood first. My uncle Alvor is the blacksmith there. He can give us food and gear. Will you come with us? This is not your land, but I don't know how many survived Helgen. We will need every voice to speak of the dragon. Even…"

"Even if it is an elf doing the speaking." Ralof, at least, did not beat around the point. "I am with you as far as Riverwood, but my sister Gerdur is the one we should speak to. She runs the town, and is a true friend to the Stormcloaks. Riverwood is a good distance from Helgen though, and it will be several days travel at best."

Velandryn considered for a moment, taking the chunk of bread the Imperial offered him from his pack and chewing thoughtfully. This Riverwood, even from the little he knew, sounded like his best option at the moment. These Nords were willing to work together for the present, and even if the situation deteriorated to fighting, their primary ire seemed to be each other. Plus, these two seemed to know the area passing well, and any bandits or beasts would think twice before attacking three where they may not hesitate to take on one alone.

Valendryn swallowed, wishing he had thought to grab something to drink during his flight through the keep. "Very well. I will travel with you as far as Riverwood to spread news of the dragon and use my story to corroborate your tale." And then I will be gone so swiftly you shall feel the wind as I pass. Stormcloaks, Imperials, dragons, none of it is my concern! Coming to Skyrim was a mistake, and the sooner I am gone, the happier I will be.

Dusk found the three survivors of Helgen strung out along the road to Riverwood. The legionary led the way, with the Dunmer just behind, eyes flitting to the rocks and trees that flanked the road. When a thrush took flight from a tree, Velandryn's left hand dipped to his waist, pulling an iron arrow from its quiver, while his right dropped the worn wooden bow from his shoulder. In one movement he brought the bow to bear, nocked the arrow, and let fly.

The shot missed the bird by nearly a foot. Wings beating, it pulled for the sky…only to drop as another arrow pierced it cleanly through the breast. Spinning, Velandryn saw Ralof grinning as he trudged past to retrieve his kill. "I thought elves were supposed to be archers of renown."

Velandryn twanged the string and tested the pull, as he had seen the archers at practice do so many times. I missed! By so much, too. And in front of Nords! He had to make this right. "Nordic craftsmanship, if I had to blame something. Shoddy wood and a poor cut, and I think this string might be rotten. A poor bow, fit only for kindling."

"As is mine. We took them from the same rack" Ralof's smile seemed to mock Velandryn, and his ears burned as he looked desperately into the darkening woods, searching in vain for something else to bring down. He was a Dunmer of Morrowind, and would not be shamed by a Nord. Closing his eyes, Velandryn inhaled deeply, and twisted the magicka within him, funneling it into his eyes. When he looked again, the trees were illuminated as though there were ten thousand lights about them, and shadows had all fled. Now, he could easily make out a rabbit crouched in what should have been a dark alcove within a boulder. He had more than enough time to line up a perfect shot.

As he retrieved his kill, he heard Hadvar come up to where he had been standing. "How did you make that shot? Are elven eyes able to see in blackness?"

Ralof snorted. "Magic, I would wager." He looked at Velandryn. "No?"

Velandryn nodded as he worked the arrow out. "Night-eye." The shaft was cracked, and the arrowhead had deformed on the bone. "The School of Illusion has many uses." He tossed the useless arrow away. "A sadly overlooked path of magic by many." Rabbit in hand, he started down the road once more. "A fire to eat beside and then camp for the night?"

Hadvar started the fire, flint and dagger quickly igniting the gathered kindling. The elf watched impassively.

"No doubt you would have liked to do the honors, elf?" Ralof did not like that look the elf had on his face. He recognized it. Superiority. This Dark Elf thought he was better than them, by virtue of his blood, or age, or one of the other ridiculous things elves loved to prattle on about.

"I could have. But so could he." Velandryn Savani inclined his head at the Imperial, and handed him the rabbit. "You have the knife, and I killed it, so you prepare the food."

Hadvar gave the Dark Elf a frown. "You did not grab a dagger at Helgen? They are useful to have on the road."

Ralof paid them only half a mind, cleaning the bird he had brought down. The two of them were well suited for each other. The Imperials would rather bow to the elves then stand up and fight, and the elves were convinced that men were uncivilized brutes. Ralof would prove his worth, without relying on the elf or his magic.

As they ate, and Hadvar and the elf talked in low voices, Ralof considered the events of the day. Jarl Ulfric had certainly escaped. He had a good solid core of men about him, even if Ralof had not been by his side. When last he saw his comrades, they were breaking for the gate that led to the Rift. That would get them back into Stormcloak territory, and Ulfric should be back at his palace in Windhelm within the month.

Soon enough, full dark had fallen, and the light from their fire had begun doing more to kill their vision than illuminate their surroundings. Hadvar banked the fire from the road, and brought a bottle of water over to Ralof, from which the Stormcloak took a measured pull. The last of the provisions from Helgen, it would have to do for the night. Fortunately, they should reach the White River tomorrow, and the forests at the foothills of the mountains were rich in game. They might be a bit hungry tonight, but they would not starve before Riverwood.

Ralof capped the bottle, and returned it to Hadvar. He may not have liked the other two overmuch, but they deserved a chance to drink. He stood and, stretching, grabbed his bow. "I have first watch, so get some sleep. Who should I wake for second?"

The elf grunted what could be taken as assent, and Hadvar volunteered for the third. So, as the two of them tried to get comfortable, Ralof busied himself finding a good place to hole up for the next several hours. Fortunately it was Last Seed, at the tail end of summer, so the night would be relatively short and warm. The embers of their cookfire would warm the sleepers, and Nords were hardy against the cold in any case. Briefly, Ralof wondered how the elf would fare through the night. Well, it was no concern of his. If the elf couldn't stand the cold, he should never have come to Skyrim.

Ralof's watch began quietly enough. He was well-situated on an outcropping of rock shadowed by a leaning tree, and commanded a view of the road in both directions. Anyone who saw their fire would be seen in turn. It was unlikely anyone would come, though. Those who were headed to Helgen overnighted in Riverwood, lest they be caught on the road after dark. So Ralof relaxed, and allowed himself to think of his brothers and sisters who had fallen today. May The Hall of Valor ring with their songs tonight, and Shor's Table crack from the thunder of their cups.

It had been a hard thing, leaving his kin in the tunnels beneath the keep. Beaten and hungry from Imperial interrogation, they had nonetheless risen up and attacked their captors. When he called out to them to follow, they had ignored him, intent only on vengeance for their imprisonment. He had struck down one of the Imperial guards himself, but the Dark Elf had kept moving, and the Imperial had followed, rather than move to the aid of his fellows. Ralof could not do less, the mission had to come first. Ulfric himself had told him to leave by another path, and bring word to the Stormcloaks of what had transpired. If not for the need to escape and carry out that mission, he gladly would have stayed. He hoped some of those brave souls had made it out of the keep. And I hope those bastards who chained and tortured them are rotting in unhallowed squalor!

Overhead, something flew across the moons. Ralof started, panic rising in his throat. Then, another, and another. Small, fast, flitting. Bats. Just bats. He contented itself with the fact that if it had been the dragon, whether or not he noticed it would not make the slightest difference. If it saw them, and deigned to descend, they were dead. It got him wondering, where had the dragon come from? They had been extinct for thousands of years.

He worried that thought like a bone as the moons rose higher. Either a single dragon had been hiding, and emerged, or else a dragon had managed to come back somehow. And if there was one, there could be more. They had to be ready. The dragon had been heading north and west, towards Whiterun and Solitude. Suddenly, Ralof had a beautiful thought. Ulfric Stormcloak was free, the people of Skyrim would take heart from his escape, and Imperial holdings would have a dragon to contend with. Talos, Ysmir Dragonborn, thank you for sending the dragon to free your chosen king and to bring ruin to the foe. I bless your name and will fight on for you, God of Man.

The remainder of his watch was untroubled. Even in the dark, Talos could see his children, and he would not forsake them.

Velandryn Savani woke when the Stormcloak shook him, none too gently. His home melted away before his eyes, replaced with the dark rocks that sheltered them from the mountain winds.

"Your watch, elf."

Velandryn pulled himself from under the singed and ragged cloak he had wrapped himself in, already regretting his decision to take the second turn of the night. If he had been thinking clearly, he would have fought for first or third. As he was now, he was burdened with both the memory of sleep and the reality of his fatigue. Add to that the blistering cold that the fire only barely kept at bay, and some part of the sullen mer considered telling Ralof that he could go burn himself. If the Nord wanted a watch kept through the night, he was free to keep it.

But he found himself on his feet, and words were rising to his lips. "As you say, Nord." That was good. Not doing him any favors, but not beholden. It set the correct tone. He hoped.

Looking out towards the road, he realized that unless he moved away from the banked fire, even its feeble light would kill his vision in the dark. And trying to use night-eye for so long a time would drain him sufficiently that not only the meager sleep he had gotten, but any he would manage to get after his watch was done would be useless. So, he leaned against a tree, letting the dark surround him. And the cold. The cold was worse. It bit into him, and under him, and all he had were rags. The Empire had taken his clothing, armor and pack, little as they were, when they had thrown him in the cart with the Stormcloaks. He had pulled the cape he wore now off a smoldering corpse in Helgen, and the Imperial red was marred by scorch marks. Truth be told, he rather liked the look of it, but it was little protection against the chill. No wonder the Nords are so wretched, coming from a blighted land like this! He shuddered to think of what horrors must await should he ever venture to the northern end of the province.

He quickly decided that he would not pass his watch like this. He had been beyond the fire for mere minutes, and already his feet tingled, and his hands felt thick and clumsy. I am a Dunmer of Morrowind, and I will not freeze like some barbarian! He glanced back at the fire, and made to move closer, when he spied something off to his left. A glint of red, in the bushes. Almost without conscious thought, his hand snaked out and pulled it in. That could have been foolish. It was nothing though, just a few red berries. He almost dropped them, but then he remembered. On the ride to Helgen, high in the mountains, he had seen berries just like these. Half-buried in snow, but growing. Thriving in weather such as this.

He returned to the fire and huddled over it, studying the berries, though he couldn't quite figure out why. Something was important about them. He ran them between his fingers, thinking. His thumb brushed one, and he knew it then.

The Prelate had been immensely aged, and though his step was strong and his voice clear, his hair had become as grey as his skin, which had begun to sag. It was unusual to see one so old offering to speak. Generally, the elders of the Temple preferred to spend their days in meditation or study, and let their ambitious subordinates take on the thankless job of teaching the novitiates and ministering to the faithful. However, Eris Telas had announced that he would speak on the nature of alchemy and its relationship to the blessings of the Three Good Daedra, which, if nothing else, was bizarre enough to draw an impressive crowd. Kitaiah had speculated that the old priest was giving this speech to the Temple at large because the alchemists had refused to humor him. She was going because Telas was supposed to have served at the High Fane in Vivec before the Red Year, and Kitaiah was angling to be assigned somewhere on Vvardenfell. Velandryn went because he rather liked the irreverent acolyte, and figured that as long as he was sharing her bed, he could at least make an effort to share her passions outside of the sheets as well.

"Magicka is within all matter on this world, and is, in fact, the essence of being. It is through magicka that we not only work our spells and blessings, but speak to the Three as well. And it is this same magicka that has imbued the plants and beasts of our world with their properties that we refer to as alchemical. In organic matter, for instance, alchemical properties stem from qualities that help the plant or animal survive. These properties, often taken for granted by the alchemist, are, in fact, the spirit of the Daedra shining through. Consider the coda flower, which, though commonly known for its negative effects on the mind, actually contains the potential for levitation. Likewise the plume of the cliff racer, now a rarity in our land. Although the plume is, like the coda flower, known to be draining on the mind and spirit, it too contains the gift of levitation. What do these two have in common? They both exist in a state of rising, of transcending their origins to stretch towards the sky. As the cliff racer nests on the ground but lives in the sky, so too does the coda flower rise from the swamp and grow straight up, straining for the light of Azura. Now, to relate this to Moren Fel's third law of Daedric Intervention…"

Organic matter contains alchemical properties inherent to their purpose in the survival of the species. Velandryn looked at the small red berry again. To grow in the snow, it must be able to resist the frost. It would be a hardy plant, but for the berry that would not be enough. To draw out the alchemical potential, I would need to grind it, mix with water while focusing magicka…

It was impossible. He had no mortar and pestle. He could try simply eating it, but the odds of the quality that he needed being so easily accessible were slim to none. He tried anyway, popping it into his mouth and chewing experimentally.

Instantly he realized his mistake. The warmth of the fire seemed to fade, and the cold crept in where once it had been kept at bay. These berries must need to resist fire as well as frost. He was in trouble. He leaned in close over the fire, pulling at it so it flared up into new life, spreading himself above it, trying to feel it on as much of his flesh as he could. It was no good, the cold was behind him, slinking up his arms and legs…

The effect ended as suddenly as it had begun. A heaving sigh left him, and he felt the blessed warmth of the fire in all of its glory upon him once more. That was foolish. He dropped into a squat and thrust his hands into the crackling flames. That was more than passing foolish.

Centuries of life among the ash pits and lava flows of Morrowind had given the Dunmer an inherent resistance to fire. Even now, the flames that licked at his skin merely warmed him, where they would blister the flesh of any man. Were it not for the meager rags that passed for his clothing, he would have thrown himself upon the campfire before. Part of him was perversely proud that he had the presence of mind not to do so. He was already the shabbiest of their little band. Facing the morning's trek with nothing but a cloak and the Lover's garb would have done him no favors. They hate me already, but it is better to be hated and feared than hated and scorned. Not that they would likely fear him. Two warriors, each likely a veteran of countless battles. Only Nords, to be sure, but fools were slower to fear. He sighed. For all that I deny it, I am the fool out here. I should never have come to Skyrim. He could not leave until he brought warning to the cities, however. To stay in Skyrim was unpleasant, but to renege on one's given word was unthinkable.

Sadly, the gift of flame in his blood meant he got less benefit from the campfire, and so he settled on compromise for his position, leaning against the tree nearest to the fire, which still allowed for a decent enough view of the road that, should anyone come, he would likely notice before they were upon them. Not that anyone would though. Who in their right mind would be wandering these godsforsaken mountains at night? Bandits and beasts alike should be sleeping, and…oh.

Vampires. This was not Morrowind, he was not in Blacklight or on the road to Mournhold, there were no Redoran Guard or Ordinators-Repentant patrolling, no wayhouses or shellforts to offer respite from the night. The wretched spawn of Molag Bal would not stay relegated to their crumbling ruins or dark caves here. And with that, I have likely gifted myself a sleepless night. Velandryn sighed, easing back against the tree. In all honesty it was absurd to think there would be vampires wandering the night, this far from civilization. They were well off of the road, and the fire would be only faintly visible, if at all. And, should a vampire fall upon them, he was still Dunmer. The fire within him gave power to the flames without, and the pyromancer's arts had always come easily to him. At the very least, he could give any bloodsucker who assaulted him a good burn to remember him by. There is no shame in death in battle. Blessed Three, see my trial and carry my soul home.

As he thought on the idea of a vampire attack, his mood began to improve. His natural gift with fire would serve him well. Even among his kin, he had always had an especial affinity for channeling flame, a skill that stood him in good stead with the priests. He wondered if it was an acolyte-sanctioned use of a burning hand to ignite a vampire. Perhaps if I dedicate the resulting torch to Boethiah, the Temple Elders would approve. The thought of the Archcanon speaking to a hall lit by vampires in torch sconces made him chuckle to himself, but he quickly stopped when he realized what he was doing. If the Nords wake up to a Dunmer laughing in the dark, they will assume the worst. Also, he didn't feel like explaining the joke.

He had approached something that could, under poor lighting, be mistaken for comfort; although he was still cold, it appeared that after a point it was possible to become resigned to this miserable the night wore on, he inched closer and closer to the fire, until finally he had to accept that, although he could survive a night's watch out here, he was doing nobody any good in his current state. The moons had reached their zenith and begun to fall, and he could pass on the watch to the Imperial with no shame. It is fortunate, however, that we were not approached. It would not have ended well for me. He stood, and stepped over to the sleeping imperial soldier, wrapped in his cloak. His watch was done, and Velandryn Savani was duly grateful.

"Hadvar, your watch." The low rasp pulled Hadvar from a light sleep, and he pushed himself into a sitting position. The Dark Elf was standing by the fire, looking absolutely miserable. His cloak was wrapped tightly around him but couldn't hide his shivers, and the angle of his body made it clear that the fire was the only thing on his mind. When Hadvar stood, he was struck by how small the elf was.

Now that they were not running for their lives or making double time along a road, he could get a decent look at this odd mer. Skinny arms, sharp features, dry red hair pulled back and bound with a cord, Velandryn Savani was clearly neither a warrior nor a hunter. Had he been standing tall, he might have reached Hadvar's chin, but as it was he barely came up to the Nord's shoulder. He only had those thin rags for clothing, and there was no chance he was used to this cold, mild as it was for Skyrim. Hadvar pulled the cloak from around him, and handed it to his companion. "Here, take this. Get some sleep. We should leave at dawn."

The elf's eyes narrowed, and he gazed at the cloak for a moment before his features softened. "Thank you. Truly." He hesitated, and then nodded over at Ralof, asleep on the other side of the fire. "I was…unkind…to you earlier. There are many Nords like him, and I forget about the ones like you." He took the cloak, and curled up so close to the fire that Hadvar half feared that it would scorch the fine red linen. Now that Hadvar looked at the campfire, it seemed to be burning a little brighter than it had been when he banked it. That was odd, but perhaps the elf had fed it during the second watch. Poor bastard had to be freezing.

Hadvar put it behind him and looked out into the darkness. He had been posting watches for ten years now, ever since joining the Legion. This one was a bit unorthodox, but nothing he couldn't handle. A nice, easy watch until sunrise. And so it was. He enjoyed the mild air, and thought of what had to come. It was likely that there were more survivors from Helgen, especially considering the haphazard nature of the attack. General Tullius and his retinue had likely made it out intact, and sadly it was highly likely that Ulfric Stormcloak and the Thalmor delegation had both done so as well. That meant that the war would only escalate. The unknown entity that was the dragon also complicated matters. Hadvar had to make contact with the legion immediately and figure out where he was needed. Falkreath would serve for that, and he could spread word about the dragon in that direction as well. Assuming the elf could be trusted to get word to Whiterun, and Ralof would run back to Stormcloak lands, they would be able to… what exactly, would we be doing? Spreading panic? Could arrows bring down something like that?

Hadvar sighed. He was a soldier. He followed orders, and protected the people of Skyrim and the Empire. He would bring word to the appropriate authorities, and then serve in whatever capacity was required. May Those above judge me, and Those below take me, if I fail in my duty. He had always vaguely wondered who "those below" were supposed to be. Perhaps the Daedra got offended at a soldier's shirking of his responsibilities. He chuckled to himself, and watched the sky start to lighten.

Behind him, cloth rustled, and stone scraped on steel. He turned, half-tensing should some enemy have slipped past him, but it was just the elf. He was carrying the cloak, and tossed it to the soldier. "Again, my thanks. I think you should have this back though. If the Stormcloak saw us getting along, he probably wouldn't take too kindly to it."

"The two of you do not get along." It was not a question. "The Empire could use your help to bring an end to the Stormcloaks. Come with me to Solitude, and help your people by joining the Legion." The elf was inexperienced in the ways of war, but he had gifts with magic and was clearly no small intellect. Besides which, he was Dunmer. The Dark Elves of Morrowind were fearsome warriors, blending sword and spell to control the battlefield. Traditionally, legions posted in Skyrim had been almost entirely human, in large part thanks to the Nords dislike of the nonhuman races. The rebellion had changed things, however. General Tullius had been trying to diversify the Legion for some time now, recognizing the necessary tactical advantage the other races could provide. What Dark Elf recruits they did have were scattered throughout the camps, adhering to standard military doctrine. There were standing orders to encourage any likely Dark Elves to report to Solitude, and more than that, this one had a fire in him. He had browbeaten an Imperial and Stormcloak into working together to escape a situation where many officers and veterans had not kept their composure. If he could be brought to their side…

The elf interrupted Hadvar's thoughts, eyes narrowed again and mouth a grim line. "Did you forget why I was in Helgen in the first place? Your Empire was going to have my head off for being in the wrong place at the wrong time!" The intensity that had burned through in the muster yard at Helgen was back, apparently rekindled by rage. "Return to your masters, fight for them and die in this miserable land? The Empire abandons my people, then expects us to fight in her wars!"

"What do you mean? The Empire, and Skyrim in particular, helped many Dark Elves after their home suffered its disasters." Hadvar was confused. Certainly Morrowind had suffered its share of misfortune, but that could hardly be laid at the feet of the Empire. Besides which, the few Dark Elves he had known in the Legion were grateful to the Empire for taking their families in after the disasters that had struck their homeland.

The elf's eyes darkened to a deep blood red and the air around them began to warm. Every muscle of his face was taut with anger, and Hadvar could see the muscles of his neck tight with strain. "Your…Empire," he nearly spat the word at Hadvar "abandoned my people once when Daedra poured out from Oblivion, and then again when the Black Tide consumed half of Morrowind. While Ald'ruhn fell, and Skar-that-woke was broken, your legions were fleeing to the mainland, instead of defending the people as they had sworn! Through ancient treaty your Empire pledged to defend our lands as part of your own, but the Eastern Legions pulled back when the Argonians invaded!" He was close to Hadvar now, and the harsh lines on his angular face looked near demonic. The elf's voice was half-growl, the rasp underlying every word only making it the more unnerving. "You accepted those of my people who fled, but what of those who stayed? When the Red Legion rebelled and marched to defend Mournhold, they did so against the orders of the Empire. We survived, despite the Empire, and we do not forget." The last sentence was quieter, more reflection than accusation. He seemed to have regained some control, and took a step back, his face relaxing somewhat. "There is a word in our tongue, you would translate it as 'outlander.' To my people it means more. It means that you have never danced in an ash-storm, or stood beneath the Three Flames with the Chant of Azura about you. It means the Nammuruhn may hold your bones, but no vault ever will. A Dunmer who fled to the Empire and did not return to Morrowind, or who was born here, is an outlander. It is not cause for shame, for life in Morrowind is hard, but I am not the same as them. My voice is harsh because the sky rained ash upon me as I learned to speak, and I know every saint and god of our people, and honor the Three as I surpass the House of Troubles. Do not ask me to join your Empire again; we tell our children that while it may be noble to forgive a wrong, it is inexcusable to forget one." He took another step back and bowed slightly, eyes closed. "My anger overwhelms me, and I speak harshly. I forgive your Empire the sins of the past, and for bringing me to the block at Helgen. To be attacked by a monster out of legend; that is more retribution than even a Dunmer would seek." He opened his eyes, and stood straight once more. "But I do not forget, and I will not join your fight."

"Hey! You two done talking, let's get moving!" Ralof was awake, and if he had feelings about the two of them being at odds, he hid it well. Hadvar kicked out the remains of the fire, and they were underway once more. He glanced over at the elf, who was peering into the trees. An odd one to be sure, but he burns with a fire that we could sorely use. He did decide, however, not to bring up the fact that Morrowind was still an Imperial province, nor that this particular Dark Elf had clearly left his beloved homeland. Ralof would get a good laugh, no doubt, out of seeing Velandryn try to murder his onetime friend with his bare hands, but Hadvar had a suspicion that the elf might just be the deadliest one of their little band. Anger like that makes a man keep fighting when he should lay down and die. Anger like that can rout a foe, or turn a battle. Anger like that…and I wish he was not angry at us.

The camp was perched under an overhang of rock, little more than a few bedrolls around a campfire, a rabbit roasting on a spit. At the sight of the food, and the smells wafting off the scene, Velandryn's hunger returned full force. He had put it from his mind upon waking, but he could not pretend to be able to walk away in his current state. It had been hours since dawn, and Velandryn finally let his hunger run free, and took a step in towards the succulent roast. Hadvar's hand stopped him.

"Hold up, there, friend. Bandits like this area. Might be one of their camps."

Friend could be a touchy word, after their discussion this morning, but Velandryn did rather like the Nord, and admired the attempt at camaraderie. "Hmm, then we don't have to worry about them going to the guard if we borrow their food." Hunger made him bold, and this bright day, with a bracing chill but not too cold to endure, gave him a reckless courage. He moved past the Nord's outstretched arm, and pulled the rabbit off of the fire. "I am hungry, and am taking steps to solve that situation. You two are more than welcome to join me."

When next Velandryn looked up, Ralof was rooting through the sacks, grinning as he produced various vegetables. "Elf! Roast these with the rabbit, and we'll be well fed indeed!" The Stormcloak brought them over as Hadvar looked on disapprovingly.

"We should not be doing this. This food belongs to someone, and it is wrong for us simply to—"

Velandryn cut the soldier short. "We are fine any way. If they support the Empire, you are procuring supplies, and they can be compensated by the authorities. If they instead are Stormcloak supporters, then this one," his hand swept out and indicated the general direction of Ralof "can explain how they are donating supplies towards the liberation of Skyrim, and if they are bandits, well, then these goods are ill-gotten, and it is our duty as decent folk to relieve them of their foul loot." This was madness surely. Has Sheogorath clouded my mind? To act so boldly, so recklessly, he needed to reign himself in. He could attribute it to hunger perhaps, but he was a Dunmer in human lands. He needed to remember that. However, the Nords did not seem to mind. Hadvar looked amused, and Ralof was laughing outright.

"Ha! Were you a courtier in your homeland, elf? You should have talked at the bird rather than shooting it yesterday, and it would have flown into the fire for you!" The onion speared on his dagger was roasting merrily, and he took a long pull from one of the bottles. "Ahh, the good drink. Take a swig of this, friend elf, and you will sing the praises of Skyrim forever!"

Velandryn took the sloshing battle warily, near as suspicious of the Stormcloak's sudden geniality as of whatever liquid brought on such cheer. He raised it to his lips, and nearly gagged. It was sweet and thick, honey and fire and sunlight. He swallowed, and passed it back. "Strong. I take it that is the famous mead of Skyrim?"

"Not just any mead, but Black-Briar Reserve! From the hives of Riften, a good Stormcloak vintage. And you Imperial! Will you taste what you are missing in your western lands?"

Hadvar had apparently overcome his reluctance to join in, and accepted the bottle of mead. "By the gods, that hits the spot!" He sprawled before the fire, and grabbed one of the apples from the sack. "Shor's bones, I was hungry!" Velandryn didn't reply, his mouth full of rabbit and onion, plus whatever other vegetables Ralof had roasted. Many of the green land vegetables were strange to him, but right now they were as delicious as any roasted ash yam or comberry and trama compote. He closed his eyes and luxuriated in the sensation of the taste and texture. One point in the Temple's favor: I never knew true hunger while I served there. If less than two days with a chunk of bread and a bit of rabbit were enough to reduce him to this slavering state, how wretched must his ancestors think him? He would eat, and enjoy it, but the pleasure must not rule him.

With conscious effort, he swallowed, found his center, and opened his eyes. Ralof was sprawled by the fire, getting steadily drunk. By the noises he was making, the subsequent bottles of alcohol were not up the quality of the first, but it did not seem to faze him. Hadvar was more restrained, drinking from a bottle of what looked like wine at a measured pace, and eating a haunch of rabbit with gusto, but not Ralof's abandon. Looking at the two of them, Velandryn decided that he could live with them until Riverwood, and even further if need be. Ignorant of other cultures and untrusting, but then I suppose the same could be said of me. He knew little of these people outside of the stories about Skyrim, and for all their faults, neither of these two seemed a bloodthirsty conqueror, or a Tongue, calling down a Shout to shatter the bones of their foes. They might be men and worship the wrong gods but they were his allies, and had given him no reason to distrust them. He filled his mouth again.

Ralof rose, staggering only slightly, and moved towards the shadowed part of the camp, eyes on a pheasant hanging from a string. Velandryn nudged Hadvar. "Say what you want about him, but he holds his drink well."

Hadvar grinned. "Or you're a scrawny little thing who gets drunk on a thimble."

Velandryn hated to admit it, but the Legionary wasn't wrong. Each of these Nords easily had fifty pounds on him, and stood a span or taller besides. And, with this weather, they probably spent half their lives drinking because the alternative involved going outside. Either, he had no doubt, could drink him under the table and then float said table in beer, or wine, or that wretched mead. He grunted. "Lucky for me. I get just as drunk on half the coin."

Ralof heard this and turned. "You call that lucky? When you have done great deeds, and the mead hall rings with cheers, you get to down all the drinks they can buy you! Otherwise, what's the point?" He turned back to the bird, and so the arrow grazed his shoulder rather than burying itself in his chest.

The Stormcloak cursed, and his bow was in his hand faster than Velandryn would have thought possible. In half a heartbeat, he had an arrow nocked and was peering into the trees on the far side of the campfire. To Velandryn's right, Hadvar had hunkered down behind his shield, sword drawn. And so, Velandryn Savani found himself in the middle of what was looking increasingly like a bandit camp; by far the most tempting target.

Velandryn realized this at the same time as the arrow tore a hole in his cloak. He dropped to the ground, and Ralof released his shot. A yell came from the foliage, and a trio of bandits emerged. In the center was a Nord clad in furs and hides, holding a great beast of a battleaxe and charging with reckless abandon, the wound on his chest showing where Ralof's arrow had found its mark. To his left was another Nord, this one all in iron armor with a sword and shield in hand. Behind them was the archer, lightly clad and one of the smaller mannish races, possibly an Imperial by her olive skin. Velandryn had his sword and bow, but he was skilled with neither. Either Nord would overwhelm him, and the archer would likely pierce his heart before he could land a blow.

Hadvar was moving up with shield raised, and Ralof had loosed a second shot into the charging Nord. All three bandits were focused on the two soldiers, clearly having decided that the Dunmer pressed to the ground was no threat at the moment. The two-hander passed him by, closing with Hadvar, bringing the axe up in an overhead stroke, clearly intending to cleave through his guard and end the fight in a single stroke. The Legionary was ready, however, and thrust in with his sword, forcing the bandit to abort his swing and hurriedly parry the blow. By then. Hadvar has his shield to bear. The big bandit could not cleave through it without opening himself to Hadvar's thrust, and Hadvar dared not lower his guard first, lest the big weapon's superior reach open him for the kill.

Across the clearing, the other two were in a similar predicament. The armored bandit was ponderous; hindered by a full suit of iron and a shield, but Ralof didn't have a prayer of breaking through that guard. Likewise, any blow the bandit made was easily dodged by the Stormcloak. For the immediacy, all four Nords were at a stalemate. The archer, however, had other plans. Velandryn noticed her moving out of the trees, bow drawn. By the look of things, she couldn't hit either of her enemies from her current position, and was moving around Hadvar's shield. She stopped, and Velandryn knew she would loose her shot in seconds. If he acted on the plan that had popped into his head, he could well die, but if he didn't, one or both of his companions almost certainly would. And if he fled, what then? If he abandoned them to die? It was unthinkable. He sighed. Nerevar the Redeemer, I ask your blessing. Let my strength be true and my heart unerring, that my enemies and yours may be undone. By the love you bear your nation, I invoke your name. He raised his head and grasped his sword.

"Hadvar! Arrow to the right!" The soldier moved instantly, slamming into his opponent to buy a second, and tucking himself behind his shield as the shot raced towards him. Velandryn heard no cry of pain, so presumed that the Legionary must have caught it. He had no time to look, however, as he was barreling across the ground towards the archer, sword in hard. He saw her turn towards him, and raise her bow once more. He would reach her first though, he raised his sword as she pulled back her shot, he was upon her, and he just had to strike—

Her arrow impaled his arm, sending his sword spinning out of his grasp. He fell to his knees dumbly, not three feet away from the bandit, as she calmly strung the bow across her back and drew a dagger to finish the job. She smiled down at him, and her lips moved. Velandryn presumed that she spoke words, but he could not hear them over the roaring in his ears. I am going to die now. Here, in this nowhere, brought down by a bandit. By scum!

No.

It could not be.

He would not die here, on some wretched n'wah's dagger. She was not worthy. He was Velandryn Savani, a Dunmer of Morrowind and Anointed of the New Temple and he refused to let it end here.

The bandit stood above him and her dagger descended, slowly coming towards his face as he other hand reached out to grab his hair. How dare she! She was nothing, and she would burn!

His left hand, the only one he had at the moment, gripped her wrist and he let his anger flow into her, let it burn through him into the bandit. With it went his magicka, and she screamed as her arm blackened and blistered, flames licking along it outward from Velandryn's death grip. He released her arm, and she cradled it to her chest, and swung the dagger in his direction with a wild sweep. The blade was slow and clumsy, however, dulled by the archer's pain. Velandryn gripped the hand holding the knife, letting the flame flow out of him again and making the bandit's hand unclench, dropping her dagger and leaving them both without a blade.

I have her now. Velandryn pulled the arrow from his right arm, grimacing at the pain. The bandit was reeling back, scuttling away from him. He focused his magicka on his bleeding arm, and called forth the most basic incantation of the school of restoration. His flesh knitted, and the pain lessened. He would hurt like Oblivion tomorrow, but now he had two good arms. He glanced back to where the others dueled. The stalemate was holding, but now Velandryn had the edge. He grabbed the bow from his back and drew an arrow. He was no archer of renown, but the big Nord with the two hander was no challenging shot either.

The arrow punched through the light armor, and the bandit staggered. That was all the opening that Hadvar needed. His shield slammed into the big Nord, and Velandryn saw the point of the Legionary's sword emerge from the bandit's back. As he slumped to the ground, Hadvar looked up, and met Velandryn's eyes. His lips curled into a small smile, and Velandryn nocked another arrow, aiming at the bandit in armor facing Ralof. Hadvar grinned fully, and moved to flank the armored foe.

Velandryn's arrow failed to pierce the thick iron armor, or even stagger his target. However, it was enough to draw his focus, and once Hadvar closed, the thick armor did little good. Against two skilled foes, nothing short of exceptional skill could prevail. As Velandryn watched the bandit's guard crumble and his allies begin to overwhelm him, a noise from behind drew his attention.

Behind him, the final bandit had found her feet. Both her arms were badly burned, but either magic or sheer will gave her hands new strength. In her left she held her dagger. Her right held Velandryn's sword. She was mere feet in front of him, he could never draw and loose in time. He dropped the bow. All or nothing. One last strike. The bandit moved slowly, clearly pained, but her gaze was steady and her steps sure. The dagger guarded, and the sword drew back.

Magicka was the essence of Aetherius, Velandryn had been taught. It flowed into their world through Magnus the Architect who was the Sun and the Magna Ge who were his stars. It infused every living being, and was the raw material from which all feats of magic pulled. To do what he would attempt, he would be drained dry. If he took a wound, it would remain. He inhaled. One more step. She raised her foot and brought it down heavily. Now.

Velandryn Savani erupted. His clothes and hair were buffeted by the magicka as it fled his body, and the air around him shrieked as the magicka combusted, roaring outward in a torrent of flame, red and blue and white. He lunged forward, and a battle cry rang out, from where he did not know. "Akkan suad'na vaet, Dunmer fi sholah zah!" Oh, from me. He looked into her eyes as he closed with her, as she swung the blades, as the dagger cut a line of pain into his ribs and he knocked the sword away. He saw her fear as her armor burnt and blackened, her determination as she brought the red-hot dagger up, and her panic as he grabbed her wrist once more. Then he saw something else, what he fancied might be despair, when he pulled the dagger out of her hand and drew it across her throat.

All at once it ended. His flames died out, and his energy went with it. Velandryn collapsed to the ground beside the corpse of his foe, spent. By the time the Nords had dispatched the final bandit and walked over to check on him, he had found his feet and was studying the dagger in his hands. The blade had cooled, but the leather wrappings on the grip were charred black. He looked at the Nords, then back down, at the blade and the woman he had killed. It was her or me. He knew he should feel something. Exalted in victory, or horrified at taking her life. But he didn't know how he felt. The Nords were watching him. Soldiers, they had killed time and time again no doubt. The dagger was still in his hands.

"A dagger has many uses." The voice of Hadvar, from yesterday. Many uses. Clean a bird, start a fire, or open a throat. The blade was dark and sharp, the leather strips burnt black. Crude iron, but it could kill. He didn't feel grief, or anger, right now. Skyrim was a harsh place, full of bandits, and dragons, and who knew what else.

But.

He had passed a night, even if miserable. He had slain a bandit, even if barely. He had saved his allies, and had a task before him.

The bandits had armor and weapons, and Velandryn had little of either. The idea of stripping the dead for their gear was repugnant, but he would not go into battle clothed in rags again. He turned to the Nords. "How far to Riverwood?"

"We can be there by nightfall, if we leave now." Clearly Ralof had no issues with looting the bodies. He had added the round iron shield to his arsenal, and was rifling through the armored bandit's pouches. Velandryn reluctantly pulled the bracers and chestpiece from the bandit he had slain. They fit poorly, but offered some warmth, and as long as he wore them over the rags he had on until he could clean or replace them, he could almost pretend that he was not wearing a corpse's armor. He cinched the belt around his waist, and dropped his sword through a loop. The dagger he slid into a sheath sown in to the belt. Topping off his arrows, he walked back to the camp. One of the sacks around the fire had a strap allowing it to be carried over a shoulder, and he filled it with food to carry, as well as a few trinkets that he could barter in Riverwood. He saw a book in the shadows and added it the bag. The Refugees. Hmm, something to read at least. Finally, he checked the chest the bandits had clearly been storing their loot in, opening the trivial lock with picks that were not six inches away. Did they lose they key? Or is this what passes for security among bandits? Either way, he found a few pieces of cheap jewelry and some furs, as well as a small purse filled with drake coins. At the very least, I will not arrive in Riverwood destitute. He rejoined his travelling companions.

"You ready to move on?" For once, Ralof had omitted the 'elf' at the end of his question.

"Let us go." Courtesy was a virtue, so taught Vivec.

I should be afraid, or guilty, or at the very least uneasy. Velandryn had killed the bandit, aided in the deaths of two more. They were n'wah, they had forfeited their claim to live by their actions. Velandryn knew why he felt no shame or guilt or sorrow. I fought for the innocent, even if they are not my people. The roads were safer, and the towns more secure. Velandryn Savani stepped back onto the road, to Riverwood and wherever he might eventually end up. I feel good. I feel… strong.

Notes:

Obviously, I am taking some liberties from vanilla gameplay for the purposes of telling a story that has some of the depth that I feel Skyrim lacks. When two options are presented, I adore exploring option C. The world of the Elder Scrolls is rich with stories both mundane and mythic, and I have been sitting on this one for some time. I make no promises as to quality or direction, except that I find a romance makes everything more interesting, and Serana is far and away the most engaging companion in the game. Take from that what you will. On languages: everything important will be intelligible, or made clear through context. Things like Velandryn's battle cry above will be translated at the bottom.

I am happy to answer any questions about intent with regard to story or character, or changes from canon, or even my own opinions about certain aspects of the Apocrypha. I don't promise I will agree with yours, but I am happy to listen and have my mind changed.

Chapter 2: Favors for Fools

Summary:

Riverwood, and the trials faced therein. Love letters, stolen heirlooms, and drunken lies.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

"I have never trusted the Dark Elves fully, despite the good work they have done in my hold. Oh, the ones who were born here, who have lived here all their lives, born of good families and who worship the Nine, they are almost all fine. But then there are the others, the ones who come from the east. They worship Daedra and bring trouble, starting fights in the taverns and bothering the local girls. The guards tell me some even run off to consort with brigands and cultists in the hills! And then they have the nerve to act as though we are the ones who need to accommodate their heathen ways! If they come here, they need to learn how to behave like decent folk."

Hameth the Warden, Jarl of Riften 3E 145-188, Personal Journal

Velandryn had to give the Nords credit, they knew how to name a town based on its most obvious features. There was a river, and a great abundance of wood as well. Houses stretched along the water, and the major industry of the town seemed to be the lumber mill on a small island in the center of the river. As he entered the town, trailing Hadvar and letting Ralof bring up the rear, he noticed two things. The first was that the afternoon light made even the simple wooden structures beautiful, and its play on the water was something to behold. The second was that there were no guards. In fact, the town was completely defenseless. He wondered if this region were so safe that it was unnecessary, or if some other factor was at play.

There was little activity, with only a few people out on the streets. The smithy was on the river, across from what seemed to be a general store, with an inn or tavern not too far away. In between were squeezed various houses and walkways, lending the whole a disorganized but not unpleasant air. Although night was falling, Velandryn noted with pleasure that the valley offered far warmer evenings than their previous night's camp had. He felt the weight of the items he had gathered on his journey so far, and made a decision.

"I am going to unload some of this, maybe get gear better suited for this climate. Are the two of you going to find your kin?"

Ralof nodded, and stepped to one side. "Aye, Gerdur will be glad to see me, I'm sure, and I've missed her cooking." He stretched and inhaled deeply. "You know, I've been across Skyrim now, and seen a hundred places I could never have imagined." His arms swept outward, and his expansive gesture seemed to encompass not just the buildings and people but the light, the air and the faint smell of sawdust and fresh water. "With all that I have seen, this is the finest place I have known. Not Windhelm, in the shadow of the stone kings, or any grand temple or lost vale, but this little town in the shadow of Snow-Throat." He turned to regard Hadvar. "I don't regret any of the choices I've made, but when all of this is over, I'm going to come back here and never leave again." He clapped each of them on the shoulder, and started away, when he suddenly stopped and turned back. "And elf, if you decide that you'd like to spit in the Emperor's eye, come to Windhelm." A huge smile broke out over his face. "You might be a scrawny little bastard with no aim and too clever a tongue, but I'd be glad to stand at your side when we take back our home." He strode away, Stormcloak colors rippling merrily in the breeze.

Hadvar sighed. "For all that he's on the wrong side of this war, he's not wrong on this. You'll be hard pressed to find a better place than Riverwood to live quietly."

Something the Stormcloak had said struck Velandryn as odd. "That parting, and the two of you hailing from here. Did you know each other?"

"Aye, we did, though we did not part well, the last time. He grew up here, and I came to learn from my uncle. Never took to smithing, would rather swing swords than forge them, but Ralof and I got on well. There were few enough boys my own age here, and we were…close, once. I joined the Legion, and he planned on it, but then Jarl Ulfric raised his banners, and it all went right to Oblivion." He looked sad. "Maybe when this damned war is over, I'll come back here and make things right." He started walking again, and Velandryn followed. "I'm going to go check in with Alvor. Come find me if you finish up first, if not I'll come grab you." Velandryn moved to go, but Hadvar held out his hand. "You may not like the Empire, but there are those in Skyrim who hold true. My family is loyal to the Ruby Throne and Jarl Elisif, so maybe lay the hate on light when in his house?"

Velandryn's mentors had taught him that rash action was a spark in dry kindling. No matter how small, it could flare out of control, and consume far more than was ever intended. So it was with his rage. He had offended this Imperial, and were Hadvar less fair, it could well have poisoned the uncle against him as well. He frowned and folded his hands across his chest, left above right. He had no idea if humans used this gesture, but it was the only one he knew to indicate contrite sincerity. "I spoke harshly and without thought. I was raised to think of the Empire as an uncaring power that abandoned my people, and took that out on you, when you have done nothing but help me." He took a deep breath. This would not be easy. "I…believe I owe you my life for Helgen. You guided me through the fire and devastation, and cut my hands free. I am in your debt, and beg you forgive my ingratitude." He waited for the Nord's response.

Hadvar laughed, and Velandryn was shocked. He had expected triumph, or scorn, but not humor. "You nearly burned alive after we tried to cut your head off! I can forgive some harsh words, and I promise you this." He grew serious, and Velandryn was struck again by how badly he had misjudged this man. "I will not forget that the Empire has wronged both you and your people. I don't claim to know all of the facts, but you stopped me and Ralof from gutting each other in Helgen Keep, and I remember an arrow that let me land the killing blow on a bandit who was after my life. We are even, and the only thing I plan to tell Alvor is that you are a good man – ah, I mean elf, and he should give you anything you need." He clapped Velandryn on the shoulder as Ralof had. "I will speak with you soon. Finish your business quickly, and we will feast at the Sleeping Giant. Delphine keeps a fine table, and I am starved for warm bread and stew!" With that he was gone, and Velandryn turned to the general store, also ready to sit down with a meal that he had neither hunted himself nor taken from a bandit's stash.

As he approached the door, a voice sounded, "Ah, friend, a moment?" Velandryn idly wondered if he would ever reach the shop, but he still turned to greet whoever this might be. After all, he knew exactly two people in Skyrim. He could hardly afford to be rude.

It was a Nord that had hailed him, now standing awkwardly clearly wanting to ask something. "Ah, you're new in town, aren't you? I'm Sven, it's a pleasure. Are you just passing through?"

"I might stay a day or so, rest and buy supplies, but I will be on my way soon enough. Why?"

"If you could give this letter to the woman inside the shop, I would appreciate it."

"Let me guess. A letter of love, wooing the fair shop maid?"

The Nord laughed, an easy, pleasant sound. "Oh no, Camilla likes me well, and I've no need to win her love." He lowered his voice, and leaned in with the conspiratorial smirk of one who thinks themselves exceptionally clever. "However, there's a miserable little Wood Elf named Faendal who's nosing around her as well. This letter is 'from him' if you take my meaning, and should put an end to any notion of the two of them having a future together!"

Velandryn was mildly amused by this plan. In terms of lies told to get someone into bed, this stank of amateur foolishness. He personally disapproved of deception as a tool of seduction, feeling that it did a disservice to everyone involved. However, two decades of study at the Temple meant that he had seen his fellow acolytes engage in furious sexual subterfuge of every type, and this letter was a ploy so clumsy it begged for his involvement.

"Done. It will be in her hand by nightfall." He took the letter from Sven, and turned back to the shop.

"Hold on. Why nightfall? Just give it to her now." Sven was out of his element, clearly, and Velandryn could see that even a little confidence would allow him to dictate the terms of this con.

"Do you want this done right? A complete stranger walks into her shop and hands her a letter; that is no way to go about this. I meet her first, then I bring the news later, as a concerned acquaintance." If he was going to participate in this silly game, it would be on his terms.

"Well, you seem to know what you're doing at least, so I suppose I can leave this to you…" The Nord smiled again, though Velandryn fancied that this time he appeared the tiniest bit nervous. Has he realized how foolhardy this is? "Best of luck, friend!" No, clearly not.

The Riverwood Trader was rather small, as befit the town, but clean and clearly well cared for. As Velandryn entered, two humans were arguing with each other from either side of the store counter. Both Imperial by look and accent; the one behind the counter was likely the proprietor, while the other was clearly some sort of kin. She was young-looking, though Velandryn had always had trouble determining the age of humans, and attractive enough, he supposed. More than likely this was the Camilla who Sven had spoken of. Velandryn managed to overhear something about a theft. It seemed the woman was in favor of retrieving the goods, and the man was not. They stopped their talking as the door swung shut behind him.

"Welcome to the Riverwood Trader, my friend! Sorry you had to hear that, but what can I do for you today?" The man, at least, was more interested in bartering than continuing the argument. Velandryn was happy to oblige him. He divested himself of his pack and began to rifle through it, deciding what to sell. He settled on everything he had gathered save a couple of potions, various plants whose alchemical properties he wanted to investigate, the book he had not yet had a chance to read and a few tools, such as lockpicks and some strips of leather, that he felt were worth holding on to. As he was doing this, his curiosity got the better of him, and he asked about what he had overheard.

It turned out that the man's name was Lucan Valerius, and an artifact in the shape of a golden claw had been stolen from his shop early this morning. The thieves had taken nothing else. Here Camilla cut in.

"What my brother is not telling you is that I know where they are. I heard one of them mention Bleak Falls, an old ruin to the west of town. I know where it is, and can go –"

"No! Out of the question! I will not have you gallivanting off –"

"Lucan, it's only a few hours away—"

"I will not have my sister—"

Velandryn had an odd feeling, as he knew what he was about to say, even if the why escaped him. "I could go get that claw for you. I leave tomorrow morning, and am back as soon as I am done. The claw is in your hand before dusk."

Both of the Valerius siblings seemed taken aback. Camilla was the first to recover, turning on her brother with a triumphant look. "You see brother? He will do it, even if you will not let me go." She turned to Velandryn. "Come back here tomorrow, and I will take you there."

"No, no! You are not going, and that is final!"

"Well then, brother," and here her voice took on an air of deceptive sweetness, "I can at least show our brave adventurer to the edge of town? Or are you afraid I will run off with him rather than stay here with you?"

"Fine, fine." He sighed, and turned back to Velandryn. "Come by tomorrow, and she'll get you on your way. We open before dawn, so don't worry about the hour. I have some gold left over from my last shipment, once the claw is back it is yours."

Velandryn was still processing the fact that he had agreed to go to some place with the name of Bleak Falls and deal with a pack of thieves. He had acted rashly again, caught up in the human's frantic pace. This was rash action, but it was also correct and righteous action, and so he would uphold his duty. Besides, the goodwill of the town merchant would go a long way towards making his transactions more profitable. On that note, he realized that it was probably a good idea to press his advantage here.

"Exactly how much gold are you offering? I am curious how much you think me risking my life is worth." Velandryn had spent time with acolytes who hailed from the old House Hlaalu families, as well as several merchants from the Cauldron Hold. He knew how to press for a bargain, and wondered how much coin he could get for this insane errand.

Lucan seemed to be doing a similar calculation. "I can offer you three hundred septims when you return. That's more than fair for a day's work."

"Most day's work do not involve tracking down bandits. I offer a counter. I will take the three hundred upon my return, and you purchase these," his wave indicated the goods he had stacked on the table, possibly worth one hundred drakes if one was being generous, "for one hundred and fifty drakes now. In addition, I want a warm cloak, for which I will trade this," he shuffled off the Imperial cape he still wore, despite its threadbare and battleworn condition. Another thought struck him "Also, I want a small handful of red clay and a bowl of shalk resin."

Lucan looked thoughtful. "Done. Camilla, go grab the brown linen cloak that's behind the stairs. You can make do with that one. Not fancy, but warm, and up on the peak you might be grateful for that." He began moving the loot off of the table, and slid a purse towards Velandryn. "Word of advice. Call them septims, not drakes. We love Tiber Septim here, and using his name might make some people look on you a bit more favorably." He paused, and Velandryn narrowed his eyes, thinking. Honestly, it was something that had never occurred to him. In Morrowind, a single coin might be a septim if it bore an Emperor's profile, but any sum was always in drakes. Lucan continued, "The clay I can get from my stores, but I'm not sure about the resin. I might be able to scrounge some up by closing time. Strange items for a traveler though; why do you want them?"

"You might see tomorrow. I will be back for them around nightfall." He accepted the cloak from Camilla. "My thanks. I will speak with you soon." He was anxious to speak with the smith and Hadvar. If he was going off to do this madness he had agreed to, he would need to drag the Imperial along.

Upon leaving the trader, Velandryn saw Hadvar walking down the street with a heavyset bearded man who could only be the smith. "Ah, Velandryn, this is my uncle Alvor, the town smith. I have explained what happened, and he's agreed to help as he can."

"I am overjoyed to hear it." This could well be the most useful person he had met thus far. He approached the smith and held out his hand in the human style. "I am Velandryn Savani. May the Three—may the Eight bless you."

The big smith clasped his forearm and grinned. "Not too bad a grip for such a small elf. I am Alvor." He lowered his voice. "We should talk at my forge. This news is," he seemed to be searching for terms to describe it and failing "something else, and I don't want to go causing a panic."

As they returned to the smithy, Velandryn explained the situation he had found at the trader's to Hadvar. To his surprise, Hadvar shook his head, looking apologetic. "I must be on my way, friend. My road takes me to Falkreath, to report to the Legate commanding the garrison there. I must bring what word I can to Imperial forces, and seek new orders, now that the Helgen garrison has been demolished."

Velandryn was taken aback. He had honestly expected the soldier's help, but more than that he was not pleased by the news that they would be parting ways. It was a troubling realization that he would miss the big, reliable Nord. "When are you off? Surely you do not plan to travel by night?"

"No, I will overnight at the inn, and leave at first light. By the sound of it, you will be doing the same."

Alvor grunted apologetically. "I will tell you the same as I told Hadvar. I have no room in my home for travelers, but Delphine is a good woman, and will give you good rates I am sure. She's fair besides, and won't charge you more than she would a Nord."

Velandryn was mildly amused. "They do that here? In Morrowind, if they do not like your look, they simply kick you out." Sometimes with a few extra knives in them, if the unwelcome guest had the misfortune to be particularly obnoxious or excessively Argonian, but there was no need to tell them that. "At the cheaper places, that is."

They had arrived at the smithy, and as they huddled around the forge, they were able to talk unobserved. He heard Velandryn's account, though it likely did not differ much from Hadvar's, and offered him his choice of the weapons and armor the smith had available. Velandryn gratefully accepted a set of hide and fur cuirass, greaves, gloves and boots, while Alvor apologized for having no refined leather ready to work.

For Velandryn, who was simply eager to get out of his dead man's garb, it was little problem. He did keep the burned and blackened bracers the archer had worn, as a keepsake of his victory. The rest went onto Alvor's table, where the smith assured them it would be turned to leather scrap, and be put to use to make good honest tools for Riverwood.

As Velandryn pulled off his cuirass, he had a thought. I should have gotten new clothes from the trader as well. I am a fool. He was still wearing his prisoner's rags, which hardly inspired confidence in those he spoke to. Frankly, given how he had looked when he entered town dressed in rags with bandit armor, armed with two blades and a bow, it was extraordinary that Sven had chosen to talk to him at all. I certainly wouldn't have trusted me with anything. Although, that could explain why Lucan had been so ready to let him go march off and die. Send a bandit to deal with thieves? Smart.

His new armor, while not of glamorous make, at least made him appear more a legitimate hunter than a bandit. Hadvar had left to find the inn and a tankard of some drink, so Velandryn was left with the smith. As Velandryn turned to leave as well, the smith called out. "Hold friend, a request."

"Yes? You've helped me more than I can repay, so I will gladly returned the favor as best I can."

"Oh, it's nothing as dire as all of that. I want you to bring word of Helgen to Whiterun. Jarl Balgruuf hasn't taken a side in the war, so neither Empire not Stormcloaks patrol here. We have to look out for ourselves, and he needs to know that there could be a dragon in his hold." He looked down for a moment. "It sounds so mad when I say it. A dragon! Here, in this age! They're supposed to be something out of the stories, for the great Tongues and heroes to slay." He made as if to wave Velandryn off, and then thought better of it. Waving him over, the smith pulled out a set of matched shortsword and dagger, of good steel rather than the old iron Velandryn was currently carrying. "Here. If you're going to be doing this for me, the least I can do is give you these. They're damn good blades, and they'll serve you well."

Velandryn swapped them out for his own gratefully. Buckling them on, he handed over the iron sword, but kept the dagger, as he had grown fond of the flame-scorched grip. "My thanks, truly." He bid the blacksmith farewell and was gone. One final task and then I can get off of my feet.

Velandryn found the 'wretched little Wood Elf named Faendal' easily enough, once he started looking. There were few enough mer in Skyrim to start with, and the Bosmer was the first of his race that Velandryn had seen since arriving in Riverwood. When he responded with a smile at hearing his name rather than annoyance or confusion at being mistaken for someone else, Velandryn knew he had his man.

"Faendal? I have something you might be interested in." He handed over Sven's letter. "I have agreed to give this to Camilla Valerius, but if you would like me to tell her who truly penned it…"

Faendal understood immediately. "Sven put you up to this, didn't he? That lout thinks that just because I'm an elf, he's better suited for her. Ha! Well, brother, we showed him! But I have a better idea…" the Bosmer's face contorted into the same satisfied smirk that Sven's had worn. Dagon's burning breath, he's going to suggest the same thing! "Or, with a single sentence I can convince Camilla not to ever look at Sven again!" He thrust Sven's letter back into Velandryn's hand, and vanished into what he assumed was the Bosmer's home. By the Triune and the Corners, this is madness!

Less than a minute had elapsed when Faendal emerged again, clasping a folded piece of parchment. "Here. Give this to Camilla, let her know Sven wrote it. My thanks again, brother. We elves stand together, eh?" He waved jauntily and departed, leaving Velandryn feeling more than a little bemused. I bring you this letter to let you make this deception right, and you expect me to carry more lies to Camilla? He slipped both letters into a pouch on his belt, and made his way back towards the main street and the inn. He needed a drink.

"Sorry, we don't have sujamma or greef. I have mead from Honningbrew and some from Falkreath, six types of wine in the cellar, and more ale than you could drink in a year. Also some brandy, should you care for something more akin to those Dunmer drinks." Delphine was exactly as the blacksmith had described her, a no-nonsense woman who nonetheless greeted him politely and offered him food, drink and a room for the night for thirty drakes. It was more than a Temple wayhouse would have charged, but less than a cornerclub in Mournhold or Blacklight, and Velandryn called it fair. The inn itself was clean and spacious, and when Velandryn asked to use the alchemical apparatuses against the wall, she agreed on the condition that he clean up after himself. However, her lack of any decent alcohol was disappointing. He finally settled on a brandy that could possibly be mistaken for a Morrowind comberry vintage by someone who had lost their sense of smell and taste, and never set foot within a thousand miles of the Dunmer homeland. He planned to pass an hour or two playing around with the various plants he had found on the road to Riverwood. His unfortunate experience the night before had rekindled an old interest in alchemy, and he wanted to try to actually apply his theoretical knowledge; a proper potion that dulled the cold could come in very handy here.

Drink in hand, Velandryn made his way over to the alchemy bench, and unloaded the ingredients he had gathered. First up was some sort of mountain flower, purple in color, which should, when submerged in boiling water and sustained by a flow of magicka, impart its most basic alchemical qualities into the magically infused water. In theory, at least, this would allow him to learn what properties the plant contained. Conversely, there was a chance that the ingredient would react violently and consume itself in a burst of chaotic magical overload. A few months of lectures fifteen years ago was far from the most comprehensive knowledge base, and he hoped dearly that his memory was accurate on this point. In fact, the flower had been chosen as the first test because he was fairly certain that it would not do anything too drastic if misapplied. Probably.

As the flower failed to react in any way, Velandryn briefly considered just eating it and seeing what would happen. While his earlier experiment had not gone too well, it was unlikely that any quality possessed by such common plants could harm him significantly. Given that he was in a well-heated inn, he was likely safe. As he was debating, the flower emitted a magical signature that felt vaguely like rest, perhaps relating to physical rejuvenation, and he decided that should he be unable to ascertain any qualities through this method, he would try giving it a nibble when he was safely in his room tonight. It would not do to look a fool in front of a room full of Nords. Likewise, he could not ask for help, as the thought of exposing his ignorance of this craft was intolerable.

"Well now, working hard already!" Hadvar had likely not been quiet in his approach, but this extraction took no small concentration, and so Velandryn had not heard him approach. He tried to conceal his surprise, and turned to regard the Imperial. He had a full mug of some foaming nut-brown liquid, and looked very pleased with himself, as well as more than a little drunk. "V'lendryn my friend, we must share a story! We slew bandits and escaped a dragon, and we deserve a damn drink for that!" He grabbed the Dunmer and steered him to the table.

Velandryn, to his own surprise, was not opposed to this idea, though the timing was less than ideal. "I will be back here at dusk, Hadvar. There are still things I need to do before sunset." There was no chance he would have time to properly analyze all of these reagents before returning to the traders, and after that he would be engaged in drinking with a Nord, which could only end badly. It seemed that he would either need to go the tried-and-true method of consuming these ingredients while wholly ignorant of their effect, or else ask one of the locals for their insight. He honestly could not decide which one was more unpalatable. He deposited his pack in his room, and pushed the door open, thankful for his heavier cloak against the chill in the air as the sun went down. I must find a potion that works tonight. This chill could become dangerous if I do not.

The Riverwood Trader was quiet, a single Nord leaving with a pack under her arm as Velandryn returned. Lucan greeted him instantly upon his arrival, beaming with joy. "I found it! Shalk resin from Morrowind!" He held out a wooden box, which Velandryn opened to find a small clump of tan material. He prodded it experimentally. It was as hard as a rock.

"Out of curiosity, how long have you had this?" He would need to treat it all night for it to be usable.

"I have no idea. I remember seeing it two years ago, right after we arrived. It's possible I brought it with me from Cyrodiil, or in one of my initial shipments. Really, you should thank Camilla for finding it. She was the one who went through the boxes."

Velandryn glanced at her, and she bowed her head. "It was nothing, since it will help you tomorrow, I trust."

"It will, though perhaps not as directly as you might have hoped. I am glad you found this, though. And the clay?"

"Oh, yes, of course. Here you are." The lump of clay was fresh and soft, perfect for use. Velandryn put it in the box alongside the resin.

"Well, I will see you tomorrow. Do try and keep the claw unharmed. It has great value to me. Purely for sentimental reasons, of course. Worthless to anyone else." Velandryn indicated assent, and was turning to go, when he suddenly remembered.

"Camilla, could I speak with you for a moment? Someplace…." He glanced at Lucan "private?"

"Of course." She led him upstairs, stopping at the top of the stairs and turning to face him, one step below her. Clever. Gives her the advantage psychologically as well as physically. "Well? What is it you want?"

"I have two letters for you, from Faendal and Sven." Deception is the cruelest form of warfare, to be used against the foes' hearth and never your own, so teaches Mephala. "Each was insistent that you read his, and each was certain he would win your heart." Through Revelation may we undo Wrong-Action and turn it right, so teaches Boethiah. "I agreed to give them to you, and I have done so." The light of Truth dispels the comforts of our minds, and may be unwelcome, so teaches Azura. "Read them, and decide how you wish to proceed."

She was reading both letters, and looked as though she did not relish what she had read. Velandryn had glanced over them both, and knew that either would have easily turned her against the purported sender. Both at once? He would be interested to see her reaction.

She looked down at him. Her eyes glistened, and when she spoke her voice was uneven. "Can you go? I need to…I will see you tomorrow, give you directions…"

As he descended the stairs, Velandryn heard a faint "Thank you" from behind him. He exited to the street, and returned to the Sleeping Giant Inn, walking slowly and taking in the sunset while thinking about what it meant to lie, and to be in love. Lies he knew well, but he did not think he had ever been in love. From all that they say of it, if I was, shouldn't I know?

When he pushed open the door to the inn, it was to find the common hall a warm and glowing room full of townsfolk laughing and drinking. Sven was playing some tune on a lute, and Faendal was talking in low tones with a pair of Redguard hunters in patched leathers. Sven gave him a conspiratorial smile, and Faendal a subtle nod as he walked by. He found Hadvar entertaining a group of men and women with a fanciful recreation of their journey from Helgen to Riverwood. Velandryn was amused to hear Ralof's role in the bandit fight excised completely, and apparently Velandryn had actually been a Dunmer spellsword who struck down a bandit with a single bowshot and then turned an archer to ash with a wave of his hand. Perhaps outrageous lies while drunk are a cherished Skyrim tradition. He sat down, and let the warmth and camaraderie envelop him.

Some hours later, a rather drunker Velandryn Savani staggered into his room and collapse onto the bed. Oh, gods, Nords can drink. The other non-Nords had either paced themselves or grown accustomed to the ludicrous amounts of alcohol imbibed, as most of them were able to leave upright when they chose to do so. Hadvar himself had still been out there when Velandryn left, entertaining the remaining patrons while Delphine kept their drinks filled and purses light. Ralof had been right, he noticed. While someone was boasting of your heroic deeds, you didn't pay for anything. Hadvar as the boisterous Nord and Velandryn as the stoic and mysterious Dunmer seemed to work well enough for those buying. At first his silence had been because he didn't feel comfortable talking to the Nords. Several drinks in, it had been to hide his drunkenness. Either way, he hoped he had not embarrassed himself. I overcame my dislike of speaking to crowds long ago, but it seems that an audience of my fellow acolytes does not impact me as deeply as does one of drunken Nords. As he was pulling off his boots, he remembered that he still had to work on a potion, as well as treat the resin for the morrow. The potions can get blighted, I need to sleep. The resin though, I can set that to soak.

Delphine gave him the empty porcelain bowl that he asked for, but she wanted to know why. He showed her the chunk of shalk resin, and explained that it was completely unworkable in its current state. Her lips pursed. "Half an answer might be better than none, but if you are sleeping in my inn, I want the whole of it. What are you making beneath my roof?" When he told her, she replied that she would happily give him whatever he needed, provided he show her when it was complete. This he promised gladly, and returned to his room, bringing a wedge of hard cheese and a bottle of near-boiling water with him.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he put the bowl on the bedside table, poured some of the water into it, and submerged the shalk resin. Holding his hand over it, he took the steel dagger from its sheath, and passed his hand across it, letting flame purify the blade. Flame from below, flame from within. The blade bit deep into the skin of his palm, and the blood flowed forth, splashing onto the resin, which drank it in greedily. Blood of the Chimer, spilled on Resdayn, become the Dunmer, chosen of the gods. When enough of his blood had spilled that the water had turned a swirling red, he let his healing magic flow forth, closing the wound. Fatigue hit him from his use of magicka, and he tucked into the cheese, occasionally taking a swig of the water as well. What kind of inn doesn't even have guar milk? Savages. By the time he was done eating, the resin had absorbed all of the blood, and taken on a bloated, reddish look. He upended the rest of his water into the bowl, and tossed the clay in as well. Finally, he cupped the bowl in his hands and let his magicka flow into it. The concoction bubbled and roiled, before calming. It would have to do for now. On the morrow, he could see what he had wrought.

Velandryn Savani slept better his second night in Skyrim than his first. He was warm with a full belly and the buzz of alcohol in his brain. When he woke, he felt good, better than he had since Helgen. A look out his window told him that the sun was not quite risen, and as he dressed, he checked his handwork from the night before. The resin and clay had molded into a thick paste that stuck to his fingers as he checked it. Perfect. He took the bowl with him when he left, heading out to the river with his armor under his arm. Still in prisoner's rags. Perhaps I buy a tunic and some pants, if Camilla will speak to me after yesterday. He had not seen her last night, though her brother had stopped by and mentioned that she was closed up in her room, feeling unwell. Velandryn wished it had been different. She suffered a wrong, and I am the bearer of it, if not the cause.

Leaving the inn, he found Hadvar geared up and ready to depart. The Legionary was deep in negotiation with one of the carriage drivers who plied the roads between cities, but drew up and saluted, clenched fist over heart, when he saw Velandryn. The Dunmer looked for some trace of mockery in the crisp gesture, but saw none. He returned the salute, and turned towards the general store. A good man, and one I am glad to have met. May his cause be true and his victories many.

The bitter cold of the air was unpleasant, and reminded Velandryn that he had not solved the issue of a potion to combat the cold. Cursing his drunken weakness the night before, he resolved to ask Lucan or Camilla, assuming he could not simply buy some potion or amulet to ward off the chill. An amulet might be wise, though no doubt pricey. I should have made that part of my deal.

Despite Lucan's words, the general store was still closed when he passed it. He took the first path towards the river, and came upon it suddenly, the narrow walkway between houses taking a sharp turn and opening up, revealing a small embankment at the river's edge. Sitting on a tree stump was Camilla Valerius, looking over the river with a distracted expression. He turned to find another spot, not wishing to intrude, but she looked up and fixed him with red-rimmed, bagged eyes.

"Master Savani, isn't it? I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I'm not ready to take you to Bleak Falls just yet." Her voice was half-broken, and her hands trembled on her skirts.

"It is fine, truly, and I should be the one apologizing." He had acted from a place of righteous indignation and considered his choices correct, but seeing her face lined with grief and lack of sleep, spurred him to defend his actions to himself as much as her. "I probably ruined your evening and these romances, and then I intrude on you here. I should— I'll go, and…I'm sorry." He was no longer certain, looking at her stricken face, that the sermons and parables of the Temple were as true a guide as he had thought.

She spoke over him as he was leaving, her words rooting him in place. "When we arrived in Riverwood, Sven was the first to greet us. He helped us unload the carriage, and told me that the town would be the better for my being here. Faendal brought me choice cuts of meat, and told me about the amazing things he would see while hunting. Sven sings songs of the great heroes of the past, and makes them come alive." She sighed. "I want more than to be a shopkeeper's sister all of my life. They were caring and kind and adventurous, and even if they fought with each other, it was nice to be desired. But this? They lied to me! Each tried to make me think the other was awful, and so cruelly! It was easy to see through when I read both letters, but I didn't want to believe." She looked back at him. "I blamed you at first. I thought it was some cruel Dark Elf jape you were inflicting on me. But how could you know my fears about each of them? It had to be them, much as I don't want it to be. Just tell me one thing. Why?"

"They love you, both of them, and tried to remove the other from your affections. However, lies are a tool of warfare, and while lies to destroy a rival in love I can understand, to make you the victim of these lies is cruel, and I could not let it happen. My people have a…long history with lies told from a place of love. And sometimes, to undo one liar, you must use deception yourself."

"That makes absolutely no sense, and what do you mean your people? Do you expect me to believe that Dark Elves have some special relationship with the truth –"

Velandryn cut her off. "My people have suffered more than you can imagine from the lies of those who claimed to love us. Thrice the Dunmer have been deceived, and three times were we saved by divine truth. Lies told for love are nothing more than chains to bind shut your eyes. Those who tell you falsehoods while claiming to love you wish you immobile and restrained, living in a cage that they may control you. It is vile, and I shall not stand for it."

She nodded. "Tell me this, then. How did it happen? Did you put them up to this, or was it some coincidence?"

"Sven approached me first, and I went to Faendal to let him set things right. I would not have intervened had he not attempted exactly the same ruse. They were both liars, and so I was the only one who could give you the truth."

Her response was not long in coming. "Thank you, I think." She was still clearly upset, but her abject distress had gone, leaving with it an air of resigned suffering. "They are both good men, for all of this."

"I do not doubt it. Let them prove themselves to you again, if you wish." He stooped down at the edge of the river, and brought forth the bowl of thick paste and his fur and hide chestpiece as Camilla looked on in interest.

"This is what you wanted the clay and resin for?"

"Aye." He put two fingers into the paste, and began to draw on the right side of his armor, which would sit over his heart. A stylized hand, four fingers outstretched upward together, thumb beside them. The paste was a rich dark red on the dull brown of the armor as Velandryn applied the first coat. It behaved much like paint, but as it dried it seemed to sink into the armor like a dye, with only the rougher texture and different color showing where it had been applied.

"Is it some sort of decoration?" Camilla was watching him work, eyes glued to his hand as it etched the painstaking lines. A mistake would be unfortunate, as a specialized reagent was required to remove the oath-dye, and he did not have the knowledge required to make it. In truth, he had made this batch hastily, while drunk no less, and was not certain how it would behave. Hopefully, it would mark him well enough until he had time to get better armor and prepare a proper batch. "Or is it war-paint?"

"In a way." He finished the first coat and sat back, observing his handiwork. It was clearly hand-drawn, but the lines were clear and the color strong. "It will serve."

"So what does it mean? Is it some symbol of your clan or family?"

"It is a symbol of my people, and my devotion. It is Ghartok, the Hand." He began to apply a second coat.

"Ghartok? Is that a Dark Elf word for hand?"

"It is Ehlnofex, the first language. And it does not just mean hand, it is Hand. Ghartok is the hand that is a weapon, the part of yourself that becomes your servant when you are ready to do violence. Nerevar the Godkiller used it as his standard, and the Tribunal after him, though it has since been worn by many who follow the Great Council." He looked at Camilla, who still appeared confused.

"So, why are you putting it on your armor? Is this because you are going into battle? Are you some sort of religious warrior? Wait, I thought your Tribunal was those living gods who went and died hundreds of years ago."

"They are gone. Their names remain, and some choose to worship them. I do not, but I respect their legacy, and their work to defend the Dunmer."

"But why are you putting it on your armor?"

Velandryn had been hoping she wouldn't notice that he hadn't answered that part. It was a little embarrassing, after all. "Your people…don't like mine. Imperials are fine, for the most part, but by and large Nords have no use for me. I had the idea yesterday, when I entered Riverwood, and found myself surrounded by humans. I mark my armor like this, and I am adorned with a universal symbol of my people, of our devotion to law and the defense of our home. I am victorious, and the Dunmer have victory. I die, and I have died on the path of righteousness. It brings peace to me, I suppose."

She had a strange look in her eyes now, one he couldn't place. Humans could be difficult to read; their eyes gave away nothing and it was their faces that moved. He had finished the second coat, and cleaned his hands in the river before beginning the final layer. She was silent as he worked, and soon enough it was done.

He slid the armor over his head, and laced it up as Camilla watched. "Is it another symbol of the Dark—the Dunmer to wear those rags instead of clothing?"

"It is a symbol of the fact that I was wearing these rags, have yet to change out of them, and keep forgetting to buy new clothes." He should have been self-conscious, but he was past caring. "Now, show me where these bandits are, and I will go do something exceedingly unwise."

She led him up the road, pointing out buildings of interest, but stopped while looking at the mill. "Lucan said he heard a story last night at the inn that you and the Imperial soldier saw a dragon. Is that true?"

"Saw? If I saw everything like I saw that dragon, I would be dead three thousand times over. It burned Helgen to ash around us, scattered an Imperial garrison, sent a pack of Thalmor into full retreat, and likely sent rumor flying across Tamriel. I'm honestly shocked that nobody brought word to Riverwood before us."

"Oh, Sven's mother claimed she saw it, but it's not that surprising that nobody came through here. We're not the most direct route to anywhere. Helgen was a military town first, and the Imperial forces mostly stay out of Whiterun Hold. We're neutral, so they don't want to cause an incident. Stormcloaks for the same reason. Both sides are trying to convince us to join them, so they stay out. And Thalmor aren't welcome at all. We might not be in rebellion, but we know that those damned elves are to blame for it." She realized who she was talking to. "Oh, I mean, ah, sorry."

Velandryn waved her apology away. "The Thalmor hate my people even more than yours, I think. I ran into some of them down in Cyrodiil, and learned that while they may not care overmuch for men, they despise Dunmer. It makes sense though, as we killed one of their gods when we left, and they are nothing if not traditionalists. Also, they might be upset about the part where the Tribunal gave Tiber Septim a walking god to crush their nation." He shrugged. "You won't hear me complain about insulting them."

They walked on, and finally came to the covered bridge that crossed the White River. She led him across it, and began giving him directions to the barrow. He thought he had the path well enough, and, before going, decided that he could risk asking one last question. When he did, she smiled.

"To resist the cold? Try the purple mountain flowers, plus snowberries or thistle branch. They should serve you well. I know that if I ever go up into the mountains, I bring a few with me. Here, take these." She pressed a few homemade potions into his hands.

"Thank you again. Now, I should be going. The sun is rising, and I have a bandit clan to contend with." This is still a terrible idea, but I feel a little more prepared than I did last night. And with that, he was off, over the river and up the path, to fight or bargain with thieves or bandits and whatever other horrors dwelt in an old Nordic burial hall. How bad could it be? Unfortunately, he was fairly certain that the answer was very.

Notes:

Note on alchemy: I have made it decidedly trickier, inspired in part by Morrowind, where low skill could just lose a potion even if the correct ingredients were used. I like alchemy, alteration and illusion, and think they are powerful aspects that get short shrift, so I will try to give them all some time to shine.

Chapter 3: Into the Dark

Summary:

Bleak Falls Barrow, and rewards for heroism

Chapter Text

"This is all your fetching fault, you know. I should have been on my way to Whiterun by now, but you had to go and be clever."

The Dunmer's only reply was to grin back at him. He sighed, and added some more wood to the fire.

"We're supposed to be better than this. I'm measuring every word I say, trying not to let them see that I don't have a gods-damned clue what I'm doing, and you go and get me involved in this…this idiot scheme of yours. It's a disgrace, and so are you, you blighted four-cornered fetcher!"

Cursing at the thief made him feel better. Clearly the Dunmer didn't mind, he just kept grinning. The fire had blazed up well, the old wood and dry corpses burning merrily.

"I was supposed to be in and out. Get supplies from the blacksmith, let the Nords know a dragon is incinerating their towns, and be on my way. You fetching s'wit."

The tower was perched on the edge of the mountain, overlooking Riverwood far below. Jutting out from the slope, it had only one approach, a bridge leading off from the path up the mountain to Bleak Falls Barrow. Velandryn had been watching it for a few minutes now, and while it was clearly not any sort of headquarters or place of import, if they saw him going up the path they could easily make his life very unpleasant. There did not appear to be more than three or four in there, but even one of these bandits would be more than a match for him in a fair fight. However, there was a chance it wouldn't have to come to that.

Velandryn approached the bandit at the near side of the bridge slowly, hands raised in what he hoped was a nonthreatening posture. "Greetings, I was –"

Immediately the bandit drew her axe and shield, and made a menacing gesture. "Stay back unless you want to die!"

Velandryn had hoped that he could negotiate with them for information, or perhaps even use them to gain access to Bleak Falls itself. Unfortunately, it seemed that he would be unable to talk with them, if this angry Nord was any indication. As they were unlikely to be impressed by his extensive knowledge of Dunmer history and theology, his list of possible solutions was somewhat narrowed. Sneaking past was unlikely to work, and the alternatives…

Velandryn beat a hasty retreat down the path, far enough that the bandit was content to remain at her post and watch him go. Behind her, another bandit emerged, and stood beside the first. He had a bow, ready to cut him down should he return. Now that there were two, the beginning of an idea took root. He prepared the spell, letting his magicka pool first in his mind, focusing and concentrating the raw energy. To do this properly, he would need to succeed where he had often failed. I am in control. Now, and forever more. Rage cannot use me, I am in control.

His first mentor had cautioned him from the start. "You have potential, but you are too easily distracted. Your blood boils, and you lose control. Rule your rage, be in control, and when you master yourself, you will master the world."

Rule my rage. It was his, honed and sharpened through the years. He had learned to leash it, but it was always there, ready to be let loose. I have control. He channeled that rage into his magicka, and thrust out his hand towards the axe-wielding bandit.

It was said that there were two ways to master a spell, to comprehend its workings and impose them on the world, or to have an instinctual connection with a particular effect and manifest it through magical potential. For Velandryn, he had always enjoyed study, but his greatest strength was those spells that channeled some facet of his soul. Fire to destroy, or blinding rage to suppress reason and turn an unsuspecting bandit into a mad berserker who would strike down their friend as readily as a foe.

Humans were short lived and quick-tempered, as a rule. Nords especially were slaves to their passions, fighting as fiercely as they loved and reveled. Those who had abandoned their laws to live as bandits were, therefore, likely even more predisposed towards excess. The woman shook her head in confusion as the spell worked its way into her mind; the archer reached out to check and make sure she was okay. Her axe took his hand off at the elbow, his scream ended in a bloody moan as her second blow bit into his neck. As she stood there, covered in his blood, another bandit emerged from the tower, yelling something to Velandryn's victim and drawing his sword, guarding against whatever threat had killed their fellow. This new bandit did not realize his mistake until the first was moving in, axe raised for the kill. However, blind rage reduced one's skill in combat, and the second bandit parried easily, shouting something at his fellow as he attempted to calm her down.

Velandryn had no idea how long the effect of his fury would last, so he unslung his bow and drew back his shot, taking careful aim. He did not have a natural eye for this; he needed time to line up the shot. Fortunately, his target was so far gone that she was swinging her shield as well as her axe in offense, giving no thought to the Dunmer she had seen earlier. His arrow punched through furs and clothing and the flesh of her back, causing her to stagger. She did not fall, however, but only redoubled her attack, yelling incoherently. What did the other do to her? Even fury in the mind could not make one slay a lover or trusted ally. It seemed that either these three had merely been allies of convenience, he had gotten lucky and enraged the one who carried a grudge against her fellows, or she simply hated all other folk. Or I am a mage of unparalleled skill who wields power unimagined over the minds of lesser beings. He was a nice idea.

The arrow had slowed the bandit, but her rage sustained her. The other looked to still be trying to disarm rather than kill, a difficult task when faced with incoherent fury. Velandryn's second shaft, which punched through his light armor into his side, did not improve matters. The first bandit took advantage of her target's pain and surprise, and launched an onslaught of blows that culminated in a heavy downward chop that split the lucid bandit's skull and fountained yet more blood onto the madwoman.

Now that both of her fellows were dead, she turned slowly, and her eyes met his. He had closed to within thirty paces of her now, arrow nocked and string taut. She roared out a wordless battle cry and charged. He loosed the shot, thanking the Three that in her rage she had thrown her shield aside to close the ground faster.

Her armor was light fur, fine to ward off bests or glancing blows, but no match for an arrow at nearly point blank range. The feathered shaft sprouted from between her breasts, and to Velandryn's shock she actually managed to reach him, even as blood bubbled from her mouth along with her gasping breaths. She drew the axe back, but it was sluggish and clumsy, blood loss already taking its toll. Velandryn had drawn his sword, however, and while he was certainly no gifted swordsman, he could finish off a single dying bandit easily enough. As the thrill of battle wore off, he realized that he was actually fairly cold. He unwrapped one of Camilla's potions from its cloth lining and downed it, silently thanking the Imperial woman for her generosity.

Looting the dead was a distasteful but lucrative few minutes. Those few qualms he might have had about rifling through the possessions of the dead were quieted by the potions, lockpicks, and coin he found on them. After all, it was not as if they were honorable foes slain in righteous combat. These were nothing but bandits, and their lives and property were forfeit.

Afterwards, Velandryn checked the tower, gathering what gold and potions he could. He came upon a locked chest on the top floor, and decided that he might as well try to open it and see what was inside. Judging by the lockpicks scattered around, the bandits had had a similar idea. When he tried the lock, he found it open, to his pleased surprise. Perhaps that is what they were up to when I interrupted. Inside he found some gold and a few gems, as well as a blue hood spun from some rough material. It looked plain enough, but when his fingers touched it he felt magic thrum within. When he pulled it on, he the flow of magicka within him intensified. Useful, to find a mage's hood here. Looking down on the blood-soaked ground below the tower, he felt a strange confidence. Perhaps I can do this after all.

The fire was burning well, but it needed more fuel before it would suffice. He pulled out a few more pieces of rotting old wood from the alcoves in the wall and added them.

"You are putting me to a lot of trouble, you insolent f'ghan. Are you proud of yourself?"

The Dunmer's grin remained, though the firelight gave it something of a ghastly cast. The axe buried in his skull made a strange shadow on the wall he was leaning on.

"Veathel Dunmeris ilo? If I spoke to you in the tongue of our homeland, would you know it?" he sighed. "Likely not"

The entrance to Bleak Falls Barrow had been guarded by four bandits. Now, two of them fought off a third, while their unlucky fourth sprawled dying on the snow. Velandryn lined up a shot, and watched with satisfaction as one of the two lucid bandits folded over, and was then dispatched by his maddened fellow. The final two came to blows, and the survivor fell quickly to more of Velandryn's arrows. He had never been a particularly passionate archer, but he was finding this immensely satisfying. As long as his foes were lightly armored and more or less stationary, he could hit them without much trouble. His shots rarely killed, but they were sufficient distraction to turn the tide of battle, especially when one of their own was under the effects of an illusion of rage. That particular ploy had worked twice now, and he had no intention of stopping. Symmachus the Red Son had once written that a novel strategy could be victorious only until the enemy learned of it. Fortunately for Velandryn, the doors to Bleak Falls were huge and heavy stone, and pulled shut, so nobody inside should be any the wiser. Pushing one of them open, he slipped into the shadows within, hoping against hope that nobody was watching the portal. Fortunately, the hall was cavernous and his end was dappled with light, and no cry of alarm was raised as he pressed himself into a shadowed corner.

The spell to silence one's footsteps was simple enough, as was the night-eye he used to ensure nothing was lurking in the darkness. To cast them both in such quick succession would have drained him had he not been wearing that hood, however. As it was, he was only slightly fatigued as he made his way up the hall, to where two more bandits were conversing over a campfire. Drawing close, he managed to overhear them talking. Apparently one of their number, Arvel, was deep in the tomb trying to use the claw to recover some hoard of treasure. The others had been set to watch various parts of the ruin, and these two were keeping an eye out for intruders. One of the bandits was furious about being sent to be a door guard, and made mention of 'wringing that scrawny elven neck' when all of this was done, while the other seemed more accepting of his position, content to sit by the fire and drink.

Velandryn realized that he had an opportunity here. He could test the limits of his fury, and cast it here on the calmer of the two, or he could incite the other and have surefire madness. It took only a moment to decide. He could likely take both should the worst happen, and he needed to know what he was capable of. Even if this failed, he would still be concealed and could strike again. He had to know.

When the spell entered the calm bandit, he didn't respond at first. He stood up and moved around some, but did not attack. The other asked what was wrong.

"Nothing, just felt, something…off."

"Well sit down and be still. You're acting strange."

"Why don't you back off, milk-drinker! Don't tell me what to do!" While Velandryn's spell could not send him fully into violence, it had clearly upset him, and the other noticed.

"It's this place, I'd wager; something in the air. We shouldn't be in here. These barrows are evil."

This was less than ideal, Velandryn decided. He would have to be careful with this spell in the future, but for now his focus had to be on eliminating these two foes, as they guarded the only way deeper into the barrow. He could feel the emptiness inside that indicated he should take time to rejuvenate his magicka, but his night-eye was ending and he was too close to these two to be casting spells as he pleased. He needed to use his advantageous position to bring them down quickly. When he noticed a half-broken urn of some sort in the darkness on the far side of the fire, his plan took shape. He scooped a rock off of the ground, and tossed it into the urn. Its echoing clatter drew both of the bandits' attention, and the one under Velandryn's half-effective sorcery tromped off to investigate, while the other merely stood at the fire, bow drawn. Muttering about 'damn skeevers,' the bandit who was investigating was soon off beyond the circle of the fire's light. Now, one bandit was in striking distance, and the other was off blundering in the darkness.

Velandryn had no time for nerves, he must move quickly or this was all for naught. His footsteps still muffled, he ran up behind the bandit by the fire, and drew the iron knife with burned grip across his neck. As the bandit gurgled and his bow dropped from a lifeless hand, his body slumped down, and Velandryn fought to hold it aloft. He eased the corpse gently down, grimacing as the hot blood ran over his hands. Fortunately, it seemed he had not made much noise, so the other bandit should—

"Hey! What in Oblivion?" Oh. He had not thought this through as well as he could have. He stood silhouetted in the light, immensely visible to any in the dark. The fire also had destroyed the Dunmer's night vision. He should be thankful, he supposed, that his night-eye had dissipated, else the excess of light would have blinded him. Now he only had to contend with a foe who could strike from anywhere, while Velandryn was unable to anticipate an attack more than the merest second in advance. This is where actual training would have been useful. Supposedly one acquires instinctive responses for situations like this, and those would be very nice right now. He readied his sword and tried to listen and scan the darkness all at once.

A deafening bellow suddenly came from the blackness to his left, and the sound of pounding footsteps soon followed. Velandryn silently thanked the Three that rage made people disregard tactical advantages, and readied his blade. He could hear the Nord approaching, and concentrated magicka in his left hand, letting it burn and prepared to ignite. If not for the hood he would be drained entirely, but this would be his last use of magic for the time being. It had to be right.

The Nord burst out into the light, roaring and swinging a crude iron mace, knocking Velandryn's sword aside. The weight of the blow meant that the bandit had to readjust before the backswing; all the opening Velandryn would get. He felt the fire rise with him, and let it burn. A gout of flame washed over the Nord, scorching his armor and burning his flesh. Still roaring wordlessly, the Nord clutched at his face with his off-hand, bringing the mace back in a wild swing. Velandryn could parry this, however, and closed to within the bandit's guard. His sword bit deep into the bandit's shoulder, and the mace clattered to the ground. The bandit lunged at Velandryn, his one good arm coming up in another wild, brutal blow. The impact sent him sprawling to the ground, and the half-blinded, moaning, one-armed Nord grabbed his mace with his left hand, and closed for the kill. Velandryn still had his sword, and it was obvious that this bandit was no great warrior either, so the Dunmer took a gamble and lunged at him. His blade bit deep and pulled back, and this time blood spurted not just from the wound, but from his mouth as well. Die, you bastard. I've killed you, now DIE! Finally, slowly, the bandit collapsed, and Velandryn sagged back down. His magicka was spent and his nerves were frayed, and he needed to take a minute to get his head back in order.

That went very wrong, and I got lucky. He had made a number of mistakes there, and would need to revise his approach. The first step was to better target his opening shot. He was under no delusions about his combat prowess compared to these bandits. Most were Nords, who outweighed him by no small amount and had a span or two of height on him. With longer reach and greater strength, they would win if they reached melee range and he had no magic to level the playing field. He would have to dictate the terms of the engagement before it began, and ensure that it ended swiftly enough that he did not lose control. During the fight, he had to keep his foes off-balance, to offset their physical and numerical superiority. To this end, he decided to see what new tools awaited him in the firepit's vicinity.

Neither bandit had much of interest on them aside from a paltry few coins, but the search allowed Velandryn to overcome the last vestiges of his revulsion at looting the dead. They were bandits, their human souls would never become ancestors, and thus their mortal bodies were no more than meat and blood. In a chest by the fire, he found two vials of a thick, dark, liquid, labeled with an 'X' and tightly stoppered. Likely poison, but he had no desire to test it on himself. He carefully applied a smear of the liquid to one of his arrows, and even more carefully put the arrow down beside him for when next he had need of one. There was a pot of water boiling over the fire, and after slaking his thirst, he poured a little over his hands to wash off as much of the blood as feasible. When he noticed a shank of some roasted meat over the fire, he began to find this ancient bleak necropolis just the tiniest bit homey. As he finished his impromptu meal and rose, grabbing the arrow he had prepared, he felt refreshed and ready for whatever lay ahead.

"I wish I could hate you, truly. It's not really your fault, though, my being down here." He rifled through the journal again. "You figured it out, didn't you? And now, I get to find out what this treasure is, and get paid by Lucan besides. So, thank you, I suppose. You fetcher."

As the enormous spider lobbed a mass of webbing at him, Velandryn reflected on how utterly unprepared for this he had been. The bandits in the tunnels had fallen quickly, and one bottle of that poison was sufficient to mark half a dozen arrows, each of which sapped the strength of their victim and caused them debilitating pain, if their screams were any indication. Then he had discovered where the poison came from, when the giant spiders in his path failed to display any reaction whatsoever to his treated arrows. For them, he had to resort to fire and sword, hacking, slashing, and pouring forth a stream of flame until they were dead. After each died, he had to carefully cleanse the poison from his body with his healing, burning through his magicka at a prodigious rate. It had been slow going, but he had made constant progress, and was even beginning to notice a macabre rhythm to his fights.

Now, all of that was gone as he frantically backpedalled along the wall. What was either the spider queen or a grotesquely overgrown specimen was scuttling around the cavern, and it was all he could do to keep away from it. Several of its legs appeared to have been damaged in an earlier fight and it was oozing some vile black liquid from gashes along its sides and stomach, but that was not slowing it down. Indeed, it was steadily closing, and while Velandryn could keep it at bay with bursts of flame from his hand, he could feel the emptiness inside where his magicka was depleted. What did I think would happen? I am not a hero, I am a thrice-damned fool!

Behind him, one of the bandits was strung up in webbing, screaming his head off and begging for help. As Velandryn paused before, he sliced his sword through the webbing, hoping that if the bandit could get free, he would assist in this fight. The bandit's writhing soon partially freed him, but the spider's surprisingly quick approach meant he had to jump away and sprint for the other side of the chamber. This time, the spider's approach was long enough for him to ready a fireball and throw it directly into the monstrosity's face. The creature reared back, shrieking and chittering, as Velandryn threw himself around it and ran full-pelt for the trapped bandit. His hacking soon had the bandit mostly free, and to his surprise he realized it was a fellow Dunmer. His frantic cries to be freed changed their tune as soon as he was cut down, and he ran off into the tunnel behind him, laughing. As Velandryn had no particular desire to die at the fangs of the largest spider he had ever seen, he took off after him. He was hoping for some answers but would settle for someone to blame for this fiasco. Well, other than me.

The other Dunmer had vanished down the hallways, but by the sound of things his escape was not going as well as he had planned. When Velandryn found him, the thief had been set upon by three…things. They were clearly reanimated corpses of some sort, but they lacked the haphazard form of bonewalkers, and were too far gone to be simple reanimated zombies. The flesh and hair they bore ruled out skeletal reanimation, and the noises they made had guttural undertones that resembled speech. They fought with no grace, but were pressing the Dunmer thief back against the wall. Velandryn decided to take a gamble, and let hot rage flow through him, channeling fury into the leftmost creature. It hesitated, hissed, and then slammed its sword into one of its fellows. That one growled out some harsh exclamation, and wrenched the sword out of its flesh, using the weapons it now had in both hands to cut down its onetime ally. The remaining creature, unaware or uncaring of the fight beside it, continued hammering on the Dunmer, who had sustained several wounds but was still putting up a decent guard.

Velandryn had drawn his bow and was lining up a shot when he noticed that the creature that had killed his maddened one was bleeding; some thick black liquid oozed out of the gaping wound in its gut. It did not appear to notice the wound, but Velandryn had to hope that it was weakened. He began putting arrows into it; after the third shaft pierced it took notice and abandoned the other Dunmer to lumber towards him. In one hand it had the sword it had torn out of its own flesh, in the other it clasped a war axe; both weapons were of a style he had never before seen, crude and misshapen. It advanced, uttering cries in that strange tongue. Velandryn moved first, releasing one more shot into its torso then casting the bow aside and bringing up both hands. He had no chance with his one sword and haphazard style against those two weapons, but fire could be effective. The slow, oozing liquid it bled should indicate significantly lower levels of moisture in the flesh, and its mummified appearance only reinforced that likelihood. There was only one way to find out if he was right, though. He poured fire from his hands, and the thing screamed like an animal in pain as it burned, falling to the ground and twitching. Velandryn was already moving, throwing fire at the other one. This one, however, while it burned, had the presence of mind to change targets and close on him. Velandryn drew his sword, and once again found himself desperately parrying blows from a much stronger foe. Each hit made him think his arm would break, and he found his idea of lighting his enemies on fire relied on the hitherto unexamined assumption that his enemies would care. As it was, this one was clearly made form sterner stuff than the other; it pressed onwards even as its blackened skin peeled away to reveal the flesh and bone beneath. Behind it, the other Dunmer had vanished further into the barrow; Velandryn knew he had to end this fight now and get after him. Fortunately, the fire had charred away much of the creature's muscle, and its attacks were becoming increasingly sluggish. Finally, he managed to spear through its arm with a lucky thrust, wrench back the blade, and with three frantic chops remove its head.

Panting, Velandryn leaned against the wall. He was bleeding from half a dozen places, none major wounds, but still in need of care. A single healing potion was enough to take care of the damage, though he felt strange as always while his body knit his flesh together before his eyes. Mortal bodies could not easily handle the energies of healing potions, and he knew he would have a voracious hunger that evening. However, he would be a fool to let queasiness stop him from using every resource available down here. These strange creatures he had bested were troubling not just for their unknown capabilities, but also for what they represented. Either they were active down here all of the time, which meant the lower halls could be infested with more of them, or they had been animated, which meant that someone or something that was capable of a style of reanimation that he had no knowledge of was present. Either way, he felt his tenuous control of the situation rapidly diminishing.

Hauling himself to his feet, Velandryn retrieved his bow from where he had tossed it, noting as he did so that he was abusing the weapon such that it would soon need replacing. It had not been made from the finest of materials to start, and he was half-sure that it was already warping. Either that or he was an even worse shot than he thought. Slinging it over his shoulder, he made his way deeper into the barrow.

After dodging the swinging blades that comprised some ancient trap in the hallway leading down, Velandryn stumbled out into the chamber beyond, and saw the Dunmer he had been chasing facing him, a hideous grin on his face. Behind him, one of the barrow-dwellers pulled its axe from his skull, and he collapsed to one side, sliding down into a slump and smearing blood and brains on the wall behind him. The creature hefted its axe and brought it down once more. This time, it lodged in there, and as the creature tried to pull it free, Velandryn charged one hand with burning magicka, as much as he could, and grabbed the monster by the face. The sound it made was like nothing he had ever heard, but Velandryn Savani was beyond caring. He watched dispassionately as the creature staggered back, head aflame, and silently drew his bow as more of the things emerged from various alcoves and sarcophagi. His calm shots targeted heads and torsos to cause significant bleeding, and any that closed were swiftly dispatched by bursts of flame. Archers he cut down with bolts of fire, and soon he had consumed three potions of magicka, which opened his body to Aetherius and allowed for more magic to be cast, but would give him shivers and aches as his body readjusted to its normal state. Fortunately, only two of the foes were the stronger variant of the barrow-dwellers, and one of them was an archer content to remain at range until his fire had consumed its body to the point that it no longer posed a threat. The other he emptied his quiver into as it approached and then hacked to pieces with numb precision. Each blow was methodical and emotionless, and as he parried a slash that would have opened him through his armor, he was lost in the clash of steel on steel and bizarre serenity of the moment.

As he slowly returned to himself, he realized that everything else in the room was dead, he was astride the corpse of the final barrow-dweller stabbing into it with his steel dagger, his sword had been thrown aside, there were tears running down his cheeks and, although it was likely not even midday outside, he was more exhausted than he had ever been in his life. Every part of his body ached, and the shivering chill that was upon him from the potions did not help matters, though it would pass soon enough.

He looked over at the other Dunmer, the thief. He could have been taking a rest, if not for the bloody scene on the wall behind him and axe sticking out of his skull. The first other of his kind he had seen since arriving in Skyrim, a worthless thief mistrusted even by his own band of outlaws. He noticed a pack in the other Dunmer's hand; when he pulled it open, it was revealed to contain some sort of claw made of gold, as well as a leatherbound journal. Reading through, it became apparent that this was Arvel the Swift, who had masterminded this entire plot, planned to betray his compatriots, and hoped to find some treasure by using the claw to somehow unlock a door. He looked over at the onetime thief. "Did you a lot of good, didn't it?"

He stood, ready to move on, but upon scanning the room he paused. The body of Arvel was jarring and wrong down here. He is nothing. He is n'wah and a bandit besides, and he deserves no honors. Nonetheless, something within him rebelled at the thought of leaving the body of this Dunmer alone in this unhallowed place. It would take time and he could not give a reason why, but he knew that he could not leave this one body to share the fate of all those he had slain. I would have slain this one too, if it came to that. Alive, he was nothing. So why does his body demand such respect? He began dragging the bodies of the barrow-dwellers together, and tore down planks of wood from the surroundings to add to the nascent pyre. A quick burst of flame got the whole thing burning, and as he watched it grow, he began to talk. It was a one-sided conversation, but it was the first he had had since arriving in Skyrim where he needed no pretense, had no honor to uphold or goal in mind. There were no bargains or threats here, just speech. His partner in this monologue kept grinning, which gave the whole thing a slightly farcical air, and called forth his rage once more. As he built the fire, he conversed with his dead companion, there beneath the earth.

Once the fire burned bright and merry, Velandryn knew it was time. Grunting, he pulled the axe from Arvel's skull, and tossed it into the fire first. Then, he half-carried the corpse over to the pyre. He was not strong, but neither was Arvel very heavy; and he managed to get the thief into the flames without too much trouble, if not very gracefully.

The bodies of Dunmer did not burn easily; it was traditional to anoint them in oil or cast spells of susceptibility to fire upon them before burning, but Velandryn had neither oil nor the magicka and concentration to waste on what was an intricate spell that ultimately only hastened the process. He could use the rest anyways, he reasoned, and slumped silently against the wall, watching the body burn. He had never spoken over an ash-pyre before, but he had assisted, and knew that words were supposed to be said, celebrating the deceased's life and triumphs, and ushering their soul out of the body to serve the Dunmer people as an ancestor. Velandryn did not know this one's history or deeds, but he would end his life with honor, if nothing else.

"Here lies Arvel, named the Swift. He solved the riddle of Bleak Falls Barrow, and perished trying to prove the truth of his discovery. Here, on a pyre of the bodies of his enemies and with the weapon that took his life, let his flesh burn away and his soul be consecrated anew by flame. Let it be, in the name of the Three who test that we may be proven. Let it be, in the name of those who passed before that we may follow. Let it be, in the name of Arvel the Swift, who joins the Dunmer people in death as he never did in life." He had changed the ritual somewhat, but it was only proper, as Arvel had not been a part of his culture, nor a contributing member of any society. In truth, this entire exercise had been more for Velandryn's benefit than the thief's, as he doubted this outcast would have the devotion to carry his spirit to the Far Realms. Now though, as the blue-grey flesh blackened and split, he sat watching, and fatigue overtook him. He wanted to make it all right, to explain why he was here, but nobody was listening except the dead.

"Do you know why I came to Skyrim? To see the snow fall. I had never seen it except on the ground, and they told me in Cyrodiil that it was beautiful, and Skyrim's the most beautiful of all. If I'm being totally honest, it's nice enough, but on the whole, not worth it. I should have known better than to listen to Nords." He had one bottle of water left, and one of wine that he had taken from a bandit's sack. He took a long pull of the sour red, grimaced, and held it out to the pyre. "I'd offer you some, but, well, I doubt you're in the mood. You must be furious, you poor bastard. You figure this out, steal the claw, and then it all goes wrong and I wind up here. I have the claw, the journal, and I'm alive. So, you know, I win this round. I win the prize. I get to go deeper into this tomb infested by monsters, look for a treasure that may or may not exist, and then return to the wonderful land above where they can't decide if they want to kill me or just treat me as second-class trash because of my race.

"I'm not sure I blame you, taking up banditry. I might do the same, if I had to live here." Gods, to live here. Always cold, fire can't warm you, and they hate you besides. "Why didn't you come home? You could have returned to Morrowind, been with your own kind, been respected. We have need of every hand; it can be hard work, but rewarding. Till the earth, learn a trade. Be my brother in the Temple, or join the Guard and protect us all. Or maybe you didn't want that. Maybe you were violent scum who joined up with these human thugs because you wanted an excuse to hurt people.

"I should have been disgusted but I wasn't, today. I killed those humans, made them kill each other, and I felt nothing. They hurt people, robbed and murdered and raped, and they deserved to die." He took another pull from the bottle. "I wish you were still here. I wish you could tell me every one of their crimes, and yours, so I can walk away and forget. I wish you could tell me all of the horrors you committed so I could have left your body to rot down here like all the rest. I hope you were a backstabbing wretch who deserved to die. I…I'm sorry." He placed the bottle of wine, now less than half-full, on the pyre. "There. Take that with you when you pass through the Waking Door." He stood, and looked down on the pyre that held the slowly disintegrating mortal remains of Arvel the Swift. "The snow is beautiful, though."

The door was bound with a great lock and three rings, with the claw clearly intended to go in the middle. Velandryn pulled the golden claw forth, and studied it briefly. The symbols on the claw obviously represented the correct sequence of the symbols on the door. The rings rotated easily; locking into place and allowing the claw to slide into its slot and trigger the door's release. Velandryn watched the door slide into the ground, and saw blackness beyond. Whatever power had lit the torches in these halls did not extend past this door, it would seem. He had traveled fairly easily to this point, as the barrow-dwellers seemed content to rest in their alcoves unless disturbed. Several had awoken as he passed, but a single foe or small group was easily dispatched or avoided from the shadows. Velandryn had taken to filling his quiver with the strange old arrows he found down here; their heads were better made than the iron ones he had brought with him. He had not grabbed any of their bows, however, as despite the finer make they were sized for Nords, and exceedingly old besides. Many of the strings were on the verge of rotting away, and Velandryn would take a reliably bad bow over a superior one that could snap at any point. After leaving Arvel's body, he was glad to find only these creatures awaiting him. He had had enough of bandits for one day.

Entering the huge hall beyond the door, Velandryn briefly considered using night-eyes, but the grandeur of the scene urged him to experience it without magic. A waterfall crashed down, carved through the rock over untold ages, and a huge wall with unknown writing dominated the far side of the cavern. Before it lay what was unmistakably a sarcophagus, and a large, metal bound chest. This place had to be ancient, predating the Septim Empire at the very least. The arts used to bind the creatures outside to unlife hinted at some ancient power, but the wearing away of the rock from naught but water would require millennia, he suspected. As he advanced, he could see the sunlight from outside lancing in through cracks in the rock walls and ceiling. It cast the entire vista as pools of light of darkness, and Velandryn found himself profoundly moved by what he beheld. Beauty such as this was rare, and he felt privileged to look upon it. How long since any other man or mer has seen this? In this, he felt peace, felt his hatred and tension drain away. Until he looked closer at the strange curved wall.

Try as he might, Velandryn's gaze could not avoid the wall. Its writing was completely unfamiliar but oddly compelling; as he studied it he felt the shapes ingrain themselves in his mind. He fancied that there was some echo of meaning etched into this carving, though he knew not what powerful magic had been used to accomplish this. His hand drifted out and traced what he thought must be a word, no, he knew it was a word. He did not know what it said, but understanding was so close. If he could see it from—

Behind him, the lid of the sarcophagus shattered his concentration, and another of the barrow-dwellers pulled itself through the wreckage. This one, bigger even than its Nord-sized companions, was clad in the remnants of armor and finery, and hefted an enormous axe in its withered hands. The axe bore a glowing blue-white spiderweb of magic along its surface that filled the surrounding air with icy malice; clearly it held some enchantment. Velandryn was far too close for his bow, and once again he wished that he had found someone earlier in his life to properly tutor him in the use of the sword. He made do by thrusting both hands forward and channeling a stream of fire into the thing's face. Its only response was to slam its head forward, cracking Velandryn's skull and sending a trickle of blood onto his face. As he retreated he healed the wound, but he was draining magicka at too fast a rate. Fire and healing both would drain him dry, unless…

Diving to one side, he ripped open his bag and pulled out three potions. One to heal, one to reinforce his magicka, and one to protect him against the cold that even now was emanating from his enemy's weapon. He downed all three in quick gulps while leaving his bag where it lay. He would need all of his agility to survive this fight. Behind him, the creature was closing rapidly, heedless of its smoldering skin, axe raised. The monster was wide open, but any blow Velandryn could land would be countered with a stroke that might well cleave him in two. For the moment, he needed distance.

The Dunmer drew his bow, and sprinted with all of his speed to the far end of the cavern, vaulting the crevasse carved by the waterfall and setting up a position from which to fire. He cast night-eye, and used the sudden clarity to rain shafts upon his burning foe. Many of them missed, but enough hit that his foe was soon bleeding as well as burning. As it lumbered forward, it resembled something out of a children's story about the Oblivion Crisis: a flaming corpse riddled with arrows, coming inexorably forward out of Mehrunes Dagon's hell to consume the lands of mortals. It paused at the crevasse, and Velandryn emptied his quiver firing at it. He slid the bow onto his back and pulled deep within himself, harnessing his gift for flame. It was time to make this thing burn.

The flames he had cast at the beginning of the fight had been made in desperation, as he turned to behold a foe bearing down on him. The fires he called forth now were born from pure magicka and focus, designed to do nothing more or less than incinerate his foe from within. Each bolt of fire ate through muscle and ancient armor, and the creature swayed and stumbled, on the verge of collapse. Then, it looked up.

"FUS!"

The shout was not especially loud, but it carried on a wave of air that knocked Velandryn off of his feet. By the time he had gained his breath back and risen to his knees, his foe was nearly upon him, axe swinging once more. Panic rose in Velandryn's throat, and he drew his little steel sword, so inadequate to halt the massive horror descending upon him. As it raised its axe high into the air, Velandryn thrust his blade and rose to his feet, hoping to cause the creature to defend, and give him time to get away. Instead, it took one hand off of the axe and grabbed the sword. Oh. It could do that, I suppose. Standing there, the two of them must have made a fine sight, a walking corpse wreathed in flames; holding a giant axe above its head with one hand, while the other gripped the sword that was his opponent's puny weapon. The monster twisted the blade, and it wrenched out of Velandryn's grip. His enemy looked at the weapon for a long moment, and then threw it to the ground and stepped over it, closing still. Velandryn found himself with a dagger in each hand, and a pain in his cheeks that could only mean his face was contorted in some terrible expression.

Kill me? "I will drag your soul screaming to Oblivion, monster!" He lunged.

The daggers gave him speed, and he was stabbing, hacking and slicing into his enemy as it stood there with axe still raised. It did not seem to feel the pain, but it was literally falling apart as he cut at it. Pieces of charred flesh were dropping off, and he could see exposed muscle twitching within the holes his fire bolts had carved. It still had not moved, and Velandryn only stopped cutting when the axe clattered to the rocks. Looking up at the creature's face, he saw that the light had gone out of its eyes, and when he took a step back, it collapsed into a pile of smoking meat and bones. He retrieved his sword on his way to the chest, too tired to exult in his victory. When he reached his bag, he pulled out the bottle of water and drained it in a single long breath. After that, he decided it was time to see what he had won.

The chest itself was unlocked, and what lay within was, for the most part, disappointingly mundane. He found some gems, coins in a style that Velandryn did not recognize, but which had to be some form of ancient Nord currency, leather armor that had once been finely made but crumbled away as he touched it, and finally a stone tablet that seemed to depict the province of Skyrim in bas-relief. After emptying the chest, Velandryn approached the ruin of his foe, and grabbed the axe from where it lay. It was not a weapon he himself favored, but he was willing to wager it would fetch a fine price from Lucan.

A path led out behind the wall with the strange carvings, depositing him on a ledge bathed in the sun. Can it truly have been so short a time? It seemed like days since he had left Riverwood. He made his slow way down the mountain, using the axe as a walking-staff. He found the White River easily enough; the uncut trees floating down meant that he was upstream of the town. He turned his face northward, and began to walk.

Lucan Valerius was overjoyed to have his claw back, and happily handed Velandryn a purse with twelve sovereigns within. Each of the heavy coins was worth twenty-five of the smaller drakes, though Velandryn realized that they probably called it something different here. Lucan had never seen anything like the odd stone map before, and advised him to sell both it and the Nordic coins in Whiterun, as he could get a much better price for them there. However, he was very interested in the axe, eventually trading it for a book on the alchemical properties of the common plants of Skyrim and a small pile of gold. He also gave some advice for free, letting him know that the monsters in the tomb were called draugr, Nord dead from ages long before recorded history. That they were walking about was likely because the bandits had disturbed their tomb. It was unwise, he said, to delve too deep into Nordic tombs for just that reason. Why they were able to rise at all, he could not say.

Camilla was nowhere to be seen, and Velandryn told Lucan to wish her well on his behalf. He bid the shopkeep farewell and made his way back to the inn, where he showed the innkeep the emblem on his armor as she had requested. He then handed over fifty drakes for a bed, a meal now, one more that evening, a final one in the morning, and the right to murder anyone who disturbed his sleep. Delphine's lips quirked upwards at the last request, but she agreed readily enough. He ate without tasting, stumbled into the room assigned to him, dropped his gear on the floor unceremoniously, and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.

When he woke, he pulled back the curtains to see that the moons were high over the mountains, and the stars burned bright in the sky. That likely meant he was late for supper, though he suspected that, having paid, he could wrangle something out of Delphine or her assistant. Although he was still tired and would happily return to bed after eating, he should go out into the common hall. His throat was dry and his stomach aching from hunger, despite having eaten not long ago. He supposed this was the price one paid for drinking so many potions that wreaked havoc on the body's natural healing and magicka rhythms. With a groan, he moved to the door and pushed it open. Without, Delphine was wiping down the bar while a few last patrons sat at the tables in various states of inebriation. No bard was playing, and the quiet suited his mood just fine.

As he approached the bar to inquire about food, he felt a hand on his shoulder. Turning, he saw Camilla standing there, smiling slightly.

"I had heard you returned, and was hoping to see you before you departed. I asked Delphine to prepare a special meal. Won't you join me?"

As she led him to the table she had indicated, Velandryn reflected that she was either very patient or had a good sense of timing. It was far too late for any reasonable person to be taking their evening meal. They sat, and the assistant brought out choice cuts of meats and vegetables roasted to perfection. Camilla dug in with clear enjoyment, and Velandryn was hard-pressed not to shovel it into his mouth. Not only was he was outrageously hungry, but the food itself was exquisite. They ate in silence for a few minutes, and then she began quizzing him about his journey up to the barrow, wanting to know every detail. He told her most of it, leaving out his strange vigil for the thief, as he was still unsure why he had done it in the first place. When he was done, and she had made several appreciative noises for his story, Camilla reached under the table and drew out a folded bundle of cloth.

"Here, this is for you." She handed it to him, and he accepted it, his curiosity piqued.

"My thanks." He unraveled it, prepared to thank her either honestly or out of appreciation for the effort, but when he saw what she had done words failed him. The undershirt was deep blue and felt as though it was made of silk. The tunic was a deep ash-grey, and by the feel also had more than a little silk in the weave. On the chest, in lieu of a sigil, Ghartok Hand-of-Nerevar stood proud in blood red. The pants were fine black linen in a style that he knew to be fashionable in Cyrodiil. A supple leather belt adorned with silver buckle and weapon loops completed the ensemble. With garb like this, he would not need to fear the scorn of the Jarl or his court when he went to Whiterun.

"This is, I mean, you," words failed him. For once, he had no idea how to respond, or what to say.

Camilla smiled. "Oh, did I steal the great speaker's voice away? You who 'brought truth to the innocent'?" Here her voice took on a mockery of his gravelly tones, and her smile widened.

He fell back on his most basic courtesies, still unsure of how to proceed. "It is magnificent, and I am honored to accept it." He realized something. "This morning you did not know this symbol." He tapped the hand. "Did you make this?"

Her smile changed subtly, and Velandryn knew that she was pleased with his response, though he still couldn't figure out what human faces were showing most of the time. "I liked the hand when I saw it this morning, and it fits you well. You seem to be fond of it, and I wanted to make the clothes show that you were special." Her cheeks reddened, and Velandryn looked at her quizzically. As a Dunmer in Skyrim, it only made sense that his clothes should mark his heritage. He wondered if this was merely repayment for his aid, or something else. Whatever it might be, it was thoughtful and he was touched.

"Well, whatever your motivation, I thank you again. This cannot have been cheap, and I want to compensate you for materials used."

"No! This is a gift, for helping my brother out and for…the other thing." Her smile faded. "I talked to both of them today, and they each apologized beautifully. They want a chance to win my heart anew." Her smile returned. "I think I may even give them another chance, provided they live up to the example you set."

He considered giving her a human smile, and decided to risk it. Humans smiled with their whole face, not just the eyes, but he feared that a Dunmer smile would be lost on her. "They may yet prove themselves worthy."

"Well, if you ever find yourself back in Riverwood, you mustn't be a stranger. I've met only a few Dark Elves in my time, and none at all like you. I would very much like to get to know you better." As she took the clothing from him and gathered it back into a bundle, she managed to brush him with her hand no less than three times, and Velandryn would have had to have been blind not to take her meaning. He had heard that the people of Skyrim were forthright in their attentions, and this seemed the proof. It was something he was unused to, although he did not find it at all unwelcome. He had not been in human lands long, but he found her manner refreshing, and she was far from unattractive. Not to mention, thinking back on the day, he had no desire to be alone with his memories tonight.

"Well, then, in payment for my gift" as she opened her mouth in protest he held up a hand "allow me to buy you a drink at the very least."

She smiled, and moved to his bench, sliding in next to him and slipping her arm around his waist. "They make a wonderful spiced apple cider in Falkreath, and I know Delphine keeps a store in the back. That sounds divine right now."

Velandryn raised his hand to get the Nord server's attention. "My friend, a flagon of your spiced cider and two cups!"

Hunger woke Velandryn before the sun. He went to lift himself out of the bed, but Camilla had managed to trap one of his arms beneath her, and entangle his legs in hers. He suspected that it would be impossible to disentangle himself without waking her, but it would be even more discourteous to wake her with the growling of his stomach, so he was left with no choice. As he worked himself free, her eyes snapped open and she grabbed his hand in both of hers. "Leaving so early? Does the Dark Elf abandon his conquests in the morning?"

He kissed her hands and extracted his own. "The Dark Elf is hungry, and will be back shortly. And, conquest? If anyone deserves the credit, the crafty Imperial lass who seduced the Dunmer traveler is the wicked temptress in this tale."

"Hmm, Camilla the Conqueror. I like it." She stretched languorously, and smiled as he stirred in response. "I want one of Delphine's sweetrolls, and a mug of mulled wine. And you, but that I'll have anyways." Her tongue flitted out to moisten her lips, and he leaned it to capture them quickly before pulling away.

"I obey my lady's desires." He finished pulling on his new undershirt and pants and let himself out into the common hall. Delphine was behind the bar, and he approached with a lightness in his step he had not felt in some time.

She looked him over, smirking. "Sleep well?"

"As a matter of fact, I did, thank you. My second night in Riverwood was more…charming than the first."

She snorted. "Cute. Well, your second morning may be worse."

He frowned at her. "Is there a problem?"

"Perhaps. A carriage came in from Falkreath while you were asleep yesterday evening. Their next destination is Whiterun, leaving at first light. I would suggest you are on that carriage when it departs."

His frown deepened. "I had planned on spending the morning here, perhaps leaving at midday. The road to Whiterun is safe enough to travel alone."

"Not for you. The carriage wasn't alone when it arrived. A High Elf came with them, with the kind of accent and clothing that makes folks around here nervous. He was asking about anyone who may have escaped from Helgen. By the sound of it, he wasn't looking to inquire after their well-being."

"And what did you tell him?"

"The truth, or enough of it. By the time he got to me, he knew he was looking for a Dunmer, among others. I told him that you spent a night here, and left before dawn. I also mentioned that you had headed up in the direction of Bleak Falls Barrow. Nothing he wouldn't have already heard, since Camilla couldn't stop talking about it. He left immediately, so it is unlikely he heard that you had returned. It is fortunate you slept so long; few saw you today. However, he may have already discovered you are no longer there. You would be wise not be here when he returns."

"Why did you lie for me?" He appreciated her concealing the fact that he had been asleep not twenty yards from the Thalmor, but no innkeeper he had ever known would jeopardize their own safety for that of their patrons.

"I didn't. I told him the truth. Just not all of it. You're not from here, so I'll say this simply. Some people won't like you because you're a Dark Elf. But you want to make friends? Spit in the Thalmor's face, and you'll have people buying you drinks from here to Windhelm. But you need to be gone. I told the carriage-driver to expect a passenger, but he won't wait forever. Say your goodbyes, and be on your way. Get your message to Whiterun, bring news of the dragons, and then you'll vanish, head back home, and keep your head down for the rest of your days if you're smart."

"I will consider it." And I still wonder what you are keeping from me, innkeeper. Her behavior still made little sense, even if she did not like the Thalmor. She had lied to them, concealed him while he was completely helpless, and was now pushing him out the door to be safe. Do the dragons frighten her so, or does she have some other reason to hate the Thalmor? She was no Nord, but perhaps she had lost family or friends in the Great War. "Thank you again. And if you could prepare a sweetroll and mulled wine for Camilla and something for the road for me, I would be grateful."

"Done. Your remaining balance can cover a breakfast for her, travel rations for you, and leave us square." She laid out a plate with a sweetroll covered in some sort of cream and a steaming mug of what must have been mulled wine. "I know the favorite foods of everyone in town. When I know Camilla will be having breakfast, I am well prepared."

"Truly your calling was as an innkeep. My thanks." He took the food and returned to the room, where Camilla had extricated herself from the sheets and was skimming through The Refugees, that book he had taken from the bandits but still not had a chance to read. She was fully nude, and his admiration at the way her breasts moved as she jumped up was tinged with sadness at the knowledge that he would have to be on his way immediately.

"My my, it seems Dark Elves deliver!" She took the sweetroll and dug in with gusto, while he adjusted the contents of his pack and finished garbing himself. He chose to keep the undershirt on, but covered it with his armor, and strapped his hide leggings over the pants. Over it all went the heavy linen cloak. As he bent to retrieve his boots, Camilla noticed what he was doing.

"Why are you putting on clothes?" She ran a hand down his chest and slipped it into the pants she had given him. "You are supposed to be taking them off." Her hand found him, and he felt himself stiffen. It was all Velandryn could do to not damn the danger and his duty and stay.

He forced himself to remove her hand and pull away. To her wounded look he said "Delphine warned me that a Thalmor agent was in last night looking for anyone from Helgen. He was asking about me in particular."

Her wide eyes met his and her hand drew back in alarm. "That High Elf? I saw him, but I was waiting for you, didn't pay him much mind. But, if he's after you…"

"There is a carriage leaving for Whiterun at dawn. I mean to be on it." He genuinely liked Camilla and had thoroughly enjoyed the previous night, but he had no desire to find out what the Thalmor wanted with him. He slid the bow over his shoulder, and buckled his swordbelt on. "I wish I could stay, but—"

She cut him off by thrusting his bag into his hands. "You need to be gone. I will talk to Delphine and get our story straight, but you have to get to that carriage." She leaned in and kissed him deeply. She tasted of spices and sugar, and it was with sorrow that he pulled away. "When all of this is done, come back and find me. We still have" her expression regained some of its earlier wicked charm "unfinished business."

In the common hall, Delphine had prepared a satchel of food for the road. He accepted it with thanks, gave her a handful of drakes in gratitude, and stepped out into the predawn gloom. The carriage was pulled up in front of the inn, and the Nord sitting on the driver's bench reached out to offer him a hand up. "Lady didn't say you'd be an elf."

"Is that a problem?" If it was, this entire plan could collapse quickly.

"You any good with that bow?"

"Good enough. Why?"

"You sit up here with me and keep an eye open for wolves; they're out in force this time of year. A hundred septims from you gets you to Whiterun, and I give you five back for every wolf you bag me."

"Make it ten and you have a deal." I am certain he is overcharging, but I have no other options.

The big driver grinned. "A High Elf who looks a lot like a Thalmor shows up, and then you need to leave town in a hurry? I think you are going to be on this wagon one way or another. You get five, or you get nothing, or you get to walk."

"Five it is. I thought Nords helped those in need."

"Not elves. You're on the run from Thalmor, so I give you a ride. But I've seen the mess your kind make in Windhelm, so you pay one hundred. You coming?"

He sighed, and handed the driver four sovereigns. "There. One hundred. Now, I want to be gone." He placed his bag in the wagon bed behind him, atop stacks of cut lumber, bundled furs and hides, and crates of ore; he had hoped to be able to read The Refugees, but he had to work, it seemed. Settling in, bow in his lap and quiver to one side, he peered out into the grey before dawn. With a click and a whip of the reins, the horse jolted to a walk, and the carriage rumbled off.

Chapter 4: Crossroads on the Plain

Summary:

Whiterun, and the end of Velandryn's obligations

Chapter Text

Skyrim Thalmor Embassy, Office of Intelligence, Official Dossier

Report of Tuanthel, Agent 3 rd tier Office of Intelligence

Subject: Velandryn Savani

Race: Dunmer (probable Morrowind origins)

Age: Unknown (Estimated under 50 years)

Affiliation: Unknown (Possibly Govt. of Morrowind)

Associates of Interest: Unknown

(15th Last Seed 4E201) Subject encountered north of Pale Pass. Heightened security around rebel prisoner transport led to confinement of Subject with rebels.

(17th Last Seed 4E 201) Subject arrived in Helgen on prisoner cart with rebels including [Ulfric Stormcloak] slated for execution. Arrival of Dragon prevented execution of Subject, who vanished in chaos following attack.

(18th Last Seed 4E 201) Arrived in Riverwood accompanied by Imperial soldier [Hadvar of Falkreath] and rebel soldier [Ralof of Riverwood] made contact with numerous individuals in Riverwood. Possibility of transfer of intelligence cannot be ruled out. Testimony of two locals [Sven/Faendal] indicates likely contact and collusion with [Camilla Valentina] possible sexual liaison and potential point of ingress should pressure need to be exerted on Subject.

(19th Last Seed 4E 201) Travelled to Bleak Falls Barrow, large numbers of corpses found within by Agent. Burned remains of elven corpse found within arranged in ritual pyre, alongside numerous [Draugr-designation Nord]. Numerous pre-Alessian artifacts found, consistent with Dragon Cult ruins found throughout province. Evidence of return to Riverwood and subsequent departure, likely for Whiterun.

Office of Intelligence Official Notes

Subject's presence at Helgen during Incident concerning, but we cannot rule out happenstance. Thus far has displayed signs of possible connections to Dunmer intelligence-gathering apparatus. Bleak Falls pyre remains possibly consistent with Dunmer funereal practices, indicates death of ally, potentially another member of Dunmer Intelligence. Possible contact made in Riverwood, Whiterun prime location for information drop-off.

Verdict: At this time, unlikely to be of direct interest. Any further reports that include Subject should be appended below. Status may be reevaluated should new information come to light.

The carriage rolled to a halt. "Out. We're here." The driver handed Velandryn a sovereign and five drakes, and the Dunmer grabbed his pack and disembarked. "Safe travels, elf."

"And you, human." He still did not like the man, but he had held up his end of the unfair bargain. Six wolves, thirty drakes, and Velandryn was at Whiterun. Or, so he assumed. Having only heard stories of the city, he had expected something different than… this.

The geography was impressive, to be sure. The city rose out of the cold plains on a high hill, crested at the top by a massive structure that he presumed to be the jarl's hall. Around it though…

The walls of the city had been impressive once, perhaps, but now they were half in ruins, and the buildings peeking over them were all of wood. Painted and beautifully carved, to be sure, but from a grand trade city that he had once heard described as the "Crossroads of Skyrim," he expected more splendor.

What drew his eye as he approached, however, was the city beyond the walls; dozens of wooden structures and countless tents and haphazard shacks sprawled out around the city gates. Hundreds of people milled about, cooking food over firepits or bartering what they had brought with them for coin or other goods. By the look of things, news of the dragon had spread, and the farmers and wanderers of Whiterun District were taking refuge at what they hoped to be safe. If the dragon comes, wooden houses will not save them. Perhaps there were tunnels and halls within the hill proper. It would make sense, and offer greater security in times of war.

For now though, the only thing that mattered about this city was that he could bring to its leaders news of Helgen. Once the jarl had been informed, Velandryn's part was done. There were a dozen carriages clustered around the post where the roads met, and he was willing to wager that one of them was bound east soon enough. For now though, my road leads into the city.

The crowd parted easily enough around him. Closer to the walls, Velandryn realized that much of this collection of humanity might not be caused by the dragon, but simply be business as usual for the market city. Most of the permanent structures here were stalls for merchants to rent, and those who could not find space in one of them had set up shop wherever they could find a few square yards of ground. He saw a Redguard with a great curved sword accosting random passers-by and asking if they had seen a certain woman. A pair of Nords who wore naught but blue paint and loincloths were selling huge hairy slabs of meat and fantastically carved tusks from the back of a wagon made of bones. A cluster of robed and masked wizards hawked soul gems and enchantments to any who would listen, while a priestess in a scaled cloak alternated between shouting in some harsh language and demanding that people repent in the face of the dragon god who had returned. He even saw a clan of Khajiit sitting amongst colorful patchwork tents, their leader deep in conversation with a young Nord woman.

A cry went up from the crowd, and guards waded in, eventually emerging with a wriggling boy and a bulging purse. Velandryn had stored the better part of his coin and all of his gems in a pouch beneath his armor, but he did check the small bag he was wearing on his belt, where some loose drakes for food or bribes were jingling. I should buy a sturdier pack as well. His repurposed sack would not last long, and losing his potions and various sundries would be a great inconvenience. Besides which, I still want to read that book. When a child bumped into him, he glared at it suspiciously, but the little human only stared at him with wide eyes, some sort of sugared treat sticking out of its mouth. Velandryn snorted and moved on.

Besides the stalls in which the merchants had set up shop, there were a few businesses catering to the travelers and traders. In front of one inn, a trio of Orsimer in scaled armor argued fiercely with a stable-hand. The cause of the argument was plain, as the Orcish wagon was loaded up with weapons and armor, and being pulled by a pair of huge snuffling boars. These beasts were terrifying the horses, and the inn was refusing to let them stay. As Velandryn watched, one of the Orcs erupted with a string of brutish yells in his rough tongue, and the stable-hand lit up her hands with lightning. Moving along before things got any further out of hand, Velandryn's eye was caught by a garish red lantern swinging above an expansive two-story structure. On the second story landing, a Nord woman wearing nothing above the waist and a Bosmer man wearing nothing below it were waving to passersby. A decent trickle of folk was going in and out of the building, so Velandryn had to assume that their crude promotion was successful. As he moved on, the two of them began coupling brazenly in full view of the world. Savages, though I doubt many here would defend them. It made sense though; a market town could alleviate many issues by making houses of earthly delights available. Past the brothel, a tavern with no walls was hosting far more custom as another carnal need was met. Going by the drunken singing from the patrons, there was never a bad time to be drunk in Whiterun. Or Skyrim. Might make the whole place stop smelling like Nord.

It would have been all too easy to lose himself here. Velandryn had always loved markets and meeting-places; it was exciting to be amongst so many bartering and passing, and each merchant sold their story along with their goods. As a child he would spend hours drinking in the sights and sounds of the Cauldron Hold, the great outlander dock in Blacklight where any merchant could do trade. Ducking around a pack of Bretons in fur and bone armor he watched a cackling seamstress display a scrap of transparent silk to a blushing young woman one stall over from a Bosmer fletcher who spoke with his hands as he showed off the bows and arrows he had for sale.

That last one actually interested Velandryn, and he made his way to the little mer, who first gave a revolted shudder when he saw the bow Velandryn was currently carrying and then insisted on showing him a variety of alternatives, from a huge longbow made of ebony and ironwood that would require a giant's strength to use to a gaudy moonstone monstrosity inlaid with gems and gilded scrollwork. In the end, Velandryn settled on a fine shortbow made of Heiroc yew, and the vendor threw in some catgut strings from Elsweyr, "Just don't tell the Khajiit, it might be their cousins, hmm?" Velandryn paid for his new bow, and handed the other over. The Bosmer accepted it with disdain, and assured him he would break it apart and burn it so nobody would ever risk having to use it again.

The sun was still above the mountains to the southwest, but having spent the last three nights on the road with a provincial carriage driver, Velandryn had no desire to spend this one outside as well. There were a number of traveler's inns and taverns he had seen already, but they looked full to bursting. Inside the walls might be better, but in truth Velandryn was hoping that news of Helgen would rate him a bunk in the jarl's palace atop the hill. Lords ate well and kept their halls warm and bright, and the wind off the plains was already starting to chill him. He readjusted his pack to account for the new bow, checked his hip for the balance of his quiver and blades, and set off uphill, under the old stone arches that led to the main gate.

"City's closed with the dragon about." Velandryn was not sure he had heard the guard correctly, but fortunately the man had been kind enough to repeat it when he did not immediately leave.

"Might I ask why? Are you afraid it is going to sneak in dressed as a refugee?" The frightened people camped outside the city gates clearly had their share of unsavory folk among them, but dragons seemed to be entirely lacking from their number. Velandryn himself was not indifferent to their plight, but he did want to get into the city before too much longer."I am here about Helgen. I witnessed the dragon attack, and need to speak with the jarl."

"Truly? We haven't seen any survivors from there yet. Might be you're lying, but I'll have someone take you up to Dragonsreach, they'll sort you out." He gestured, and another guard, this one shorter and in full-face helm, came forward. Velandryn followed him through a small door set into the main gate, and into the fabled crossroads city of Whiterun.

Velandryn's first impression was one of height. The city climbed the hill; a second wall girded the area closer to the palace. His second impression was of placid prosperity. The gate they had come through opened on a small plaza; a blacksmith had set up shop on the right side, while a guardhouse dominated the left. The winding roads leading off from the square vanished amongst houses and small shops. Where the woodwork was carved, the theme was horses. Their wooden likeness adorned roofs and banners alike. At the blacksmith's a Nord in fine clothing was arguing with a woman in a leather apron while another worked the forge. A pair of guards casually leaned on long spears and the overall atmosphere was markedly calmer than the hectic barter and press beyond the walls. When Velandryn remarked on this, the guard was more than happy to show off his home. "We're in the Plains District now, but it's not the same as the lower market. The jarl only allows a certain number of shops and stalls within the city, and every vendor has to be a citizen in good standing of the hold. Anyone can trade outside the walls, but most of what goes on in here is local. Plenty of farmers come here to do business, but most people you'll see inside the walls actually live here."

As they made their way along one of the roads, the guard pointed out shops in passing that he was particularly fond of. Velandryn soon got the impression that this man was not the most hardened defender of the city. When asked, the guard happily confirmed. "Oh, aye, my da's a farmer to the east of here, my whole family really. We have a few acres, grow food for the city and feed for livestock. I came to town a few times with my da or brothers to sell, though truth be told once was enough. Once I saw Whiterun, I knew I'd be here for good. So, when I turned sixteen, I signed on with the guard. I get three meals a day, good pay, and I meet new and interesting people every day. Like you!" He removed his helm, and Velandryn was confronted with a beardless youth whose olive skin and sharp features showed him to be Imperial despite his Skyrim accent. The guard grinned. "Did you really see the dragon at Helgen? That's all anyone in the city's been talking about!"

"I did, closer than I might have liked." He wanted to keep conversation on the topic to a minimum until he had spoken with whoever would handle the issue, so he tried to change the topic. "I don't think I ever caught your name, friend."

As he had hoped, the garrulous guard snapped at the bait. "I'm Kenrik Green-Bend." He looked vaguely embarrassed. "That's the farm my family owns. Not very heroic, is it?" He brightened up. "Soon though, I'll do great deeds and earn a hero's name! Just you watch, friend. Ah, and yours? Your name, I mean."

"Velandryn Savani, of…Baan Malur, I suppose. I'm afraid I have no heroic deeds to add to my name either." Something about the young guard's enthusiasm was endearing, and Velandryn found himself interested in the young human's story. "If you do not mind the question, you have a Nord's name and speech, but look to be Imperial."

The guard grinned again. "Aye, noticed did you? That one takes a bit of explaining. My ma's ma, she was an Imperial, so my ma was too. Only thing is, my grand-ma came up to Skyrim years and years ago from The City, working out on the farms with her family. She married a Nord, and my ma did too, that'd be my da, Ulmar, see. So, I'm three parts Nord, but the Imperial comes out true in me and all my brothers and sister too. My ma found a book years ago, says there that the mother's look always comes out. I'm more Nord than not, though. Cold never was a problem, and I can down an ale with the best of them. Only thing Imperial about me's my talking, and me liking to meet new people. It's why they picked me to show you the way. They don't have to hear me jabber their ear off, and I get to walk the streets instead of just standing at a gate."

Velandryn had to admit that his choice of escort had been apt. The young man was clearly bright and friendly; a good choice to get the feel of visitors who could possibly be of import but did not require formality. They were coming up on another square, this one lined with stalls selling what looked like various types of food. "A place like this is where you sold your wares, I imagine?"

Kenrik shook his head. "Farmers sell to the vendors, who sell in the city. We unload in the lower market; it'd be a nightmare trying to get those wagons up here." As they entered the square, the guard turned to look at an Imperial woman who was selling fruits and vegetables from a stall. Or, she should have been, but at the moment she was arguing with what looked to be a very well-groomed bard. The guard sighed. "Mikael is bothering Carlotta Valentina again. Most like we'll be called in when he gets too free with his hands or she snaps his lute over his head again." He took a left turn, and the path they were on began to climb. The next bend in the road revealed that they were approaching the inner wall. Helm under his arm, Kenrik waved to the pair of guards standing under the stone arch leading through the wall.

As they passed beneath the arch, the city opened up before them. Where the Plains District had been a sprawl of buildings punctuated by a few plazas and narrow winding streets of rough cobbles in dirt, this middle area was defined by broad thoroughfares of finely fitting stones, with elegant paved paths leading to impressive mansions of richly carved wood. Although they had the same general style of construction as the Plains District below, here foundations and adornments of the houses were more likely to be gilded or carved of some pale white stone. The larger streets were flanked by well-groomed greenery and open gutters running with water. Where poles and beams had ended in carved horses below, here every carving of wood or stone was dominated by birds, either in flight on a flat surface, or in profile capping wooden beams. Kenrik told him that this was the Wind District, and Velandryn could see why. The height and broad spaces up here meant that the chill winds off the plains scythed between buildings and gave the whole place a frigid feel that had been lacking below.

Directly in front of them was a great circular plaza dominated by a withered tree. When asked about the tree, Kenrik pointed at a building across the way. "That's the Temple's business. They say the tree is sacred to Kynareth, so they keep it. I'd think Kynareth would want a new tree, if it were me. Truth be told, I never cared much for Kynareth. She's good to us, but for real Nords, we get our blessings from Tsun, Shor, Akatosh and Talos!" He lowered his voice and glanced around. "Ah, I mean, just those first three, right?" he glanced nervously at Velandryn. "Er, maybe don't go spreading that about though. No Thalmor here, but still best not to be too open about Talos these days."

Velandryn shrugged. "I've no quarrel with your gods. They aren't mine, to be sure, but you seem a decent sort. So, let me keep my gods, and I do the same for you." I may not know much about Nord gods, but I know we killed Shor at Red Mountain. Best I don't bring that up though. His gods will never love me, but no need to antagonize him.

As they crossed the plaza, he noticed a huge hall in the shape of an overturned ship on a bluff to the right, overshadowed by a great stone bird seemingly carved out of the mountain. Kenrik's words pulled his gaze onward, however, to where the road turned into a long stair, climbing through a series of stone landings up to the palace above. "That's where we're headed. The Cloud District, Dragonsreach Hall, and the jarl. He'll hear your story and know what to do."

As they approached the stair, they passed a man in robes who was ranting about something or other. Kenrik sighed and leaned in to speak quietly to Velandryn. "Heimskr. Remember what I said before about Talos? I can't fault a man for loving Him, but Heimskr does more harm than good. Annoys people with his ranting, and if the Thalmor ever get power here, his head is the first on the block."

Leaving the disciple of Talos to his ministrations, they began to climb the carved stone steps to Dragonsreach. When they reached the second landing, which was surrounded by cool clear water, Velandryn looked out over the city. It might not have the size and grandeur of Blacklight or Mournhold, but it was several miles to the outermost fringes of the lower market, and not a step of the journey here had been dull. Velandryn Savani was willing to accept that his initial assessment had been wrong; Whiterun was an impressive city, and possessed a fearsome command of the plains. Besides which, not one person had looked twice at a Dunmer in their midst, a welcome novelty in human lands.

Kenrik stood beside him, one hand shading his eyes as he gazed out over the city. "Gods, best view in the world, isn't it? One day, I'll make it to the jarl's personal guard, and be able to patrol up here every day."

By the time they finally summited the steps, the sun still shone on the steps and the Cloud District, but the rest of the city was in shadow. They had arrived on a landing that stood before another pristine pool, this one crossed by a sheltered wooden walkway that led to the grand front doors of the palace. The palace itself eschewed both horses and birds for an entirely different aesthetic. But for the banners of Whiterun, dragons dominated the crest of Whiterun's hill. Velandryn doubted he would ever forget how they looked, and either the carpenters had seen dragons in the flesh, or they had had a very good reference from which to draw. The heads that capped the huge wooden beams looked as though they would come to life and spit fire, and looking at them gave Velandryn a thrill of apprehension.

By the look of things, the Cloud District was composed entirely of the palace and its attendant buildings, and commanded a significant tactical advantage over the rest of the city. Should Whiterun ever fall under siege or turn against its lord, archers and mages could turn the approach below into a charnel-field, and a few dedicated warriors could hold only stair against far superior numbers. Velandryn wondered how many times in history this landing they now crossed had been stained with blood. Kenrik was going on about the first time he had seen Dragonsreach, and how it had gotten its name, but Velandryn was distracted by the view and his own thoughts of dragon's fire, and heard only one word in three.

The sun was low behind them as they approached the front doors of Dragonsreach. A pair of guards stood at the door, but where the city guards below had worn light leather and mail in the city's colors, these wore heavy steel covered with a golden tabard bearing the horsehead emblem of the city. Their weapons were of fine make and heavy cast; clearly these were the jarl's household guard that Kenrik aspired to. Just as clearly they were cut from different cloth than the ones below. He had best learn to school his face, and perhaps gain a few span of height as well. The man was not the largest Nord Velandryn had ever seen, though he came close; he stood with a great halberd in one hand and a pair of swords crossed on his back. The woman was of slightly more reasonable size, standing only half a foot taller than the Dunmer, but had a disapproving look on her severe face and moved to block their way with the haft of her spear. "What brings you and your guest to Dragonsreach, guardsman?" Her manner was brusque and professional, and Velandryn found himself hoping that Kenrik's love of people extended to a rapport with the Dragonsreach guards. Otherwise, a Dunmer would have to try to talk his way into the hall of a Nord jarl, which could end very badly indeed.

The city guard looked nervous, but stood tall and reported with a voice that quavered only a little. "Ah, this man brings news from Helgen about the dragon attack, Korpral Lydia. We thought it best to bring him to the jarl at once, sir." Man, is it? My mother would weep to hear. And you and the gate guard thought it best to bring me here? Such clever guards they have in Whiterun, able to take credit so easily.

Korpral Lydia, who was clearly in charge, turned to regard Velandryn. "Is this true?"

"It is. I was present for the dragon attack, and thought my testimony could be useful in defense of the city, should it come this way."

Her manner changed at once. Her cool disdain vanished, replaced with intense focus as she closed with him, urgency flaring in her eyes. "Do you believe it will move on Whiterun? Why come here in the first place? Speak quickly, lives could be at stake!"

"No! It headed northwest, not directly towards the city. I know for a fact that both the Empire and Stormcloaks have been alerted by those who were there. My understanding is that Whiterun is neutral in this conflict, and the smith in Riverwood thought I should bring my story here to assist the jarl with the defense of the District."

She relaxed back into her professional stance, passion submerged as though it never was. "Very well. House Guard Gulf, you have the watch." The big Nord saluted, hand over chest. "Guardsman, you are dismissed. Report back to the gate." Kenrik turned to leave, giving Velandryn a wave as he went. "You." She looked down at Velandryn. "Follow me." She rapped three times on the great wooden doors to Dragonsreach, and one slowly creaked open. She vanished inside, and Velandryn followed.

Jarl Balgruuf the Greater of Whiterun was a man who bore the burden of rulership heavy on his shoulders. Lydia knew that he had been up into the early hours of the morning every night since news of the dragon had reached them and the rumors of Helgen's destruction had only added to his worries. If this elf could help, she would see him to the jarl personally. Inside the main doors, House Guard Silga took his weapons into a side chamber; he handed them over without protest, if not happily. As they climbed the steps that led to from the lower antechamber to the jarl's hall, she heard heavy breathing from the elf beside her. Glancing over, she noted his eyes fixed on the steps in front of him and the weight of each footfall. If he climbed from the plains in one go, he is likely exhausted. Foreigners are never prepared to ascend to Dragonsreach. This was not High Hrothgrar, but the summit of Whiterun demanded a fearsome climb, as the elf was now learning. They stopped at the landing; they were hidden from the view of the dais, and could prepare for the final approach. She spoke in a low voice as he caught his breath. "Are you ready to face the jarl?" She would not humiliate a supplicant. If his claims were true, then he was to be commended for coming all this way. If he was a liar, he would be punished accordingly.

Something flashed in his red eyes that might have been gratitude. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths "I am." He looked apprehensive, though the strange angles of his face and red of his eyes made it difficult to tell. Lydia had felt apprehensive around the Jarl's Dark Elf housecarl Irileth when she had first joined the guard and met the Dunmer warrior, but had come to know her as a brave soldier and true servant of the Jarl. Irileth could be difficult to read as well, though Lydia had grown much better at it as time went on. This one though, was a stranger.

She tapped her spear on the floorboards, and pointed onwards. "Approach from the left of the firepit, slowly. Speak only truth and with respect, but do not act the lickspittle. Nords have no liking for such things. When Irileth challenges you, do not move your hands. With the situation in Skyrim as it is, many fear an attempt on the jarl's life." She let him take the lead, and, as he approached the dais, took up a position two steps behind him. If he tried anything, her spear thrust would pierce him through, and then she could close with sword and shield and lop off his head. She thought he was likely telling the truth, but vigilance was the watchword of the guard.

When Irileth challenged him, he answered well enough, speaking of Helgen and his intent to aid the Jarl. If he felt anything at seeing a Dark Elf as a Housecarl, he hid it well. When the jarl beckoned him forward, he moved with confidence, bowed before the throne, and spoke in his low gravelly voice. "The Imperials were about to execute a group of rebels that included Ulfric Stormcloak, when a dragon appeared and…generated some chaos. Numerous Stormcloaks used the opportunity to either escape or attack the Imperials. I managed to reach the keep, and escaped using a series of cellars and tunnels that exited outside of the city. I made my way to Riverwood, where Alvor, the smith there, suggested that I bring this account to you. He helped me while under no obligation to do so, and I thought it best to bring what news I could to you."

He fell silent, and the jarl sat back in his throne, thinking deeply. His brother, however, did not. Hrongar stepped forward, face hard and suspicious. "Elf, what were you doing in Helgen?"

Both the Dark Elves' faces tightened. Irileth was clearly bothered by Hrongar's mode of address, while the bowing Dark Elf whose name Lydia was just realizing she did not know looked more put out and worried. "I was…I had been seized by the Empire for being too near the path that the rebels took. I was entering Skyrim on my own business, unrelated to the Stormcloaks. It seems the Empire did not want to risk anyone interfering with their triumph." Well, at least he is likely being honest. Nobody would make up a story that stupid.

Hrongar disagreed. "Brother, we have no reason to trust him. He could be here for any number of purposes. The Thalmor would like to see Whiterun weakened, I have no doubt."

The jarl stirred. "It seems an odd thing to make this story up, but you are not wrong." He fixed the elf with his gaze. "Are you willing to swear to the truth of your words?"

"I am. By the Three Reclaimed I swear that I, Velandryn Savani, speak nothing but the truth here today, by the Spinner of Eight, by the Revelation Fire, and by the Dawn and Dusk, may they abandon me to wander without law or purpose at the mercy of Four Corners if by my lie I fail their Test." Lydia knew nothing of Dark Elf gods, but that seemed a strong oath.

Hrongar, however, was unimpressed. "Swear by real gods, elf. Swear by gods who will break you if you lie to us."

The Dark Elf—Velandryn Savani seemed to be his name—raised an eyebrow. "I have heard the Three disparaged many ways, by methods both clever and crude. However, this might be the first time that someone has accused them of being too merciful for an oath. If Daedra are not enough for you, pray tell, which gods should I invoke?"

Hrongar opened his mouth, but Balgruuf cut him off. "Enough! Brother, I believe him. Velandryn, did you say your name was? I thank you for bringing this news to me." He turned to his housecarl. "Irileth, I need you to send some men to Riverwood. The town must be protected from future attack. In truth, I should have done this long ago."

Proventus, the steward, interjected, as he always seemed to be doing. "My Jarl, the reasons not to send troops are all still valid. The jarl of Falkreath has stated numerous times that—"

"I don't care what that upjumped child says, Proventus! My people are sending messengers to me about dragons! Any political concerns are secondary, I will provide them the protection they need! Irileth, see to it."

The housecarl bowed. "At once, my Jarl." She turned to Hrongar. "You have the jarl's defense until I return." Without another word, she turned and strode quickly down the length of the hall, descending the steps. After a moment, the great front doors boomed, signaling her departure.

Jarl Balgruuf looked back to the remaining Dark Elf in the room. "And as for you, you have my thanks for what you have done, and a chance to aid the people of Whiterun. My court wizard, Farengar, has been researching dragons since word reached us that one had been sighted. I want you to go to him and offer him whatever help you can. Perhaps it will be nothing more than telling him what you saw at Helgen, but I know in my bones that this dragon will return. I want every advantage we can have when it does."

The elf stood. "Very well. I shall give whatever assistance I can to your court wizard." He paused as something seemed to occur to him. "If I am to render aid as requested, I would be far more effective if not hungry and worrying about where I will lay my head. Might I have permission to secure food from the kitchens and a place to sleep when the hour grows late?"

Lydia shared a look with Hrongar. The elf had nerve, or did not know what he asked. Asking to shelter beneath a jarl's roof was asking for their protection, and to be considered a member of their household until they left. It was a mark of trust which this elf was still far from earning.

The jarl considered. "Speak with Farengar first. There are inns in the city below, but if you give good aid, I will allow you a place in Dragonsreach until our business is concluded." Lydia gestured to the elf, who followed her to the wizard's rooms, not far off the main hall.

Once she had deposited the elf with Farengar, she turned to go. She had barely reached the door, however, when an exclamation rang out. "That's it! That's the Dragonstone! It seems the jarl finally sends me someone who isn't a mindless brute!"

She could not make out the elf's response as she was due back at her post. She hoped, however, that Farengar might finally have made a friend.

Many hours after meeting Farengar, Velandryn reluctantly pulled himself away from his desk and allowed a servant to lead him to a spare room near the kitchens. It was a few hours until dawn, and he had been up since the previous sunrise, but he honestly wanted nothing more than to return to the wizard's workshop. It was small and crude by Dunmer standards, but it had the basics necessary for research. The wizard's interest in dragons bordered on an obsession, and his initial reception of Velandryn had been less than perfectly welcoming. That all changed when the Dragonstone entered the picture. When the wizard started going on about an ancient stone tablet that depicted the province of Skyrim and the location of dragon burial sites, Velandryn began to suspect that the relic he had removed from Bleak Falls Barrow could be more useful than he had anticipated. By the time he had produced a map showing ancient Dragon Cult burial sites, Velandryn was enjoying himself immensely. He got the wizard to agree to give him unrestricted lab and library access in exchange for one of these stones, then produced it with a flourish and handed it over. After hearing about Bleak Falls and the draugr, Farengar had returned to his books, feverishly searching for some half-remembered tome that posited a connection between the old Dragon Cult and draugr. Velandryn, meanwhile, occupied himself with perusing a catalog of the flora and fauna of the area surrounding Whiterun and decided that the alchemical potential of the region was significant, and this would be a very good field of study. He used some of the ingredients he had scrounged to mix up a few experimental potions, by which time Farengar had returned.

The wizard wanted someone to go dig up dragon bones, and he had just the mer in mind. Velandryn was not opposed on principle, but he wanted a chance to delve deeper into this library. By the time the servant came to offer him his bed for what was left of the night, he had learned the basics of several spells that he suspected would help shore up some of his weaknesses in battle. These Nords lacked subtlety in most of their magic, but the configurations described in these spellbooks, while crude, hinted at levels of strength that would be far above what equivalent Dunmer spells could produce. If I have time, analysis and integration of these principles into other spells could yield interesting results. Or, I could consume myself in a tide of rogue magicka. As he stretched out on his cot and let sleep claim him, he decided that risk was worth it. After all, those who risked nothing could gain nothing in return.

"Come, the court wizard has need of you." Someone was intruding on Velandryn's sleep, and he had a horrible suspicion that it was a Nord. Opening his eyes only confirmed it, and he held back a shudder. Nobody should be forced to deal with a Nord so soon after waking up. It was one of the servants, with some sort of nervous-looking expression on his face. Either that, or the human just looked like that normally. Humans aged rapidly, and Velandryn suspected that this one was elderly.

"Did he say why?" A yawn threatened to eat the last word, and it occurred to him that perhaps one decent night's sleep did not make up for three spent fitfully on a carriage.

"You must come now. Farengar has asked for you, and the Jarl wishes you to be present as well."

Velandryn pulled on his boots and clothing, and followed the servant up some narrow stairs. "What happened to cause them both to need my presence?" They left the stairs and hurried down hallways that all looked the same. The servant said not a word, and Velandryn was left to wonder. The light was streaming in through the windows, and Velandryn realized he must have slept through half the morning. His excited studies last night might have gone on a bit too long, in hindsight.

He rather liked Farengar, he had decided. The wizard was arrogant and opinionated, disdainful of those who did not share his interests and aptitudes. He could almost be Dunmer; a Temple elder or Sadras mystic. He finds himself surrounded by mundane warriors and ignorant commoners, and his relief at finding a worthy associate should allow me to access what I need from his workshop. Ingredients, soul gems, spell tomes and books on Skyrim's magical and religious traditions; I could turn a healthy profit if I return to Morrowind after taking what I can. And yet, he knew he would not. The wizard had taken him in in good faith, rewarded him with coin and knowledge for the Dragon Stone and offered him interesting and honest work. It would be unworthy to take advantage for mere coin. Spells and knowledge though? Those he would take without regret or second thoughts. I hope this meeting, whatever it may be, is over quickly. I want to get back to things that matter.

The hallway emptied into a war room on a balcony overlooking the huge main hall where Velandryn had met the jarl the day before. The jarl himself was there, as was his Dunmer bodyguard, and those two humans who had also been present yesterday. A number of his household guard in their steel armor were present, including the woman who had escorted him into Dragonsreach; he was reasonably sure her name was Lydia. Farengar and several of the town guard rounded out the assembly. A Nord who looked somewhat younger than the others was describing something.

"…came from the mountains, hit the watchtower early in the morning. Three are dead, Serjeant Freya is trapped inside. I was on patrol, Korpral Grallius and I broke for the city. The dragon…it…breathed fire! I heard his screams, and I…I kept…I had to reach the city!" His eyes were wide; he looked on the verge of tears. "I didn't want to leave them, but I had to reach the city. I had to tell you, didn't I?" His words were tumbling out of his mouth now, and the Jarl intervened before the guard could devolve further into hysterics.

"Go, son, and get yourself a hot meal and a rest. You've done well." Nearly weeping, the guard was escorted out of the hall, and the jarl turned to those assembled around the maps of Whiterun and the surrounding plains. "My friends, the dragon is upon us. Irileth, assemble a dozen of my personal guard, and the best of the town watch. Farengar, find me anything you can on how to kill a dragon. I want the group ready to move out to the western watchtower within the hour."

The other Dunmer spun on her heel and addressed an older Nord in steel armor trimmed with gold. "Kaptain Hrun, assemble third and fifth rotations. Bring Lydia, Gulf, Kemming and Bolli as well." Next she regarded the group of town watchmen. "Find Commander Caius. Have him assemble ten of his best archers and ten of his best with the spear. Arm them with atgeir and javelin, and the archers with bodkin shafts." She turned to Velandryn, who was still standing there taking it all in. "You're coming too."

"Am I?" He had seen the dragon once. It had burned down a town and incinerated several hundred soldiers and civilians. "What good do you think I will be?" He could barely fight, and he was fairly certain that even if his spell of rage worked on the dragon, making it angry probably wouldn't improve their situation. "Or am I acting as bait?"

Her eyes narrowed, and she fixed him with a glare. "The last dragon in Skyrim died so long ago that I can't even tell you when it happened! Nobody has fought a dragon in thousands of years, at least! You are, for better or worse," her tone made it evident that she felt it was solidly for the worse, "the sole person in the city who has faced the dragon and lived." She snorted. "Most like, you do nothing, and we are no better off. But, while you might not care about them, those are my men and women going out there to fight and maybe die. If I can save even one of their lives with some scrap of something you remembered, I will take it. So, get yourself down to the armory and grab what you need. You are coming."

He could not argue with that. She wasn't wrong. Had these been his people, he would have used every hope, every trick, to save them. He could not even begrudge her distaste for having him along. Were I in charge of killing a dragon, I am the last person I would bring! He had suspected yesterday that she was more Nord than Dunmer, if she was willing to kneel to one of these jarls. An outlander in truth, but not without honor, in her way.

Farengar reappeared, arms full of scrolls and a travel cloak hastily thrown around his shoulders. "I'm ready to go! Let's be off!" He looked positively overjoyed at the prospect of seeing a dragon in the flesh.

His joy was short-lived, however, as the jarl put a hand on his shoulder and told him the sad news. "My friend, you must stay here. I cannot risk my court wizard on the field of battle." Farengar's face fell, and even Velandryn could see the heartbreak etched on his face. As the soldiers moved around the room preparing to move out, the wizard came over to Velandryn, and dropped his load on the table before him.

"Alright, listen up." Velandryn listened; it was possible the wizard's advice could be of some help, and while Velandryn was reasonably certain that the wizard did not know his name, the two of them had a fairly good rapport. Velandryn had helped as a he could on the dragon research, and Farengar had provided him with some excellent clues as to interesting spells and alchemical recipes. He had also provided a huge number of soul gems and his own expertise at enchantments, and all of Velandryn's armor was now imbued with fire resistance that, while it would likely not resist a dragon's breath, might keep him alive for few seconds more. And now, he seemed eager to give Velandryn yet more help against the dragon. "These are scrolls of ice and lightning. This dragon is of fire, and you said that your element is fire as well. Your spells won't do anything to it, so use these." He pulled out a vial of a thick blue liquid. "I made this from an ancient recipe I found in an old journal. It should poison the dragon's blood and slow it down." Velandryn tucked that one away, doubtful that the tiny vial could do much against the massive bulk of the dragon.

The wizard kept giving him advice, pointing out passages on flight patterns and diagrams of how certain parts of the wing were more vulnerable to being pierced. Velandryn tried to absorb as much as he could, but he had a sinking certainty that in the heat of battle, most of this information would be as good as useless. As the wizard wound down, the guard from before, who he was more than half certain was the Lydia that Irileth had mentioned, stomped up the steps and confronted him.

"We are assembling at the lower gates. Irileth wonders where you are."

"I am here. I was thinking about spending the rest of the day reading, and maybe going out in the evening for some—"

Her hand closed around his collar, and she pulled him bodily out of the chair. "Get your armor on and get moving!"

"It's downstairs. Would you like to come watch me put it on, to ease your mind?" He had no idea where this was coming from. It seems that certain death brings out the cynic in me.

As he strapped on various pieces of armor, with an unamused Lydia standing behind him, arms crossed, he chanced upon his fine grey tunic, emblazoned with the triumphant hand of his faith and nation. His armor's emblem had mostly faded, whipped by wind, scored by battle, and worn by enchantment. The tunic would serve to place Ghartok proud upon his chest again. He slipped it over his armor like a tabard; it was too snug to hang properly, but it would serve. It was a shame to put Camilla's handiwork in danger like this, but he felt it was the right choice. If I'm going to die surrounded by Nords, I will wear Dunmer red to the end. He stood, and left the rest of his gear less a few choice potions on his bunk. Lydia led him out, and after retrieving his weapons at the main gates, they made their way out of Dragonsreach.

A crowd had gathered at the lower gates of Whiterun. Twenty of the town guard, a dozen of the jarl's household warriors plus his housecarl and an unfamiliar Dunmer was odd enough to draw a crowd. As they made their way to where the market ended and the western road began, many curious merchants and bored travelers followed to see what madness required so many to deal with it. As they reached the western stables and Velandryn saw the open road before them, an idea occurred to him. Irileth might go for it. It's dishonorable, but it would save some of hers. He approached the housecarl, and voiced his suggestion. She did not like it, but she agreed to give it a try.

The crowd was rumbling. Velandryn heard mutters, and the word 'dragon' more than once. He saw Kenrik in the crowd, who grinned broadly and gave him a cheery wave. Irileth leapt up onto a nearby hillock, and raised her voice to be heard by all. "People of Whiterun, traders and adventurers, brave warriors all, hear me! You have heard of the dragon, now we go to slay it! Those who would be safe, stay here. But, those who would kill a dragon, who would do a deed that has not been done in ten thousand years," the crowd's murmurs grew louder as those within realized what she was saying, "come with us, and fight for Whiterun, fight for Skyrim, fight to show this dragon that it may have lasted this long, but on this day it dies!"

From the crowd, two Orcs stepped out. One had a huge bow on his back and a quiver of barbed arrows, the other a great spear with a cruel black head. Behind them came the two Nords in blue paint and loincloths, hefting crude weapons carved from bone and yelling war cries that shook the earth beneath their feet. A mage so swathed in robes that nothing was visible save its eyes from behind an ebony mask leading a pair of heavily armored goblins was next, and a half-dozen disreputable looking humans in piecemeal armor followed them. A Redguard carrying three swords and dressed in flowing robes walked over beside a trio of archers, Bosmer all, and a Dunmer in chitin armor who carried a slim carved staff that was taller than she was. The dam broke then, and many and more streamed over. Some were hardened warriors, others looked to be green boys. Kenrik sidled up beside Velandryn, and grinned at him, whispering "Don't let the Commander see me here. I'm supposed to be off my watch, and my free day is starting. I'm not missing this!"

They left Whiterun, nearly sixty strong, cheering and boasting, armed and armored in a score of styles and fashions, ready to do battle with a legend given flesh. Velandryn was in the midst of them, but his focus was on Irileth, telling her some of the more pertinent tips that Farengar had passed on. As he spoke, he realized how insane this all was. They were going to attack a dragon, a beast literally out of myth, and kill it. Alvor had been right, this was Hero's work. Well, I managed to wrangle up a crowd of assorted fodder, so maybe it will all balance out. At the very least, the dragon should have plenty of more attractive targets now. And with this, we can kill it, and I can be done with this madness. At last.

Chapter 5: In Fire Born

Summary:

Fighting Mirmulnir. Possibly dying and ending the story here.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

"We avoid fights whenever possible, of course, but if the safety of citizens is at stake, we will quickly step in to defend them, have no fear."

Kaptain Ulrich Battle-Born, Whiterun Town Guard 4E 104

"Out on the plains, we don't have the luxuries of the city patrol. Someone comes at you with a sword; you put an arrow in them before they can use it. That's just sense."

Patrol Leader Fonvar Grey-Mane, Whiterun Hold Guard 4E 104

"We defend Dragonsreach. If anyone looks to threaten the Jarl, we will strike first. In her hall, you live or die by the Jarl's command. We recognize that, and so should you."

Housecarl Borgen the Bold, Whiterun 4E 105

"Hah! Little man asks when fight? When hungry, fight beasts. When child, fight and make strong! When old, fight until Sovngarde. Fight good! Make strong or make dead!"

Hrunding Mammoth-Breaker, Clan of the Sky-Whale, 4E 100

Compiled by Imperial Ministry of Safety for Attitudes on Violence among Peoples of Skyrim published 4E 105

Lydia had never been stationed at the western watchtower, but she knew it well enough. Located a full day's march from Whiterun, it had once served as early warning should an enemy approach from the west; its position at the confluence of three roads meant that it could warn equally well against incursions from Falkreath, Hjaalmarch, or the Reach. When Fort Greymoor had still been manned, the watchtower's beacon could be seen from the relay tower atop the fort as well. Now, however, the fort was overrun with lowlife outlaws, the relay beacons had been dark for centuries, and the watchtower was a punitive posting for those who had in some way offended the higher-ups in the guard. What chance did they have against a dragon?

The watchtower had been old and crumbling, she knew, but now it was more ruin than outpost. The wooden shutters and walkways had been reduced to smoking wreckage, and the stone itself seemed to have half-melted in places from the heat. The scouts that Irileth had sent ahead were spread around the area; Lydia saw one atop the tower scanning towards the mountains to the south. The army of hangers-on and would-be dragonslayers that had accompanied them from Whiterun was dispersing as well, eager to do battle. They had traveled through the night, and some among them seemed all too happy to get off their feet and take a rest. Velandryn, that Dark Elf that seemed to be serving as Farengar's proxy, uncorked a green potion and began to drink. At her look, he produced another and offered it to her.

"Potion of fatigue" he said as he stoppered the empty vial and tucked it back into the bag on his belt. She idly wondered how he had managed to survive this long. He carried his weapons uncomfortably; moved like a city-dweller who had never spent a night out of doors; and thought himself clever, which was an unwise choice for an elf to make in Skyrim. He had not caused any trouble for her since leaving Whiterun, though she could not help but notice that he was accompanied once more by the guard who had brought him to Dragonsreach. All in all, Velandryn Savani was a burden she did not have time for. She refused the proffered potion; she had no need of it anyway. He shrugged and tucked it away, and Lydia moved forward, going to check on the guards from the watchtower.

At the base of the tower she found the injured laid out, some eight or so with burns and a few more with what looked like collateral damage from falling stone or accidental injury. As she approached, she realized that she knew the woman in the silver-trimmed cloak who commanded the watchtower. Oh gods, Freya. She had known the other woman was stationed out on the plains, but she hadn't thought she would be here.

Serjeant Freya was moving about doing what she could for what was left of her command; she gave Lydia an exhausted smile as the two passed each other. They had been so close once and joined the watch on the same day, but had gone their separate ways when Lydia joined the Dragonsreach household. I serve as the elite, and Freya is stuck out here in the back end of nowhere. Gods, she must have been so scared during the attack; she must have needed me so badly. But those days were over. One of the guards cried out in fevered distress, prompting the Serjeant to attend to her, murmuring soft reassurances. Lydia put Freya from her mind, and refocused on her duty.

As she knelt to check on another man, she noticed one of the Wood Elves who had come with them running towards the main party, shouting something in his tongue. One of his companions heard him, and raised her voice to spread the word in Imperial Common: "Dragon from the mountains!" A guard atop the watchtower was shouting too, and waving his arms. "The dragon is coming! Here in minutes! IT'S COMING!"

Lydia spun and ran toward Irileth, who had set up her command post on an outcropping of stone that still resembled the wall it had once been. Several other guards arrived as she did, and Irileth spoke to them all. "You know your formations, now get into them! Archers, aim true, spearmen, use javelins until it's downed, and for Mara's sake, don't get caught out of formation! Listen to your captains, and do not let the dragon close! If it lands, flank it in formation and remember to cripple the wings. Anybody gets themselves or someone else killed by breaking ranks, I will reach into Oblivion and pull your soul back out so you can suffer my wrath! Avoid the fire. If it can break stone, your armor won't last long." She took a deep breath, and looked over at the other Dark Elf, who had just arrived, panting. "We did not choose this battle, but we end this here. We will bring down this dragon, and return our hold to peace. May the gods go with you! For Whiterun and the jarl!"

When Irilieth had commanded his presence on her dragonslaying expedition, Velandryn had been unclear as to what his role would be. He had expected to pass along what scraps of information Farengar had wrangled out of his studies, which he had done as they marched through the night. The other Dunmer and her top retainers had listened as he spoke, and then, lit only by the light of Aetherius shining through the stars above and the few torches they carried, deliberated on how best to put knowledge of dragon behaviors and anatomy into practice. They had come to several conclusions, the largest being that while this information might be generally useful from a command perspective, most of it would not help the average soldier as part of a formation. When the captains began discussing how best to position themselves with regards to the watchtower, he tried to pay attention, but quickly found himself woefully out of his depth. Now, as he watched the chaos around him, he realized that he did not have an assigned role in the battle to come. At least I am not the only one who thinks I shouldn't be here.

Irileth was giving orders to the Dragonsreach guard called Kemming; he nodded as she finished and led his unit off away from the watchtower. Velandryn approached her as she surveyed the field. "Where should I go?"

"Are you any good with that?" She indicated the bow on his back.

"If the dragon stands still, I can hit it. I have scrolls from Farengar—"

She cut him off as several members of the mercenary company that the Nords called the Companions moved up. "Good. Get to high ground and use them. Aim for the wings." She waved him away, and the leader of the Companions, a Nord woman with striking features beneath striped face paint, engaged her in rapid discussion about positions and baiting the dragon. Velandryn could tell when he wasn't needed. He made his way towards the tower. If it's high ground, there's none better. Should the dragon attack, he could duck inside and take shelter as well.

Inside the tower, the injured waited, looking more corpses than warriors. A healer who had tagged along from Whiterun was attending to one of them, waving his hands slowly over a burn as the flesh slowly knit. The soldier's face was tight with pain and he was letting out a high whining moan. Poor bastard. Velandryn recognized that spell of healing. It restored the body rather than accelerating natural processes, as a result it worked well against burns and other crippling wounds. However, it was also slow, outrageously painful and very tiring. Glancing around, he took in the state of the men in here; he had served as attendant healer enough to be able to assess wounds. Even if some of these make it, none of them will be of help today. He began climbing the steps.

At the second landing, he encountered several guards peering out through the windows, though he did not recognize these. Assuming them to be the remnants of the tower's garrison, he ignored them as jogged up the next flight. However, a shout drew his attention.

The Nord woman was obviously their leader, wearing as she did a cloak trimmed in silver. She was also the one who was demanding to know what he was doing in their tower.

"I have spells. I need a place to cast them. Top of the tower is best vantage, so I am using it." He turned to go, but stopped when her hand landed heavily on his shoulder. He stiffened. "Remove the hand, human, or I will." How dare she try to stop me; I defend her people! When the hand vanished and he turned though, her face did not have the lines that he had come to recognize indicated human anger and aggression. The brow and jaw were key to figuring out anger in humans, but both were relaxed. Instead, her eyes were calm and cold.

"I have many wounded in this tower. Do not bring the dragon's fire back onto them."

He nodded. "I will do my best." A fair request, but soldiers die. I hope it does not come to that, but I will not die so they may live. Leaving her to her wounded, he finished ascending the stair and blinked as he adjusted to the bright light atop the tower.

Three archers were slumped behind the parapets while another stood and watched the huge shape sweep slowly towards them. He turned to look at Velandryn. "You're not one of ours. You from Whiterun?" On closer inspection, his gear was dirty and his eyes were dull even for a human. Elven eyes he understood. It was simple to read moods and passions from eyes that made sense. These humans, however, kept him guessing. For this one, it was a good guess that he was bone-tired and half dead. If I had to pass a night not knowing when the dragon would return to finish me off, how would I fare? He pushed that to the back of his mind and regarded the four humans. They all had bows, and the dragon was closing fast. Velandryn moved to the battlement and looked out. Below, the Whiterun guards had broken up into spiky clumps; armored guards warding the archers while the spearmen hefted javelins, ready to throw. Elsewhere, the two Orcs had occupied a pile of rubble that provided cover from several directions, while many other groups were simply standing out on the rocky fields. Evidently they trusted that the dragon would not go for them. Or they are thrice-damned fools. They did choose to come, after all.

A roar echoed across the battlefield. The dragon, still far beyond bow or spell range, dived and let loose a plume of fire that moved along the ground, scorching the grass beneath it. It's coming in low and fast. Archers won't have long to react. He spun to face the guards. "Fire the instant it's in range! Those on the ground won't have a good angle. We do!" By the look of it, the dragon would actually come in below them, giving them good access to its back. It will ravage the forces down there, though.

The dragon was gliding in fast, claws outstretched. As it approached, something entered his mind. An uncomfortable feeling. Something was wrong about the dragon, something important.

Another roar reverberated off of the tundra as the dragon made its descent. In another moment it would be on the outmost scouts. They were all lightly armored hangers-on, and they broke as the beast swept over them. One hunter wasn't fast enough, and he screamed in terror as one of the dragon's claws slammed into him. His screams as his broken body flew through the air were ended with a crack as a boulder jutting from the earth broke his fall. The guards atop the tower, eyes wide and arms shaking at what they had witnessed, prepared to loose and Velandryn did the same. He had prepared the wizard's poison; there had been just enough to treat a single arrow. He did not have high hopes, but this monstrosity seemed to be almost eighty feet long from nose to tail, with a wingspan easily that wide or wider. It was fast as well, and clearly knew how to maneuver to its advantage. Azura save us, did we bring enough force to kill it? If this poison could weaken the beast, it was worth a shot.

He knew that he was not the finest archer likely even on this roof. Dunmer were renowned as versatile and multifaceted combatants with sword and bow and spell, but that was as much a product of culture as aptitude. For me, I just get to be grateful that the target is so bloody big! He loosed.

He had aimed for the broad wing as the dragon swooped beneath the tower, figuring that the scales on its hide would reflect his arrow as they were most of the shots being loosed at it. Shots at the wing were punching into the thick membrane before being knocked out by the force of the dragon's flight. Velandryn's arrow did the same, briefly sticking until a great flap of the wings sent it spiraling towards the ground. Gods damn you, but you are powerful, beast. If the poison had affected the dragon, it showed no sign. The great beast continued onward, sweeping over the clusters of soldiers down below. It would bathe them with fire or claw at them, all while moving fast enough that any arrow or spell that did not miss would most likely glance off of its hide. It scattered a group of hunters of some kind, and swept northwards away from the main host. It landed with an earth-shaking crash on a pair of guards and took to the air again, leaving them crushed beneath its massive claws.

The dragon's huge wings flapped at the air with lazy power, and it circled back toward the tower. This time though, Velandryn was ready. He had opened the scroll labeled "Lightning Storm", and power pulsed around him as he awoke the spells imbued into the parchment. He let his body's magicka attenuate to the power contained in the scroll, and the spell coursed into him. He could feel his hair lifting on his scalp as the charge altered his natural magical currents, and his armor and clothing felt odd against his skin as the current reverberated through him. His magicka held this power in check for the moment; he would not burn out his insides or have lightning explode from him. He must release it soon, however; his moderate skill at magic was far below what was needed to contain this spell for long. For this brief instant, though, in the middle of the battle, he luxuriated in the power around him even as it threatened to overwhelm him. I am the storm, dragon, and you shall know my wrath. The dragon was closing fast, and Velandryn thrust his arms out above his head. The charge gathered in his hands, and he could smell the moment that the air between them began to crackle and burn. He brought his arms forward, and focused the spell towards the onrushing dragon.

The space between him and the dragon was calm for a single heartbeat. The wind died, and the tunnel of air became perfectly still. The dragon's head swiveled, and its eyes burned into him. Again, looking into this dragon's face, Velandryn realized that something was off here. He couldn't place it, but he felt a sinking deep in his stomach at the certainty that he was overlooking something, and it mattered.

The moment ended. The magical equilibrium was broken, and lightning surged out of Velandryn's hands, the magicka from the scroll using his body as a conduit on its path towards the dragon. The spell crashed into the dragon's face and played along its body, leaving burns and skittering snakes of energy along the great beast's scales. It roared, this time in either annoyance or pain, and aborted its graceful sweep towards whatever its target had been to pull itself up and come even with the tower's roof. Oh. This isn't good. This is bad. Yelling a curse that would have earned him days of penance had a Temple elder heard him; he bolted for the entryway into the tower, vaguely aware of the other guards on the roof doing the same. The dragon rose slowly, wings pushing its monstrous bulk over them, its shadow covering the entirety of the roof in a macabre parody of relief from the sun. With a crash, it landed atop the trapdoor, killing the two guards who had been closest to safety. Three remained on the roof. Its head snapped forward and its jaws closed around another; her screams ended as the great jagged teeth came together with a crack.

Two of them remained on the roof, and the dragon lumbered towards them. In truth, the watchtower's top was too small for such a huge creature, and its great clawed wings gripped the edge as it moved awkwardly forward. Its head reared above the two survivors, Dunmer and Nord, and Velandryn doubted that his resistance to fire would stretch so far as to save him from a dragon's wrath. He glanced at the watchman, who was shaking and staring helplessly at the dragon. The cloth around his groin had soaked through as visible evidence of his fear. Part of Velandryn wanted to do the same, faced with something as impossibly powerful as this ancient monstrosity. Not today. I won't die here.

Velandryn sprinted away from the dragon, passing the last of the four Nords, who was now whimpering with tears running down his cheeks. For what it's worth, I'm sorry. He reached the parapet, and flung himself into over the edge. As he did so, he cast one of the first spells he had ever learned, a simple trick that had amused his friends and now might save his life. Behind him, the rooftop lit up with orange and gold and the agonized cries of a dying guard.

The spell required only the merest trickle of magicka, and so little concentration that it could be cast by a desperate fool vaulting away from a dragon. The ground was ten meters below, now five, now…

The Slowfall spell he had learned as a child still worked as intended, thankfully. What had once let him make graceful descents from the crab-shell towers that surrounded Blacklight now meant that he could leap from a watchtower with something less than fatal results. He landed poorly though, twisting his ankle as he impacted the ground. So instead of rising triumphantly to the cheers of the other novices, he rolled along the ground cursing until his leftover momentum had left him. Rising slowly to his feet with a groan, his world spun around him, and he had the unwelcome urge to heave his breakfast out onto the ground. He clutched himself and rocked back and forth, and the feeling began to pass. That's never happened before. Of course, it must have been thirty years since he last attempted it, and doubtless a dragon did not make the endeavor easier. As he took his feet again, he resolved to spend more time practicing minor spells like that. In this province? Seems like I'll need them.

His vision slowly returned to something approaching clarity, and he noticed with a lurch in his stomach that the watchtower no longer sported a dragon atop it. He spun around, trying to find the beast, but could see nothing. Then, a deep roar and a pillar of flame emerged from the far side of the tower and he slumped with relief. Around him, some of the eager dragon-hunters seemed to be reconsidering, while others were already dashing off to rejoin the fight.

His bow caught his eye, lying on the ground. The string was broken, but the arm looked well enough, all things considered. He focused on putting one foot in front of the other as he approached his bow, until he was standing over it. His pouch with the scrolls and potions bumped against his hip; he gave a prayer of thanks for Azura's foresight to fasten it after pulling out the first scroll.

He picked up the bow unsteadily and restrung it, a task that required every ounce of focus he had left. When he was done, he slung the bow over his shoulder and even had the presence of mind to check his quiver. It was empty. He noticed now; his arrows traced a path leading back to the tower. It was all too much. He collapsed, nearly sobbing with laughter. I got the bow but the arrows fell out!

Tears were streaming down his cheeks, eyes wide and without even breath to make a sound. He tried to inhale to laugh more, but ended up choking on his breath and doubled over coughing. He lay there for an eternity or two, until something pulled on the back of his tunic and hauled him up.

A goblin stood before him, looking at him with dull ugly eyes. Its piggish face was half-concealed behind gilded plate armor, and it was holding two long spears whose heads were wings with razored edges. Behind it stood the concealed mage from Whiterun, wearing an ebony mask over dark robes. Nothing of it was visible save robes and mask, and if it had been in battle, it gave no sign. An Altmer, to use goblins as slave-warriors. But why help me? A second goblin, twin to the first, emerged from behind him and took its place beside its fellow. As the first handed back the spear to the one that had pulled him standing, the mage spoke.

"The fight is not done. Your spellcraft is uncoordinated, but you may yet be worth something." The voice was female, the speech flavored with the accents of the Somerset Isles and every syllable resonant with magical inflection. An Altmer indeed, and casting an incantation of courage. It was working. He felt strength return to him, his mind clear, and resolve reignite within him."The dragon yet lives. Tell me, Dunmer, will you let Nords show more bravery than you?"

"No. It dies here, and I am going to kill it." The spell was strong, massively so, and at the moment he felt that he could take down an army. Even distaste between Altmer and Dunmer burns away in a dragon's fire. The mage gestured, and two mer and two goblins moved back into the fight.

Leadership, Lydia had been told, was a team effort, reliant both on the example of the commander and the discipline of the followers. She had to wonder if the current fiasco was her fault then, or if the guards as a whole had simply lacked the courage and skill to secure victory. She only had two of hers left, an archer she did not know from the town watch, and Borje the Red from the Dragonsreach guard. Currently, the archer was firing at the dragon, although they all knew it would do no good, while she and Borje had shields prepared should it turn on them. She had lost the remaining three in her command somewhere on the field. One she had seen engulfed by flames when he broke from the formation, and two others had been scattered. Some other guards and hangers-on had gravitated towards them, assuming that three who seemed to have kept some semblance of their discipline would be a good place to rally. Nearer the tower, she could see Irileth sending ice spikes at the dragon as she commanded ten or so guards in a concerted effort. The great beast itself swung lazily above the field, and dove to snatch another guard from the ground; this one had been cowering alone behind a boulder. With a sinking heart, Lydia realized that had been one of hers. She turned to her remaining two. "Keep firing and provide cover! All armor has a weakness; we just need to find it!"

From the direction of the tower, a torrent of lightening suddenly split the sky in two, as it had just a minute before. This time, though, it did not come from atop the tower, but from the west, where she saw a dozen warriors rushing her way. In the lead came a pair of huge Nords in nothing but blue paint, bellowing with a fury that shook the earth. The lightning was coming from a mage swathed all in dark robes and—

It was the Dark Elf, Velandryn Savani. He looked like he had pulled himself out of the grave, but he held a scroll in one hand and his other was projecting a stream of lightning at the dragon. The look on his face almost made her reconsider her earlier dismissal of him as useless. When the spell ended, he produced another scroll from the satchel at his side and summoned a great whirling ball of ice, which flew towards the dragon. The creature dodged easily, though, and dove on the newcomers. The robed mage threw its hands to the air, and the dragon's fire splashed harmlessly off of a shimmering dome of energy. The dragon, however, did not. It tucked its wings in and crashed into the shield, which vanished with a blast of purple light. The dragon plowed into the group, and suddenly chaos reigned among the newcomers.

Lydia pointed with her sword towards where the dragon was now on the ground, laying about with claws and teeth and flame. "It's on the ground! Pierce the armor! Cripple the wings! FOR WHITERUN!"

Her archer cheered and took off running, and Borje grinned behind his thick beard and clapped her on the shoulder as he bellowed past. Others must have been listening, as they too charged past her towards the grounded dragon. Lydia followed at a slightly slower pace. She had seen the power of that beast, and was not about to burn because of her own carelessness.

By the time she reached it, the dragon was surrounded, but it had done no small amount of damage itself. Her heart leapt into her throat at how many of the guard were down, and she prayed that most were merely out cold or wounded. If they are all dead…No. She forced such thoughts out and advanced, coming up behind an Orc in heavy plate with a twisted green longbow who was releasing bodkin-headed arrows at the beast. The Orc regarded her for half a second as she passed it, and resumed his archery. She wondered why the Orc would have arrows designed to punch through the heavy armor of guards or soldiers, and then, as she watched one of the shafts tear clean through a wing, decided it did not matter for the moment. Against a dragon, I will take the help.

The dragon spun in her direction and spat a great gout of fire that would have cooked her in her armor had she not raised her shield and thrown herself down. As it was, her steel armor heated and the fur that lined it began to blacken and smoke. When the flames abated, she regained her feet and looked about. The dragon had not been aiming at her, and a pair of smoking corpses was all that remained of two of the hunters. She began advancing again, keeping her body low and shield ready, and managed to get close enough to feel the buffet of the wind off of the dragon's wings as it took to the air once more and circled away into the sky.

The scene the dragon had left behind looked like it had come from one of the more horrifying realms of Oblivion. Bodies lay torn apart or burned beyond recognition, and the ground was furrowed by great claws and littered with broken and spent arrows and other weapons. The air was thick with the smell of death and cries of fear and pain sounded from every direction. We are broken, was Lydia's first thought, but she soon realized otherwise. Many had fallen, to be sure, but the survivors were readying themselves for another bout. A good thing, too, as the dragon had achieved some distance and was now swooping in low and fast to plow through them or burn them from above.

"On your feet! Brace yourselves!" Lydia's cry preceded Irileth's similar exhortation by only a moment, and the two of them shouting together managed to pierce through the exhaustion and fear evident on so many faces. The Dark Elf housecarl was bleeding from a nasty gash over one eye, but her expression was resolute and she was already preparing another spell.

Not far enough away, the dragon dove even closer to the ground. Now, it would come in mere feet above their heads. It extended its claws, and Lydia knew what would happen next. The claws would rake through them, and many would fall. Some of those would never rise again. She raised her shield, and glanced around to see who else was ready. Too few. She needed to do somethi—

A war cry echoed from behind her, and the earth shook as thunderous footfalls echoed towards her. She spun, shocked, to see one of the Old Clan Nords, naked save for a loincloth and his blue wode-paint, running at the dragon. His face was contorted, mouth open, and in each hand he held an axe of white bone, wickedly sharp and intricately carved. She realized with a start that the thundering earth was not from the dragon or battle, but that it echoed with his footfalls and his war cry. He is a Tongue! It was rumored that the Old Clans of Skyrim still passed down the art of the Voice from parent to child, but she had never seen it used before. It was an inarticulate sound of rage and pain, but if the power in the footsteps was any indication, it would give his blows incredible strength. He passed her, traveling at respectable speed made terrifying by his crashing steps, and thundered onwards towards the onrushing foe. She could actually feel the force of his cry as it washed over her and the calm once it had passed her by. His charge took him directly into the dragon's path, where he leapt high into the air. Clearly, the dragon was not expecting this, as no claw came to knock him away nor fire to burn him down. She watched with slack jaw as his axes bit into the dragon, and the shock of his war cry and blow smashed into the flying beast, roughly halting his attack. Suddenly, the elegant and deadly swoop became a tumble of scales and wings that was almost comical, the huge Nord a tiny bug clinging to axes stuck into this giant beast's breast. It crashed into the ground even as the Nord leapt free and abandoned his weapons to their grim sheath. The dragon rose, spitting fire and claws whirling, but the forces of Whiterun Hold had seen the chance and attacked with renewed vigor. Lydia drew her sword and raised her shield to guard, waving their forces forward. To her left, she saw Irileth and Kaptain Hrun do the same. The same Orc from before with his bodkin shafts took up a firing position on an exposed stone, and to the west the elven mage with the golden soldiers threw a great stream of icy shards into the air, where they tore into the dragon's wings as it began to take to the air. Abandoning that plan, it instead dove for the mage, crushing one of the golden-armored soldiers underfoot and snapping at the spellcaster. Lydia charged in, intent on dealing some crippling damage while the dragon was preoccupied with the mage. As she did so, she noticed the Dark Elf Velandryn Savani again. So he still lives. Perhaps even by his own doing. He seemed to be throwing spells from Farengar's scrolls, so it seemed he had decided he would actually fight. Then, she reached the dragon's great scaled flank, and her world narrowed until only she and the beast existed within it. Time to die, brute!

Velandryn let the last scroll fall to the ground, the lettering on it still smoking from the speed at which he had pulled forth its power. He felt drained and ready to curl up and sleep. Or die, more like, if I do it here. He was in a good spot well behind the dragon, though not out of reach of its lashing tail; for the moment it seemed intent on slaughtering the Altmer mage who had reinvigorated him. I suppose it would be ungrateful of me to let that happen. He had found a quiver of steel-tipped arrows on a dying guard, and nocked one now, trying to find a chink in the armor. With the great beast grounded, he saw no purpose in attacking the wings for the moment. Get it bleeding, and it will die. At least, he hoped so. This monstrosity had proven absurdly resilient; its armoring should have made it slow, or its mobility should demand vulnerabilities. However, it seemed that the dragon had decided that it would simply be not only the fastest combatant on the field, but also far too resistant to the blows of its enemies. As it was now, the mage had been fending the dragon off well enough, but one of her goblins was already down and the other was falling as he watched. A buffet from one great wing sent the mage to the ground, but the dragon spun before landing a killing blow, and turned so its head was facing directly at him.

Absurdly, Velandryn's first emotion was not fear, but indignation. I didn't even fire at you yet! Go kill someone else! Then, as the dragon reared up and he saw the Nord sprawled on the ground beneath it holding a bloody sword, he realized that was exactly what was happening. He gave brief thanks as he began to move out of the line of fire, only to catch a glimpse of the dragon's next victim and have time grind to a halt. The shield that had last been slung across her back had been knocked out of her reach, and her dark hair was matted with blood. She was staring the dragon full in the face, and though her back was to him, he could imagine perfectly the expression on her human features. She'll be staring that thing down, even to the end. There was no reasonable way he could save her. It was the guard on the tower all over again. He was already dead; I could only have died too. But she had told him how not to be shamed before the Jarl and listened to his moronic japes in the morning. She's just another Nord, and she is dead already. If he tried to help her, he would most likely join her in death. Something else would snatch away the dragon's notice eventually, but it could kill them both easily before that happened. I cannot die here, alone in Skyrim! He did not hate her, but it was simple rational calculation. If I live and she dies, I can honor the life she bought me and help bring down the beast. He knew that he had to leave her to die, but that did not make it easier. With a curse, he began running, picking up speed as he went. The dragon would unleash its fire in mere moments, and he did not have much time.

Lydia looked up at the dragon above her, and tried to have her last thought be of satisfaction. She had drawn the dragon's attention and scored a deep wound on it in the process. Her sword had found a weakness between the scales and slid deep into the meat of the dragon with an almost unbearably satisfying feeling, and even as the dragon had turned to kill her the wound had been gushing blood. She had done well, and brought glory to Whiterun with her final battle. She tried to be brave and embrace Sovngarde, but all that she could do was realize that she did not want to die. She wanted to go home covered in blood and glory, to raise mugs with the Companions and the Guard to a battle well fought, to earn the rank of Serjeant and stand behind the jarl on matters of import. She wanted to serve for a long life, and, though she knew she should rejoice at the prospect of Sovngarde, she wanted to go there after a life well lived. She did not want to die like this. She looked up into the eyes of the dragon, and saw her death as its head reared back, and flame was born deep in its dark gullet. Lord Talos, I don't want to burn. Fire is a horrible way to die.

Velandryn appeared from nowhere moving at a dead sprint, her shield clutched in his hands. He thrust it up above the both of them, and bent his head as the fire washed across the shield instead of roasting her alive. She curled reflexively, and the shadow of the shield provided enough space free of flame for her to lie there, stunned and trying to figure out where he had come from and why he was here. He was not burning, but he had one of the leather straps that held her arm clutched in each hand, and the dragon's fire was visibly eating away at the upraised shield. He was using some sort of warding magic on the shield, as the glimmer upon it showed, but it clearly would not hold forever. His eyes met hers, and she was struck by the expression on his face. She wasn't sure what she had expected, but he had put himself in the path of dragon's fire for her. He should have had resolve or some heroic spark within, but she saw only blazing anger and something else. She thought it might have been fear, or sorrow, but she did not have the time to figure it out. Humans wore emotions on their faces and elves in their eyes, it was said, but right now she had more pressing concerns. She pulled herself kneeling, and went to assist in holding up the shield. She snapped her hand back as soon as she touched it, though. The metal was deforming and red-hot, and the wood was blackening.

"Don't touch it!" Saving her life had not sweetened Velandryn Savani's disposition. "I resist fire. You don't." Every word was growled through clenched teeth, and all the while his eyes burned as bright as the flames around them.

"Thank you, but why?" She had to ask, even as she adjusted her armor readied her sword. Either the flames would stop or the shield would fail, and perhaps she could land one more blow. "If your plan was to save me, you only doomed yourself."

"I know, you blighted Nord!" He braced the shield with his shoulder as it cracked down the middle. At the rim, the steel edge was sagging where it threatened to melt. "Bad plan." His speech was harsh and clipped. "I shouldn't have." His eyes burned into hers. "Shouldn't have tried to save you. Foolish." He closed his eyes, and without them blazing in rage, his features took on a striking cast, almost handsome despite the harsh angles of his face. His red hair had come free and now fell every which way like a fiery mane. "I did though, so now we die. Together." He opened his eyes and his lips peeled back as his face contorted into a smile. Lydia had to suppress a shudder at how wrong it looked. His eyes were bright, and the high broad cheeks and strong jaw gave his white teeth and large eyes a horrifyingly demonic aspect. She could almost have believed he was some Daedra sent from Oblivion, with a face like that. "Humans tell me I shouldn't smile. I believe them, because it makes the children cry."

"They…aren't wrong." The absurdity of discussing this now struck her, and she had to laugh. He joined in, as the shield gave another precipitous crack and he moved to adjust it. Golden-white magic flowed along his skin and he grimaced in pain as it worked its way into his wounds. She noticed that one of his boots was little more than scorched leather, and he had burns up his shin. The muscles in his leg twitched as the healing magic sunk into them.

"It's from spending time with you humans. Your faces twist up with your emotions, and mine wants to do the same." He was speaking more easily, she noticed, but she wondered if the pain had lessened or he was simply beyond caring. Even a Dark Elf can die from fire, and his healing has stopped. "You go to Morrowind, and we'll tell you your eyes are dead. I can't read anything in human eyes." He laughed again, eyes bright and huge in his smooth grey face. "Do that for me, hmm? Go to Morrowind." The shield cracked again, and the flames inched closer. "Bring my body back, when I die here."

She opened her mouth to tell him that they were going to make it through this, but with a mighty roar, the fire was suddenly gone. Immediately, she lunged out from behind the shield as Velandryn let it drop and shook his arms with manic abandon. She noticed the dragon rearing back in pain and a long spear sticking out of its side, and dove forward to end this fight and kill this dragon to make Skyrim safe again.

Velandryn let the burning shield slip from his fingers and almost sobbed in relief as the heat abated. He had trusted in his resistance to fire to save him, but he had underestimated dragon's breath. Now he had half-healed burns, soreness throughout his body, no magicka, and a headache from holding a ward in place on top of a physical shield. The dragon had shifted focus away again, and he was sorely tempted to clear the burned earth and simply press himself to the ground and wait for all of this to pass. The Nord woman Lydia was already back on the attack, though, so he drew his sword and followed her to where the dragon was menacing some guard who had been foolish enough to draw its ire. Saved our lives though, so good on you, brave dead guard. Then, he saw the face that was behind the light leather shield and his heart sank. Gods damn it all, Kenrik, you blighted brave fool.

The dragon was almost contemptuous with the blow that felled the boy. One huge winged claw smashed through the shield and sent him sprawling, and the dragon raised another to crush the life from the guard. Velandryn found himself running towards the dragon with a blade in his hand, and wondered what he planned to do. In front of him, Lydia had reached a great bleeding wound in the dragon's thigh, and drove her sword deep into the bloody flesh. Others were doing much the same, and Velandryn felt the momentum of the battle turning. The dragon had become sluggish and its blows lacked the precise lethality of earlier in the fight. It was moving less and did not even try to take to the air. When one of the Companions in his wolf-shaped armor climbed onto its back, raised a great two-handed sword, and cleaved a wing off of the body in five mighty strokes, Velandryn knew that the fight was all but done.

The dragon gave a sudden spasm and threw the Companion bodily from its back. He landed, but the dragon had risen to its feet again, and thrown its head back to breathe a great plume of fire into the sky. At this, Velandryn was overcome again with the sense of the dragon being wrong somehow. Of course it's wrong! Dragons are all dead, and then I have to deal with one twice! First at Helgen, then here—

Oh. Oh gods. Blessed Azura, no. It was not possible. But it was there. He had been staring at it this entire time. The dragon was mighty, to be sure, but mostly smooth and grey-green. At Helgen, the dragon had blotted out the sky, and its black spiky form had burned itself into his mind like one of those pitiful silhouettes against the walls of Helgen Keep. Here, the dragon's fire had burned men alive. At Helgen, it had turned them to ash as they fell to the ground. They aren't the same dragon. As the great beast was dying on the fields of Whiterun, Velandryn found himself looking to the skies again. How many are there? If one had been at Helgen, and another here, were they all across Skyrim, or perhaps Tamriel? Were the Ordinators-Repentant even now fighting dragons on the streets of Mournhold? How many? And where did they come from?

He was jolted out of his thoughts by another deafening sound from the dragon, this one a deep booming growl that seemed almost to convey speech. "Dovahkiin? NOOOOOOOO!" The dragon's final roar reverberated off of the watchtower and the plains, fading slowly as the great beast died. When Velandryn looked at the dragon—one of the dragons—he realized that it had died looking straight at him. The light was fading from its eyes, and its huge limbs relaxed in death. It was unnerving, staring at something so old and terrible. He saw something in the eyes, and stepped back, worried that there was enough life in the dragon for one final blow. But although he saw light, Mirmulnir did not move again.

He paused. That name, Mirmulnir. He knew it belonged to the dragon, proclaimed him 'Most Loyal of the Great Hunters', and he had won it when the men still dwelt in Far Atmora and the elves wept for the sin of Creation. How can I know that? He felt wind beneath his wings—I do not have wings—and saw the screams of the mortals as they sought to kill him. His fire licked over them – What is happening to me?—and they burned. He saw fire then, around him and on him. He saw himself, standing there, wreathed in nine hundred colors of the sun, and he saw himself, lying there, vanquished by the grey elf of the red hand.

He died, and he flowed into himself, and felt something within him. He recalled the words far beneath Bleak Falls Barrow, the epitaph of a fallen king, and knew their meaning. He saw them on the back of his eyelids, and mocked the crude human hands that had shaped it. They meant well, to raise words of honor in the tongue of their masters, but it was crude work, manling work. He knew the words though, and one in particular was pleasing to him. Whichever mortal had carved Fus had done a passable job, and the words resonance with him was pleasing. He thought on Fus and the power of force, so useful to showing the Joorre the power of the Dov. They cowered and knelt, and if they rose, Fus put them in their place.

Velandryn opened his eyes; he did not recall closing them. The survivors of the battle with the dragon were clustered around him, and he wondered why. Surely I was not the only one to fall. Then, he chanced to look at Mirmulnir. How long was I unconscious?

The dragon was no more. In its place lay a great skeleton, unnaturally clean given how recently it had been beneath flesh and blood. He found his voice. "What…what happened?"

A bellow came from the ring of watchers, and the huge blue-painted Nord strode forward. He had recovered one of his axes, and pointed it at Velandryn. "Elf. Speak Thu'um."

"What? What is thume?"How do you know of Thu'um, manling? He looked around him for help until he realized that among so many humans, he did not have a chance of reading their faces. He focused on a few. Irileth was confused and, unless he missed his guess, annoyed that something else had happened after bringing down the dragon. She could hold her face like a human, but her eyes couldn't hide anything from him. Lydia had wide eyes and a slightly open mouth; he thought that she might be surprised or upset. He spotted Kenrik, half his face scarred from battlefield healing and leaning on a spear; his eyes were so wide it was impossible to mistake his feeling for anything but excitement. Of course, the boy could just be feeling the rush of bringing down a dragon. He realized that the Nord was talking again.

"Not thume. Thu'um." The long 'oo' in the middle was punctuated with a glottal stop, it seemed. Velandryn gave thanks for his skill with tongues and mentally resigned himself to an impromptu lesson on whatever backwater dialect this Nord spoke and asked, "Very well, what is Thu'um?"

The big Nord pointed at the dragon. "Dovahzul. Thu'um, Nord Voice." He raised his voice and his wordless yell shook the earth. "Now you. Speak Thu'um."

He realized what the Nord was saying, and rage rose within him. "You want me to Shout? To be a Tongue?" The ancient High Kings of the Nords had been Tongues along with their fiercest warriors, and they had enslaved his people. Not since Nerevar slew the Ash-God-King Wulfarth-Shor at Red Mountain had a Tongue come to Morrowind. This Nord could do as he liked with his own shouting, but to demand this of him was an insult that would not be borne. He rose, ready to blister the Nord's ears with a demand that he stand down.

As he opened his mouth, the words he had prepared left him. He tried to speak, but nothing came out. Something within him was stirring, and upon his bones the Thu'um the Nord had used still echoed. It was Thu'um only by courtesy, half-formed and wordless and befitting only the paltry mortal that had uttered it, but it was a challenge nonetheless, and challenge must not go unanswered. To back down was to be subservient, and he was Dov! He ruled here!

"FUS!"

The word bubbled up from deep within him, leaving emptiness behind. He could not even breathe in its wake, and had to put a hand on his chest as he threatened to fall. He realized that the watchers had gone silent, and looked up. The Nord had been knocked five paces back, but now was striding quickly towards him. He looked around for his sword, certain the painted barbarian was about to attack. The Nord stopped a pace away, however, and sunk down to one knee.

"Dovahkiin." Just the one word. The surrounding crowd seemed as confused as Velandryn. He looked at Lydia, but the roiling emotions on her face made her impossible to read. For Irileth, his use of the Shout seemed to have shocked her out of her annoyed glare. Kenrik was probably running out of space on his face for his eyes to get larger. The Nord stood. "Elf is Dovahkiin! Elf is Dragonborn!"

With that final word, chaos broke loose. Seemingly every Nord in the crowd began shouting all at once, and Lydia moved in to haul him bodily to his feet. "You are Dragonborn? And you did not think to tell us?"

"I don't know what Dragonborn is, and I certainly didn't know I was one!" He was trying to remain calm amidst the madness but failing miserably. He lowered his voice; the last thing he wanted was another one of those Shouts slipping out. "The dragon did something to me when it died; I saw through its eyes. That must be why I can Shout like that." He shuddered. "Believe me, I would not have chosen this." The distaste of being a Dunmer Tongue aside, he could still feel the dragon's mind rising within his again. He wanted these squabbling mortals to be quiet, and he knew that with just a few shouts, he could bowl them over and make them kneel. He forced that thought down. All he wanted was to figure out why this was happening.

Irileth approached, two of the Dragonsreach guard at her back. "Lydia, grab what you need. I don't know what's going on, but Hrun has explained a bit about this Dragonborn business. We're starting back to Whiterun this instant." She turned to Velandryn. "You keep your mouth shut until we figure out what's going on." He nodded, grateful to be leaving this place. The crowd stood aside to let them pass, the blue Nord bowing and many others giving him odd looks. The one he took particular notice of was the Altmer. Her masked face rose from where she was reattaching one of her goblin's legs to regard him. He glimpsed her eyes through the holes in her mask, and saw the dark joy there. A chill ran down his spine, and he turned away. Irileth took lead while Lydia and four other Dragonsreach guards surrounded Velandryn. Behind them, the crowd was still in turmoil, with many trying to break apart the dragon skeleton while others began leaving for Whiterun or some other destination. More were simply milling around, seemingly trying to figure out what had just happened. They are welcome to tell me once they figure it out.

As they got on their way, he approached the Housecarl. He had no problems with keeping his silence, but he needed to say this first. "Irileth."

Her eyes narrowed. "I said quiet. I don't want—"

"Listen." He kept his voice low, but the urgency in it bled through. "This wasn't the same dragon."

"What?" He knew that she understood; her eyes gave her away. She simply didn't want to believe.

"This dragon is not the one from Helgen. That one was black, spiked, bigger than this." He was fairly certain that Lydia could hear them, but he didn't care. "I'll stop talking now, but you needed to know. This isn't over yet."

As they moved on down the road, he was left alone with his thoughts. He had taken knowledge from the dragon, and it had given him the ability to read the inscription from Bleak Falls Barrow. The most troubling part of that was that he could not recall the writing now, nor would he have been able to beforehand. Somehow the dragon had wrested the knowledge form within his mind. Or, something kept the memory safe even from me until I had his knowledge and could make use of it. He recalled the tales ofHouse Dagoth, and how those descended from its ancient bloodlines had been tormented with nightmares and waking visons. He had not missed the way that nearly every Nord on the battlefield had looked at him with new eyes after learning that he was Dragonborn. He just wished he knew what it was that they saw.

And what am I?

You are Dovahkiin, mortal. Enjoy it while you can. Alduin is returned, and your soul belongs to him.

Elsewhere

"Truly? A dragon?"

"Yes my lord. He says that it destroyed some town in the south."

"Well done. There are few of those proud beasts left. Let us hope that it decides to come this way. I would relish the chance to have a dragon under my control."

"Ah, my lord, there is one more thing. Vakken was investigating reports of our lesser kin in Eastmarch when he was caught by the sun. Fortunately, he remembered an old crypt near there, and took refuge. Dimhallow, it is called."

"I presume you are telling me this for a reason? If Vakken wishes merely to report that he is unable to tell when dawn is breaking, I will gladly remove the eyes he seems not to have any use for."

"Ah, yes my lord. Begging your pardon my lord, but what he claims, if true—"

"Speak, fool! Whatever it is, it cannot be worse than having to listen to your prattle!"

"My lord, he found sealing magic within the crypt. Ancient and powerful magic that he dared not break. It was hidden subtly, and only a collapsed wall revealed a portion of the array, otherwise it would simply have hidden its door away and been unknowable. He claims it exceeds any of its type he has ever seen"

"What magic is this, that one of my court fears it so? Is Vakken growing fearful?"

"My lord, it was vampiric magic, sealed with the blood of a Daughter of Coldharbour!"

"My lord? What shall we—"

"Assemble the court, ready yourself to travel, and send for Vakken at once. It is customary to reward those who find things you have misplaced, is it not?"

"Yes, my lord."

Notes:

A quick note about the Thu'um and Old Clan Nords. Prior to the release of Skyrim, a major part of the flavor for the province was the conflict between the Imperialized Nords who embraced Talos and the new gods, and the old ones who held to the Nordic Pantheon and revered the quasi-totemic spirits of Atmora. This was eventually merged into the Stormcloak Rebellion, but the notion of the Old Holds is canonical enough that I feel comfortable including clans of backwoods Nords who are on the 'barbaric' side of the Nord civilization scale.. They hold to the old gods, go nearly naked in blizzards, fight like madmen, some can use a rudimentary version of the Thu'um, and the wise among them know a lot about the history and legends of their areas. They won't be a huge part of this story, but they are a taste of the kind of interesting lore that was missing from much of Skyrim.

Chapter 6: Just Rewards

Summary:

After the battle, there must be recompense.

Chapter Text

Twelve years before the return of the dragons:

Guardsman Lydia,

In the name of Jarl Balgruuf the Greater, it is with great regret that we inform you of your father Andron's death in the line of duty.

The deceased has bequeathed unto you the entirety of their worldly possessions. You are also entitled to a recompense in the amount of 500 gold pieces due to your father's valiant death in service of Whiterun.

The Jarl's court has levied an amount of 20 gold pieces from the inheritance, as the lawfully and honorably due tax. Andron's home, as well as all to be found within it, is now solely your property.

While all of the Jarl's court grieves with you on this day, we give thanks for your father's service as a guard of Whiterun Hold, and hope that you will continue to uphold the fine tradition of your family in the guard.

Your father will be laid to rest beside your mother in the Hall of the Dead beneath Whiterun in two days' time. We invite you to attend the ceremony and receive the blessings of Arkay if you so wish.

Our deepest condolences,

Proventus Avenicci, Steward

17th Sun's Dawn, 4E 188

They beat the news of what had happened at the western watchtower to Whiterun, but not by much. By the time they reached the Wind District, Irileth's brusque dismissals of curious citizens and concerned guards were becoming nearly constant, and the first time that she heard the word 'Dragonborn' Lydia was fairly certain the housecarl would break out into a run. She clearly wanted to get the news of this to the jarl before it got any more out of hand, and Lydia found it hard to disagree. She kept looking over at Velandryn—at the Dragonborn—and tried to figure out why he would have been chosen. The Dark Elf clearly had no knowledge of what his status entailed, and a day and a night marching by his side had finished what had begun hunkered beneath a shield and dragon flames. She had always been good at reading people, even elves, and was starting to get the hang of this one. He was afraid and worried, and she would have expected nothing less. As it was, he had not spoken since his quick words with Irileth after the battle, and she was as anxious as Irileth to get him before the jarl. Jarl Balgruuf had spent time with the Greybeards as a young man, and had a respect for the Voice and those who could use it that might give him insight into this current situation.

Ordinarily, returning to Dragonsreach filled Lydia with a sense of security and home; now all she felt was unease at the changes around her. An elf was Dragonborn, and a dragon had appeared where he was twice now. She had heard what he said to Irileth, and knew that this was just the beginning. If dragons have returned, then he may be of great help to Skyrim.

As they crested the steps and the Dragonsreach gates came into view, Velandryn suddenly spun around, eyes flitting across the sky. Irileth's blade was out before Lydia had time to blink; her own was only half a second behind. Her shield was strapped to her back, but in its deformed state it was of little use; she had kept it only because it felt wrong to leave it behind. She scanned the sky as well, looking for whatever had him so on edge. It cannot be another dragon. Not so soon.

The Dark Elf inhaled deeply, and closed his eyes. Lydia looked at the Dragonborn in confusion, wondering what in Oblivion was going on with him. He opened his eyes slowly, and a low rumbling sound began all around them.

Irileth's sword lost no time going to Velandryn's throat. "What are you doing?"

He shook his head. "Not me." His voice was strained and hoarse.

It broke above them then; a thunderclap, though sharper than any that Lydia had ever heard, and without lightning to presage its presence. It echoed and reverberated, and she saw Velandryn with his eyes closed again, lost in some thought or sensation. She heard it then, behind the thunder.

"DOVAHKIIN!"

It was not blisteringly loud, but it echoed as though from a great distance. With a lurch, she realized what it was she was hearing. And the Greybeards spoke 'Dragonborn' and called young Tiber Septim to crown him as Ysmir. She saw Velandryn narrowing his eyes, clearly trying to figure out what had just happened. He does not know. He is Dragonborn but he has no knowledge of what it means. He has no knowledge of Dragonborn past, or respect for the Greybeards. He responded with scorn when told he could use the Voice. Irileth resumed her approach to Dragonsreach, and Lydia steered Velandryn after her. He is not worthy. Akatosh, why would you choose this one to defend us?

It quickly became obvious that the mighty of Whiterun were better informed than the citizenry below. The jarl was surrounded by the powerful of the city, and they all broke into exclamations and questions when they saw the war party returning. Irileth ignored them all, shouldering between Olfrid Battle-Born and Danica Pure-Spring to go to one knee before the jarl. The rest of them did the same, though Velandryn's attempt at a bow was clumsy and ended in him simply going to his knees on the floor. He looks worse than he did while losing a fight to a dragon. His eyes were dull, his dry red hair had been tied back in a sloppy attempt at keeping it out of his face, and every line of his posture indicated that he was one good push away from going to the ground right there in front of the jarl.

The jarl, however, had more pressing concerns than a single elf's comfort. "Irileth, the dragon is slain?"

"Yes, Jarl Balgruuf. It was brought down successfully, though not without losses."

"Irileth, your actions in this matter are worthy of any hero of Skyrim, and I am once more in your debt. All of you who were at the battle, come with me." He raised his voice to address the others in the hall. "I thank you all for coming in this time of uncertainty, and you will be sent for when I have need of your wise and valued counsel."

The volume in the hall began rising as the jarl stood, when it became apparent that he had no intention of making those in attendance privy to his further discussions. It was obvious that while the dragon had been at the front of everyone's mind just yesterday, the mystery of the Dragonborn was the reason that so many had gathered here. Eorlund Gray-Mane even made to approach the jarl, until Irileth planted herself in his way with such a look upon her face that Lydia half feared the Dark Elf might strike him had he not backed down.

Lydia reached down to pull Velandryn to his feet, and then hesitated. She remembered the burns that he healed even as they spread along his hand and up a leg, and felt the lopsided weight of her shield on her back. She extended a hand before him instead. Let him keep his dignity. His eyes regarded the hand for a long moment, then he looked up and took hold, pulling himself to his feet. Together, they followed the Jarl up the stairs set off to one side of the throne and deeper into Dragonsreach.

As he followed Lydia down richly carpeted corridors and past beautiful tapestries, his mind was still where it had been since he saw his own body burn. Not my body. That was Mirmulnir. Fortunately, it seemed that whatever piece of the dragon had passed into him was composed of memory and temperament rather than identity. Only at Mirmulnir's last moment was the line blurred, and Velandryn had his own theory about that. He had been trying to probe the depths of this new side of himself for the entirety of the return to Whiterun, and had arrived as several reassuring conclusions, and one extremely troubling truth.

First, he could rest assured that he was still Velandryn Savani, anointed as a priest at the High Fane of the Temple of the Reclamations in Blacklight. He did not feel the urge to identify with the persona of Mirmulnir, or any dragon for that matter, and his core self was still solidly his own.

Furthermore, he understood that any subsequent battle with a dragon would be far simpler. Looking back at the battle now, he could trace Mirmulnir's rationale for every decision it had made. Many of them were predicated on reasoning that was wholly alien to Velandryn, but in the future, he could not only possibly anticipate the actions of dragons, but eventually maneuver them into situations more to his advantage. It would require work, but he was confident that he could use this power to control the battlefield and bring the dragons down.

Confidence and ambitions were the final pieces of this change. He was filled with resolve as he had never been before. All of his life, curiosity and duty had spurred him onward. He would want to know something new, or he would understand that a certain course of action was undoubtedly the best for his people. Since coming to Skyrim, he had occasionally been overtaken by selfishness, but even then he held fast to his given word and tried to do what was best according to how he had been taught. Now, he had desires, burning wants within him that moved him in ways he had never known. When he thought of Mirmulnir's death, he did not feel relief that people were safe or even satisfaction at a fight well won. He felt exultant in victory. He had consumed Mirmulnir, and added that old one's strength to his. He had gained power, and now could vanquish his foes all the better.

And therein lay the part of this transformation that worried him. It was that all of this felt normal, right even. Of course he should want these things! He was Dragonborn! How dare the ruler of some timber town demand I bow before him! When I burn his hall around him and rend his offspring limb from limb—

No.

That was not him. When he had consumed Mirmulnir, when he had taken that dragon's soul, he had been given a glimpse of how that ancient creature felt about mortals, about Joorre. The certainty that the great dragon was a class of being they could not even begin to comprehend. And now he is dead. He had to remember that. He had been brought down by the mortals he despised. This was nothing but another passion, and passions existed to be controlled. The goal of the Dunmer was to conquer one's world, and that included base urges. He could crave companionship for an evening or even fall in love, but lust could never rule his actions. He might hunger, but once sated on ample fare he must be content to set food aside. In all things we must show temperance, for our desires test us, and our fate is to be found worthy. That was why they had left the Aldmer behind, after all. This was the truth of Veloth First-Prophet. He showed us the correct ways of thinking, so that we could find the path to right-action and pass through the test of the Arena.

He had concentrated on the teachings of his faith and his people, but tendrils of treacherous knowledge wormed their way into his mediations. He knew that he was more than those who had laid out these rules for his people. He had power Veloth had never even imagined. Why should he be constrained by archaic codes, he who was Dragonborn?

Because I choose to be.

It was as simple as that. All the power in the Aurbis was meaningless if he did not use it in a manner true to himself. He was Velandryn Savani, and the ambitious lusts of the dragons were another facet of his mind, to be understood and shaped into righteousness. I keep telling myself that, but is that what I really want? I could be as a god, and the thankless life of a servant is unfit for a Dragonborn.

He had been having this argument within himself for the better part of the day, interrupted only when the echoing Thu'um from the sky called out his title. He could taste the power of those who had sent the calling before his ears even perceived the sound, and knew that the voices he heard could show him much of this power. As it was, he felt the Thu'um was a trifle compared to the overwhelming force of a dragon soul, but he knew that it could shatter mountains and break the wills of the strongest men. I am going to have to learn, and whoever those voices belonged to, it was not dragons.

"We are here." With a start, he was pulled back into the space outside of his head, and realized that they had arrived at their destination. Past the open door was a room dominated by a long table and ringed with braziers and rich tapestries depicting hunting and battle. It had the look of a meeting-hall, and was decidedly more intimate than the cavernous main hall below. He took a seat at random, only to lift himself out of the seat when he realized he was the only one sitting. The jarl took the spot at the head of the table, and after he sat, so too did the others. Jarl Balgruuf had the big Nord Hrongar to his left, Irileth to his right, and that Imperial steward of his at his shoulder. Farengar the wizard entered from a side door and sat down next to an older man in the garb of the Whiterun Town Guard. As he got settled, the ruler of Whiterun never removed his eyes from Velandryn. Soon enough, the entire table was looking at him.

"So. You are Dragonborn." Jarl Balgruuf had gotten to the heart of the matter in four words, and the table waited for his response. Farengar's hands clutched tightly around the scrolls he had brought with him, Hrongar's glare was intense, Irileth looked as annoyed as ever, and the eyes of every person who had been at the battle were fixed on him. Only the steward seemed not to be invested in his answer.

"I believe so. I…took power from the dragon when it died, and now…yes. I am Dragonborn."

The jarl raised his hand to forestall any discussion or outburst from the table. In the silence, he turned to his court wizard. "Farengar, what can you tell us about this?"

For once, the wizard did not look pleased to be the focus of attention. "Ah, very little, I'm afraid. The Dragonborn is a mortal who, according to numerous texts, is either born with a dragon's soul, dragon's blood, or both. Ancient Nord sources refer to the Dragonborn's ability to consume slain dragons, though little mention is made of what this entails. Imperial sources focus on the Dragon Blood as a prerequisite for wearing the Amulet of Kings prior to the Oblivion Crisis. The Dragonblood Emperors, as they are called. Other than that, mention is made of Tiber Septim being Dragonborn—"

"We know all of this, wizard!" Hrongar's outburst startled Farengar into silence, and the Nord in his scaled armor continued. "Why do we have an elf as Dragonborn?" He glared at Velandryn. "Is this some Thalmor trick?"

Irileth interjected then. "Before we get up in arms over what race," she glared at Hrongar, "your Dragonborn is, we have something else that needs to be cleared up. Savani, tell the jarl what you told me."

"The dragon we killed wasn't the one that attacked Helgen." He was aware that he probably should have stood to address the table, but it had been nearly three days since he had really slept, he was still trying to figure out what in the Four Hells was happening to him, and at least one person at this table apparently took it as a personal affront that he had the temerity to be both an elf and Dragonborn. He would sit.

They took it well enough. Lots of outraged yelling and one guard bolting out of the room at a dead run, perhaps to warn everybody that they might still die horribly. The jarl and his councilors tried to restore calm and lay out some sort of plan while Farengar began paging frantically through one of the books he had brought with him. Finally, the jarl pounded on the table with his fist until silence returned.

"We have killed one dragon, and we can kill more." The Jarl spoke with a certainty that Velandryn worried was completely unfounded. "However, the greatest advantage we have is sitting among us." Velandryn waited patiently for the inevitable declaration of some additional task he had to do to bring an end to the dragons and restore peace to Skyrim. This is the part where I become a mighty hero and rescue a beautiful princess in the bargain. I wonder if they will ask me to cast down the pretenders and sit upon the Ruby Throne as well. "The dragons reappear, and so also rises a Dragonborn? This is not coincidence." He looked around at the table. "You heard the Greybeards call from High Hrothgar. We all know what that means." He faced Velandryn again. "You must go to the Throat of the World, to the sacred monastery of High Hrothgar, and learn from the Greybeards. Do this thing, and we can stand together and cast the dragons back into the legends where they belong!"

Velandryn nodded assent. "I have much I need to understand, and if these Greybeards you speak of can help me, I will gladly go to them." I will climb Monahven and show these arrogant mortals who think to teach—No. I will go, and I will learn. Perhaps they can help me temper this new arrogance. The thought cheered him, and as he relaxed, his fatigue forced its way to the fore and his vision swam. "Forgive me, but it has been days since last I slept and…much has happened that weighs heavily on my mind. I am afraid I am doing nobody any good here as I am."

The jarl clapped his hands. "Of course! Any who need it, go get some rest. Bathe, eat, I have been remiss in my duties as your jarl!" Velandryn rose, and nearly fell right away. Gods, I need that bed. As a servant led him from the hall, he worried briefly that he was not upholding the dignity expected of a Dragonborn. Tomorrow. I will wear royalty as mantle and splendor as armor, but for now I need some gods-blessed sleep.

Lydia had been, if not as visibly wasted from her ordeal as Velandryn, at the very least most appreciative to be back in her bunk for a night. It was with considerable displeasure, then, that she found herself being shaken awake by Gulf. The huge guard looked only a little better than she felt, and she managed to pull herself into a sitting position without groaning out loud. "Gulf, why on the Holy Bones of Shor are you waking me up?"

"Apologies, Korpral Lydia. Jarl wants us. Everyone who was at the battle. Now." She noticed that he was unarmored, so she threw on a simple tunic and leggings while he waited and followed her subordinate through the pre-dawn corridors to where the leaders of Whiterun waited. She noticed as she took her place at the table that more had returned from the battle. Kemming was there, and Borje grinned at her through the ruin of his beard. As she took her seat, the Jarl addressed them all.

"First, I want to offer my thanks to all of you, and commend you for what you have done." He smiled at them all. "You have slain a dragon! For this feat, every one of you will receive a bonus of two month's pay, a trophy from my personal armory, and the eternal gratitude of the people of Whiterun." He sobered, and continued. "Sadly, many perished to bring us this victory, and while we mourn them, our first thought must be for the safety of our Hold. Kaptain Hrun!"

The highest ranking member of the Dragonsreach Guard and Irileth's second-in-command stepped forward. "Guardsman Borje, Guardsman Gulf, step forward!" They did so, the towering Nord looking nervous, the bearded one excited. "For victory in the field, and courage in facing the enemy, you are to be commended. For your achievements and merit, you are to be rewarded. You are both promoted to the rank of Korpral of the Dragonsreach guard effective immediately. You will receive duties and patrols on the morrow." He saluted, and every soldier there did the same. The silence was expectant, however, as only one Korpral had fallen, but one Serjeant had as well. Somebody is getting promoted. He turned to Lydia, and her heart felt as though it would leap from her chest.

"Korpral Lydia, step forward!" As she did so, she struggled to hold her face in solemn dignity as a smile threatened. I have earned this, but it is not just an honor, it is a duty. Dragons return, and I will serve my hold. "Korpral, for extraordinary daring and outstanding discipline in the face of a foe unmatched in living memory, you are promoted to Serjeant of the Dragonsreach guard, and charged with the duties and responsibilities of such. You will receive rotations and commands on the morrow. Congratulations to you all!" The guards raised a round of cheers, and Lydia felt as though she were drunk on the finest wine she had ever tasted. I have done it. Serjeant of Dragonsreach, at eight and twenty, the youngest in decades!

The jarl had started talking again, and Lydia forced herself to return to the task at hand. She was a serjeant now, and had to behave as such. "This evening I am holding a great feast for the people of Whiterun, and your new ranks shall be announced to them then. We shall also announce those newly inducted into the guard, as well as several strategies to counter dragon attacks in the future. You are all veterans now, and I expect each one of you to make your knowledge and skill available to those who request it." He looked at them all once more, hesitated, and gestured at Proventus. The steward stepped forward, unfurled a proclamation, and began to read.

"Jarl Balgruuf the Greater and the people of Whiterun Hold, in recognition of valorous deeds and extraordinary ability, hereby bestow the title of Thane of Whiterun upon Velandryn Savani, the Dragonborn. From this day until the end of time he is named protector of the Hold and champion of the people of Whiterun. Signed, Jarl Balgruuf the Greater, et cetera, et cetera." He finished, and stepped back.

Lydia felt as though she had been punched in the gut. That little elf, a thane? Skyrim would eat him alive. Beside her, her fellow guards seemed to agree.

The jarl addressed his stone-faced audience. "I have not made this decision lightly, nor will I be swayed from this. We need to show both the Empire and the Stormcloaks that we are not a weak branch to be snapped from the tree, and even Ulfric will hesitate before making war on a Dragonborn. Besides which, he brought news to us, fought with us, helped our people, and gave aid at the western watchtower. He is more than worthy of being a Thane." Lydia knew that these days thane was largely an honorary title; it was even possible, in certain Holds of lesser honor, to purchase the position with sizable 'gifts'. Nonetheless, she had a hard time thinking of Velandryn as Thane of anything.

The jarl was still speaking. "As a thane, he is entitled to a housecarl if he so chooses. Given the unique nature of his position, I feel that he should have one well versed in arms and war-craft. However, I would not ask any of you to do this if it were against your desire. I have no doubt that many will leap at the chance to be housecarl to the Dragonborn, but my first choice would be for him to be accompanied and protected by one of proven valor and loyalty, who will remind him of his duties as both thane and Dragonborn. I ask of you who have fought beside him, do any among you wish to take up this task?"

The room was dead silent. It was an honor to be a housecarl, to be sure, and to the Dragonborn nonetheless, but at the same time, he was no warrior, and an elf besides. When presented with the facts of his being Dragonborn, he had at every point responded with disdain, apathy, and aversion. His very culture was opposed to all that Nords were, and his being Dragonborn did not change that. Even Lydia, who liked to think that she could judge any on their own merits, found the idea vaguely nauseating. It was simply wrong, to be subservient to an elf. It was one thing for Irileth to serve Jarl Balgruuf and command them in battle; she had served Whiterun since the Great War and besides, she served the jarl as well. She might give the guard orders, but Whiterun was still ruled by a Nord of proven honor. But this? A thane's word became the Houscarl's bond. He could order them to do anything, and they were honor-bound to obey or die in the attempt. There were stories of thanes who went mad, and their housecarls obeyed increasingly horrific demands until finally they slit their own throats to escape from the obligation to do evil. To be so bound to an elf was…unthinkable.

The silence in the room grew ever more uncomfortable. Irileth's eyes were narrowed as she gazed around the room around at them, the jarl had faint sadness on his features, Farengar clearly would rather be anywhere else, and even Hrongar looked vaguely displeased at the entire group's refusal to speak up. Lydia looked up, and found Irileth staring her full in in the face. It was only for a moment before she shifted her red eyes away, but Lydia felt shame flood her, and blood rushed to her cheeks.

She could tell herself that he was of unproven honor, but that was not it. She knew why it was, for all of them there. It was one thing to see elves every day, even to fight beside them or share meals and call them friend. But this was a bond of trust, and every Nord knew deep in their bones, that truly trusting an elf could only end in betrayal. The Thalmor were the enemies of all Mankind while the Dunmer worshipped Daedra and behaved in perverse and profane manner. Elves breathed magic and practiced dark and unknowable craft in their secret places, all knew. It was only natural not to trust one. Irilieth had laid her life on the line for Whiterun more times than Lydia could count, but she still wondered what she was really thinking sometimes, when those eyes fixed on her or gazed off at nothing. It was uncomfortable to admit, but she was not sure she could trust herself to trust him.

Then, all at once, she remembered, and wanted to shrink away in shame. She remembered his demand. "Bring my body to Morrowind." She remembered him bracing the shield above her, and his eyes burning bright while he tried to explain to himself and to her why he was saving her life. She remembered him offering her a potion for no reason other than that he had two, and the way he had gone rigid every time the dragon had been mentioned. He was terrified, and came anyways. He was not a warrior, but he had fought. He needs a strong sword by his side. He had held a shield against a dragon's fire and saved her life. He had no reason to defend me, but he tied his life to mine. I cannot do less.

Lydia had dreamed of being in the guard all of her life. She had joined the Town Watch at fifteen as a gangly girl, was serving in the Hold Guard by her nineteenth name-day, and had joined the Dragonsreach Guard after cutting down four bandits on her own, all before she was twenty-one. Now she was the youngest serjeant since the Great War, and with the dragons about, she would not lack for important and exciting work. She would have to be mad to throw it all away for this. I wonder if he felt this way when he dove into dragon's fire.

"My jarl, I will present the title of thane to the Dragonborn." Every eye in the room turned to Lydia, and her heart once more tried to drown out her thoughts as she realized what she was doing. "I will do this as his housecarl, and swear to his service upon my honor my sword and shield, to be his until my dying day."

At that, the dam broke and Lydia was nearly crushed beneath a tide of congratulations and genial slaps and hugs. Now that they do not have to serve him, they are overjoyed. She made her way through the crowd towards the jarl, who clasped her hand warmly and congratulated her, calling her by her given name, without rank. That was the gesture that hit home for her. I no longer serve the Jarl. I no longer serve the guard. I serve Whiterun, but my first service is to the thane, an elf I barely know. Sweet Mara, Mother of Mercy, what have I done?

Suddenly panicked, she left the guards congratulating each other and speculating on who would get the position she had just vacated, and stepped into the hallway to catch her breath. She tried not to think about what she had sworn to do. They had shed blood together, to be sure, but a housecarl was typically a dear friend or sworn shield-companion. He would be well within his rights to reject her. He would not do that, would he?

"I was wondering how long it would take you to figure it out." Irileth offered her a mug; she sipped at it to find fine rich Riften mead which she downed gratefully.

"You knew it would be me?"

"Not for a certainty, but who else? I saw that stunt he pulled with the shield. You owe him your life, guardswoman." It seemed that despite her new position, Irileth would not be using her name any time soon.

"I do, but, to be a housecarl…"

Irileth snorted. "Ha! As the only person in that room who actually knows what it means, you'll be a fine housecarl once you get the way of it. You'll serve, aye, but you have enough brains and an excess of spine; in no time at all you'll be telling him which way to march. That one doesn't know the first thing about Skyrim, and even less about this Dragonborn business. You have that honor, showing the Dragonborn the customs and honor of your people. Isn't that some great Nord tradition, breaking down misconceptions about your race?"

In the face of Irileth's hard-nosed optimism, Lydia felt better, albeit much like a child that feels reassured by an adult. It was easy to forget that she had a full head of height on the Dark Elf; the housecarl—the other housecarl—dominated any space she was in, even when standing before the jarl. The jarl could order someone jailed or executed, but Irileth would kill to defend her charge without blinking. Could I do that? Serve without hesitation? "Irileth, how long did it take before you could serve as you do now?"

"You mean how long before I became the guard dog that scares all of the little petitioners?" She snorted again. "I was doing it on day two." That did not reassure Lydia as to her own ability. Irileth put a hand on her shoulder. "There's one thing to remember, the same thing old Housecarl Margus told me. No matter what, as long as someone else is watching or can listen, you are an extension of your master. Serve without question; carry out any order to the best of your ability. Those we serve will have the world trying to break them down and tear them apart; they need a strong right hand against that. If you need to question something, phrase it as a clarification. You'll get the hang of it soon enough. In private though? That's when you tear into them and make them explain what in Dagon's great red ass they thought they were thinking."

Lydia could not help but grin at the image of Irileth berating Jarl Balgruuf like that, and the Dark Elf returned the smile. Lydia decided that since it clearly was possible for a Dark Elf to smile successfully, she would ensure that Velandryn learned how. "Thank you, Irileth. I think I can do this."

Irileth looked thoughtful. "One thing more. That one, Velandryn Savani, he's Dunmer."

"I had noticed, but I thank you for your insight."

"No, listen. Now that you've managed to overlook the fact that he's an elf and decided to trust him and judge him for his deeds and not his blood," Lydia winced at how transparent the guards in that room must have been, "you need to take a step back and take his blood and background into account.

"I'm Dunmer, a Dark Elf, because my parents were. For me, it means I'm a little better than most with magic, warm up slower than some, and can hold a sword as well in my left hand as my right. Other than that? I was born on the road, fought in a dozen wars by the time I was sixty, and settled down here. Velandryn Savani though? He's Dunmer because his ancestors were and because he's been immersed in that culture since birth. You noticed the hand on his armor?" Without waiting for Lydia's nod, she continued. "That's the mark of Nerevar the Indoril, one of the great generals, from thousands of years ago. Killed a lot of Nords, and broke their Tongues twice. The Tribunal, the living gods of Morrowind, they used it too. Tell me, do you think he's wearing that to honor the general who humiliated your people or three living gods ascended from his?"

"I—I don't know."

"Exactly. I don't either, because I'm not Dunmer like he is. He has a hundred beliefs you've never heard of, I'd wager, and I'm sure there are just as many ways for him to accidentally offend you. So, when he mentions Boethiah or Mephala, don't get bent out of shape because he worships Daedra. They do that, and from what I've seen, it's not the worst way to live. And if he mentions some Nord god wrong, work with him to fix his mistakes." She took a long pause. "I get the feeling that a lot of people are going to be waiting for him to fail. His housecarl needs to be on his side always. Even if he does get Tsun and Stuhn mixed up. Can you do that?"

Lydia thought. She had never been as devout as some, but she knew the stories of her people and was fiercely proud of her heritage. "So long as he makes an effort to understand and to be respectful, I will stand beside him." She shivered as the magnitude of what she had done occurred to her once more. "It's frightening. I'm being asked to swear my life away."

"No you're not. You volunteered. And you'll do fine. You wanted duty, didn't you? I remember the day you joined the Dragonsreach Guard, so proud in your new armor. I asked you why you wanted to be here. Do you remember what you said?"

"That I wanted to serve the jarl and the people of Whiterun, and be worthy of the trust they had placed in me."

"Was that the truth?"

"Yes, of course."

"Good. Well, right now there is a Dragonborn asleep in this palace. I won't pretend that means much to me, but that matters to you Nords, and a lot of people are already trying to figure out how to use that to their advantage. I'm telling you right now that I trust you to watch over him, and he needs someone whose only agenda is doing right by him. It's not an easy thing, to swear your life to another, but you have the chance to serve as no other Nord has in thousands of years, as sword and shield to the Dragonborn. You'll do yourself proud."

He lay in the bed beneath Dragonsreach, unsure of how long he had been like that, lying there in silent contemplation. He had slept for a time, before coming awake all at once. He had no memory of dreaming, but the feeling of wind beneath him echoed through his mind. Was I flying? Not, he could not fly. He was in Dragonsreach. The battle's done. I'm…I'm Dragonborn. He wondered what that actually meant, and how it would change his time here. For one, it means there will probably be quite a lot more of it. He suspected that the Nords would not let the Dragonborn leave Skyrim just as the dragons made their return. And if he tried hard enough, he might be able to trick himself into thinking the two events were not related. He doubted it, however. So, that meant he had to understand what all of this meant, and what would happen next. No doubt that would mean asking a Nord; perhaps Farengar could explain some of this madness.

Also, I must ask about Alduin.

It had been the last echo of the entity that had been Mirmulnir as it vanished within him, a certainty whose memory still chilled him. Your soul belongs to Alduin. The statement had not been a threat or boast, it had been a simple declaration of fact. He knew Alduin was a Nord name for something, possibly the Time Dragon, but beyond that, nothing. If the dragons revered Alduin, it could be useful to know more about it. Speculation is pointless, I need to learn more. He still felt vaguely disoriented and more rest would not have been unwelcome, but as he was now, he needed answers and peace of mind far more than sleep.

His room had not had a window, but the light in the hallway outside showed him that it was the dark of night, with silvery moonlight filtering in through a paned glass window. Truth be told, he had mostly lost track of the time of day since the dragon battle. At some point he would have to return to something resembling a coherent sleep schedule, but one of the upsides of being some sort of Nord hero was that he could likely wander Dragonsreach unmolested even after most were abed. As appealing as the prospect of accosting random Nords in their sleep was to him, Velandryn decided to go see Farengar, only to find his workshop empty and his bed rumpled but vacant. Annoyed at the wizard's absence, he found himself oddly reluctant to bother anyone else. He had left the wizard's chambers and was passing into the main hall before the reason occurred to him. Farengar is the only person here who likes me.

It hurt more than it should have. He should be doubly inured from the sting of loneliness. He was a Dunmer in Skyrim and Dragonborn besides; the reality of the situation was that he was the ultimate outsider. Perhaps these Greybeards knew something of the Thu'um, or of being Dragonborn, but he would wager every coin he had ever seen that every last one would be a Nord. The only Dunmer he had encountered since coming here were Arvel and Irileth; he had burned one and the other seemed to tolerate him at best. Have I ever been so isolated?

A sudden urge took him, and rather than retracing the steps down to his own modest cell, he took one of the stairs leading upwards from the main hall. A railed gallery ringed the great hall on all sides, offering a commanding view of the long approach from the massive wooden doors to the ornate thrones of the jarl beneath the dragon skull. With a start, he realized that while he had seen the skull several times, he had not actually noticed it until just now. Looking at it from above, it was easy to see the power inherent in every line and ridge of the bone. These are what we face. But this one had fallen, and its skull served as a trophy. He turned and made his way to the outer walls of the gallery, where tall glass windows stood tightly shut against the chill outside. Each was etched with a scene from what seemed to be a story of a hero capturing a dragon and putting it in chains, and he wondered if it had actually happened even as he admired the craftsmanship. He could not have said how long he gazed at them, but by the time he regained his sense, and pulled away, the sky through the windows had lightened to a murky gray. Silently, he resumed his vigil on the balcony, and watch the servants begin preparing the hall for the day. He watched them work, but his thoughts were of dragons.

It took Lydia far longer than it should have to find her new thane. After leaving Irileth and speaking briefly with the jarl and Kaptain Hrun she went looking for him, only to find that his room was empty and none of the servants about had seen him leave. She did not want to start her time as housecarl by having to admit that she had lost her charge, so she looked by herself, not knowing where or why he might have gone. It was by pure happenstance that she glanced up while crossing the main hall of Dragonsreach for the third time and saw him up there looking down at her. Annoyed, she took the steps up to the gallery two at a time; upon reaching the upper level, she found the Dark Elf leaning over the rail before her. The sun had risen and was shining through the great glass windows etched with the tale of King Olaf One-Eye and Numinex; it cast great columns of light upon the gallery. One such fell on him as he gazed down at the hall below.

"Why are you up here?" She should have been more diplomatic, but it had been a long morning and she was in no mood for games.

"I felt like it, I suppose. I've had a very long past few days. Some solitude is nice for a change." That took her aback. Considering everything he had been through…

He broke into her thoughts as he turned to face her, suddenly asking "Who is Alduin?"

The random inquiry caught her off-guard. "What?"

"Alduin. I would like to know more about it."

She had to take a moment to gather her thoughts; it had been years since she had given the matter of the Nord gods more consideration than the standard devotions. "Alduin is the World-Eater. He will consume Nirn at the end of time, and takes the form of a mighty dragon."

"So he is a god?"

"Yes, I think so." She vaguely remembered hearing someone mention that Alduin was the Nordic aspect of Akatosh, but didn't feel confident enough in her knowledge to bring that up. "Why does this matter?"

He waved her off. "It is not important. I was merely curious." He leaned against the rail again, and resumed his vigil of the morning activity. "My turn to ask you, why are you up here?"

"It is not important." She gave him his own words back. "I can come back later if you wish to be alone, though there are things I want to talk about before the feast this evening."

"Feast?" His red eyes narrowed in what was likely confusion and she realized that he would have had no way of knowing.

"Ah, that is, yes, the jarl is feasting the mighty of Whiterun and honoring the dragon slayers. And…announcing other matters as well." She would find the right time to tell him about his new position, and hers, but she did not think this was it.

He made a thoughtful noise. "Hmm. I would assume that one of these matters is my new…status?"

She felt momentary guilt over his obvious discomfort at being Dragonborn. It was not her fault though, any of this. "Yes. You are Dragonborn, and the jarl wants to make it clear that you are here to stand against the dragons."

He turned, and his eyes were different, lighter somehow. She remembered him saying that elves could smile with only their eyes, and wondered if this was what she was seeing. "I don't suppose anybody is hoping that there were only two dragons out there, and we've managed to kill half of them?"

She almost had to laugh at that. "No, not even Proventus would claim such a thing right now. By dusk, everyone will be ready to fight a host of dragons." She tried to take the measure of him, half-facing her in the pale morning light. "With you at our fore, as Dragonborn."

He sighed. "Yes, Dragonborn. I somehow take the soul of a dragon, and now I know things I shouldn't and can speak Thu'um without training."

She knew of the Shouting, of course, but the knowledge… "What do you know now? And what do you mean you shouldn't?"

"Do you remember when we were beneath the dragon's fire?"

"Yes, and if you are just reminding me that you saved my life—"

"No, listen. We should not have survived that. There were a dozen ways it could have broken through my ward and your shield. It could have bought down a claw on us, and broken me physically. It could have moved its head and avoided the shield, or simply left. It was surrounded by foes, so why try for so long? It makes no sense."

"It was otherwise distracted, I had thought. That guardsman attacked it, for one. Besides, though it seemed a long time to us, our peril made us remember the time we spent differently. It happens often in battle. Only a moment passed in truth."

"Kenrik landed a blow of the kind that it had knocked away too many times to count just minutes before. And yes, I'm sure the eternity I spent trying not to burn to death is exaggerated somewhat in my memory, but we had a chance to talk, which takes time."

She had to concede the point. "Why was it then? You seem to know."

"It was because I challenged him. He would have burned you, but I placed myself in the path of his flames and denied them. To do anything other than overwhelm us with the same attack would be admitting that we had defeated his fire. He refused, and continued his attack." His lips twitched. "A happy accident. I wonder what would have happened had the Dragonborn died. Would my soul have gone to Mirmulnir?"

"Mir-who?"

"The dragon. It doesn't matter, really. The point is, I know this now. This kind of knowledge. Imagine what can be done with it." He left the railing and paced into the shadows, apparently deep in thought.

Lydia knew that it had to be now. He understood how important it was that the Dragonborn be present for the fights to come. "There is one more thing." She took a deep breath, and pushed it out in a single breath. "The jarl has named you Thane of Whiterun, with all of the duties and honors that come with it."

She glanced over at him. He had stopped walking, and the light glinted dully in his red eyes. Suddenly, he made a grandiose gesture in the general direction of the railing and the hall below it. "Very well. I accept gladly. Make ready your finest treasures and most succulent foods." She had only a moment to gape at his light tone and airy wave of his hand before he continued. "Next, if you tell me what a thane is, I can decide how I actually feel about it."

It took her a moment to realize that he was teasing her. "You…it…" Words failed her. She had been anticipating this moment, and had a speech prepared about the honor of the position, and how despite his blood he would be welcome among the highest of the city. And now he was mocking her! She focused on the floorboards beneath her feet, imagining the look of scorn that must be on his face. If she looked up and saw that, she could not be held to task for what she did next.

Her indignation was interrupted by the Dark Elf moving to stand directly before her, hands crossed across his chest. "Lydia? Are you all right? I am sorry. I meant only to point out that I don't know what it means to be a thane. I intended no offense." She looked up, and saw his eyes dark and intense, brows furrowed and all joviality gone. He reached up and tentatively put a hand on her shoulder. "Forgive me. I did not mean to offend you."

She looked at his hand where it rested on her. The skin looked darker than its usual gray, almost blue in the half-light. This close, she noticed for the first time that his body was all but hairless; the only place she could see it sprouting was from the crown of his head. Where a human would have stubble or a moustache, he had nothing. It was beyond strange, to see no hair on a male face.

"Can elves not grow beards?" She blurted it out unthinking, and stood in mute shock at what she had said. He pulled back and looked at her expressionlessly, bringing his hand back down to his side. Oh gods, and he was apologizing! He must think her an utter fool.

On the contrary, his eyes lit up in one of his smiles, and his lips twitched upwards again. "We do, though slowly. I shaved the night I arrived in Whiterun, and before that it had been several weeks. It can take years to grow a full beard." He leaned against the railing casually, and she felt the tension ebb out of her. He continued. "If you ever see an elf with one of those huge beards that reach down to their chests, you know they have been cultivating it for decades or more. As for me, even for an elf I grow little on my face." He shrugged. "I shave every now and then, and my face stays clean and smooth." He ran a hand along his sharp jaw thoughtfully. "Why? Do Nord women prefer their elves bearded?"

She snorted, but felt more at ease than she had since this conversation began. He chuckled, and she knew that she had made the right decision. "I can answer your real question now. A thane is a person of importance in the hold. The title is awarded by the Jarl in recognition of a deed done or to accompany an appointment to some special office. In your case, it is a little of both. You are Dragonborn, true, but the only reason we even know that is because you helped kill the dragon." There was more to his particular appointment, but there was no need to complicate the issue at this stage. Let him learn the complications slowly.

"So, I would imagine that one of the duties that goes with this title is some sort of obligation to defend the hold." The elf was speaking slowly and deliberately, clearly thinking through every word.

"Yes, although in reality thanes generally serve as advisors or commanders. As thanes are given honors beyond the ordinary citizen, so too are they expected to serve the will of the jarl and the hold."

"Interesting. From what I have been able to gather, the Dragonborn is a phenomenally important figure in Nordic tradition, associated both with the Draconic myths that dominate your prehistory as well as Tiber Septim and the Empire. So, for a neutral hold like Whiterun to install a Dragonborn as thane would present any Nord force that meant to take the hold with a serious problem." Suddenly, she recalled Farengar ranting about how sharp the Dark Elf was; how quickly he picked up information and approached problems from unconventional angles. "Given that Ulfric Stormcloak has predicated his rebellion on the worship of Talos and veneration of Nord tradition, he would need to delegitimize me as Dragonborn if he wished to mount any serious assault on Whiterun." He looked at her questioningly. "Would an average Nord soldier attack a city if they knew that a Dragonborn was defending it?"

"I'm…I'm not really certain. You have to understand, this is unheard of. Dragonborn come out of the very oldest stories, fighting dragons in the days of Ysgramor! They aren't something that we would actually meet in this day and age. It's like…like…"

"Like the greatest hero of your people being reborn after four thousand years and casting down a few living gods? Because that one happened to the Dunmer." His eyes went from smiling to dark and serious in a heartbeat. "I am not a Nord, and I am certain that many will never forgive me for that. However, I am Dragonborn, and I will defend your people whether they like it or not." The smile returned to his eyes, and he stood straight and briefly clasped her shoulder again. "Thank you for coming to tell me about all of this, Korpral Lydia of Whiterun."

"About that…" There was one more part, and this would be the hardest. He seemed to like her well enough, but to have another bound to you… "I am no longer in the service of Whiterun. A thane is entitled to a housecarl, a personal warrior. Your housecarl will serve as sword and shield, the embodiment of your will. I have chosen to serve as yours, should you have me." Her prepared speech about serving well and the honor of the Nords was gone, as was her clever little bit about working together to show that elves could work with humans. She had given him the facts, and that was all. She looked at his face, but could make out nothing from his expression.

His response was not long in coming. "You chose this? It was not demanded of you?" His voice was even, with only the slightest inflection to signal that he was questioning rather than making a statement.

"I chose freely. You have proven yourself worthy of following, and I believe that I can be of assistance in the challenges you will face." As she said the words, she meant it more than she ever had when saying it to herself. Facing him here and now, she saw honor in this strange elf who was the Dragonborn, and felt confidence in her decision.

He looked at her for a long moment more. "I lied earlier, you should know."

With a lurch, everything she had thought, every judgment she had made up on this balcony, was thrown into doubt. What lies did he tell? Was it her youth or his actions during the battle that had led her to trust a strange Dark Elf? She opened her mouth to demand that he explain himself, only to be cut off as he continued.

"I said I came up here because I desired solitude. That was untrue. I came up here because I had nowhere else to go. Of all those in Dragonsreach, Farengar alone seems to tolerate me for anything more than my status." He waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, the servants bow and scrape and guards salute and call me 'Dragonborn,' but that is for the title, for something that still feels like a false name I have taken from some worthier host. Would your jarl have named me thane if I were simply another outlander who had participated in slaying Mirmulnir?"

She shook her head reluctantly. "No, you would have been given a token reward and sent on your way."

"So, I am given this honor and a title I have no connection to. Once more, the Dragonborn is cast into the light while Velandryn Savani is ignored." He held up a hand to forestall her as she started to protest. "I understand why, but it has become tiring after little more than a day, and I have no doubt I will grow even wearier of it with time. Rest assured, I don't resent you for it! Remind me to tell you the tale of the Nerevarine." A brief smile tugged at his lips and that same brightness flitted through his eyes. "I simply want to know that you wish to be housecarl for me, not for the Dragonborn."

That took her aback, and to her shame she had to think on it. Would I follow him if he were not the Dragonborn? He was not a warrior, but he had helped kill a dragon. He was not— she stopped abruptly as she realized that she was simply rehashing the struggle she had had before declaring to the jarl that she would serve. I made my decision then, and my thoughts were only of the person he is, not of his title. She met his gaze unblinking. "I do. You have acted honorably and aided us in a time of need. You worked with Farengar, fought the dragon despite your fear, and risked your own life to save mine. I would be proud to serve you as housecarl."

He looked up at her for another long moment, and then held out his hand. She clasped his forearm firmly as he gripped hers, and he looked up at her with fire in his eyes. "Lydia of Whiterun, I accept you as housecarl. I do not know what form the path from this place will take, but I am glad to have you at my side." The fire faded, and that laughing light returned. "Now, it seems I am going to be presented to Whiterun at a feast. As your thane, my first order is to show me how not to humiliate myself. It would not do for the Dragonborn to use the wrong fork."

"Then you are in luck, my thane." Lydia had attended too many of these feasts since arriving at Dragonsreach not to know how they went. "There is only a single fork per person, and it is used to hold in place any item that requires cutting. However most food can be eaten with the hands. Bringing a dagger to cut one's meat is fine for a jarl's feast, though in a lesser hall it could be perceived as an insult, suggesting that the host is too poor to provide a knife for each guest. As the guest of honor you will be seated…"

They discussed the feast for the better part of morning, with Lydia appreciating for once the tedious lessons in proper etiquette that had been drilled into her as part of the Dragonsreach guard training. They had wandered down to the main level so Lydia could better reference specific locations for him. The servants in the main hall largely ignored them as they went about their preparations, though Farengar did stop by to let Velandryn know that the Dark Elf was still welcome to stop by and help with research any time he wanted. He was practically salivating at the chance to interrogate a Dragonborn, but Lydia placed herself between the two of them and assured the wizard that while his enthusiasm was welcome, they still had a lot of work to do in little time.

"Am I truly so hopeless that we might run out of time before the feast?" The question might have seemed accusatory or wounded, were it not for the tone that she had come to recognize as his attempting humor.

"Not at all, but as your housecarl, I am sworn to defend you. That includes from impositions on your time. We do have a feast this evening, and you could well wish some time to yourself before it begins."

Her thane stopped dead in his tracks and turned to regard her. "It seems I made a fine choice accepting your service." Lydia grinned as he returned to studying the table. "Explain to me the status of this group that calls itself the Companions."

Soon enough, Lydia felt confident that Velandryn would not embarrass himself at the feast, and was comfortable calling for a halt. He seemed happy to hear this, and made to depart. As he did so, Lydia suddenly remembered her duty.

"My thane, might I know where you will be? The jarl has ordered finery prepared for you, and you mentioned wishing some time alone before beginning preparations for the evening."

"Beginning preparations." He rolled the words around his mouth as though he was unsure of their taste. "I suppose the Dragonborn must be made ready before such events." He sighed. "I will be in my cell, should you need me."

"In Skyrim, a cell is for prisoners. Do you not mean your room?" He had taken off down the hall, but her longer legs and quick stride brought her even with her thane in moments.

"No, a cell is what it is. Small, unadorned, a place to sleep but not to relax." He seemed distracted, somehow managing to exclude her from a conversation of two.

"Is something the matter, Thane Velandryn? Are you displeased with your lodgings?"

Her use of the title jolted him out of whatever reverie had held him. "Ah? No, no, just…lost in thought." He was still out of sorts, but was at least paying attention to the conversation now. "No, no, my cell is fine. Truth be told, I was expecting a bunk in the guardhouse when I asked for lodging. I was just thinking."

"What about, if I may ask?"

"Alduin." He did not seem inclined to say more, and Lydia could tell that pressing him for details would only strain their fledgling partnership. We work well enough together, but we are still strangers. She let him go on his way, and was returning to the hall when she saw Freya exiting one of the side passages.

The serjeant looked only a bit the worse for the ordeal they had been through. Though her uniform was pristine, her face was lined with fatigue. She was flanked by several of her subordinates, though upon seeing Lydia she waved for them to continue on without her and moved to intercept the new housecarl.

"Lydia! Thank the Nine!" Freya stopped short of throwing her arms around her, but Lydia could tell that the other woman was restraining herself. "I have so much to say, is there somewhere we could talk?" She gave a little laugh. "You know this place better than I, after all." Lydia led her into one of the halls to the left that would eventually lead to a perfect place to speak. Beside her, Freya followed amiably, though Lydia could not help but wonder why she was so intent on speaking after so long apart.

The terrace was empty; the plains of Whiterun Hold stretched out before them, with the White River drawing a shimmering ribbon across the scene. Far to the south, the foothills of the Throat of the World pushed up through the trees; the mountain itself looming above all. From this distance, the top of the peak was shrouded in clouds, giving it an otherworldy appearance. That is where we must go.

Behind her, Freya shut the heavy wooden doors that led into Dragonsreach, and then joined her in looking out over the city and the plains beyond. She still wondered why Freya had called her out here, though part of her suspected that she knew the reason already. Lydia turned slightly, and looked at her out of the corner of her eye.

Her hair had darkened, childhood wheat-blond locks now closer to brown. I wonder if she would still giggle if I ran my fingers through it. She had held onto her baby fat for a long time, but that had melted away, and Lydia couldn't help but feel a slight sense of loss contrasting the chubby cheeks she had loved to kiss with this lean face. She looked good. She looks beautiful. Admit it, to yourself if not to her.

"Seven years since you left the Hold Guard." Freya faced Lydia, the wind off of the plains throwing her short hair this way and that. "Has Dragonsreach been good to you?" Lydia had never been able to tell when Freya was teasing her.

"It has. And you? I see you made serjeant of the Hold Guard." The awkwardness was almost unbearable. What did you say to someone who had collapsed to the ground sobbing the last time you walked away?

"Serjeant of the western watchtower, you mean. Before that, I commanded a roving patrol on the Riverwood Road. Before that, the caravan escort from the city to the eastern watchtower." She snorted. "Positions overflowing with prestige. They made me serjeant because I served long enough and didn't get too many of my people killed." She shrugged. "You should have been there. You would have had command, of course. You always had a knack for this." She smiled, glancing down at Lydia's body, at the guard's tunic she wore. "There were many nights out on the plains, when the cold winds cut through the tents, that you would have been welcome beside me. Huddled for warmth, who can say what would happen?"

Lydia knew she was flushing, but thoughts of Freya had always done that. That is why I broke this off when I joined the Dragonsreach Guard. So, why now…

Freya was talking again. "I've been transferred to Dragonsreach! I'll be here every day now, and we can be together again!" She slid one hand up Lydia's arm, and the housecarl felt the flesh beneath her onetime lover's touch prickle. She knew she could take Freya in her arms, unstrap the armor and carry her to one of the rooms in Dragonsreach where they could be alone, lay her down and touch every place that would make her scream out Lydia's name.

But all of that had been long ago. The feelings were little more than an echo. She could remember a hundred moments of breathless passion with this woman, but they stirred her no more than any conjured fantasy. "Freya, we cannot."

"Don't be absurd, of course we can! I heard you have been promoted to serjeant, which means you decide guard shifts. Tweak things around a little, and we can be off together. It's perfect!"

Seven years. Had Freya changed so little? They had behaved this way when they were newly-minted guards, adjusting shifts and begging moments to f*ck in empty storerooms. They had eschewed the guard barracks to sleep in Lydia's house, curled into each other beneath the sheets. They had been little more than children. Lydia had only been fourteen the first time she kissed Freya, and it had been on Freya's sixteenth name-day a month later that they had first made love. It had been beautiful, intoxicating, and utterly stupid. The past is past. Freya had consoled her through the death of her father, but only one of them had found the resolve to pursue their duty all the way Dragonsreach.

Lydia pushed Freya away gently, disentangling her soft fingers. "We cannot, Freya. I have a duty now, and we have been apart for seven years. We are different people."

"Liddy, stop it. I know you want me. That's why you followed me out here, isn't it? You wanted an excuse to be alone with me. You've been stuck with the Dragonborn all morning, haven't you? A dreary duty, I imagine." She moved to slip back into Lydia's arms, but the housecarl stopped her.

"Freya, this will not happen. I am Velandryn Savani's housecarl, and it is my duty to follow him as his sword and shield."

The other woman could not have recoiled more quickly if Lydia had professed to worship Daedra. "You are bound to him? You are his housecarl? How could the Jarl command this?"

Lydia knew that many would ask here these same questions in the coming days. "He did not command it. I saw in Velandryn a thane worth following, and as the Dragonborn he is in need of my support. I am sworn to be his sword and shield, and my duty to him supersedes all personal desires."

"No, it doesn't! We can make it work! And when did you become so formal with me, Liddy? We can be together again, at last!"

Please don't make me say it, Freya. Don't make me break your heart again.

"Freya, it was seven years ago! We're different people now! Be honest, how many others have you taken to bed since me?" She knew there were some, men and women alike. Freya had always had a wandering eye, and while she had been faithful to Lydia for their time together…

"None that mattered!" Panic had spread across Freya's face and infected her voice. "I always thought of you, but when the cold winds come off the plains…you know how it is, Liddy. You…weren't there. I missed you, but…"

"Freya, I don't begrudge you a one of them." She put warmth into her voice; she had no desire to hurt Freya any further than she had to. "I hope you all the best in your future, but it is not one I can share. I am sworn to follow Velandryn Savani as housecarl to the Dragonborn, and you should understand that this is an honor I will not refuse."

"It doesn't matter! He's a thane of Whiterun, you'll still be here for most all the time. We can make this work!"

Lydia knew what she had to do. Freya had always been adept at not hearing what she didn't want to; when Lydia had left her it had been like this as well. "Freya, it isn't just because of the Dragonborn, or my new duties. Even if I were in Whiterun all the time, we could not be together." Freya opened her mouth, but Lydia continued. She had to get all of this out. "When I was a child, you were my best friend. I fell in love with you, and I think you with me. What we had was wonderful, and I will never regret it. But, that time is done. I didn't leave you because it would be impossible for us to be together, I left because you couldn't understand." Tears were trickling down Freya's cheeks, but Lydia plowed ahead. "I left because I knew that the calling to serve the people of Whiterun took priority over any love, and you did not feel the same. I tried to explain that I would always put my duty to the jarl and the hold first, and you teased me for it. Seven years ago I cried myself to sleep every night for a month, but I knew that it was better to weep and move on than to live my life with a woman who didn't believe in my duty. I'm sorry. I loved you, Freya, and…I'm sorry."

"Liddy…"Freya's voice was a broken thing, and Lydia had to force herself to keep looking at her. "Liddy, I love you…I'm sorry." She looked at Lydia with reddened eyes, and turned away.

Lydia had loved Freya once, but she was not that person anymore. She had made herself clear, and if Freya could not let her go, that was not her fault. As she left the terrace, she kept telling herself that. If she was being honest with herself, though, what hurt the most was how little Freya's tears moved her. Seven years ago, it had been the hardest thing in the world to walk away. She had doubted, and wavered, and nearly gone back half a hundred times. Now? She pitied Freya, and wished her well, but she was beyond her. I have chosen my path. She set off down a hall. Her thane was waiting.

Chapter 7: Comes the Dragonborn

Summary:

Time passes, and word spreads

Chapter Text

Elsewhere

"But dragons?"

"Crazy, isn't it? First Helgen, now Whiterun. Battus saw it in the flesh, though, and I won't call him a liar. Said it took sixty to bring it down. Apparently some elf used magic to kill it in the end."

"Hmm, wonder how the Nords felt about that. So, what else did Battus find?"

"She's in Whiterun, most likely. A woman matching her description came in on a carriage from Falkreath a month or so back, and nobody remembers her leaving, though that hardly proves anything."

"Damn it. She could have slipped out at any time. How many come and go every day? Or she could still be in the city. Who'd notice one more Redguard in a city as mixed as that? For now, Whiterun is looking promising enough. Either she stayed or she left, and with any luck somebody was paying enough attention to notice."

"Battus left a few of his to watch the gates. She sticks her head out past the walls, we'll know. Meanwhile, we keep patrols on the roads, and keep asking questions. She'll want big cities to hide in, and Whiterun is better than any place in Skyrim for one of us to go to ground. We'll comb the city, just you see."

"That's Kematu's call, but I'd agree with you. You going to report now?"

"Battus has already left. We get to enjoy Rorikstead for now."

"A Nord farming village. We can look at crops! I think I saw a sheep yesterday!"

"It isn't that bad."

"Feel free to stay."

"You miss home?"

"I miss my husband and my child. But we find this woman Iman, we go home rich."

"I like the sound of rich. I'll drink to that."

"Me too. Innkeep!"

As the guest of honor, Velandryn was obligated to remain at the feast for as long as any still wished to engage with him. As a result, it was well into the early hours of the morning by the time he bid Olfrid 'Patron of the great Clan Battle-Born!' and Nazeem farewell and watched them wander off in the direction of the main doors. Their companions had left hours ago, but both had hung around in hopes of getting the last word with him. An… interesting pair, to be sure. Olfrid was the patriarch of what seemed to be a powerful House in Whiterun, and had clearly figured that warm relations with the Dragonborn would be beneficial to his House's interests. Nazeem, as far as he could tell, was simply a lickspittle who wanted to ingratiate himself with a new power player in the city. He had spoken to the man for what had seemed an interminable amount of time but, in truth, was likely no more than ten or fifteen minutes. The Redguard farmer had managed to mention his connections to the jarl three times, his impoverished beginnings four, and the frequency with which he visited Dragonsreach an astonishing eight. Olfrid had been more restrained in his descriptions of Clan Battle-Born's ventures, but laid out in no uncertain terms his willingness to assist Velandryn in whatever the Dragonborn might require. The Dunmer had been overjoyed to see their backs.

He surveyed the hall, mostly empty now but for Lydia, him, and a single servant banking the firepit. He turned to find his housecarl's face set in a grim mask that managed to convey discontent across any racial barrier. She had left her seat as the hall emptied and been in place behind him for the entirety of Nazeem and Olfrid's ingratiation. He beckoned for her to take a seat, and she slid into the chair that Olfrid had vacated.

"Were you not enthralled by the conversation, Lydia?" Much of the food remaining on the high table had yet to be collected; he grabbed a few roasted nuts from a bowl and popped them into his mouth.

"Nazeem comes to Dragonsreach often, but I can usually leave before he starts talking." She tore a chunk of bread from a loaf left on the table, and slathered it with the thick yellow butter they used here. She took a huge bite, chewed thoughtfully, and swallowed. "He had you captive, though, and I couldn't help without being immensely rude." She speared a roasted onion, now long cold, with her dagger. "Apologies, my thane."

"For not removing Nazeem's head?" He cut a slice from the loaf with the iron dagger he had taken from that first bandit he had slain, back before even Riverwood. "I'll let it pass just this once." He had no great love for cow's milk, but this butter was not bad; he spread a thin layer on the bread and topped it with cold roast boar and some green vegetables grilled black. "We made it through the second-longest dinner of my life, and I believe that I am now both Dragonborn and not entirely despised by the people I am protecting." He regarded his creation for a moment, then ran magicka through his free hand and held it over his food. Not quite enough to combust in the air, just enough heat to…there. He pulled his hand back, and began eating, the food piping hot and steaming. Wordlessly, Lydia extended the half-eaten onion on her dagger.

"You handled yourself well tonight, my thane." She took a bite of her onion, now crisped and steaming, and nodded appreciatively. "Many who were doubtful at the idea of an elf Dragonborn are now likely put at ease."

"I prefer the term mer, actually. Elf is a human construction." He filled his mug with the dark red wine they had served; it was less distasteful than most of the alcohol here, and it seemed Nords did not like drinking water at their feasts. A thin beige beer was the closest they had, and Velandryn was not fool enough to try such a wretched drink twice in one evening. "And you humans manage to make it sound like a curse so often, I have grown tired of hearing it."

"I see." Her tone was slightly stiff, and Velandryn realized he might have upset her. "My apologies, thane." She took another onion and began to eat it cold.

"Oh, give that here." He held out his hand but she continued eating. "Lydia, come, give me the onion, no sense in eating it cold." Still she ate. He felt anger rising within him, and the dragon's mind rose with it. Before the feast, he had spent hours in mediation, and while it had worked for a time, he could feel his restraint slipping. She is brave, to ignore me! "Housecarl, if you have something to say, do so now!" It came out harsher than he had intended, and he almost regretted saying it in such a way. Then that remorse vanished beneath a tide of righteous indignation as she made no response. He could feel the Dov within him bristle in anger at her dismissal. She serves me, and she acts like this? "Lydia!" The moment her name left his lips and he heard the tone that flavored the word he knew he had gone too far.

As she turned towards him, she seemed all at once amused and angry. "Are you serious, my thane? You want to know why I'm upset?" She spoke in a manner that was quietly intense; even if the feast had been in full swing, few would have been able to make out her words. As it was, the few servants straggling around the periphery of the hall certainly could not overhear her, but he felt her words' full force. "You don't know how you sound?"

He blinked a few times, his momentary rage at her impertinence disintegrating in the face of her response. The Dov within him took umbrage at her tone, but he silenced that feeling as soon as he recognized it. I do not need a dragon's pride right now. "How do you mean?"

"You are Dragonborn, as well as an honorable and brave thane, and I am proud to serve you, make no mistake, but right now you sound like a whining child." She was facing him fully now, hands clasped on the table and the remainder of her onion forlorn and abandoned on its plate. "I didn't use elf instead of your name, or call you grayskin or ashface. I was making a point, and used the right word to stress my meaning. Elf is a human word, and I used it. I am human, in case you had missed it, and I see no reason why I shouldn't use my race's word! It isn't an insult, but you still took it as one!" Her voice had risen at the end there, and she checked the hall furtively; their conversation still went on unheeded.

He opened his mouth to retort, but she continued, clearly intent on making her point regardless of her thane's response. "You act so damned superior to us, telling us that you 'grow tired' of being called elf! Of course you do, if you're taking it as an insult every time someone refers to your race! It's a word, and I meant it kindly, and you have to have known that! You want us to say mer? It would sound like something out of an old book on the Snow Elves! 'Ysgramor, descending upon the unsuspecting mer with his Companions…' You'll be hard pressed to find many among the people of Skyrim who talk like that!

"You'll find damn fools everywhere, and some of them will say damn fool things to you. Some will insult you for being a mer, some will hate you for being Dragonborn or for looking at them the wrong way. And when they do? I'll grab them by the throat and demand they apologize to my thane, or I'll put them through a wall. But not for this. You don't get to scorn my people just for being Nords." She fell silent then, and for the first time this evening, he was truly at a loss for words.

It was an odd sensation, Velandryn mused, being shown up by a human. She wasn't wrong, though. He did feel that way, and it was not truly warranted. He knew, of course, that by and large humans used 'elf' simply because it was the word they knew. Most meant no harm, and he could acknowledge that on an intellectual level. However, they were human, and that made a difference. He had known since his earliest years that the Dunmer were a race apart, and that others would tear them down at every opportunity. Since journeying to Cyrodiil and from there into Skyrim, he had broadened his experience with humans, but it seemed that he could not stop his deepest prejudices. He had known Lydia meant no harm, but he had wanted to establish…what? Did I want to prove my superiority, or just put her on the defensive? He had no cause to do so, so why had he done it?

"I think…I think you're right." He spoke slowly, reluctant to concede but knowing that these words had to be said. "I should not have said that, and I did you a disservice." It had never been particularly easy for him to apologize, and doubly so to a Nord. "I am sorry."

Lydia nodded. "I'm sorry as well. I should have responded better. You are my thane, and I don't want to fight with you. It's just…you're the Dragonborn. You're the hero of Skyrim. Literally! Remember the song?" He did. Our hero, our hero, the Dragonborn comes! Or, something to that effect, at least. They had played the song at least twenty times during the feast, but he had only ever heard snippets over whatever conversation he had having at the moment. "The Dragonborn shouldn't be telling people off for using the word elf."

Velandryn knew that she was right. The Dragonborn needs to be above such petty things. He wasn't certain he could do that, though. "Lydia, how is this? I will extend you and yours the benefit of every doubt with regards to what you choose to call me." He paused for a moment, carefully considering his next words. "But, when the people of Skyrim do wrong me on account of my race—which will happen, make no mistake—I want you to acknowledge it for what it is. If we can both do this, we might just have a chance of making it through this without hating each other."

She nodded. "Done." She speared the remaining half of the onion on her dagger and handed it over. "I am your sword and shield, my thane, and I will do my best to help you however I can."

After heating the onion and passing it back, he watched her eat as he considered her words. The Dragonborn must be more than I can be. He could pretend it did not bother him, but he was still a Dunmer, and the thought of losing that in this foreign land agitated him like a thorn beneath his skin. I cannot both be Dragonborn and reject the Nords, but I will not let myself forget who I am! Add to that these new passions that he had started thinking of as the Dov within him, and he worried he was at a very real risk of waking one morning to find himself completely lost. The thoughts of home had grown more remote these past few days; though the Sermon of Seven still echoed through his mind, thoughts of warmth sparked memories of dragon's fire rather than the holy flames within the Temple. He was Dragonborn, but what did that mean? How did this end for Velandryn Savani? Unbidden, the thought rose within him. It doesn't matter what they want. Take their power, take what you want. You are Dov, and they will kneel or they will—

"My thane!" His eyes jolted open and he jerked up in shock as his senses returned to him. Lydia was leaning across the table. "I'm sorry, my thane, I had not even noticed you drifting off. You must be exhausted after the feast. Come, the Jarl has given you fine quarters on the upper levels of Dragonsreach." She stood, and he got unsteadily to his feet as well.

Who am I?

It ate at him as he followed Lydia up the stairs. He still felt like Velandryn Savani, but the idea of being the Dragonborn sat uneasily upon his shoulders. He had meditated on it, before the feast, but reached no conclusions; even the ever-present specter of Alduin could not pull his mind away from this disconnect. He liked Lydia, and thought that he could work well with her, but for the rest of them? He needed…

He needed to be the Dragonborn. It was as simple as that. Skyrim had need of him, these Nords had need of him, and his conscience would not let him walk away. He clearly had some power, and whether it had come to him from a god, from the dragon, or by random chance, he had a responsibility to help these people. So, he would do it. He remembered his first sermon, and the words of the old Canon who was mentoring him. They do not know your fears, they can only see your actions. They expect the voice of the Three. Give them that.

"Lydia." His housecarl turned to face him. "Thank you."

"Of course my thane." She looked a little confused as she responded, and he knew that it would take longer than he cared for to explain why he had thanked her. They moved on, and Velandryn let the thought roll about in his head, liking the taste of it more and more.

They expect the Dragonborn. Give them that.

"Not like that, my thane."

"Then how? Your explanations make no sense."

"Like this. Less on the lips. You spread them too wide, show too many teeth. If you want people to respect the Dragonborn, you need to be able to do at least this."

"This is absurd. If I can kill a dragon, why is this eluding me?"

"I will note that the dragon died shortly after you smiled. The two could be related."

"You are hilarious, Lydia. I am laughing on the inside, I assure you."

"Well, it looks a lot like a bad smile."

Velandryn brought the blade up just in time. The blow that would have taken him in the neck instead slammed into his sword, slid upwards along his guard and locked against his hilt. The rapid impacts sent shivers down his spine and he pushed with the blade, the awkward angle forcing his opponent's weapon out and away from their bodies. His opponent was open, and his blade was within her guard. He needed only to bring it in to be able to—

He saw the shield half a second before it slammed into his side, sending him staggering to his knees. Head whirling, he took a moment to let his vision right itself, and looked up. Lydia stood above him, casually brought her blunted sword down, and tapped his head gently. With a sigh, he drove the tip of his practice weapon into the ground and hauled himself back to his feet. His side ached, and he found himself glad that Lydia was going gently enough on him that he had no cracked ribs with which to contend. He was equally glad that the secluded courtyard had neither windows nor an audience; watching the Dragonborn get thrown around like a kwama grub would doubtless damage the mystique of the title.

"Good work on the parry, but do not ignore my shield. It is every bit as much weapon as defense. Are you sure you don't want to try with one?" Lydia had been trying to get him to take up her style of fighting, with sword and shield, since they had started this morning.

Velandryn shook his head. "No, I want the other hand free. If things ever get so bad that I'm the one doing the swordfighting, I'll want to at least shove a fireball down their throats while I'm at it." He took up his stance, and something drifted up from his memory, a week he had spent at the Temple of Mercy in Mournhold, and the training he had observed there.

His housecarl pursed her lips. "Your guard is wrong. Do it like I showed you."

"This is a Dunmer stance, used by the Ordinators-Repentant. Shouldn't I be using a guard better suited for my size and race? Especially since I do not have a shield."

"The stance I showed you is designed for a single blade with the offhand free. I modified it to emphasize your smaller stature and shorter reach." Before he had a chance to adjust, Lydia brought her blade up and saluted. "Begin!"

This time, he tried keeping one eye on her shield, noting whenever she moved it from its resting block. However, noticing it did little good when she drove it forward, sending him scrambling desperately back to avoid being knocked to the ground. Her sword's blow followed swiftly, easily knocking the blade from his grip and sending it skidding across the courtyard.

"My thane, are these Ordinators-Repentant skilled warriors?" Her question came seemingly from nowhere. Velandryn stopped halfway to retrieving his fallen weapon and turned to regard her. A dozen answers bubbled up, each indignant and rich with the culture and history of their order, but they all boiled down to one salient fact.

"Yes. Exceptionally." His pride must have shown, because Lydia snorted and brought sword and shield to ready position before her.

"Well, you aren't. So, you'll use the stances I teach you, and maybe you'll live long enough to learn something! Now, attack me!"

Velandryn picked up his sword, hefting it in both hands; while it was possible for him to swing it with one, if he wanted any hope of breaking her guard he would need the power of a two-handed grip. He was completely untrained with using two-handed weapons, of course, but he didn't seem to be doing much better with just one hand, so he decided to risk it. As he closed, and saw her eyebrows raise at his choice of stance, he had a wicked idea, and knew his eyes must be grinning.

"That was an…interesting way you addressed me back there, housecarl. Tell me, is it typical to insult one's thane and tell them they will die, or do you reserve that honor for your Dragonborn?"

It was interesting to see the panic spread across Lydia's face. They had become comfortable with each other over few days since the feast, and truth be told Velandryn had no problem at all deferring to her on matters of combat, but he was still her thane, and could use that. By the look of it, she had committed a serious breach of protocol. And I am Dragonborn besides. I will wager that is enough…

His first blow was overhead, a huge arcing sweep that, in her distress, Lydia came close to letting through. Her shield, did rise, however, and the blow glanced harmlessly off. Velandryn had anticipated this, however, and was able to angle his strike such that it slid along the shield and fell off to her left in a single motion. Using both hands, he was able to bring it up under the shield and slam the blunted sword into her arm. She gave a sharp curse, and Velandryn drove the pommel into her side. As she staggered back, he saw her blade closing fast on him. By now she had recovered her presence of mind, and this looked to be one of her swift and merciless strikes that could crack bones if it hit full on. He could heal, of course, but both the wound and the cure hurt like Oblivion, and he had no desire to go through that again. In desperation, he dropped to his knees and thrust the blade at her sword arm. He felt the impact, heard the curse, and looked up to see his housecarl standing before him, both arms held awkwardly at her sides. He stood unsteadily, and reached out to tap her on her leather jerkin with the tip of his sword. "I think that round is mine."

She gave him a look that he would have called measuring had it come from an elf, so he supposed he could consider it the same from a human. "You used your prestige and my words against me." She did not sound entirely displeased.

"I had no chance of beating you by skill at arms, so I used what I had." He pulled his lips back to show his teeth. "There is a saying among my people that the only unfair battle is the one you lose."

His housecarl reached out and patted him gently on the shoulder. "My thane, every warrior culture has a saying like that." Her lips twitched. "I would advise you not to think yourself too profound on your first day of training."

"Ah…yes, of course." He could feel heat rising in his face, and realized how much of a fool he must have just seemed. "Ah, Lydia…"

His housecarl, however, seemed unconcerned. "It's a good feeling, isn't it? Winning?" She smiled. "Hold onto that. It's the last one I'll give you for some time yet." She readied her weapons again; with Lydia the shield might be even deadlier than the sword. "Again, my thane? Try not to go down to easily, I would like to break a sweat."

"Ready when you are, housecarl."

"On your guard!"

Agent Darien of Whiterun, Report 421, 22 Hearthfire

My initial assessment of the dragon assessment (Report 420) has been confirmed. Dragon bones at watchtower along Reach Road fresh, signs of battle apparent. Rumors in city of Dragonborn unconfirmed but likely given state of dragon corpse and numerous eyewitness accounts. Unsubstantiated reports of Dark Elf as Dragonborn, no further identity known at this time. Guard presence and activity increased, widespread panic averted but mood in city remains restive. Number of Thalmor agents in city greatly increased, Stormcloak sympathizers also showing high levels of activity. Courier services running day and night, message traffic at all-time high. Recommend further investigation immediately.

Written in the Service of the Council and the Emperor.

Agent Darien of Whiterun, Report 422, 27 Hearthfire

Follow-up to Report 421. Dragonborn confirmed. Named Velandryn Savani, is a Dunmer of indeterminate but not advanced age. Likely to be Morrowind-born. Associated with red hand sigil, meaning unknown (See sketch below). Raised to rank of Thane in Whiterun, assigned Housecarl (name Lydia), remaining in Whiterun for time being. Likely next destination is High Hrothgar to consult with Greybeards. Will send more information as becomes available.

Written in the Service of the Council and the Emperor.

"You may enter, Dragonborn." Irileth motioned Velandryn through the heavy wooden door, and shut it behind him. She and Lydia both remained out in the hall, an unusual occurrence from what Velandryn had been able to make out of housecarls. He had detected a hint of approval in the other Dunmer's eyes, though for what he could not say. Once through the door, however, he was taken aback what he what lay before him.

As much as Velandryn hated to praise the aesthetic sensibilities of the Nords, he had to admit that Jarl Balgruuf's private study was a masterwork. The chamber was richly adorned without being opulent and conveyed the character of its occupant well. Trophies adorned the walls and held places of honor on sideboards and tables around the periphery. Some seemed ancient, while others looked brand new; Velandryn noticed a long tooth that he somehow knew had been pried from the mouth of Mirmulnir. The floor was smooth pale wood; the pillars that supported the arched ceiling made of the same but carved with flowing vines and water. Three braziers lit the room, and by the pleasant smoky scent, were burning some rich wood rather than the common scrap wood that usually filled braziers like these. While many Nord buildings with such heating had a tendency to fill with smoke, some enchantment had been laid upon these that rendered the air about them perfectly clear. The jarl himself was reclining on a great chair lined in furs, its twin sat across from him, and a gilded carafe with two cups and an assortment of food was laid out on a table.

"You honor me, Jarl Balgruuf." Considering how carefully everything involving the jarl had been designed up until now, it was clearly a strong component of Nord culture that the leader was seated at the center or the head of any gathering, preferably physically above his underlings if possible. To meet like this was clearly a gesture of esteem and trust. Or, it is an insult of some kind. As soon as he had that thought, he stamped it down. The Dragonborn is worthy of esteem, and will act graciously. Even if insult is meant, to take it as honor robs it of its power. It felt strange at times, this air of confident superiority, but the majority of the Nords here seemed to take it in stride. In the past few days, he had watched the reaction of the guards change when he simply acted as he felt the Dragonborn should. Even Lydia had remarked on it, though she found it amusing rather than inspiring. She had given her blessing to his attempt, however, as well as some hints on how best to proceed.

"Please, take a seat, make yourself comfortable." Velandryn did so, feeling slightly ridiculous as he sank into the soft furs of the chairs opposite the jarl. "Have a drink if you would like, it's a Cyrodilic brandy from the Surilie Brothers in Skingrad. 162, a banner year." Velandryn poured a modest dram into one of the carved stone cups. He noticed the other cup, and the jarl's empty hands. Does the guest pour in Skyrim if there is no servant?

"Would you care for some as well, Jarl Balgruuf?" At the Nord's nod of assent, Velandryn filled the other cup and handed it over. For a moment there was silence as they drank. Velandryn was unused to such fine fare, accustomed as he was to the rough comberry brandies of Morrowind. However, while a jug of greef or sujamma might suffice for passing around at a cornerclub, it seemed the jarls of Skyrim supped on finer fare. I thought Nords drank mead, though?

When he asked the jarl about his choice of beverage, the Nord cheerfully admitted to favoring mead and beer like most of his people Velandryn had met. "I've no quarrel with bloods of the grape, but I won't seek them out. However, I heard that you favor such drinks, and we had this in the cellar."

I wonder what he wants from me. Or is it a perk of being Dragonborn that your hosts break open their reserves on your behalf? "You heard? From whom?"

"The servants at Dragonsreach did not earn their position merely by virtue of luck. They notice the favorite food and drink of everybody of import and, when I need to know, the understaff has that information." He shrugged and reached out to take a morsel from the table. "Would you care for a mudcrab leg? They are steamed and shelled then dipped in butter, and go wonderfully with the spiced goat's cheese." Velandryn considered accepting for a moment, but felt uncomfortable enough trying to drink while drowning in this chair. He did not want to risk eating as well, or getting butter everywhere.

Velandryn half-suspected that this was the set-up to either an exorbitant request or an attempt to kill him, but he had to admit that the brandy was superb. Surilie products were prized even in Morrowind, and their finer vintages commanded high prices and higher praise. If I am to be Dragonborn, there are worse ways to assist Skyrim. "Jarl Balgruuf, as thankful as I am for this," his wave indicated the refreshments and setting together "I suspect that there is something you would like from me. I am happy to help in whatever way I can." That was even true, most likely. The jarl had seen fit to provide fine chambers, new clothing and armor, and an open offer of whatever aid he could render the Dragonborn. He had even gone through the trouble of having a set of cloaks and tunics made up with the red hand of Ghartok on them; while he doubted that the jarl knew of its significance, he appreciated the gesture immensely.

The jarl sat forward and his countenance grew more serious. "Indeed. First though, I would ask, how have you found Whiterun thus far?"

Another pointless pleasantry? "It is a good city. You and yours are to be commended for keeping it so." He was trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice, and was fairly certain he had succeeded, which gave him a bit of a shock when the jarl gave a mirthless laugh.

"The question has a point, I assure you. You see a prosperous city, but my palace sits atop a mountain of snow, ready to collapse at the merest touch. Whiterun is a city divided and afraid, and I want your help to keep it peaceful." Velandryn was taken aback by the admission, but indicated that the jarl continue.

"The Stormcloaks have stepped up activity in the east since Ulfric's escape, and the Empire would like to use Whiterun's plains as a staging ground for thrusts into Stormcloak territory. General Tullius, the military governor," his mouth twisted "has sent me a number of letters, each less polite than the last, reminding me of my duty to the Empire, and 'encouraging' me to choke off trade to the Stormcloak holds. He has been kind enough to offer additional Imperial protection for Whiterun should we agree. Hah! Meanwhile, Ulfric send couriers telling me that every true Nord must fight for freedom and Talos, even against the Empire he founded. I am playing the shy maid for now, courting them both but offering nothing in return, and soon one or the other will demand I make a choice. They will do so with swords and spears, and whatever I choose, my hold and my people shall bleed. And now, there are dragons in my hold. Have you heard? Another dragon was sighted near Rorikstead two days ago; I got the missive this morning. A merchant from Riften saw one of the beasts near the ruins of Valtheim; he says it was only by the grace of the Divines that the beast did not attack. So tell me, Dragonborn, what do I do? Akatosh sent you to us in our hour of need. So now I am asking you, where do we go from here?"

Velandryn was at a loss as he felt a chasm open up beneath his feet. Asking me about this is…it was exactly right. I am Dragonborn. Who else should be consulted about the dragons? No doubt this sort of thing would be all too common in the days and weeks ahead. I may not know anything, but neither do they. And I can think like them, to an extent at least. Thinking like the Dov conjured up troubling desires, but he had been meditating on the Virtues and the Homilies of Service every night, and was growing more skilled at locking away those parts of himself. Of late the question had come slithering into his mind of whether it was wise to tamp down the Dov to protect that bit of him that was mortal, that was Joor. He had decide that, wise or not, for now it was necessary, and he would suppress the draconic desires for the present. They have a time and place. But not here, not today. But he could think like a dragon, and use that against the others. "Your first goal should be to fortify key locations." Dragons would accept a challenge, but they were not suicidal. "Forts, watchtowers, any town of size. Use ballistae and stone-throwers, or scorpions if you have them." He only had the tales and histories he had read from which to draw his knowledge of these weapons, but he could see them tearing through a dragon's great membranous wings, and suspected that any so torn would stay away in the future. "And mages, as many as you have." The Dov laughed at the thought of a single soldier on the field, but a mage was an enigma, and even a single master wizard could turn the tide if left to its own devices. They complicated matters, and a dragonwanted battle to be straightforward, a chance to show its strength. "Strengthen patrols around the hold. Ensure that any sighting of a dragon is reported and tracked." Mirmulnir had attacked the western watchtower because he had hidden for so long, and wanted to display his strength. Would other dragons do the same? "These patrols may come under attack, but they should draw attention away from civilians."

The jarl sighed. "These are good ideas, many of which my other advisors have proposed, and I wish I could do them all. There are few enough mages in Skyrim. Ever since the Great Collapse of Winterhold, most of my people view magic as dangerous. Those who have chosen that path, such as Farengar, are a minority. Siege weapons we have, though most are in dire need of repair and trained soldiers to man them. There are some in Whiterun who served in the Legion as artillerymen, but most are old. Those we have are training others, at least. The Empire is unlikely to send any of theirs unless I roll over for Tullius. Farengar has encouraged me to send to the College for more wizards, and I may do just that. As for patrols..." He gave Velandryn a long look. "How many men do you think I have who would be willing to ride out and draw a dragon's wrath? To flee from it, knowing they would likely die?" He shook his head sadly. "I thank you for your input, Dragonborn, but it is as I feared. Unless something changes, I cannot fully protect my hold." The jarl rose, and moved to stand before a bookshelf that stood taller than he did. His words came as he faced away from the Dunmer. "But now, we return to my true purpose in asking you here. What of you, Dragonborn? How will you assist in defense of my hold?"

Velandryn had given this idea some thought, and several of the Jarl's comments had given him the clarity he needed to make a decisive answer. "I will leave Whiterun soon enough, and make for High Hrothgar, to learn from the Greybeards. If even half of the tales I have heard about the Dragonborn are true, I can be of far more use once trained than I ever could here in Dragonsreach without their knowledge." He fell silent then, and awaited the jarl's response. He would be free to leave the city, he had no doubt, but Jarl Balgruuf had done much and more for him, and if he insisted on Velandryn remaining in the city to aid the defense in some way it would be difficult to refuse.

To his relief, however, the jarl had turned to look at him and nodded. "Good. I agree with you, the Greybeards will give you the knowledge and training you need." He looked away then, at a hooded grey cloak hanging on a mannequin in one corner. "Truth be told, I would like to go back up there myself, but I am jarl now, and needed here." He turned back to face Velandryn. "It is a long road to High Hrothgar, and both the northern and southern roads cross territory contested between the Empire and the Stormcloaks. I will instruct Skulvar down at the stables to wait only on your word to make your horses ready; Whiterun breeds the finest horseflesh in the province and it should cut your time on the road by half or more." Velandryn vaguely remembered a mustachioed man from the feast, boasting about how he would give the Dragonborn and his housecarl the swiftest steeds in Skyrim.

The jarl sat again, and took up another mudcrab leg. "All is not as dour as I made it out, perhaps. Thane Eitarr has announced his intention to raise a unit of dedicated dragon-fighting cavalry; hopefully his experience with keeping our roads safe from bandits will help him against this new enemy. The town watch has added twenty new recruits in addition to replacing those that fell against the dragon, and the Hold Guard has added thirty as well. I have received reports from Rorikstead that mercenaries and adventurers are pouring in in hopes of finding another dragon to fight. We have the men to fight another dragon, if not exactly the mages and siege works you desire."

A wave of unease overtook him at the thought of these adventurers trying their hand at dragonslaying. "Let them fight if you wish, but you will only be offering the dragons more prey. I suggested siege weapons because they can cause massive trauma with a single blow, and mages because they can skew advantages on the battlefield. The soldiers were only meant to draw the dragons away, not to fight them! If you throw bodies at the dragons, you will only get back charred corpses." He could still see the dead from the battle with Mirmulnir, the broken bodies smoking and the dying souls screaming.

"And what would you have me do, Dragonborn? Tell them off from patrolling the plains, or arrest anybody looking for a fight? I have no good solutions here, so I will make do with bad ones! If the Empire sends me some siege engineers out of charity or fifty mages arrive tomorrow and swear their service, I will use them, have no fear! But for today I must do what I can to protect my people, and this is it. They come to my hold and my city, spend coin and buy goods from my merchants in these troubled times, and I am thankful for that. I will not dishonor these brave visitors by keeping them from the fight. You had best learn quickly, Dragonborn, that we are not always given the chance to make the perfect choice. Men like us, those burdened with power and responsibility, must work with what we have."

Velandryn decided, in this instance, to overlook being called a man. "I understand, though I still don't like it. Work on getting those siege engines, and fortifying your watchtowers and forts. I will go to High Hrothgar, and see about becoming the Dragonborn of which the bards sing."

"And I will wish you all the luck of the Divines, my friend. Now, how about some more of this brandy?"

Jarl Ulfric,

I was relieved to hear of your escape, and assure you that your friends in Whiterun continue to work towards the liberation of the city for the true sons and daughters of Skyrim. This letter travels by trusted courier and there is no risk of intercept, so I will speak frankly. The Dragonborn is a churl, an ungrateful Dark Elf who cannot even understand the honor bestowed upon him. We all know that such honor should belong to you, and there are those who whisper that all of this is a Thalmor ploy to discredit you. His name is Velandryn Savani, and I would encourage you to move quickly to liberate Whiterun before whatever foul plan the Thalmor have concocted is brought into play. I cannot say if he truly can slay dragons, but surely he can do nothing that cannot be better done with the stout hearts of men.

I remain your obedient servant,

Avulstein Gray-Mane

"They think it was us."

"Was it?"

"Not that I've heard."

"What is a Dragonborn, by the way?"

"Some Nord thing, I'd wager. Anyways, make a copy and put the letter back."

"Done and done. He'll wake in a few minutes and think he just dozed off on horseback."

"Nice work on that spell, kinsmer. To charm both man and beast to an insensate state so quickly, not an easy task. I'll make a note in our report"

"My thanks. You should go do something impressive now so I can return the favor. "

Velandryn sat cross-legged on the floor at the foot of the bed in his chambers, looking at nothing and focusing on the in-between. He had taken the extreme step of casting an Illusion on himself and locking the Dov away for the time being. Any longer than an hour or so and the spell would decay, but he could afford no distractions or divided focus while performing a ritual of this delicacy. It was taxing and potentially dangerous, but exhilarating as well, to feel one's mind thread the intangible barrier between Mundus and Oblivion. If all goes well, I add a weapon as potent as any to my arsenal.

He had found three books in Farengar's library on exactly this topic, two penned by some enchanter from the College of Winterhold and one compiled from various writings of the Imperial Synod. All had dismissed the very idea as appalling in its heretical recklessness and urged any aspiring conjurers to under no circ*mstances even consider it. While one Synod researcher had been kind enough to note that 'certain Dunmeri religious traditions condone covenant with a select few Daedric Princes to enhance one's connection to Oblivion' the book went on to warn that this was a dangerous and backwards tradition. Because some idiot humans try to pull one over on Clavicus Vile or Boethiah and are shocked that their scheme doesn't play out like they want, suddenly all Daedric rituals are evil. The Dunmer had been invoking the favor of the Triune in one form or another for three thousand years; an attenuation ritual such as this was somewhat unusual but hardly extraordinary. And so, he found himself sitting naked on the floor of a Nord palace, with a potion that boosted his magicka by astronomical amounts coursing through his body and a soul gem humming with power suspended in the air before him. He did not look directly at the soul gem, but rather through it, letting the bleed-off of raw life force permeate reality and draw Oblivion 'closer.' He grimaced at the thought; it was useful to think in terms of distance, but ultimately misleading, since physical space was the first of the rules that went away when dealing with trans-liminal distortions. As he manipulated the soul gem's output, he felt the barrier that warded Mundus resist his violation, and intensified his efforts, a bead of sweat working its way down his nose.

Two hundred years ago, Martin Septim, last of the line of the Dragon Emperors, has sacrificed his life and the powerful artifact called the Amulet of Kings to summon Akatosh and end Mehrunes Dagon's incursion into Tamriel. Akatosh had not only thrown Dagon's Deadlands back into the Void, he had fortified the barriers that surrounded Mundus, effectively hamstringing thousands of years of summoning and Daedric study. The Dunmer had come up with workarounds for many of the more restrictive problems, but it seemed the Nords were content with the scraps of Conjuration that remained to them. Farengar indicated a disdain for ritual magic that fit perfectly with all of Velandryn's worst preconceptions about Nord mages, and the tomes he found seemed to regard it as, at best, an auxiliary form of spellcasting for when a wizard could not be bothered to maintain a spell on their own. Fortunately for Velandryn, ritual magic was still studied extensively by many Dunmer mystics and sorcerers, and it remained the single best way to establish a strong magickal connection to the trans-mundane. Not for the first time, he gave thanks that his ancestors had been open-minded enough to embrace the Planes of Oblivion governed by the Triune as the Far Realms; any Dunmer who knew the way of it had a far easier time drawing from these three Planes than would any other mortal who had not specifically pledged to that Prince. He felt the soul gem thrum with resonance, and sighed in relief. The path was clear.

Any spellcaster in this Era could summon an atronach or bind a soul if they knew the way of it; such cantrips did not require true communion with the Daedric energies that permeated the Realms of Oblivion. However, he figured that the Dragonborn would need something more powerful, a spell of binding that would catch his enemies off guard and offer a decisive tactical advantage. The Nord spell tome that lay open before him detailed the process by which one could go about creating a bound weapon, but emphasized that it was a weapon of last resort for a mage, and required extensive training in conjuration to be more potent than honest steel. Velandryn knew better. This book contained a crippled spell, a makeshift remedy forced by circ*mstance, and could be circumvented. He had the connection to Oblivion open, and now he pulled the raw Daedric creatia through, and used the framework of the tome to attenuate it to the idea of a sword. Here his own mind took over, and his subconscious biases and preconceptions of what constituted a sword began to take shape. Before him, the soul gem was the epicenter of a roiling mass of light and sound, and a keening wail went up as red and blue ribbons suffused the mass and flickering silver threads appeared and vanished, weaving through the whole, shaping a cage made of more than merely magic or matter, a weapon that would hold at its core the malevolent essence of a Daedra and use its rage at being summoned to strike against his enemies. He poured every drop of his magicka into maintaining the connection, and felt the power flowing through the soul gem intensify. This was it. The spell was burning itself into his mind as he created it. If he could just hold on, it would work. The sword took shape, reminiscent of an Akaviri katana with one edge slightly curved and razor-smooth but with the other edge rough and harsh in the half-finished style of ancient Velothi ritual knives. It was longer than the Nordic blade he carried, but he knew that it would be feather-light in his hand. It was a mottled black and red, and glowed with otherworldly malice. It was exquisite. He reached out to take it.

The door slammed open, and Lydia charged into the room, clad only in a shift but with sword and shield at the ready. "My thane! I heard noises…" She went quiet as she took in the scene, and Velandryn was struck by how sinister this would look to someone not versed in Conjuration ritual magic. The spell tome was burning merrily by this point, the sword hung in the air, rotating ever so slightly, and the soul gem was vibrating with increasing—

Velandryn realized what was happening half a second before the gem exploded. The shield he threw up did not completely enclose the blast, but channeled it downward, obliterating the spell tome and burning a hole in the carpet. He quickly contained the mess, passing his hand over the smoldering fire and extinguishing the flames. The sword itself quietly dissipated as his concentration slipped, and he found himself annoyed both at his housecarl for interrupting and himself for not anticipating that this could happen.

"My thane, what in Oblivion were you doing?" Her voice was strained, and she looked more terrified than angry. Velandryn realized that he was getting better at reading her, and felt a perverse satisfaction in realizing this now.

"We shall see." He uncorked a potion of magicka, downed it, and sat upright. He held his hand out again, retracing the steps in his mind. Now that the mental framework existed, he needed only apply magicka and intent to the latent nodes, triggering a cascade that would transcend the Mundane Ward and—

The sword appeared an inch from his fingers, he took it in his hand, and magical exhaustion hit him like a diving dragon when he realized how carelessly he had been spending magicka. He was bone dry, and though this summoning was simpler than the last, it still wreaked havoc on his reserves. Inefficient, but successful.

One.

Lydia had been giving him pointers in how to smile like a human, and he tried it now. "I was succeeding, Lydia. A bound sword, of superior make and might than the Nord variant."

"Congratulations, my thane." If she was happy for his victory, she hid it well behind a wall of taciturn disapproval. He wondered if this was partially to make up for her fear earlier. He regretted that, as he had genuinely not thought it would wake her.

"Lydia, the ritual was completely safe, and I should have warned you. My apologies." He was getting better at these apologies, he thought, though at some point it would be nice not to have to make them at all. To be fair, Lydia was also quick to apologize when she was at fault, so he could live with it for now.

She raised a single eyebrow, and looked pointedly at the charred circle below where the soul gem had been. He shrugged. "The soul gem served as a conduit as well as a focus, and limited the rate of transfer of magicka. I used a lesser gem; it would be incapable of generating anywhere near the power necessary to do real damage. What you saw was the worst-case scenario, and even that was trivial compared to the reward."

He turned the sword experimentally, marveling at the look and feel of it. It weighed almost nothing at all, but had the feel of momentum when he moved it. He released the blade, and it vanished again. So long as I am touching it, the binding remains secure. That was good. He had been worried that the more powerful Daedric creatia necessary to house the essence would cause a constant depletion of his magical reserves, but it seemed that the spell, like most of the School of Conjuration, front-loaded the cost from the caster to achieve a clean summons, then sustained itself for a period on its own energies. The possibilities are…significant. This blade would give him an edge in melee fights, and he already had some ideas about how best to use it for more…unorthodox…tactics.

Lydia sighed. "I suppose I shall have to design a new training regimen for you, my thane. I wish to thank you for keeping me so constructively occupied." Once she had gotten more comfortable in her role as housecarl, the sardonic side of her had emerged, and Velandryn actually found himself liking it when she showed some hint of a personality. Dangerous thought, liking Nords.

"Any time, housecarl. Now, I am going to sleep. Spellcrafting is tiring, and no doubt you will be thrashing me up and down that little courtyard bright and early tomorrow." His victories had been few and far between, and he could count on the thumb of one hand those won without the use of some trick or subterfuge.

Lydia made her good nights and closed the door once again, and Velandryn set to work cleaning up the detritus of his night's work. As he finished, he put his hand out before him, and arranged the summoning in his head. He cast, and the sword appeared once again.

Two.

This time, he nearly lost his balance. The exhaustion was getting worse as he depleted those stores of magicka that he had been using of late to sustain himself through Lydia's training and long days spent learning all he could. However, he needed to push himself to have any chance of improving, and if he did not become stronger, he could not hope to survive another dragon. He released the blade, and moved to lie in the bed. The Illusion shattered as he lay down, and the Dov came roaring to the front of his mind, though he felt nothing but joy at this potent new weapon to subdue and destroy his foes.

One more time, he raised his hand, and stretched it out to one side, so he could not see. He visualized, and cast the spell with his last drop of magicka. Instantly, his body gave out, and he slumped powerlessly onto the covers. Too much, perhaps. He felt the weight slide into his hand, and smiled.

Three.

He had time only to feel the sword slip from his fingers and evaporate into nothingness before sleep claimed him.

Dearest Dee,

It was so good to hear from you! Of course, you must have heard the news by now! A Dragonborn! And a Dark Elf no less! It's all anybody at the Mare can talk about. I even saw him when he came back after the battle. A whole crowd of guards, and him in the middle looking so odd himself, with a strange red hand on his armor and that sharp elf face. It's strange days coming, Dee, but having a Dragonborn, even an elf, makes me feel safe, you know? You need to come visit Whiterun! It must get so boring down there, I don't know how you do it.

All my best to Orgnar, and you take care too!

Hulda

The best informant in the world was a chatty friend. Send a letter every few weeks, and any news in Whiterun was on its way to her the morning after it had occurred. Delphine had told Orgnar she needed a few days, saddled Ysmir, and set off northward, towards the ancient barrow-hall of Ustengrav. She had heard the Greybeards call Dovahkiin, and that meant the Dragonborn would be on his way to them soon enough. Eventually, they'd send him for their precious horn, and she would make sure that led him to her. A Dragonborn. For Hulda it meant safety, but not for her. For Delphine, it meant cold nights and risking her neck on foolhardy missions like this. It meant new dangers and more like than not an early death. It meant having a purpose again, and riding off to save the world. It meant hope.

As they moved through one of the markets in the Plains District, Lydia realized that this was the first time her thane had left Dragonsreach in the almost two weeks since their return from killing the dragon he called Mirmulnir. In between training, meeting with Farengar to discuss Divines only knew what, meeting local notables and complaining about them to her once they had left, going to private discussions with the jarl, and nearly killing himself creating new spells, Velandryn Savani had been very busy. By extension, that meant Lydia had been cooped up in the palace for just as long. She was fond of the mighty hall, but it was nice to breathe crisp air and hear the hubbub of commerce again. And that is worth the annoyance of being the center of attention, or at least next to him. Clearly, word of the Dragonborn had reached every last citizen, given the number of looks both surreptitious and overt that they were receiving. Velandryn, to his credit, seemed not to notice, moving with measured grace made all the more impressive by the extraordinary string of curses she had awoken to this morning when he tried to get out of bed. She had suggested he eschew magical reinforcement and recuperation for one day of training, and he had agreed. Yesterday, he fought using only the strength and durability of his own flesh and bone, with no healing whatsoever. Today, he had glared at her with what she had momentarily been concerned was real hated. However, the glimmer in his eyes and muttered request for some 'gods-damned ice for every inch of me' put her at ease. Had he truly resented her, he would simply have healed his soreness. As it was, his resolve to act as a Dragonborn should masked any hint of his unhappiness.

She was proud of him; his willingness to eschew his area of comfort to improve a skill was admirable. Besides which, she had to admit that his skill with a sword was improving. At this rate, he might soon be able to handle one of the bandits that infested the remote places of the hold. They would be leaving the city in just a few days, but she planned to keep them on the main roads until they reached Ivarstead, and from there the ascent up the Seven Thousand Steps based on what she had heard should be free of anything beyond wild beasts. His current level of skill was enough to get them to the Greybeards, and hopefully they would be able to improve his Shouting and tech him whatever dragonslaying lore the Dragonborn should possess. Once or twice the notion had come to her that perhaps there were no special skills that could slay dragons with ease, but she rejected that as absurd. Why would they be sent a Dragonborn if he was not able to vanquish their foe?

Lost in thought, she realized suddenly that the passerby was focused on her no longer; she had lost her thane. Glancing around, she saw no trace of him or the finery gifted to him by the jarl. Cursing herself for a useless bodyguard, she pushed her way back through the crowd, searching for any trace of the red hand sigil that the jarl had ordered put on his cloak. It had pleased Velandryn when he first saw it, and he had seemed happy to wear it today. Now, it allowed her to mark he charge; her thane was deep in conversation with a pair of warriors in strange segmented armor with sunburst crests on their cloaks. One was showing him some sort of contraption of wood and metal while the other wrote on a piece of parchment and handed it to the Dragonborn. As she approached, the two went on their way, and she noticed that the one with the strange device had been an Orc, of all things. Velandryn noticed her then, and gestured to an empty stall off in a lightly-trafficked corner of the market. As they moved beneath the woven awning and leaned against the rail, he produced the parchment on which the stranger had been writing.

"We may have a detour on our way to the Greybeards." He showed her the paper, and she took note of the crude map scrawled there with a name beneath it.

"Dimhollow Crypt? What is there for us in a crypt?" She had no desire to go trudging through caves when all of Skyrim was in peril. Besides which, this Dimhollow Crypt looked to be located in the no-man's land between Hjaalmarch and The Pale, one of the main areas of conflict in the Stormcloak's rebellion. "This looks like a terrible idea, my thane."

He looked at her with bright, happy eyes. "Ordinarily, I would agree with you. However, they have something we need. A weapon that could very well turn the tide for Whiterun against the dragons."

That got her interest. "What weapon is in Dimhollow, and how did those two know about it?"

"Not in Dimhallow. That Dawnguard Orc showed it to me, a crossbow!" He seemed almost giddy; such excitement looked out of place on his long angular face as he gestured animatedly.

"What's a Dawnguard? And of all people shouldn't you use the word Orsimer?" In truth she did not care that much what he called the Orc, but she did enjoy poking at his pride.

However, he simply waved her complaint away. "Orcs are barely mer. But the Dawnguard, they're vampire hunters of some sort. That's what's in Dimhollow. Apparently a pack of the bloodsuckers torched one of the Vigil of Stendarr's halls, and a survivor heard their plans. The Vigilants want payback, and went to the Dawnguard. The vampires are looking for something in Dimhollow, and I received a guarantee of crossbows, bolts and schematics for Whiterun if we assist in taking down the pack." He looked almost as pleased with himself as when he had summoned that wretched sword.

"Very good, my thane. Now, what is a crossbow, and why does it excite you so much?" Not for the first time, she wondered how old he truly was. He had mentioned before that he was forty-seven years old, but what that corresponded to in human age was unclear. At times he seemed almost ancient with his esoteric knowledge and unconventional thinking, but then he would go off and get so very agitated over something trivial, like being called 'elf' or this crossbow weapon.

He was excited now, describing this weapon, and as she heard the details, she began to understand why. "Think of it as a handheld ballista. It fires a bolt that can punch clean through plate armor, and can be locked in ready position and fired in an instant. We arm the Whiterun guard with these, suddenly every wall has two dozen mobile scorpions when the dragons come by. It could change everything!" She had to admit, it did sound good.

Almost too good. "If these are such magnificent weapons, why have I never heard of them?" It also had not escaped her notice that this weapon would let any thug so amred bring down even the Dragonsreach Elites with a lucky shot.

He looked slightly abashed at that. "That is…an unfortunate series of events, I would say. The design was originally based on Dwemer technology unearthed on Vvardenfell late in the Third Era, and several outposts of the Imperial Legion had begun experimenting with mass-producing them around the time of the Incarnate's Return. However, with the Oblivion Crisis and then the Red Year following, the crossbow became a low priority. For all of its power, it was an impractical weapon for any but strong soldiers serving in low-mobility formations; it was ruinously heavy and had a long reload time that required the use of a foot to brace the weapon or a second soldier passing off and reloading crossbows. Combine that with difficult and precise machining being necessary for it to be at all practical, and it was quickly deemed an unnecessary complication when arming ourselves against the Daedra and later the Argonian raiders. It shouldn't come as much of a shock that the only examples I had ever seen before today were housed in museums or as conversation pieces in estates or temple halls."

Part of Lydia wanted to ask about the Incarnate, as she had heard him take that name as an oath several times. However, more pressing matters called. "If the weapon is so impractical, why are you so overjoyed? It sounds a useful tool, but hardly the all-mighty weapon you claimed."

His enthusiasm was back in an instant. "Because somebody did the work! Somebody went through the trouble of making it a viable alternative to the traditional bow! That one he showed me had had the mechanism updated and portions of the frame replaced with wood. It is half as heavy as any crossbow I've seen, can be reloaded in maybe a third of the time of the older models, and a skilled craftsman could make dozens in a week or less! He said the schematics are at some place he called Fort Dawnguard, but he was willing to give us a copy if we help with this cleansing." He lowered his voice conspiratorially. "He knew who I was, and I'd wager the real reason this is going through is he figures getting a thane and the Dragonborn on his group's good side is worth giving up those schematics. Dimhollow just sweetens the deal" He looked up at her, and twisted his mouth into a human-style smile. This one was notably less ghastly now that she had been giving him tips on how best to make it a gesture of affection and not intimidation, though he still showed an unnerving number of teeth. He was getting better at them, though. "What do you say, housecarl? Shall we go kill some vampires, and get crossbows for Whiterun? A chance to exterminate the spawn of Molag Bal and a windfall for your hold, surely that's worth a detour."

He was right. If these weapons were as good as he claimed, they might make a real difference should a dragon attack again. "Very well, my thane. We clear Dimhollow Crypt, then on to Ivarstead, High Hrothgar, and the Greybeards. When will we be leaving?"

"Early tomorrow morning. I'd like to get this done quickly; I have many questions for the Greybeards, and this seems a good week away even mounted."

"Do you ride, my thane?"

"Guar, I ride badly. Horses, even worse. You?"

"I have spent some time on horseback." Not much, truth be told, but she could plod a mare down the roads of Whiterun Hold well enough. "We have horses set aside for us in the stables, I was told. We should have them prepared for our departure."

"Sounds good. I suppose I should meet the beast I will be riding." He gave a slight shudder. She took the lead, cutting through the crowd, as her thane moved by her side. The stables were not far past the main gate, and there was much to do.

++Prism-spore active++

++Sub-aetherial contact established++

+Status report

+Talos reduction proceeds as projected rebel escalation within predicted parameters no evidence of extramundane interference

+Report status dragons

+Unknown origin capabilities goals structure significance

+Report known information dragons

+Massive power exceptionally dangerous

+Priority 1 obtain further information on dragons contain control destroy

+Understood request permission utilize Thalmor resources

+Denied

+Current resources insufficient for comprehensive analysis

+Utilize extant resources Priority 1 do not alert Empire to existence

+Understood Aldmeris Survives

+Aldmeris Survives

++Sub-aetherial contact terminated++

++Prism-spore dormant++

Chapter 8: Aiding the Light

Summary:

Travelling to Dimhollow, and the trials within

Chapter Text

The ignorant will tell you that all vampires are the same, while those with a little knowledge would declare that vampires in Skyrim are called the Volkihar. Neither is true, and believing either can get you killed. Centuries ago, a coven of vampires from Clan Cyrodiil, the bloodline that dominates the province of the same name, migrated to Skyrim and wormed its way into the cities of our beloved home. While other clans skulk at the corners of the world, it is Clan Cyrodiil that will most concern the aspiring hunter. They are not to be underestimated, but also not to be feared by the well-prepared hunter; their greatest weapon is concealment, and once brought into the light they can be destroyed by any of the accepted methods. The first part of this book will deal with revealing these creatures as they hide among us, and the second with exterminating them once they have been unmasked.

However, every hunter in Skyrim must be aware of one other threat that lurks always in the night. I speak of the once-mighty Clan Volkihar, who can move undetected through ice and mist; warp the minds of mortals so that their prey walk willingly into a deadly embrace; and even, it is whispered, transform their very bodies into hideous and bestial forms that confer upon them a host of unholy powers. Once, these horrors terrorized all of Skyrim and the eastern extremities of High Rock, but time and the tireless work of brave hunters have all but ended their rule of the night. Today, they are a shadow of their former selves, and while numerous diluted strains of the Volkihar bloodline can be found in remote caves and holdfasts, they are rarely seen hunting amongst the populace of Skyrim. However, they should not be disregarded, and cleansing a Volkihar den should only be undertaken by an experienced and well-equipped hunter. The third part of this book will deal with what we know about this clan, and how best to combat it.

Isran at-Elinhir, Vigilant of Stendarr, Introduction, On the Hunting of Skyrim's Vampires, 4E 188

Lydia grunted as she drove her sword through the wolf's neck into the ground. Its final whine trailed off and she turned to see how her thane had fared with the final foe. The last of the wolves was running full-tilt for the rocky hill from which the pack had ambushed them. Velandryn's eyes were intense and his bow sang as it loosed; the arrow punched into the wolf's flank and sent it staggering to one side. The wolf continued to limp away until her thane loosed one final shot and brought it to the ground. She followed him as he closed with the fallen beast to finish it off, but it had expired by the time they got to it.

"Did they give you any trouble, my thane?" They had been watering their horses in the gathering twilight when six of the lean black wolves had rushed from the thicket surrounding a craggy hill jutting out of the plain. Fortunately Lydia's bellowed taunts and swift movement had let her draw four of them; two had managed to engage her thane, though it appeared neither had landed a blow. She had watched him set one ablaze, but had been forced to engage her own enemies and had not seen the fight transpire.

He shrugged. "Wolves don't like fire, it seems. A taste of my magic, and they panicked. After that, it was easy."

Lydia frowned. "You seem very calm about it, for someone with so little experience in battle."

"The beasts I've seen since arriving in Skyrim are, with a couple of exceptions," His lips twitched and he raised a finger to gesture briefly skyward, "more hunting than battle. Compared to the things living in the wilderness back home, these wolves are nothing. I grew up on stories of blight-maddened nix hounds rampaging through homesteads and herds of gravid netches menacing whole towns. I'll take these wolves any day."

"In Skyrim, there's a good rule to live by. The further north or higher up something lives, the more dangerous it is. Mountain wolves are fiercer, and ice wolves are nastier still and twice the size of the tundra wolves on top of it. So, keep your eyes peeled." She had no desire for overconfidence to get her thane killed.

"Lydia, you do know you are something of a spoilsport, right?" He approached the hill without waiting for her reply and regarded a cozy-looking cave that looked to have been where the wolves had made their home. "What about here for the night?"

It was a good location, save for the danger of any surviving wolves from the pack. When she voiced her qualm, however, he pulled out a soul gem and grinned. He is getting better at it. His smile still looked forced, but was no longer frightening. "That first wolf was kind enough to donate its soul to guard us tonight. I can set up a barrier that will hide the entrance from any eyes, and more importantly, noses. Any wolves will be confused, but even if they find us, we will have plenty of warning."

"My thane, did you pick this location so you would have a chance to practice this…sorcery?" She knew that soul gems were not truly necromancy, but the idea of using a soul's energy to fuel magic still made her uncomfortable.

He gave no answer as he worked on the spell, or ritual, or whatever it was; his finger passed over the rock walls and the stone blackened as he scribed intricate designs around the entrance. He held the soul gem in his left hand, and light pulsed from within. As she watched Velandryn work, she noticed their horse had come up, and felt a brief flush of shame for forgetting about them. Fortunately, they were as well-trained as had been promised. Her thane was clearly unused to being around horses, but made for a fair enough rider, all things considered. That being said, she was grateful that they had not been attacked while mounted. That could have ended badly. As it was, the cave was large enough to hold them and the horses, and even had a few plants rooted in the cave floor that would give them something to graze overnight. Not the worst place, all things considered.

She left the cave briefly to gather wood for a fire, and returned to find Velandryn standing within a ring of symbols around the cave mouth, tossing the soul gem from hand to hand as he stared out into what was now nearly full night. As she passed him, she heard him muttering under his breath in what she assumed was the Dunmer tongue. "My thane? Is anything amiss?"

He stopped his mutters and held the soul gem up. "Just waiting on you. Let's see if this works."

That did not sound as certain as she would like. "Is it in doubt?"

His focus returned to his work. "It's only Illusion, so worst case scenario is that we see, hear, or smell something very odd." He gazed at the array, and his next words seemed as much to himself as to her. "I wasn't able to layer tactile input into the array, as the sigils to fool the mind are significantly more complex than the ones already laid down and would be haphazard at best given the crudity of the construction. So, that won't work, and using Alteration sigils would also prevent smoke from escaping unless integrated on a piecemeal basis. And I'm not nearly confident enough in using integrated ritual arrays to trigger cross-disciplinary effects to try my first one under these conditions. So, we hope nothing touches the barrier tonight, or we have a guest."

Lydia thought she could follow the basics of what he was saying, even if the precise principles and a few of the terms eluded her. However, she remembered that ritual and conjured sword, and could not help but make one final remark. "Be careful, my thane."

"Always, housecarl." His hand glowed with violet light, and he held the soul gem above the center of a spiral pattern on one wall. When he released it, it stayed in place, rotating slowly. Purple light flared out along the symbols above and below the gem, and Velandryn moved his hands gently over the symbols above him as they flared into life. He spoke softly in his own tongue, and she was unsure if he was activating them, guiding the magic from the soul gem, or merely praying over them as they worked on their own. When the final symbol, directly opposite the soul gem, glowed, Velandryn sagged against the cave wall and turned to his audience. The horses looked somewhat spooked, and as Lydia looked at both a rock wall and the view beyond it, she could not help but feel a tremor of unease. My thane uses magic. I knew this. I will become comfortable with it. It was easier said than done, however, so she began setting up the fire to prepare dinner. They had pouches of dried meat and hardtack, but earlier in the day Velandryn had brought down a pheasant with a well-aimed burst of flame, and that sounded far more appetizing.

As she plucked the bird and her thane inexpertly shed the horses of their saddles, she got to thinking about what they were going to do. Killing vampires was no easy task, and while she had done so in the past, it was usually just a single bloodsucker holed up in some damp cave or the basem*nt of an abandoned home. Besides which, she had had a full contingent of the guard to assist her. Here, they would have only whatever Vigilants and Dawnguard were there, and she knew little of one group, and nothing at all of the other. The Vigil hunted Daedra worshippers, she knew, but other than that and how to recognize them by their garb, she was at a loss. "My thane? What do you know of the Vigil and the Dawnguard?"

He had finished with the horses by then, and moved to sit across from her. He thrust one hand into the unlit wood and the whole thing flared to life. She had to admit, it was nice to have someone who could do that on the road. "The Dawnguard, only what the ones in Whiterun told me. They hunt vampires, and think the Vigilants are fools. So, I agree with them on their core tenets." She finished cleaning the bird as Velandryn looked into the fire thoughtfully. "The Vigilants, I have to say I don't care for them one bit. They are not…nuanced in their views on Daedra, and I have heard unpleasant stories about what happens to Dunmer who practice our faith too openly in Cyrodiil. In Cheydinhal, I had the chance to see the Vigilants bring down a 'dangerous Daedric cult,'" his voice dripped sarcasm, "that numbered four in all, one of them so old she had to be dragged bodily out of the house. They worshipped Azura, and prayed for guidance in troubled times. The Mythic Dawn of old was dangerous, to be sure, but the Vigilants have gone too far in the other direction. They are overzealous thugs, and I'll shed no tears for them." He accepted his half of the bird, tore off a chunk, and held it above the flame with a bare hand. The meat cooked, and his flesh did not.

Not for the first time, Lydia was left to wonder about how odd it must be to be able to stick your hand in fire. "My thane, I must say that it still strikes me as very strange to see you do that."

"The fire, you mean?" He gestured at their bedrolls, where his thick furs took up nearly twice as much space as her thin fur-lined hides. "That first night on the road, I thought you might be playing a joke on me with that bedroll. Every time you think it odd what I do with fire, I feel just the same about you and cold. I've taken to just adding frost resistance potions to my water skins when the winds start howling." A smile danced through his eyes, a momentary light that she would not have caught even a week ago. "You Nords, though. In the farmer's house, there you truly surprised me. I knew you were strong. I didn't know you were that fast."

"Did you think I was going all-out on you in training, my thane?" The old mutt had only wanted to lie down before the hearth, the farmer said afterword, and must have thought the guests occupying its favored place would not mind some company. When Lydia had been awakened by a cold nose in her ear, though, years of restive sleep and midnight drills led to the poor mutt cowering in the corner as her half-conscious battle cry brought the farmer, his wife, and their children thundering into the room to see what had happened. She knew her face was reddening now, though it would be difficult to see in the cave, and prayed to all the Divines that he hadn't figured out what that meant for humans. He might display dignity around those who knew him only as the Dragonborn, but the real Velandryn Savani had shown that he enjoyed poking holes in his housecarl's professional demeanor, and would be entirely too pleased with himself for the rest of the evening should he figure out how easily he had embarrassed her. The best way to counter that, she had found, was to put him on the defensive. "You yourself seemed none too pleased, my thane. Disappointed that it was not someone else in your bedroll, someone more…amorous…that woke you?"

Lydia noted with interest that while he apparently did not blush red, the darkening of the skin around his eyes shouted out his embarrassment to the world. Useful. The farmer's daughter had been a woman only by the most generous definition of the word, but she had flirted relentlessly with Velandryn from the moment she laid eyes on him. Lydia would have wagered good gold that only a few years before, if that, the girl had been playing with dolls and wooden swords, but now she seemed intent on seducing the Dark Elf. She had not even known he was Dragonborn at first, though learning that only intensified her advances. To her thane's credit, he had been both unfailingly polite and unflinchingly proper, though the girl could not seem to take the hint. When she had entered the room after Lydia had encountered the dog, it almost seemed that she had taken the time to rumple her sleeping shift in as titillating a manner as she could manage. She had not managed to attract Velandryn's interest, but did at least succeed in raising her parents' ire. When they left the next morning, the girl had not been there to see them off. Lydia was getting better at seeing through her thane's dispassionate façade now, though, and his discomfort with the whole ridiculous situation made it a potent weapon.

"Housecarl, you should not be lecturing me, given how her brothers were with you." Velandryn's voice was light, but she had no idea what he was talking about. The two had been good solid lads, twin brothers a few years older than the girl, but nothing they did had been inappropriate in the least.

"They were very kind, my thane, but nothing compared to that girl."

"Lydia. Are you going to sit there with a straight face and tell me they were not trying to impress you? That they were not acting like f'ghan to make you notice them?"

Putting the Dark Elf word aside for the moment, Lydia tried to cast her mind back to that night and focus on the twins. One was dark and one fair, but both had been the soul of courtesy. They had been perfect hosts, offering the choicest cuts of meat and making sure her cup was always full. One had shown her a woodcarving he was working on, and the other had asked her to spar with him, though she had not had the time. They had even had a good-natured competition going to see which one could make her laugh more—

Oh, gods. Oh, Mara save me. She could console herself for her blindness by knowing it was due to the camaraderie and casual affection of the Whiterun Guard that she had missed the signs. Besides which, Nords valued playing host to guests as a sacred tradition, and it was not unheard of for wanderers to receive treatment far beyond what even a family member could expect. Or, as was now looking increasingly obvious, sheltered children living dull lives on a farm had tried for a bit of excitement.

She ran her free hand through her hair, hiding her face from her thane. When she glanced at him, his eyes were burning with a cheery light. "Enjoying yourself, my thane?"

"You have no idea." He tore a chunk of the bird with his teeth and chewed thoughtfully, eyes still alight with that laughing gleam. "You would have done well to take advantage. Make them fight for your favor, or just take them both. Nords are open about these kinds of things, I've heard."

"We are, but bedding your host's children is frowned upon in Whiterun, as in all decent places. Besides which, they were…" No sense in hiding it; he find out sooner or later. He had never expressed any interest in her that way, so it shouldn't change anything. "They were men, so I had no interest in them." There.

He nodded. "A good policy, I've always found. Men are far more trouble than they are worth."

She was confused. What in Oblivion was he talking about? "My thane, I do not understand…"

"I don't care for Men in a great variety of ways. Philosophically, religiously, culturally…just can't stand you lot. I think it's the ears. All rounded and short."

The hint of laughter in his eyes kept her from growing angry, and she suppressed annoyance that it had taken her until the end of his little joke to catch on. She had noticed that he had seemingly taken her words after the feast to heart, and was making an attempt to give and take humans and elves in a lighter humor. Besides which it seemed that of the two Dunmer she had ever known, neither gave much of a damn who she chose to bed. It was better than the handful of Nords who had grown angry when they learned she would never be interested. Of course, she could not let his jibe about humans pass… "You are not half as funny as you think, my thane, but I know that you deeply admire humans, and your words are merely an attempt to hide your elven jealousy."

"It eats me up at night, Lydia." He leaned forward and fixed her with an intense gaze. "I wake myself weeping when my dreams end and I am Dunmer once more." He traced lines on his cheeks, mimicking tears. "I try slathering rancid cheese on myself and hitting myself in the head with rocks, but it just isn't the same as truly being a Nord."

Lydia did not smile. There was no need to encourage him, but she felt a twitch of her lips that might have given her away. "And I tried shoving a stick up my ass, but my ears won't go all pointy. Any advice on that?"

Her thane snorted. "You speak of matters beyond your mettle, human." His voice took an air of mystery. "First you must go to the hidden isle of Artaeum, and harvest wood from the Silver Hist to forge your stick—"

Lydia threw an apple at him. He tried to catch it, but wound up losing his balance, the apple, and half his roast fowl. The rest of the meal was spent in companionable silence.

After washing his dishes, her thane stood and moved over to their gear. "A quick bout so you don't break your record of pummeling me strange colors every night, and then I'm for sleep. Wouldn't want to deprive you of a nice long watch."

Lydia had learned much about her thane since meeting him, but his sleep habits still seemed at odds with his heroic destiny. No ballad she had ever heard made mention of the hero going to sleep early, or growing unfocused if kept awake through the night. Her thane preferred to be making camp by sundown, and asleep well before the moons climbed high; if he could accomplish that he would be rested and restored by the time he woke for the second watch. Lydia had no such problems with remaining awake and generally associated going to bed early with disobedient children, but as someone who despised the predawn hours with a burning passion she was just happy another was willing to take the morning watch. She had to give him credit for a kind of discipline, however; even when there was no watch to be had, he always rose early and was alert by the time she dragged herself out of her bedroll. She had a suspicion that rising before the dawn had something to do with his religion, but being neither especially religious herself nor knowledgeable about the Dunmer faith, she decided to leave it be.

That evening, they sparred unarmored, a single blade each, one hand, live steel. Her thane was showing constant improvement at swordplay, and though he would always be smaller than any Nord foe, his strength was improving and his agility was impressive for a novice. His decision to sacrifice a shield for magic ran counter to her every belief about melee combat, but she supposed that it was her job to stand as his shield should one be required. She knew that he considered this training at best of secondary concern and largely did it to keep her happy, but he was already improving, and she had noted with satisfaction that his body was beginning to show the results of his training. He would never have the musculature of a Nord, but the visible changes meant her regime was having an effect. Whatever it takes to keep him alive. At the end of the day, a housecarl's duty was to protect their thane, and Lydia took her oaths deadly serious.

After they had concluded their sparring and Velandryn had healed his bruises, she settled in to keep watch from the cave side of the illusion. Behind her, she heard a faint scratching sound and turned to see Velandryn working rather than sleeping. He had a mortar and pestle he had gotten in Whiterun, and the small leather-bound journal where he recorded his discoveries and mistakes was open on his lap. The pack in which he stored his various alchemical ingredients lay at his side.

"Try not to poison yourself again, my thane."

"It was a very potent magicka restoration potion, and if not for that side effect, would have been quite useful." He finished whatever he was writing and put the journal away. "I found an interesting insect today and wanted to see how its various parts would respond when introduced into a solution containing extract from tundra cotton. Only the wings reacted, if you were wondering."

"I wasn't, but thank you for sharing your discovery. Get some sleep, my thane." He settled into his bedroll with a grunt, and she resumed her position watching for any danger that would chance upon them in the night. Let it come. She would be ready.

While following the map had proved fairly doable for the most part, one they got into the mountains where Dimhollow Crypt was located their progress slowed considerably. They had sheltered last night in a tiny settlement called Heljarchen nestled in a valley at the end of a winding mountain road, left their horses there early this morning, and spent most of the day clambering over rocks trying to find the crypt itself. They had encountered neither Imperial nor Stormcloak patrols, as the area they were searching was far too remote and inhospitable to be of much interest to either side. The Dawnguard member who had given Velandryn the map had done a good job of copying what he had, but it quickly became apparent that whoever had made the original was exceedingly optimistic about what qualified as a 'road' or 'landmark.' The mountain slopes were littered with goat-paths and false ends, and more than once they found themselves returning to areas that looked depressingly familiar. Finally, as the shadows began to lengthen, it looked as though they had succeeded. Six horses were tied up before what Velandryn assumed to be Dimhollow Crypt. Two were barded with Dawnguard colors, and the others with the blue and gray of the Vigil. Of the riders, there was no sign.

He had never actually fought a vampire before, but he knew the theory, and had a general idea about their strengths and weaknesses. He had heard that there was a particularly deadly clan in the far north of Skyrim living beneath the ice. The…Volkar or something, I think. Most likely, though, those in Dimhollow were nothing more than some degenerate offshoot of a real clan. Just freakishly fast and strong bloodsuckers cursed by the Lord of Rape with immortality and an insatiable hunger. Simple really. He had a brace of potions in traveler's vials on his belt, and a dozen doses for curing disease stashed were throughout his gear and in his saddlebags. He had given Lydia plenty as well, and hoped it would be enough. He silently recited the first line of the Litany of Azura, and felt the magicka within him roil in response. Lydia had shown him the proper way to hone his blades, and he had oiled his bow and strung it with new gut. Within him, his eagerness at the chance to best a new foe warred with dread over facing it. Dov drives me forward, Joor keeps me safe. They weren't separate, not really, his dragon and mortal halves, but it helped to think of it like that. Hopefully the Greybeards could help him reconcile this imbalance. "Are you ready to do this, Lydia?"

"I am, my thane." They were both fully armored, but she wore heavy steel where he had the fine leathers gifted to him by the jarl. Her helmet hid most of her head, and the spaces between the steel plates were hard boiled hides over leather and wool. Any vampire that wanted to sink its fangs into her would have to carve open a hole first, possibly with a battleaxe. Her shield had a steel boss and rim over some dark wood, round in the Nord style and painted in the gold of Whiterun. She had asked him if there was some symbol or color he would prefer, but it had made him uncomfortable to tell someone else what to do with their own things, and he had demurred. This shield was also a gift from the jarl; the one Lydia had carried into battle against Mirmulnir, and that Velandryn had used to save her life, was hanging above her bed in their chambers in Dragonsreach. This new shield was so heavy that it took him two hands to carry it more than a few paces, but Lydia was deceptively quick with it, and a part of him looked forward to getting a chance to see her use it in a real battle. All in all, she made a formidable sight, and he felt more than a little grateful to have her as his housecarl as he followed her into the cave.

The cave entrance opened up into a cavern that Velandryn would ordinarily have liked quite well. Water ran through it in several small streams, and light from cracks in the ceiling speckled both the ground and the few small plants that had made their home here. One side of the cavern was dominated by ruined stonework of some sort, likely part of the crypt that gave this place its name. The scene was marred, however, by the corpses sprawled at the far end of the cavern, before a tunnel leading down.

"My thane, come and see!" Lydia was standing over the bodies, and as he approached, he saw what had drawn her interest. Five bodies lay there, two in the robes and armor of the Vigilants, and two more that looked to be bandits or mercenaries. The fifth, though, was unusual. As first glance, it looked to be a man of middling age. It lay sprawled on its back with half of its torso blackened and burned and three crossbow bolts sticking out of its chest. It was the face, though, that was so very wrong. The eyes were open, and glinted dully in the half-light. They glinted with golden light, and the face around them looked almost animalistic in its aspect. The nose was distorted, with slit-like nostrils, and a pronounced crease ran down to the mouth. One hand had fallen into a patch of sunlight, and now only a pile of ash dirtied an empty sleeve. Another pile of ash and clothing lay in a pool of light nearby, enough volume to account for an entire corpse.

"Vampires, but different." Lydia seemed torn between interest and disgust.

"How?"

"The face. As far as I know, we only have the Cyrodiil Clan in Skyrim. They…blend. They look like us, though their eyes glow red when they get hungry. I've killed those, but never seen something like this."

"So, what is it? Another clan?"

"Maybe. There was some old clan way up north in the distant past, a clan or two that came over from High Rock back in the Third Era, and I've heard that some will sneak in from Morrowind every now and then."

"Likely true. The Vvardenfell clans were all wiped out during the Red Year, as far as I know, and the Temple does a fairly good job of keeping decent folk well-educated and safe from those that have avoided our hunters. Some might have looked for easier prey in Skyrim."

"Well, whatever these are, at least they die. Let's press on, my thane. It looks like the Dawnguard could use our help."

He left the bodies there; he noticed with some amusem*nt that that someone had already stripped them of their potions and valuables. He would return after and collect some of the dust from the vampires, however. It was a procedure he had only ever read of, but one that yielded a potent and valuable alchemical reagent. "Let's go then. And Lydia, eyes open. I don't want these things getting the drop on us." He marched towards the tunnel down, roughly hewn out of the stone.

"Of course, my thane."

He saw no need to tell her about the inert array that covered the wall around the tunnel, scribed in a magical language that was wholly unfamiliar to him. A large chunk of it was missing, likely smashed through with brute force. Someone hid this place. On top of that, he knew enough about magical theory to feel very uneasy from that array's implications. He knew at least a little about most of the major elven and human schools of thought with regards to magic, and this array belonged to none of them. The closest parallels would be…Daedric. That was all wrong, though. This looked like a Daedric array from a certain point of view, but it was lacking key unifying concepts, which should have rendered it very weak. The fact that he could still detect it after its destruction, however, meant that it was anything but. Clearly it belonged to a school of magic unknown to him, and the idea that there was something so significant that he did not know ate at him like a hunger. Without the central component, though, he could not tell anything more, but it was a mystery that weighed heavily on him as they moved deeper into the crypt.

As they exited the tunnel into a burial chamber lined with alcoves, Lydia was scanning the walls and ceiling, hoping to get a glimpse of any foe before it could ambush them. She had not needed her thane's advice to be on her guard when dealing with vampires. Even in houses and common basem*nts, vampires were tricky; in a tomb such as this, she had no doubt they could work even worse trouble. However, it seemed that the battle had already moved on. In one corner was a pile of corpses, though they looked far too old and dried to have been recent kills, and the doorway leading further in had another pair of corpses before it. One was another of the strange vampires and the other one of the mercenaries or bandits in their ragged hides and leathers. She nudged the corpse of the non-vampire with her boot. "My thane, be on your guard. Some vampires use thralls to serve them, and I think these might be some such."

He nodded, but his attention was on the desiccated corpses in one corner. "Aye, I'll do that, but I'm more worried about those." He gestured, and one of the corpses rose jerkily to its feet. Blessed Talos!

"Down, my thane!" Lydia rushed forward, and removed the thing's sword arm at the elbow with a single strike and its head with three quick blows. The torso stood there, swaying, slightly, and Lydia recalled stories of undead that kept coming even with limbs hacked off. She bull rushed the abomination, slamming her shield into its chest and driving it to the ground. As it crumpled onto itself, its body dissolved into ash and scattered around them. She readied her shield, and waited for something else to come from the pile. Behind her, she heard Velandryn sigh.

"Lydia, in the future I will warn you before reanimating a body, and you will do me the courtesy of not destroying my reanimations. Do we have a deal?"

"Ah, yes, my thane." She had known that the Dark Elves practiced necromancy, but she still considered it a revolting practice, and the sight of her thane performing such spells coiled in her gut like a poisonous worm. "My thane, about your—"

"Later. I am relatively unskilled at reanimating dead flesh; if these had been dead for very long, the memory of life would have been gone, and it would not have risen. Someone killed these, and within the last few hours." He adjusted his leather helmet to scratch at his scalp. "What do you know about draugr?"

"They are the walking dead. Is that what you think these are? I'd heard stories, but never had reason to disturb any tombs before this." She emphasized those last two words, just to drive home the point that her life had been relatively normal less than a month ago.

"They aren't just walking dead. Any necromancer can do what I just did and innervate a fresh corpse. These are guardians, bound to their resting place, like the ones I encountered in Bleak Falls Barrow. And they aren't dead. Not truly, at least."

"Wait, what does that mean, and how is it you know this? You've killed them before at Bleak Falls, no?"

"Some, but not cleanly." He sat on his heels and cut into one of the corpses with his dagger. He had insisted on keeping the crude iron weapon with the scorched hilt for some reason, though she had insisted he have it well-honed at the very least. "Farengar had a report from some scholar who made a study of them. Supposedly they served the ancient Dragon Cult priests, and were…gifted…with eternal servitude. They roam their burial chambers and attack any who disturb them. Look." He held up the dagger, and she studied the dark smear on the blade. "This is their blood, or what is left of it. The blood of a dead thing. They are bone-dry, and burn easily, but this scholar thought they had some hint of life left in them. Supposedly they fed the priests with their unlife. Have you heard anything about this? I'd like to know more about this Dragon Cult, and what magics their leaders used to bind the draugr as they did."

"I would imagine the Greybeards know, my thane." Occasionally, the Dragonborn would descend into a sort of reverie, engrossed in whatever oddity had caught his interest. When this happened, it was best to humor him and encourage him to move on. Right now, she did not want him dwelling on how best to bind someone to an eternity of service. She knew, or at least hoped, that his interest was just academic, but she had seen that he burned with curiosity for the strangest things, and her scant knowledge of the mythical cult was unlikely to be enough to sate his appetite.

At any rate, he pulled himself away from the corpses, and took the lead for the next tunnel. "Draugr are deceptively fast, and single-minded. They won't stop until one or both of us are dead." He loosened his sword, and fire surrounded his hands for a single moment as he flexed his fingers beneath his thick leather gloves. "Downward we go."

They heard the fight before they saw it. They were descending yet another gradually sloping tunnel when they heard the clash of steel and raised voices ahead. Lydia stopped, hand raised in a fist, before motioning them forward. They moved slowly onward, and Velandryn was finally able to see not only the Dawnguard in action, but vampires as well.

The cavern was low where they entered it, and rose to a bluff overlooking them at the opposite end. Directly in front of them, two warriors in Dawnguard armor and one in the armored robes of the Vigilants were locked in melee with a brute in tattered leather armor, a yellow-eyed swordswoman who moved like a striking snake, and another Vigilant. This second Vigilant's puppet-like movements and gaping wounds revealed it as the automaton servant of some spellcaster. The culprit was fairly obvious, perched on the bluff above. This vampire was male, heavily bearded, and flanked by three skeletons. Two of the skeletal minions were firing into the battle below, while the third simply stood there with a huge axe, guarding its master. The Dawnguard and Vigilant were heavily pressed, and they were giving ground even as Velandryn watched.

Velandryn met Lydia's eyes, and gestured upward. "I'll distract the caster, I want you to break those three down there, then close with the spellcaster if he's still up. Hit the vampire first, you'd likely have to chop that dead Vigilant to pieces to slow it down. I'll try to keep the archers occupied." He focused, and the air around his hands ignited. "Ready?"

"On your attack, my thane."

He opened with a pair of fire bolts; he intentionally made them very weak, only barely strong enough to maintain cohesion and speed. One went slightly wide, barely missing both the skeletal archers and the vampire, but the other found its mark and impacted the vampire, who gave a shriek of pain and unleashed a torrent of lightning into the air. Lydia's bellowed battle cry followed his housecarl as she charged towards the melee fighters. Shield braced before her, she did not slow down as she passed within half a span of one of the Dawnguard members and slammed full tilt into the vampire woman. The bloodsucker hissed as she staggered back, and the thrall immediately broke off its assault on the sole surviving Vigilant to flank Lydia instead. She met its mace with her shield, and scored a hit under the thrall's guard before pushing it back and spinning to face the vampire again. By this point, the Dawnguard member who had been engaging the vampire moved up and crushed the thrall's skull with a swing of her warhammer. Velandryn discerned this through glimpses while firing at the vampire on the ledge and ducking from the arrows loosed in retaliation. Almost. He popped out from a fold in the cave wall and hurled two more fireballs, as weak as the ones before had been. This time, instead of hitting the vampire they fizzled out on his ward. Now. He gathered magicka in both his hands, draining himself all but dry. He placed the tips of his fingers together before him, and the air between his hands first turned to red flames, then blue. Pain lanced through his hands, and he knew that neither his natural resistance to fire nor the magicka wreathing the flames was sufficient to protect him for long. He rose, and released the final bolt of flame, feeling the familiar emptiness that signaled his magicka reserves were depleted. He watched, fascinated, as his missile streaked towards the vampire. The blue fire had reverted to a reddish hue as soon as the magicka sheath from his hands had dispersed, leading to a projectile that was larger than those previous and misshapen with magical flame seething within. The heat it radiated caused the surrounding air to shimmer and deformed his view of the vampire and his minions. By Azura, quite the fireball…

It was a cardinal rule of battle magic that any counterspell should be just stronger than the spell against which it was deployed. There was no sense, for instance, in making a ward of monumental strength to resist a Dunmer who was clearly only capable of conjuring meager fire bolts. In Farengar's library, there had been spell tomes detailing the use of wards. It was very Nord-like, he had thought, to focus on a spell that functioned the same as a traditional shield. The tome also insisted that this class of spell belonged to the School of Restoration, when any half-wit could see that it belonged in Alteration, though that was a semantic argument if anything. While the Dunmer traditions generally emphasized the use of shields that completely surrounded the caster, Velandryn was willing to accept that concentrating protection in a single direction had its uses. More interesting, though, had been the fact that the amount of magicka put into a ward had to remain constant. Too little, and it would fail to retain its form; too much, and it could overload and cause backlash. To adjust the strength of a ward, it was necessary to either be using a specialized ward spell which required significantly more finesse and magicka to activate, or to dispel the ward and summon another. Velandryn's gamble was twofold, but if this vampire was anything other than a skilled battlemage, his shield should be utterly annihilated by Velandryn's feint and strike. It was foolish to rely entirely on that though, so Velandryn readied his bow and nocked an arrow tipped with a rather nasty poison he had been working on for the past few days. I may whip up ten potions to inure myself against the cold for every other one I create, but the poisons are the most satisfying.

The fireball arced in, and the vampire extended his hand, and the ward with it, to meet this newest attack. Whether he had seen the difference in this bolt, Velandryn did not know. He could only wait, arrow drawn to his cheek and tip trained on the bearded vampire, breath held both in anticipation and to steady the long shot. Half a second before the fireball would impact, he loosed. Better to spend an arrow needlessly than regret the shot not taken, said Tuthon Kall. He had no idea why it was the words of a Breton four hundred years dead that came to mind, but he saw no way that taking the shot could hurt.

He never saw the moment of impact, only the eruption that billowed from it. His arrow vanished into the conflagration, and he thought that surely his ploy had succeeded. Nothing could emerge unscathed from that maelstrom of fire; the vampire's ward must have collapsed. As the flames cleared, he saw no sign of his foe. Where the vampire had stood was nothing but bare earth. The back blast had destroyed two of the skeletons; only one archer remained, once again firing unhurriedly at the battle below it. Firing…There was no skeletal binding he had ever heard of that allowed survival past the caster's death. Ice ran down his spine, and his stomach began a descent to the floor. He was suddenly aware of the shadows in the corners of the cave and of the darkness shrouding the ceiling. Stories of how vampires could vanish entirely in anything besides full sunlight raced to the forefront of his mind. A whisper came from somewhere, a noise that might have been a flutter of cloth or nothing at all. He saw no trace of any foe. Before him, the battle was going in their favor; the reanimated Vigilant had crumbled away, and the vampire was fighting fiercely but futilely against four foes. Perhaps that skeleton belonged to her. Perhaps it was bound by ritual to this place. Perhaps he was worrying for nothing—

A hand clamped down on his shoulder from behind, hard and cold and painful. Nails bit into his skin, and another hand gripped his head, wrenching loose his helmet and pushing his face down, baring his neck. He tried to twist away, but the strength in those cold hands was beyond his ability to overcome. He was pushed down, and something wet and cold pressed itself against his neck. A soft, slithering thing swept over his skin, and he thrashed, yelling incoherently, trying to break free from the creature's probing tongue. He heard Lydia's cry of alarm as though from a great distance, and saw through hazy eyes his housecarl racing towards him. Twin pains pierced through him, and nausea filled him as he realized what was happening. Panic rose, and as the vampire began to feed, his vision blurred and darkness crept in. No! I will not become—I will not! The magicka available to him for spells had been drained from using his fiery barrage and was not yet fully recovered, but he had one final card to play. He had burned another foe, the bandit from his first battle in Skyrim, in a similar manner. It would take every ounce of his magicka; he would need to pull even the latent power from his blood and combust it in a single stroke. My blood…Through the pain, he grinned. Then, the flames came.

He rode the fire, feeling it course out of him. He shivered as his last drops of magicka ebbed away, and thrust the burning ruin of what had once been a vampire off of him once the flame had run its course. To call Red Mountain's wrath and burn the magicka from one's blood in a cloak of flame was a technique of last resort, immensely powerful but leaving the user drained. Common knowledge held that it took a full day and night to restore the body's magical balance to the point where it could be used again, though some mages could recuperate more efficiently. It was also damned exhilarating, feeling yourself on fire without any pain or danger. Velandryn stood there, swaying gently, letting the peace that came after a battle suffuse him. On the ledge, the skeleton collapsed in a clatter of bones while closer to hand Lydia and the three she had aided rushed to him.

"My thane!" His housecarl's face was drawn, and her eyes were wide and bright. "Velandryn, speak to me! Are you okay?" She pulled him around and inspected his exposed skin, focusing on his head and neck. Under different circ*mstances, it might have been amusing how easily she handled him, her overbearing strength when compared to her ostensible master. Not these.

"I've been bitten." As he spoke, his hand was in one of his belt pouches, rummaging around for a potion. He had specifically put it in a special bottle, smaller, leather-lined, and distinctive to the touch—

There. He raised it to his lips and downed it eagerly. It tasted foul, likely because a key ingredient was mudcrab innards, but heat ran through his body, and relief followed soon after. He had no idea if he had contracted the vampiric disease from the bite, but he didn't want to find out the hard way.

Eventually, Lydia determined that he had no further injuries, and let him go. "How do you feel, my thane?"

"Fairly good, circ*mstances considered." He became aware of the others around them, the Vigilant bleeding from a few cuts, and the pair of Dawnguard looking surprisingly collected given where they were and what they had just been doing. "Greetings. I am Velandryn Savani, this is my…partner, Lydia of Whiterun, and we are offering aid in cleansing this place of vampires." He made an effort to stand straight and project confidence in his voice. He had found in Whiterun that the tone he had used for sermons back home was also very useful in making Nords listen.

"How did you find us?" The speaker was the Dawnguard who had been wielding the hammer, a Nord woman of a height with Lydia. "Who sent you?"

"Your associates in Whiterun. An Orc, Durak, and a Nord whose name escapes me. They mentioned the activity in Dimhollow Crypt, and we worked out an arrangement."

"And why are you doing this?" Clearly, this woman had no issue with checking a gift guar's belly. "What's in it for you?"

"Crossbows. I want crossbows, The Dawnguard wants aid, so we both win." He noticed that both members had the aforementioned weapon slung across their backs.

Lydia stepped forward. "We saved you, so why don't you show some courtesy? Your name, for one."

"Injard, for what it's worth. That there's Lynoit," She indicate the other Nord, an undistinguished-looking man carrying a war axe in a similar style to the hammer, "and the Vigilant is Tolan." She clapped the man on the shoulder. "He brought us word about the Hall of the Vigilant being sacked, then came back with us to clean these monsters out!" The man looked uneasy, and Velandryn reflected that the Vigilant corpses they had passed had performed similar acts of heroism yet were not here to bask in praise. Perhaps Tolan is wondering how long he'll make it down here in this crypt. He could not, however, quite find it in himself to feel sympathy for a Vigilant of Stendarr.

Injard continued. "We've been down here nearly a day, or maybe not, it's hard to keep track of time in the dark."

"Less than a day." That was Tolan.

"The vampires are moving slowly, but it looks like they've been here for a week or more. We know they're searching for something. Tombs smashed, every door either opened or broken, and dozens of bodies lying around. Some recently dead, some those undead freaks."

"Draugr," Velandryn supplied.

"Yeah, them. They fight the bloodsuckers and us, but the vampires have been cracking open everything, so they've had to wade through the things. We just put them down if they get up to hit us. Side halls are filled with them. They don't go down easy, I can tell you that.

"Anyway, it looks like they work their thralls half to death then feed on them." She shuddered. "Sickening. We clear them out, thralls and all, as we go. It's slow, but we make sure we aren't leaving any behind us."

Velandryn considered this. When he and Lydia had entered Dimhollow they had simply followed the most obvious route downward, as they were neither searching for any artifact nor trying to cleanse this place of vampires. Clearly, this group had been doing the hard work for them. "You have no idea what they are looking for down here?"

Tolan spoke then. "One of my order, Brother Adalvald, he thought there was some long-lost artifact down here. He found markings of some sort that indicated as much, and told us that vampires might looking for it, but none of us paid him much heed. He, he was at the Hall when…" He trailed off, and Velandryn nodded.

So, the vampires got the information from him? Or did they already know? There was no way to find out without talking to one of them, and he very much doubted that would happen. "How did the Dawnguard in Whiterun know about Dimhollow then?"

"They came from Fort Dawnguard with us." It was a bit of a shock when Lynoit spoke; Velandryn had nearly forgotten he was there. "Durak wanted to check Whiterun Hold for likely recruits. With the Hold neutral, might be more boys want to sign up."

Lydia snorted. "Not likely. They just go marching off to Solitude or Windhelm."

"Ah, right. Well, it seems to have worked well enough at any rate if it brought us you two." Injard was poking through the remains of the vampire. Much of the body had gone to ash from Velandryn's flames, but the grisly chunks of flesh and bone that remained fazed her no more than did the clothes and strange that lay around them. He wondered what she had been, before the Dawnguard. "Help us out, grab anything of value, especially notes or whatnot. Information is power when fighting these things."

They found nothing of any real interest on any of the bodies, though Velandryn did take a scorched amulet that thrummed with magic from the corpse of the vampire mage. The expression on Tolan's face when Velandryn offered to perform a funereal ritual for his fallen comrade was priceless, however, and it almost made him wish he had the equipment to perform a full consecration of a corpse to the Three. The Vigilant would probably die of shock and outrage. As they pushed deeper in, Velandryn noticed his arrow, sticking out of a patch of dirt. Seems I missed. All in all, this had not been a successful fight. They had won, but his plan had failed completely, he had underestimated his foe, and he had been forced to use his final line of defense, a power that was now impossible until long after they left. I live, I learn, I live some more. Hopefully.

They had found more vampires and thralls on the way down, and Velandryn had finally had a chance to see the Dawnguard at work. They moved well together, Injard smashing through lines of defense while Lynoit exploited openings and kept thralls occupied. With Tolan's aid, Lydia's bulwark presence on the front line, and Velandryn dropping fireballs on the bloodsuckers every chance he got, they were making good time. He was particularly impressed with the Dawnguard's ability to cancel out the abilities of the vampires they faced. Their weapons were silvered steel, and wounds inflicted on vampiric flesh smoked and burned. The crossbows they carried did not share these properties, but they parted armor and undead flesh as easily as paper, and dropped thralls in a single shot when fired at close range. It was no coincidence that the only time they had been caught in a losing situation was when facing an opponent who not only had superior position, but was also a powerful mage. Velandryn consoled himself with the fact of that mage's obvious power, though in hindsight he realized that it had been utter foolery to rely so heavily on a gambit like that when he had no real knowledge of his foe's capabilities. As they made their way further into the tomb, it was sobering to watch a skilled tactician, which Injard undoubtedly was, at work, and he reflected that while he might be Dragonborn, he was far from invincible.

The Dov had been quiet within him, but he could feel himself itching to prove something, to demonstrate his might before these Nords. However, he also recognized that that could well end with the Dragonborn bleeding out in some forgotten crypt, so he waited. If there was a chance to shine, he would take it, but not until then.

Velandryn heard the battle before he saw it, as seemed very common in these tombs with their limited lines of sight. They had entered the chamber from above, creeping along a low-walled balcony overlooking the ruined hall below, where a pair of vampires and their servants were locked in combat with a veritable horde of draugr, fifteen or more at a glance. One of the vampires was slashing about with a pair of swords, while the second directed icy blasts out of one hand and gestured at six or seven skeletons with the other. The skeletons, in turn, were funneling the draugr into chokepoints and killzones, where a pair of hulking thralls the vampires had brought engaged them.

Vigilant Tolan's eyes opened wide, and Velandryn suddenly noticed that two of the thralls were holding a man in Vigilant armor. He reached out to stop what he knew was coming even as Injard did the same, but both of them were too late.

"Brother! Adalvald! Fight them!" Velandryn pulled the idiot down behind the wall, hard, but it was too late. The vampire mage spun, yellow eyes blazing, and sent a cascade of lightning in their direction. Injard, cursing, unslung her crossbow and leaned out from behind a pillar to loose a shaft at the vampires. Lydia unslung her sword and shield, face grim, and Velandryn flexed his fingers, feeling the magicka hum under his skin. Lynoit was firing as well, though judging by the panic on his face he was falling back on training rather than using any sort of tactical thought. Velandryn chanced a glance over the wall; the vampire mage had directed a pair of skeletons towards the steps leading up to the level the mortals occupied, and a few draugr were heading their way, seemingly to investigate the disturbance. The thralls who had Adalvald were dragging him towards a gate on the far side of the room while several more cut a path through the undead, and both vampires were moving towards the gate as well. The remaining skeletons, it seemed, we acceptable sacrifices to keep the draugr occupied.

They mean to leave the draugr to finish us off as they head deeper. They have Adalvald, whatever they are after must be down there! Velandryn let loose a pair of fire bolts, and one impacted the sword-wielding vampire, causing him to hiss and gesture at a thrall, who in turn began shooting arrows at the Dunmer; the second shot sliced through his armor and left a thin red line of pain along his side. At the stairway up from the main level, Lydia smashed her shield into the ribcage of one of the skeletons; its bones cascaded down onto the draugr below.

The vampire without a sword, who was clearly the senior of the two, reached the heavy iron gate. He ripped the head off of a draugr that managed to push its way past his thralls, and hurled it away contemptuously. He raised his gaze to look at their embattled party, and Velandryn met his eyes. Even across the distance, he could feel the malice, the overwhelming contempt for mortalkind, contained in that glowing yellow look. He found himself unable to move, to turn his head. Something, a presence, surrounded him. His vision grew dim and he had to grip the wall to stay upright. Inside him, a seductive voice whispered, hinting at pleasures unimaginable and power undreamed of, and it could all be his if he just let go. All he had to do was let the Master in, and he would be free.

Then, within him, Dov awoke. Rage at the impudence of this creature consumed him. A vampire, a wretched undead worm, trying to bind him? From the depths of his soul, flame roared out, and his fury was echoed in both his people's ancestral speech and another, a tongue he had never learned. He knew that this battle would not leave the inside of his mind, but the words and the power echoed there, and the vampire's shadow fled.

Staggering, he returned to himself. Across the hall, two of the thralls were heaving on huge levers, winching the gate higher. The vampire with the sword and the rest of the skeletons were engaged with more of the draugr, though the crypt guardians had broken most of the skeletal minions. Lydia was lashing out with her shield as a hulking draugr wound up for an overhead strike. His allies were firing, Tolan was praying, and the entire situation was getting wildly out of hand. The master vampire, however, was icy calm. His gaze held Velandryn's for one long moment more before he turned away. He lifted the Vigilant bodily, heaved him over one shoulder, and strode towards the gate.

Velandryn grabbed Injard by the shoulder. "The gate! Two levers, vampire going in!"

She understood instantly. She hit Lynoit and Tolan to get their attention, and moved over towards Lydia during a lull in the assault up the stairs. The draugr she had been facing had tumbled down to the floor, and was laboriously finding its feet again, but they would have time before it reached them. Injard pointed at the gate. "Tolan, is there another way out of the crypt?"

The Vigilant shook his head. "Adalvald never said, only that the ruins keep going down."

Injard grimaced. "Some of these crypts have a second exit. Usually hidden, like an escape route." Once more Velandryn wondered what she had been in her previous life. A mercenary or an adventurer? Or was she a bandit holed up in a place like this? She looked at Velandryn. "We need to get through the gate, and quickly." A crash punctuated her words, and the guttural battle cries of the draugr swelled.

Velandryn chanced another look. Down below, a draugr in a horned helm buried his sword in a thrall's chest, and hurled the corpse aside. Another thrall cleaved off the draugr's arm, but the ancient undead Nord paid the ensorcelled slave no mind, and trudged towards the nearer of the two thralls working the levers. The specimen that Lydia had knocked down earlier was almost upon them again; his housecarl readied her shield as Velandryn shot out a spurt of fire that caught on the desiccated flesh and soon had the monstrosity burning and moaning. Lydia slammed her shield into it again, and the creature tumbled down again, this time shedding flakes of smoking skin and chunks of charred flesh. It crashed to the floor at the bottom of the steps and laid still.

Velandryn scanned the little group. Injard looked prepared and nearly calm at the thought of battle, but Lynoit and Tolan were both clearly rattled, and would not last much longer. "We need to bring them down, and we need to go now. Far too many draugr for us to clear this room."

Injard glanced down at the carnage below. "Can you clear a path with your flames?"

"I can turn it into a horde of burning draugr if you would like, but it will not kill them. We must move quickly."

Suddenly, a crash. The gate had been raised, and the vampires began leading their macabre procession through. The two thralls who held the levers were left behind, but the three remaining thralls, both bloodsuckers, and the unfortunate Vigilant Adalvald passed beneath the heavy gate and were soon lost to view. The thralls lasted less than ten heartbeats after that; literally torn to pieces by the frenzied draugr. One of them, larger than the others, heavily armored, and wielding a mighty black spear, pointed its weapon at them and let loose a stream of guttural speech, punctuated with pounding words that could be nothing else but Thu'um. Velandryn felt it in his bones, and wanted desperately to respond. No, we don't need that kind of trouble right now. He quashed the impulse ruthlessly.

"Change of plans. Go now, and go fast!" Injard charged down the stairs, warhammer in hand, sending the first draugr in her path flying back with a swing that used her momentum to its fullest. From above, Velandryn could see the tide as the draugr shifted to attack her, to surround and overwhelm.

All at once, everything was clear. The draugr commander with his spear, the dozen or more underlings moving together, the crash as another sarcophagus burst open to reveal a passage teeming with the undead. They defended the tomb, responded to the greatest threat. He knew how to get to the gate. "Lydia." He did not speak loudly, but his housecarl arrested her movement to join Injard and was at his side instantly. "Move to the edges, then to the gate when I attack. Do not attack the draugr, and don't stop until you are through." She began to protest, but he held up his hand. He gestured at Lynoit. "Fire at the commander when I make my move. Keep up the pressure." He gripped the front of the Vigilant's robes and fixed the Nord with a glare. "Defend him. Both of you fall back once we are through." He pushed a scroll into Tolan's hands and turned to Lydia once again. "Go help Injard, get her moving when I go. I'll see you at the gate."

She saluted, hand on chest, though her face was grim. "I am your sword and shield, my thane. I serve."

Injard was embattled, but Lydia's assistance gave the Dawnguard some breathing room. Velandryn stood on an old bench of some sort, in full view of the draugr below. He inhaled.

"FUS!"

The Dov roared silent approval, and the draugr lord roared defiance. His underlings surged forward, and Velandryn saw them converge on his housecarl. Now. He leapt.

Four things happened in the time between Velandryn Savani leaping from the ledge and crashing inelegantly to the ground. First, Lynoit overcame his fear and fired a bolt from his crossbow. It punched through the ancient armor of the draugr commander and lodged in his chest. Second, Lydia grabbed Injard and pulled her to the side, avoiding the press of draugr up the stairs. Third, Tolan opened the scroll and read the words within; the Vigilants, for all of their many, many flaws, at least made sure to train all members in the use of rudimentary magical items. The frost storm turned the steps into a treacherous blizzard as it moved down, and transformed the draugr upon it first into statues, and then into shards as they toppled down the slick slope. Finally, Velandryn downed a potion; he had been forced to purchase this one from an apothecary in Whiterun, as ingredients that granted invisibility were few and far between. It had come dearly, even with the discount that his being Dragonborn afforded. It was worth it, however, as he landed and was not set upon by the draugr all around. Some looked at his location in what he almost fancied was puzzlement, while others were already moving to strike down the foes above. He kept as quiet as he could, and in a short time reached both the gate and Lydia and Injard beyond.

"We should go now, while they are distracted." The invisibility broke as he started talking, and Lydia jumped.

Injard spun on him. "You left them!"

He shrugged. "They have a path up, and a good defensive position. I told them to fall back when we were through. Hopefully they will listen. They have done us more good as a distraction than they could have against the vampires down there in any case. They might even live, if they run now."

Through the gate, the commander bellowed, and the floor shook. Injard just looked at him. "You're the Dragonborn. You Shouted."

There was no sense in denying it. "I am, and right now I am helping you." He began walking into the gloom. "We must go. The draugr are single-minded to a fault, but one of them might remember that three of us are gone."

Injard did not move. "Go." She turned back to the hall. "That's my underling up there. I don't leave people behind, Dragonborn."

He wondered if that was meant to shame him. "Your underling would be best served by running. He should know this. I did not kill him."

"Dragonborn, you might be clever, but you have a lot to learn about leadership." She unslung her crossbow and bolts and handed them to Lydia. Readying her hammer, she stepped through the gate, grabbed one of the levers, and dislodged it. The bars slammed down with a crash, and some of the draugr turned. "Go! Kill those vampire bastards! I've got these ugly bastards! Lots of bastards today!" She grinned. "You'd better live, Dragonborn, I've got to beat your ass for this! These are mine, now get moving!" The last they heard of her as they descended was her maniacal laughter and the battle cries of her foes.

"My thane?"

"Mhm?" He no longer felt the need to speak nobly, trudging down through the darkness.

"Would you abandon me, if it were required?" He twisted the magicka in his eyes, and the gloom became bright as day. Lydia, walking beside him, looked as troubled as he had ever seen her.

"I did not abandon them. We needed a distraction, they provided it; they have a superior position and a clear line of retreat. If they are too stubborn to take it, I cannot be blamed."

"So you leave your allies when it is convenient for you?"

Is it really that difficult to understand? "We parted ways, and they get to avoid this. If anything, you should be angry with me for bringing you with me past the gate."

"I see." By her tone, she did not, not truly, but there was no use for it. We are each tested in our way, and we struggle that we may succeed. He had given them a fine test, and now he had one of his own ahead.

"Lydia."

"My thane?"

"Be ready."

"Always."

His night-eye faded, and he cast it again, silently, as he had learned to do while sneaking out of his room to procure sweetrolls from the dormitory kitchens as a child. Ahead, a thrall waited in inky blackness, no doubt thinking himself concealed. By the way the Nord stood, he could not see in the darkness, and was listening to judge when they got close enough to strike. Another spell from his childhood muffled his footsteps, and he raced ahead of Lydia. As the thrall stepped out into the pathway, blissfully unaware of the Dunmer behind him, Velandryn's dagger slid into the unarmored flesh of his throat. He drew the blade sideways, and the bandit slumped down with a gurgle as hot blood poured over Velandryn's hands.

Lydia heard the noise, and was only partially mollified by Velandryn's hurried explanation. "Next time, my thane, let me know when I'm your bait. A tap would suffice."

"Of course, Lydia. Next time I won't keep you in the dark." There was no immediate response; the problem with Lydia was that her missing a joke, her ignoring it, and her playing it straight were nigh indistinguishable. Forget what those Imperials say about Dunmer, it's Nords who need a sense of humor.

"Don't be. It was well done. I just want to know beforehand next time. I will work with you, my thane, but I am not some tool who only exists to be used as you see fit."

"Deal." Now, hopefully they could do it again. Two thralls and two vampires remained. Or more. There could always be more. After all, who knew what was lurking down here in the timeless dark?

Chapter 9: Serana

Summary:

What does a vampire hide away? And what does a vampire treasure?

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Before

She remembered innocence…

Sneaking through the gardens, beautiful, striking flowers set against stone and snow. Jumping out in front of her mother, pale and slender in the half-light, reading by the moondial, smiling and spreading her arms upon seeing her daughter. Sitting beside her father, bearded and smiling, leading a hall full of his men in joyous song. Learning Aldmeris, the tongue spoken by the elves to the west, at her mother's insistence. Learning why when her mother gave her a book of Aldmer poetry; the songs of Alinor and Firsthold, spun from sunlight and star-glass. Plucking out a few clumsy notes on an old warped lute; her joy when her father had a gorgeous new one shipped from Solitude. Watching the last of the great sky-whales, who had followed brave Ysgramor from Atmora, frolic in the clouds. Casting her first spell at dinner, and the laughter on her parents' faces when she set the tablecloth on fire. Greeting the subjects as they bowed low before her, done up in her finest clothing on her name-day.

and its end.

Her father, beard trimmed short and going grey, hunched over a burned scrap of paper mumbling words. When he saw her, he spoke harshly, ordering her to return to her room. Beside him, her mother, face drawn, whispering spells she had never seen before. Commoners, no longer smiling, paying their tithes to her father with terror in their eyes. Strange men and women, and a chamber in the castle where she was never to go. Her proposed marriage going nowhere, her betrothed offering no explanation and her parents mocking his weakness. The name of Molag Bal, and the oaths she was expected to swear. Her mother, fussing over her hair as she had not done since she was a child, telling her how beautiful she looked. The long walk, through empty rooms and cold corridors. Her father, standing among the bodies, beckoning her forward. The altar, and upon it—

She did not dream, but in the instant after the stone closed around her and her mother's face was lost from view, she remembered.

The vampires had Adalvald completely at their mercy, but by the sound of it were getting nowhere with their interrogation. Lydia knew that a strong mind could resist the seduction of a vampire for longer, though she had never heard of someone who could not be turned eventually. For the moment, however, the vampires seemed entirely unaware of the two mortals on the ledge above. They were hiding in a building that covered most of one huge wall; it had likely been a grand structure once, but only the stone skeleton remained. The stairs down to the floor were treacherous in their age, as Lydia could testify, having almost tripped while descending to their current vantage point. The room itself was something incredible. It was a huge cavern, dominated by a lake with an island rising from the center. The island was covered in ruins of some style she had never seen; a huge circular stone floor studded with plinths and surrounded by arches. There was some sort of pattern on the floor, and the entire thing gave off a most disquieting air. Velandryn also seemed ill at ease, though that could well have been because of the foes below. They had not encountered any draugr since passing through the gate; the crypts must have ended back there, though these caves went deeper still. That single thrall had been the only foe they faced, and now it seemed the rest of their enemies were gathered before them. The vampire with the swords, the subordinate, was pacing impatiently, while the other, in more ornate armor and carrying no weapons, was overseeing the Vigilant. The thralls were holding the Vigilant in place, and all four had their attention anywhere but where it should have been. They are convinced they outsmarted us, so they got sloppy. It was the weakness of vampires, she knew. They were convinced that they were better than mortals, so if you let them think they had the upper hand, they would take it without question.

Behind them, the thrall came stumbling down. He took the stairs clumsily, and on taking the landing, almost looked as though he might fall. He kept going, however, and managed to reach the ground while still relatively upright. Once on level footing, he stumbled towards the vampires who had made him a living tool.

The pacing vampire noticed him first. "Were we followed? Have you slain them?" the thrall shambled closer, and Lydia held her breath. It was uncomfortable, relying on the thrall like this, but could have been worse. At least it wasn't her out there.

The vampire closed with the thrall, and Lydia wondered which he would notice first. The gash across the thrall's neck that still dripped blood, or the unnatural sheen of his skin and armor, glistening and slick in the half-light. She was no weak-kneed civilian to turn pale at the first sign of blood, but she could not help feeling faintly ill as she recalled what Velandryn had done to the corpse. If it worked, however…

The vampire must have realized something was wrong, for he recoiled from the body with all the speed his inhuman abilities could grant. He was too late, however, as their trap was sprung. His trap, in truth. It was a horrifying and unconventional use of their resources, and a darker part of her admired him for it.

The bolt of flame was of middling strength, Lydia estimated, cast for speed rather than intensity. It took less than a second to span the gap between master and puppet, whose final act was to lurch forward, as if to embrace the nearer vampire. The other, the master, rose and stretched out his hand in a furious gesture. Lydia wondered if he knew what was going to happen, or just understood that something was terribly wrong. And it was wrong, what they had done. Her thane could claim that using a corpse in battle was fully in keeping with his people's beliefs, but to Lydia, it was abhorrent. When they had stood over the body of the thrall and Velandryn had noticed the lamps full of unlit oil hanging from the ceiling, he had formulated his plan. As he was elbow-deep in the dead man's entrails, sawing and pulling, she had understood. And when he mended the flesh around the oil he had poured into the space where the man's insides had been, forming a fleshy sack that held a great quantity of the flammable mixture, she had nearly upended the contents of her stomach onto the floor. Soon enough, though, the puppet had been ready. And now, the nameless, luckless Nord who had been a vampire's thrall was getting revenge on his former masters in the most dramatic fashion possible.

Velandryn had had nearly half a jug of the oil left after filling the interior sack, so he had poured it all over the thrall's skin and armor. When the fireball hit, the oil went up in an instant, and Lydia ducked into cover. Beside her, Velandryn was doing the same. The dead flesh was soaked through with oil, and it took only a second for the heat to work its way within. The explosion was deafening, and the blast of heat was palpable even in her cover. When she checked over the low barrier, it was to witness a scene of carnage. He did it. She glanced at her thane, who was gazing at the devastation with eager eyes. For him this is no horror, only the victory.

It was everything Velandryn had hoped for and more. He had angled the fire bolt squarely for the back, where he applied the oil more liberally than elsewhere. Given that he had had ample time to take the shot and was also controlling the dead thrall's movement, it had been a perfect impact. As a result, though the flames spread over the body quickly, they first reached the reservoir within from the back, meaning that the initial combustion projected the oil forward before igniting as well. It was a glorious fountain of flame, a cone spreading outward and upward in a thousand burning streams that splashed on the stone or on flesh, living or dead. He felt a momentary stab of pity for Vigilant Adalvald, but quashed it quickly. The human had chosen a life of zealotry and fanaticism, and if he died here, he would at the very least have assisted in the killing of a true threat.

The conflagration burned brightly, and Velandryn could make out no hint of how effective it had been. Where the thrall and the nearer vampire had been, he could see a few burning chunks of some indeterminate material, and beyond that was some large shape, perhaps the master vampire, or one of the stones. All was aflame, and he waited for the fire to die. Let it burn. If any live, they will only grow weaker. If they are fighting the flames, they must fight longer. And if they were already dead, well, with vampires it never hurt to make sure. Or so the books say. He was putting much of his reading to the test since coming to Skyrim.

As the fire died, the large shape became clearer. It was a dome of shimmering energy, opaque to the eye, and it occupied the space where the master vampire had stood before the trap was sprung. Lydia moved up beside him, awkwardly holding the crossbow Injard had tossed her. The flames danced along the dome's surface, but they could not penetrate whatever energy was being used to project it. It was not unheard of to mitigate a spell, but to block it entirely like this was truly high-level magecraft. Velandryn drew out a potion that fortified his magicka reserves and another that served as a broad-spectrum magical resistance. That second one would leave him nauseous and shivering in a few hours, but clearly they faced a being of no trivial power. The shield began to dissolve, and he saw the vampire clearly for the first time. Not across a hectic hall filled with undead, or a glimpse from a hiding place, but facing him squarely across a floor of burning oil over ancient stone. He stood in the center of where the dome had been, one hand raised as though to offer prayers to some god, and the other down beside him, bleeding frost and cold into the air around it. Behind him, Vigilant Adalvald was whimpering and rocking back and forth, and the sole remaining thrall pulled himself to his feet, gingerly trying to put weight on a cracked and smoking leg. He saved three with his shield, though he was not quite fast enough to spare the thrall. He'll be slow. Good.

The vampire gestured at the space between them. "He was here as a reward." His voice was low, every syllable laced with subtle power. "Vakken found this place, uncovered our master's lost treasure. He was young, and arrogant in that youth, but he showed promise. And you killed him with…that." His lip curled slightly. "It was you, wasn't it?" Now, he locked eyes with Velandryn. "That ploy, turning the corpse into a weapon. It stinks of elven cunning." He smiled, revealing his pointed fangs, and took a single step forward. "It was clever, and well-done. You knew you could not best us fairly, so you resorted to trickery. I applaud your ingenuity, but you have failed." He reached out, and Adalvald screamed as he was lifted from the ground. "He knows nothing that I need, but he is one of you. A mortal who thought to challenge us!" That last was said with mockery. "He told us that we would be undone, that the righteous would punish us for our transgressions and save him." He closed the hand into a fist, and Adalvald's scream cut off with a snap as his head twisted around in a full circle. His dead eyes, on a head atop a twisted neck, stared into Velandryn's accusingly. "You did not save him." He took another step forward, and Adalvald's body, still floating in midair, began to gush blood from every orifice. The streams combined and converged on the vampire. He smiled as they became a fine mist about him, and inhaled deeply. "You mortals are so…frail, you…cannot comprehend…this… exquisite …sensation!" The half-burned thrall struggled to his feet, but before he could so much as take a step the vampire extended another hands and pulled him with a flick of his wrist. The hapless thrall collapsed before his master, and the vampire's hand closed around his throat. He lifted the burned Nord with one hand, while his other writhed its fingers in gestures alien to Velandryn's understanding. The thrall jerked, twisted, and screamed before going limp. The vampire opened both hands, and the thrall crumpled to the ground. The vampire spread his arms wide, and the thrall began to rise once more. "The living flesh is weak while the dead flesh is servile. Behold—"

The crossbow bolt punched through the thrall's neck. Lydia was already shoving another bolt into place as the vampire pivoted in rage, hands coming up to begin some attack. Velandryn preempted him with a pair of fire bolts, forcing the undead to summon a ward and letting Lydia put a second bolt into the rising thrall. This bolt tore through armor and chest, and blood flowed freely as the thrall collapsed to the ground once more. It tried to rise again, but the body was clearly not functioning as it should. One arm was pulling it up, but the other lay limp, while both legs were moving as though trying to make it walk, though it was on the ground. Velandryn knew little about advanced necromancy, but the more precise reanimations required relatively intact bodily functions, one of the reasons necromancers generally preferred to seduce or sacrifice their targets rather than kill them in pitched combat. He gave silent thanks that he had only needed the crudest form of walking corpse for his scheme; removing the innards and filling it with oil would have rendered it largely useless for anything else. Finally, the vampire hissed in frustration and snapped his fingers. The flesh rotted away in a matter of seconds, and the bones pulled themselves up. The skeleton took up the thrall's huge axe and stood beside its master.

The vampire was no longer sanguine in his approach to them, but seemed now almost amused by their actions. "An elf and a Nord brute, trying to deny me my glory!" He gestured, and the skeleton leaped forward, swinging for Velandryn. However, Lydia's charge brought her barreling into the reanimated minion, and her shield sent it staggering. It was made of sterner stuff than the skeletons above however, and retaliated with a mighty overhead blow that rang through the cavern when Lydia blocked it. The vampire sent an ice spike towards Lydia's back, but Velandryn's cry of warning let her bring up her shield and block it in time.

"My thane! I cannot fight two!" She spun back on the skeleton, and her sword struck twice against its arm, opening its guard for a devastating shield bash to the skull.

Velandryn was snapped out of his fascinated observation; he moved swiftly around her and positioned himself opposite the vampire. "Face me then, bloodsucker." He felt curiously calm. This creature was far beyond the others he had faced. He had likely lived for many times longer than Velandryn, honing his craft. Clearly he had mastered not only magic, but the spells and arts unique to vampiric traditions. The fine mist of Adalvald's blood lingered around the monster, and his hands were grasping at nothing. His eyes burned a piercing yellow, and his face was a mask of cruel mockery.

"Elf, you are so naive, so foolish, to challenge me. I am Lokil of Volkihar, and I shall reap Lord Harkon's reward." His hands glowed blue, and Velandryn pulled on his magicka quickly, using the Nord-style ward but tuning it like a frost shield. He had not seen any of Farengar's books cover the issue of elemental shields, but it had only taken an hour or so of work to slap together a dual-aspect spell that allowed for elemental tuning and the ward structure to coexist. The increased cost of structuring the ward with frost resistance was compensated by the ward requiring less magicka upfront to bring into being. It still drained magicka at a prodigious rate, but Velandryn had been practicing the efficient use of his magicka and this vampire had shown himself fond of ice projectiles. A momentary ward should allow him to nullify the attack at little cost to himself. And so, when the first shard of ice impacted the shield, he was ready, and gritted his teeth and held firm as the shards scattered over his aetherial shield and dissipated into cold air. It was only when the second spike failed to come that he realized something was wrong. He had all of a heartbeat to panic before the lightning came at him, a continuous surge that would burn through the ward in little time. Clearly, this vampire was no fool, and his attack was specifically designed to overwhelm a spellcaster like Velandryn. Either his ward would persist, and he would expend all his magicka staving off the attack, or he would abandon the ward and the lightning would shock him, destabilizing any remaining magicka reserves. Either way, he would be drained of magicka and at the monster's mercy. Unless…

This might be the worst idea I've had yet. He braced himself against the attack, using his free hand to pull a potion from his belt as he did so. I need but a few seconds. He swallowed it in one gulp, and felt magicka pour into him, hopefully bolstering his reserves enough to pull this off. If the shield failed, the attack would simply hit him. However, if it was destabilized by an overload of magicka it would self-destruct outward, disrupting any magicka in its immediate vicinity. Hopefully. He kept falling into situations where his only chance out was trying these absurd tricks, but perhaps that was to his advantage. Nobody in their right mind would see this coming. He charged.

He could not see Lokil through the attack, but the energy crackling along the ward was a good guide for direction. He ran with his left hand holding the ward as he drew his sword with the right. Three steps after drawing the sword fully, he judged the distance correct. He would not retreat, so if he is standing in the same place, then I should be where I need right—NOW! He poured magicka into the ward, and felt it ripple and surge in response. The lightning rebounded from parts of it, while it pierced other regions. The smooth edges became jagged, and the dimensions swelled to a full third again as large. He had perhaps two heartbeats.

And…

The ward exploded outward, and the lightning branched in every direction. The magical theory behind it was almost insultingly simple. Lightning, though tremendously destructive, also required an absurd amount of magicka to manifest at the necessary strength. As a result, all spellcasters who used lightning in any fashion relied to some extent on workarounds to reduce the magicka they had to put in. Consequentially, lightning spells, so damaging against enemy spellcasters, functioned as they did because they siphoned off the target's magicka to sustain the focused flow. In fact, a fraction of the magicka Velandryn had been putting into the ward was actually sustaining the assault against him. However, altering the environmental conditions could disrupt the spell, even if momentarily. Just like now, when a cascade of realized magicka in the form of a ward was projected violently outward into the stream of a spell. The lightning drew on the increased levels of ambient magicka and branched everywhere, but it was dispersed enough to do no more than raise the hair on Velandryn's head, and, critically, the zone between them was largely free due to the residue of the ward. Lokil stood in the same spot as he had before beginning his assault, one arm outstretched and pouring out the lightning. His other hand was held before him, manipulating the blood mist, to what end Velandryn could not say. The look on the vampire's face was one of undisguised shock. He did not expect that. Velandryn had only bought himself a moment, but it was a moment of no spell or shield between them. I only have a second, but that's all I need.

'FUS!"

There was no way the vampire could resist an attack like that. As Velandryn used it for the third time in his life, he couldn't help but notice that it was completely unaffected by the magical disruption he had unleashed. Interesting. Clearly the Thu'um was not merely magic. He had known on some level that it was not a spell, but—no, no, it was affecting the magicka. The lightning and charged magicka between them had been pushed as well. Impossible. But he had no time to ponder the implications of this information, as his shock was nothing compared to Lokil's. If his overloaded ward had taken the vampire by surprise, this looked to have shattered foundations of his world. His face was contorted, yellow eyes open wide, and his hands gesticulated frantically as he staggered back. Velandryn knew he had the opening he needed. He aimed the point of his sword at the chest of the vampire's grey-black armor and charged. He only had to take two steps, and then the lunge.

Blood fountained out from Lokil's back, and the vampire staggered. However, he did not fall. His head slumped, but he remained standing, and Velandryn was suddenly seized with doubt. Did I pierce the heart? If he had missed, the wound, while grievous, might well not be mortal. Suddenly, the body shook. From behind, he could hear Lydia's sword, or possibly shield, clanging off of the skeleton's own weapon. The skeleton, he realized, that was still fighting. Damn. Lokil raised his head, and the mist of Adalvald's blood flowed to the sword. The vampire had regained his composure, laughing as he straightened his back.

"Well done, mortal." Lokil grabbed the blade sticking out of his chest, gripping the steel in a vice-like hand. Velandryn tried to wrench the sword out, but the vampire deformed the blade with a twist of his wrist. "Your blade cut deep and reached my heart. Were I of lesser kind, you may well have slain me. But," the blood mist around him pulsed as his eyes glowed, "I am superior to any being you have ever beheld." He pulled the twisted and useless sword out of his chest with one hand while his other went to his wound, stroking it gently. "Braveof you, to charge. And that spell, I have never seen the like." Velandryn released the sword and made to retreat, but Lokil's hand came up to grip his wrist. He pulled with all of his might, but the vampire's hold was iron and stone. "I think I shall turn you. Return to Lord Harkon with a new disciple as well as his prize. You will join a family of superior beings, blessed beyond the hopes of the common kyne." Velandryn's mind raced as he considered what items he had in reach. He had a dagger of steel and one of iron, but clearly neither would do much good. "I can offer you an eternity of knowledge, of power." He heard Lydia bellow some taunt or war cry as she staggered into view, shield raised against the skeleton's onslaught. His spells might wound the undead, but the vampire could kill him easily from his current position. "Your brutish companion would make an…adequate…thrall, but I think it will be for the best if she does not leave this place. Instead, I shall make her your first meal. It is always best to feed on a trusted companion as an…appetizer to the eternal feast that follows." His gaze was far from Velandryn, eyes fixed on some long-past reverie. Disgusting as the vampire's clear enjoyment of the situation was, his arrogant distraction was for the best.

Velandryn extended his left hand behind him, fingers wide. He had enough magicka, but the leverage would be difficult. He focused, and felt magicka ebb out of him, and the indescribable feeling of Daedric Creatia take its place. Even as his body rejected the protean substance, the mental framework he had constructed rejoiced at its presence. It was at once infinitely alien and utterly right. A paradox, the impossible center. Dov and Joor. He smiled, and an impossible blade manifested with a keening wail in his outstretched hand.

Lokil's head snapped back down, fixing on the weapon, but he was far too late. The moment the weapon had taken form, it was over. The blade was whispering to him, a current of malice from the unwilling energy that had crossed the liminal divide to make his weapon.

Kill him cut him burn him slay him boil his blood rend his flesh devour his soul end him forever.

He had heard stories, that Creatia pulled into this world could take on a 'spirit' of sorts, and that its most primal form was unthinking hatred and rage. It had not happened when he summoned it with a calm mind during meditation, but in the heat of battle it thirsted. He felt heat radiating off the blade, but this was not the magical heat he could call into being, or even the holy fire of the Dunmer, borne outward from the heart of Red Mountain. This was Daedric flame, called forth for battle, and it burned only to destroy. The blade burned with flame of an unreal shade, and was impossibly sharp besides; this weapon was as far removed from the steel blade he had lodged in the vampire's chest as dragons were from the tiny lizards that scuttled across the dunes of Stonefalls. This is a blade that can kill an ancient vampire.

Velandryn's left arm was positioned awkwardly for the cut he needed to make, but it hardly mattered. He cut upward as he pulled his own arm back, slicing through the Lokil's arm at the elbow. The vampire reared back and shrieked in pain, and Velandryn was free. The undead's lower arm and hand still gripped his wrist, but he could move again, and so his right hand joined his left on the blade's long grip. He faced the vampire, still reeling from the wound, and prepared to finish this fight.

The blade's burning edge had cauterized both the stump and arm fragment, and now Lokil's wound were smoking and slowly bleeding ash as the fire ate at the undead flesh. Lokil's mockery and humor were gone, replaced with agony and loathing, but Velandryn had no time to savor the vampire's humiliation. He had begun to move, so Velandryn took a firm stance and swung the blade with both hands in a cut that was nearly horizontal. The edge, sharped than any razor, parted the skin of his neck like thin paper and sheared through bone with a feeling not unlike snapping a branch from a tree. The expression on Lokil's face was absurdly surprised, as though he could not have imagined this outcome. His body crumpled to the ground with a whisper of cloth and armor folding, and his head rolled away into the darkness of the cave. "Superior, was it?" He was tired, but the feeling of victory was never less than sweet.

"My thane! Are you well?" The skeleton too had collapsed to nothingness, and Lydia moved over quickly, sporting a set of nicks and a worrying amount of blood leaking from her right pauldron. Despite that, as his housecarl approached she was hurriedly assessing his condition rather than worrying about her own. Her speed abated somewhat when she saw that he was mostly unharmed, though she did rip the still-clenched hand from his wrist with enough force to be more than a little painful, and it left some unpleasant residue on the cuff of his armor. She acquiesced easily enough when he made her remove her armor so he could heal her wound. As they sat, his hands on her shoulder and golden light suffusing the gash, she exhaled heavily.

"That skeleton, it was more than I anticipated, my thane. I'm sorry, I should have been there to assist." She tested her shoulder with a wince and slumped against one of the walls.

He had never seen her like this; could she be feeling like she had failed at her duty? He did not know what to say to make her feel better, but he had to try. "I would wager that skeleton would have been a match for any warrior in the Whiterun Guard, at least. It was raised by a master necromancer from a fresh corpse, and likely had spells beyond count running through its bones." The best I can do, for now. He flipped over Lokil's headless corpse and began rifling through the vampire's pockets; he wanted to know more about this 'prize' of which the vampire had spoken.

Lydia let out a short bark of a laugh. "Master or not, he's dead now, no thanks to me. I fought a skeleton, while you killed a vampire! You did it, my thane! A dirty trick, but you killed them all." She leaned her head back against the wall and looked upward into the darkness.

"Don't sell yourself short. I would have gone down in seconds if not for you keeping that skeleton off of me. We make a damned good team, housecarl." He found a bloodstained journal, a pouch of coins and gems, and an ornate dagger that looked to be made from ebony. It hummed with power, and he felt an enchantment that seemed to pull the vitality from his skin as he touched the blade. A sight better than steel, at least. He tucked the valuables and knife away, and glanced through the book.

The journal had belonged to Adalvald, and while the late Vigilant had not come to any concrete conclusions, he seemed to have decided that this crypt had been built in two stages. The same culture that had made Bleak Falls, what Farengar had called the ancient Nords, or the Dragon Cult, had done most of the work and then, some number of years later, the culture that had established this ritual circle on the island had altered the crypt according to their own inscrutable designs. Now that he had a chance to simply feel the presence of the strange construction, he could detect the subtle pressure that came from being near an active ritual array. He would wager that this was what the vampires had been after, the weapon or relic that Lokil had sought. "Lord Harkon's prize," the vampire had called it, though apparently he had been as mystified by its workings as Adalvald, if he had gone to the trouble of interrogating the Vigilant rather than simply interacting with the array. The fact that Adalvald had not recognized the architectural style indicated that it was the work of some smaller faction that had not spread extensively, or else they had been utterly destroyed. Velandryn likewise did not know the style, thought the arch structures were vaguely reminiscent of pre-Alessian Ayleid construction. Unfortunately, this was a thousand miles north of even the most optimistic range of the Ayleids' expanse. Under different circ*mstances, he would gladly have remained down here for a time and surveyed these ruins. However, this prize was the more urgent matter, and doubtless either was the circle itself or lay within whatever function the structure had been built to provide.

Velandryn crossed the bridge, Lydia in tow, and entered the area demarcated by the arches. From up close, certain aspects of the construction jumped out at him, and he found himself increasingly curious about the group that had made this. The arches were free-standing and clearly had some sort of ritual significance, indicating possible Daedra worship, as those cults were most likely to incorporate doorway iconography into their rituals. Magicka hummed around him, and he had a sneaking suspicion that if he were to pull this apart and investigate the underlying array, it would be of the same style as the one he had encountered when first entering the cave. The floor was composed of sections divided by five radial and three concentric troughs. There was a single pillar, roughly waist-high, located at the center of the whole, and several braziers dotted the outer reaches. He checked one; it was filled with what looked rather like a thick purple tar.

"My thane!" Lydia was peering at the central pillar curiously, and Velandryn saw the large dome-shaped trigger as Lydia pointed at it. "I think this is the key!" She reached out curiously.

"Stop!" Velandryn's shout brought his housecarl up short. He peered at it closely, and tapped it experimentally. "I thought so. A blood seal." The small hole in the center through which the spike would rise, and the grating around the edge to drink the resultant blood.

"A blood seal, my thane?"

"It uses blood to fuel magic. I would recommend not pushing down on the button just yet, though doubtless we will have to." He studied the pillar. Whoever created this had designed the entire complex to power the ritual, clearly. The array was inside and underneath the structures. It would have been wholly admirable, if not for that moronic blood seal. "Blood seals are a fool's game. I wonder why they used one here."

"What's so bad about them? Is blood that sacred to you?"

"Hmm? Oh, no, not at all. It's simply that requiring a bleeding wound any time you want to activate an array is idiotic. Either you have to heal yourself up after activating," his hand took in the gloomy arches around them, "this, or you grab an underling and make them do it." He paused, and looked over the pillar again. "Not that we have a choice, though." He might not know what this thing was, but he would never pass up a chance to find out, which meant feeding this thing. Sadly, Adalvald's corpse was drained dry, both thralls and that sword-wielding bloodsucker were piles of ash, and Lokil was likely mostly assorted soot and bones by this point. He grimaced and pulled off his gauntlet.

"My thane, I insist!" Lydia likewise had her gauntlet off, and grabbed his wrist with her other hand. Before he could say a word, she jammed her hand onto the button, and gave a stifled cry and hiss of pain as the spike lanced through her hand.

He pulled her hand away the moment the spike retracted and handed her one of his cure disease potions. "Happy, housecarl?" He healed her hand quickly as she downed the potion, and watched the pillar begin to glow.

"It is my duty to take a wound rather than you, my thane. I would be remiss to allow you to press that button knowing what would happen." She doubtless would have said more, but light exploded from the ground, lancing upward while following a line along one of the radial troughs. She jumped away from the magic, and her weapons were in hand a second later. Disconcertingly, while Lydia's actions had caused significant shifts in the array, he could feel that the vast majority of the ritual had remained perfectly static. The system governing the pillar and blood seal is not only separate from the main function of the device, but is so trivial in comparison that it doesn't even cause a fluctuation in the array. He stomped his foot against the ground experimentally. There was only one type of array he had heard of that used this configuration, and that raised one burning question. If this entire setup is a key-locked vault, what in the name of Azura does it hold?

Velandryn glanced at the light briefly and followed it to the nearest brazier. He nudged it, and the brazier wobbled in place; closer examination showed it to be cleverly set on some rolling mechanism within the floor. "Lydia. Help me move this." Together, they pushed it to the point where the light ended. As it reached that point it settled into a hitherto unseen slot and would move no more. The thick liquid inside took on the purple glow of the light, and the path continued to trace itself out along the floor. Velandryn sighed. "Very well, Lydia, on to the next one."

Some time later, as they moved the third brazier into place, the question that Lydia had been obviously suppressing for some time finally squirmed out. "My thane, why are we doing this? Why not simply tell the Dawnguard what we found and leave this as we found it? Or smash it beyond repair, make it unusable to anyone?"

"All of this, what we can see, what's obvious, it's a lock." The third brazier thudded into place and they moved onto the fourth. "There is something else, something utilizing magicka in a configuration I've never felt before. It's under the central pillar, most likely. And, unless I miss my guess, it's old." Daedric, too, possibly, but he didn't see the need to worry her with that.

"And you want to open it, to see what's inside?" Lydia gave the brazier an experimental shake to make sure it was secure.

"You don't? You aren't just the slightest bit curious to see what we've been fighting for?" The fifth brazier had become stuck in place at some point in its long life; it was a miracle that none of the others had after so long down here. "Besides which, we've earned the right to know. This puzzle is trivially easy, so anybody with a functioning brain could saunter down and open this up. We did the work, now we get the reward." He leaned his shoulder into the brazier, and felt it give slightly. "Some help here?" She joined him at his labor, and the brazier slipped free.

"Well, when it goes horribly wrong, I'll be ready to haul you to safety, my thane."

"It seems you've grasped the first rule of dealing with unknown magical devices. Expect the worst and plan accordingly, and always bring twice as many potions as you think you could possibly need. Once this last piece is in place, I expect something will happen. To be safe, we should probably get out of the way." The moment the final brazier locked itself at the junction of the troughs, they both moved back, taking up positions by the arches well back from the area demarcated by the light.

The light flared up, and the array shifted. "Lydia, something is happening, I can feel it. Something big." She unslung her weapons, and Velandryn readied his hands, flexing his fingers beneath his gloves and letting magicka rise through his skin. Below their feet, he could feel magicka swirling, as some massive ritual that had been operating for untold eras ceased to be. The floor beneath them gave a shudder, and the center segments of the floor descended, leaving the blood seal pillar and the area around it as a five-sided column taller than Lydia. It stood alone and proud in the venter of the violet light. Velandryn approached cautiously, noticing as he did so that it felt as though the array was completely inert. Was that it? Was this its entire purpose? He wished he had studied up on spells to detect the undead. He knew how to sense the living, and there were none but him and Lydia anywhere near, but vampires required more specialized spellcasting to detect. Sadly, he did not have that skill, and would have to find out what—or who —was inside the monolith in a more mundane manner. He reached the pentagonal stone and noted its clean edges and smooth construction. Finely made, sharply hewn, completely unknown. Well, I've come too far to stop now. He reached out and touched the stone. For a moment, he thought he could feel the cold of the age-old monolith through his leather gloves, but that thought vanished as seams appeared in the stone, widening rapidly. A cleverly concealed panel fell off of the pillar and crashed to the ground, revealing a dim chamber. Inside was—

Well, I wasn't expecting this.

She remembered eternity…

Traveling across Skyrim, staying away from the cities but feeling so free beneath the stars and moons, luxuriating in the feel of wind on her skin, of rain on her wings; hunting and racing her mother, almost forgetting why they were doing this. Seeing the chamber for the first time, prepared painstakingly just for her, deep beneath an ancient crypt. Sneaking in, taking care not to disturb the guardians, but savoring the feel of the stone and the play of the lights. Settling in, knowing that she would not remember, would not dream. Her mother had promised her that much, that she would not even know time had passed. The final touch, a brush on her cheek, and a promise to see her again. The first touch in a very long time.

and its end.

There was no thought, no sense of time. She did not sleep, she was. Years, centuries, the rise and fall of nations and the birth and death of heroes passed her by with not a flicker of an eyelid. On her back, the item she carried hummed and sang a song that none with ears could hear, and burned colors that unmade the eyes of those who had the wit to see them. It whispered, too, secrets both terrible and beautiful, but she was not sleeping, and could not hear. Until, from above, a sound. Inert flesh required prompting from the soul, suspended in an array of timeless magic, to pump blood and twitch muscles. Thought came slowly, reason slower still. From without, faint voices. Language she half-understood. And finally, the grind and crash of falling stone. This far below the surface, the air was feeble, but even the slight current in this cavern was more than her skin had known in untold years. She drank the feeling of air moving, though she could not consciously recall being without it. She gave this feeling a long moment more, but knew she must address those who had opened her tomb, and fulfill whatever duty those who had sent for her had in mind. Whether her mother's plans come to fruition or her father tracking her down, she must play her part, as was demanded of a Daughter of Coldharbour.

Serana opened her eyes.

Velandryn had expected a relic, when he first heard about Dimhollow Crypt. Some sort of ancient enchantment or weapon. Once faced with it, once he had heard Lokil's proclamations and seen the chamber for himself, he had begun to harbor a suspicion that what lay down here was a being of some sort, sustained through the array he had felt. This Lord Harkon clearly considered it a prize to be possessed, but he had reserved judgement until he could see it with his own eyes. Now that he had, he felt himself at something of a loss.

The woman was still, looking as though she could be sleeping. Her skin was pale and nearly luminous in the purple light, and though Velandryn had long found the word exquisite trite and irritating when he heard it leave the lips of some poet or merchant, the aspect of her features brought the word to the forefront of his mind. However overused it had become within the markets of Blacklight and Mournhold, it would always be the word that described the lone coda flower rising from the marsh, or the parting of the clouds that let Azura's dawn illuminate the towers of the Great Fane. Perhaps anywhere else it would not strike him as such, but here, after battle and mystery and in this pale violet light cast by an unknown mage long ages ago, her beauty was exquisite.

Her eyes were shut, her full lips pursed slightly, and he did not miss that her chest did not rise and fall. Nonetheless, he was unsurprised when she stirred; when she opened her eyes and regarded them with irises of bright gold, it only confirmed what he had known since the stone fell away.

Lydia was already in motion, doubtless to menace the vampire, extract what information they could, but Velandryn raised a hand slightly and she stilled. The woman watched them for a long second, and then abruptly shrugged and gave an inelegant stretch, craning her neck and opening her mouth experimentally as though roused from nothing more than a long sleep. Her teeth were white and straight, save for the two long incisors that marred the clean lines of her mouth.

"Unnuhh, hokkan istten thoug?" The vampire made no move nor spoke any more, as she seemed to be waiting for a response. A pleasant voice, though.

Velandryn looked at Lydia, who leaned in and spoke in a low voice. "She asked who we are, I think. It's old Nordic. Extremely old Nordic. We had to learn a few words for when we had dealings with any of the Old Clans who came down onto Whiterun Plains."

He considered this for a moment. It was exceptionally rare, in this day and age, to meet anyone who couldn't speak at least some Imperial Tamrielic, but he recalled the hulking Nord who had spoken with the Thu'um when fighting Mirmulnir. He had been of the Old Clans, and Velandryn could well imagine him speaking the harsh tongue of the ancient Nords. This woman, though? How long has she been down here?

He was about to inquire, in as many tongues as he knew, whether she spoke any other language at all when she suddenly spoke, in archaic and only slightly mangled Imperial. "Forgive my rudeness, esteemed slaves, but art thou of the most heretical Dwemer?"

Mother, you liar, you said I would not feel the passage of time. It seemed lying in a tomb with an Elder Scroll strapped to your back would be enough to make one a little sore. She stretched as she pulled herself out of her chamber, luxuriating in the feel of muscles moving beneath her skin. For all that she could not remember any of her time in there and felt no more hunger than she would have after a good night's sleep, her body was reminding her of its long stillness in subtler ways. She could feel her blood, such as it was, pumping beneath her skin, and her breath, though not necessary for her to exist, filled her lungs. Even down here, the air seemed sweet. She was struck by the desire to be above the ground again and see the stars. She knew it was nighttime, a vampire always knew, and the thought of the stars burning in the void filled her with longing. For now though, the present demanded her focus.

Serana didn't know what she'd expected, but it certainly wasn't this. Directly before her stood an elf of a breed she had neither seen nor even heard of, with dark grey skin and harsh, angular features. He was garbed in leather armor that looked as though it had taken a great many beatings, and bore a red sigil like that of a hand upon his breast. He wore a bow slung upon his back, and had the most unusual face, even for an elf. It was perfectly still, save for his eyes, which burned a red that put her uncomfortably in mind of the fires she had once loved to read beside. What is he? He didn't have the look of a thrall, but any free elf out on his own in Skyrim would have to be much better armed, and he did not look a runaway or outlaw. Besides which, the woman, a Nord, stood beside and behind him, in the position of a guard…or a servant. No. No Nord would stand subservient to an elf.

It was all too much to take in, so she had to make it small. Little pieces, little bites. Start with the simple. She focused on the woman, trying to make sense of these two by starting with the easier puzzle. The elf was clearly an anomaly of some sort, but she had seen the woman's type before. Her clothing was ornate metal over furs; clearly she was some sort of lord or great warrior to wear such fine armor. However, she did not have the look of one used to greatness. She could sense the self-righteousness that came with renown, in the subtle movements and tells of the body, and neither of these was a commander or a great hero. The elf carried himself as though he were half a lord, but the woman seemed no more than a soldier. Could she be his guard?

"Umm, who are you?"

It slipped out without conscious thought, and she felt mortified at her first words being something so foolish. However, neither gave any indication that they would answer. Instead, they seemed to be conferring, with the Nord giving advice to the elf. Why would she do that? Who was this elf to be attended by a Nord in such fine armor?

The pieces came together then. Dwemer! She had never seen one in the flesh, but from the stories, it all fit. A strange elf, beneath the earth, accompanied by a servitor in strange and heavy armor, could be nothing else. Perhaps some Nord clan had a deal with the Dwemer of this region, and got armor in exchange for service. He looked nothing like what Dwemer were supposed to, but the Deep Elves were reclusive, and it was not out of the realm of possibility that some of them could be like this dark creature. She had never learned the Dwemer tongue, as they saw little point in teaching any not of their race, but she remembered some of her Aldmeris. She was about to inquire in that language when she recognized a few words of what the Nord woman was saying.

To Serana, the woman's words sounded suspiciously like the Cyrodilic slave tongue. That language was a mangled blend of Ayleidoon, Aldmeris, Nordic and the Nedic spoken by the peoples of Heiroc and Iliac Bay to the west. Serana had only learned it after her transformation, but it had been one of her favorites. Her father had bartered with Ayleid traders numerous times, and would always bring back a piece of human cattle or two for them to feed upon. She had been curious about these strange humans, and learned their language one terrified slave at a time. Now, she could put it to good use. She framed the sentence she intended to speak, and let it leave her lips.

"Forgive my rudeness, my friends, but are you of the most clever Dwemer?"

The elf looked at her for a long moment. His angular face remained still, and she found herself wondering if they had actually been speaking Cyrodilic or if she had misheard. The armored woman looked displeased at something, or else her face just looked like that all of the time. For her sake, Serana hoped not.

"Why do you think I am Dwemer?" The elf's voice was surprisingly low, and had an unusual gravelly undertone that lent his words an odd gravity. He raised a hand. "No, before that, who are you, and why were you sealed away down here?" His words were simple and direct, and she appreciated that, as it had been some time since she had tried to use this tongue. It was coming back to her, but she still had to mull her words before speaking. As she did, she realized that she had called them 'slaves' in her earlier address, and her face reddened.

"I was supposed to be waiting for—well, it isn't important." She was certain neither of them was a vampire, and she didn't want to go spilling her family's secrets to anybody who didn't need to know. "How long have I been down here? Who is the High King?" Why did I ask that? She had only the most superficial concern about the High King, and if much more than a century had passed her limited knowledge of the politics of Skyrim would be hopelessly out of date.

The elf looked at the Nord. "A good question. Once the Nords stop killing each other over that question, I can give you an answer."

Well, some things never change. "Glad to know the world didn't get boring while I was gone. Who's fighting for it?" Again, she didn't expect the names to mean anything, but there had been a hint of humor in the elf's voice when he mentioned the conflict, and she wanted to warm them up as much as possible since she would likely need their help. And questions can do that.

The Nord woman answered first. "The war is about more than just the throne, but Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak of Windhelm has raised his banners for a free Skyrim, and will be High King should he prevail. Jarl Elisif was High King Torygg's wife, and she leads the jarls who have sided with the Empire."

Empire? She supposed that could mean the Nord Empire, but that had been seated in Windhelm, and the woman had mentioned a 'free Skyrim.' The Jarl of Windhelm should be High King, so what had changed? If anyone was likely to rebel, it would be the Reachmen in their mountain holds or the Chimer of the east, who had only recently fallen under the Nord banner. This was all far too confusing. "Empire? What Empire is that?" And how long was I asleep?

The elf spoke now, his words deliberate. "The Mede Empire, successors to the Septim Dynasty. From Cyrodiil."

"There's an Empire in Cyrodiil? And it rules Skyrim?" If there is an Ayleid Empire, little wonder this Jarl Ulfric is rebelling. No Nord would welcome elven dominance.

"How long were you in there?" To the Nord woman, it was clearly an offense of some sort not to know about this Empire.

"Apparently longer than we planned." These two spoke of this Empire as though it was a fact of life, and if an Empire could rise, then certainly the strife between her parents had been resolved. One way or another. Why they had not sent for her, she did not know. Unless… "Why were the two of you down here in the first place?" If they had been sent for her…

"We followed some…friends of yours; people like you." She should not have been surprise that they knew what she was, and did not have to ask what the fate of those other vampires had been. He steepled his fingers in front of his mouth as he continued. "Then, we found you. You speak ancient Nordic as your first language, considered me as Dwemer rather than correctly identifying my race, and used words indicating that you learned Cyrodilic when it was still a tongue confined to slaves of the Ayleids." At that last, the armored woman gave Serana a very strange look. "You are unfamiliar with the concept of an Empire in Cyrodiil, and your first instinct was to ask after the High King as the power in Skyrim." He co*cked his head. "I believe I can tell you how long you were away, if you give me an answer in turn. Why were you sealed down here?"

"For a very good reason. How long was I sealed?" She would not give him the satisfaction of dominating this…conversation, she supposed it was.

"For an amount of time greater than one day and less than the lifespan of the Mundus. What do you have on your back?" His eyes were bright red now, though whether that was a trick of the light or some part of his physiology, perhaps cued to his mood, she could not say.

"Something that is mine. What race are you?"

He snorted. "I am the race that I am. This is getting us nowhere."

Serana had been enjoying herself, but she had to admit that neither one of them was getting the answers they wanted. "All right. One answer for each of us?"

He was silent for a long moment, something he seemed fond of doing. The long pauses were slightly off-putting, but perhaps that was his goal, to throw her out of balance. Finally, he nodded. "Very well. I will answer to the best of my ability, and you will do the same. I swear this by the Three, and I expect you to swear by whatever god or oath you hold."

Do you now? He expected her to swear. It would be an easy thing to choose a random Nord god and make a pointless oath; only Molag Bal had any claim on her soul. However, it felt wrong to do so. He was engaging with her in good faith, perhaps she should do the same. It had been a long time since she had engaged with anyone not of Clan Volkihar as an equal; but these two had freed her, and so they earned that courtesy. "I so swear, by the Mace of Souls." If she used that name for Molag Bal, she might get away without them knowing who she was referring to.

"Then ask." His sudden statement took her aback, not having expected to be given the first question, but she had to know how much time had passed. She did wonder, though, at what point she had lost control of the conversation.

"How long have I been down here?"

He gave her another long, measured look. "To my best guess, somewhere upwards of four thousand years."

Serana felt her knees go weak from shock. She had known, on some level, that it was longer than she had expected, but four thousand? She made a conscious effort not to let her shock and horror show, but didn't know how successful she had been. Impossible. What could have happened? Mother said it would only take—

Mother…oh Lord, what happened?

The elf was watching her impassively, and she almost thought she saw compassion hiding somewhere in those alien eyes. As she composed herself, she straightened and faced him.

"Your turn. Ask and I will answer."

He nodded. "Who is Harkon?"

At the sound of her father's name, bile rose in her gut and panic clouded her mind. She saw his face, bowed and bloodied before the altar. She heard her mother whispering prayers, and her own sobs. She felt the cold of the stone and the warmth of the blood. Her flesh tore, and pain lanced through her once again. No, that is done. It is done with. She steadied herself with a hand on her pillar, only to find herself leaning on it for support.

The elf stepped closer. "I gambled on that question, and now I want my answer. You know the name. Who is Harkon?"

She could not have said why hearing his name affected her so. She had never been overcome like that before. Could her sealing have affected her, made her emotions raw again? She should have been beyond that. Fortunately, the second time she heard nothing. Perhaps it was just the shock. "Lord Harkon is…he's my father. Did you hear the name from the others sent to find me?"

The elf made an affirmative noise. "I don't suppose you'll tell me why you were sealed down here?"

And give away my power over you? She had the elf figured out now. He was the type who could not stand mysteries. He demanded answers, and would dig until he got them. She could handle folk like those. After all, she was much the same. And right now, she was overflowing with questions. However, she could also prioritize, and knew that if her father was sending forces to search for her, then she would have to return. If he knew where she was, her father would never relent until he had what he wanted, and she had no allies to speak of. These two looked to be vagrants or adventurers, and could help her little if she sought to escape or oppose her father. For now, she should return home and take stock of the situation. "I need to get back to my fath– my family. If you help me, I'll tell you everything you want to know."

She had had her suspicions, and the way they processed her decision made it clear that the elf was the leader of this odd pairing. The Nord had glanced at him immediately, and at his nod, had relaxed her stance. Well, relaxed it slightly; clearly she did not trust Serana much. Not that the elf did either, if she was reading him correctly. He held himself stiffly, and she could feel the magicka pulsing through him. She had the feeling that if she so much as sneezed at the wrong time, he would do his level best to turn her to dust. After the backbiting and intrigue of the Volkihar court, however, she was pretty sure she could handle these two.

The elf fell into step beside her as she passed him. The Nord took up position behind them both. To take me down should I prove false? While Serana was fairly certain that she was fast enough to kill one of them before the other could react, she would rather not test that if she didn't need to. As long as they went along with what she wanted, she would leave them be. And perhaps, if the elf is very well-behaved, I'll let him see what's in the bundle. She wondered if his expressionless face would crack at the sight of what was beneath the wrappings in the sling on her back.

"Where is your family's…abode?" The pause before the final word made it clear that the elf originally had a different word in mind. Lair? Coven?

"North and west of Solitude. Is Solitude still a city in this age?" Serana's question spurred the elf to glance at his—what was the armored Nord to him? Her blend of obvious competence and inexplicable deference was puzzling.

"It is. The seat of Jarl Elisif, and the center of Imperial power in Skyrim." Well, that was good. Serana could point them to the right area from Solitude, and she should be able to pierce the wards that hid the castle once she got close enough. She still wanted to know more about this Empire, though that would have to wait.

"Lydia, what is the best path from here to Solitude?" Lydia. So, that was the Nord. In that moment, she realized that not only did she not know the elf's name, but likely neither one of them knew hers. They hadn't known she was down here, so it was unlikely they had a name.

The woman was silent for a moment, clearly thinking over the best route. "Retrieve our horses in Heljarchen, then north along the foothill roads. With any luck, we avoid major Imperial or Stormcloak operations, though I'd wager we run into at least a few patrols. Down into the Hjaalmarch and Imperial territory, and take ship from Morthal to Solitude. We can be on the docks of the city in less than ten days, if all goes well."

The elf nodded. "I'd wager it's nearly morning now. Let's try to be in Heljarchen early, get a full night's sleep, and then be on the road at dawn." He glanced at Serana. "Can you travel by day?"

"I can." The Volkihar were weakened by the sun, but they would not be destroyed by it unless some other blow brought them to the edge of death. A superior breed. If she had to fight, though, she would be little better than a human as long as the sun shone down on her. "But first, I would know your name. At some point I will have to call you something, and I do not think elf is ideal."

"Neither is vampire." He almost smiled, a miniscule lift of the corners of his mouth. "I am Velandryn Savani."

She mulled the name he had given her. Certainly not Dwemer. They had all of their strange z's and k's. This sounded elven, to be sure, and the style was vaguely familiar, though she could not place from where. "I'm Serana." Her own name felt strange upon her ears. For all that she had not perceived the passage of time, clearly it had affected her.

Part of her wanted to ask what his race was, but it was interesting trying to figure it out. His skin was too dark to be Ayleid, Chimer, Altmer or Direnni. She had only ever seen one Bosmer in her life, but this elf seemed far too tall, and he clearly had too much mass to be kin to the whip-thin little mer she had seen. He was not an Orsimer, that much was certain, and while she had never seen one of the legendary Maormer, she had heard that they were so pale that they glowed beneath the moon. The Falmer were extinct, unless some had hidden themselves away and survived the years, and she could not see this dark creature being kin to the Snow Elves. Some elves supposedly lived on far-flung Yokuda, though she knew nothing about them, and while there were rumors of strange furred creatures living in the deserts south of Cyrodiil…

"Is there another way out of this tomb? Your…friends woke a great many draugr above us, and we closed the gate on them. It is unlikely we would be able to make our way back without a very unpleasant fight." His question interrupted her musings, and she had to think back to before she had been sealed.

"Yes. A path to a hidden exit at the base of the mountains. I've never been on it, but my moth—I know it is a way out."

The elf nodded. "We will make use of it. Your mother was wise to tell you of it. Was it her who sealed you down here?" He strode off without waiting for an answer and Serana was left feeling slightly a fool. He figured it out, I need to be more careful. But, he could not resist showing off that he knew. A weakness. His pride, I can use that somehow. These two would get her home, and from there, well, from there she would figure something out.

Lydia was not pleased. As she followed her thane and the woman—the vampire—across the bridge away from the ritual site, she kept both eyes on Serana. Her thane might be clever, but he could be a damned fool when the mood struck him. He coveted secrets and lost knowledge, and this woman was offering him both. He had spent days reading about the dragons because he thought there might be something he could glean from being Dragonborn. Now he had agreed to help this dangerous creature reconnect with more of her kind, and all he had received in return was the promise of secrets. The woman claimed to have been locked down here for millennia, and just like that the Dragonborn was clay in her undead hands. She had known men—and one woman, she admitted ruefully— to do stupid things for a beautiful woman, which this Serana undoubtedly was. However, she had a suspicion that Velandryn's sudden willingness to aid a vampire had nothing to do with a desire to bed her. She had to get him alone and find out what in Oblivion he was thinking. Or if he even was.

Up ahead, Lydia noticed a pair of gargoyles at the top of a stair that led to a down-sloping tunnel which seemed to be the only exit on this side of the cave; she had a sudden urge to smash the ugly statues into tiny pieces. She wanted to pound something; for the last few weeks she had had to hold back when practicing with her thane, and the skeletons, thralls and draugr from before had only been brief, unsatisfying skirmishes. It would feel good to vent her frustration, but she supposed it would make her emotions too obvious. Those two up ahead were playing their little game of secrets, a game for which she knew she had no skill.

Her thane was the first one to set foot on the stair, and the moment he did so both gargoyles shuddered and rumbled to life. They descended ponderously, and Velandryn dodged backwards, thrusting out his hand and pouring flame onto one of them. For her part, Serana was throwing ice that slowed them but did little more.

Lydia had no idea if her grin was showing as she charged forward. Meet me, freaks! As she slammed her shield into the nearest one and pounded its head with her armored gauntlet and sword hilt, she felt the stone-like flesh crack beneath her assault. She didn't know if this was some mage's creation or a Daedra or some creature that lived in dark corners of Nirn. Those were questions for people like her thane to worry about. She was a warrior, and she knew her duty. She kicked the gargoyle away to gain space for another blow, and saw her thane channeling fire and ice onto the other foe's face. It screamed, and the vampire swooped in, her ornate blade cutting into one of the gargoyle's wings and nearly severing it. As the three of them brought the two brutish creatures down, Lydia could feel the battle-lust take her. She wanted more, and she wanted it now.

No. She was better than that. She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. She knew her duty. She would defend her thane, and protect the people of Whiterun Hold and Skyrim. She watched the vampire sheathe her sword and continue onwards. From everything that would harm them.

She might be acting unfairly towards the vampire woman, she knew. Perhaps Serana was innocent and untainted by the crimes of her kin, but Lydia had never seen nor heard of a vampire that, when its hunger rose, would not consume the blood of others to sate were a threat, and she dealt with threats. She watched the vampire out of the corner of her eye; the creature could likely tell where she was by the smell of the blood in her veins. After so long asleep, she was likely to be hungry. Lydia wondered how her thane would handle that.

Velandryn pried a glittering gemstone out of one of the dead foes' flesh, and held it up to the light, turning it this way and that experimentally. He pocketed it, and followed Serana, who was already heading down the tunnel out of the room. Lydia had to be fair; the vampire had spent a very long time in this chamber and had to be eager to be gone. She kept one eye on the vampire, though, and hoped her thane was doing the same.

Serana could see the exit. Her vision in the dark was far better than the mortals,' and even across the huge arena on whose rim they stood, she could make out the cold iron bars set into the stone and the lever that would open their way. She could even smell a hint of the sweet air of the outside. Of course, she didn't need to breathe, but she could appreciate the delicate scents of life and light when they were offered to her. First, though, they had to reach them, and the array of draugr lying dormant around the arena would doubtless pose a problem in that regard. There was at least a dozen of them, and while the ones roaming the halls they had just passed through had died easily enough, the caution with which her two…rescuers…were proceeding made her think that these were of a different type, more worthy of caution. The elf, whose race she still could not figure out, was looking out over the arena, seemingly into darkness that mortal eyes should not have been able to penetrate. He jumped slightly as she slid in beside him.

"What is it?" He did not look at her as he spoke, instead scanning the blackness. Her eyes could make out some sort of huge curved wall in a far corner, and he seemed to be looking in that direction as well.

"Why so cautious? We killed the draugr in the last hall easily." They had been decent combatants, but his fire, her sword work and spells, and Lydia's overwhelming strength had made short work of them. She still couldn't figure out what the Nord woman was; she was clearly the more skilled of the two but her deference to the elf bordered on servitude. For instance, she deeply distrusted Serana, while the elf was at least willing to work with her. However, she had gone along without audible complaint when Velandryn agreed to help her. It was puzzling, but she would figure it out, and then she would have another piece of knowledge. In this unfamiliar world, knowledge was power for her, and she needed all the power she could get. She had considered the possibility that they were lying, that this was all some scheme, but either Lydia was a master of deception, or the Nord woman's ill-concealed mistrust proved the truth of their words. The elf was harder to read, but she did not think he was lying. However, as now, she found herself wondering what was going on behind those strange red eyes. Fascinating eyes, to be sure, but disquieting. She wondered if all elves like him had such eyes, or if he was some unique case. She had certainly never heard of any race of elves so afflicted.

"Most draugr are servants, tending the crypts of their masters. The ones back in the hall, simple enough to deal with. Those down there are lords and warriors, and we must be cautious."

How do you know this? "So, what's the plan?" She wondered how much knowledge she must have missed, sealed away for so long.

He pointed into the gloom. "Over there is a great wall, carved in Dovahzul. We must reach it."

"Wait, why?" Dovahzul? He had already stood, and was clearly preparing to go.

"They will not wake until we will it, if we are adept with our movements. Lydia, far wall, right side. Move quietly. Serana, you too."

"But why?" Her protest was cut off as he began picking his way along the cave wall, but as Lydia moved up beside her, she saw her own confusion writ plain upon the Nord woman's face as well. This unexpected kinship brought her an amusing thought. I'm a Nord too, aren't I? It had been a long time since anything except vampire had been a relevant identifier. She set off beside the other Nord woman.

The wall resolved out of the mist as they got closer, huge and curved, and as they approached the inward side, something very odd happened. Velandryn seemed to go into a sort of trance. He abandoned subtlety and marched up to the wall, extended one hand and reached out to touch one of the words inscribed there. So intent was his focus that when Lydia shook his shoulder, he did not even acknowledge her presence. She shook him harder, but again he gave no sign of awareness. Serana began to grow alarmed. Was there some spell on the wall that she had not noticed, one that had taken the elf's wits? Could this be another trick of her mother's, like the gargoyles that had spring to life when a mortal foot touched the stairs? If he died, or was rendered insensate, she would be stuck with nobody but Lydia to aid her. She had no doubt she could enthrall the Nord, given enough time, but she would prefer not to resort to such crude tactics. So, she too reached in to jostle the elf back to reality. However, before she could touch him, he calmly returned his hand to his side and shrugged free of Lydia's hand.

"Gaan." It was almost a whisper, but she felt something in the air as he the sound left his mouth. It was gone in a moment, and so faint that she thought she might have been merely unnerved by the oddness of Velandryn's actions and imagined it. He turned to face them. "It is done." With no more explanation, he gestured beyond. "It would seem that they heard us." A draugr in a great horned helm was lifting itself from its throne, bracing its weight on a hammer that seemed entirely too large to be carried by such desiccated arms. Once standing, it began ascending the arena steps, while its retinue fell in. Heat blossomed behind her, and she turned to see Velandryn's hands afire. His face was as still as ever, but those eyes…

She shivered, unused to seeing such bloodlust in the elf, and readied herself. The draugr were charging, and she had to admit that these were not only stronger and better-equipped than those they had faced before, but moved with a purpose and menace that the others had lacked. Their leader especially was a terrifying figure, and Serana was suddenly afraid to be any closer to that brute. Those heavy steps pounded up the stairs with shocking speed, and she steeled herself. I am Serana of Volkihar! With a snarl, she leapt forward. She was upon the first of the draugr, and delivered half a dozen cuts in less than a mortal's heartbeat. The first two removed one arm, the third and fourth the other, and the last two pierced its heart and half-severed its head. Still, it managed another step before collapsing to the ground, and in the next moment she realized that her charge had brought her fully into the charging pack of undead. With a hiss, she leapt upwards and back, just as a burst of fire set two of the monsters ablaze. Or was the elf aiming for three?

Once on the ground again, she took stock of the battle. She was far stronger than any mortal and had leapt without thinking, so she had easily cleared the foes and travelled a good ten feet before coming down again. If either of her companions had noticed, they were now otherwise engaged. Lydia was alternating between two draugr, using the gaps in each one's attacks to land blows on the other before parrying whatever came her way with sword or shield. It was an intricate dance in which either sword or shield could attack or defend, and Serana found herself grudgingly impressed with the other woman's skill.

As for Velandryn, if she had not known that he must be the same elf that had interrogated her back in the sealing room, she would never have believed it. He spat fire from both hands with unerring accuracy and kept the draugr at bay as Lydia dispatched them. He gestured towards the mass of draugr around the towering commander with the helm and the hammer, and two of them suddenly began laying about with their weapons, causing chaos among their ranks.

With a start, Serana realized that she had simply been standing there for several seconds, and reached out as Lydia snapped the neck of one of the draugr and pounded it to the ground. When the corpse rose jerkily to its feet, the armored woman moved to attack but stopped at Serana's shout of her name. They locked eyes briefly, and the moment ended when the raised draugr carved a chunk out of Lydia's other foe. She nodded curtly and waded into the melee that Velandryn's spellcasting had caused.

Soon enough, almost all of the draugr were burning, and more than a few were laying indiscriminately into their onetime allies. In the center of it all stood the commander, who had yet to take any action save killing those turned followers who attempted to slay it. Finally, as Lydia cut down another burning draugr and Velandryn gulped down a glowing blue potion, the helmed draugr stepped out. It raised the hammer one-handed, and reached out to snatch a burning sword from one of its dying allies. Looking closer, Serana could see that it was armored as well, and while it was aflame in a few places, it stood tall and strong. Whoever it had been in life, they must have been mighty indeed. Man or woman she could not tell, but it stood a head again taller than Lydia and Serana realized that what she had taken for weak and desiccated arms were in fact bolstered with some ancient magic and corded with muscle. Its eyes glowed blue and as it raised the great maul above its head, they burned. It pointed the warhammer at Velandryn, and shouted forth a battle cry.

"Bolog aaz, mal lirre!" The creature's voice was high-pitched and almost painful, and it punctuated its words with a contemptuous wave of the burning sword.

To her utter shock, Velandryn responded with a scornful laugh. "Hii kendav oblaan, Zaam!" His voice was deeper and harsher than she had ever heard it, and the unfamiliar cadence twisted her gut. With one hand he struck his chest, a grand gesture incongruous with his slight frame and battleworn armor. "Come to me, and I will end your suffering!"

He stepped forward, and the great draugr did the same. Step by slow step, they closed on each other, neither removing their eyes from the other. It looked almost pitiful; Serana and Velandryn were of a height, and the monstrous undead stood nearly two feet taller than either of them. It was holding a maul in one hand and a twisted chunk of burning, half-melted iron that had once been a sword in the other, and seemed fully able to wield them both at the same time. In all honesty, she could not see how Velandryn hoped to win this battle. Yes, he clearly had some skill with magic, but the other outweighed him and was heavily armed besides. She drew her sword and poised herself to intervene if she saw a chance. She owed the elf that much

Then, she noticed that the path to the gate was clear. I could make it while the monster focuses on these two. Lydia would never abandon Velandryn, that much was certain. For whatever reason, she followed him like a trained dog. She might rage against Serana, but three had no more hope against this monstrosity than two. Would it not be better for her to escape, to return home?

She was at the gate, one hand on the lever, when she heard the battle cry. Lydia had maneuvered herself to an elevated position to one side of the mighty draugr, and now she barreled down the stairs at a dead run, shield held out before her. She's going to die. She could see it now. The great draugr would turn and destroy her in a few blows, and then finish the elf.

She turned away, pressed down on the lever, and heard the gate give a squeal as it began to lift. She heard the deep echoing sound of the Thu'um, and knew that those two were dead. If the draugr could Shout, even their slim chance was gone. She couldn't look back, and so she stared at the slowly rising gate.

I'm sorry.

She froze as the thought took hold. She didn't have to be sorry. She could go back now, she could tie her fate to theirs. She might die, against such a foe. It was foolishness. She was stuck, gripped with indecision as the gate rumbled higher. Now, if she so chose, she could duck under it and be free. She could smell the sunlight and taste the wind. She wanted that freedom, more than she had wanted anything in a very long time.

And they had given it to her.

She cursed, and turned back. She bolted forward, not daring to peer into the black. The longer she went without seeing the hopelessness of the situation, the longer she could continue back without the idiocy of her actions hitting home. After a moment though, when she realized that she had to look or else risk bowling headlong into whatever was going on, she lifted her eyes and let her superior vision penetrate the darkness.

To her shock, she saw Velandryn and Lydia evenly locked with the draugr; somehow they had managed to match it. The elf was hurling fireballs, and as she watched he downed another potion. Lydia was countering the draugr's blows, though she was unable to attack in the face of such an onslaught from two weapons. The other woman could counter the blows from the ruined iron sword easily enough, but that maul sent her staggering every time it crashed home. Lydia was slowly giving ground, though the draugr howled each time a fire bolt found a patch of exposed skin.

Serana did not know whether the elf's attacks would allow Lydia an opening before the draugr's dual-wielding madness brought the Nord to the ground. She angled her charge to bring her into range just as the draugr raised its massive maul. Lydia was busy fending off blows from the sword, but Serana had a clear shot at the creature's upraised arm. She knew that she did not look the part of a fearsome warrior, but she had trained at the sword from a young age. Her father had thought it essential that any member of the noble Clan Volkihar be skilled in combat, and she had always loved the intricate footwork and elegant movements of the single-blade style of the Heiroc Bretons. Her instructors had praised her form, but warned her that she would have to practice with ferocious dedication if she wished to become a master, and she never did. However, in the aftermath of her transformation, her slender arms concealed a strength that she knew surpassed Lydia's and put her into the upper range of what any mortal could hope to achieve. Let it never be said there were no gifts given by Molag Bal. So, when she drew her blade and sliced it into the draugr's arm, she heard the crunch of bone and saw the elbow deform horribly as the maul's weight suddenly unbalanced its wielder.

The draugr hissed, and Lydia launched a furious assault, though Serana could see her fatigue in every movement. Had that been all that happened, the draugr might well have prevailed; by dropping the sword and using two hands on the maul it managed to bring the weapon around and drive Lydia to one knee with a blow that would have crushed her chest If not for her shield. However, at that moment Velandryn redoubled his barrage and three bolts of flame splashed on the undead creature. It took a clumsy swing at Serana, but she ducked under it easily and slashed at the arm she had cut before. This time, the bone broke outright, and she followed it up with a backhanded chop, delivered with all of her strength directly at the elbow, and watched the arm come free, fingers twitching madly as the appendage fell away.

The draugr roared as its great maul crashed to the ground. The creature bent down to pick it up, but Velandryn was there, though Serana had not seen him approach. He looked taller than he had before, and in his outstretched left hand he held a blade, single-edged and looking at once rough-hewn and exceptionally deadly. Even a moment in its presence was enough for Serana to know that it was conjured from Daedric energies. The blade parted flesh and bone alike as it swept down, and the draugr's head bounced down the steps and away into the gloom. The body crumpled to the ground, and Velandryn opened his hand, letting the blade fade away. The body tried to lift itself from the ground again, but whatever energy has been sustaining it must have been insufficient in the face of the trauma it had undergone, and it finally laid still. Velandryn ignited his hand, and pulled the backplate of the armor away. His fingers made a dull squish as they dig into the dead meat, and flames flowed out along the body. In no time at all, the sickly smell of burning flesh filled the cavern.

The elf studied his worn gloves. The fingers of the leather looked to be charred as well as stained from the draugr flesh, and some discoloration marred the wrist of one of his bracers. Lydia rose and took up her position beside him. He looked down at the draugr. "The dead should burn." He said no more, seemingly lost in thought. Serana had no wish to intrude, not least because she had been on the verge of abandoning them to die and did not want to have to explain either her departure or her return.

He raised his eyes to meet hers. "I am surprised you are still here." She braced for one or both to attack her for leaving them, but he just shifted his gaze to the opened gate. "The night air is out there, and you have been away too long."

The moment she realized that he was right, that what she wanted was within her grasp, she was gone. She knew she must look a fool, but she no longer cared. She passed the gate and bolted up the tunnel, her lungs filling with air that got fresher with every breath. Magicka came into the world from the void, through Magnus the Sun and the Magne-Ge who were the stars, and she wanted to feel their blessing upon her skin. It has been so long, since I felt the stars. She could not look upon the sun without pain, but she wanted to at least see the open sky above her, endless forever. She did not remember being asleep, but she craved the open air and stars above. Mother, you liar, you said it would be as though I never left. She wanted to see it all, this new world. She saw the light ahead, and felt the subtle shift of magicka in the air. She stood, in the mouth of the cave, and gazed up at the stars. To the east the sky was slightly lighter, and she knew that soon the sun would rise, and with it would come the hiding, and the pain. But for now, there was only her and the sky. Her parents' schemes were far away, and the distrust of her companions was behind her, in the darkness. Now, for this moment, she was free.

Velandryn lifted the great hammer from the ground, and hefted it in both hands. "Lydia, you any good with a warhammer?"

His housecarl gave a short bark of laughter. "Figure out some way to let me use it with a shield, and I'll give it a try." With the vampire having bolted for the outside, Lydia seemed to have relaxed somewhat, and even allowed herself a long drink from the pouch at her hip.

"Come on, let's get going. I want to be gone from here nearly as much as Serana, I'd wager." He started for the exit, and Lydia followed. She had good senses, he had noticed. Without the benefit of either his night-eye or whatever magic Serana used to see in the darkness, Lydia had fared perfectly well fighting by only the light of burning draugr and fire bolts. Of course, she had made a horrifying racket trying to sneak, but he had been so engrossed by the Wall that he had not noticed. That was not smart of me. Of course, it hadn't been the smart part of him that was doing the thinking at that point. Dov had wanted the secret of that message, and had pulled Gaan from those words. He could not understand it or give it meaning, but he felt it tickling the edges of his mind. However, Mirmulnir's knowledge and experience had faded in recent days, and more and more he found himself with Dov and Joor in agreement. When that draugr had belted out its challenge, then Dov had come roaring to the front. He had no clue what he had said, and only half-remembered deciding to challenge the draugr, but he figured that Lydia didn't need to know that her thane, the Dragonborn, was picking fights with undead monsters and then not knowing why. It was the sort of behavior that could erode support for the legendary hero with alarming speed. I do need to see about the Greybeards though. Action without thought was dangerous for any, and doubly so for someone with a power as unstable as the Thu'um. When he had used it against the draugr just now, after Serana had abandoned them for a bit, it had worked, but the backlash had sent him sprawling, something that had never happened before. Interestingly, it had sent him sprawling forward. He recalled its ability to push magicka, and resolved to examine its effects each time he used it. The potential implications were at once frightening and exciting.

"My thane, would you care to explain what you were thinking in agreeing to help the vampire?" Lydia had pulled even with him, and while he had known that he would have to have this conversation, he had hoped it could wait a little longer.

"Look at this hammer, Lydia. It is ebony! A shame you could not use it, but it will fetch a fine price if we sell, or make for a kingly gift." He held the hammer out for inspection and spoke loudly as he walked. Vampires have good vision, they could well have excellent hearing to match."

"My thane?" Lydia's confusion aside, Velandryn wished she would stop saying that. Pre-Alessian Skyrim had been characterized by vicious wars against whatever elves were convenient, and he didn't need the vampire learning that he was a thane. She didn't seem excessively bigoted, but he'd rather not have the issue come up at all.

He stopped at the tunnel, and channeled magicka as night-eye to check that they were alone. "Alright Lydia, now you may ask." Serana was far enough away that he was confident she could not overhear.

"Why are we helping her, my thane? I am sworn to follow, but if you insist on aiding these vampires in their attacks on the innocent—"

"Then you will do your duty, unless you stopped being my housecarl when I made a decision you did not understand!" He instantly regretted the harshness of his tone, and patted her shoulder in reassurance. Why did I say that? Deep within, Dov roared approval at how he brought his subordinate into line."I've not lost my mind, nor am I enchanted by her. I am glad you are wary though."

"But—"

"You are a terrible liar, Lydia." At that, her mouth opened as if to protest, but she just stood there gaping. "If I had told you to welcome the vampire, to make her feel at ease, you would have done your best, but your distrust would have shown through." Vampires were masters of reading emotions, it was said. "She clearly has little to no knowledge of my people—"

"Why is that, my thane? Skyrim ruled over Morrowind while she lived. She should have recognized you."

"My people were the Chimer then. We did not receive this skin and these eyes," there was no promise made, no foul murder committed, "until after freeing ourselves from the chains of the Nords. But, it's good. No Dunmer of true heart would aid the vampire."

Relief blossomed on his housecarl's face. "It was an act, then."

"In part. I do have many questions, and I will gladly play games for her secrets until I have them all." He smiled at the thought of picking clean a brain that predated the Tribunal. "But for now, we have a clear goal."

"Which is?" By the look on her face she had already figured out where he was going with this. Either I am getting much better at reading humans, or I am so convinced of my own cleverness that I tink all others must see it as well.

"These were not some ragged bloodsuckers holing up for the night. Lokil was acting on orders from Harkon, who is that one's" His head nodded towards the entrance, "father. That means organization and a powerful leadership. She was asleep for more than four millennia, and the magic used to seal her was potent, ancient, and Daedric. Whoever these vampires are, they have existed completely undetected in Skyrim for a very long time, and have unknown capabilities. The first step in defeating an enemy is identification."

"So we bring her to where she wants to go."

"Exactly. Continue to distrust her, I will probe for secrets while giving her a few of my own, and sooner or later we will have a location of this home of hers. Perhaps more, if we are lucky. Numbers, resources, plans. The Dawnguard will be interested, and I'd wager Solitude and the Empire would throw a few soldiers and battlemages at the problem if there's a coven on their doorstep."

"And then, my thane?"

He started up the tunnel, hoisting the warhammer onto his shoulder as he went. He would never choose it for battle, but the weight felt good as he walked. "Lydia, they're vampires." He turned to look back at her. "The dead should burn."

Notes:

Dovahzul (Dragon tongue) translations:

"Bolog aaz, mal lirre!" Beg for mercy, little worms!

"Hii kendav oblaan, Zaam!" Your warriors are ended, slave!

"Gaan" Stamina

Chapter 10: Stories

Summary:

A breath of fresh air after too long in the dark.

Notes:

(See the end of the chapter for notes.)

Chapter Text

Hear the words of the Ancestors, and heed the Sermons of Grace, for they are named seven times and seven ways—

VALOR—Thank you for your valor, honored ancestors. I shall not quail, nor turn away, but face my enemies and my fear.

DARING—Thank you for your daring, honored ancestors. I shall not shun risk, nor hide behind the mask of cautious counsel, for fortune favors the bold.

JUSTICE—Thank you for your justice, honored ancestors. I shall be neither cruel nor arbitrary, for fair dealing earns the love, trust and respect of our people.

COURTESY—Thank you for your courtesy, honored ancestors. I shall speak neither hurtful nor harsh word, but shall speak respectfully, even of my enemies, for temperate words may turn aside anger.

PRIDE—Thank you for your pride, honored ancestors. I shall not doubt myself, or my people, or my gods, and shall insist upon them, and my ancient rights.

GENEROSITY—Thank you for your generosity, honored ancestors. I shall neither hoard nor steal, nor encumber myself with profitless treasures, but shall share freely amongst house and hearth.

HUMILITY—Thank you for your humility, honored ancestors. I shall neither strut nor preen in vanity, but shall know and give thank for my place in the greater world.

[This segment of the Hierographa (priestly writings) was first compiled by Archcanon Tholer Saryoni of the Tribunal Temple, and enjoyed massive success as the most popular of the Tribunal Temple's texts. Focused on seven individual graces exemplified by Lord Vivec, it was equal parts moralization and Tribunal propaganda. In 4E 14, during the Reconciliation, the seven graces were recognized to be seven aspects of a singular unifying Grace that drives and elevates the Dunmer people. Revisions were performed with the blessing of the Council of Reconciliation, and also replaced the mention of Lord Vivec with reference to our honored ancestors. These changes reflect the evolving shape of the Dunmer faith, and the new editions of the Sermons have strengthened the unity of the Dunmer community.]

Scrawled in the margins: "Saryoni was a pretentious hack who could had his tongue so far up Vivec's bunghole he could barely speak, but the bastard could turn a phrase!"

Saryoni's Sermons, Revised (published by New Temple as Sermons of Grace) [Annotated text from archived Temple manuscript, scribe unknown]

Velandryn reached down, and the vampire took his hand. With a single movement, he pulled back and upwards, and she rose gracefully to her feet once more. Once there, she turned and stomped off down the slope. He followed, taking longer strides than normal to pull himself even with her.

"You know, there is a story you might be interested in." In spite of what he had told Lydia, he was enjoying himself. She was still a vampire and a menace, of course, and he would likely have to cut her down at the end of this, but there was no reason he couldn't have some fun along the way.

Serana did not turn her head, but her pace slowed slightly. "Oh?" In her position, he would have been desperate for any scrap of folklore or history, no matter how garbled, to glean the shape of this new world.

"A certain…scholar was out for a walk along…the city's wall, late one night. He had seen the stars a thousand times, of course, but every time he witnessed their beauty he was overcome anew. He walked, head back, reveling in the dance of the Lady and marveling at the Atronach menacing the Apprentice. He was so intent on the stars, however, that he soon…erm…fell of the wall and broke his neck." Velandryn had realized, halfway through the story, that there was no way he could end it satisfactorily without first giving Serana a thorough briefing on Dunmer religious belief. As it was, he had to finish the story on a lame note, before the Ordinators and the guarherd got involved.

Serana did turn around then, once he had stopped speaking. "That was a terrible story."

"I know."

"Could you not tell it correctly because it would have revealed information about your people, and given me the answer as to what kind of elf you are?"

"Perhaps, but it would also have made no sense to you."

She stopped walking for a second. Behind them and off to the side, Lydia continued trudging through the snow. "However, you think I should take away from that that looking at the stars is folly?"

"Look all you like, but know where your feet are, whether planted or moving. Or is that not why I had to help you up just then?"

Serana pushed her way onward through the snow, though at least now her eyes were fixed on the path before them, such as it was. They had been picking their way down the hillside for the better part of the past hour, and in the predawn light it could be difficult to tell the difference between shadows and treacherous patches of icy rock or earth. While it was not as treacherous as it had been when they first left the cave, it still required a goodly amount of focus to keep one's feet. A vampire, though, should not have that issue, given that they supposedly had excellent night vision. Unless, of course, they had been a little too focused on the stars.

Velandryn sighed. I suppose I cannot truly blame her. If this was his first time out of doors since the First Era, he would doubtless be just as entranced by every little thing. And it was a beautiful sky, full of stars and slowly changing from the black of the Void to a pale grey. The great moon Masser hung low to the north while pale Secunda was half-hidden by the mountains to their west. No clouds marred the scene, and the wind was blowing crisp and clean. Ordinarily he would be concerned about the cold, or in some other way too preoccupied to enjoy this time. He woke early out of habit, but aside from the dawn itself, he had not, during his time so far in Skyrim, taken in the early hours of the day. Holy hours, of the in-between. Now though, with dozens of potions downed over the last several hours, he was simultaneously feeling so many effects, aftereffects and withdrawals that he wasn't sure he would feel the cold until something actually froze and fell off. So, he kept an eye on his surroundings and enjoyed the walk down the mountainside, a distant throbbing behind his eyes and a touch of lightheadedness the potions' lingering gifts to him.

He could hear Lydia a pace or so behind him, moving at a steady walk, seemingly unfazed by all of the weight she was carrying. The woman was a pack guar, to be sure, burdened by armor and weapons, both hers and not. When he had slipped and nearly lost his balance exiting the cave, unbalanced by the heavy ebony maul he had taken from the draugr commander, she had plucked it from his hands and tromped off, muttering something about being 'sworn to carry your burdens.' It felt strange having the fate of another put in his hands like this, but she seemed perfectly content with her role, and with following his orders. For all that she grumbled, he knew that if she truly had problems with him, she would make herself known.

Now, she nodded companionably when their eyes met, apparently thoroughly enjoying this moonlit stroll down a mountainside. She doesn't even look tired. He was coming to like the Nord woman more than he would ever have thought possible upon their first meeting, and was immensely glad that it was she that had ended up as his housecarl. Dutiful, dangerous, and willing to get hit so that I don't. The ideal Nord. There was no venom in the jab, however; it was more force of habit than anything now, at least when talking about his sworn sword. Or to her.

Ahead, he saw Serana on the lip of a ledge and was struck with an odd compulsion to join her. She was standing still, arms at her sides, staring out fixedly and chewing on her lip. As he approached, she flinched away. Puzzled, he moved closer. "Are you alright?" He felt a moment of genuine worry before he remembered who she was. What she is.

"I'm fine." Her tone was polite enough, but she was obviously upset. He recalled her face when he helped her up, the way her eyes would not meet his and the brusque movement with which she had brushed him off. It struck him suddenly how important this was for her, her first taste of freedom after so long beneath the earth. She had slipped and fallen, something no vampire should do. A small thing, but still…Could it be shame? He tried to imagine being in her was disturbingly easy, for he did not have to reach far to imagine being a stranger among uncomfortable allies.

As they stood there, side by side but far away, Velandryn pondered what to say, or if he should say anything at all. Were she man or mer, he would have tried to bridge the distance between them; were she a vampire under almost any other circ*mstances, they would doubtless be locked in a fight to the death. As it stood, he was at a loss. What did you say to someone who would be an enemy once your time together was done?

And when I slay her, will it do me harm if I was kind?

Courtesy was one of the Seven Virtues and an aspect of Grace. Even if he had to kill her on the morrow, there was no reason to be cruel today.

"My first morning out-of-doors in Skyrim, I woke up wrapped around a campfire." Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw Serana turn slightly. "I was on the road with two soldiers, and we had to camp alongside a mountain path. All three of us were fairly certain the other two hated him, and we were all probably more than a little right. I got second watch, so I find myself sitting there in the dead of night, freezing alive, when I see some red berries poking through the snow, and remember half a lesson on alchemy I heard once upon a time."

"Oh no, you didn't." He had thought of the eyes of the Volkihar vampires as yellow, but in the half-light, hers seemed more akin to gold. "If they're the ones I'm thinking of, my mother called them…ah, how would it be… firebane."

"I found out later they are called snowberries. However, when I ate them and felt what little heat I had suddenly denied me? I did not much care about the name. When my watch was done, the one who took over for me gave me his cloak out of pity, since I had…lost mine. Before setting up camp, of course, I was acting the perfect…mer…puffed up and self-assured so they would not figure out I had no clue what I was doing. I think they might have figured it out when I stuck my hands in the fire to get away from the cold. One of them later mentioned it was 'a fine evening.'"

As he glanced over to her, Serana worked her mouth, hiding what looked suspiciously like a smile. "Just so you know, you're a lousy storyteller."

"Am I? Was there something you didn't understand?"

"Other than the part where you almost told me what kind of elf you are? No, but you just…tell it. There's no flair, no joy in the tale. You need to draw me in, make me want to hear it be told. You had the advantage, that I know nothing of this period. You should have peppered it with tantalizing hints about the soldiers and who they serve. Make every description a sliver of hidden knowledge, and leave me hungry for the rest." She had leaned in towards him as she spoke, caught up in her reverie, but broke off suddenly and returned to studying the scenery. "I get what you were saying though, and I'm glad to know I'm not the only one."

"We rarely are." He was struck again by the oddity of sharing camaraderie with a vampire, but embraced it rather than shy away. It is a noble thing to show courtesy to one's enemies, for it is in fields tilled by strife that virtue thrives. He was fairly certain it was Prelate Gathran who had said it, in one of the meditations on Saryoni. The third? As he tried to remember which of the holy tracts had contained the passage he was thinking of, the sun finally showed itself to the east, peering over the mountains that framed the lightening sky. Light streamed over them, and just as quickly Serana had pulled a hood over her head and a scarf over her face.

He turned to regard in her new wrappings. "You said you could travel by day." He knew vampires shunned daylight, but if she could not have sunlight on her skin or some such nonsense, there would be conflict much sooner than he had anticipated.

"I can, it is just…unpleasant." She said no more, and Velandryn did not ask. Lydia had stopped a ways behind them, apparently giving them their privacy. But not out of crossbow range, I would wager. He had not missed the way that she kept a weapon close to hand at all times, and he was not about to fault her for it. While he doubted Serana would try to attack either one of them, she had been asleep for a very long time, and her hunger could well pose an issue. At the moment, though, there was nothing he could do short of making an ultimatum that could well turn her against him. So, he turned and watched the rising sun.

Azura's grace was encompassed in the rising and setting of the sun. Her power lay in the in-between, in the border between Things that were. Her homilies gloried in the uncertain future and ten thousand shades of grey, and her priests encouraged a healthy inquiry into all things. It had been Azura who had sent the Incarnate, Lord Nerevar reborn, to cleanse the lies of the False Tribunal and restore the Dunmer to the True Path. While some whispered that she had been greatly weakened by Vivec's treachery, all agreed that she was the guiding light of the Dunmer, and the most benevolent of the Triune gods. Boethiah might cherish the martial and uncompromising spirit of his people and Mephala surely took joy in the cunning and secret wisdom they displayed, but it was Azura alone who loved them for the beauty of their souls. While he acknowledged all three of the Triune equally in his meditations, at this moment more than any other, the instant of the broken dawn, he could feel the love of the Twilight Queen.

"You're Chimer, aren't you?" Her words caught him in the mid-thought, and he could only look at her dumbly, hoping his surprise was not too visible. She wasn't fully correct, of course; there had been no Chimer for four thousand years, but she was as close as one could reasonably expect given her knowledge. He had to admit, he was grudgingly impressed.

After a heartbeat, he found his voice. "What exactly gave you that impression?" Of course, there was no need to make this easy, or show any more cards than he was sure she knew that he was holding. Whatever this was, it was a long way from friendship.

"It was simple, once I realized I had been approaching the problem wrong. I was trying to figure out what you were based on appearance, and conforming my guesses to that framework. Once I stopped factoring in your look, it all started to fit. You clearly expected me to be able to figure out what you were, meaning that your people and the Nords had some contact thousands of years ago. If you were some sort of strange elf from abroad, you would have responded differently. More importantly, you acted like a Chimer, once I let myself see it. Proud, determined, insistent on your right to pursue your goals. You are skilled at magic, but show signs of martial aptitude, and, most importantly, are extremely well versed in Daedric summoning. That blade you used against the draugr was superbly realized, which either indicates a high degree of mastery or an exceptionally adept connection to Oblivion. The Changed Elves worship Daedra. That's why your people left Aldmeris, right?" She had turned away from the dawn, and was talking slower now, ticking off points on her fingers. "Given the way you use spells, you are at best a skilled amateur at battle magic, but you have experience with spellcraft, meaning a culture that focuses on use of magic as part of life. Again, though, that could be many elven cultures, especially since it's been four thousand years. Then, then you said one word, and that did it." He had only to see someone's eyes to know if they were laughing; inside she must have been roaring with mirth. "You said you were acting the perfect…and then you stopped. You said self-assured was the watchword, the thing that would have been typical of your people." She paused, and then continued. "I once saw a Chimer brought before my father. She had been captured in some battle during the conquest of Morrowind, and somehow had made her way to us. We fed on her, of course, but I'll never forget how she raged. Not for the capture, or the feeding, but for worshiping Molag Bal. She invoked 'The Three;' I still remember that. A face, contorted with rage, screaming that we would be brought low by Azura and our plans would collapse, that we worshipped the weakness and would burn in the face of strength. You reminded me of her, in some way I cannot quite identify. Also, you use fire more than normal, both in magic and in your speech. Chimer are attracted to fire, everyone knows that."

Let the soul of the faithful be borne to the Far Realms, she who died shouting truth to the face of the sharmat. "A weak case; no arbiter would convict based on such evidence, though you are not wrong. You should know, your nameless Chimer was right. Molag Bal is to be respected as a cunning foe, but he should not be worshipped."

She leaned in. "Okay, I'll argue with that later. But you are, you're Chimer? What, what happened to you? Were you cursed? Were you born like that?"

Velandryn smiled, a human one, letting his lips curl up. No teeth, no intimidation, just smug pleasure. "Now that is a good story. I hope you have something to offer in return." He had an idea about what that could be, as he was growing more and more curious about that bundle on her back. For now, though, he left their perch and continued trudging down the slope. "Lydia, how far to Heljarchen?"

"Maybe three hours, maybe more, my—"

"Good, I look forward to a hot meal." He slightly regretted interrupting her so rudely, but he would prefer that Serana not learn he was a thane just yet. Truth be told, he did not care overmuch that it be kept secret, but she had figured out the essentials of his race from a few dropped words, and that stung. He would be damned if he gave any more of himself up so easily.

It turned out that Lydia's estimate of 'maybe three hours' to Heljarchen was wildly optimistic, and 'maybe more' was putting it mildly; Serana saw the shapes of the structures from afar around midday, and it was early afternoon before they entered the town proper. Well, as much as Heljarchen could be said to have a 'town proper.' An Atmoran totem-stone stood tall and solitary in the middle of an open space; Serana could discern Bear, Fox, and Dragon upon its weather beaten face. It was surrounded by a dozen or so buildings, only one with a second story, and that seemingly a barn of some sort, given the hay visible through the open door. Everything was made of stone and wood, and the roofs looked to be nothing more than packed earth and thatching; efficient building materials, no doubt, but dreadfully boring. A part of her had been hoping for something exotic, given how long had passed and the oddities of her companions. This town, though, would not have been out of place in her father's lands before she had left. And the people looked little different than she remembered, wearing rough, sturdy clothing and carrying well-made but simple tools. If Heljarchen was anything like her father's towns, there would be a smith responsible for those tools, while other trades were worked part-time by villagers who had inherited the responsibility or shown a particular aptitude. Everyone worked the earth, with the fields and resources belonging to all. As they had passed through the fields surrounding the buildings, she made note of the people: Nords to the last, barely unchanged from her day. And so things change a little, but mostly stay the same.

Velandryn made his way towards a building built more solidly than most; a squat drum of heavy stone was pressed up against an exterior wall, tools and mechanisms scattered around it. This had to be the forge, and though she could not see any fire, she could feel it even through the walls. Vampires were sensitive to heat, and the amount it radiated made Serana a bit queasy even at this distance. A man in heavy leathers was working metal on an anvil, but he looked up as the three made their approach.

"You return." The smith's words were short, and Serana got the feeling he was the sort of man who preferred spending his days working rather than talking. She had grown into the habit of noticing the necks of those she encountered, and this man had enough thick muscle cording his that she would have a devil of a time working her way to the blood.

"Yes. Our horses?" Clearly, Velandryn was not in the mood for conversation either. Or, she amended, he recognized his partner's desire to have this done with.

"Fed. Watered. Ready to ride. Only needs coin." He held out a huge hand expectantly.

Velandryn looked down at it. "I paid you, and well. We agreed upon payment for two days, and that comes this evening." He pulled out a handful of coins, and selected three. "This should be enough. I will come for them in the morning." He began to stride away

"Elf!" Velandryn turned at the Nord's shout, and Serana could see the blood pulsing in his neck. Clearly not his favorite way to be called. "You pay well, elf, but you talk too big. Have respect, or you might regret it." With that, the burly man returned to his work.

Serana drew even with Velandryn as he walked towards the one of the buildings around the totem-stone, a broad structure that might have been the common-house. He seemed all right, if not overjoyed at how the conversation had ended. "Not much changes, does it?" His voice was wry through its low tones and accent. "Would it have been the same in your time if an elf stood up for himself?"

"In my time?" She tried to imagine what would have happened to a free elf who had come through her father's lands and not shown the Nords deference. "You would not have gotten the warning."

The common-house was too warm, and the cold firepit in the center of the single room would doubtless fill the air with smoke when lit. However, there were a half-dozen beds arrayed around the edges, and everything seemed clean enough to spend the night. Clearly, that was what her companions had in mind, and she had no grounds to argue. By the sound of it, they had been travelling and fighting for the past two days, and even she would be fatigued after that. These mortals must be dead on their feet. She had no need for sleep, and would not spend her night indoors, but she would at least let the Nords of this place see her bed down before making her departure. There was no need to arouse suspicion.

With a groan, Velandryn eased himself onto one of the beds and stretched himself out. Lydia was unslinging her weapons and strange metal armor, arranging them by her bed with alarming speed and precision. The ebony warhammer stymied her for a moment, but she eventually propped it up behind Velandryn's bed, an action which caused the elf to blink and murmur tired acknowledgment. After that, the Nord woman, now clad only in a tunic, leggings, boots and a dagger in her belt, moved towards the door. After a moment's thought, Serana followed, pulling back on her hood and scarf before leaving the room.

She caught Lydia at the totem-stone. The Nord was looking up at the carvings, face still and thoughtful. "Your people still hold to the old gods of Atmora, I see."

Lydia shot her a look of pure surprise. "No, no, not our gods. Those there, they're," she gestured helplessly, "traditional. Hang a wreath on the stone at New Year's Turning and build a pyre beneath it on Ysgramor's Day, but worship? Maybe you ask Moth for her beauty or Dragon for his strength, but nobody really takes it seriously. Some might in the high hills, but Heljarchen isn't remote enough for that, I don't think." She looked around them with new suspicion. "At least, I don't think so. I hope not. Most Nords aren't like that. We hold to the Nord gods, or the Imperial ones, or maybe just Talos."

"Ah." In her day, the Nords had worshipped their own pantheon, though this Talos was unknown to her, as were these Imperial gods. She knew there was an Elven pantheon, but she could hardly imagine the Nords choosing to worship elven gods. The Empire again. She had to learn more. Perhaps Lydia would serve if Velandryn will not. By the look of things, she was not so guarded with her answers as he.

"So, Lydia, how do you feel about all of this?" If she was going to get the woman to open up to her, it was best to clear the air between them. "About helping me, even being what I am?" She could read body language very well, and Lydia's was very clear.

"I think it is dangerous. I think you are dangerous. If you wanted, you could do great harm, and I am not certain we can trust you." Well, at least she is honest.

"And you couldn't do the same? I've seen you swing that sword. If you took it into your head, you could kill half the village, maybe more, before they could stop you." Not the best way to gain her trust, Serana.

The other woman blushed. "I would not—such a thing is unthinkable!"

"And you think I would just murder innocents? Do you think so little of me that you are worried I will slaughter these people?" Part of it was an act to put Lydia on the defensive, but it still hurt that this woman, whom she had never wronged, sincerely thought she would kill these people for no reason After Velandryn's gesture when she had fallen, she had hoped for more from his…whatever Lydia was.

Lydia's eyes narrowed. "If you hungered, if you needed their blood, wouldn't you feed from one of them? I know what you vampires call us. Cattle, you say. We are beasts to you." Her voice was low, but Serana still hurriedly checked their surroundings; her being revealed as a vampire would make their time here far more eventful than she wanted.

"Keep your voice down!" Lydia had the grace to look the tiniest bit abashed. "And no, I wouldn't. I won't die from lack of blood, but I will lose some of my good humor." She smiled wryly, a gesture Lydia did not return. "I'm not going to go hunting here, though. Believe me or not, but even if nothing else, consider how foolish I would be to sabotage myself like that. I'm not—" Suddenly, she lost all desire to speak with this woman any further, no matter what information she could get from her. She stalked away, wanting to find someplace quiet, somewhere she wouldn't have to deal with Lydia, with mortals.

In the mountains dusk came early, and the light manifested in magnificent hues as the sun fell. She stood beneath an ancient mountain pine in the sparse forest beyond the town, just…experiencing… the changing light and shadows. She didn't want the sun directly on her skin, of course, but she had always loved the play of sunlight, especially through trees. She had heard stories of the great forests of the south, and one day she wanted to walk through a forest, with trees all around, huge and green and beautiful. She wanted to swim in Lake Ilinalta like the Lady Erendis had when she had been forced to choose between love and duty. Her father's lands had never been green, and while she could appreciate the beauty of Castle Volkihar and the lands it had ruled, she had always dreamed—

No. She was a child no longer, she had an obligation to her family. She had to find out what had happened, to return home and help her family heal. And if they haven't? If her father and mother were still at odds, what then? She had not been certain of her mother's plan, nor even why it was so important that she be sealed away. Valerica had whispered fiercely of it being for her own good, and that her mother would come for her when the danger had passed. And if it hasn't? But what was the alternative? No, she had to return to her family, to her people. A vampire alone in her time had been doomed, and she doubted it was any different in this age. Certainly not if Lydia had her say. Once more she gave thanks for Velandryn's willingness to help her, though she could not help but wonder at that as well. The Chimer had never loved vampires. Maybe he is simply kind. There was no way to know. For now, she simply had to travel with them, and keep her eyes open. She stayed that way for a while, letting the sun and shade paint pictures just for her.

She began to make her way back to the town as the shadows lengthened further, leaving the forest as the light changed to gold and then slowly took on tones of pink. For a moment, she wanted to feel the sunlight on her skin, wanted to grit her teeth and bear the pain, to pull down the hood, unwrap the scarf, and be a part of the colors around her. She considered it, for all of an instant, before hurrying on. It would not do to arouse suspicion. She pushed through the evening wrapped in armor, safe beneath clothing and hood from the temptation around her.

As she drew even with the outermost buildings of the town, she saws someone out of the corner of her eye, a figure in an ashen tunic with grey skin that looked almost blue in the waning light and deep red hair pulled back and tied with a cord. As she turned and stared full-on at his back, she realized that it must be Velandryn Savani. A second look eliminated her surprise at not having recognized him sooner. This was her first time seeing him out of his armor, after all, and with his back turned, no part of him that she knew save his skin was visible to her. He was facing slightly away from her, gazing up at the mountains. A sunset, this time, instead of a sunrise. If he was some type of Chimer, then it was not surprising. They had worshipped Azura, after all, and these were her holy hours. Half of him was cast in shadow, and the overall effect was oddly chilling. As she approached him, she saw his face, and the way the light cast his strong elven features into relief. A grim face, but strong. The dying light caught his eyes and they seemed to glow. His hair and skin combined with those eyes to give him the look of some Daedra sent from Oblivion, of something not entirely of this world. He looked, not angry, but as though he would command the world to kneel, and cut it down if it would not. He looks…

She shook away the words that came to her and called out to him instead. He turned, and the spell was broken. His hair and eyes were simply red, and his face just a dark-skinned elf's. If anything, he looked less alien than usual; clearly an afternoon of sleep had done him some good.

"Is this how the vampire behaves; to go out by day, and return by night?" From Lydia, those words would have been the prelude to an attack, or filled with suspicion, but Velandryn sounded genuinely curious. She recognized, though, a certain look about his eyes that made her think he might be laughing at her. At least he's quieter than Lydia when he calls me a vampire. His voice carried surprisingly well when he wished it, but right now anyone who could overhear would have to be within a few paces.

"My kind have to adapt. I can sleep at night and endure the day, if I must."

"Fascinating." She had the odd feeling that he wasn't just saying that, but that he had actually tucked that information away, to be used when needed. Against me? "You are a Volkihar vampire, though?"

She nodded, as he was correct in more ways than he knew. One of three, and all others sprang from us. She had never sired, leaving that to her father. He had selected the fiercest and hardest of those who had come to them in the aftermath of the ritual. "Was that in doubt?"

"I have seen several of your kind now, and an inconsistency bothers me." He gestured at her face, mostly hidden until the sun vanished fully. "Those we fought in Dimhollow had their faces deformed, easily marked as different. You, aside from the eyes, appear human. Why?"

She knew why, but had no desire to reveal the secrets of her clan. "And what can you offer me in exchange for such knowledge?"

He shifted. "The story of my skin, and eyes, though if you are offering secrets in exchange I also want to know what is in the bundle you keep on your back."

She didn't want to give that up, but neither did she want to deny him the knowledge. He was the closest thing she had to an ally in this place, after all. "How about, I tell you what is on my back, and then after you tell me your story, I will show it to you and answer your questions."

"A bad deal. For no more than a name, you would have my entire history?"

"I promise, once you know what it is, you will want to hear the rest. You are getting the better end of this deal."

He gave her a long look. "Done. Something has felt off around you for some time, though I did not notice until recently. I think the answer lies in that bundle. Whatever it is, it has power."

"More than you know."

He clapped. "Then we have a deal. But first, we will go back to the common-house. I have grown more used to Skyrim's…fine evenings, but I have no desire to spend time out-of-doors after sundown."

As they headed back, he gave her a quizzical look. "You might not know the answer to this, but where do the people in this town gather? There is no tavern or inn here, no gathering place."

She laughed. "You've spent all your time in cities, I'd wager? This place is so small, everyone knows each other, knows their business. You drink at your friend's house, and the next night you return the favor. These people mind their business, leave well enough alone, and like it that way. When their lord comes by, they'll put him up in the common-house and feast him, but other than that they've no need for visitors. We're an odd group to them, I'd wager, so they'll leave us be. At least, that's how it was in my time."

"Hmm. Some things never change, and Nords will hold to tradition. An odd arrangement. So who controls the town?"

"They argue it out when a decision must be made. For major issues, they obey their lord. Who rules this town?"

Velandryn shrugged. "Whiterun, maybe, or Pale—Dawn—Star? Dawnport perhaps? No, The Pale is the hold, but the city of the jarl is Dawnport, I think. Or Dawnstar. Either way, Heljarchen is trivial. And since it is both remote and on the edge of a contested area, I'd wager the tax collector is the only evidence of a jarl that they see."

Tax collector. She knew what it meant to collect, but she did not know the word tax. When she asked, he looked genuinely surprised. The trick was his eyes. He showed as much as any human, if you watched his eyes. "Taxes. Collection of money by the ruler or government, standard practice everywhere, as far as I am aware. How did lords collect from the people in your time?"

"Tribute, of course." She half-considered changing her demand to the Empire's story instead of his own. Only for a moment, as she could doubtless get that story from anyone, while Velandryn seemed to be a more special case. It had not escaped her notice, however, that the Nord smith clearly knew enough about Velandryn's race that he was not worth mentioning as more than an elf; he was not some anomaly then.

"Interesting. I would imagine that the word tax was not a necessary part of the slave language you learned. One of the empires likely introduced it as part of their financial reforms. Not my area of expertise, I am afraid." He paused for a moment. "I am impressed. That was the first word you have needed to ask for help on."

He was right, she realized, and it shouldn't have been that way. She was good at languages, always had been, but this was a degree beyond anything she had ever accomplished. She filled in context without thought, and had adapted to the patterns of what was a very different dialect with shocking speed. Why? She pushed the question away; she could afford to be distracted later.

They had reached the common-house, and Velandryn pushed open the door. Lydia was within, wiping down her weapons and armor with a scrap of cloth. She inclined her head slightly in their direction, and then returned to her work. One of the tables held a spread of food and three place settings; Velandryn slid onto one of the benches and motioned for Serana to do the same. He ripped off a chunk of bread and slathered it with butter. "Now, for our deal. What are you carrying?"

She took a deep breath. This was it. Her mother had given her the scroll for safekeeping, and warned her of its rarity and power. The moment these two learned of it, it would be out of her control. They could tell others, or try and take it for themselves. Trust. She needed to trust them. No, she needed to trust Velandryn, as he could likely keep Lydia in line. And his greed, his passion for knowledge, that she could rely upon. "It's—it's an Elder Scroll." No turning back now.

She had expected incredulity, but Lydia's sudden burst of laughter shocked her. "I'd wondered when she'd begin lying to keep your interest, my thane!" Thane? Velandryn is a thane? How did an elf— She spun to see Velandryn staring at her, the intensity in his eyes making her skin crawl. He remained motionless, and then his eyes flicked down, staring at a patch on the table. Or rather, staring through the table, to where the scroll had slipped, low-slung on her back.

"She speaks the truth, Lydia." His voice was perfectly measured, and in fact he appeared at first glance the very picture of serenity. However, his eyes were still boring through her, and the silence as Lydia's laughter died off left a void that felt terribly uncomfortable.

"I have told you, now you tell me. What are you, if you aren't Chimer? What is your story?" She had misjudged him, she realized. His passion meant he coveted secrets, but now she feared he might tear her apart to get at the scroll. If I can get him talking about himself, that's my advantage.

He nodded. "That was the deal." He spoke slowly, each words dragged from a mouth that barely moved. "I will tell you, though you must forgive me if I seem…distracted." He gave his subtle smile, an almost imperceptible twitch of the lips that did not change the look in his eyes. "So, where to begin?"

She wasn't sure if he was asking rhetorically or not. "At the beginning?"

Lydia groaned. "Now you've done it."

Velandryn smiled again, and she thought he might actually mean this one. "The beginning. It all began with Veloth, of course—"

"I know about Veloth. He led a group of renegade Aldmer. They practiced Daedra worship instead of traditional elven religion, and became the Chimer." She had learned that much in her studies, and wouldn't let him waste her time with the parts she already knew. This close to the secrets she had been wondering about all day, she wanted them now.

"Half true, but I will save the lecture on Padomaic deviations from Aldmeri doctrine for another time." He pushed the bench back, leaning his back against the wall of the common-house, and spoke in between swallows of meat, bread and water. "Veloth led his followers, who took to calling themselves the Chimer, Changed Elves in human tongue, east to Morrowind, where they encountered another group of dissidents from the Aldmer, the Dwemer. You are familiar with them, yes?"

"As much as any human." They had always been mysterious, but she had loved the idea of their hidden cities and knowledge, and longed to walk their halls and learn their secret crafts. Now, perhaps—

"The Dwemer were not well pleased to see the Chimer arrive. There were basic conflicts in worldview, and while the Chimer were not the most populous people, the Dwemer were even slower to reproduce. The Chimer spread into every corner of their new land, and within a thousand years had fractured into innumerable quarreling tribes and houses. Each chieftain was concerned only with his own prestige, each warlord with her own glory. They fought not only each other but the Dwemer as well, not to mention the numerous Nede and Orc war parties that came their way. We have some evidence of conflict with the Falmer of Skyrim, though their eventual extinction at the hands of your people put an end to that. We fought the Ayleids from time to time, the Akaviri and Atmorans when they bothered to land that far east, the Nords once you settled in Skyrim, and the Argonians when they left their swamps."

"Wait, Argonians?" She had never heard of these. She knew of all of the others, though she had never seen any of the legendary Akaviri, denizens of the mysterious continent to the east.

"The lizards of Black Marsh. You do not know them?"

"No, nor Black Marsh. Where—"

"South and east, the far corner of Tamriel. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; they are a reclusive people for the most part, and had no reason to come this far north." He looked thoughtful for a moment, but continued. "Anyways, the Chimer were fractured and leaderless, so when the Nords united under whatever High King—"

"It was Harald who united us, and Vrage who conquered you." She recalled that much, the High Kings who had ruled from Windhelm.

"Yes, well, it was simple for a unified people to subdue a fractured one. The Chimer lords were made to bow, the Dwemer abandoned the majority of their surface holdings and fortified the entrances to their strongholds, and Nords poured into the country, claiming the choicest bits of land for themselves and demanding tribute where they pleased. A thousand petty lords sprang up, and many Chimer as well were happy to exploit their own people for their new masters. At the end of the chain, holding the leash, were the warlords, the Tongues of Skyrim, warriors and jarls gifted with Thu'um."

She knew of them. She had never actually seen a Tongue, but their stories were legendary. She had known that they ruled Morrowind, though she had never really given thought to the lives of the Chimer under them. "It didn't last."

"No. The Nord Empire suffered a succession crisis. A second son, or a brother, or something. I don't actually recall."

"Neither, actually." Lydia sat herself down at the table, and helped herself to a portion of the food. "The prospective High King was controversial, and the jarls could not agree on a successor."

"Right. Well, this did not go unnoticed by the Chimer, and one in particular took advantage. He was a war leader of the unremarkable House Indoril, a general by the name of Nerevar Mora." Serana felt a shiver run down her spine at the tone in his voice. Reverence, bordering on worship.

"He freed the Chimer?" She knew her question was hardly insightful, but this clearly had great significance to Velandryn, so she would let him tell the story as he wished, and ask the right questions. For now.

Velandryn sat forward and leaned his elbows on the table, hands clasped before him. "Eventually. His genius lay in the forging of alliances. He knew Morrowind stood no chance against the Nords, even distracted by matters in Skyrim, unless the entire province stood together. He married the Lady Almalexia, leader of House Indoril and inheritor of a bloodline that could be traced back to the days of Veloth, securing legitimacy in the eyes of the nobility. His shield-companions were Alandro Sul and Voryn Dagoth; each brought prestige and weight to his cause. Alandro Sul was called the Son of Azura, and was a hero of the nomadic Ashlanders, Chimer who had never fully submitted to Nord rule. Voryn was of the ruling family of House Dagoth, never numerous but renowned for their ferocity in battle. With those two came their armies, and the love of the warlike and restless among the Chimer. His other advisors were Vivec, a clever mer of unknown history, and Sotha Sil, who is said to have tutored Nerevar in his childhood. Finally, and most improbably, he reached out to Dumac Dwarf-Orc, King of the Dwemer."

"The Dwemer have city-states. There is no 'King of the Dwemer,' I know that much." Serana might not know this new world's history, but if Velandryn wanted to make grand claims, she would keep him honest.

He shrugged. "In Skyrim, in your time, perhaps not. In Vvardenfell, Dumac had control of enough of the Dwemer that his alliance with Nerevar insured their participation in the uprising. Some doubtless refused, as did some among the Chimer, but they were a negligible part of the whole, and matter little to this story. Regardless, the Chimer and Dwemer rose, united for the first time, to free their homeland. Nerevar was named Hortator, supreme war leader of the Chimer, and threw the Nords into chaos, engaging the Tongues in a series of battles that ended at Red Mountain. The Nords were pushed back into Skyrim, and for a time Nerevar and Dumac ruled their peoples and kept the peace in their united nation of Resdayn. Until Kagrenac. Until the Heart of Lorkhan."

He spoke with solemn gravity, but his words were largely lost on her. "Very interesting, though I don't suppose any of this will actually explain why your skin is that color? Are you half-Dwemer?" She wondered how he would take that, but her interest in his people's history could not be sustained as he buried her under a slew of names that were completely unfamiliar to her. And the Heart of Lorkhan? Whatever relic he was referring to was surely unworthy of such an auspicious name. Lorkhan had created the universe; for good or ill, his was a legacy unrivaled.

"Very well. I will skip over the centuries of peace, and tell you of the Second Battle of Red Mountain. Are you familiar with Red Mountain?"

She was. It dominated the landscape of Morrowind, and rivaled the Throat of the World for height. When she said as much, Velandryn actually chuckled, a low laugh that might have been the friendliest sound he had yet made.

"A point of contention between our peoples, I think. Everybody wants to have the highest mountain. Well, once, at least…" he trailed off and she waited for him to continue. In spite of her earlier thoughts, she did not hate his story, and had learned much from it, about the fate of Skyrim as well as his people. "Kagrenac was Dwemer, and far cleverer than he had any right to be. He found something beneath Red Mountain, a massive heart without a body, beating with tonal resonance, and recognized it as the Heart of Lorkhan, the echoing beat of the Doom Drum that was torn from his chest after he tricked the gods and turned them into our world. Somehow Kagrenac had found it, and with it he devised the greatest heresy any mortal has ever conceived. I will speak no more of it here, save to say that his plan required tools, tools aligned to the tonal resonance of the heart. Do you understand the significance of Tonal Manipulation?"

"It is a Dwemer craft. They use Tonal Magic to shape their creations."

"Correct, or correct enough for our purposes." He looked as though he wanted to say more about it, but returned to his earlier point. "Kagrenac created three tools, a hammer, a sword, and a gauntlet. All were attuned to the heart, and with them he planned to create Numidium, the Walk-Brass God." He fell silent again, and Serana waited for him to continue. Finally, she decided to try and prompt him.

"And? What was it? What happened with it?"

He sighed, and closed his eyes. "We don't know, not fully." He opened them again. "Bits and pieces survive, and those are bad enough. We have accounts from four sides of the conflict, and half of them contradict the other half. More troubling is the substantial evidence that all of them are true. I am not going to go into details now, as it is irrelevant to my final conclusion, and, as importantly, touches on matters of divine metaphysics that I am uncomfortable discussing with a vampire."

He shook his head and took a sip from his mug before continuing. "We know the Nords invaded Morrowind at that time, and were driven back, and that the ghost of Wulfharth, the Ash-God-King, was scattered and destroyed. We know that prior to the battle, the Dwemer were a force to be reckoned with, but by its conclusion, every one of them had vanished from the Mundus, never to be seen again. And, we know that Nerevar Indoril did not survive to see his people victorious."

"This was the story told by the survivors. Vivec, Almalexia, and Sotha Sil returned from the battle at Red Mountain wielding power such as none among the Chimer had ever seen. They spoke with words that echoed in dimensions beyond comprehension, and moved in ways that mortals could not. They told the Chimer that Lord Nerevar had, with the blessing of Azura, utterly destroyed the Dwemer and the heretic traitors of House Dagoth, though he himself did not survive. The three survivors, the Tribunal, had become gods, chosen by the Triune of Good Daedra to lead the Chimer into the future, as a reward for their strength and determination. As they spoke these words, our skin turned to grey and our eyes to burning red. The Tribunal told us it was a blessing to mark their apotheosis. And the people believed them. When they went forth, they were heralded and worshiped, and ruled undisputed for three and a half thousand years. We took the name of Dunmer, the Dark Elves, victorious in a far corner of Tamriel who had chosen our destiny and resolved to face it full on. So the Tribunal told us, and so we believed."

He had fallen silent, but it was the pregnant silence of thought, not of completion, and Serana was quiet as well. This was too much information for her to process all at once, but it made sense. Well, in a way. The fact that Velandryn was Chimer—no, Dunmer, she reminded herself—was unsurprising. As she had told him that morning, he acted like one of them any way you looked at it. The Dwemer being gone was…well, to be honest she didn't know how to feel about that. She would like to have met some Dwemer, but their disappearance did not affect her much for the present. As for the rest, well, it clearly held great significance for Velandryn, but it meant little enough to her.

Suddenly, Velandryn slammed his fist down on the table and burst out angrily. "We were lied to!" immediately he regained his composure, and continued. "The Tribunal stole their power, and killed Nerevar so that they could rule. Our change wasn't a blessing, it was a promise from Azura, who loved Nerevar and would not forgive the traitorous actions of the Tribunal. She swore to have her vengeance upon them, and we, the Dunmer people, were the bearers of that truth. As gods, the Tribunal tried to erase their guilt, but Alandro Sul witnessed their treachery, and brought the truth to the Ashlanders. For three and a half thousand years my people served false gods, unknowingly bearing the curse of Azura upon our flesh and in our eyes. She changed us so that we could serve as eternal reprimand to the Tribunal, a reminder that she would not forgive and could not forget. And when she made good on her promise, my people were broken three times as punishment and trial, passing through each by changing our ways. We renounced the sins of the past, and resolved to face the future once again. And so we are here." That last was delivered with the cadence of memorization, and he closed his eyes and held his hands over the table. "Zaan it'lar sayn Nerevar valok aln Dunmer, dremes'bal et nur'wahan ke Almsivi. Desh verges Azura, aln fi velen'to!" Velandryn fell silent then, staring downwards, an expression Serana could not name upon his face. She had never learned Chimeris, and she recognized no more than the vaguest resemblance to Aldmeris, but it had the ring of a prayer. Or a curse. Lydia rose uncertainly, and looked at Serana with confusion writ plain on her face.

Serana felt as though she needed to say something to break the dark mood that had suddenly fallen on the elf. "Umm, I think I understand. We can discuss the Elder Scroll later, if you wish."

And, just like that, the spell was broken. He looked up, once more with an inscrutable face pierced by expressive red eyes. Then, he smiled. "Oh no, not on your life. I gave you a story, and now I want one in return." He extended, long arms reaching above his head and fingers interlocking as he straightened his elbows. He gave a languorous stretch and brought his hands down, pressing them briefly over his eyes before folding them on the table. She realized that she was staring at his almost liquid movement, and reached back to grab the bundle containing the scroll and place it on the table. Again, the elf's focus shifted to the bundle, and hunger flared to life in his eyes. Lydia drew in her breath and shifted nervously.

Slowly, deliberately, Serana unwrapped her treasure. She remembered the last time she had seen it, her mother slipping it into her hands as they departed the castle at the height of the day. A glint of light as the cloth came away, Velandryn's sharp intake of breath, and, finally, the intricate outer case of an Elder Scroll lay bare on the table, power and myth exposed before the world.

"There is a saying in the Empire, 'to write an Elder Scroll.'" Velandryn's voice was unsteady, but he could not tear his eyes away. "It is the highest significance that can be attached to an action. Completely inaccurate, of course, ludicrously wrong in every particular, but…powerful in meaning." No doubt he could feel it as well, the distortion that took place in its presence. Nobody knew what the Elder Scrolls truly were, her mother had said, but their power was self-evident.

"I don't know where it came from originally, and I'm not entirely sure why it was put into my hands, but this is it."

Velandryn laughed suddenly, an explosion of mirth that made Lydia and Serana flinch at its unexpectedness. "So that's why you could do it! Language picked up in minutes from context, completely accurate recreation of tone, a mind as sharp as anything after sitting in the core in a magical ritual for four thousand years. An Elder Scroll! They rewrite the universe around them, so I suppose nothing should shock me any longer." He rose, still chuckling.

"In my time, they were considered one of the great mysteries of the universe. What have you learned since then?" Clearly, Velandryn had some experience with them, or at least a fair bit of knowledge. She wondered if he could be correct, if the Elder Scroll had somehow eased her awakening and transition. She wondered, suddenly, if her mother had taken it into account when designing her resting place. Since waking up, she had been wondering more and more about her mother's plans. Lydia, judging by her slow retreat from the ornate container, wanted nothing to do with the artifact.

"Little and less. The Moth Cult studied them in the Empire, but I heard that their library vanished one day. Every Scroll in White-Gold Tower, gone all at once. If they have any insights, they've kept them to themselves. They're secretive, the Moth Cult—and the scrolls are too, for that matter. My people never much bothered with them—we prefer our prophecies served Daedric— though some of the Telvanni are rumored to have a few stashed away." He shrugged. "Of course, with Telvanni, you can never be sure. I once heard that the Moth priests tried to record the number of scrolls in their possession, but the count changed each time they made it. The Elder Scrolls are strange, in ways I don't fully understand. I was fascinated by them as a child, like so many other before me. Such mysteries invite discovery. Of course, once you exhaust the basic books, you quickly realize that there is a very good reason those mysteries exist." Velandryn showed his teeth in a mirthless grin. "The Scrolls do not merely exist passively. I've never heard a serious claim made that they have intelligence, but action without an actor…it makes you them is not…conducive…to a long and happy life, I don't think. So, I remain ignorant of much. Seek out a Moth Cultist if you want to know more, I would think. For me, I will stick with admiration. From a distance."

"Moth Priest." That was Lydia, apparently having overcome her aversion and once more approaching the table. "They're Moth Priests, at least assuming we're talking about the same people." Serana had heard of them, though she had never known them to be connected to the Elder Scrolls. Perhaps they had started after her time.

"I defer to you on matters of the Empire. My knowledge comes from two old books and a conversation I had nearly thirty years ago."

Serana sensed an opening. "About the Emp—"

Velandryn cut her off before she could even finish the word. "I gave you the story of my race, and was promised the story of an Elder Scroll. If you want more from me, I'm going to need something more in return." He smiled. "Now, about strains of vampirism and why you are distinct from the other Volkihar we encountered, that I would be interested in learning."

"No." She wouldn't give up the secrets of her family so easily. Not to mention, Velandryn had a mind like a honed blade. He would quickly see the implications of her 'purer' strain and could attempt to discern the source. Those were questions she did not need him asking, and she had the feeling that he was already having thoughts in that direction as it was. However, she had learned enough about him to play him for her purposes. For instance, that he was far stronger on the attack than on defense. Besides which, he liked talking. "It occurs to me that what I want to know is common knowledge, while you seek out my secrets and those of my kind. If I were so inclined, I could obtain the history of the Empire and the events that occurred in Skyrim from anyone. I am certain that someone in this village, for instance, could answer all of my questions."

The elf gave a small smile. "I think if you are seeking accurate and detailed information, Heljarchen is not the place to be. Some of these people can read, I would guess. Not all, but some. Most have probably seen a book at some point in their lives. So, by all means, break ties with us and strike out on your own." He gestured at the door. "Skyrim awaits!"

She rose, and turned for the door. Two could play this game, and if he wanted to be dramatic, she was more than willing to up the stakes. "Fare thee well, elf, and when you lie awake at night consumed with questions, I hope you find some solace." She began wrapping the scroll again. "I know so much that you would never even think to ask. I know of kings and heroes, and the lessons of their lives. I am fluent in four tongues, and have stories from across Tamriel, firsthand accounts of what you call the First Age. I can tell you of your people before the Tribunal, and of knowledge that your false gods doubtless suppressed." A gamble, but knowledge is always lost with time. "But, if you are too proud to tell me what any child of this age knows, then it was simply not meant to be." She smiled, making sure they got a good look at her elongated teeth. "A shame, truly. I have enjoyed our time together, but I will not stay where I am not wanted. A pity," she sighed theatrically, "that your stubbornness prevented this. If only you had been willing to tell me about the Empire—"

"Oh, for St. Delyn's sake get back here!" Serana was relieved that Velandryn's eyes were smiling as she turned around. "You know I won't let you walk out that door, and you know you're more likely to wind up the target of vampire hunters than find a Nord willing to help you like I am. We each have something the other wants, and so, ask your questions." The elf—the Dunmer—sighed and pulled a journal from a bag. "I don't promise secrets, but I'll tell you what you want about the Empire, as far as I know. In return, I'll let you keep the secrets of your family, or clan, or whatever it is, but I do want to know about your time period. You say you have stories, I want them. I want to hear the legends of your past, about Atmora, about the Dragon Cult and the great Alduin. Besides that, I want to know every lie, every rumor, every salacious detail about who my people used to be!" He sobered then, and steepled his fingers. "Do you trust me?"

The question took her aback, and she had to consider for a moment. "To a point. I think our goals are aligned for the present, at least. And you, do you trust me?"

He nodded. "I trust you to act in your own best interest, and for now that interest aligns with mine." He removed a mortar and pestle and a number of alchemical ingredients from the bag at his feet. "I am glad we have established that. I would rather have a state of mutual understanding than some hollow pretense of intimacy."

She could live with that, Serana decided. She sat down across from him as he placed some withered flower in the bowl and began to grind it into powder. "So, the Empire of Cyrodiil. Broad strokes, paint me a picture of its history."

"Empires, actually. We are on the third distinct empire, and the fifth ruling dynasty."

"Fourth." That was Lydia, doing some sort of examination of her strange weapon, which she called a 'crossbow.' "The Potentate doesn't count, my thane." That word again. How is he a thane, and to which jarl?

"The fact they were Akaviri does not erase the fact that they ruled the Second Empire for four hundred years."

"In that case you should include the Tharn Dynasty, as they held the throne during the Interregnum, and Chancellor Ocato, who never sat the throne but ruled in all but name after the end of the Septim line. If we include every despot and schemer who ruled from White-Gold, this list would be infinite. None of the Potentates wore the Amulet of Kings, none of them were…" She trailed off, and Velandryn gave her a look Lydia couldn't identify.

"Dragonborn? No, I suppose they were not. In that case, what of our current Emperor? What of the Medes?"

Lydia looked troubled. "They rule well enough, and the Amulet is no longer needed."

"All right." Velandryn turned back to Serana. "Three distinct political entities and a number of dynasties have ruled from Cyrodiil, starting with the Slave Queen Alessia, who overthrew the Ayleids in the third century of the First Era…"

The smith was working early the next morning, when they visited him for the second time. He led them to their horses wordlessly, but when Velandryn slipped him an extra coin in thanks, he grunted and spoke.

"Dragons on the road last night. A dozen or more, heading south."

Velandryn's stomach dropped. A dozen dragons. One had been bad enough. Twelve could wipe out an army. Lydia's eyes opened wide in shock, while Serana just looked confused. Velandryn realized that the vampire was likely unaware of the reappearance of the mythical beasts. Were they even extinct in her time? He had mentioned the Dragon Cult to her, but given no thought to the possibility that she could also have insight into the dragons themselves. He wasted no time berating himself for not thinking of this sooner, but rather decided to interrogate her about whatever dragonlore she might possess at the earliest opportunity. If there were that many of the bastards around, they would have need of it.

Lydia stepped forward, looking on the edge between panic and fury. She confronted the smith, nearly seizing him by the front of his heavy apron. Velandryn noted with bleak amusem*nt that they were roughly of a height; by the look on the smith's face he was not used to being accosted by women in armor. "A dozen dragons? You are certain?"

The big man nodded. "Hunting for bears, their leader said." He spat on the ground. "Not my business."

"Not…" Velandryn was at a loss for words. Dragons hunting bears?

Suddenly, Lydia started laughing, a full-throated guffaw that poured mirth and relief into the air around her. "Dragons and bears! You mean the Empire and the Stormcloaks!" She patted the man reassuringly, still laughing, and turned to Velandryn. "Names for some of the guards are their sigils. Empire has the dragon banner, Stormcloaks wear the Bear of Windhelm. Whiterun we got called 'horses' when patrolling."

Velandryn had never had fear desert him so quickly. He regarded the smith, feeling the indescribable lightness of not being condemned to death. "Are the Imperials likely to give us any trouble?"

"Dragons don't care so long as you don't make trouble. Bears don't like elves." He grinned. "Show respect and they might let you be." This was more words then Velandryn had heard from the smith yet, maybe more than all of their previous conversations put together.

Lydia had calmed herself, it seemed. "Who do you favor? What is the feeling in this town?"

The smith spat again. "Not my business, I said. Dragon and bear can kill each other over their stupid fight."

"You don't care about the Concordat, or the Empire?" Serana had only learned about the conflict last night, but by the question she was eager to find out more. Velandryn listened closely as well; Lydia had to explain the roots of the Stormcloaks to Serana last night, as his own knowledge was sadly lacking.

"Elves never stopped me praying, so why should I care? I got a forge and family, that's enough for me." He was only paying half a mind to the conversation, and did not seem to care about Serana's hidden face.

"So, then shouldn't you support the Stormcloaks, so everyone can worship like you?" Serana's question seemed like innocent curiosity, but Velandryn wondered what game she was playing.

The blacksmith frowned. "May be you're right." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, attention now fully on the vampire.

Serana was not done, however. "But Talos created the Empire, didn't he?" Suddenly, their chat about the Empire's history last night didn't seem quite so innocent. "Wouldn't you be opposing the very thing your god created?"

The smith's eyes narrowed. "I don't like this game, girl. If you want to say something, say it plain."

Serana bowed, looking somewhat odd given her hood and scarf. "I meant no offense. I know little of the war, and was curious."

The smith looked at her for a long moment. Then, he gestured at the shed attached to his house. "Your horses. Take them." Seemingly done with the conversation, he trudged back to his work.

Velandryn turned to Serana. "Is there anything else you would like to do before we depart? Stir up some ethnic tensions or tell an Ashlander that the Tribunal was correct? Please, don't let me stop you."

"It's an ancient technique; challenge a statement with questions to learn an individual's true viewpoint. I wanted to know more about this civil war."

"Yes, I'm familiar with Drellen's Principles of Rhetoric. I do take exception, however, when you make Nords wonder whether they should be joining the movement that thinks my people are enemies to be killed on sight."

"I don't know who Drellen is, but it sounds like he stole his principles from Gaenic of Daggerall. Also, I thought it was an Altmer faction that was responsible for the banning of Talos worship. You Dunmer don't care, you said."

"And the average Nord in Heljarchen is very unlikely to appreciate that distinction!" He lowered his voice and glared at her, though there was no real fire behind it. "Just…just don't bring up the Stormcloaks when I'm around. Please. Most likely, nothing happens. But, if it does, that's a lot more trouble than I want." It was impressive, in a way, how easily she got under his skin. Innocent little pinpricks, until you felt the barbs beneath the skin. Serana was smart, and used that knowledge to prod the world and watch it dance. And now she's prodding me, I'd wager.

"All right." She seemed perfectly willing to acquiesce, but he got the feeling it was more to shut him up than anything. Damn vampire. He wished that Heljarchen had a horse to spare, so he could refuse to buy it for her.

They were making good time, even afoot, Lydia was pleased to note. Three people and two horses made for an uncomfortable situation, as she could not be on a horse with both her armor and another person, and letting her thane be on a horse with the vampire was a risk she would not take. So, they walked. The road was little more than a suggestion, with occasional posts or stones demarcating a border; clearly Heljarchen had never warranted having stone laid to show the way. The winding road circumvented hills rather than scaling them, which restricted lines of sight somewhat, and the foliage was too sparse to offer much cover. Neither the Empire not the Stormcloaks should attack them, but Lydia had been on too many patrols gone suddenly wrong to relax just because they were probably safe.

However, all in all, she was fairly well pleased. The day was pleasant, she was well-rested, and they were finally moving again. From here on out, their immediate task was clear. Deliver Serana, learn all they could about Lord Harkon and his vampires, and then inform the Dawnguard and burn it all to the ground. She glanced over at Velandryn, who moved in closer, leading his horse. Serana, she noticed, was some ways off, peering down at a bush. 'A word, my thane?"

He made his way over to her, leading his horse. "Just so you know, she's asked about my title twice now. I've told her I am a thane of Whiterun, but have not elaborated on why." He gave her a significant look. "I do not want her learning why. That information is ours alone for now."

"Of course, and, I'm sorry, my thane." She should have been more careful, she knew, but it had simply slipped out.

He dismissed it with a wave of his hand. "It happens. I have been thinking, though, is there any other way that you would feel comfortable addressing me? As far as I know there are very few mer thanes in Skyrim." He paused. "Actually, I might be the only one." He gave her a questioning look.

"Elven thanes? I don't think there are very many at all. I can call you 'sir,' I suppose, though that sounds odd to my ears."

"Why not Velandryn? It is my name."

"The disrespect, my thane! I could not simply…" She trailed off, not quite able to put her feeling into words. Nords were not Imperials, to use titles for every office; nor were they Bretons, who gave themselves ridiculous airs and names to set themselves above their fellows. Nords respected deeds, and conferred titles of prestige only upon the deserving. As a result, those few titles that they did have were treated far more seriously. If Velandryn Savani was a thane of Whiterun, then he was due the honor of that distinction, no matter what he might think. For his housecarl to ignore that title and achievement was shameful.

"Lydia, if you truly don't want to, I will not force you to call me by name." His face was as still as ever, but his eyes were soft, and she knew that he was making an effort, for all that he did not understand.

She bowed her head. In spite of it all, he was trying, and she should try as well. "Thank you…Velandryn." She grimaced, the name feeling wrong when she said it. "I understand the need to travel quietly, and I will do my best." She gave him a sheepish smile. "I make no promises, though." She wouldn't forget again, but she needed to find a good replacement for those two words. She was about to ask what he would want, when she heard Serana call out.

"Soldiers ahead!" The vampire's voice was sharp with alarm.

Lydia pushed her thane behind her, drawing her sword the moment her arm was clear. Serana was standing still, head co*cked.

"You heard them?" Her thane seemed calm enough, though she noticed he had released the horse's rein and eased his hands free.

Serana paused for a moment. "Boots, more than one pair, heavy tread. I know what soldiers sound—"

At that moment, they came into view. Eight of them, moving at a fast pace down the road, with diamond shields and various weapons. Upon seeing Lydia and her companions, the newcomers abandoned their loose march and spread across the road, giving them the advantage should the three try to fight or flee. One of them, who wore ornate plate armor with a crested helm and crimson cloak, seemed to be in command; to his left was a smaller figure, Breton or Nibenese Imperial most likely, wearing mage's robes over steel armor. The rest were in leather and light mail. On shields and armor was the same symbol, a dragon in the general shape of a diamond, black on red. An Imperial war party.

"Travelers! Where are you headed?" The one in the crested helm seemed to be the leader, given that he was the one to call the challenge. Although his skin was dark enough that he was likely of Redguard blood, he spoke with the accent of central Cyrodiil.

"Solitude, via Mortal." Velandryn spoke quickly and easily, face animated with what Lydia knew to be practiced and what she suspected to be insincere good cheer. "Good to see some friendly faces on the road."

"Likewise, always good to encounter citizens, though you should be aware that there is a significant rebel presence in the area." The captain had removed his helm and was coming closer now, smiling broadly. Lydia could not help but notice that his party had not relaxed; every eye was on them and every weapon a hairsbreadth away from an attack. She counted four bows, and the mage besides. "Have you had any encounters with them?"

"None at all. We spent the night in Heljarchen, and heard that there were a few bands about. We're just travelers, though, and I don't think we have anything worth their time." Lydia knew that this could go bad very quickly, but Velandryn was doing everything right. The fact that he was a Dark Elf likely didn't hurt; the Imperials liked to imagine the Stormcloaks as terribly racist against elves. The reality was more complicated, of course, but hopefully this prejudice would work in their favor.

"I see." The commander seemed perfectly at ease, but Lydia would not be happy until this patrol was gone. "And where were you coming from?"

Velandryn paused for the merest second, and Lydia tensed, knowing the issue they faced. Almost all traffic from Whiterun to Solitude travelled along the Silver Road to Rorikstead and then up through Dragon Bridge. Even if they had some reason to be going via Morthal, the Labyrinthian Way would have taken them over the mountains and into the marsh in three days rather than the two weeks it took to cross through the Pale. It was far safer besides, despite passing along the ruined city. No bandit was foolish enough to set up camp in Labyrinthian. Unless Velandryn planned to announce that they had come from Stormcloak lands, their presence here was not easily explained. One did not simply wander in the wilds of Skyrim in these troubled times.

"From Whiterun, though I confess we did not take the most direct route, and that's my fault. I had read about a species of ground moss endemic to the Stonehills region, and was eager to take samples." He grinned disarmingly. "Alas, I was unable to find any. Fortunately, I budgeted well enough that Lydia here is being well compensated for this wild guar chase!"

Lydia grunted, not wanting to trip over herself if she tried to lie. The Redguard nodded, and turned to Serana. "And you, erm, miss?" Clearly, he wasn't sure what to make of Serana, wrapped as she was against the sun.

Velandryn smiled. "My assistant. Brilliant mind, but very shy."

The captain leaned in close, examining her. "Miss, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, sir, and thank you." Serana's voice was prefect, with a hint of diffidence but conveying absolute sincerity. Not for the first time, Lydia was struck by this ability that her thane and this woman had, to conceal themselves and become who they needed to be. "Is there someplace nearby I could find another horse, by chance? I fell when mine broke a leg some days ago, and they had none to spare in Heljarchen. It is dreadfully cold up here, isn't it?"

"That it is miss, though we don't mind, so long as our duty is here. You should keep warm, though. I'm afraid there's nowhere to find a horse before Morthal." The commander grinned and turned away, seemingly satisfied. "Very well, then, let's be off!" He gestured, and his men relaxed. The two groups began moving then, some of the soldiers nodding in greeting as they approached.

Velandryn walked his horse to one side of the road, and Lydia did the same on the other. It was a maxim universally observed that when two groups passed on the road, the one who could more easily slaughter the other got the center. It only made sense that Velandryn wanted to concede that honor to the Imperials, as there was no benefit from doing otherwise. She looked at him, standing there with his horse, unarmed but for a dagger or two and the bow on his horse. Standing there, breathing easily, and possessing a voice that could shatter the earth beneath their feet. Serana stood beside him, her slim arms and slight frame belying a strength and speed that had helped lay waste to an army of the dead. Both were deadly spellcasters, and her thane especially seemed to have a knack for magical improvisation that gave him an unexpected edge. He was deadlier than he thought, she had learned, and for all that he protested that he was unskilled at combat he had shown marked improvement since she had gotten her hands on him.

She observed two of the soldiers as they passed by. The male was a Nord, wearing a chainmail hauberk and well-cut leathers. The female was Imperial Nibenese, small and dark with olive skin, armored in lighter fare. She watched how they moved, and considered the small arsenal she had available. I could take two, maybe three of them, if it came down to it.

She watched the commander as he moved off, secure in the superiority of his forces. With that battlemage backing them up, he might even be right. Might. She regarded her two companions again. Might not. Once they had passed, the three continued on down the road, towards Morthal and Solitude, and Lydia continued to wonder.

Notes:

"Zaan it'lar sayn Nerevar valok aln Dunmer, dremes'bal et nur'wahan ke Almsivi. Desh verges Azura, aln fi velen'to!" – Nerevar set the Dunmer free two times, breaking the chains of outlanders and Almsivi. By the grace of Azura, we have been remade!

A Dunmer prayer of the New Temple, praising Azura for sending the Nerevarine to save the Dunmer from the false forces that ruled over them. Generally associated with the Cult of Nerevar, and popular among Redoran and Sadras members of the Temple. Indoril factions discourage its use.

Chapter 11: Morthal

Summary:

Morthal isn't fun, but sometimes you wind up there.

Chapter Text

Have your people undergone a crisis of faith in light of the recent calamities that have befallen the Dunmer? Your Daedra worship seems not to protect you from misfortune.

You misunderstand. The Triune does not shield us. They are the Good Daedra because they have shown us the correct way. If, as you said, calamity befell us, it was no one's doing but our own.

So you are saying that the Dunmer are to blame for the Red Year and the Argonian Invasion?

Blame? Again, you do not understand. We disdain your Divines for the same reason your find our ways barbaric. How can your gods be praised if they coddle you? You beseech them to aid you, rather than asking for the strength to overcomes the challenges before you. We exist, and what is existence but strife? We seek the strength to overcome adversity, not the chance to avoid it. The tragedies of our past occurred, and we may mourn our dead and grieve. But, when all is done, we stand again, stronger for having overcome that trial.

So then, what is the difference between the 'Good Triune' and the four Daedra you classify as the 'House of Troubles?'

I could point to history, and the lessons that the Triune gave us, even as the House tried to destroy us, but there is only one difference, truly. All of the history, it can be tied back to their relationship to our people. The House of Troubles throws misfortune at us so that we will fail. The Triune tests us so that we may succeed.

Heron Antios, Interviews of Faith, Part 9: Dunmer and Daedra

The swamp stank. Serana's nose was covered by her wrapping, but she could make out the smell, and for once she regretted her heightened senses. The wind had been from the west for most of the day, but this was the first time she had smelled the swamp. It smelled of rot and salt water, and a hint of something sickly sweet. They were still in the snowy forest, skirting the foothills of the mountains that Lydia called the Crest Range, though in her time they had been the Hjaaldruun. To Velandryn they were simply "those mountains," an approach that Serana had to admit possessed an elegant simplicity, though she imagined that he would be the first to tell them the name of every feature in his homeland. There was still a great deal about him that she did not understand, and one of the biggest mysteries was why he had come to Skyrim in the first place. There was also something going on with dragons, judging by his and Lydia's reactions when the smith in Heljarchen had mentioned them and the questions Velandryn had asked when they made camp for the evening. She had told him the truth, that there were dragons in the remote places of Skyrim, but they did not usually approach areas of habitation. She had certainly never seen one. In return, she had learned that dragons had long been thought extinct, but had recently been seen again. There was something else, something important that he wasn't telling her, but she could not get it out of him. He would simply ask pointedly about her home, family, and vampirism. Lydia knew as well, judging by the way the big woman spoke to her. Or, rather, how she didn't. She had clearly figured out that Serana was better at winnowing out information than Lydia was at concealing it, so she had gone for a policy of almost total silence, generally communicating with grunts and single words unless the elf was present. However, they maintained a pleasant enough peace, with all agreeing by unspoken consent not to breach those topics of conversation that they all knew would lead nowhere. She should have known it couldn't last.

They had encountered two more Imperial patrols in the five days since Heljarchen, and none had given them any real trouble. Velandryn had explained that the Empire had many Dunmer citizens, and in fact the entire province of Morrowind was an Imperial holding, though by the sound of it in name only. All had warned them to watch out for bandits or Stormcloaks. It seemed that the three of them were not the sort of folk who roused suspicions, something for which Serana felt duly grateful. Their only encounter with ruffians came later that same day, perhaps an hour after Serana first noticed the swamp's smell.

It was six or seven rough men and women, all Nords by the look of it, wearing a patchwork assortment of leather and the heavy metal armor that seemed to be common in this age, though it still seemed odd to Serana. They came charging out of the trees, apparently so overwhelmed by the sight of laden horses and travelers that they never stopped to consider if their method of attack was the wisest course of action. Lydia drew her crossbow so quickly that even Serana was unsure if she could have done it faster, and Velandryn had his own bow out only a second behind. The Nord woman's odd-looking projectile, which she called a 'bolt,' punched clean through one bandit's chestplate, sending the big man reeling back before he collapsed to the ground unmoving. Velandryn's shot only staggered his target, but he followed it up with three more that sent the bandit to the ground as well. For her part, Serana filled the air between her and the closest foe with frost and shards of ice, until he was huddled in on himself, half-frozen and bleeding from where the magic had impacted him. She kicked him onto his back and slashed through his throat with a single swipe of her blade. The hot blood gushed out, steaming and hissing as it cascaded over his icy chest and pooled on the ground.

The blood.

Serana couldn't look away, the blood, smelling so sweet, was right there. It was dripping into the snow, and the red haunted her, filling her eyes. She could see no other colors, and could not have turned and walked away even if she wanted to. Haltingly, longingly, she stepped forward. One more step, then down to her knees, then it would be hers, she could drink it, she could feel it on her lips, the wetness on her tongue, she could caress it and play with it, swallow the sweetness and let it slide down her throat, warm her and fill her Oh mine Lord how long has it been—

A scream sounded somewhere, far off, only to cut off abruptly. A rush of heat from behind her and the clash of metal served to interrupt her rapturous imaginings. Angrily, she forced herself away, almost weeping as the color leeched out into the snow, fading and crawling away. She wanted to snarl when she saw that it was nothing but Lydia beating down another of the thugs, while Velandryn raised a hand and wreathed a charging woman in flame. Serana could have thrown herself to the ground and cut more holes in the body to get at the sweet blood that must still remain inside, but as Lydia's sword cut deep, more blood gushed out from a fresh wound. Fresh. Without thought, she was running towards the falling body, eyes fixed on the crimson droplets dancing in the air. She could taste them already, she could—

Pain lanced through her chest, and she screamed, the pain raw and harsh. She spun and met the eyes of the archer who had shot her, and he knocked another arrow and drew it back to his ear, grinning. She raised her hand, and let the most ancient of the vampire spells, the draining of another's life, course through her. The magic left her hand, linking the two of them, and she gasped as the energy flowed into her. It could not abate her hunger, as even the most powerful of her kind could do little more than siphon a trickle of energy from an aware and vigorous target using this spell. However, it calmed her for an instant, focusing her mind and letting her overcome the desires within. She closed on the bandit, contemptuously dodging his hastily loosed arrow. She did not move fast, savoring the fear that rolled off of him, slowing her pace as the bow fell from his hands. He drew an axe, but it was too little to stand against the likes of her. His grip was weak, and she batted his weapon aside, sending it spinning far out of his grasp. Now unarmed, he stood before her, and the blood roiled within him. Fear. She had always felt sick after drinking the blood of one consumed with fear, but now it sang to her. I want it. She wanted to drain him dry, to take each drop of him, filled with his fear, and drink it, let it—

Suddenly, a flash came from the corner of her eye, and a bolt of fire tore through the bandit. He screamed as flame billowed out from the point of impact, and in seconds was at the center of a billowing ball of red-orange destruction. Serana flinched back, throwing her arms up by instinct to shield her face from the painful blast of heat and light. The conflagration quickly consumed the hapless outlaw, until his charred corpse was all that remained. Furious at being deprived of her blood, Serana spun, looking for whoever had done this. She knew who had done it, but she couldn't stop herself. She wanted to see them, to make them pay for depriving her of her desire.

The grey elf, the clever elf, was there, standing still, facing her with empty hands. She crouched, readying herself to spring. She could feel the residue of magicka around him, bleeding off like heat from the body at her feet. Off past the edge of the road, the armored Nord, the hateful Nord, was putting a blade in the belly of the last of those who had attacked them. Us. They had been travelling together, going somewhere, going home.

She saw home, saw the bodies lying on the tables, saw her father beckoning her to feed, felt the blood—

The blood.

She wanted the blood. There had been so much, but it had been taken from her. Her eyes locked on the elf, who was still watching her. He took it! He had burned the fearful one to cinders, boiled the blood that was hers! She raised her blade, and suddenly felt it as it washed over her, burning, beating, pulsing. Inundated with magicka as he was, his blood sang her a love song, and she wanted to bathe in it. She took a halting step forward, with none of her usual grace, needing the sensation his blood would give. Not the armored one, she was all wrapped in steel and dull besides. It was the blood of the grey one she craved. There was magic in it, and something more. Something ancient that excited her beyond all reason. Her second step was swifter, and her third was almost a leap—

"STOP!" She looked up, eyes wide as the sound rang out, harsh and tinged with something beyond mere sound, but it was not addressed to her. The grey one—the Dunmer— had his hand outstretched. The armored woman had a weapon—a crossbow—aimed straight at her. Both were still, and she suddenly realized that she had stopped moving as well. Some part of her, some shred of reason beneath the hunger had told her that she should stand still when she heard that word. So, they just stood there, all three of them. Serana's hunger, her longing warring with the part of her that was screaming, deep inside, to stop this, that she needed them and even more that they were allies, and that she was not the sort of person who would do this.

The elf took a step forward and her gaze snapped to him. He did not look frightened, and spread his arms as though asking for an embrace. She couldn't imagine how she must look, but she knew that there was a trick here. She wasn't a beast, to snap at bait. When she charged, doubtless he would surround her in fire, or Lydia would put a bolt through her heart. Lydia. The name came back to her, and with it the arguments, the anger.

You see us as cattle! Lydia's words, shouted in anger before a totem-stone. That was wrong though. She knew they weren't, she knew that they hoped and dreamed and loved, the same as her. She had been like them once, how could she not know them? It was only that their lives were so short, and all she needed was a little blood. Couldn't they give that? No, because they hate you. She knew it wasn't that simple, but right now, right now it hurt to think. She had the scent of it, his blood was overpowering, she wanted it, she wanted it she wanted it SHE WANTED IT—

"Is this what you are?" The elf's words—Velandryn's words, as the name returned to her—did not break through her wanting as much as coil around something in her core. "Is this you? Is this" his voice was heavy with something she could not name "Serana?"

Hearing her name froze her more effectively than any spell, tearing her apart as some vestige of Serana rose at the sound and tried to quiet the hunger. She remembered everything; from the moment she had been overcome she had pushed the memories away, but now she looked at the two before her, and she didn't wantto feed on them. No, that wasn't right. She wanted to, and if she had been asked and been lucid enough to answer, she would have said that she wanted their blood—she wanted Velandryn's blood—more than she had ever wanted anything in her life. For her, this moment's desire was fiercer than any she had ever known. It could not truly be so, of course, and some part of her was proud for recognizing that. This hunger had been brought on by her time away, and it was not truly hers. This was the other side of her strength and speed and eternal life. This was the price, and it had to be paid.

She groaned out loud, desire warring with reason as the last few days pitted themselves against the indescribable feeling that was permeating her body. It had long since transcended hunger and was almost sexual in its writhing intensity. She could do it. The sun was hidden behind clouds, and was low in the sky besides. She could reveal her true form, the monstrous body of a Vampire Lord, and deal with them both. From there, she could doubtless make her way back home, where she would be among her own kind again.

But, they helped me. It was a tiny voice, an insignificant plea in the unstoppable maelstrom of the unfed vampire, but she latched onto it and used it to keep afloat, her head just barely out of the waters that lusted for blood. It was wrong to renege against a promise, and even worse to harm those who had given you aid. They had their own reasons, to be sure, but they had helped her, and that mattered. It had to.

Gingerly, painfully, she reclaimed herself, battening down the hunger, desperately suppressing the urge. It was torturous to an extent she could never have imagined, but she knew that the alternative was worse. She did not want to attack them, even as she wanted their blood. She clung to that distinction, and that tiny difference, that sliver of incompatibility, was the string that could pull her from the pits of her depravity. With a cry of anguish, she curled in upon herself, and the darkness claimed her.

Serana opened her eyes, and Velandryn flinched, though he fully recognized that that was probably not the safest action when facing a vampire who may have gone mad from hunger. Of course, the safest action would have been to let Lydia put a dozen bolts in her and then finish the job with fire. However, Serana, now uncoiling from where she had collapsed, seemed cured of the madness that had infected her. Slowly, carefully, she stood, hands held away from her as she gained her feet with an unsteadiness that was incongruous given the lethal grace with which she usually moved. She would not meet his eyes as she rose.

Beside him, Lydia carefully took aim with the crossbow. "Just say the word, my thane."

Instead, he put out a hand and pushed the weapon downward. "You fought well, Serana." It was true; she had dealt with the first enemy swiftly, and even in her…altered state had incapacitated another. Velandryn had only intervened in the second case because he had seen her face after the blood had fountained up, and refused to be party to a vampire feeding, even on an enemy. He was helping her for now, but the thought of permitting a vampire to drink the blood of another made him almost physically ill. So, he had acted, and faced the consequence. Whatever that ends up being.

She looked shaken but sane, and pulled her hood and robe tightly around herself. "Thank you." Her words were rough, with uncharacteristic hoarseness marring her pronunciation. "We should go. I can" she swallowed, choking on the words "smell the swamp, we are probably close to Morthal." She swallowed again, pain writ large on her features.

"Still a day or two." Lydia might have lowered the crossbow, but his housecarl was a taut rope, and he did not want her snapping on Serana. She said nothing more, for which Velandryn was grateful. Her view of the vampire was no secret to any of them, and after Serana's break during the battle, Velandryn was unsure how to handle the situation. She had regained control when he challenged her, but how long would that last? Was the hunger, or whatever vampires felt, still there, just waiting for them to sleep? Not, he thought with a sidelong glance at Lydia, that anybody would be getting much sleep tonight. He and Lydia made a cursory check of the bodies, though he expected to find little. They had been ill-equipped and untrained, and, as it turned out, had only a few paltry coins on them.

Lydia made a disgusted sound. "Fools. Scrapwork leather and armor not worth the wear on the anvil used to make it. Weapons more rust than edge, and none could fight worth a damn." She turned over one of the bodies. "So eager to die."

"Why do it then?" That was the part he never understood. Perhaps they could eke out a few drakes, but this band had been completely inept at anything approaching banditry.

His housecarl shrugged. "Boredom? Farmhands and hunters drunk on tales of adventure. Or, they wanted to be heroes. If they were deserters they'd have better gear, and one or two might have known which end of a sword to use." She grabbed her horse's reins and started on down the road.

Serana simply stood there, looking at the bodies. Some small part of Velandryn feared a return to before, that she would lapse back into that state and attack them again. It was difficult to reconcile the intelligent and curious woman he had pulled from that tomb with what he had just seen. Isn't that it, though? A vampire's hunger defines them. He supposed, however, that the same could be said of any mortal needing the things that gave them life. He sighed as he began moving down the road, taking his horse's reins in hand as he passed it by. A well-trained beast indeed, he thought. And they had been doing well, all things considered. An odd camaraderie, vampire and Dunmer, but they had learned how to live with one another. I wonder if that's over now.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Serana following. He was still adamant that this was the best plan, and, truth be told, what had happened today hadn't shaken that certainty. These Volkihar vampires were an unknown, and far too dangerous to be left alone. Besides which, of late he had begun suspecting that Serana was…well, he did not know exactly what, but something other than purely monstrous. Lydia would scoff at him for it, but today had only heightened that sense. For all that she had lost control, he had seen her eyes as she came for his blood, and in that instant had told Lydia to stop. His housecarl could have shot her without killing, he knew. In fact, he was quite certain that a single bolt, no matter how well-placed, would not be enough to put down whatever type of ancient vampire she was.

No, he had not wanted to bring her down, because that battle would only end with death or incapacitation. And in that moment, when he made that choice, he had looked in her eyes. Dunmer were masters of reading emotions from eyes. He still sometimes needed to puzzle out human faces, and eyes were his finest clue. And when he saw the eyes of Serana, gold and beautiful in the face that was a mask of anguished hunger and rage, he recognized what he saw there. And when he had stared into the fear that dwelled deep in Serana's eyes, he had known he did not face a monster.

She got Velandryn alone as he was walking out from behind a tree, retying the laces on his pants absentmindedly. She waited until he noticed her, then closed to speak softly to him. "My thane, we need to talk."

Velandryn glanced back towards the road, where Serana was standing with the horses. Out of sight for certain, and out of earshot as well, Lydia hoped. He nodded into the sparse woods. When they had moved slightly further in, he turned back to face her. "I won't insult you by asking about what."

"We need to do something, and do it now. She's dangerous! Even if she were a paragon of morality by choice, she snapped and nearly killed us in the middle of a battle. What happens next time? What if we're facing something that could actually harm us?" It was unfair, but the obvious example might get through to him. "If she turned while we were fighting a dragon, do you think either of us would survive?"

"If it's just the three of us against a dragon, our odds are fairly bad from the start." He smiled, and ran a hand along his jaw. "If anything, the confusion might throw the dragon off, or make it leave in disgust at our faithlessness."

Lydia snorted. "You mean to continue travelling with her then?" She knew what the answer would be. He might not be as proud of it as some she had known, but her thane was, in his own way, as stubborn as any she had ever met. The fact that most of his ideas were good ones took away some of the aggravation, but the elf was convinced that his plans were the best way to go about things. And when those plans involve leashing us to a mad vampire…

"Why would I not? The plan remains unchanged. Do you think she is more dangerous now than she was yesterday?"

"Isn't she? How long can she go before she comes for our blood? You saw her lunge! She was gone!" Lydia forced herself to take a breath. Sometimes, a concession was needed. "Serana…is not an unfeeling monster, I don't think. But it doesn't matter, when she could lose control and attack us!"

He paused, and when he did speak, each word came reluctantly. "On the topic of losing control…" He trailed off, and looked at her thoughtfully. "Being Dragonborn…" He shook his head suddenly, and seemed to come to a decision. "Never mind that for now."

She wondered what he had been about to say, but if it had to do with being Dragonborn, she had her suspicions. His behavior was occasionally erratic, as when he had challenged the draugr in Dimhollow Crypt. The possibility that it could be the Dragon Blood influencing him…All the more reason to get him to the Greybeards as soon as possible. Still, it was a far cry from a vampire's blood-thirst. "She is dangerous, my thane! Not entirely of her own will, perhaps, but that only makes it worse! She could lose control, attack someone, and what happens then?"

"So, say she snaps a second time. Either she is alongside us, or she is alone. If not with us, where does it end? When she comes to her senses, will she be gorging herself on some wanderer? Maybe it will 'only' be a bandit, or maybe it's an Imperial scout. With us, less chance it ends that way." He wasn't wrong, but they had no way of knowing he would be right. Unfortunately, this had been a foregone conclusion from the moment he stopped her from putting a bolt in Serana back during the fight. Well, at least he had thought his position through.

Lydia nodded. "I see your point, my thane, but I'll be watching her."

He looked surprised. It was subtle, but his eyebrows gave it away. "I would hope so, since I'd hate to be the only one making sure she doesn't slaughter us while our backs are turned."

A wave of relief broke over Lydia, and she smiled at him, her first since the incident. "Forgive me, my thane, but I thought you would say something more about trusting her."

It was impressive how easily he conveyed disbelief with only his eyes. "I like Serana, but I'm not blind. Whatever else she is, she's a vampire, and so long as she travels with us, we contain her." He looked at her dead on now, nothing but honesty in his red eyes. "I got you into this, Lydia, and it could well get worse from here. I'm sorry."

She was touched. She didn't believe for a moment that he regretted his actions, but the fact that he was acknowledging her discomfort abated her worries somewhat. She had sworn to serve, and had never doubted that he was fundamentally a good person, but it was nice to be reminded of it every now and again. He could well be wrong, she knew, but she was his housecarl. To serve in that fashion meant not only following orders, but working proactively to make your thane's will a reality. She knew she had neither Velandryn's raw intelligence nor Serana's effortless grace and strength, but she had trained as a guard and warrior her entire life. She would offer her perspective as needed, and her skill when called upon.

With a grin, she clasped her thane by the shoulder. "My thanks, but there's no need. It's a good plan, even if it means we have to deal with her. I just wanted to make sure she hadn't seduced you into seeing things her way."

"Worried I'll go over to the vampires, housecarl?" His tone was light enough, but she wondered if she detected a hint of something else. She studied his face, wishing that she was better at reading him. She hoped it had just been a joke, a result of his dark humor. The moment passed, and he turned back towards the road. "We should head back. She might think we abandoned her and hunt down some food while she waits." He clicked his teeth together a couple of times, just in case she had overlooked such subtle wit.

Definitely humor, bad as it is. She fell into step a pace behind and slightly to one side. She was his housecarl, and if that meant tolerating Dunmer jokes, so be it. She would do her duty, and he…he was the Dragonborn, sent to save them all. Nine preserve us.

It looked a wretched town, Morthal. Since waking, Serana had passed nights in three insignificant towns, two roadside inns, and four farmhouses. She had also spent one night outside of a leather tent containing her traveling companions, watching the moons as she had no need to sleep. As much as she wanted to experience this new world, she wondered if there was a hedge somewhere they could crawl under rather than overnighting here. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she had a strong foreboding that something in this town was going to go wrong in a spectacular fashion. By way her companions were acting, they felt it too. Or perhaps that was just the smell.

They were descending the path down from the mountain road they had been on since leaving Heljarchen, and before them spread Morthal, terribly small against its ominous backdrop. The only city of any size in Hjaalmarch sat on the edge of the huge marsh that Lydia called the Drajkmyr. When Velandryn heard that, he had snorted and asked if someone had sneezed onto a map when naming it. Supposedly it ended far to the north, bleeding into the Sea of Ghosts and coming up to the edges of the frozen hold called The Pale as well as the foot of the great arch of Solitude. From Serana's vantage, the marsh simply seemed to stretch on forever. Thick mists shrouded trees and pools of water in various levels of darkness, as though anything beyond the range of Morthal's lamps belonged to some other realm. Here and there her eyes could make out shapes moving deep in the gloom, shapes that moved like beasts, though a few had gaits that were disturbingly similar to those of men.

Lydia caught her looking out into the darkness when the big Nord overtook her on the descent. "If you go into the marsh when the fog is rising," her voice was hard, her eyes serious, "you're like never to come back out." Her voice was pitched to carry, and Serana saw Velandryn also staring into the opaque murk, seemingly transfixed. The Dunmer gave his head a shake, caught Serana's eye, raised his eyebrows, and continued on down the path.

Serana wanted to say something, but she couldn't. It had been a day and a night since the incident with the outlaws, and there was still a deep tension in the air between them. To be fair, Lydia was much the same as always; perhaps a shade more watchful, and doubtless carrying some sort of satisfaction at being proven correct. Velandryn, however, watched her now where before he had been content to leave her be; more than once she had turned to see those red eyes regarding her steadily as they drew near on the road or sat around the campfire. She had spent last night huddled in front of their fire, thinking. While a part of her wanted to get away from them and spend the night alone, she didn't want to raise suspicions by sneaking off. Should they think she was out hunting, there was no telling what would happen. While they had never made any sort of deal that she wouldn't feed while with them, she felt it was fairly well implied, and Velandryn's incineration of the bodies showed that he wasn't letting her feed on their foes. So, she stuck close, kept her head down, and prayed for this mistrust to end.

They couldn't understand, those who had never known the hunger. Vampires disliked the word bloodlust, as it made their hunger sound like some bestial impulse, but it was a frighteningly apt label. It was easy to lose oneself when confronted with blood, especially if it had been a long time since the last feeding. And it had been a very long time for Serana. Daughters of Coldharbour did not become drawn and hideous if they failed to feed, but the ache within them was as strong as for any other vampire, and whatever protections her mother had laid on her while she was locked away were doing less and less good. With no small effort, she pushed thoughts of feeding and hunger away to focus on the town before her.

There was a wall around the central part of the town, though it seemed to have been overtaken by time, as large portions were in flagrant disrepair and in several places it had apparently been knocked down to make room for a house or had stones stolen for some other construction. The buildings around them were wood, but all rose from stone foundations, likely a necessity given the marshy ground. The road they traveled was shaped stone, but many of the smaller streets leading off were no more than gravel or mud covered in wooden planks where it got too wet. It seemed at least one house in ten was vacant, and little traffic filled the streets. Ahead, she could make out a large open space, likely the main square or whatever passed for it in this miserable city.

As they drew closer, a hubbub that had been at the edge of her hearing resolved itself into voices, most shouting angrily or demanding something. She gestured at her companions, and they drew close, though Lydia angled her approach so that she had space to draw her blade. Serana supposed she couldn't really blame her. The real wonder is that Velandryn still trusts me, not that Lydia doesn't.

"Someone is making noise ahead. We should be careful."

Velandryn nodded, and moved on. Serana followed, and Lydia brought up the rear. The vampire shuddered as she passed more houses, both abandoned and inhabited, all of them suffused with an uneasy apprehension. This town made everything feel wrong. Even those few words she had spoken had felt like a heavy burden, and each step was like slogging through thick water. By the way they were moving, her companions were feeling it too, turning uneasily and watching every shadow out of the corner of their eyes. Serana didn't know if it was the mist, the sickly-sweet smell of death and Bal-only-knew what else in the swamp, or some other oppressive magic at work, but she would be glad to be gone from this place. The horses too seemed ill at ease, and Serana once more was seized by a desire to not linger here any longer than necessary, though her companions' aversion to nighttime travel made it unlikely she could avoid staying the night.

The source of the voices Serana had heard became clear the moment they entered the open space, which seemed to be some sort of muster square. A crowd of twenty or so townspeople crowded around a wooden hall, clamoring their demands to speak to the jarl. Four were facing them: two guards in heavy woolen coats over some sort of metal mesh, a warrior in scaled bronze armor, and an old man in finely cut clothing. The longhall was slightly more ornate than the buildings around it, and dominated the side of the square facing the mountains; Serana felt relatively confident in assigning this to be the jarl's dwelling. The banners adorning it were marked with the same emblem as the shields and coats of the guards before it, the three-pronged spiral that was doubtless the symbol of Hjaalmarch. The air around them was tense, and Serana was half-worried that the crowd would explode into violence. There were five or more people shouting at once, and while none of them were moving towards the four before the jarl's doors, if they did it would likely end in blood.

Then, as suddenly as the shouting started, it was done. Right, Nords. Those who had once been her people could be explosive with their anger, but once vented, most were content to live and let live. Some of the townspeople wandered off, others remained in the square, conversing quietly enough that Serana could not make out what they were saying. The two guards seemed to relax, and took up positions on either side of the doors. The man in the bronze armor turned and went back inside, but the old one was coming their way, his steps strong and sure despite his age. He bowed deeply before them.

"Welcome to Morthal." He straightened, and Serana noted his keen eyes and the precise manner of his speech. Clearly this was someone of importance. "Jarl Idgrod has anticipated your arrival, and waits in her hall. If you would follow me?"

Velandryn opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He blinked, closed it, and then, after a moment in which Serana had to imagine he was trying to process such an odd event, asked, "The jarl was expecting us?" There was just enough stress on the fourth word to convey his incredulity.

The old man smiled. "All will be made clear if you would follow me, honored guests." He turned and, without checking to see if they would follow, made his way toward the double doors, carved with that swirling sigil, that led into what was undoubtedly the jarl's hall. With a sidelong glance at Serana and Lydia, Velandryn followed him. The Dunmer, for all that he clearly had reservations, walked straight and proud across the great yard, drawing the notice of more than a few of the Nords standing around. Once more, Serana wondered who he really was, this apparent thane who delved into tombs to hunt vampires and responded to summons from jarls with as much composure as he did teasing from his traveling companions.

The guards pushed the doors, slightly more impressive now that Serana stood in their shade, open silently as the old man reached them. One of the guards took their reins, handing them off to a boy who had come running from stables attached to the building. Serana supposed that while it lacked grandeur to have horse-stalls attached to the jarl's hall, these were undoubtedly the safest stables in the city. As the three entered into the hall, the doors slammed shut behind them, and Serana could not help a nervous tremor as she considered all of the ways this could be a trap. If Lydia felt similar reservations, the big woman hid it well. Velandryn, for his part, was already halfway up the hall, presumably eager to learn what the jarl was playing at, or perhaps attempting to bury his nerves under action.

The hall was simple, but Serana found it a pleasant change of venue from the gloom outside. Braziers burned merrily behind the smooth wooden columns that ran the length of the hall, giving the entire room a soft warmth and light. Numerous doors studded the walls, and four stairways gave access to galleries that ran nearly the entirety of the long room. A few spectators watched from the railings, none of them visibly armed. Evidently, this building was the center of activity in Mothal. And all of it was centered on the woman they had come to meet.

Clearly, this Jarl Idgrod understood the importance of commanding a space. Her high-backed throne dominated the far end of her hall, situated on a raised platform and flanked by two statues, each half again as tall as Lydia. They were carved of a light stone, though Serana was no mason and could tell no more than that. One was a warrior in bulky armor holding a pair of axes and menacing some unseen foe, while the other depicted a robed figure with arms raised above its head. Both were intricately detailed but for the faces; the warrior's was simply a smooth expanse beneath helm and hair, while the robed figure's cowl covered an empty void. They were beautiful, but slightly unnerving to look upon. Between them, sitting easily on the throne, was an aged woman wearing a circlet studded with gems, tall like most of the Nords of this age but made small by the scale of her surroundings. She sat slumped in the throne, eyes closed. As their little party approached, one of the guards slammed the butt of his spear on the stone beneath his feet, and the old woman jerked awake. She looked down at the approaching party, and then reached out to grasp a carved walking stick. She pointed towards a doorway before rising to her feet, almost seeming to climb out of her throne. She made her way, ever so slowly, towards the door she had indicated, leaning on the bronze-clad warrior with one arm, and her stick with the other. At the door, she turned and looked back, and the old man who had shown them in bowed at Serana and her companions and proffered his hand in the jarl's direction. With a start, Serana realized that they were being invited to meet the jarl privately, as opposed to before her throne, and wondered at the strangeness of all this. This seemed an extraordinary gesture for the jarl, unless travelers were even rarer than Serana had thought. Behind them, she could make out several of the spectators whispering among themselves. Evidently this was not business as usual in Morthal.

The room they entered was small but richly furnished, and empty save for one other person, a young woman reading a book who looked up startled when they entered. She began to rise. "Mother, what—"

"It's quite all right, daughter." The jarl of Morthal leaned over to pat the girl on the shoulder and nearly toppled over herself. "We have guests, is all. I have seen them." At those words, the younger woman sank back into her seat and began scrutinizing the newcomers with open curiosity. The old man came into the room behind them, shutting the door as he did so. The warrior in bronze had never left the jarl's side, and stood silently as she took a seat behind a large desk, empty but for a few neat stacks of paper.

"I am Idgrod, called the Ravenscrone by some, and I am jarl of Morthal and the hold of Hjaalmarch." She spoke with a pleasant voice, but one that quavered slightly on certain sounds, revealing the truth of her age. Her gaze wandered slightly, and tip of her walking stick trembled slightly as she pointed it in their direction. "I saw that you three would arrive, and I would greet you. From here, I have seen no more."

"You saw us, you said." If Velandryn had any feelings about her infirmity or odd decision to hold a private audience, he hid it well. "How?"

The old woman smiled. "I see more than most, by the grace of the Eight. Things that will be, or that must be. I saw the three of you coming to us as the discontented raged outside. And so it was." She smiled again, with the tremulous intimacy of a doting grandmother. "I am glad you have come now, as I think I need your help."

Velandryn's expression had changed. Where before Serana would have said that his manner was that of one reluctantly humoring another who was playing some game, now he grew serious. "Very well. How can we assist?" Serana was more than a little shocked. She never would have figured Velandryn for one to blindly march to another's pace. She would have politely declined and went on her way. Which, if he intends to take up some insane task…

The old woman smiled broadly and leaned forward. "It is so good of you to ask…"

"So, care to explain why we're investigating a house fire, or are you just going to go silent and agree to some other absurd request?" Serana's words were not unexpected, but the fact that Lydia gave the slightest of nods caught Velandryn somewhat off-guard. Not that he had expected his housecarl to be overjoyed about this, but her displaying agreement with the vampire was unusual.

"Lydia, you also disapprove?" If he was going to override the objections of two-thirds of their group, he might as well her it all.

The big woman sighed. "Morthal has an unenviable reputation, and Jarl Idgrod is…no Jarl Balgruuf, from all that I have heard."

"Meaning that she is what? Weak? Mad? Attempting to use a holy gift as best she can?" He almost regretted those words as Lydia glared at him fiercely.

"She rules based on visions! What can you expect from someone like that? It's no wonder the people don't trust her! She claims she's seen us, and then tells us to look into somebody's house burning down! She's the jarl, she should have more important matters to deal with! Leave arson for the guards; it's no wonder her people are upset!" Lydia was incensed; he had never seen her like this before. Ordinarily, she was reserved to the point of rudeness when around other people. Aside from the three of them, the street was deserted, but she must have come to some decision about Serana to trust her so. Of course, she could also simply have decided that the other woman's opinion was irrelevant. The vampire, for her part, had looked straight at him, eyes shining, the moment the words holy gift had left his mouth.

For Velandryn, however, the issue was slightly different. "You distrust visions? Have your people no seers?" It was true that the Nords did not like magic, but if they were really foolish enough to deny themselves the gifts of Azura…Oh. He was some kind of fool as well, it seemed. Of course they wouldn't seek out abilities granted by a Daedra. Even if she claimed it came from the Aedra.

"Not really. Nords don't like the idea that our future is written for us. People like Jarl Idgrod…" She shook her head. "We should be on our way. Solitude is close enough by ship."

Velandryn shrugged. "The day is more than half-gone already. Any captain fool enough to brave the swamp by night is nobody I want to trust my fate to. At sundown, everyone will probably gather in the taverns, correct?" At Lydia's affirmation, he continued. "We find a place near the docks, make a deal with a good captain, and charter passage for the morrow. In the meantime, I'd just as soon do as the jarl wants. This isn't some piss-stained farmer who lost a pig. Morthal might not be your favorite hold, but Idgrod is one of the nine rulers of Skyrim. There are worse people with whom to curry favor." The sliver of Serana that he could see did not appear entirely convinced, but Lydia was nodding, seemingly mollified for now.

The big woman sighed. "She's kind enough, I suppose, but I feel as though she isn't really up to the task…" She trailed off, but Velandryn couldn't help but agree with her half-spoken sentiment. Whether her visions had taken a toll or merely hastened an inevitable process, the jarl had come across as overwhelmed by the job; she had too often been unfocused and only sporadically effective in conveying what she needed. Welcoming us in such a manner and then putting us to work like this is odd, to say the least. The old man, who had turned out to be her steward and husband, had handled most of the details, leaving the jarl to nod along.

Looking away, his housecarl pointed. "Looks like that's it, my—" She snapped her jaw shut, doubtless swallowing the final word. Velandryn clasped her by the shoulder as he passed.

Jarl Idgrod had told them of the unexplained fire three days past that had taken Hroggar's family and reduced the house before them to its pitiable state, and the suspicion that surrounded the events. Of Alva, and how Hroggar had been in the young woman's arms almost before the ashes were cold. Velandryn had to agree that it sounded suspiciously like murder, done in the name of lust. He did not fully believe the jarl's explanation that her guards were 'too close' to the issue to investigate, but as long as it was for a good reason, he could live with being kept partially in the dark. No doubt Lydia would have been shocked as his being so accepting of the deception, but he was willing to give the old woman the benefit of the doubt. Jarl Idgrod might not be an Ashlander Wise-Woman or Azurite mystic, but her gift was doubtless a blessing of the Twilight Queen. Those so blessed were often faced with suspicion and hostility by the ignorant, and Velandryn knew that it could not be easy to rule over Nords when so empowered. Another reason for doing this, one he had not felt the need to share, was simpler than the other: He simply wanted to help the odd jarl stuck in a miserable swamp. He rather liked this Jarl Idgrod, and the fact that a great many Nords disagreed with the old woman's methods only strengthened his feelings. With a sidelong glance at Serana, he had the stray thought that she too had embraced a way shunned by the Nord community at large, and could therefore merit similar respect. Tamping that idea down before it could go anywhere troublesome, he stooped to examine the hearth, where Hroggar claimed the fire had started, caused by his wife's cooking.

The house was little more than a skeleton, with the foundation supporting a few waist-high chunks of charred wall and the odd beam that had not been consumed. Velandryn had never studied fire patterning, but he knew that there were ways to tell where one had started. Unfortunately, if this Hroggar was smart, he would likely have simply spilled the bear fat himself and blamed it on his wife. Velandryn would have preferred to lock Hroggar and Alva in separate rooms and interrogate them exhaustively about their relationship and the events surrounding the fire, but that would probably have violated Jarl Idgrod's request not to draw attention to themselves. She wanted a conclusion, so she could show her people that justice had been done, one way or another. The people want Hroggar to pay, though. If the man was truly innocent, would that satisfy the people of Morthal? Or were they meant to find his guilt, regardless of the facts? "See if there's anything worth knowing, and come tell me if you find it." Jarl Idgrod had been clear with her instructions, if not her motivations.

There was little to find, here in this shell of a home. Lydia had gathered a few twisted pieces of metal that might once have been cookware, and Velandryn had found a burned little box containing cheap gems and a singed scrap of ribbon, along with what looked to once have been letters of some sort, though they were now completely illegible. Serana kept glancing at the charred remains of a child's bed, but when Velandryn asked, she was unable to identify anything more than a feeling that something was there. She poked through the remains for a time, while Velandryn took to inspecting the foundation. If there was a cubby or niche in the stone, some evidence could have survived in there. The shadows were lengthening, and it occurred to Velandryn that soon it would be a good time to go about finding a boat to take them to Solitude. Just then, he heard a voice from where he had last seen Serana. It was higher than hers, however, and he could have sworn it he heard the words 'hide and seek.'

He turned, but a huge black chunk of twisted timbers blocked his view of whoever was talking. He heard Serana respond; her tones were soothing in a way Velandryn had not yet heard from her. As he peered around the obstruction, he saw a shimmering figure twirling and dancing around Serana, speaking in that high, childish voice. With a start, he realized what it was.

Just then, the transparent little girl saw him and waved. "Have you come to play too?" With a smile, Velandryn stepped out and approached.

"I have, although I was wondering if I could ask you a question or two." He wasn't good at talking to children. Dunmer children were manageable at least, but human young made him vaguely uncomfortable. Those of his people of more than ten years or so he could generally handle, and those too young to hold a sensible conversation could be safely ignored. They were a valuable resource for the future of a nation, of course, but he had never felt the need to be the one interacting with them. Others were far better suited for such tasks, and it made no sense for him to waste his time. Unless, of course, it is the ghost of a dead girl, who may have information we require.

Ghosts of children were rare, as their emotions were generally too unfocused to resonate with the strength necessary to create the echo of living magicka that was a ghost. If the girl had been a sorcerous prodigy, perhaps…but then would she really have died in a house fire? Something odd was at work here. With a chill, he realized the proximity of the vast, fog-shrouded expanse just beyond the town. Serana had felt it too, he would wager, and even Lydia had been on edge. There was power out there, among the waters and in the earth. Suddenly, he was seized with the fervent hope that this was nothing more than a simple lust-filled murder, or a tragic accident. Whatever was out there, beyond the light, he wanted no part of it.

Unaware of his dark thoughts, the little ghost stopped, offering a tiny curtsy. "I'm Helgi. Everyone's gone, but will you play with me? I want to play hide and seek. With you, and her, and we can hide from the other one."

"The other one?" Velandryn was wondering if she meant Lydia when the woman herself appeared, stopping to stare dumbly when confronted with the situation.

Serana smiled, and went to one knee beside the girl. "Is that the other one? Her name is Lydia, and she's very nice." Velandryn wondered if anyone had ever used those words to refer to his housecarl before. The vampire, for her part, was using the gentle tone he had heard earlier, and she had also removed her wrappings, showing a face that, in comparison to her usual guarded expression, positively glowed with kindness towards the little one.

The ghost laughed, seemingly at ease thanks to Serana's manner. "No, silly!" Then she shivered and the laughter vanished from her spectral face. The house was mostly in shadow now, and Velandryn realized that night was falling. Ghosts don't feel cold, do they? "She's coming for me, where I am. She said we'd be together forever, but I'm scared." She tried to cling to Serana, but her hands passed through the vampire. "I want mommy! Don't let her take me!"

Her body. "Is she buried somewhere?" Some power was clearly being worked on the girl's body, and the ghost could feel the connection. He did not know if this was an intentional part of the ritual or the result of a shoddy spell, but the body was the key. "Where were you buried?" He wanted to impress upon the once-child the urgency of this, but how could he make her understand?

Serana, once again, managed to engage with the girl. "Your name is Helgi, right?" Velandryn vaguely recalled the jarl's steward mentioning that while giving them background on the fire. Serana continued, "Do you know where the other one is? Where you are?"

Helgi sniffed. "It's cold and dark. She has to dig down to get me, I can hear her digging." She tried to cling to Serana again, and when she failed clasped her pale arms around herself. "Don't let her take me! Please!" She began sobbing now, and Serana tried once more to put her arms around the trembling figure.

We need that location. Whatever mischief this 'other one' was up to clearly needed her body, so that was the lead. "How do Nords handle their dead, Lydia?" He didn't want to make an issue of it, but this wouldn't be happening if they had the sense to burn their bodies like civilized folk.

His housecarl looked thoughtful. "Most places, a Hall of the Dead for the honored fallen. Family catacombs, or the outer tomb." She studied the little ghost. "Not for common children though, and not in Morthal. They follow the Old Ways here." She suddenly pointed at the little ghost. "A graveyard! Are you in a graveyard?" The guard in her seemed to have won out over any reluctance to talk to an undead. There was trouble happening, and it needed to be stopped.

The girl nodded. "Maybe? It's dark and scary…" She trailed off, and looked as though she wanted to cry again.

Serana leaned in closer, and put a hand on the child's cheek. There could be no tactile sensation, of course, but Helgi seemed happy for the gesture. "Can you show us the graveyard, Helgi? It will let us help you."

The girl nodded, and started moving. "It's this way." After a step, she paused. "I can feel it! I'm over there!" She took off running, a glowing figure in the darkness.

"After her!" Velandryn wasn't sure if he had spoken or one of the others had echoed his thoughts, but within a heartbeat all three of them were running. Helgi had apparently forgotten that she was supposed to be leading other people, and was barreling down the street away from her house at full speed. Fortunately, she lacked the presence of mind to fully overcome the physical limitations that a child possessed, so her speed was merely impressive rather than impossible. She also seemed content to stick to the streets, which made everyone's lives easier. He didn't want to have to deal with a ghost child running through people's walls. Lydia, for all of her heavy armor, moved as fast as he did, years of conditioning proving their worth. Serana gave a mighty leap and landed gracefully on one of the houses nearby, continuing their pursuit from above. For Velandryn, he just tried to focus on catching up with the ghost that called itself Helgi. She might think herself a little girl, but she passed through stones and glided over uneven ground where her pursuers did not. The darkness did not help, and Velandryn soon decided that sprinting was not an ideal condition for casting night-eye. He managed it eventually, however, and was running beside the girl steadily if not easily.

"What can you tell me about the other one, Helgi? Who…is it?" His breath was harsh in his ears, his blood pounded, and a knot of pain had settled in his side. He wondered if Lydia knew of a way to improve one's skill at running. It would doubtless be unpleasant, but if the alternative was this...

"She was supposed to burn down the house, to…kill…mommy and me, but she wanted to keep me with her." Helgi, by contrast, had no lungs to speak of, and spoke easily, if not happily. "She said we'd be together forever, but—"

They had reached the looming shape that had once been Morthal's wall, and Helgi pointed. "It's her! She put her mouth on my neck, and it hurt!"

It made sense, Velandryn knew, for a town that was half-swamp to put a graveyard on as solid of ground as possible. The graveyard had been placed well for that, upon a grassy slope rising to the south of town. The mountains loomed to the south, and the moons cast the scene in pale beauty. When first chosen, it must have been fully outside of the town, though now a few buildings rose around the edges of the field of graves. However, what drew their eyes was the figure amidst the graves, pulling a coffin from the earth. Even with his night-eye, Velandryn couldn't make out any details, but Helgi's description had not been ambiguous.

"Vampire! Stand down at once!" Lydia's shout wasn't how Velandryn would have approached the undead, but the big woman was advancing, crossbow raised. The vampire's cowled head turned to regard her, then it moved, faster than any human, as Serana had when consumed by hunger.

The vampire covered ground at an alarming rate, and Velandryn frantically gathered magicka in his hands. It was moving damn fast, and there was none of the hesitancy that had slowed Serana during her episode. Indeed, this one was almost on them, dodging Lydia's crossbow shot, and Velandryn only had time to thrust out a hand, hoping that the magicka would be sufficient to ignite—

Serana appeared out of nowhere, catching the vampire in the side and sending it spinning to the ground. It rose, trembling and spitting curses in a harsh voice, and the two faced off, circling slowly. Serana's ornate sword was in her hand, while the vampire, face still hidden, had empty hands curled into claws. Its fingers gave a spasm and it lunged, almost too fast for Velandryn to see. There was a blur of motion and the vampire reeled back, one of its arms hanging at an improbable angle. Serana's blade was alive in her hands, darting in to deliver another punishing blow that sent the vampire reeling to the ground.

The vampire rose, and its face was made visible. Her face, as it seemed the vampire had once been a Nord woman, though the red eyes and sharp teeth left no doubt as to what she was now. The two vampires squared off, each poised to strike. The enemy vampire—and Velandryn had never thought he would need to make that distinction—opened her mouth and gave a light laugh. The airy sound was so incongruous that Velandryn took a second to process it, as though his mind needed to be convinced that such a thing had happened. It wasn't until he snapped back and realized that several seconds had passed with him unmoving that he understood it had been a vampiric art of some sort.

Fortunately, the vampire was unable to take advantage of his distraction. Lydia had not, apparently, been enthralled by the laugh and her second bolt did not miss. The short haft sprouted from the other vampire's chest, and she staggered, eyes wide in shock. The sound that left her mouth now was no laugh, but an artless keening of pain and rage that sent shivers down his spine. Before Velandryn could register movement, Serana was on her, and in mere seconds the other vampire lay still on the ground. Velandryn closed, magicka primed and the burning sword ready to be called forth, but there was no need. Either Serana's swordwork or Lydia's bolt looked to have pierced its heart, and its head was nearly hacked off besides. Velandryn sighed.

"No questioning her now, I suppose." He turned to Helgi, who had watched the brief fight silently. "Do you know who that was? Was she the one who killed you?"

"Laelette!" The shout came from the darkness, and Velandryn turned, raising his hand and readying his magicka once more. However, it was only a Nord, dressed in common clothing and with panic splashed across his face. "Laelette! Oh gods, no!" He fell to his knees beside the vampire, cradling her head and weeping into her robes. Velandryn stepped forward, but a hand on his shoulder drew him up short.

"The man lost someone dear to him, my thane. Let him grieve for a moment." Lydia's face was grim. "Go, help the girl. I'll watch him, talk to him when he comes around. Behind her, Serana was already kneeling to talk with Helgi again. Smart thinking. The ghost might be able to tell them more. If one vampire was involved, there could well be others about.

The little girl was looking down at her coffin as she spoke. "She was supposed to kill us, she said, but she wanted me to play with her forever. I woke up and she said we could be together, but I was all burned up. It hurt so much! She said she would come back and fix me, but I was like this!"

The girl's account was only partly comprehensible, and Velandryn didn't know enough about vampiric techniques to analyze all of the implication. He looked to Serana. "What happened here? What can be done for her?"

The woman sighed. "This Laelette tried to raise her, but the body was ruined, by fire, no less. Fire it…isn't great for us." She looked at him. "Vampires…our souls are the same as when…as before, but altered by the ritual. Helgi's soul couldn't be reunited with her body. Either the damage was too great, or she had been dead too long, or Laelette simply botched it. Helgi is dead, truly, and her soul departed. This is the echo, the resonance that stays behind."

Velandryn nodded. The precise mechanism was not dissimilar to other cases of external factors causing the formation of a ghost, and it wasn't inconceivable that a vampiric ritual could have that effect. He had some knowledge of soul magic, but the craft to which Serana was referring fell outside of the Temple's teachings. He would have to trust her. Reluctantly, he nodded. "Helgi, is there anything else at all you can tell us that would help? We want to find the people who hurt you." An idea occurred to him. "What can you tell me about Hroggar—about your father?"

The girl thought, chewing on her lower lip. Finally, she looked up. "Daddy was acting like he was mad. He was always gone, even when it was night. He and mommy were fighting at dinner, and he left. He slammed the door." She looked back down. "Mommy didn't like him being friends with Alva."

Alva. The woman Hroggar was now bedding, unless Velandryn was even worse with Nord names than he thought. Nothing conclusive, but it confirmed that it wasn't simply consolation the man was seeking. However, Helgi was now shivering, and the lines of her form looked to be losing some of their definition. He glanced at Serana. "What happens when the one who tried to raise her dies?"

Her eyes were as guileless as he had yet seen them. "This is all new to me, but nothing good, I'd wager." She looked to Helgi. "You don't have to be afraid, we'll help you." The little girl sniffed and nodded, and Velandryn looked over to where Lydia was comforting the man now hunched over the vampire's corpse, talking to him in a low voice. Hopefully she would be able to get something out of him.

He turned back to Serana and Helgi. "I can offer…aid, of a sort, I suppose." He pulled Serana aside. "No doubt the Nords have already performed the rites of Arkay or whatever they use here, but I might be able to help. The girl's body is doubtless providing a tether for the resonant form. If I incinerate the body, reduce it to ash and dispel the form, any lingering enchantment should be eradicated. The ghost would dispel."

Serana had an odd look in her eyes. "Wouldn't that hurt her?"

"Nothing I've read has ever suggested ghosts can feel pain, though I'm the first to admit this isn't a standard situation." He looked at the coffin and the ghost, and sighed. "We could attempt to remove the spell, or curse, or whatever, from the body itself without destroying it. I'd need your input though, and that would require you to give me secrets of vampire spellcraft."

Serana looked away. Velandryn could only begin to guess at the mental contortions she was going through, but he dearly wanted her to assent. He had no desire to harm the child more than necessary, and her presence here clearly triggered an emotional response in Serana, which gave him the edge. If Serana accepted, he stood to gain some part of vampire knowledge, something no mortal would ordinarily have any chance at, and he would prefer to give the child a clean departure besides. She should not suffer for her father's sins. A surprisingly controversial

Finally she looked back at him, and where he had expected to see some conflict, there was only determination. "Pay close attention." She easily pulled the top off of the coffin, and leaned down to study the body. Velandryn joined her, and Helgi stooped beside him, gazing down at the burned ruin of her body.

The little ghost began to sniff. "It hurt. It hurt so bad." She crouched again, hugging her knees. "I just want my mommy…" She devolved into sobs.

Serana looked as though she was affected as well, but she swallowed a couple of times and pointed to the corpse's neck. The burns were horrific, and only the vaguest suggestion of some other trauma could be made out where Serana was pointing. "She would have bitten there. I'm not familiar with the clan she belongs to, but the power is emanating from that spot."

Velandryn extended his hand, letting magicka probe the wound. Immediately, a force of some sort pressed back against him, though it felt muted, as though it was generated from a great distance. Remote magical source? From the fragments of knowledge he recalled, that could mean there was another vampire in play, one that had a direct bloodline through Laelette. That was a worry for after, though.

He focused on analysis, letting his magicka map the extent of the foreign power in the little girl's remains. When he felt it, saw what had happened, he felt bile rise somewhere deep within him. The magic had inundated the flesh, but the body's systems had failed, leaving the power with nowhere to go. The ghost had been an outpouring, a tangential effect of an attempt by an untrained used to force magicka into a body that gave it no exit. Frankly, they were lucky that it hadn't simply turned the girl into a zombie or some other kind of fleshwalker. However, now that he studied the spell—or curse, considering the source—he realized that wouldn't have happened. There was intent behind this. It was designed to isolate the soul, and had created a facsimile when no soul could be found. A shudder ran through him as he realized that he was experiencing the manifest power of vampirism, and he had to restrain himself from simply incinerating the body and the coffin to unmake this tainted spell as quickly as possible.

He looked at the little ghost. Hers had not been a holy Recollection—she had been created to fill the void of a departed soul by foul magic—but her nature was not evil. He could not even begin to comprehend the ramifications of her continued existence, and silently gave thanks that there was no way she would outlast the night. A small part of him wondered how often tiny madnesses like these occurred, and how the faithful were supposed to deal with them. I am trying, Blessed Three, but you do not make it easy.

The Temple's strictures on the undead were absolute. Any body or spirit from outside of the Waiting Doors as set forth in the Canticles of Service was heretical, an abomination to be unmade. Putting Serana and the unique issue she presented aside, he thought he could do the right thing here. By disrupting the spell that was still active on Helgi's body he could unmake the ghost, give whatever shade of consciousness inhabited this world some measure of peace, and learn a bit more about how best to combat vampires. Niggling theological implications could be set aside to be mulled over later, preferably with the assistance of a good strong drink.

Resolved, he dove back into the array. Serana guided him to several key confluences where the magic would have manipulated the body and soul, binding both into a new whole. Her knowledge was impressive, though she claimed several times not to have seen this particular style before. That was interesting, as Velandryn had briefly studied the 'vampire's disease,' or porphyric hemophilia, and could confidently state that this magic was the final stage of that affliction. That Serana was unfamiliar with it had worrisome implications, as her bloodline could well be distinct from the more common clans, and therefore possessing powers that set them well outside of vampiric norms. There was no need to share those thoughts with her right now, however.

In a matter of minutes, they had unraveled most of the array. The body was even more of a ruin, as several of the nodes had required physical manipulation, but the power was ebbing away into the air, and Helgi was losing more of her shape. She ran to them then, and smiled. "I feel better now. I think I can hear mommy! Thank you for everything!" Velandryn sent a pulse of magicka through the corpse and overrode any remaining vestiges of the spell, Helgi glowed blindingly bright for an instant, and then the ghost was gone, leaving no trace save a mangled corpse in a moonlit graveyard.

Velandryn sat back against a gravestone and exhaled heavily. "Well, it's done." He had performed a feat he never even considered, thwarted a vampire, and learned quite a bit about how vampirism affected the body. He wondered if he could dissect this Laelette to study how her physiology had been altered, but the male Nord would probably object. Also Serana, and likely Lydia as well. Another sigh. Vampires and Nords.

"Do you think she really did? See her mother, I mean?" Serana sat on the gravestone to his right, peering at him with serious eyes.

He shook his head. "It was— she—It wasn't actually her…" He sighed. "I have no idea. I'm going to need to give this one some consideration, I think." He looked up at the moons. "Whatever was there, whatever spoke to us, thought Helgi's mother was there." He looked back down, at the small body. "The soul was gone. That's without question. You saw the empty wells in the spell array. If there had been a soul, it would have been bound. What we got could only happen in the absence of such." He sighed. "So, Helgi was dead, her soul gone to…wherever Nord children go, and something that thought it was her was built in its place. And it thought it saw its mother." He chuckled, overcome by the bleak humor of it all. "What're you thinking?"

She watched him as he rose to his feet. "I hope she did. I hope…I hope she's happy. Helgi, or whatever she was." The vampire had a look on her face he had not yet seen, and it unnerved him. He was having a hard enough time keeping everything about Serana in context without her going and mourning lost little girls.

"I hope so too." Most likely, the entity had simply dissipated once free of the strictures of the curse. Background magicka, ready to be called forth when needed. That wasn't a particularly cheerful thought, though, and he felt no need to share it. He glanced over at Lydia. "Shall we see what our next step is?"

His housecarl gave them a look as they approached. The man beside her was still there, staring down at the corpse silently. Lydia stood, and spoke to them quietly. "His name is Thonnir, and Laelette was his wife. She disappeared about two weeks ago without a word to anyone. She had been spending a great deal of time with Alva, who said she ran off to join the Stormcloaks."

"Evidently, Alva was mistaken." Her name kept coming up, and Velandryn decided these revelations merited at least informing the jarl of what they had found. Either Alva was involved in some way, or she simply had horrifically bad luck.

Thonnir gave no sign of noticing as they left the graveyard, and Velandryn felt a momentary stab of pity for whatever poor bastard had to deal with this mess in the morning. Laelette's disposal would be made easier with sunrise, but Helgi's remains would be…unpleasant. As he passed the coffin, he stopped, considering. Then, he placed the lid back over the body, hiding it from view. He turned to find Serana's eyes boring holes in him. He shrugged. "The dead should be respected. Not left out for all to ogle." He strode away before she had a chance to respond.

Where the flight to the graveyard had been exhilarating, the return to the jarl carried an air of somber purpose. In truth, Serana had probably enjoyed the chase a bit too much, but she had kept her head and gotten an enjoyable, if a bit too brief, fight out of it so she would call it all to the good. Now, as they were ushered into the same room as before, though this time via back hallways so as not to draw so much attention, she wondered how all of this would end. She had no particular loyalty to whatever clan of vampires happened to be working in Morthal, and would gladly see them exterminated for what they had done to Helgi. However, she also knew that a town hunting vampires was likely to be unsafe for her. She couldn't hide her eyes, after all. A few comments Velandryn had let slip revealed that the Volkihar were not common in this age, but when people's minds turned to vampires, it was only a matter of time until the woman with the yellow eyes who wrapped up in the sun got accused.

"A vampire?" Jarl Idgrod's voice was as strong as Serana had yet heard it, shock snapping her back to her full senses. "And you suspect Alva is involved?"

Velandryn bowed slightly. "It is possible, Jarl Idgrod. We have heard Alva identified from two independent sources. She was with Hroggar prior to the murders, as testified by his daughter. She was seen with Laelette shortly before the other woman's disappearance, and fed misleading information to Thonnir. At the very least, she has knowledge, and should be brought in for questioning."

The warrior in the bronze armor stirred. "You say that, but what if she is innocent? We can't go dragging women off the street to accuse them without evidence!"

The jarl nodded. "Gorm makes a valid point. Without evidence, which the words of a ghost and a dead vampire are not," she looked at them severely "my hands are tied." She rose, the walking stick trembling.

Lydia stepped forward. "Jarl Idgrod, with all due respect, the vampire Laelette was likely of Clan Cyrodiil, whose members are masters of deception." She drew herself up. "I have participated in actions against members of this clan, and can offer—"

"No, no no, it's quite alright." The jarl waived her hand airily in dismissal. "The guard will act when I tell them, and not before." She stared at them all in turn. "Is that understood? If so, then thank you and good day."

Perhaps she is mad. Velandryn, however, once more accepted the jarl's eccentric mood shift and abrupt dismissal with an equanimity that bordered on impassiveness. He bowed slightly, turned, and departed. Serana hurried to catch up with him, and Lydia did the same. The steward showed them to small outer door and departed without a word. Lydia opened her mouth but Velandryn held up a hand.

"Not here. Lydia, the maul is still on your horse?" She nodded, face registering her confusion. Suddenly, Serana realized what was going to happen, and felt a thrill of anticipation.

Alva's house had not been hard to find, though it looked no different from those around it. Morthal was small enough that every guard knew the general region where people lived, and once they were close, it was only a matter of locating a sufficiently drunken local. Half a minute of rambling about what a fine woman she was later, and they had the location. Lydia hefted the maul in her hands, and looked at the front door. "My thane, is this wise?"

It was Serana who answered, the vampire's words doubtless echoing the thoughts of her thane, as they were wont to do. "The jarl as much as said that she wanted us to gather evidence. How else are we supposed to procure it?"

"But like this?" Were she still in Whiterun, she would have had the backing of the jarl and the rest of the guard in bringing the truth to light. As it was, the fact that Jarl Idgrod might have hinted at something did not give them the right to do this. However, if she was ordered…

"Lydia," her thane's voice was layered with the patronizing tone that meant he honestly could not understand why anyone would object to his logic, "Alva knows something. Three people are dead, and who knows how many more will follow? Tell me true, if Jarl Balgruuf had given this order, would you hesitate?"

That did it. "Not for an instant. Apologies, my thane."

He smiled. "Not a problem." He turned to Serana. "Be ready, the both of you. If she is a vampire, she'll show her true colors when she sees us coming." Then, with a smile, he turned back. "Lydia?"

She hefted the hammer. "I await your command, my thane."

"Open that door."

Chapter 12: To Live Forever

Summary:

Cornering a vampire, and hunting down a legend

Chapter Text

"I came to learn that Movarth Piquine could see in the dark almost as well as the light — an excellent talent, considering his interests were exclusively nocturnal."

"'Vampirism,' he said, and then paused at my quizzical look. 'I was told that you were someone I should seek out for help understanding it.'"

"He wanted to know about the vampires of eastern Skyrim. I told him about the most powerful tribe, the Volkihar, paranoid and cruel, whose very breath could freeze their victims' blood in the veins. I explained to him how they lived beneath the ice of remote and haunted lakes, never venturing into the world of men except to feed."

"'I don't believe in luck. I believe in knowledge and training. Your information helped me, and my skill at melee combat sealed the bloodsucker's fate. I've never believed in weaponry of any kind. Too many unknowns. Even the best swordsmith has created a flawed blade, but you know what your body is capable of. I know I can land a thousand blows without losing my balance, provided I get the first strike.'

'The first strike?' I murmured. 'So you must never be surprised.'

'That is why I came to you,' said Movarth. 'You know more than anyone alive about these monsters, in all their cursed varieties across the land.'"

"'Now, tell me,' he said. 'Of the vampires of Cyrodiil.'

I told him what I could. There was but one tribe in Cyrodiil, a powerful clan who had ousted all other competitors, much like the Imperials themselves had done. Their true name was unknown, lost in history, but they were experts at concealment. If they kept themselves well-fed, they were indistinguishable from living persons. They were cultured, more civilized than the vampires of the provinces, preferring to feed on victims while they were asleep, unaware.

'They will be difficult to surprise,' Movarth frowned. 'But I will seek one out, and tell you what I learn. And then you will tell me of the vampires of High Rock, and Hammerfell, and Elsweyr, and Black Marsh, and Morrowind, and the Sumurset Isles, yes?'

I nodded, knowing then that this was a man on an eternal quest. He wouldn't be satisfied with but the barest hint of how things were. He needed to know it all.

He did not return for a month, and on the night that he did, I could see his frustration and despair, though there were no lights burning in my chapel.

'I failed,' he said, as I lit a candle. 'You were right. I could not find a single one.'

I brought the light up to my face and smiled. He was surprised, even stunned by the pallor of my flesh, the dark hunger in my ageless eyes, and the teeth. Oh, yes, I think the teeth definitely surprised the man who could not afford to be surprised.

'I haven't fed in seventy-two hours,' I explained, as I fell on him. He did not land the first blow or the last."

Excerpts from Immortal Blood, Author and date of publication unknown

Lydia's blow did not, if one wanted to be pedantic, open the door. That implied that the door had previously existed in the state of closed, and was now open. Rather, Velandryn mused, the door had only moments before been intact and was now undergoing a transformation into a cloud of splinters.

He had heard stories about legendary weapons forged from ebony, of course, and Sudra's essay on its link to Lorkhan was considered required reading for those seeking any sort of background in Dunmer cosmology. The Chimer had called it Godsblood, and their work with it had predated any other race's use of the enigmatic ore. It possessed properties that set it apart from any known metal or stone; its closest analog was the rare volcanic glass called malachite from which his people spun both armor and ornamentation, and working with either required a lifetime of study. Whatever long-ago smith had made the maul Lydia now carried had clearly been skilled, though just as clearly unused to working with such a material. The head was rough and misshapen, with marks showing where the smith had labored to force it into shape and inelegant hide wrappings and steel nails binding the head to the haft. Still, as crude as it was, it pulverized its intended target, and revealed the dark interior of the room beyond.

Lydia was the first in, dropping the hammer at her feet and stepping over the threshold while drawing her favored sword and shield. Velandryn was only a step behind, channeling magicka into night-eye and glancing around the deserted room. It looked as though only a single person was living there, if the single place set at the table was anything to go by. Notably, the bed looked unused, and a second door, corded with steel, was set into the rear wall. From behind it came the thud of footsteps; clearly their entry had not gone unnoticed

The door was knocked open, and a man emerged from the blackness beyond. He was clad in roughspun pants and nothing else, bleeding from the neck. He brandished some sort of workman's hatchet, and the look in his eyes put Velandryn in mind of the thralls in Dimhollow Crypt.

Lydia approached him, shield raised. "Are you Hroggar? We are here on behalf of the jarl. Put the weapon down and come quietly."

Velandryn didn't need to hear Serana's sigh from behind him to know that it wouldn't work. Of course, no doubt Lydia knew just as well that the man was under Alva's spell. The wounds on his neck and the dullness of his eyes gave it away, and no man so ensorcelled would abandon his master.

From behind the man who was likely Hroggar, a soft voice came from the darkness. "My love, they are here to harm us." The man twitched, and brought his axe up before him. The voice sounded again. "Only you can defend me, my love."

With a snarl, the Nord dropped into a fighting stance. "Stay back, fiends!"

Out of nowhere, an idea came to Velandryn, and he decided to give it a try. Not killing Nords wasn't a habit he necessarily wanted to get into, but Hroggar would potentially be much more useful alive than dead. "Hroggar, we spoke with Helgi. Alva had her and your wife killed, Hroggar. It was not an accident." A name was a powerful thing in the unbinding of illusions. It recalled the self, and gave the soul a tether upon which to cling.

The man's eyes widened. "Lies! There was a fire…"

Serana took half a step forward. "Think, Hroggar. What did Alva say? Did she whisper to you, and make the pain go away? She was there when you were fighting with your wife, and there when your family died, wasn't she?"

Hroggar swayed, axe still in hand. "She…she…"

A woman stepped out from the doorway, baring herself to their eyes. A pale face with red eyes was framed by long black hair that fell in a great stream down past her hips. Pale lips curled up into a smile, and the tip of her tongue slipped out to wick away a thin trickle of blood escaping one corner of her mouth. Like Hroggar, she was naked above the waist, though the similarity ended there. Her bare breasts swung obscenely as she swept towards them, pink nipples erect against the milky-white skin. Her dress, which had been pulled down to her waist, pooled around her feet as she performed a twist of her hips and let it fall to the floor. She was wearing a scrap of white cloth about her loins that was perhaps, on the thinnest of technicalities, preserving her modesty; the firelight played with her body, running light and shadow over the taut skin of her stomach and the long slender outline of her legs. Some dark part of Velandryn wondered for a fleeting moment what it would be like, bedding her. Would a vampire—he cut off that line of thought and focused on the fight to come. We will fight. She is a hostile vampire, and there can be no other outcome.

Alva might be a vampire, but she was still gorgeous in every particular, and Velandryn felt a twinge of absurd and shameful jealousy as the woman twined her arms around Hroggar's bare chest. The vampire is the servant of Molag Bal, and its hunger is the curse of the Lord of Rape. Let there be no quarter for those who prey upon the innocent to sate their own dark desires. The Canticle of Absolution had guided the Ordinators in thousands of hunts, and its words restored his world to its proper way. She was an abomination, and a fair face only made fouler the twisted appetites that lurked within.

"Hroggar, my love, what lies are they telling you?" Her voice was soft and melodious, and judging by how the Nord relaxed the moment he heard it, he was too far gone to be saved. Could we kill her first and break the spell? Serana might know, but this was not the opportune time to formulate a strategy.

The vampire in question was glaring at the other. "Hiding behind a mortal?" The contempt in her voice was the harshest he had ever heard from Serana.

Alva laughed, and Velandryn braced himself, remembering Laelette. However, either his preparedness was sufficient or she was merely amused, since he felt nothing. "My dear, you have not lived until you've taken a mortal. A whisper," the word was murmured into Hroggar's ear, and he fell to his knees, "in the perfect moment, and they are yours. When he" her hand traced the marks her teeth had made on his neck "learned that his family had died, when he wept" she drove her fingers into the wound, twisting, and Hroggar gasped, "in that moment I had only to speak" she pulled her fingers from his neck, the digits dripping red with blood where they had been inside him, and brought them to her lips, "and he was mine." She raised her hand to her mouth and began to clean her fingers, inserting them one at a time and sucking with obscene and obvious delight. Velandryn wanted to attack her, to destroy her in this moment, but he couldn't yet. She might let something slip.

Only one thing left to slip away. Is that what you're waiting for? Was he? Was it mere lust? Or was she enchanting him? Clan Cyrodiil were subtle, it was said and perhaps—

A familiar metallic twang came from behind, and he flinched involuntarily. Alva must have seen the bolt coming, twisting at a speed Velandryn knew he could not hope to match, and so Lydia's shot merely passed through her hair, sending the ends of a few cut strands fluttering away from the vampire. His housecarl stepped forward, and raised the weapon again. On his other side, Serana had bolted forward, blade in hand. Their grotesque parley was over, it would seem.

Alva reached out and knocked Serana's blade aside with her hand, sending the weapon wide but opening a thin slice across the seductress's palm. Meanwhile, Hroggar, unheeding of his wound, snatched his axe from the ground and barreled at Velandryn snarling. Lydia raised her crossbow, but an idea struck Velandryn and he stepped in front of her.

"My thane—"

"Hold!" He had only a moment to pull this off, and it would require two spells with which he had little expertise. Hroggar would be on him in half a second, and the Nord was winding up with his axe. Perfect.

Velandryn stepped in and reached out, catching the human's arm over his head. The Nord would doubtless be able to overpower him in a few moments, but Velandryn only needed a heartbeat. He sent a pulse of magicka through the man, one laced with the most powerful spells of calming he could muster. The effect did not come as easily to him as anger, but the meditations he used for spiritual and emotional cleansing promoted certain paths of thinking and reflection, and facsimiles of those could be transmitted. It lacked any of the subtle elegance of his spells of fury; this was nothing more than a bare-bones emotional transference framework layered with interlocking patterns of illusory calmness and self-reflective meditations. It seemed to do the trick, however; Hroggar let the axe fall to the ground and stood still, swaying slightly in place. Unfortunately, Velandryn knew it could only last a moment, as Alva was doubtless far and away his superior in the domination of lesser minds. He might give Hroggar a moment's pause, but the vampire had been working on him for far longer, and her foul lessons would be written far too deep to be so easily affected. That was where the second spell came in.

One of the Missions of the New Temple was the preservation of the body Dunmeri, which meant that every Anointed was required to have at least a basic understanding of healing magic. The School of Restoration was not Velandryn's forte, but he could heal wounds, and simple punctures and trauma of the flesh such as Hroggar's were trivial. However, the power had to come from somewhere, and in situations of crisis, a healer could not afford to deplete their magicka too quickly. So, some simple spells of restoration contained a component that utilized the vitality and magicka of the wounded, essentially exhausting them to heal their wounds. Velandryn had only ever had to resort to it the once, but he had once heard an account of a healer who had subdued an unruly patient by sapping their strength as the wounds were knit, and Hroggar was nothing if not unruly…

The wound at his neck began to glow, skin crept over the raw muscles and bloody flesh, and Hroggar swayed. Velandryn placed one hand on the Nord's neck, and with the other gently took the axe from his hands. Hroggar stood still for a second, and Velandryn wondered if it had been enough. Then, the widower crumpled to the ground, unconscious. Velandryn shook his head. Now I'm sparing enemy Nords. He shuddered slightly. Best not to make a habit of it. He needed whatever information the man had, of course, but still. It's the principle of the thing.

He glanced up to see the vampires were trading blows with their fists, Serana's sword lying some distance away. Serana had shown her skill with a blade, but Alva was fighting with a gleeful grace that was fully a match for Serana's methodical blows. Each time the Volkihar woman moved towards her sword, Alva would intersperse herself with a giggle and resume the fight. Neither was tiring, and his best course of action—

THUNK!

Lydia, unseen by Velandryn or, apparently, the battling undead, had managed to line up a shot on Alva. It did no more than graze the woman, but in that moment of broken focus, Serana grabbed a handful of hair and pulled the other woman to the floor. With a blow that Velandryn thoughts should have set the house to shaking, Serana slammed her fist into Alva's gut, and she doubled over retching. Velandryn left Hroggar where he had fallen and moved over, ready to assist as needed. However, the Volkihar vampire needed no help, and dragged Alva off of the ground. She slammed her into a table viciously, and the battered vampire collapsed to her knees. She raised her hands, palms towards Serana, who merely took the opportunity to grab Alva by the hair once more and drive her knee into the kneeling woman's belly. Alva retched again, and vomited out a great gout of blood. Velandryn jumped back as the repulsive mess splashed off of the floor.

"Serana, enough!" She turned at his words, and he froze at the look in her eyes. He had expected bloodlust or the wild abandon of her earlier episode, but her golden eyes were cold. Furious, yes, but he could see that she was in control. "We need to interrogate her, and we can't do that if she dies."

Serana gave a derisive laugh. "She's a vampire, and she's been feeding well. A few taps won't break her." Alva tried to regain her feet, but Serana raised a hand. "Stay, or I put you back down as many times as it takes."

Velandryn drew her aside, though they both kept one eye on the vampire. Lydia was binding the unconscious Hroggar with a bedsheet, though her crossbow was still close to hand. He looked at her; they were of a height to within an inch or less. "It isn't bloodlust this time. Care to explain?"

Serana's eyes blazed. "You saw what she was doing to him. What she did to him? How can you not? She's evil!"

Velandryn considered her words. Of course, what Alva had done was horrific. She had, it seemed, seduced Hroggar, destroyed his family, and then taken advantage of his grief to turn him into little more than a mindless slave. He just hadn't expected Serana to be so…violent in her displeasure. As a vampire she would likely have seen such behaviors before. Ah, of course. He looked over at her, at the set of her jaw, at the slightly narrowed eyes, shining so bright amidst her pale skin and bold features. He wondered what she had seen. Or done. "There might be more vampires in Morthal. We need to know."

Serana nodded, then strode over to Alva and stomped on her hand. There was a crunch of bone beneath her boot, and the vampire screamed. "Talk! Are there others in Morthal?"

Alva gasped out her words while cradling her shattered hand. "Laelette! I turned her when she found out about me! No others, I swear!"

Velandryn felt his own hand twinge in sympathetic memory. For a moment, he was in the stink of a different swamp, and heard rough laughter from a lizard's mouth. He stepped forward, putting a hand on Serana's shoulder. "We have Laelette. The jarl is questioning her now." He forced himself to smile at the whimpering vampire. "How do you think we knew what you were?"

His story wouldn't hold up to scrutiny, but hopefully Alva lacked the presence of mind to poke holes in his narrative. They needed to get this done quickly, at least until they could determine for certain how many of the bloodsuckers they were liable to encounter. He looked up at Lydia and gestured towards the open doorway and the step leading into the blackness behind it. His housecarl nodded, and moved to investigate. She paused at the doorway, looked into the blackness, and shrugged. "It looks to be a basem*nt, my thane. Kill the vampire and we can investigate."

Alva crawled towards him, apparently having decided that he was her best chance at survival. The sad thing is, she might actually be right. Not that she would live out the night in any case, but Lydia would just kill her now, and Serana's fury looked to have Alva screaming until sunrise. "Please, I've told you what I can. I turned Laelette—"

"On whose orders?" Priests should speak quietly, taught the Temple, trusting their words and position rather than crass volume to command respect. This was a slightly different situation, but he was one step away from this entire thing spiraling horrifically out of control, and there was no harm in trying a familiar trick.

Something changed in Alva's eyes. Velandryn was no master at reading vampires, but he would hazard a guess that he had just given her something. It only flicked across her eyes for a moment, and was gone so quickly he wondered if he had imagined it. "Nobody's, I swear it! I only…Laelette discovered me, and she would have gone to the Jarl! We fought, and I…I…" She began weeping, great wracking sobs that shook her body. She reached out for his feet, and he stepped back slowly, not wanting to accidentally tread on the regurgitated blood that stained the floor.

Velandryn nodded at Lydia, and gestured at the dark doorway. Lydia pointed her sword at the vampire. Velandryn simply gestured slightly towards Serana. He wasn't entirely certain how Lydia would take that, but if she had been watching the same events he had, she should also have come to the conclusion that, in this case at least, he was not the one in danger from the Volkihar. With a glare, Lydia stepped into the blackness, and was soon lost from view. Alva, he hoped, would have noticed none of this, though Serana looked at him with amusem*nt dancing amidst the gold of her eyes.

She bent down and gripped a handful of Alva's hair, then brought the vampire's head up while keeping one knee on her back. "And who turned you, hmm?" He voice was soft and sweet, and made Velandryn's skin crawl. This was a new side of Serana, and he had to face the reality that despite the good qualities she had shown so far, and how easy she was to talk to, she was fundamentally an unknown, and these events only reinforced that. He still planned to attack the Volkihar den she was leading them to, of course, but he had come to enjoy her company thus far. Lydia was still suspicious, however, and if tonight had proven anything, it was that his housecarl might well be wiser than he was. Lydia will never let me hear the end of it.

Alva's eyes rolled in her head as she struggled to no avail. "It was on the road! I never saw their faces. There were three. They held me down, and one of them…he…" She began to cry again, and Serana sighed.

"You think I can't smell a lie, you wretched little mongrel? Speak!" That last word was punctuated by Alva's face slamming into the floor as Serana drove her hand, still gripping the vampire's hair, downward. She pulled Alva's head up again, and leaned in close. "Speak, or I will make you beg for an ending to your miserable existence. Who turned you? Tell me!" She had started speaking softly, but ended up screaming into the other vampire's bloodstained face.

Velandryn reached out gently, barely brushing her shoulder, but she spun, wrenching Alva bodily across the floor. "What? More mercy for this one? Want to ask her nicely about how she raped a man and slaughtered his wife and child?"

Velandryn raised a hand. "Physical pain, while crudely effective, is rarely the surest way to unveil the truth. My people spent a very long time policing their own, and the interrogation techniques of the Ordinators, while officially renounced by the New Temple, remain effective." He squatted down, looking full in Alva's eyes. "We may lack time for the more…elegant…of their ministrations, however, so why don't you make it easier? Tell us everything, tell us the truth, and I swear by the name of Nerevar that I shall command Serana to let you go free. If you don't, well…these are crude facilities, but they should suffice." In truth, while he probably hadn't explicitly lied, he also had no idea how the Ordinators under the Tribunal had carried out their questioning of dissidents and heretics. Those records were either sealed or destroyed, and not even the Ordinators-Defiant would dare risk the wrath of the Great Council by allowing those pieces of the past to once more see the light of day. So, Velandryn was left with horror stories and fragments of histories. Fortunately, so were the Nords.

Alva's eyes had opened wide, and she tried to break free of Serana's grip once again. "Wait, wait! I can tell you what you want to know—"

"No need, my thane." Lydia had returned, her heavy footfalls and voice preceding her return to the room above. "She kept a journal." She waved the small book in front of their faces. "She was turned by someone named Movarth. He's planning on attacking the town, and she was to turn guardsmen in preparation. Hroggar was just to protect her, and she gave the order for Laelette to kill his family."

Velandryn turned back to Alva, wondering if there was anything more he could get out of her, when pain lanced through him. Something slammed into his leg, and the ground rushed up to meet him. He got an arm out, but a cold grip was already around his wrist, and when Alva pulled, he collapsed. Serana had been thrown halfway across the room, a bloody chunk of Alva's hair still in her hand. Alva, bleeding from where she had torn free, bolted at his housecarl. Lydia yelled an alarm and reached for her weapons, but Alva's superhuman speed gave her an edge the housecarl could not hope to match.

Velandryn's fireball was quick and sloppy, but it did the job. The burn blossomed immediately across her naked back, and her run turned into an awkward sprawl in Lydia's direction. The Whiterun Nord was armed only with the diary, but her blow sent Alva spinning to the floor once again. She rose, spitting blood and curses, but this time Velandryn was on her, one hand gripping her by the throat, the other grabbing what was left of her hair to keep her head still.

"Thank you, Alva." Once more he spoke quietly, and he could see the confusion blossom in her eyes. "You made this easy."

Flame, like anger, was never far for Velandryn Savani. In times of great turmoil, both might rage freely within him, but usually he kept them as valued tools to be pulled forth at their master's command. He exhaled, and the smoking, screaming thing that had once been Alva collapsed to the ground. It twitched once, feebly, and moved no more.

Velandryn had been aware of some noise from outside, and when he looked through the windows he was confronted by a small crowd of townsfolk, milling about uncertainly. None had approached the door, though if the shouted commands from somewhere off in the darkness were anything to go by, that was liable to change with the somewhat late arrival of the Morthal Guard, or whatever they called themselves.

In fact, it was two separate groups who broke through. There were four in Morthal colors, but from the other direction came twice that number in Imperial reds and leathers. They both began shouting commands and inquiries, and managed to achieve a cascade of speech that was completely impossible to understand, let alone answer.

Velandryn decided to take charge; this could all get out of hand, and somebody needed to direct this mob to constructive action. "We need to speak with the jarl immediately." He pointed to the Morthal contingent. "See us there at once." He stepped forward and gestured at the Imperial commander, an Orc in the intricately layered steel plates that marked rank in the Legion. She looked at him suspiciously from beneath her crested helm. "I need you to contain that house."

She looked down at him. "And why would I want to do that?"

He sighed. Imperials loved their ranks; anybody not in the Legion would have a damn hard time ordering them around. Fortunately for him, he had a trump card. Lowering his voice, he leaned in close to the Orc. "There was a vampire in there." He pointed at Lydia. "She took a journal from the body, detailing an imminent attack on Morthal. The jarl and your superiors need to know about this, now." The bit about her superiors came to him only as he spoke the words; it might help sway her. "For now, though, we don't know who we can trust. I don't want word getting out or to even hear the word 'vampire' until we have half a legion smoking out their lair."

The commander nodded slowly. "I'm sending two of mine with you, make sure nothing happens. This is above my level, and if what you're saying is true we need to hammer them fast. I'll hold the house, contingent on orders otherwise." She began barking commands to her troop, and two peeled off to flank Velandryn. He gestured at his companions, and together with the waiting Morthal Guard, they headed off into the night.

"Movarth?" The old woman's voice was thick with emotion, and she nearly flung herself from her chair. They were in the small chamber again, though each time they came it seemed to grow more crowded. Now, a dark-skinned and mustachioed Imperial in ornate Legion armor was leaning over a map of the region spread on a nearby table and frowning. A one-armed Nord with a bristly beard leaned against a wall; his tabard slashed with the colors of Morthal and military bearing likely meant he was the captain of the Morthal Guard. He grimaced at the jarl's words, and rubbed his beard thoughtfully. The old steward and the jarl's housecarl completed the little crowd, though neither had reacted to the name.

"Do you know who that is?" Her thane's voice conveyed little more emotion that it usually did, but Lydia could tell he was tired. She had been looking forward to a warm bed and a good meal before setting out for Solitude. And instead we get this. She glanced over at Serana. Of course, maybe not all of us wanted exactly the same thing.

"A vampire thought killed over a hundred years ago." Gone was any of the old jarl's distance or grandmotherly affection. Lydia hoped that this news had shaken her out of the odd disinterest that had plagued their first meetings. "But this..." She paged through the journal, and her brow wrinkled. "Disgusting. I know where he was found the first time, and can point the way. I would see him dead, and his threat ended once and for all."

The Imperial saluted, fist on his chest. "Jarl Idgrod, I have only a few units detached from duties at the moment, but I can have two centuries ready within three days, if you give the word." He glanced down at the map. "Give me a week and I can pull another from Dragon Bridge and maybe two from the Pale, though Tituleius'll howl like a stuck pig if I grab so many of his."

Velandryn turned to look at the soldier. "There are less than two hundred soldiers guarding one of the holds of Skyrim?"

The legate laughed. "We're at war, Dunmer, in case you hadn't noticed. Tullius can harp on about Ulfric's 'little rebellion' all he'd like, but the Stormcloaks are fielding a damned army. There's likely half a legion of ours in Hjaalmarch alone—border hold, you know—but they're strung out along the passes, making sure Galmar Stone-Fist or Sindra Shield-Biter doesn't sneak a few hundred of those blue-cloaked bastards past the mountains and hit us in the ass." He snorted. "Best way to protect Morthal, after all. The mountains are covered in our camps, and nobody's fool enough to bring forces through the swamp. Control the choke points, and the town's safe." He glanced down at the map again. "Except for, well, vampires. We didn't account for the gods-damned vampires." He gave one final laugh. "Add in another Legion's worth of bodies bogged down holding what they can in the Pale, and you're damned lucky I can get you as many as that." He glanced at the jarl and the guard captain. "In any case, the guard exists for a reason."

Serana's voice took Lydia by surprise. She would not have thought the vampire would want to call attention to herself. "You have to strike tonight."

The one-armed man growled through his beard and stomped towards her. "Attack vampires at night? You addled, girl?"

Serana held her ground, despite being overtopped by a good span or more and outweighed by what was likely several stone. "If this Movarth has sent an agent to turn people, you can wager he has other watchers as well. By now, everyone who cares to will know something happened at Alva's home. Thanks to him," she nodded at Velandryn, "they won't know exactly what, but if Movarth has any wits, he'll have suspicions. Right now he could well be learning about it, and that means our window of opportunity is closing."

Lydia glanced around. The guard captain still looked skeptical, but the Imperial legate was nodding. She looked at the two commanders. "How many can you have ready to attack now?" She might not trust Serana, but after her brutal fight with Alva, Lydia didn't believe for a second that the other woman would make common cause with these vampires. A monster, but a principled one. For her part, Lydia had exulted with each blow Serana had landed on that wretched creature's flesh, and when her thane had finally turned that smug face to smoking ruin, she had felt kinship with the Dragonborn like never before. He was a good man, she knew, but sometimes he skirted the boundaries of what she considered proper. That ending, though…she smiled to herself. Killing vampires was a good night's work.

The guard captain looked thoughtful. "I can have the town well-ringed, nearly two hundred if I bring up the volunteers. To go after them, in their own lair, though…" He glanced at the jarl. "Forgive me, my jarl, but no more than ten or so who I would trust."

The legate laughed. "Ten? I've got a bare-bones garrison, and I can give you fifty who'll charge into those crypts or caves or whatever, no questions, no fear. Just say the word, Jarl Idgrod, and the Legion stands ready!" Lydia wondered if Velandryn's jibe earlier had kindled this enthusiasm within the man.

"And when the vampires block out their minds and turn them on each other, what then? When each man could be a liability if his mind holds secret doubts or fears, how many brave soldiers do you have in that case?" Serana's tone was so pleasant, Lydia wasn't entirely sure if she was mocking the man or if she might actually be genuinely concerned.

The Imperial sputtered out a few words, but Lydia had approached the jarl, who had simply been watching the proceedings. This is getting nowhere. "Jarl Idgrod, my name is Lydia of Whiterun, formerly of the Hold Guard." She spoke softly, not needing the room to hear her words.

The old woman smiled. "It is a pleasure to speak at last, Lydia of Whiterun. I suspect you have some wisdom of your own to offer?" She waved around the room. "Everyone else has done so, why should you not take your turn?"

Lydia bowed slightly. A jarl was deserving of respect, true, but she was housecarl to the Dragonborn, and thane of Whiterun besides, so she would offer a warrior's respect rather than a subordinate's. "Jarl Idgrod, against vampires you would be better served with five true warriors than fifty common guards. They must be skilled, but also driven, and understand full well what it is they face." A thought occurred to her. "Are there any in Morthal who call themselves Dawnguard?" however, she saw the jarl shaking her head before she had even finished her sentence.

"I have heard of this new Dawnguard and its mission, but there are none of that order here so far as I know." She smiled, and stood. Instantly, all discussion in the room ceased. An odd one she might be, but Idgrod Ravenscrone was, by the grace of Morihaus Breath-of-Kyne, Jarl of Morthal and the Hjaalmarch, Keeper of the Pale Way and Warder of Labyrinthian. While she stood, none spoke.

"I have made my decision." She smiled at Lydia and bowed in her direction. "Ready your forces to march at once. And I thank these brave adventurers for their courage in joining the attack!"

Lydia had known that it was coming, but even the most dedicated part of her quailed a bit at the thought of a direct assault on a vampire stronghold. However, she would rather die than show such fears to any present, so she merely turned to Velandryn and awaited his word. She had long since given up any hope that they would be quit of Morthal before seeing this through to the end, and it would have felt wrong besides to abandon this town to Movarth and his vile schemes.

Velandryn stepped forward, and offered a bow nearly identical to Lydia's. It would seem he remembered her lessons from Whiterun. "Jarl Idgrod, we would of course be delighted to assist." When he smiled, it was indistinguishable from a natural one, perhaps the best she had ever seen from him. "After, of course, a discussion on the going rate for vampire slayers."

Serana could not for the life of her recall the name of the vast marsh through which she now traveled, and it was Velandryn's fault. Lydia had used the proper name once, but Velandryn had called it the Hjaal Marsh, and that admittedly terrible pun had stuck like a burr in her mind. Now, tromping through it, she glared at the back of the Dark Elf's head, willing him to feel shame for forcing her to endure such mind-numbing idiocy. When the column slowly ground to a stop, however, she found her attention arrested by what lay before her.

To Serana's eyes, the cave was a poor abode for a master vampire, but the documents Jarl Idgrod had sent for were clear. This path into the side of a hillock jutting up from the damp earth was the only known aboveground entrance to a series of caverns beneath the swamp, the onetime lair of the master vampire called Movarth. One hundred and fourteen years ago, according to Jarl Idgrod, three full centuries of the Imperial Legion and a mob of townsfolk had descended on Movarth and his fledgling army, purging these caves and putting an end to the threat.

Or so they had thought. Serana could smell blood wafting up from the tunnel, and it was fresh. Around her, twenty or so members of the Imperial Legion and as many of Morthal's guard readied themselves, all of them nervously checking armor and weapons. Behind them, a small clump of townsfolk watched nervously. Four of the legionaries wore blue-slashed robes over heavy armor and hummed with latent magicka; presumably they were the Imperial Battlemages Lydia had mentioned once or twice. That woman, as well as the Dunmer she served, were off to one side, conferring in quiet voices. Serana tuned out the other sounds from all about her, and listened for their words.

"—on our way." Lydia's voice sounded weary, as though she had said much the same thing before.

"I'm not abandoning a town to vampires, and neither are you. I don't like Nords either, but that's a bit excessive, don't you think?" Once she had thought the elf's voice merely a monotone growl, but enough time listening to it had clued her in to the depths of emotion swimming in those deep tones. Right now, amusem*nt warred with exasperation. "For shame, Lydia, shirking your duty to the people of Skyrim."

"It's not Morthal I'm talking about. Once we reach Solitude—"

Just then, Velandryn turned and caught Serana's eyes in his. He held up a finger, and Lydia fell silent. He held her gaze for a long moment, and more out of reflex than any actual desire, she began maneuvering her magicka in the patterns that would open a mortal mind to her whims. Instantly she realized what she was doing, but in the heartbeat where her power reached out for him, something stirred. For the briefest of instants, in his eyes, there was something else. Something old, and angry, and she smelled for the merest of moments the tantalizing scent of his blood. She pushed it away, lest she relapse into a state she preferred not to think about, but the memory remained. Velandryn's eyes were back to normal, and he kept looking at her, as though nothing had happened. Or did it? Could she have imagined it, her hunger projecting something onto the Dark Elf? He had been in her thoughts too often of late, and even when she could not smell his blood, the memory lingered.

To drown out such troublesome thoughts, she listened to the talk around her, as the commanders planned their incursion and the troops traded gossip and rumors. A word caught her ear, dragon, and she focused on that.

"—near Rorikstead, they're saying. Flew over the town, heading north."

"Some of Duro's lads saw on out in the Pale. Didn't attack or nothing, but must have been a hundred feet at least!"

"Whiterun could kill one, so can we. Let the battlemages off the leash, bring in a few of those siege engineers from the Sixteenth Legion down in Falkreath, and the lizard wouldn't know what hit it."

"Hah, you Imperials always think you know what's best? The Dragonborn will stop them, just you wait!"

"You believe that rubbish? Hasn't been a Dragonborn since the Septims. We'll deal with those dragons the Imperial way, with tactical superiority!"

Dragons again? Come to think of it, Velandryn and Lydia had mentioned them as well. Was something going on with dragons in Skyrim? She had heard muttered whispers at some of the places they had passed, but she had never paid the mumblings of passers-by much mind. And this talk about a Dragonborn was…worrying. She had heard the stories, of course, and rumors would occasionally reach her family of this Tongue or that jarl claiming the title. Generally, it had ended in blood. If there was a Dragonborn running around…

A movement from the front diverted her away from that line of thinking. The Imperial commander, the Orc from Alva's home, was standing in front of all of them. "Listen up, you lot! I'm Garzog, decanus of the Morthal garrison, and I'm taking point here. You'll all listen, or you'll wind up dead!" She pointed to the man beside her, fully armored in Morthal colors. "Captain Franding's my second in command for this purge! We're working as one unit, so forget about rivalry. You can all argue over how many bloodsuckers you killed over drinks when we're done!"

The armored Franding stepped up, and held aloft a piece of parchment. "This is a map of the caves. We're going to go through slowly, and clear each passage. We're maintaining line-of-sight for this entire operation, so don't go running off to play hero. If you think you see something, shout it out. We brought enough torches and arrows to kill a whole city of the monsters!"

That was ill-done. Franding had chosen his words poorly. The mere notion of a city of vampires beneath the ground was unnerving many of the soldiers, Serana could tell. All had volunteered, but here, at the threshold of the vampire's lair, many found their courage lacking.

Velandryn moved forward, Lydia a less-than-silent shadow at his side. He walked right up to the entrance of the cave and peered in, then looked back at the assembled host. "It's your town, your families, your honor on the line. I already killed a vampire tonight." He shrugged with exaggerated nonchalance. "If you lot want to go home, and wonder who's next to be turned…"

The orc strode towards him. "Legionaries, form front! The elf has the right of it; we won't be outdone by some adventurers! Into the cave, and cleanse it for the Empire!"

Barely a step behind was Franding. "Morthal Guard, for the jarl and for honor!" His soldiers' cheer was less than hearty, but it was something, at least.

Velandryn watched as the two groups filed into the cave, and then gave her a small nod. "Shall we go kill more of your kin?"

That irked her. It might be a joke to him, but she was nothing like Alva or Laelette, or this beast Movarth who would make them his playthings! Stiffly, she nodded. "Let's go."

Velandryn had to give credit where credit was due, the Imperial forces were doing a fine job of sweeping the cave. They might be only a shadow of the Red Legions that had conquered most of Tamriel under Tiber Septim, but these soldiers knew discipline and skill at arms. At every branching, the Orc would consult the map and dispatch a number of troops down one of the tunnels. There were at least two of the battlemages with every group, and at no point did any soldier not have at least one other in sight. A line of communication ran back to the commanders at all times, and even surprise attacks were quickly cut off and eliminated. There were thralls, of course, and a few vampires, but superior numbers and the occasional burst of magic brought them down in short order. If vampires thrived of shadow and unease, the purging of this cave brought light and solid certainty, and seemed to be prevailing.

Once Garzog saw Velandryn's fireballs cut down a scrawny vampire who had tried to sneak behind them, the commander had decided she had an additional battlemage, and from then on the bark of "Dark Elf!" was commonly heard echoing through the halls. The Orc knew how to run an operation, he had to give her that. That little show at the entrance had been her idea; both Morthal guards and Imperial Legionaries seemed united in their desire not to be shown up by the strange Dunmer. Use their prejudice to drive them. He had entertained the idea before, but never been able to put it into action until now. A cunning one, for an Orc.

With each chamber cleared and tunnel investigated, Velandryn's unease grew. These vampires were paltry things. Even Laelette had been more dangerous, to say nothing of Alva. Serana confirmed it, when he spoke with her.

"This Movarth is a weak leader, if these are what he commands." She was kneeling over the body of a thrall, checking for something. "He would never be able to threaten Morthal with a force like this." She looked over to where one of the Morthal guards was side by side with a Legionary, talking amiably over the remains of a vampire. "The soldiers are getting complacent, and that's the kind of mindset that gets you killed."

When they brought their concerns to Garzog, however, the decanus wasn't particularly receptive to their worries. "We caught him with his pants down, is all. He's probably got some tougher ones around him, but we'll get them too, don't you worry."

Serana was not mollified. "Or, he's making you careless! Your soldiers are less alert, easier to ambush. I saw some of them digging through chests for trophies, never mind that there was an unsecured room not twenty feet away. If he strikes, how many of your will die?"

Grudgingly, the decanus allowed that they could stand to tighten up their front lines, though Velandryn didn't need to draw too deeply on his skill reading expressions to see how little it pleased her.

Of course, when Movarth's counterstrike came, Velandryn realized it wouldn't have mattered a whit if they had been on their guard or not.

They were in one of the tunnels, acting as a relay to the force clearing the gallery before them, when a gust of wind flapped at Velandryn's cloak and set Serana's hood to flutter. It took a moment for Velandryn to realize how impossible it was for wind like that to manifest underground, and in that instant it returned, this time as a gale. Ahead and behind, the torchlight vanished, and the lantern in Lydia's hand was wrenched from her grasp and shattered against the wall. Velandryn was thrown to the ground, the wind nearly a physical thing in its strength. He looked up, but the darkness around him was absolute.

For a moment, a terribly long moment, he was terrified. He could hear Lydia shouting out for him, and Serana yelling an incoherent warning, but panic overwhelmed him and his breath would not come. He would die down here, in the dark, unable—

Oh, of course. The magicka that activated his night-eye must be tinged with his embarrassment at his taking so long to recall that he was a mage. Pitch blackness unnerved him, one of the reasons he had mastered the spell in the first place, but that was no reason to be so unmade.

At once the tunnel was lit by the grey tones of his magically enhanced eyes, and he met Serana's steady gaze. She seemed perfectly at home in the darkness, of course, and if anything there might have been a hint of amusem*nt in those golden orbs. Upon noticing him, she smiled. "I told you, you know."

Lydia was crouched with her back against one wall, shield raised and sword at the ready. Velandryn began preparing a ball of light that he could have hover above her in lieu of a torch, but it was an unfamiliar configuration, and he needed to give some thought to how best to anchor it without using her magicka as a tether. She didn't have much, and the last thing he wanted was to inadvertently put his housecarl on the ground by sapping her energy.

As he focused on the magicka, he heard Serana's sharp intake of breath, and the incongruity of a vampire doing that made him look up. He froze. A figure was creeping along the hall, blade in hand, and most definitely not of the Legion or Guard. He moved surely in the dark, eyes fixed on Lydia.

Serana was in motion before Velandryn had time to process what he was seeing. Her blade left a shimmering trail in his magically-enhanced vision as it tore a gash through their assailant's chest, parting the thin hide and leathers like so much cloth. The speed with which their foe spun confirmed it was no mortal and its counterstrike was lightning-fast, though Serana parried it and launched a blinding riposte of her own. The two of them were moving so fast that Velandryn dared not interfere lest he miss and hit Serana. He could do nothing but watch, and hope for an opening.

They clashed in darkness, and Velandryn felt a moment's pity for Lydia, who had to be completely helpless without her sight. Indeed, she was staring into nothingness, mouth set into a grim line. The enemy vampire took note, and darted towards her. Velandryn began to shout a warning, but he was too late. The vampire had closed, and—

Now!

Her shield lashed out, catching her unseen attacker and eliciting a cry of shock. Doubtless they had thought her helpless.

Lydia had first fought blindfolded at the age of ten, when her father led her into the barracks training yard and beaten her twelve shades of bloody with a wooden sword. That had happened for three days. On the fourth, she had listened for his footsteps, and by the end of the first week she was giving the old man a bruise for every one that rose on her.

Velandryn's voice sounded from her left. "Lydia! Watch out for..." His voice trailed off, as he doubtless realized she was far from disarmed without her eyes. She smiled grimly. It was good to know he cared.

She gave them no time to react, smashing her shield again and again into the unknown enemy and driving it to the ground. She drove her fist down, causing a pained grunt from below, and called out to Velandryn. "My thane, I await your command."

It was Serana who responded. "A vampire, one of Movarth's. Kill him."

Lydia did nothing. "My thane?" Beneath her, the undead stirred. She delivered another blow and heard the crunch of bone. An armored gauntlet would do that to a chest. Or a face.

A sigh. "We have no time. Kill him and let's be on. We need to know the extent of this attack." He sounded frustrated, as though Movarth was personally inconveniencing him with this ambush. Wordlessly, Lydia drew her blade, felt for the neck, and pressed down.

The Imperial who had been their forward contact was dead. Velandryn had summoned an orb of light to hover above Lydia's head, and the pale golden glow gave the blood running from the man's throat a strange sheen.

Serana shook her head. "I was right. They're isolated, and doubtless confused. Movarth's attack will destroy them."

A noise came from ahead. The clash of metal, and a war cry. Wordlessly, Velandryn took off down the hall, with Lydia on his heels.

Serana passed them both easily, and by the time they gained the room ahead, she had already engaged their enemies. The vampire looked to have been Imperial once, judging by his stature and the cut of his rusty armor, but death had lightened his skin and Serana was quickly adding broad strokes of red to the palette. The thrall was a bearded Nord, growling incoherently as he clashed with one of the Morthal guard. Lydia felled the already-engaged thrall easily, and her thane reached out, igniting the vampire's cloak with a wave of his hand. The creature spun, its cry of alarm ending abruptly as Serana removed its head with a single smooth stroke.

The guard gave a great heaving sigh and lowered his heavy mace, which dripped with unidentifiable bits of some foe. A corpse on the ground nearby looked to have donated the necessary materials, though another body in Legion armor argued with mute insistence that the battle was not without cost.

"Thank you, friends." The guard had no helm, and his armor was scaled bronze. Interestingly, Lydia could see no wounds on him. Judging by his nonstandard armor he carried some rank in the guard, and his survival suggested he had the skill at arms to go with it. "I was in a bad place there. I'm Valdimar." He didn't seem particularly curious about their names, but he did stoop to close the eyes of the fallen Legionary. "Go swiftly to Sovngarde, brother."

Velandryn was kneeling over each body, placing a hand on their chest and summoning flames to consume the corpses. Serana looked on with something like faint disapproval.

"Let me raise one. We could use the extra help."

"And when our own side attacks us upon seeing us command the walking dead? There's a time and place for reanimation, but I don't think this is it." Her thane pulled a purse from the vampire and peered inside before placing it into one of the pouches on his belt.

The guard nodded. "Leave the dead be. We should go and find the others." Lydia agreed with both of those statements, and in fact felt that this Valdimar might well be a kindred spirit. A good sensible warrior who didn't need to try out new magic or reason through every little thing. For tasks like clearing a vampire's den, you wanted men like Valdimar at your back.

He paused at the edge of the light cast by Velandryn's spell. She expected him to plunge ahead into the darkness or produce a torch of his own, but he simply stood there muttering to himself. "Let's see now…" With a gesture of his free hand, he conjured a humming ball of light that floated down the hall. Of course, I could be wrong about him. There was nothing wrong with using magic, as her thane had proven time and again, but still…

Back home, she had known where magic stood. It was a useful tool for priests and the like, but it was not a popular field of study for Nords save the odd ones like Farengar. Here in Morthal, however, it seemed that warriors used magic without shame or reservation.

For some time now, Lydia had been attempting to crush a growing and uncomfortable suspicion that her dislike of magic might be more akin to prejudice than something backed up by sound thinking. However, that line of thought was wholly unsuitable for their current situation, and so she did not humor it with further consideration. Maybe later.

She followed the magic-users—all three of them—out of the cavern, feeling very far from home.

Movarth's counterstroke, if this had indeed been such, had been executed masterfully. The organized purge of the den had devolved into a dozen individual battles where one or two guards or Legionaries fought off vampires and thralls striking from hidden alcoves and tunnels that had been cast back into shadow. Wherever they went, they helped turn the tide, and soon there were more than a dozen of them making their way towards the sounds of combat up ahead.

Velandryn could feel that the momentum had gone out of the offensive, however. Each group wanted nothing more than to find the others and get out of there, and the shaming of a Dunmer wasn't going to be enough this time. Valdimar began speaking of leaving the cave and getting reinforcements, but Serana disagreed.

"If we leave now, Movarth wins. He can flee and regroup as well, and I guarantee he's been at this longer than any of you." She looked out over their little group, none of whom seemed too eager to go on and beard a vampire in its lair. Velandryn noted with some amusem*nt how carefully she had excluded herself from those who were younger than Movarth, and wondered how old she considered herself.

Valdimar had, by what was apparently silent and unanimous consent, become the spokesman for both the Morthal and Imperial contingents. Decanus Garzog and Captain Franding were still missing, and he had been the first to join Velandryn and his companions after the attack. So, when he spoke, it carried some weight despite that ridiculous accent.

"They are tired, and need to rest. We should find as many of the others as we can, and send some back for reinforcements." The Nord wasn't wrong, however much his hesitation clearly aggrieved Serana.

Velandryn looked at Lydia, who shrugged. "It's generally a bad idea to leave vampires to their own devices if they know you're coming." She glanced over the ragged band resting and binding wounds, and Velandryn could guess her thoughts. They had found only one of the battlemages, and of the Morthal contingent Valdimar alone had any magical skill. Everyone looked tired; these were clearly garrison troops unused to pitched battle.

Lydia stepped close to Velandryn and lowered her voice. "This lot mostly deals with petty thievery and drunken brawls. Valdimar's not useless, but I'm not sure many of the others would fare well. Send them for reinforcements, let us hold the entrance with those who want to stay behind."

Serana had come up behind them, her enchanted ears likely having heard every word. "Send them back, but we can't give Movarth time. I can feel power, my kind of power, from a tunnel we passed not long ago. The three of us head that way, we find Movarth, and end him."

He looked at her, trying to figure out why she would suggest this, but Lydia spoke first. "Three? Against the Nine-only-know how many vampires down there? Have you lost your mind?"

Serana ignored her and looked at Velandryn. "How adept are you with invisibility?"

He could feel the potion resting in his hip pouch. "Not at all. You want to use the retreat to cover our advance?"

She nodded. "They fall back, clearing as much as they can, and making a huge racket all the while. Movarth will doubtless assign his underlings to monitor and harass them. I can feel the old blood from below, and know where we need to go. Get me close enough, and we can take him down." Not for the first time, Velandryn wanted to understand her true nature. He had yet to see her afraid, as evidently the prospect of killing a potentially centuries-old vampire fazed her not at all.

"You're risking a lot on him not noticing us." If they were seen, or if Movarth called his followers back, they would be overwhelmed.

Serana gave him a measuring look. "Feel free to join the others in their retreat. I am going to end this threat once and for all."

There had never been any doubt as to what he was going to do, Velandryn knew, and he and Serana had too much in common for her not to have known that as well. It was a good plan, barring all of the ways they could die horribly, and he did trust Serana's assessment of these vampires' capabilities. She claimed not to know Clan Cyrodiil, but she had yet to be wrong when combating their abilities.

Only one obstacle remained, but when he turned towards Lydia, her features were already set in that grim line of resignation. "Lead the way."

Velandryn nodded, and beckoned Valdimar over. The Nord did not like the plan, but agreed to do his part, ordering the troops to fall back. They took a route that led them past the tunnel which Serana claimed led to Movarth, and the three detached themselves from the column as it passed.

They soon found themselves scuttling through abandoned galleries and hallways lined with crates of weapons and food. Velandryn had cast a spell allowing him to detect the living, and Serana could smell the blood of any vampire; between the two of them and Serana's well-crafted illusions they managed to conceal themselves from the infrequent thralls and vampires that hurried past. From behind, they could occasionally make out the sounds of battle.

Finally, they found themselves in a narrow passage that had branched off from the larger hallway seemingly at random. Serana was adamant, however, that this led to Movarth, and Velandryn could see no reason to stop trusting her now. Lydia was forced to crouch and scuttle along like some variety of armored crab in the narrow confines, and Velandryn could only make out the faintest emanations of life through the rock walls. Still, Serana urged them onward.

Finally, they emerged into a larger room, and Velandryn noticed three things at once. First, there were two other paths leading out of the room, one in each direction. Second, the exit from their narrow tunnel had clearly been unused for some time, judging by the amount of junk piled in front of it. And third, that the pair of thralls who were just entering the room had most definitely noticed the crash as their exit brought everything piled before them tumbling to the floor.

Immediately, both thralls began running, one down each of the main corridors, all the while shouting alarms. With a curse, Lydia brought her crossbow to bear, but the bolt missed her target and the man vanished down one of the tunnels. The other was making in the opposite direction, but Serana was hot on her heels. Velandryn took off after the one who had fled Lydia's shot, his housecarl just behind.

They sprinted down the tunnel, the thrall vanishing around a corner and raising an unholy racket all the while. As Velandryn rounded the same corner, he thrust out his hand and pointed a fireball at the indistinct blur of life force that was the thrall. He was rewarded with a curse and the sound of a crash from up ahead. He hadn't hit the thrall, but the eruption of flame had sent the man stumbling, and Lydia was able to fire off another shot that took the man in the back. Breathing heavily, Velandryn closed with the thrall, now trying to crawl away, planted a foot squarely on his back, and drew the dagger he had taken from Lokil. He was exhausted and likely to be facing still more foes, and while he was no vampire, this blade's enchantment meant the thrall would give his life for a good cause. He grabbed the thrall by the hair and wrenched his head back.

The moment the dagger's tip pierced the flesh of the thrall's neck, Velandryn felt energy pour into him. As the thrall's desperate thrashings subsided, Velandryn rose, feeling as fresh as though he had been resting for hours rather than performing this mad vampire chase. Life for life. He wiped the dagger on the thrall's fur armor and slid it back into its sheath at the small of his back. A cruel weapon, but well-made. Fitting it should serve my cause rather than the foul machinations of vampires.

Lydia, unaware of his newfound energy and its somewhat morbid source, came up to stand beside him. "Do you think anyone heard, my thane?"

Doubtless if she knew of the blade's properties she would raise a great fuss about foul magic, something he had no interest in enduring. "I hope not." He glanced around. A great wooden door stood some ways down the hall, but there was no sign of any further foes roused by the ruckus they had caused. "We should go and find Serana, and then be on our way to hunt down Movarth and kill him."

Just then, the doors ahead swung open with the creak of wood and dull screech of old hinges. "Wouldn't it be easier to simply come in?" The voice was pleasant, speaking Imperial Common with rich tones flavored by a hint of a Nibenese accent. Of their own accord, Velandryn's feet obeyed, leading him to the threshold. Beyond, the room was deserted save for an Imperial in dark clothing inlaid with silver scrollwork who sat at the head of an empty table. He was very pale. "Please, enter."

Velandryn's body stumbled forward before he could even think to do otherwise, and Lydia followed. Deep within, Dov screamed in rage at this violation. Behind them, the doors slammed shut.

Movarth smiled.

This thrall had legs, Serana was soon forced to admit. The ensorcelled woman had already alerted one other, though that one made the mistake of trying to engage Serana rather than fleeing as well. He had received a spike of ice that crushed most of his skull for his efforts, and she had hacked off his head for good measure, not having time to check whether he was vampire or thrall.

Every moment she pursued this one pulled her farther away from Movarth. And Velandryn. Why that should matter was beyond her, but it felt wrong to leave him alone down here. Lydia, as effective as she was at being a blunt instrument, would pose no help against one of Movarth's stature. She needed to get back to him, but first she needed to kill this one. This one, with the hot blood running through her veins, now breathing heavily, blood pumping—oh, Lord, not again!

The thrill of the chase and her foolishness in invoking Molag Bal to aid her created a co*cktail of lust within her. When she closed on the thrall, she did not stab with the sword in her hand, but gripped the woman by the arm, pulling her close. Blood thrummed beneath the skin, and each pulse ignited a spasm of ecstasy within her.

At this moment, Velandryn and Lydia could well be in trouble. Perhaps they had found Movarth, or lost their way. Perhaps—

She was drinking before she even noticed biting down, and the bliss of blood cascading down her throat filled her agonizing joy. The thrall had gone still; some part of Serana recognized that this response had been imbued into the enchantments that held her, so she could be easily be used as feeding stock by the members of the coven. It should have repulsed Serana, but she could not deny the call of the blood, the irresistible wanting that was even now exulting in her victory over circ*mstance. Velandryn Savani was not here to condemn her, nor Lydia to look upon her with hate and disgust. This was how she had to be, the inevitable consequence of the choice she had made when she spread herself upon the altar and accepted her new Lord's blessing.

Oh Lord you have blessed me such sweet succor such release as I have never known I praise your name Lord Molag Bal for this gift of blood within me. She drank, and hated how much she had needed this.

All at once, she felt the sweetness lessen in the rich liquid that poured into her throat. She raised her eyes, and saw the face of the thrall glazed over. The blood came only feebly, and the woman's stillness had nothing to do with the enchantment that held her. She's dying. Serana had drunk too deeply, and the body in her arms was as good as a corpse. Unless she gave of her own blood and raised the body in her own image, Serana had slain this thrall. Death's blood was never so sweet as that taken from the living, but in her thirst Serana did not care. Some part of her whispered that it would do no good, the thrall would die anyways, and that all she could do now was drink deep, that there was no evil here. She listened, and loved that voice for letting her drink without remorse. She bit deeper, and her magic pulsed through the unfortunate mortal, forcing out the blood, all of the blood, all for her.

However, as she raised her eyes one final time and watched the thrall take her terminal breath, so insubstantial that mortal senses might well have missed it, she saw something unwelcome. She saw Helgi and Hroggar, victims of the vampires. She saw Laelette, maddened in undeath, turned into a minion and leaving a grieving husband behind. She looked down at the body in her arms, deathly pale and cooling fast. Did she have a family? A lover who waits for her return, a mother or daughter who sets a place at the table in case she comes back through the door?

In the void left by her hunger, conscience and reason returned in a rush, and she flung the body to the floor in her haste to be free of it. It was intolerable to hold, a grotesque reminder of what she was. She had never regretted her choice, not truly, but in moments like this, after a feeding that went too far, she was repulsed by the reality of her existence. That she had to feed, either constantly on one who was no more than a slave to her hunger, or like this, taking the blood of another forcibly even unto death, a crime in the eyes of every nation that had ever been.

It was an affirmation, she knew, of why it was imperative that she return home. She had enjoyed this time spent among the world, probably more than she should have in truth. However, these were not her people. She left the body where it lay, and began retracing her steps.

Why am I doing this?

The thought came to her unwelcome and unbidden. Why kill Movarth if these were not her people? Why had she been filled with such hatred for Alva, why had she been overcome with helpless grief when trying to comfort Helgi? Now is not the time. Regardless of reasons, she needed to end Movarth. She could analyze the why later, but this was a time for action.

She ran down the hall, trying to reach the place she had left Velandryn. It was a long way, though, and she had only the omnipresent pulse of Movarth's blood to guide her. The contrast between them was fascinating, in its own paradoxical way. Her bloodline ensured she was all but certainly the more powerful vampire, but Movarth had made himself the spider in the center of a secret web, commanding lesser vampires and thralls for decades, possibly centuries on end. His power was realized in an army of loyal followers, where hers was largely potential, known but not bought forth.

She had never needed to be mighty, and before waking in this time, she would have scoffed at the notion of depending entirely on her own strength. She was of the royal bloodline Volkihar. When human, it had meant that there was a nation of loyal servants eager to leap to her bidding, and in the wake of her transformation it meant that she stood only a small step below her father and mother, who commanded the full power of their clan. Now, save for the reluctant and calculating aid of mortals, she had none to rely on but herself.

She reached the room where they had first encountered the thralls, but there was no sign of Velandryn or his housecarl. She could feel Movarth down the path her companions must have taken, and knew it was likely they were already falling into a trap of some sort. Velandryn might be clever for a mortal, but he had shown only the shallowest understanding of the subtle snares of which her kind was capable. She did not know this Movarth, but he clearly had the power to dominate lesser minds with ease, and she had no desire to fight either one of her allies. Well, maybe Lydia, just to prove to that self-righteous bitch where she stands in the world.

As she took the first step, however, something else intruded into her mind. The pulse of Movarth's arrogant power flickered, and she felt her legs lose strength as a chasm of boundless age opened within her. Impossible! Whatever was happening was far removed from her, but she felt the thundering roar of…of something. She recalled the conversation she had overheard outside the cave, and in a brief, idiotic flash wondered if there could be a dragon down here.

It was over in a moment, her world righting itself and strength flowing back into her limbs. Her first step was shaky, her second hesitant, but by the third she had found her balance once more. What was that? She still felt the reverberations, but there had been neither sound nor physical movement. Whatever had happened had been carried solely through some other mechanism.

She reached a corner, and turned, checking briefly to see if there was anyone in the hallway. It was clear, and she headed further down. Ahead, she could feel Movarth's presence, a subtle resonance in her blood. There was something else, however. The roar had faded, but in its place remained a constant echo, an almost-sound that hinted at untold age and impossible power. She shivered as she proceeded, and looked around, almost hoping for some foe to take her mind off of this unnerving sensation of standing on the edge of the abyss.

There was nothing there, however, save her, her thoughts, and a sensation she could not place. Shivering, she ran on.

From the first word out of the vampire's mouth, Lydia's body had refused to obey her. She could, with great effort, keep herself from moving, but she could no more take an action unbidden than she could have tunneled her way through the rock with her bare hands. She had deflected Alva's seduction by focusing on the monster she truly was, but it seemed a master vampire needed no subtle infiltration to dominate a mortal. Fortunately, Movarth's attention seemed entirely focused on her thane.

"You are the one who killed Alva, aren't you? My agents mentioned a Dark Elf giving orders at her home." The vampire was sitting in his high-backed chair, fingers crossed in his lap, looking perfectly at ease.

"She needed to die." Likewise, her thane appeared relatively calm, though Lydia knew that could well be nothing more than an attempt to trick the vampire into lowering his guard or weakening the spell he had laid on them. They were standing not five paces in front of the door through which they had entered, but it might as well be ten thousand leagues for the chance she had of reaching it. "If you are angry that I killed her—"

"Oh, not in the slightest!" Movarth gave an airy wave. "I merely wanted to make sure you were the same person. You have done very well, for a mortal. Come closer to disrupting my plans than any in, oh, a hundred years or more. You and your associates, that is." He nodded respectfully to Lydia. "Well done, the both of you!" He clapped with apparently genuine good cheer.

"Is this a game to you, then?" Velandryn's voice was harsh. "Destroying the lives of so many for what, your own amusem*nt?"

Movarth rose, hands clasped behind his back. "Something like that." He began to walk towards them, slowly traversing the length of the table. "Tell me, as an elf, what do you think of human lifespans?"

Velandryn shook his head. "They deny you true mastery of the more subtle skills, and cause rashness in your leaders."

Movarth looked pained. "Please, them. I have not been human for some time." He stopped and poured a dark liquid from a silver carafe to a stone mug, drank, and smacked his lips. "But where are my manners? Would you care for some refreshment? From my personal collection, no less. Killing vampires is thirsty work." He smiled, and his long incisors caught the light.

He was turned so Lydia could see only half of his face, but she doubted even in perfect light that she would have been able to make out much movement on her thane's face. "Let me guess. The blood of virgins?"

The vampire roared with laughter, and poured another glass. "Half wrong, I'm afraid. The only blood in here is that of the grape. A Skingrad vintage, from the high vales in the western country. Pre-War, of course, as the Nineteen Days quite devastated that region."

"Unbind me, and I'll gladly drink." Her thane seemed calm; he was good at that.

"Oh, I think not. Not that I doubt your word, of course, but I get the feeling you'd try to kill me first, and I'm enjoying our little parlay. It's rare to have a chance to talk with someone who isn't bound by blood to be your eternal servant, you know." Movarth sat at one of the many places laid out on the table, and sipped his wine. "You've made a very good show, and I'm feeling magnanimous, so ask, and I'll tell you what you want to know. You do have questions, I hope."

Lydia, for one, did not. Her thane, however, spoke immediately. "Why this plan? Even if you succeeded, Morthal would be liberated as soon as word reached anywhere else in Skyrim." He paused. "Are you trying to weaken the Empire, give the Stormcloaks an edge?"

Movarth waved his hand. "Oh, don't talk to me about the Empire! A thin reflection of a worthier predecessor, trying desperately to hold onto a vestige of their former glory. No, I don't have any love for them, but I certainly wasn't thinking politically when I tried this." He smiled. "Keep in mind I've been doing this for over a hundred years."

"Why then?"

A shrug. "Why not? The town has never been well-warded, and there is power out in the mists if you know where to look." He rose. "Besides, what else was I going to do with my time?"

"You did it because you were bored?" Velandryn's voice mirrored Lydia's incredulity.

With quick strides, Movarth closed on him. "And what would you know of boredom? How many years have you? A hundred? Less? Come to me when you have lived for five centuries, and tell me how you fill your days." He turned away. "While I was human, I was convinced that I had a purpose, a calling that must be fulfilled. I was wrong, and given an eternity to ponder my mistakes." He turned back. "Well, I have pondered, and found nothing. Life, whether as mortal or vampire, is what we make of it. And, I have an infinite number of lifetimes to experience all that the world has to offer!" Another smile. "I am enjoying the life of a warlord, I think."

"You've lost." Her thane's words were flat, no hint of mockery or gloating to be found. "Morthal knows you're out here, and whatever you think of the Empire, they'll flood these caves with so many soldiers that your army will be reduced to nothing."

"And you think that matters?" Movarth was pacing now, emphasizing his words with gestured hands. "They flood the tunnels, and I have a dozen back paths out of here. I cannot die, Dunmer. Perhaps I'll go somewhere else, and try again. Or maybe I'll go live among humans for a while. Grow rich, wed some beautiful young thing with delusions of splendor, and make her mine. I can begin feeding on the populace, and see how long it takes until they find out." He smiled. "Usually they catch on within a few years, but once it took almost twenty."

"So it is a game. All of it. That's how you see us."

"Can you blame me? I discovered after a frankly disgusting amount of moping over my new condition that I could either agonize over what I had become, or…not." He pointed straight at Velandryn. "You'd come to the same conclusion, given enough time. The gift of blood outstrips any sensation a mortal can experience, and these meager lives are meaningless compared to mine. Besides, it's so much more fun!" He laughed again, long and loud. Then, he sobered, and looked at them with something that Lydia half-suspected was pity. "You probably think me a monster, and I think you hopelessly naïve. We are simply too far apart to understand one another, and that pains me." He stood between them now, close enough to touch either her or her thane.

Lydia tried to do something, anything to break this spell upon her, but it was to no avail. Movarth had her completely at his mercy. The vampire's eyes were on her, and Lydia felt her hand begin to move towards her blade. It took every drop of willpower she had to keep herself from obeying his foul command.

Movarth blinked, and the pressure in her hand was gone. "You are strong." He glanced at Velandryn. "Both of you are. Most beings would be mine by now. First the mind, then the body, and finally the soul." He stepped back, and clasped his hands behind him. "It would be a shame to break that, make of you no more than a trifling slave. So, I think I shall try something…different."

He strode to stand in front of her thane, and clasped him on the shoulder. "There is something I have always lacked, something necessary for this grand adventure of mine to become truly…mythic, and that is a worthy foe. Someone who will hunt me, not because of whatever incidental scheme I have concocted for that decade, but because they have the burning desire to see me ended. If I kill them, it is a victory all the sweeter for its resonance, and if they foil my plans or, gods forfend, kill me, then I have the satisfaction of knowing that I was undone at the hands of someone who took the time to hunt and hate me on a personal level." He stepped back. "So, what do you think?"

"I think you've read too many bad romances, Movarth." Velandryn's smile was ghastly, far too many teeth. Lydia was so used to his half-successful attempts that it took her a moment to realize that he had done exactly what he wanted to, and bared his teeth at his foe.

"Probably, probably!" Movarth waved a hand. "Tell me, Dunmer, do you care for that woman?" It took Lydia a moment to realize that he was talking about her.

"Something like that." Lydia wasn't sure what to make of that answer, though it did not seem to phase Movarth.

"Good! You're smart enough to see where I'm going with this, aren't you?" Lydia had to confess that she was not, or else the twisted reasoning of elves and vampires was closer to each other than it was to the thoughts of Nords. "I simply wanted to make sure that her death would leave a gaping wound in your soul, one that leads you to hunt me down." Lydia felt something else settle on her, a cold so intense that she could barely feel her body, let alone move it. She understood now, what he had meant by making himself a nemesis. If by her death Velandryn could live, however, then it was her duty as a housecarl to lay down her life.

"Dunmer, this is my final command, one I lay upon you with the full strength of eight hundred years. Kill her." He smiled, and turned away.

No. No it couldn't be. He would command Velandryn to kill her himself? It was a perversion of the bond between thane and housecarl, a wretched crime. Movarth couldn't know, of course, but it hardly mattered. Once more she strained against the bonds that held her, but still she was as helpless as a newborn before this magic.

She looked at her thane, terrified of what she might see. However, he was standing stock still, eyes fixed on Movarth's back. "No."

The vampire spun back, lips twisted in a smile beneath cold eyes. "That's not the answer I was looking for. Kill her!"

Velandryn laughed then, and the harsh and grating sound was music to Lydia's ears. "Command me again, vampire." He shivered as he stepped forward, and raised a hand to point at Movarth's face. "You speak of mahfaeraak, of immortality, but you are nothing more than joor that has been stretched beyond its time."

The room seemed to tremble. Movarth's eyes blazed red, and he raised his own hand in furious command. "Be silent and obey! You are nothing before me!"

"Such arrogance. You challenge me, unheeding of the folly into which you have stumbled. The forest does not command the storm, and joor does not command Dovah!" That last word was spoken in a guttural roar from deep within her thane's throat, and Velandryn's hands burst into flame.

"Impossible!" Movarth stepped forward and drove a fist at Velandryn, who stumbled backwards. He brought his fire-wreathed hands up, and Movarth danced back, nimbly dodging the haphazard blow. "Fine." He turned to Lydia. "Kill the Dunmer. Do it!"

"No!" Her thane's shout came as Velandryn was already moving towards her, and Lydia managed to reduce the speed with which her body obeyed Movarth's command. She shuffled on each step, and her hand inched incrementally towards her blade. Velandryn, upon reaching her, reached up and placed his hand on her shoulder. Magicka pulsed through her, and her arms and legs locked in place. Stunned, she nearly fell, but Velandryn held her upright with a grip far stronger than she expected from the elf. "She is mine, vampire. None but I command her!" He released her, and her limbs suddenly worked again. She still could not move, but neither was she being commanded. The elf stepped away, and that unnerving Daedric blade was suddenly in his left hand, while his right arm burst into flame. "Kill me yourself, coward."

Lydia felt an unexpected and ill-timed rush of affection for Velandryn. He had paralyzed most of her body and claimed ownership over her, to be true, but she was fairly certain that was merely a combination of whatever dragon nonsense was going on in his head and his own natural sense of superiority. She would taunt him mercilessly for it later, but his actions were well-intentioned. The fact remained, however, that he had stepped forward and stood between his housecarl and a master vampire. It was nice to know he cared.

The vampire clapped his hands. "Very good! Though I must say, you are armored entirely wrong for a battlemage."

Velandryn twitched the fingers on his right hand; the fire around them danced through the air. "I'll take it under advisem*nt. Maybe the reward for killing you can get me some good bonemold spell-plate."

Movarth opened his mouth, but paused before saying anything. Suddenly, he spun again, this time towards the shut door through which the two of them had entered so long ago. "So, that is what I was feeling." He looked at the two of them, and Lydia was suddenly free. "You brought a Volkihar with you, and a powerful one at that. Was it deliberate, a counter for my power? Like can sense like, you know, and no other breed feels quite so…cold."

With a crash, the doors slammed open, and there stood Serana. She had a sword in one hand and her other glowed icy blue and radiated frost. She looked ragged and half-feral, and Lydia had never been happier to see her.

Movarth looked at the three of them, and smiled. "What an interesting group. A Volkihar vampire of exceptional bloodline, a Nord of uncommon willpower, and a," he paused, "well, I'm going to need to figure that one out." He stepped back, and began ascending the stairs that led to a balcony overlooking the room. "Consider this round yours, my friends. We shall meet again, sooner or later, of that I am sure. After all, don't you want to kill—"

Lydia had had enough. One major advantage of the crossbow was that it could be stored with the bolt nocked in place. There was actually a clip that held the bolt so that the bow could be turned any which way and it wouldn't fall out. Truly, a marvel of engineering. So, when she drew it, there was no need to load. Only to raise it, take aim, and send a few inches of wood and steel into Movarth's chest.

"Yes." It came out a growl, and she began to reload. She was going to put him down for good. Her body still ached from the stress it had undergone, and she still felt the chill of not being in control of her own motions. Never again!

Velandryn pointed with his burning hand, and tiny drops of fire fanned out, filling the air between him and the vampire with a burning sideways rain. Serana gestured as well, and great shards of ice lanced across the room towards Movarth. The vampire, however, placed his hand on a pillar, and a shimmering blue barrier enclosed the balcony. The projectiles impacted harmlessly against it.

"I was not expecting that." His laugh was more a pained exhalation than anything else, and each word was punctuated by a gasp of air. "A good weapon. I'll have to get my hands on one." He stood tall and gestured. "Maybe you should bring me that one. Nord!" Once more Lydia felt the coldness settle over her, but she was ready. She raised the crossbow to point straight at him, and as her hand began to take on the familiar sensation of an attempt to dominate, she pulled one finger back.

The bolt careened off of the shield Movarth had raised, but it was enough. It raised a cascade of sparks, and the vampire flinched. She felt the weakness recede from her limbs, and she reloaded with grim satisfaction. She might not be the Dragonborn or an ancient vampire, but she could throw off this bastard's attempts to control her at least!

Movarth hissed some curse, but Lydia's focus was on Serana. She had begun laughing, and it was laughter that set the housecarl's teeth on edge. On the road, the vampire had been reserved but not unfriendly, and once or twice Lydia had heard her laughing softly at some joke or observation Velandryn had made.

This was different. It was a cruel laugh, bleak and mirthless, hinting at unwelcome and sleepless knowledge. "Nice shield. Where did you steal it?"

Lydia couldn't make out Movarth's face, but if he was unnerved by Serana's behavior his words hid it well. "From a vampire with more knowledge than wisdom. I wrested the knowledge out of his hands, then killed him."

Velandryn caught Lydia's eye and pantomimed aiming a crossbow at Movarth. She did so, wondering what Serana was going on about.

The golden-eyed vampire looked at once healthier from the last time Lydia had seen her and more haggard. "One of my people?" She was speaking with less than her usual eloquence, short sentences that were uncharacteristic for the intelligent immortal. "That spell is ancient, created by the founders of my line. Unfortunately, it is not without…drawbacks when used by one of lesser blood." Of course, not necessarily. In the instant it took Lydia to have that thought, Serana raised her hand and bit into her wrist. The shield above shattered, shards of glimmering light and what was likely raw magicka spinning through the air and vanishing. Into the space where it had been, her thane sent another barrage of fire, thought this one was made of great fireballs, each the size of her head or larger. Serana sent a cascade of lightning forward as she ran towards Movarth, and Lydia aimed her crossbow at what she thought was his outline amidst the magical cacophony and pulled the trigger once more.

Watching Serana, Lydia was half-certain she would outstrip the crossbow shot. The vampire nearly flew up the steps, taking them three or four at a time. Behind her, Velandryn was charging, and Lydia was doing her best to keep up. Her body was sore and parts of it were unnaturally cold, but she would not let mere discomfort keep her from her duty.

When she and her thane achieved the balcony to which Movarth had fled, it was to find Serana and Movarth locked in an odd dance. The Clan Cyrodiil vampire was fighting unarmed against Serana and her single blade, and by the look of things was getting the better of her. While Serana had demonstrated that she was a fairly skilled duelist, Movarth was clearly a master of his style. Every one of his blows either landed solidly on Serana's body or deflected one of her slashes. Besides which, he was retreating towards a tunnel set into the far wall. All the while, he was talking, an endless stream of taunts and nonsense.

"I killed a Volkihar, back when I was still human. A friend of yours, do you think? He reached through the ice, didn't even break it. Nearly got me, but I saw the shadow and moved just in time." He struck her wrist in a clear attempt to disarm her, but Serana held onto her sword and brought her other hand around in a broad and sloppy blow that he ducked under with ease. "Like that. Your kind is fast, and strong, but that means you don't think. You assume that you can overpower your enemies, and when you can't you're at a loss."

With a hiss, Serana caught one of his wrists and head-butted him square in the face. "Shut up." She spoke softly, as though she were very tired.

Movarth staggered back, clutching his face, and Lydia had her chance. She fired one final time, and Velandryn sent a great stream of fire out of his hands, surrounding the vampire. After a moment, her thane stopped, and slumped against a pillar, but waved her off when she began to move towards him. In the midst of the fire, Movarth was cursing and tearing at his burning clothes as he ran for a tunnel in the far wall. Lydia began to reload. He was clearly a very dangerous combatant, and only the twin surprises of facing a Dragonborn and whatever kind of special Volkihar Serana was had gotten him to this point. They were so close to victory, and she would not let him escape.

She needn't have bothered, however. Serana ran and lunged forward with impossible grace, and this time her blade was not turned aside. Apparently there was nothing she wanted from Movarth save his death, as she didn't worry about interrogation or even the small restraint she had shown against Alva. Instead, while Velandryn and Lydia watched mutely, she methodically disemboweled the other vampire. By the time she was done, the ruin of what had been the ancient master vampire Movarth could scarcely even be termed a corpse.

Serana turned to Velandryn. "Burn it." She hoisted Movarth's head in her hand. "The jarl might want this." She made her way down the stairs, sure-footed but with an air of great distraction.

Velandryn moved towards the body and ignited his hands. "Whatever he may have had in his pockets, I'm in no hurry to find it. Lydia, would you like to do the honors?"

She wasn't sure if that was a joke or a command. "Are you going to burn it for her? I thought you didn't take commands from vampires, my thane."

He looked down at the body. "The problem with that is, I'm not sure she knows." He waved, and what remained of Movarth the master vampire erupted into flames, and the sickly sweet smell of roasting flesh filled the cavern. He sighed. "She saved us, you know."

There was no point in asking who he meant. "I know, my thane." There was nothing else to say. They owed their lives to a vampire.

Serana came back to herself as the battle receded into the past. She had fought like an animal, still raw from the feeding, but now she had the presence of mind to think on how best to behave. Velandryn had noticed for certain, and Lydia was never one to miss the vampire acting oddly. She could explain it away, if they even asked. If she was lucky, it would become just another thing that was never remarked upon, an unspoken casualty in their attempt to keep this odd companionship free from overt hostility.

In that vein, Serana had an idea, and now was as good a time as any to put it into play. She found Lydia rooting through one of the chests that lined the walls of the room in which they had found Movarth. The vampire had amassed quite a collection of odds and ends, it would seem. She was inspecting a silvered armband inscribed in the shape of a serpent. "That one's Shor, I think."

The Nord looked up, startled, but quickly regained her composure. "Aye. A strong piece, worthy of a crafty master." She held it out to Serana.

A peace offering? She took the trinket and turned it over in her hands. "You resisted Movarth. That's impressive." She honestly did not know how to talk to this woman. Warriors were generally commanded; she had never needed to play diplomat with one.

Lydia replied with a snort. "Apparently he wasn't as great as he thought. You should have heard him talk." She had resumed her rummaging, this time surfacing with a bolt of what looked like silk and a small stone knife. She whistled. "I know a few merchants who would sell their firstborn to get at what's stashed here." She looked over the treasure again. "Well, maybe second-born. Certainly a niece or nephew."

Serana was tempted to accept the implicit offer and talk about nothing of consequence, but first she wanted to offer the damned complement. "No, he was very strong, but you resisted. That's rare, and you should be proud."

Lydia turned slowly. "Look, I'm grateful that you helped, but…" she paused, and Serana waited for it. The inevitable barb, the half-hearted thanks that would somehow cast her as manipulator or villain.

Then, the other woman shook her head. "No, you came and saved us. Whatever we did, you turned the balance. Thank you." She held out an arm, and Serana reached out tentatively. When Lydia did not retract it, she clasped the other woman's forearm stiffly. They held like that for a moment, until Lydia released. Without a word, both turned away.

Was that progress? Serana thought it might be, tense as it was. She would likely never be close with Lydia, but she was sick of feeling on edge all the time. It doesn't matter anyway. My time with them is all but done. Still, she was glad she had tried.

Velandryn was similarly engaged, though his interest was more focused on Movarth's library and what appeared to be a rack lined with enchanted clothing and armor. "Anything interesting?"

The Dunmer did not jump up as she approached. Rather, he carefully closed the book he was perusing and slipped it back onto its shelf. "Only insofar as Movarth has some horrifically poor taste in literature. His collection on magical theory, while rudimentary, is at least fairly complete, and I wouldn't have a problem directing a neophyte in its direction." His eyes met hers, and he held the gaze for a long moment. "I do not think you sought me out to discover that Movarth was an aficionado of Nibenese bodice-rippers, however."

He was right. "You got lucky, you know, bringing down Movarth that easily." She still didn't know how the two of them had resisted his control for so long. Strong minds were one thing, but…

"Lucky? We brought you, so I'd call that good planning. How did you break that shield of his?"

She had broken through Movarth's shield because her mother had designed it, and Valerica's magic had always been attuned to the blood of Volkihar royalty so that it could never be turned against them. In fact, she would doubtless be overjoyed that her forethought had given her daughter such a dramatic victory. She always did stress our superiority over lesser vampires. "Vampire magic. Secrets I won't reveal." She tried for a mysterious smile, but had no idea if she succeeded.

"Fair enough." He gave her a look that she felt was unnecessarily piercing. "Something else you want to say?"

"This is going to sound strange, but…" She had to ask, even as she knew what the answer would be. Whatever she had experienced in the tunnels had been some sort of vampiric feedback. Her fancies about a dragon were just that. "When you were facing Movarth, was there a moment where something interrupted his power? Something strange, like…" Gods, she did not want to say it. The mere thought of him laughing at her caused her a strange pain in her chest.

"Like what?" His eyes were serious now, at least, and she could see worry in there. She made up her mind.

"Anything like a dragon?" The moment she spoke, something flashed through his eyes.

He adopted a look of mild puzzlement. "I don't think so. What was it you felt exactly?"

She shook her head. "It's not important." She was on the verge of turning away when something occurred to her. He has to think about facial expressions. It was a trait she had noticed, but it was rarely relevant. Here, however…He wasn't surprised. He wanted me to think he was. Why would he lie about that? More interestingly, making a false facial expression wasn't the kind of slip he made often. He doubtless was hiding almost as many things as she was, and both of them were reasonably skilled at it. For him to have played it so clumsily…

He returned to his perusal of Movarth's things, and she noticed it then. A knife in a sheath nestled in the small his back. He had several, but this one looked oddly familiar. She looked closer, noticing subtle details. It was slightly curved, and looked to be made of orichalc and corundum, but could be mistaken for ebony with its dark and mournful sheen. The handle was wrapped in soft leather, harvested from a newborn calf. She knew that if it were drawn, the blade would have a wickedly sharp edge, and any wound it inflicted would sap the victim and revitalize the one who held it.

Serana realized that she was too close just as he backed up, bumping into her. Instantly she was standing, trying very hard to look nonchalant. His red eyes were quizzical. "Is there something I can do for you?"

Answer my questions truly and in full. "Where did you get that dagger?" She supposed it wasn't inconceivable that in the millennia since her sealing someone else had crafted a weapon similar to—

"You recognize it then?" Well, apparently not. "Did it belong to a friend of yours?" From Lydia, that would have been mocking, but Velandryn sounded almost grave, as though he was sorry if that were the case.

"Doubtful. My father gave—gives— them out as tokens of esteem, or trust." Some of those who had received them—no, she did want to remember those faces. Better to let such as them lie undisturbed.

"Such as to the one he sent to retrieve you?" His eyes were intense.

She nodded. "I don't know who it was—"

"Would you like to? He wasn't shy about shouting his name."

She froze. Did she want to know that? If Velandryn and Lydia had killed someone she knew, was that something she needed to face?

Yes. She was returning home anyways, and would doubtless be interrogated about what had transpired. She might as well have the truth of it. "Who was he?"

"Lokil, or so he said."

She had never heard that name before. Her relief must have shown on her face, because he nodded gravely. "Good. I am glad I did not kill some beloved friend."

Clearly he doesn't know Clan Volkihar very well, if he thinks there are many of those. Something else was bothering her, though. "How did you get the dagger? I mean no offense, but any who carried it should have been able to slay you with ease."

The red eyes were laughing again. "I won through unfair means, of course."

That told her nothing. "Meaning?"

He arched a single eyebrow, something she had not known his face was capable of doing. "You wish me to reveal my secrets?"

Yes. "No, of course not."

Velandryn's true smiles, the good ones, only came when he was amused or deeply content. It was subtle, but the change in his eyes transformed the whole of his face. "Liar."

They encountered their reinforcements as they left Movarth's chamber. A veritable tide of soldiers, dozens or more, pouring through the hallways. Garzog, sporting a rather nasty gash down her cheek that looked to have also taken off the end of one tusk, snorted when she heard about Movarth. "Guess we could have stayed home, huh?"

Valdimar, who had apparently taken control of Morthal's contingent of the combined force after Franding's death, drew Velandryn aside. "Jarl Idgrod would speak with you upon your return." He spoke quietly, and the Dunmer nodded.

"What about?"

The warrior gave him an odd look. "She did not tell me, friend. I got the message from her housecarl, who insisted that it be relayed to you and you alone." He looked around. "We can handle cleanup down here, so I'd like for you to get back as soon as possible."

Velandryn looked around at the caves, so recently the home of a vampire army. There were doubtless more treasures secreted away down here, but just as certainly a few more vampires who had not yet heard that they were defeated. Besides, he had already secured from the jarl a promise of five percent of any treasure recovered to split among his band of three. It didn't matter who found it. "I'll be going then." He clasped the Nord on the shoulder. "Hunt well, and don't get bitten."

Lydia was as happy to be gone as he had expected, though Serana's eagerness to be out of the tunnels surprised him somewhat. When pressed, however, she simply replied that she had spent more than her share of time in caves. He wondered, though, about what exactly had happened to her before their fight with Movarth. She had been different upon her return, and he suspected he knew why. She had fed down there, and now was feeling…something. He couldn't say what, but she had been carrying an air of almost remorse, and that unnerved him. Serana was many things, but he had yet to see her apologetic. If she had fed on a thrall and now regretted it, however, that could perhaps be termed progress.

Morthal had, in the time they had been gone, awoken with a roar. Guards patrolled the predawn streets, and hundreds of torches had been lit. Scouts and hunters were penetrating into the swamp, and the lifting of the heavy fog meant that the three of them had been accosted long before reaching the town proper. Upon seeing who it was, however, they were escorted with more than a little deference to the jarl's hall and ushered into the old woman's presence.

Jarl Idgrod had seemingly regained her air of genial detachment, and her court had something of a restive atmosphere. The people milling around the throne's dais parted quickly enough, however, and fell silent respectfully when the old woman opened her mouth.

"You have not only my thanks, brave adventurers, but the thanks of all who live in the Hjaalmarch. I name the three of you friends of Morthal, and offer each of you the choice of one weapon from my personal armory." She smiled down from her throne. "The Long Wind's Laugh is leaving for Solitude two hours after sunrise, and you shall continue on your journey with all of the aid Morthal can give. Once more I say to you, well done, and our thanks!"

The hall applauded, albeit somewhat dutifully, and Velandryn could not help but wonder at the effusive praise and reward they had been granted. What the old woman had said seemed fair enough, but on top of the five percent he had already secured, it became almost excessive generosity.

One of the guards tapped him on the shoulder, drawing him out of his thoughts. "Follow me." Startled, he glanced up and did as he was bidden. They went to a familiar door on the side of the hall, and the guard opened it. "Only him." This last was said to Lydia, who looked none too happy about being left outside. At Velandryn's nod, however, she crossed her arms and leaned against a pillar, eyes hard and every line of her stance screaming out the havoc she would wreak should anything happen to him. Smiling to himself, Velandryn passed through.

Jarl Idgrod had gotten there before him, and he could not help but notice her lack of housecarl or steward. In fact, once the guard shut the door behind Velandryn, the two of them were alone. In the sudden silence, a thought that had been itching at Velandryn's brain rose again and clamored for attention. Did we ever tell her we were headed for Solitude?

The old woman rested her elbows on her desk and gave him a broad smile. "So tell me, Dragonborn, how fares Whiterun and that young man Balgruuf?"

Velandryn could only stare at her, trying desperately to figure out how he had been so easily uncovered.

Still smiling, the old woman rose, neglecting her stick, and produced a letter from somewhere in her fur-lined clothing. "I've been jarl of Morthal for forty-nine years, you know, and for more than half of those, Balgruuf has been taking care of things down in Whiterun. We write, from time to time." She waved the letter. "I would have thought you were on your way to High Hrothgar, though."

"I got sidetracked." His mind was racing. "So you've known who I was—"

"I had my suspicions since you walked through the doors to my longhall. There are few Dark Elves of consequence in Skyrim, and fewer still who travel accompanied by a warrior of Lydia's stature." She chuckled. "Balgruuf was quite put out at losing her, so I hope she has served you well."

Velandryn was still trying to figure out the events of the past day and night. "Your visions, then, they were false?"

The old woman smiled. "My visions are very real, but it never hurts to have some help from this world as well." She moved toward a side table, empty but for a silver flagon and a pair of chalices. "I knew the Dragonborn would come to Morthal, though I did not know why. And thanks to the jarl of Whiterun, I knew more or less what to expect." She poured a measure into each of the chalices; the honey-sweet smell and deep golden color of the liquid put Velandryn uncomfortably in mind of mead. He still had not acquired a taste for the wretched drink.

"So if you knew who I was, why did you have us investigate the fire?" He thought back to her strange behavior and requests. "I thought you half-mad at the time."

She smiled again. "You and much of the town. I like it that way, though. Life is hard in the Hjaalmarch, and Nords are wont to complain. I do as I can, lead as my visions and wisdom tell me, for I can do no more. The people are forgiving when misfortune befalls us, for all that they grumble, and more than one boasts in his cups of 'Idgrod the Long-Sighted.'" The smile left her face. "Or so my husband tells me. Perhaps they do think me mad." She shrugged. "Ah, I am old, and rambling."

Velandryn suspected that however old this woman might be, she knew exactly what she was saying. "So, why did we look into a house fire?"

"It was supposed to be simple! Look into the incident, find whatever evidence was there, bring Hroggar in for questioning, and determine his guilt. Or innocence, though I'm not sure there's anyone in Morthal stupid enough to think it was actually an accident." She offered him one of the chalices, and he took it reluctantly, already dreading the mead within. "You do a good deed for the town, and the both of us benefit by having the Dragonborn establish himself as a friend to Morthal."

"Until it turned out to be vampires?" It wasn't necessarily how he would have gone about it, but…

"When it was just Alva, I thought that was even better, to be honest." She took a sip of her drink and smacked her lips. "Have the Dragonborn bring a vampire to justice and solve the murder as well? A true-blooded hero in our midst. Of course, things spiraled out of control somewhat once we learned about Movarth, but it did give me an opportunity to see if you were worth all of the trouble I was going through."

"And?" Trying to appear nonchalant, he took a sip of the mead. To his relief, it was far lighter than anything he had been subjected to thus far. Merely an inoffensive beverage he had no liking for rather than a viscous tide of honey and sickly sweetness.

"Valdimar spoke to one of my runners, and he speaks well enough of you. Our fine Imperial friends also do you credit."

Something in her tone there… "You do not support the Empire? I thought Morthal—"

"Bah! Morthal stands with the Empire because it would be suicidal to do otherwise! Our border to the east is defensible, and it would be difficult to bring an army up through Labyrinthian or the Hjaal Passes, but the forces stationed in Solitude could crush us inside of a week, and that's with time to march factored in." She shook her head. "Besides, Tullius knows what's he's about. He and that pet queen of his ask little of Morthal, which is just how I like it. The Thalmor get too noisy, someone tips them off to a Talos shrine deep in the swamps." She grinned with wicked glee. "They don't come back from that."

"So why is Balgruuf staying neutral, if the Empire asks so little of you?"

"Jarl Balgruuf." She chuckled. "They'd ask more of him, you can be sure! Money, trade deals, allowing the Thalmor access and letting the Legion tramp all over his fields." She spat on the ground. "Also, Balgruuf is more sympathetic to that wretched upstart Ulfric than I am. Not to mention, he can be neutral because Whiterun has more trade than it knows what to do with and a hundred miles of tundra any invader would have to cross before laying siege. I doubt Ulfric's Thu'um is enough to bring down Whiterun's walls, and would you want to drag your catapults and ladders along for days on end through hostile territory? The Empire has the same problem, plus either one invading would have the other side coming down on them before the first stone is thrown. Not to mention Whiterun's breeders are doubtless training up war mammoths and fitting them for saddles. It's been thirty years since mammoth riders broke the Dominion lines at Red Ring Road, and I bet many a young buck is itching to try his hand at the craft."

Velandryn had heard of the Nords' mammoth cavalry, of course, but had not considered that Whiterun must have some of its own. "I spoke with the jarl, and he seemed less than secure in his position."

"Eh, he's standing in the thick of it, so the bad looms large. Besides, I'd wager he was asking you for help at the time."

Velandryn couldn't deny that. "Are you saying Balgruuf lied to me?"

"Jarl Balgruuf, please. You may be Dragonborn, but a lack of respect will win you nothing but scorn. And does it surprise you?"

It didn't, not really. It did, however, increase his respect for the man. "Or, you're lying to me now."

She clucked reproachfully. "You are not very good at this, are you?" A brief smile. "You don't tell someone to their face that they might be lying. You find out through other sources, and if so, use the discrepancy in what you know and what they think you know to leverage yourself a more advantageous position." She took a drink. "Another useful tactic is to serve someone a beverage they dislike, so that any time they take a sip you know it was calculated."

Velandryn carefully placed his chalice on the table. "This has been a very informative meeting, if nothing else."

The old woman chuckled again. "I like you, Dragonborn. What else did you want to know?"

Something occurred to him. "How did you know we would be headed to Solitude?"

She blinked. "You are? I had assumed you were headed to High Hrothgar. Why in the name of the Eight would you be going to Solitude?"

"Wait, why would you charter us a ship to Solitude if you thought we were going to High Hrothgar?" They stared at each other in mutual incomprehension. Finally, Velandryn sighed. "Like I said, we were sidetracked. I need to route through Solitude before returning south. But explain the ship, and why we would be in Morthal otherwise."

The Ravenscrone nodded slowly. "I had assumed you had journeyed to Labyrinthian. It sits on one of the most significant strongholds of the old Dragon Cult, and I've been told there are ruins that date back to before the Dragon War."

Well, that's certainly worth knowing. "You still haven't answered. Why the ship?"

"Misdirection," the jarl stated simply. "If a letter was enough to clue me in, others could have the same or better resources. Thalmor, Imperial, Stormcloak, it only takes one to spread word. I thought I'd have them looking for you in the wrong hold entirely. It seems I outsmarted myself."

"Well, you made our road swifter, so thank you."

The old woman shrugged. "The ship is waiting for you, though they have orders to watch your cabin and act as though you are aboard regardless. I trust you are doing what needs to be done, so I won't stop you, though I must add my voice to what I am sure is a chorus insisting that you speak with the Greybeards as soon as you can. My scouts have reported seeing three dragons in the last week, and similar reports are coming in from the other holds." She stood. "Skyrim needs the Dragonborn now more than ever!"

Velandryn put up his hands in an attempt to mollify her. "I agree. After my business in Solitude is completed, the Greybeards are the next on my list." It wasn't a lie, so long as 'business in Solitude' was interpreted very broadly. He had no idea where Serana's family might be located, but he got the feeling it would not be in the city proper. The Volkihar didn't seem the type. "I take my duties as Dragonborn seriously."

"Good. I have been exceptionally generous with you, even going so far as to promise you a percentage of a vampire's treasure, and I plan to see my investment repaid." She rose. "Speaking of," she opened a hinged box and slid it across the table. "Five thousand septims until we have a chance to appraise the whole of Movarth's possessions?"

Once more, Velandryn tried his hardest not to let his shock show. He had never actually seen that much money in raw coinage before, and even broken down as it was into hundred-septim Imperial Crowns, it still made a pretty sight. "You are very generous," he managed at last.

The jarl frowned. "I do hope not. I told you, I plan to recoup my investment in you."

"How?"

"The moment you take that money, I am yours and you are mine. This is enough to purchase a plot of land in Morthal, or perhaps even a home—well, a small home— in the lower districts of Whiterun. You can do much with this, and I can already tell you are the sort who remembers his friends."

"So this is all to ensure a good relationship with the Dragonborn?" What exactly did she have in mind, that she felt the need to secure so much allegiance? "I'd rather avoid making enemies if I can, but this kind of help may be richer than I can allow."

She smiled. "Suspicion is the beginning of wisdom, but there is no need to worry. I stand in Morthal, as I always have, a big fish in a little pond. In the wider world, my person matters not at all, and my people are at best an afterthought for those on their way to somewhere else. I have seen the chance to, for once in my life, stand not just in the shadow of the mighty, but to aid a hero in his rise. When you bestride the world, I ask only that my people be ever in the back of your mind."

He did not know how to take that. On some level he understood the larger significance of the Dragonborn, but the idea that he could…well, that he could influence larger events had not sunk in on any level that mattered. "What have you seen?" He still did not know how much of her apparent foresight was visions and how much carefully crafted subterfuge, but he had no intention of underestimating this woman again.

She laughed. "Visions are not so clear as that, my dear! I see much, but little that is obvious to a simple woman like me." She closed the box and pushed it in his direction. "Perhaps you come to nothing or turn away in our time of need, and my daughter inherits a Morthal that is all the poorer for my folly." She gave him a keen look, one eyebrow raised. "Or perhaps, when the Dragonborn hears of Stormcloaks, or a dragon, or the very mountains themselves falling on Morthal, he rushes to the aid of an old woman who took a chance on him long ago."

He understood then. Trust. It was carefully couched and ringed in gold and half-joking lies, but that was what she wanted. He put one hand on the box. "Azura has not blessed me with vision as she has you, but I swear to you that I shall hold your kindness and faith close to me through whatever trials may come."

She stood. "Velandryn Savani, you who are Dragonborn, I offer you once more the friendship of Morthal. May the trials ahead temper your courage with wisdom, and give you the strength our people so desperately need." Then unexpectedly, she laughed long and loud. "So noble, standing there! If I had a year with you, I would train you so you could hold your own in every court from Daggerfall to Necrom. And if I were twenty years younger…" She gave a throaty chuckle. "Well, no sense in mourning what-ifs, is there? I wonder if my daughter…" She broke off with a laugh and then gave him another of her piercing looks. "One more thing I must mention. You do know you travel with a vampire, don't you?"

He couldn't help the laughter that he was sure had made its way into his eyes. "She's the one that ended Movarth, and I'd not trade her for a hundred common soldiers." A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but Serana was tremendously useful when her impulses could be kept in check.

With another smile, the jarl bowed to him. "Then I have no more to say. Go in peace, Dragonborn."

He bowed back. "May the Triune keep you, and the Four Corners turn away."

When he reentered the main hall, it was to find his companions waiting for him. Lydia looked as though she had been considering tearing through the door, and the two guards flanking it, with her bare hands. Serana, by contrast, was smiling slightly at nothing, ignoring the Morthal guard vainly trying to engage her in conversation. Velandryn nodded slightly to both of them, and then began making his way to the main doors. They had a ship to catch.

The Long Wind's Laugh was an odd name, but Serana had to admit it seemed an able enough vessel. She had little knowledge of seafaring, but the captain was obviously proud of his vessel, and the crew was making ready to cast off with what appeared to be true competence. Most were Nords like the captain, though a few of the smaller humans seemed to be of Manmer or Cyrodilic descent. There were two Bosmer as well, and one of the green-skinned Orcs like the Imperial commander from before.

There was also one human unlike anything she had ever seen, with skin as dark as Velandryn's, though this woman's was an earthy brown rather than grey. When she asked Velandryn, he called her a 'Redguard,' though he also mentioned that Serana likely knew the race as Yokudans. It was true that Serana had heard stories in her time of the mysterious continent to the west, and the fierce sea-faring warriors who hailed from its shores, but she had never seen one. The woman was, except for her skin, disappointingly mundane, however, and Serana soon found her attention drawn by one of the small Bosmer, who was speaking excitedly to a blue-tattooed Nord, naked but for a strip of cloth around his loins, stacking crates.

"It's true, you know! I was talking to a merchant up from Whiterun!" At the mention of the city her interest was caught. She knew that Lydia hailed from there, and Velandryn seemed to have something to do with it as well.

"So? Dragonborn or not, we got to work." He pointed. "Go get that rope. We need to have these lashed down of Yonnuk'll have our hides."

"Not just a Dragonborn," the lithe little worker insisted. "An elf!"

Instantly, the Nord spun on the Bosmer, sending the crate crashing to the deck and looming over the elf with cold fury in his eyes. "No! Shor wouldn't do that! The Dragonborn's a Nord!" He noticed her watching them then. "What're you looking at?"

Serana murmured an apology and moved away, mind racing. An elven Dragonborn? There was no reason it couldn't happen, she supposed, though she had certainly never heard of one. She wondered how Velandryn would feel about that. He'd probably be thrilled. The Dunmer had a tendency to cast himself as the lone enlightened elf in a province filled with ignorant Nords, and the idea of an elf as Dragonborn would fit right in with that.

What would it be like, though, a true Dragonborn? They were said to have the very blood and soul of a dragon. Would it be obvious, talking to them, that they were different? How did a dragon wear mortal skin? Would—

Would it be only sometimes, like a tide come upon you? Would they change, and a hint of their true nature reveal itself? She was back in the tunnels, the roaring all around her and the abyss beneath her feet.

Would they resist the domination of a vampire, and offer no explanation as to how? She saw his eyes, different for the merest of instants as she tried to exert power over him.

Would they defy an ancient vampire, breaking his power and creating an opening to exploit? She recalled Movarth saying that he would have to 'find out' what Velandryn was.

Would he be named thane of Whiterun for killing a dragon? Lydia followed him with impeccable loyalty, and she had heard the soldiers speaking of a dragon slain in Whiterun.

Would he fear a vampire newly-awakened, or would he react unlike any the poor girl had ever met, making her wonder and filling her with turmoil? Gripped by sudden resolve, she opened the door to the cabins, needing an answer now.

"We can get the horses when return to Morthal." Velandryn's voice was a constant in this strange new world. It had the harsh accent she assumed was native to his homeland, but underneath the richness of tone and subtle humor that marked him. If she was right, if he was the Dragonborn, surely he would shake Skyrim to its core.

"Those are Whiterun mares, my thane." Lydia, ever the stolid Nord. Serana still did not truly like her, but she thought she could respect the woman for what she was. "Fine horseflesh, and worth a princely sum."

"If the jarl of Morthal cannot vouch for the security of two horses in her personal stables, then Skyrim is in worse shape than I thought."

A sigh. "Very well, my thane. I'm going to go above, get some air."

"You do realize we are still in Morthal? If you want to breathe deep the swamp air, be my guest."

A thumping echoed along the corridor, and Serana realized Lydia was coming, as her heavy boots meant she went nowhere silently. The vampire stepped into a doorway, and pressed herself against the rough wood. She closed her eyes for a moment, gathering magicka.

From a few talks with Velandryn, she was coming to understand the idea of 'Schools' of magic. It made sense, in a way, that someone had codified them for easier study. She had not had that luxury, however, and so viewed each spell for what it could do, not as a member of some arbitrary category. The magicka now swirling around her not only bent the light so she would appear to be invisible, but it entered the mind of any passing by and encouraged them to overlook her hiding place. It could backfire against a powerful spellcaster, but for most purposes it was an exceptional way to hide.

Lydia tramped past silently, not even slowing to look in her direction, and Serana continued on towards the cabins. The jarl had given them two, and while she may have intended for the women to bunk together, Lydia had wasted no time in consigning Serana to bunk alone. In truth, however, she couldn't begrudge the Nord that. A housecarl would do nothing less to protect their charge. And if he is the Dragonborn…She pushed open the door to Velandryn's room.

The elf who might be Dragonborn was looking through the window, watching the morning light trickle in. A book lay open on the desk before him, and his armor was piled on one of the cots. He turned as she entered, and the morning light cast the angles of his face in sharp relief, as the setting sun once had, back in some tiny town whose name she could not even remember. Now, though, she saw more. She saw the fatigue in his eyes, but she also saw the fire there. She saw—

"Did you need something, Serana?" She jumped as he spoke, but had regained her composure by the time he turned to look at her.

"I wanted to ask you something, actually." Until that moment she had been prepared to—well, she actually wasn't sure. Ask if he was the Dragonborn, or demand that he tell her. Try to get him to reveal it perhaps.

He rose and slid the wooden shade down over the window. His shirt and pants were of simple cut, greys and blacks with his red hand on the breast. "Then ask. And there's no need to hide your face in here."

"Thank you." It was strange. Had he always been so conscientious? "I wanted to know…" She started the question, but it wouldn't come out. Why? Why was she so afraid of asking?

"Why did you help me?" It wasn't what she wanted, but it came out, and it was something.

Confusion did not so much blossom on his face as it did tinge his words. "Help you when? I would say we've been aiding each other for some time now."

"No, not them. The first one. In the chamber, when you knew what I was. You've said your people have all but wiped out your vampires, and Molag Bal is one of your hated enemies! Why did you help me? You should have killed me, but you didn't! Why? Did you want something from me?" It was coming out, and she couldn't stop it. The questions the secrets, the frustration, she couldn't hold it back. On some level she knew she should be proud that he hadn't spoken her whole mind, but even this little bit emptied a sliver of the tension in her stomach.

"Why? At the time, I didn't know." Velandryn, however, seemed not to have noticed her near-loss of composure, so consumed was he in his own thoughts. "There's plenty of reasons I'm helping you, but in that first moment it was a mad impulse. I am not a very good priest, you know."

"What?" That last line had been so strange that the word simply slipped out.

Those red eyes were fixed on the book before him. "I'm not a good priest." His lips twitched. "I have always been, on some level, convinced that I know what the Triune really wants. Common enough among the acolytes, but it has lived as a niggling voice in the back of my head for decades now. It whispers that the Sermons are fine for placating the masses, but that in the moment, I am the only arbiter of my choices. The pernicious idea that the Triune must respect rebellion, for did the Chimer not rebel against the Aldmer, and so become enlightened?" He looked up at her. "I wax and wane in my orthodoxy, but in the moment I allowed you to wake, to speak with you and satisfy my curiosity rather than destroying you, I did so because I wanted to. I chose, that's all."

"And do you regret your choice?" Once again, the words slipped out before she could take them back, and the moment was gone.

His face regained its usual composure; the odd vulnerability he had displayed vanished as though it had never been. He leaned back, eyes glimmering brightly. "If I did, do you think I'd tell you about it? I'm no expert at dealing with vampires, but I'm pretty sure telling them you wish you'd murdered them in their crypt isn't how you get along."

"You might want to let Lydia know that."

"I think for Lydia, your issue is less about knowing, and more about caring." He slumped down into the chair. "Your actions with Movarth helped, though." He turned back to his book. "The captain said we'll reach Solitude around nightfall, so I plan to at least try to stay awake until then." He tapped the page gently. "I picked up this book on my second day in Skyrim, and I'm still on the first chapter. I'm going to read it, I'm going to enjoy it, and while you are welcome to stay, I won't have much to say."

"What's it about?" She wondered how the novels of this age were written. Had styles changed since her time? There's so much I need to learn.

"It's called The Refugees, and concerns a historical figure called the Camoran Usurper, following the majority of his rise and fall through the eyes of those around him."

"Who was he?" She had heard of the Camorans, of course, as their royal line had been famous across Tamriel even in her time. They had ruled since the Year Zero, it was said, before even she had been born. This Usurper, though, was unknown to her.

He placed a thin strip of paper in the book, marking his place, and closed it. "His name was Haymon Camoran and, going by what I have read so far, he was a lesser son of the dynasty, one whose lust for power and feeling of inadequacy spelled doom for his family."

"Is the book well-written?" She had nothing of her own to read, and if he was willing to talk…

He smiled thinly. "I have not yet read enough to know. Would you like me to update you every time I finish a chapter?"

She realized he was annoyed at her, something she had never seen from him. It wasn't anger, though righteous fury seemed to be one of his principle motivations. This was different.

He was being taken away from a promising book, and wanted nothing more than to shut the world away for a bit. She knew the feeling well, and hastily, she left the room. Wrapping herself up again, Serana made for the deck, leaving the Dunmer below.

They had cast off, and the swamps of the Hjaal Marsh swept by on either side. Lydia was leaning over one of the rails, watching as a farmhouse perched on the edge of the water swept by.

"Glad to be leaving?" The Nord glanced up, and Serana was relieved to see her nod.

"Aye. This town makes me uneasy. I'll come back for the horses, but after that I've no wish to see this place ever again." She looked sidelong at Serana. "Almost home, aren't you? How's it feel?"

Was Lydia inquiring after her mood? This was too strange. "I don't know what I'll find."

Lydia nodded. "More like you, if nothing else. Be among your own kind again."

Was that it? Was Lydia merely cheered by the thought of Serana soon being gone?

They spoke no more, watching Morthal recede behind them. Serana watched the water, and the land, and even chanced a glimpse at the sky before her eyes began to burn. Everything was strange, in this new age. She should have been overjoyed at the thought of her home waiting for her. But her thoughts kept turning to a cabin beneath the deck, where an elf who might be the Dragonborn was reading a book in peace.

Serana watched the swamp pass by, beautiful in its own way, and thought of dragons.

Chapter 13: Parting of Ways

Summary:

Sooner or later, everybody winds up on the docks of Solitude.

Chapter Text

At first, Serana thought it was a cloud. She could make out a smudge on the horizon, far to the north, and she wondered if the weather would turn. The day was clear but chill, not that the cold held any terror for her. She could have walked naked through a blizzard and felt not the slightest hint of discomfort. However, as the distant something grew, so too did her worries. It was dark, almost looking like a mountain rising from across the waters. Finally, when the light hit the crest just right and the jagged line atop it resolved into spires and towers, she realized what she was looking at. She gaped for a moment, words failing her. Mother, your stories never did it justice.

They weren't even out of the swamp, but Solitude already dominated the northern skyline. She could see the sky under the great arch, whose height she could not even begin to guess. It had to be miles long at least. She knew it was a great spar of the Druadach Mountains that bridged the mouth of the river in its entirety and plunged down to end at the edge of the Morthal swamps. Atop the arch, buildings were becoming clear, chief among them the mighty windmill that had been famous even in her time. Breath caught in her throat as she remembered paging through a well-loved book, Sojourns in Solitude, and wishing more than anything else in the world to see the wonders described , as she looked upon the distant city, she figured a mote of something must have flown into her eye. She rubbed it away fiercely, hoping nobody had seen.

The Long Wind's Laugh had made good time, cutting through the swamp waters with great speed. The wind whipped at the cloth around her face, and a part of her wanted to tear it off and let the breeze play in her hair and face. Only a small part, though. A Volkihar might not burn away in the sun, but it was far from pleasant. She fingered the second blade at her side, the finely made dirk she had taken at Jarl Idgrod's behest. A weapon given for aiding mortals. It felt strange on her hip, but not unwelcome.

Footsteps from behind, and Velandryn joined her at the rail. He had thrown a heavy fur cloak over his slender frame and had thick gloves on his long-fingered hands, but had not put his leather armor back on. His clothing was simple but well-made, and she was struck by a thought she had entertained before; whether in armor or rags, Velandryn Savani would always have a striking look about him.

"So that's Solitude." The Dunmer sounded almost bored with the view, though it was entirely possible he simply didn't like the idea of giving a city in Skyrim too much credit.

"So it is, my thane." Lydia too, who had apparently joined her despite the lack of invitation, sounded unimpressed, though doubtless it was only because she did not want the Dunmer to outdo her. She had never known a housecarl to act quite as Lydia did, though she figured that the woman was fairly new to the job. The Dragonborn had only just been discovered, after all.

Serana glanced at Velandryn out of the corner of her eye. After giving it more thought, she was still mostly convinced he was the Dragonborn. It answered many of the mysteries that surrounded him, and might explain how he had managed to bring down so many foes who should have slain him easily. Whatever knowledge or powers he has clearly catch his enemies by surprise.

"Weren't you going to go read that Camoran book?" If he was going to be so self-righteous when she asked about his stupid book, she would give him all the grief she could muster if he put it down.

"Reading became sleeping, and I prefer to do that at night." His words were spoken offhandedly, his eyes still fixed on the distant stone arch. His tone might be dismissive, but he couldn't tear his gaze away.

Just then, a greeting sounded from behind, and the captain joined them. Jorik had not spoken to her since welcoming them aboard his ship, but it seemed to be merely because he enjoyed being up to elbows in rope and sail rather than any reluctance to engage his guests in conversation. "First time seeing Solitude, then?"

All three of them indicated assent, and the captain chuckled. "No place like it in Skyrim. Puts the rest to shame!" At that, Lydia mad a scoffing sound, prompting the captain to laugh. "Where you from, then?"

"Whiterun."

"A fine city, to be sure, but not much for the sea, that one. Plenty of horses, but no ships, and the Shores under Solitude can hold a hundred at a time!"

"The Shores?" That was Velandryn.

"Aye, the Solitude docks." From the captain's tone, you might have thought he had built them himself.

"Interesting. They are distinct from the rest of the city?" Once again, Velandryn had found something to pique his curiosity, and now he was picking at it to learn everything he could.

More or less, I s'pose." The captain shrugged broadly. "The city's got five, eh, districts, you could call them." He chuckled. "None like the others even a bit, truth be told." He began counting them off on his fingers. "You got the Shores, what's all about the sea and trade, the Climb, all up the roads to the old city walls." He grinned. "Where the working-folk live, the Climb, and the best ale in Skyrim, at the Frosted Top! Inside the great walls, you got the Gold, where's all the fancy merchants and dressmakers and whatnot. Then there's the Castle, that'd be Castle Dour as General Tullius and the Empire's taken over, and all the smiths and those what does the work for the Imperials, and then you got the Blue. That's everything between Dour and the old Palace where Jarl Elisif, may the Eight defend her, sits and rules." He knuckled his forehead in a gesture of respect. "Truth be told, the likes of me don't go inside the walls much. Only been past the Castle into the Blue the one time, when Jarl Elisif and good King Torygg was married." He knuckled his forehead again. "May he find joy in Sovngarde."

Interesting. Serana had picked up enough to know that Torygg's murder at the hands of Ulfric Stormcloak was the spark that had ignited this whole war, but it sounded a fascinating story, and she was interested in hearing more. The bereaved widow leading her people against her husband's assassin? The ballad practically wrote itself. Now, if Elisif and Ulfric had a secret love…That would be a song worth hearing. Unfortunately, the real world rarely lent itself to such heightened romance.

Velandryn, the potential romances of Jarl Elisif clearly lost on him, leaned forward, eyes still fixed on the approaching city. "You hail from there, Jorik." He didn't bother making it a question.

"Damn straight, friend elf! Born in the Climb, grew up hauling for the fishers on the Shores until I was old enough to go out on the water. Now, I sail up the Karth to Dragon Bridge and the Imperial camps, and along the Hjaal down old Morthal way, and even—if the winds are calm—to the ports around Dawnstar in the Pale, but Solitude's where I lay my hat, and where my family's waiting. Got a good mooring at the Shores and a fine house in the Climb, and couldn't want more. Never a finer city there was!" He beamed at them.

Velandryn smiled, one of the thin ones he put on for the benefit of others. "Someday you should sail to Blacklight, and then I will hear you admit your error."

Serana wasn't sure it was wise to antagonize the captain like that, but the man only laughed. "Your city, is it?" Velandryn nodded, a half-smile still on his face. "Well then, I'll forgive you that one. I've heard of that city. All Dark Elves, isn't it?"

Velandryn shrugged. "Less so than it was, though most foreigners keep to the Outland Quarter and Cauldron Hold."

"More's the pity, for I'd love to see it," the captain murmured thoughtfully, "but my Laugh" he patted the rail affectionately, "she's a shore-skimmer, and autumn is upon us. I'd rarely brave the Sea of Ghosts even in a calm summer, and this season's been no kind one." He shook his head sadly. "Nay, it's the rivers for me, though I ought not to complain."

"Out of curiosity, in what do you deal?" If Velandryn was merely feigning interest, he did it well.

"Everything you can think of, and a few things you'd never guess. I've had the Laugh for years now, and most every port on the rivers knows me. Not too many ships around here made for running the streams, you know. With the war and that business in the Reach, everyone wants my Laugh to haul their goods."

"What's been happening in the Reach?" At her master's words, Lydia gave Velandryn a disbelieving look. Serana didn't know for certain, but if she had to guess, she would lay the blame at the feet of the Reachmen. They were a fractious and warlike folk, and the Nord Empire of her time had had a wretched time trying to keep them under control.

"The Reachmen are revolting again." Silently, Serana congratulated herself. For every thing that changes, another stays the same. "The roads were safe until the damn rebellion, but from what I heard one caravan in three gets wiped out these days, and the others get attacked as well, now that the Empire's bogged down dealing with these traitors." He shrugged. "Damn shame, but I've never had more work."

As they spoke, the great arch loomed higher and higher, and the structures in the great mountain's began to resolve out of the haze above the water. Docks emerged, as well as the boats that inhabited them. One in particular seemed to excite Velandryn, a strange-looking thing with ribbed sails and a hull that was not only differently shaped than any of the Nord styles she had ever seen, but adorned with strange symbols and hung with banners of every shape and size.

The captain pointed to it. "That's one of you Dark Elf's ships, isn't it?"

Velandryn nodded. "For foreign trade. Hung with holy words and symbols, and crewed by the faithful."

"Even your merchants are priests?" Serana wasn't entirely sure how the Dunmer worked, but that didn't seem right.

"Hardly, but there are two kinds of Dunmer who spend much time abroad. The first is changed by exposure to the wide world, and if they return to Morrowind, they bring the world with them. The second sees the world in all of its vastness, and wraps the traditions and faith of home about them, so that they need not walk alone." He pointed at the ship. "That is the latter. They proclaim their heritage, so any who encounter them know with whom they speak." He nodded. "There is honor in devotion."

Serana was considering whether or not to make a comment about that when something else caught her eye. This new ship was huge, wide and flat, and crossing the water in front of them to the beat of drums. The Imperial dragon stood out on its sails and banners, but what caught her eyes were the soldiers. They were packed on, and many bore wounds ranging from the trivial to the serious. As they drew closer, she could also make out the looks of exhaustion on the faces of even the unwounded.

Jorik sighed. "Back from the Pale, most like. The healers do good work, but…" he shook his head again. "I hate that the blasted elves took Talos, but war isn't the way. Not among ourselves. We should be driving out the damn Thalmor!" He glanced at Velandryn. "Erm, begging your pardon, master elf."

Velandryn was picking distractedly at a spot on the railing. "No pardon needs be begged. I've no more time for the Thalmor than you do. They're fanatics and reactionaries, and they'll fall like the rest of those Aldmeri throwbacks always have."

Serana was confused. "You think it's futile for them to try and reclaim their lost glory?" As near as she could tell, that was the goal of this new Aldmeri Dominion; they wanted to be an elven counterbalance to the Empire. She didn't think it was a good thing for Skyrim, and she would not be surprised if she found herself in conflict with them at some point, but from an elven perspective it seemed to make snese.

"They're fools is all." Velandryn, at least, seemed interested enough in discussing the Thalmor, even if the captain had pointedly turned away and started shouting at his crew. Doesn't want say something stupid to the Jarl's passenger?

Well, she had no such compunctions. "How so?"

"How not? Aldmeris is long-vanished, our people scattered to the six winds. The very earliest records we have show divisions tearing the Aldmer apart. Veloth was not the first to abandon the Old Ways, though I would argue he left in the most dramatic fashion. In fact, the Aldmer of old seemed to split every time two people so much as disagreed over which way to slice bread; our only shared legacy is one of fractious infighting!" Velandryn smiled grimly and looked out over the waters. "Mer share a common heritage, and that is enough. We have a past that has shaped us, why should we be forced to share a future we do not want?" A pause, while he rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Of course, maybe I'm just sour on the idea because they think my people are blasphemous heretics, even worse than humans." He shot them a smile. "And they despise you."

"A source of great pride for us, my thane." Lydia sounded supremely self-satisfied, and Serana envied her that easy kinship. It must be nice, to have so many others like you. The humans might think Serana was one of them, but she walked alone.

What was it Velandryn said, to wrap oneself in traditions? She hadn't done that though. In fact, she'd opposed the vampires who were preying on the mortals, something her father would likely chide as the height of foolishness. They were more than mortals could ever hope to be, the hunters that ruled over the sheep. She glanced over at Lydia. Of course, some of the sheep have a bit of steel to them.

Velandryn seemed to have made up his mind about something. He pushed himself back from the rail. "Gather anything you have on board, we'd do well to be out of the way by the time they start unloading." Apparently, the list of subjects on which Velandryn considered himself knowledgeable extended to dockside etiquette. No, she reflected, that's unfair. If anything, the annoyingly exhaustive list was subjects where he was knowledgeable. The elf had a prodigious appetite for new information and a talent for putting it to use; she would wager that he was already mulling over this situation in the Reach and how it would impact any plans he might have. She didn't know what those plans would be, but if he was the Dragonborn, there was far too much about Velandryn Savani that had been kept from her.

She reached down and stroked the case containing the Elder Scroll. Can I say any different about myself? She might not be fully informed of what her father had been planning, but Lord Harkon of Volkihar could be patient. If he had needed the scroll, he would wait to have it. Undoubtedly, when she returned whatever her parents had been putting into motion would resume. Whatever that might be. Once more, she thought of Valerica, and her mother's sudden dissent. What happened to you, mother?

Moments after stepping back onto solid ground, Velandryn had to duck to one side as a pair of Nords wrestled a cart stacked high with lumber along the waterfront, shouting warnings ahead of their passage. An urchin darted through the gap left by their passing, singing some sort of off-key shanty. In moments, sailors, merchants, workmen, dockhands, hangers-on, thieves, whor*s, and all the assorted mass of mortality that oiled the great gears of trade had filled the space once more.

The docks of Solitude, what Jorik had called the Shores, teemed with activity. The majority of it seemed to be based around Nord trade and the like, though the Empire clearly had a strong presence too. Soldiers patrolled the wharves and inspected all incoming ships and cargo; they gave the Long Wind's Laugh only the most cursory of glances. Clearly Jorik had not been lying about being a familiar face on these docks. Everywhere banners hung, many with the diamond dragon of the Empire, though by far the most prevalent displayed a black wolf on a field of red; he assumed it was the standard of Solitude.

Less common, though still clearly in evidence, were the Breton traders out of Heiroc. High Rock, the humans call it. Two words, because the elven name isn't good enough for their precious human maps. From what he understood each of these merchants would be looking out for themselves and their guild rather than their province or the Empire to which they belonged. A strange people, with strange ways. He also saw a pair of what he assumed to be Redguard vessels, judging by the crews and the strange devices on their banners, though they looked more like simple trade ships than the infamous corsairs of the stories.

Of the Dominion, he saw evidence of no ships at all. If the Thalmor had overseas trade with Solitude, it was quiet. He was slightly disappointed, as he had heard stories of the Altmeri sunships, spun of crystal and sunlight, adorned with shimmering wings and long banners that listed the ancestry of every soul aboard. Of course, there was no reason for the Dominion to send such glories to a place like this. There were a few Thalmor soldiers patrolling the quays in pairs, peering into barrels and rifling through bundles as though they expected them to be filled with pamphlets of Talos. For every crate checked or workman harassed, a hundred went by unmolested. Velandryn suspected that duty on the docks was more about maintaining the visibility of the Thalmor rather than any real hope of ferreting out whatever violations of their treaty with the Empire they might theoretically find.

He had only seen the one ship of his people, though that was hardly surprising. There was little that Morrowind required of Skyrim these days, and less that needed to be brought by sea. The Great Council likely frowned on any shellship or storm-skimmer leaving Dunmer waters, so only the most inconspicuous of vessels were used for what nautical trade his people required. Rumors that House Dres or the disgraced Hlaalu were exploring potential trade deals with Akavir had been tantalizing nonsense for decades now and no Dunmer of any integrity would deal with the Argonians, so Skyrim remained the easiest province for nautical trade. He wondered what sort of mer the captain and crew were. It would be good to speak with some of his own kind again. Not to mention, they could be very useful for helping him with an idea that had been rattling around in his head for a while now. That can wait, but if I see them…

First, however, came lodging. Jorik had told them that no ships would be leaving with the evening, as weather, time of day, and tides were all unfavorable. The best they could hope for was an early departure on the morrow. To that end, the Nord had directed Velandryn to the Court of the Seas, a cluster of stone and wood buildings that stood above most of the Shores on one of the slopes comprising the foot of the Solitude arch. This hodgepodge of inns and eateries was where all of the captains stayed, Jorik assured them, and while the river-trawler had only the vaguest notion of their final destination, he was certain that there would be traders traveling to Jehanna and Northpoint who could drop them along the way.

While not on the water proper, this area was apparently still considered the Shores. Jorik had told him, in response to few casual questions, that the Climb did not begin until farther south along the coast. There began the Wolf Stairs, the network of paved roads that led from the Shores up to what he called the "great walls of Solitude" atop the arch. As far as Velandryn could tell, that was the only path up to the city proper. The docks—The Shores — were a vast center of trade, to be sure, but one that could be isolated and defended against in case of invasion from the sea. Clever.

Their destination soon came into view. It rose from the wood-and-stone shops and homes, a cluster of two and three-story buildings painted in a riot of colors, mostly with patterns and scenes meant to evoke the waves. It lay, as did everything in the Shores at this time of day, in the shadow of the monumental bulk of Solitude's arch. Velandryn guessed that a day down in the Shores was dark and somewhat short. The buildings themselves looked pleasant enough, set along the slope of the rocky hill. Velandryn picked one at random and headed inside. Behind him, Lydia—and he presumed Serana, though her tread was lighter—followed.

The big room was busy but not packed, with various nautical types spread around doing all of the things that Velandryn expected of sailors on shore. The noise rose and fell with the throw of dice, or knives, or, in one case, a mug that was apparently being used as a crude instrument of emphasis by a drunken Redguard with an impressive collection of tattoos. In one corner, three Bosmer were playing cards. One gave a whoop of victory, and another began cursing loudly.

A raised portion of the room was more sedate, and seemed to host the captains and merchants. Tables set for two or four, rather than long benches, predominated here, and the conversations often involved leather-bound books and ledgers embossed with intricate sigils and markings that Velandryn guessed represented merchant guilds or families.

The innkeep was a Nord woman of advanced years, a fact Velandryn was only a little proud of himself for noticing. Humans showed their age easily, after all, with posture and skin and even hair shifting dramatically in the course of little more than a decade. The same changes happened to Dunmer as well, of course, but the process was far more gradual, and the mark of a hard life besides. Those skilled with magic did not wither in such a way, however, making the entire concern moot as far as Velandryn personally was concerned. It must be a dreadful thing, having such a meager life.

"We would like rooms for the evening. Two, I would think. And if you could point me to a reputable banker, I would be much obliged." He would need coin to pay whatever captain they dealt with, but he felt off-balance carrying so much coin. Better to lock it behind stone and steel and know it was safe rather than risking some nasty tumble or malicious thief taking his newfound wealth.

"Aye, I can do that. Twenty for the rooms, and ten more for each of ya will earn you a hot meal for the evening." In Skyrim, prices could fluctuate based on the time of day. Or, more likely, how meric the customer looked. Lydia could probably have gotten the rooms for half the price. Or, I should have agreed on a rate before announcing I need to see a banker. The woman might be merely mercenary, rather than prejudiced.

He handed over a pair of sovereigns—two of the heavy twenty-five drake coins he had received from Lucan so long ago—without complaint. Serana could eat food, at the very least, and ten septims was a small price to pay to avoid questions about why she wasn't joining in for dinner.

Lodgings for the evening taken care of, the three of them marched upstairs, depositing the majority of their goods in the rooms. Somehow, Velandryn always seemed to be acquiring more and more things. Even when he lost something, such as the blade that had been shattered in Dimhollow, it came back in some way. He now had a most singular weapon from the Morthal armory, an orichalum longsword forged in the Third Era by a master smith of the second Orsinium. Apparently, an Orcish adventurer who had perished fighting Movarth a century ago had carried it, and it had been in the Morthal longhall ever since. Jarl Idgrod had gifted it to him personally, saying that it could do more good in his hand than in her trophy room. Now, it was a reassuring but unfamiliar weight on his hip. He had no specific quarrel with any Orcs, and their craftsmanship was far superior to most in Tamriel. However, it marked him even more as an outsider, and he had to wonder if this was another game Jarl Idgrod was playing.

Consumed by his thoughts, as well as the sliver of sea he could see out the window, he didn't even register Serana's presence until she was beside him. Lydia had gone downstairs, likely to figure out which of the patrons were most likely to be threats, and he had simply assumed Serana had done the same. Blinking once, he tried to conceal his surprise. Fortunately, the vampire seemed even more distracted than he.

She leaned against the wall and looked at him, not speaking. She had shed most of her heavy wrappings, leaving only her crimson leather armor and the short cloak around her neck, fastened with a silver brooch in the shape of a circle pierced by rays of light. He had never noticed it before, and wondered why that was.

He nodded to the brooch. "Is that your family's crest?"

She glanced down. "Oh, ah, yes." She smiled slightly. "It was. Supposed to represent the sun, actually. Ironic, isn't it?"

He hadn't mentioned her sudden outburst back on the ship, where she had demanded to know why he had refrained from slaying her, but he was still curious as to what had brought it on. "About what happened on the Laugh…?"

She cut him off gently. "I was…there's been a lot going on these past few days. A lot of things aren't as I expected, and I…I was having a moment of doubt."

"About what?"

"Everything." She shrugged. "We're supposed to be superior, but I was helping the mortals against my own kind. The questions, the tension, it's been building, and I threw a little of that onto you. I'm sorry."

"Nothing to apologize for." Truly, there wasn't. Velandryn had a bit of experience keeping things from her, and he was coming to the conclusion that, for all of her cleverness, Serana was not a woman to whom subterfuge came naturally. Like him, she wanted to learn everything she could, and keeping herself at arm's length, or at least failing to do so, had put her more than a little on edge. It was a shame really, that she was a vampire. But if she weren't a vampire, she would be a completely different person, and doubtless I would find her that much less fascinating—

With a start, he pulled himself away from that path, casting around for something else to discuss.

However, it was Serana who saved him. "I did some asking downstairs, and it might be a little harder to get to my home than we thought."

It wasn't good news exactly, but it didn't really surprise him. "A bit more remote than Jorik posited?"

She nodded. "It was never on the beaten path, and my family…values their privacy." He could just imagine what that meant. "Plus, it seems like the area has gotten a…bad reputation since I left."

Better and better. "How difficult will it be to find transport there?"

She produced a sheet of parchment from her sleeve. "I made this map. I've only shown it to a couple of captains, but by the sound of things it won't be cheap." She smiled. "Consider the cost my share of our reward from Movarth."

He felt his mouth go dry. That's it. That map was the first piece of information he needed to destroy the vampires. In the hands of the Dawnguard, it would ensure that no matter how much information they could get from actual reconnaissance, this Volkihar clan's days were numbered. Hopefully. He needed to get his hands on it.

"Any chance you can make more copies?" He tried to keep his voice carefully nonchalant. "There's a lot of ground to cover, and if we're going to be robbed on price I'd at least like to know we got the best deal possible." He had decided to play the part of the mercenary in Morthal, as it provided a convenient cover for his movements and Lydia's presence. With any luck, Serana would have picked up on the clues and now consider this entirely in-character for him. Of course, if she took into account—

"Oh, of course." Oh, well then. The vampire looked completely guileless as she put the parchment away. "I'll grab some more ink and paper downstairs." She paused as she reached the door, and looked back over her shoulder. "Velandryn?"

He was startled. "Hmm?"

"Thank you." And with that, she was gone.

He collapsed backwards, winding up sitting on the bed, his back against the wall. Serana, you fool. It should have been triumphant. It wasn't.

Rising, he gathered his cloak and gloves. The day's work was far from done, and this new information only made it more imperative that he find the Dunmer captain immediately. He was going to have to seize the initiative, it would seem. He just wondered how Lydia would take it.

Serana painstakingly copied the lines of her map onto the sheet of parchment. It was possible to do with magic, of course, but that would have drawn attention, not to mention she found the exacting work quite enjoyable. She had always had a good eye, and had loved reading the maps and atlases in her parents' libraries. After her transformation, when time was no longer a limiting factor, she had begun drawing her own. At first, it had merely been a means of escape. Her father would never let her actually visit Solitude or distant Windhelm, but if she traced the maps, learned the ways, it was in some small way better than doing nothing. So now, consulting an actual map of the Haafingar coast she had borrowed from a drunken ship's mate, she was able to produce something that was, if not perfectly accurate, at least a good representation of distance and time.

And, there! She finished the third map with a little flourish as she marked the last dot on the compass. Velandryn hadn't specified, but she would guess Lydia was getting one as well. Of the three of them, she was the only one who could be considered a "normal" Nord, so she might have more luck with the denizens of the Shores. For all that Solitude was a major port city and a stronghold of the Empire, two out of every three people she saw were Nords. Velandryn was clearly an outsider, and Serana began feeling uncomfortable if she had to deal with unknown people for too long.

Case in point, a pair of what appeared to be heavily inebriated sailors were making their way towards her. Not wanting to have to put up with whatever crudities they had in mind, she rose and made her way through the patrons towards the stairs. She might as well give Velandryn his copy, and if she saw Lydia, the big Nord could take hers as well.

Unfortunately, neither of her traveling companions were in their room. She left their copies of her map on the table with a hastily scrawled note and returned downstairs, feeling slightly at loose ends. She was so close to returning home, but she had no idea of what to do from here. Seek out more captains? Wander the docks hoping to find a ship? She might be able to sneak a few glimpses of Solitude, of the world she had always longed for. She was here, why not take the opportunity?

That could work…It took a moment before she realized that she didn't have to justify herself to anyone. If she wanted to go and see Solitude, she should.

She was heading for the door almost before she had finished the thought. How long had she dreamed of this, growing up? How many times had she imagined herself walking the streets of some distant city, where nobody knew her and she could simply…be?

The Shores were actually brighter than they had been earlier in the day, as the sun was now fully below the arch. The building they were in commanded an impressive view, and the hillside meant that she could see both the rooftops of the town spread out below her and the tall masts of the ships that bristled at the water's edge. Banners and sails fluttered gently in the wind, and her keen eyes made out folk hurrying here and there in the Shores below, weaving their way along the narrow alleys or moving more quickly along the wide straight streets that seemed to radiate outward from the distant point where the Climb began, leading up to Solitude's great walls far above.

Across the water, where the far foot of Solitude's arch plunged into the water as a great sheer drop, a bell sounded, and she noticed for the first time great doors of wood set into the cliff. As they swung open, and a latticed portcullis was hauled up from behind them, her superior vision showed her a massive cave, set into the stone of Solitude itself. It looked to be a warehouse, though on a scale she had never imagined. She wondered briefly how they got into the city from there; before she caught sight of the reason those gates had swung wide. A great barge festooned with Imperial banners was working its way under the arch from the north, deck laden with shaggy cows and great bales of hay and huge crates labeled with "East Empire Company" and the same picture of a ship that was emblazoned on the huge gates. She could scarcely imagine the scale of this organization, to command a port such as that. Now that she was looking over across the water, she noticed more docks and warehouses, tiny in comparison to the sprawl of the Shores but still easily having room for a dozen ships or more.

Tears welled up in her eyes. I want it all. I want to see every ship and learn the stories of each man and woman. I want to know what secrets are stored in every hold. But she couldn't. She was Serana of Volkihar, and she had to return to her family. A vampire was nothing alone, even one such as she.

The entire scene was cast in reds and golds, and there was an otherworldly beauty about it all. Velandryn had spoken of dawn and dusk as holy times, and she could see that, even if she had to turn away her eyes.

It was with some reluctance that she turned to go into a tavern; she could have watched daylight fade from the shores for…well, forever, most likely. However, she needed to return to Castle Volkihar, and for that she needed a ship.

The first captain she spoke with was no help, and the second leered at her when she asked about price. Time after time she was presented with stories about that area, or an itinerary that led to the east, to do trade with the ports of Dawnstar and Windhelm.

Many also mentioned trading in Morrowind, though always with an undertone that made it sound either a perilous journey or a shameful one. It piqued her interest, and she asked why the Dunmer homeland was spoken of with such reluctance.

One sailor, a Redguard woman who had introduced herself as Talanda and was wreathed in a riot of bright silks, explained it to her. "Folks'll trade there, but it always feels just the slightest bit off. Like if you go somewhere you shouldn't you might just disappear." She paused, thinking. "The Dunmer are strange. Oh, some are fine, the ones who aren't born there, or get out early. But most?" She clicked her tongue. "Always on about their gods, looking at you like you're so much less than them because you weren't born in a volcanic wasteland. I've seen their shores, and you couldn't pay me enough to live there!" She chuckled, and eyed Serana. "Why you asking about the east anyways? Heading over there?"

With a flush, Serana realized how far afield she had wandered form her original inquiries. She produced the map she had drawn and showed the other her destination.

Tracing the coastline with her finger, Talanda looked throughtful. "Won't be easy to find a captain, I can tell you that. Most every merchant from the west swings wide before Northwatch Keep, or at the second lighthouse if you're coming from Solitude. Too much ice in the sea close to shore, and shallow water with wicked fog besides. No sane captain would brave it. It's all wilderness there anyways. Not a town to be seen north of the mountains until you get over into High Rock." She gave Serana an odd look. "You Thalmor?"

"What?" She let her surprise register on her face.

The Redguard laughed. "Didn't have you figured for it, but you never know. I only ask cause I heard Northwatch got taken over by that lot, and there's not much more than that up there. Won't pry into your business there though." She shook her head. "That Empire signed away their soul with the Concordat, I'll tell you what." She spat. "And left us out to dry too, so f*ck the lot of 'em!" She glanced around and lowered her voice. "Ah, maybe not the wisest place to say that."

Honestly, Serana thought, she needn't have worried. This was hardly the sort of place where you could hear other people's conversations, much less eavesdrop on them. It seemed sailors on shore, no matter where or when they were, were rowdy drunks. "So, what, should I look for a horse instead, travel overland?"

The other woman shook her head. "Nah, you'd be frozen stiff and eaten alive within a week, with the mountains and all that lives in the wilds. My advice? Look for old Nords, the sort who go fishing for days on end. Might be some of them are headed that way, and can take you with."

"Thank you, truly." Serana wondered how Talanda knew so much about the area, but the Redguard only laughed when she asked.

"I should. Been living here for eight years!" She smiled, and showed her hand, which had a thin silver band set with a blue stone. "Married a local boy, told my old captain and crew goodbye, signed on with my boy's vessel, a longship that runs food up to the Pale. Decent pay, steady work, and something to come home to at the end of the voyage." She shrugged. "Never much liked sand or rock or jungle. First time I saw snow, knew that was the life for me." She waved an arm and the bracelets on her wrist clanked together. "Still dress like this though. I'll never be a Nord, no need to pretend, huh?"

Her husband and some friends arrived shortly after, and Serana made her goodbyes despite invitations to stay and eat with them. She liked Talanda from her brief interaction, but her mission took precedence.

The sun had set fully by the time she left; greys and blues replacing the red and gold of before. Talanda had pointed her in the direction of quieter local alehouses where she might find some fishermen of the type she wanted, so she made her way down the street in the general direction of the water. The wind had died down, and so where before the smells of salt and sea had wafted in on the wind, now she could smell the town, and countless dinners cooking. From above, the faint sounds of music drifted down; it seemed they were singing up in Solitude.

Singing. She wouldn't know the songs, of course, but she wanted to learn them. There would be so many, so much that had happened that the bards would have recorded. Without thought, she pivoted to face the south, and the path up to atop the arch.

If she did it, headed south to the Climb and just went up, she would be at the gates. Even if there was a guard, or the city was closed for the evening, she could easily slip over the walls under cover of night. She could be inside the city before anyone knew she was gone.

A laugh rose in her throat. I wouldn't even need to hide from them. Doubtless Velandryn and Lydia would be overjoyed to know that they didn't have to go out to Castle Volkihar. She could renounce it all, leave her father to his plotting and her mother to her experiments. Leave Volkihar behind and—

And what? Rely on those two, on a Nord who hated her and an elf who might be the Dragonborn? Be forever alone in this new world? Impossible. For better or for worse, she had the name of Volkihar. She was not free to do as she wished. She had no one, save her family, and she owed them her loyalty. Steps a little heavier, she continued on alone, to find a way home.

Just me.

The part of Lydia that had served Whiterun for a decade and a half had little liking for regions like the Shores. It reminded her of the Outer Market of Whiterun, vital to the smooth function of the city as a whole, but entirely too unruly for any sort of reasonable governance. Violations of the law that would merit a fine in more civilized quarters were often missed or deliberately overlooked in regions such as these, leading to an atmosphere that verged on lawlessness. There simply were not enough guards to catch all the offenders, not to mention that many who broke the law were travelling merchants or itinerant adventurers. That last group especially tended to be well-armed and eager for fights, a combination that featured prominently in many a guard's nightmares.

In Whiterun, it had been easiest to mostly let the Outer Markets be. If something happened under a guard's nose, it could be taken care of, but nobody was fool enough to think that even began to make a dent in the actual level of crime. It seemed to be much the same for the Shores, though perhaps even slightly worse, as it seemed that the guard here was stretched thinner than it had ever been at Whiterun. She had to imagine that the war was pulling forces from Solitude, but she couldn't help but feel that there was a better way to go about things.

She wasn't going anywhere in particular, and truth be told she should probably be at her thane's side, but Velandryn was still in their rooms, and she could see the stairs from where she sat. Across the room, Serana was writing something; despite her partial reassessment of the woman in Morthal, Lydia had no real desire to spend any time with the vampire. That was the final push the Nord needed; her thane wouldn't die if she took a bit of time to walk the streets of the Solitude Shores.

The Shores was famous throughout Skyrim as the greatest port in the province. The Whiterun markets might be the crossroads of four provinces, but Solitude put them to shame for the sheer volume of trade it handled. More food alone passed beneath the Arch in a day, it was said, than a single man could eat in a year. Of course, that had been before the rebellion.

She couldn't say how Ulfric's war had affected trade, though she did notice an Imperial presence at the waterfront, in contrast to the almost nonexistent presence of true Solitude guards throughout most of the Shores. They appeared nonchalant, but no less than four times she was approached and questioned very politely about what she was up to. It made sense, she supposed, as a heavily armored Nord without any clear allegiant colors would likely arouse suspicions. She also noticed others being questioned, which dulled the shame of being taken for a threat by the law.

Her shield had born the crest of Whiterun not too long ago, but the battles it had seen had rendered the proud stallion all but invisible. I should get it repainted when we return this way. Doubtless they would be leaving very soon to finish up this business with Serana, but hopefully they could spend some time in Solitude on the way back.

No, of course we can't. They had to get to High Hrothgar. The Greybeards were waiting, and part of her responsibility to the Dragonborn was to keep him on the correct path. With a sigh, she turned around and began to retrace her steps. Her duty awaited. When Skyrim was safe from dragons, she could take a day for herself.

When she returned to the inn, she found neither her thane nor the vampire in the common room. More worryingly, when she went upstairs Velandryn was nowhere to be found. The room held their gear, but no clue or note to indicate where he might be. Now taken with a bit of true concern, she returned downstairs, only to be greeted by her thane and a Dark Elf woman she had never seen. They had apparently just entered, and Velandryn wasted no time in steering the three of them to a table in the quieter portion of the room.

Lydia studied the woman, trying not to be too obvious. The Dunmer was dressed more fully than most of the sailors Lydia had seen today, though whether that was because of her race or the fact that Dark Elves had no resistance to the cold Lydia couldn't say. She wore a vest of some scaly hide over a tight shirt with long flowing sleeves and a skirt sewn with beads of a hundred colors that rattled when she moved. A winding tattoo of a snake, picked out in white, wound up one cheek and across her forehead to end below her eye. Her skin was slightly lighter than Velandryn's, though her face had much of the same angular shape. Her hair was ebon black, and shaped into a single strip running back along the top of her head, with the sides shaved. It was a distinctive look, if not one Lydia herself found particularly attractive. Her eyes, of course, were red.

Velandryn made introductions as they sat themselves. "Captain Milara, this is Lydia of Whiterun, my ko'thil. Lydia, this is Captain Milara Andaram, master of the Amar'balak out of Blacklight."

Lydia nodded awkwardly, wondering both what it meant for her to be "ko'thil" and what exactly this was all about. Doubtless this was the captain of the ship that Velandryn had noticed earlier, but she wasn't sure what it had to do with her. Maybe he simply wanted her to meet another of his kind?

The captain, however, seemed perfectly at ease, at least in the grave way the Dunmer were. "Wealth beyond measure, Sera." She bowed slightly in her seat. "Truly the Three have blessed you to tie your service to one such as the eminent Velandryn Savani." Milara Andaram's face remained almost entirely still, with only a familiar glimmer in her eyes reassuring Lydia that she meant the words sincerely.

Well, I can see why my thane likes her. Then, the import of the woman's words hit her. Does she know? Could Velandryn have been foolish enough to tell this random Dunmer that he was the Dragonborn?

She was thinking how best to ask Velandryn without cluing in the captain if she did not know, when her thane interjected. "Apparently, Solitude does not have even so much as a shrine to the Triune, so the presence of an Anointed of the Temple is of great relief to the faithful on board the Amar'balak." He met her eyes significantly, and the barest hint of a smile played over his lips.

Bastard. The tension bled out of Lydia. Okay. This other one's esteem was just because Velandryn was a priest of their temple. Dark Elf matters. She knew where she stood on those. She smiled at the elf. "A pleasure to meet you as well, Captain Milara."

The captain turned and said something to Velandryn in a tongue Lydia did not recognize, though she recognized it as Dunmeris, as her thane would occasionally pepper his speech with phrases from that language.

Velandryn responded with a terse phrase in that same language. The captain then turned to Lydia. "My apologies. I should of course speak Imperial, so you can understand." She looked at Velandryn, who nodded. "My Amar'balak has been at port here in Solitude for the better part of a week. We have taken on pelts, lumber, and all of the other goods we had hoped to obtain. From here, our next port will be Blacklight. We are leaving tomorrow, with the breaking of dawn"

Velandryn looked at Lydia, eyes grave. "When the Amar'balak returns to Blacklight, I mean for you to be on it."

No. It was not going to happen. "May I have a moment to speak with you alone, my thane?" Clearly he was misunderstanding something; there was no other reason he could have just said those words. Perhaps the fight with Movarth had addled his wits somehow.

"You may not, housecarl." She could only stare at him in shock. This was not like in Whiterun, when he had burst out in anger. He seemed cool and collected, as in control as ever. "We can speak on this later. I apologize for not informing you beforehand, but our window of opportunity is short, and I needed to set matters in order as is." He nodded to the captain. "Lydia will be at your ship before you depart."

Milara Andaram rose. "Zekken dol, tsukhan." With another bow, she turned and left the inn, her skirt clacking with every step.

Lydia was still in shock. "My thane, explain this at once!" She kept her voice low, but her anger cut through despite it. "Have I offended you in some way?" What shame could have warranted this? He was sending her to Morrowind? Impossible!

He raised his hands. "Not at all. If anything, I'm asking you because you're the only one I can trust with this. I should have explained earlier, but this has all come together very quickly. I met the captain for the first time less than an hour ago, and if she was just a touch less devout, this would not have worked at all. As is, she has been extremely agreeable, and I think we might be able to down a whole flock of cliff racers with a single arrow."

She sat back, waiting to hear his next words. The Dunmer was clever in ways that she was not, and it was possible that there was a good reason for all of this.

Velandryn sighed. "I should be quick, since I don't know how long we have until Serana returns." Lydia glanced over the room, but Velandryn waved his hand dismissively. "I'm watching the door, we'll know when she gets back."

Her thane continued, eyes sober. "First, I am not sending you to Blacklight so much as I am sending you through Blacklight. The Morrowind route will get you to Fort Dawnguard in less than a week, assuming that the location of the fort I was given is accurate."

"How can that be, my thane?" Blacklight was hundreds of miles out of the way, after all.

"Sea is faster than land, and my people have modes of transit that put the horse and carriage to shame. I will send you with instructions." He produced a piece of paper and handed it her. On it was a map of the northern coast of Haafingar; a small area in the middle of nowhere was circled.

Lydia's breath caught in her throat. "Is this—"

"The location of Serana's family, and whatever power resides with them." Velandryn looked extremely pleased with himself. "In the hands of the Dawnguard, it means those bloodsuckers' days are numbered." He bared his teeth in a fierce grin. "For this, I expect them to drown Jarl Balgruuf in crossbows. Just in case, though, bring your weapon with you to Morrowind. I'm curious to see what my people can do with it."

Lydia blinked. "What all do you plan for me to do?" If she was going to go through with this—not that she was conceding that point yet—she would do it right.

"All you should need to do is go to Great Fane, the primary complex of the Temple in Blacklight. I will give you letters of introduction and passage, which should provide you all the resources and direction that you need." He smiled. "The Temple has enormous power in Morrowind; their aid will give you freedom no outlander normally enjoys. Truth be told, I wish I was going with you; I would like to see my home again."

That brought her to her second concern. "I assume you will be travelling with Serana then?"

He nodded. "I plan to see her as far as I am able. The map gives us a location, but we still lack any knowledge about the site itself. Serana has mentioned that it's hidden and isolated, but nothing more. She has also mentioned a reward. I'm assuming that will at least get me through the outer gates." He sighed. "If the rest of her coven is even half as formidable as she is, we'll need every last advantage we can get, and knowledge now could save a lot of lives later."

Something had just occurred to her. "My thane, what if the vampire's reward is—"

"An offer to make me like them?" He smiled, though it did not touch his eyes. "I've considered that, and also that they might not take it exceptionally well if I refuse." He shrugged. "I have…planned for that eventuality, and though hopefully it won't be necessary, I am reasonably confident in my ability to escape should it be needed."

She gave the Dunmer a hard look. "You are asking me to abandon you to go into a vampire's lair alone. I want your plan, and if I'm not satisfied, you're not leaving my sight until we've dropped Serana off in whatever hellhole she calls home."

"All right." How easily he gave in took her somewhat by surprise. "How much do you know about teleportation?" That would explain it. Velandryn might love his secret knowledge, but he would never pass up a chance to lecture some unfortunate soul, generally her, on magic.

"I know what it is." That much was true, at least. "I know it doesn't work anymore." That one she had only heard.

Velandryn tilted his head. "Partially true, though that's mostly due to external factors rather than anything inherent to the art itself." He rubbed his jawline thoughtfully. "At its most basic, teleportation convinces the Earth Bones that someone or something is somewhere that it was not. Of course, the moment the Earth Bones believe it, it becomes so." He paused. "Well, 'belief' is a tricky concept when dealing with dead gods, but it works for our purposes. Anyways, the biggest issue is convincing the laws of nature to look the other way while you tamper with reality. A shorter distance, either through space or time, decreases the amount of disbelief you need to bypass for the teleportation to work, which is important. A fully successful or failed teleportation, and you either rejoice or try again. If something goes half-right…" he shrugged, "You hope that you wind up fifty miles away from where you planned. The alternatives are…messier."

Lydia had understood some of that, and knew where her thane's rambling was going, though not why he was telling her this if he was trying to convince her that it was a good idea. "Let me guess. Your plan to escape from the Volkihar is—"

"Mark and recall." He produced a book, no larger than the palm of his hand. Daedric runes were stamped on the cover.

"What?" She knew the words, of course, but the way he said them made the term sound specific and important.

"A pair of matched spells, usually neatly bound together like this one. Mark creates an…echo…of the caster at its current location. It…well, 'primes,' I suppose, the Aurbis to accept the return of the caster to that spot. It is heavily affected by distance and time. After more than a day or a few dozen miles of distance, it's essentially useless. I picked this one up in Movarth's belongings, and I'm counting myself fortunate to have recognized it for what it was. I figure I mark a spot a fair distance away from whatever this place turns out to be, and then, if things go bad, I recall back to it, and have an hour's head start if they decide to give chase."

Lydia immediately saw the uses of the spell. "Why haven't I heard of this before?"

Her thane shrugged. "We use it in Morrowind, on occasion, though it's less useful than you might think. The spells are finicky in some very specific ways, so you either need an expert enchanter to scribe them or an even better mage to cast them. This little book could probably fetch me near a thousand drakes if I found the right buyer."

"So its limitation is in the casting, but couldn't you study the spells specifically, and then mark other people to travel with you?" She might not know too much about magic, but a good means of teleportation, well, she almost salivated at all of the potential applications. If it meant returning to Whiterun in a heartbeat rather than a day's ride, she'd put up with chaperoning a mage.

Velandryn smiled. "Good! Thinking sideways is the best way to get the most out of magic." He sobered. "Sadly, it's not that simple. Mass recall is possible, though precision is still difficult. It's difficult enough etching the memory of a single caster on a place. Trying to keep two or three straight can lead to not everyone winding up with all of the same parts they started with." His face took on a look of faint disgust. "If you're lucky, it's just arms and legs. There's a story about a mage who tried it with a Nord mercenary in tow. They switched childhood memories. In full." He shrugged. "As for learning it, I know the forms. I checked the work in here to make sure everything was where it should be. The problem is concentration."

Lydia was fascinated in spite of herself. "So in situations where you need it, you're better off having it prepared instead of trying to cast it?"

"Exactly! Teleportation, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is where anything going wrong is unacceptable. Magic backfiring is never a good thing, but the worst case scenario with a fireball is it fizzles out, or maybe gives you a light roasting. When you're trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the laws of reality, you can't afford be devoting any thought to worrying about if that Orc is going to cleave your skull in two before you finish the final incantation." He shrugged once more, a favorite gesture of his. "At least, I can't. Divayth Fyr can probably pull half an army around the world while sleeping."

"Who?"

He waved his hand. "The greatest mage alive. Or not, as the case may be. He hasn't been seen for two hundred years."

Lydia was struck once again by how odd Dunmer society must be. "I'd think even elves would stop waiting after that long."

Velandryn smiled. "He's older than Serana, and he never went to sleep. He's lived through the rise and fall of the Tribunal, remembers being Chimer, and kept the last living Dwemer in his tower for a few millennia because he liked having him around. He's visited more planes of Oblivion than the Empire officially acknowledges exist, and rumor has it that when a detachment of An-Xileel Argonians attacked his living tower during the Black Tide, none of that army were ever seen again. The tower vanished too, of course, but that's nothing unusual." Velandryn leaned back. "He might be dead now, but 'alive' is a technicality for a great many Telvanni magisters. I doubt Divayth Fyr would let anything as trivial as death slow him down." He smiled. "He's the hero of many a mage."

Velandryn, for one, obviously worshipped the man, and even Lydia had to admit he sounded a fascinating character. However, she wouldn't let herself get any more sidetracked. "So, assuming this spell works perfectly, you still wind up in the middle of nowhere, likely with angry vampires out for blood."

Her thane spread his hands. "No plan is perfect, Lydia."

"In that case, you will have to make your apologies to the captain, because I'm not getting on that ship."

"So you admit that if my plan is good enough, you'll go?" Before she had time to protest, he continued. "We're getting there by sea. That means either we'll be catching a ride on a merchant bound for Northpoint or somesuch port and pay them to delay for half a day, or we charter a ship of our own. Either way, I mark the point near where the boat is waiting, and I'm in the wind. Worst case scenario, I have to travel back from Heiroc, and I've always wanted to see that province." He fell silent and waited.

As far as dangerous plans went, it wasn't bad. She herself had launched many a mission with less planning than this. However, this was her thane, and the Dragonborn besides. "I don't like this, my thane."

He gave her a long look. "Truth be told, Lydia, neither do I. You are a stalwart companion, and…well…I," he tried to find words but eventually trailed off in what she half-suspected was embarrassment. It couldn't be easy for the Dunmer to admit affection for a Nord, but she enjoyed watching him try. "Regardless, we need to inform the Dawnguard as soon as possible, and you are the only person I trust to do so. "

She was, once again, touched by his sincerity. She had grown quite fond of him as well, odd as he was. Still, she wouldn't' give in so easily. "We have a courier service in Skyrim, my thane."

Velandryn nodded. "I'm aware, but we can't just send the map with a note. I need you to explain the chain of events, and impress upon them the gravity of the situation and how many unknowns we're dealing with. In short, Lydia, I need you to be my advocate." He smiled. "Were I of noble birth in a Great House, the position would be more prestigious, but I do hope you'll accept.

She felt like smiling at his self-deprecating words, but a part of her was worried that he was just telling her what she wanted to hear. Velandryn was more than smart enough to know that what he was saying was exactly what would most motivate her.

She sighed. "I don't like this. It can make all the sense in the world, but you're asking me to send you into certain danger alone. As your housecarl, that goes directly against my duty to you."

"When the duty to obey me and the duty to protect me come into conflict, which wins out?" His face was grave, though, as she reflected with bleak humor, it often was, even when he was happy. His harsh features did not naturally lend themselves to levity. "I do not know how Nords reckon such things, but I would hope that I'm not sending you away against your will. All cleverness and wordplay aside, I want you to understand why I am doing this, even if you do not enthusiastically agree."

Divines help her, she did. She thought it was the wrong decision, but she could see where he was coming from. "My thane, I should be by your side." She knew she was repeating herself, but it had to be said, to be drilled onto him that this was her duty. "You would be walking alone into mortal peril."

He smiled, but his eyes were as sad as she had ever seen them. "Lydia, if things go wrong to the point where a second sword is needed, do you think it would matter one whit if you were there or not? I am going into the vampire's den. My fate is not going to be determined by strength of arms." He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder. "And, if the worst comes to pass, I hereby charge you with murdering every last one of those bastards." His eyes brightened. "After all, you know where they live!"

He laughed, and she found herself smiling. I suppose I've lost then. It should have bothered her more, but she had the odd feeling that if anyone could deliver a lost vampire to her family and emerge to tell the tale, it was her thane. Not to mention, she had the feeling that Serana would be at the very least reluctant to see any harm come to Velandryn. Lydia wasn't sure if Velandryn was still only playing a role in his relationship with Serana, but the vampire, for her part, seemed to genuinely like the Dark Elf.

When she brought Serana's recent behavior up, her thane leaned back in his chair. "Agreed. I'm not sure if it's because we're both outsiders, or for some other reason, but I don't see her turning on me and delivering me as a sacrifice." He pulled out a sheaf of papers. "Now, while we have time, let's get to writing."

"Writing, my thane?"

"Writing, my housecarl. I'm going to update Jarl Balgruuf of the current situation—I can trust that to a courier, at least— and start drafting letters for you to bring to Blacklight."

She sighed. "You are decided upon this madness, then?" In truth, little as she might like it, the terms of her bond were absolute. A housecarl was duty-sworn to obey their master, and so she would. He wanted her to go on this voyage to Blacklight, he had laid plans with that in mind, and she had nothing but vague misgivings and a sense of unease to combat his arguments.

"Most definitely. Signal the service and get us some dinner. I'm going to be at this a while."

She rose. This might be the last meal she had with her thane for some time—or ever—and she would make sure it did the Dragonborn justice. As she was leaving the table, she turned, remembering something.

"My thane?"

"Hmm?"

"What does it mean, to be ko'thil?"

His eyes brightened slightly. "It means, roughly, 'retainer of the body.' An archaic term for a warrior sworn to an individual rather than a house or cause. There is no equivalent to a housecarl in Morrowind, and the terms for our typical retainers carry connotations that would make other misunderstand your position. Ko'thil is an ancient word, one that will generate interest among those who hear it." He bowed his head slightly. "It will lead to questions, but also respect that would not otherwise be afforded a retainer of a non-noble." A smile, just a small one. "I wouldn't want your time in my homeland to be boring, after all."

"Thank you." I think.

Another laugh. "I wonder what I should tell Serana?"

"Hopefully not the truth."

"Three preserve me, I should hope not."

With a smile, she left him sitting there. A bad plan it might be, but it was her thane's command, and she could vaguely see the logic of making contact with whatever resources Velandryn had in Morrowind while on her way to the Dawnguard. She didn't know what plans he was making, but Velandryn Savani was not a fool, and she almost didn't feel mortal dread at the idea.

Almost.

Vampires could get drunk, but Serana had never much cared for alcohol. She found some wines tolerable, but not the sort that could be found in places like this. If this dingy haunt had a name, it was nowhere to be seen, and Talanda had only given her directions, and the name of the owner. That wasn't a problem, she supposed, as she had found it, and every patron save her looked as though they had been coming here for decades without fail. She wasn't even sure what to call it. It seemed more meeting-place than tavern, and old Herro behind the bar, a magnificently wizened man who could have been Breton, Imperial, or even a tiny Nord, greeted each and every one of his customers—save her— by name.

Just now, she was talking to a man named Jolf, who had, by his own claim, "been fishin' the waters up there since afore I got my first whisker!" He had many of those now, an impressive beard that remained deep black despite his wrinkled skin. He could have had anywhere from forty years to sixty; life in Skyrim could age people in strange ways.

He looked at her map, a frown on his face. "Aye, I know the place. Stories of a ruined castle, what can only be seen when the cold winds blow from the north, and voices that whisper when the moons are dark." He gave her a keen stare. "Why does a pretty young thing like you want to go out to there, eh? There's evil things in that land."

You have no idea, boatman. She had him, she knew; her initial offer had set greed blazing in his eyes, and all of this was merely haggling. Her golden eyes had gone unremarked, though she had uncovered her face as soon as she entered; she doubted any of these crude men and women would even associate golden eyes with vampirism. If Dunmer could get away with eyes that looked to burn like fire, she could pass with gold.

Jolf was not too terribly unpleasant, as far as his sort went. They had not changed much since her time, the simple folk who lived off the water. Every one of her father's villages had had those like Jolf, and they cared for little beyond the tides and what sort of catch they could expect for the time of year. Most were at best slightly literate, but could detect the weather changing days in advance, or tell you exactly how to distinguish between a hundred varieties of fish. Her father had called them 'the commonly gifted' and made good use of their knowledge. This one might be just what she needed, provided the price was right.

She had a few drakes, as Velandryn called the coins of this age, on her, enough to buy drinks and food, but the vast majority of the coin she would need was with the Dunmer, who had mentioned something about making use of a banker without so much as consulting either of his companions. She supposed that was to be expected with Lydia, but Serana had no intention of letting the mer keep all the coin. She didn't need the money; once she got home she would have more than she could ever spend, but there was a principle to the thing. As a result, she might not be haggling quite as hard as she could. She would rather Velandryn walk away a few coins lighter than run the risk of losing her ride home through excessive thrift.

"I'm paying you well, and it isn't for your questions." Well, she might pay a bit more for her rudeness, but she had no time for inquiries like this. Either the boatman was trying for information or he wanted her to add her body to the price; she was unwilling to entertain either notion. She was hiring him for a service, and she had no need of anything other than a ship and the skill to sail it. A shame father slaughtered all of our people, they knew how to obey. The sudden thought shamed her, but she couldn't help remembering how quickly their subjects had performed at whatever was demanded of them. Except dying. That had taken a while. By day the court had feasted in the castle, and by night they had hunted until every last village was bare.

She had gotten lost in memory, but Jolf's words snapped her back. "For five hundred, I can take all three of you. That's my final offer, and by Shor's name I swear it."

She nodded. "Done." Velandryn could pay that easily, and it was far less than her share of the reward besides. "When can you be ready, and how long will it take to get there?"

The Nord's lips moved as he thought. "I was plannin' on takin two weeks near the Fangs o' Nakk, so my boat's all loaded up…" He gave her what he doubtless thought was a charming smile. "I could be ready to leave afore midday on the morrow for another hundred septims."

"No, you could be ready to leave before midday regardless, but you think you can milk me for a few drakes more." She honestly didn't care if the proper term was drake or septim, but since she liked Velandryn more than Jolf or Lydia, she called the coins as the Dunmer did. "I am already paying you an absurd amount to perform a trivial task, so either you accept it or I will find another who will!" Not the money, but the principle. She wouldn't be taken for a fool by this insignificant little commoner!

He blanched. "Ah, I didn't mean to…no, five hundred is fine. Three of you, wasn't it?"

"Indeed." Whether her companions would bother to make the final leg of the trip remained to be seen, however, though she could hardly fault them if they preferred to remain in Solitude rather than brave the Sea of Ghosts for nothing but an unknown reward from a vampire. "Perhaps less, but no more."

Jolf rubbed his head. "Aye. I'll want to see the coin before you set foot on my boat, o' course." He rose, and gave her another look, though this one had little warmth. "Your companions, they like you?"

Not especially, though I think they're warming to me. "And what do you mean by that?"

"You're some sort of elf-blood or whatever, huh? Those eyes aren't human, I know that much." Well, so much for her passing undetected. Apparently it was the apathy of the common folk she should have depended on rather than their lack of awareness.

"My…companions are decent folk, but our business is our own." She was tired of this. In hindsight, she should have let Velandryn handle the negotiations; he seemed to find a perverse joy in dealing with the great many Nords who couldn't stand him on account of his race.

He would make a fine vampire. The thought had made occasional appearances in the past few days, but she had been reluctant to give it voice. The Dunmer would likely explode with righteous indignation if she brought it up, but it was true nonetheless. Those who had a spark of their own could handle the burden of immortality; her father would have called it being worthy of the gift, but she had seen too many go mad with power to think that there was no danger in the transformation. Even those like Movarth, strong as they might be, were inconsequential to the larger world, as they had no vision beyond their own desires. Even if he had once had purpose, he had lost it, and with that the ability to write his own fate. And so he fell. Velandryn would be different. For a moment, she imagined what it would be like, having him as there was no time for such thoughts now, and so she pushed them away.

Jolf seemed to have come around, doubtless won over by base greed. He was mumbling to himself about winds and provisions. Serana placed a few coins on the table, more than enough to cover Jolf's meal and whatever drinks he might want. Rising, she listened once again to his description of how to find him along the shore in the morning, and made her farewells.

It was full dark, and the Shores smelled of smoke and rang with laughter and song. Up and down the street sailors and those who profited off of them made merry. Every door was open, and enough light flooded out of the buildings that she had no need of her exceptional vision to pick her way through the crowd. All around her, Nords, Bretons, Imperials, and even a few Redguards and elves jostled and drank and sang, hawking their wares and arguing in a dozen dialects that she could almost understand.

She felt something cup her backside, roughly pushing its way against her cloak and armor, and her hand snapped around faster than any mortal could hope to match. She caught the wrist of the offender without bothering to look behind her, then squeezed and twisted with a dark satisfaction. Scum. Over her shoulder, whatever fool had thought to amuse himself on her gave a guttural cry of pain. With one final clench of her grip that, by the sound and feel of it, snapped several of the unlucky bastard's bones, she released the limb and walked on. Behind her, she heard the sound of something collapse to the ground and gasping, sobbing, groans followed her down the street.

Coarse, common, unworthy. She didn't feel any guilt about what she had done; the lecher had brought it on himself. This was the character of the great morass of mortality, the teeming crowd from which the blessing of her Lord had plucked her, and she should never forget that. She might at times regret her hunger, but her transformation had offered gifts she could never had hoped to attain otherwise. Father was wise to seek this blessing. It was time to return home.

Chapter 14: Truth on the Cold North Sea

Summary:

Homecomings, even those a long time in the making, aren't always what we expect.

Chapter Text

To my beloved cousin Alottiana Insward,

As you know, in my last letter I made mention of my intent to travel to Solitude by way of Markarth via the Druadach passes. Unfortunately, it seems the Reachmen are once more rearing their ugly heads, so I found a sea captain bound for Solitude, one willing to offer me a spare bunking in exchange for a truly absurd sum of gold. So, now rather than regaling you with tales of mountain travel, I have instead a tale of the sea!

Nowhere is the Sea of Ghosts more aptly named than in western Haafingar. I have travelled from Necrom to Daggerfall, and always some sign of civilization, brutish or primitive as it might be, makes itself known to the astute eye. So, when I tell you, dear cousin, that between the last watch-tower of Jehanna and the furthest of the Solitude Lighthouses there is nothing but wilderness to be found, I pray you take my meaning in the spirit with which it is intended, and not merely the fancy of an old writer.

Five days I spent on the good ship Breath of Kyne, bound for Solitude out of Farrun, and for three of them we passed only virgin coastline, all but unmarred by the hand of man or elf. The history books tell me there were once kingdoms here, but I could find no trace of them save for a few crumbling ruins that could be mistaken for hillocks or landslides by the unwary observer. I searched in vain for giants or mammoths, but the captain said they would not come this far north, as food was far too scarce. Of the mythical dragons and sky-whales, of course, there was no sign, though I admit I passed more than a few idle moments hoping to spy one dancing amidst some distant clouds.

I would have counted the entire thing a great waste of time and lamented my fate in being denied the Druadach ranges, were it not for a most perplexing affliction which befell me on the third day out of port, right after we passed the ruined keep the Nords call Northpoint (An exception to my description of the region, I confess, as Northwatch has stood the test of time somewhat well. Do forgive my earlier statement, Lottie, but that turn of phrase was simply too good to pass up). As you know, dear cousin, I am only a neophyte in matters of magic, and so I was unable to pinpoint exactly what sorcery was at work, but I feel confident in stating that my malady was not of merely mundane origin. It struck me suddenly, sending me into my hammock for the better part of the day, before leaving just as quickly not twenty-four hours after it had first struck. I was able to spy only fog about our ship, and the wind itself seemed to blow strangely, though whether these derive from the same cause or were sheer and unfortunate coincidence, I can only speculate. I find myself unable to recall large portions of the night, though I am confident I did not sleep, if my fatigue the next day was any indication.

Many among the sailors seemed similarly afflicted, and one fellow even fell overboard! At least, that is what the captain says happened. Some of the more superstitious of the crew, crude Nords from Solitude and the surrounding villages, made signs to ward off evil and whispered of the Volkihar, the frozen vampires of the North Sea, who can turn themselves into fog and ride the cold winds from dusk to dawn. I am unqualified to offer statement on these rumors, but I will say that I did not happily venture above decks again until the lights of Solitude were visible and a cutter from the selfsame city was guiding us in.

I shall not trouble you further with the details of my illness or the remainder of the voyage—which was uneventful, I hasten to add—and shall only note the strangeness of it all. However, dear Lottie, I would not, were I you, travel that stretch of coastline when the cold winds are blowing. Let the Ghosts have their Sea, my dear, and stick to your orchards.

I shall write you again when I reach Whiterun, hopefully with a story or two about ancient Labyrinthian to tell!

Best Always,

Jamas Aldwyr, Explorer and Author

Penned in Solitude, Year of Akatosh 3E 332

Letter 141, Collected Works of the Aldwyr Correspondences

The boatman had been polite until the moment Velandryn handed over the coins. He had scurried off somewhere to stow the purse away, and upon his return the comments had started. "She didn't say you'd be an elf!" "Should've asked your business, more fool me." As they cast off, he abandoned comments for suspicious looks, and Velandryn soon found himself wondering how long it would have taken to simply learn to sail instead. I could have gotten a boat for less than I've paid this fool.

This Nord Jolf that Serana had found was not quite the travelling companion for which Velandryn would have liked to trade Lydia. Serana, for her part, had obviously been surprised to learn that his housecarl wouldn't be joining them but had not, as of yet, inquired into it.

It had not been an altogether pleasant parting. Lydia had been heaping advice on him until the moment the door closed behind her, and now he felt oddly naked without the big Nord at his side. Still, he knew it was the right decision. He was putting himself in a slightly more vulnerable position for the immediate future, but sending Lydia to meet him at the base of the Throat of the World by routing her through Morrowind and Castle Dawnguard allowed him to set necessary plans in motion. Anonymity would not shield him forever, and an elf in Skyrim needed powerful allies, even—or perhaps especially—if that elf was Dragonborn. However, even if he could secure allies—and whether those were allies of conviction or convenience was another concern entirely— among the mighty of Skyrim, his troubles would not end there. Whether it was the Empire, Stormcloaks, or the jarls, all would doubtless seek to use the Dragonborn to advance their own goals. He would need to balance their desires and weaknesses, playing them off one another long enough to do…something. He didn't know what it was he needed, or how this whole thing would end, but he risked living forever in this state of off-balance servitude. He could all too easily become a pawn in larger games, dancing to the songs of others, if he failed to take hold of his destiny now. So, he had sent Lydia away, and with luck he had not made a terrible mistake.

For now, however, Velandryn was alone with Serana and this Jolf character. Their little boat had left the dock some minutes before, and now they were passing beneath Solitude; the bulk of the enormous arch above them was grand on a scale that Velandryn was having more than a little difficulty comprehending. This close to midday, the sun was hidden from view, the ancient city casting a strange twilight on this shadowed patch of sea. Even he had to admit that the scene was magnificent, and the breath caught in his throat as the arch fell away and they sailed into the frigid, brilliant air of the Sea of Ghosts.

Jolf was manning the sails on his little boat well enough without any help, so Velandryn had plenty of time to watch the passing scenery. North of Solitude, the distant eastern shore was icy marsh and desolate expanse, while the western along which they sailed was mountainous forest dotted with isolated farms and stone ruins. It seemed that the same great mountains that had shaped the arch of Solitude gave the northern coast of the Haafingar region its character. As Velandryn watched the outskirts of the great city dwindle away, he glanced over at Serana, but the vampire was sitting quietly and watching the passing shore as well, so he let her be.

Some hours later, the ship had swung west, and now that same mountainous expanse was to their left. They passed mile upon mile of rugged forest and snow-lined beaches, seemingly two of the few things Haafingar Hold had to offer other than its single great city. Here and there clusters of houses squatted on the water's edge, fishing villages likely too small even to be listed on maps of the region. In Morrowind, the only record of their existence would have been on census forms, where they would have been marked with miniscule dots and vague estimations of population.

To the south, a stone lighthouse stood high atop sheer cliffs rising from the water. Across the boat, Serana's hooded head swung to look at it, and then she rose and moved to sit beside him. "That's the Light of Solitude. It's been there for—" she broke off and glanced at Jolf, sitting with his hand on the till, or whatever it was called, then continued, slightly more quietly, "a very long time."

In that case, it truly was old. The name amused him, though. "At least the naming here is consistent. The Light of Solitude, to the northwest of the city of Solitude."

Under her hood, Serana's smile held just a hint of mockery. "And do you know why that is? I can tell you, you know."

He wondered if her story was still known in this day and age. "Nothing would give me more joy, especially if nobody else in this age knows."

She smiled. "I make no promises." She glanced over at Jolf, and waved a hand. The sounds around them grew muted, and Velandryn found himself wondering at the spell. Fields of silence were difficult, and she had cast it without apparent thought or effort. They could talk without being heard now, though, and clearly that mattered to the vampire.

She settled herself into her seat, adjusting her cloak about her shoulders and pulling the cowl of her hood further over her face. Beneath it, her pale skin stood out against the darkness and her golden eyes shone brightly. "Solitude was settled early; back in the Merethic Age. Before Skyrim existed as more than the vaguest idea of a region, Solitude was up there on its rock. Story has it that the first Atmoran ship to spy the arch landed there, and the warlord made his camp upon the spine." She shrugged. "Took it from the Reachmen, it was said, but nobody's shedding any tears on their behalf. Anyways, Solitude got its name because of how remote it was. Lands like my father's were more so, of course, but we never tried to wield political power. The jarls of Solitude wanted to be important, but their stronghold was too isolated to compete with the other cities. Completely impregnable, of course, but with Ysgramor's line in Windhelm, Solitude was, at best, a second-rate power. Frankly, I'm surprised it's grown so much. I can only assume it had something to do with the Empire?"

Velandryn nodded. "As best I understand it, the Septims had connections there, and the Heiroc trade guilds wanted a sea route into western Skyrim. Not my area of expertise, however."

Serana looked out over the water, to where the lighthouse was receding behind them. "I always preferred the name Haafingar, truth be told. Old Atmoran, but the jarls insisted on Solitude, in the Nedic tongue."

"I'd have thought the Nords would prefer the Atmoran word."

"In the east, maybe, but we in the west were never quite as enamored with the homeland across the water. Probably because of the Falmer, truth be told."

The distinctions between eastern and western Skyrim had never mattered much to him, but he figured it wasn't bad information to have. Temple records indicated that the Falmer had almost certainly existed in Skyrim prior to the genocide undertaken by the Atmorans, but information on them was sparse, and he knew scholarly consensus had once believed them a complete fabrication used to justify Atmoran colonization of Skyrim. "How so?"

"Ysgramor chased the Falmer down, slaughtered them where he could, after Saarthal. He and his kin landed in the east, so the clashes were all there. The Snow Elves were already in full retreat by the time Haafingar was settled. We never had much trouble with them, so there was no need for a common Nord identity. The Reachmen were trouble, but manageable, and there were always three Nedes for every Atmoran in the west. Over time, the Nords became our own people, and Skyrim, not Atmora, our home." She smiled crookedly, and Velandryn caught a glimpse of one sharp tooth. "Of course, those easterners never bought it. Each one convinced he's eight feet tall and Ysgramor come again. When Harald named himself High King and decided that Skyrim should belong under a single banner, well, then it became everyone's business." She shook her head. "A bloody war, I heard. Of course, by then my father was…we had other concerns."

Interesting. He had heard of the Old Holds in the east, where Old Nordic culture was the strongest, but had never made the connection to Ysgramor and the Atmoran invasion. "Thank you. I'd never heard that bit of history." Then, he remembered why they had started talking about this in the first place. "The lighthouse?"

Her laugh was a sudden ripple of mirth. "Of course! I'd forgotten!" She grinned at him. "It's not that interesting, in the end. The jarls of Solitude named everything they could after their city, trying to make it seem important. They were losing ships on the rocks at that spur of land, so they raised a warning-pyre, and named it, naturally, the Light of Solitude." She spread her hands. "It could be worse. They might have gone with the sigil of their city and named everything after wolves!"

Velandryn couldn't help but chuckle at that. "True. Of course, they could just use whatever 'wolf' is in Nordic and I'd never know the difference."

Serana's smile should have been unnerving, with those sharp teeth and the knowledge of what she was. However, her obvious happiness robbed the expression of any ill nature. "Maybe they did, and we're all just keeping the joke from you." She gave a little sigh, and sobered slightly. "I'd been reading and hearing about Solitude and the Great Arch all my life, but yesterday was my first time seeing them. It was…nice."

For once, Velandryn had no reply. He took a drink from one of the jugs, filling his mouth with cold water while he searched for some response. "You…aren't what I was expecting when we pulled you from that tomb. I don't know what we'll find when we reach your home, but…well, I've enjoyed travelling with you." He wasn't lying now. He knew what had to be done with her family, but he finally had an answer to Lydia's question. He liked Serana. She was, at her core, a decent person, and beyond even that, an interesting and intelligent woman. The Temple's strictures on vampirism might be absolute, but he had fallen into the trap of getting to know one, and he was slowly becoming convinced that she was not a monster. He didn't know the circ*mstances of her transformation, but clearly the actions of her family had played a key role. He looked over at her, pondering the scraps of her past he had gotten from their conversations. He wanted to ask, but there was so much he was keeping from her—

When Serana finally spoke, the words were soft, as if said in passing or from deep within a dream. Her eyes were on him, but seeing past him, and at first he almost thought her speaking to herself. "You're the Dragonborn, aren't you?"

I said it. She hadn't thought about the question before she spoke, only the fact that she would be home soon. Her mind had been consumed with the idea of returning to her old life, but the Dark Elf had intruded. She'd heard his words, about how he enjoyed being at her side, and fanciful thoughts had taken hold. She'd imagined him, with her, at Castle Volkihar. He would be welcomed, of course; her father would be glad to have one like Velandryn in their ranks. Not as a common vampire though, no, she would insist, as his reward, that he be given the honor of undergoing the ritual and becoming a pure-blooded Volkihar like her. The gift had never been given to one not of her family, but she would insist, and Father would grant her that, since she was at last returned. Then, then Velandryn would understand how she saw the world.

Even as she had the thought, however, she had known it was impossible. Velandryn would never accept such an offer, even as a reward. Not only because of his obvious feelings about vampirism, but because—

He might be Dragonborn. She had to know. She looked at him, imagining all of the futures that could come from this moment. Dragonborn, vampire, Dunmer, thane, the things he could be or not as he so chose. Mage, mercenary, warrior…Hero. It wasn't until she heard the question leave her lips that she realized she was asking it.

So, she waited. At the other end of the boat, Jolf worked studiously, and Serana wondered if he'd realized yet that she'd cut him out of their conversation.

A movement at her side caught her eye. Velandryn shifted in his seat and removed his leather helm and gloves, but said nothing as he ran a grey long-fingered hand through his stringy copper hair. Finally, he looked back at her and inclined his head by the merest degree. "When did you realize?" The words were calm, free from panic or accusation.

I knew it! "After Morthal, actually." She tried not to let her excitement show. I figured it out, and a Dragonborn is sitting across from me! She had so many questions, she didn't know where to begin.

He tilted his head to one side slightly. "That's what you wanted to ask me on the ship, when you came to my cabin." With his helmet in his lap, his dark red hair was unbound and free, and moved about his pointed ears when he shook his head. "It makes sense now, at least."

She was silent for a moment. Not only had he remembered that, but he'd put the pieces together instantly. "How did it happen? No offense, but an elf—"

"Isn't the most likely to be given the mantle of a Nord hero figure?" He glanced over at Jolf, who appeared to be ignoring them as he worked. Likely the Nord had figured out that they had done something, and was either unnerved by the magic or offended by his exclusion. So long as he leaves us alone. "I'd agree." He did not smile, but his eyes lightened slightly. "I'm still figuring this whole thing out, but I don't think there are many in Skyrim who would have me as their first choice." He looked thoughtful. "Perhaps none."

"Not even you?"

He blinked slowly. "Had I been given the choice at the time? No." He fell silent then, looking out to the north, where fog was rolling in as the sun fell. He pulled his hood up over his head, and clamped his gloved hands in his armpits. With a muttered string of words, magicka flowed out of him, and Serana could feel a shield of some sort settle on him. He caught her eye and half-grinned. "Anything that makes me this cold will never be at the top of my list, and it is poor form for the Dragonborn to get chased away by the weather, I think."

She shifted on her seat, suddenly uneasy. "Why didn't you tell me?"

He raised a single eyebrow; she wondered if he had developed that expression specifically to make someone feel like a fool. "Do you really have to ask? I didn't trust you."

It hurt. Part of her wanted to flare up at him, but she knew that would accomplish nothing, and besides, he wasn't wrong. But I have a good reason for keeping my secrets from you. If you knew what I was, really was, what I'd done…

She had questions, more than she could think of all at once, but she knew this wasn't the time. Jolf was steering them towards shore, and so with another wave she dispelled their ward of privacy. Velandryn bestirred himself from his seat, and she clamped down on her tongue lest she betray his secret.

Dinner that evening was a simple affair. Jolf had pulled a few fish from the water during the day's voyage, and the Nord wasted no time in cooking them over a low fire. His claim to know this coastline better even than his own left hand might well be true, as he had found a good place to overnight easily enough. It was a shallow cave along a boulder-strewn and icy stretch of shore, and a well-placed spur of rock made Serana figure no light from their fire should be visible, so long as they kept it small. The tiny villages on the shoreline had grown sparse as the day progressed, and Jolf had shown no inclination to overnight at any of them.

Velandryn was looking about them as the fish cooked. "You chose this place well. Do you use it often?"

Jolf shrugged. "Now'n again. Safe and secret, and too small for pirates."

"Are there many of them on these waters?" Once again, Velandryn was asking seemingly innocuous questions, and once again Serana got the feeling that he truly wanted to know the answers. And the moment he does, he'll lock each one away in that head of his until he can find some use for them. She suddenly wondered where Lydia had gotten to. Any way you looked at it, she should have been here to protect Velandryn. If she had left, there was only one person who could have ordered it. What are you planning, Velandryn Savani? For most people, that would have been something of an idle question. For the Dragonborn, Serana wasn't so sure.

Jolf was nodding. "A few. Pirates don't much like the cold, but they like the merchants fine. Lots of ships to and from High Rock, though not so many this time of year. Autumn storms make the Sea of Ghosts somethin' wicked round about now."

Serana broke in then. "Will we have to worry about the weather on our trip?"

Jolf grinned. "Nah, not likely. Calm skies for a week or more, judgin' by how my knee feels."

"An impressive method of divination. I salute you." Velandryn's face was perfectly somber as he spoke, and a moment later he turned to meet Serana's eyes. The combination of the Dunmer's solemn mien and the absurdity of his compliment were too much for Serana, and she had to bite down on her lip to keep from laughing. He held the gaze for a moment longer before his eyes shifted ever so slightly, and suddenly she could see the laughter he had been hiding. He looked back at his meal as though nothing had happened, and Serana was left with a new appreciation for the strange elf's humor.

After the meal, Jolf wasted no time in checking on the ship and curling up to go to sleep, grunting something about starting early. For Serana, the point was moot, as she neither needed nor wanted to sleep. Velandryn, however, was generally consistent about getting as much sleep as possible, so she was surprised to see him sitting before what remained of the fire, staring into the embers.

She sat across from him, and he looked up. "If you do that silence trick of yours again, I might give you a few answers before I go to sleep." His lips twitched. "Show me how to do it, and my answers might even be true."

She cast it, letting the magicka swirl around her so he could feel something of its shape. "I can try to show you, but the woman who developed it was using vampiric magic as the catalyst." Her mother had designed many such spells, elegant and intricate, fueled by the potent magicka in their altered bodies. She wasn't even sure if one who was not a pureblood could cast it.

He blinked. "I hadn't considered that. Thank you, but I think I'll pass." He was silent for a bit, clearly thinking. "How does vampirism actually affect your ability to cast magic? I had always assumed you simply had more magicka upon which to pull."

"We do, but it's more than that." It was hard to explain, but she wanted to try. "Our blood, it's not…it's alive, we can communicate with blood in a way mortals can't. The mages among us can tap into it, and find precision that would take a mortal decades to achieve." She smiled to herself, remembering her mother's lessons. "Besides, the gifts of Molag Bal let us use magicka in ways mortals cannot even begin to experience. I would have to give you the gift to explain in a way you could understand, and I would not do that." She would never turn another against their will. Though if he asked…

She had looked away and spoken quickly at the finish, not wanting him to dwell too long on that image, but he was staring straight at her when she looked back. "You really wouldn't, would you? Turn me against my will." He bowed his head slightly. "May you walk always in grace."

"I…what?" The words had the sound of a ritual, or a prayer.

He sighed. "You walk with grace, something I never thought I'd tell a vampire. It's a compliment among my people, means you live a worthy life. Now, ask your questions." He eased himself back against the rock. "I have a potion to counteract a lack of sleep, but I'd rather not use it."

"So why are you willing to talk at all then?"

His lips twitched again, and she wondered if that tic of amusem*nt was natural or an affectation. "You don't sleep, so you'd have the whole night to wonder. I'm cruel, but not that cruel."

"And what do you want in return?" If this was some ploy of his…

"Nothing." He pulled off his gloves, reached into the embers and plucked out a chunk of smoldering wood, cupping it in his hands. The nonchalance with which he approached fire still both amazed and alarmed Serana. If I tried that, I'd be short a hand. Even her keen nose could detect no hint of burning flesh; it seemed he truly was as attuned to fire as Nords were to the cold. "We're going our separate ways soon enough, and were I in your position, the curiosity would be eating me alive." He closed his eyes and pressed the coal between his palms. "We still have our secrets, but I'm not going to lie to your face, or tell you to go chew bones when you figured it out for yourself."

She wasn't entirely sure she believed him, but she also wasn't foolish enough to pass up this opportunity. "How did you…become, I suppose, a Dragonborn?"

"They all say the Dragonborn, actually." He blinked, looking thoughtful. "Don't think there's many others to claim the title these days. I heard from Lydia that Tiber Septim was the last one before me, and he's been dead for six hundred years."

"So the Dragonborn have vanished?" In her time, they might not be common, but there had always been whispers. Rumors of those who hunted down dragons and devoured their power had reached even to Castle Volkihar.

"In Morrowind, dragon-born means Imperial. If you have Thu'um, you're a Tongue." He chuckled. "And if you're a Tongue, well, best not to advertise that fact. My people remember the best ways to kill Tongues." He rubbed the coal between his fingers, leaving soot and ash on his hands. "The Septims were called the Dragonborn Emperors, and I thought it was just because of the Covenant of Akatosh. I never thought it meant…" he trailed off and gestured at himself, "…this."

She felt a moment's pity for the elf. He is in so far over his head. She considered her next words carefully. "The Dragonborn of my time were renowned dragonslayers. It was said they could duel a dragon, one to one, and win."

"If so, they're better men than I. Or mer, or…oh, forget, it, you know what I mean." Velandryn blew gently on the coal, holding it close to his face. As he did so, Serana felt subtle strains of magicka flow into the air. A moment later, the ember flared into new life and he sighed. "Blessed warmth. I don't suppose you know what signifies a Dragonborn?"

"A dragon's blood, according to the songs. Supposedly it flows in your veins, and the Thu'um comes as easily to you as breathing. You can conquer dragons and take their power."

"It's not quite as easy as you made it sound, I'm afraid. I've killed all of one dragon, a great bastard named Mirmulnir who was assaulting a watchtower near Whiterun." He laughed. "I say killed, but there were nearly sixty of us there, and my greatest achievement was surviving." He looked momentarily thoughtful. "Well, and saving the life of a Nord woman. A good decision, in hindsight."

Something became clear to her then, the final piece of a puzzle she had been working on for some time. Why his housecarl behaved as she did, and the bond they seemed to share. "It was Lydia. The one you saved."

"Yes." He looked as though the memory was not entirely pleasant to him.

"And you killed the dragon? How did you accomplish that?"

"Ask how we accomplished it. I might have done my part, but like I said, Lydia and I were far from the only ones on the field. I'm not looking forward to the next dragon I have to slay, unless there's an army at my back."

"So dragons have really returned? Why?" They had been in decline even in her time, tales of their appearance becoming less and less frequent with each passing year.

He made a clicking with his mouth. "A good question. Perhaps the Greybeards know."

"Who?" She had never heard of them, whoever they were.

"You've don't know the Greybeards? I thought they were sacred to Nords. They study the Thu'um atop the Throat of the World."

She shrugged. "If they do, I've never heard about it."

"Perhaps they're from after your time. What else do you want to know?"

"What's it like?" She could scarcely imagine it, taking the strength of a dragon.

His eyes went distant for a moment, but immediately snapped back. "The feasts and honors are nice. The expectation that I will save the world, somewhat overwhelming."

"That's not what I meant." She managed to keep the exasperation out of her voice.

He blew air out through his nose in something that was almost a laugh. "I know." He licked his lips, looking distracted. "I'm afraid I'll have to give you your own answer about vampires back, and say you'd have to be one to understand. There's no way to describe it that would make sense. I could try to explain how I can sometimes feel a dragon's instincts, but I've yet to find words that are anything more than the weakest of shadows. Dovah do not experience…anything…as we do. There are modes of thought that actively combat each other in my head. One of the most persistent among them is the urge to… to, oh, I don't know, to…dominate, I suppose, though that word hardly does it justice."

Sudden panic rose within her, but she managed to keep it from her face. "I see." She knew she probably should have had a better response, but she couldn't help her dismay. Dominance, the desire to be more and better than all of the others, was what had driven her father to make many of the choices he had. The idea of the Dunmer doing anything like Lord Harkon was repulsive to her. She served her father, of course, and knew that he was the rightful patriarch of their clan, but she would never…she didn't want to think of Velandryn like that.

He must have noticed her disquiet. "Serana, what's wrong?" His voice was strangely gentle.

She didn't answer, not directly. She didn't want to talk about that, about her family, right now. "So, how do you know it's the dragon that wants it, and not you?"

He chuckled mirthlessly. "Maybe I misspoke there. Like I said, a dragon's thoughts are different—you would never mistake them for a mortal's— but they're both mine. I gave them names, the impulses. Dov is the Dragon, Joor the mortal. I don't know if Dov came from Mirmulnir, or if taking in his memories, his instincts, just taught my own mind how to think that way. At first, the voice acted as though it had the identity of Mirmulnir, but it has been a long time since it gave voice to any self but mine. Perhaps I should have gone to the Greybeards first, learned more about what I am before trying to do anything else." He looked at her with a slight smile on his thin, dark lips. "Although, in that case you'd still be sleeping."

"Well, in that case thank you for not saving the world." She was truly grateful for what he had done, but she had already shown him enough vulnerability. They weren't allies, not really. Dry humor would have to be an adequate reward.

"Any time." It seemed he felt the same.

Something occurred to her. "With Movarth, I felt something, down in the caves…"

He chewed a lip thoughtfully, and spoke after a moment's pause. "Movarth tried to control me. Dov did not approve, and gave voice in kind."

She shuddered. Even at a distance, she had been all but knocked from her feet. How much worse must it have affected Movarth, who had experienced the full force of the backlash? Vampiric control could be thwarted by a strong mind, and a dragon's soul would have been unlike anything the vampire, unless he predated even her father, could have experienced. No wonder he fell so quickly. She almost felt sorry for him.

Velandryn, oblivious to her realizations, continued in the same line of thought. "It happens sometimes. The differences can be disorienting, but the power is real. Hopefully with knowledge comes more access to it." He opened and closed one gloved hand, clenching it tightly. "It's as if there's a voice, but my ears are ringing, and I cannot quite make out the words. They know things, Serana, know them in their bones, and I think I could as well."

"Have you learned why they've returned? The dragons, I mean." Everyone was talking about it, and from what Velandryn had said, he could well hold the key to the mystery.

Unfortunately for her curiosity, Velandryn was already shaking his head. "The instincts don't come with a history lesson. Whatever knowledge is hidden from me, it's more cosmology than chronology." He looked puzzled at the words he had spoken, but then nodded and continued. "I have a hint of Mirmulnir's past, but I get the feeling he was only ever hiding from mortals. Physically, I mean, old ruins and distant mountain valleys. Whatever brought the dragons back in force, he learned of it later." He looked away, and his brow furrowed. The lines around his eyes deepened in concentration, while the red of his irises darkened nearly to black. "He…heard of something, of Helgen…"

"Helgen? What's that?" The scent of his blood, always stronger than a normal human's was growing. Ordinarily she could push it away, not think about the fact that her companion would be delicious to feed upon, but in his reverie Velandryn seemed to be accessing whatever power it was that made his blood sing to her. Quietly, she focused on breathing, on soothing rhythms. It wouldn't do to embarrass herself.

Velandryn paid her no mind, still speaking as if to himself. His eyes were dark, turned inward without seeing, and his voice, always sounding as though he were on the verge of growling, grew even deeper. "When the village burned, when he heard about it, he rejoiced. He had been hidden for so long, holed up in lost valleys where no Joor could reach, hiding for centuries. He smelled Yol on the air, a wundunven that made him remember when they ruled. He needed to go forth, to relnir, to prove…" Velandryn looked up and saw her again, noticing her this time. By the look of it, he hadn't noticed the words in that strange other tongue, the ones he had growled instead of spoken. "…to prove something, though it escapes me. Memories are iffy things, and a mortal sifting through the memories of a dragon is like trying to pick up the ashes of a fire with spread fingers. You can clasp fragments, but they'll fall away, and the whole eludes you. That's all that's left of Mirmulnir now. Thousands of years of life turned to ashes, being pushed about by…" He trailed off, but then he jerked his head slightly, and the moment was gone. "I don't think there's much more I can get out of it right now."

She thought she realized then, why he had turned aside from going to these Greybeards so easily, though she had never heard him speak of it. It frightens him. For people like Velandryn, understanding was everything. She was much the same, where comprehension made a thing seem manageable. And, from how he sounded when he talked about it, the Dragonborn couldn't even begin to make sense of it all. I must have come as a welcome distraction, something to let him put dragons from his mind. Maybe he hadn't done it consciously, but it made sense to her. She cleared her throat. "You might want to see about visiting these Greybeards, if you think they can help you."

His eyes were their normal red again, mere fire rather than the dark and ominous things they had temporarily become. "So I've heard." His voice was dry again, but he didn't seem upset. "Just helping you acclimate to this new world first. No deed like charity, hmm?"

"Indeed." She didn't know what she was feeling anymore. The thought of going home had been her driving goal. It wasn't so much a wanting, but she had to do it. Suddenly, she didn't feel like talking. "You should get some sleep."

"You're not wrong." He sounded the slightest bit confused; likely he didn't understand why she was giving up a chance to interrogate him so easily. He rose from the fire, dropping the ember in his hand back to rest with its fellows. "Cold night." He was wearing his leather armor and heavy furs over it, and pulled his gloves back on over his hands. With a shiver, he passed a hand over the dying fire, and it blazed into new life. He wrapped his cloak tightly around his slender frame, and stretched out around the conflagration. He lay there for a moment, then spoke, his face still turned in towards the roaring flame. "I know you have more questions. Talk in the morning?"

"Count on it." With quick strides, Serana retreated into the darkness. She could see by night as easily as in brightest day, and nothing would bother them while she kept watch.

Why had she stopped asking him questions? His discomfort shouldn't have mattered; he was clearly willing to keep talking. She bent and grabbed a rock from the shore, hefting it in her hand. After a moment's thought, she hurled it with all of her strength, out over the water. It whistled through the air for a long second, before vanishing into the black waves. The exertion felt good, and she began to hunt for another. The moons were slivers, but the stars gave enough light for her to see.

She didn't like it, this indecisive streak. She was so close to home, she must just be feeling the pressure. She didn't know what she would find, that was the only reason for this. And being confronted with a Dragonborn, well, that would be enough to throw anybody off-balance. He would make a magnificent gift for father. Lord Harkon would be overjoyed to not only get his daughter back, but a vampire with the potential of Velandryn Savani.

But, she knew she couldn't do that. Turning another against their will was a line she had never crossed. You wouldn't have to do it, father would oblige. He had always enjoyed turning others; he liked the power it gave him. And Velandryn would forgive her, would understand. When the hunger came, when he had to feed, he would be just like her.

May you walk always in grace. She shook her head. He knew nothing about her. When he reached her home—

It wasn't a noble thought, but it intrigued her. She could do it. She had that capability. A word to her father, or even a look. Lord Harkon had always been perceptive. Perhaps she could even convince Velandryn to accept willingly. If he submitted without conflict, he could have great power, and an entire host of allies at his back.

She sat on the shore, throwing stones out to sea, and considered the future. The Dragonborn, at her side, and her family's. An ally such as the Volkihar had never known. And perhaps Velandryn had anticipated this. He had sent Lydia away, and to do such a thing to one's housecarl was an extraordinary circ*mstance. Perhaps he already plans to do something he knows she would never accept.

In the darkness, with no one to see, Serana smiled. She liked him, and wanted only the best for Velandryn Savani.

And that was why it would be in his best interest to become a vampire. He would see that. He had to see that.

Velandryn did not sleep well. It was cold, for one, the coldest night since he had come to Skyrim. If the little cave-like place they were sleeping did anything to cut the winds coming off of the water, it was not much, and the fire around which he had huddled offered only the merest warmth. He had developed some techniques to cope with Skyrim's frigid climate, but this was on a completely different level. Circulating his magicka through a heating ritual might work in Whiterun or Morthal, but the Sea of Ghosts in autumn laughed at his paltry attempts to defy it. So, he slept fitfully, and dreamed of home.

The sounds of movement woke him from a dream in which he watched the entirety of Skyrim burning, and relaxed among the ashes as dragons roared overhead. No Nords, and warm besides. He almost would have preferred to stay asleep. However, Jolf was busy preparing the ship to sail, and it would be unworthy of Velandryn not to help. Besides, the fire had died and it was gods-damned cold. There was a chance that moving around would warm him up. Grumbling to himself, he made his way over to the Nord sailor and offered what help he could.

Serana too was assisting, though she kept her prodigious strength from the boatman, and soon enough they were ready to leave. The day was much as the one before, clear and bright but bitter cold.

As they cut through the water, shore once more to their left and sun rising behind them, he studied the vampire. She hadn't spoken yet today beyond the few words needed for breaking the camp, and her entire air was one of distraction. He could see little of her other than her golden eyes framed between scarf and hood. As the morning dragged on, and they sat in silence, he felt his eyes drawn to her hunched form over and over again. She looks miserable.

He remembered how strangely she had started acting last night. She had cut off her questioning abruptly, despite clearly wanting to know more, while he was trying to make sense of a dragon's thoughts. He wondered if something he had said could have unnerved her, but truth be told, he was having some trouble remembering what exactly had been spoken. If he had given offense, he would apologize, but something told him that she didn't want that. He knew what Serana looked like when she was upset with another; Lydia had sometimes been less than perfectly diplomatic around the vampire and Serana had made her displeasure known, but this was different. If anything, he would say she seemed focused inward, upset but on a personal level. He knew enough about conflicts where both sides were in your own head to know that uninvited help from another was worse than useless, so he admired the clouds, the ice floes—he was fairly certain that was what the floating chunks of ice were called—to the north, and the rugged, sparsely wooded shoreline to the south.

Around midday, he accepted a piece of what Jolf called horker jerky. He had seen horkers in the water and playing on the ice, and it turned out their meat was only almost as bad as he'd feared. It was rank with musky flavor and it had the consistency of uncooked trama root, but he was willing to concede that his harsh assessment might only have been his own jealousy. Lydia would be eating fresh guar ribs with creamy beetle scuttle and grilled kwama egg and wickwheat mopate, while he was out here forced to consume the dried flesh of a sea cow. Why would anyone eat something that comes out of the water and isn't a crab or fish? The Nords had many offensive ways, but he would still fight to defend them. Even if they feed me horker jerky.

He kept stealing glances at Serana, hoping to catch her gaze and figure out what was going on in behind those golden eyes. He wouldn't bother her verbally, but he had never been good at leaving mysteries well enough alone. He didn't consider it a flaw in his personality, though he knew some among his peers at the Temple who would disagree. Now, it led him to add the Volkihar vampire to the list of things he investigated over the course of their journey, along with sky, water, ice, and shore.

Serana did not speak for the entire day, and was silent all through dinner and the pitching of their camp. Jolf had set them ashore on a stony island across the water from a second lighthouse, this one rising from the shore rather than any cliffs. This lighthouse was abandoned and unlit, discernable only by its dark bulk against the reddening evening sky.

Jolf was explaining to him that once the light had warned shipping away from the treacherous rocks in the area, but most ships swung far to the north to avoid the entire region now, and any attempt to man the lighthouse was generally met with pirate attacks. "Empire won't spend the men and money to hold it, plus nobody much cares these days."

Velandryn considered the Nord's words. It made sense; the Mede Dynasty was not the equal of the Septims, and this Empire could hardly hope to match its predecessor's achievements. However, if they couldn't protect shipping between two of their core provinces—and Jorik's news of Reachmen attacks suggested that overland routes were similarly impacted—then the Empire was coming apart at the seams even more thoroughly than he had believed. My people did well to divorce ourselves when we did, else we too would be dragged down with it. Morrowind might be part of the Empire on paper, but his people recognized only the authority of the Great Council. If Serana had an opinion, she was keeping it to herself.

If Jolf was bothered by the vampire's silence, he hid it well. She ate the fresh fish and withered vegetables without complaint or comment, but watched them both with her singular eyes.

After eating, he was struck with a desire to see the island, small as it was. He set off down the shore, stopping every now and then to inspect and take sketches or samples of the sparse plant life or interesting shells that had washed ashore. He found an outcropping of rock that jutted out over the water to the north, and sat himself on it. Off in the distance the shoreline swept north in a great broad cape, and beyond that a fogbank was rolling in. The sun was descending into that fog, and red was swiftly being overtaken by violet and deep dark blue. It was serene, and a fine place to watch the day turn to night.

Azura Lady of Twilight, I honor your name and face unshaking the veils that hide my future. Boethiah God-Eater, I shall walk in burning courage through this night, and all the nights to come. Mephala Blade Unknowable, mine are the silent words that weave the web of lies and truth. Blessed Three, Triune of my people, I walk in the shadow of the uncertain and unknown, but I am not alone. I have the lessons of my people and the tests of my gods, and for these I thank you.

He took a deep breath, tasting the salt of the ocean and the ice on the wind. Thank you for my suffering, Blessed Three, for it has made me strong. Thank you for your hatred, House of Troubles, for it has given me resolve. Thank you for your sacrifice, Nerevar Twice-Holy, for it has shown me righteousness.

It had been too long since last he taken time to pray. He opened his eyes, though he did not remember closing them, and beheld the night around him. The silence was thunderous, but he was not cowed. "I am the fire eternal, the light of my people in the darkness of the infinite trial." Prayers were not offered to the Triune with the expectation that they would be answered or even heard. The gifts of the gods were faith and courage; the Blessed Triune did not deny their worshippers the chance to overcome their own struggles.

Behind him, he heard the scuff of leather on stone, and Serana sat beside him, seemingly completely at ease. "What was it you said there?"

He realized he had been speaking Dunmeris. "A prayer," he said shortly, not wanting to get into the theology of the Test of Lorkhan. He was glad to hear her voice though. A silent vampire was dangerous, and though he did not think she would attack him, he much preferred her speaking to brooding.

She nodded. "I hope it helped." Before he had a chance to wonder what she meant by that, she peered at him, golden eyes intent. "You need to shave, unless you're trying to grow a beard."

Startled, he brought his hand to his chin, and indeed, he could feel stubble beneath his fingers. "Hmm, you're right." He ran his thumb down the line of his jaw experimentally, trying to remember when last he'd taken care of that. Not since Whiterun, he thought, so possibly a month or more. He recalled Lydia asking about beards on his kind, and smiled. "Have you ever seen a bearded elf, Serana?"

She shook her head. "I didn't even know your kind could grow them."

"It takes a very long time, truth be told. If I run a blade over my face once every couple of weeks, I never see so much as an errant hair. However, in all of the excitement, it seems I quite forgot." He stroked the stubble again, unable to leave it be now that he knew it was there." He sighed and gave her a reproachful look. "I suppose I should be thanking you, but now you'll have no more than four parts in five of my attention. No one to blame but yourself." He spoke almost without thinking, annoyed that he had let the hair on his face progress this far.

"Better that than you with a beard. I don't think I could take the shock." If the idea actually shocked the vampire, her tone hid it well.

Time to get to the heart of things. He briefly considered trying some subtle tactic, but could think of none. "Would you like to talk about it, Serana?"

"About what?" She sounded genuinely confused.

"Whatever the reason that you barely said ten words all day. If you want to talk, I'm listening."

"And you think I'd want to tell you about it because of what, precisely?" That might have been insulting, but he knew Serana well enough by now to sense the amusem*nt in the question. She wanted to talk about it, but didn't want to have to bring it up. Well, he could accommodate that. He was curious, after all.

"Because there are three of us on this island, and I don't think Jolf has the…breadth of experience necessary to comprehend the kind of problems you face." Truth be told, I'm not sure I do either.

However, the answer seemed to satisfy her, and she settled back against the rock before continuing. "It's not a problem, really. I was just deep in thought, and…I didn't want to be distracted."

Velandryn wondered what could have consumed her so. "You lost a day to thinking? I once spent four months in a library, but even I'd be hard-pressed not to let out a stray sound every now and then, if only to make sure I still had my voice."

She laughed lightly. "Where would you be without it, hmm?" She placed her hands behind her, legs outstretched in front, and threw her head back to the sky. "I was thinking about the future, and what it means for you to be…" She looked around, and waved a hand. The sounds of waves from along the shore were muted, and the rolling moan of distant ice was suddenly absent. "You're Dragonborn! That's the kind of thing, it's…it's like something out of a story!"

"Yes," he knew his voice was heavy with sarcasm, but couldn't help it, "the kind of story where the elf gets a choice between freezing solid from the weather or roasting in a dragon's gut. Good for all the little Nordlings."

She laughed again, but it lacked any mirth. "If you die, make it glorious, and the bards will sing of your heroism for centuries to come!" He turned to look at her, but she was staring resolutely upward.

He wanted to say something, to remark on how oddly she was behaving, but the effect of her sitting enraptured beneath the shimmering sky overwhelmed him, and he found that words had fled. Instead, he just watched the vampire as she gazed up, eyes glistening. Her hood was around her shoulders, and the scarf that ordinarily hid her face now hung free. The aurora spun and flickered overhead, as vibrant as he had ever seen it. This far north, framed by the ocean to the north and the mountains to the south the lights in the sky had no competition. They outshone the moons and stars alike, they were—

"Magnificent." The word was half a whisper, and Serana looked unaware that she had even spoken. Her eyes were wide and her lips slightly parted as she gazed upward. The aurora's colors played over her pale skin, and in its light she took on an otherworldly beauty. Not that she needs the light, he was forced to admit. He'd been shying away from such thoughts for a while now, but he could no longer deny that Serana was a beautiful woman. Her skin shone in the moonlight, snow to his ash, and her eyes were drops of honey—

She glanced over, and Velandryn had to resist the impulse to look away guiltily. Internally, he flushed at the direction his thoughts had been taking. The seduction of the vampire is subtle, and a fair form may hide a foul soul. Somehow, he doubted this was the case with Serana, but he wasn't planning on taking any chances. Instead, he carefully raised a single eyebrow. "A drake for your thoughts?"

"You really want to know what it was that had me thinking all day, don't you?" She reclined even further until she lay prone upon her back, hands behind her head and eyes staring upward. "I've been away from home for a long time. I don't know what I'll find when I get back."

Neither do I. Anything was possible, and Velandryn was brought back to reality with a nasty jolt. He was headed into the vampire's lair, and he had to be prepared. "Can you tell me about them? Your family?"

She was silent. He waited for long moments, looking out over the water but she made no move to answer. Finally, curiosity got the better of him, and he turned his head slightly to see what she was up to. Serana was staring at him, golden eyes inscrutable. They sat like that for long moments more, until she sighed. "I…I can't. They're…they value their privacy, and I don't…they'd come for you if you knew too much."

So much for gratitude and reward. She was a vampire, he must not forget. He put a small smile on his face. "I understand completely." Well, soon enough he would have his answers. One way or another.

Conversation ceased after that, though the two of them remained sitting on the ledge in companionable silence. Serana didn't mind the quiet and dispelled the ward of privacy, as she actually liked the sound of waves and wind, and there was nothing to worry Jolf's delicate Nord sensibilities anymore. She was interested to note that Velandryn dozed off not half an hour later, seemingly unable, for all that he was Dragonborn, to stay awake through the night. He had downed a potion against the cold, but apparently that comfort had been too much for the tired elf. His features relaxed into something approaching peace when he was asleep, and she wondered where he would be at this moment were he truly no more than a simple priest.

I once spent four months in a library, he had said. Would he be back in his beloved Morrowind, among his people and his culture? She tried to imagine it, him sitting silently for days on end, but the image wouldn't come. He was not a typical warrior, but he had a fire within him that demanded attention, and should he live, she knew that this Dragonborn would shake the world to its core. To her, he was in his element, a lanky grey outsider who nonetheless belonged in Skyrim as surely as the snow. Were he to seal himself away from the world, all of his potential would be wasted. As I was, for far too long. Mother, you have much to answer for.

For all of Velandryn's complaining, he thrived here, and she wondered if he would ever see it as clearly as she. Is this what Lydia understood when she swore her life to his? The thought of the other woman, however, brought back the reality of her situation. Lydia had departed to parts unknown, and Serana was more than half-certain that the Nord's absence was a countermeasure against her and her family. Even my allies keep secrets from me, and I from them. She was alone, for better or for worse, until she made it home. For now, however, she could enjoy this moment. That much, at least, is fine.

As the night dragged on, she felt no need to leave their ledge. The aurora overhead was as brilliant as she remembered; it was on clear nights like this that the charged magicka of Aetherius, entering their world, displayed its glory for all below to see. Her mother had only seen it as a potential source of power, and her father had scorned it as a far-off distraction unworthy of his attentions, but Serana had loved nothing more than reading by its light, trying to capture it in paint or song, or simply marveling as the incandescent ribbons danced. So she sat, and watched, kept company by the unknowing elf beside her.

He would not willingly accept her family's gift, this much she knew. She had spent a night and a day and half a night again trying to think like he did, to find some way to convince him, but again and again she came up with nothing. She didn't know him or his people well enough to argue past his culture and religion, and she knew too little of the current state of her family to make many assurances on their capabilities. In short, she had too large a problem to overcome, and too few tools to do it.

She had made up her mind, she knew. He will go to my family unknowing, and likely reject their offer. With a sigh, she looked down at Velandryn. She wanted him to succeed, and the gift Lord Harkon would offer could very well make the difference for the Dragonborn. I must let him choose. As much as it pained her, he had to face this himself. As I did.

Slowly, the sky to the east began to brighten, and Velandryn slowly roused himself from the curled position in which he had been sleeping. With a raspy wordless grumble, he pulled himself upright and blinked at her, confused. A moment later he seemed to remember where he was, and gave his head a shake before settling himself cross-legged facing east.

Serana couldn't help but ask the question that rose in her mind, though she would wager she already knew the answer. "A morning prayer?"

The look he gave her was, for lack of a better word, measuring, piercing eyes bright in his still face. "No. I've missed many dawns of late, and as it is my favorite time of day, I am going to watch this one. Would you care to join me?"

She nodded and settled herself next to him. As the sky lightened, she found her hood and scarf, and wrapped them about her face once again. She would watch the dawn, but she wouldn't burn for it.

"If you're going to bring up turning me into a vampire, you had best do it before the sun rises." His words sent tremors through her. He knows. Nothing he had said or done—

But you can't read him, can you? Not really. Sometimes his moods came through, but her guesswork was less than perfect. So now she was left sitting on a rock staring dumbly at the Dragonborn as all of her plans crumbled away. Desperately she tried to keep her composure. "Is there something special about the sun that would change your answer?"

Velandryn gave no answer, but pointed east. Far past his outstretched hand, the first rays of sunlight slowly crested the horizon, and the world changed. The greys of predawn receded, and red and gold consumed the sky and set the clouds ablaze. In an instant she understood Velandryn's mute argument, but she couldn't tear her eyes away. As the sun itself drew up over the sea, pain lanced through her and the skin of her face began to ache; vampires, no matter how powerful, would never be suited for the light of day.

"It hurts you, doesn't it?" Velandryn's words were soft, spoken without malice or mockery. The dawn light drew out the blue undertones in his skin and set him in sharp repose. More and more she found herself noticing the subtle movements of his face and body, and the way that they changed to accentuate the fierce will that drove him. "The sun."

She did not try to deny it. "Vampires are creatures of the night."

He rose, and raised his hands above his head. "And there you have my answer. I love the dawn far too much to ever let it go. Look!" The sun was before him, and his hair set alight in a hundred shades of crimson. She couldn't look directly at the sun without pain so blinding it made thinking impossible, so she made do with studying his face and the colors of light playing over his skin.

"So, you would reject the gift of the Volkihar because you like watching sunrises?" When she phrased it like that, hopefully he would see how trivial his objections were. "Against all the power of an immortal life, that is your counter?"

He answered with slow speech, still basking in the morning light. If he was cold, he gave no sign. "Tamriel. In the old Aldmeris, it means 'Dawn's Beauty.' The Arena, the Starry Heart of the Aurbis and all that ever was or will be. Where Lorkhan created the world, and where his holy task is given form." He dropped his hands to his sides, and folded them behind his back. "What you ask of me is to forsake the Psijic Endeavor, that for which my people believe this world was made. To remove myself from the world as it is, to abandon the Dunmer, and to relinquish forever any claim on Lorkhan's legacy. That, I cannot do."

She didn't understand. Clearly the words held great meaning to him, but to her they were little more than nonsense. She'd never been much of one for theology before her transformation, and afterwards there was only one god who concerned her. "What is the Psijic Endeavor? What is Lorkhan's legacy?"

He turned to her then, eyes a complement to the sky behind him. "Mortality, and through that, divinity. Lorkhan created the world so that the et'Ada would become mortal, and in doing so understand life through modes they had never before possessed. The Aldmer believed that Creation was a curse, something inflicted upon a superior spirit. They longed to be as they were, and cursed Lorkhan for his trickery. The great boon of the Blessed Triune was to expose the hollowness of the Aldmeri worldview and the lies of their gods, and give my people a chance to be more, to take full advantage of this holy gift. My people rejoice at the world that has been given us, the universe that that we have made for ourselves. We are here, and given the chance to become more than we were. Do you understand why we despise the vampire so, beyond even the danger you pose to life and limb?"

She did, in a strange way. "You think we're denying you your destiny."

The Dunmer nodded gravely. "Through the trials of a life well lived, we take our rightful place in the world. Every soul that is born mortal is allowed an opportunity which the gods themselves warred to afford us, and you would pervert that with the taint of Molag Bal. The Triune test us always with trials, and the Four Corners seek to tempt us from the right ways of being. Your Lord, the King of Rape, is the most insidious of the Four, and his finest work is the vampire, sent to seduce mortals from the right-thinking way. By offering a twisted vision of immortality, Bal would deny us the true purpose of our being." He smiled, a brief flash of white teeth that she knew could only be for her benefit. "Also, I very much like the dawn."

Truth be told, she had no answer to that. She had never been especially religious, and Velandryn's clear devotion made all of her slapdash planning futile. She would never turn him. With a sigh, she turned to face westward, away from the rising sun, and peered out into the distant fog, trying to see some hint of her home. However, the morning had blinded her, and all she saw was light.

Serana was looking west, and Velandryn wondered if perhaps he'd said too much. As he was wondering how to follow up his passionate declaration of faith, she turned, her expression neutral. "I guess we've agreed to disagree."

That was about as good an answer as he could expect, he supposed. Releasing his magicka, he let the frigid air of Skyrim invade his body once more, though this time he found it much less disagreeable. Much that is intolerable by night becomes mere inconvenience in the light of day. He half-suspected he'd just made up that saying, but it was very appropriate, and contained a nice amount of religious symbolism. It would need to be tweaked, of course, but I can see using it to illustrate some point about faith to a batch of neonates.

Returning his focus to Serana, he nodded. "Out of curiosity, what was it that convinced you to accept the curse?" Once, he had thought that perhaps she had been turned against her will, but her disdain for the behavior of others of her kind and certain comments about what it meant to be a vampire had led him to the conclusion that she had chosen this for herself.

However, she shook her head. "I can't…I don't think…it doesn't matter, not for you." She peered off to the west again, "We should get there today, I think."

Velandryn nodded, knowing how it felt not to want to share every part of yourself. We aren't friends, after all. Only travelling companions, and just for a bit more. More and more, that thought was accompanied by a feeling that he was helping her harm herself, that she belonged out in the world, not with this family that had locked her away beneath the earth. That, however, was not his decision to make. "How does it feel, knowing that you'll see home again after so much time?"

Serana looked a little sad. "I know, on some level, how long it's been, but it still doesn't feel real. I think I should walk back in the front gate, and it will be as though I never left." She sighed. "That's impossible, of course. Things will be different, but I don't know how."

Admittedly, Velandryn had no frame of reference for such an event. He had been away from Morrowind for just over a year now, but there was no risk of anything major having changed. A few Prelates might have changed offices, or some unlucky Anointed shuffled off to Necrom for a decade or two of corpse preparation, but the world as he knew it would be intact. Serana knew nothing at all of what would be waiting for her at her home.

He tried to find the right words to put her at ease while maintaining a good amount of emotional distance, but he couldn't. Finally, he settled for the truth. "Neither do I, but whatever happens, you'll make it through." He tried to put the feeling he had about her into words. "I might not know your story, Serana, but I can see your strength is real. You woke up without any clue of what had happened, and then drove a path through draugr, a master vampire, and an unknown world to reach your goal." He knew his eyes would be lightening with humor as the memory of their verbal sparring during those first few days returned to him. "You stood with mortals against a monster of your own kind, and delayed your own quest to help a town in need." He paused for a moment as he considered Serana as a whole being. "I make no claim to love vampires, and I won't pretend that we always agree, but I don't think you'll be defeated by so small a thing as the passage of time."

Serana smiled at him. "Thank you." Her eyes truly were unlike any he had ever seen. The Promise of Azura had altered the eyes of his people, to be sure, but Dunmer eyes were shades of red, and emotion was conveyed through light and dark, and subtle changes in overall tone. Outlanders might find his people's eyes unnerving or exotic, but to him they were so commonplace as to merit no consideration. The eyes of humans and other mer, for all that they came in a dizzying array of colors, lacked the subtlety of his people's, and it was impossible to read anything more than the crudest of emotional cues from their depths. Serana's eyes, on the other hand, were almost kaleidoscopic in their complexity. He had thought of them as gold many times, but the truth was that they had flecks within that caught the light in odd ways and could harbor flashes of color of which were all the more beautiful for their transience. They weren't tied to her mood in any way, but he found the environmental nature of their change oddly fitting for a vampire. Perhaps paradoxically, they were most striking when the sun hit them just right, though that doubtless caused Serana no small discomfort. He would never admit it to another, but he had come to the conclusion that he quite liked her eyes.

With a start, he realized that he was staring. Her eyes had shifted, and now she seemed guarded, doubtless unnerved by his staring into her face. Quickly, he jerked away and looked in the direction of Jolf, hidden by the bend of the shore. "We should be going. Best not to let anything more happen in your absence, hmm?"

She barely acknowledged his attempt at levity, giving him a sober and searching look as she passed. With a shake of his head, he followed her along the beach. What in the holy name of Nerevar is possessing me? It wasn't sorcery, unless Serana had gained some magic in the last few days that could penetrate the dragon's defense as though it were not there. Besides, that would be an odd use of her ability to control me. No, whatever had happened had been him and him alone.

It didn't matter, though. Their journey was almost at an end, and Serana would be reunited with her family. And then we will tear them out, root and stem. We must. However he felt about Serana, a coven of vampires beholden to none but their own desires was too dangerous to be left alone. Even if it means I sign her writ of execution myself.

He didn't like the thought of it, but duty was not always pleasant. So long as Serana stood with her family, she was his enemy. But if she renounced them? The idea was intriguing, but it would be beyond foolish to even begin to incorporate it into his plans. No, despite any personal misgivings he might have, she had to be considered an enemy. The dead should burn, remember?

If he repeated it to himself enough, he could almost believe it.

Serana tried to keep her mind on the prospect of home, but that moment on the rock ledge kept swimming to the front of her thoughts. Velandryn's little speech, his cryptic comments about mortality and vampires, and then the expression on his face as he looked at her; she had to admit that she didn't have a clue as to how the Dunmer actually felt. He had seemed sincere enough, but his declarations about how her very existence was wrong still rang in her ears. He confused and agitated her, and she needed to put him from her mind. He had helped her, true, but their time together was almost at an end, and if Velandryn would not join her, then there was no point in her dwelling on the Dark Elf. Yes, I am almost home. There, he's nothing but a memory. She wouldn't turn him, but she wouldn't let him dominate her thoughts either.

She reached Jolf's camp and took her place on the boat, letting the Nord move about packing his gear. Once she returned home she would have to readjust to life in the castle; her father brooked no disagreement from any member of his court, even if it was his own daughter. Doubtless he would want the Elder Scroll, and although Serana had grown quietly attached to the bundle on her back she would part with it if that was what was commanded of her. We aren't so different, Velandryn and I. He has his Temple, and I have my family.

That thought lasted until the Dunmer took up his place on the boat as well. The sight of his lean form in the morning light reminded her of their conversation in Morthal, where he had confessed that he had gone against the strictures of his faith by helping her. Could she have done that, directly defied her father? It was one thing to strike against another clan, but the thought of raising her hand against a Volkihar conjured ice in her gut. Which of us is the better follower?

She tried to figure out what she was feeling, what this tense companionship meant to her, and got so lost in thought that by the time she became aware of her surroundings again, it was the better part of the way to noon. Angrily, she realized that she had again spent hours trapped in thoughts of Velandryn Savani, the morning after a heart-to-heart brought on by this exact behavior.

She thought that might be ironic, but then again she'd always had a bad habit of attributing much as irony that was not. Her logic and rhetoric tutor had despaired more than once of her, as she preferred a lyrical or romantic turn of phrase over one that was strictly true. So, for her purposes, it was ironic.

She looked up, but Velandryn was gazing out over the water, face turned away from her. His cloak was draped over the armor her wore, and his leather helmet hid the lines of his face and concealed his red hair and true-ashen skin. From this angle, he could be anyone, nothing more than an anonymous sailor in the far north. Until he turned back, meeting her eyes. In that instant, all doubt fled. I was a fool to doubt that he was the Dragonborn. The fire in his eyes shamed common men, and his every movement was filled with purpose.

The Dunmer looked over at her, his ordinary inscrutability making way for a flicker of light in his eyes, setting her to wonder all over again. The moment passed, however, and he placed his hands in front of him, conjuring a small flame. He held it before his face and sighed. The sight of Velandryn trying valiantly to keep himself warm was so incongruous with the thoughts Serana had been having about him that it made her laugh out loud, drawing Jolf's attention.

The Nord shouted in alarm, storming back towards them while waving his hands. "Put it out! Are you mad? Fire on a boat, you'll send us to the bottom of the sea!"

Velandryn looked unconcerned. "I have control, boatman. Focus on bringing us to our destination." He wiggled his fingers, flame dancing in the air above his hand.

As Jolf raised his voice in protest once more, Serana sighed and looked away from the Dunmer and the Nord. A moment was rapidly approaching where she would have to make a choice. Letting Velandryn go put her family, her entire race, at risk. However, the thought of forcing him…it was repugnant. Once more she was going in circles. Sighing again, she watched the two of them quarrel.

Velandryn was easy enough to read, if you knew the way of it, and he was loving this. The fire was an extension of his body, and as he made it dance and Jolf panicked further, the Dunmer's eyes gleamed brighter and brighter, until Serana suspected the boatman too must realize that he was the butt of a joke that needed no audience but the elf playing it.

Finally, Velandryn snapped his hand shut, snuffing out the fire. "You win, boatman, I'll sit here and freeze to death in silence. Unstick my corpse when we get there, and you can use it to prop open the door." He glanced over at Serana. "You do have a door, I hope. I'd hate to think that I froze solid for nothing."

Jolf had returned to steering the ship, but she wasn't taking any chances. She cast her spell of silence once more. It might be the cold that was giving him this wry humor, but she would take it over the bizarre intensity of this morning. She'd answer him honestly. And maybe have a bit of fun in the process. "We do, but it's a big door. I'm not sure a little elf like you would be able to hold it open."

He shrugged, red eyes alight in his dark skin. "A shame. It has always been such a dream of mine." He reached looked out over the side of the boat and stretched an arm out as though he were going to reach into the water, but snatched his hand back at the last second. "And clearly I'm going mad, since I just tried to reach into this frigid water." Shaking his head, he chuckled. "No matter how interesting the fish, it's not worth it."

Serana laughed aloud. She could say with certainty that she liked this Velandryn far more than the grave one from last night. "Well, you know, become like me, and you never have to worry about the cold again!"

She'd been joking; she knew someone like Velandryn Savani would never take her up on the offer for a prize as trivial as comfort. However, as the words left her mouth she realized how easily they could be misconstrued, or be taken as aggressive. She hadn't yet made up her mind about what would happen when the elf stood in her father's hall, but she knew that she couldn't breathe a word of her thoughts to Velandryn. If she went through with it, if she had him turned regardless of his wishes, he must suspect nothing until the moment it was done. She snapped her mouth shut and waited for his response.

He did not explode with rage or accuse her of trying to coerce him into vampirism, though she hadn't expected anything so overt in the first place. He simply looked at her, his levity gone. "A question. Was there something in my behavior that led you to think I would be amenable to becoming a vampire, or—"

She broke in, as there was no need for him to finish the thought. "It was…" A moment ago she had known how to respond, but the words failed her as she tried to say them. "I think… I think you would be an excellent…addition to our clan. You are intelligent, driven, and—"

"Dragonborn?" Something flickered in his eyes, but Serana could not say what. Velandryn didn't appear to be enraged or disdainful of her reasoning, at least. However, neither was he on one knee pledging allegiance to Molag Bal. "I believe I understand." He leaned back, onto his cloak, arms spread slightly and elbows protruding out over the water. The hood of his cloak streamed out behind him, a scrap of black and grey fur at the mercy of the wind. "Even if there is little chance I'll accept, the Dragonborn is too tempting an opportunity not to try."

He wasn't wrong, not entirely, but there was more to it than that. She was thinking of how best to say it, to try to clarify what it was that made her think he would be a magnificent Volkihar, but something on the wind caught her notice, and she spun to peer off to the north. Velandryn sat forward intently, apparently having picked up on her new focus, though she barely noticed the Dunmer's action. Off to the north, she could feel it. Power, the shape of winter made flesh. The power to shape the earth and freeze the skies. Father. She shivered.

Velandryn was watching her. "Are we getting close?" He too was keeping one eye on the water, but clearly he could feel no hint of what she did. It wasn't surprising, she supposed; her family had gone to great lengths to ensure that their stronghold could not be found either by accident or malicious design. Still, she had wondered if perhaps the Dragonborn would fare differently. If he had been able to bypass her family's protections, it would have told her…what, exactly?

Whatever he would or would not have been able to do, it didn't matter. They were close and getting closer, and she still had no idea what would happen when they walked through those doors. He sent Lydia away, but why would he do that if he had no intention of joining me? She could always ask, she supposed. If he was planning on opposing a coven of vampires, abandoning a skilled warrior was not the play she would have expected.

When she asked about Lydia, however, he only blinked at her. "She left. She saw me growing a beard, and couldn't stand the thought of an elf with more facial hair than her, a Nord. She is travelling Skyrim, trying desperately to find someone capable of—"

"If you didn't want to answer, you could have just said so." Of course, that little bit of nonsense had been slightly more amusing than a flat rejection.

"Very well. I won't tell you because it isn't any of your concern, even leaving aside the fact that I don't trust you enough to give you that information."

That shouldn't have stung, but it did. Of course, she was holding back things as well, but those were just stories of the past, things he didn't need to know. You aren't allies, remember?

Jolf was swinging the ship around southward, and she looked to where they were headed. The shore ahead was barren and devoid of structures or life of any sort, save for a single forlorn dock with a small rowboat pushed up on the shore nearby. I know this place. One, it had been a village of moderate size, one of many that bowed to her family. Now, there was no trace of the simple people who had lived here. Wood and packed earth could not weather the years alone, after all. It was sad, in a way. But why are we here? This isn't—

She dispelled her ward of silence and turned to face the Nord. "This isn't where you were supposed to be taking us." With some effort, she kept her voice calm. Perhaps they were only stopping over for a moment.

He pointed out to the north, into the fog. "You want to get out there. Well, I'm no fool. I know what's out in that sea." He pointed to the abandoned rowboat. "That can take you where you need to go."

Irritation flashed through Serana. After all that she had paid him, this was the service she had procured? For this miserable man to have the audacity to stop and leave them to…to row their way back to her home took her breath away.

However, before she had a chance to give the Nord a piece of her mind, Velandryn had swept in, seeming to overtop Jolf despite his lesser height. Where she had kept her annoyance with the man internal, Velandryn was letting it show clearly. No, she amended. He's displaying it. It was easy to forget that the vast majority of his emotional cues were for the benefit of others. "You are altering our arrangement, Nord?" His voice was harsh and whip-thin, cracking in the cold air.

"Said I'd take you to here. Never said nothing about going to a haunted island." Jolf folded his arms over his chest and waited.

Velandryn's lips slowly curled into a mirthless smile, showing a great many teeth. "Very well. You will wait here, and upon m