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Dovahkiin

Chapter Text

One

 

It really wasn't supposed to end the way it had. The information was good. She'd told the Thalmor agents in the area where to expect Ulfric, and they had found a way to let that new General, Tullius, know. The plan had been simple enough on the outset; catch the jabbermouth Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak and bring him to Cyrodiil for justice. She was meant to watch and report back on how that went down, if it was successful, or if it failed, and the reasons therein. That was her job among the Thalmor; to spy and report.

She was not meant to wake on the floor of a wagon, aching all over with her hands bound in her lap!

She kept herself limp, feigning unconsciousness as her other senses faded in, one by one. The motion of the cart made her want to grimace. The last thing she remembered was being shot out of her perch, and then the ground rushing up to meet her.

Being shot certainly explained why her left shoulder hurt like hell. It had been a risk to not wear armor when watching that ambush go down, but she had hoped the dull brown clothing and hat would keep her from being too noticeable in the ensuing fight. Apparently her luck had been not only bad, but bad. It didn't seem like things were going to improve any time soon either, not if she was being treated as a prisoner.

Raised voices pulled her out of her internal diagnostic. Nords. Of course. Nords arguing about something she didn't care about at that. She did her best to ignore them, trying to understand just what had happened. Her invisibility spell should have kept her hidden far longer than the pitched fight ought to have taken. Had he been shot by accident? If that was the case, she'd never live it down...

There was an abrupt shift, followed by some swearing; she gave in to the urge to open her eyes and take stock of the situation. She could only play unconscious for so long, and maybe seeing what was there would give her a better idea for how to get away.

They were in the mountains, she had known that from the moment she'd woken up. The air had a particular bite to it that this northernmost country claimed as its own, but the mountains were a sharper cold entirely. Her cart contained three others; two Stormcloaks—the Jarl being one of them—and third Nord that she didn't recognize. None of this was good... she shifted to sit up a little more, stifling a wince as her shoulder protested the motion. More carts ahead and behind, and plenty of Imperial soldiers to guard against runners.

Great.

“So, you're finally awake.”

She flicked her gaze to the Nord nearest to her, a large, blond man in the blue Stormcloak uniform. His tone was friendly... but there was a hint of mockery to it. Not that she could really blame him; Nords didn't much care for the edicts of the Thalmor. Elves in general weren't welcome in Skyrim, and Altmer—high elves like she was—were welcomed the least.

True, she was short for one of her kind, with blue eyes that hinted at less than pure Aldmeri blood. When not hidden under a hat, her red hair—her sole vanity that she kept long despite the trials and tribulations—was more of a banner than anything else. Her mother in that long ago time before the Oblivion Crisis, had seen fire in her coloration, and named her for the dragon god. Akatosh in the common human tongue. Auriel in their own.

Auriel Talmanari grimaced a little and shrugged her good shoulder. The cold was making old injuries ache, and she felt every bit her three hundred some years as adventurer and spy. A hot bath and proper treatment for her newest injury would have been nice, but it seemed the was going to have to resign herself to making temporary conversation with the male instead.

“I am,” she said coolly.

“You were trying to cross the border, huh?” he asked.

“No.”

“....you got caught up in the ambush, same as the rest of us,” he said after a minute. “If you weren't trying to cross the border...”

“My business is not yours,” she said shortly. “Though it seems I may share your fate.”

He looked at her for a long moment, and she wondered if she'd put too much bite into her tone. Well, it had been a long time since she'd trusted anyone new-met, and talking was not going to improve her mood any.

As they passed into a fort, the man across from her snorted a little, glancing over his shoulder. Auriel moved slowly, not wishing to alarm her captors, onto the bench across from him.

“Damn Thalmor,” he spat a little, over the side of the wagon as the fourth member of the cart prayed to the Divines for rescue. “No doubt it was them and that bastard Tullius who sold us out. Damned Empire.”

Well, he wasn't wrong, except it hadn't been this group that had sold them out. They were only responsible for putting her information to use.

The Thalmor watched the cart go by, and she gave a subtle signal that should have made them sit up and take note, insist that she be turned over to them for questioning. Instead they continued to watch her go past with cold, uncaring eyes. She signaled again, less subtly, but the only reaction was a raised eyebrow, and the slightest of mouth movements.

Save yourself.

She gritted her teeth a little at the arrogance in the other Altmer's face; if she outed herself as a Thalmor here, they'd denounce her, and she'd only look like a fool. Her signal should have earned her a rescue, questionable or not, so why was she being told to take care of her own?

“This is Helgen,” the Nord said after a moment. “I used to be sweet on a girl here... wonder if she's still making her mead with Juniper berries?”

He didn't seem to want an answer from her, instead choosing to look to the terrified fourth man.

“Where are you from, horse thief?” he asked.

“Why, what do you care?” he spat in reply.

“A Nord's last thoughts should be of home,” the Stormcloak said simply.

“...Rorikstead. I'm.. I'm from Rorikstead...”

The wagon came to a halt, and she stiffly climbed to her feet with the others, mind working rapidly as she turned out the remained of the short conversation. It was possible that taking her in would compromise their own standing; if they hadn't claimed her before, doing so now would look suspicious.

Perhaps she could make a break for it... Invisibility, illusion, light something on fire to start a panic and slip away... It wasn't like it would be hard to break her bonds. It would have been worse if her hands had been behind her, but no, bound in front was easy enough to manage. Just a little bit of flame and twisting...

She was just sinking into that idea when the captain interrupted her thoughts. It would have been easy to blame pain, but Auriel was more sensible than that; she was agitated and wanted to be anywhere but stuck in this mob of Nords. It was rare when her nerves overshot her ability to focus, but it looked like it was turning into one of those days, and that didn't bode well for planning.

“As your names are called, move over there,” the harsh woman ordered, pointing to where the headsman waited.

Another Nord, this one in Imperial armor, stepped forward with a board and some papers in his hand.

“Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm,” he said briskly.

The bound and gagged Jarl moved stiffly, but obediently, in the direction of the execution block.

“It has been an honor, Jarl Ulfric,” the talkative Nord murmured.

Auriel frowned a little; what was this about? The plan had been to take Ulfric to Cyrodiil to stand trial, not be executed ignobly here in some mountain fort. No one would believe he was dead if they didn't make a damned spectacle of it.

“Ralof of Riverwood.”

The blond, talkative Nord went next.

“Lokiir of Rorikstead.”

“No, I'm not a rebel!” Lokiir protested. Then, to Auriel's surprise, he bolted. “You can't catch me!”

“Archers!” the captain bellowed.

The thief didn't make it very far; a trio of arrows threw him forward, and he was dead before he hit the ground. Auriel blinked at the speed of it, and rapidly reassessed her escape plan. She would need a large explosion to distract them.

“Anyone else feel like running?!” the Nord woman demanded.

Further names were called, further people moved to the waiting headsman; she was running out of time, out of cover, and for the life of her couldn't bring herself to do much of anything. She didn't want to die, but with every passing moment, her ideas faded into uselessness. A tiny part of her knew that this was because she'd hit her head in the fall, but that didn't make it any easier to bear.

“You there. Step forward.”

Reluctantly she moved forward, closer to the brown-haired Nord. Could she steal his sword maybe? Use him as a living bulwark... no, he was annoying taller than her, and would be correspondingly stronger. Not worth the effort or further injury.

“Who are you?” he asked. His tone was brisk, and a little uncertain. Maybe...

“Auriel Talmanari,” she said putting timidity into her tone. If she played the part of young adventurer, maybe she'd catch a lucky break.

“You're not with the Thalmor embassy, are you High Elf?” he asked, looking back down at his papers, then at the captain. “Captain, she's not on the list. What should we do?”

Auriel held her breath, turning a look of wide-eyed innocence onto the captain. The woman looked at her, snorted, and turned away.

“Forget the list,” she snapped. “She goes to the block.”

“By your orders, Captain,” he sighed a little, then turned and gave Auriel what seemed to be a genuinely apologetic look. “I'm sorry. We'll see your remains are returned to the Summerset Isle. Follow the captain, please.”

An ignoble way to die for one such as her, but her current options were either obey, or run and be shot. She joined the crowd, flexing fingers that were tingling with numbness as she tried to figure out how to rapidly build the illusion of a Nord in Imperial armor so that she could step back and slip out. Only peripherally did she take note of what was happening; when a strange sound echoed through the sky it broke her concentration and she turned to look involuntarily... nor was she alone.

A chill crept down her spine, one that reminded her intimately of when she had been locked in the Imperial Prison all those decades ago. A feeling of anticipation filled the air, but it didn't come from the people around her; the last time she had felt this way, she had been just shy of her sixth decade, and the old Emperor himself had marched straight through her cell into the hands of death, starting the Oblivion Crisis.

She hoped that whatever was going to happen did so before her head lay on the ground.

But she couldn't depend on that, so she dove back into her thoughts, hastily trying to rebuild the image of nondescript soldier. If she could just...

“Next the high elf!”

The strange cry sounded again, louder this time, and Auriel took a half-step back, trying to hide among the taller Nords. A few seconds more...

“There it is again,” the solider said, unease in his voice and face. “Did you hear it this time?”

The captain glared.

“I said next prisoner.”

Auriel ducked down a little more, but one of the other soldiers reached out and prodded her—surprisingly gently—between the shoulders with one end of a spear. Gentle or not, she was pushed forward until she was back under the eyes of the Nords.

“To the block prisoner. Nice and easy.”

She hung her head and twisted her wrists carefully; if she'd gone with her first plan, she might well be out. Or at least a witness to death instead of about to be dead. She stifled a sigh and moved forward as slowly as she could; she didn't feel like kneeling on a corpse. She had just managed to nudge the body to one side when things happened all at once.

“What in Oblivion is that?!” came the demand from Tullius, halting everyone in their tracks. Heads snapped up as they tried to follow what the old man was seeing, and for a moment, procedure seemed to be forgotten.

Whatever it was, it was black, winged, and large. That was the best anyone could get before it winged its way up beyond visibility. Slowly, Auriel started to slide backwards. If they could focus on that for just a few more seconds...

“Sentries, what do you see?” the captain demanded.

“It's in the clouds!” one protested.

Dragon!” came the yell from a female Nord as the black creature landed on the tower directly above the execution ground.

The weight of the dragon's landing threw everyone off their feet. The dragon—black as night, with fiery red eyes—roared. Auriel was pinned to the ground as the sound ran over her, ran through her. A feeling like magic, only hotter, raced through her veins, eclipsing the ache of injuries both new and old. The world fell out of focus, everything fell out of focus as Auriel tried to gasp for breath and found herself briefly unable to even think.

A rough hand grabbed her arm and yanked her upright, and everything snapped back into place.

“Come on, move!” Ralof exclaimed. “We've got to get out of here!”

She staggered somewhat and hissed a quiet Aldmeri curse, but allowed him to pull her over to a nearby tower. Her vision and hearing had cleared, but her balance was still somewhat suspect, and she didn't feel like tripping face first into horse dung, or worse. The door was hastily slammed shut behind them, and Auriel found herself facing more Stormcloaks, many of whom looked more like they wanted to throw her back out than have her in the room.

Well, the feeling was mutual. If Ralof hadn't hauled her along, she probably could have escaped over one of the walls. Damned Nord... After a moment she shook her head and gave up on subtlety; she lit the ropes binding her wrists on fire, then yanked. She could handle a few burns in trade for her freedom, and the snapping rope was almost musical.

“Jarl Ulfric, what is that?” Ralof asked. “Could the legends be true?”

“Legends don't burn down buildings,” the Jarl said quietly.

Dramatic, but true; dragons clearly weren't as legendary as they'd once been believed to be. And it looked like all her hard work was about to be for nothing, but she wasn't going to try and jump the Jarl here; she wasn't stupid. Not only was he unbound, he had a full platoon of Stormcloaks... even if some were being tended by their fellows.

Well, there had to be a way out. Since there clearly wasn't a down, that left up. Up she went. Another Stormcloak was near the middle of the tower, trying to clear some fallen stone out of the way.

“If we can just clear these rocks-”

The black dragon slammed his head through the stone wall, making Auri stagger back down half a flight, only to be caught by Ralof who had been following her up. She was willing to swear she'd heard words in the dragon's roar, words she could almost taste, could almost speak. Fire made it really hard to tell, however, and she lifted a hand to shield herself from the worst of the heat.

Of the Stormcloak who had been trying to clear the rocks, there was nothing left but ash and melted metal. Ralof pushed her up the stairs, and they peered out the hole the dragon had broken in the tower.

“Look, there's a way out,” he pointed towards what was left of a roof next to the tower. “Jump over. We'll catch up!”

Auriel didn't need to be told twice, and threw herself across the gap, trying to avoid breathing in the smoke that choked the air. This certainly wasn't her plan for escaping, but wouldn't it be amusing to see her Thalmor compatriots now? Though admittedly, they'd probably run the minute the dragon showed itself. Anyone with sense would have done the same.

She dropped down through the broken floor and moved back out into the daylight, just as the black dragon landed again, nearly scorching a child in the process.

“Gods, everyone get back!”

The soldier who had been reading from the lists looked surprised to see her, even as he pushed the boy towards another soldier.

“Still alive? Keep close to me if you want to stay that way!”

There wasn't much point in being insulted, but she rolled her eyes a little when he turned away. As if she needed him to keep herself alive.

It was more luck than skill that had her throwing herself up against a wall just as the black dragon landed on it, choosing to breath flame on a solider that had been trying to shoot it. If she could have without getting eaten, she might well have patted the damn thing on the snout; it was proving very useful in sowing just the brand of chaos she needed to get out.

The gate, she discovered, was blocked; a mass of rock and flames, there would be no easy escape. Before it was strung a handful of people, Tullius included. Of her Aldmeri fellows, there was no sign, and the small, spiteful part of her wondered if maybe they'd been crushed by falling debris. Behind her, the errant soldier caught up, and she heard him make a dismayed sound.

“Maybe if we...”

“Hadvar! Into the keep soldier, we're leaving!” Tullius bellowed, having spotted the soldier.

Auriel's eyes narrowed slightly in satisfaction, and she turned towards the keep. Not every fortress had an escape tunnel, but if this one did...

Dodging rubble and ignoring Nords of all stripes, she pushed through the first door she saw through the smoke and ash, letting it bang shut hard behind her. As her eyes adjusted, she realized she was in what had to be Imperial barracks. Briefly, she allowed herself to lean against the wall in relief; that was one hurdle managed.

The keep was likely to be harder to bring down than the rest of the fort; it was made to withstand sieges and catapults. Hopefully that also meant it could stand up to a rampaging dragon. She shook her head a little and yanked off the hat confining her hair, using it to wiped as much of the ash off her as she could.

She discarded the hat as Hadvar staggered in, and moved towards the chests stationed at the foot of each bed; if she was going to be stuck fighting, she was damned well going to have more protection than the clothes she currently wore. Even if it was Imperial armor, leather would offer more protection than the thin burlap cloth.

“Was that really a dragon?” he muttered, staring rather blindly ahead. “The bringers of the end times? Now?”

“That does appear to be the case,” she said briskly. “But focus on it later. When there's room to breathe.”

She felt rather than saw him looking at her, then heard a jingle of leather and mail as he shook himself.

“....yeah, you're right. I guess help yourself to any gear you find. I need to find something for these burns.”

Auriel just nodded and kept poking through chests. She found a small measure of gold, and a helmet she ignored—it was Imperial made and at best would simply be uncomfortable—before she found anything of use. It wasn't fitted to her, but badly fitting was better than nothing at all, and she was quick to strip out of her burned and torn disguise, trading it for the armor. She head Hadvar approach as she did her best to adjust the over-sized armor into something usable, and glanced at him after a moment, raising an eyebrow inquiringly.

“You're... not taking the sword?” he asked after a minute.

“I'm a mage,” she replied, tapping the toes of one boot against the floor with a faint frown. These were going to chafe, but chafing was preferably to freezing. “I'll be fine. Now come, you know this keep better than I; you lead.”

He seemed to be taken aback by her brisk manner, but after a minute obligingly went to the nearby hanging chain and opened the gate. The short hallway led to a second entrance, and Auriel heard the Stormcloaks well before she saw them.

“Come on, we've got to keep going,” a male voice urged. “That dragon is tearing this whole place down!”

“Just give me a minute, I'm out of breath. I won't be much use if we keep rushing around,” a female replied.

“Hear that?” Hadvar murmured quietly. “Stormcloaks. Let's see if we can reason with them.”

Auriel thought he was being overly optimistic; it was more likely that they'd be attacked. Still, it couldn't hurt to try and do things peacefully. Gods knew this day was bad enough as it was.

He pulled the chain and the gate dropped, sending both Stormcloaks to their feet, weapons drawn. He carefully stepped out, holding up empty hands.

“Hold on now,” he said carefully. “We just want out, same as you.”

Auriel stepped up behind him as they took more threatening poses, and filled her hands with fire. She didn't want to fight, but if it couldn't be avoided, she was quite ready to do so. Wisely, both Stormcloaks lowered their weapons.

“Only until we're out,” the blonde woman snapped. “Once we go our separate ways-”

Auriel dismissed the flames and pushed past her, taking out the key that had been with the armor and unlocked the gate. The three Nords stared at her in surprise when she turned back to look at them.

“Yes yes, if you meet again in the outside, by all mean, try to kill one another. Right now, however, moving would be better. Unless you'd like to take your chances with the dragon?”

She started down the stairs without seeing if they would follow. Getting out of the keep before the dragon tore it to pieces was more important than letting their ridiculous posturing take precedence. Hearing footsteps shuffling down behind her, she allowed herself a small, thin smile. It had taken a long time for her to learn how to project command into her voice; it was nice to know that it had paid off.

Hadvar was the closest to her when the ceiling started coming down. He yanked her back as the stonework collapsed, sending dust and rocks flying everywhere. The pebbles were no harm to any of them, it was the dust that was pervasive, and they all spent the next few minutes remembering how to breathe.

“Damn,” Hadvar managed when he caught his breath. “That dragon doesn't give up easy. Come on, through the storeroom. Grab what you can make use of.”

Whether that was meant for the Stormcloaks as well or not, Auri didn't care to question. She just grabbed whatever would be useful both now and after she reached an alchemy table; she was going to need funding if she wanted to get back to her camp in Darkwater Crossing, and what better way than by making potions?

Out the other door, and down the stairs, they found a torture room. Three Stormcloaks battled two Imperial soldiers, and their own two allies turned into enemies at the sight; the male lifted his warhammer, and Auriel sighed a little, then lit both of them on fire. Perhaps it would have been better to talk them down, but she didn't have the time or the patience to spare. Hadvar launched himself into the fray with the other two Imperials, and in short order there were five dead Stormcloaks.

“You two came along right on time,” the head torturer said. He had an oily voice that Auriel took an immediate dislike to. “Seems this lot was a bit unhappy about the way we've been treating their fellows.”

Auriel tuned out the conversation, choosing instead to raid the room of anything helpful. A handful of lockpicks and a book joined the two potions and ingredients she'd picked up, and she wasn't slow in opening a nearby cell that held a dead mage. She stripped him quickly and effectively, trading the armor for the clothing that fit marginally better, and was arguably warmer. Her left shoulder didn't quite want to shift properly, but there wasn't much she could do about that except suffer it. Restoration spells were far and away her worst mage-skill, but she wasn't so badly hurt that she wanted to waste a healing potion on it.

Once properly clothed, she returned her attention to the arguing men. The gist of the argument was simple; Hadvar insisted the keep was under attack, but the torturer dismissed the claims. After a moment she just shook her head and decided to head down the hall; Hadvar wouldn't have been directed into the keep if it dead-ended.

“There's no way out over there,” the head torturer called after her.

She ignored him; the air felt fresher, like it was moving, and where there was moving air, there was a way out. Hadvar and the assistant torturer followed her, and soon enough they found that the torturer was quite wrong; one of the dungeon walls had collapsed, opening into an escape tunnel. Here, Auriel allowed the two men to take the lead, her keener hearing alerting her to what they would shortly find out for themselves.

A small band of Stormcloaks had made it that far as well, and there was no negotiating with them. The fight was quick, bloody, and annoying as the ones on the far side of the cavern had bows and arrows. Of course, they also had the misfortune to be sanding in puddles of oil, and Auriel was in just enough of a mood to light the oil on fire. Luckily, a bow managed to avoid being ruined, as did a handful of arrows, and she swept them up; while well-made they were poor quality in comparison to the gear she'd left behind, but they would do in a pinch.

Once done, she marched up the stairs and threw a lever that dropped a bridge.

The assistant torturer stayed behind—he insisted he had to go back for his boss—but Hadvar followed her quickly enough.

“I never knew this was attached to the Keep,” he muttered, looking around cautiously. “I hope there's a way out through here...”

Auriel was inclined to agree; wandering lost in a dark cavern was hardly her idea of fun. Bad enough to be mildly claustrophobic, limited food would run out quickly if they were stuck wandering around for more than a day.

Behind them rock rumbled threateningly, and she covered her ears reflexively as it crashed down, destroying the bridge they had just crossed. Hadvar jumped a foot, and spun, hand on his sword. She almost smiled; as if a sword could do anything against falling rock!

“...I guess we're lucky that didn't come down on top of us,” he said once the dust had cleared. “The others will have to find another way out.”

Auriel stepped up to the edge and glanced down.

“It is only a five foot drop,if that, and there is a connecting tunnel,” she pointed out. “Your fellows will be fine, assuming they make it this far.”

“...I hope you're right.”

She shrugged lightly, and pulled her hood off briefly to better tuck up her hair.

“Come then. We have an exit to find.”

Hadvar blinked at her briefly, then nodded, and they set off down the tunnel.

 

 

Chapter Text

Two

 

Five spiders and a bear later, they reached the outside world. Auriel breathed a sight of relief, and started to slide back the hood when Hadvar laid a hand on her arm. She stiffened at the casual touch, shaking it off quickly as the dragon winged by overhead. His caution was pointless; they were small and unable to hurt the black creature, and it flew off into the distance without a backwards glance.

“....It looks like he's gone for good this time,” he said after a minute. “Though we probably shouldn't stick around to find out. The closest town from here is Riverwood. My uncle is the blacksmith. I'm sure he'd be willing to help you out.”

Auriel gave him a skeptical look. Hadvar shrugged a little.

“He's a good man.”

“Few are good enough to trust on word alone,” she replied. “And let's not forget how much Nords like my kind.”

“That's... fair,” he sighed a little. “I ought to hurry back to Solitude and meet up with the general, but Riverwood is close enough that I can introduce you.” His tone turned wistful, “I wouldn't mind see Uncle Alvar, and getting a meal from Aunt Sigrid...”

After a moment, Auriel nodded and shrugged slightly.

“Lead on, then.”

He nodded, and they started off. Silence was comfortable for Auriel, so she felt no need to break it, even when she stopped to strip fruits and flowers from the plants near the path. He wasn't so tall that she couldn't catch up.

“You're not one for conversation, are you?”

Auriel shrugged a little, then hissed, raising a hand to her injured shoulder. Now that they were out of immediate danger, everything was hurting again, and shooting that bear to get out had not helped anything.

“I do not spend much time around people with whom I need to converse,” she replied. “I keep to myself.”

“Well, listen, perhaps you should join up with the Legion,” he said after a minute. “We could use the help of people like you. Especially if the rebels have themselves a dragon. General Tullius is the only one who can stop them in that case.”

Auriel shook her head slightly; she had no plans to join the Imperial Legion unless her superiors told her to. What she needed at the moment was more information than she had. She needed to make it back to her camp; she needed to get to her dead drop for further instructions; she needed more than the basic nonsense she was carrying. She wasn't looking forward to the long walk, but if she could get her gear, then she would at least be more amenable.

The dirt path eventually connected to a real road, mostly paved and Auriel heard Hadvar sigh a little in relief. She buried a hint of a mocking smile; plainly he hadn't been sure he was heading the right direction. The open air revealed a mountain, and on that mountain what looked to be ancient ruins. Auri would have ignored them entirely had Hadvar not slowed to a stop.

“You see that ruin up there?” he pointed and she glanced up again, an eyebrow raising slightly. “Bleak Falls Barrow. When I was a boy, that place always used to give me nightmares. Draugr creeping down the mountain to climb through my window at night, that sort of thing. I have to admit, I still don't much like the look of it.”

Auriel cocked her head a little, studying it. It was moderately impressive; an old temple maybe?

“There's rumors that it was built to worship dragons a long time ago,” he finished, shuddering a little as he started walking again.

Bleak Falls Barrow... well, tombs, temples, and anything ancient usually had something of value in them. Maybe it would be worth the effort to go and poke around. She was an old hand at dodging traps and dealing with dead things.

The switchback path took them past a trio of Standing Stones; the air about them tingled, but Auriel ignored them for the most part. She didn't believe the Nordic nonsense about the stones granted special powers; all she wanted at the moment was to find a place to rest, tend her injuries, and maybe take a nap. Special powers were unnecessary.

“Listen,” Hadvar's voice pushed through her thoughts and she stifled an annoyed sound; he really liked to talk. “We're almost to Riverwood, so I want to say this: as far as I'm concerned, you've more than earned your pardon. But until we can get that confirmed by General Tullius, it would be a wise idea to avoid confrontations or... complications with other Imperial soldiers.”

She snorted a little.

“I have little intention of doing anything that might get me in a jail cell,” she said with icy dignity. “Bothering soldiers is not part of my duties.”

“...Well, I'm just saying.”

She maintained her silence, and finally, so did he.

Riverwood, when they reached it, was a small town. At a swift glance Auriel noticed a trade store, the blacksmith, a mill and an inn, with a few small houses in between. Beside her, Hadvar released a relieved sigh.

“Things look quiet enough here,” he said, starting forward. “Come on. There's my uncle.”

He lead the way to the blacksmith's shop, where a large man who bore no small resemblance to Hadvar was working at a grindstone.

“Uncle Alvar, hello!”

The older man stood quickly, surprised, and moved to the edge of the porch.

“Hadvar? What're you doing here? Are you on leave from...” Alvar trailed off, and Auri stifled a sigh; hopefully he wouldn't get too worked up. “Shor's bones... What happened to you boy? Are you in some kind of trouble?”

It was a fair question. They were both streaked with dirt, blood—both their own and not—and muck; Hadvar's armor was dented in a few places, and her own clothes had some jagged tears. And that wasn't even counting the way they smelled of smoke and ash. Auriel was wishing heartily for a bath of some sort, even if it was cold.

“Shh, uncle, keep your voice down,” Hadvar said, laying a hand on Alvar's broad shoulder. “I'm fine. But we should go inside to talk.”

“What's going on?” the smith asked. “Who's this?”

Auriel moved up the steps to stand beside Hadvar, though it was more so that the older man would stop exclaiming everything so loudly. Didn't Nords know how to do anything quietly?

“She's a friend. Saved my life in fact,” Hadvar explained. Auriel's eyes widened slightly in surprise; she had hardly done that. “Come on, I'll explain everything, but we need to go inside. It's been a difficult morning.”

Alvar looked between them for a moment, then sighed.

“Okay, okay, come inside then. Sigrid will get you something to eat and then you can tell me all about it.”

Auriel didn't begrudge him his suspicious look, only shrugged her good shoulder lightly and followed behind Hadvar.

Behind them, before the door closed, she heard an old woman babbling about the dragon, and a young man dismiss her entirely. She buried her cynical smile deep as she entered the house; soon enough the whole of Tamriel was likely to know that the dragons had come back to Skyrim. Wasn't that going to be fun?

Maybe if she didn't get immediately assigned a new duty, she'd go find a bookseller or two; there had to be something of interest on dragons. Even old legends held glimmers and grains of truth, and the dragons would be as much a threat to the Thalmor as they were to the rest of the world.

“Sigrid, we have company!”

An older woman came up the stairs and smiled warmly at both of them Auriel nodded lightly in greeting, but that was the extent of it. The brunette Nord didn't seem off-put by her attitude, nor did the girl-child who trailed behind, then practically jumped on Hadvar when she saw him. He grimaced a little as he caught her, and quickly set the girl back down, raising a hand to his side.

“Hadvar, we've been so worried about you!” Sigrid exclaimed. “Come and sit, and I'll get you both something to eat.”

Now that she was reminded of it, food sounded like an excellent idea. Auriel hadn't eaten since the night before, and sitting for a while wouldn't hurt the bumps and bruises. So she took the offered chair, noddeing her thanks as the woman set stew and cheese before the both of them. Alvar was even polite enough to let them finish eating before he started in on the questions.

“All right boy, what's the big mystery. Why do you look like you've been arguing with a cave bear?”

“...well, we did do that,” Hadvar grimaced a little. “I'm... not sure where to start, actually.”

“The beginning is a good place,” Auriel said dryly.

The little girl who had wandered up behind Sigrid giggled a little. Hadvar slanted her an annoyed look, and Auriel simply shrugged, and nibbled on the bread she'd been given, the picture of innocence. Having dropped the 'new adventurer' act even before it had been properly utilized, she wasn't about to try and pick it up when it would be so obvious. Besides, it had been a long time since she'd let herself needle someone.

“You know I was assigned to General Tullius' guard,” he continued after a minute. “We were stopped in Helgen, when we were attacked.... by a dragon.”

“A dragon?” The disbelief was clear in Alvar's voice. “You're not drunk, are you boy?”

“Husband,” Sigrid's voice was scolding. “Let him tell his story.”

Auriel hid a small smirk behind a mug of mead; she was fairly sure that Sigrid didn't believe Hadvar either. The girl though, she looked like she believed, and was fascinated by the idea. Children usually were when it came to mythical creatures. Especially the kind that caused chaos and destruction.

“Not much more to tell, really. This dragon flew over and wrecked the whole place. Mass confusion. I don't think I'd have made it out if not for Auriel here. No idea if anyone else made it...”

Eyes turned to Auriel, who set her mug down lightly. Hadvar, she'd noticed was glossing over quite a lot. Nothing about Ulfric, or why they'd been at Helgen. Well, she saw no point in saying what he didn't, so she only offered a half-shrug again.

“It was the prudent thing to do,” she said quietly. “No one person would have made it out alive on their own. The bear at the end of the tunnel showed that. In tandem, however, the chances were higher, and therefore, acceptable.”

Alvar studied her shrewdly, and she gave the older Nord a bland look; sure, she could have made it out on her own, but she probably would have been more injured, and she wouldn't now be in a warm room with a good meal in her stomach. Pairing up, no matter how briefly, had been the prudent option.

“I need to get back to Solitude and let them know what's happened,” Hadvar said after an uneasy minute. “I was hoping you might help us out a bit. Food, supplies, things like that.”

Alvar nodded after a moment, then gave Auriel a slightly more friendly smile.

“Of course. Any friend of Hadvar's is a friend of mine. I'm glad to help however I can. Feel free to help yourself to the things lying around the house.”

“My thanks,” she said quietly.

“...I hate to impose on you, since you obviously need the rest, but we'll need your help as well,” Alvar said carefully. “The Jarl needs to know there's a dragon about, but there's few in the village that can leave their work long enough to take a message. Fewer still who look like they can defend themselves the way you can. If you could get word to Jarl Balgruuf in Whiterun, we'd be in your debt.”

She considered the idea, then nodded. Whiterun, if she recalled her map correctly, wasn't more than a few hours from this small town. It would be easy enough to take such a message, especially after being given run of the house for so little. And if she remembered rightly, the capital city held a stable. A horse would make traveling back to Darkwater Crossing in the Eastmarch that much faster.

“All right then. I'd better get back to work. You two make yourselves at home. Rest up. You look like you need it.”

As Alvar left, Auriel returned to contemplating the food. Her thoughts were quickly interrupted by Hadvar, who lightly patted her head, making her stiffen. She didn't like casual contact, and was quick to bat his hand away. He looked surprised, but she had kept the blow light enough to be inoffensive, and after a moment he just shrugged.

“It's nice to be back in a friendly spot isn't it?” he asked after a hesitant minute. “I'm going to lay up here for a while I think. Give these injuries of mine time to heal. You'll be all right on your own, won't you?”

“I will be fine,” she said shortly, adjusting her hood slightly.

“If you go down to Whiterun, you can take a carriage to Solitude,” he said, confirming what she recalled. “Pass on the message that I'm not dead if I don't beat you there first.”

“If I have the chance,” she shrugged a little. “As I said, I have affairs of my own that need tending; it is more likely you will make it back first.”

She had to get back to Darkwater Crossing, and from there, to her camp. She had hidden her things well, but that didn't necessarily mean they would be there; she wouldn't put it past the Thalmor that had accompanied the Imperial soldiers to search about and raid her camp. It would be something of a waste, really; she'd left her skeleton key and Gray Fox hood there, along with the amber weapons and armor she had earned so very long ago in a visit to the Shivering Isles.

Auriel perused the house carefully, taking a few things here and there. Money, mostly, and a few pieces of food. It would be prudent to have things to sell or trade, and more than one set of clothes. If she looked inoffensive, she might get ignored by bandits, and go unnoticed by soldiers. If her things were gone from her camp, well, she was going to have to buy new ones. There was no way to the Isles from here, and the last time she had visited, Giles had been the Madgod in truth. Sheogorath was intriguing.... but only from a distance. A large distance. Getting tangled up with him was just asking to get killed.

On the way through and out of the fort, she had picked up a fair amount of things that the arms and armor-maker could fix up and sell. He couldn't, however, buy everything she had, and directed her instead to Lucan and the Riverwood Trader.

“Well, one of us has to do something!” she heard a woman snap as she pushed open the door to the shop.

“I said no!” came the sharp reply from an equally irritated male. “No adventures, no theatrics, no thief-chasing!”

Auriel let her eyes adjust to the lower light inside, and raised an eyebrow slightly. She hadn't exactly anticipated walking into an argument, and idly wondered if Alvar couldn't have spared the breath to warn her as she let the pair—she couldn't tell if they were married or siblings and didn't really care either—battle it out. Getting in the middle seemed ill-advised, after all, but she wasn't leaving without selling what she had left.

“Well what are you going to do then, huh?” the woman demanded, crossing her arms over her chest. “Let's hear it!”

“We are done talking about this!” was the annoyed reply. Auriel shifted a little, and he jumped slightly, then coughed a little in embarrassment. “Oh, uh... a customer. Sorry you had to hear that.”

She shrugged a little and stepped up to the counter, displaying what she had picked up. They bartered for her small trinkets, and she pocketed the coin, then gave into the edge of curiosity. If she had any failings it was that she often couldn't leave well enough alone... though she reasoned it away with a practical thought; if something had happened, maybe she could get paid for fixing it. Coin was always a good way to make her life easier.

“Did something happen?”

“Uh, yeah... we uh, did have a bit of a break in. But there's still plenty of stuff for sale,” Lucan gestured lightly to the laden shelves. “They were only after one thing.”

“Really? That must be lucky. What was it?”

“An ornament. Solid gold, in the shape of a dragon's claw.”

A strange thing to have, let alone to steal. Auriel contemplated briefly, then shrugged mentally. Why not?

“Perhaps I could retrieve it for you,” she offered.

“You would? I've got some coin coming in from my last shipment. It's yours if you can bring that thing back!”

Perfect. Just the thing she needed. Her camp was days away by foot, and her dead drop even farther. The more money and supplies she could lay in, the better.

“If you're really going to get those thieves, you should head to Bleak Falls Barrow, northeast of town,” he continued, gesturing slightly.

The Barrow. Well, she'd thought about exploring it, and now she was getting her chance. That was either a lucky break, or something was messing with her. It wouldn't be the first time she'd gotten caught up in something larger than herself, after all.

“So this is your plan?” was the sharp comment from the woman.

“Yes, it is,” Lucan said shortly. Then smirked. “So now you don't have to go.”

“Oh really? Well, I think your new helper needs a guide.”

“What?” He gaped for a moment, then sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Oh, by the Eight, fine, but only to the edge of town!”

Auriel stifled a sigh, somewhere between amused and irritated. She really didn't need a guide; the Barrow was too large to be missed! On the other hand, it was kind of funny watching the woman tweak him like that, and it couldn't hurt to be shown the starting point.

“I'm Camilla, Lucan's sister,” she said, standing up. “We'll have to go through town and cross the bridge to reach the path to the Barrow.” As they stepped out, she pointed up, and Auriel obligingly followed her hand. “But you can see it from here, though. That mountain, just beyond the buildings.”

Auriel nodded and fell into step behind her as Camilla moved through the small town.

“Those thieves must be mad to hide of there,” the brunette continued. “There's nothing but traps, trolls, and who knows what else up there! I wonder why the only wanted that old claw anyways. There's a lot more worth just as much, if not more than that thing. He found it about a year after he opened the store.... never really explained where it came from either.”

The stopped at the bridge, and Auriel glanced downriver longingly; this would help get her money, but she wanted to run without pause to her camp. Never mind it was something like two Holds over and several weeks worth of walking...

“This is the bridge out of town,” Camilla explained. “Cross it and take the road northwest to reach the Barrow.” Then she grimaced. “I guess I should get back to my brother. He'll throw a fit if I take too long. Like a little kid, really.”

Auriel nodded politely—what was it with people and just talking away?—and turned to cross the bridge. The sooner she finished this, the sooner she could get back to her proper duties.

 

Chapter Text

Three

 

The path up the mountain wasn't steep, but it was damn cold, and Auriel tucked her hood a little more around her head as she wished for a cloak of some sort. It would have been more sensible to turn back, maybe barter a cloak from Lucan, or see if Alvar had something to spare...

Instead she muttered a few choice Aldmeri curses as she made the upwards trek. Luck was on her side, though it didn't seem so at first; a small group of bandits had been manning a crumbling watch tower, and one of them had a very nice fur cloak that she was not above pilfering for her own warmth. True, she almost got shot again for her pains, but she was willing to accept that risk since it got her something useful in return.

An icy wind blew snow into her face, and she hissed a little at the bite of it as she rounded the rocky spire that separated her from the barrow. It was slightly more intimidating up close, but the presence of bandits took away from her chance to contemplate the weird air the barrow exuded. A small part of her mind categorized it as more than old... ancient. Not evil, but certainly not welcoming either.

Fortunately enough, the bandits wore a motley collection of armor that didn't do much to protect them from either flame or arrows. Giving the dead bodies a passing glance, she grimaced; the armor barely looked like it would have kept them warm; even with the Nordic resistance to the cold, she couldn't help but wonder how none of them had died from the ice in the air. Not that all of them were Nords... which just made it even more odd.

She entered the barrow cautiously, and was pleased to see that the main area had a ceiling that soared well above her head. True, it was a wreck of fallen stone and open to the chill of the wind, but at least now the snow wasn't falling directly on her head. It wasn't as warm as she could have liked, but out of the wind helped. And, once the bandit guards were dead, so did their fire, and supplies. She had grown spoiled by her unbreakable skeleton key, but at least she hadn't lost all her skill.

It made her wonder what would happen to her key. What about her hood? Would the person who found those things, stole those things, understand the gifts they were holding? Or would they even be found at all? It was a shot in the dark that her camp would remain undisturbed, but she could hope.

And what of herself? True, taking this detour would earn her coin, maybe a faster way back to Darkwater Crossing, but would it be fast enough that she wouldn't be presumed dead in the dragon attack? As much as she tried to ignore the thought, ghosting her way deeper into the barrow, it niggled at her until she finally devoted a small part of her mind to trying to think up a plan.

Fortunately, there wasn't really a lot to be found in the first part of the barrow. The bandits had effectively cleared it out, and likely sold most of it. Where, she wasn't sure, but that was the best bet. Oh, there were a couple of things she picked up, but on the whole, until she reached the first puzzle door and watched a bandit off himself by not solving the puzzle first, it was pretty empty.

Once the bandit was dead she stepped delicately into the room, looked from the pillars on the floor, to the heads carved on the wall, and snorted.

“I though Nordic burial puzzles were supposed to be difficult,” she muttered, moving to set the pillars correctly. “Maybe their descendants are just more foolish...”

Once she was certain the pillars were aligned properly, she reached out and yanked the lever. The bars groaned a little in protest, but the gate rose surprisingly smooth, and Auriel suspected that someone had already been this way. There were footprints in the dust, handprints on the burial jars, and someone had been kind enough to light a few torches.

Or foolish; either way, as she moved farther in, she dealt with a trio of skeevers, and tried not to be too finicky at the sight of all the spider webs. Fire could solve that problem, but she really did not like the large spiders.

As she passed down the hall, her sharp ears heard someone calling out for help. She wasn't terribly inclined towards being helpful; she'd killed several bandits, and so far there was no sign of the claw. She'd hoped to find it sooner, rather than later; the faster she was out of this place, the happier she would be. For all the ceilings were high, stone this old had a weight and she didn't like the way that weight felt in the slightest.

When she saw the room, completely festooned with spiderwebs, she halted in her track; lots of webs meant one of two things; lots of spiders, or one really big spider.

Of course, it was a really big spider. Sometimes she wondered if Sheogorath was watching, and using her for entertainment. Fortunately, death by fireball worked just as good on the spider as it did on the bandits before, and once the smoke had cleared, Auriel found herself staring at a Dunmer, wrapped in webbing.

“Get me down from here,” he demanded.

“How, I wonder, did you get yourself caught up like that?”

He grimaced; annoyance, distaste, frustration all crossed his face quickly as Auriel glanced at the webbing contemplatively. A dagger would have been useful, or even a boot knife. She was going to have to find one for the future.

“Does it matter? Just get me out of these things!”

“Do you have the claw?”

“Yes, the claw, I know how it works! The markings, the claw, the Hall of Stories, I know how it all fits together! Cut me loose and I'll show you!”

She cocked her head slightly; apparently this bandit took her for another of the group. He couldn't have been more wrong, and she wasn't about to enlighten him.

“All right,” she said after a moment. “I'll get you down.”

She lifted her hands and lit the webbing on fire. Of course, he was bound in the webbing, which meant he was also lit on fire, and he howled quite loudly before he died. She grimaced a little, and scoured the room for trinkets while the body cooled.

She found the claw all right; tucked right into his belt, it surprised her by not even being warm. His notes were not quite as fireproof, but she was able to patch together enough of the crisped mass to make sense of them. Somehow this claw was a key to whatever this 'Hall of Stories' was, and would lead her deeper into the barrow, to the true treasure.

Well, for all she'd promised to get the claw quickly to Lucan, now her insatiable curiosity was piqued, and she couldn't just leave it at that sort of cryptic non-answer. With a mental shrug, she pocketed the claw, and continued past the body.

The halls beyond the spider's lair were full of something Auriel had only read about in her studies, long before entering this cold northern land; draugr. They were almost kin to zombies... save that zombies oozed, while draugr were much more flammable. They were, in fact, almost as easy to remove as skeletons.

Right up until she found one that cast spells. She was forced to dodge the ice that would otherwise have frozen her feet to the floor, and countered with a fireball. This draugr was more hardy than its brethren, and took two more to the face before it consented to fall into a heap of ash.

The tomb ended up connecting briefly to a cavern, and she paused there to rest and rebanadage a few of the wounds she'd gained. Her shoulder was aching less, at least; she hadn't quite had cause to use her bow, when fire handled everything so nicely. It also had the bonus of warming up the frigid air, something Auriel rather liked. It would never be properly warm, but any alleviation of the cold was good. After a small snack, she picked herself up and continued on.

The path led back to a tomb finally, and she spared a few minutes wondering what the place must have looked like when it was first constructed. Nothing like now, clearly, with tree roots making their way in and places collapsing under the shifting weather. It must have been grander, more unnerving. More... more than it currently was, at any rate. Abandoned old places always made her feel a little bit sad. There was so much history in them... all of it lost to the steady passage of time.

Deeper into the barrow she went, past more draugr and traps. It was actually quite fun to lure the draugr into a patch of oil and light it up, and not just because it warmed the room nicely. It was almost comforting to know that no matter where she went, the undead remained easily duped.

Finally, she reached what she presumed was the Hall of Stories; it was poorly lit, and the walls were festooned with dust and spiderwebs, but when she gently brushed away the dust, the Nordic carvings stood out prominently, illustrations she couldn't understand, but was impressed by anyways.

Oh for the freedom to travel to such places once again, as she had once freely roamed Cyrodiil and visited the ancient Ayleid ruins. To be able to take notes, make charcoal rubs, to find another scholar who would translate for her, would teach her this old language...

But no. She had her duty to her people to take care of first. Maybe in another lifetime, when everything was settled once more, she could consider coming back. Properly equipped, instead of scavenging for items, at that!

The door was almost obscenely clean in comparison to the layers of dust she'd just walked through. Once she'd tossed up a magelight to see better, she leaned back to study it thoughtfully. There was a clear space for the claw, and a trio of rings with carvings on them. The rings moved freely when she pushed them, and she cocked her head curiously, weighing the claw in her hands.

A combination lock always had traps for the wrong answer, but how was she to know which carvings were-

Her fingers traced over designs embossed in the 'palm' of the golden claw, and she turned it upright. After glancing between the claw and the rings, she smiled ever so slightly.

“Put the combination on the key, but not the location,” she murmured thoughtfully. “Clever.”

She altered the rings accordingly, then inserted the claw with care. A twist left, then right, and there was an audible click. She pulled the claw back as the rings rotated until all images were the same, and the door sank haltingly into the floor. The air that rushed past her had a bite that indicated there may well be a secondary way out.

Better than having to travel through the tombs and caverns again, at least.

A low ceiling presented itself first, as did a handful of bats, woken by the noise of the sinking door. She grimaced a little as she tried not to step down too hard on the floor covered in bat grime, and moved beyond them, then stopped short.

The cavern opened up abruptly, the stone ceiling rising by several dozen feet; what she judged to be early evening moonlight poured into the cave, turning everything silver and white. Water rushed down from a point above, and burbled into a small creek that split the cave; a bridge spanned it, in surprisingly good repair, and led to a stone dais of sorts, with a stone casket, and a solid, curved stone wall.

The wall with its carvings that were only just discernible in the moonlight drew her in. There almost seemed to be a word there, that some small part of her understood. Or maybe it was the wall itself, radiating the same sort of power that she had felt from the black dragon's initial roar. Not as harsh, not as hard, but...

It was a small series of carvings that she rested her hand on. The meaning proceeded to run her down like a runaway horse, and she dropped to her knees in surprise as her vision blurred and her ears rang.

“...Fus?”

The word did nothing, but she sensed she was missing some component that would make it active. Whatever it was had to wait, however, as the coffin behind her was practically blown open and out climbed a draugr wielding a sword that glowed blue with enchantment. It was also markedly stronger than the ones she'd faced down in her travels through the barrow, and she was forced to dodge quickly before she could retaliate.

And that dodge left her open for an unexpected attack.

Fus Ro Dah!

The very air slammed into her, sending her staggering back across the stone to fetch up against the wall she'd so recently left. She shook her head sharply to clear it, and gathered in her wits, even as a small part of her wanted to stare and stammer. If that was what the word could do, properly keyed, she had to find out what the key was.

But first she had to end this fight.

She dodged a swipe of the sword, feeling burning cold trailing in its wake, and launched a fireball point-blank into his chest. It served to throw the draugr back, but she was not immune to the explosion and only by closing her eyes had she avoided being flash-blinded by her own spell. Half over its own casket, the thing managed to struggle back to its feet, and straight into her flames, which gobbled eagerly at the paper-dry dead flesh.

It still took an obnoxious amount of effort to lay the dead thing properly, and Auriel took a few minutes to recover, bracing her hands on her knees as she panted for breath.

The draugr had an interesting number of things on him. While she preferred spells and her bow to any other conventional weaponry—she was going to have to find a new dagger at that, while she remembered—she picked up the blade that the creature had been using and fastened it to her hip; if nothing else, she could sell it. The enchantment alone would add at least twenty septims to the price.

The oddly carved stone with writing on the back and what looked to be a map on the front intrigued her enough that she put it into her bag for later study. What it could mean she didn't know, but she had that sneaking suspicion that it would come in handy, and she wasn't about to just leave it.

Once she'd collected everything she could, she found the secondary exit, and was more than happy to leave the barrow and the cave behind.

The path out led her to a lake made silver and black with light from the moons. Now safely out, with no immediate concerns, she found a place to sit, well away from prying eyes, and propped her chin on her hand as niggling thoughts were finally allowed their say.

Something had gone wrong. Not just wrong, but wrong in a way that directly impacted her. She needed to reach Ivarstead even more than she needed to return to her camp. The dead drop had to hold information. Orders, money, something. Some indication of why her signal had been dismissed. Why had she been told to save herself? Why had the plan changed? Who had changed the plan, and why hadn't she been informed?

So many questions, so few logical answers.

After another moment she sighed, and stifled her exhaustion as she pushed herself to her feet. It was too cold to rest here, and there had been an inn at Riverwood. Return the claw, deliver the message to Whiterun, and then get to Ivarstead.

Plan in mind, she nodded as briskly as she could, and turned in the direction she hoped was Riverwood.

 

Chapter Text

Four

 

To her vast displeasure and annoyance, it started raining on the way to Whiterun.

The night had passed uneventfully; after returning the claw to Lucan and bartering for more supplies, she had found a berth at the Sleeping Giant Inn. The innkeeper was not the most friendly of women, but Auriel hadn't really cared. The bed was warm, the room was small, and the food was worth the coin. Given the late hour, it had even been blessedly quiet; no patrons, no bard, nothing that would make it hard for her to get the rest she needed so badly.

Waking with the dawn was an easy enough trick, and though her body protested the improper rest, she was out the door before most of the small town had even started to stir. The weather hadn't looked like it would rain...

And yet the rain had begun before she was even halfway there. She muttered in annoyance and drew up her hood, pulling her cloak a little more firmly around her as well. Going home to the warmth of the Summerset isles couldn't come too soon. At this point, she had earned it.

The hours passed in a mostly damp haze; she picked her way carefully over water-slicked stones down the switchback path that lead her past a meadery. It was tempting to stop, to try and dry out there, but she decided against it after a few minutes of thought. The rain didn't appear inclined towards stopping any time soon, so getting dry would be pointless.

The plains around Whiterun were impressive in their bounty; several farms and windmills dotted the land, and she had seen a small herd of deer bounding across the unoccupied areas. Cold-weather plants seemed to be thriving, and even if she didn't enjoy it, clearly the Nords did.

She would have ignored the fight against a giant on a farm entirely, had an arrow not zipped past her nose. She spun, calling magic to her hand—in this weather ice and lightning were more effective than fire, and sparks danced over her fingertips as she sought her supposed enemy.

The fight was over before she got there, the giant toppling to the ground hard enough to make it shake. A female archer—likely the one who had nearly shot her—intercepted her before she could get close to the body. The Nord woman looked smugly superior rather than wary, and her tone when she spoke carried arrogance instead of apology.

“Well, that's taken care of. No thanks to you.”

Auriel's ire grew more pronounced, and she held up a small ball of lightning as she stared at the woman. The other two—another woman and a tall male—tensed noticeably.

“Your misfired shot nearly hit me,” she said with a deceptive gentility. “Tell me precisely why I should not return the favor.”

“Well, maybe you need to look where you're going!” the archer retorted.

“Perhaps you need to improve your aim,” Auriel replied tartly.

The archer stared at her in surprise; after a moment, Auriel lowered her hand, and dismissed the spell. No point in killing this one, not for an accident. Tempting to shock her, but on the other hand that would probably upset the other two, and she wasn't in the mood for a three-on-one fight. Or any fight, really. Not without a few more hours of sleep, at least.

“Besides which, you hardly needed any aid. The three of you clearly outmatched the creature.”

“Well, naturally,” and the archer regained her arrogant tone. “But a true warrior would have relished the chance to take down a giant!”

Auriel snorted.

“By myself? I'm not that much a fool.”

“Well, that's why I'm here with my Shield-Siblings.”

Auriel raised her eyebrows and looked the three warriors over. The archer was a redhead, with hunter's paint streaked across her face and silver eyes. Her armor—if it could really be called that—appeared to be leather, but it was very brief leather, and Auriel found herself wondering if it really protected her at all. It certainly didn't look like it. Hells, it barely looked warm, and only reinforced the idea that Nords were quite mad when it came to clothing.

The other woman was a warrior in a mix of leather and somewhat uncured hide. Her eyes and hair were both a dark brown, and she smiled a little at Auriel's assessing gaze. A little bit of pride, but mostly bashfulness; clearly enough, she was new at this, and therefore, unimportant.

The lone male of the group towered over them all, dark brown hair hanging loosely around his face, which—in her opinion—was in dire need of a shave. His eyes were the same startling silver as the archer's, and his steel armor looked rather battered around the edges. His face was easily read; she was a stranger, unnerving and worrying. That was good enough for her.

“Shield-Siblings?” Auriel asked after a moment, raising an eyebrow. That phrase sounded somehow familiar...

“An outsider, eh? Never heard of the Companions? We're an honorable order of warriors who show up to solve problems, if the coin is good enough.”

The archer's tone suggested it was a good thing; Auriel wasn't so sure there was much difference between them and a regular band of mercenaries. The Companions had only been a footnote in her briefing, a warning to stay out of their way more than anything. The best way to do that was to know where they were based, and for the life of her she couldn't remember where that was. Well, there was no harm in asking.

“And your home is...?”

“Jorrvaskr, in Whiterun,” was the archer's swift reply. “Though if you want to join us, you'll have to talk to Kodlak. He's the adviser of the group, and he has a way of reading people that borders on the uncanny.”

Of course they were based in Whiterun... After a moment she simply turned and walked away; she had a message to deliver, and she wasn't getting any dryer by talking with this woman. Besides, she didn't need to involve herself in their particular brand of nonsense. As soon as she was done talking to the Jarl, she was going for her dead drop, and leaving these people, this place, far behind.

A caravan of Kahjiit outside the city walls caught her for a few moments; she liked the bipedal felines, had learned how to pick locks from one all those centuries ago, and was inclined to treat them as fairly as they treated her. Trading gems for septims, food, and fur-lined boots helped make her feel a little more like herself.

The walls of the city weren't in the best of repair, but they were patrolled by alert guardsmen, who regarded her hooded form with no small amount of wary suspicion. She pulled the fur cloak a little more around her shoulders, and affected an almost ginger walk, sliding into the role of new adventurer with a message; a lot nervous, a little shy, a little eager. The guard who stopped her at the gate didn't look pleased to see her, but it was a less hostile confrontation than it could have been.

“Hold. The city is closed with the dragon about. Official business only!”

“I have news for the Jarl about the dragon,” she said, pitching her tone on the breathlessly anxious side. “From Helgen itself!”

The guard's eyes narrowed a little, and Auriel affected a slightly pleading look. After another moment, he nodded grudgingly.

“All right, but we'll be keeping an eye on you.”

As if she'd expected anything else. Auriel nodded in the hasty, over-eager manner that new adventurers had, and even bowed a little as he turned to unlock a small door set into the main gate. A foot-traffic door was always useful when it came to places made to withstand sieges...

Whiterun was not large by how she rated cities, but it wasn't a small township either. There were clear tiers of hierarchy; the bottom tier was dedicated to homes and shops, and had a small market in front of what looked like an inn. The second tier had larger homes, a temple to Kynareth, and a large hall that could only be Jorrvaskr. The third and final tier was reserved for the Jarl's palace, the tall building known as Dragonsreach.

There was also, to her surprise and irritation, a shrine to Talos on that second tier. In front of it was a priest, bellowing his words for all to hear. She shook her head a little, and made a mental note to let someone know he was there; this sort of thing was outlawed, after all, and was, in point of fact, the root of the current troubles in this cold country.

She sighed a little as she climbed the stairs to Dragonsreach. Nords, like all other races of Men, lived short lives and didn't often consider the long-term consequences of their actions. If they had just kept it quiet, there would have been no need for the Thalmor to come into this country at all beyond the necessary embassy... and spies, of course. But Ulfric had kicked up a fuss about not being allowed worship, and it wasn't like the Dominion could allow a direct challenge to go unanswered.

She pushed those thoughts away as she approached the tall doors of Dragonsreach, and made herself look awed. To be fair, it wasn't that hard. She had seen castles before, had own several sprawling manor homes in various cities of Cyrodiil, and had been a welcome guest in many others, but she had to give the Nords some credit; when they built to impress, they built to impress.

The interior of Dragonsreach was well-lit, well-ventilated, and surprisingly warm, something she heavily approved of. Built in a mix of wood and stone, and she had a feeling that it would last longer than the Nords themselves. Over the chair where the man she assumed was the Jarl sat, was the skull of a dragon, theoretically that of the one that had been caught by this very castle.

As she approached, she frowned thoughtfully at the skull; in comparison to the living dragon that had destroyed Helgen, it seemed rather.... small.

She halted as a red-haired Dunmer woman approached, sword drawn, and made sure to keep her moves nonthreatening, even a little fearful.

“What's the meaning of this interruption?” the dark elf asked sharply. “Jarl Balgruuf is not receiving visitors!”

“I am not so much a visitor as a messenger,” Auriel corrected with false timidity. “I come from Helgen with news about the dragon attack.”

The Dunmer woman startled a little, her sword point lowering.

“Well, that explains why the guards let you in.” Another moment more and the woman nodded, sheathing her sword, and beckoned. “Come on, the Jarl will want to speak with you personally.”

“Who's this then?”

The Jarl had the typical Nordic accent and fair coloring. His arms were corded with muscle, and despite his slumped posture, she suspected he would be on his feet in a heartbeat if it became necessary. Her approach had interrupted a discussion between said Jarl and another man... Breton, perhaps, or maybe Imperial? He was too short to be a Nord, and too pale to be a Redguard. Possibly a steward of some sort, then, judging by the fine clothes and lack of arms or armor.

“Jarl Balgruuf, she comes from Helgen, and claims she has information for us,” the Dunmer explained, then stepped to one side, gesturing for Auriel to step forward.

She did, affecting a meekness she didn't actually feel, and keeping her eyes averted from the face of the Jarl. Nobility were touchy about who could look them in the eye, and she saw no need to antagonize him. As a new adventurer, she could remember her own boldness, but it was wiser to affect shy uncertainty in a place like this. As if in response, the Jarls' voice wasn't demanding when he spoke; it was almost coaxing, really...

“So, you were at Helgen? Saw this dragon with your own eyes?”

She nodded, and shuffled a little, glancing up briefly, then away.

“The Imperials were working on beheading a group of Stormcloaks,” she said, her tone timid, but also a little excited, “including their leader, um... Ul.. Ulfric, I think they said? When it attacked. Swooped down out of nowhere, my lord, and just... everything was on fire before you could blink, and rocks were falling from the sky like rain!”

It made her wonder how much of the fort was left. Likely not much, and it would take a lot of time and money to return the place back to what it had been. If they hadn't been trying to kill her too, she might have felt sorry for the Legionnaires that had been caught up in the mess.

“I should have guessed Ulfric would be mixed up in all of this,” Balgruuf grumbled, then glanced at the balding man who stood next to the chair. “What do you say now Proventus? Should we continue to trust in the strength of our walls against a dragon?

“My lord,” the Dunmer interrupted. “We should send troops to Riverwood at once. It's in the most immediate danger. If that dragon is lurking in the mountains-”

“The Jarl of Falkreath will take that as a provocation!” Proventus protested. “He'll assume we're preparing to join Ulfric's side and attack him! We should not-”

Enough!” Balgruuf snapped. “I'll not stand idly by while a dragon burns my hold and slaughters my people! Irileth, send a detachment to Riverwood at once!”

“Yes, my Jarl.”

The Dunmer woman—Irileth—bowed briefly, then moved off down the hall. Proventus grimaced a little, and bowed, disapproval in every line of his body.

“If you'll excuse me, I'll return to my duties,” he said. Even his tone sounded like he was sulking. It would have been amusing, if it didn't seem so ridiculous.

“That would be best,” the Jarl nodded. Auriel glanced up as he returned his attention to her, and the sternness faded from his voice; clearly her little act had worked quite well. It probably helped that he couldn't really tell she was an Altmer. Her years as a spy had meant a virtual elimination of the accent of the Isles, and she was well-covered for her own warmth. “Well done. You sought me out, on your own initiative. You've done Whiterun a service, and I won't forget it. Here. Take this as a token of my esteem.”

Shyly she stepped forward, accepting the pouch he offered; she would explore the contents later, for now it was time to make a quick retreat.

“There is another thing you could do for me,” he said slowly, before she could do more than start to bow. “Something suited to your... particular talents, perhaps. Come, let's go find Farengar, my court wizard. He's been looking into a matter related to these dragons and... rumors of dragons.”

Auriel blinked, and backed up as the Jarl got to his feet, moving quickly out of his way. This was not how this particular exchange was meant to go... Thanked, yes, rewarded, certainly, but requested for another excursion? She wanted to protest, and it would be simple enough to slip away while his back was turned... and yet she followed as he stepped past the tables and chairs, and lead her to a nearby open room.

It was clearly a mage's room; shelves lined the walls, all crammed to bursting with books, papers, and scrolls. Along the back wall was an alchemist's lab, littered with herbs, and an enchanter's table that held several soul stones and a few pieces of jewelry that shimmered softly in the lantern light. The mage himself was a Nord, draped in blue robes who looked up from his book in irritation that only slightly smoothed out as he saw who had interrupted him.

“Farengar. I think I've found someone who can help your... dragon project. Go ahead and fill her in on all the details.”

Farengar nodded stiffly; Auriel stepped lightly to the side, bowing carefully as the Jarl left them. Then she sized up the mage with an internal scowl. Mages as a whole trended towards arrogance—she was not immune to this—but Nord mages were exceptionally bad, mostly because spells and magic weren't really seen as 'proper' by their kinsmen. She understood the arrogance, but she was not inclined to be condescended too if she could avoid it. Which meant this Farengar was going to need a very different approach than the Jarl had.

He gave her a narrow-eyed stare, which she returned; Farengar didn't need a young, awestruck adventurer, he needed a confident, capable mage. As long as she could check him before he got too snippy, it ought to work well enough...

“So, the Jarl thinks you can be of some use to me,” Farengar began.

“So it would seem,” Auriel interrupted, her tone mild and calm. “I prefer quick explanations to long ones, if you don't mind. I have other obligations to fulfill.”

He blinked at her, clearly surprised that she'd interrupted before he was done, then frowned a little. Not annoyed, but thoughtful. Good.

“Well, I could use someone to delve into an ancient stone ruin to fetch a stone tablet that may or may not even be there.”

Short and to the point. Perhaps a little too much so. With a mental sigh, Auriel resigned herself to digging a little more for information.

“What does a stone tablet have to do with dragons?”

“Ah,” and pleasure entered the mage's voice. “No mere brute mercenary, but a thinker. Maybe even a scholar?”

“...yes. A highly trained scholar, who has been delving into tombs and ruins since before you were born,” she said pointedly. “Why do you want this tablet?”

She couldn't keep all the irritation out of her voice, and she didn't really try. This errand wasn't her idea, and it wasn't going to make getting to Ivarstead any faster. She was tempted to just not go, and let them think that she'd been killed in the attempt.

“Well, when the rumors began circulating, I began to search for information about dragons. Where they had gone all those years ago, and where might they be coming from.” Farengar's tone was a bit more subdued, but no less prideful. Mage to mage, instead of mage to warrior. Given that it was an improvement, she decided to not be offended, and instead allowed herself to show her curiosity. “It's not so easy to find things on legends... and a few paltry rumors, no matter how overblown, aren't reliable.”

Well, that was certainly true enough. It was almost impressive how quickly the knowledge of the dragon had spread, considering it had been only a few days.

“And you need me to do... what, precisely?”

“I... caught wind of word that said there was a stone tablet in Bleak Falls Barrow. A 'Dragonstone' that is believed to contain the location of dragon burial sites. So, go to Bleak Falls Barrow, find this tablet, and bring it back to me. Simple, really.”

Auriel blinked, then dug around in her pouch for the pentagonal stone tablet she'd removed from the burial chamber of the barrow.

“This?”

“Ah!” Delight crossed Farengar's face and he reached out for it. She gave it to him reluctantly; she'd wanted to study it herself, but clearly wasn't going to get that chance. “The Dragonstone was there! You already found it? How?”

“I was sent to retrieve something else and decided to keep exploring,” she shrugged a little. “A draugr near the end took exception to my presence, and I relieved him of his things when he fell.”

“....You are cut from a different cloth than the usual brutes the Jarl foists on me,” he said approvingly, his gaze focused on the stone. “And now my job begins. Translations and things of the mind, which are sadly undervalued in Skyrim.”

Auriel smiled just slightly, agreement and a tiny bit of amusement. Since that seemed to be that, leaving was prudent... but before she could take two steps, Irileth rushed into the room.

“Farengar!” The Dunmer said sharply. The mage looked up with an irritated scowl, and Auriel stifled a grimace of her own. What now? “Farengar, you need to come at once! A dragon has been spotted nearby!” And before Auriel could slip by her, Irileth had grabbed her sleeve. “You should come too.”

She managed to avoid openly scowling, but it was a near thing; she didn't want to deal with another dragon. She had only barely survived the first one!

“A dragon? How exciting!” Farengar exclaimed. “Where was it seen? What was it doing?”

“I'd take this a bit more seriously if I were you,” Irileth scolded as she led the way. “If a dragon attacks Whiterun, I don't know if we can stop it...”

Reluctantly Auriel followed the pair up to the second level of Dragonsreach, where the Jarl waited with a panting guardsman. The room was equipped with a large table, holding a map that depicted the current shape of the civil war, and Auriel drifted towards it quietly; new markers were more interesting to her than this dragon sighting, and she could listen while she took note of the changes.

“So,” Balgruuf said without preamble. “Irileth tells me you came from the western watch tower?”

“Yes, my lord.”

Auriel glanced over; the guard had managed to straighten briefly, but quickly returned to bracing his hands on his knees, fighting to catch his breath.

“Tell him what you told me,” Irileth instructed. “About the dragon.”

The guardsman shuddered, and wiped his hand on the underside of his chin..

“We saw it coming from the south,” he said. “It was fast. Faster than anything I've ever seen...”

“What did it do?” Balgruuf asked. “Is it attacking the watchtower?”

“No, my lord. It was just circling overhead when I left. I never ran so fast in my life.... I was certain it was going to come after me.”

Auriel didn't want to get involved with dragons, or this Hold, any more than she already had. It was exhausting, and she really wanted to reach her dead drop before any enchantments wore off. But she forced herself to portray a nervous excitement, shifting from foot to foot as if eager to be out there, facing off against the beast. She just had to keep this up a little bit longer.

“Good work son, we'll take it from here,” and the Jarl nodded lightly. “Head down to the barracks for some food and rest. You've earned it. Irileth, you'd better gather some guardsmen and get down there.”

“I've already ordered my men to muster at the main gate,” the dark elf said proudly.

“Good work. Don't fail me.”

Irileth bowed, and moved towards the stairs as Balgruuf turned to Auriel.

“There's no time to stand on ceremony my friend. I need your help again.”

To be called friend was startling; she hadn't been that, not even slightly. But maybe it was his way of trying to foster dependency; a jarl's friendship was something an adventurer would want to live up too, and wouldn't be something to take lightly. It would grant influence, acclaim...

In short, it was going to cause her a lot of trouble.

She quickly bowed, fixing an eager look to her face; if she could, she was definitely going to make him pay for this.

“I will help however I can, Jarl Balgruuf!”

“I want you to go with Irileth and help her fight this dragon. You survived Helgen, so you have more experience with dragons than anyone else here. I'm only sorry to take you away from this hunt that Farengar was to send you on...”

Surviving Helgen didn't mean she knew how to fight a dragon, but there wasn't much point in saying that. Nor was pointing out that she'd been running for her life while it had wreaked havoc and soldiers had failed to bring it down. She managed to keep her eager look, but allowed it to fade into uncertainty; only the most foolhardy wouldn't be afraid of facing a dragon, and she wasn't foolhardy.

“My lord, she carried the Dragonstone with her,” Farengar said quickly. “So she is free to face this dragon without fear.”

Balgruuf looked surprised, then pleased. Auriel added Farengar to the list of people she wanted to hurt, feeling her temper fraying moment by moment.

“It was just luck,” Auriel said, ducking her head in affected shyness. It also helped hide her face until she was sure it wasn't showing anything she didn't want them to see.

“Lucky happenstance it may have been, but you have earned this. As a token of my esteem, I will instruct Proventus Avenicci that you are allowed to purchase property in my city. And here. Take this as well, from my personal armory.”

Being able to purchase property in a Hold in Skyrim? That was.... unexpected, to say the least. She bowed reflexively, and accepted the fur-lined bracers that Balgruuf gave her. Well, now she had to go and fight this dragon, didn't she? Damnitall.

She turned to head down the stairs, escaping the request of Farengar to accompany her; no a chance in Oblivion was she going to babysit him for a research project. Instead, she pulled on the bracers with only a bit of fussing—the fit was bad, but there was no time to adjust it, nor did she had the proper workbench or tools—and headed out of Dragonsreach.

Apparently it was time to kill a dragon.

 

-

 

Waiting on Irileth and her soldiers was pointless; the faster it was done, the sooner she could actually go back to what she was supposed to be doing, which was not this. With any luck, it would be assumed that she was somewhat reckless, overeager in her desire to gain a little bit of fame and glory, a name for killing a dragon.

The tower to the west grew distinct as she approached, and the shift of the wind carried the smell of ashes and death to her. She grimaced a little, and unhooked her bow, drawing forth an arrow. Dragons flew, therefore arrows and archery was likely the best way to deal with it. Closing with something that was large enough, strong enough to destroy a tower was not her idea of a good time.

Pieces of the tower lay scattered about the cleared ground like children's blocks. Some of the scattered wooden supports were lit on fire and burned merrily, despite the chill rain that continued to drip down from the sky. Looking up, Auriel made a faintly disgruntled sound as the rain speckled her face; there was no sign of the dragon, so theoretically, it was safe to approach.

“No, get back,” a lone guard protested, giving her a desperate look. “It's still here somewhere! Hroki and Tor just got grabbed as they tried to make a run for it!”

Auriel stifled a grimace, and moved into the cover of the broken stairs as the eerie roar echoed through the air. She laid an arrow to the string and looked up, seeking the shadow of the beast.

“Kynareth save us, here he comes again,” the guard moaned. “Why did you come alone?!”

“Irileth and a few others are coming,” Auriel said shortly. “Hide if you must.”

The dragon flew over the tower and its burning remains, the wind from his wings kicking the flames and smoke up a notch. She managed to be out of the worst of it, but it made her eyes sting, even as she tracked his pass. If he would just come a small bit closer...

Fortunately for her, the extra bodies weren't as far behind as she'd assumed. The call of a horn echoed through the air and the dragon diverted to the platoon of guardsmen, allowing Auriel her chance to take shots at the dragon. She took care to not get too close, but was forced to dodge both fire and arrows that missed the target more than she liked. She wasn't really sure who brought the thing down, but she was willing to swear it had said something as it died. A name? Or a curse?

Cautiously, carefully she approached the body as Irileth congratulated her men; she wanted a closer look before they started harvesting it for trophies or whatever. At her approach, however, the dragon began disintegrating. As Auriel spared a moment to wonder if the dragon was simply burning to dust, the flames became whirls of light that flared brightly, swirling around her. The power rushed through her and she gasped, drawing it in on reflex and instinct. It felt like magic, but at the same time it was something so much more.

The word she'd found in Bleak Falls Barrow sang in her mind's eye. Active. Useable. Understandable.

Fus!

Whatever the word meant, the force of it nearly knocked her backwards as the air itself seemed to become solid and rush forward. The guards let out a variety of oaths, and Auriel just stared blankly for a moment. How long had it been since she'd had to deal with something new, something she didn't know anything about? Her blood still thundered in her ears, and she trembled slightly as she picked herself up.

What was this?

“I can't believe it,” one of the guards said. “You're... Dragonborn.”

“...What?” she asked, blinking up at him in confusion. “Dragonborn?”

She knew what dragon's blood was—Martin Septim, last of the Septim dynasty had carried dragon's blood within him—but the idea that she had carried it was laughable. The guard plainly took her shaky denial as more a request for information, and wasn't slow about telling her the lore.

“In the old days, back when there was still dragons all over Skyrim, the Dragonborn would slay them, and steal their power. That's what you did, right? Absorbed it's power?”

Auriel shook her head a little, trying to clear it. No, that was nonsense. Wasn't it?

“I did... something,” she said uncertainly. “I... I don't know.”

“Well, you can Shout now,” he said encouragingly. “You couldn't before, right? That means you're Dragonborn!”

The guardsmen started babbling about Dragonborn, and stories; Auriel tuned them out briefly, bringing her hands up to her temples. How could she have dragon's blood? If she had it now, she ought to have carried it back during the Oblivion Crisis, and it ought to have allowed her to wear the Amulet of Kings. But when she'd tried, the chain had refused to latch, and the whole thing had slithered into her lap.

And yet, what she had just done... Had this been caused somehow? The dragon at Helgen, was his awakening somehow also hers?

“What do you think Irileth? You've been awfully quiet.”

Auriel glanced at the Dunmer, who was staring at her warily. At the question, however, Irileth turned to the soldiers under her command and shook her head slightly.

“Come on,” another guard wheedled. “Do you believe in this Dragonborn business?”

“Hmph,” Irileth snorted. “Some of you would be better off keeping quiet than flapping your gums about something you know nothing about. Here's a dead dragon, and that's something I definitely understand. Now we know we can kill them. But I don't need some mythical Dragonborn. Someone who can take down a dragon is more than enough for me!”

Auriel blinked, and cocked her head a little. That was both a backhanded compliment, and praise for the guards. A clever move, really; it avoided alienating a young adventurer by saying she was good enough without claiming something extreme, and praised the guards for their work in downing the creature. She let her bewilderment show, and just shook her head again, deciding to forgo a comment.

“You wouldn't understand, Housecarl. You ain't a Nord.”

Irileth's insulted scoff made Auriel smile mentally; the Nords were clearly not above needling their captain.

“I've been all across Tamriel!” she said testily. “I've seen plenty of things just as outlandish as this. I'd advise you all to trust in the strength of your sword arms over ancient legends that may not even be true.”

The guards murmured, shaking their head a little. Auriel stifled a sigh as she unstrung her bow; she had more to think about now than just getting to her dead drop, and actually startled when Irileth caught her firmly by the shoulder.

“I may not know about this Dragonborn business, but I'm glad you were with us. You'd better go back to Whiterun right away to inform the Jarl. I'll stay here with these men and we'll straighten things up a bit.”

This time she stifled an instinct to grimace; surely Irileth herself could report in when they were done... but she nodded and turned back to hike across the plains to Whiterun. No point in trying to get a ride to Ivarstead today; that whole dragon affair had taken more time than she'd expected, and it was already moving to late afternoon. As used to cold camping as she was, she preferred to have a bed to sleep in, and a blanket to sleep under.

She was just crossing the bridge when air and earth rumbled; surprised she caught her foot between the slats and tumbled down onto the wood. Her ankle twinged lightly and she hissed a curse as she sat up; Skyrim was clearly a place for collecting injuries as much as questions.

Doh vaa kiin!

The words were clear, and pointed. A summons that stirred the fire in her blood, pulled at her to make a claim to this northland. Words that spoke of duty, of honor, of things she could have, if she only just followed them.

Slowly she picked herself up, her dignity bruised more than anything else, and headed back into the city. As the rain finally began to peter out, she climbed the stairs to the Jarl's palace for what she hoped was the final time, and wondered how she was going to explain this delay to her superior. Maybe it would be best to say nothing at all...

The hall was only dimly lit and barely occupied, something that was comforting; the last thing she wanted was to have to answer a thousand questions about what happened. Her head was feeling dull enough. She climbed wearily to the dais, and Proventus Avenicci was the first to spot her.

“Good, you're finally here! The Jarl has been waiting for you.” He paused, and then raised an eyebrow. “Though I dare say you could have used a chance to clean up first...”

She glared at the steward as she passed—as if she had a place to clean up in—and stopped below the Jarl's dais, bowing briefly as she portrayed the epitome of a tired fighter. Which, admittedly, wasn't too far from the truth.

“What happened at the watchtower?” Balgruuf demanded. “Was the dragon really there?”

“That was definitely a dragon,” she replied. “It wrecked the watchtower, and you're down a couple of guards, but we took it down.”

“I knew I could count in Irileth,” he sighed a little. “But there must be more to it than that.”

Auriel shuffled a little, actually feeling the awkwardness she was showing; she didn't really want to believe the Nordic nonsense, but she had no better excuse for what had happened. Better to own up to it than try to hide it.

“When the dragon... expired, it seemed to burst into flames at my approach,” she admitted. “And it seems I have gained some sort of... power from it.”

“So it's true,” Balgruuf breathed. “The Greybeards really were summoning you.”

“...The... what?” Auriel blinked. “Who?”

“Masters of the Way of the Voice. They live in seclusion, high up on the slopes of the Throat of the World.”

It took her a moment to remember where she'd heard those titles before, and when she did, she wanted to groan. That place was were where Ulfric had learned his strange abilities, the one that had allowed him to kill Toryyg without touching him. It hadn't been part of her briefing, but rather the research she had done on the would-bu High King that had given her even those scraps of information. And scraps they really were; nothing in the libraries she'd utilized had mentioned anything about the teachers of that skill.

“....and what do they want with me?” she asked, trying to let confusion more than wariness into her tone.

“The Dragonborn is said to be uniquely gifted in the way of the voice. Able to focus your vital energy into a Thu'um, a Shout. If you really are Dragonborn, they can teach you how to use this gift.”

That pulled hard on her curiosity; to have this strangeness and not master it... But no, her duties to the Isles came first.

“Didn't you hear the thundering sound as you returned to Whiterun?” another Nord asked, snagging her attention. “That was the voice of the Graybeards, summoning you to High Hrothgar. This hasn't happened in.... centuries, at least. Not since Tiber Septim himself was summoned, when he was still Talos of Atmora.”

“Hrongar, calm yourself,” Avenicci broke in, sounding more than a little irritated. “What does any of this Nord nonsense have to do with this girl? Capable as she may be, I don't see any signs of her being this... what, Dragonborn?

“Nord nonsense?!” Hrongar turned to look at the steward, clearly offended. “Why you puffed up, ignorant...! These are our sacred traditions! They go back to the founding of the First Empire!”

“Hrongar, don't be so hard on Avenicci,” Balgruuf said mildly.

“I meant no disrespect, of course,” Avenicci added.

Auriel snorted ever so delicately. Of course the man had meant to be offensive. It was a foolish honestly, considering he was in Skyrim and surrounded by people who believed, but she had to give him credit for guts. It was also mildly entertaining, and she was willing to watch the farce, albeit briefly.

“It's just that... what do these Graybeards want with her?” he finished, folding his arms over his chest.

“That's the Graybeards business, not our,” Balgruuf replied firmly; he glanced at Auriel, who shifted her weight slightly. “Whatever happened when you killed that dragon, it revealed something in you. The Graybeards heard it, and if they think you are Dragonborn, who are we to argue?” He shook his head a little. “You had better get up to High Hrothgar immediately. There's no refusing the summons of the Graybeards.... it's a tremendous honor.”

Honor, right. Well, if she was able to, it would be worth looking into, but there was no guarantee that she'd be in Skyrim for much longer. She had muddled her way through gaining various skill before, and if it became necessary, she would muddle her way through this one as well.

“I envy you, you know,” he said wistfully “I made the journey once... to climb the seven thousand steps again...” Balgruuf sighed a little, reminiscently. “High Hrothgar is a very peaceful place. Very... disconnected from the troubles of the world. I wonder that they even notice what's going on down here. They haven't taken an interest before...” He shook his head lightly. “No matter. You should go to High Hrothgar. Learn what the Graybeards have to teach you.”

She nodded a little, but when she moved to leave, he held up a hand. Obediently she stopped, though she shifted a little in a manner meant to portray polite impatience. Oh, she just wanted a healer, a bed, and some food. Possibly even in that order.

“You've done a great service for me and my city, Dragonborn. By my right as Jarl, I name you Thane of Whiterun. It's the greatest honor that's within my power to grant. I assign you Lydia as a personal housecarl, and this weapon from my armory as your badge of office. I'll also inform my guards of your new title. Wouldn't want them to think you're part of the common rabble, now would we?” He offered her the axe from his belt, which she accepted in surprise. “We are honored to have you as Thane of our city, Dragonborn.”

Then he paused.

“What is your name?”

Auriel couldn't help but smile. Then she bowed, and walked away.

 

Chapter Text

Five

 

Whether she liked it or not, she needed a couple of days to rest up, and resupply. Being a Thane meant several very good things for her in terms of prices, but she still depleted her purse faster than she liked. At least the downtime allowed her to finally get some clothing that fit properly, and a few pieces of armor that wouldn't hamper her movements. The bracers and the thick cloth of the shirt had protected her arm, but her fingers hadn't appreciated the lack of gloves... She was going to have to redevelop archer's calluses if things continued to be this dramatic.

It was with reluctance that she wrote off her campsite; it had been a week at this point, and even if people hadn't disturbed it, animals probably had. Running off with her things or breaking them... She would still check it when she was done at Ivarstead, but she doubted anything remained.

Despite the fact that Lydia had tried to insist upon doing a Housecarl's duties—protecting herself and her things—Auriel had brushed her off. She didn't need or want protection, and she didn't have anything that needed it. Being followed around by a guard was the last thing that would prove helpful in any case, and leaving her to the care of Balgruuf's court was for the best.

Once she was certain she'd rested up as much as possible and resupplied properly, she was quick to leave. From the stables just outside of town she purchased a solid and steady horse that regarded her dispassionately. She didn't mind; she'd sell the thing as soon as she was done with it, and it would make her journey that much faster. True, she hadn't ridden in a while, but it couldn't be that bad, could it?

There was something freeing about riding a horse, especially as the day was fair and for Skyrim, warm. The breeze of the steady trot blew her hood back, and teased strands of hair from their confines to whip around her ears. If she hadn't been heading for a dead drop, she might well have been able to more thoroughly enjoy it. If nothing else, she did enjoy not needing to be at Whiterun any longer... being beholden to people was exhausting.

The road she took was cobbled, though admittedly not in the best of repair. And generally the signposts were well placed, directing her to Ivarstead. She discovered at the end of the first day that, yes actually, riding all day after not riding for years could be just that bad. Salves and heat helped, as did stretching, but she wasn't likely to get rid of the ache for a long while, not with throwing herself back into the saddle at the start of each day and only taking brief breaks.

It took the better part of a week for her to pass through parts of the Pale and Eastmarch before the road finally took her back around into the territory of Whiterun hold again. The day she arrived, fog had covered her path, making her slow, and turning her around twice as she tried to find the sleepy little hamlet that—ironically enough—rested at the foot of the Throat of the World.

It was a quaint little town, a river on one side, the mountain hovering overhead like a giant loomed over people. She picketed the horse just outside the town, on a long line to graze, then waded through the icy waters of Lake Gier to reach Shroud Hearth Barrow. As she'd hoped, there was a relatively new jar on a stone table in the back that tingled with magic. She was quick to grab it and look inside.

There was a note there, but no money. Puzzled, she reached in and pulled it out. It had only three words.

Terminate Auriel Talmanari.

For a moment she stared, unable to process. Terminate who? What? Why? Swift on the heels of shock came betrayal, anger, and she was quick to dig out a scrap of her own paper and a thin stick of charcoal.

Why?

Then she dropped the paper back into the jar and waited. She felt the faint sting of magic against her palm as the spell whisked the paper far away to one of the identical jars in the office of her employers, and tried to think rationally. It was hard to do that, however, when rationale was compromised by the sharp feeling of betrayal.

Rarely did she question orders, and her superiors had trained her to only ask for more information when nothing else presented itself. In this case, nothing was clear, and she needed answers.

The sharper sting of a message return had her hand flash into the jar.

It is to our regret that we must inform you of your own betrayal, Auriel Talmanari. You were warned against such rash actions, and yet you persisted in pursuit of knowledge that was not yours to claim. As this knowledge could potentially destabilize the current peace with the remnants of the Empire, we have no choice but to terminate both your employment, and your life.

Reflex had her throwing the jar far from her; a good choice as what came through next was an explosive rune, and she dove under the table to shield herself from the blast. As the echoes of the explosion faded, and the ringing in her ears died, she sat there in confused, uncomprehending silence.

Sure, she had stumbled across their grand master plan, but in truth she had never thought it would actually work. Humans and other mortal races didn't have centuries, so they bred rapidly, lived rapidly. You couldn't exterminate the mortal races of Tamriel, no matter how powerful you thought you were. That was a work for gods, not other mortals.

She hadn't said anything about it... so how had her discovery been learned? Despite pummeling her memory,she couldn't recall a moment that might have indicated anything to either a fellow spy, or a Thalmor soldier. Was it just an excuse? For what purpose?

After a long minute she just put her head in her hands and sighed. In one fell swoop, she had gone from being protected and cared for to being abandoned. And soon enough she would be hunted, if she wasn't already.

She chewed on her lower lip as she exited the barrow, heading for her horse as her mind raced. To start, she was in Skyrim, not Cyrodiil; getting back to Cyrodiil would take septims she didn't have, and she would be dodging her own people left and right. Going to ground was possible there, maybe...

She grimaced as she caught up the lead line for the horse and headed for the inn. Her location was known for the moment, but if someone had been waiting for her, she would have been attacked already. Since she wasn't, she was going to take time at the inn to eat and think. If someone burst in trying to kill her, she might get a bit of help in avoiding that fate.

The inn was all but identical to the one in Riverwood; a little smaller, a little more smokey, but still comfortable. It was clearly used by the people who lived in the town more than any travelers, and that meant she stood out. Not good. But it was also currently quiet, and though the innkeeper looked at her curiously, he didn't ask probing questions, just gave her the meal she asked for, and left her to herself.

She brooded as she ate, considering her options more thoroughly.

Option one; she could go south, back to Cyrodiil. Without her hood, the Thieves Guild would never recognize her as the Gray Fox, and that avenue of escape would be cut off; she'd have to work her way back into their ranks, and that would give the Thalmor too much time to find her. The Synod had made their disdain known for all High Elves after the war, so there was little recourse for safety there. She might be able to shelter with what was left of the Order of the Nine... well, the Eight, now, but she doubted they'd welcome her with open arms. Her various safehouses would be compromised at that; the Thalmor knew about enough of them that they'd likely be raided before the month was out, if they waited even that long. What few they didn't know about were also good places for bandits to hide, and that particular confrontation was one she preferred to avoid.

Option two; stay in Skyrim, build a new base of power, and make the Thalmor regret they'd tried to kill her. No longer a spy, she would have to ply her various skills into earning her living again. Keeping her head down was paramount; while the holds were vast, and villages separated by weeks worth of travel, rumor traveled alarmingly fast. She had to keep ahead of the hunters that would come for her...

It was odd; for the past two centuries she'd been involved in doing dirty work for the Thalmor. Spying, rumor-mongering, jailbreaking, even a couple of assassinations because she had been there, and the Morag-Tang had not. And yet now... was this freedom? It didn't feel very freeing.

Auriel closed her eyes and pushed other arbitrary thoughts away, focusing on what she would need at the moment so that she could start properly planing for her own survival. Where did she need to start, besides information?

Whiterun, she decided with a slight nod. She had a Jarl's dubious friendship, and more importantly the offer of a home in the capital. A house in Whiterun would provide a safe, permanent place to operate from, instead of living out of inns, or just from what she could stock and carry. She'd tried that back in Cyrodiil, during the Oblivion Crisis; it hadn't been fun.

So, a base in Whiterun, under the protection of Jarl Balgruuf was a good place to start. But beyond that, what? She needed power, if not prestige, and a way to make herself untouchable to the Thalmor. A fast way would be to get the Thalmor out of Skyrim, but she was woefully under-equipped to participate in Ulfric's war. And even then, removing obvious Thalmor wouldn't clear all the Altmer from Skyrim; spies and sleeper agents were a fact of life, whether Nords liked it or not.

But that was for later. She needed a power base first. So, a safehouse in Whiterun to start. Power, though... where would she find that?

Idly she rolled a septim between her fingers, trying to recall what all she had learned of this frozen land, things she had picked up just from watching and listening.

There had been rumors of a straggling few members of the Dark Brotherhood, but she dismissed that out of hand; assassins were not good bedfellows, and it was entirely likely that they'd try and kill her if they were contracted to do so. A Thieves Guild might do, but only if it were strong; monetary backing was a good thing to have when hiding. The Synod in Cyrodiil had been a waste of effort, but maybe there was a place for mages. There had to be, actually, as few Nords made the journey out of Skyrim to learn. Fight maybe, but rarely to learn. So, a Mage Guild of some sort. There was also those... Companions. If they were half as good as that arrogant archer said, cultivating them could be worth the effort.

First things first; powerful backing of some sort. The kind that the Thalmor might hesitate to antagonize. Mages as a whole were stereotyped as the sort of people to not be messed with, and while every Altmer could boast a strong connection to magic not every Altmer chose to train that connection.

And of course, this depended on there being some sort of school or guild for mages to congregate...

Well, there was one way to find out, and after a moment she left her spot and approached the innkeeper a second time. He raised both brows in cautious curiosity, and she offered a ginger, almost shy smile. It was almost laughable at how much she was resorting to the role of young adventurer, a role she had left behind a long time ago...

“Pardon, but I'm new to these parts, and was wondering where I might go to learn more about magic.”

The innkeeper snorted a little disdainfully.

“I've got no interest in magic users, nor use for em,” he said irritably. “They're all up north in that college of theirs in Winterhold, and good riddance to them! I don't even like our Jarl havin a court wizard!”

Typical attitude for a Nord. But still, now she had a destination, and that was more than she'd had a few minutes ago. So she thanked the man as politely as she could, and turned to leave; the sooner she left, the sooner she could get started.

 

-

 

The journey back to Whiterun was mostly uneventful; it rained some, she dealt with some bandits who thought she and her horse might be easy pickings, she foraged for herbs, and she traveled half the time by night in a bid to leave a confusing, convoluted trail. No point in making it easy on her former allies, after all. The walls of Whiterun were surprisingly welcome, and once inside them, she made her way to Proventus Avenicci to see just how much effort it was going to take to get a house.

Breezehome, the place was called, and it was outside her reach as far as funds went, even being Thane. While she worked to earn up the money, she stayed as an honored guest of the Jarl—an uneasy position to be sure—and tried to garner what she could from her skills in alchemy and enchantment. She was also not above hunting bounties, and the nearby abandoned forts eventually proved too tempting to ignore. The bandits who had made those forts their hideouts didn't generally live long enough to protest her taking everything that wasn't nailed down.

On her way back from one of the forts, she was subjected to a sudden vampire attack just inside the gate, which left her vaguely annoyed and him quite dead. It also brought her face to face with the silver-eyed Nord that had been with the annoying archer. He looked surprised to see her as well, but a little pleased too.

“You're still here,” he said.

His voice was deep, almost growly, and she had no doubt that when he shouted a battle cry he could be quite fearsome. But underneath it she could hear the kindness. A sort of curiosity, and almost shy delight as well. A strange combination for a Nord.

“...for the moment,” she said cautiously, dusting vampire ashes off her hands. “As, I see, are you.”

“I don't have a job at the moment,” he admitted. “Someone has to stay back and mind Jorrvaskr while most of the others are away. Well, other than Kodlak and Tilma, of course.”

“Hmm....” She kept her voice neutral, striving for disinterest.

Just because she had decided to live in the town didn't mean she was going to get friendly with people. The Thalmor wouldn't hesitate to use any friendships she made against her.

“You look strong,” he said after a minute. “You should join the Companions.”

“Oh, I'm certain your band will have great use for a mage,” she said sharply. “Other than the one up in Dragonsreach, I've yet to meet a Nord who has not treated my profession disdainfully. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go. I have some matters to attend to.”

She turned on her heel, and started to move off, only to be stopped by a courier who had come from Dragonsreach.

“Lady Thane, this message came for you, and the Jarl said you were to receive it as quickly as possible. It's from the Jarl of Falkreath! You're being noticed by other Jarls now, hmm?”

“Hmm,” she agreed sourly.

Then tipped him five septims for running down to find her because that was the polite thing to do.

The courier moved off and Auriel went up to the second tier of the city, to sit under the dead Gildergreen. The Kynareth priestess had asked her to help revive it once the subject had been broached, but she hadn't yet gone to Orphan Rock. She hated hagravens. Peripherally she saw the large Nord following, and gave him a narrow-eyed stare until he took the steps up to the Companion's hall. She was being too short at this point to make people believe she was an eager adventurer, but by the Divines, she was so tired of being in close confines!

Breaking the seal on the letter she scanned it quickly, then grimaced. Apparently she had not been covering her tracks as well as she ought, because he'd heard of her. But further perusal cooled her unease, and after a moment she nodded a little. He hadn't heard of her because she had been bandit slaying; it had been Jarl Balgruuf who had bragged to his fellow Jarl about having a Thane to rival all others. She was torn between amusement and weary irritation, and ended up just shaking her head in mild disgust.

Jarls.

Still, a home on land in Falkreath would actually be better than in the middle of a populated city. Not only would it be quiet, there was a lot of unclaimed land in the Holds. As a reward for a favor to a Jarl, it was actually quite good, so she reluctantly forgave Balgruuf his bragging.

It wouldn't hurt to get out of Whiterun for a bit either... the problem of a reputation was that it could lead the Thalmor right to her, and moving on for a bit... well, that couldn't hurt.

 

-

 

It rained all the way to Falkreath.

The rain was cold, and came with an icy wind that cut sharply through her damp clothing. Riding as she was—and thank all the gods that her skill at it was getting better and she didn't hurt half as much as she had that first night—didn't really help, since there was only so much an oiled cloak could cover. Her poor horse didn't appreciate the rain either, and the fact that they couldn't seem to get out from under it for the two weeks of riding it took to reach Falkreath's capital made her wonder what deity was being obnoxious now.

The longhouse at the heart of Falkreath was easy enough to find, and the Jarl's favor was just as easy to understand.

“Bandits?” she raised an eyebrow. “You called me here to clear out bandits?

The Jarl—Siddgeir was his name—shrugged eloquently. She was tempted to be insulted, but held her tongue.

“The cut they were giving me was good at first, but it's dried up. And since that makes them no longer useful, I would like them... removed. All of them. Jarl Balgruuf said you were a Thane to best all Thanes...”

Appealing to her pride. She was tempted to tell him to talk along walk off a short cliff, but that was mostly her irritation at the weather talking, and after a deep breath, she reminded herself that she needed this land he hand hinted at being available.

“All right,” she sighed. “I'll do it.”

“Good. Remember, every last one of them!”

Back out into the rain, and cross-country she went this time, looking for a mine. The rain finally stopped by the third day, and she found the place in question as the sun was starting to set. She almost took an arrow to the chest, but luck was with her; she managed to fling herself out of the way just barely ahead of the steel-tipped shaft.

“So, you want to play it that way, hmm?” she murmured, eyes narrowing as she approached a fortified mine. “Let's see how well you shoot with smoke in your eyes.”

She promptly lit the wood fortifications on fire. The panicked yelling was worth the effort, and while the three Orcs outside were rushing about with water, trying to put out the fire, she tracked and shot each one. Then she turned to the flames and laid ice over the top. Most of the wood collapsed as she entered the mine, and the sound quickly attracted the leader, who ran out past her in surprise. She proceeded to pick up the dagger he'd carelessly left on the table, crept up behind him, and quickly cut his throat.

It had the added benefit of avoiding the worst of the blood splatter, but she had to skip quickly to the side to avoid being crushed under the weight of an orc in full orichalcon plate. It wasn't worth the effort to strip him and haul it all back, but she was tempted for a moment.

In the end, she decided against it, and the trek back to Falkreath was quicker than the trip out. Siddgeir quickly sat up when she approached his throne, though he made a slight face at her somewhat unkempt state. As if it was her fault she hadn't had a bath in a week, and had been required to light things on fire.

She really did not like this country.

“So?” he asked eagerly.

“Yes, they're dead,” she replied shortly.

“Good. Teach them to stop paying me!” Siddgeir was quiet for a moment, then nodded as if to himself. “You know, I like you. A Thane's Thane. I hereby grant you permission to purchase property in my Hold! Speak to my Steward, up there on the second floor for the details. Help my people further, and I'll make you my Thane as well.”

Auriel bowed briefly to hide the eye roll, and moved off. She was surprised to see that his steward was an Altmer woman, and not the Nordic male she'd expected; the transaction was quick, taking all the money she'd initially saved for Breezehome, and a deed was made out and pressed into her hands.

Auriel quickly set out to see her new land, and was not disappointed. Half a day out from the capital of Falkreath, near the road that would take her to Whiterun Hold, the view was lovely, and there was enough land to make a very large house indeed. She was no builder, no architect, but she didn't doubt that there would be some for hire. Given that Riverwood was the nearest town with a sawmill, she traveled there to see who could be found.

Alvar sent her to Gerdur and Hod, the two who ran the mill, and they, in turn, pulled in a few others once Auriel proved she was quite serious about the endeavor. A small house was easy enough to build, but she didn't want a small house. If it was going to be her home, her safety, she needed some very specific things. She needed an enchanter's workroom, an alchemy lab, and a library. The house itself was no small endeavor, and she didn't argue about being talked into a two-story home with an entryway and a cellar; the more space she had, the better... and a secret exit could be added after, just in case it was needed.

She gave them all she had on her in the way of money, plus a good number of things she'd picked up in her travels that could be exchanged for coin or goods; jewels and jewelry, ores and ingots, furs and leather. Anything that could be easily traded for, she willingly gave over. She wasn't going to have the time to stay and watch, after all.

All told, the job sounded like it would take the better part of six months, and Gerdur promised to send word to Jarl Balgruuf once everything was complete. Pleased by the prospect, Auriel thanked the Nords for their work on her behalf, and promised to send them more money as she acquired it.

However, she still needed a temporary place to live, and that meant more bandit hunting to earn up the money to purchase and furnish Breezehome. When she tired of murdering idiots, she elected to trade time to Adrianne, the steward's daughter, in return for a share of coin. Between helping with repairs to beaten down arms and armor, and foraging for materials to craft potions, she had the funds in a matter of weeks.

She had not expected Lydia to move into the house as well, but after a day and some, decided it wasn't worth fussing about. The housecarl could stay in Breezehome and make sure no one got a case of sticky fingers while Auriel was away. As long as there was some space, it was better than nothing at all.

It took her a week to lay the house out the way she wanted it, and three days after to brew potions that would fund her trip up to Winterhold. But finally, she was ready, and at first light on the fourth day, she went to hire a carriage to take her up to make friends with solitary and dangerous mages.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Six

 

 

Auriel had known it could get cold in Skyrim. She didn't know how cold until she made the journey north to Winterhold. It was pretty in a 'frozen wasteland' sort of way, but it was the farthest thing from pleasant. The ride up took almost a month by cart—traveling through the hold known as the Pale, just shy of the Eastmarch, they were snowed on practically every day—and she had to walk the last few miles on her own as there was no stable for a weary horse to be rested.

At least the road was clear enough to let her walk... some of the drifts to either side suggested it was almost knee deep in some spots. No bandits troubled her, though she'd had to make a very cautious detour around some of the local wildlife. Wolves were annoying enough; she had no desire to face bears or worse.

As her various companions had been full of gossip, she'd made herself draw out as much information from them as she could. Mostly they complained about the war; she was getting entirely too used to hearing about 'those damned Imperial bastards and their damned Thalmor', while fishing for information on the holds. She had basic knowledge, at least, by the time she reached the town, and her distaste of the cold had grown by leaps and bounds.

The town before the college was small, the only notable features being the longhouse, an inn, and a trading store. As this was not the standard for capital cities—she had been regaled by talk of how large Windhelm was, and the way the Pale's port capital, Dawnstar, looked to the weary traveler—it made her wonder what the local history was. Some houses looked like they'd been shaken to pieces by some sort of earthquake, but of the few people she saw, none looked happy about where they were. Given the cold, she wasn't inclined to linger about and ask questions anyways.

As she moved up the stone bridge separating her from the College, she was stopped by another Altmer woman, dressed in thick mage's robes that gave off the faintest air of warmth; power and sensibility, and an enchantment Auriel had never seen made curiosity tingle across her weary mind.

“Cross the bridge at your own peril,” the Altmer said. “The way is dangerous and the gate shall not open. You will not gain entry.”

Auriel raised an eyebrow; that had sounded more like mocking insult than any portent of doom. Peering around the other woman, she studied the bridge curiously. It was indeed treacherous-seeming, but she had walked far more dangerous paths than a snow-covered bridge that lacked railing.

“Who are you, and why are you out here?” she asked after a minute.

“My name is Faralda, and I am here to assist those seeking the wisdom of the College,” the blonde Altmer replied smoothly. “And if, in the process, my presence helps deter those who would seek to do us harm, so be it.”

“Ah. A sensible precaution,” Auriel nodded a little. “The Nords are not.... overly fond of magic in any form, are they?”

“No, they are not. Now then, why are you here?”

She cocked her head a little, considering the question; the obvious answer—she was here for protection—was not the wisest. This far away from any conflict, she doubted they'd welcome someone who brought trouble to them. So then... what to say...

“I would like to enter the College,” she said slowly.

“For what reasons should we grant you entry?”

It was a fair question, so she only bristled a little at the biting tone. She was so tired of walking through the snow and the cold. But she needed a legitimate reason to enter, apparently, and she could hardly blame mages for wanting to be cautious.

“I've had my own training, as you can no doubt sense, but the wise know that learning never ends,” she said, picking her words with care. “For the longest time, I have sought to understand the Aetherius, and I had heard that this was a good place to find some research I hadn't yet encountered.”

It wasn't quite a lie; magic for magic's sake had always fascinated her. If there was a decent library here—and she'd never seen a mage collective that had a bad library—she would certainly be happy to spend some time reading about anything she could get her hands on.

“Ah, the immortal plain,” Faralda nodded. “It is said to be the source of all magic. A worthy goal indeed. It seems the College does indeed have what you seek. Now, what can you provide the College?”

“I beg your pardon?” Auriel blinked.

“Not just anyone is allowed inside. Those who wish to enter must show they have some skill with magic. A small... test, if you will.”

She stifled her growing impatience; even having just admitted to being trained, she was subject to this, as though she was a raw apprentice? Weeding out those who would cause harm, though...

“...oh very well,” Auriel sighed. “I'll take your test.”

“Excellent. The Fear spell has saved the life of many an Illusion mage. If you could cast it here on the seal,” and Faralda gestured at the stone eye carved on the floor, “that would prove your skill.”

Auriel, not in the mood to waste magic, cast the spell at the lowest level. The seal promptly lit up in a verdant blue, and she huffed out a breath in the frost air.

“Satisfied?”

“Well done indeed,” Faralda smiled, her attitude thawing noticeably. “I think you'll be a superb addition to the College. Welcome. Allow me to show you the way. Once you're inside, you'll want to speak to Mirabelle Ervine, our Master Wizard.”

Auriel nodded, and fell into step behind her fellow mage. There were three stops along the bridge where Faralda cast a modified light spell that sent up a brilliantly blue beam of light for a few brief moments. It wasn't hard to figure out she was signaling the college to open its large gate; once there, Faralda pointed out a woman standing next to a grandiose statue as the Master Wizard, then turned to return to guard duty.

Auriel stepped into the college, and glanced around curiously. It was a circular campus, with a large tower at the end opposite the gate; from the height of it, she presumed that was where the library resided, and she couldn't stifle the thrill that briefly chased away her weariness. Those books were undoubtedly many copies, but a mage library was as eclectic as its readers, and she was bound to find something useful eventually. And in the meantime, finding something fascinating was exceptionally likely.

Mirabelle Ervine was one of the human races—Breton, likely—with dark hair, and well-padded robes. She was also, unfortunately, talking to a Thalmor agent; his black and gold uniform was impossible to mistake for anything else.

Auriel froze, considered her options rapidly, and threw an illusion over herself, doing her best to alter her more overt differences. Cosmetic illusions tended to be chancy at best, but there were all sorts of reasons for them, and hopefully it would go unnoticed. Lacking anything to check the spell's application with, she hesitated to get closer... but she had been told to report to Mirabelle, and she intended to do that.

“I believe I've made myself rather clear,” Mirabelle said shortly as Auriel cautiously approached.

“Yes, of course,” the Thalmor agent replied testily. “I'm simply trying to understand the reasoning behind the decision.”

“You may be used to the Empire bowing to your every whim, but I'm afraid you'll find the Thalmor receive no such treatment here,” was Mirabelle's crisp reply. “You are a guest of the college, here at the pleasure of the Arch-Mage. I hope you appreciate the opportunity.”

“Yes, of course,” he said insincerely. “The Arch-Mage has my thanks.”

“Very good. Then we're done here.”

The Thalmor agent stood there a moment longer, then turned on his heel and stalked through the large doors behind him. Auriel hesitated a moment longer, then sighed quietly and finished her approach.

“Pardon me,” she said quietly.

“Ah,” Mirabelle looked up from her book and nodded in greeting. “Welcome to the College.”

“....I assume you're the Master Wizard I was told to seek out?”

“Ah, another new student. I'm surprised at how many of you there are lately.”

Acting the part of a student would be good cover... the Thalmor agent would have no reason to look at her if she was. Assuming he was even seeking her to begin with. So after a moment she nodded; really, as long as she was able to work her way in to whatever inner circle there was here, that was all that mattered.

“Well, first you'll need these,” And Mirabelle offered her a set of robes. “While you're not required to wear them, you may find them more suitable than your current attire. I'll give you a brief tour, and then show you where the classes are being held.”

Auriel accepted the clothing; they tingled with the same feeling as Faralda's had, and a faint bloom of warmth came from them. Plainly the college was used to accepting students who didn't handle the cold as well as the Nords did, and it would be nice to change into something warm, dry, and clean.

“The College of Winterhold has been a fixture in Skyrim for thousands of years,” Mirabelle lectured. Clearly she was used to filling in prospective students on the history of the place, and Auriel wasn't about to stop her. She needed all the information she could get. “The prominent feature here is the Hall of the Elements, directly before you. It's the primary location for lectures, practice sessions and general meetings. The Arcanaeum is located above the hall, and the Arch-Mage's quarters are above that. While technically in charge of the college, the Arch-Mage's responsibilities often keep him occupied. Thus, I run the day-to-day operations.”

Auriel nodded, admittedly fascinated despite herself. This was very different from the way the Guild in Cyrodiil had been run, prior to its rebirth as the Synod. In Cyrodiil, the schools had been scattered among the major cities, and if you wanted to learn a specific skill, well, you went to that school and listened to those teachers. It was unified in many ways, but it had fallen apart rather spectacularly. The Synod wasn't much better in the long run, but at least there were still some people focused on teaching and learning...

“Now, if you'll follow me, I'll show you to the living quarters.”

Mirabelle started walking without waiting for a response, and Auriel was quick to catch up.

“Unfortunately,” the Breton continued, “we've had to introduce more stringent entry procedures, due to some... problems with the local Nords. We don't anticipate any real violence, but it never hurts to be prepared.”

“...no... no it doesn't,” Auriel murmured.

It would have been nice to be prepared for that Thalmor, but perhaps her new quarters would include something she could look at to make sure she went unnoticed. As long as she kept her hood up, her hair covered, that was one less thing to spend energy on, but her blue eyes would be a dead giveaway to someone looking for her.

“Our newest members are housed here, in the Hall of Attainment,” Mirabelle said, breaking Auriel out of her introspection. “I'll ask that you please keep your voice down while inside, as others may be working on research or.... delicate experiments.”

She nodded in understanding, and in they went. Mirabelle led her in and directly to the right, to an unoccupied room.

“You'll be sharing the space with your fellow apprentices, but you will have your own room. You'll meet the others shortly. This will be your room, please try and be considerate of others.”

It was a small room with a thick rug in place of a door, tied to one side to allow entry. The stone walls were covered in fur and woolen hangings, providing a mild insulation. Most of the small space was taken up by the bed, but there was a desk and chair in one corner, small cabinets stacked on one another, and a free-standing wardrobe in one corner. Small, not terribly flexible, but it would do for the moment.

Auriel put the newly acquired clothing on the bed, and Mirabelle nodded.

“Take a few moments to change and get acquainted with your space. I'll meet you outside and we can go back to the Hall of the Elements, where others gather for lectures and study sessions.”

Auriel nodded a little, and Mirabelle stepped out, dropping the curtain behind her. The room immediately started to warm, and what little chatter she'd caught from the echoing tower was muffled as though someone had thrown a blanket over her head. It made her smile a little; privacy spells, and warming spells, triggered by the letting down of the door hanging. How clever.

She let her pack fall onto the floor, and caught up a plate that was mostly untarnished, peering into it carefully. The face that looked back was her own, but her eyes were a very normal Altmer gold. She checked her hair carefully, then decided to alter that as well, just in case; when it was a more normal looking golden-brown, she set the plate down, and turned to change into the dry, warm clothes that Mirabelle had given her. Luckily, almost a perfect fit, and once she had her fur cloak on over the top, much warmer than she had been. Not warm enough, but for one used to southern heats, it was better than it had been.

She took a few more minutes to shove her pack into the wardrobe; she'd get her things out to wash later, after she'd finished the tour and newcomer initiation. She was bound to be here for a while, after all...

Rejoining Mirabelle, the walk back to the Hall of the Elements was completed mostly in silence.

“Initially you'll be taking lessons from Tolfdir, one of our most esteemed wizards,” Mirabelle said as she stopped in front of the doors. “He's likely already addressing the new apprentices, so go on in. If you have any problems, feel free to let one of the senior members know. Now if you'll excuse me, I must get back to work.”

Auriel nodded, and headed inside. An open gate let her walk from the entryway into the main hall, and she paused briefly to take it in. The chill from outside lingered in the air, and she doubted there were enough warming enchantments in the history of Skyrim to actually make it not cold at this northernmost point of the country.

The hall was occupied by the Thalmor agent, but other than an initial glance in her direction, he seemed entirely uninterested. Inwardly she breathed a sigh of relief, and moved around the hall's edge to where three other young mages and an elderly one stood. The three apprentices—a Nord, a Khajiit, and a Dunmer—looked at her with wary curiosity, which she ignored. She was going along with this for the moment, but soon enough she would be able to demonstrate that she was not as untrained as they were.

“Welcome, welcome,” the old man greeted her with a smile. “I'm Tolfdir, and we were just getting started! Please, feel free to stay and listen.”

The friendliness surprised her enough that she blinked at Tolfdir for a moment before nodding a little. He nodded back, still smiling, then turned his gaze on the other three once more.

“So, as I was saying the first thing to recognize about magic is that it is, by its very nature, volatile, and dangerous. Unless you can control it, it can, and will destroy you.”

Which was certainly true enough, if extremely simplified. Perhaps too simplistic for the three apprentices, who all were well past puberty.

“Sir, I think we all understand that fairly well,” the Dunmer interrupted. “We wouldn't be here if we couldn't control magic.”

“Of course, my dear, of course,” Tolfdir nodded slightly. “You all posses some inherent natural ability. That much is not being questioned. What I'm talking about is true control, mastery of magic. It takes years, if not decades, of practice and study. And naturally some are more... capable than others.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” the Khajiit demanded. “Let's get started!”

It made her want to sigh and shake her head; all apprentices tended to be eager to prove themselves. Even she had, at one point. Temperance and patience were things learned with age.

“Please, please!” Tolfdir held up a hand in mild protest. “This is exactly what I'm talking about! Eagerness must be tempered with caution, or else disaster is imminent.”

“But we've only just arrived here!” the Nord protested. “You've no idea what any of us can do! Why not give us a chance to show you?”

Auriel snorted, just slightly. Tolfdir heard it, and turned to her.

“You've been quiet so far. What do you think we should do?”

Auriel's tiny smile was wry.

“Patience is a virtue,” she said simply.

“Well, you're classmates seem to disagree with you,” he chuckled a little.

“Oh, don't listen to her!” The khajiit said insistently. “We can do it!”

“All right, let's settle down. I suppose we can try something practical...” Tolfdir rubbed his chin lightly in thought. “In continuing our theme of safety, we'll start with Wards. Wards are protective spells used to block magic.”

“Just magic?” the Nord asked.

“Unfortunately so.”

That made Auriel smile just slightly. At the basic beginners level, that was certainly true, but she had seen others who had mastered them, and used them to turn blades in battle, or block arrows. It took a great deal of skill and the knowledge of how wards worked to be able to do such a thing, of course, but it was entirely possible to learn.

“I'll teach you all a ward,” the elder continued. “and then we'll see if you can successfully use them to black spells, all right?” He then turned to her again and motioned lightly. “Would you mind helping me with the demonstration, miss? Are you familiar with wards?”

She grimaced a little. Wards were part of Restoration, the school that was her weakest. She knew the spells, but not with as much proficiency as she should have, given her age.

“I am familiar, yes, but they are not my best skill.”

“Well, now's the time to practice, yes?” he smiled encouragingly. “If you'll come stand over here, I'll move opposite you, and you try to block the spell with the ward.”

Auriel nodded a little, moving to stand where he indicated. It took her a minute to remember the spell itself, and she murmured the words softly, calling up a swirling wall of magic; her fellow apprentices murmured in surprise, but inwardly she grimaced, feeling a high drain on her magic that made her feel like she was being sloppy and unrefined. When she nodded to indicate her readiness, Tolfdir spun up a low-powered fireball, and threw it at her.

The fire splattered against her shield, and she gave just slightly with the mild explosion. Though he seemed pleased by her ability to hold it, she was less so; under a barrage, she wouldn't be able to keep it up for very long at all. When it came to Restoration, she was definitely the apprentice.

“Well done,” he said. “Why don't you four pair off and practice for a bit? I'll watch and make sure no one falls over from exhaustion.”

It seemed a sensible recommendation, and it was somewhat fun to cast a spell without the intention to harm someone. It also gave Auriel the chance to learn the names of her fellow apprentices. The Khajiit was J'zargo, the Dunmer was called Brelyna Maryon, and the Nord, Onmund. Of the three, Onmund regarded her with the most suspicion, glancing occasionally between her and the Thalmor agent, who hadn't left the room.

Auriel did her best to ignore the agent; so long as he didn't think she was anything other than another student, she would be moderately safe. He certainly didn't seem to be paying them any mind. At least, not overtly.

They each had a style of their own; J'zargo was powerful, and a good bit of bluff, he tried to make her flinch away from his attacks when it was her turn to shield. She was tempted to try and light his tail on fire for it, but it was hard to take insult when he looked like he was having fun. True, it was at her expense, but she wasn't really inclined towards discouraging new mages, even if she did think they were jumping in too fast.

Onmund was straightforward, power more than anything else. Typical for a Nord, really, he seemed to forget that the fireballs were meant to be low-powered, and Tolfdir had to intervene several times to remind him of that fact. Auriel lowered the power of her fireballs even further after shattering his ward a second time in less than a minute; he was just as bad at them as she was, and that annoyed him to no end.

Brelyna seemed the most like her; trying to conserve power while still making a spell strong. A good skill to have, really, but not one to practice while being 'attacked'. Still, Auriel tried to let her have the space while still committing to the practice. Of the three, she thought Brelyna had the most talent.

“Well, I think that's an excellent start!” Tolfdir said cheerfully, and they broke off the casting. “Later, we'll have another practice session like this, give you all more chances to practice. I think, however, we might be ready to begin exploring some of the various applications of magic throughout history.”

“Are we going to the Arcanaeum?” Brelyna asked.

“No, my dear. The college has undertaken a fascinating excursion in the ruins of Saarthal, which is close by. I think it's an excellent learning opportunity. As it is time for the midday meal, I suggest we take that, and then meet up after. It's only a short walk from here, and there is much to do.”

Auriel allowed herself to be coaxed into joining her fellow apprentices at the inn for the midday meal. She didn't join their banter, but she did allow herself to be drawn out a little. To them, she was Auri Tam, a half-trained mage who had come to better her skills after being unable to find a proper teacher in Cyrodiil. That led to the students discussing the Synod, mostly mocking it, and covered the walk through town to the inn.

The inn wasn't terribly friendly to the band of mages, but their coin was good, so the keeper fed them as they chattered away. Auriel listened more than she talked, and felt the faintest swirl of nostalgia. Being around them reminded her of when she truly was an apprentice, learning her first spells... though she had been surrounded by other Altmer then, and it had been more the competition J'zargo seemed to think it was. She also learned the name of the Thalmor agent; Ancano seemed to intrigue Brelyna, and Auriel just shook her head a little as she mooned over him briefly. Fortunately Onmund and J'zargo agreed with the Altmer, and threw bits of bread at Brelyna to hush her.

Eventually, bellies full and energy restored, they met up with Tolfdir at the edge of town and headed to the ruins of Saarthal.

 

-

 

Tolfdir's idea of a short walk was almost three hours of hiking through snow that was up to their shins at the lowest point. While Tolfdir was quite willing to point out various other things of interest on the way, Auriel heard both J'zargo and Brelyna wondering why they couldn't have taken a sledge. By the time they got there, she was wondering the same thing, a lot more irritably. The hike back was bound to be a nightmare...

“And here we all are,” Tolfdir nodded lightly at the door they stood before. “Now mind, we're particularly interested in the prevalence of the magical seals placed on the tombs. They're unlike anything we've ever seen before! And don't hold back in your explorations. We're looking for anything at all that might be of interest. That's part of what makes this particular excavation so fascinating. We still don't know what all there is to be found.”

He turned towards the door and murmured under his breath; Auriel was close enough to catch it, and despite her less than pleasant mood, found herself smiling, just a little.

“And, if along the way my message about the dangers of magic should happen to sink in for a few students, that would be a happy coincidence.”

In her own experience, mages learned only what they felt was worth learning. Sometimes, to their own detriment. But it was amusing to wonder if that was optimism or cynicism talking.

“Let's go!” J'zargo said impatiently.

“All right, all right. Please stay close while we're inside. As I said, we still don't know what all may be found, and I would hate to see any of you get hurt.”

They all crowded in after him, then strung out in a ragged line, with Auriel leading just behind the elderly mage. As Tolfdir lectured them on Saarthal's history, Auriel cast her magical senses outwards. Truthfully, there wasn't much in the ruin, and what she did sense was well-buried it seemed. So distracted was she that she almost ran into Tolfdir when he stopped and squeaked slightly in surprise.

“Are there any questions before we begin?”

The apprentices all shrugged and shook their heads.

“All right then. Now, let's see... Miss Tam, why don't you see if you can assist Arniel Gane? He's one of the scholars here helping to catalog everything we find in these ruins. I expect he'd appreciate some help locating any additional magical artifacts located here in the ruin. Any enchanted items will do, regardless of the enchantment on it. If you do find something, the class can study it.”

Auriel nodded, and moved off to locate the scholar as Tolfdir turned to the rest. She found the scholar not far from the entrance, leaned over a table tucked into a small alcove. Suppressing a faint shiver—low ceilings and dim lighting made unpleasant work in her mind—she tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. He glanced up and over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow.

“Tolfdir sent me to help you,” she said. “Is there anything I can do?”

“I've only looked through a portion of this section,” he said. “You can look through the rooms north of here, I suppose. Just don't mess anything up. We don't want to damage anything.”

She nodded, and started looking around curiously. She didn't much like being underground, but this was still intriguing. She found three magic rings hidden under dust and dirt, and then hanging on the wall, an interesting looking amulet. The wall itself seemed to be carved with symbols, and she hesitated to touch it. If anything, it looked like it had once been a door...

Carefully, slowly, she lifted the amulet from the wall. Immediately behind her, a gate sprang up, with a loud crash of metal against stone. She cursed quietly in Aldmeri and looked about for a release of some sort.

“What in the world was that racket?” Tolfdir asked, hurrying up to the other side of the bars that now blocked her exit. “Are you all right?”

“I'm fine, just... trapped.”

“How did that happen?”

“I pulled this amulet off the wall,” Auriel replied, showing him the necklace. “It seems that was not the correct thing to do. I cannot seem to locate a release mechanism, though.”

Being trapped behind these bars made the hairs rise on the back of her neck. She didn't want to be stuck here, and if worse came to worse, she would make an exit.

“Perhaps the amulet is the key,” he offered after a moment. “Is there some way you can use it?”

“I already tried putting it back on the wall. Nothing happened...”

“Well, try putting it on yourself and see if that does anything,” he suggested.

Reluctantly she tied the amulet around her neck. The wall the amulet had been attached to instantly began vibrating.

“Do you see that?” Tolfdir breathed. “Some kind of resonance between you and the wall! It must be connected to the amulet! I wonder what effect might your spells have?”

“....I really don't think this is a good idea,” Auriel murmured. “Really don't.”

“It's worth a try, at least, isn't it?” he asked encouragingly.

“All right.... but if this goes badly, I get to say I told you so.”

“Of course my dear, of course.”

She sighed a little, braced herself, then flung a handful of fire at the wall, which shattered as though it was made of brittle ceramic. As damp, stale air swept past her, she heard the bars sink back into the ground. Relief warred with unease; the air carried a hint of something, something that put her back up.

Leaving sounded like an excellent idea.

“Would you look at that!” Tolfdir said, moving into the room with her. “This is highly unusual, and very interesting.”

Behind the wall was a tunnel, and Tolfdir started through without waiting for anyone. Briefly, Auriel warred with herself; the part that liked the old man had her following close behind, even though her own senses were adamant that this was the worst idea she'd had in a long time.

“Why in the world would this be sealed off?” he murmured as she caught up to him. “What is this place?”

A dead end was Auriel's hope; the tunnel lead to a small, circular room with three standing coffins, and no overt exit. Tolfdir stopped to look around, and she leaned lightly on a stone table in the center of the room. A tingle ran down her spine, and the room lit with an eerie glow that made her crouch defensively.

A man appeared, but there was no color to him. Not a ghost, but not fully there... some sort of magical sending then?

“Hold, mage, and listen well,” he said imperiously. “Know that you have set in motion a chain of events that cannot be stopped. Judgment has not been passed, as you had no way of knowing.”

It took some doing to bite her tongue; she was not in the mood to deal with ominous portents.

“Judgment will be passed on you actions to come, however,” he cautioned, “and on how you deal with the dangers ahead of you. This warning is passed to you because the Psijic order believes in you.”

Now she did start. The Psijic monks and their island of Artaeum had vanished during her tenure with the Thalmor. She'd always thought to go someday, but since their disappearance, had allowed that dream to fade into the back of her mind. What on earth were they doing watching over this tomb?

“You mage, and you alone, have the potential to prevent disaster. Take great care, and know that the Order is watching.”

She opened her mouth to ask questions, press for information, when he faded out as quickly as he'd appeared, and the light in the room dimmed sharply. She winced and rubbed at her eyes as they watered fiercely.

“I... I swear I felt something rather strange just then,” Tolfdir said. “What just happened? Are you all right?”
“I'm... fine. Give me a moment to clear my sight....”

“Of course, of course...”

She rubbed at her eyes briefly, and shook her head lightly to clear it. Psijics invested in a tomb, and trouble on the wind. Weren't adventures supposed to happen to the young?

“All right... so...” She trailed off, frowning lightly. How was she to explain this?

“So?” Tolfdir prompted gently.

“Some sort of... apparition appeared. And spoke to me,” Auriel admitted. “He said something about being from the Psijic Order. And also warned that there was danger ahead.”

Tolfdir's eyebrows shot up towards his hairline in surprise.

“Are you quite sure about that? That's very odd. And what about danger ahead? That doesn't make any sense at all.”

“That's putting it mildly, but yes, I am certain that is what was said,” Auriel sighed.

“The Psijics have no connection to these ruins,” he mused. “And no one's seen their order in a long time.”

“I am aware. I don't like this...”

“Perhaps we should take a look inside these coffins?” he suggested after a moment. “Please be careful; who knows what we might find.”

“Besides draugr?” Auri quipped.

As if in response to her words, the three coffins popped open, and two draugr entered the room. There was not a great deal of space for dodging, but they were paper-dry and went up quickly. Tolfdir dusted himself off with a slight nod, and moved through the opening created by the middle coffin's lid falling inward; Auriel grimaced and followed.

The short tunnel led to a larger room, also filled with draugr that were easy to light on fire.

“If I'd known I was to be fighting things, I would have brought my bow,” she sighed, absently rubbing her palms on her pants once the dead had fallen. “If this is your idea of a good first lesson, I have to wonder if you are not actually more approving of trials by fire than you act.

Tolfdir looked away, but she thought she caught a hint of a smile on his face.

“I've never seen anything like this in Nordic ruins before,” Tolfdir he said instead, moving in to inspect the coffins with the threat removed. “Why, just look at these coffins! This bears closer inspection. I think I'll stay a while and examine this. Why don't you go on ahead? See if you can't find whatever it was that your vision mentioned. Just... please be careful.”

Trial by fire teacher indeed.

Reluctantly she pulled the two chains that unbarred the exit, though she hesitated at going through; for one thing it didn't feel right to leave the old man on his own, and for another, this place was doing more than just giving her the creeps. Something felt off here, something that both unnerved and intrigued her. What could be down in this tomb?

With a sigh, she pushed through the door; she wasn't going to get answers by standing around, and she definitely wasn't going to walk away now. Farther in it was.

Saarthal itself was more along the lines of what she expected in a burial tomb. Lots of draugr, a bit of treasure here and there, and the lingering smell of dead air. The deeper in she went, the more her senses prodded at her; she shouldn't be here, disturbing this place. None of them should.

When Tolfdir finally did catch up, praising her ability to clear the tomb of hostile creatures, it didn't make her feel very reassured. The wrongness seemed to pulse from the walls, far more than just her usual claustrophobia. While it was nice to have distracting company, it didn't actually make her feel any better.

Not that they had much farther to go. Another door and set of stairs down, and Auriel was forced to lock her knees to keep from falling over at the sheer force of magic in the large room. The source, she presumed, was the giant floating orb beyond a fiery green wall of a ward spell; keeping the orb in, and the people out, presumably.

“Would you look at that,” Tolfdir murmured, awe in his voice as he moved around her. “I never imagined we'd find something like this, did you?”

Mutely she shook her head, awed and afraid all at once. They definitely should not have come this far.

“Why is this buried so far under Saarthal?”

“...likely so that it would not be found,” she murmured. She kept the tremors out of her voice, but they crawled up her spine. “We should leave this, Tolfdir. It's... not safe. For any of us.”

But the mage didn't heed her, instead moving down a set of log stairs to get a closer look. A draugr, missed by both mages, did not appreciate the intrusion, and attacked Tolfdir head on. His startled cry broke her of her unnerved paralysis, but nothing they did mundanely or magically seemed to harm the thing.

“Keep it busy while I try something!” Tolfdir shouted.

Auriel promptly launched a bolt of fire to cover him, drawing the attention of the undying thing onto herself. She regretted it almost immediately—the creature was fast—but managed to keep ahead of it despite the weariness that was dogging her body.

She didn't know what Tolfdir was up to but she saw the results. Something around the draugr seemed to break, much like an over-extended ward spell, and once it did, she practically drowned the thing in fire. Only when it was scattered ash and bone did she manage a breath of relaxation.

But it was only a breath. With the breaking of the ward on the draugr, the ward between themselves and the orb had vanished as well. Power in a pure sense; this thing was definitely going to cause trouble for the college, and plainly for her specifically if what the Psijic mage had indicated was correct.

“I'm not the only one seeing this, am I?” he murmured, glancing at her. “This is utterly unique.”

“It's utterly dangerous, Tolfdir,” she said warningly. “Whatever it is...”

“This is amazing!” he enthused, clearly ignoring her words. “Utterly amazing! The Arch-Mage needs to be informed immediately! He has to come see this for himself! I don't dare leave this unattended! Can you return to the college and inform Savos Aren? Quickly, please!”

“This goes against my better judgment, but.... well, all right.”

She couldn't get out of Saarthal fast enough.

A door sunk into the wall just past the orb proved to lead back to the main ruins; she almost ran past a word wall in her haste to reach fresh air. She'd run across several of them in her months of running errands and killing bandits for coin, and each time had walked away with a word—or part of a word—that spoke to her blood. Fortunately or not, she had avoided being attacked by dragons in that time period, and it wasn't too hard to surmise that it had been the dragon's spirit that had given her control of Fus. Without souls, she couldn't make use of the words... but she had no desire to stand out even further, so for the moment, that was perfectly fine by her.

Besides, taking on a dragon by herself was just asking to get eaten.

The cold winter air stung her throat and turned her breath into misty clouds as she breathed in deeply, relishing the freshness of it. She hated being underground, and hated even more that she was about to bring something exceptionally dangerous to the attention of the Arch-Mage.

But what choice had she? If she didn't do it, no doubt Tolfdir would find someone else who would, and that would close off an avenue of support.

With a tired sigh she headed up the wooden ramps, and turned to begin the exhausting work of breaking a path back to the college.

 

Chapter Text

Seven

 

 

The Arch-Mage's quarters were through the door on the left inside the Hall of Elements, and there were more than a few flights of stairs to be climbed. Given the exertion of walking out to Saarthal, walking through it, then walking back, Auriel was almost tempted to go and rest up first... but the sooner this was done, the better; then she could nap, and soothe her aching body.

The room at the top of the stairs was well lit with magelight, had a startlingly high ceiling, what looked to be an arboretum in the middle, and a curved wall the likely hid the sleeping area. On her left was an extensive alchemy lab, on her right was the perfect example of an enchanter's workroom. Both things she would have quite cheerfully maimed to own; they put her makeshift things to shame.

She made a slight sound of envy, and a mental note to send most of her recently acquired gems and gold back to Riverwood with a courier so that Gerdur and her lot would be able to continue building the house. She would make her own set-up, and having it rival this one would take coin. But oh, when she could properly enchant again...

Savos Aren, when she saw him, was not what she'd expected. Admittedly, she'd half-thought she might actually see a Nord in that position, but no. Savos was a Dunmer, wearing thick, fur-lined robes that tingled with strong enchantments. Impressed and a little envious—her own enchantments were not as hardy as his, and she was rather damp from the snowmelt—she simply stood for a moment in the light, trying to convince twitching, achy muscles that they wanted to carry her a few more feet forward.

“Excuse me sir?”

He looked up, and frowned at her thoughtfully, then marked his place in his book and gave her his full attention.

“You are relatively new here, are you not?” he asked. “I have noticed you, but we have not managed to speak as of yet.”

“Ah... no. No we haven't.”

“Then allow me to introduce myself.”

Auriel stepped back slightly as he stood, and bit her tongue lightly to keep from protesting. This seemed to be some form of his and maybe if she let him finish, she could give him Tolfdir's message.

“I am Savos Aren, Arch-Mage of the College of Winterhold. I am quite content to see any aspect of magic explored or investigate here. But I do not and will not approve of anything that may purposefully cause harm to your fellow members of the College. Are we clear?”

Auriel looked at him. He was about three inches shorter than her, though he exuded an aura of power. One corner of her mouth twitched into a very slight smirk.

“If you're attempting to intimidate me into compliance, you're going to have to try harder,” she said equably. “For the moment, I need to speak to you about Saarthal.”

To his credit, he didn't seem annoyed by what could be called impertinence. If anything, the mention of Saarthal seemed to bother him more than her lack of deference.

“Please don't tell me that another of the apprentices has been incinerated,” he sighed in exasperation. “I have enough to deal with right now.”

She shook her head a little, stifling a smile. Serious nature of the message or not, she couldn't help but feel a modicum of sympathy. He didn't handle the day-to-day teaching, but it was clear that he well understood mages and their follies.

“No, nothing like that; it's...” She nibbled a little on her lower lip, trying to decide how to explain the orb to him. “Well, we found something in Saarthal that Tolfdir thinks you should come take a look at. He was very... insistent about it.”

“Very well,” he nodded slightly. “I trust it's important if Tolfdir sent you. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Since Tolfdir is occupied, and I will need to see this discovery for myself, I think you should begin researching the subject.”

“...this is for my backtalk, isn't it?”

“Perhaps,” and the Dunmer cracked a slight smile at her rueful sigh. “Speak with Urag in the Arcanaeum. See if he has anything that matches this discovery of yours. And... good work. Perhaps the next time you explore Nordic ruins, this will come in handy.”

He plucked a staff from the wall where it was leaning and handed it to her. She nodded, hefted it carefully, and used it to help her make her way down the stairs without falling.

She didn't head to the library first; she was too physically and emotionally worn down. Acting around so many people was draining, and the upkeep of the Illusion spell on her features was a small, steady drain on her power. Given how late it was, and how tired she was, she elected instead to go to her room and get some rest.

After dropping the door-hanging and changing into something more suitable for sleeping, she fell onto the bed, raising her legs with a faint wince; there was a huge difference between hiking everywhere on reasonably solid, flat ground and bulling her way through snow where one couldn't quite tell how deep it was. Wearily she rubbed lineament on her lower legs, then braided up her hair and curled up under the blankets, quickly falling into slumber.

It was an uneasy sleep, with dreams of dragon-shaped words chasing themselves around in her head. Without a catalyst, they were useless to her, and the words themselves seemed to protest this fact. Auriel woke with the rather unhappy thought that if she didn't find dragons, they would undoubtedly find her.

Everything ached when she moved, but it wasn't as bad as it could have been; clearly staying in shape by walking everywhere was the proper move, and she couldn't really be blamed for not having experience in tromping through two or more feet of snow. After dressing, she recast her illusion spell, checked it carefully to make sure everything was the same colors as they had been the previous day, then made her way to the second floor kitchen area, where she found food ready and waiting.

She also found the other apprentices, and she wondered at what point they'd gotten in the night before. Given how exhausted they still looked, despite it being relatively late in the morning, she decided not to ask. Once she had eaten her fill, she headed for the library.

The Arcanaeum—the largest and most impressive library in Skyrim—was everything she could have ever dreamed it would be. Where there weren't bookshelves, there were small tables, window ledges, and cushions, with books set neatly near, on, or around them. Most of the lighting was magelight, tinted a soft golden color; what lanterns existed where heavyweight iron, bolted or glued to their places to avoid being tipped. Given the number of books, she heavily approved of this precaution. There might well be some dating all the way back to the first era, if the height of those shelves were to be believed.

At the far end was the desk of the librarian, half-buried in scrolls and writing implements. To her surprise, it was an Orc; an old Orc at that. Orsimer generally felt much akin to Nords when it came to magic; it was weak, cowardly, and not something a true warrior ever used. They had their priests and priestesses, but rarely had she actually seen a true Orc mage.

After a moment she shook her head lightly and approached. If he was the librarian, there was a reason for it. He looked up briefly at her approach, and the scowl he wore deepened.

“You are now in the Arcanaeum, of which I am in charge,” he said shortly. “It might as well be my own little plane of Oblivion. Disrupt my Arcanaeum, and I will have to torn apart by angry antranochs.”

She blinked, then nodded obligingly; maybe not a mage, but definitely protective of the books. What antranoch could be summoned in the library that wouldn't damage the books, though? Or maybe he'd wait for her to leave before casting...

Either way, it was nice to see someone protective of books. Mages typically were, but some could be.... forgetful. Careless.

“Now, do you require assistance?”

“Ah... yes, actually. There's... something we found in Saarthal that the Arch-Mage wants me to investigate.”

“I know what you want,” he sighed gustily. “Word travels fast around here. Some big mystery, hmm? Well, you don't even need to ask. No, I don't have anything for you. Not anymore, at least.”

“Not anymore?” Auriel's eyebrows raised. “Why not?”

“Orthorn stole a whole bunch of books when he ran off to Fellglow keep to join those Summoners,” the Orsimer snorted. “Some kind of peace offering, I expect. I think one of the books may have had relevant information, but you'll have to talk to Orthorn for them.”

“But... doesn't anyone care that he stole books from the College?” she asked, confused.

“Not enough to bother with it. Arch-Mage Aren's approach to these things is to just let them sort themselves out. Of course, now it looks like you'll be doing the sorting. Good luck with that. Here, if you have a map, I can show you where the Keep is at.”

She nodded, and pulled out her map. Fellglow Keep, it turned out, was in Whiterun Hold; a long trip on foot. She sighed, nodded her thanks, and turned to leave the library. The idea that there would only be the one copy of the necessary book was a little troubling, but then, it wasn't easy to make multiple copies without armies of scribes. There really did need to be an easier way to do that...

Lost in thought, she didn't even notice Ancano until she bumped into him. Startled, she tried to hastily jump aside, and had to work to keep from attacking him with a spell when he grabbed her arm and made her halt.

“I have questions for you,” he said shortly. “You were in Saarthal, yes? It has come to my attention that something was found there...”

News really did travel fast. All she'd done was sleep! It made her wonder if any of the other apprentices had gotten curious and followed the new path down to find Tolfdir. That was really the only explanation for how it had gotten around, since she certainly hadn't said anything.

She kept her gaze turned to the side; let him think she was intimidated or shy, just as long as it got him off her back more quickly. Maybe going after the books in Fellglow wasn't such an arduous task.

“...Maybe...”

“I know full well that you have. Please do not insult my intelligence. Tolfdir is still there even now, isn't he? I shall expect a full report when he returns.”

She hid a frown by looking down at her boots and muttering what could possibly be considered an apology. The thought of Ancano—or any other Thalmor—getting his hands on that orb.... no, she didn't like that idea at all. Hells, she didn't even like the idea of the mages getting their hands on it. It was simply too much power for these people. It was too much power for anyone.

Hopefully she'd be relegated to 'insignificant' by the time she got back from Fellglow. Attracting Ancano's attention really was one of the last things she needed. He finally released her arm, sniffing slightly like she'd offended him somehow. She took a step back, very carefully, and eyed him cautiously.

“Thank you for you... 'help'. You may go now.”

Auriel breathed a mental sigh of relief, and went.

 

-

 

The journey back to Whiterun took weeks, and only some of it was enjoyable. The solitary nights, when the skyfire colored the darkness, the stars were fiery pinpricks amidst the velvet blue, yes, those nights were beautiful. They were also lonely, and cold; it made her wish she could have found a party traveling south. Funny to realize that while necessary, solitude was...well, unwelcome. Or perhaps it was just the lack of safety.

She made a stop in Whiterun, to replace some of her worn gear and sell a few things that were more specialty items than useful. The noise was jarring after so many weeks of silence, but oddly enough, it was comforting too. Familiar in its own way, and welcome after weeks alone.

She saw the silver-eyed Nord again as she climbed the stairs to see the sleeping Gildegreen, thought for a moment, then mentally shrugged and approached. The Companions were well known throughout the whole of Skyrim, she had discovered, and they were looking more and more like a group she ought to join for a much more physical protection. Not at the moment, of course, but in the future; what that meant was that she couldn't afford to have one of them offended by her sharp-tongued reactions.

She hated making apologies unless they were earned, but better to do it quick and be done with it then have it come back to bite her when she needed the help. At her approach, he looked up from where he was sitting, and blinked at her in surprise. Auriel didn't smile, but she did do her best to project a somewhat lighter air, more sheepishly apologetic than anything else.

“I wished to, ah... apologize for our previous meeting,” she said carefully. “It has been very stressful recently, and it was rude of me to take it out on you when you were just offering advice.”

“Ah, that's all right,” he smiled a little, and she was surprised to see that it was more shy than proud. “But you do look like you'd be a strong fighter for the Companions, magic or not. Kodlak's always saying that it doesn't hurt to be prepared for anything.”

“Kodlak?”

“He's the Harbinger.”

“So, he's your leader?” she asked, curious enough to join him on the bench. Something about him was... compelling, and who better to answer questions about the Companions than a Companion himself?

“No,” he shook his head slightly. “We don't have a leader. I don't really get how it is, but we all do our thing, and bring in honor and glory for the Companions.”

“Hmmmm,” Auriel cocked her head a little. A strange system, but if it worked for them, who was she to judge? “What's your name?”

“Huh?” he blinked, and she smiled just slightly. Maybe it wasn't polite to throw him off, but it was fun. “Ah.. Farkas.”

“Farkas...” she nodded a little as she stood. “I'm Auriel. My apologies, but I must be going. Perhaps I'll see you again.”

He looked disappointed by her words, but nodded politely enough. She felt the weight of his gaze as she walked away, pondering slightly; he hadn't dismissed her magical prowess, he hadn't been rude. She had the sense that if she'd stayed to assuage her curiosity, he would have answered any question she could think of. Strange. Nords weren't typically that welcoming... at least, not to her kind.

It was certainly something to think about.

 

-

 

She encountered her first dragon on her way to Fellglow Keep, and it was more luck than anything else that kept her from dying. Luck, exceedingly good aim, a powerful bow she'd ordered from Adrianne, and well-made arrows. She still had to treat several burns with salve and bandages once the fight was over, muttering curses against the big black dragon that hard started the whole damned mess in the first place.

The dragon, like the first, disintegrated into nothing more than power, but this time she was ready for it, and it didn't knock her down. It slid through her, and she felt the words clamoring to be used for several long minutes, hints of their meaning passing through her mind... but when she made no overt choice, the power settled, the words quieted. With a soft sigh of relief, Auriel continued on her way.

The outside of the Keep was only lightly guarded. The two mages were easy enough to take out from adistance with the bow; the Flame antranoch, not so much. In the end it took summoning up and Ice antranoch of her own before the other summon went down for good. The fiery burst of its death also knocked her summon back to its plain, and Auriel bit out a few choice words in Aldmeri.

“I am going to invest in burn salve,” Auriel muttered rebelliously, digging through her pack for a healing potion. “Salve and bandages, and anti-fire enchantments.”

When she tested it,the main entrance was blocked off from the other side, and no amount of forceful shoving would get her to break through the door bar in her path. After a few hours of fruitless searching, she finally found a secondary entrance, half-hidden beyond a toppled tower. She made a face—no doubt she was heading through the dungeons—and went in.

A combination of stealth, magic, and archery got her through the dungeons in mostly one piece, and she was less than pleased to discover why these particular mages had left. She held no love for vampires, but experimentation on living subjects—even evil ones—was just wrong. Setting the vampires loose on the mages only seemed fair... and it cleared a few of them out for her, too, at no real cost to herself.

Two wrongs did occasionally make a right. Or at least an easier path.

At the end of the dungeon—from her perspective—she found Orthorn, locked in a cell. She snorted a little at his pleas for release, but obliged; perhaps he'd learned his lesson about being too trusting.

“Oh you saved me!” he gushed, reaching out to grab her hands. She grimaced and pulled away before he could touch her, which only seemed to deter him for a moment. “Thank you so much! Who knows what they would have done to me! I promise, I'll help you get out of here!”

When he tried to touch her again, she took a full step back and gave him a glare that finally made him stop short.

“Orthorn, where are the books?”

“Oh I... I thought you'd come for me...” He looked briefly crestfallen, and at her impatient sigh, smiled sheepishly. “But.. yes, the books. The Caller will have them! She seemed very interested in one of the volumes! Although, not interested enough to keep me from being locked up.”

She shook her head slightly; sometimes fellow mages were nothing more than pure exasperation.

“I can... I can show you the way?” he offered.

“No. You should get yourself to safety.”

“But...” Orthorn gave her a confused look. “Don't you need my help?”

“No. Get yourself back to the College.”

“I'll... I suppose I'll just be on my way then. Thank you for the help, and please, do be careful.”

She stepped aside as he once more reached for her hands; finally properly thwarted, he headed down the hall she'd come from. Wearily, she shook her head and settled into a dark corner to catch a brief nap. She didn't need help, damnit. She would do just fine on her own.

It was not that easy, of course, but she managed to get through mostly unscathed. A mistimed dodge at one point let to her twisting her ankle, a thing she grumbled a few choice curses about, as it limited further movement. After wrapping it carefully, she continued on, trying to ignore the faint twinges it sent up in protest; once she made it back to Whiterun, she'd get someone more practiced at healing and medicine to look at it if it was needed...

The stairs all led up, and she went with great care. Mages and antranochs littered the path, making getting through unscathed impossible; by the time she reached their quarters, she had left a trail of bodies in her wake, and had earned more burns and bruises. She napped again, ate the food that had been left out—it was slightly stale and cold, but still edible—and continued on after stripping the rooms of portable wealth.

The Caller, when Auriel finally reached the top of the Keep, was an irritated woman in blue robes that hid most of her face and features. Auriel thought she might be another Altmer; she certainly had the Aldmeri accent. But there was little point in speculation, and all she wanted now was the books so she could go back to a safe place and get a proper amount of sleep.

“So, you're the one who barged into my home and laid waste to my projects,” the Caller said acidly. “How nice to meet you.”

Auriel shrugged lightly, and leaned casually against the wall, idly playing with one of the nicer daggers she'd plucked from a dead mage.

“If I'd knocked on the door and said 'pretty please' would you have given me what I want?” she replied mildly. “I hardly think so. The books from the college, now, if you don't mind.”

“So you're just one of Aren's lackeys. That's disappointing. You show real promise.”

“Do not patronize me,” Auriel replied coolly. “I want the books. You can get back to doing whatever it is you want once I have them.”

“You come here, kill my assistants, disrupt my work... No, you've annoyed me, so I don't think I'll be giving you anything.”

Auriel sighed and straightened; playing nicely threatening clearly wasn't going to get her anywhere.

“....we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way. The books. Now.”

“Are you threatening me? After I've been so hospitable?” The Caller feigned shock. “Well, in that case, you won't be leaving here at all.”

Auriel smiled gently, and cast the Invisibility spell; the Caller never knew what hit her.

She left the dagger planted in the other woman's back; her clothes had enough blood on them as it was. Curiosity had her flipping through all of the books as she picked them up, but two of the three were useless. The Last King of the Ayleids was mostly historical with a bit of conjecture that seemed somewhat useless. On Artaeum was mostly about the Psijic order, or what little people knew of them.

The third book, however, was different. The Night of Tears spoke of the sacking of Saarthal by the early elves, and lay a path of conjecture and supposition that suggested the sacking was less about territory and more about power. She shuddered a little, recalling the power that floating orb had given off, and hoped that the Arch-Mage had decided to leave it buried. There was something wrong about that orb. Whatever it was, it was simply too powerful to be held safely on this plane of existence. In her opinion the best option was to reseal it, and bury it even more deeply.

With the three missing books now in her possession, Auriel made her way out of Fellglow and back to Whiterun. She needed a very long nap.

 

Chapter Text

Eight

 

 

The minute she set foot onto the campus of the college, she knew. There was no mistaking the way the power surged through the air, and she mentally listed off a few vitriolic curses at the level of pride they must have taken in getting it out of Saarthal. How had they gotten it out? How were they confining the power of it so that it didn't spill beyond the college? Where on earth had they put it?

She stepped warily into the Hall of Elements and gave voice—quietly—to one of those curses. The orb was floating peaceably in the center of the Hall. Of course it was. Arrogant, prideful...

If she'd thought for a moment that they might actually be able to handle whatever power was stored in that orb, she would have walked right back out and never come back. But she knew with an unhappy certainty that if she did that, all hells were likely to break loose. Even as isolated as they were, earning the respect of the mages here would earn her the right to ask them for help later, and damned if she didn't need that help. If whatever problems chased this orb, and destroyed the college, well...

She veered left, and made her way into the library, finding Urag almost in the same place she'd left him. The book he was reading was different, at least.

“I found the books,” she said, pulling them out of her pouch. “One, two, and three.”

“Well well!” his eyebrows went up as he briefly looked her over. “And you seem to be in one piece! Thank you. I'll look these over and inform Mirabelle if I find anything relevant.” He thumbed through a few pages, nodding a little. “Night of Tears, eh? I remember this one. It has some interesting implications. Did you read it?”

She nodded.

“Might want to mention it to Tolfdir. And... here.” He lifted up a small stack of books and pushed them across the counter to her. “I suppose you've earned these.”

She blinked and looked at the stack, then at the Orsimer.

“To keep?”

“To keep.”

“....you have extra copies, don't you?”

He snorted a little.

“Well of course I do. But you did earn them. So take them and scat.”

She smiled faintly, and put the books away in her pack. Even if she had likely read many of them, there was no harm in revisiting. Books were a good way to pass time while walking or riding, and there was much comfort to be gained from old friends. Plus, they would make an excellent start for her own library when her Falkreath home was finally finished.

Then, reluctantly, she went to track down Tolfdir.

He was, unfortunately, in the last place she wanted to be. Standing near the orb, examining it with a typical mages' fascination. Warily she moved around the edge of the room, and waited for him to notice her. It took him about ten minutes.

“Ah, Miss Tam, I had been wondering if we might see you again,” he said warmly. “What can I do for you?”

“Urag wanted me to see you.”

“Really? Doe she have some information at last about our wonderful discovery?”

Wonderful, sure. Also terrifying. But she doubted the old man saw it the way she did, and dimming his exuberance... well, she couldn't quite bring herself to do that. It seemed ironic, then, that his first attempts at a lesson had been about safety and caution. Where was the caution now?

“I found a book called The Night of Tears,” she said after a moment. “How useful it will be, I'm not certain, but...”

“Isn't that the one about something buried beneath Saarthal, that man and mer fought over? I'll have to re-read it... I don't quite recall all the details.”

“That's the main gist of it, yes,” she nodded. “You should go refresh your memory.”

“Shortly, I think. I can't seem to tear myself away from whatever this is,” he admitted. “It's beauty is unlike anything I've ever seen before.”

In a objective view, yes, she could understand how it might be lovely. Perhaps it was simply her finer tuned senses that made her feel overwhelmed by the orb. It defied gravity, and the blue markings on its surface fading in and out confused her. Sometimes they were legible in a way that almost made sense, and then she'd look again and the configuration was so far from anything she understood as to defy any attempts at translating. She was trying to be open-minded about it, but all she could see from that orb was a power waiting to be used.

And knowing the Thalmor as she did, she fully expected Ancano would make that attempt.

Tolfdir moved off, and she realized he was speaking, perhaps dictating to her, though she was not inclined to take notes. She remained firmly at the edge of the room, wishing she dared go farther, but unwilling to insult the old man by walking out in the middle of what sounded like a lecture.

Ancano entering the room made the desire to escape even greater, but she couldn't deny the relief that swept through her when he interrupted.

“I'm afraid I must intrude. It is urgent I speak with Miss Tam immediately.”

Relief was swamped quickly by unease. She could probably take him if it came down to a fight.... She just didn't want to run the risk of blowing what little cover she had so quickly.

“This is most inappropriate!” Tolfdir protested. “We are engaged in serious research here!”

“Yes, I've no doubt of its gravity. This, however, is a matter that cannot wait.”

Her mind raced; he wouldn't try to kill her here... would he? No, that made no sense and would cause more problems than solve. Which meant something else had happened. She didn't know whether to be annoyed, resigned, or both, because of course something new was happening.

Tolfdir made an irritated sound, shaking his head.

“Well, I'm quite sure I've never been interrupted like this before,” he huffed. “The audacity... I suppose we'll have to continue this at some later time, when we can avoid interruptions.”

He turned on his heel and stalked off. While she felt bad for the old man, she couldn't deny that a part of her was still heavily relieved that she could escape this room. The relief was again short lived as Ancano turned to her, and she quickly averted her gaze.

“I need you to come with me immediately. Let's go.”

“Go where?” she asked meekly. “What's going on?”

“Hmph. Full of questions, aren't you,” the comment was plainly rhetorical, as he didn't wait for a response. “Well, I have some of my own. I'd like to know why there's someone claiming to be from the Psijic Order here at the College. More importantly, I'd like to know why he's asking for you specifically.”

Her mind stuttered, and she didn't have to fake her look of surprise. What the hells was one of the Order doing here? Looking for her?! They were going to ruin her cover at this rate!

“We're going to have a little chat with him, and find out exactly what it is he wants,” Ancano finished.

“....aren't you just an adviser here?” she said after a moment.

“Technically that is true, but I still report to the Aldmeri Dominion, and I cannot ignore this situation.”

Which meant he'd probably already reported on it. She cursed mentally and affected a look of one hopelessly out of her depth.

“Oh, don't worry,” and he snorted a little contemptuously. “You can return to your petty squabbles and meaningless research as soon as this matter is finished. Now come along.”

He turned sharply on his heel, and she had no choice but to follow. Part of her was undeniably hopeful; if this monk had answers, she wanted all of them. But of course, now she was going to have to work even harder to keep Ancano from watching her every move, and she did not appreciate the extra work that was going to entail. He stopped abruptly before the door that would lead them directly to the Arch-Mage's quarters and turned a sharp look on her. She froze, flicking her gaze once more to the side; unassuming, humble, unnerved...

He made an annoyed sound, yanking the door open.

“You are going to speak to this... Monk... and find out why he is here. And then he will be removed from College grounds.”

She nodded quickly, and followed Ancano up the stairs to the Arch-Mage's quarters where Savos Aren, and the Psijic monk awaited. Stepping around Ancano to approach, she felt relief and irritation in equal measure; the robes were right, and there was a subtle sense of power in the air that tasted... foreign. It shifted suddenly, coloring the world with a very bright light that made her wince; she threw up a ward on reflex, hoping she wouldn't be attacked while she couldn't properly see.

“Please, do not be alarmed,” the monk said. “I am Quaranir, and I must ask you to listen.”

As her eyes adjusted, she saw the room lit up in a familiar manner; slowly, she lowered her hands, and the ward, then finished her approach. The monk smiled a little... proud of her? Strange.

“It is good to meet you in person, Miss Talmanari.”

Auriel's eyes widened and she glanced over her shoulder quickly. But no, like that time with Tolfdir, both Savos and Ancano seemed to be frozen, held outside of time... or was she the one held in such a manner? This didn't do much to make her less wary, however.

“What's going on?” she demanded.

“I simply wish to talk to you,” he said. “I've given us a chance to speak privately, but I'm afraid I can't keep this up for very long. The situation here are your College is of dire importance, and attempts to contact you, as we have previously, have failed. I believe the reason is the source of our concern. This object... the Eye of Magnus, as your people have taken to calling it.”

That made her sigh. Of course they'd name it that.

“The energy within it has prevented us from reaching you with the visions you have already seen,” he continued. “The longer it remains here, the more dangerous it becomes. So I have come here, personally, to tell you it must be dealt with.”

Auriel snorted a little, and propped her hands on her hips.

“Try telling me something I don't know, for a change,” she huffed. “Like, say, what this has to do with me! It's not like bringing it here was my idea.”

“You set this chain of events in motion at Saarthal,” Quaranir replied.

Well, she couldn't deny that. It was still annoying, and she gave him a flat, pointed stare.

“If it's too dangerous to leave here, why don't you lot do something about it?”

He sighed a little, and ran a hand briefly over his face.

“You have to understand, the Psijic order does not typically... intervene in these sort of events. My presence here will be seen as an affront to some of those in the Order. As soon as we have finished, I will be leaving your College. I am already aware that my arrival here has aroused no small suspicion, especially in Ancano, your Thalmor associate.”

That made her scowl openly. She was never going to be ignored by Ancano now, and the more he scrutinized, the more she was going to have to think ten or twelve steps ahead. As good at that as she was, it was exhausting to have to be so hyper-aware.

“Nevertheless, my Order will not act directly. You must take it upon yourself to do so,” he finished.

Given the options she could see, there really wasn't that much of a choice. She didn't approve of being forced to this, but given the alternatives... She sighed in irritation, and briefly rubbed her hands over her face.

“All right, fine. What is the problem?”

“As you may have sensed, this object—the Eye—is immensely powerful.”

She bit her tongue on several scathing responses; Quaranir was the messenger, and stepping outside what he was supposed to do to give her help. Biting at him would be counter-productive.

“The world is not ready for it,” he continued. “If it remains here, it will be misused. Indeed, many in the Order believe it has already. Rather, something will happen soon, something that cannot be avoided.”

“And you expect me to do... what, precisely?”

“We believe your efforts should be directed at dealing with the aftermath, though we cannot predict what that will be. I fear I have already overstepped the bounds of my Order, but I will offer this: seek out the Augur of Dunlain, here at your College. His perception may be more coherent than ours.”

“The... who?”

“He was once a student here at the college. Now he is... something different.”

She frowned.

“You're not being terribly helpful,” she pointed out.

“Perhaps you're not asking the correct questions,” he replied.

She sighed lightly; teachers.

“Where can I find him?”

“I... I admit, I am unsure. Somewhere in this College, at the least. It is likely that some of your colleagues will know his location.” She frowned again, and his own expression shifted towards slightly sympathetic. “I am sorry I cannot provide you with further help, but this conversation takes a great deal of effort on my part. Now, I'm afraid I must leave you. We will continue to watch over you, and guide you as best we can.”

For a moment he rested a hand on her shoulder; she stiffened, but looked into Quaranir's eyes. Kindness. Even sympathy. How very strange to think someone might look at her with those emotions.

“It is within you to succeed. Never forget that.”

His hand dropped, and reality faded back in again, less abruptly than the first time. Auriel stepped back, and she caught sight of Savos shaking his head a little. She couldn't help but empathize; she was feeling a bit disoriented herself.

“I'm sorry,” the Arch-Mage murmured. “Were you about to say something?”

“Well?” Ancano demanded at the same time. “What is the meaning of this?”

“I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't understand,” Quaranir said politely.

“Don't play coy,” Ancano said warningly. “You asked to see as specific member of the College. Here she is. Now what is it that you want?”

Auriel stifled a smile at the fabricated look of confusion in Quaranir's face; it was a little harder when Ancano's eyes narrowed in clear anger. Petty though it might have been, it was nice to see someone thwarting him.

“There's been a misunderstanding,” the Psijic monk replied. “Clearly I should not be here. I shall simply take my leave.”

“What? What trickery is this?!” Ancano demanded. “You're not going anywhere until I find out what you're up to!”

“I am not 'up to' anything,” was the calm reply. “I apologize if I have offended in any way.”

“We will see about this...”

Auriel moved aside as Quaranir stepped forward, putting her closer to Savos Aren than Ancano. The Thalmor agent quickly followed the monk down the stairs, and Aren sighed a little. Auriel brought up a hand to hide her smile, entirely too pleased at the way Quaranir had baited the other Altmer; he wouldn't forget her, but perhaps she would be spared intense scrutiny for a bit longer.

“I'm not quite sure what just happened,” Savos Aren murmured, glancing at her. “A monk from the Psijic Order, here, after all these years, and then he just... leaves. I hope we didn't offend him somehow...”

“No, I think we didn't,” she said carefully. “I think he did whatever he was supposed to do, and saw no point to lingering.”

“Hmmm. Perhaps you're right.” He cocked his head a little at her as she hesitated. “Was there something else?”

“Mmmm....” She hesitated, then mentally shrugged. If he didn't know, maybe he could direct her to someone who did. “I don't suppose you know anything about the Augur of Dunlain, do you?”

“Has Tolfdir been telling stories again?” the Arch-Mage sighed. “I thought I made it quite clear that this was a subject inappropriate for discussions. Please, don't allow him to continue to discuss the subject.”

Auriel nodded, and left Savos Aren to his work; she had to go hunt down Tolfdir.

She found him on the second floor of the Hall of Attainment, eating lunch with a book in hand. Since food sounded like an excellent idea after that nonsense, she elected to join him.

“Is there something troubling you, Miss Tam?” he asked after a few moments had passed. “Normally most students are all afire with questions for their teachers, but you seem very quiet.”

“Well, to be honest, I'm sure most of what you can teach has already been learned,” she said wryly. “But... I suppose you could say that. I have a few things on my mind, really...”

“Well, we are always here to help. Talk to me, and let's see what I can do to help,” he urged.

“...All right,” she sighed a little. It was hard to not like this personable old man, really. And he seemed to genuinely care, which was hard to come by in her line of work. “What's... the Augur of Dunlain?”

“Well now... there's a name I haven't heard in some time,” he mused. “My goodness, it's been years since I've spoken to him. I suppose he's still down in the Midden, but I haven't checked. Are you going to see him? Do tell him 'hello' for me, won't you?”

“The Midden?”

If she was going to have to go through a trash pile to find this person, she was definitely going to have some harsh words for Quaranir the next time she saw him.

“It's underneath the College, and admittedly not the nicest of places. You may be well-learned, but if you go down there, do be careful. You'll find an entrance to it either in the Hall of Countenance, or near the Hall of the Elements, tucked away in a corner somewhere.”

She finished off the last of her food and got up, nodding politely.

“My thanks.”

“Remember, do be careful. There have been accidents down there before, and you're a promising student. I would hate to see you turn up dead.”

She smiled a little; couldn't help it. When was the last time someone had expressed regret at the thought of her death?

“I'll be as careful as I can.”

 

-

 

The Midden was, as he'd warned, unpleasant. Frostbite spiders, draugr, and Ice Wraiths were obnoxious to fight when there was room to move, let alone in much closer confines. Inured to the cold as they were, she relied more on lightning and fire than anything else; there simply wasn't room to shoot anything, and getting close enough to stab them was not worth the effort.

With a name like the Midden, she'd expected a garbage heap; While she did initially have to pick her way over a pile of frozen refuse, what she found was something that could have been made somewhat livable, or perhaps been a dungeon. It made her wonder why the College ignored it; it was useful underground space that could be insulated properly to test higher-level magical spells, at the very least.

After running across the Antranoch Forge, and that odd gauntlet that looked as thought it was a Daedric artifact, she was less curious about it. Clearly others had held the same ideas, and it didn't appear as though things had turned out well for them.

Lanterns of magelight seemed to suggest the correct path, and they were easy enough to follow, as well as useful for seeing what lay ahead. She avoided a couple of nasty-looking falls, and a few enemies that way. When she finally reached the door that she thought led to the Augur, she found it locked. Undeterred, she knocked sharply.

A voice whispered through the air; she heard it less with her ears and more within her head.

Your perseverance will only lead to disappointment.

“Well, that's my prerogative, isn't it?” she asked. “Will you please let me in? I'd like to talk to you.”

Still you persist? Very well, you may enter.

She heard the lock click open, and pushed carefully on the door. She didn't want to hit whoever might be standing behind.

There was no person. Instead, the Augur of Dunlain revealed himself to be a brilliant blue ball of pure magicka. Auriel let out a short breath of surprise, and shielded her eyes briefly. It wasn't as bad as what the Psijic monks had done to speak in secrecy, but it was very bright.

As her eyes adjusted, she entered the room, closing the door behind her.

“What are you?”

I am that which you have been seeking he responded. Your efforts are in vain. It has already begun. But those who have sent you have not told you what they seek. What you seek.

“I was told to find you,” she replied, shoving back he questions. “That's the gist of my knowledge at the moment.”

Indeed. And so you have come looking, though you do not know why. Like others before you, you blindly follow a path to your own destruction.

“In other words, live my life,” she said dryly.

The Thalmor came seeking answers as well the Augur continued. He... it? Didn't seem bothered by her interruption. Unaware they will be his undoing. Your path now follows his, though you will arrive too late.

“Thanks ever so much for the vote of confidence,” she sighed. “Ancano was down here?”

How had he beaten her? Hells, how had she missed seeing him? It hadn't been that long between her talk with Quaranir and Tolfdir.

He too sought my knowledge, through very different questions. You path differs from most. You are being guided; pushed towards something. It is a good path, one untraveled by many. One that could save your College. I will tell you what you need to know to follow it further.

She didn't like being pushed in any direction beyond the one she chose, but for the moment, it was a moot point. She would take being ushered along by the Psijic Order if that was what it took to get the orb out of the world once more.

“And that would be?”

You, and those aiding you, wish to know more about the Eye of Magnus. You wish to avoid the disaster of which you are not yet aware. To see through Magnus' Eye without being blinded, you require his staff. Events now spiral quickly towards their inevitable center. You must act with haste. Take this information to your Arch-Mage.

Auriel opened her mouth to ask more questions, when the Augur faded out of existence. She hesitated briefly, and sighed.

“Tolfdir says hello,” she murmured to the empty air.

Then she turned and made her way back to the surface.

 

 

Chapter Text

Nine

 

“You'll have to repeat that, Miss Tam,” the Arch-Mage said, a thoughtful frown on his face. “We need to what?”

She sighed a little; really if the Augur hadn't told her to come to Savos, she would have started looking in the library instead. Surely there had to be hints there that didn't involve her taking on this responsibility. Finding him in the room with the orb did very little to ease her mind, at that. Twice now, she'd had to come this close to it while on college grounds, and she didn't enjoy it.

“We need to find the Staff of Magnus,” she said with strained patience.

“Well, I would certainly love to have such a powerful staff,” he admitted, “but I'm not certain that any of us need it.”

“It's not for us,” she retorted. “It's connected to that orb, the one that everyone's so utterly fascinated by.”

“And how do you know of this?”

“I spoke with the Augur of Dunlain.”

“Did you really?” Savos Aren's eyebrows went up. “And he specifically mentioned the Staff of Magnus?”

“Yes.”

“I... I'm impressed with your initiative, Miss Tam. Of course, someone will need to follow up on this.”

“And by someone, you mean me,” she said dryly.

“I certainly do. Since you went to seek out the Augur for advice, I thought you'd be more... enthusiastic.”

She thought over several replies, and settled for the safer one.

“I went because it was suggested to me, not because I wanted to go,” she replied, allowing her voice to sound testy. “I was then told to talk to you. Why not send a research expedition instead of a lone mage?”

“Something as specific and ancient as the Staff of Magnus... I'm not sure we'd ever find something like that.” He pondered for a moment, then nodded slightly. “If memory serves, Mirabelle mentioned the staff somewhat recently. Why not see if she can tell you anything?”

Auriel stifled a sigh; she was going to get sent on a goose chase over this nonsense, she just knew it. But there wasn't any point in complaining. This was also going to earn her favors, favors she could later cash in for help. It made the requirements bearable... if only just.

“Of course, Arch-Mage...”

She turned to go, and he laid a hand on her shoulder briefly. Auriel startled, and turned back to face him in surprise.

“I'm quite pleased with your progress, you know,” and Savos smiled faintly at her. “You've certainly proved that you're more than a mere apprentice. Well done.”

From a pocket he pulled a silver circlet set with moonstones, which he handed to her. Surprised—praise? For being unable to stay out of trouble? That was new—she accepted it, feeling a tingle of magic from it.

“This circlet once proved invaluable to me. I hope it can be of use to you now.”

She blinked repeatedly, unable to do more than that. Savos' smile widened slightly, then he turned to study the Eye of Magnus once more. She had the distinct sensation that he had just flirted with her, which was perhaps the strangest thing that had happened to her thus far. After a moment more, she slipped it on, readjusted her hood to a more comfortable fit, and went seeking the Master Wizard.

Mirabelle was also studying the orb, albeit from a greater distance, and didn't seem too pleased to be bothered. Auriel mentally shrugged; she'd been told to ask, and ask she would. Strange questions never really had an optimal time for being asked.

“Do you know anything about the Staff of Magnus?” she said without preamble.

“Well now that's an odd question,” Mirabelle frowned at her. “Why in the world would you be asking?”

“The Arch-Mage said that you'd mentioned it to him recently,” Auriel replied with a slight shrug. “I've been told to look for it.”

“I see. Well, yes, I did mention it recently, though I'm not sure what he expects me to tell you.” Mirabelle sighed slightly, and shook her head. “I only brought it to his attention because the Synod showed up here looking for it. They were apparently under the impression that we were keeping it in a closet somewhere.”

That made her snort. Sounded like the Synod. They spent more time chasing status boosters than studying magic. It was a useful way to keep them busy and not trying to attack the Thalmor, but the group themselves were fairly useless. What few teachers they had were drowned under nonsensical, back-biting politics.

“They're mostly politics, but very little actual magic,” Mirabelle continued, unknowingly echoing Auriel's thoughts. “Trying to curry favor from the Emperor. I was surprised to find them on our doorstep. They seemed amiable enough, but their line of questioning made me.... uneasy.”

“Oh?”

“It became clear that they're trying to hoard powerful artifacts; trying to consolidate power.”

“Hmm...” That could cause problems, but who for was the question. After a moment she just lightly shook her head; not her problem, not her focus. “So, no one knows where the Staff is, then...”

“No one here does. The Synod seemed convinced that it's here in Skyrim. They inquired about the ruins of Mzulft, but that's all I remember,” Mirabelle replied. “It sounded like they were heading there, though they were rather secretive about why. I suppose if you're seeking the staff, there's a chance they might be in Mzulft yet. Just.. don't expect them to be cooperative.”

“Where is Mzulft?”

“Here, let me see your map. You'll have to go to the Eastmarch, and it should be around here in the Valothi mountains. Take care. Dwemer ruins and mages don't generally go hand in hand, either.”

Auriel nodded, and folded the map back up.

“My thanks.”

“Just be careful.”

“I'll try.”

 

-

 

Given that she was going to be wandering in unknown ruins, Auriel decided to get a little bit of backup. Lydia was pleased to be asked, and asked no questions herself, raising her initial estimation of character in Auriel's mind. She also wondered if perhaps her housecarl was bored with staying in the city where nothing happened.

Not that it really mattered too much; as long as the woman was capable of handling whatever they'd find in a Dwemer ruin, that was good enough. They traveled with a small group of people to Windhelm, a journey that took a week on its own, and Auriel found herself oddly relaxed. Strange to have company on this sort of journey, but oddly welcoming as well.

Encountering a dragon outside the city of Windhelm wasn't expected, but there were more than enough people—especially with the addition of a Khajiit caravan—to bring the beast down. The awe in the faces of other people as she absorbed the power was disquieting, and she was quick to turn down the road that would lead away from the city. Rumors would spread like wildfire, but with any luck, they would get so overblown that by the time she got back, they wouldn't resemble her at all.

It took the better part of two days, heading south towards the Rift, before they found the mountain path that would lead up to the ruins. Lydia was as reserved a companion as Auriel could ask for, taking direction without asking questions.

Mzulft wasn't really a ruin as Auriel would have classified it. It wasn't half as crumbling as the Ayleid ruins in Cyrodiil; Dwemer metal and stone would likely outlast all the living races. It was age that earned them the title... age and the mystery of what had happened to the Dwemer.

She met her first member of the Synod just inside the doors. He was, unfortunately, dying; too far gone for even a potion to save. She knelt by him when he grasped the hem of her cloak, motioning for Lydia to try the door.

“Crystal... gone,” he gasped, then choked a little on his own blood. “Find... Paratus... in Oculory...”

He gave one last gurgling choke, and was gone. Auriel winced a little; deaths that weren't directly her fault always felt so much more mournful.

It was probably disrespectful to go through his pockets, but turning up the key to the locked door was helpful. His research log was only vaguely interesting; they had been here this long because the crystal he wanted her to find was made incorrectly. What, she wondered, had killed the man? She could almost feel sorry for them, but not quite.

After delving into the ruin herself, Lydia at her back, she changed her mind. She felt very sorry for the Synod mages. Beset on all sides by Dwemer creations that never tired or ran down, and a new, disturbing creature that Lydia told her was called a Falmer. The Falmer—and their venomous insectoid pets, the charrus—were flesh and blood, and easily killed despite their viciousness. The Dwemer mechanical creations were more difficult; arrows could not pierce their metal skins, now did fire do much to melt them. It was Lydia's sword which ended up doing most of the damage.

The only bright side—if there even was one—was that the Falmer and the Dwemer creations didn't seem to get along that well either. Watching a fight between them—or coaxing one by leading the keen-eared elves to the clanking metal creatures—was fascinating.

Naturally the Oculory was three floors in, beyond enemies, traps, and other delightfully annoying things. By the time she reached it, Auriel's mood was sharp enough to cut, and it didn't help that she was in pain that was both physical and mental. It hadn't been safe enough to sleep, so she was tired, and in that final push to reach the Oculory, Lydia had fallen under Falmer blades. There hadn't been anything she could do for the woman except let her go.

She rattled the locked Oculory door impatiently, wondering if she was going to have to try melting it. It wouldn't be easy, but it could be done. Fortunately for her badly frayed temper, someone spoke up from the other side.

“G... Gavros? Is that you? I'd almost given up hope! Let me get the door...”

The door swung outwards, nearly hitting the injured Altmer. The Synod mage startled to see her, then glared, and raised his hands, clearly ready to fight.

“Who're you? Where's Gavros?” he demanded.

Auriel ran a weary hand over her face and considered killing him quickly. Exhaustion and pain did not make for the best aids to her patience, but she managed to pull back on her temper just enough to consider the ramifications of his too-early demise.

“You must be Paratus,” she said shortly. “Your friend Gavros is dead.”

“It was the Falmer, wasn't it? Curse them! They've ruined everything!” He sighed and scowled at her. “If Gavros is gone, there is no hope. He was supposed to return with the crystal. All our hopes... wasted.”

Not to mention all their lives. Didn't he realize he was the last of his group? Would he care if she told him?

“And you... if you're here for treasure, wisdom, or anything like that, I'm afraid you've wasted your time.”

“I found more than enough treasure,” she snorted a little, then winced as her ribs protested the movement. She was going to need a week's worth of sleep after this, and that was the optimistic prognosis. “But before you descend into complete and utter depression, tell me about this crystal.”

“It didn't work the first time. I tried to tell Gavros, but he wouldn't listen,” Paratus ranted. “'No, it won't be too cold,' he said. Well I was right, wasn't I? Focused completely wrong by the time we got here. The cold had completely warped it! Gavros had to cart it all the way back to Cyrodiil. Left the rest of us here to fend of the damnable Falmer.”

She just sighed, rummaging briefly in her pack.

“This crystal?”

She had taken it from the Falmer mage that had killed Lydia. It had looked unique enough to sell, but if it was the one he needed, perhaps it could be useful to the both of them. Paratus gaped, and finally dropped from his spell-ready position.

“You found... how in the world?! That's it. That's it! I don't know who you are, but you may have just saved this little project!” He paused then, and gave her a wary, considering look. “In fact, who are you anyway?”

“Auri Tam. I'm with the College.”

“You are, are you?” He huffed a little. “Savos Aren wouldn't even grant us an audience when we went to him, and now you're here expecting something from us? I don't much like this, I tell you, but you've saved my skin, so maybe I can overlook the past for now.”

“....let me be clear on this; I am no happier about the situation than you are. I have not slept since I got here, I have fought and killed the things that killed your fellows, and I have lost my companion in the process. If you choose to retain your attitude, I will keep the crystal, and I will leave.”

True, it wouldn't help either of them if she did, but she was just tetchy enough to do it. His surprise melted first into annoyance, but when she made no move to hand him the crystal, it faded into something akin to desperation. Finally, he nodded, and took a few steps back so that she could enter.

“Well... come on. I'll explain on the way. Um... do you need healing?”

“...please.”

He held out a hand towards her, filled with a golden light. Warmth like a sun-bathed blanket spread through her as injured bone knit together, gashes and cuts sealed closed, and fatigue slid out of her system. As he lowered his hand, she let out a sigh of relief and straightened from her pained lean. It couldn't do anything for the hard knots of guilt and grief, but at least her physical aches were handled.

“My thanks. Now, what is this project of yours?”

He turned and lead the way down the hall, puffing up his chest a little as he walked.

“No matter what Gavros said, this was my idea first. The Council is going to know that when I get back,” he boasted. “I was the one who thought of using this... this Oculory. I don't know what the dwarves called it. Something unpronounceable, I'm sure. From all our research it seems they were intent on discerning the nature of the divine. This machine, all of it, was designed to collect starlight and then.... I'm not sure. Split it, somehow?”

The machine in question towered over them, with the odd glass protrusion here and there. As the ascended up the ramp, Auriel let out a soft breath of awe, tuning Paratus and his rambling out entirely. It was a fascinating device, and a mystery; why had the Dwemer built these things and then... vanished?

“Here it is,” Paratus said, pride in his voice. “Beautiful, isn't it? Took an incredible amount of work to get it running again. Now I'm hoping it'll all be worth it. Place the crystal in the central apparatus, and we can start the process for focusing it.”

She mounted the crystal, and then spent twenty minutes fine turning it with touches of heat and cold. The ceiling rotated into position with several pushes of the proper button, and the light was reflected, focused, and projected onto the stone wall. Paratus yipped in a very childlike glee, and raced for it.

“Finally! All those years of research-” he stopped as she came down the ramp, moving closer to the projected map of the known world. “But... what's this? These results... they're not at all what they should be! This projection should be lit up like the night sky... Something is creating an incredible amount of interference. Something in Winterhold, it looks like.”

Auriel kept her expression strictly neutral, though inwardly she grimaced. She could guess what might be messing with the projection.

“What're you playing at?” he demanded, glaring at her suspiciously. “Is this some attempt to stall my work?!”

“Not that I'm aware of,” Auriel shrugged a little.

“So what is it then, what have you done? Did you know what we were attempting and create some magical interference to hinder out work? Well? Explain yourself.”

“....you tread dangerously close to the edges of my temper,” she replied icily. “Firstly, calm down. Secondly, I have no idea what you're talking about.”

“You and you College have cost me years of my work, I've lost friends to the Falmer, and you want me to calm down? How did you do it?”

Her patience was wearing thinner and thinner with each word, and she had to hold her temper tight; he'd be of no use to her dead. Not yet, at least.

“See point two; I have no idea what you're talking about.”

“Either you're lying to me or... you have something at your College, don't you? Something of great power. What is it?” Paratus demanded.

“None of you business,” she retorted.

“So you do have something, then. Well, that would have these readings make more sense...”

“Look, I'm trying to find the Staff of Magnus. Can this projection of yours help me or not?”

“Yes, the Staff... interesting...” He moved towards the projection, arms crossed. “I can't explain the details. That would be giving away too many secrets the Synod have learned over the years. Also, I doubt you'd be able to-”

“Finish that, and I won't be responsible for the burns you get,” she said, her tone dangerously pleasant.

He cleared his throat, and looked from her to the projection. The fire curling in one hand seemed to convince him the she was serious.

“Have you seen the Orrery in the Imperial City? It was the inspiration for this idea. Instead of projecting the sky, we project all of Tamriel, and then harness the latent energies to overlay the positions of...” He cut himself off, and she permitted the faintest hint of a sharp smile. “What's important is that all of this work was designed to reveal to us sources of great magical power. Purely to help safeguard the Empire, of course.”

“Of course,” she said, working to keep the cynicism from her voice.

“And yet, in the end, only two locations have been revealed to us. One is your College. The other... well, that can only be Labyrinthian. So, mage from Winterhold! Despite your intentions, I've beaten your little game!” he said triumphantly. “Even if all you've said here is lies, I know you have something in Winterhold the Synod Council will be very interested in. So fine, trudge off to Labyrinthian to find your little Staff. I'll make my way back to Cyrodiil and give a full report to the Council!”

“...I think you've been in here by yourself a bit too long,” Auriel said offhandedly. “You're slightly mad.”

“Am I? Am I? I think I've discovered more here than I could have hoped to! Your trickery won't confuse me!”

Auriel smiled peaceably. And then pulled out the Dwarven dagger she'd picked up, and stabbed him in the heart. He stared at her for a long moment, then the dagger; smoothly she stepped to the side and yanked it out, watching as the blood shot across the room to splatter along the far wall.

Perhaps he hadn't deserved death, but she couldn't risk the chance that the Synod would get their hands on this working Dwemer artifact. Better to keep this thing secret, safe, and not deal with that nightmare.

As she walked down the hall towards the exit, the world faded out around her into shades of gray again. She stopped, and glanced around for the Psijic member in charge of the spell. He stood near a door she had walked past, arms folded over his chest.

“You have done well,” he said. “But trying times are ahead. It is imperative that you return to your College at once. You will be called on to take swift action; rise to the challenge and discover what you are truly capable of. You are on the right path, and you will prevail.”

Before she could say anything in response, the world snapped back into place and he vanished. Auriel muttered irritably under her breath, and ran a tired hand over her face. If they wanted her back so damned fast, couldn't he have just teleported her there?

“Jackass.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Ten

 

The air of Winterhold's capital tingled. It was like being brushed by lightning; the fine hair at the back of her neck rose, and goosebumps prickled all along her arms. Power spilled into the air, making it whisper and dance as Auriel darted through the empty streets of town to the college; it was clear that while she had the location, reporting on this discovery was going to have to wait.

Students and staff were lingering in the snow-covered courtyard of the campus; most warily eyed the doors to the Hall of Elements, gathered in nervous bunches, wondering aloud at what was going on. Onmund tried to flag her down, but she brushed past him, and pushed into the Hall without much care for her own safety.

A wall of blue light, similar to a Ward spell, blocked the entrance into the hall itself, and Savos Aren and Mirabelle stood before it. From what Auriel could see beyond the wall, Ancano was within, doing.... something to the Eye of Magnus.

“I don't know,” Mirabelle was saying as Auriel studied the magic. “It's like a ward, but who's casting it? Ancano? How?”

“I don't care what it is,” Savor replied sharply. “I want it down, now! We need to know what he's doing in there!”

Mirabelle nodded, and launched a thin stream of ice at the barrier.

“What's going on?” Auriel demanded.

“We don't know,” the Arch-Mage said tersely, not looking at her. “Ancano's in there doing... something to the Eye of Magnus. I swear, I will have his head for this...”

“Easier said than done with a Thalmor,” she replied, though she sympathized with the desire. “Can I help?”

“We need this barrier taken down,” he replied. “Throw everything you've got at it.”

Auriel nodded, adding fire to Mirabelle's ice; Savos threw in lightning on top. It took several minutes of continuous casting, but the barrier wavered, faltered, then failed, and the three of them ran in.

Ancano, when he came into view, almost seemed to be casting lightning into the orb, but at the same time... receiving something back. Power, or something very much like it; the air was thick with magic, with the feel of the air right before the lightning split it.

“Ancano, stop this at once!” Savos barked. “I command you!”

The Arch-Mage's hands crackled with lightning, and Auriel sensed that this was not a time to be out in the open. She turned, ready to dart for cover, and wasn't fast enough; an explosion of pure magic picked her up, flinging her into a wall and unconsciousness.

Awareness returned slowly, and was accompanied by darts of pain; her ribs were definitely cracked. Again. Of course they were. She couldn't stifle a groan of pain, and tried not to hiss as that sent more darts of agony through her.

“Are you all right?”

“I'm alive,” Auriel muttered, moving with great care. She needed to get up, needed to move, but oh, everything protested so vehemently.

“That's something. Can you walk?”

She glanced over at the Master Wizard and realized the woman wasn't any more able to move than she was. If anything she seemed less capable, if the awkward way she was sitting was any indication; she certainly couldn't see Auriel from her position.

“Not at the moment, but... give me a few minutes.”

“I need you on your feet. We're in trouble here,” Mirabelle said.

“I'd noticed,” the Altmer mage said irritably, wincing as she pushed herself upright in increments. She had potions, assuming they weren't broken, and now was definitely the time to use them.

“Ancano is doing something with that thing, the Eye. We can't stop him,” Mirabelle's voice was urgent as Auriel managed to sit up enough to get at her pack. “I haven't seen Savos since the explosion. He might have been blown clear, and he may be injured. I need you to find the Arch-Mage, and I need you to do it quickly; get moving.”

“And what about you?” Auriel asked, pulling out a potion.

“I'll be fine, I just need a minute to catch my breath...”

Auriel downed the potion in one swift pull, and breathed out a sigh of relief as the pain was numbed away. Several bottles were cracked, and her pack was going to need a thorough wash before it could be reused, but thank the gods most of them had survived in one piece. Once she felt capable of moving without pain, she half-crawled over to Mirabelle, and pulled out another potion.

“I'm not leaving you here to die,” she said irritably. “Drink the potion and we'll find Savos together.”

“There's no time for that!”

“If there's no time to heal you, there's no time to find the Arch-Mage,” she replied brutally. “Drink, Mirabelle, and get up. We're going to need you to help evacuate the campus if nothing else.”

From what she could tell, something in Mirabelle's back had broken; she couldn't move her arms or her legs, all she could do was glare as Auriel uncorked the bottle and held it up.

“You're wasting time.”

“You're the Master Wizard here,” Auriel snapped. “I waste more time arguing with you. Drink the damned potion, you stubborn human, so we can maximize our chances of survival!”

Mirabelle drank. When the bottle was empty, Auriel hauled the Breton half over her shoulder and they made a staggering limp towards the gates. Fortunately enough, Ancano seemed uninterested in them, and they were able to get outside without troubles.

Of course, that was where troubles only got worse. A crowd of people had surrounded a body that lay at the feet of the central statue. Auriel handed Mirabelle off to the Restoration school teacher, and beelined for it. Part of her hoped... but the rest of her knew the truth. Seeing the body only confirmed it.

Savor Aren was dead.

Auriel hissed a few choice curses, and bowed her head briefly with a new surge of grief. First Lydia, and now the Arch-Mage. She had hoped to get closer to the man than she did... earn his trust, his protection from the Thalmor. Maybe even his friendship. Not this. Never this.

A gentle hand landed on her shoulder and she glanced over to see Tolfdir's sympathetic expression.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “What happened in there?”

“I'm fine,” she said, carefully brushing his hand off. “Ancano's doing something with the Eye.”

“By the Divines,” the old man breathed. “Is he responsible for this? The Arch-Mage, dead?!”

“Yes.”

The old man let out a sharp breath, and shook his head a little.

“....There's more, I'm afraid. Something's happening in the town. Can you go out there and make sure everyone is safe?”

“Yes.”

“Ah, where's Mirabelle?”

She pointed in the direction of the Restoration master, then turned to walk away. Her grief was turning, as it so often did, into anger; anger would boost the power of her spells. As long as she remained in control of it, she could ride the boost until exhaustion. She practically ran across the bridges, heedless of ice and snow, and skidded to a halt near Faralda, and another mage who's name she didn't know.

“What's going on?” Faralda demanded. “What happened in there?”

“There's little time for an explanation. Winterhold is in danger. Move.”

“...when this is over, you owe me information,” was the sour retort.

“If we're still alive, I'll give you one,” Auriel snapped. “Move.”

They moved.

 

-

 

The creatures looked almost like wisps. Just... nastier. With a harder hit to them. There were ten of the blue-white things, and they were undeniably hostile. It made her glad that the streets were empty; no point in civilians getting caught in the crossfire. When they died, they left soul gems behind, which made her wonder just what these strange creatures were. More importantly, how had Ancano's mess with the Eye summoned them?

“We'll stay here, in case more of them show up,” Faralda said. “You should go back and let them know it's all clear out here.”

Auriel nodded, and back across the bridge she went. The mages were no longer gathered in knots; instead the campus seemed absolutely deserted; hopefully, they were hiding in safe places, or packing up to evacuate. There was no guarantee that this quiet phase was going to last long.

She found Tolfdir and Mirabelle just inside the Hall of the Elements, watching Ancano sharply. The ward had repaired itself to a degree; they couldn't get close to him, but they could stand and observe. Auriel thought it a foolish option, all things considered, but she wasn't in their shoes.

“Well?” Mirabelle demanded upon spotting Auriel. “Is everything out there all right?”

“For the moment, yes. Winterhold is safe.”

“I wish I could say the same for us,” the Breton woman muttered. “Tolfdir and I can try and keep this contained. You need to get your hands on the Staff of Magnus. Now.”

“Gladly. Problem. I have to go to Labyrinthian.”

“What?” Mirabelle's eyes widened. “Are you... are you sure? The Staff is there?”

“....Yes,” Auriel said warily. “Why?”

“That can't be a coincidence...”

“What can't?”

“The Arch-Mage. He... He gave me something just a little while ago. He told me it was from Labyrinthian, and I would know what to do with it when the time came. I think... I think he meant this for you. I'm not sure why, but there was something very personal about this for him.”

Auriel nodded, accepting the heavy iron ring that Mirabelle passed to her. It looks almost like a door knocker, just... three times the usual size.

“Bring back that staff before Ancano brings the whole College down around us.”

Again, Auriel nodded, then turned to Tolfdir, pulling out her map.

“Where's Labyrinthian?”

“It's here,” Tolfdir said, marking a spot southeast of Morthal. “As quickly as you can, please! And be careful.

“I'll try.”

Auriel turned on her heel and hurried out.

 

-

 

She ended up being forced to take a longer route than she wanted; while tempting to go off the path and make the trek through the icy plains, all it would take was one wrong turn, one wrong encounter, and she could end up dead. The road, while the longer path, was kept reasonably clear, and patrolled. It took her far too long to reach Dawnstar, and then longer still to make the journey to Morthal, even hitching rides where she could.

Morthal was moderately warmer, but still enshrouded in enough snow that walking was difficult, and losing the path was entirely too easy. She stayed only long enough to resupply and repair her torn clothing before she struck out in a south-easterly direction.

Labyrinthian was a further three days of traveling through deep snow, and it was not empty; snow trolls wondered the lower level, and she was forced to climb around the side to get in without actively engaging anything. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found the door, and moved to place the knocker where it was meant to go when a tingle ran up her spine. She turned slowly, raising the heavy iron ring threatening, then stopped short in surprise.

There was six people arrayed behind her, but... no, they were not people. Not even ghosts. Memories? But what had triggered them?

“Come on,” one said, and she startled a little to realize it spoke with the voice of Savos Aren. “We're finally here! Let's not waste any more time!”

“Are we truly sure this is a good idea?” another apparition asked. She had the raspy voice of an Argonian, and her words made Auriel somewhat uneasy.

“We'll be back at the College before anyone even knows we're gone,” another woman assured her.

“You would care about that, since you're the Arch-Mage's favorite,” a male sneered.

“Don't forget,” Aren said, “this whole idea was Atmah's to begin with.”

“Let's just get inside,” a weary, Nordic-accented voice suggested. “See what's in there.”

That seemed to be the last word in that conversation, as after a few moments they all vanished. Auriel frowned a little, then shook her head; the only way she was going to get answers was if she went inside. Since that was the only option, she set the ring in the door, and pushed it open as she felt a complicated webwork of spells shatter like glass.

Just inside the door, the apparitions reappeared. Six College mages by the sound of them, and she wondered how long ago this had happened. Clearly well before Savos had become the Arch-Mage... but how long before?

“I can't believe we're doing this,” one of the women said.

“Can you imagine the looks on their faces when we come back?” Savos' voice had a hint of pride... but under the pride, something else. Auriel frowned; desperation?

“You keep talking like you're sure we'll find something useful in here,” the Nord retorted.

“Given the history of this place, it's more than likely there's still some amount of power here,” said the crabby one.

“Enchanted weapons, times of ancient knowledge, Shalador's secrets themselves,” Aren trailed off, but there was no mistaking the way his shade leaned eagerly towards the door. “Who knows what we could find!”

“And what if... what if there are things guarding this place?” the Argonian said uncertainly.

“Against six College-trained mages?” Atmah snorted a little. “I think we'll be fine.”

Again they vanished, and Auriel shook her head a little; she didn't recognize any of the voices as teachers at the College... but then, she hadn't had the chance to spend time actually at the college. There was a chance that more than Savos had survived. She heavily doubted it, but there was a chance.

Still, what had led them here? The touch of desperation under Savos' boasting was worrying.

Cautiously, carefully, she made her way down through the dungeon. Skeletons were her first obstacle, both humanoid and dragon. She considered her options carefully, then pulled out her bow and started picking them off one by one. If they drew too close, she cast invisibility until they moved away again; she knew better than to rush into such a trap, and she had never been fond of leaving enemies at her back. Especially undead ones. The dragon took more concentrated effort, but blowing its head to powder was satisfying enough, even if she didn't get the power from it.

She encountered the shades again on the far side of the room; now they were down by one.

“We... we have to go back,” one woman panted. “We can't leave Girduin!”

“We barely made it out alive, and you want to go back in?” the Nord male demanded.

“What was that thing anyways?” The Argonian asked, turning towards Savos.

“It's too late,” Atmah said, voice laced with regret. “There isn't enough left of him to go back in after.”

“Gods....” the Argonian murmured, bowing her head. “What have we done?”

“We can't go back,” Savos said. “Might as well go forward. We can still do this.”

“Savos is right,” Atmah nodded a little. “We can make it if we just stay alert.”

Auriel shook her head as they vanished again; going back would have been saner, and probably safer than courting new, unknown dangers which lay ahead. Savos' eagerness to go forward left her uneasy. What had he been leading them towards?

She sighed a little, and pushed on. The Staff was farther in, and she needed it.

As she entered the room, a voice wrapped around her, echoing harshly in her ears as it stole her power. She shuddered and dropped briefly to her knees.

Wo meyz wah dii vul junaar?

It wasn't a language she recognized, and the voice seemed to come from all around. She knelt silently on the stone as her energy returned, and she saw her next blockade; a door covered in ice. If she'd been more ready, she would have scoffed at the door. But she hadn't expected something to just... reach into her and pull out her magic, without warning. Hadn't even been aware that such a thing was possible.

“....Where are you leading me, Savos?” she murmured, slowly getting back to her feet.

Once defrosted, she stepped beyond the door; this time the power stealing didn't knock her down; it just staggered her and forced her to catch herself on the wall.

Nivahriin muz fent siiv niz ooz het.

Idly she wondered what it was saying, and forced her hands to stop trembling, as she worked her bow loose. If her power was forfeit, she was going to have to go at things a different way. Archery made short work of the draugr, and halfway down into the chasm, came words she finally understood.

You do not answer... Must I use this guttural language of yours?

Auriel hesitated, then decided that silence was undoubtedly the safest answer. Especially considering the power drain came with the damnable voice. She found herself wondering if the voice had addressed the mages as well, or if she was just extremely unlucky.

Have you returned, Aren? My old friend?

As if it wasn't unnerving enough. She almost preferred the panicked shades of the dead to that voice. No, she vastly preferred it. At least the shades were only reliving something they had gone through, instead of stealing her power.

Do you seek to finish that which you could not?

What, she wondered, might she have learned if Savos had survived Ancano's attack? Would he have been with her? What had he left undone?

She continued further down, following the path. A troll in her way was hardly an issues, though it certainly was an annoyance. Fire certainly took care of the problem, but she barely had the magic to spare.

You.... You are not Aren, are you? Has he sent you in his place?

In a way, the voice was right; because it was, Auriel stayed silent, though it was getting harder and harder to ignore.

Did he warn you that your own power would be your undoing? That it would only serve to strengthen me?

“...no, I figured that part out on my own,” she muttered, ire finally out-weighing her unease. “It's not that difficult to discern.”

Come. The voice invited. Face your end.

The air grew thicker as she moved in, slipping silently past wisps that darted around what looked to be gravestones. No sign of the Wispmother, at least, a small favor she appreciated. Her energy was finally rebuilding properly now that the voice had fallen silent, and she had no desire to spend any of it if she didn't have to.

Another door, blocked by fire, was easily dismissed by ice. Behind it, she encountered the shades again. They were down to four now, and she grimaced sympathetically.

“Just another minute, please,” the Argonian panted, hands on her knees.

“Come on,” Savos' reply was impatient. “We can't stop now, we have to keep moving!”

“Where's Elvali?” Atmah asked. “She was right behind me.”

“Dead,” the Nord said between his own gasps for breath. Grief laced his voice. “Something grabbed her from behind. Gone before I could do anything...”

“This is insanity!” the Argonian said. “We never should've come here!”

“..you're right,” Atmah said quietly. “This is all my fault. Should we turn around, head back?”

“I don't think going back is a good idea,” the Nord shook his head a little.

“Going back would be the end of all of us,” Savos said insistently. “We keep pushing forward and we'll make it. We will!”

“Come on,” Atmah moved towards the Argonian, looking to help her. “You can make it. Let's go.”

He knew, she realized as the shades winked out once more. Savos Aren had known what was down there, and led his fellow mages right into it.

Why had he done that? He had talked five of his friends into coming with him, undoubtedly letting Atmah think it was her idea to begin with, but for what? There had to be a reason, so what was his?

The creatures beyond were more spirit than skeletal, but they could still be killed with arrows, for which she was grateful. With the way her power kept draining, relying on the bow seemed to be the only way she was going to get through this place in one piece.

The creatures possessed weapons she'd never seen before, and she was not above collecting two of each; undoubtedly the enchantments would be worth knowing, and if nothing else, she could keep a set for her own. The fact that she could touch, could carry the spectral weapons was strange. There was so much in Skyrim that was just... beyond her experience.

Oh, but it made her long for the modicum of sanity that she had found in the Summerset Isles.

 

-

 

The nice thing about free-standing soul gem traps was that all you had to do was knock the crystal out of alignment to disrupt the trap. Of course, that implied noticing the trap at all. She had just missed being scorched, and had vented her feelings in quiet but vehement cursing as she'd shot the crystal down.

The lightning trap beyond was just insult to injury.

She hadn't expected a word wall to be buried this far under Labyrinthian, nor had she expected a draugr who's Shout disarmed her. Her bow ended up behind the dragur, and his swift attacks kept her from being able to reach it; in revenge, she lit him on fire, and then led him a merry dance until it had consumed enough of the flesh as to render him immobile. Was it petty to put her boot through his skull? Probably. But she was feeling spiteful, and the crunch of bone helped her relax.

She retrieved the word and promptly ignored it. The creatures beyond were killed summarily, and she reached a room where she sat to catch her breath. The shades sprang to life around her, their number down to three. This time, it was the Argonian who was missing.

“We shouldn't have left her there to die!” Atmah cried, voice thick with suppressed grief and anger.

“What else could we do?” Savos demanded. “Stay there and die with her? She refused to go on; we didn't have a choice!”

“This is it, you know?” the Nord said quietly, his arms folded over his chest. “Through this door. Can you feel it?”

Even though he wasn't addressing her, Auriel nodded; whatever waited beyond the door, it was old, powerful, and hungered for magic.

“We're not going to make it, are we?” Atmah said tremulously.

“We stay together,” the Nord said firmly. “No matter what. Agreed?”

“I'll be right with you,” Atmah nodded.

“Agreed,” Savos nodded quickly himself. “We all stay together.”

“But you didn't did you?” Auriel murmured wearily, running a hand over her face as the spirits vanished. “Savos, what did you do?”

She napped as best she could before that ominous door, exhausted beyond her own ability to ignore. Her sleep was restless, but the little she managed helped; she ate when she woke, and went over her equipment before she stood up. The last thing she wanted was to have her bowstring snap at just the wrong moment.

Then she straightened her shoulders, shook herself out, and went through the door.

The room beyond soared overhead, revealing the two shades that were nothing more than power now, feeding energy into a barrier that contained... well, it looked like a draugr, but the palpable weight of menace it held made it something else entirely. In its hands was a staff, and Auriel didn't doubt that it was the very same staff she had come looking for.

Which meant she was going to have to do what Savos Aren and his friends couldn't. She was going to have to fight this thing... and win.

With regret and apology, she shot the two spirits, disrupting the energy that kept them in place. The barrier around the draugr faded into nothingness, and then the true fight began. She dipped several arrows in a corrosive poison and let fly from the shadows. She had hoped they would keep her safe, but the darkness didn't shield her long. Whatever the dragur's staff was, the Staff of Magnus or something else, it pulled away at her power until she was down to the dregs.

In truth, it was a lucky shot that saved her, taking the creature through the eye and shattering the skull. It collapsed into a pile of ash, power burning it from the inside out, and leaving only a mask and the staff.

Wearily she collected the Staff of Magnus, feeling the power thrum softly under her fingertips. The mask gave her the creeps, but she picked it up as well; maybe Urag would know what it was...

She muttered apologies to the two spirits that she had been forced to remove, and headed out the door she found at the back of the tomb.

Savos' shade awaited her there.

“I'm sorry, friends.... so sorry,” he murmured. “I had no choice! It was the only way to make sure that monster never escaped! I promise you, I'll never let this happen again! I'll seal this whole place away...”

Auriel just sighed; he had done his best with what he could at the time, and she had no right to judge the choices he'd made. Her own hands were hardly clean, and his friends had held the creature for... who knew how long, actually. Whether a sacrifice for the greater good or something else wasn't for her to say.

She started up and out, then froze as the door beyond the gate opened, ducking back down into the shadows as a Thalmor agent moved confidently into the room. Exhaustion dropped away as panic kicked in; she didn't wait for him to speak, she just shot him. Once in the chest, once in the neck. And then, for good measure, one more in the eye as he was falling.

He dropped without a word, and she ran a hand over her face, shook herself again, and made for the way out.

 

 

Chapter Text

Eleven

 

The barrier had pushed itself outwards until it covered half the bridge; most of the mages had taken shelter in Winterhold itself, much to the annoyance of the residents. A clear guard had been set, and she joined the people there after dropping her pack at the inn. Tolfdir, at least, seemed pleased to see her, but there was no sign of Mirabelle.

“You survived!” he exclaimed, leaning heavily against the signal well. “You have it then?”

Auriel silently proffered the staff, but he shook his head slightly; plainly, it was her burden still.

“Let's hope it's as powerful as the Psijics believe it to be,” he murmured.

“Where's Mirabelle?” Auriel asked.

“She... she didn't make it,” he said, shaking his head. “We were evacuating, and she... she absorbed a blast that would have thrown half of us from the bridge.”

“Ancano's power is growing,” Faralda interjected. “We can't check it in any way. Can't crack that magic he's using as a shield. Let's hope that long trip of yours was worth the wait.”

Auriel nodded grimly, and moved forward. That's what she was hoping too.

“Let's end this,” she said shortly.

“We're right behind you,” Tolfdir said firmly.

“I'll be amazed if any of us survive this,” muttered one of the other mages.

She couldn't blame him his pessimism; she had no idea how the Staff actually worked. But she marched forward like she did, and pressed it into the shield. The Staff drank in the power greedily, and it was startling just how quickly the exterior ward shattered; for a moment they all stood there as it faded away into nothingness.

“That was almost depressingly easy,” Faralda finally said.

“We're only just past the ward,” Auriel replied. “We still have to remove Ancano.”

She marched up the bridge and into the campus, the other mages trailing in a ragged tail behind her. The Hall of the Elements was open to them and they crowded in, Auriel at their head. The Staff of Magnus seemed to come alive in her hands as she stepped into the room, and she was willing to swear she heard an answering hum from the Eye.

Ancano stood before it, wild-eyed and angry.

“You've come for me, have you?” he sneered. “You think I don't know what you're up to? You think I can't destroy you?!”

“I'm quite certain of that, actually,” Auriel said, a veneer of calm in her words. She motioned quickly for the other mages to flank him. “You never did know, otherwise we wouldn't be here.”

“The power to unmake the world at my fingertips, and you think you can do anything about it?”

One of the mages launched a fireball; it ablated off whatever shield was protecting him. More were thrown, and Ancano briefly vanished behind the flames, only to emerge unscathed.

“Spells have no effect!” Tolfdir exclaimed.

“Hah!” Ancano snorted. “I am beyond your pathetic attempts at magic! You cannot touch me.”

Auriel smiled; it was sharp, cuttingly sweet. She moved in, raised the Staff, and let her focus lock onto the Eye, blocking out everything else. The Staff drank in the power greedily, rapidly, and she hissed a little, working to control the drain. The power had to go somewhere, but it was so much. Too much.

The orb expanded, the shell floating away to reveal the blue heart of magic within. It was glorious, it was amazing, and it was everything that she could have ever dreamed. Aether, purest magic... The power to remake the world indeed, to make it better or worse as the one who controlled it desired.

But no mortal had that right. Not her, not Ancano, not the Thalmor or the mages. And so Auriel continued to try and ground the power, to find a way to bleed off what it was Ancano was drawing upon. He could not be allowed to win.

The Eye snapped shut so abruptly that she fell to her knees, the power in the Staff vanishing like water in the sands of Elswhyr. Stunned, she glanced around to see Ancano, face up with an ice spike in his throat. She blinked a few times, then shook her head to clear it; while his death was a shame, she was also vehemently glad to see it.

Tolfdir helped her stand, supporting her as she staggered; her gloves were ruined, falling off her hands in flakes of blackened leather. A testament to the power that she had been pulling in; she stifled a shudder as she regained her balance and pulled away from the old human.

“I knew you could do it!” he cried.

“Yes, I did it. But now what?”

She glanced at the Eye and frowned. It was closed for now, but the runes flared brightly, and it seemed to breathe now. The heart encased within peered out between the cracks in the shell, and she stifled a shudder.

“I... I don't know,” Tolfdir admitted. “Ancano is gone, but whatever he seems to have done to the Eye hasn't stopped.”

“Tch....”

It couldn't stay here, that much was certain; it would draw in more people like Ancano, looking for a shortcut to power. Auriel chewed on her lower lip and studied the Eye, then startled as three Psijic mages seemed to phase in from nowhere.

One of them turned to her with a slight smile, and she recognized Quaranir. She didn't necessarily relax, but the clear approval... it helped.

“We knew you would succeed,” he said genially. “Your victory here justifies our belief in you. You are more than capable enough to guide the College of Winterhold.”

She just raised an eyebrow, glancing from him, to the other Psijics, and then to the Eye.

“Right. Whatever. What now?”

“The Eye has grown unstable. It cannot remain here, or it may destroy your College, and this world. It must be secured. Ancano's actions prove that the world is not ready for such a thing.”

“You think?” she said acidly. “What happens now, Quaranir? Where can it go where it won't get misused?”

“We shall safeguard it... for now. You now hold the opportunity to maintain and rebuild your College. You have our gratitude, Arch-Mage.”

Auriel blinked, then scowled; as if she was going to be Arch-Mage here, when there were others who had been here longer, and were more qualified for the position. His words were flattering nonsense.

Right?

The three Psijics formed a triangle around the Eye; Quaranir bowed to her politely, and then in a flare of blue light, they vanished.

“You've done it,” Tolfdir enthused, clapping her on the shoulder. “The College is safe again, thanks to your work.”

“My work?” Auriel looked at him askance. “In case you haven't forgotten, it's my damned fault that thing came here in the first place!”

“Well, the Psijics did say it was an inevitable conclusion,” he said after a minute. “In light of everything that's happened, however, your work at ending the crisis is more important than your role in finding the Eye. I dare say the Psijics are right, and there's no one more deserving to be Arch-Mage.”

From a bag, Tolfdir produced a key and handed it to her.

“Here. This unlocks the door to the Arch-Mage's quarters. They, and everything in them, are yours now. I'm sure Savos would approve.”

She wanted to know what gave the old man the right to appoint a new Arch-Mage, but she was so tired now that everything was handled. Much too tired to come up with even a token of protest. It wasn't like she had to stay put either. Actually, in that vein of thought...

“I'm going to need a Master Wizard,” she said after a moment. “I'd like it to be you.”

He blinked at her, then beamed, nodding.

“I would be honored to accept that title, Arch-Mage. I will be here if you need any advice at all.”

“...would you mind telling everyone it's safe to come back? I... need to rest for a while.”

“Of course, of course!”

Tolfdir marched out, happily, and Auriel dragged herself up the flights of stairs that led to the Arch-Mage's quarters. Her quarters now. She would perform a more thorough examination of them after some rest.

“....this was not how things were supposed to go,” she sighed, flopping gracelessly onto the bed. “Befriend the Arch-Mage, not become the Arch-Mage.”

Still, she was safe enough for the moment; she certainly wouldn't be accepting any Thalmor advisers of her own, and if they came this far, she didn't doubt that all the mages would chase them out. It wouldn't be enough, she knew, but for the moment she was willing to let herself bask in the achievement.

After a moment, she kicked off her boots and buried herself in the blankets of the bed. She was definitely going to sleep for a week this time.

 

-

 

She spent two weeks at the College, mostly in her new quarters, learning everything she could about as many things as possible. She often went to sleep with her head full of knowledge and woke up with the desire to know more. She laid the Staff of Magnus to rest on a shelf hidden beyond the half wall that concealed the bed and personal areas, and stuffed a spell-book she'd found in the tomb into the safe, because no one needed to get their hands on something like that.

She also plotted her next moves. From what she'd heard the Thieves Guild was in trouble, but they had enough backing in Riften that—if she could get them back onto their feet—they could potentially expand again. But what was equally as helpful was a network of gossips; bards were notorious for that sort of thing, and they were everywhere. While performing music wasn't her favorite skill, she could play and sing passably enough that she might be ordained by the Bard's college if she tried.

Solitude, then would be her next major city. Or at least, it would be once she'd made a stop in Whiterun to see if there was any mail waiting for her. Mostly, she was hoping that she'd have notice of a finished Falkreath manor; with all the traveling she'd done, she had lost track of how long it had been.

Her plans were put on hold, however, as not far from Windhelm—she'd taken the coastal route down, for sheer curiosity—she ran across a black-armored Argonian that tried to kill her. They failed miserably, of course, but what was interesting was the note she found on the body.

 

As instructed, you are to eliminate Auriel Talmanari by any means necessary. The Black Sacrament has been performed - somebody wants this poor fool dead.

We've already received payment for the contract. Failure is not an option

~Astrid

 

“It certainly took them long enough to set the Brotherhood on me,” she muttered, shaking her head a little. “Proof enough that they survived somehow. This will need to be dealt with.”

The question, of course, was how to go about it. The old Brotherhood had never liked leaving a contract unfulfilled, and even if they lacked the numbers they once had, someone would keep coming after her until she, or they, were dead. Which meant that she needed to eliminate them. But how?

She thought for a minute, then looked at the nearby signpost. She would rest up in Windhelm, and perhaps find out something there.

She hadn't actually set foot in Windhelm before this, and was moderately impressed by the size of the city. Candlehearth Hall was the name of the inn, directly in front, and she ignored the bickering of Nord and Dunmer in favor of stepping out of the cold.

It was a large inn, with rooms on the first floor and a common eating and entertaining area on the second. That floor gave her everything she needed.

“That boy,” she heard whispered.

“The Aretino boy?”

“Yes.”

“Can't believe he's trying something so reckless.”

“Who in their right mind summons the Brotherhood?”

“Who's to say he's in his right mind? He did run away from the orphanage...”

Auriel smiled faintly, and sipped her mead. She had certainly hit the jackpot this round. If she swiped the contract out from under their noses, they'd have to come to her. And from there, she could extract her knowledge on how to go about making sure they didn't come after her ever again.

She napped for a bit, comfortable in the warmth of the inn and her chosen corner; when it was dark and most were asleep, she slipped out of the inn and went to find the Aretino boy's home.

The door to the house was locked, but that was hardly an issue. In the dead of night, with the guards elsewhere, it was child's play to pick it. As she slipped silently into the house she heard the boy repeating the Black Sacrament, interspersed with whimpering to be answered, and complaints of exhaustion. Ever so quietly she slipped up the stairs, through the house, until she stood behind him.

He was a boy indeed, not even thirteen if he was a day. She suspected he was actually ten, and needed a parental persona.... a glance about the house suggested that he had no such thing, and she wondered what might've happened to them. But only momentarily.

“So, you wish someone dead?” she murmured softly.

The boy jumped a foot, scattering his effigy pieces as he squawked in fright. The fear became awe. Auriel simply waited.

“You've come at last!” he exclaimed. “I knew you would! I did the Black Sacrament over and over with the body and the... things. And now you're here, an assassin from the Dark Brotherhood!”

She nodded lightly, remembering well her own interactions with the Brotherhood back when they had been a hale group. They had preferred to let her give the details, the instructions, and the payment. Some of them were silent. Some of them encouraged her to speak.

“It's okay, you don't have to speak!” he said excitedly. “You're here, and now you'll accept my contract!”

“Tell me.”

“My mother she... she died. I'm an orphan now, so they sent me to that terrible place in Riften. Honorhall,” he said in disgust. “The headmistress is an evil, cruel woman. The call her 'Grelod the Kind.' But she's not kind, she's evil, to all of us! So I ran away, and came home. And performed the Black Sacrament. And now you're here, so you can kill Grelod the Kind!”

She nodded lightly, then caught the boy as sheer exhaustion caught up with him. After a moment she sighed and put him on his bed, then left, locking the door again behind her. He definitely needed adult supervision, but if he'd run away from the orphanage, well...

After careful consideration she went back to Candlehearth and dozed off in her chair again until morning came around, then hired a carriage to take her to Riften.

 

-

 

Much like the trip from Whiterun to Winterhold, the trip from Windhelm to Riften took about a month. It wasn't a terribly fun trip either; it rained most of the way there, and the cart had no cover. Auriel was not sick, but she was not exactly a dry, or happy Altmer by the time they reached the outer gate. Being stopped by a guard did nothing to improve her mood.

“Hold there,” he said imperiously. “Before I let you in to Riften, you need to pay the visitor's tax.”

“I'm wet, I'm tired, I'm cold, and I've been sitting in a cart for the better part of a month,” she said shortly. “I don't believe there is such a thing, now let me in.”

“Are you trying to cause trouble?” he demanded.

“Are you attempting to shake me down for coin?” she retorted.

He back down instantly.

“All right, all right. You want everyone to hear you?” He held up his hands in a placating manner. “I'll let you in. Just let me unlock the gate...”

As soon as the gate was unlocked, into the city she went. She hadn't moved more than ten feet in when a voice called out to her from the shadows; she turned warily, ice shimmering in one palm. A Nord stood there, in battered steel armor; his expression was unfriendly to say the least.

“I don't know you,” the Nord said warily. “You in Riften looking for trouble?”

“....that depends on the sort of trouble you're referring to,” she said after a moment.

“Hmph. Well, there's nothin to see here,” he said flatly. “Last thing the Black-Briars need is some stranger stickin their nose where it doesn't belong.”

“Who?”

“The Black-Briars have Riften in their pocket, and the Thieves Guild at their back, so keep your nose out of their business. Me? I'm Maul. I work the street for them. You need dirt on anythin, I'm your guy. But it'll cost ya.”

“Hmmmm....” She cocked her head speculatively; now here was a reason to stand around and get a bit more rain-soaked. “All right. Name your price.”

“Two-fifty,” he said instantly.

She shrugged lightly and handed the coin over.

“Pleasure doin business with ya,” he smirked a little. “So what do you wanna know?”

“Tell me what you know about the Thieves Guild, if you please. If you know anything, that is.”

“You kiddin?” He snorted a little. “My brother, Dirge, works in their hideout. I used to run with them myself, but took a job with Maven when they started hittin a rough patch. If you wanna get in on that action, find Brynjolf in the marketplace. He's hard to miss; his hair is almost as red as yours.”

She nodded a little; a name and features to look for would certainly help when it came time to properly introduce herself.

“My thanks. Now, tell me about the Black-Briars.”

“Well, you got Maven. She pretty much runs the whole operation. She's got friends in high places if you know what I mean,” Maul shrugged a little. “She's also got ties to the Dark Brotherhood and the Thieves Guild, so basically, no one can touch her. Just remember; if she tells you to do somethin, you'd better damn well do exactly what she says.”

Auriel nodded lightly in understanding. She was going to be taking out one of those pillars, but if the Thieves Guild could be brought back up to speed, well...

“Thank you.”

“Mmhm. Want anything else, I'll be down at the docks.”

And off he stalked.

Taking shelter briefly at the inn, she listened with amusement to the ranting of a Priest of Mara while she ate a late dinner. Mostly, he was ignored, and in the end, shooed out. She felt rather sorry for him, honestly, but she heavily doubted the return of the dragons was because of the sins of men and mer. Once fed, she headed back out into the damp night to find out where she needed to go.

Honorhall was on the far end of Riften, near Mistveil Keep. It was an ordinary looking building, with some soft candlelight seeping out through closed shutters. Auriel crept in, silent as a wraith, and listened intently.

A harsh-voiced woman was speaking loudly, cruelly to what Auriel could only assume was exhausted children. While she was not exactly the best with young children, she felt a deep disgust at the unkind words; how had someone like this been put in charge of an orphanage? She shook her head, and let the woman wind down; she wasn't going to murder in cold blood in front of children.

Finally, the woman slammed a door, and there was some weary shuffling as the children climbed into their beds. One by one, the candles went out, and if there was some sniffling and weeping, well, she could hardly blame them.

Wrapped in invisibility, Auriel slipped across the floor to the old woman's room; it was tempting to scare the old biddy, but in the end, she opted for the quick, clean kill. She drew her dagger and stabbed Grelod sharply through the chest, then slit her throat for good measure. Perhaps finding the woman dead would be terrifying in a different way, but she suspected these children would celebrate.

She cleaned the blood off the knife, and slipped back out without disturbing a thing, heading back to the Inn where she rented a room to sleep in for the night. Shortly after dawn, she hired another cart to take her back to Windhelm.

 

-

 

“Well?” Aventus demanded once she made her presence known. “Grelod the Kind? Is she...”

Auriel nodded once, very slightly.

“Ha ha!” he cheered, jumping up and down in glee. “I knew you could do it! I knew the Dark Brotherhood would save me! Here, just like I promised! This should fetch you a nice price!” and he pushed an old platter into her hands. “And thank you. Thank you again!”

He turned to dance gleefully around the room and she silently slipped the plate into his own belongings. She had no use for it; this was just her way of calling out the Brotherhood.

 

-

 

“Sleep well?” came a deep, feminine voice.

Auriel looked up as her vision cleared, seeing a woman in black and red armor lounging on a battered bookshelf. She had been on her way to Solitude, traveling with a small group, and they had been most of the way there. She remembered laying down to sleep...

“...where am I, and who are you?” she said quietly.

“Does it matter? You're warm, dry.... and still very much alive. Which is more than can be said for old Grelod, hmm?”

Ah. Well, she had expected something else, really, but this was actually not terrible. As long as she wasn't too far off course from where she had been, she could find the road easily enough, and this isolated shack, reeking of old blood, was the perfect place to kill someone without witnesses.

“Well, I had to get your attention somehow, didn't I?” Auriel smiled sharply as the woman straightened a little. “I don't appreciate murder attempts.”

Hazel eyes flickered with surprise, and Auri lifted her hands slightly.

“Oh, you didn't know? Your assassin for Auriel Talmanari failed. And I don't leave enemies at my back.”

That was all the warning she gave; ice flashed from her palms to impale the woman. She choked in surprise, and slowly slid from the bookshelf. Auriel watched briefly, head cocked to one side, then relieved the body of the dark boots and the cowl; they might take some adjustments, but the enchantment on them was difficult to replicate, and she liked things that made her more stealthy.

“Hn. I suppose I ought to report this to a guard,” Auriel murmured, going through the dead woman's pouch. “They might know where to find the rest.”

It wasn't so much finding the Brotherhood as it was getting into their lair that was going to be the difficult part. A pity there was no overt identification on this woman... Given that she hadn't planned on utilizing the Brotherhood during her mission, she had neglected to learn just who compromised the small group. Her superiors had also neglected to give her that information, and now it was much too late to learn.

Ah well. If she found someone who could direct her to their lair, soon enough it would be a moot point.

Auriel freed the three bound and blindfolded prisoners, and left them to find their own ways home. Once outside she took her bearings, checked her map, and headed east. It took her a few days, but she eventually found her way to Morthal, and reported the deed to a guard.

“Gods, you're serious!” he blurted after a minute. “You'd better report this to Commander Maro right away! He's up at the Penitus Oculatus headquarters, out near Dragon Bridge. It's about a two-hour walk from Solitude.”

“I shall,” she nodded lightly. “My thanks.”

Solitude was where she needed to be soon anyways, though at the rate she was going, it was likely to take another two weeks before she could become a member of the Bardic Guild. By road—the slightly safer option—it took three and a half weeks of walking to reach Dragon Bridge.

She was definitely going to have to buy another horse.

 

-

 

Commander Maro was a pale skinned, black haired Imperial with a hard face. He had dark circles under his eyes that attested to many sleepless nights, but he greeted her courteously enough.

“Yes?”

“I was told to report to you,” she said diffidently. “I killed a member of the Dark Brotherhood.”

He stared at her briefly.

“Do you know who?” he asked after a minute.

“I didn't ask her name, sir. She was blonde, perhaps a little taller than me, and wore a black and red leather armor set.”

“Gods... that... you killed their leader,” he breathed. “You truly killed Astrid? No jest?”

“No jest, though I can't guarantee who I killed. I don't know the members...”

“Ha! This is a stroke of good fortune,” and he grinned fiercely. “Long have I been watching the Dark Brotherhood's movements, waiting for the time to strike! That time is now! My agents have discovered the pass-phrase into their Sanctuary. It is 'silence, my brother.' Every assassin in that rat hole must be put down! I give this honor to you; if you manage it and come back alive, you will be rewarded most handsomely!”

“Where is their Sanctuary?” she asked, unfolding her map.

“It's here, in the forests of Falkreath. Remember, 'silence, my brother' is the phrase that will get you in. Good luck!”

It was almost disconcerting how close the Sanctuary was to Lakeview Manor. That was decidedly a threat she didn't need to entertain. On the bright side, once she had dealt with them, she could check up on the manor's construction. Maybe take some time to arrange things the way she wanted, if they were already finished.

To that end, she made the journey to Solitude's outer wall, and hired a cart to take her down to the capital of Falkreath Hold.

 

-

 

In truth, it wasn't terribly difficult to kill the remaining members of the Brotherhood. For a group of assassins, it was rather sad. Then again, what group is ever really prepared to be attacked in their own stronghold? Invisibility spells, poisoned arrows, and a silent dagger made swift work of the remaining members. Taking everything not nailed down, despite garish appearances, was just compensation for her work.

Her house, when she stopped in to look, was about three-fourths of the way finished. Informed that furnishings cost extra just made her shrug and pass over the gold and gems she had collected. The sooner everything was finished, the better.

Unlike her former compatriots, she didn't intend to kill everyone who'd worked on it to keep it hidden. Instead she gave Gerdur and the other workers mead with a compulsion spell in it. If anyone asked about the redheaded mage with fire blue eyes, or about her knowledge of a house in Falkreath, they wouldn't know anything. She didn't mind that it would set back the building for a few days while everyone nursed their hangovers; when they were done with this job, they would remember it with pride, just so long as it was never actually discussed.

Back to Dragon Bridge she went, purse light, and heart a little heavier. It was better, she reminded herself over and over, to not get attached to people, places, things. It was safer to be alone.

But oh, was she started to feel the weight of it.

She refused to let herself linger on the depression. After collecting her reward from Commander Maro, she made her way back to Solitude to join the Bards Guild. The task she took on was more tedious than anything else, though it netted her a word that seems to properly speak to her. When she decided to speak it, she shot forward at a speed that she didn't expect, and tumbled into a heap when it abruptly ceased.

With some practice, she decided that she liked it.

With a rumor network established—as a bard, she would definitely get to hear some of the better ones now; the Thalmor certainly weren't ignored by them—she finally turned her attention back towards Riften.

It was time, at last, to join the Thieves Guild.

 

 

Chapter Text

Twelve

 

She was wondering if this was what summer in Skyrim was like, as the cart reached the Riften stables. It was sunny, and actually felt something close to warm. For a lakeside town, it wasn't so bad; the city was built on two levels, with a marketplace up top and some of the more established shops—and a few homes—on the second level, closest to the water. The water didn't smell as though people were using it to wash away their wastes, which was almost impressive.

Auriel didn't have to do much work to find Brynjolf; though the market was busy in full swing, he was the only other redhead human in sight. He seemed to spot her at the same moment, smiled charmingly, and let her approach his booth.

“Never done an honest day's work in your life for all that coin you're carryin, eh lass?”

Auriel's brows went up slightly. She wasn't surprised he could tell she had coin, though she wondered more if it was a comment on the well-made gear she carried.

“I'll have you know, I gathered most of this legitimately. From barrows, and undead; creatures have no use for money,” she sniffed a little, playing insulted. “Besides which, my wealth is none of your business.”

“Oh, but that's where you're wrong lass. Wealth is my business.”

“Please stop calling me 'lass.' I could be your twice-grandmother. Call me Tam.”

He blinked, and she smiled faintly, pleased to have thrown him off stride.

“And if you're offering me a test, I accept. What do you want me to do?”

Again he blinked, and her smile deepened ever so slightly; for all certain issues had been out of her control lately, it helped to know that she could make people stop and reassess their original assumptions.

“Well then... I'm going to cause a distraction, and you're going to steal Madesi's silver ring from the strongbox under his stand. Once you have it, slip it into Brand-Shei's pocket without him noticing.”

“Who is who?” she cocked her head a little.

“Madesi is the Argonian over there with the fine jewelry. Brand-Shei is the Dunmer over there selling bits and baubles.”

“All right. Begin.”

He smirked a little at her, nodded, and she stepped back to casually circle the market while Brynjolf distracted everyone. She snorted a little to hear him making up such clear tales about 'Falmer-blood elixir.' Nonsense, all of it, and yet these people were eating it up! Still it made her path clear enough, and no one noticed the invisible elf who pulled a plain silver ring from the jeweler's stall, and slipped it into the pocket of the dark elf sitting and watching the show.

As soon as she was clear, she casually circled back around, and Brynjolf cut himself off, sending everyone back to their stalls in disgust and irritation.

“Well, seems like I chose the right lady for the job,” he said casually as she 'inspected' the contents of his stall. “The way things have been going around here... it's a relief that the plan went off without a hitch.”

“I am one of the best,” Auriel shrugged lightly. “Not the best, but one of them.”

“So I see, Tam. Would you like to be a part of our little group? We have a home beneath Riften, in a tavern called the Ragged Flagon. Make it there in one piece, and we'll see about letting you in properly.”

She shrugged idly, nodded, and moved calmly away.

Everything she'd heard about the Thieves Guild hadn't given her much to hope for, really, but it was one of the few projects she wouldn't mind taking her time with. If they could be brought back up to full strength, the monetary backing would be certain to give even the Thalmor pause. Oh, they'd circumvent it eventually if she stopped there, but Auriel had no plans on stopping just yet. The ultimate coup was helping Ulfric Stormcloak in his pointless war.

But that plan was still in the making; she didn't quite have the right gear for something so blatant. Not yet.

She made her way to the lower level of the city and the Ratway. It was aptly named; where there weren't people living, there were skeevers, and while ice was more effective in the damp than fire—given the number of puddles, lightning was just asking to get bit—it still took her a few hours to get everyone out of her way.

The Ragged Flagon was a wreck, though she had to give them credit for the place not smelling like a sewer. It certainly looked like it had seen better days, though; cobwebs, moss, mold, and a lack of proper light certainly made for an inhospitable gathering spot.

There was a group of people, dressed in leather armor that looked fairly identical to each other; it wasn't hard to guess that they were all part of the Thieves Guild. Brynjolf was talking with the bartender as she approached, and turned when she tapped him on the shoulder. He looked little surprised, but mostly pleased. She cocked her head slightly, briefly rifling through personalities before settling on slightly arrogant, well-practiced thief.

“I thought you said that was supposed to be a challenge,” she said, before he could even speak. “Nothing about getting here was difficult.”

“Hah!” he chuckled. “Reliable and headstrong? You're turning out to be quite the prize. I have another task if you're interested; a few deadbeats that refuse to pay their protection fees. Explain to them the error of their ways, if you please.”

Another test was her reward? Annoying, but if it got her entry, she would put up with it.

“Names and locations, please.”

“Keerava, Bersi Honey-hand and Haelga. Do it right, and you'll have a permanent place in the organization.”

“And you want me to handle this... how?”

“The debt is secondary; just remind them that we're not to be ignored. Ah, but don't kill them. It's bad for business. Leverage would be easier,” he shook his head a little. “Bersi has this ugly dwarven urn in his shop; he claims it's a prize. Haelga has a statue of Dibella in her bunkhouse that she dotes over. As for Keerava, talk to Talen-Jei at the Bee and Barb. He might have something useful for us.”

Auriel nodded lightly, and turned to leave.

“I'll be here when you're done,” he said.

“I won't be long.”

 

-

 

She wasn't either. She started with Bersi; when he refused to pay, she simply turned and broke his dwarven urn. It hurt, but the man caved, and paid up. Keerava's was trickier; Talen-Jei resented being used as help, but he informed her of some family down in Morrowind that she used as a threat, and Keerava paid as well. Haelga, being a smart one, had heard from Bersi about what she'd done, and didn't even bother with refusing; she saw the red-haired Altmer and immediately capitulated.

Auriel grimaced a little at the ease of it, and made her way back down to Brynjolf. At least it was faster now, with the way cleared.

“Again, I thought you indicated this would be difficult,” she snorted a little. “They all caved like an empty beehive meeting a mace.”

“Job's done, done clean, and you brought the gold,” he chuckled a little. “I like that. We could definitely use someone like you in our outfit.”

“I came with the intention to join,” she shrugged a little.

“All right then; clearly larceny is in your blood. I think you'll do more than just fit in around here!”

She snorted a little, and wondered what he'd say if she revealed the fact that she had once been the Gray Fox of Cyrodiil. The thought was entertaining, but quickly discarded; without the hood, she had no proof.

“Before anything else, I would like to ask about this recent run of bad luck you seem to have been having.”

“Ah, well, we've run into a rough patch, certainly, but it's nothing to be concerned about,” he said dismissively. “Tell you what; you keep making us coin, and I'll worry about everything else. Fair enough?”

She gave him a arch look.

“Twice-grandmother,” she said shortly. “Do not patronize me.”

“All right then,” he held up a hand peaceably. “How about following me then, and I'll show you what we're all about?”

She nodded, and he led the way through the back of the Flagon into the Riften cistern, where the guild members were gathered. It wasn't a terrible place for such a thing; there was light from the hole in the ceiling, and fresh water flowed in, but it was very lacking in privacy. One half of the cistern seemed to be devoted to beds anyways, while the rest looked to be a kitchen-type area, and a small smithing station. A small quarter looked almost like an office, and she wondered briefly how they kept the water from ruining their books and papers.

Brynjolf led her to the center platform above the waters of the cistern, where a suspicious looking man stood, eyes narrowed as he watched them approach. Something about him put her back up immediately, though she buried the feeling under a calculated indifference.

“Mercer,” Brynjolf greeted him. “This is the one I was talking about, our new recruit.”

“This better not be another waste of the Guild's resources, Brynjolf,” Mercer growled. Then he looked at her. “Before we continue, I want to make one thing perfectly clear; if you play by the rules, you walk away rich. You break the rules, and you lose your share. No debates, no discussions... You do what we say, when we say. Do I make myself clear?”

She looked him up and down, and made no secret that she was doing so. Something in his posture, his face, his tone of voice told her that he was hiding something. Something big. What it might be she would have to find out, especially if it contributed to the rash of bad luck the Guild had been having. Decision made, she shrugged lightly.

“As glass.”

“Good. Then I think it's time we put your expertise to the test.”

Her inspection of the Guild Master had clearly made him nervous. She kept her smirk strictly mental and nodded in agreement.

“Wait a moment,” Brynjolf protested. “You're not talkin about Goldenglow, are you? Even our little Vex couldn't get in.”

“You claim she possesses an aptitude for our line of work. If so, let her prove it,” Mercer retorted.

Ah, she'd made him nervous enough to try and get her killed on her first job even. Well, it was proof that he wasn't entirely without sense.

“Goldenglow estate is critically important to one of our largest clients,” he continued, glancing back at her. “However the owner has suddenly decided to take matters into his own hands and shut us out. He needs to be taught a lesson; Brynjolf will provide you with more details.”

“Mercer, aren't you forgetting something?” the red-haired man asked.

“Hmm? Oh, right. Since Brynjolf assures me you'll be nothing but a benefit to us, then you're in. Welcome to the Thieves Guild.”

She nodded a little as Mercer stalked away, and Brynjolf clapped a hand briefly onto her shoulder. She looked at it, then sighed a little and raised an eyebrow at him. He grinned, then let her go.

“Welcome to the family, Tam,” he said. “I'm expecting you to make us a lot of coin, so don't disappoint me. If you need some extra jobs outside of what Mercer comes up with, go talk to Delvin Mallory, or Vex. Oh, and talk to Tonilia in the Flagon; Redguard, impossible to miss. She'll set you up with some actual armor.”

Auriel nodded, filing away the information for future use. Her mages' robes were getting a bit raggedy around the edges, and it couldn't hurt to have a properly fitted set of armor...

“So, tell me about Goldenglow,” she invited.

“Goldenglow Estate is a bee farm; they raise the wretched little things for honey. It's owned by a smart-mouth wood elf named Aringoth. We'd like you to teach him a lesson by burning down three of the hives, and clearing out the safe in the main house.”

“And the catch?”

“The catch, is that you can't burn the whole place to the ground. That important client Mercer mentioned would be furious.”

While tempting to tweak this mysterious client, she nodded in agreement; no point in making things worse for the guild.

“And what should I do about Aringoth?”

“Maven prefers that Aringoth remain alive, but if he tries to prevent you from completing the job, kill him. The Guild has a lot riding on this, remember that.”

She held up a hand briefly.

“Maven, as in Maven Black-Briar? That's your important client?”

He startled, and blinked at her in surprise.

“Now how did you...?”

“Please. I did my research before looking you lot up.”

“...so I see,” he murmured. “Yes, Maven's the client. If we destroy all the hives, she'll have to import the honey for her meadery, and that would make her very angry indeed. Now; Goldenglow has mercenaries hired by Aringoth, not the typical city guards. Watch yourself lass. Talk to Vex if you want more details on that. She ought to be in the Flagon, the blonde Imperial with the sharp tongue.”

Auriel nodded, and went to do just that. While she could handle a pack of mercs, any relevant information wasn't to be passed up. After attempting to intimidate her—Auriel let it pass because she wasn't, and Vex was one of the ones who held useful intel—Vex informed the Altmer that Aringoth had practically tripled the guard, and that there was a sneaky way in, in the form of an old sewer tunnel. Then she took a moment to speak with Tonilia, who measured her for the new armor and told her to check back in a week.

With little else to do, Auriel headed out of Riften, to see what all the fuss was about Goldenglow Estates.

 

-

 

Goldenglow, she discovered, was practically in the middle of the lake, and she hissed a few choice curses as she slipped into the icy water. She could swim, and swim well, but she didn't like swimming in cold water. The tunnel was easily traversed, while the grounds took a bit more effort to get by unnoticed. Lighting the hives on fire and then confining the fire so that it didn't spread took a bit of tricky configuring. Getting away from the guards just took invisibility.

Aringoth, when she finally found him after more or less decimating his interior guard force, was initially pliable. But only initially. She had intended to let him live, take the document he'd foolishly signed, and go, but when he tried to attack her, she reacted by more or less punching him with a fist full of lightning. A dead Bosmer wasn't the end of the world, but she still took the time to arrange him neatly before taking what she wanted and making her quiet escape back to Riften.

 

Chapter Text

Thirteen

 

“Aringoth sold Goldenglow?” Brynjolf muttered incredulously as he looked at the letter.

“Apparently,” Auriel shook her head a little. “He said it wasn't his choice, but he couldn't back out. When I turned to leave, he tried to stab me, so I punched him with lightning.”

“Hmph. Somehow I'm not surprised. Whatever that idiot was thinking, you saved him from finding out what Maven would do in revenge. If only the parchment had the buyers' name instead of that odd symbol,” he frowned a little. “Any idea what that might be.”

She shook her head a little.

“I've seen many symbols for signatures in my life, but that is not one I know of,” she admitted.

“Blast. Well, I'll check my sources and speak to Mercer.” He sighed a little. “As for you, you're off to speak with Maven Black-Briar. She asked for you specifically, Tam.”

Auriel snorted a little and shook her head lightly.

“Sure, but will I come out of it alive?” she asked dryly.

He huffed a little in amusement.

“If it was like that, she wouldn't be asking for you, she'd be calling on the Dark Brotherhood. It's just business.”

'Just business' didn't necessarily mean harmless, but the idea of Maven trying to call on the Brotherhood was worth a faint smirk. There no longer was a Brotherhood.

“Any clue about what she wants with me?”

“That's between you and Maven. I'd prefer to keep it that way, too; I like all my parts attached to me,” he shook his head a little. “But honestly, don't worry about it. Maven's business deals usually involve quite a bit of gold for her people.”

“Speaking of, I believe you owe me some of that as well,” she said archly.

“Aye. Remind me to never get into a betting match with you. Somehow I get the feeling you'd clean me out entirely.” he chuckled, and obligingly paid up.

“I just might, at that,” she smirked.

Maven Black-Briar, she discovered, was a short Nord woman with ink-black hair and cold eyes set in a face that was admittedly more handsome than beautiful. They met in the upstairs rooms of the Bee and Barb, and Auriel chose to remain standing, just in case Brynjolf was wrong about the woman's intentions.

“So you're the one, hmm?” Maven glanced up at her, and raised an eyebrow slightly. “You don't look so impressive.”

“I'm the best at what I do,” Auriel said after a moment.

“Is that confidence I hear, or arrogance? Strange how often they're confused,” Maven shook her head a little. “You have to understand; it's been a long time since Brynjolf's sent me anyone I can rely on.”

“No faith in the Guild?” Auriel asked idly.

“Faith?” Maven snorted. “I have no faith in anyone. All I care about is cause and effect. Did the job get done, and did it get done correctly. There's no gray area.”

That was almost comfortingly pragmatic. Auriel nodded lightly, allowing herself to relax minutely.

“Then tell me what you want me to do.”

“Head to the Bannered Mare in Whiterun, and look for Mallus Macius. He'll fill you in on all the details.”

As Auriel left, she shook her head a little; she had run the gamut of clients for the Cyrodiil guild before becoming a spy, and Maven was a type she'd certainly seen before. She had a presence, but no warmth to her, and the relationship between guild and patron would be strictly business. Sometimes that was good. Other times, well...

She shook her head a little and adjusted her gauntlets absently. It would be nice to be back in Whiterun for a time, even if it was only a short visit. Perhaps she'd see Farkas, too.

The idea startled her enough that she quickly brushed it away. She would be far to busy to see anyone, especially that silver-eyed Nord. Best to put the idea out of her mind entirely.

 

-

 

Auriel stretched out the kinks in her legs and back as she walked up to see the renewed Gildergreen. The tree had been on her list of things to do, and it hadn't taken too much effort to actually get it done when she'd been in the area for it. She hadn't enjoyed dealing with the hagravens, or being forced to leave at a quick pace from Eldergleam sanctuary, but it was nice to see the results of her handiwork.

The blossoms were beautiful, and their sweet smell permeated the whole city. If it kept up like this, she was libel to turn it into her first stop every time she came back, bypassing even Breezehome.

She sat on a bench and leaned her head back, watching the stars come out between the tree branches, and smiled a little. She didn't feel perfectly safe yet, no, not by a longshot, but little by little she was building her bases. Covering her exits if she needed to make them quickly. A house or homestead in each hold had sounded like madness when she'd first considered the idea; now it just seemed sensible. She could hardly operate out of some of the places she'd been granted so far; the Ragged Flagon was a joke, and the College was just too far north.

Still, it was pure luck that the Thalmor hadn't staked out the city yet. She had done too much that was overt in this central land to avoid notice. Was it distance, or were they trying to let her think she was out of their sight? The thought made her frown; it wasn't paranoia if someone truly was out to get you, but had she perhaps overthought her own importance? She'd already almost been killed at least twice by what she'd presumed was their hand, but maybe they had decided to wash their hands of her instead. Was she doing all of this for no reason?

She heard Farkas before he made his way over to her; steel armor was not the quietest thing, and he was one of the only people she'd met in the city that wore it. She lifted her head a little, torn between annoyance that her star-gazing time was interrupted, and a mild pleasure at seeing him again. It surprised her too; she hadn't expected him to be about in the midnight hours.

“Mind if I sit here too?” he asked.

“There's room,” she shrugged lightly, waving a hand at the space. “As you'd like.”

Farkas sat down almost gingerly at the opposite end of the bench; it made her smile, just slightly, to see him trying not to impinge on her space while still obviously wanting to sit near her.

“You're observant,” she said, letting mild approval creep into her voice. “Though not subtle.”

He flushed a little, and rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. Despite herself, she knew her smile softened a little. There was just something... soothing about him. Compelling in a way.

“Haven't seen you around in a while,” he said after a minute, shifting uncertainly.

“Oh, I'm around, just not frequently,” she said easily. “I've got work right now in Riften; before that I was tromping around the troubles in Winterhold and Haafingar. I'm sure at some point I'll be free to relax here in Whiterun for a spell.”

Watching him light up with a hopeful grin was just too much; she ducked her head and pulled on her hood to hide her own smile in response. True, very few Nords knew what subtle was, but he seemed to have that awkward air of a bumbling puppy, despite his size. It warmed her some to think that someone might be looking forward to seeing her on a regular basis, though.

A tiny voice whispered that she ought not get caught up in this feeling. She considered it, then pushed it away; she could have friends as long as those friends knew how to take care of themselves. Given the battered look of his armor, the subtle nicks in the greatsword slung over one shoulder, she was fairly sure that Farkas wouldn't be easy prey.

“You should come up to Jorrvaskr sometime,” he suggested. “Come see what Aela meant when she said we were a strong family group. Sure there's brawls sometimes, but we're always fighting for each other's honor too.”

“I might. I might not. I haven't yet made up my mind, and unfortunately, am currently too busy to visit,” she shrugged lightly, delicately, and reluctantly got to her feet. “Sadly, I am here on business, not pleasure, so I'm afraid I must depart.”

“Ah... be careful out there.”

She smiled a little, and nodded in acknowledgment of his words. Then took herself off to the inn and her contact.

She found Mallus Macius in the back kitchen of the inn, looking as though he hadn't gotten a decent night's sleep in the past week.

“Can't a man drink in peace?” he groused as she approached.

“Maven said you're expecting me?” she murmured.

He startled a little, staring for a moment as she sat on the available stool. Then he seemed to shake himself, and leaned forward a bit. She did her best to ignore the smell of mead on his breath and did the same.

“I'm gonna keep this short cause we've got a lot to do,” he replied in the same quiet tone. “Honningbrew's owner, Sabjorn, is going to hold a tasting for Whiterun's Captain of the Guard, and we're going to poison the mead.”

“You have it?”

“No, no, that's the beauty of the whole plan. We're going to get Sabjorn to give it to us,” he smirked. “The meadery has quite the pest problem, and the whole city knows about it. Brewing mead and pest poison don't mix well, if you know what I mean.”

“And I fit into this... how?” Auriel asked, tipping her head slightly.

“You're going to happen by, and lend poor old Sabjorn a helping hand. He's going to give you the poison to use on the pests, but you're also going to dump it into the brewing vat.”

“I see,” she nodded a little. “Clever.”

“Maven and I spent weeks planning this. All we need now is for someone like you to get in there and get it done,” he gestured impatiently at her. “Now get going before Sabjorn grows a brain and hires someone else to do his dirty work.”

She heavily doubted the man was going to be up in the middle of the night, but then, perhaps he was an insomniac? Or anxious about the testing and the pests...

“A few more questions first; How do get to the brewing vats?”

“Both parts of the meadery are connected by tunnels the pests have made underneath. There's an entrance to them in the basement of the warehouse, that used to be boarded over. I've already removed the boards so that the meadery would get infested. That's where you should start.”

“Why not just go in through the brewery?”

“Sabjorn keeps that locked up tight. If you can get through that way, go right ahead.”

She leaned back slightly, tipping her head a little.

“Out of curiosity, why are you doing this?”

Mallus made a face and took a long pull of his mead.

“I made the mistake of borrowing coin from Sabjorn. He's allowing me to pay it back, but he's working my fingers to the bone. He treats me like a slave; I have to do every nasty, dirty job in the meadery.”

“....I think there's more to it than that,” she coaxed. “Come on.”

“If this plan works, not only is my debt gone, but I'll be set up for life. Maven and I worked out a little deal. If Sabjorn ends up in jail, she's gonna take over his little meadery. And guess who gets to run the Black-Briar Meadery in Whiterun?”

“You, I presume.”

“Yeah. Me.”

 

-

 

A good rest was everything she needed, and even if the day was clouded over, her mood was well into the range of contentment. Honningbrew Meadery wasn't far out of town, and she'd passed it many times in her travels. This was, however, the first time she'd gone in, and she glanced around curiously.

It wasn't exactly the cleanest place, but it wasn't obviously overrun either. There was a definite smell to the air of skeever leavings, however, which explained how the entire town could know about the pest problem.

Sabjorn himself was a somewhat rotund man in mead-stained clothes with a receding hairline, and a face that would frighten a giant. He certainly didn't seem pleased to see her peering around, and approached quickly.

“What are you gawking at?!” he snapped, crossing his arms over his chest. “Can't you see I have problems here?”

“And what problems would those be?” she inquired mildly.

“Are you kidding me? Look at this place! I'm supposed to be holding a tasting of the new Honnigbrew Reserve for the Captain of the Guard. If he sees the meadery in this state, I'll be ruined!”

“Perhaps I can help,” she offered after a moment.

“Oh really?” he sneered a little. “And I don't suppose you'd just do it out of the kindness of your heart, would you?”

She shrugged.

“No. No I would not.”

“Well, I hope you're not expecting to get paid until the job's done,” he said flatly.

“I'd recommend it,” she said silkily. “Of course, I can always run out and yell 'skeever' if it's too much trouble...”

“Okay, okay!” he said hastily. “No need to make rash decisions. Here's half. You can have the rest when the job's done. My only demand is that these vermin be completely eradicated before my reputation is completely destroyed.”

“And how would I do that, good sir?” she said, allowing a hint of mockery to creep into her tone.

“I bought some poison,” he said, affronted. “I was going to have my lazy, good-for-nothing assistant Mallus do it, but he seems to have vanished. If you plant this in the vermin's nest, it should stop them from ever coming back.”

“Very well, we have a deal.”

He handed her the poison, and huffed a little.

“Don't come back until every one of those vermin are dead.”

Auriel smiled, and went through the door to the rest of the meadery.

 

-

 

As Mallus had said, the basement tunnel was unboarded, and there were more than a few skeever bodies around. Arrows were overkill for the dog-sized rats, but instinct suggested that she go full-stealth to do this. She was glad she listened; the madman who had specially trained some of the skeevers wouldn't have been easy to put down without the element of surprise.

She came out the other side a mess of spiderwebs, skeever leavings, and ash, her good mood all but gone. She was going to have words with Mallus about leaving that pertinent detail out of her briefing. She dumped what remained of the poison into the brewing vat, dusted herself off as best she good, then grabbed the key by the door and let herself out of the brewery.

It was, perhaps, the first time she was happy to walk out into rain. Rain, at least, would get the worst of the webs off better than her own hands were, and she could blame her somewhat disheveled look on that. She was definitely going to need a bath after all of this was done with, and everything needed a long soak in something that didn't reek of dung.

First though, she had a tasting to watch.

When she entered and had a seat, Sabjorn rushed out, returning with a small cask of the tainted mead. She hid a smile and watched as he fussed over it, sending Mallus—who had apparently come back after she'd gone under the building—back to wash the cup he was intending to use at least three separate times before the Captain of the Guard stepped through the door.

Sabjorn smiled; it was a smile so oily and fake that Auriel had to wonder that he didn't break something.

“Well, Sabjorn,” the Captain said. “Now that you've taken care of your little pest problem, how about I get a taste of some of your mead?”

“Help yourself, milord,” Sabjorn replied smoothly. “It's my finest brew yet. I call it Honnigbrew Reserve. I think you'll find it quite pleasing to your palate.”

The damp Altmer stifled a snickered at how pretentious that sounded, and the more overt snort of the Captain suggested that he agreed.

“This is mead,” he shook his head a little. “Not some wine to be sipped and savored!”

Three pairs of eyes watched with various levels of anticipation as the captain poured himself a mug and quickly drained it dry. Auriel kept her expression strictly neutral as he immediately started coughing and hacking.

“What... what's in this?” the Captain demanded as Sabjorn hurried over to him anxiously.

“I... I don't know,” Sabjorn said. “What's wrong?”

“You assured me this place was clean,” the captain growled, shaking his head muzzily. “I'll see... see to it that you remain in irons for the rest of your days!”

“No, please, I don't understand,” Sabjorn protested, raising his hands.

“Silence idiot!” The captain snapped. “I should have known better than to trust this place after it's been riddled with filth.”

“I beg you, please!” Sabjorn tried again. “This is not what it seems!”

The captain wasn't interested in listening. He clapped a pair of cuffs around Sabjorns wrists, then looked over at Mallus.

“You... You're in charge here until I can sort this all out,” he ordered.

“It will be my pleasure,” Mallus murmured, nodding his head a little.

“And you,” the captain turned back to Sabjorn, who cringed visibly. “You're coming with me to Dragonsreach. We'll see how quickly your memory clears in the city's prisons. Now..” he belched, and grimaced. “M-move!”

Sabjorn looked about to protest, when Auriel deliberately drew his attention by scuffing her cup slightly. She smiled a knowing smile, and the meadery owner gaped in shock, allowing the captain to shove him bodily out the door.

“Farewell Sabjorn,” Mallus smirked.

Auriel got languorously to her feet, then stalked over to Mallus.

“I don't think that could've gone any better,” he grinned smugly. “Anything else you need before you head back to Riften?”

“I need a look at Sabjorn's books. And you need to inform me as to why I was not told about that madman beneath the meadery,” she snapped.

“Maven wants to hunt down Sabjorn's private partner, huh? You're welcome to look around his office; keeps most of his stuff stashed in his desk. Here's the key,” He handed it to her, then cleared his throat a bit as her sharp look intensified. “I thought it would be better to leave some details out of our previous discussion. Didn't want to risk you walking away from the job.”

“...so instead, you risk my my life against someone who was College trained, instead of giving me this information so that I could have been prepared and countered him without having to waste a good number of potions and arrows! Because that makes more sense,” she said acidly.

He cringed a little, and Auriel leaned back, resisting the urge to give him a good hard shock.

“Sorry?” he offered after a moment. “But you did survive, and now you done us both a favor! I won't have to hire the coin to get rid of him, and I'm willing to help fence some goods if you're in the area again?”

She snorted her annoyance and went upstairs to go through Sabjorn's things. She didn't tear the room apart, but she was not above lifting the valuable items she found lying around; since Sabjorn hadn't been able to pay the other half of what he owed, well, she was just going to take it.

In the desk she found another note with the same symbol as was on the deed to Goldenglow. She took the time to scrutinize it closer, but still couldn't make heads or tails of it. A dagger on a drop of black... or perhaps a figure with their arms crossed over their chest; even a stylized eye, depending on how one looked at it.

She sighed a little, and put it in one of her inner pockets. If Maven didn't want it, Brynjolf and Mercer might; if nothing else, it proved that there was a connection between what had happened at Goldenglow, and what was taking place at Honningbrew.

 

-

 

They met again at the Bee and Barb, in the same upstairs room. Maven looked coldly impatient, and Auriel put on her best neutral expression.

“I trust you have good news for me?” the Black-Briar matron inquired.

“I have news. Whether or not it's good is up to interpretation. Here's the information you requested.”

Auriel handed her the paper, and Maven flipped it open immediately. It only took her a moment to scan the page and she scoffed a little in overt annoyance at the end.

“This doesn't tell me much,” she snapped. “The only thing that could identify Sabjorn's partner is this odd little symbol!”

“Yes. We've seen it before. Once.”

“Well, whomever this mysterious marking represents, they'll regret starting a war with me,” Maven said coldly. “You should bring this information to the Thieves Guild immediately. There's also the matter of your payment. I believe you'll find this more than adequate for your services.”

The small pouch clinked gently as Auriel took it, then moved out of the way for the Black-Briar matriarch to precede her from the room. She shook her head lightly, waited ten minutes, then left herself. Time once again to visit Brynjolf in the underground Thieves Guild.

 

 

Chapter Text

Fourteen

 

“Word on the street is that poor Sabjorn's found himself in Whiterun's prison. How unfortunate for him,” Brynjolf greeted her, sitting next to her as she soaked her aching feet in the cold waters of the cistern.

“Yet very fortunate for Maven,” Auriel said absently.

“Exactly,” he nodded. “Now you're beginning to see how our little system works. Maven sent word that you discovered something else while you were out there. Something important to the Guild?”

“The symbol on the Goldenglow sale deed was the same as the one found with Sabjorn's things.”

“Then this is beyond coincidence,” he frowned. “First Aringoth and now Sabjorn. Someone's trying to take us down by-”

“By driving a wedge between Maven, the Guild's biggest financial backer, and the Guild itself,” Auriel said brusquely. “I already figured that out; it wasn't terribly subtle. The question that comes to mind is as straightforward; now that we know, what can we do?”

“Mercer thinks he has a way to identify this new thorn in our side. He'd like to meet with you right away,” he hesitated, then lightly nudged her shoulder. “And if I were you, I'd hurry. I've never seen him this angry before.”

She wasn't afraid of the anger of Frey, and it wasn't like he was that difficult to find either, so despite Brynjolf's pointed sounds, she took her time in pulling her feet out of the water and drying them off. It was difficult to tell, but she thought they looked a bit less swollen, which was an improvement on how they'd looked—and felt—when she'd first started soaking them.

As expected, she found Mercer Frey at his desk, bent over what looked to be an accounting book.

“Ah, there you are,” he said, glancing up at her. “I've consulted my contacts on the information you picked up from Goldenglow estate, but no one can identify that symbol.”

“Unfortunately, they seem to be expanding,” she replied neutrally. “I found the same symbol on the paper Maven asked me to get from Honningbrew Meadery.”

“It would seem our adversary is attempting to take us apart indirectly by angering Maven Black-Briar. Very clever.”

“Perhaps we should recruit them,” Auriel said dryly.

“You jest, but they've been able to avoid identification for years,” he growled. “They're obviously well-funded, driven, and patient. Don't mistake my admiration for complacency. Our nemesis is going to pay dearly.”

“Oh?” Auriel raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“Because even after all the posturing and planning, they've made a mistake,” he smirked. “The parchment you recovered mentions a 'Galjul-Lei.' According to my sources, that's an old alias used by one of our contacts. His real name is Gulum-Ei. Slimy bastard.”

“And what are you asking me to do?” she asked, head tipping slightly.

“Gulum-Ei is our inside man in the East Empire Company in Solitude,” Mercer said. “I'm betting that he acted as a go-between for Goldenglow Estate, and he can finger our buyer. Get out there, shake him down, and get that information. Talk to Brynjolf if you have any other questions.”

She nodded, and left him to his work, moving across the cistern to lean against the wall near where Byrnjolf was sitting.

“So, tell me more about Gulum-Ei,” she said idly.

“I can't believe that idiot's mixed up in all this,” Brynjolf shook his head in moderate disgust. “That Argonian couldn't find his tail with both hands. Don't get me wrong; he can scam a beggar out of his last septim, but he's no mastermind.”

She snorted a little, and nudged his hip lightly with her foot.

“Apparently this time he did,” she said archly. “You think he'll give me any trouble?”

“Trouble?” He snorted a little, pushing her foot away. “He's one of the most stubborn lizards I've ever met. You'll have your work cut out for you.”

“Then suggest a way for me to get him to talk.”

“You'll have to buy him off,” he sighed. “It's the only way to get his attention. If that fails, follow him and see what he's up to. Knowing Gulum-Ei, he's in over his head, and you can use that as leverage.”

She nodded thoughtfully, tipping her head a little in thought.

“While I generally find it a bad idea to leave a betrayer alive, I suppose that's what I should do?” she asked after a minute. “How will we make him pay for it, then?”

“With his fingers in the East Empire Company's pie, we'll make use of the debt sparing his life will cause,” Brynjolf smirked a little up at her. “For now, stay on his tail, and he's bound to step into something he can't scrape off his boot.”

“Ruin my fun,” she sighed a little, playing dramatic.

“I can think of other ways to have fun, lass,” Brynjolf's smirk widened slightly.

She raised an eyebrow, then snorted a little. She wasn't opposed to that sort of thing, but she certainly wasn't going to do it here in the Cistern.

“Safe place, private place, use my name, and maybe I'll consider it,” she retorted, nudging his hip again. “I'm not looking forward to this ride all the way to Solitude... That's what... two months in a cart?”

“Something like that,” He chuckled a little. “You could get a horse, or walk...”

She shuddered theatrically; riding might be moderately faster than a cart or hooking up with a caravan, but the idea of it was unpalatable. And it was still going to take months either way. Snickering, Brynjolf reached to the side, then offered up a bottle of Black-Briar mead. She took it after a moment and sipped carefully; cold and ruthless Maven might be, but her mead deserved every bit of the praise it garnered.

“Walking would take too long anyways,” he said after a moment, leaning back against the wall again. “I get the feeling that Mercer wants this handled as quickly as possible. You could always take a cushion with you.”

“I sit on my cloak,” she admitted. “At least, I do when it's not raining or snowing. Bloody Skyrim.”

He laughed, and she shrugged lightly, hiding a smile behind her bottle. She rather liked his laugh...

“You are a mystery, lass,” he said, a teasing note in face and voice as he looked up at her. “A lovely Altmer lady, this far north, trying to set the Guild to rights. What else will you do before much longer, I wonder?”

“That's for me to know, and you to never guess,” she replied lightly. “My thanks for the mead. Try not to get yourself killed while I'm gone.”

He snorted in amusement, and Auri left the cistern to find herself a ride to Solitude.

 

-

 

The weeks in an open-air cart, traveling through the cold of the Eastmarch, the temperate air of Whiterun, and the mugginess of Hjalmarch until she reached Haafingar Hold, wreaked havoc on her immune system. It may have been just a cold, but it was a pesky thing, complete with headache, raspy cough, and a nose that wouldn't stop running. She generally didn't get sick, but bad weather had followed her almost the entire way from the Rift, and there were few enough towns with a decent alchemic set-up for her to make or buy something that would help it go away. She spent several days in Solitude recovering at the Winking Skeever inn, much to her irritation.

On the fifth day, while the cough had not gone away entirely, she no longer needed to sniffle on every third or fourth intake of air. That meant—to her, at least—that she could find Gulum-Ei and see what she would need to grease his palms and make him talk.

Finding him actually wasn't hard; he liked to lurk in a small room just off the common area of the Winking Skeever, watching people while drinking.

“So, what do we have here, hmm?” he asked lazily as she approached him. “By your scent, I'd say you're from the Guild. But that can't be true because I told Mercer I wouldn't deal with them anymore.”

“It's cute that you think you can do that,” she replied tartly. “I'm here about Goldenglow Estate.”

“I don't deal in land or property,” he lied easily. “Now if you're looking for goods, you've come to the right person.”

“Don't try to play me for a fool, Gajul-Lei,” she said silkily.

“Oh... wait... did you say Goldenglow Estate?” He smiled a little, sheepish. “My apologies. I'm sorry to say I know very little about that... bee farm, was it?”

“For something you know very little about, you certainly didn't hesitate in acting as the broker for it,” she replied, letting the threat fade into casual curiosity.

“Maybe I did, maybe I didn't. I can be expected to remember every deal I handle.”

She shook her head a little.

“And what would improve your memory?”

“Well, now that you mention it, there is something I've been trying to get my hands on,” Gulum-Ei mused. “I have a buyer looking for a case of Firebrand Wine. There happens to be a single case of it in the Blue Palace. Bring it to me, and we can talk about the Estate.”

She nodded a little, and went to fetch the wine.

It was hardly a challenge; the case was tucked away on a table not far from the entrance, and out of eyesight of any of the guards. It was child's play to lift it and bring it back to the Argonian.

“Here,” she set the case on the table. “Now, is your memory improved?”

“It is indeed,” he smiled greedily, leaning back in his chair. “I was approached about being the broker by a woman, who mentioned it would be something big. She flashed a bag of gold in my face, and said all I had to do was pay Aringoth for the estate. I brought him the coin, and walked away with her copy of the deed.”

“I suppose she didn't say what this was about,” Auriel murmured.

“Not a word. And of course, I tend not to ask many questions while on the job. However... I did notice she was quite angry, and it was being directed at Mercer Frey,” and he shrugged lightly. “Now, since this transaction is done, I'd best be on my way.”

He was still holding something back; the tells were obvious if one knew how to spot them. He didn't quite meet her eyes, and the casual tone of his voice carried a note of being slightly forced. She moved aside to let him pass, waited a few minutes to let him think she wasn't going to follow, then wrapped herself in Invisibility and started tailing him.

He led her out of the city, and down to the port where the EEC warehouse was. The inside was lit poorly by torches, and patrolled somewhat haphazardly; in a bid to avoid obvious creaking footsteps, Auriel elected to climb the shelves and follow him from above. He led her to a hidden tunnel, which led to a series of caverns. A smugglers hideout, littered with his fellows. They ignored him, and to their detriment, never saw her coming.

When she caught up to him, she slipped up behind him and laid a dagger to his throat; he didn't need to know that she wasn't going to kill him, after all. He froze, wise enough to not go for his own weapon when she was already so close.

“Now then, how much has your memory improved?” she inquired innocently.

“I was gonna tell Mercer about everything!” he babbled. “Please! It's not as bad as it seems!”

Slowly, as if she was thinking about it, Auriel pulled the dagger away, and released him. After Gulum-Ei turned, she smiled sweetly.

“Who says Mercer needs to know?”

He stared for a moment, rubbing his throat, then sighed a little, and slumped to sit on an overturned bucket. She leaned against the nearby shelves, idly cleaning her nails with the tip of her dagger and waited for him to regain his composure.

“All right,” he finally said. “Perhaps I misjudged you. The name of the person you want... is Karliah.”

The way he said it made her pause; like he expected her to know the name. It made her wonder just how much actual contact he had with the Guild, to not realize that they had new members of all stripes. After a moment, she made a slightly impatient gesture with the dagger.

“And she is?”

“Mercer never told you about her?” he asked, incredulously.

“I'm still new enough that I don't get told the interesting things. You tell me.”

Gulum-Ei shook his head a little.

“Karliah is the thief responsible for murdering the previous Guild Master, Gallus. Now she's after Mercer.”

Auriel's eyebrows went up in surprise. Not that Mercer had an enemy, oh no, but that this Karliah was doing this in a subtle manner. This wasn't a thing thieves typically did when taking out rivals.

“And you're helping her?”

“Help?” He shook his head rapidly. “No, no! I didn't even know it was her until after she contacted me. Please, you have to believe me!”

“Relax, I have no interest in their personal vendetta,” she shrugged a little. “Can you tell me where she is now?”

“I don't know. When I asked her where she was going, she just muttered 'Where the end began.' Here, take the Goldenglow Estate deed as proof! And when you speak to Mercer, tell him I'm worth more alive!”

“You've been very helpful,” she smiled a little, patting the Argonian lightly on the head like a well-behaved dog. “I don't think Mercer will take out a contract on you.”

He shuddered, quickly getting to his feet and scampering off into the darkness. Pleased by the reaction—there really was so much fun to be had in scaring people—she raided the shelves for anything interesting, then slipped out to find her ride back.

 

-

 

She was sick again by the time she returned to the Guild, due in no small part to the snowstorm that had forced them to make shelter in the middle of nowhere while traveling through the Eastmarch. The ratway and cistern weren't her first choices for rest, but neglecting to report in wasn't something she could do. Mercer took one look at her and told her to go be sick somewhere else, to report in when she could speak clearly again.

Brynjolf helped her to his own small flat, and tended to her with a surprising amount of care. He was there when her fever raged high and made her delirious, he was there when she was coherent but exhausted. As she recovered enough to spend more time awake and sitting up, she watched sometimes while he painstakingly made jewelry, or repaired armor, when he sharpened daggers, and made meals that she could keep down. When he was away, doing work for the guild, she wondered just what his angle was. She owed him now, as much as she hated to admit it, so what favor was he going to want in return?

When he agreed she was fully recovered at long last, she decided it was time to broach the subject.

“...did I say anything while I was delirious?” she asked.

“Oh, this and that. Mostly things about your old family. Magic lessons from your da, alchemy lessons from another person. Somethin' about the Oblivion Crisis, but I couldn't really make sense of it... Oh, and something about Saarthal. Were you one of the mages involved in that mess?”

Auriel made a face; fever dreams had certainly been interesting. She couldn't remember much of them, but it didn't surprise her to hear that Saarthal's nonsense had come up.

“Unfortunately.”

“Did the College really blow up?”

That made her snort, and she half-smiled wryly.

“No, but it was a near thing. We had to replace the Arch-Mage, though.”

“I take it you got the job,” he smirked at her a little.

She shrugged lightly in acknowledgment.

“What can I say; they saw greatness. I just prefer to travel and do you know how cold it gets in Winterhold? I am not built for the cold.”

Now he laughed softly, shaking his head lightly.

“Don't worry lass. Tam. I'll keep it to myself.”

Auriel raised an eyebrow at him over her stew, then snorted a little.

“So, blackmail and extortion then?”

He grinned a little, wiggling hie eyebrow in a manner that she couldn't help but find amusing.

“Entirely plausible. But we're also members of the same guild.” She blinked at him in surprise, and he nodded, teasing fading into a surprising amount of seriousness. “Independent thievery or not, we've all got to look out for one another. This rough patch is lasting long, and we're running into more and more trouble. The tighter knit we are, the better it will be.”

She considered this idea for a moment, thoughtfully, then nodded in understanding. He chuckled slightly.

“Also I am still heavily curious about the mystery you present,” he teased. “I want to know more about you.”

She scoffed, but gently.

“You're going to have a long wait on that one, Bryn.”

“I'm a patient man,” he replied with a confident shrug. “I expect your stories will be worth hearin.”

“...you have no idea,” she sighed a little.

“And you have no energy left,” the Nord pointed out with a grin. “Come on. Back to bed with you. Mercer wants you back in top shape before you give him all your information.”

She rolled her eyes, and obligingly went.

 

-

 

It took her a few more days before she actually returned to the Cistern, mostly because she'd allowed herself to be gently coaxed into a bit of fun with Brynjolf. While a gentle, attentive lover, it just wasn't the right moment for either of them. After some discussion, it was agreed that they could be friends, possibly even partners in crime, but that was where things had to stop. At least for the moment.

Mercer, when she finally reported in, had the look of a harried man, and he glared at her like her illness was her fault.

“So, talk; did Gulum-Ei give up any information on our buyer?” he demanded.

“Indeed. He said Goldenglow was purchased by a woman named Karliah.”

Nords were pale by birth, but watching the blood drain from Mercer's face was fascinating. Clearly his big secret had something to do with the mystery woman, and it was likely that something was about to blow up sooner rather than later.

“No...” he voice was low, roughened by indefinable emotion. “It... it can't be... I haven't heard that name in decades.”

Auriel waited patiently for him to regain his control; no point in antagonizing him, after all. After a minute he shook his head and visibly pulled himself back together.

“This is grave news indeed... she's someone I'd hoped to never cross paths with again.”

“I was told that she killed your previous master,” she said, allowing a note of curiosity to creep into her voice.

“Karliah destroyed everything this guild stood for! She murdered my predecessor in cold blood and betrayed the Guild! After we discovered what she'd done, we spent months trying to track her down... but she'd just vanished...”

She studied him thoughtfully; not only was he lying, he was doing so almost desperately. If she were less observant, if she perhaps trusted him more, she could have taken his vehemence for sincere anger...

“What would bring her back now?” she prompted.

“Karliah and I were like partners. We worked together on every heist, we watched each other's backs. I know her techniques, her skill. If she kills me, there's no one left who could possibly catch her.”

He sounded somewhere between possessive and jealous; had they held a relationship? A bad falling out of some sort might explain the mix of avarice and panic. But there was a dead guild master to consider.

Well, whatever this was, she wasn't going to unravel it with only a handful of facts from a biased source.

“If only we knew where she was...” he hissed, glaring down at the desk.

“Mmm.... Gulum-Ei said that she was at the place 'where the end began.'”

His head jerked up, and he stared at her with intense eyes. She blinked back innocently, and could practically see the gears ticking. He was planning something, and it wasn't likely to go well. She doubted she'd escape it, but it would be nice...

“There's only one place that could be. The place where she murdered Gallus. A ruin called Snow Veil Sanctum, up in Winterhold. We have to go out there before she disappears again.”

“...'we'...?”

“Yes. You're coming with me; together we'll kill her. Here's you payment for Solitude. Gear up and meet me at the ruins as fast as possible. We can't let her slip through our fingers!”

He shoved a bag of coin at her, and hurried off. She shrugged after a moment, pocketed her pay, then went to talk with Brynjolf; he'd been here just as long as Mercer, and it was more likely that he would just tell her what she needed to know.

He wasn't hard to find, either; while he hadn't been sitting close enough to eavesdrop, she didn't doubt he'd heard enough, seen enough, to know what was going on. The concern on his face when he looked up at her approach was definitely more than enough clue towards that fact.

“You're going after Karliah?” he demanded quietly as she sat next to him.

“I would be shocked at how you know, but this place isn't exactly built for private conversations,” and Auriel shrugged lightly. “So, apparently yes. Mercer was very insistent.”

“Karliah's bad news, Tam,” Brynjolf said sourly. “You should have more than just the two of you after her. What is Mercer thinking? He's going to get you both killed.”

She studied him thoughtfully, then lightly nudged him with her elbow.

“Tell me about what happened between Mercer Frey, Karliah, and Gallus.”

“No one is really certain,” he said after a moment. “They were close, practically inseparable. Karliah and Gallus more-so than Karliah and Mercer, but where one went, the others tended to follow. They all went up north for some reason, and Mercer was the only one to come back. He said Karliah had killed Gallus, and had nearly killed him too.”

“...it doesn't much sound like she was allowed to give her side of the story,” Auriel observed quietly.

“She ran away and hid like a coward,” Brynjolf snorted contemptuously. “That speaks for itself.”

“No, it actually doesn't. Think about it Brynjolf, you're smarter than the average Nord. If you were accused of something you hadn't done, and old friends swore they'd murder you on sight, what would you do?”

He looked at her for a long moment, jaw tense, then blew out a breath and shook his head.

“....maybe you're right,” he said reluctantly. “But it'll be hard to convince the others of such a thing. Gallus was a well-loved and highly respected Guild leader... If she didn't kill him, that would mean...”

Auriel shrugged lightly and sighed, patting his shoulder lightly as she got to her feet. If she was right or wrong, she knew what it was to feel like there was a hunter around every corner, and couldn't find it in her to judge someone without their side of the story.

“Just keep in mind that every story has multiple sides, Bryn. Sometimes, you don't get the choice or chance to explain yourself.”

“Tam.” He reached up and caught her hand, surprising her into looking back down at him. “Be extra careful.”

She nodded solemnly and squeezed his hand lightly before pulling away.

“I'll try.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Fifteen

 

Auriel didn't rush to Snow Veil Sanctum. She made sure all of her gear was in working order first, found her cold-weather clothes that would fit under her armor, and made sure he cloak was up to snuff against the icy winds of Winterhold. Since she was there, she stopped to check in on the college, and was pleased to find it still in one piece. She deliberately took her time there, answering missives that were deemed her responsibility, and arranging with Tolfdir a way to actually get the truly urgent ones to her.

She took vindictive glee at dictating a letter to the Thalmor Embassy that refused their offer of another Thalmor adviser. She didn't quite make an overt threat, but saying that the college could look after itself, thank you, was entirely too pleasing.

In truth, she half-hoped that Mercer's problem would have solved itself by the time she got there, but her luck was not quite that good. He met her outside the Sanctum, looking irritable, but unharmed.

“You're finally here,” he grumbled. “Took you long enough. I've been watching these ruins all week, and I'm sure that Karliah's still inside.”

“You saw her then?” Auriel asked, raising a brow.

“No, I found her horse,” he replied with a sharp smile. “I took care of it, and she won't be using that to escape on. Now let's get moving. I wanna catch her inside while she's distracted.”

“All right, lead the way.”

You lead; just make certain that you keep your eyes open. Karliah is as sharp as a blade, and the last thing I need is you blundering into a trap and warning her that we're here.”

Auriel snorted a little and mentally rolled her eyes. He was making her be his shield, trusting the idea that Karliah would hesitate to kill someone she didn't know. If Karliah truly was a murderer, then she wouldn't hesitate. If Karliah was innocent as Auriel was starting to believe, then her life would be spared. Either way, Mercer seemed to come out of it clean enough.

Arguing seemed pointless, however, so she did lead the way. For about thirty feet.

“...Mercer, the door is locked and barred.”

“Hmph. Move out of the way, amateur.”

She bristled a little at the insult, and moved aside, eyeing him narrowly.

“They say that these ancient Nordic burial mounds are sometimes impenetrable. This one doesn't look to difficult...”

He approached the door, and smirked, lifting his chin before he bent to work at the lock. She couldn't see what his hands were doing, but she had the feeling that somehow, in some way, he was cheating.

“Quite simple really,” he said boastfully. “I don't know what the fuss is about these locks. All it takes is a bit of know how, and a lot of skill.” He fiddled with it briefly, then moved back as it unwound. “That should do it. After you.”

It would have been amusing to just vanish on him, but her curiosity had been piqued; there was a story here, and she wanted to know what it was. So in she went, silent and calm; Mercer, less so.

“Ugh, the stench in here,” he grumbled. “This place smells of death. Be on your guard.”

She bit her tongue on a sharp retort and settled for rolling her eyes where he couldn't see. What else were tombs supposed to smell like?

The first room seemed clear enough; Karliah hadn't touched the typical treasures left in the various urns, so Auriel took those. Two draugr were child's play, and burned quite nicely.

“Pull the chain over there,” Mercer pointed as they entered the next room, “and watch out for the spikes. Looks like Karliah reset all the traps.”

Karliah, Auriel decided, was a very clever woman. It was certainly what she herself would have done if she'd taken up residence in a burial mound. Slowing down pursuit, and giving warning all at once was certainly the best way to handle such things.

She found herself having to admit that despite whatever she felt about him personally, Mercer's fighting abilities were nothing to sneeze at. He was very good with his blades, and she decided that she would rather not try and cross weapons with him. No, if it came down to it, she's slap three runes on his back so fast he wouldn't be able to react; if he survived that, well, hopefully she would have injured him enough to make killing him feasible.

What was annoying that, for someone who was a master thief, he certainly was waking up all the draugr. Letting him handle them was only fair.

The paused briefly outside a room, and he peered warily through the doorway..

“Bone chimes,” he said after a minute. “Clever. Rigged to wake the draugr, I'd bet. Don't blunder in to any of them.”

At the end of her patience with his patronizing attitude, she gaze him a flat stare, slipped into the room, then raised a hand and smacked the bone chimes, causing them to rattle loudly. The sound of shuffling draugr filled the room as Mercer snarled a curse. His curses turned into a yelp of surprise as she cast a flame cloak that turned everything flammable the room to so much ash and dust.

Do stop treating me like a rank amateur,” she sniffed, brushing her hands off fastidiously. “I know more than you think.”

She turned on her heel and slipped down the hall before he could say anything, and let out a slow breath. She shouldn't have let herself react like that, but it was so damn tiring to be treated like a person who knew nothing.

The next room was rather full of draugr, and she was quite willing to take out her mood on them. Watching them turn to piles of ash gave her a small sense of control, which she rather needed at the moment.

When she was done, she saw Mercer looking around at the dead bodies and scowled a little.

“Karliah's always been a nimble minx. Slipping past these draugr must've been child's play for her.”

“It wouldn't be that hard for anyone who kept their steps light and quick,” she replied with a slight shrug. “It's not like they're particularly clever creatures.”

There were more draugr beyond, that looked to be asleep... until Auriel opened a door that Karliah had booby-trapped. Knowing that she would have done exactly the same tempered her irritation; Karliah hadn't been a fool. That didn't make it less troublesome.

“We're on the right track,” Mercer muttered at they stepped clear of the bodies and traps. “She's been through here as well.”

The Altmer mage forwent a sarcastic response, and kept going. After another short hallway, Mercer reached out and caught her arm.

“That door up ahead... looks perfect for hiding an ambush. Be ready.”

Karliah had piled jars ahead of this door, and despite how gently Auriel moved it, they still woke up the draugr. Letting Mercer handle the draugr, she ghosted over to the thrumming word wall, and collected it, wondering as she ever did what the words meant, and how to best utilize them. She almost wanted to be attacked by dragons at this point; their souls, their power, fueled her understanding of the words she collected. On the other hand, courting death was not high on her list of favorite activities.

The irony was that she was doing it so much.

No ambush from that room presented itself, but they walked down a familiar hall, and Auriel grimaced to see what lay at the end.

“Ah, it's one of the infamous Nordic puzzle door,” Mercer sighed. “How quaint. Without the matching claw they're normally impossible to open. And since I'm certain Karliah already did away with it, we're on our own.”

He approached, and bent, shifting so that Auriel couldn't see, what he was doing with his hands.

“Fortunately, these doors have a weakness, it you know how to exploit it. Quite simple really...” He fiddled with it briefly, and she didn't bother hiding her surprise when the rings shifted, and the door sank into the ground. Did he have some form of skeleton key himself? Where had he gotten it from? “Karliah's close, I'm certain of it. Let's get moving.”

Auriel hesitated, peering carefully into the room beyond. If there was a better place for an ambush in this barrow, they had already passed it, and she could feel... something in the air. Anxiety maybe, or anticipation. She wanted to wrap herself in invisibility, thrust Mercer forward instead... But when he hissed at her impatiently, she carefully slid into the room.

She took all of two steps, and then an arrow hit her in the shoulder; she snarled an Aldmeri curse even as she dropped to the floor, vision graying out.

She regained partial consciousness after a moment, just in time to catch the confrontation. Mercer stood with his back to her, which left Karliah before him, wrapped in darkness. She struggled to move, but whatever was on Karliah's arrow had numbed out her body. Nothing responded; as much as she disliked the idea, all she could do was watch.

“Do you honestly think your arrow will reach me before my blade finds your heart?” he sneered.

“Give me a reason to try,” Karliah snapped, bow in hand.

“You're a clever girl, Karliah,” Mercer said. “Buying Goldenglow Estate and funding Honnigbrew Meadery was inspired.”

“'To ensure an enemies defeat, you must first undermine his allies.' It was the first lesson Gallus taught us.”

“You always were a quick study,” he grumbled.

“Not quick enough,” Karliah replied. Auriel could hear the regret under the anger in her soft voice “Otherwise Gallus would still be alive.”

“Gallus had his wealth and he had you,” Mercer snapped. “All he had to do was look the other way...”

Well, that was one set of questions answered; jealousy and greed were Mercer's motivations for murder.

“Did you forget the Oath we took as Nightingales?”Karliah asked. “Did you expect him to simply ignore your methods?”

“Enough of this mindless banter!” He shot back. “Come, Karliah. It's time for you and Gallus to be reunited!”

He drew his sword and started for her; Karliah quickly vanished.

“I'm not fool, Mercer,” she said, her voice moving away. “Crossing blades with you would be a death sentence. But I can promise the next time we meet, it will be your undoing.”

He lowered his blades, and approached Auriel, who flicked her eyes up at him in wary apprehension. She still couldn't move...

“How interesting... It appears Gallus's history has repeated itself. Karliah has provided me the means to be rid of you, and this tomb will be your final resting place. But you know what intrigues me the most?” He knelt down, dagger in hand. “That this was all possible because of you. I'll be certain to give Brynjolf your regards.”

Funny; she could still feel pain when she stabbed her, and the heat of her own blood trickling out of her body. She closed her eyes in frustrated regret, and let the darkness take her.

 

-

 

She noticed the cold first, a breeze that ruffled her hair. Then the softness of fur under her cheek. The weight of a blanket. Gingerly, she twitched her fingers, then clenched one hand into a fist. Her shoulder burned like fire, and she opened her eyes slowly, pushing herself upright. A tent was over her head, shimmering with a spell of warmth. Her wounds had been cleaned and bandaged, but they hurt like no one's business. She had felt pain in dreams before, but if she were dead, she wouldn't feel anything... right?

She would have lain still, if not for Karliah sitting in the tent across from her. Reflex had her shooting upright in preparation for a fight, then pain and dizziness nearly had her falling back over.

“Easy, easy,” Karliah cautioned, reaching over to support her. “Don't get up so quickly. His dagger nearly pierced your heart. How are you feeling?”

She didn't have much choice but to let the Dunmer woman help her, though she wasn't easy about it. Karliah made sure she could sit upright then pulled back to her side of the tent once more.

“I can safely say that I have had better days.... I'm surprised you care, considering that you shot me first.”

“No, I saved your life. My arrow was tipped with a unique paralytic poison. It slowed your heart and kept you from bleeding out. Had I intended to kill you, we wouldn't be having this conversation.”

It was logical enough, and Karliah had no reason to lie to her. Carefully, Auriel accepted the bowl of stew that was handed to her, and tried not to snarl when her shoulder protested. Why was it always her left shoulder that everyone aimed for?

“All right, I understand that. But you don't strike me as the sort to do this out of the goodness of your heart. As far as you knew before he tried to stab me, I was on his side. So...?”

“My original intention was to use that arrow on Mercer, but I never had a clear shot,” Karliah sighed. “I made a split-second decision to get you out of the way, and it prevented your death.”

“While I appreciate that, I still think you should have shot Mercer.”

“I promise you, that thought did cross my mind. The poison on that arrow took me a year to perfect; I only had enough for that one shot. All I had hoped was to capture Mercer alive...”

Auriel's eyebrows went up.

“Alive?”

“Mercer must be brought before the Guild to pay for what he's done. He has to answer for Gallus's murder.”

“So he did do what I thought.” Auriel snorted a little. “Perhaps only an outsider could tell he was lying. Or maybe he suspected I was a plant by you. Either way, he's not going to make this easy on anyone, and he's bound to get back to the Guild first, telling everyone that you've killed me too.”

“My purpose in luring him here wasn't simply for irony's sake,” Karliah replied. “Before both of you arrived, I recovered a journal form Gallus' remains. I expect the information we need is written inside.”

Auriel's eyebrows went up in curiosity.

“...and you haven't read it?”

“It's written in a language I've never seen before,” the Dunmer admitted with a pained sigh.

“So we need it translated,” Auriel nodded. “There's bound to be someone who can do it, and I'll bet they're at the College of Winterhold.”

“Of course!” Karliah brightened noticeably. “Gallus had a friend, Enthir, who studied there when I was last in contact with him. His area of expertise was ancient languages.”

Auriel smiled a little at Karliah's evident relief. She knew Enthir, actually, if only by reputation. The word was that he could procure things that were not entirely legal. As far as his teachings went, well, she would take Karliah's word for it that he was versed in old tongues. She hadn't had cause to speak to him yet.

“He's the only outsider Gallus trusted with the knowledge of his Nightingale identity,” Karliah continued, eagerness flickering in her purple eyes.

“...you're going to have to explain that one to me,” Auriel said, head cocked slightly in curiosity. “The only nightingale I know of is a bird, but I can hear the capital letter. It's something important, isn't it?”

Karliah hesitated noticeably, and Auriel waited, finishing off her stew and mopping what was left of it up with the thick bread that had come with. She wasn't full—it would take more food than this—but the aching void in her gut had had the edge taken off of it, and she didn't hurt quite as much.

“There were three of us,” the Dunmer said slowly. “Myself, Gallus, and Mercer. We were an anonymous splinter of the Thieves Guild in Riften. Perhaps I'll tell you more about it later. Right now, you should head to the College with the journal, and see if Enthir can't translate it.”

“You're staying here?” Auriel asked.

“Only briefly. I'll catch up, after I make a few preparations, and lay Gallus' remains to rest,” Karliah said quietly. “I owe him that much.”

“...all right. I'm Auriel, by the way. Arch-Mage or Auri Tam at the College; Tam to the Guild.”

She met Karliah's eyes steadily, and after a moment the Dunmer nodded her understanding. Pleased that she wouldn't have to make any explanations of her own, Auriel found her clothes neatly stacked at one corner of the tent and pulled them on. If she was going to the College again, she was damned well going to be warm while she hiked.

 

-

 

When she finally made it back to the College, she found Enthir holed up in the library, reading a thick book under Urag's watchful gaze. He looked surprised and warily curious to see her, which made her smile thinly in response.

“Arch-Mage, you look like you've been stabbed,” he said after a minute.

“You would not be incorrect. I have something for you.”

He blinked in surprise, and put a finger in his book to mark his place, giving her his undivided attention. Wordlessly, she handed over Gallus's journal, then leaned back in her chair with a grimace; her shoulder was mad. She really needed to get it healed...

“This belonged to your old friend, Gallus. I was asked to bring it to you.”

“Karliah found it then,” he breathed in surprise, immediately flipping the journal open. Then he groaned. “Oh, this is just like Gallus. A dear friend, but occasionally too clever for his own good...”

“What did he do?” she asked, half-smiling.

“He's written it all in the Falmer language.”

“The Falmer have a language?” Auriel blinked in surprise.

“They do... or rather, they did. When they weren't the vicious abominations they are now,” Enthir said sourly.

“...so, can you translate it?”

“Unfortunately, no,” he shook his head a little. “However, I know someone who might. If you've ever been to Markarth, the court wizard there, Calcelmo, may have what we need to get it translated. Unfortunately, he's a fierce guard of his work, and getting that won't be easy. I'm sure you could impress it out of him, however.”

“Enthir, were I not already in enough pain, I would consider smacking you for that insinuation,” she said tartly.

The male Altmer chuckled a little.

“Apologies, Arch-Mage. Perhaps you should have that looked at by Colette,” he suggested. “Especially if you're going to be making this long journey for Karliah.”

“....perhaps I should,” she sighed. “At least then It would hurt less, even if it will be forever awkward to explain how I got this particular scar.”

“You survived it,” he grinned a little. “That's good enough, yeah?”

“Enthir, you sound like a Nord.”

He laughed again, and she half-smiled, then got to her feet. At least now she knew the journal would be in safe hands, Karliah would be in safe hands, until she returned.

 

-

 

After getting Colette to take care of the injury, she took a long walk, and a longer carriage ride to the city of Markarth. It wasn't her first visit to the Reach, but she hoped it would be a short one. She didn't want to get caught up in any of the Forsworn nonsense that plagued one of the most politically unstable areas of Skyrim.

Calcelmo, as Enthir had been, was an Altmer. He was far less friendly, however, refusing to share his notes, despite taking care of the spider called Nimhe, and finding what was left of a lost expedition. All she earned from that was a double handful of gold, and a key to the still-unopened Dwemer museum. Perhaps unfortunately for Calcelmo, she found the door that led to his quarters, and broke in.

Avoiding the guards was child's play, and she found a stone Calcemo had clearly been translating from in the middle of his workspace. There was enough paper and charcoal around to make several decent rubbings, and enough wax to ensure that they would remain untouched until she needed them again.

Getting out was a little trickier, but she managed to slip past the guards inspecting the room—Calcelmo's nephew had apparently grown suspicious of how long she was gone—then took a shortcut out of the Underkeep by jumping into the waterfall pool below. It wasn't terribly pleasant, but it was quick, and she managed to get out with enough speed to avoid ruining more than one of the rubbings.

She spent the trip back to the College studying the notes, committing the language to her memory as best she could. It wasn't just for posterity; if she needed a secret language that the Thalmor didn't know for messages, this was the perfect bet.

Enthir, she discovered, didn't actually live at the College the way most of the other teachers and students did. His home—if it could be called that—took up a large part of the basement of the inn. Karliah was there too, and looked anxiously pleased to see Auriel again.

“Back, eh?” Enthir smiled at her. “And how was our friend Calcelmo?”

“As reluctant as ever to share his work,” she shrugged. “But I got my hands on it anyways. In a manner of speaking. Here.”

Enthir eyed her in amusement as she passed over the rubbings.

“I suppose it would be inappropriate of me to ask how you obtained this, so I won't. Though I will admit, I expected notes.”

“...it's a long story.”

“I'd love to hear it sometime. Now, let's see...”

Enthir took the pages to the table, and moved a lantern closer for better light. Karliah glanced at Auriel, who shrugged slightly; after a moment, the Dunmer woman moved closer, trying to read over Enthir's shoulder as he studied the rubbings, and then the pages of Gallus's journal.

“Hmm... this is intriguing, but highly disturbing,” he murmured. “It appears that Gallus had suspicions about Mercer Frey's allegiance to the Guild for months. Gallus had begun to uncover what he called an '...unduly lavish lifestyle, replete with pending vast amounts of gold on personal pleasures.'”

“Does the journal say where this wealth came from?” Karliah asked, her soft voice taking on the faintest note of urgency.

“Yes... Gallus seemed certain that Mercer had been removing funds from the Guild's treasury without anyone knowing.”

“Anything else, Enthir?” the Dunmer pressed. “Anything about.... the Nightingales?”

“Hmm...” he flipped a few pages carefully, then nodded. “Yes, here it is. These last pages seem to describe 'the failure of the Nightingales' although it doesn't go into great detail. Gallus also repeatedly mentions his strong belief that Mercer desecrated something known as the Twilight Sepulcher.”

Karliah drew in a soft breath, and Auriel's eyes widened fractionally. While not a direct follower of any of the Daedric Princes, she knew well that the Twilight Sepulcher belonged to Nocturnal, the patron of all thieves. It's desecration would certainly explain why the guild was having such terrible luck.

“Shadows preserve us,” the Dunmer bowed her head slightly. “So it's true...”

“I... I'm not familiar with the Twilight Sepulcher,” Enthir said after a moment, looking from one mer to the other. “What is it? What's Mercer Frey done?”

“I'm sorry Enthir, I can't say,” Karliah shook her head lightly. “All that matters is that we deliver this translation to the Guild, immediately.”

“It's all right, Karliah. You don't have to say a word,” he smiled a little awkwardly, then glanced at Auriel.

“Well done,” she said quietly. “You have my thanks.”

“If you can get her back the respect she so thoroughly deserves, it'll be worth it, Arch-Mage. And, ah... thanks for not being inclined towards tossing me out for my unconventional connections.”

“Enthir, I can hardly do that to you without outing myself,” she said dryly. “Just do try to not get yourself killed over this information, all right? I'd recommend staying closer to the College until this whole mess with Mercer Frey is sorted.”

“That sounds like a good idea. I think I'll do that.”

He nodded to her lightly, and left the basement, leaving Karliah and Auriel alone. Auriel leaned against the table and watched the other woman as she paced restlessly for a moment.

“We must hasten to Riften before Mercer can do any more damage to the Guild,” Karliah said insistently.

“Answers first, if you please,” Auriel replied, crossing her arms lightly over her chest. “Explain the Twilight Sepulcher.”

“You've come this far, and you've no doubt had some small dealing with Nocturnal before now... very well. There's no point in concealing it. The Twilight Sepulcher is the temple to Nocturnal. It's what the Nightingales are sworn to protect with their lives.”

“That seems a bit... mmm... drastic,” Auriel observed cautiously.

“Everything that holds Nocturnal's influence is contained within the walls of the Sepulcher. Now it seems that Mercer's broken his oath with Nocturnal and destroyed the very thing he swore to protect!”

“Yes, that seems to be his thing, doesn't it?” Auriel said dryly. “Can you tell me anything else right now?”

“...no, not now. I'm sorry.”

She shrugged lightly, and pulled some of her hair over her shoulders, weaving her fingers through the strands. If it was the true temple to Nocturnal, it would be something worth seeing. Perhaps if she could speak to the Daedric Prince, she could recover her old skeleton key... or perhaps this would earn her a new one.

“All right. Then we need to make a plan; you know Mercer won't let us win this easily.”

“I'll scout Riften, and see if I can find out what Mercer's up to,” Karliah nodded. “When you're ready, meet me at the Flagon.”

“Don't get killed before I get there,” Auriel said dryly. “It's going to be hard enough without having you to help me.”

“I think you underestimate your own influence within the Guild,” Karliah said, a tiny, sad smile on her face. “As I often did. Here, take this before you go. It once belonged to Gallus, but I think he'd much prefer for you to have it.”

She passed over a short sword; Auriel raised her brows, and accepted it, though privately she doubted she would ever use it. Knives and daggers, certainly, but not swords. If nothing else though, she could detour to Lakeview and give it a place of honor in her entryway. It was nice enough for that.

“Hopefully the Guild will listen to reason, but if they don't, well...” Karliah shook her head a little. “Keep it close. And pray it won't be necessary.”

“Travel safe,” Auriel replied, briefly clapping the Dunmer on the shoulder. “I'll see you at the Flagon.”

 

Chapter Text

Sixteen

 

The air of the Flagon was tense by the time Auriel arrived, and a quick glance around showed that only two of the Guild remained at the drinking den; Tonilia and Dirge. Karliah was there as well, tucked away into the shadows, but clearly Mercer had done more than just spread the word... This didn't give the redhead much hope for a welcoming reception, and she was quick to block Karliah's attempt to lead the way.

“Considering that you're the one the want dead, you'll let me lead. Brynjolf, at least, will hesitate to kill me. Can't say for certain about the others, but...”

“....I hope you're right,” Karliah murmured uncertainly. “I don't want you dying any more than you want me dead. I hope.”

“Given that either of us dying would not be a good outcome, that's about right,” Auriel said with a faint, dry smile.

The Cistern was ringed with thieves, all armed and dangerous, Auriel shook her head a little, sliding back her hood enough to startle everyone.

“I've seen less welcoming receptions before, but this is impressive,” she said, pitching her voice to echo.

Brynjolf stepped forward, relief in his face before he flicked a glance over her shoulder at Karliah.

“Why is she here?” he asked, though she could hear less in the way of hostility and more in the way of confusion.

“Because I was right, and we have proof,” Auriel replied impatiently.

“Please,” Karliah spoke up from the dubious safety of Auriel's shadow. “Lower your weapons, so we can speak.”

“This better not be a trick,” he muttered, reluctantly sheathing his dagger.

“If it was a trick, we'd have more people than you,” Auriel retorted. “I've been reading people my whole life, so please give me some credit. While you've been lied to, it was not by Karliah.”

Vex and Delvin shared uncertain looks, then reluctantly imitated Brynjolf, sheathing their weapons and standing down.

“What's this proof then?” Brynjolf asked. “Let me see it.”

Auriel shrugged lightly, and took the journal Karliah had translated, flipping it to him. It was thinner than she remembered, but she couldn't blame the Dunmer for wanting to eliminate the fluff and personal thoughts between revelations. Brynjolf flipped through the translated pages, his jaw tightening noticeably.

“No it... it can't be...” he muttered. “This can't be true. I've known Mercer too long...”

“Mercer brought me to Snow Veil Sanctum with the hopes that Karliah would kill me, or he would get the opportunity; he almost did,” Auriel retorted acidly. “Karliah saved my life. I'm fairly sure you don't know him as well as you think.”

“It's true, Brynjolf,” Karliah implored. “Mercer's been stealing from the Guild for years, right under your noses.”

“There's only one way to find out if it's really true...” Brynjolf turned to Delvin. “I'll need you to open the vault, Delvin.”

“Wait just a minute Bryn,” the older man protested. “What's in that book? What did it say?”

“It says Mercer's been stealing from our vault for years. Gallus was looking into it before he was murdered.”

“How could Mercer open up a vault that needs two keys?” Delvin snorted. “It's impossible. Not even he could pick that lock.... could he?”

“That door has the best puzzle locks money can buy,” Vex retorted. “There's no way it can be picked open. I say they're both lying.”

“Vex,” Brynjolf said sharply. “We're going to open the vault first, and then we'll know or not.”

“Fine. But I'm keeping my eyes on them whether you like it or not.”

Auriel just shrugged, and continued to keep herself between Karliah and the rest of the guild as they crossed to the vault.

“He didn't need to pick the lock,” Karliah murmured, in a voice so quiet only Auriel caught it.

So, either he had a copy of both keys or, as she'd already assumed, a skeleton key from Nocturnal. But if he had that, why subtly steal from the Guild? The skeleton key opened any lock, any door. He could have raided a Jarl's treasury and walked away with things much more interesting instead of stealing from his compatriots.

“There,” Delvin said. “I've used my key, but the vault's still locked up tighter than a drum. Your turn, Bryn.”

Brynjolf stepped forward, and turned his key, then stepped into the vault. Auriel mentally counted down from ten; she'd reached three when she heard copious swearing.

“Brynjolf?” Vex asked, darting a look towards the half-open doors.

“It's gone, everything's gone! Get in here, all of you!”

Vex shoved the door farther open in her haste, allowing everyone who was watching a good look at the empty vault. Swearing immediately started crossing the cistern as the guild members crowded around to look. Auriel simply stepped up to Brynjolf's side, surveying the room dispassionately.

“The gold... the jewels! It's all gone,” Delvin said incredulously.

“That son-of-a-bitch!” Vex snapped, pulling her dagger out again. “I'll kill him!”

“Vex, put it away,” Brynjolf ordered. “Right now. We can't afford to lose our heads. We need to calm down, and focus.”

“Spoken like someone with Altmer blood,” Auriel said quietly, close enough to him to ensure that the only other person who might hear was Karliah. Brynjolf slanted her a look and she allowed a tiny smile to cross her face briefly. Karliah, for her part, stifled a sound that might have been amusement.

“Do what he says, Vex,” Delvin sighed. “This ain't helpin' right now.”

“...fine,” she snapped, slapping the dagger back into its sheathe impatiently. “We'll do it your way. For now.”

Brynjolf glanced down at Auriel. It wasn't the glance of a partner, it was the look of someone not wanting to give more orders, lest the overstep. Strange, considering he was technically Mercer's second, but after a moment she accepted the burden he'd passed to her with that look and turned, lightly flicking her fingers at Vex and Delvin.

“You two, go take watch in the Flagon. Don't engage Mercer if he shows up, just stall him if you can.” The two shared a glance, then nodded, and left the vault as Auriel looked at the rest of the members. “You lot, back off. Sharpen your weapons, prepare for your own defense, but again, if you see Mercer while you're out on your jobs, do not engage. We need him to answer for this, and dead bodies can't tell us anything.”

As the crowd dispersed, grumbling, Brynjolf sighed a little.

“Thank you for that, Tam...”

“You looked like you wanted me to say it,” she said with a shrug. “We need to figure out a way to find Mercer before they decide they don't want to listen to me.”

“All right, but before I help, can you tell me everything Karliah told you?”

“You trust me, but not her?” Auriel raised an eyebrow, nodding slightly at the Dunmer who was still in the room.

Brynjolf grimaced a little, glancing between them.

“I haven't spent the past twenty-five years thinking you were the cause of a murder,” he pointed out. “So, yes. I do trust you over her.”

Auriel glanced at Karliah, who just shrugged.

“In short, Karliah was behind Goldenglow and Honnigbrew, Mercer killed Gallus, and the three of them were something called Nightingales.”

Brynjolf blinked at her. Now it was Auriel's turn to shrug; she had consolidated it down into the important parts, trusting him to be smart enough to not need that much elaboration. Karliah stifled a smile, and managed to look at least moderately sober when Brynjolf glanced at her.

“Clever of you, trying to make Mercer look bad in front of Maven,” he admitted, running a hand through his hair. “Between your words before you left Tam, and that last entry in Gallus' diary, well... it all matches up too well. But... Nightingales? I always assumed those were just tales, a way to keep young footpads in line.”

“Apparently not, though she has not expanded yet on what a Nightingale actually is,” Auriel gave her a pointed stare.

Karliah only shrugged again, lightly, and elected to slip out of the vault instead of answer. Auriel snorted, but didn't take offense; answers would come in time. Brynjolf frowned a little, then turned to Auriel again.

“If that's everything, how would you like to break into Mercer's home, and search for things that might tell us where he's gone?”

Her eyebrows went up in curiosity.

“Is his home within Riften?”

“Aye. A gift from the Black-Briars after kicking the previous family out. I think he called it Riftweeld manor... He's never really stayed there, just paid for it's upkeep, and hired some lout named Vold to guard it.”

Auriel smiled grimly.

“I think I'd enjoy that job very much.”

Despite the fact that they were now the only ones in the vault, he leaned in and lowered his voice.

“Be careful, Tam,” he said quietly. “This is the last place in Skyrim I'd ever want to send you. Just fine the information, and leave. And... well, take out anyone that gets in your way. I'd rather have you safe and alive than anything else.”

“...Bryn, if you keep talking like that, people might get the wrong idea,” she said dryly.

In response, he put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed lightly.

“I don't care what they think. Mercer saying Karliah had killed you just about killed me,” he said softly. “You're a good friend, and one of the most honorable thieves I've met. We need you to stay alive.”

It was surprising and flattering; gently she patted his cheek, then stepped back. How long since she had held a true friendship like this? She couldn't repay it with lies for much longer.

“All right. I'll be as careful as I can. In turn, you should do something for me.”

“I should?” he raised an eyebrow curiously, even as he let his hand fall away from her shoulder.

“Make certain that no one tries to kill Karliah. I like her, for starters. She saved my life, and she's earned the right to handle Mercer as she sees fit.”

He thought about it, then nodded.

“All right, Tam. I'll keep an eye on her.”

“Do more than that,” Auriel said insistently.. “Talk to her. Let her explain herself. You owe her that much.”

He grimaced, and sighed.

“I'll... I'll try, Tam.”

“You'd better.” Auriel was quiet for a moment, though she took note of the concerned look he gave her. “She deserves more than what the Guild has given her. She's earned the right to come home.”

“....aye... I suppose she has.”

He sighed a little and ran a hand through his hair, then turned and walked out of the vault. Auriel watched as he caught up, reluctantly, to Karliah, and her startled reaction to it. A faint smile crossed her face, and she headed for the exit. It wasn't much, but it was a start.

 

-

 

She took care of Vold the easy way, shooting him through the gate before she picked the lock. Then she went through his pouches to find the house key. After discovering that the main floor door was blocked, she went the easier route of scaling the wall to the second floor, whereupon she let herself in.

The house wasn't terribly impressive as far as the main two floors went. There were a few guards who didn't appreciate her being there, and learned the hard way that she didn't care. She dragged the bodies to the back balcony and tossed them over to join Vold's; Mercer's home was more or less forfeit in her opinion, and with a little bit of fixing up, it could do for a less damp gathering place for the guild. To that end, no bodies in the house.

A false wardrobe led her down into the basement of the house, which looked like it connected to the tunnels of the Ratway. It hadn't been surprising to find, but she wondered if any of the Ratway tunnels connected properly from this basement to the Flagon.

The number of traps were ridiculous, if not entirely surprising. It wasn't paranoia if someone was actually out to get you, after all. True, Mercer didn't know for sure that they were out to get him, but just as plainly he was prepared for it. It made Auriel glad that she knew how to walk light, and how to spot traps from a distance in all manner of lighting. The hall of swinging logs and scythes, however, was just overkill.

“Mercer, if you're down here, I don't care what Karliah wants, I'm going to light you on fire,” Auri muttered, fingering a new slice in her hood as she came out the other side. “I'm going to run out of leather for how often this thing has needed repairs lately...”

Mercer was—luckily for him—nowhere to be found. She kicked the chair lightly, and cursed softly, then scoured the small room. Her ire faded swiftly when she realized that his haste to get ahead meant he hadn't cleaned up after himself, and had left a very obviously marked map right there in plain view.

She smiled thinly as she picked it up and tightly folded it. Then, just because he'd left them out, she promptly raided the room of all its treasures. It was petty of her, to be certain, but she wasn't inclined to be nice to someone who had tried to kill her.

The exit to the Ratway was safer than the hall of potential death, and fortunately ended up being a faster way back to the Flagon. Making a mental note to get a map of the tunnels at some point—there was little doubt she'd need it eventually—she nodded as she passed Delvin and Vex, and headed back to the cistern.

The air was thick with tension and the dark muttering of thwarted thieves; While she certainly couldn't blame them, she rather wished they'd disperse back to what counted for normal around here. Brynjolf stood at the Guild Master's desk, looking harried; a quick glance around had her pinpointing Karliah at the middle of the cistern, body-language closed off and unwelcoming.

“Here. I found this,” she said without preamble, laying the map onto the desk. “I take it there was no sign of Mercer in town?”

“None. And from your find I presume he wasn't at his home either.”

“Nope. I don't know how long he's been gone, but this says a lot about where he will be.”

He studied the map, and let out a low whistle.

“Shor's Beard! He's going after the Eyes of the Falmer? That was Gallus' pet project! If he gets his hands on them, you can be certain that he'll be gone for good.... not to mention set up for life.”

“Well then, I suppose it's time to stop him,” she said with a small shrug.

“Agreed,”he said grimly. “He's taken everything the Guild has left, and to go after one of the last greatest heists is just an insult. But first... Karliah wants to talk, with both of us. The way she said it, it was rather urgent. So, the sooner we get this done, the sooner we can go after Mercer and make him regret this.”

She raised her brows; he was going to come along? Karliah she had expected, Karliah had a vendetta. But Bryn? And what, exactly, did Karliah want to say to the both of them that was so important?

She walked with him to the middle of the cistern where Karliah waited; the Dunmer looked briefly uneasy, then it faded into a firm resolve. Something about it made Auriel wary; while she owed Karliah for her life, she had the sense that unreasonable favors were about to be asked in repayment.

“Brynjolf,” Karliah began, soft voice firming after a moment, “the time has come to decide Mercer's fate. Until a new Guild Master is chosen, the decision falls to you.”

“Aye lass,” he sighed, and ran a hand through his hair. “And I've got one for you. Mercer Frey tried to kill you both, betrayed the Guild, murdered Gallus, and made us question our future. His life needs to end.”

She raised an eyebrow slightly as she glanced at him; there was a hard, set look to his face that inwardly pleased her. A Thieves Guild Master did, on occasion need to be a hard person. He'd make a good one, all things considered.

“We have to be very careful, Brynjolf,” Karliah murmured. “Mercer is a Nightingale, an Agent of Nocturnal.”

“Then... it's all true?” he asked, a cautious note in his voice. “Everything I heard in the stories? The Nightingales, their allegiance to Nocturnal, and the Twilight Sepulcher?”

“Yes,” Karliah said softly. “That's why we need to prepare ourselves and meet Mercer on equal footing. Just outside of Riften, beyond the southwest gate, is a small path cut up the mountainside. At the end of that path is a clearing, and an old standing stone. I'd like you both to meet me there.”

Karliah turned quickly away before Auriel could stop her, heading out of the cistern. Auriel frowned, crossing her arms over her chest.

“You look like you're thinking hard,” Brynjolf nudged her gently. “I thought you trusted Karliah.”

She snorted a little.

“To a point,” she replied tartly. “Just like I trust you, to a point. But she's planning something for us, and I'm not a big fan of being left out of something I ought to have a say in.”

He smiled a little crookedly.

“Do we have another choice, Tam?”

“...no,” she sighed. “And I hate that as well. Come on. Let's go see what it is she wants to show us.”

“You go on ahead,” he said, patting her shoulder briefly. “I'll talk to Delvin and Vex about a watch, and catch up.”

Auriel nodded, and turned to head out of the Cistern.

 

Chapter Text

Seventeen

 

 

The standing stone threw a cold shadow over what was otherwise a lovely clearing, and Auriel thought it echoed her own thoughts quite well. Trust in the truest sense was a tricky thing; she trusted them to follow their anger and their vendettas, but she didn't trust them with her secrets, her truths. Didn't want to trust them with that as of yet, because who was to say that they agreed with Ulfric, or that they even cared about more than what money they could earn?

It was tempting to keep walking, to aim for the Dwemer ruin that Mercer had gone too... But in the end she waited, soaking in the warmth of the sunlight and assessing her plans. Brynjolf caught up about twenty minutes after she'd arrived, moving to stand at her shoulder without interrupting her thoughts; she glanced at him absently, then away.

Ten minutes later, Karliah slid down the rock face

“I'm glad you're here,” she said.

“What's the significance of this place?” Auriel asked.

“This is the headquarters of the Nightingales, cut into the mountainside by the first of our kind. We've come to seek the edge we need to defeat Mercer Frey.”

“And what edge would that be?”

“...If you'll follow me, I'll try to explain along the way.”

Auriel frowned a little, then sighed; she hated not having a choice.

“Are we to become Nightingales, then?” she asked.

“It is my hope that you will, yes,” Karliah admitted. “Now, come on.”

She pushed lightly on the rock, and the face of it sank into the ground with a soft grating sound. Auriel muttered in Aldmeri, but ducked under the stone and through the door after the Dunmer, while Brynjolf brought up the rear.

Funny to think she was all right with him at her back. So few people were allowed to watch it...

“So this is Nightingale Hall?” Brynjolf asked as they walked through the narrow natural cavern. “I heard about this place when I joined the Guild, but I never believed it existed...”

“The assumption that the Nightingales were just a myth was seeded within the Guild on purpose,” Karliah replied; there was almost amusement in her voice. “It helped divert attention from our true nature.” Then she paused and glanced over her shoulder. “What's wrong Brynjolf? I can almost hear your brow furrowing.”

Auriel also glanced at him, and sure enough, Brynjolf was frowning.

“I'm trying to understand why I'm here,” he said after a moment. “I'm no priest, and I'm certainly not religious. Why pick me?”

“This isn't about religion, Brynjolf. It's business.”

Business, right; Auriel stifled a snort and shook her head slightly. Personally, she thought it was more likely Karliah was using him to make sure Auriel didn't walk away. Which she had heavily considered before he'd shown up in the clearing. But seeing him, realizing that he was a friend, that he had become more than moderately important to her... It was as annoying as it was comforting.

The other annoying part was that she'd need both of them to take on Mercer; they could be the perfect distraction if nothing else. One coldly ready to exact revenge for a decades-long vendetta, the other ready to end a betrayal that had only just been discovered.

The tunnel opened up into a cavern that had decidedly seen better days. A small waterfall and stream provided fresh water, but the bridge was crumbling, and everything in what was meant to be the main room was in various states of disrepair.

What had this looked like when it was new, she wondered. When the Nightingales had first made it. Had it been grander? Prouder? Or had it always been like this; a bit run-down and seedy, like the people who came to it.

“If you'll both proceed to the armory, and don the Nightingale armor, we can begin the Oath,” Karliah said.

Brynjolf glanced at Auriel, who pressed her lips together in a thin line, then shrugged irritably. She had no other choice, but that didn't mean she was going to capitulate easily.

“This is enough to make your head spin, eh?” he murmured.

“Mmm...”

“Are you all right?”

“I?” she scoffed a little. “Worry more about yourself, Bryn.”

He gave her a concerned look, but didn't press further, instead turning to touch the odd stone that was the 'armory' Karliah had indicated. The stones slid open like drawers at their touches, revealing a full set of black armor; chestplates, gauntlets, greaves, facemasks and cloaks. She didn't look at the other two while she changed, but she made sure to keep her posture stiff with disapproval. Whether it would make a difference to Karliah, she didn't know, but she was damned well going to ensure that the Dunmer knew she wasn't pleased.

“You appear ready for the Oath,” Karliah said.

Auriel turned to see that they both had changed as well. Once Brynjolf had finished adjusting his armor, Karliah led the way down the hall to a series of torches. Once there, she turned to wait for them; with the facemask on her expression was unreadable, but her posture was tense; to Auriel's eyes, she was wound as tight as a spring, and just as likely to fly off if things didn't go the way she wanted them.

“We've got these getups on,” Brynjolf said a touch impatiently. “Now what?”

“Beyond this gate is the first step in becoming a Nightingale,” Karliah replied.

“Whoa there lass!” Brynjolf held up his hands. “I appreciate the armor, but becoming a Nightingale was never discussed!”

“And you thought I was being paranoid,” Auriel scoffed lightly.

“You are paranoid,” he shot back.

“True, but is it paranoia if something really is after you?”

Now it was his turn to scoff, and she couldn't help but smile. It was his own fault if he hadn't seen this coming, but there was something comforting about the fact that he'd followed her lead without actually questioning it this far.

“To hold any hope of defeating Mercer, we must have Nocturnal at our backs,” Karliah said, her tone desperate. “If she's to accept you as one of her own, an arrangement must be struck.”

“What sort of arrangement,” Brynjolf retorted. “I need to know the terms.”

“The terms are quite simple, Brynjolf. Nocturnal will allow you to become a Nightingale and use your abilities for whatever you wish. And in return, both in life and death, you must serve as a guardian for the Twilight Sepulcher.”

“Aye,” he sighed. “There's always a catch. I suppose at this point there isn't much to lose.” He was quiet for a minute, then glanced at Auriel. She lifted one shoulder in a shrug; just because she had accepted that there was no other option didn't mean she was going to be pleased about it, or offer him guidance. It was his choice to make. “If it means the end of Mercer Frey.... you can count me in.”

“What about you?” Karliah also looked at Auriel. “Are you ready to transact the Oath with Nocturnal.”

“Does it really matter?” Auriel asked, her words sharp and icy. “I'm not precisely being given a choice; I'm not going to let him go through this on his own, and Mercer needs to be stabbed. I'll do it, Karliah, but don't expect me to be pleased about it.”

Karliah nodded, shoulders slumping a little, then turned towards the gate.

“After I open the gate, please stand on the western circle, Auriel. Brynjoly, the east.”

“I'm not sure whether I ought to be flattered by your concern, or insulted that you think I need help,” Brynjolf murmured, coming to stand beside her.

“....oh shut up.”

He did, but not before resting a hand briefly on her shoulder. She let it linger for a moment, then shook him off. Damn these people anyways...

They separated to stand on the three circles, and once in position, Karliah began.

“I call upon you, Lady Nocturnal!” Karliah cried. “Queen of Murk, and Empress of Shadow, hear my voice!”

Over the central platform, a ball of purple energy bloomed forth, and Nocturnal's voice echoed into the chamber.

Ah, Karliah, I was wondering when I'd hear from you again. Lose something, did we?

“My lady, I've come before you to throw myself upon your mercy, and to accept responsibility for my failure,” Karliah's voice was softer, and she knelt on her circle, head bowed before the power of the Daedric Prince.

You're already mine, Karliah. Your terms were struck long ago. What could you possibly offer me now? Nocturnal asked.

“I have two others that wish to transact the oath, to serve you in both life and death.”

Auriel crossed her arms, and pressed her lips together behind the mask; she did not want to serve anyone, and she did not appreciate Karliah using her and Brynjolf to get back into Nocturnal's good graces. While not entirely sure this was absolutely necessary, a glance to the side showed that Brynjolf seemed frozen.

Internally she sighed in disgust. This was certainly paying Karliah back for her saved life, but it was not how she would have chosen to repay the debt.

You surprise me, Karliah. This offer is definitely weighted in my favor...

“My appetite for Mercer's demise exceeds my craving for wealth, Your Grace.”

Revenge? How... interesting. Very well. The conditions are acceptable. You may proceed.

Karliah raised both hands beseechingly towards the violet energy.

“Lady Nocturnal, we accept your terms. We dedicate ourselves to you as both your avengers and your sentinels. We will honor our agreement in this life and the next, until your conditions have been met.”

Very well. I name you initiates Nightingale. And light, lilac-gray in hue, surrounded the three of them. It misted into the armor, whispered across Auriel's skin; she shuddered and breathed it in, resigning herself to the choice as a soft, dark fog filled her briefly with energy before it vanished. And I restore your status to the same, Karliah. In the future, I'd suggest you refrain from disappointing me again.

The shadowy ball vanished as swiftly as it had come; Auriel slipped the facemask off and tossed the hood back, turning an icy look on Karliah; Brynjolf's expression when he did the same, wasn't very happy either.

“Now that you've transacted the oath, it's time to revealed the final piece of the puzzle to you; Mercer's true crime,” Karliah said, heedless—or uncaring—of their combined ire.

“There's more?” Brynjolf asked, something akin to weary resignation in his voice.

“Mercer was able to open the vault without two keys because of what he stole from the Twilight Sepulcher... the Skeleton Key. By doing this, he's compromised our ties to Nocturnal, and in essence, caused our luck to run dry.”

Auriel pushed her anger down; one thing at a time, and at the moment, Mercer was slightly more important. At least now she was getting some proper answers.

“I was given a skeleton key for restoring her Eye in Cyrodiil. How is this skeleton key different?” she asked.

Both Karliah and Brynjolf stared at her for a moment; Auriel just shrugged.

“I lost it a while ago. Don't ask.”

“I... the Skeleton Key from the Sepulcher is not quite the same...” Karliah replied after a stunned moment. “It doesn't just bypass physical barrier. All of us possess untapped abilities; the potential to wield great powers, securely sealed within our minds. Once you realize the Key can access these traits...”

Karliah trailed off with a shrug. Auriel leaned back slightly considering this idea. At one time, she might have well tried the same; to have that sort of limitless abilities, one could set themselves up wherever and however they'd like. She could have used it to cross space in no time at all, to cast great spells that would bring all to their knees.

Abruptly she shook her head. It was like the Eye of Magnus; too much power for any one person to have. Especially the kind of people that would use it without care.

“It needs to be put back, before it causes trouble,” she said flatly.

“Good. You understand why this is about more than Mercer's lust for power,” Karliah's relief was palpable.

“I also understand that you just used us as bargaining chips to get back your status with Nocturnal,” she snapped. “Any debt between us is repaid by that, Karliah, life for life.”

The Dunmer winced, then sighed and nodded.

“I will not ask for forgiveness for that; it was necessary. If the Key isn't returned to the lock in the Twilight Sepulcher, things will never be the same for the Guild. As time passed, our luck would dwindle to non-existence, and whether you know it or not, our uncanny luck defines our trade. We must get it back.”

“It's the first time I've set out to return something,” Brynjolf interject, clearly attempting to lighten the mood.

“Very true. In our line of work, it's rare that we set out to return an item to its rightful owner,” Karliah nodded, glancing at him.

“Let's get to it then, before Mercer makes off with whatever this treasure he wants so badly,”Auriel said abruptly.

“Brynjolf...” Karliah murmured.

He sighed.

“Listen, Tam... before we set out, there's one more thing left to discuss. Guild leadership.”

Auriel frowned at Brynjolf warily.

“Hear me out,” he said, spreading his hands a little.. “Karliah and I spoke while you were breaking and entering in Mercer's place. Thanks to your efforts, Mercer was exposed, and after we deal with him, the big thing is going to be restoring the Guild to full strength. As a result, we both feel you have the potential to replace Mercer as leader of the Thieves Guild.”

“No,” she said immediately. “I have enough to deal with as Arch-Mage; this guild is not my responsibility. It belongs to one of you.”

He shook his head a little, smiling ruefully.

“I've been at this game a long time, Tam. A long time. I've stolen trinkets from nobles, and framed priests for murder... I'm good at what I do. Maybe even one of the best... but it's all I know. I've never been one to lead. Never desired it, never cared for it. Don't want it.”

Auriel looked pointedly at Karliah, but the Dunmer only shook her head.

“I've only just been accepted back into the Guild,” Karliah murmured. “There's still too much distrust for me to be accepted as a leader.”

“No,” Auriel shook her head. “No, I will not accept this. It's not my place.”

“Look, everyone in the Guild admires what you've done,” Brynjolf said coaxingly. “They may not come out and say it, but I promise you it's true. Knowing that Mercer decimated the Guild, and that you've been working to try and fix things, I'm fairly sure they'd accept you without a fuss.”

“The answer is no, Brynjolf. It's not going to happen,” Auriel said firmly. “Find someone else.”

Brynjolf studied her for a long moment, then sighed and raked a hand through his hair.

“....I've been pouring over the plans you found us, and I'm convinced that the Eyes of the Falmer are in Irkngthad, up near Windhelm. Karliah and I will meet you outside the city.” He hesitated, then reached out to touch her shoulder; when she stepped back, there was a moment of hurt before he buried it behind a firm look. “Prepare well, Tam. This will be a fight for the tales.”

She scoffed slightly and spun on her heel, leaving them both behind as she stalked a quick clip out of the Hall. Where they would head, she wasn't sure she cared, but she needed space, time, to think.

It wasn't as though being the Guild Master was reprehensible to her; she had been the Gray Fox for two centuries and some now, and knew how to handle such a position. The best trinkets from every heist earned the most cash from every fence, and the loyalty of every thief in the country would be hers, even if they were independent.

It just wasn't sensible for her to take the job on. The College of Winterhold could practically run itself; Arch-Mages were an overall authority, but the Master Wizard could run the day-to-day operations without an Arch-Mage in residence. Which was good, because staying in one place was asking to get bit.

Could a Thieves Guild be run the same way?

Everyone had rallied behind Brynjolf when Karliah had arrived, and he had given orders naturally enough.... but when it had come to dismissing Vex and Delvin, he had looked at her. And they had gone without argument.

She muttered under her breath, kicking rocks. She would think and plan while on the way to Windhelm. Maybe by the time she made it there, she'd have some idea of how to make this work.

 

-

 

Irkngthad, as its name suggested, was a Dwemer ruin. Auriel muttered a fresh slew of curses against the cold, the Dwemer, and Mercer Frey in particular. She didn't curse Nocturnal, though it was a near thing; resigning herself to the inevitable had taken about half of the trip to Windhelm.

As far as the Guild went, well, she was still thinking there, but felt like she might have hit upon an idea. A longshot, but if Karliah and Brynjolf could run it in tandem... Well, it was something to consider.

They had traded terse greetings outside of Windhelm; pleased to see them or not, the focus was on the job at hand, not the various problems that needed resolving. It took them a further two days to get to Irkngthad, but it was the work of minutes to slip past all the bandits and step inside.

No one awaited them in the first room, but there was one damn all mess inside. Mercer had plainly gone through these people like a warmed knife through butter, leaving none alive. It was odd, considering he hadn't touched the people outside...

“Mercer's been here,” Karliah murmured. “I hope we aren't too late.”

Auriel moved forward, carefully checking bodies. Brynjolf shook his head a little, clearly disgusted.

“Why did we never see he was capable of this?” he muttered, picking his way across the floor in a finicky manner that made Auriel think of a cat.

“Because you weren't looking for it,” Auriel pointed out. “I tend to look for betrayal around every corner, so I figured it out.”

“Yes, and he almost killed you for it.”

The anger in Brynjolf's tone surprised her only for a moment. Then she shook her head lightly. Sentimental Nords.

“We have to catch up to Mercer before it's too late,” Karliah said in her soft, insistent voice.

“He's not that far ahead,” Auriel replied, straightening and dusting off her hands. “They've only been dead a couple of hours at the most. If we hurry, we can catch him.”

“Good,” Brynjolf said. “I'd like to throw him off a cliff.”

“Let's tread carefully,” Karliah cautioned. “It wouldn't be unlike him to leave a few surprises for us...”

 

-

 

They traversed the corridors with caution, following the trail of blood and bodies, and avoiding anything that moved as best they could. Dwemer constructs roll and clattered past them, and they wound their way past traps until they found a moving platform that took them down a level. Through a trapped down they went—a spiked ball nearly socked Brynjolf in the head, to Auriel's sharp amusement—until they reached what seemed to be a viewing platform, above what was left of the Dwemer city.

“What's that?” Karliah demanded, peering through the bars.

“Where?” Auriel asked.

“It's Mercer, look! Down there,” Karliah pointed.

The bars were too tall to climb, to slick and solid, and there was no gate that would have allowed them easy exit to confront the man. Brynjolf lightly punched the bars to convey his frustration.

“Damnit,” he cursed. There's no way through!”

“...he's toying with us,” Auriel murmured after a moment, watching the distant figure of the former Guild leader. “He wants to be followed.”

“Well then, we'll follow him,” Brynjolf said grimly. “And be ready for his tricks.”

“Let's keep moving,” Karliah urged. “If we're this close, maybe we can catch up.”

“Maybe... but let's not get ourselves killed,” Auriel cautioned. “Dwemer constructs are one thing, but Falmer are entirely another.”

This time, Brynjolf let her lead, and they wound their way down through a short hall until they stepped silently into the room. Brynjolf stopped short and let out a very low whistle.

“Look at the size of this place,” he murmured. “Have you ever seen anything like it in your life?”

“Can't say that I have,” Karliah murmured back. “Imagine the riches hidden within these walls...”

“And the danger,” Auriel said sourly.

“You don't much like the ruins, do you, Tam?” Brynjolf asked, glancing at her.

He sounded more curious than anything else, and Auriel shook her head a little in reply.

“No. Dwemer constructs hurt when they connect, and they resist heat to a high degree. You have to hit very hard in a precise spot to destabilize the gyroscope, and it's not easy to make that shot when they're attacking you. And let's not forget that these ruins are going to be crawling with Falmer. They might be blind, but their other senses more than make up for that.”

“Unpleasant, but manageable,” Karliah replied.

“You say this now...” Auriel sighed a little. “Come on. There's bound to be a way to get to where he went.”

They found two switches on the upper level that, when activated at the same time, lowered the bars on the gate that was their alternate path. Through that hall they were greeted by another room, this one littered with Falmer, and two distinct paths.

“...looks like we can take the low road, or the high road across the chamber,” Brynjolf observed quietly. “Tam?”

“Split up, and keep your steps as light as possible,” she said, her voice a bare thread of sound. “Take whatever road works best for you, and if you have to kill one, do it with as little scuffle as possible.”

They both nodded, and Karliah went first, sliding silently from shadow to shadow across the room until she was out of sight. Brynjolf followed after a few moments, and Auriel came last, picking her path with care and caution. While it would have been easier to kill them all, she wasn't willing to risk the delay. She wasn't even sure how they'd caught up to Mercer in the first place...

A loud crash made all three of them stagger, and they were forced to take shelter as the Falmer converged on the far end of the room where it had happened. It took the better part of twenty minutes for the Falmer to disperse back to what they'd been doing, allowing the trio to make it to the end of the room and see what had crashed so loudly.

“So this is what we heard,” Brynjolf murmured. “The whole tower's collapsed...”

“The only reason to do that would be to block our path,” Karliah replied softly. “It must be Mercer. We'll have to find another way around...”

“Mercer was able to knock this thing down?” He shuddered a little. “Gods...”

“It's the Key, Brynjolf,” Karliah insisted. “In his hands, there's no telling what he's capable of.”

“Less talking, more moving,” Auriel hissed. “That's a lot of Falmer.”

Both of them winced, and Auriel studied the problem. After a moment, she pointed to a ramp, and gestured for them to follow. The trailed up and around the room,through another door, then paused to catch their breath.

“I have to ask, Tam, because now I'm curious; you're not amateur thief... how long have you been doing this?”

Auriel blinked, looking up from her waterskin, and made a faintly inquiring sound. Brynjolf gestured slightly taking in their surroundings.

“Oh, well,” she shrugged lightly, corking the skin again. “Long enough. If you mean the Falmer and the constructs, I've dealt with their like off and on for a few months. Anyone can be a fast study when their life is on the line, after all.”

Karliah made a sound that was almost a snort.

“Never give a straight answer, hm?” He said a little dryly.

“Why would I do that? It would rob you of the mystery.”

Brynjolf scoffed a little, and Auriel replaced the facemask of the hood to hide her smile.

 

-

 

“Shor's Bones! Look at that monstrosity,” he breathed.

“It's a Dwarven Centurion,” Karliah murmured. “Very tough, and very deadly.”

“...Tam, what do you think?” Brynjolf asked, looking her way. “Take it on, or slide around?”

Auriel smiled unpleasantly under her mask.

“I think we should turn it on, and let the Falmer play with it,” she said silkily.

“...remind me to stay on your good side,” Brynjolf muttered.

Laughing at him was impolite, so she made a note to find a way to do it later, then loosed an arrow that pinged off the Centurion's helm. Steam gushed as it 'woke up' and the Falmer reacted appropriately, drawing the thing's attention immediately. In the ensuing chaos, they slipped around it, and Auriel couldn't help but be pleased by a plan well-executed.

Finally, they were at the door Mercer had passed through, though there was no sign of him; Karliah hissed slightly in anger, and moved to take the lead.

“This is where we saw Mercer,” the Dunmer muttered. “We must be getting close.”

“...possibly. But still. Don't rush.”

Auriel had little doubt that the pace she was setting was too slow for the antsy Dunmer, but she preferred being alive to exact revenge. If the Falmer piled onto them, or the Dwemer constructs, well...

Both Karliah and Brynjolf stopped short as they passed through the door, and the Nord male made a choked noise.

“The stench,” he muttered. “This place reeks of Falmer.”

“This must be their hive,” Karliah murmured uneasily. “We'll have to keep silent if we want to avoid drawing their attention.”

Well, by this point, that was a given, so Auriel simply rolled her shoulder lightly in agreement. The didn't face too much trouble in the first room, only a lone Dwemer spider that tried to electrocute them as it broke; a hastily—and badly—erected ward kept that from actually happening. The next room was clearly a torture room, occupied by a trio of Falmer, and at least two human bodies. Auriel slipped in and activated one of the dormant traps; the Falmer squalled in their deaths, but they died quickly enough that the noise didn't escape the room itself. Auriel grimaced a little as the tang of fresh-spilled blood filled the air, and turned the trap off so they could walk through in safety.

“Even the Falmer don't deserve the pain these implements must have caused,” Karliah breathed, her body language suggesting trepidation as she looked over the implements of torture “The dwarves were a cruel race...”

Auriel just shrugged; whether they were or weren't was no concern of hers. They were long dead and gone, and not even their memories remained.

They made their way deeper in, and stopped short at the large chamber, then pulled back to confer quietly.

“There's a mass of Falmer in there,” Karliah said. “We can sneak through, or take them down, I don't care. As long as we catch up to Mercer.”

Brynjolf turned to Auriel who frowned and looked back out into the room to make an assessment; a hive indeed, there were more Falmer in this room than she'd ever seen in a ruin before. She didn't fancy tangling with all of them, so after another moment, she nodded slightly.

“We go around.”

Karliah nodded sharply, and Brynjolf let out a quiet breath of relief.

There was some irony in sticking to the deepest shadows around the piled houses; the Falmer were blinder than any bats so it wasn't so much the shadows that were necessary as the soft spots that would offer little noise. A very stop-and-start journey, it took them a good twenty minutes to cross the room to the narrow tunnel on the other side.

“I can hear water rushing through these pipes,” Karliah murmured as they made their way through in singe file. “We must be beneath a lake...”

The cavern they entered was obscured by more pipes, but Auriel eventually found a way around them. Using the pipes themselves, the climbed silently over a good portion of the Falmer; the icy chill of the water radiated through the metal, and Auriel caught herself mincing a little as it penetrated her boots. Brynjolf poked her lightly, and made a faint sound of amusement; she kicked him very lightly in response. It wasn't that funny.

They dropped down into an alcove, killed the two Falmer within, and stepped down a short hallway to a closed door.

“He's close,” Karliah said. “I'm certain of it. We must prepare ourselves.”

“Then this is it,” Brynjolf muttered. “We do this for Gallus, and for the Guild.”

They stopped there, checked each other's gear, ate, and had water. Brynjolf sat closer to Auriel than strictly necessary, and she allowed it, taking the time to fix her braid and tuck it back up under the hood. If there was another way out, well, they would find it, and Mercer... but she sensed it as well. This place would be the confrontation point.

Tasks done, they shared grim nods, slid the Nightingale masks back on, and Auriel very slowly pushed open the door.

And there, at last, was Mercer Frey.

The blood of dead Falmer coated the floor, and he was on the statue, prying out what looked to be a giant white gemstone. In the light of the bonfire he'd built in the torch held by the statue, they glittered with a fire unlike anything Auriel had seen before.

No wonder Gallus had wanted to collect them. No wonder Mercer wanted to steal them.

“He hasn't seen us yet,” Karliah breathed. “Brynjolf, watch the door...”

“Aye lass,” Brynjolf nodded as the Eye fell from it's metal socket to the shoulder of the statue beneath. “Nothin's gettin' past me.”

“Climb down the ledge,” the Dunmer whispered in Auriel's ear. “See if you can-”

“Karliah, when will you learn you can't get the drop on me?” Mercer sneered, turning around.

He held something up, and for a brief moment glowed with power. Whatever he did shook the entire chamber, and Auriel slipped from the ledge to land at the base of the statue with a sharp Aldmeri curse. She missed being half-buried only by luck of a quick forward roll, one that her legs didn't entirely approve of.

“When Brynjolf brought you before me, I could feel a sudden shift in the wind,” Mercer said, and she looked up to see him scowling down at her from his lofty perch. “At that moment, I knew it would end with one of us at the end of a blade.”

“...give me the Key, Mercer,” Auriel said flatly.

“What's Karliah been filling your head with?” he demanded. “Thieves with honor? Oaths rife with broken promises? Nocturnal doesn't care about you, the Key, or anything else having to do with the Guild.”

“Of course not,” Auriel snorted. “She's a Daedric Prince, what did you expect?! Someone to hold your hand and pat you on the head when you've done a good job? I don't really care one way or the other what she does or does not do for me. I have my skill and my power, now give me the Key!”

“Have you learned nothing from your time with us?” He shook his head a little in mock disappointment. “When will you open your eyes and realize how little my actions differ from yours. We both lie, cheat, and steal to further our own ends.”

She sighed; he was right and he didn't even know how much. It could have been laughable if it wasn't so damn exhausting.

“You're right. But, you see, I don't really care about that,” she replied tiredly. “In the end, your choices remain made in light of greed and jealousy. You power is as false as your heart; at least mine will remain after you have fallen.”

“It's clear you'll never see the Skeleton Key as I do... as an instrument of limitless wealth! Instead you've chosen to fall over your own foolish code!”

She shrugged lightly, shaking out her hands; she had her balance and her breath back, and she was done with banter.

“If anyone falls here today Mercer, it will be you.”

“Then the die is cast, and once again my blade will taste Nightingale blood!” he cried. “You first, little Altmer, and then I'll deal with you, Karliah!”

He launched himself at her, and Auriel dodged rapidly, lashing out with lightning as he stepped into the water. Not enough to kill him right off the bat, unfortunately, but she chased lightning with ice, freezing the water around his feet. It didn't hold him long, and she jumped back, forced to abort a spell mid-cast as he lunged at her with his sword.

“If you're expecting help from your companions, you're not going to get it,” Mercer sneered as she took brief shelter behind a tall rock. “Look for yourself!”

She did, and grimaced; Brynjolf was attacking Karliaf, but gone was the fluid grace of the red-haired Nord. His movements were jerky, like a badly played marionette.

“I can't... stop myself,” he grunted.

“It's the Key, it's not you,” Karliah said, even as she dodged a ham-handed strike. “Fight it Brynjolf!”

“I'm trying!

Auriel yanked her attention away as the room vibrated, and dove forward just in time to avoid being crushed under a rock. Mercer laughed mockingly, and flared into invisibility. A different spell highlighted him for her, and Auriel lunged after him lighting in her fists. The faster she killed him, the faster Brynjolf would return to himself.

In the end, invisibility served her better than him, and she went with the plan she'd made back in Snow Veil Sanctum; she slapped a trio of fire runes on his back and jumped away. They exploded with enough force to send Mercer's body flying one way, and the Key another.

As he fell, the room vibrated with explosions.

“This place is coming down!” Karliah cried. “Hurry! Get the Skeleton Key and the Eyes, and lets get out of here!”

Auriel scrambled for the treasures as Byrnjolf worked his way back up to the door, slamming his shoulder against it repeatedly.

“Something must have fallen on the other side of the door. It's not moving!”

Water poured down from the broken pipes, and Auriel moved for high ground instinctively. Karliah sword in her native language, and Brynjolf cursed as another shake threw them both from what was left of the ledge, landing in the water that was starting to fill the room.

“There has to be another way out,” Karliah insisted, picking herself up. “We have to find it before we drown!”

They looked around frantically as the water crept up rapidly, but nothing came to sight. It got to the point where even the height of the statue couldn't keep them dry; as the light was drowned Brynjolf grabbed at her cape so that they wouldn't get separated in the icy water.

Another tremor shook the room. Then another. Golden fire died as the water rose above the statue's head, leaving them in a barely visible luminescent blue. It was just enough light to see by when the rocks came loose over the head of the statue, plunging into the water and revealing an opening to the tunnel. Auriel wasted no time in striking for it.

Shivering from the cold, Auriel scrambled up onto dry land, then turned to help her two companions out of the water. Together, dripping, shaking, and exhausted, they staggered their way out into the snow of the Pale. After a brief moment of orientation, they found their way to the road and began the trek to Windhelm. Once there—they didn't stop for anything, not even sleep, shortening the trip by half a day—they took shelter in Candelhearth Hall. Though the innkeeper didn't seem to approve of putting them all in the same room, she did seem sympathetic to their plight, bringing them towels and spare clothes that were dry and warm before leaving them alone.

They helped each other with frozen buckles and fasteners, stripping out of the black armor as quick as numbed fingers allowed. Of the three of them, Brynjolf was the least affected by the cold; while not immune to it, he wasn't shivering half as much as they were, so when he managed to get into dry things, he went to see what the innkeeper had that would be warm and filling for three people that had almost drowned.

“I can't believe it's over,” Karliah murmured as she wrapped her hair in a towel. “Twenty-five years in exile, and just like that... it's done. All that remains is to ensure the safe return of the Skeleton Key.”

Auriel somewhat envied her the lack of stutter; she was still shivering hard enough that even the simple buttons on the dress she'd been loaned were defeating her.

“Sounds like it ought t-t-t-to be simple... so I p-presume it's n-not?” Auriel asked, glaring down at the buttons.

“No, unfortunately not,” Karliah picked up another towel and wrapped it around Auriel's hair without asking. Having the ice-covered braid off her back was a distinct improvement, so Auriel didn't protest. “When the Skeleton Key was stolen from the Twilight Sepulcher, our access to the inner sanctum was removed. The only way to bring it back will be through the Pilgrim's Path.”

Well, that sounded ominous.

“N-n-never used it b-before?”

“It wasn't created for the Nightingales,” Karliah shook her head a little. “It was made for those who wished to serve Nocturnal in other ways. As a consequence... I have no knowledge of what you'll be facing.”

“....I m-m-might be h-half-f-f-frozen, but w-w-what do you m-mean I'll b-b-e facing?” she asked flatly.

“Brynjolf is needed back at the Thieves Guild to keep order while you're away,” Karliah explained hastily. “And I... I can't bear to face Nocturnal after my failure to protect the Key. I'm afraid you'll have to face the end of the journey alone...”

She was too tired to argue, and too cold. It just wasn't worth the effort.

“...fine...”

“Auriel?” Karliah said hesitantly.

What?”

“...thank you. I know you're still angry for what I did with you and Brynjolf, making you into Nightingales without really considering your feelings... but I thank you for everything you've done. I would never have been able to do any of this if I hadn't shot you at Snow Veil Sanctum.”

Despite herself, Auriel snorted in amusement.

“Y-yeah, well....” the redhead shook her head, careful to avoid dislodging the towel; her shivers were mostly under control, though she was a far cry from properly warm. “I know... you and Bryn want me to be G-g-guild Master. I've almost accepted it. But I c-can't stay, can't lead. I have.... d-d-dogs, nipping at my heels. Staying in o-one p-place is asking to get bit. Th-they can... walk right in and t-take what they w-want. So I n-need you and Bryn to run things for me.”

Karliah stared as Auriel settled onto the bed, rubbing the towel vigorously over her hair now that she was able to properly feel her fingers again. Maybe it would be best to cut it soon...

“You want us to... what?” she asked faintly.

“You h-h-heard me. Y-you and Bryn tog-gether should... b-be able to do it.”

“You're serious...” Karliah breathed.

Auriel nodded.

“The G-Guild needs t-to rebuild. You've b-both got the head for.. p-plans. Make it work. Give me the t-t-title if it m-makes you feel b-better, but the Guild is yours. As for me...” She let the towel drop, and started unbraiding her hair. “I want to sleep f-for a w-w-week. Then I'll t-take back the Key.”

“I... I'll mark the Sepulcher on your map,” Karliah said, her tone subdued. “Auriel...”

“D-don't. No more grat-t-titude, no more ap-pologies. T-take the Guild and make it work. Then we'll see h-how much I like you.”

 

Chapter Text

Eighteen

 

Brynjolf left Candlehearth Hall first, almost storming out after a vigorous 'discussion' about how Auriel wanted them to handle the Guild. He'd wanted to know who her 'dogs' were, and she'd refused to tell them; Auriel could accept a strained friendship better than a dead friend. Karliah had stayed out of it, and left not long after he did, leaving Auriel with a new bow, and the promise to talk Brynjolf around.

Auriel didn't sleep for a week, but she did linger around the Hall for a few days, repairing the water and fight-damaged armor. Wearing it again, even to get to the Sepulcher, was not high on her list of things to do, so once it was repaired, she tucked it away in her newly refurbished pack, choosing to wear her warm mage robes instead when she finally set out.

The location of the Sepulcher was, of all places, down south in Falkreath, near the border to Hammerfell. It was actually a relief to be heading in a southerly direction, and she even stopped by Lakeview Manor on the way there; to her relief and pleasure, the house was finished, and furnished. Oh, there were some things left to do herself—like filling the many bookshelves with books, and decided what shrines she wanted built in her cellar—but on a whole, she was entirely pleased with the outcome, and spent an enjoyable few days acclimatizing herself to the domicile.

The Sepulcher was practically due-west from the old Dark Brotherhood sanctuary, something she found amusingly ironic. It was well hidden, tucked back into a small valley that would have been easy to walk by if it hadn't been marked.

She entered the cave with care, and was met by a shade at the foot of some stairs.

“I don't recognize you,” he said in an echoing voice. “But I sense that you're one of us. Who are you?”

“I could ask you the same,” she said, a little surprised.

“The last of the Nightingale Sentinels, I'm afraid. I've defended the Sepulcher alone for what seems like.... an eternity.”

Given the longevity of the Guild, that surprised her; how could he be the last Sentinel?

“...I'm Auriel Talmanari,” she said after a moment. “What do you mean 'the last'? Where are the rest?”

“We were betrayed by one of our own kind. In fact...” regret laced his voice. “I'm to blame for what's happened here...”

“Ah. Then you must be Gallus.”

“I haven't heard that name in a long time,” he admitted with a sigh. “How do you know of me, Auriel?”

“I have the Key,” she said, proffering it.

“The Key!” He exclaimed, delighted. “You have the Skeleton Key! I never thought I'd see it again! And Mercer Frey?”

“Quite dead,” Auriel said with a thin, cold smile.

“Then... it's over,” he sighed. “And my death wasn't in vain. I owe you a great deal.”

“No, you don't. It was blind happenstance that I stumbled into this at a time when everything was coming to a head,” she shook her head a little. “Perhaps Nocturnal's luck at that.”

“My only regret is that you had to take this task alone.”

“I wasn't alone. Your Karliah helped.”

“Karliah?” He breathed. “She's still alive?!”

“Indeed. She saved my life, and helped me to track Mercer down and make him pay.”

“And here I had believed her to fall victim to the same fate.... Mercer's betrayal....”

That earned him a raised eyebrow; true, Karliah had lost her status as a Nightingale, but surely that hadn't happened immediately after Mercer's betrayal. Following that logic, if Karliah had died, she would have been with him in the Sepulcher, and Mercer's deceit never would have been discovered.

After a moment, she just shook her head and proffered the Key again.

“Here. Fix things.”

“Nothing would give me more pride than to return the Key,” Gallus said. “But I'm afraid it's impossible.. From the moment I'd arrived here, I felt myself... well... dying...”

Auriel blinked a little, then frowned.

“You're already dead... how does a spirit die?”

“The Sepulcher isn't just a temple or place to house the Key, it's also a conduit to the Ebonmere... a path to Nocturnal's realm of Evergloam,” he explained. “When Mercer stole the Key, that conduit closed, severely limiting our ties to her.”

“....so, you're saying I'll be doing this on my own.”

Again.

“I'm afraid so... I'm weakening; I can feel myself slipping away. The years without the restoration of my powers have taken their toll. Whatever damage has been caused can only be corrected by following the Pilgrim's Path, and replacing the Key to unlock the Ebonmere. Be careful, Nightingale.”

She sighed, then bowed politely in thanks for the information, and walked up the stares to wind her way through the Pilgrim's Path.

 

-

 

Five tests awaited the unwary pilgrim, and each one tested her in a different manner.

The first was fairly simple, just... annoying. Other Nightingale shades, those who had clearly gone mad after the closure of the Ebonmere, were first to block her path. They burned, but not well, and she traded fire for the stealthy twang and solid thump of bow and arrow. She would have preferred draugr, really...

The second was slightly enjoyable; slipping through shadows, and avoiding the bright light as she made her way around a maze-like path. The number of dead bodies in the light made her wary about slipping even a hair over the clearly defined lines of light and shadow.

The third coincided with the second, as she was quick to discover that the darkness hid tripwires which loose a hail of darts in her general direction. It made her very glad she had fast reflexes, and knew which way to jump to avoid getting harmed. As she neared the end, light and tripwires both became harder to avoid. She had never wanted to be smaller before, but with the way the gaps narrowed, she almost wished it.

The fourth challenge left her stymied for the better part of an hour before she moved and caught sight of the chains beyond the carved heads on either side of the statue of Nocturnal. Pulling both of them put out the lanterns and candles, and the door beyond slid open of its own accord.

Sliding past a pair of deranged sentinels, she found the final challenge, a pit, which she jumped into after several moments of marked hesitation. The landing hurt, but after a quick check of her extremities, she was reasonably assured that nothing had been damaged. She stood there a few moments, then jolted as the Skeleton Key warmed in her hand.

The floor melted away; she dropped three feet into another room, where a simple keyhole awaited her in the middle of the floor. She looked form the keyhole to the Skeleton Key, shrugged, and placed it in the lock. As the floor rumbled threatening, she took several steps back, one hand on her dagger.

The floor expanded upwards, and to Auriel's surprise, Nocturnal herself appeared in a flickering purple light, surrounded by birds who vanishes as quickly as they'd come. The Daedric Prince looked much like her carved statue; dark cowl, loose robes, and two ravens, one on each arm. The robes were terribly impractical, but Auriel supposed that a Daedric Prince could get away with wearing something like that. She wouldn't be in danger of getting shot.

“My my, what do we have here?” Nocturnal murmured, turning her gaze towards Auriel. “It's been a number of years since I've last set foot on your world. Or perhaps it's been moments. One tends to lose track.”

Words seem wasteful, so Auriel just offered a light shrug; she certainly had no idea how long it had been since the Skeleton Key had been stolen. Karliah had implied she'd been after Mercer for twenty-five years, but Gallus' journals implied that he'd taken the Key well before his betrayal.

“So... once again the Key has been stolen and a 'champion' returns it to the Sepulcher. Now that the Ebonmere has been restored, you stand before me awaiting your accolades; a pat on your head... a kiss on your cheek.”

The idea was laughable; accolades? From a Daedric Prince? She'd be happier just getting a lesser version of the key and calling it good, really.

“What you fail to realize,” Nocturnal continued, “is that your actions were expected and represent nothing more than the fulfillment of your agreement.”

Karliah's agreement,” Auriel muttered, a flare of sullen anger briefly warm in her chest. She was still annoyed about that.

“Don't mistake my tone for displeasure. After all, you've obediently performed your duties to the letter. But we both know this has little to do with honor and oaths and loyalties. It's about the reward; the prize. Fear not. You'll have your trinkets, your desire for power, your hunger for wealth... your dreams of safety. I bid you to drink deep from the Ebonmere, mortal, for this is where the Agent of Nocturnal is born.”

Auriel looked at her askance, not entirely certain that this was as good an idea as it sounded. The Daedric Prince stared back impassively. With reluctance, Auriel did as she was bid, and tried not to choke on the liquid that poured like oil down her throat. It tasted of midnight, of mists and smoke, and she shuddered a little at the power that flowed through her briefly, then faded away, leaving only the aftertaste of ice behind.

“The Oath has been struck, the die has been cast, and your fate awaits you in the Evergloam. Farewell, Nightingale Talmanari. See to it that this Key stays this time, won't you?”

Auriel felt a sudden weight in her pocket, and slipped her hand in as Nocturnal slid back into her realm. Her fingers curled around a familiar shape and she brought it out into the light then blinked in surprise; it was a little more rusty, a little more worn, but still whole and unbroken. The skeleton key she'd received for returning Noctunral's Eye in Cyrodiil.

“...She rewarded you well,” Karliah said.

Auriel had her dagger in hand before she had even made a conscious choice to attack, and came around swinging. Karliah jumped back, hands up, and only just missed getting stabbed.

“Easy, Auriel, it's just me!”

“Next time say something when you first come in,” Auriel muttered, sheathing her dagger irritably. “Or better yet, move to where I can see you so I don't hurt you.”

Sheepishly, Karliah rubbed the back of her neck, then shook her head slightly.

“I'm glad you were able to return the Key safely,” she murmured. “Nocturnal seemed quite pleased with your efforts.”

Auriel snorted a little, glancing back at the open conduit.

“She sounded more indifferent than pleased, though I am hardly surprised.”

“I wouldn't take that to heart. It's her way,” the Dunmer shrugged a little. “This of her as a scolding mother, continually pushing you to improve yourself; outwardly sounding angry, but silently content. I assure you... had she been genuinely displeased, we would not be having this conversation.”

“All right... what's this about being an Agent of Nocturnal, then?” Auriel sighed.

“The circles at the base of the Ebonmere bestow you with the powers befitting of a Nightingale Agent,” Karliah explained. “The crescent moon represents the Agent of Shadow. The half moon, the Agent of Subterfuge, and the full moon, the Agent of Strife.”

“Only one?”
“Only one,” she nodded. “This is Nocturnal's way of maintaining balance. You may make any choice, of course; in the past there had been three of the same type. And should you feel you have been given the wrong gift, simply return here and step into a different circle to trade.”

Auriel filed the knowledge away, then glanced between the Key, the conduit, and Karliah.

“And... now what? Is that it?” she asked.

“Now your life as a Nightingale begins,” and Karliah shrugged lightly, gently. “Should the need arise, you'll be summoned to the Sepulcher to defend it.”

“What about you?”

“The Guild has welcomed me back at long last,” she said, her soft voice choked with emotion. “I feel like a void in my life has finally been filled. I only hope that this isn't an ending to things, but actually a beginning.”

“How did things go with Brynjolf?”

“He's still upset, but I think he's accepted it as best he can. We'll be happy to split the work, but neither one of us truly feels that the title should be ours. Not now. I still have much rebuilding before I'll be truly accepted, but maybe then...”

Auriel sighed. That would take a few years at the least, and that was if they were lucky.

“Well, it was worth a shot.”

Karliah chuckled, and Auriel stepped onto the crescent moon circle. It felt.... cold, at first. Like a small bit of ice. And then warmth flickered briefly through her, and she felt the knowledge seep into her mind on how to become invisible to any sort of detection. It was not the Invisibility spell that she made use of frequently... it was better.

Behind her, Karliah gasped softly.

“Gallus!”

Auriel quickly slipped out of the chamber, back to the entrance. They deserved the chance to say a private farewell, and she had no desire to witness sweet nothings. To her surprise, Brynjolf awaited her on the stairs.

“What, did you honestly think I was going to let you leave without saying farewell?” he grinned a little at her.

“...I had considered it, yes,” she admitted, then sat on the steps next to him. “It's not like we parted on the best of terms.”

He sighed a little, and ran a hand through his hair in agreement.

“I did some thinking while on the way back, and Karliah's spoken at length about it,” he replied. “I don't like it, but if you need to keep moving to keep yourself safe, then we can do it. But I have to ask... how did you get Thalmor on you?”

She blinked at him in surprise; she had known he was clever, but admittedly she hadn't expected anyone to figure that out quite yet. His grin turned smug, and after a moment she sighed, looking down at her hands.

“I can't say. No, rather, I won't say,” she finally said. “And if you know what's good for you, you'll keep that knowledge to yourself. If you know one thing about the Thalmor, know this; they are ruthless. Anything you know, they will learn, anything you care for will be used against you. I've seen it.”

She'd done it.

“Tam... we're not out of the woods, but you've proven yourself to the Guild and to Maven. The Thalmor wouldn't dare touch you.”

Auriel laughed, low and bitter.

“Oh, they will. Only Skyrim's size and my constant moving has kept me safe thus far. But I've suffered no less than three attacks while on my way here that were premediated by them. It might have been luck that they found me, but make no mistake, staying still would get me, and everyone else, killed. I won't be responsible for that, Brynjolf. I refuse.”

He was quiet for several minutes.

“What are you doing, then?”

“Building safe places, and bases of power I can call on if they manage to bring a small army to me,” she replied dryly. “As the Arch-Mage, I can require the help of the College. Give me the title of Guild Master again, and I'll have the money to build better, safer hiding places. It's not yet enough, but I'm getting there, piece by piece.”

“...it sounds like you still need more,” he said after a thoughtful moment. “Mages are good for countering magic, but an army doesn't just have that.”

“No...” she sighed. “If this were Cyrodiil, I might petition the Fighter's Guild for entry... they're no army, but they had a strong commitment to one another.”

“Try the Companions,” Brynjolf suggested. “They might be a bit goody-two-shoes, but they've got more strength to them than the Dark Brotherhood.”

That made her snicker slightly.

“There is no Dark Brotherhood left, Bryn. I suspect they were hired by the Thalmor, so I removed them as a threat. But I'll consider your advice. I'd like a motley crew of various skills so that I'm not so easily caught out again. One or two people from each, quietly in the know, would certainly help.”

Lightly, briefly, he slung an arm around her shoulders. She let him for a moment, then elbowed him gently to get him out of her personal space.

“Well, you'll have me and Karliah, that's for certain,” he said. “Delvin and Vex too. We'll keep our ears to the ground on Thalmor movements. But how do we contact you if we need our Guild Master?”

She sighed a little, and got to her feet.

“Let's get back to the guild and work on arranging that. And Bryn?”

“Yes?”

“....thank you.”

 

Chapter Text

Nineteen

 

For all she had claimed that she didn't have the time to run the Guild, she ended up staying in the Rift Hold longer than intended. She inadvertently became a Thane after dealing with several issues, and while she would have preferred a home outside the city walls, she had to admit that Honeyside was a useful little house. The enchanter and alchemist workrooms she had installed in the basement definitely helped. Brynjolf, when he visited it, teased her by saying his own little flat had spoiled her. She had scoffed at him gently—Honeyside was much more than a little flat—and given him a spare key.

She meant to head straight to Whiterun and the Companions, but a special request from Delvin sent her across the Holds to Solitude where she ended up purchasing and furnishing another home after several... less than pleasant adventures. She managed to avoid being titled Thane, at least; the last thing she needed was the nearby Thalmor Embassy to catch wind of that. Between dragons and lucky ambush parties, she was definitely starting to think about going to ground for a little while, letting them think she was dead. Either that, or she was just going to have to take more convoluted paths.

Following that train of thought, she ended up ranging all across Skyrim. She went north to Dawnstar, and earned a homestead entirely by accident there. Then she found her way to Morthal and ended up doing the same. Both were in good places, with fairly clear lines of sight in case of attack; Dawnstar's wasn't good for defense, but she could see for miles in all directions; short of massive invisibility spells which would be impossible to not sense, she would have plenty of warning and time to leave if she had to.

After consulting with hire builders to decide the layouts for each, she left them to it, promising as she had with Gerdur that she would send along everything she could spare as she got it. The waits would be worth it, and finally, she turned her sights to Whiterun and the Companions.

She was in Whiterun for a day when she got caught up helping the Gray-Manes find their missing son; she'd lifted the pertinent information from the Battle-Born house on a prior job, and had figured it could go to them. It had taken some convincing, but Fralla's distress pulled at her, and she eventually capitulated. Northwatch was anything but pleasant—Thalmor or not, she didn't exactly relish killing her people—but she and Thorold came out the other side mostly unscathed. He headed off to vanish from Thalmor eyes, and she wearily turned her feet back to the first Hold that had become her home.

 

-

 

She took a week to herself to recover before climbing the steps to the Gildergreen in the early evening light. People traveled around her, giving her hooded form no wary second glances; she was familiar, and now they treated her like part of the city. It was oddly comforting in a way, and though she knew they wouldn't stand between her and the Thalmor, she was glad to have achieved the rank of ignorable.

Auriel settled in under the branches of the Gildergreen, letting the scent fill her nose and lungs, and tipped her head back to watch the flowers dancing gently in the cool breeze. There was just something so peaceful about those blossoms, this spot; it helped that the Talos Priest's rantings had been curbed recently. She wasn't sure if the guards had suggested he stuff it, or the Thalmor had been by, but she wasn't about to ignore the quiet it earned her.

She wasn't quite sure how she knew Farkas would find her there, but soon enough she heard a familiar step, and glanced up to see him standing there, a look of concern on his face.

“Sit, please,” she gestured lightly. “I'll get a crick in my neck if you don't.”

“What happened to you?” he asked as he gingerly sat. “You've been gone for months.”

“Oh, a bit of this and a bit of that,” she shrugged lightly. “Nothing terribly interesting, I'm afraid.”

She wasn't sure he'd take the hint, but it was worth trying. He struck her as quiet, but she knew better than anyone that quiet didn't mean stupid.

“Injuries like that don't look much like nothin',” he said a little gruffly, gesturing lightly to the bandage that peeked out from under her sleeve. “Are you sure you should be out right now?”

“I'm fine, thank you. It's not that bad.”

The burns were, in fact, mostly healed, and she was content to let the healing finish naturally. She'd already had a healer's opinion on them back at Dragon's Bridge; no questions had been asked, but she knew gossip had likely blown what little information she gave out of proportion. It did that.

“What brings you out here?” she asked after a moment, tipping her head slightly.

“Ah... lookin around. There's a kiddo who hangs out around here a lot, and while I can't exactly take her in, I try to look out for her. Doesn't seem right, a kid like that being out here with no folks.”

She studied him curiously; that was part of it, but surely there was more.

“And?”

“....I was hoping you'd be around,” he admitted, ducking his head a little. “Got word that you were back in town and all that... wanted to catch up.”

It made her smile just a little; strange how touched an admission of concern could make her.

“You're sweet. I appreciate that. I have very few people willing to look for me. Fewer still who would worry over injuries such as these.”

The circle was growing wider, of course, but it was still small enough that she could count the number of people on both hands and still have plenty of fingers left over.

He looked surprised, but she only shrugged lightly, deftly turning the conversation away.

“How goes your own dealings? Anything of note?”

“Nah, not really,” and he shrugged lightly. “Kidnappings, brawls, things to fight. Same old stuff.”

She chuckled faintly, shaking her head.

“Somehow, I expect only you could describe such a thing as 'same old same old,'” she teased him gently. “Will you show me around Jorrvaskr, then? I had thought to get some inside information before finalizing my choice.”

He blinked; to his credit, the surprise was quickly followed by a pleased smile.

“Yeah, sure! I'll take you to see Kodlak, see what he says. I mean, the old man doesn't accept everyone, but I think he'll like you.”

“Hm. You flatter me,” she smiled faintly, getting to her feet. “Lead on then.”

Farkas looked like he wanted to take her hand and lead her in, but Auriel made sure to hold herself in such a way as to discourage casual contact. She liked him, inasmuch as she knew him, but she was still cautious. Friendship was well and good, but anything farther was just asking for trouble. While Brynjolf had accepted the choice with good humor, she suspected Farkas was the sort to pine. If she could, she would spare him that.

Jorrvaskr was the large mead hall directly east of the Gildergreen; Farkas lead her up two flights of stairs to ornately carved doors, and paused there while she looked around curiously. While she had been in and out of the city plenty, she hadn't actually come up to the hall before; there hadn't ever been a need. He waited with a patience that was pleasing while she walked around the outside, taking in the exterior training area, the path up to the forge, and the weatherworn building itself, mostly just assuaging her curiosity. And old, old place... but the Skyforge, set in the stone above it, was even older.

They walked in, ironically enough, to witness the beginnings of a brawl. A Nord woman and a Dunmer male were going at it, throwing punches as other Companions—or she assumed they were Companions, at least—cheered them on and took bets. Farkas sighed a little as Auriel leaned briefly on a rail to watch.

“That's Njada and Athis,” he said as they watched. “They don't always get along. Njada's got... a lot of anger in her, I guess. Happiest when fighting.”

Auriel nodded absently, head tilted. They both had good technique, but Njada's powerful hits got the best of Athis in the end. A solid blow to the gut winded him enough that she was able to drive an elbow into his head, knocking him out cold. Cheers and curses accompanied the end of the fight, and she watched with unfeigned amusement as coin changed hands before a bald man slung Athis over one shoulder and headed across the hall.

“That looked like it hurt,” she observed, allowing humor to color her words.

“Yeah... this happens,” Farkas rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed. “Come on. Kodlak should be downstairs. My brother too...”

“You have a brother?” Auriel's eyebrows went up curiously.

“Yeah. He's a better talker than me. Better thinker too. Me, I just bludgeon things and call it good.”

That made her frown; she never much cared for self-depreciation, and he had the air of someone who had been told something often enough that he'd taken it to heart. But she wasn't inclined to say anything aloud just yet; she'd pick a better moment to see if her own presumption of his personality was correct. Like, after she'd decided whether they could even safely be friends.

She followed him across the hall, to the stairs that would take them down. On the wall hung pieces of something. The form looked like it might once have been a battleaxe, and what pieces were there made her feel vaguely uneasy.

“What's that?”

“The shards of Wuuthrad,” he said, glancing up. “We don't have a lot of them, but it was Ysgramor's axe, back when he led the Companions. We hunt them whenever we can.”

“I see.”

The hall he took her down was fairly nice; the stone fit well together and the various rugs and wall tapestries kept the chill to a minimum. They weren't necessarily in the best of shape, but there was something... comfortable about the place. Directly across from the entrance was an open doorway; she poked her head in curiously and saw beds. It reminded her of the Hall of Attainment, and she presumed this was where junior members of the Companions slept if they had no berth of their own.

“This is a nice place,” she murmured as she caught up to Farkas.

“Tilma keeps the place clean, so all we really worry about it making sure our enemies know we're there,” he said with a small nod. “...of course, we all pitch in too. She's getting old, so we do all the heavy lifting.”

She nodded slightly, and kept her smile strictly mental; he was trying very hard to impress her with the hall, and she didn't want him to think she was laughing at his nervousness.

At the end of the hall, a door stood wide; through it she could see a room well-stocked with various items of interest, and food. Inside, at a table were two men. Both Nords, one much older, wearing a type of armor she hadn't seen in her travels before.

“That's my brother, Vilkas,” Farkas said, pointing to the dark hair Nord. “The old man is Kodlak, the Harbinger.”

Auriel nodded and approached, Farkas dogging her heels.

“But I still hear the call of the blood,” Vilkas was saying quietly as she passed the threshold of the room.

“We all do,” Kodlak replied. “It is out burden to bear. But we can overcome.”

She stopped there, not quite out of hearing range, curiosity piqued at the oblique conversation. Eavesdropping was almost second nature, though she stayed near the door in order to feign ignorance; no doubt they were discussing some secret. If she was patient, she'd learn of it in due time. If she was lucky, it wouldn't explode in her face the way things had in Riften.

“You have my brother and I, obviously,” Vilkas said after a moment. “But I don't know if the rest will go along quite so easily.”

“Leave that to me,” Kodlak nodded lightly, leaning back.

In any conversation, heard or unheard, that was a signal for finished, so Auriel stopped hovering and approached, earning the attention of both males.

Vilkas's look was rife with suspicion, just shy of open hostility. She couldn't help but approve silently; while she appreciated Farkas's almost immediate trust, it would be good to have someone who would question her motives and loyalties. Vilkas would keep her on her toes.

Kodlak Whitemane, looked her up and down, but his expression was warmer, much more open. For a moment she saw surprise, then relief before they were both tucked away, and he nodded in a friendly manner.

“A stranger come to our hall,” he said as she stopped.

“You're the leader of the Companions?” she asked.

“The Harbinger, not the leader,” he corrected. “Is there something you need, girl?”

“I'm Auriel Talmanari, and I'd like to join the Companions.”

It was a risk using her full name; even though Whiterun seemed mostly ignored by the Thalmor, it only took one slip for her to be caught out. But something about the old man compelled her to honesty, reminded her in part of Tolfdir. Steel wrapped in soft wool was still steel no matter the cover, and she had no desire to upset this man.

“Would you now?” To his credit he sounded thoughtful more than derisive. “Here, let me have a look at you.”

She moved a little more towards him, and met his eyes squarely. After a moment, one corner of his mouth quirked slightly, amusement lighting his gaze.

“Hm. Yes,” he nodded a little. “Perhaps. A certain... strength of spirit.”

“Master!” Vilkas protested. “You're not truly considering accepting her?”

“I am nobody's master, Vilkas,” Kodlak scolded mildly. “And last I checked, we had some empty beds in Jorrvaskr for those with a fire burning in their hearts.” He paused. “Or in their hands.”

Auriel hid a smile; he'd correctly identified her preferred skill and magical affinity, which was no mean feat. Given that everything she'd read and heard about the Companions had suggested they might look down on the realm of the arcane, his casual commentary was heartening.

“Apologies,” Vilkas said a little grudgingly. “But perhaps this isn't the time? Farkas mooning over this girl is one thing, but I've certainly never heard of her.”

Behind her Farkas shuffled in an uncomfortable manner, but Auriel couldn't help the relief that eclipsed the irritation. She had been doing very noisy, overt things lately; to have someone say they didn't know her or her reputation was actually quite comforting.

“Sometimes the famous come to us,” Kodlak replied. “Sometimes men and women come to us to seek their fame. It makes no difference. What matters is their heart.”

Auriel snorted a little; she was not seeking fame... just to foster a sense of belonging so that she could get just a bit of muscle for protection.

“And their arm,” Vilkas said, a little disparagingly.

“Of course,” Kodlak nodded, then glanced up at her. “How are you in battle, girl?”

“Well enough,” she shrugged a little. “But I am aware that there is always much to learn.”

“That's the spirit,” he chuckled a little. “Vilkas, here, will get started on that. Take her out to the yard and see what she can do.”

“Aye,” he sighed reluctantly, getting to his feet.

“Farkas, why not keep an old man company until they're done?” Kodlak suggested.

She glanced over her shoulder at Kodlak as she turned to go, and was given a slight, amused wink. Despite herself, she smiled; for whatever reason, Kodlak seemed inclined to support her, and also to curb Farkas's attention. She appreciated both, and followed Vilkas peacefully out to the training yard.

Vilkas led her to the broad, sand-filled circle, and scuffed about it for a moment, then gestured her in. She did so cautiously; her typical attacks with a dagger were the slicing sort, not the stabbing sort. The latter took a great deal more muscle, and usually meant she'd messed up. To his credit, Vilkas only looked wary, no longer as hostile as he had; Kodlak's words—and subtle approval—carried weight.

“The old man said to have a look at you, so let's do this.” He lifted up a shield, and Auriel grimaced a little. That was going to hurt... “Just take a few swings at me so I can see your form. Not that I expect you'll be able to hit very hard. You mer aren't much in the way of strength.”

“If your attempting to bait me, that's cute,” she said with a tiny, sharp smile. “Don't blame me if I miss and hit you in the face.”

He snorted a little, and motioned for her to begin. She knew she surprised him with her speed, and she made him work to keep that shield up; she wasn't trying to hurt him, but she was attempting a favorable impression. It wasn't her fault he lowered the shield a little more than he ought, and her punch skittered off the rim to clock him hard on the jaw. It knocked him into the dirt, and she hissed as she shook out her hand; even without a helmet, Vilkas had a hard head.

“Not... bad,” he said grudgingly, getting up. “You just might make it. But for now you're still a whelp to us, new blood. So you do what we tell you. Here's my sword. Take it up to Eorlund at the forge to get it sharpened. And be careful! It's probably worth more than you are.”

“I did warn you,” she said, keeping her face professionally straight as she accepted the sword's weight. “You should go put something on that before your face starts to swell.”

He muttered under his breath and stalked back into Jorrvaskr. Auriel allowed herself a snicker at his expense, then headed up to the Skyforge. It shouldn't have surprised her to see Eorlund Gray-Mane, Thorold's father, but it did. He raised both brows at her briefly, then motioned for her to come closer.

“What brings you here?” he asked.

“Mmm... Vilkas shoved his sword at me, and told me to give it to you,” she shrugged a little, smiling thinly. “Apparently I upset him.”

“So, you actually joined then,” he smiled faintly at her, pleased.

“I did. Does he ask this sort of thing of all newcomers, or am I just lucky to have tweaked his tail?” she asked dryly, handing the blade over.

“Don't take it personally,” Eorlund advised as he accepted it. “They were all whelps once.... even if they don't like to talk about it. And don't always do as your told; no one rules anybody in the Companions.”

“Not even Kodlak?” she cocked her head a little. “How does that work?”

“Well, I'm not sure how they've managed it, but they have. No leader since Ysgramor,” he shrugged a little. “Kodlak is the Harbinger, and he's a sort of adviser for the whole group, but every man is his own. Every woman, her own.”

“Hn... interesting.” After a moment she shook her head. “Well, hopefully punching Vilkas in the face doesn't remove any good will I may have earned.”

Eorlund let out a bark of laughter, and she smiled wryly, turning to go.

“Do me a favor, please,” he said, before she could move far away. “I've been working on a shield for Aela. Red-haired lass, generally sticks to archery, but is branching out a bit. As you might guess, my wife is still mourning, and I'd like to get back to her soon. I'd be obliged if you could deliver it for me.”

“Didn't you just tell me to not be a servant?” Auriel teased, a faint smile crossing her face.

“Aye, but this is a favor, not a demand. Will you?”

“Of course I will. Tell Fralla I said hello.”

He nodded, and handed her the shield. She carried it back inside, and down to the living area of Jorrvaskr. Vilkas was sitting in a nearby chair, holding a damp cloth to his jaw; she elected to duck her head a little as she walked past instead of trying to aggravate him any. With no sign of Farkas, she proceeded down the hall until she heard a familiar voice from one of the nearby rooms.

She pushed the door open to see the redhead from her first meeting with the Companions talking with another man who wore the same wolf-themed armor as Kodlak and Vilkas. They had been in the middle of debating something and stopped short at her entrance.

“Aela? I have your shield.”

“Ah, my thanks, I've been waiting for this,” she accepted the shield, then took a closer look at Auriel. “Wait... I remember you. So the old man thinks you've got some heart, I guess.”

“You know this one?” the bald man asked. “I saw her in the training yard with Vilkas. Put him right on his ass.”

“Gave him quite a thrashing, didn't you?” Aela smirked a little.

Auriel just shrugged lightly.

“I preferred to miss the shield after about a dozen hits. I wasn't trying to hit his face.”

“Do you think you could handle Vilkas in a real fight?” Aela asked.

Auriel tipped her head slightly, considering.

“Well, that would depend on how you classify a real fight. In any true fight, I'd prefer to let my skills speak for me. Boasting is.... crass.”

Aela chuckled.

“I like this one, Skjor,” she said. “A woman who lets her actions speak for her. Here, why don't we have Farkas show you where you can sleep.”

“Farkas!” Skjor snapped.

Auriel blinked a little as her friend appeared quickly in the doorway.

“Did you call me?” he said after a moment.

“Of course we did, ice-brain,” Aela said dryly. “Show this new blood where the rest of the whelps sleep.”

“Ah, no,” Auriel shook her head a little. “That won't be necessary. I think I'll stay in my own house, thank you.”

“You'll miss out on some of the good jobs if you don't sleep here,” Aela argued.

“Perhaps, but I prefer my privacy. And as it is late, I believe I shall bid you farewell. It was good to meet you.”

Farkas backed up a little as Auri stepped out of the room, leaving two surprised Companions behind her. He chuckled a little.

“No one's gonna know what to think of you,” he said.

“A little mystery is good for people,” she replied serenely.

He made a slight sound that she thought would have been a laugh if he'd felt more relaxed. When she glanced at him, he shook his head lightly.

“Don't pay any mind to Skjor or Aela. They like to tease, but they're good people. They challenge us to be our best.” Farkas took her across the hall to a small table, and sifted through a number of missives. Job offers, she decided after a minute. “Don't mind my brother either. He.... can be a bit hot-headed at times, but he's a good guy.”

Auriel made a skeptical sound, more because it was fun to tease than because she doubted Farkas's words. He glanced at her and she offered a slight smile, shrugging lightly.

“I'd apologize, but I'm not sure it'd be accepted. Maybe if you told him?”

Farkas nodded, a small grin crossing quickly over his face.

“I'll let him know. And I hope you stick around... this can be a rough life...” He flipped through a few more, then nodded. “Make sure you come to me or Aela when you need work and we'll set you up. Once you're more known, Skjor of Vilkas might have things for you too. Like this one.”

He handed her a scrap of paper, letting her look it over. After a moment, Auriel nodded.

“Yes, I can do this. It shouldn't be difficult.”

“Good,” he smiled a little. “Go kick some ass, Auri.”

She blinked at him momentarily, then smiled faintly as he blushed.

“I think I will, Far. I'll see you shortly.”

Auriel stifled a giggle as he stared at her in surprise, and made her way out of Jorrvaskr.

 

Chapter Text

Twenty

 

Doing odd jobs for the Companions was fun in its own way. Sometimes she paired up with one of the other established members, sometimes she was on her own. The jobs were all within the Hold, usually no more than two or three days out.... or they were if she talked to Farkas. Aela sent her on one that had her halfway into the Reach dealing with some Forsworn.

She stuck with Farkas after that.

After almost a month of this, Skjor caught her one early morning, just as she was entering Jorrvaskr to seek another job.

“There you are,” he nodded a little in greeting. “Your time, it seems, has come.”

“Time?” Auriel raised a brow curiously. “Time for what?”

“You've been a whelp for a short while, so I wasn't too sure about this, but Farkas says you've handled the work well, so I was talked into it. A few days ago, a scholar came to us. He said he knew where we could find another fragment of Wuuthraad. He seemed a fool to me, but if he's right, the honor of the Companions demands that we seek it out.”

“....and what exactly does this have to do with me?

“This is a simple errand, but the timing is right for it to be your Trial,” he replied, a somewhat stern note entering his voice. “Conduct yourself with honor, and you'll be a true Companion. Farkas will be your Shield-Sibling. He'll answer your questions. Try not to disappoint, or get him killed.”

She snorted lightly, and looked around for Farkas; she had too much pride to give anything less than her best on this, but she did have some very pointed questions for her silver-eyed friend. He smiled at her a bit ruefully when she joined him at the long table, and she snorted delicately.

“You pushed for this, didn't you?”

“....yeah,” he admitted sheepishly, “but Kodlak backed me on it. Skjor and Vilkas weren't too happy about it, but you've done some good work, so you earned it.”

“After only a month? From what's been indicated, I thought I'd be doing these jobs for at least three.”

“You're ready,” he said firmly. “No one's gonna protest this.... Well, Njada might, but she protests a lot of things.”

Auriel shook her head a little, but couldn't really argue that. Of the other Companions, Njada was the most argumentative, ready to throw down at a moment's provocation.

“Why did Skjor call this my Trial?” she asked after a moment. “I thought I already passed inspection when I knocked Vilkas in the dirt.”

“Until now you've been going on jobs without one of the Circle to make sure you fight well,” he replied. “If you fight with honor in this shard hunt, then you'll officially be a Companion.”

It made her frown a little; his attraction to her was no secret, and only seemed to be growing despite gentle discouragement. It would have made more sense to send Vilkas, since he still regarded her with a wary eye. Farkas's judgment was more likely to be called into question because of his feelings.

So why then had Farkas been assigned as her backup? It made her wonder if Kodlak had something to do with it; the old man was canny and quick, and seemed inclined to treat all of them as if they were his children, regardless of who was actually the elder.

After a moment she sighed; she wasn't going to get answers just sitting around.

“So then, where are we going?”

“Not far. A place called Dustman's Cairn,” Farkas said. “Are you ready?”

“Mmhm. Let's go.”

 

-

 

At first glance, Dustman's Cairn looked like any other tomb; lit with fires and full of the dead. At closer inspection, however, Auriel saw fresh footprints in the dust, and it was clear that some of the undead had been laid to proper rest whether they liked it or not.

“Looks like someone's been diggin here, and recently,” Farkas said, coming up behind her. “Tread lightly.”

“Mmhm...”

There was something ironic about being told to walk soft when he was wearing armor that clanked with every step.

The draugr were, as always, not terribly friendly. It felt like old hat at this point to light them up and let them burn; it was harder to actually do it when Farkas kept getting in the damn way. True, his greatsword took care of the draugr just as fast, but trying not to hit him was what reminded her of why she preferred to not work with warriors.

“Vilkas says magic's not very honorable,” Farkas said as they caught their breath.

“Yes, because a non-mage knows better than a mage about honor,” she said a little caustically.

“I'm just sayin, Vilkas might complain about it,” he said after a minute.

“He can complain all he'd like; I fight how I fight, Farkas.”

He fell silent, and she moved ahead, trying not to be irritated by the comment. That was the other reason she didn't like working with warriors.

They arrived at a more open room, and Auriel glanced around with a faint frown; the way out was obviously blocked by a portcullis, but she could see no release trigger. Farkas caught her wrist after a moment, and she turned in surprise.

“If magic is your weapon, then magic is honorable,” he said simply.

She blinked, then smiled crookedly, if a bit reluctantly.

“I'm going to see if I can't find the release,” she said, gently drawing her hand away.

He nodded, letting her go with clear reluctance, and she moved off to search. Sometimes the simplicity of Nords drove her a little mad, but other times, it was oddly comforting. Or perhaps that was just him...

She found the lever tucked into a small alcove, and pulled it, then hissed a curse as bars dropped down between her and the rest of the room. She attempted to yank the lever back so she could get out—surely there was a release that wasn't a trap—but it was stuck fast.

“Farkas? A little help, please?”

He was there in moments, and she was willing to swear that he was fighting a smile.

“I swear, if you laugh at me...” she threatened, not meaning a word of it.

He managed to look appropriately sober, but she had a feeling that this was going to be something she'd get teased about later. Something in those glittering silver eyes...

“Are you all right?” he asked.

At least he sounded concerned instead of amused. That was something.

“No injuries, just stuck. Can you get me out?”

“No worries. Sit tight, I'll find the release.”

He half-turned when five people rushed into the room, getting between him and the exit. Auriel pressed up against the bars, not sure if she ought to try and attack through them or let Farkas handle it; five on one odds weren't generally fair, but he certainly wasn't a weakling.

In the flickering firelight, the weapons drawn looked almost like they were made of silver. Odd choice for a weapon as far as she was concerned; while effective against undead of all stripes and werewolves, it wasn't known for its ability to stand up to regular wear and tear. And from what she could see, they certainly did look a bit on the battered side...

“We knew you'd be coming,” one sneered. “Your mistake, Companion.”

“Now it's time to die, dog!” cried another.

“Which one is that?” the third asked.

“It doesn't matter. They all need to die!”

Farkas stood there, unmoving, and Auriel felt a moment of uncertainty; what was he doing? He hadn't even drawn his sword, and all five of them were already armed! And of course, he was standing in such a way as to prevent her from getting a fireball into the middle of the group.

“Killing you will make for an excellent story,” the third one smirked.

“None of you will be alive to tell it,” Farkas snarled.

Auriel watched in shock as a change rippled over him. He was already tall, even for a Nord; he shot up at least another half a foot as a dark, springy fur sprang up to cover the skin left bare. His armor seemed to be absorbed by the fur until he was wearing a dense, brown-black coat of it.

A werewolf. Farkas was a werewolf.

He howled, a sound full of battle and death, then launched himself into the fray. Auriel could only watch in shock as her mind replayed the conversation between Kodlak and Vilkas on the day she'd arrived. The call of the blood. Werewolf blood. So Kodlak, Vilkas, Farkas... who else? It couldn't be the whole group, surely...

One of the five landed a hit that made Farkas howl in rage and pain, but it didn't do the hapless human any good; they were summarily picked up and bodily thrown across the cavern, striking the stone wall hard enough to make an unfortunate splatting noise. Auriel pulled back, away from the bars as the last of them fell, no longer assured of her safety. She had encountered weres of several stripes before, and wasn't sure that Farkas was in complete control.

When all of them were dead, he looked around, then darted out of the room; she jumped a foot as the bars keeping her locked in raised with a clatter and clank, and reflexively called fire to one hand. If he wasn't himself...

Slowly he reentered the room, once more the Nord she had grown familiar with, and she let out a slow breath, dismissing the flames.

“What. In the name of the Divines. Was that?” Auriel demanded.

“It's a blessing given to some of us,” he admitted. “We can be like wild beasts. Fearsome.”

“Is everyone like that? Am I going to be required to-”

“Oh no, only the Circle has the beastblood,” he said quickly. “You just have to prove your honor to be a Companion. 'Eyes on the prey, not the horizon.'”

She sighed a little, and rubbed her face briefly with her hands. Like her life could be that simple...

“It's really just the Circle?”

He nodded, and she sighed again; the inner circle of the Companions was small enough, just the four in charge of jobs and Kodlak... and if they all carried it, and had changed to and from their beastial forms without actually killing anyone local, she saw no reason to get worked up about it.

“Well then... I suppose I'll only have to worry about Vilkas wanting to eat me if I step out of line.”

“No one's gonna eat you!” he protested immediately. “You're one of us, and we only eat enemies like these guys. the Silver Hand. Or, well, Skjor and Aela say they do, but I-”

“Farkas. Breathe. I was teasing.”

“....oh.”

 

-

 

The tomb was rife with a mix of Silver Hand and draugr, making it a difficult path for both of them. The silver blades left wounds that smoked on Farkas's bare arms; his insistence on rushing them was frustrating since she could handle herself, but it was also just the smallest bit touching.

Still, after the second time, she put her foot down.

“Stop doing that.”

He looked at her in bewilderment as she wrapped his newest injuries.

“I-”

“You're supposed to be here as an observer,” she pointed out sharply. “You cannot observe my fighting skills if you keep throwing yourself headlong into the fight! I am not a fragile flower, Farkas, I do not need to be wrapped in wool. If anything, you're the one who needs protecting. Silver and weres don't mix, and you're going to poison yourself at this rate.”

He hung his head a little, and winced as she poured a small bit of a potion over a deeper gash before winding a bandage around it.

“I appreciate that you don't want me hurt, but I don't like watching you get hurt either,” she said, a little more calmly. “And if you keep getting in the way, I can't fight. So please. If you don't mind. Back off.”

He sighed a little, and nodded his head reluctantly.

It helped to find that the Silver Hand also clashed with the draugr; when that happened, Auriel was content to sit back and wait. Farkas shifted uneasily when she did, but he didn't venture to comment, and as far as Auriel was concerned, they were quite welcome to murder one another. She could finish off the survive with relative ease after.

Not that she avoided getting injured; a lucky swing from a dying draugr missed her chest by dint of getting her arm instead. She swore profusely; it was going to take forever to get the blood out... Farkas surprised her then, by having a gentle touch as he tended and bound the arm; she had half-expected he might not know his own strength, but he knew just how much pressure to apply to help control the bleeding, and just how tight to wrap the bandage to make it comfortable instead of constricting.

Annoyingly enough to her, he deliberately moved ahead again, and drew in the next handful of draugr. She would have preferred to slip silently past, but what was done was done. When the last of them fell, he had acquired a frost burn from one of the magic-wielding undead, and she made him sit down so that she could get a better look at it.

“You're a powerhouse, but your skill at stealth is terrible,” she muttered.

“Well, Vilkas doesn't hold much with sneaking either,” he admitted with a wince as she applied a small amount of salve. At this rate, he was going to look rather like a mummy before they even found the shard.

“And you?” she asked.

“....what about me?”

“What do you think of stealth? I can't have escaped your notice that I've been slipping by the sleeping undead, Farkas.”

He looked away, his expression somewhat uncomfortable.

“Well, you are built kind of.... dainty...”

“I'm not typical Altmer height, yes, I know,” she said dryly.

“I think you're a fine Companion,” Farkas said after a minute. “No matter how you fight, you're honorable enough to me.”

She just sighed wearily and finished bandaging him up in silence. Of course he'd think that; he hadn't seen her in any other state than what she showed. And she wasn't going to shatter that idealized image by telling him the truth.

 

-

 

A word wall awaited them in the final room, with a word she'd been dreaming of learning ever since she'd figured out it was possible; she tasted fire in the back of her throat and smiled thinly, pulling on the stored power of the dragon souls she carried until the word sang in her mind.

Yol. Fire.

It came in handy almost immediately; once she'd lifted the displayed fragment, coffins opened and draugr swarmed the dais. She turned and Shouted; the resulting fire eclipsed all of them, turning them to little more than ash and dust.

“What was that?” Farkas asked, staring at her in shock.

“...Oh...” Auriel blinked, then shrugged a little. “Apparently I'm Dragonborn.”

“'Apparently'?”

“Well, I haven't gone to the Graybeards yet, so I've only got the word of a few Nords,” she replied, her voice a shade too innocent; her mood had lifted with her newest gain. “I just use the power that comes to hand.”

He blinked several times and she just smiled; Yol was going to come in very handy in the future.

“C'mon. Let's get back to Jorrvaskr before they think we're both dead,” she suggested.

“Yeah...”

 

-

 

She was called to the training yard about an hour after they'd returned; the Circle was arrayed before the archery targets, and their expressions ranged the gamut from pleased to cautiously welcoming. As Auriel took her place before them, knowing this new secret, she wondered just how useful it would be in her bid to make herself an ally.

“Brothers and sisters of the Circle, today we welcome a new soul into our mortal fold,” Kodlak intoned. “This woman has endured, has challenged, and has shown her valor. Who will speak for her?”

“I stand witness to the courage of the soul before us,” Farkas replied solemnly.

“Would you raise your shield in her defense?” Kodlak asked.

“I would stand at her back, that the world might never overtake us.”

“Would you raise your sword in her honor?” the old man continued.

“It stands ready to meet the blood of her foes!”

She managed to not scoff; that had already been well proven, and she would prefer to not have to see it again. It caused a surprising amount of anxiety.

“Would you raise a mug in her name?”

“I would lead the song of triumph as our mead hall reveled in her stories,” he replied with a slight grin.

The idea made her wince a little; Farkas was a good warrior, but not a good singer. She heard a faint, answering snort from Vilkas, and stifled a smile. It would eventually be the little things that would matter most with these people...

“Then the judgment of this Circle is complete,” Kodlak nodded a little. “Her heart beats with the fire and courage that have united the Companions since the days of the distant green summers. Let it beat with ours, that the mountains may echo, and our enemies tremble at the call.”

“It shall be so,” the other four intoned.

The Circle scattered slowly back to their individual tasks as Kodlak shooed them off, then stepped up to speak with her.

“So, now you're one of us. It was a trifle early, but I think you'll do well,” he said, his tone and smile friendly. “Did anything special happen while hunting this shard?”

“....yes, actually.” She flicked a glance around, making sure non-Circle members weren't within earshot. “Werewolves? All of you?”

He grimaced a little, but there was an approving light in his eyes; had he expected her to lie about it? What purpose would that have served?

“Farkas should have tried a little harder to keep it to himself,” he said with a rueful sigh.

“We were beset by the Silver Hand, and it was five on one because I was foolish enough to get trapped.” She paused, then amended, “Though I suspect he really wanted to tell me; he certainly didn't try to take them on without transforming.”

“I suppose it matters not,” and Kodlak sighed again, then smiled crookedly. “Yes, the members of the Circle share in the blood of the beast. Some... take to it more than others.”

“Do you?”

“Well, I grow old,” he admitted with a faint chuckle. “My mind turns towards the horizon, to Sovngarde. I worry that Shor won't call an animal to glory as he would a true Nord warrior... Living as beasts draws our souls closer to the Daedric Lord Hircine. While I don't doubt that some would find pleasure in that, I crave the fellowship of Sovngarde.”

Auriel cocked her head slightly studying him. Finding his cure.... yes, that would certainly ingratiate her to them. Maybe not all of them, but if he felt like he owed her, the others might well follow his lead if she needed their help.

“....Lycanthropy is a disease,” she said slowly. “Much like vampirism. There is likely to be a cure, if we look long enough.”

“I have been.” He sighed a third time, then patted her shoulder lightly, “But you don't need to share the worries of an old warrior. Today is to rejoice in your bravery! Speak to Eorlund if you want a weapon; though from what Farkas tells me, you are a weapon on your own.”

Auriel smiled her best disarming smile, and spread her hands innocently.

“I use the tools laid before me, and if it comes naturally, all the better. Out of curiosity, now what?”

“Why, keep looking for work, of course. Vilkas may not be terribly fond of you, but the lad is jealous, I think, of the attention his brother gives to you.”

“And because I knocked him to the dirt.”

Kodlak chuckled, and nodded.

“And because of that. He is a hot-headed youngster, but he should have some decent work for you. Or any other member of the Circle. You have made quite an impression on all of us. I look forward to seeing what else you'll accomplish.”

There wasn't a response to that which didn't sound like boasting, so Auriel allowed a faint smile to cross her face, bowed to the old man, and moved off to see who might have some work for her to take care of.

 

Chapter Text

Twenty-one

 

Now a true member, she took jobs that sent her all over Skyrim, a fact that she was actually quite pleased with. It made it hard for anyone to track her, and whenever she needed a Shield-Sibling, she could usually count on Farkas to volunteer. Most of the time, she accepted. His affections didn't change, but at least he was waiting for her to indicate what was acceptable and what wasn't.

She found herself softening towards him, just a little; it was strange but when she was around him everything felt calmer. Slower and more peaceful. They had fought a few dragons together, and the Thalmor had not found her in weeks. If this kept up, she might well remember what it was like to feel relaxed.

She was also doing what she could to help Kodlak's hunt for a lycanthropy cure. Given the system she'd set up with Tolfdir didn't exactly allow for books to be sent through, she'd instead asked him to send them by courier, but also see what relevant notes could be made if anyone was free to take the project on. The first load of books had arrived not long after she'd returned from a job, and Kodlak's surprise had been entertaining. His pleasure at new resources and gratitude for them had cemented her place as a Companion.

 

-

 

“Hello there, sister,” Skjor said, looking up from repairing a boot.

“Farkas said you wanted to see me about something? A job requiring my specific talents?”

“I have something a little different planned this time,” he said, a slight smirk crossing his face. “But it's not for everyone to hear. Meet me in the Underforge tonight.”

Auriel blinked. The Underforge was a space under the Skyforge, she knew that much. It was a space for the Circle, for those of the beastblood. If he was inviting her there...

“All right. I'll be there.”

She occupied her day with little things, mostly answering the missives that she had allowed to pile up while she focused on being a Companion. Brynjolf's bi-weekly reports contained floods of information about the Guild, new recruits, and how their luck had slowly but steadily rebuilt. Whispers of a newly rebuilt Guild with a shadowy leader had ranged all across Skyrim, and he was more than pleased to gloat about it. Tolfdir wrote less often, saving his letters for when the need was truly great; it was interesting to realize that she truly did have a greater range of movement as the Arch-Mage than she did as the Thieves Guildmaster. She would have to check in personally with Brynjolf the next time a job took her in that direction...

Night fell, and she returned to Jorrvaskr; Skjor waited for her outside the hall, lighting torches, and nodded lightly as she approached.

“Are you prepared?” Skjor asked.

“I'm fairly certain this isn't a wise idea, but,” she shrugged lightly, “since that seems to be the course my life has taken, I'm willing to see what you have in mind.”

“We bring you here to make you stronger, Auriel,” he said firmly. “Let's go.”

Auriel sighed, and followed him into the darkness of the Underforge. It shouldn't have startled her to see a werewolf in the dimness, but it did; the pelt carried a red sheen among sable-brown, and it offered no threat. Knowing the Circle a little better now, there was no question about who it was. Aela and Skjor were the ones who seemed bound to the beast-blood.

“I'm glad you came,” Skjor said. “It's been a long time since we had a heart like yours among our numbers. That pitiful ceremony behind the hall a couple months ago doesn't befit warriors like us. You are due more honor than some calls and feasting.”

A surprising stance to take, all things considered. True, the Companions were a more diverse group now than when they had been founded, but magic was still frowned upon; she got more accolades when she mentioned a tricky bow shot than what she'd lit on fire.

“Aela agreed to be your forebear,” Skjor continued. “We do this in secret because Kodlak is too busy trying to throw away this great gift we've been granted. He thinks we've been cursed, when we've been blessed. How can something that gives this kind of prowess be a curse?”

“There's a number of ways; you're just lucky you can control it,” she replied tartly, mildly insulted on Kodlak's behalf. “Plenty of people go feral in their attempts.”

Skjor chuckled a little, then sighed.

“Well, I see it as a gift, and so does Aela,” he replied. “And we're taking this matter into our own hands. If you wish to proceed into the ranks of the Circle, then you must join with us in the shared blood of the wolf.”

“.....if I say no?”

“That is your choice, and we will not force you,” he nodded a little. “But we cannot accept you as a member of the Circle without it.”

She was almost positive that Kodlak would take exception to that. It wasn't like she'd been petitioning to become part of the Circle either. She was actually quite happy as just another ordinary member, growing closer to the rest in ways that would ensure a stout kick to any Thalmor who tried taking her on.

On the other hand, if she did this, it meant they really had accepted her as one of them.

“I don't approve of this, but all right. I'm in.”

“Very well.”

Skjor approached Aela, pulling a dagger from his belt, and held her wrist over the rock formation that had formed a natural depression in the middle of the room. Light flashed from the steel dagger and blood flowed rapidly into the bowl; when there blood was pooled a handspan deep, Aela pulled her arm back and licked the wound clean. Within moments it had healed over, leaving not even a hint of a scar.

The smell of blood was unpleasant; she'd never developed a taste for the coppery scent, no matter the number of people she'd killed. Rather, it made her wish that she had Farkas there to assure her that nothing would go wrong. Not that she didn't mostly trust these two to keep her from going mad, but...

Reluctantly she scooped up some of the blood with her hands and drank.

She didn't remember much of the change; mostly running into the night. The speed and strength of instinct as she pushed herself to run faster and faster towards the mountains that called for her. She rode the wave of the first change in an almost pragmatic manner, sensing on some level that if she did this, she wouldn't lose herself to the madness that took other weres. It didn't stop her from turning on Skjor and Aela when they caught up, but the brutal fight was brief, ending in darkness as instinct could not defeat a conscious mind.

When she finally came around, she laid still for a long moment in a bid to properly reorient herself. Her head pounded unpleasantly, and her mouth tasted still of blood. Her body ached as though she had been swimming for hours, and she was fairly certain that being a werewolf was still a bad idea.

But as her body quieted, she recognized the benefits of the blood. She lay in snow, but the cold troubled her far less than it had for how far north they had come. She could tell Aela was nearby, could smell the envy, pleasure, and a bit of blood. Already keen hearing and eyesight had been boosted by several magnitudes, and she elected to remain prone until she had properly adjusted to the new influx of information.

Aela sat on a nearby log, and grinned fiercely at her when Auriel elected to sit up.

“Yours was not an easy transformation,” the huntress said. “But you're still alive, so congratulations. We even have a celebration planned for you.”

“...that sounds ominous.”

“There's a pack of werewolf hunters camped just ahead at Gallows Rock,” Aela gestured slightly. “The Silver Hand. I think you've met them before... We're going to slaughter them. All of them. Skjor's already scouting ahead, so let's hurry.”

“Yes, because that's going to end well,” she scoffed.

“Dead werewolf hunters are always a good ending,” Aela retorted.

“Look, I get vendettas and the like, really I do. But the only thing attacking a group like this does is make them angry enough to do something stupid,” Auriel replied. “Groups that hunt weres or vampires aren't traditionally small groups.”

“So you would let Skjor handle this alone?”

“....no. I just want my objection noted. This will come and bite you in the end.”

Aela snorted a little, and led the way to Gallows Rock under the light of yellow, green and red skyfires that waved like banners overhead. There were three Silver Hand members outside, and the two women made short work of them. Inside, the air was rank with something sharp and bitter, and Auriel covered her nose reflexively, swallowing hard and was silently glad that she hadn't had anything to eat before this whole mess.

“Look at this,” Aela said contemptuously, gesturing to the bars that impeded their path. “Cowards must've locked down the place after Skjor charged in. You can taste the fear.”

“Wait, charged?” Auriel frowned at her. “I thought you said he was scouting!”

“He was. For Skjor, a battlecharge is scouting.”

Auriel stifled a groan; were they going to find him alive or dead, and how was she going to tell Kodlak if it was the latter?

Aela pulled the chain and they slipped down the hall. The two Hand in the next room were easily dispatched by arrows through their throats, and Auriel poked around a little curiously. She startled a little as opening a door showed a dead werewolf, hanging by one wrist.

“There's a dead one, isn't there?” Aela asked, peering around her. “Thought so. Nobody we know, by the smell. Some can't separate the animal from themselves, go feral. This poor sod could've been anyone.”

The sight and Aela's dismissive attitude made her feel a twinge of pity for this poor soul; simply gone from the world with no one to mourn him. Gently, she closed the door and turned away. Maybe if they were fast enough—or if Skjor was sensible—they would catch up and prevent such a thing from happening to him.

The old fort held more werewolves, both alive and dead. Mostly dead. The few living ones were held in cells, and though it was tempting to unlock doors and let them loose, Auriel refrained. Feral weres, according to Aela and every book on lycanthropy Auriel had ever read, didn't discern between friend and enemy. Letting them out would only result in getting attacked.

The deeper in they went, the more Silver Hand they found. They also found bodies of people; Nord, Mer, Khajiit, Argonian. Had they been killed before they could change, or had they been killed by mistake?

In the end, it didn't really matter. Dead was dead. Maybe they were doing everyone a favor by murdering this group.

She grimaced and forcefully pushed the thought away. Now was not the time to focus on that sort of thing.

“We're getting close now,” Aela cautioned as they entered a narrow corridor. “Be careful. Their leader is a tricky one. They call her 'the Skinner'. I don't think I need to tell you why...”

Auriel grimaced and shook her head a little. With the way the air reeked of blood, pain, and death, no, there was no need for elaboration. With no sign of Skjor, and no bodies save the ones they'd made, she was fairly sure that the Nord hadn't survived his battlecharge. Tang of initial fear aside, he'd gone running into the den, and had no one but himself to blame.

It wasn't a heartening thought.

The room where they found The Skinner held three other members of the Hand as well. Two fell mostly due to surprise and silent arrows; once they were caught out, Aela drew a dagger and all but threw herself at the Nord in plate armor while Auriel tangled with the remaining member, using newly enhanced reflexes to dodge the sword that sang too close for comfort. While she didn't have time to draw again, neither did she have the space to put up the bow and ended up using it much like a staff. A punch to the throat was a punch to the throat, and when they fell back, choking, she closed with her dagger. She turned to help Aela just in time to see a head go flying, and winced; as if the room didn't smell bad enough...

As The Skinner's body toppled, Aela scrambled up onto a dais at the back of the room. There was a heartbeat's worth of pause before the Nord woman blistered the air with curses.

“The bastards! Somehow they managed to kill Skjor!”

“...I wish I could be surprised,” Auriel muttered, wiping blood from her dagger.

“He was one of the strongest of our number! But.... numbers can overwhelm,” Aela looked down at the dead man mournfully. “I should not have allowed him to go alone...”

Auriel shrugged lightly, unable to argue; if Skjor had waited, he wouldn't be dead now. Angrily, Aela kicked the neared thing not weight down—a bucket—across the room where it crashed into a shelf, knocking books to the floor. When Aela showed no sign of caring about that, Auriel went over to see what had fallen; with all the books and papers, surely there would be something useful...

“Well now,” Auriel murmured, picking up a sheaf of notes.

“What've you found?” came the demand.

“It would appear that they'd been working just as hard as the Companions at finding shadows of Wuuthraad,” she said calmly. “No doubt to bait you into coming to them.”

“Fine, we'll come to them,” Aela snarled. “The Silver Hand will tremble at the sight of us for this insult!”

Auriel sighed.

“Aela, this is just.... oh never mind,” and she shook her head lightly. The Nord woman wasn't in any mood to listen to reason. “I'll help you once. There's a shard in the Rift I can go and fetch.”

“For the honor of the Companions,” Aela said. “Go then! Make them bleed for Skjor's death!”

 

-

 

Going to the Rift actually suited her nicely; she dropped in on Brynjolf and the Guild, and even pestered Karliah for the hell of it. Giving them both a heavily edited version of events—she wasn't about to mention this nonsense about werewolf blood—she then proceeded to inspect new members, and approve of a few big heists that Brynjolf had wanted her to look over in person.

She took care of the Hand in the Rift, dealt with an ambush of Thalmor that had waited along the main road, and made her way back to Jorrvaskr. She was glad to see the mead hall, and made her way quickly inside, bypassing everyone without so much as a greeting. She found Kodlak where she expected, and closed the doors behind her; she wanted this talk to be as private as she could make it.

He looked sad—clearly Aela had told them of Skjor's death. Not surprising, considering her weeks of travel. When she dropped the fragment onto the table, he looked at her in surprise, and started to take in a breath; she saw the precise moment he realized what had happened, and took the chair opposite him without asking.

“Yes, I let them talk me into it, no, I don't entirely regret it despite what happened. However, I am not inclined to get involved in Aela's grief-war,” she said shortly. “I know what comes of this sort of circle, and it's only a matter of time before her retaliation begets theirs.”

Kodlak blinked a few times, leaning back in his chair.

“You've taken well to the blood,” he observed.

“If you mean I'm more forthright now, well...” she shrugged. “Consider this a special case. I respect you, Kodlak, and you deserve to know everything that happened. It has its physical advantages and disadvantages... I will say I haven't felt this warm since I was last in Cyrodiil. It's almost pleasant.”

His brief smile was quickly overshadowed by renewed pain.

“And this was Skjor's idea?”

“His and Aela's,” Auriel nodded. “I thought to refuse, but... in the end the advantages outweighed my concerns. They also set up that 'celebration' at Gallows Rock, which got Skjor killed.”

“Ah Skjor,” he sighed softly, mournfully. “Sometimes the blood runs too hot in even those who are strong of mind. I thank you for telling me of this, Auriel. I will talk to Aela when she returns... though I have heard rumors of her continuing this retaliation on her own.”

“....I wish I could be surprised,” Auriel sighed. “I'm going to get some rest, and lay low for a little. Send Farkas if you need me.”

He nodded, and Auriel left Jorrvaskr.

 

-

 

Most of the week was spent on simple, little things; arms and armor repair, missives that required her attention in one manner or another. Some days she took a book up to the Gildergreen to read, and allowed herself to pretend that life was no more complicated than this.

She'd half-expected the beastblood to worry at her, to make itself known the way the words did on occasion—mostly whenever she collected a new dragon soul. But it was quiescent, and as she adjusted to her enhanced senses, she was able to all but forget that she carried it.

Farkas had been surprised, but mostly pleased by her acquisition of the blood, Vilkas notably less so. She couldn't blame Vilkas for being disgruntled; he'd joined with Kodlak in not utilizing the blood, and for her to accept it from Aela, in secret. Never mind that she had come directly to the old man with the news once she as able...

Aela returned at the end of the week, and tried to press Auriel into continuing the cycle of retribution, but Auriel refused. Instead, she spoke to Farkas who gave her an easy job not two days away, and elected to tag along as well. She let him, mostly because she had missed spending quiet hours with him, knowing that he wouldn't ask questions she couldn't answer. He wouldn't press her for a reason why she did something... he accepted that she did it, and that was that.

It was a nice feeling.

 

-

 

“You wanted to see me, Kodlak? What can I do for you?”

“I have been looking through the many resources your College has sent me,” he said with a small smile. “I admit, I hadn't expected they would be as handy as they were, and I'm almost sorry to have been so disparaging of them in my younger days.”

She chuckled a little, nodding slightly. Even if magic was never truly a Nord Way, at least one old warrior could accept that it was more useful than many gave credit for.

“And?”

“And I think I've figured out the way to cure us,” he nodded lightly. “Have you heard the tale of how we came to be such?”

“Mmm... from two different sources. Vilkas called it a curse; Skjor called it a blessing.”

“Aye,” he sighed a little. “That sounds like them... As in all matters of faith though, the reality is more complicated than one would tell you.”

“So, you tell me. Give me the details that I can't get with Skjor dead, and Vilkas unwilling to really talk to me,” she invited.

“The Companions are nearly five thousand years old. This matter of beastblood has only troubled us for a few hundred. One of my predecessors was a good, but short-sighted man. He made a bargain with the witches of Glenmoril Coven. If the Companions would hunt in the name of their lord, Hircine, we would be granted great power.”

“And thus they became werewolves,” Auriel nodded lightly. “Did he not suspect it was a trick or a trap of some type?”

“They did not believe the change would be permanent,” Kodlak replied. “The witches offered payment, like anyone else. But we had been deceived.”

Auriel frowned slightly.

“....I'm afraid I don't see how,” she admitted after a moment. “They paid to turn select members of the Companions into werewolves, and you did get great power from the transformation.”

“The witches didn't lie,” he sighed. “But this change affects more than our bodies; it seeps into the spirit. Upon death, werewolves are claimed by Hircine for his Hunting Grounds. For some, this is a paradise; they want nothing more than to chase prey with their master for eternity.”

Auriel nodded a little in understanding; she had little doubts that Skjor was happy being part of such a pack, and she expected Aela would enjoy it too.

“And that is their choice,” Kodlak waved a hand lightly. “But I am a true Nord, and I wish for Sovngarde as my spirit home.”

“And now you've found a cure.”

“Yes. I believe so.”

“How?”

“The witch's magic ensnared us, and only their magic can release us,” Kodlak sighed a little. “It is unlikely that they'll give it willingly, but we can extract it by force as necessary. I want you to seek them out for me. Destroy the coven and bring me their heads, the seat of their abilities. From there we may begin to undo centuries of impurity.”

“Two questions,” Auriel held up her fingers and he nodded. “One; you want me to do this alone?”

“I'm afraid so, lass. I have heard whisperings of Silver Hand forces gathering, and thus, I cannot safely grant you a Shield-Sibling. I apologize.”

She frowned a little, then shrugged after a moment; she'd heard the same, and it was better to keep all members near at hand instead of risking the hall's defenses.

“All right, I can accept that. Second question; how do you know they're still alive?”

“....Hagravens are not generally prone to mortal expiration.”

Auriel grimaced. Well didn't that just figure.

“You know I hate fighting hagravens,” she grumbled. “You're so going to owe me for this.”

It was his turn to chuckle.

“I owe you already,” he pointed out with good humor. “If not for you I might yet be trying to find out how to cure us. I haven't figured out how to make it work just yet, but I'm close enough that having the heads would be beneficial.”

“All right, all right,” she got to her feet with a small frown. “Don't do anything stupid while I'm gone, okay?”

He smiled and reached over to clasp her hand, a touch she no longer shied away from.

“Talos guard and guide you, Auriel,” Kodlak said simply. “Good luck.”

Chapter Text

Twenty-two

 

The location of Glenmoril Coven was on the border between the Reach and Falkreath, just outside the jurisdiction of either, and tucked away in a cavern so deep that few would know to look for it without specific directions. There were five hagravens, all told, and Auriel figured it would just be easier to kill them all; if nothing else, it was one less coven in the Reach to deal with. She managed to escape with minor injuries; the worst offense was her hair coming out of its pins in time to get lit on fire, and she cut off what was left after the fight was over. Hair, at least, would grow back.

Carrying the heads made her more than a touch grumpy; while the magic preserved them from rotting it was still more than moderately disgusting, and she was going to have to soak and scrub everything for weeks to get the stench out, never mind the stains.

Whiterun wasn't in chaos when she returned, but she did catch the sounds of fighting. Or what seemed to be the tail end of fighting, and she saw no excuse to rush if the guards had it handled.

However, those handling it weren't the guard, and she had to push her way through a crowd gathered before Jorrvaskr. Several bodies lay sprawled out on the steps, with Aela and Torvar standing over them; it wasn't the bodies that made Auriel's heart jump... it was the silver weapons discarded not far from dead hands.

She didn't stop to ask questions; she took the stairs three at a time and flung herself through the doors into the mead hall.

There by the feasting tables, lay Kodlak Whitemane.

The part of her not in shock cataloged the damage; the hall was overturned, and rank with blood. Njada helped Athis in one corner to sit as he nursed a gash in his ribs. Food and drink were spilled everywhere, some burning in the coals of the banked fires.

Farkas knelt beside Kodlak's body, silent grief in every line of his frame; from the side she picked up a whiff of anger, and turned slightly as Vilkas approached her. Her mind unstuck, and she put an immediate lock on her emotional response; now was not the time for grief. Mourning would be done in private, away from any eyes... For now, it was clear there was work to be done.

“Where have you been?” Vilkas demanded, anger and grief reflected in his eyes.

“...what happened here?” she countered quietly, unwilling to admit that she had been running Kodlak's last errand.

“One of the fiercest battles I've ever seen,” he growled. “The Silver Hand. They finally found enough courage to attack Jorrvaskr. We fought them off, but...”

He glanced over his shoulder at the people huddled around Kodlak's still form. She saw his shoulders quiver a little, but when he looked at her, there was anger in his eyes, in his face.

“I ask again... where were you?”

It wasn't going to help him any to know, but he also wasn't going to let it go. So she sighed softly.

“I was doing a favor for Kodlak. Seeking what he asked for.”

“He... asked? No, you helped him into this mess!” Vilkas growled, one hand reaching up over his shoulder to grasp the hilt of his sword. “You and Aela antagonized the Silver Hand, and then you fed him this nonsense about cleansing the soul! I knew we shouldn't have trusted you!”

He made a move to attack, but there was suddenly a whole lot of Farkas in the way. He grabbed the blade and yanked it away from Vilkas, then silently pointed at Kodlak's body. After a moment Vilkas glared contemptuously at her, then went to sit beside the body.

Better he do that than try to fight her now; she would make allowances for grief, but she would also defend herself. As Farkas turned, she found herself unable to meet those silver eyes... unable to stand the pain in them.

“Is anyone else hurt?” she asked quietly.

“No, but they made off with all the fragments of Wuuthrad,” he muttered. “Try not to let Vilkas get to you...”

“He's grieving,” she said softly. “Everyone grieves differently. I understand.”

He hesitated, then uncertainly rested a hand on her shoulder. She kept her expression strictly neutral, though she did lift her hand and rest it lightly, briefly, over his. After he let his hand drop, Vilkas, in better control of his temper, rejoined them.

“You and I are going to reclaim the shards of Wuuthrad,” he said shortly, glaring still at Auriel. “We will bring the battle to their chief camp, and none will be left living to tell their tales. Only songs of Jorrvaskr will be sung! We will avenge Kodlak, and they will know terror before the end.”

She nodded, and Vilkas grabbed his sword from the ground, then stalked out the door. Farkas looked between them, grief and concern in his face. Lightly she lifted a hand to touch his cheek; she couldn't help the grief, but she could give him something to focus on that might help him breathe.

“Look after them,” she said quietly.

“But...”

“Get Eorlund, and have him come here; he was Kodlak's friend too, and he'll know how to direct everyone to keep this from getting any worse,” she said firmly. “I don't agree that everyone needs to die, but I do think this needs to end, Farkas. One way or another, it's time.”

“You and Vil...”

“We'll be fine. I've dealt with people who grieve angrily before. I'll bring him back in one piece whether he likes it or not.”

He brought up both hands to cup her face. It surprised her and she froze.

“I want you to come back in one piece too,” he said softly. “I don't want to lose anyone else.”

She was quiet for several minutes, then lightly pulled away.

“You'll have to trust me then. We'll come back.”

He made an unhappy sound, but let her go, and she followed Vilkas out the door. He growled at her from the top of the stairs, but she ignored it; she had no interest in being confrontational when emotions like this were running high.

“Let's go.”

Vilkas nodded sharply, and they left Jorrvaskr and the city behind them.

 

-

 

The main base of the Silver Hand was up in the Pale, near Dawnstar, at a place called Driftshade Refuge. Getting there was a very tense affair, involving a long ride to Dawnstar itself before splitting off the main path to trudge through the deep snow to the tower. Vilkas spoke briefly, tersely, and she gave him the space to grieve as he needed. Sometimes she got the sense that he hated her for doing that, but she wasn't inclined to give him a fight.

The Silver Hand were nothing if not predictable. From the number of guards outside, to the werewolf heads staked around the door, she was reminded intimately of Gallows Rock. Auriel growled just slightly as she went in, and Vilkas answered it. In this one moment, they were in perfect agreement; these people had orchestrated the death of Kodlak, and now they would have to handle two werewolves who were not interested in talking.

It was very systemic, almost clinical. They went through every single room and killed every single person. There were no exceptions. If Auriel's flames didn't take them, Vilkas' greatsword usually did. They also stole everything of value that wasn't nailed down; it hadn't been discussed, Auriel simply picked up whatever shiny bits she could, and Vilkas seemed inclined to do the same.

The found the pieces at last, bundled up on a table in the final room of the ruined fort. Vilkas tangled with the leader, while Auriel fought the support. All three died within moments of each other.

“There's.... more here than the stole,” Vilkas murmured. “They had all the pieces?”

“The perfect bait to lure you with,” Auriel said coolly. “The fragments of the axe of the man who once lead the Companions.”

He glared at her, but it was half-hearted at best. They were both exhausted, sweat-drenched, and injured. There was almost no energy left even for the grief; he pulled out a few scraps of leather, binding the pieces together, then surprised her by turning to hand them over.

“Here,” he said gruffly. “You carry them.”

It took her a moment to accept; Wuuthrad had killed more elves than could be counted, and she didn't actually want to carry them. She was just too tired to protest.

“We'll take a shorter route back,” he said after a moment. “Hopefully, we'll be in time for the funeral...”

 

-

 

It was raining by the time they returned. It seemed almost fitting, considering they were heading towards a funeral.

“It hasn't started yet,” a guard replied when Vilkas asked. “They're all waiting for you...”

Vilkas nodded, and turned on his heel to move into the city. Weary or not, Auriel refused to lag behind. She hated attending funerals, but she couldn't do anything less for Kodlak.

Everyone was up on the Skyfoge; a bier for Kodlak had been places over the forge's embers, though it hadn't yet been lit. Vilkas moved to take his place, and Auriel hesitated. Where exactly did she fit? A slight movement caught her eye; Farkas flicking his fingers lightly at her. Silently she made her way to his side, and allowed him to take her hand; after a moment, she laced her fingers with his, needing the solid strength he was offering.

“Who will start?” Eorlund asked.

“...I'll do it,” Aela said. “Before the ancient flame...”

“We grieve,” the Companions intoned.

“At this loss...” Eorlund continued.

“We weep.”

“For the fallen,” Vilkas murmured, grief clouding his voice.

“We shout.”

“And for ourselves,” Farkas finished.

“We take our leave.”

Aela lit the torch, and stepped forward. Auriel's grip on Farkas' hand tightened fractionally as she watched the huntress set fire to the pyre where Kodlak lay, grief a living thing in her heart. She kept her face expressionless, and her eyes dry through sheer force of will; some of the others were not so lucky.

“His spirit is departed,” Aela said a little hoarsely. “Members of the Circle, let us withdraw to the Underforge, to grieve our lost together.”

Auriel released Farkas' hand, and nudged him along. He went without a word, and Auriel paused as Eorlund reached out to her.

“Do you have the fragments of Wuuthrad still?” he asked gently. “I'll need to prepare them for mounting again.”

“...yes. Here.”

She handed them over without really looking at the old smith; all she wanted to do was leave. Go to Breezehome, make the long trek to Lakeview... she just needed to get away, to be allowed to grieve on her own at last. Eorlund's hand on her arm stopped her before she could take a step.

“I ah... have a small favor to ask you,” he murmured. “There's another piece, one that Kodlak always kept close to himself. Could you fetch it back to me from his chambers? I'm not sure I'm the best one to go through his things...”

Going through his things... the idea made her heart ache. But she nodded and turned to go into the mead hall.

 

-

 

Walking into his rooms, breathing in the smells of leather and oil, wax and ink, everything that made up Kodlak's unique scent, almost broke her resolve. She couldn't bear the thought of taking his scent from the room, of carrying it with her as an unspoken reminder of what had been lost. But she couldn't go back to Eorlund empty handed either. Gingerly, trying to move things as little as possible, she hunted for the missing fragment.

She found it in the pages of his journal, and despite her intentions, she read a line that drew her in. A page... then another. Heartfelt words poured onto the paper, a pastime rare for Nord males, that described dreams, hopes, her arrival, her influences, his opinions, and what he wanted for the future.

Auriel closed the journal gently, bowed her head, and finally wept for what was lost.

It took some time for her to feel ready to give Eorlund the remaining fragment, and she made sure to wash her face before she stepped out of Kodlak's room. It was almost as hard to leave as it had been to enter; the air of Jorrvaskr was bathed in grief and sorrow, and would be for some time.

After checking to make sure no one would know she had been crying, she returned to the old smith.

“You're back,” he said quietly.

“Here. Kodlak's fragment,” she replied just as quietly, handing him the piece.

“Thank you. Your Shield-Siblings have withdrawn to the Underforge. I think they're waiting for you...”

She nodded, sighed a little, and made her way down. While in truth she would have preferred to mourn on her own, she could understand the need to mourn with others. She owed it to them, after everything that had happened; a show of support for their pain could only help. Right?

There was a tension in the air, and it was clear from the tone of voice that the discussion in progress was not a happy one. She hung back in the shadows of the entrance, watching as Vilkas seemed to be squaring off with Aela.

“The old man had one wish before he died,” Vilkas said lowly. “And he didn't get it. It's as simple as that.”

“Being moon-born is not so much of a curse as you might think, Vilkas,” Aela replied, arms crossed a little defensively.

“That's fine for you,” he retorted. “But he wanted to be clean. He wanted to meet Ysgramor and know the glories of Sovngarde! But all that was taken from him...”

“And you avenged him,” Aela shrugged lightly.

“Kodlak did not care for vengeance,” Farkas pointed out quietly.

Auriel flinched a little, and looked briefly down at her feet.

“No, Farkas, he didn't,” Vilkas sighed. “And that's not what this is about. We should be honoring Kodlak, no matter our own thoughts on the blood.”

“....you're right,” Aela said after a long, tense moment. Her voice was laced with softness and grief. “It's what he wanted. And he deserved to have it.”

“Kodlak spoke of a way to cleanse his soul, even in death,” Vilkas muttered. “You know the legends of the Tomb of Ysgramor...”

“'There the souls of the Harbingers will heed the call of northern steel,'” Aela quoted. Then she shook her head a little in exasperation. “We can't even enter the tomb without Wuuthrad, and it's in pieces, like it has been for a thousand years.”

The door opened again, and all of them turned in surprise.

“And dragons were just legends,” Eorlund said. “And the elves once ruled Skyrim. Just because something is, doesn't mean it must be.”

Auriel saw it first, and drew in a quiet breath. Slung over his shoulder was an axe, ancient and strong. It carried with is an air that sent ice down her back, and as he walked forward, she stepped out of the way.

“A blade is a weapon,” he continued, nodding a little at her. “A tool. Tools are meant to be broken. And repaired.”

“Is that...?” Now Vilkas drew in a shocked breath. “Did you repair the blade?”

“This is the first time I've had all the pieces,” Eorlund replied a little dryly. “'The flames of a hero can reforge the shattered.' The flames of Kodlak fueled the rebirth of Wuuthrad, and now, it will take you to meet him once more.”

He turned to her, and Auriel stepped back on reflex as he lifted the blade off his back, then offered it to her.

“As the one who bore the fragments, I think you should be the one to carry Wuuthrad to the tomb,” he said firmly. “The rest of you, prepare to journey north, tot he Tomb of Ysgramor. For Kodlak.”

She accepted Wuuthrad gingerly, shivering a little at the feel of the weapon. It had killed thousands of her ancestors, and she would have happily let anyone else carry it. But they would stand on ceremony. Tradition. And damned if she wasn't going to let them.

“Let's go,” she said quietly. “For Kodlak.”

 

-

 

They went north, making the long journey to Winterhold, and beyond it in a boat, to find the Tomb of Ysgramor. The door was so cold that it took the combined efforts of the twins to open it, and that was after Auriel had done her best to thaw it out.

Once inside, they were greeted with a single room, and a large statue of Ysgramor, his hands empty and held aloft as though he was wielding his mighty axe. Auriel wasted no time in returning the weapon to him, and the door beyond slid open with a rough grinding of gears.

Vilkas hesitated, and Auriel gave him a curious look.

“This is the resting place of Ysgramor, and his most trusted generals. You should be cautious,” he hedged, not quite looking at her.

“...you're not coming, are you?”

“Farkas was right. I let vengeance rule my heart,” he sighed. “I regret nothing of what we did at Driftshade, but I can't go any further with my mind fogged, or my heart grieved...”

Auriel nodded; Aela and Farkas flanked her, and the three of them stepped quietly into the frozen tomb.

They encountered their first ghosts just out of sight of the entrance, and they were not easily disrupted. Beyond the next set of doors were several more, and both Farkas and Aela were swift to start the fights. Auriel hung back, her chokehold on her own grief having shifted it to weariness. She didn't want to fight. She just wanted to see if Kodlak's spirit was where they all thought it might be.

She found a mild motivation when the next wave of ghosts battered Farkas to the ground, and fire worked just as well against spirits as it did on living flesh and blood. He grimaced a little as she helped him to stand, and gave her a worried look; Auriel quickly turned away, making her way across the water to start the next piece.

The way was blocked by spider webs, and Farkas stepped back, shuddering.

“I can't go any further,” he admitted. “Ever since Dustman's Cairn, the big crawly ones have been too much for me. I'm not proud, but I'll stay back with Vilkas.”

She nodded a little, and even managed to dredge up the energy for a sympathetic look. He hesitated, then clasped her shoulder gently before turning away to start back towards the entrance.

It was just the two woman now, and Auriel found the energy to fight. She didn't like it, didn't want it, and did it anyways. Spiders fell, and then more ghosts beyond until they reached the large central chamber. A fire, blue, occupied a small stone basin, and before it was the spirit of Kodlak. Auriel's heart lurched as she recalled the words of his journal; this old man had seen more in her than she'd ever seen in herself. And now he was this...

He smiled at her in warm greeting, and despite the pain, she managed to smile back.

“I fear I will have to owe you a while longer, my girl,” he said in wry amusement.

“That's fine... Maybe I'll visit you in Sovngarde and you can pay me there,” she replied, managing to keep her tone light.

She couldn't take the sympathy in his face, and turned her gaze away; behind her, she heard Aela make a small noise that somehow mixed grief and humor. Oddly, it helped.

“What are you doing here?” Auriel asked, once she had control again.

“My fellow Harbingers and I are warming ourselves here, trying to evade the call of Hircine.”

She blinked, and glanced around.

“....Kodlak, there's... no one else here.”

“You see only me because your heart knows only me as the Companions guide,” he said gently. “I'd wager old Vignar could see half a dozen of my predecessors. And I see them all. The ones in Sovngarde... and the ones trapped with me in Hircine's realm. And they all see you. You've brought honor to the name of the Companions, and we won't soon forget it.”

She shook her head lightly, unwilling to accept praise for manipulating events. Unwilling as well, to say why it bothered her so much to be thought well of; what would they think if they knew the truth? How quick would they be to turn...?

Auriel gave herself a hard mental shake; enough of being maudlin, they had come here for a reason. One last gift.

“Vilkas said that you said that you could still be cured,” she said after a moment. “You found what you were looking for then, finally?”

“Yes, lass. Throw one of the witches' heads into the fire, and it will release their magic. For me, at least..”

Auriel nodded, extracting one of the heads she'd carried all this long way. A red spirit wolf was torn from Kodlak's blue form, and leaped for her with a howl. She ducked under it, and the battle was joined with fire and steel until the red beast was beaten.

“We did it,” Auriel panted, glancing at the old man.

“Yes. And slain the beast inside of me as well,” He grinned in triumph. “I thank you for this gift. The other Harbingers remain trapped by Hircine, though...Perhaps from Sovngarde the heroes of old can join me in their liberation. The Harrowing of the Hunting Grounds... it would be a battle of such triumph. And perhaps someday you may join us in that battle. But not this day. Today, return to Jorrvaskr, and revel in your victory. Lead the Companions to further glory, Auriel. Yours is the heart that can do this.”

“Kodlak, wait, I-”

But within moments he'd faded out, and was gone.

“Did I hear right?” Aela asked. “Did he say you were to lead the Companions?”

“....so it would seem.”

“You've earned the right,” the huntress said after a moment. “Your strength and honor are apparent to all. Let's go tell the others... Harbinger.”

Auriel grimaced a little, then sighed and nodded. This was going to be harder than the Thieves Guild; none of the regular members stood out with distinction, and of what was left of the Circle, she couldn't help agreeing with Kodlak's assessments; Aela was solitary, Vilkas hot-headed, and Farkas too kind.

After a minute, an idea nudged her. She turned it over, thought about it, then nodded to herself as she followed Aela back to the first chamber. Yes, that could do quite nicely.

 

Chapter Text

Twenty-three

 

She sought out Eorlund in private, at his home instead of at the forge. Fralla greeted her fondly, and insisted that Auriel join them for something to eat. She demurred politely; her business was with Eorlund alone, and it would have to be quick, before any of the Companions learned of her return. While she suspected most would be pleased rather than annoyed, she didn't want to go through the exhaustive task of trying to explain without actually doing so.

Eorlund looked her up and down where she sat, raising a brow.

“All right then, girl. What's with all the secrecy?” he asked.

“I want to make you the Harbinger.”

Eorlund stared, then glanced down at the mug of ale in his hand.

“...no, you're not drunk. Neither am I. As much as I cared for Kodlak, and appreciate his desire to look out for me, being Harbinger would be restrictive; I cannot take on such a duty. But, of the remaining members of the Circle, none are capable of being what's needed. You are.”

“I'm not a Companion, Auriel. I'm a smith.”

“And you've been folding Companion steel for years,” she retorted. “You know them as well as Kodlak did, better than I do. What they need is a moral guide, someone whose experiences will lead them where they need to go. I can't provide that.”

He frowned, scrutinizing her.

“What are you up to?”

“See? You can tell I've got something planned,” she smiled dryly. “Aela wouldn't care, Farkas wouldn't question, and Vilkas.... well, he always thinks I'm up to something. Which, to be fair, is true. I'll be honest here; I'm going to join the war effort. See if I can't throw my weight behind your Stormcloaks and finally end this thing for good.”

“You would side against the Empire?” He blinked at her.

“Yes. I have my reasons, Eorlund, and I can't get into those right now. You'll have to trust me.”

He was quiet for several long minutes, just looking at her. A canny old man, a surprisingly good friend, she wished she could tell him her reasons. But she didn't dare; if they knew the truth, she would no longer be welcome, and she knew it.

“All right,” he sighed finally. “I'll be their Harbinger. But you be careful in getting involved in this war.”

“It's a war,” she said dryly. “I'll do my best to come back in one piece, but I make no promises.”

“What should I tell the others?”

“Give them these letters,” and she handed over two. “Vilkas, I don't doubt, will accept you without a fuss. These are for Aela and Farkas, because I expect this will confuse them. They were very pleased to have me as Harbinger, and the idea that I might not want it will be more than slightly odd. Also, try and keep Farkas from following after me. I.... appreciate his affections, but I don't have the time for them. Not yet.”

Eorlund nodded, and Auriel stood.

“And keep them out of the war,” she said firmly. “I don't care how you do it, and I don't care what you have to tell them, just... keep them out of it.”

“May the gods look after you, Auriel,” he said after a long moment.

“May they look after us all. Because we're all going to need it.”

 

-

 

Getting out of the city without being spotted by one of the Companions was easier now that she was the only other one of the group who carried the beast-blood. She could tell when a scent was fresh, and when it was old, and while Farkas had taken up a somewhat disconcerting habit of haunting the area around her house, she was able to slip out of the city with no one being the wiser.

Windhelm never ceased to be impressive; she'd been in and out on her own merits many times now and liked it, despite the snow and the cold. With the beast-blood, the warmth-spelled mage robes, and her fur cloak, the cold was actually something close to manageable.

The Palace of Kings was a new destination, and she found herself staring up at it for several minutes, feeling the age and weight of the stone. Rumor and legend said it was built by Ysgramor, much as Jorrvaskr had been. Whether it was or wasn't, she had to admit that it was a more impressive building than the Blue Palace of Solitude.

When she stepped in, she found Ulfric sitting on his throne, holding a conversation with a man who's voice sounded like it had been earned through many a shouted battlefield order. There was a certain rasp men and women got to their voice after bellowing across the screams of people for so long. She listened—it was hard to not, considering the acoustics of the room—and found herself mildly approving of the temperate answers the Jarl was giving.

He seemed almost uncertain of his chances, she decided as she leaned against the wall. Though he wanted to win, he worried about casualties, about bloodshed and civilians. But at the same time, he wanted all of Skyrim to follow. Not just those who agreed. She wasn't sure on if he meant all Nords—which seemed to be his defining theme at times—or if he genuinely meant everyone who lived in the land of Skyrim. Every Imperial, Breton, Khajiit, and on down the line, every person who had come to this land in hopes of a better life, a happier one. Every being who wanted nothing more than to love Skyrim.

Well, if it wasn't the latter, she would find out soon enough. And whether he liked it or not, she would hammer home the fact that Skyrim was not just a Nordic country. If he wanted a united country, he was just going to have to face that fact, plain, pure, and simple.

The hoarse-voiced man's name was Galmar, and she caught a whiff of his scent that made her stiffen slightly. Something about it suggested were blood, but not wolf blood. He ignored her as she drifted closer to hear better, and she took another delicate sniff; yes, definitely a were of some sort... Would he change with the moons, or did he change at will, as she could? Another sniff and she recognized the scent; a little musky, like a bear. True, it could have been the hide of the uniform he wore, but it was too fresh, too present.

Given the way he seemed to care little about the collateral damage, the way Galmar seemed convinced that the people would follow Ulfric despite everything else... reminded her a little of Vilkas, actually. Too hot-headed for his own good, needing temperance and patience. The Jarl seemed a good counterpoint to the rough-voiced Nord.

Ulfric's voice raised in passion as he spoke of the reasons to fight, and she weighed them silently. They were not the best of reasons, no, and there was a certain oxymoronic idealism in the idea of fighting to end the fighting.... but it would do, for the moment. The most important part was that he would close the embassy, and remove the overt presence of the Thalmor from Skyrim.

She gave up on the pretense of casual listening and moved to the throne where Ulfric sat. He glanced up, and his eyes narrowed slightly.

“Only the foolish or the courageous approach a Jarl without summons...” Then he cocked his head slightly. “Do I know you?”

“Helgen,” she said simply.

“Aahhh, yes,” he nodded slightly. “Destined for the chopping block if I'm not mistaken.”

“No more than you,” she shrugged a little. “And fate intervened on everyone's behalf.”

“So it did,” and Ulfric nodded again, his eyes now more curious than hostile. “What brings you to me, then?”

“I want to help you.”

“You'll have to speak to Galmar for that,” and he smiled faintly. “But we're always looking for more warriors. Especially someone who made it out of Helgen. You'll have a bit of a fight of it, being what you are...”

She shrugged and he sighed a little.

“Seems we're all branded villains these days,” he murmured sadly. “So long as your past stays in the past, and you fight for me with honor and integrity, we'll welcome you into our ranks.”

There was no guarantee of that, to be certain, but the time to admit to it had come and gone. Her people had been trying—and failing—to kill her for almost a year, and now she was going to make her first deliberate strike against them by throwing in with Ulfric's plans. No more would her home be the Summerset Isle... now, and as far into the future as she could plan for, it was Skyrim.

Auriel bowed politely, then turned to the man in bear fur, and kept her expression neutral. Galmar scowled at her, and looked her up and down.

“Wolf,” he grunted a little, though he kept his voice low. “You reek of it.”

“You smell no better, sir bear,” she retorted placidly. “Failed to bathe, recently?”

“....Helgen, eh?” She could see that her picking up on his beast-blood had surprised him, and it was a painfully obvious change of subject. Auriel smiled faintly, sharply, and nodded. “Ulfric told us quite the story. If you actually made it through that, you might be worth something to me. But first tell me; why's a High Elf want to fight for Skyrim?”

Auriel raised a brow, then shrugged lightly.

“I could tell you a grand tale of revenge and spin a web of words to convince you of my sincerity,” she said dryly. “I could point out the fact that while you may favor Nords, Skyrim is home to other races who love her just as much as you do, and that alienating them will win you nothing. I can also tell you that loyalty is a funny thing, and no matter what you do, sometimes your loyalty is rewarded with nothing more than death. But here's the plain truth. I want the Thalmor gone. It is not noble, powerful, brave; I don't do this because they restricted your worship of Talos, or because I have any great fondness for you and yours. I want them gone for me. I want to be safe, and the only way I can do that is if they're gone. As a side benefit, Skyrim would also be free of the Thalmor, and you could worship whomever you pleased.”

Ulfric, listening in, coughed in a manner that suggested he was attempting to not laugh. Galmar blinked a couple of times, then grinned a feral sort of grin.

“You're blunt enough, that's for certain. Now, how much can you take? Pass my test first, Elf, and then we'll see.”

“If you insist,” she sighed. “What sort of test?”

“The kind men use to measure themselves.”

Auriel raised her eyebrow again, then looked down at herself pointedly, before glancing back at Galmar, an ironic smile on her face.

“I'm a man?”

There was another spate of muffled coughing that this time sounded more like laughter. Galmar just rolled his eyes and snorted at her.

“I'm sending you to Serpentstone Island,” he growled. “If you survive, you pass. If not, well, you wouldn't have been much use anyways.”

“And what, precisely, is at Serpentstone Island?” she asked, her voice a shade too innocent to be anything but mockery.

“It's where men... people,” he glared as she smirked, “have tested their mettle for ages. There's a strange rock formation there, built by the ancients. Something about that place attracts the Ice Wraiths. You kill an Ice Wraith out there, and I'll have all the proof I need about you!”

“....and every recruit does this?”

“Only the ones I'm not sure about,” he retorted. “It will prove your abilities, and your commitment to the cause.”

“Simplistic logic at it's best,” she snorted a little herself. “Very well. I'll return soon enough.”

She could hear Ulfric chuckling as she left, and shook her head a little. Nords.

 

-

 

Serpentstone Island was far north, practically in Winterhold itself. She detoured to check in at the College and bandied about the idea of buying her own cart and horse—she knew how to drive one, and it wouldn't be that hard to stock it—before she found a boat that would take her through half-frozen water to the island itself.

She was not adept at poling the boat through the icy water, but she managed to do so without hitting anything too hard, and it didn't take a lot of effort to find—or kill—the Ice Wraith Galmar had been so certain would kill her first. She snorted a little again at his clear underestimation of her, and dusted herself off lightly. The trip back went faster, and she intended to present Galmar with the Ice Wraith teeth she'd collected as proof of her win.

“Tell me again why we're wasting time and dwindling resources chasing a legend?” Ulfric demanded as she walked into the map room. “We don't even know it exists!”

“The Jarls are upset,” Galmar replied. “They don't all support you.”

“Damn the Jarls,” Ulfric snapped.

Auriel raised an eyebrow. That was hardly the proper response.

“They demand the Moot,” Galmar continued.

“And damn the Moot!” was the snappish reply. “We should risk letting these milk-drinkers put Torygg's woman on the throne? She'll hand Skyrim over to the elves on a silver plate.”

Auriel frowned, leaning against a wall and crossing her arms over her chest. Elisif was not the most learned of rulers, but she wasn't weak the way he seemed inclined to imply. She was doing the best she could with what she had, and what she didn't have could be laid squarely at his feet.

“All the more reason then,” Galmar insisted. “The crown would legitimize your claim.”

“A crown doesn't make a king...”

“No, but this one-”

“If it even exists,” Ulfric interrupted.

“It exists!” Galmar said impatiently. “And it'll be the symbol of the righteousness of our cause. Think about it. The Jagged Crown! It heralds back to a time before Jarls and moots. Back to the time where a king was a king because his enemies fell before him and his people rose because they loved him. Skyrim needs that king. You will be that king, Ulfric. You must be.”

As far as inspiring speeches went, it admittedly wasn't half bad. True, it laid a heavier burden on Ulfric than it sounded like he wanted, but that was the price of a revolution.

Ulfric sighed, and ran a hand over his face.

“You're certain you've found it?” he asked, a weary note in his voice.

“When have I ever been false with you?” Galmar snorted.

“Fine. Take her with you,” and he glanced at Auriel, who took that to mean she could safely join the conversation and stepped up to the table. “Fancy a crawl through a moldering dungeon to see if you can't stir up Galmar's Jagged Crown?”

“It''l be there,” Galmar grumbled. “You'll see.”

“Sure,” Auriel shrugged. “Whether there or not, it sounds like it could be fun.”

“Seems I owe Ulfric a drink. I didn't think we'd be seeing you again,” Galmar said, glancing at her. “I misjudged you. You're definitely Stormcloak material.”

“You are not the first, nor will you be the last.” And she smiled thinly. “I cultivate my presentations carefully. It's much more amusing to watch people stutter and stare when I come back from their 'frightening ventures', after all.”

Both men snorted, and she bowed lightly, mockingly.

“It's time to make this official,”Galmar said. “Are you ready to take the Oath?”

“Certainly.”

He eyed her for a minute as if judging the sincerity of her calm tone, then huffed a little.

“By taking this oath you become one of us. A heroine of the people, a true daughter of Skyrim; a Stormcloak. Repeat after me; I do swear my blood and honor to the service of Ulfric Stormcloak, Jarl of Windhelm and true High King of Skyrim. As Talos is my witness, may this oath bind me to death and beyond, even to my lord as to my fellow brothers and sisters in arms. All hail the Stormcloaks, the true sons and daughters of Skyrim!”

Auriel repeated it dutifully, word for word, and Galmar grinned his fierce grin again.

“Now you're one of us. Which means you can tag along on this little trip. Oh, and take these. You should look the part of a Stormcloak.”

She looked the gear over critically, then added the Stormcloak cloak over the top of her fur one.

“That's it?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Unlike some people, I prefer to go incognito when I travel. Where are we going?”

“I've found the final resting place of the Jagged Crown,” and he smirked, then frowned when Ulfric made a disbelieving noise. “Well, I'm almost certain. We're bound for Korvanjund, and if old King Borgos really is buried there, we're bound to run into trouble of some kind. So I've sent word to some of the others, and they'll meet us outside the tomb.”

“...and you're certain this crown is in there?” she asked skeptically.

“If the crown exists, it'll be there,” he nodded. “Now, let's move, girl.”

Auriel shrugged, nodded, and followed the gruff-voiced man out into the cold.

 

-

 

Korvanjund was off to the east, past the ruins of Irkngthad. It took a few days worth of travel to get there, and they were joined along the way by a small comportment of Stormcloaks. By the time they were there, it was a group about fifteen strong, and they met another ten just before the tomb itself.

But they were not the only group there; Imperials had caught wind of the location as well, and were already swarming the tomb. As Galmar listened to the scout's report, his expression took on a dangerous edge.

“Listen up,” he growled. “Those Imperials aren't here by coincidence Their spies must've found out we know about the Crown and they don't want us to have it. But they won't stand in our way. I know some of you are ex-Legion and may know men on the other side. But remember this; they are the enemy now, and they will not hesitate to kill you. Keep your wits about you, and watch your shield sibling's back.”

Auriel grimaced a little, silently reminded of the Companions. She missed them, all of them; even testy, wary Vilkas. But war was not about glory, war was about death, and they had already suffered enough losses. She would rather not see more of her allies die for stupid reasons.

“Ulfric Stormcloak is counting on us to bring him back the crown, and that's exactly what we're going to do,” Galmar continued. “Follow me. Quickly and quietly now. I want their guts on the ground before they even know we're here.”

She grimaced a little at the depiction, and decided that she would hang back. Undoubtedly they wouldn't need her help in this; she was just along for the ride. The fight was quick, and while not bloodless, there was less than could have been. None of the Stormcloaks did more than was necessary to kill the Legionnaires that blocked the way.

“That's the way I like it,” Galmar grinned fiercely. “Short and bloody. They never knew what hit them! But do not make the mistake of underestimating the Legion. Plenty of them are Nords, same as us! We had the advantage of surprise this time, but things won't be so easy from here on out. Now. Let's go kill some Imperials!”

They entered the tomb with more stealth than she expected, but stealth was quickly given up in favor of full-fledged combat. Auriel just shook her head, and moved off to a corner where she had a clear line of sight for her bow. When they were all down, Galmar nodded at two of the Stormcloaks.

“You two, stay and guard the entrance. We don't want any Imperial reinforcements taking us by surprise. The rest of you lot are with me!”

They charged down the hall, weapons drawn. Auriel just sighed and followed after, quick and silent. They took out the Legionnaires in the next room, then Galmar hesitated at the narrow hallway beyond.

“I don't like the look of this,” he grumbled. “Perfect spot for an ambush. Ten to one they're just waiting for us on the other side.”

“But there isn't any other way through,” protested one of the Stormcloaks.

“Huuh, you sure about that? Then please, be my guest and go strolling in there,” he said sarcastically. “We'll stay here and watch you back.”

She hesitated, and the burly man nodded with a snort.

“Not so sure? Then perhaps we should take a moment to look around a little, eh?” He glanced around, and his eyes landed on Auriel. “You there, Unblooded.”

“Auriel.”

“Whatever. See if you can find another way through,” he ordered. “We'll charge in to help as soon as we hear fighting.”

She raised a skeptical eyebrow, then shrugged.

“More like you'll charge in to a handful of dead bodies, but all right. I'll see what I can find.”

He let out a short bark of laughter as she turned and slipped back up the stairs, scouring the room for another way through. It wasn't actually that hard to find; the upper level of the room wrapped around, and fed to a small walkway, where Auriel had the perfect bird's eye view of Legionnaires waiting to ambush.

“You hear anything?” one soldier asked.

“No, but I know they're out there,” another responded sourly. “No other way they can come. Now shut up, or you'll blow the ambush!”

“I don't like it,” the first one muttered. “What are they waiting for?”

“Maybe they're so scared of you they ran away,” a third mocked.

“Very funny.”

“Just shut up and keep out of sight!” the second soldier ordered.

Auriel smiled, and sighted on a lamp hanging high above the oil slick the soldier was standing in. There was a round of shocked cursing and screams of pain as she loosed, and true to her word, Galmar and the others charged in to find a room full of corpses. He looked up, and she waved cheekily.

“.....careful, the lot of you,” he muttered when she rejoined them. “There's bound to be more up ahead.”

“Can we send her up first?” one of the others joked.

“Alas, there's no secondary path out, so I fear you brute force men and women will just have to handle things,” she retorted sweetly.

Snickers ran through the group, as they headed onwards. The next room held only a couple, and they were easy enough to dispatch, but one of the Stormcloaks stopped short at the sight of a dead draugr.

“What in the name of the nine holds is that?” she demanded.

“Draugr,” another responded. “Ain't you ever seen one before?”

“No,” and the soldier shuddered. “And I'm not sure I'm better off for it now, neither.”

“Steady,” Galmar replied, laying a heavy hand on the soldier's shoulder. “A few dusty bonewalkers aren't going to stop us any more than the Imperials could. We're not leaving until we get what we came for. Now let's keep moving.”

The soldiers nodded, and they moved further into the tomb.

The Legionnaires had met the draugr too, it seemed. And from the looks of it, draugr were tougher, though not by much. Auriel just shook her head a little; if people were better at stealth, the draugr could be avoided entirely... though that implied that Nords knew how to be stealthy. Outside of the thieves of the Guild, she hadn't met a single one.

Finally, they ran into an obstacle that the Legion hadn't been able to pass.

“Ah!” Galmar sighed a little, sheathing his weapon. “The Hall of Stories. We must be getting close now.”

“Oh, I've heard of this,” a solider murmured. “They say these walls show the history of the ancients who built this place.”

“Too bad we can't read these carvings,” another remarked. “Who knows what secrets we'd uncover?”

“One thing at a time,” Galmar said gruffly. “We're here for the Crown. Any of these carvings show a crown?” Then he scrutinized a dead Imperial near the door. “Hn. Looks like this is as far as the Imperials got. Even if one of these pictures tells us where the Crown is, I'm betting we're going to have to find a way through that door. See what you lot can figure out. I'll check out these carvings over here. Let me know if you find something.”

They scattered about the Hall, and Auriel herself turned to look at the dead Imperials. In the pouch of the second dead man, she found what she was looking for. A claw of ebony, with three symbols on the palm.

“Galmar.”

He glanced over, cocking his head a little.

“That looks like some kind of claw from a statue,” he muttered. “What's it used for?”

Auriel smiled, and reached up to shift the three stone rings on the door until they matched the ones on the palm of the claw. Then she inserted the claw and turned it. As the door accepted the combination, she smirked a little, then turned to Galmar.

“Opening doors, of course.”

He stared at her from a moment, then shook his head a little.

“Good job... All right everyone, keep your guard up! No telling what we'll find down here.”

“Mostly?” Auriel shrugged a little. “Draugr.”

“That's not comforting,” muttered a soldier.

“Oh, was I supposed to be? I'm not very good at that.”

What they found was an empty room, door blocked by solid bars. Galmar growled a little and shook his head.

“All right. Let's spread out and see what we've got. You, Auriel. Do what you do best, and see if you can't get that door open.”

She nodded, and headed up again; the upper walkways were her friend it seemed, and she didn't doubt that there would be trouble. There were just too many stone coffins around for this to be easy.

First she found a hidden treasure room, which she raided gleefully. Then she traversed a thin path over the main room, and found a lever set into the wall. Turning it opened the gate all right, but it also woke up all the draugr in the tomb. To call the battle unpleasant would have been an understatement, but when all was said and done, only one of the Stormcloaks had fallen from their injuries.

“Right,” Galmar shook his head a little. “Let's see what's through this door.”

What was through the door was a hallway that lead out into another coffin filled room. Auriel grimaced, and shook out her hands. No doubt this was going to be another fight with the draugr, and an unpleasant one at that.

“The crown must be around here somewhere,” Galmar growled a little. “Spread out, and keep your eyes open.”

The crown was there all right. On the head of a very angry draugr who didn't want to let it go. Auriel let Galmar fight that one, mostly because him stepping onto the dais had woken it up, and she couldn't get a clear shot around him; Galmar was simply too damn big.

He knocked the draugr down, with the help of the remaining Stormcloaks, then yanked the crown from its head and tossed it to Auriel. She swore at him in Aldmeri and caught it on the end of her bow; she was not in the mood to have her hands pierced by the sharp points of the crown itself.

“Get to Windhelm with the crown as quick as you can,” Galmar grinned. “And tell Ulfric he owes me a drink.”

She nodded a little, and stepped past the now empty throne. The word wall beyond surprised her, but it was an easy grab, and soon enough, she was on her way back to Windhelm, the crown tucked away in her bag.

 

 

Chapter Text

Twenty-four

 

“Galmar says you owe him a drink,” Auriel said as she placed the crown in Ulfric's hands.

“Damn him,” he chuckled, and shook his head, marveling at the crown. “That old bear was right. Did you run into any trouble?”

“Legionnaires, draugr. Nothing that we didn't take out, of course.”

“Of course...”

He gave her a bemused look, and she shrugged lightly. After a moment he shook his head again.

“Now then... Well, I'm glad you've returned, actually. I need a message delivered to the Jarl of Whiterun. Here. Deliver this axe to Balgruuf the Greater.”

She raised her eyebrows as he handed her a simple war axe. He held it with a gravity she didn't understand, and while it annoyed her to be used as a messenger, she couldn't help but be curious as well.

“Should I say anything?”

“Men who understand each other often have no need for words,” Ulfric said cryptically. “There are but a few simple truths behind one warrior giving another his axe. Balgruuf will know my meaning.”

“Yes, but I don't,” she said pointedly.

“If he keeps it, I will bide my time,” he clarified. “If he returns it, it means war.”

She shook her head a little; that was pure Nordic nonsense all right. But at least it was clear Nordic nonsense.

“Keep your wits about you,” Ulfric cautioned. “The Jarl of Whiterun is known for his temper.”

“Perhaps, but I don't think he'd attack me.”

“Oh?” Ulfric raised an eyebrow.

“I'm a Thane in his hold. So really, by accident, you've picked one of the best people to give him this message.”

“Ah. Be careful anyways. You are an interesting person, and I want to see what else you might help us get up to.”

Auriel nodded a little, and stifled a smirk; he had no idea what her plans were culminating into.

 

-

 

Auriel hadn't had much cause to speak to the Jarl since defeating that first dragon a year before. She'd accepted a few bounties, but mostly had kept to herself, preferring to not be involved in Hold politics if at all possible. She did rather like him; he was a good and fair ruler, and had worked hard to keep from choosing a side. All she could do now was hope that he would be wise in his choices.

“...it's been some time,” he said as she approached his chair. “What brings you to my place now, Dragonborn?”

“This. It's from Ulfric. He'd like you to have it.”

And she passed the axe over.

“Would he now?” Balgruuf's eyebrows went up. “The man is persistent, I'll give him that.”

He glanced to his steward, and sighed a little.

“Proventus, what do you make of this? If Ulfric were to attack Whiterun...”

“As in all things, lord, caution. I urge us to wait and see,” the Imperial replied.

Irileth snorted.

Prey waits,” she retorted.

“I'm of a mind with Irileth,” the Jarl sighed. “It's time to act.”

“You plan to march on Windhelm?” Proventus stared.

“I'm not a fool, Proventus,” Balgruuf snorted. “I meant it's time to challenge Ulfric to face me as a man, or march his Stormcloaks up to the gates.”

“He'll do no such thing!” the steward exclaimed. “A dagger in the back is all you could expect!”

Auriel cocked her head slightly; the idea did have merit, but it ultimately wasn't Ulfric's style. He was as all Nords were, entirely too straightforward. She could do it, but doing so without an order would lose what little trust she'd managed to build.

And she wasn't sure she'd actually go through with it anyways. Perhaps some of the Nord nonsense was rubbing off on her, because only a fair fight—inasmuch as fights were ever fair—would suit this particular Jarl.

“He was rather straightforward with Torygg,” Irileth pointed out, echoing Auriel's thoughts.

“Torygg?” Proventus scoffed. “He simply walked up to the boy and murdered him!”

“That 'boy' was High King of Skyrim,” Irileth said shortly.

“I'm not the High King,” Balgruuf interrupted the bickering impatiently. “But neither am I a boy. If Ulfric wants to challenge my rule in the old way, let him. Though I suspect he'll prefer to send his 'Stormcloaks' to do it for him.”

“True,” Irileth nodded. “He's already proven his personal strength. Now he seeks to prove his army.”

“Then might I urge you to consider General Tullius's request?” Proventus sighed. “I mean, if you are bent on offending Jarl Ulfric...”

“Ulfric is the one who has offended,” Irileth snapped. Then she sighed too. “But... Proventus has a point. Ulfric has made it clear; in his mind, to refuse his claim is to side with the Empire.”

“And what harm is there in letting a few Legionnaires die in place of your own men?” Proventus added.

“It seems... cowardly,” Balgruuf grimaced.

“Was it cowardly then, to accept the White-Gold Concordant?”

Auriel stifled a smile at Irileth's decidedly low blow. The Concordant had been forced upon the Jarls, not offered. It wasn't quite the same situation, but that it was brought up amused her.

“This again?!” Balgruuf demanded. “That was different! Was I given a chance to object to the terms of the treaty? No. The Jarls weren't asked, we were told! And we had to like it...”

“The chests of gold didn't hurt,” the steward muttered.

“Damnit!” Balgruuf glared at the man. “This isn't about gold!”

Pointedly, Auriel cleared her throat, and raised an eyebrow. Balgruuf grimaced faintly.

“Lord, wait,” Proventus said hurriedly. “Let us see if Ulfric is serious.”

“Oh, he's serious,” Balgruuf said grimly. “But so am I.”

“Finally,” Irileth muttered.

“So, about this axe,” he looked to Auriel, who uncrossed her arms and waited. “You can return the axe to our friend. The esteemed Jarl of Windhelm has my answer. Make sure he gets it.”

She nodded, with a slight sigh of disappointment, accepting the axe once more. Balgruuf would be an enemy then, not an ally. It was sad... but there it was. She turned to go as Balgruuf called for paper and ink, knowing that the next time she set foot in this city, it would no doubt be in flames. She could only hope that the civilians would not be harmed.

 

-

 

Her return to Windhelm was quiet, and she found Ulfric and Galmar arguing in the map room, over where to target. Galmar was convinced they were not moving fast enough, but Ulfric was more cautious about stretching out their supply lines. She waited for a break in the conversation then cleared her throat; Ulfric glanced up, and nodded at her lightly.

“Balgruuf said that you can have this back,” she said, returning his axe.

“Then I was wrong about him,” Ulfric sighed. “You were right, Galmar...”

“Again?” the burly man said dryly.

“I'm in no mood to joke,” Ulfric frowned.

“Give the word, my lord, and Whiterun is yours,” Galmar promised.

“Whiterun is only a means to an end...” Ulfric murmured.

“I've toured our camps. We're ready, Ulfric. Whenever you are.”

“Is any man ever ready to give the order that will mean the deaths of many?”

The question was undoubtedly rhetorical, but Auriel responded anyways.

“If they are, then they're no leader, they're a bully,” she replied with brutal honesty. “The fact that you hesitate marks a wise leader, who knows that a time will come when spending lives—and they will be spent, make no mistake about that—is the only way to move forward.”

“You are that man, Ulfric,” Galmar said firmly. “You've been that man before, and you'll be him again. And these men and women... they call themselves Stormcloaks because they believe in you! They are the meanest, toughest sons and daughters of bitches Skyrim has to offer. And they want this. They want this as much as you do! Perhaps they want it more.”

“...you're certain we're ready?” Ulfric asked quietly. “Whiterun's army will no doubt be bolstered with Legionnaires and those walls around Whiterun are old, but they still stand.”

“We're ready.” Galmar nodded. “And I might be old myself, but I'll kick those damn walls down with my bare feet! Just say the word.”

It made her feel decidedly old to hear the devotion, the passion in their voices. It had been a long time since she had been so single-minded in her pursuit of anything. Even this venture, this carving of her place in Skyrim, was more selfish than selfless. But perhaps once this war was done and over, she could finally relax.

“Hah,” Ulfric smiled slightly. “And I'm sure you could do it, too.” Then he nodded. “All right. This is it.”

Yes!” Galmar's fierce grin was all over his face.

“Send the word,” Ulfric continued. “'A new day is dawning, and the sun rises over Whiterun.'”

“Aye,” Galmar nodded. “And the children of Skyrim will greet that dawn with teeth and swords flashing.”

“So it begins,” The Jarl murmured. Then he turned to Auriel. “Make haste to our camp in Whiterun. I want you on the front lines.”

She blinked, taken aback.

“I have a feeling about you,” he continued. “Your place is on that battlefield.”

“I'm no front-line fighter,” she protested mildly.

“Maybe not, but I need you there.”

Auriel thought about it, then nodded in understanding; Ulfric didn't want her there as a fighter, he wanted her there as a symbol. She was a Thane of Whiterun, and if the people saw her on the side of the Stormcloaks, well...

“Fight well,” he said firmly, and to her surprise he reached out and clasped her shoulder. “Talos be with you.”

 

-

 

She set out for the camp, though she knew she did not relish the idea of the fight to come. As she made her way there, other Stormcloaks, eager for battle, wended their way in as well, some boasting, others as silent as the elf mage. She was slightly heartened to see that among the Nords were some Khajiit, some Bosmer, and a few humans that were not Nord. People who had made Skyrim their home, despite their difference of race.

On the second day, a familiar face arrived; Ralof, who had also survived Helgen. She had expected he would, and it was mildly pleasing to have that confirmed, but she preferred to keep to herself, and refuted his attempts at 'catching up'. She wasn't there to catch up with someone she barely knew.

It took a few days for the camp to fill; the morning after it did, the siege weapons started hurling rocks and flaming boulders at Whiterun. Galmar gathered everyone in a group to address them.

“This is it men,” he bellowed. “They say that our cause is false, and that we are nothing more than thieves, thugs, and murderers!”

“Pleasant weather for a war,” Ralof muttered, stepping up beside her. “Don't you think?”

“Shhh.”

“But no!” Galmar continued. “We are farmers! We are craftsmen! We are sons and daughters of shopkeepers, maid servants, and soldiers! We are the sons and daughters of Skyrim! And we have come this far because our cause is true! Because we fight as one! And because our hearts are bursting with anger! What we do here today, we do for our country! For all the true children of Skyrim! Whiterun's walls are tall, but they are old and crumbling, like the Empire whose Legion lines them. They're barricades to block us, but we'll tear through them, and the Imperials beyond! Our objective is the drawbridge. If we can find a way to drop it, the city will be ours! Everyone on me! Let's show the Legionnaire milk drinkers what true children of Skyrim look like!”

The answering cheer was loud, almost loud enough to make the air vibrate, and the Stormcloaks piled after Galmar, weapons raised high against a sky the was already becoming brown and black with smoke. Auriel grimaced as she followed, preferring to pick her targets carefully. With congesting bodies, she could neither shoot nor use magic, and she was forced to dart in and out with her dagger, utilizing precise strikes to take down the Legionnaires.

Ralof stayed at her elbow practically, shouting taunts and fending off enemies as she scrambled up the slope beyond the first barricade—burned to ashes by her own hands—and lowered the drawbridge. They waited for the others to catch up, fending off Legionnaires who wanted to try and raise it again, then rushed through the gates and into the city itself. More barricades were burned to ash and more soldiers, both Whiterun guards and Legionnaires fell before the Stormcloaks.

Dragonsreach was not undefended, however it was here that Auriel chose to lay down her arms. Respect for the Jarl and his people made her unwilling to fight them. Let Galmar and the others take the credit; she had done enough in the taking of Whiterun. She allowed the current of the fight to sweep her to the edge, and when she was hidden behind a pillar, she called up a shroud of invisibility. She would stand witness, but she would neither help, nor hinder, either side in this place.

The number of Stormcloaks overwhelmed the defenders, and Jarl Balgruuf was borne to the ground under their weight. Irileth fought like a woman possessed until the Jarl gained his breath.

“Enough!” He bellowed. “That's enough. I surrender.... I... surrender. Everyone stand down. That's an order. Stand down!”

“Balgruuf!” came the bellow of an old man.

“Vignar Gray-Mane,” Balgruuf spat. “Your family was noticeably absent from the walls. Now I know why. Wouldn't a dagger in the back have sufficed?”

It was surprising to see Vignar, but after some thought she had to admit that the Gray-Manes had been the Stormcloak supporters in Whiterun. She just hadn't thought he might be Jarl material, temporary or otherwise. She was too used to seeing him in Jorrvaskr, telling stories of past Companion victories... when he could remember them.
“You think this is personal?” the old man snorted. “The Empire has no place in Skyrim... not any more. And you? You have no place in Whiterun anymore.”

“A convenient position to hold now,” Balgruuf retorted. “But mark my words, old man; in the days to come, Ulfric will spread his rebellion thin. And what then? We need the Empire, as much as it needs us. We Nords are the Empire! Our blood built it. Our blood sustains it! You of all people should know that.”

“If this was my Empire, I'd be able to worship whoever I damn well pleased! You wish to see an Empire without Talos? Without its soul?” Vignar shot back. “We should be fighting those witch elves, not bending knee to them! The Emperor is nothing more than a puppet of the Thalmor. Skyrim needs a High King who will fight for her, and Whiterun needs a Jarl who will do the same.”

“Tell me, Vignar,” Balgruuf sighed. “Was all this worth it? How many of those corpses lining our streets wear the faces of men who once called you friend? What about their families?”

“Enough! Both of you!” Galmar snapped. “There is a burning city out there that needs a government.”

“He's right,” Vignar sighed, “Galmar, come, let's restore order.”

“This isn't over,” Balgruuf promised. “You hear me you old fool?! This isn't over!”

Auriel let her invisibility fade, leaning lightly against the pillar. Balgruuf stopped short as he walked past, and for a moment she saw a familiar anger in the Nord's eyes.

“You,” he spat. “A Stormcloak? I'd thought better of you. You'll all come to regret this day.”

“Whether I do or not, it was always my decision to make. I had hoped you would side with Ulfric, not against him, but you cast the die, and your number did not come up,” she shrugged a little. “Now, I've been informed that you can leave safely, and my recommendation? Go to Solitude. Let them know that we are coming soon enough.”

He glared, then spat at her feet. Auriel sighed slightly, mournfully, and watched as he stalked out, taking Irileth and Proventus with him.

“Go to Windhelm,” Galmar said, giving her a light shove. “Tell Ulfric of our victory here. You can even take my horse.”

“....If your horse could travel at something beyond a shamble, I'd take you up on that,” she retorted.

He laughed, and moved off to help with subduing others and cleaning up. Ralof touched her shoulder lightly.

“We did a damn fine job today,” he grinned down at her. “They'll tell stories of this for decades to come.”

“Mmm... perhaps.”

“Hey, what's the matter? You don't seem as enthused as I'd have thought...”

Auriel frowned at him, moving away.

“Well, don't think then,” she said sharply. “Go and enjoy your victory, and let me do what I need to do.”

He looked briefly as though he might take offense when Galmar bellowed his name, sending him scurrying in the direction of the Stormcloak general. She rolled her eyes lightly, silently thanking Galmar for his timely intervention, and stepped out of Dragonsreach.

She stood at the top of the stairs for a long moment, observing the destruction. From what she could see, the Gildergreen was unharmed, as was Jorrvaskr, and the temple. Some buildings were on fire, and it probably shouldn't have amused her that the Talos priest's house had been destroyed, but it did. The guards had surrendered now, and the Stormcloaks were taking their places, albeit temporarily.

Fire and smoke filled the air, mixing with the coppery tang of blood; pain, anger, fear, and sorrow mingled in as well, and she moved quickly through the city until she was outside the main gates, facing into a stiff breeze as she fought to keep her gorge from rising.

She had never been in a position to see the immediate after-effects of war before. Fighting, oh, she had seen plenty of that. As a Thalmor spy, she had sown discord, whispered secrets, pointed towards flaws and weaknesses, but she had never been this close to the results. She found a place out of sight, and sank to her knees, hating every choice that had led her this far... but unwilling to abandon the path she had set herself down.

The sun was going down by the time she regained the strength to find a horse and start the journey back to Windhelm.

 

Chapter Text

Twenty-five

 

After Whiterun, she was assigned to various encampments to which she was of use. She helped liberate Stormcloaks, take forts, and then, to her surprise, was given a few tasks that harkened back to her old ways; forging orders and blackmailing officials. She received a house from Ulfric—inadvertently solving a string of murders as she did so—and fended off Ralof's unsubtle advances with a mix of scathing humor and sharp words. It was annoying how he seemed to insist on following her around whenever they were in the same area, and every now and then she actively contemplated murder.

The fighting was vicious stuff, especially when Legionnaires were encountered on the roads. When she was alone it was one thing; they would generally pass her by—mostly because she wasn't stupid enough to brandish her loyalty about like a flag. When she had her Stormcloak puppy following, however, that was a bit more on the aggravating side. He didn't much understand why she pretended to be neutral, and after explaining it three separate times, she gave up on trying.

Slowly eight of the nine holds came to rest under Stormcloak sway. Ulfric would occasionally ask Auriel her opinion on a matter; what surprised her was that he often listened. When she pointed out the troubles in the Gray Quarter of Windhelm, he actually tried to do something about it. It didn't work, but he did try, and Auriel herself was occasionally stopped and thanked by some of the Dunmer living in the city. She also made a pointed note that if he truly wanted a liberated Skyrim, he had to not evict every single person who wasn't a Nord. It was more than the Nords' land at this point, and if they didn't coexist, then the war would become a genocide, something that they couldn't afford if Skyrim was going to stand on its own.

Galmar didn't much care for that opinion, but she argued him down, and pointed out that if he were to exclude that many people with diverse talents and skills, he was pretty much stabbing himself in the foot. While not precisely a shining example of equality, pointing out that the Thalmor utilized Bosmer and Khajiit allies in their fights did somewhat get the point across.

The attempts at arguing to just evict Altmer and Bosmer were met with similar disdain. It took her time, but eventually she pulled them around to the understanding that they were not going to be able to get rid of all of the hidden Thalmor spies, and assuming every High Elf or Wood Elf was one would only make things worse. It was just going to have to be enough for everyone to close the Embassy and evict those who were overt in Thalmor support.

After nearly a year, Solitude was the final capital left to take. Auriel had spent several days in the camp, working on repairs to her armor and armaments, and silently going over the plans in her mind. They were to take Elisif alive, but Tullius was not to be so lucky. Any other former Jarls in the basement of the Blue Palace were to be left alone. There was no glory to be gained in their murder.

She would have preferred to be anywhere but at the front of the line, but Ulfric had insisted that she stand at his right, even as Galmar stood at his left, and damned if his charisma hadn't swayed her into agreement.

She hoped fervently that he would survive this day; she had no desire to suddenly be told she should take over for him, the way things had been done with the other powerful institutions she'd gotten into. The College, the Thieves Guild, the Companions...

Ah, the Companions..

Her heart twisted a little in her chest, and she stared briefly down at the malachite plate she had been attaching. She missed them. More than any other group she'd worked with, the Companions had been family in a way she hadn't known for a long time.

Would they would accept her back after this, knowing that she'd been involved in the war? Would Farkas smile at her in that shy way if she said hello? Would Vilkas and Aela be happy to see her after so long? Would they all have moved on from the grief that still occasionally stabbed her on long, cold nights...?

She hadn't been back to Whiterun since that first battle. She had done her best to answer reports from Brynjolf, and letters from Tolfdir, but the war had consumed almost everything, leaving her little energy for other endeavors. She missed the city, the Gildergreen; how had the repairs gone? Was Vignar as good a Jarl as Balgruuf had been?

Would Farkas still be her spot of calm if she asked him to be?

Impatiently she thrust the armor aside and went to stand on the edge of the cliff, overlooking the bay below. These thoughts were a plague, especially since she had no answers for any of them. She did her best to thrust them aside, instead focusing on the sound of the water as it met the shore.

She was not so lost in thought that she didn't hear, or recognize the footsteps that came up behind her, nor the scent that crossed her nose, and she simply glanced sideways to see Ulfric lowering himself to a nearby rock.

“Can't sleep?” he asked.

“Shouldn't I say the same of you?” she replied neutrally.

“Perhaps. War takes its toll on everyone. You've never been... forthright on how well you take it.”

Auriel snorted a little.

“I'm still alive. But I don't like this.”

“No one with a good heart does,” Ulfric sighed. “The nights I've lost sleep because I remember the feel of my blade passing through the flesh and bone of an enemy have gone beyond count. Knowing that you and Galmar are out here, and all the other brave warriors laying down their lives in this thankless war takes more of them. But don't you think those battles went smoother for your oversight?”

“Not really, no,” she shrugged a little. “With or without me, they would have won, I think.”

“You underestimate your own worth, my friend.”

“That's what everyone keeps saying...”

“Perhaps one day you'll believe it?”

She scoffed a little, but gently, looking out at the reflection of the moonlight on the water.

“I doubt that. But I've chosen to live with those decisions. I made them for me and no one else; if that makes them selfish, then I am selfish. But then,” and she allowed a fleeting smile to cross over her face, “aren't we all, in the end?”

Ulfric laughed.

“I never would have expected the elf who tried getting Thalmor attention would aid me,” he admitted. “Running back to your Dominion and islands made more sense. Given that you took shelter with an Imperial Legionnaire only helped ratify that idea.”

Auriel glanced at him, recognizing a lead-in when she heard it, and smiled wryly.

“I'm not going to tell you my story yet, Ulfric Stormcloak,” she said tartly, “though I know an unfair amount of yours.”

“Your secrets are well-kept, elder sister,” and he grinned at her when she made a face at him. He tagged her with the title several months ago and to her abject annoyance, it had stuck. He'd become even more obnoxious about it since formally declaring her kin. “I, for one, wait with a hearty anticipation for the day when you do tell them. I have no doubt they will be adventures and secrets worth knowing.”

“Well, you certainly have the annoying little brother bit down,” she huffed.

“Is it so hard to get used to, being Auriel Stormblade?” he asked gently.

“I've been Auriel Talmanari for almost three hundred fifty years,” Auriel pointed out. “You don't discard a name you're attached to easily. Besides, I look nothing like you, and thank all the gods for that.”

He laughed again, and she shook her head lightly. This man with his charisma and strength reminded her of Martin Septim just before the end of the Oblivion Crisis... but when he acted like this, he truly was like a younger brother. She'd had two, and a sister... all lost in the Crisis itself.

That had been the leverage used by the Thalmor to help convince her to join. Promise of a new family, a new life; promises they had never kept. But at the same time, had she never joined, she would not now be here, with very powerful people at her back, and the strength of dragons within her. It was, she decided, a mixed blessing, and she could take nothing back. There were still things she hadn't made her peace with, but....

“So, when you return to Whiterun, as you've been talking about for weeks, what is the first thing you will do?” Ulfric asked. “Meet a lover? Have a good meal?”

“Firstly, I will have a series of baths so I can scrub the grime and smell of war out of my skin,” she said tartly. “Anything else is hardly your business. Unless you mean to nose into my personal life as well...”

“Perish the thought,” he held up his hands with a faint grin. “I will be far too busy between Solitude and Windhelm. I may have to appoint another Jarl for Windhelm, once the Moot meets and I am named High King.”

“Don't even think about it,” she said warningly. “I will shove you into that river and drown you.”

He snorted, and she made a face at him; she had avoided restrictive positions of power this long, and she would be damned if she let Ulfric trap her in Windhelm. Just because she could now tolerate the snow didn't mean that she wanted to live with it.

“You have a battle to lead tomorrow,” she said after a minute. “Go get some rest, why don't you?”

“Very well, very well. Ah, yes, and Ralof has been told that you have permission to light him on fire the next time he doesn't back off when you say. It should be a bit quieter for you.”

She blinked, snorted with amusement, and waved him off to his rest. He went with a grin, and after a few more minutes of contemplation, she returned to the camp and her unfinished armor. Because she was damned well going to survive the following day; her pride and her plans would allow for nothing else.

 

-

 

The day dawned clear, and cold; winter approached and soon enough the skies would be filled with gray clouds dripping icy rain, or worse. It was time to end the fighting.

Catapults lined the road, launching boulders, some of which were lit on fire. Solitude had its own, and several groups were forced to dodge falling stone as they made for the gate, to stand before Ulfric Stormcloak, and listen to his rallying speech. Auriel stood with him, as did Galmar, and looked out over the sea of faces.

“Are you ready for this?” her murmured, lips barely moving.

“Not in the slightest,” she replied in the same manner. “So let's get it over with.”

He smiled faintly, and nodded, and she hoped very fervently that her luck would not turn as it so often had in the past. She had not come this far to let Ulfric die here.

“This is it men!” he cried. “It's time to make this city ours! We come to this moment carried by the sacrifices and courage of our fellows; those who have fallen, and those still bearing the shields at our sides! On this day, our enemy will know the fullness of our determination, the true depth of our anger, and the exalted righteousness of our cause! The gods are watching. The spirits of our ancestors are stirring. And men under suns yet to dawn will be transformed by what we do here today! Fear neither pain nor darkness, for Sovngarde awaits those who die with weapons in their hands, and courage in their hearts. We now fight our way to Castle Dour, to cut the head off the Legion itself! And in that moment, the gods will look down and see Skyrim as she was meant to be. Full of people who are mighty, powerful and free!

She smiled faintly; yes,he had come along way since their first meeting. It was now people of Skyrim, not just Nords. And they were truly the people of Skyrim; Bosmer, some Khajiit from the traveling caravans, other Altmer who might have once been Thalmor but were no longer; Bretons, Imperials, Redguards, and Nords, they all boasted weapons and the blue uniforms of the Stormcloaks.

“Ready now! Everyone with me! For the sons and daughters of Skyrim!” He bellowed.

The cheer was loud; it vibrated through the air, and the earth underneath trembled as more stones landed in the dirt beyond. The army Ulfric had built up charged the gates and battered them bodily down, then scattered to take on Legionnaires. Auriel stayed with Ulfric and Galmar, darting in and out of combat with fire and dagger, breaking down barricades as needed until they reached Castle Dour and General Tullius.

“Secure the door,” Ulfric said quietly, as he stepped through.

“Already done,” Galmar smirked.

“Good.”

They entered the next room, finding Tullius and the Legate. Neither had weapons drawn. Tullius was seated, while the Legate stood before him, shielding him with her body.

“Ulfric stop,” the Legate demanded.

“Stop what?” he demanded. “Taking Skyrim back from those who'd leave her to rot?”

“You're wrong Ulfric,” she retorted. “We need the Empire! Without it, Skyrim will surely fall to the Dominion!”

“You were there with us,” Galmar growled. “You saw it. The day the Empire signed that damn treaty was the day the Empire died.”

“....also the Dominion wouldn't want you to stop fighting,” Auriel added calmly. “A unified Skyrim is a threat. A warring Skyrim is a grand amusement. A warring Empire is precisely what they want.”

The Legate stared at her, and Galmar let out a bark of humorless laughter.

“You're damned fools,” the Legate sighed.

“Stand aside, Rikke,” Galmar snapped. “We've come for the General.”

“He has given up,” she frowned. “But I have not.”

“Rikke, go,” Ulfric ordered. “You're free to leave.”

“I'm also free to stay and fight for what I believe in!” Rikke shot back.

“And free to die for it,” Ulfric sighed.

“This is what you wanted?” Rikke demanded, crossing her arms over her chest. “Shield brothers and sisters killing each other? Families torn apart? This is the Skyrim you want?!”

“Damnit woman, stand aside!” Galmar ordered.

“That's not the Skyrim I want to live in,” she continued, drawing her sword.

“Rikke, you don't have to do this,” Ulfric said quietly.

“You've left me no choice,” she replied. “Talos preserve us.”

She launched into the fight, and Tullius, apparently stirred from his resignation, joined in. Rikke went down first, at the hands of Galmar, and together he and Ulfric knocked Tullius to the ground. They had needed no help,and so Auriel had elected to remain where she was against the wall.

“Enough....” Tullius gasped,holding up his hand in surrender. “...Enough....”

“This is it for you,” Ulfric said solemnly. “Any last words before I send you to Oblivion?”

“You realize this is exactly what they wanted?” Tullius asked wearily. His eyes skipped over the two men and focused on Auriel.

“What who wanted?” Galmar growled.

“The Thalmor. They stirred up trouble here. Forced us to divert needed resources an throw away good soldiers quenching this rebellion.”

“It's a little more than a rebellion, don't you think?” Ulfric asked.

“We aren't the bad guys, you know,” Tullius sighed.

“Maybe not, but you certainly aren't the good guys,” Ulfric retorted.

“Perhaps you're right. But then, what does that make you?”

“You just said it yourself,” Ulfric murmured.

“It makes us right,” Galmar growled.

“And if I surrender?” Tullius asked.

“The Empire I remember never surrendered,” was Ulfric's retort.

Auriel sighed a little and shook her head. While it was true that leaving Tullius alive would cause more problems than it solved, Ulfric was going a little too far here. The Empire surrendered all the time, when it was politic to do so. Everyone did.

“That Empire is dead,” Galmar said flatly. Then he looked at Tullius. “And so are you.”

“....so be it.”

“If you're going to kill him, kill him,” Auriel said impatiently. “Be done with it. Talk like this is a delaying tactic, and that door will not hold forever.”

“Come now,” Ulfric chided her gently. “Where's your sense of the dramatic moment.”

“I don't have one,” she retorted. “Dramatic moments belong in stories, not in real life.”

“By the gods,” Galmar groaned. “If it's a good ending to some damn story you're after, why not let her do it? She is Dragonborn, after all.”

Ulfric looked at her, and Auriel shook her head.

“I've had enough of war and death, Ulfric. You end this.”

“As you wish, my sister.”

Ulfric lifted his war axe high, and in one swift strike, removed Tullius' head from his shoulders.

“Good,” Galmar sighed. “It's done.”

“...well, I suppose some kind of speech is in order?” Ulfric said after a moment. “Auriel, will you stand at my side? I wish to honor you, Dragonborn, and the truest of Stormcloaks.”

Auriel hesitated, then shook her head lightly.

“I would prefer to hold what anonymity I have left.”

“Oh?” He raised an eyebrow. “Why is that?”

“My reasons are my own, Ulfric; it's not quite time for you to know.”

“A person's heart is their own,” he sighed. “I will honor your request, though it casts a bit of gloom on an otherwise auspicious day. Come. At the very least, walk out with me?”

He offered her his arm, in a surprisingly court-like gesture. She blinked at him, snorted a little, and obligingly took it.

“I'll gather the men in the courtyard,” Galmar volunteered.

“And Elisif?” Ulfric asked as they walked towards the door.

“Don't you worry about her,” the gruff man smirked. “I sent my best men to round her up.”

“Then let's be off and make this speech then...”

 

-

 

It took close to two hours for everyone to gather in the courtyard, and for Elisif to be brought from the Blue Palace. She looked bewildered, but unhurt, and Auriel kept her sigh of relief purely mental. The last thing they needed was Elisif to make a martyr of herself.

Ulfric stood at the head of the parade grounds, and cleared his throat. The chatter died and Auriel was glad she'd decided to take a step to the side to avoid all the eyes now focused on her friend.

“I am indeed Ulfric Stormcloak,” he began. “And indeed there are many that call me hero. But, it is all of you who are the true heroes! It was you who fought a dying Empire who sunk its claws into our land, trying to drag us down with it. It was you who fought the Thalmor and their puppets who would have us deny our gods and our heritage. It was you who fought for your kin who didn't understand our cause, who weren't willing to pay the price for our freedom. But more than that, it was you who fought for Skyrim, for our right to fight our own battles! To return to our glory and traditions, to determine our own future!”

The air filled with cheers, and Ulfric let them die down naturally.

“And it is for these reasons that I cannot accept the mantle of High King,” he continued. “Not until the Moot declares that title should adorn my shoulders will I accept it.”

“And what about Jarl Elisif?” one of the soldiers asked.

“Yes, what about the Lady Elisif?” Ulfric replied. Auriel rolled her eyes slightly as Ulfric looked straight at the bewildered woman. His love for the dramatic was, occasionally, completely exhausting. “Will she put aside her personal hatred for me and her misplaced love for the Emperor and his coin, so that the suffering of our people will end? Will she acknowledge that it is we, the people who love Skyrim, that will determine its future? Will she swear fealty to me, so all may know that we are at peace, and a new day has dawned?”

It wasn't like she was being given much choice. Auriel met Elisif's eyes from across the grounds and nodded fractionally. The Nord woman pressed her lips together tightly for a moment, then nodded.

“I do,” Elisif said firmly. “I will.”

“Then it is settled!” Ulfric cried. “The Jarl will continue to rule Solitude; I will garrison armies here to ward off Imperial attempts to reclaim the city. And in due time, the Moot will meet and settle the claim to High King once and for all. There is much to do, and I need every able-bodied man and woman committed to rebuilding Skyrim. A great darkness is growing, and soon we will be called to fight it, on these shores, or abroad. The Aldmeri Dominion may have defeated the Empire, but it has not defeated Skyrim!”

Another cheer, louder this time, and Auriel smiled faintly.

As the soldiers scattered, Ulfric turned to Galmar, and Auriel stepped up on his other side.

“How'd I do?” Ulfric asked wearily.

“Eh,” Galmar shrugged. “Not so bad. Nice touch about the High King.”

“Thank you,” he smiled a little. “I thought so too.”

“It's a foregone conclusion, you know,” Galmar pointed out.

“Oh, I know,” Ulfric shrugged a little.

“The Imperials aren't going to leave us alone,” the gruff-voiced man added after a moment. “They still have camps in the hills. They'll continue to strike out at us, whenever and wherever they can.”

“I'm not afraid of the remnants of the legion,” Ulfric said contemptuously. “In time, they'll give up and go home. What I fear is that the Thalmor will see our victory here, and turn greater attention to our shores. We must be prepared to face them.”

“Aye,” Galmar growled.

“And naturally we couldn't have done this without you,” Ulfric said, clasping her shoulder lightly. Even half-expecting it, she startled slightly. “May the gods preserve you, Auriel Stormblade.”

“May the gods preserve us all,” Galmar muttered.

“Come, Galmar,” Ulfric nodded a little. “We've still much work to do.”

The old warrior nodded, and Ulfric gave Auriel a friendly push.

“Be sure to drop by whenever you're in town,” he said. “I may have need of your wise advice, and your Aldmeri knowledge.”

“I'm going to sleep for a week, and then I'll think about it,” she retorted, though she gave him a faint smile. “Walk always with the gods, Ulfric.”

He bowed lightly, and left.

Auriel sighed, and pushed her hood back, wiping sweat from her face and smearing ash and dirt into the mess that already coated her. She spared a moment to think longingly about a hot bath, before Ralof all but pounced on her, picked her up and swung her around in exuberant delight. He wasn't the only one celebrating either, but he was the only one mad enough to bother her with his glee; she wasted no time in introducing her armored elbow to his helmeted head hard enough to make the helmet ring.

“Ouch!” he complained, dropping her back down to the ground. “What's the matter, can't I hug you in celebration now?”

“Since I've informed you several times that I don't want you to hug me at all, yes,” she replied tartly, rubbing her elbow. Helmet and head were both hard as rocks. “Though I must ask, where will you go now?”

“Me?” he blinked, then grinned a little. “Probably back to Riverwood for a while; see my sister and my nephew. Then I'll be part of Ulfric's personal guard! Galmar said it would be the perfect place for me.”

Auriel blinked a few times, nonplussed, then stifled a laugh; if Galmar hadn't done that to make her life easier, she would eat her boots. It was nice to know that the old bear had come to respect her enough that he would sweep an unwelcome suitor out of her way.

“What about you? Where are you going?” he asked.

“Whiterun. Maybe Riften. It depends on who wants to see me more.”

“Who?” Ralof's eyebrows went up. “Are you leading people on in two cities then?”

“Bite your tongue,” Auriel snorted. “I have friends you rock-headed Nord. Nothing more, nothing less. And I have other responsibilities that I have been neglecting for a good long while now that I need to take care of.”

“What sort of responsibilities could a dainty thing like you have?” Ralof scoffed.

“Well, I am the Arch-Mage of the College of Winterhold.”

He gaped, and Auriel smiled a sharp smile. Then she turned on her heel and walked off.

 

 

Chapter Text

Twenty-six

 

In the end, she went to Riften first, too uncertain of her welcome in Whiterun to risk the return. One of the benefits of being on Ulfric's side from the start was that the war hadn't even touched the city, let alone the Hold. People celebrated long into the nights even weeks after the news of Ulfrics's victory, and everyone wanted to hear stories of how it had finally come to an end.

Her housecarl was inclined to object to Auriel shooing her out of the house, but Auriel insisted, and eventually won. An empty house was a welcome blessing, and she took a series of scalding baths to rid herself of the layers of grime and ash that had worked their way into her skin and her hair. Oh, there had been cold baths in camps to rid herself of some of the worst of it, but nothing could compare to hot water for feeling clean.

After changing into sleeping clothes and hanging her arms and armor on the racks for later tending, she stretched out in the bed and gave herself over to the soft darkness of slumber.

Around midnight she heard the faintest of creaks as her door slipped open, and she shifted slightly, slipping a hand up under her pillow where she kept a dagger. No one in their right mind would try and steal from her, so it was either friendly faces, or one last-ditch attempt at Thalmor assassination.

The opened door brought a breeze with it, carrying two familiar scents; spice, old stone, and water. She relaxed fractionally; Karliah and Brynjolf were no threat to her. She heard one set of light footsteps head downstairs, another came over to the opposite side of her bed, and waited.

“....I know you're not asleep, Tam,” Brynjolf said dryly. “I can see that hand under your pillow.”

She snorted a little and sat up. Brynjolf was dressed to be casual, wearing clothes that suited his shopkeeper's persona more than the thief she knew him to be. When she was up, she flicked her fingers at a branch of candles, and was able to catch a swift grin before he attempted—badly—to look appropriately sober.

“You couldn't come in the morning?” she asked, making a face at him.

“It's after midnight, doesn't that count?”

“....remind me to stab you next time,” she grumbled.

“I told him this was a bad idea,” Karliah murmured, coming back up the stairs to lean against the wall. She too was out of armor, and wearing a purple and black dress that suited her dark coloration. “But he has this habit of not listening to me.”

“Perish the thought, Karliah,” he chuckled a little. “I listen to you when it's about thievery.”

Auriel rolled her eyes as Karliah let out a delicate snort.

“While the banter is cute, and I'm glad to see you both, it's been a long journey, and I want some sleep. Like, say, a week's worth.”

“Aye, we heard you'd gone and gotten yourself involved in the war,” Brynjolf nodded. “When we heard you were back in town, we decided we'd come say hello. And maybe play guard.”

“....that's sweet, but I do have a housecarl.”

“Where?” Karliah asked.

“I kicked her out for a few days.” Auriel shrugged. “I didn't, and still don't, want company.”

“Why's that?” Brynjolf asked, sitting himself down on the edge of the bed.

“....because,” Auriel frowned at him. “It's private and personal.”

“Oh come now, can't you tell us?”

“Let it go, Brynjolf,” Karliah said quietly. “There are some things that just can't be spoken of.”

Auriel nodded a little in quiet thanks, and Brynjolf sighed.

“All right, all right.... should we come back another time, then?”

“I suppose you can stay, since you're already here,” Auriel sighed a little, and it was slightly theatrical; in truth, their company was more welcome than she'd expected. “Though I will be going back to sleep, thank you. I'm exhausted.”

“Aye, you look it. Don't worry, we'll be quieter than mice,” Brynjolf grinned.

Auriel didn't even have to think about it; she grabbed the spare pillow and smacked him with it. He reeled mockingly, and Auriel used her foot to shove him the rest of the way off the bed. Karliah chuckled softly as the redheaded Nord picked himself up off the floor, and made a mocking show of dusting himself off. Auriel just grinned.

You can sleep downstairs, you roguish trouble-causer,” she snorted. “I'd rather Karliah's company.”

“You wound me to the quick, lass,” Brynjolf placed both hands over his heart dramatically, affecting a drunken stumble to his walk.

Auriel brandished her own pillow threateningly, and he laughed, then trotted down the stairs. She had no doubt he'd appropriate Iona's room. After a moment she set the pillows back where they belonged and stretched back out. Karliah hesitated, then sat on the bed in the empty spot.

“You trust me more than Brynjolf?” the Dunmer asked softly.

“....I trust you not to start anything, yes,” Auriel yawned. “Nords are all alike, I've noticed. Most lacking in subtlety, and the inability to recognize when a lady wants only friendship. Brynjolf is slightly more clever than that, but on the whole, I just want rest, and to... come to terms with what happened.”

“Ah, I see,” Karliah chuckled softly. “Yes, he does do that from time to time. He can be quite the fussy person. He kept his ear to the ground on news of the war, trying to pick up anything he could to assure himself that you were still alive.”

“....mmm... I suppose that's understandable,” Auriel yawned again, and curled up a little more under the blanket. “Well, I'm not dead... Just ask me questions later...”

“We will. Now rest.”

While sharing a bed with someone wasn't new to her, it was different to share it with someone she could trust to guard her back She slept deeper and longer than she probably would have on her own; her dreams were untroubled, for the first time in a long while, and when she woke, it was because Brynjolf dropped a pan.

“I told you not to touch it,” Karliah said dryly. “I was waiting for it too cool a bit before I moved it. You're lucky it was empty already.”

“You can quit laughing now,” he retorted with a huff. “It's not that funny.”

Auriel slipped silently out of bed, and changed while they bickered companionably. Clothing made for comfort, not for wearing under armor, was strange but welcome. Then she leaned in the doorway and watched them work; it was admittedly odd to see them both making food. It wasn't a skill she associated with either of them, though Karliah seemed to have a masterful touch at it, while Brynjolf... well, he tried.

“Well, at least you won't burn a house down trying to cook, Bryn,” Auriel teased as he set aside another pot.

He huffed at her in mock hurt, and she smiled. Had she been alone, she would have had her meal at the Bee and Barb and stewed in her solitude. This was better.

The table was well laden; dumplings and sweet rolls, flatcakes and fruit. Eggs and rolls, vegetables of all types... a glance around proved that her storage shelves were similarly laden, and she raised an eyebrow at them both.

“We figured we'd stick around for a couple of days, and fill you in on everything you missed over here,” Brynjolf said with a winsome smile.

“....remind me to throw a boot at you next time,” Auriel shook her head a little as she sat down in one of the chairs.

“If he forgets, I'll do it for you,” Karliah chuckled softly.

“Well, if it's the price to pay to have the attention of two lovely ladies, I suppose I could take a few boots,” Brynjolf grinned.

“Armored.”

“Oh, now that's just mean, Tam,” he sighed dramatically. “And here we are being so nice to you!”

“I never said you weren't. Just that at some point I'll throw my boot at you.”

The food and company were well-appreciated, though Auriel chose to not let on how much. She hadn't though she would need the company of friends, but after the aggravations of Ralof, and the exhausting nature of the war, those who made few demands on her energy were quite welcome.

As promised, Brynjolf and Karliah took turns in filling her in on the things she'd missed. The Guild was back in full swing, with the Ragged Flagon once more being part of a city under the city. The treasury was filling up with gold and jewels aplenty, and while they hadn't recovered all the plans that Mercer had stolen, there was a good chunk of new ones just waiting for approval.

In turn, she told them bits and pieces about the war, Ulfric, and how it had all finally played out. Brynjolf was terribly impressed at the fact that she had been named a family member of the influential Jarl. He was also terribly amused by Ralof's bumbling pursuit of her, and she had to kick him off his chair to make him stop laughing. Karliah was much more sympathetic to that particular irritation, and 'accidentally' dumped her mug of cold water over Brynjolf's head to help him stop laughing.

A damp Brynjolf made Auriel grin, though she held back the laughter. He spluttered and complained that he was being ganged up on, which was the truth, and neither elf was inclined towards sympathy. He went on to lament about their cruelty until Auriel leaned over and dumped her mug of water on him. Karliah giggled unrepentantly, and Auriel smirked as he spluttered.

She felt.... not quite safe, but protected enough to let her guard down, lingering far longer than she had in the past. She spent almost three months in Riften, approving and altering plans, seeing the renewed Flagon for what it had been meant to be, meeting new thieves who regarded her with awe... even allowing herself to be talked into a drinking game. She won... barely. Her head hated her for the following three days, but it earned her a new layer of respect.

When she visited Nightingale Hall, at Karliah's request, she found the hall in somewhat better repair. Brynjolf was busy with a number of tasks Auriel had asked him to coordinate, since Karliah's request had been to come alone; in truth, Auriel was more than happy to let him handle things. While he had stayed firmly on the friend side of her personal boundaries, she caught him occasionally giving her softer looks. She was glad of his friendship, but her own thoughts often led her elsewhere... back to a city and a Nord that she hadn't seen in a long time.

Karliah nodded in greeting, and motioned for Auriel to join her; the days of camaraderie, aided by Brynjolf's presence, had worn away the last of the ire Auriel held for the Dunmer's trickery. So Auriel sat in a nearby chair that was more comfortable than initially expected, and cocked her head a little curiously.

“I'm glad you managed to come alone,” Karliah smiled ruefully. “Brynjolf is quite pleased to have you back, you know.”

“Yes. I hope he doesn't expect me to stay, however,” Auriel shrugged a little. “I have other places to look into soon.”

“Auriel... he told me that the Thalmor are hunting you. Have you ever figured out why?”

She hesitated, then lightly shrugged.

“I can guess, but I don't know for certain,” she replied. “And at this point, it's moot. While they have greater reason to hunt me, they also have lost their foothold here, thanks in no small part to Ulfric and the end of the war.”

“You speak both fondly and irritably of Ulfric,” Karliah chuckled a little. “I suppose your closeness to the situation granted you that sort of familiarity with him, mm?”

“Well, he named me sister, and calls me Stormblade,” Auriel smiled wryly. “And he certainly settled into the role of annoying younger brother easily enough.”

“With his influence, you can go anywhere, do anything,” Karliah said. “So I have to wonder why you're hiding here, with the Guild?”

“.....I suppose I'm not yet ready to return to Whiterun,” Auriel sighed. “I know I should go back, but how many people saw me in the mix of soldiers, moving through barricades to get up to Dragonsreach. How many will make me as a hero, and how many an enemy?”

“Is that really all you're worried about?” Karliah's expression was skeptical.

“They are not small problems, Karliah. The number of places where I may well be considered an enemy is much greater now. I may not entirely fear for my life, but I know well that the Battle-Borns, at least, would probably enjoy shoving a sword down my throat.”

Both mer were quiet for a while, then Auriel sighed.

“I'm tired of fighting. Protecting myself is one thing, but the war was.... it was bad, Karliah. Some nights I can't sleep for the memories of the wounded crying in pain, the smell of blood and ash in the air. Perhaps it is cowardly of me, but I want to see Whiterun whole again, not scarred the way I left it.”

“If that's the case, where will you go next?”

“Probably up to Winterhold. Tolfdir was saying he wanted me to watch a few students and asses them to see if they were ready to move up a grade of spells. It'll be cold, but it'll also be one of the safer places,” she smiled dryly. “Unless the mages want to let someone across the bridge, it's generally not going to happen. Once the furor of post-war patriotism and anger have died down a bit more.... maybe then...”

“What about the Companions? Don't you think they'll be worried?”

Auriel snorted a little, half-closing her eyes.

“The only one I expect to really worry about me is Farkas, and....” She went quiet for a long moment. “I have to come to terms with a few things before I'll be ready to see him again.”

“....you love him, don't you?”

“I don't know, Karliah. That's the problem. I know he cares about me, and.... it's confusing. Part of me thinks he'd be better served by someone his own height and speed, and part of me doesn't care to consider that idea. The things I'm involved in.... I just.... I don't know.”

Karliah smiled sympathetically.

“Why not tell me about him?” the Dunmer asked gently. “Maybe talking your way through it will help. It certainly helped me when I was trying to decide about Gallus... though I regret now that I spoke to Mercer about it at all.”

Auriel snorted, a faint, reluctant smile crossing her face.

“Well, hopefully you won't do that. You and Bryn are close now, hmmm?~” the redhead teased.

“Yes, but not that close,” Karliah blushed, making Auriel snicker. “Like you two, we are only close friends. I learned that lesson well, and have no desire to get involved with a fellow Nightingale again.”

Auriel chuckled, then shrugged lightly. Maybe Karliah was right...

“He's a Nord, big, burly, and dark haired. Silver eyes. He's... kind. Patient. Perhaps ridiculously attached to me, though I am not sure I understand why. I think he sees an ideal, and the ideal...” she sighed. “His brother calls him slow; while I disagree, I will admit that he tends to take a thing and break it down so that it is just that simple. He's trusted me even before we were in the same guild...”

She trailed off, and sighed tiredly. Karliah smiled sympathetically.

“You have a hard time with trusting anyone, don't you?” she asked.

“Is it that obvious?” Auriel smiled thinly. “It wasn't always so, but after a while it was just... easier to not get close to people. Safer for everyone.”

“What sort of life were you living?”

“You say that as though you haven't lived similar,” Auriel retorted, but the words held no heat. “You have enough of the pertinent details to guess, Karliah, since I really don't feel inclined to speak of it. I don't know if I can live up to what he expects. Or what I expect...”

“....as much as there is great folly in love, there is great strength in it too,” Karliah said softly. “A trust far greater than anything else can bolster a wounded spirit, and to have someone at your back, without question or worry..... it can be a wonderful thing.”

“Yes, but the trust has to be mutual.... I don't know if I can do that.”

“You can try,” Karliah said gently. “I know you trust Brynjolf, and myself. You trust that Galmar fellow, and Ulfric. And Tolfdir. Perhaps the numbers are few, but you do know how.... you just need to relax a little more.”

“....maybe. I don't know,” Auriel sighed. “But regardless, I have a number of things to do before I head in that direction. The Jarls aren't yet pressing for the Moot, but I told Ulfric I'd be there when it came. He also wanted me to go about getting more formal training in the Voice.”

“You have much to occupy you, then. Try not to run too far.”

Auriel made a slight face, and the talk turned away from heavy emotions into more neutral areas; how to fix up Nightingale Hall further, and the number of escape routes the thieves in the Guild were coming up with. Even a little bit about Ivarstead, though nothing in depth.

After lingering for a while longer, Auriel made good on her word and took fond leave of her friends to go north to Winterhold and the College. She was greeted warmly, and with praise from almost everyone she met that had been keeping an ear to the ground about the war. Winterhold had been strictly neutral, but unlike Whiterun the Hold wasn't strategically important enough to mess with. They had accepted the idea of Ulfric in charge pragmatically; so long as no one interfered with their studies, they didn't actually care who ruled. To hear that their own Arch-Mage had been at the forefront of the war meant that she spent several meetings simply telling them everything that had happened.

In a way, talking about everything she'd seen, while not pleasant, assuaged a part of her that was aching over it. She had not gone to war for fame or glory, she had gone to war because it was an expedient method for getting the Thalmor out of the country. She had seen horrible things up close and personal, and she regretted them.

But the support from her fellows helped more than she thought it would.

She spent a while in Winterhold, considering her options and how she felt. With the war won, the Thalmor Embassy would soon close. While the Thalmor might continued to send ambush parties for her, the chances of them getting very far into Skyrim were small and shrinking further every day. She could deal with lone assassins easily enough, and if she wanted to get petty, she could drag living Thalmor to Ulfric, and let him do as he pleased.

Maybe it was okay to admit that Farkas was more dear to her than anyone else she'd met.

 

-

 

Whiterun, when she finally returned to the city, was quiet. It had been properly repaired after the fighting had finished; other than obviously new wood and paint that were lighter and brighter than the rest, the city looked as it always had. Guards still patrolled, people still stopped to gossip, the market was still open...

It was comforting.

She still waited for dusk before she made her silent way up to the Gildergreen, settling onto her favorite bench. She wanted to see Farkas first, before she committed fully to the truth. Auriel hoped that he was in town, and not out on one of the many jobs of the Companions. If he wasn't, she was going to feel downright silly for sitting here.

Still, the tree was nice. There was a slight, lingering tension in the air, but on the whole, it was a wonderfully relaxing evening to be under the tree. She let her mind drift, idly turning over new ideas in her head. She had muddled he way through learning how to Shout so far... perhaps she now had the time and the space to properly learn from the Graybeards.

It was hard to believe she'd been in Skyrim so long. Two years now? She had traveled the length and breadth of the land, earned more than just a small piece of it for herself. She knew the people, and while she didn't entirely understand them, she felt more welcomed by the frozen north she had initially despised than she had anywhere else.

She smiled faintly, tipping her head back to watch the stars come out through the branches of the Gildergreen. Properly speaking, something like this ought to have taken five, and here she was, having cut the time in half. She wasn't untouchable, but she was strongly allied, and anyone who thought to take her easily would regret that thought.

“A.... Auri?”

She startled slightly, and glanced over. It was probably the first time she hadn't heard Farkas approach, and when she caught sight of him she saw why. It was odd seeing him in cityfolk clothing instead of armor, but she found she rather liked it. He looked stunned, as if she wasn't sure that what he was seeing was real, and she stood after a moment, smiling faintly. She had half-expected that she would be nervous, but found that in the moment she was enveloped in calm.

“Hello Far. It's been a while.”

Hesitantly he stepped forward, lifted a hand, then immediately dropped it. It pleased her to see that he was restrained, even after so long apart.

“Eorlund said you'd gone to war....” he said uncertainly.

“War's over. Mostly. I'm not dead. I thought it was... time to come back and consider a few things.”

She was quiet for a long moment, simply studying him. He looked tired, she decided, and there were fine lines of worry on his face that indicated he'd been brooding. But he also looked happy to see her, and the restrained air of excitement reminded her of a puppy. That he wanted to hold her was obvious, and after a moment she stepped forward until she could rest her head against his chest.

“I'm home, you goon,” she murmured softly. “I'm home.”

Slowly, his arms came up until they were wrapped loosely around her. He was trembling a little, clearly wanting to hold her tightly, and just as clearly holding himself back. Breathing in the scent of him, she found a peace that had been eluding her; she didn't need to disassemble, she didn't need to plan or plot. She could rest. She could relax.

And it was because of him.

“Yeah....” his voice was a little hoarse, and very soft. “Welcome home.”

That was the right word for it, she decided, lifting her arms to loosely drape around his waist. This was home. Right here in his arms, was home. He tightened his own hold in response to her, and she listened to the beating of his heart for several long minutes.

She didn't want to end the peace, and the comfort, but.... but if she was going to let this happen, well, he had the right to know a few things about her.

“Far?”

“Y...yeah?”

“Would you come with me for a little bit? There's.... There's a lot I need to tell you.”

She felt him tense, and had to smile faintly, a little sadly.

“It may change your perspective, but.... but you have earned the right to know.”

“....okay. Where to?” he asked.

“Follow me.”

She was reluctant to step out of his hold, but when she slipped her hand into his, he followed along willingly enough. She led him to Breezehome and invited him in, smiling slightly as he tensed.

“You attraction to me is possibly the worst kept secret of the Companions,” she teased him gently as he fidgeted uncertainly. “You are far too easy to read, you know that, right?”

“Ah, yeah...” he rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously, a little sheepishly.

“Have a seat. And if you could just.. listen? It's a long story.”

He sat when she did in the chairs before the fire, and leaned forward, his eyes on her face.

“I'll listen.”

Auriel let out a slow breath, half-closed her eyes, and began to speak.

She told him everything, starting from her recruitment into the Thalmor. She spoke plainly of being a spy, of following the orders she'd been given, the trouble she had sown. She spoke of Helgen, how she'd come to it, passed through it, and ended up in Whiterun. The Mages College. The Thieves Guild. Siding with Ulfric to end the war. She only skipped the Companions because he'd been there for most of it.

She did her best to not stray too hard onto the tangents of personal motivation; the main thrust of everything she'd done since Helgen had been aimed at keeping her alive, at staying safe.

He sat there in silence, letting her talk until the words ran out, and then sat there longer, a small frown on his face. Not generally prone to anxious fidgeting, Auriel tried to remain seated, but ended up getting up to make something to eat. She was hungry, and it let her focus on something that wasn't as complicated.

It was a lot to take in, and it wouldn't have surprised her any if he'd simply gotten up and walked out the door. The fact that he had sat there and just let her talk until there was nothing left to say was oddly comforting.

“You were with the Thalmor,” he finally said, “but not anymore?”

“At this point, they probably want to kill me for a grand variety of things, so no. Not anymore; never again.”

“....okay.”

She blinked, and looked at him over her shoulder. He was on his feet, still frowning a little, but as she watched, that frown eased, the tension in his body smoothed away. If anything, she thought he seemed pleased to have surprised her.

“Okay?”

“You're you,” he said simply. “I trust you.”

Auriel stared a moment more, then quickly looked back down at the food she was preparing. Even after all that, knowing her past, her motivations.... he trusted her?

It was like a weight had fallen that she hadn't even known she was carrying. If anything, she would have thought he would need time to process, days or weeks to make sense of it all. She had expected he would turn away, as she expected any Nord would once they learned the whole truth, but... he trusted her.

When he wrapped his arms around her gingerly, she turned into his hold and threw her own around his neck, holding on tightly. She felt more than saw his surprise, and he nuzzled at her a little after a moment.

“Auri? Are you okay?”

“Yes, just... give me a few moments. Please.”

“Okay.”

He just held her, nuzzling her gently. After a couple minutes, he brought a hand up to lightly run over her hair; bit by bit she relaxed fully into the intimacy of the hold, and knew the answer to the question that had plagued her for weeks.

As much as was possible, as much as she was capable of, she did indeed love Farkas.

“Far...?”

“Yeah?”

“I.... Would you be willing to stay with me? Not... not just tonight, but forever?”

“...Like marriage?”

“Exactly like.”

He tipped his head, kissed her temple.

“Sure. As long as you want me, I'll be here.”

No hesitation. No wavering.

Auriel smiled, leaned up just a little bit, and kissed him.

 

Chapter Text

Arc 2:

One

 

Married life was not too different from normal life, save that now Farkas tended to tag along with her everywhere when she left the house. Of the Companions, only Vilkas had been less than pleased, but had managed to put it aside long enough to congratulate them. They would never be friends, but there was a tolerance there that was good enough.

She wrote to the handful of people she considered friends, informing them of the change in her status, and the letters that returned were inundated with a myriad different pieces of marriage advice, and congratulations. Brynjolf sent along a ring that he said was supposed to add virility to the bedroom; Auriel sent a somewhat scathing note in reply, and added in a letter to Karliah, asking her to dump something on his head. She wouldn't get to see it, but at least she would have someone expressing her displeasure at his presumptions.

Ulfric sent his congratulations, but in his letter was also the reminder that she ought to go up and visit the Graybeards, to better learn how to control her Voice. She sent back a very dry, gently mocking response, mostly because she could, and then turned the idea over in her head for a few weeks, before deciding to ask Farkas if he wanted to tag along.

“Far?”

“Yeah?”

“You remember me complaining about the letter I received from Ulfric a few weeks ago?”

He nodded a little, giving her a curious look.

“...what would you think about coming with me to visit the Graybeards? You don't have to, of course, but... Well, I would appreciate your company.”

He was quiet for a couple minutes, then shrugged faintly.

“I'll go where you go,” he said. “As long as you want me to.”

Auriel blinked, then smiled. The simplicity of the response was entirely characteristic of her husband, and it was a soothing balm for an uneasy decision. He smiled back, and cuddled her.

 

-

 

Ivarstead hadn't changed much since her first visit; it was still the same sleepy town it had been when she'd almost been blown up by a spell. Nothing seemed to have changed except the weather, which was warmer and a little bit softer due to the change of seasons. Having Farkas there, a big bear of a man, meant that few people were willing to take the risk of actually attracting attention, so it was an easy trip to make.

It was nice to have him with her in the climb up to the Throat of the World. Springtime in the lowlands didn't mean much to the mountain; it was damnably cold. Even with the beast-blood, her fur cloak, and her spell-warmed layers, she was shivering by the time they reached the entrance to the monastery. How people could live in a place like this, she would never understand.

“You'd think walking up seven thousands steps would keep me warmer,” she muttered, shaking the snow from her cloak and boots as the heavy door closed behind them.

“It's the Throat of the World,” Farkas shrugged faintly, and smiled ruefully. “Even I'm cold up here.”

She half turned, ready to tease him fondly, when there was a faint, but perceptible change to the air; a taste of wary curiosity gained strength below the smells of old men and ancient books. Turning back allowed her to watch an elderly-looking Nord approach cautiously, looking at them both. After a moment, his gaze settled on Farkas, and he bowed slightly.

“Welcome, dovahkiin,” he said.

“....that would be me,” Auriel said testily as Farkas shook his head. “I'm the one you summoned forever ago.”

He blinked, and started at her. Auriel crossed her arms over her chest and frowned, making him clear his throat in embarrassment.

“Apologies. We had... expected a Nord, but I expect the blood can run in any race.”

She was impressed that he not only had taken her rebuke without taking insult, he didn't seem to much care that it had taken her this long to get to them. She dropped her defensive stance, and instead was starting to look forward to getting her long-dormant questions answered.

“You call me... dovahkiin. Dragonborn, I take it. What does that mean?”

“First, we must see if you truly are Dragonborn,” the old man replied. “Let us taste of your Voice.”

“What, you want me to Shout at you? Tch….”

It didn't make much sense to her, but when the old man nodded, she frowned. She couldn't use Yol Tor; that would burn him to a crisp. There had to be something else she could use, one that wouldn't hurt, but would serve as proof of what she said. She searched her memory for a few moments, sorting words; some she understood more than others, but there had been the one... That first word...

Fus

The old man staggered backwards, and she winced a little. She hadn't quite expected it to be that emphatic... But when he straightened, a smile was on his lips.

“Dragonborn,” he nodded. “It is you. Welcome to High Hrothgar. I am Master Arngeir; I speak for the Graybeards. Now tell me, Dragonborn, why have you come here?”

“Honestly? Ulfric pestered me into it,” she shrugged a little. “I mean, also my own curiosity, but mostly him. He said it would do me some good to learn more about this power,and he's a special brand of annoying when he's right...”

“We are here to guide you in that pursuit, just as we aimed to guide those of the Dragon Blood who came before you,” Arngeir said placidly.

“Others as in the past century, or the past years?”

“You are the only one that has been revealed thus far,” Arngeir shrugged a little. “That is all I can say.”

“All right. Teach me.”

He nodded slightly.

“You have shown that you are Dragonborn, you have the inborn gift; whether you have the temperament to follow the path laid out before you remains to be seen,” Arngeir sighed slightly, then motioned for her to follow. “Without training, you have already taken the first steps towards projecting your voice into a Thu'um, a Shout. Now we shall see if you are willing and able to learn.”

Auriel bit back a scathing retort; she wasn't untrained, she was self-trained, and it had worked well for her this long. Farkas laid a light hand on her shoulder, and she reminded herself firmly that she had come here to learn. All masters were condescending at the start until skill was proven. She was just going to have to prove that she wasn't as untried as he seemed to think.

“When you Shout, you speak in the language of dragons. Thus, your Dragon Blood gives you an inborn ability to learn Words of Power. All Shouts are made up of three Words of Power. As you master each Word, your Shout will become progressively stronger.”

Four other Graybeards joined them at this point, and she glanced at them warily. Really, Arngeir wasn't saying anything she hadn't figured out on her own, though she hadn't yet managed to actually complete a Thu'um. A lot of them matched up into two words, but not three. In her mind it meant that she hadn't explored enough; the Words were out there. She just had to find them, and not get eaten by dragons along the way.

“Master Einarth will now teach you 'Ro,' the second Word in Unrelenting Force. 'Ro' means 'balance' in the dragon tongue. Combine it with 'Fus,' 'force,' to focus your Thu'um more sharply.”

One of the Graybeards stepped forward, and she watched as he whispered to the ground. The air vibrated and she blinked in mild surprise when the word appeared on the floor between them, glimmering like fire. Carefully she approached it, then looked down at the runes. Ro wound its way into her mind, connecting itself to Fus with a click that she could have sworn was audible.

“...I am far to used to the Word Walls,” she muttered, shaking her head a little.

“You learn a new word like a master...” Arngeir breathed. “You truly do have the gift.”

Auriel raised an eyebrow; she'd been under the impressions that they'd already established that. Hastily the old man cleared his throat, and returned to his lecture.

“Learning the Word of Power is only the first step,” he continued. “You must unlock its meaning through constant practice in order to use it in a Shout.”

Now Auriel frowned. That wasn't how she'd been doing it...

“Well, that is how the rest of us learn Shouts,” Arngeir said a little wryly. “As Dragonborn, you can absorb a slain dragon's life force and knowledge directly. As part of your initiation, Master Einarth will allow you to tap into his understanding of 'Ro.'”

Auriel blinked, and looked again at Einarth. She didn't expect the aura that appeared, and half-stepped back on reflex alone as it swept around her. It simulated the death of a dragon; Einarth didn't die, but he did look exhausted by the maneuver.

“Now, let us see how quickly you can master your new Thu'um,” Arngeir said. “Use your Unrelenting Force shout to strike the targets as they appear.”

Auriel nodded, motioning lightly for Farkas to step back. Three times a target appeared, and three times she knocked it down. She marveled, a little, at the increased force of the shout, but it was so utterly non-lethal that it was almost disappointing.

“Impressive,” Arngeir nodded. “Your Thu'um is precise. You show great promise, Dragonborn.”

“My name,” she said a little testily, “is Auriel.”

“.... a fitting name indeed. Now, your next trial will take place in the courtyard. This way, please.”

She grimaced a little, and Farkas rested a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. Going back out into the cold was hardly her idea of a good time, but she followed anyways, wanting to learn more. The snow splattered down on them, thick and cold, and Auriel muttered a few choice curses about the weather. Hopefully she wouldn't be up here for very long...

“I see that you have already begun to learn the Whirlwind Sprint Shout,” Arngeir said, looking her over. “Master Borri will teach you 'Nah'- 'Fury'-the second word of Whirlwind Sprint.”

It took her a minute to recall the word he was speaking of; the Bard's College had been so long ago that it was genuinely hard to remember. The fact that he knew she knew the first word was more disconcerting, and she gave him a narrow-eyed star even as Borri stepped forward.

Nah.

“You must hear the Word within yourself before you can project it into a Thu'um,” Arngeir murmured.

Much like Ro, all Auriel had to do was look at the word to take it into her. And, like Einarth before, Borri gave her the knowledge of Nah, which allowed her to use it in conjunction with the first Word of the Shout. Of course, then she had to prove she had learned it, much like with the Unrelenting Force, this time by racing through a gate before it had closed. The new Shout propelled her faster than she expected, and she grabbed the stone marker to keep from falling off the side of the mountain. Living that down would have taken months...

“Your quick mastery of a new Thu'um is... astonishing,” Arngeir admitted when she made her way back to him. “I'd heard stories of the abilities of the Dragonborn, but to see it for myself...”

Auriel shrugged a little, and batted Farkas' hands gently away from trying to fix her hood and her hair.

“I wouldn't be able to explain how I did it,” she admitted wryly. “It just sort of happens...”

“You were given this gift from the gods for a reason. It is up to you to determine how best to use it,” he replied. “You are now ready for your last trial. Retrieve the horn of Jurgen Windcaller, our founder, from the ancient fane of Ustangrav. Remain true to the Way of the Voice, and you will return.”

 

-

 

Ustangrav was near to her homestead in Hjallmarch, Windstad Manor. Farkas seemed amused when she admitted to owning homes in all Holds, and he praised the construction of the house when she detoured briefly to show him. Given it was almost identical to Lakeview—which she had already shown him—she couldn't help but be amused by the praise. After cautioning him to keep it secret, they moved on to the tomb.

In the first room, bandits and mages battled it out. They were not College mages; Auriel had held to Savos Aren's own rules about what was and was not appropriate to study on College grounds. She let the two groups battle it out, then picked off the survivors. Further in it was mages against draugr, and they were handled similarly. Auriel had to smile approvingly at Farkas; between the muffling enchantment she'd placed on his boots, and his own desire to be helpful, his ability to stealth had grown tremendously.

He blushed a little at the smile, then more when she gave him a fond kiss on the cheek. It made her smile; he really was just precious.

That had been the last of the mages, but like every tomb she'd ever been in, there were more than enough draugr to make up the difference. When the confines grew too close for fire, she used her bow; arrows shot just so were just as effective, and it kept her comfortably out of range.

Deeper in, the tunnel widened out into an open-air chasm almost; sunlight poured down from a large crack high overhead, shedding light on a scene that almost seemed to be from a storybook. There were trees taller than the Blue Palace, as well as the ruins of what had one been a stable pathway to the tomb. She could hear the faintest calling of a Word Wall below, and knew there had to be a way down.

They just had to get past the undead first.

The height would have been dizzying for most people, and even Farkas, impressed as he was, had to back away from the edge. Auriel looked down fearlessly, and smiled; she had always loved heights. Dangerous, yes, but so much could be seen from them.

There was, naturally, a safer way to get down than attempting to descend a rock face. It led through more draugr, of course, but that was hardly unexpected. The skeletons were more of a surprise, especially without controlling necromancers to guide them. They were also more fun; while draugr went up like oiled paper, a skeleton without its head just walked into everything until it fell apart.

Farkas actually made a game of it; she would lure them in, and he would use the flat of his sword to send the heads careening across the room. The skeletons would then walk into pillars and over the edges of the cliff trying to find them. She managed to contain her giggles until they were all dealt with, but when he grinned at her, she just lost it.

They found the path down to the Word wall before finding their way across to a puzzle; The word Auriel found had something to do with fading out, and as that was useful to her, she had no trouble with bending her mind to understanding it. But ultimately it was the Whirlwind Sprint that solved the puzzle, and Auriel grinned a little, this time allowing Farkas to neaten her hair some when he caught up.

“I think you fuss more about my appearance than I do,” she grinned up at him.

“D'you want me to stop?”

“No, no. It's fine, Far. I like your hands.”

He smiled bashfully, and they moved on.

Flame-laced floors made for a tricky obstacle; she did her best to make sure Farkas stayed directly behind her, on the well-worn tiles. It surprised her some at how quickly he threw himself into the fight with the spider at the end of the path, but considering she hadn't even seen it, she wasn't going to complain. She did insist he sit for a minute once the thing was dead; he was pale and shaky; not a good state for a warrior.

“Are you all right?” she asked, lightly brushing her fingers over his cheek.

“Yeah. Just... spiders...” He shuddered a little.

She smiled sympathetically, and kissed his cheek.

“You are very brave. Thank you.”

“Ah, well...”

His smile was bashful and adorable, and they sat there until she could no longer smell his fear.

The room that should have held the horn was directly after, and Auriel half-expected a trap, just because that was how most final rooms for such places ended. But when nothing leaped out at them after the rising of the odd, Nordic carvings, she cautiously made her way down the path.

It really was no surprise to discover that the horn was missing, and a note resided in its place. She scowled a little at the note, recognizing a code word when she saw it, and leaned back against Farkas slightly.

“We goin'?” he asked.

“Oh yes,” she said grimly. “Someone has a few things to answer for.”

“Okay.”

To say she was annoyed was both an understatement and entirely accurate. She was somewhat above annoyed, but not quite angry. This reeked of intrigue and trouble, and she had hoped that such things would have been behind her. Apparently that was not to be the case. Farkas wisely chose to say nothing as she stalked out of the tomb; he just stuck close and followed after.

 

-

 

By the time they reached Riverwood, Auriel had mostly worked off the worst of her irritation. This semi-calm state lasted until they were confronted by odd people in clothing the wasn't remotely familiar and masks that looked to be made of bone. Auriel was immediately put on her guard.

“You're the one they call Dragonborn?”

She could tell by the subtle nuances in their body language that she was likely to get attacked no matter what answer she gave. So she shrugged a little, and nodded.

“That would be me.”

“Your lies fall on deaf ears, Deceiver,” he sneered a little. “The True Dragonborn comes, and you are but his shadow. When Lord Miraak appears, all shall stand to bear witness. None shall oppose him.”

“....that's all well and good, but I happen to be busy, so either attack me and be done with it, or get out of my face,” she snapped.

The pair promptly attacked. The didn't last very long, but she gave them credit for trying; not much, but a tiny bit. Farkas took complete exception to their attacks and defended her fiercely. His sword had longer reach, his arms had greater muscles; before she could even call fire to her hands, they both laid dead on the road. She gave him an approving smile, then turned to see what they might have that could clue her in to just what had happened.

The first stranger's clothes held nothing; in the second she found a folded up note.

“Well now, what is this...?” she murmured, scanning the paper. “Hmm... Farkas, how would you feel about a trip to this Solstheim place?”

“Will we find more of these guys?”

“Oh probably. They seem to want me quite dead, at the orders of this Miraak git,” she scowled down at the paper. “The Northern Maiden... that's the ship.”

“If it keeps them from coming after you, I'm all for it,” he nodded firmly.

“Then that's settled. First though, let's see if we can't get that bloody horn back.”

He nodded, and they stepped into the Sleeping Giant Inn.

 

-

 

“So you're the Dragonborn I've been hearing so much about,” Delphine said, raising her eyebrows. “I think you're looking for this.”

And she handed over an ancient-looking horn that Auriel took gently.

“We need to talk. Privately,” Delphine continued. “Follow me.”

The redheaded elf couldn't help but roll her eyes; if this was Delphine's idea of stealth, it was woefully lacking. But she followed after a minute, letting the woman lead her downstairs to a secret basement room.

“Okay,” Delphine turned to face them. “Now we can talk.”

“Talk?” Auriel raised an eyebrow. “You first.”

“The Graybeards seem to think you're the Dragonborn,” Delphine said after a moment, skepticism in every line of her body. “I hope they're right.”

“They are.”

“I hope so, but forgive me if I don't assume that something is just because the Graybeards said so,” Delphine said dryly. “I just handed you the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller; does that make me Dragonborn too?”

“No, it makes you a thief and an annoyance,” Auriel snapped. “I have very little patience at the moment for the latter.”

“...this was the only way I could make sure this wasn't a Thalmor trap,” the other woman admitted.

Auriel's eyebrows went up in mild surprise.

“I am not your enemy,” Delphine continued, urgency entering her voice. “I already gave you the horn, I'm trying to help you. I just need you to hear me out.”

“I'm listening...”

“Like I said in my note, I've heard you might be Dragonborn. I'm part of a group that's been looking for you... well, someone like you, for a very long time. If you really are Dragonborn, that is,” and the suspicion was back. “Before I tell you anything else, I need to make sure I can trust you.”

“Trust me?” Auriel snorted. “Woman, if the Thalmor are after you, they'll come at you twice as hard if they discover who you're meeting. Why in the hells are you looking for a Dragonborn anyways?”

Farkas settled a light hand on her shoulder; it wasn't a heavy weight, but it steadied her.

“We remember what most don't,” Delphine said after a minute. “That the Dragonborn is the ultimate dragon slayer. You're the only one that can kill a dragon permanently, by devouring its soul. Can you do it? Can you devour a dragon's soul?”

It was very tempting to make a sarcastic comment. So very tempting... but Auriel held it back and sighed a little, running a hand through her hair.

“All I know is that when dragons die, I absorb some sort of power from them. Soul, memory... I don't know. I'm not a dragon.”

“This is no time to play the reluctant hero,” Delphine snapped. “You either are or aren't Dragonborn. But I'll see for myself soon enough.”

“...right. And what's the part you're not telling me, Delphine?” Auriel shot back. “Because you are clearly holding more than a little bit back in this conversation, which does not impress the need for me to give a full disclosure on what I can, and cannot do.”

She hesitated a moment, then looked over at the map spread across the table.

“Dragons aren't just coming back from some vacation, they're coming back to life,” Delphine said quietly. “They weren't in hiding for all these years, they were dead; killed off by my predecessors. Now something's happening to bring them back to life, and I need you to help me stop it.”

Auriel scrutinized Delphine for a long moment, searching her memories. After several minutes the relevant information came to her and she nodded fractionally. She had given enough contextual clues; Delphine had been one of the Blades. They had been a primary target in the Great War, and had been all but wiped out. The fact that some had escaped, gone to ground, survived... well, it was impressive. And had annoyed her superiors to no end.

“All right, what makes you think the dragons are coming back to life?” Auriel sighed.

“I know they are,” Delphine replied. “I've visited their ancient burial mounds and found them empty. And I've figured out where the next one will come back to life. We're going to go there, and you're going to kill that dragon. If you succeed, I'll tall you anything you want to know.”

Auriel raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“And you obtained this information how?”

“You should know,” Delphine smirked a little. “You got the map for me from Bleak Falls Barrow.”

“The only thing I retrieved from Bleak Falls Barrow was a stone tablet that I gave to Farengar, and that was almost two years ago.”

“He passed it on to me. The Dragonstone is a map of ancient dragon burial sites,” Delphine shrugged a little. “I've looked it over, and the pattern is pretty clear. It seems to be spreading east, down from the Jerrals, near Riften. The one in Kynesgrove is next.”

“And that's where you want to go, I presume.”

“Yes. There's an ancient dragon burial site near there. Maybe if we get there before it happens, we can figure out how to stop it.”

“....look, while it's very amusing that you want me to prove myself a Dragonborn to you and whatever other Blades you might unearth, I have something else to deal with first. You keep up this innkeeper disguise and I'll get back to you when I get back from Solstheim,” Auriel snapped. “I already have one pissed off enemy, I don't need another.”

Farkas moved aside as she turned and stalked up the stairs, then followed dutifully behind. She was halfway to Whiterun before she'd calmed down enough to stop rushing, and he caught up, slipping an arm around her shoulders. She grumbled a little, but leaned her head briefly against his arm; life was supposed to be calmer now, damnit. She was supposed to be able to focus on learning what she wanted, moving at a slower pace, but no, apparently not!

“Remind me to add Ulfric to the list of people I need to throw things at.”

“Okay. Are we still going to Solstheim?”

“Yes. Whatever's there is undoubtedly a more severe threat at the moment. Dragons returning to life can simply be killed. People coming after me, I tend to not appreciate. I took out the Brotherhood, I stymied the Thalmor, I will not put up with this nonsense if I can halt it.”

She sighed and ran a hand through her hair.

“....do you still want to come?”

“I'll come. Where you go, I'll always follow.”

“Thanks you Farkas. I appreciate that.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Two

 

They returned to the Graybeards first, bringing back the horn that Delphine had taken. Mostly because Auriel didn't want to carry around an ancient relic while she was chasing some idiot on an island. Too many ways for such a thing to get broken, and then where would she be?

Arngeir was in an alcove, reading, when they made it back.

“Ah, you've retrieved the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller. Well done. You have now passed all the trials. Come with me, and we shall formally recognize you as Dragonborn.”

Auriel raised her eyebrow, then shrugged and followed.

“You are ready to learn the final word of Unrelenting Force; 'Dah' which means 'push.' With all three words together, this Shout is much more powerful. Use it wisely.”

Powerful, yes, but still wholly unlethal, and therefore, uninteresting.

“Master Wulfgar will now gift you with his knowledge of 'Dah.'”

The rush of not-quite-power again, and the word lit up in her mind. She could feel the strength in the completed shout, but it was more like a very hard shove than anything she would ever have need of. While it might come in handy at some point, Yol Tor was still much more likely to remain her Shout of choice when it came to fights.

“You have completed your training,” Arngeir smiled slightly. “We would Speak to you.”

She blinked, and cocked her head a little.

“Speak?”

“....you will see. Stand between us, and prepare yourself. Few can withstand the unshielded Voice of the Graybeards, but you are ready.”

Speak they did. The language unmistakably ancient, and the way it made the very air rumble suggested it was dragon.

Lingrah krosis saroom Stundu'ul, valh nid baloon klav graan nav. Naal Thu'um, mu afan nii nu, Dovahkiin, naal suleyk da Kaan, nall sulkeyk do Shor, ahirk naal suleyk do Atmorosewuth. Mayz nu Ysmir, Dovahsebrom. Dahmaan daor rok.

Auriel shook herself a little as they finished; she hadn't understood a single word of it... and yet somehow, she had. Acceptance. Acknowledgment.

She wasn't sure she liked it.

“Dovahkiin,” Arngeir said quietly. “You have tasted the Voice of the Graybeards, and passed through unscathed. High Hrothgar is open to you.”

He bowed, and the Graybeards withdrew. Gingerly Farkas stepped up to her side and she felt little shame in turning to lean on him.

“You okay?”

“Mmm... I almost want to ask them about who Miraak might be, but somehow, I don't expect they would know,” she sighed a little. “Come on, Far. Let's get to Windhelm so we can find that ship we need to take.”

“Yes love.”

 

-

 

The trip to Solstheim was actually fairly pleasant. Auriel had always enjoyed riding in boats, and had always been unaffected by seasickness; Farkas wasn't quite so lucky, but once he got his legs under him again, he did seem to enjoy it. The captain hadn't been to pleased at her demand that he return to Solstheim itself, but after pointing out that the cultists he brought over tried to kill her, he reluctantly agreed.

“Well, here we are,” the captain said as they pulled into port. “This is Raven Rock. Can't say I'm all that glad to see it again... Good luck. Maybe you can figure out what's going on around here.”

She nodded and hopped onto the dock, then waited patiently for Far to step off, wobbling at the return to dry land. It made her smile a little; it was going to take a few hours for the sea legs to wear off.

An officious-looking Dunmer approached, and frowned at them both.

“I don't recognize you, so I presume this is your first trip to Raven's Rock,” he said stiffly. “State your intentions.”

“Currently? Looking for Miraak. I have something I wish to discuss with him.”

“Miraak?” He frowned a little, confusion crossing his face. “I feel I should know that name, but.... it slips from my grasp.”

“Is there anything you can tell me? A direction in which to start looking, perhaps?”

“I don't think so... I'm not... The name has something to do with the Earth Stone over there, but I'm not sure.... what...”

Auriel followed the gesture he made, and her eyebrows went up as she caught sight of a stone, almost a pillar, really, that gave off an eerie sort of greenish glow.

“My thanks. I shall look into that, then,” she nodded a little, stepping past the Dunmer.

He nodded a little dazedly, and Farkas hurried to catch up.

“That was weird,” he said after a minute.

“I don't like it,” she murmured. “Something is going on here, and it's likely not going to be any good for me. But, seeing as I have no desire to be attacked by bone-masked fools again, it seems we may as well find out what is wrong with this place.”

Because something was wrong. It was a subtle feeling in the air, not just the ashes and dust that permeated the island. It seemed to grow stronger as she approached the stone, though she was stopped not far from it by another Dunmer.

“You don't seem to be in the same state as the others,” he said, studying her curiously. “Very interesting. May I ask what it is you're doing here?”

“Unless your name is Miraak, that would be none of your business,” she replied shortly.

“Miraak, Miraak...” He frowned. “No my name is Neloth. That name sounds quite familiar, but I can't quite... place...” He paused, then snapped his finger. “No, no, wait, I recall! But why are you interested in him? He's been dead for thousands of years.”

“If he has, someone neglected to inform him, because he sent people to try and kill me,” she said with a slight sniff of derision.

“Well now, that is fascinating, isn't it?” Neloth said with an absent smile. “Perhaps it has some sort of relation as to what's going on here. Quite unexpected. I'm afraid I can't give you any answers, but there are ruins of an ancient temple of Miraak's towards the center of the island. If I were you, I'd look there.”

She nodded, and glanced curiously at the structures slowly going up around the stone.

“What are they doing?”

“Building something.... yet they don't seem to have much to say about it. I'm very interested to find out what happens when they finish.”

“So you're not going to try and stop them...”

“Certainly not!” he said, a little outraged. “Doing that would interfere with whatever is happening, and I wouldn't be able to see how this all turns out.”

“...researchers,” she shook her head a little. “C'mon Far, let's see if someone has a map we can buy.”

Farkas nodded as Neloth turned back to watch the people building. Auriel shuddered a little, and moved into the city of Raven Rock. Fortunately she was able to find someone who was willing to part with a map for only a few gold pieces, and soon enough she and Farkas were in the wilds. Or what passed for wilds.

The land was covered in a thick layer of ashes as far as she could see, remnants of the explosion at Red Mountain. The plants were odd, and fascinating; she packed some to study further when she returned to Skyrim. The creatures were odd as well; some fell apart with barely a touch, while others seemed to be made of ash and fire. It meant her usual repertoire of spells wasn't quite as useful, but things still died when they were hit hard enough.

The oddest creature by far was a harmless thing that showed no interest in them. It just floated along like a jellyfish in the ocean; except it was floating in the air and reacted to nothing, not even being touched.

Auriel couldn't help but be fascinated. Farkas eventually had to tug at her to remind her that they were supposed to be finding these temple ruins.

“Maybe we should stay here for a while,” she murmured, eyes lingering over the landscape.

“....if you want to, sure,” he shrugged a little. “But didn't you wanna talk to this Miraak guy first?”

“Ah, you're right. I can let myself get distracted another time.”

He chuckled a little, and she smiled faintly. It was nice that he would indulge her like this. Maybe when they cleared up whatever was going on here, it would feel like a decent place, for all that one breathed ash every step. If nothing else, it was warmer than Skyrim.

As they drew closer to the temple, Auriel paused in surprise as she recognized shapes under the ashes. Dragon bones littered the ground, scattered here and there like a child who'd grown bored with their blocks and knocked them all down.

The temple certainly looked like it had seen better days too; scaffolding wrapped around no few pieces of the stonework, supporting it, and there were a number of people working on rebuilding the temple itself. Like the ones at the Earth stone, they felt... odd. Wrong, somehow. Not hostile, but definitely unnerving. Hardly any of them seemed to notice the pair was there, and none would respond to a direct question. They seemed to be spouting poetry of some type, and she had little doubt that this Miraak was the subject.

“....I don't think we're going to get any answers out here,” she murmured to Farkas, who had drawn closer to her. “Maybe inside.”

“I've got you back,” he nodded.

The climbed the stairs, and went into the central part of the temple, which was impressively clear of the ash that otherwise coated the island. Due in no small part to the number of people working, no doubt, the cleanliness loaned an eerie air to an already disquieting place.

There was only one person who seemed unaffected by the oddness; a woman in armor was going around urgently shaking some of the people, who failed to react even a little. She caught sight of the pair and stopped short.

“What brings you to this place? Why are you here?” she asked warily.

“I could ask the same, but I expect it would be intemperate,” Auriel said dryly. “I'm Auriel. You?”

“I am Frea of the Skaal. I am here to either save my people, or avenge them,” the blonde woman replied.

“Save them?” Auriel cocked her head curiously. “From what?”

“I am unsure. Something has taken control of most of the people of Solstheim,” Frea frowned uneasily. “It makes them forget themselves, and work on these horrible creations that corrupt the Stones, the very land itself. My father, Storn the shaman, says that Miraak has returned to Solstheim. But... that is impossible.”

Auriel's interest was instantly caught.

“Given that he attempted to have me killed over in Skyrim, that's not as impossible as you might think,” she said.

“Then you and I both have reasons to see what lies beneath us,” Frea replied. “Let us go. There is nothing more I can do here... the Tree Stone, and my friends, are beyond my help for now. We need to find a way into the temple below.”

As if responding to her words, the floor near to them began shifting, sinking downwards. Talk was abandoned as a pair of cultists, identical to the ones that had attacked in Riverwood, rushed up the ramp and attacked.

They didn't last long; between Frea's prowess, Farkas' blade, and Auriel's flames, they were soon nothing more than dead.

“Mind if I ask you a few things first?” Auriel said as they moved into the temple.

“I will do my best to answer,” she nodded.

“Can you tell me anything about Miraak?”

“His story is as old as Solstheim itself,” Frea said musingly. “He served the dragons before their fall from power, as most did. A priest in their order. But unlike most, he turned against them. He made his own path, but his actions cost him dearly. The stories say he sought to claim Solstheim for himself, and the dragons destroyed him for it.”

“....huh...”

Auriel frowned thoughtfully. Unfortunately, that didn't do much to address any of the questions that lingered in her head. Most prominently, why in the name of Oblivion he was trying to have her killed.

“Why did you come by yourself?”

“There are few of us left unaffected by the curse,” Frea sighed a little. “My father protects them in the village. I fashioned an amulet to protect me against whatever has taken hold of the Skaal, but... it is the only one of its kind. If I cannot find a way to save them, there is no hope for our people...”

There was pain in Frea's eyes; Auriel nodded slightly in sympathy, and decided against prying further. She had no doubts that she would learn abut the Skaal soon enough.

“Come on. Let's see what is in here,” Auriel said.

“Agreed. This evil must be rooted out,” Frea nodded sharply.

“Right behind you,” Farkas murmured.

There wasn't much of use in the first three rooms; dry bones mostly, with a few potions that looked to be fairly new, if a little dusty. The air smelled foul in a way that Auriel wasn't familiar with; dust and rot she could ignore, but this was subtle, and it made her feel sick to her stomach. Not enough to make her heave, but enough to make her testy.

The found their way down into a more open-aired room, the ceiling high overhead, and a pit with stairs leading down. There were cages strung over the pit, with skeletal remains, and Auriel grimaced, wondering what the people had done to be put there. And how.

“I do not wish to imagine the kinds of things that happened in this chamber,” Frea said with a shudder. “Who were the poor souls trapped in these cages? What tortures did they suffer at Miraak's hands? Was it in service to the dragons, or for his own purposes?”

She turned away, and Auriel snorted a little; if she hadn't wanted to think about it, she probably shouldn't have said anything at all. It was easier to bury a question when it was left unsaid.

Of course, no tomb was complete without some draugr, and they actually got the drop on the trio; not that it helped the draugr any, nor the cultists that came after. The close-quarters fight left Auriel a little frustrated; two large people swinging blades meant that she couldn't help very much.

Beyond was a room that was filled with more dead draugr than living ones, simply scattered haphazardly about the floor. An odd thing, given the normal reverence with which the dead were treated. Following that was a hall that made Frea stop dead. Auriel couldn't blame her; the number of scythes swinging from the ceiling was a bit on the intimidating side.

“I an not going down there,” Frea said firmly. “It would be foolish to attempt it.”

“So stay here,” Auriel shrugged. “You too Far. I'll see if I can't find the release on the other side.”

“...Good luck.”

Farkas caught up her hand, concern writ loud on his face. Auriel smiled, and kissed his cheek.

“Don't fret. I'll be just fine.”

It took a bit of maneuvering, but by sticking to the edge of the room she made it through with only a mild nick on her ear to show for it. Flipping the level not only ceased the swinging blades, it lowered the bars that blocked their path.

“Miraak took great pains to make it difficult to reach him, it seems,” Frea murmured when she caught up. “Let us hope that is the last of these traps.”

“You can hope, but if it were me, I'd have left something else behind,” Auriel shrugged. “Angry Dragonborn, Skaal warrior, and Companion are nothing to joke about.”

“Dragonborn, you?”

“Mmhm. I suppose that's a reason Miraak is trying to kill me. Too bad for him; if he'd left me alone, I wouldn't be here. Now that I am, we're going to talk, and it won't end well for him.”

Frea went quiet, and Farkas smiled a little, then lightly touched her ear. Gently Auriel batted his hand away.

“I'm fine, Far. Harmless.”

“....all right.”

They continued on, sliding carefully around some bone chimes. Farkas tried, but didn't quite manage it; the clatter made Auriel wince, and lowered three bridges with loud bangs. Two held draugr, one a cultist. As the cultist was the more annoying threat, Auriel went after him. A well placed arrow to the throat took him out, while Frea and Farkas deal with the draugr.

“See?” Auriel said once they made it to the top. “No one in their right mind leaves a trap unset.”

“You may have a point,” Frea sighed.

The next set of doors led to the inner sanctum of the temple, and the odd reek in the air grew stronger. Auriel had to stop, and lean on her husband in an attempt to bite back a dizzy spell.

“Are you all right?” Frea asked.

“....the air in here is terrible,” Auriel mumbled, closing her eyes. Farkas' arms kept her upright as she fought against the nausea and dizziness. “I hope we find whatever we're looking for soon, otherwise I may well be ill.”

Farkas passed her some water, and she drank after a moment; it helped to clear out her senses a little, and after a few more moments she was steady on her feet again. She stopped short on a covered bridge, staring at the skeletons through which bars had been shoved. The morbid part of her wondered if that had been done while they were living, or after their deaths. Impossible to know now, at least...

“I do not know what it is Miraak learned that gave him reason to turn on his masters,” Frea murmured. “But his path seems to have been a cruel one. I wonder if we will find some answers to what happened so long ago.”

“...Honestly, I would be all right with not knowing,” Auriel muttered. “I think I can guess at this point.”

After half a dozen skeleton and two more draugr, the temple opened up into a cavern.

“Interesting,” Frea murmured. “This may be worth exploring...”

It was probably one of the few times Auriel wasn't inclined to explore a tomb. The faster they were out, the better, as far as she was concerned. She watched a little listlessly as Frea went off, taking another sip of water, and settling in to wait for the Skaal woman's return. When she did, she passed the Altmer mage a couple of spell books, and a potion with a faint grin.

“I knew there was something down there. Here, perhaps you can make use of these.”

Auriel just nodded, and put them away; she'd study them later, when she was more in the mood for it.

The went down some more stairs, and took out two more cultists along the way, then all three stopped and traded grimaces at the sight of even more stairs down.

“How much deeper can this be?” Frea demanded incredulously. “I had been told that Miraak's power was great, but to have built so large a temple...”

Auriel muttered a few choice words in Aldmeri, and Farkas growled lowly in agreement. If they were not near the end now, they had better reach it soon.

The room at the base of the stairs held a Word wall, and a large dragon skeleton, painstakingly wired together in such a manner as to be displayed. It had given Auriel a slight jolt when she'd opened the door; there was something almost disrespectful about it.

“I had heard Miraak had turned against the Dragon Cult,” Frea said. “But to display the remains in such a manner as this...”

Whatever else she was going to say was cut off as Auriel absorbed the word, and the entire temple shuddered. The coffins lining the room fell open, and draugr stepped out to fight. It was fierce, and dangerous; Auriel was not able to help very much thanks to the close quarters. Trying to pick shots among large bodies and flailing limbs was just unreasonable.

“Can you make it, my friend?” Frea asked, once the undead had returned to being permanently so. “If you cannot...”

“I'll make it,” Auriel growled stubbornly. “I owe this git a black eye if not an arrow through the face, so I damned well will make it.”

Accepting Farkas' help up, Auriel scowled at the ground until it held still once more. She hadn't come all this way just to get stymied now.

 

-

 

The next series of rooms stalled them. The first one was almost an entryway, and the room beyond looked as though it had been an eating or workhall at some point in its past. The rooms dead-ended into what have likely once been the kitchen, and all three made exasperated sounds.

“You've got to be joking,” Auriel muttered crossly.

“There must be something more,” Frea insisted. “Look around. I will let you know if I find anything in the dining area.”

Auriel nodded, and sighed a little. This was getting to be a bigger headache than she'd initially anticipated.

In the end, Farkas was the one who actually found the switch that led them farther in. He then had to help support Auriel as the lowering of the rock had released a strong cloud of the strange disorienting smell into the air; she had almost fallen over and needed several minutes to catch her breath. Frea and Farkas both could smell it as well, but it was the dubious benefit of the beast-blood senses that made if so much stronger to her.

The narrow hallway didn't improve the situation, and the room they stepped into was small, lined with nothing more than a few ruined books.

“I wonder if there is something here that tells the story of Miraak,” Frea mused.

“Given how damaged these books are, that's not terribly likely,” Auriel replied tartly.

The nest room had her stop short in surprise; a three headed odd... statue, it seemed, stared back at them. Frea moved in closer, curiously, but Auriel kept her distance. Something about it tickled her memory... something she ought to know.

“I do not recognize this statuary,” the Skaal woman said thoughtfully. “We passed by a few of them earlier, but they are becoming more frequents as we go farther in.”

It took concentrated effort to think back and realize that Frea was right. It made Auriel growl slightly; she wanted out of this place already.

“I do not like this place,” Frea continued, stepping back a little. “It almost looks as if these statues will come to life at any moment.”

“They'd better not,” Auriel muttered. “Draugr are annoying enough.”

Farkas just gently patted her shoulder.

“Far... could you turn the handle?” Auriel muttered. “It seems our only way out is to keep going down.”

“Sure.”

Down they went, and down further still. The place was silent enough to hear even the quietest of Auriel's footsteps, and the subtle click or armor and armaments. Another switch revealed more stairs down, and at the bottom the door opened into something that likely would have frightened the unwary or unnerved; a dragon's skull, suspended over a lit fire.

Clearly, Miraak had a thing for dramatic flares. Silently, Auriel decided that an arrow to the face was too fast of a kill. She didn't generally like the thought of torture, but making his death last had appeal.

Beyond, it opened up again, and Auriel could taste the faintest hint of cleaner air, which she was more than willing to breath in. More dragon bones littered the ground, and wary draugr walked the dirt-covered stairs. For once the stairs led up, and there was more than enough space for Auriel to lash out with flames and arrows; the flames seemed to clear the air for a brief moment, and she held that moment with everything she could.

Unfortunately the tunnel beyond led on a descending angle, and Auriel allowed herself to mutter a few inventive curses at Miraak. They made Farkas snicker a little, which did help her mood somewhat; she enjoyed making him laugh.

What they finally found at the bottom was nothing less than a shrine. But a shrine to what or whom, Auriel couldn't say. A book rested in the middle, and every last instinct of hers screamed to avoid it. She actually stepped back, nearly running into both Farkas and Frea in her desire to be anywhere else.

“The book, it seems.... wrong somehow,” Frea murmured, staring at it. “Here yet.... not. This may be what we seek.”

“....I don't want to touch it,” Auriel muttered, taking a reluctant step forward. “I want that logged as an official protest, all right?”

“I understand,” Frea smiled sympathetically. “But... I do not want to touch it either.”

The book itself sat innocently on the shelf, wrapped in black, and embossed with an odd picture on the front that looked almost like a tangle of vines. Unwillingly, Auriel picked the book up, and gingerly opened it. The damn thing grew tentacles, and yanked her in.

Briefly, her vision blacked out, and when it returned, she had no idea where she was. A small island on a black ocean, in a place that reeked of foul air, bound books, and something dangerous.

“The time now comes when...”

Her vision cleared in time to see a dragon landing, and the man who'd spoken swore, turning in surprise and threw lightning at her. Auriel was unable to dodge; it felt much like the time Karliah's arrow had struck her. Able to see, but not able to act. But she had no doubt that this man in his odd armor, surrounded by creatures that had.... well, octopi for heads, really, was Miraak.

“Who are you to dare set foot here?” He demanded. Then he took a closer look. “Aaahhh... you are Dragonborn. I can feel it. And yet... You have done little, beyond killing a few dragons. You have no idea of the true power a Dragonborn can wield!”

He shouted something, but the words slipped past; it looked as though he'd granted himself some sort of extra armor, though...

“This world is beyond you,” he said coldly. “You have no power here. And it is only a matter of time before Solstheim is also mine. I already control the minds of its people. Soon, they will finish building my temple, and I can return home.”

He turned away, and the strange creatures moved in.

“She can await my arrival with the rest of Tamriel,” he said dismissively.

As they attacked, knocking her to the ground, she saw him climb on the back of a dragon, and take flight into a green sky before her sight faded into darkness.

 

-

 

“Auri!”

She was being shaken, albeit gently, and Farkas' voice was panicked and urgent. She lifted a hand blearily, and tried to pat him on the head; she missed completely, but he grabbed her hand and held it tightly, cradling her gently.

“What happened?” Frea asked wonderingly. “You read the book and then... It was like you were not really here. I could see you, but also... see through you! I had to stop your man from trying to attack the book itself...”

Which explained the developing bruise around Farkas' left eye.

“I.... I don't know,” Auriel shivered a little, and attempted to sit up. Farkas helped, pulling her up against his chest protectively. “I... I was somewhere, but.... I think I saw Miraak, at least. Riding a dragon.”

“Where?” Frea demanded. “Where is he? Can we reach him? Can we kill him?!”

“Stop,” Auriel snapped. “Unless you want to read the damn book and find out what's on the other side, just... just stop.”

“...my apologies, you are right. This is a dangerous thing. We should take it to my village, and show my father. Perhaps Storn can make sense of what is going on. Come, the way out seems to be this way. Can you stand?”

“....if Farkas will let me get up, I can try.”

Farkas let go reluctantly, helping her to stand; beyond the initially dizziness, she was able to keep her feet under her with minimal effort. Up and out was a pleasant, welcome thing, and the ash-choked air was sweeter than she expected.

Even if it did give her a coughing fit.

 

Chapter Text

Three

 

Time in the icy air following Frea to the Skaal village helped Auriel recover. Though still entirely unnerved by whatever she'd seen through the black book, she was also beginning to feel the smallest bit curious. The books.. she'd heard something about them before, but where?

“You see that green light?” Frea pointed, and Auriel turned to look. “That comes from the Wind Stone, where my people work against their will. They must be freed soon.”

Auriel didn't know what to say to that, so she stayed silent. But the far more cynical portion of her mind suggested that it would be a while before more of the Skaal were freed from whatever it was Miraak was doing.

Frea stopped again, this time on the far side of a bridge.

“The village is just ahead,” she said. “Storn has used his magic to raise a barrier around it, protecting the few of us left. That the barrier is still there is a good sign.”

There was a noticeable difference as they crossed the barrier's threshold, and Auriel sighed a little in relief. The niggling feeling of wrongness was gone, here in this bubble of a village. It was still cold—they had found the missing snow—but it was a clean feeling.

The village itself was small; a collection of wooden houses, around a central well, with no one on the street to witness their arrival. The old man in front of the central-most house gave off a wavering pillar of light; clearly he was the source of the barrier that separated this village from the troubles of the island itself.

Which meant that the old man was Storn.

“Father!” Frea stopped short of the three people kneeling on the ground, relief in her voice. “I have returned! There is yet hope!”

“Frea?” He blinked up at her, then smiled. “What news do you bring? Is there a way to free our people?”

“No, but I have brought someone who has seen things.”

“Under protest,” Auriel injected with a grimace.

“She has confirmed that Miraak is the one behind the suffering of our people,” Frea continued.

“I feared that it would be so,” Storn sighed.

“But how is that possible?” Frea asked. “After all this time...”

“I fear there is too much we do not yet know,” he admitted wearily.

Frea turned to Auriel, and grabbed her arm briefly. Auriel pulled away on reflex, backing up into Farkas, who steadied her gently.

“Please,” Frea said insistently. “Tell Storn what happened!”

She grimaced, then moved to sit near him, briefly watching the column of light that fed up between the three shamans.

“So you have seen things, yes?” he asked. “My magic is weakening; soon the barrier around the village will fall. Time grows short. Tell me what you know.”

“All right; from what I saw, yes, Miraak really is the one behind this insanity,” she sighed.

“And you know this how?”

“We went through his temple, and found a black book at the bottom. Under protest, I read it. It... did something, and brought me to where he was.”

“The legends speak of that place. Terrible things happened to the people. Dragons burning it to the ground in rage. They also speak of something worse than dragons buried within. Difficult to imagine... but if true...”

Auriel shuddered.

“Oh, it's true all right,” she muttered.

“It means what I feared has come to pass,” Storn bowed his head a little. “Miraak was never truly gone, and now, has returned. If you could go to this place and see him.... are you like Miraak? Are you Dragonborn?”

It was pointless to deny it, so she nodded.

“Then perhaps you are connected to him. The old tales say that he, too, was Dragonborn.”

“Oh, he very much was,” she replied with a slight snort. “I don't know what he said, but I recognized the feeling.”

Storn was quiet for a moment, contemplatively so.

“....there is a Word nearby, one that may help. Go to Searing's Watch, and use it first on the Wind Stone. I have the hopes that it will free our people from his control.”

Auriel frowned, but pulled back on her temper.

“I need to rest,” she said pointedly. “That temple was.... bad. I'm exhausted and still somewhat ill. So if you don't mind, I'll do that first, and then get this word.”

“Of course,” he nodded a little. “Go into the Greathall behind us. There is food there, and a bed on the upper level.”

“Thanks.”

The hall was warm, the food was good, and the bed was well enough, but it was being held in Farkas' arms that did the most of her uneasy spirit.

“Far?”

“Yeah?”

“D'you think we should do this? Maybe this was a bad idea...”

He nuzzled her gently.

“Maybe. But I can't say it'd feel right turning my back on these folk.”

Auriel sighed, tucking her head against his shoulder.

“No, it doesn't. And I still owe Miraak for those idiots trying to kill me, but....”

He tightened his hold on her gently.

“I've got your back, Auri. So the world might never overtake us, remember?”

It made her smiled, and she yawned a little.

“You are far too kind for someone like me,” she murmured.

“And you're too smart for someone like me,” he grinned a little as she frowned at him. “So it all works out.”

“...you are such a brat.”

He kissed her forehead gently.

“Go to sleep Auri. I'll be here.”

She slept.

 

-

 

Morning came around sooner than she liked, but no one insisted they awaken. If anything, it was her own inability to return to sleep once properly awake, and after a quick breakfast—really the sleep had done wonders for her, and the food definitely helped—they ventured outside the barrier, to find this Word that Storn had spoken of.

They investigated the Wind Stone, and found that the structure around it resembled something like what they'd seen in the bottom of Miraak's Temple. Auriel shivered a little, and they turned their focus westward, trekking through snow and ash; it was, in a way, almost comforting. Almost like Skyrim. At the least, it was chilly enough, though nothing touched the bitter cold at The Throat of the World.

There was a path, sort of, but it wasn't easy to find. They had to backtrack several times, and Auriel muttered dark curses with every delay. If she had less of a conscience, they'd already be on the boat back to Windhelm, but Farkas was right; it wasn't right to leave them like this.

And of course, the word wall was guarded by a dragon. Perhaps amusingly, it had decided to pick a fight with some draugr in the ruins, who didn't take very kindly to it. It was perhaps the first time Auriel felt sympathy for the undead, as she did her best to pepper the dragon's hide with her arrows.

“Not this time, Dragonborn,” Miraak said, appearing behind her as the dragon hit the ground. Auriel startled, and came around swinging, but her bow simply went right through him. “This one's mine.”

She had never fought another Dragonborn for a soul before; almost she could see how to do it, but Miraak was more practiced, and took it from her with ease. She hissed quiet Aldmeri curses as the power slipped from her grasp.

“I grow ever stronger,” he said mockingly, then faded out.

“I'm going to shove an arrow through your spine!” Auriel snarled.

“Auri...”

What?
“....draugr.”

Tch.”

She really should have let the dragon eat them...

Farkas wisely refrained from saying anything, and Auriel led the way with flames, which, as always, did much to restore her temper. The word seemed almost subdued when she found it, though once she bent her attention to it, she felt it sizzle and pop like a few of the others. She hoped it was the word Storn meant, because there were no other Words that stood out on the wall.

She made her way back to the Wind Stone, and tried it; at first nothing happened, and she wondered if maybe she'd used it on the wrong part of the stone, but after waiting a handful of moments, the temple-like structure started developing fissures and cracked. Then the whole structure seemed to implode, leaving an odd creature in its wake.

Its face looked like those statues at the base of Miraak's temple; empty-eyed with a mouth full of fangs. The Skaal who'd been working on building around the Wind Stone scattered, leaving Auriel and Farkas the room to deal with it.

“That thing is ugly,” Auriel said after it was dead, prodding it carefully with her boot. “Certainly not from this realm. Not a Daedra, but definitely from the one of the Plains of Oblivion.”

Farkas just shrugged, sheathing his sword. After a moment, Auriel shrugged too, and turned back towards the village. Storn smiled at their return, and motioned for them to sit.

“The air is different,” he said. “We are safe, which means you have succeeded.”

“...in a manner of speaking, yes.”

“You have proven yourself an ally to the Skaal, and so the Skaal shall be allies to you.”

“All right,” she nodded slightly. “I hope you have some idea on what to do next, because I certainly don't.”

“Perhaps you can do the same for the rest of Solstheim,” he said. “Here, give me your map and I will make the locations of the other stones upon it. I doubt it will stop whatever Miraak is doing, but it may slow his progress.”

“...I don't want to slow him down,” Auriel said firmly. “I want to stop him.”

“I cannot help with that,” he said a little sadly. “None of us here can. You will need the knowledge Miraak himself learned. You will need to learn more about this black book.”

“...do you know anything about the book?” Auriel asked.

“This does not look like something of the Dragon cult,” Storn frowned “It is unnatural. I would have nothing to do with it.... but you may get something from that Dark Elf wizard, Neloth... He came to us some time ago, asking about Black Books. I believe he knows a great deal about them... perhaps too much. Seek him out to the south, but be cautious. Something else is at work here.”

She nodded a little in thanks, then bowed a little more formally.

“Perhaps when I come back, we can talk about your people,” she smiled slightly. “I admit, I'm terribly curious. But not now. Thank you.”

 

-

 

Despite her intentions on finding Neloth, Auriel found herself seeking out the stones first. Though there were six stones total, the Tree Stone was firmly surrounded by Miraak's temple, and as such, was unable to be freed. But she managed the other four well enough. Each time the people were freed, and there was another one of those creatures to fight, which, between herself and Farkas, were dealt with.

“I almost wish I knew what to call these things,” she said as they rested next to the Sun Stone. “But at the same time that seems like a fairly bad idea too. Almost like if I know its name I could summon it, or something.”

“....let's not,” Farkas grimaced. “They're ugly.”

She chuckled, and leaned against him.

“Agreed. And since it seems we're lucky enough to finish up near Neloth's, let's go have a chat with him, hmm?”

“Sounds good to me, dear.”

It surprised her, at first, to see the giant mushroom houses, before a lingering piece of memory reminded her that such a thing had once been common for the Telvani family in Morrowind, prior to Red Mountain blowing up. Farkas just stared for a while, and she had to giggle.

“Yes, I know. It's a bit strange. Come on, maybe he's still here.”

The door looked normal enough, but directly inside was a patch of ground that sent her floating gently upwards. She yelped, flailed, and grabbed onto Farkas, who was doing some flailing of his own.

Neloth snickered at their haphazard landing, and she scowled at him.

“You again,” he said once they'd straightened themselves up. “Didn't I see you in Raven Rock?”

“Yes, you did. You pointed me towards Miraak's temple. Now I have another question for you, about Black Books.”

“You refer to the tomes of esoteric knowledge that old Hermaeus Mora has scattered throughout the world?”

“Is that what they are?”

“Is this somehow connected to your search for Miraak?” he countered.

“Yes. Yes it is.” Auriel paused, then blinked. “Wait, Hermaeus Mora.... the Daedric Prince? What do the Black Books have to do with him?”

“You didn't know?” Neloth raised an eyebrow. “Hm. I thought it was obvious. Hermaeus Mora has always tried to seduce mortals into his service with the lure of forbidden knowledge. Where the Black Books come from, no one really knows. Some seem to be from the past, while others may well come from the future. Apparently time is more malleable if you're the Daedric Prince of fate and destiny.”

“.....right. Well, I found a book. I think I need to find more of them.”

“Found one? Yes, and you read it too, didn't you? Don't try to deny it, you've got the look... I can see it now...”

“I read it under severe protest,” Auriel snapped. “And it only showed me something moderately useful in the terms of finding Miraak.”

“Dangerous knowledge is still knowledge, and therefore, useful. Generally the most useful, in my experience,” he nodded thoughtfully.

Auriel sighed, and ran a hand through her hair. Now was not the time to argue semantics with a researcher. Especially because she didn't entirely disagree, she just didn't like the way the book had messed with her.

“Look, I need to know what Miraak knows in order to track him down. Can you, or can you not help me?”

“Hermaeus Mora gives nothing away from free,” Neloth said warningly. “You could end up like Miraak, of course. Two power-mad Dragonborn....” He brightened slightly. “That could be very interesting!”

“Neloth... Do you, or do you not know where I can find another Black Book?” Auriel growled.

“Oh yes,” he nodded. “They're not hard to locate once you know how to use them. I have one here I've been using to locate more, actually.”

“....Right. Storn did say you had a Black Book,” Auriel sighed a little.

“Well, I wasn't inclined towards being idle while this interesting madness infested Solstheim,” he chuckled a little. “But I believe my book is not the one you're looking for. It has little to connect it with Miraak. But I believe I do know where to find one that can help you.”

Auriel lifted her head slightly.

“So you know where it is?”

“Yes I do,” he smiled a little, then sighed. “However, I've not been able to get it. Perhaps with your help we can unlock the secrets the Dwemer left behind.”

Auriel grimaced. Dwemer ruins. Why was it always Dwemer ruins?

“All right. Tell me where it is, and I'll see what I can do to get it.”

“If it was that simple, I would have the book already,” he chided. “It seemed the ancient Dwemer discovered this book, and took it to study. I found their 'reading room' in the ruins of Nchardak. It was sealed in a protective case, which I was not able to open. But perhaps together we will be able to get at the book.”

“All right... let's go.”

“To Nchardak, then!” Neloth grinned a little. “Follow me.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Four

 

The place Neloth led them to actually wasn't that far from the mushroom-house forest. He stopped not far from the entrance, and gestured lightly.

“The books is housed inside that dome. I'll need to unlock the door, so let's get started.”

“Hold on a moment...” Auriel frowned a little at the half-sunken ruin. “....there are people of there. Guards?”

“No, not mine. Must be thieves or raiders, no doubt.”

Auriel sighed.

“Right. Let's clear that out, and then you can unlock the doors. Far?”

“Right behind you.”

“Good.”

“I had to clean out the riff-raff last time I was here too!” Neloth complained. “Where do they come from?”

“Less asking, more spells,” Auriel snapped.

There was ten bandits, and one Dragon cultist. The cultist with his fireballs was decidedly the annoying one, so Auriel shot him first. It was terribly satisfying to watch him go flying backwards with her arrow through his chest, and the rest of them were no more difficult.

The dome was at the far end of the ruin, and Neloth approached an odd little stand that Auriel hadn't actually seen before.

“The Dwemer of Nchardak appear to have been fond of these control pedestals. Luckily I found a cube to operate it inside on my last visit. And I sealed the door when I left, to keep out ignorant meddlers. Now... let's see...”

He set a glowing cube on the pedestal, then turned it, unlocking the gate. He smiled as she raised her eyebrows, impressed, and nodded a little.

“The book is just inside.”

The room they stepped into was overtly Dwemer, all manner of pipes and odd decorations. It was also high ceilinged, and looked almost as though it was meant for something else.

“You can see the book right over there,” Neloth pointed to the center of the room.

Auriel blinked and walked over, then crouched down. Sure enough, there in the middle of the room was a Black Book, sealed away under metal and glass. She frowned at it a little, and tipped her head slightly curiously.

“So tantalizingly close,” Neloth sighed. “But no magic will open that, you have my word. I'd have had it already if it were that easy... No, we'll have to do this the hard way. If we can restore the steam supply to this room, I'm certain I can open it. As you'll see, that's... easier said than done. Come this way, I'll show you the boilers.”

His control cube unlocked another door, and they took the Dwemer platform down.

“The last time I was here, I only explored a small part of the ruins,” he said as they stepped off. “I was here alone then, and I find an assistant or two is absolutely essential for this kind of dirty, dangerous work.”

Farkas put his mouth right next to Auriel's ear.

“Probably so he won't stain those robes of his,” he breathed.

She stifled a laugh, and elbowed him gently. She had just been thinking that exact thing herself.

“Nchardak,” Neloth proclaimed, gesturing as they entered into a mostly-flooded room. “The City of a Hundred Towers. In its day, it was the largest of the great Dwemer Archives, and perhaps the most advanced. In the old stories, when the Nords came to conquer it, it's said that the Dwemer submerged the entire city beneath the sea until the invaders gave up. I have my doubts, of course, but the city was a marvel of Dwemer engineering. Now.... reduced to this.”

And he sighed a little, shaking his head. Auriel smiled faintly; he was less arrogant about it, but he almost reminded her of Calcelmo in Markarth. Entirely fascinated by Dwemer ruins and relics.

“As you can see, the lower levels are flooded. But it isn't hopeless; the old Dwemer pumps still seem to work. Watch.”

He set the cube onto the pedestal, and smiled a little as the room shook, and the water started to drain.

“But, the pumps only operate when a cube is in the pedestal,” he sighed. “And unfortunately, I only have one cube.”

As the water lowered, it revealed the boilers, as well as a path that they could start exploring onto.

“These four boilers provide steam to the room upstairs,” Neloth said. “They're shut down now, but I believe they'll still respond to a control cube. So, if we can find four more cubes, we can turn the boilers back on, and restore steam power to the room upstairs.”

“And then the case will open,” Auriel nodded, perhaps a trifle impatiently.

“Here, you bring that cube for a moment. We're going to need it.”

She blinked, shrugged, and pulled the cube from the pedestal, then followed him back to an odd thing that she couldn't make heads or tails of, but he certainly seemed to understand. Behind them, water flooded the room once more.

“Yes... here we are,” he murmured. “This device shows the location of four more cubes in this section of the city. It looks like most of the cube were moved to the lower levels, perhaps to try and control the flooding before the city was abandoned. Interesting.... that would suggest that the city must have originally sank during the first cataclysm of Red Mountain, or that the Dwemer's servitors continued to try and preserve the city after their creators' disappearance.”

Auriel shook her head, and decided that her energy would be better served by watching for trouble. He moved off to the left, and motioned for her to follow.

“Three of the cubes are through here. This seems like the sensible place to start. Here, unseal the door with the control cube I gave you.”

She did, and followed him through, Farkas at her heels.

“And I thought Vignar loved to hear himself talk,” Farkas remarked quietly.

Auriel grinned a little in reply, and gave Farkas's hand a quick squeeze of agreement.

The first cube was right inside the door, and Auriel blinked a little in surprise.

“I hope the rest of the cubers are this easy to find,” Neloth commented. “Although, knowing the Dwemer, I rather doubt it.”

“Agreed. On both counts.”

Naturally, they were right. The first thing to jump them after lifting the cube from its pedestal was a pair of small Dwemer constructs, the ones Auriel had learned were called spiders. Irritants was more accurate. Beyond was a mostly-flooded room, and Neloth paused briefly.

“These must be the Great Workshops of Nchardak,” he said. “Impressive, even in ruins. In the city's days of glory, it was reputed to be able to assemble a complete automaton in a single day. Much of the Dwemer army at the Battle of Red Mountain must have come from here.”

At the end of the bridge were two control pedestals, and Auriel sighed a little. They were undoubtedly going to have to leave both cubes temporarily behind to properly lower the water level, and she was not looking forward to finding out what was underneath the water.

Lowering the water actually took a couple of tries. Mostly because she simply couldn't climb up a wall, and it took her a bit to decide to pull a cube off and hope for the best. The best turned out to be a set of stairs leading to a door, which was much more helpful. They found another cube, and were immediately beset by more dwemer spiders. Once they were beat into submission, the trio swam across the room to the other side; Auriel had hoped it was circle around, but no such luck, so with a resigned sigh she went to fetch the other cube.

The water level was high enough to swim in, but that didn't make it terribly comfortable; the room on the other side was damp and moldy, and there was a new Dwemer construct there, one that looked like it damn well might fire arrows. Auriel shook her head and did her best to slip around it; she was not in the mood to be shot.

Neloth, of course, didn't seem to care, and he attacked the construct with delight. Auriel just shook her head and slipped away; she was having no part of that. Farkas followed, though he chuckled a bit.

“What?”

“Just... you should see your expression, love,” he teased gently. “So very disapproving.”

“Hush you,” she huffed at him, giving him a light, fond shove. “I just want this to be done and over with. Miraak is still out there. I hate looming doom, and it always seems to be dogging my steps...”

He hugged her gently, and kissed her temple.

Taking the fourth cube activated a stem centurion, which Auriel couldn't let Neloth handle alone, despite the temptation. Her ribs didn't appreciate the bruising hit it landed, nor did her head enjoy making friends with the floor. Farkas, as always, took great exception to her being hurt, so while Neloth helped her to stand and healed her injuries, he beat on the centurion; Auriel smiled faintly as his hard hits knocked the core out of alignment and shut the thing down.

He followed it up by worriedly checking her over, despite assurances that she was okay. Eventually she just batted his hands away, and they continued over the bridge and back to the main entrance.

Two cubes not only lowered the water, they woke up a good number of spiders and spheres, to say the fight was unpleasant was an understatement. And of course, there were more of those new ones—Auriel decided to call them ballistas, since that was what they looked like—covering the door that they had just uncovered.

Like the first door, a control cube opened the gate and they were able to step on through. Neloth led the way down the short hall, which led to another semi-flooded room.

“The last one should be somewhere in here,” he said. “I hope it won't require more swimming around in this filth... We'll have to get all three bridges down-Hey, are you listening?”

Auriel ignored him and made her way up the ramp to the bridge controls. It only took her two tries to get the three bridges down and she smiled in a faintly smug way as Neloth grumbled. Of course, lowering the bridges in this room did the same as taking the cubes in the other; it woke up a whole host of Dwemer automatons, that the three of them promptly had to fight.

“What a mess,” Neloth complained, brushing off his robes as they finished. “I'm getting tired of wading around in this muck!

“Oh stop,” Auriel sighed in exasperation. “You're such a court mage.”

“A what?” Neloth spluttered.

“A. Court. Mage,” she said pointedly. “You're whining about everything, and you're not even doing the hardest parts of the work. Either help more, or stop talking.”

She set the cube in the pump controls, and watched as the water receded with mild annoyance.

“....I have an idea,” Neloth said as the water retreated. “I'll wait here and retrieve this cube once you find the last one we need.”

Auriel nodded testily and slipped off, Farkas close behind. Once out of sight, he reached out and rested a careful hand on her shoulder.

“You okay?”

“...no. I hate Dwemer ruins. Every time I go into one, something bad happens,” she grumbled. Then paused. “Though I suppose if Neloth died in here, I wouldn't feel that sorry about it.”

“Auri...”

“Well I wouldn't,” she huffed. “About the only use he's been has been in healing. You're walking around with waterlogged armor, and he's lucky I've got waterbreathing enchantments on our necklaces, otherwise we'd still be stuck in some places!”

After a moment Farkas just hugged her. Auriel sighed, leaning against him. Armor wasn't conducive to snuggling, but she couldn't turn down his attempt at being comforting.

“And just think,” she grumbled. “When this is all over, I get to go prove myself to that Blade reject. Can I have a vacation first?”

“Sure, love. We can have one wherever you want.”

His soothing, placating tone made her sigh a little.

“I'm sorry. I'm being terribly bad-tempered about this, aren't I?”

“Nah... Neloth is acting like one of those College mages that doesn't get out much,” Farkas grinned a little. “And I figure it's the air here on the island too. It's kinda.... heavy. Y'know? I don't have the beast-blood anymore, but there's this weird weight to it, even without those shrines around the stones. Going home will be a pleasure.”

“And how,” Auriel sighed. “But I suppose for the moment we have to find that last cube.”

 

-

 

The room beyond was entirely too straightforward; two spinning blades blocked the easy path to the door; Farkas stayed back while Auriel dove between then and slapped a cube into the pedestal that opened the gate. Once the gate was open, the blades sank into the floor, and Farkas joined her.

“Here's the last one.”

“Mmhm...”

“Ready, Far?”

“Ready.”

Auriel grabbed the cube, and both of them quickly sprinted down the path. The water rose swiftly, but they made it to the main room and to the door. Neloth took the other cube, and the water rose higher, forcing the mage to swim once more. Fortunately the water stopped just short of their exit door, and Auriel made certain to not look at the dripping mage so as to avoid the temptation to giggle.

Damp or not, Neloth eagerly led the way to the boilers, clearly wanting nothing more than to turn them on and open the case for the book. They removed one of the cubes for the pumps, and started all four boilers with little ceremony.

“Good!” Neloth exclaimed, having to shout to be heard over the noise of the steam engines. “That seems to have done it! It took longer than I'd hoped, but at least we've finished now. Then he pointed as a bridge dropped behind them. “Look out! Another steam centurion!”

Auriel dodged quickly; Farkas blocked with his blade and was sent skidding back, but otherwise unharmed. Neloth joined the fight with lightning—Auriel cynically wondered if he's taken her earlier words to heart and decided to do something—and between the three of them, they managed to hit it hard enough to shut it down.

“I'm going to head back upstairs and see if the reading room has steam,” Neloth said, attempting to wipe water from his face with his damp robes. “If so, it should be a simple matter to release the book.”

Auriel nodded and followed after; she was definitely eager to see this done and over with.

“Yes!” Neloth cheered a little. “It worked! The steam is flowing! Now it should be as simple as...”

He reached out and pushed the button. Obligingly the glass parted, and the book was raised to floor level. Then the pedestal the book was one was raised itself. Auriel gave it a wary look.

“At last,” Neloth sighed. “I hope it was worth it. Please, all yours. You did a good bit of the work, so the first one is yours.”

Auriel glanced at him, a cynical eyebrow raising.

“Besides, it could be very dangerous,” he continued. “These books are known to drive many people insane.”

Ah, yes, there was the catch. On the one hand, at least he was being sensible. On the other...

“I'll thank you not to insult my mental fortitude,” she sniffed. “But also, thank you. Maybe another time we can see about finding more for your... research.”

She wouldn't have to read those.

“...That I would not be adverse to,” Neloth said with a small grin.

Farkas reached out and grabbed her shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.

“I'm right here,” he murmured.

“Yes.... but I don't think you can come with me, Far.... I promise, I will come back.”

He nodded reluctantly, and sat down to wait. She let out a faint breath of unease, turned and opened the book. Again, something in the pages itself seemed to lash around her, dragging her down and into the darkness.

 

-

 

When her vision cleared, she found herself in a place that defied description. She glanced up uneasily, and overhead tentacles started poking through the sky. Auriel grimaced and turned her gaze elsewhere as Hermaeus Mora's voice whispered gently into her ear.

So, another seeker after knowledge enters my realm. This is Apocrypha. Where all knowledge is hoarded. Perhaps you will prove clever enough to uncover the secrets hidden here. If so... welcome.

She shivered a little at the menace in the last word, and tried to focus on the idea of leaving. Back to Farkas. Hell, back to Skyrim. Maybe she could go up to the College and never leave. She'd take the cold as a trade for safety...

Perhaps you are a fool or a coward. If so, you are in peril. Read your book again and escape before Apocrypha claims you forever.

What the the greenish-yellow sky cleared, and Auriel found that she could breath again. She shuddered, and spent a moment to wish Farkas could have been with her. Not for protection, but for support.

She closed her eyes briefly, and let out a slow breath. The knowledge she sought was in here somewhere, and intimidating or not, she wasn't leaving without it. So she straightened her shoulders and started forward.

As she walked she took in more details; the pages that covered the metal floors covered in writing, the leaning towers of books that soared high overhead, and the paper whirlwinds that offered no harm. The halls themselves were made of books, packed tightly enough together that they couldn't be pulled out. The walls also tended to move as they willed, making it difficult to discover which direction her path was truly going. To call it disorienting was an understatement.

The water—if it could be called that—was an eerie black and green, with what looked to be writhing tentacles popping out of it at random. Staying away from then was prudent; the 'water' hissed and bubbled threateningly, and the tentacles were quick to snap down at even the slightest hint of approach.

Activating a book at a dead end shifted her to a new space, this one a metal tunnel with paper whirlwinds all down the middle. They did her no harm, and imparted no knowledge, so she didn't worry too much about them. It wasn't until she expanded the tunnel to be used as a floor that the trouble started; the strange beasts she'd seen with Miraak before—octopus-headed creatures in thick robes—appeared from the shadows and started moving about as if they were searching.

She quickly found herself the darkest corner and began picking off her enemies one by one. Subjected to curiosity, she went through the remains of one of the tentacle-beings and found that its robes held books the like of which she had never before seen. Which naturally meant that she would simply have to take them back with her.

Somehow. With nothing else to try, she shoved them into her pack and moved on.

As before, finding another book on a pedestal led her somewhere new. While her curiosity was growing, so was her wariness; this place was a scholars gold mine.... but it was littered with traps and enemies. She was only mildly tempted to stay, and the longer she did, the less she actually wanted to be there.

More creatures that she mentally dubbed seekers—for they certainly seemed to be looking for something—made their way through her path. They had this nasty habit of cloning themselves, but the clones never appeared before the original, and once the original died, the clone went with. The other ones, the fish-like ones with nasty teeth, she decided to call lurkers. They certainly seemed to do just that, lurking around corners or in the inky, poisonous water below.

On she went, climbing stairs practically on her hands and knees. If it didn't unnerve her so much, she might have found Apocrypha more interesting. She was learning quickly how to use the shadows to her advantage, and the number of books she'd never seen before continued to grow, adding more and more weight to her pack.

At least by the time she go out—assuming the books stayed in her pack—she would have plenty to read on that vacation she wanted to take. The bleak humor was all she had to hold on to as she found yet another book and touched its pages to transfer to a new area.

This one was higher up, overlooking the vile water, and it was there she finally found what she sought.

She opened the book on its pedestal, and near jumped a foot when Hermaeus Mora appeared. The Prince's form was a mass of eyes and tentacles; what that had to do with knowledge, she certainly didn't know, and it took a lot of effort to avoid taking a step back.

All seekers of knowledge come to me sooner or later he said.

“....what do you want of me?” she asked, silently proud of the way her voice remained steady.

You have entered my realm. You have sought out the forbidden knowledge that only one other has obtained. You are Dragonborn. Like Miraak before you. A seeker of knowledge, and power.

Well, she could hardly doubt his reasoning. She hesitated, considering her options. Angering the Daedric prince was likely to be a very bad idea, as was lying to him. But a truth could conceal a lie if it was worded the right way...

“...Yes,” she finally said. “I came here to learn Miraak's secrets.”

All that he knows he learned from me. Here then, is the knowledge you need, although... and he chuckled, making her shiver slightly. You did not know you needed it. Here. The second word of power. Use it to bend the wills of mortals to your purpose.

It felt slimy, and she cursed silently, even as she felt the word find its place with the other she had learned on Solstheim.

But this is not enough. Mora warned. Miraak knows the final word. Without it, you cannot hope to surpass him. Miraak served me well, and he was rewarded. I can grant you the same power he wields, but.... all knowledge has its price...

Auriel swallowed a little.

“And what is this price?”

Knowledge for knowledge. The Skaal have withheld their secrets from me for many long years. The time has come for this knowledge to be added to my library.

“....I'll see what I can do.”

I know you will. He crooned. And then, I will give you the knowledge that you seek. Send the Skaal shaman to me. He holds the secrets that will be mine.

Auriel bowed reluctantly; she was going to hate herself for this later, but arguing with a Daedric Prince was generally a bad—and life shortening—idea. Once he vanished, she flipped open her Black Book again, and was all too happy to let Apocrypha fade out around her.

 

-

 

Farkas helped her stay upright as she staggered in the Dwemer ruin once more.

“What happened?” Neloth demanded. “What did you see? Different people have different experiences when reading these books!”

Farkas tensed, and Auriel saw Neloth take a step back. Glancing up wearily, she saw her husband glaring daggers at the Dunmer. It was sweet, in an over-protective sort of way.

“I spoke to Hermaeus Mora,” she said weakly.

“You're acting surprisingly sane too,” Neloth winced as Farkas growled slightly, and modulated his tone to sound less petulant. “What did he say? He must have wanted something from you...”

“....somehow I have to give him the secrets of the Skaal. Then he'll give me the third Word of Power I need to best Miraak.”

“Bah,” Neloth scoffed. “What secrets could they have worth keeping from old Mora? Sounds like a bargain to me! Hermaeus Mora learns some fascinating new ways to skin a horker, and you become the second most powerful Dragonborn that ever lived.”

Auriel scowled, and Neloth stepped back a little.

“Well,” he cleared his throat lightly. “That gives me a lot to think about. I need to go back to Tal Mithrya. I have some ideas about how to locate more of these Black Books....”

She shook her head as he turned abruptly, and walked out of the ruin. Then glanced up at Farkas, who's expression shifted as he looked at her. Concern... even a little fear.

“I'm all right,” she said quietly. “Just.... tired. And scared. I hate that I've been backed into a corner like this...”

Gently he smoothed her hair.

“We'll figure it out,” he said. “Maybe the Skaal will just... tell you stuff.”

“....somehow, Far, I don't think it will be that easy.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Five

 

Stepping out of the ruin brought an instant fight with a dragon, one that had Auriel actually caught unawares. It spoke—the first to do so in words she understood—proclaiming that Miraak had demanded her death. It did not succeed, but it certainly did bump her temper right back up to intensely frustrated.

After that it was a trek to get back up to the Skaal village, with Auriel silent as she pondered the trouble; she doubted Mora's interest in the Skaal shaman was likely to leave him alive. She wished there was a way to just... tell the Daedric Prince what he wanted to know. Spending lives, no matter how necessary, was not her favorite way to operate. At least, not now that she could see the direct consequences.

She pulled into herself, losing track of where they were as she turned the problem over and over. Fortunately for her, Farkas kept an eye on their surroundings, and caught up her hand when they reached the village. The contact startled her enough that she looked up, and grimaced.

“I really don't want to do this...”

“....yeah...”

He squeezed her hand lightly, and Auriel sighed, then pushed such emotions away. Like it or not, want it or not, she had to do this. Hopefully.... Hopefully Storn would understand.

They found him by his hut, kneeling in the snow, with Frea sitting on a bench nearby. He smiled at them faintly in greeting.

“....There's really no way to delicately say this,” Auriel sighed, sitting down before him. “So I'll say it plain; Hermaeus Mora wants the secrets of the Skaal in exchange for the third Word of Power that will allow me to attack Miraak.”

“Hermaeus Mora. Old Herma-Mora himself. So he is the source of Miraak's power... Of course.” Storn sighed a little. “We have many tales of old Herma-Mora trying to trick us into giving up our secrets to him. And now he comes again for what we have long kept from him...”

Auriel blinked.

“Herma-Mora?”

“That is our name for him. The Demon of Knowledge. He has always been our enemy.”

“....I don't suppose you could tell me these secrets and then I could tell him?”

“No, child. It is knowledge passed from shaman to shaman since the All-Maker first gave Solstheim to the Skaal,” he smiled sympathetically as Auriel muttered a quiet curse. “How to talk to the wind, how to speak to the earth... these are our secrets. Nothing of power or mastery.”

“Do you know why he'd want them?”

“It is in his nature to hoard secrets to himself; their value is of no consequence,” Storn explained. “The very fact that the Skaal have kept knowledge from him has merely increased his desire to have it.”

“I'm sorry, but... it's the only way he'll teach me the third Word of Power,” Auriel said quietly, looking down at her lap. Having no choice in the matter just made it worse.

“So it falls to me to be the one to give up our old secrets to our ancient enemy. I do not know if I have the strength to face him...The tree stone is still corrupted; the land is still out of balance. But with the other five.... it will be enough. It will have to be.”

“....you'll do it then?” Auriel couldn't help but be surprised. “You'll give him what he wants?”

“Yes. The Skaal also speak of a day when we must give up our secrets. When Herma-Mora finally wins,” he sighed sadly. “As shaman, it is my duty to guard these secrets, but also to decide when it is necessary to give them up. I believe that time is now, and thus, I will. Give me the book; I will speak to old Herma-Mora myself, and make sure he lives up to his part of the bargain.”

“I thank you,” Auriel said softly, as she handed over the book. “I'm sorry.”

“Please, make this sacrifice worthwhile.”

“I'll try.”

“Father!” Frea protested. “You must not do this! That book is.... wrong. Evil. Against everything you have taught me my whole life!”

“I must, Frea,” he replied. “It is the only way to free Solstheim forever from Miraak's shadow. There comes a time when everything must change. Nothing that lives remains the same forever...” He smiled at Frea gently. “Do not fear for me, my daughter. This is the destiny that the All-Maker has laid out for me.”

“I stand beside you father.... as always,” Frea said after a moment.

Silently, Farkas moved up to stand behind Auriel, and she took mild comfort in his nearness.

“I am ready for whatever the foul monster of this book has in store for me,” Storn declared firmly.

And then he flipped open the book.

It was odd seeing it happen to someone else. The book laid quiet only for a moment, then it hovered, and vicious green tentacles flew out, slamming into and through Storn. Frea cried out and Auriel almost fell backwards in her surprise; Farkas caught her and helped her to stand.

At last, the Skaal yield up their secrets to me! Haha!

Hermaeus Mora appeared in the air before them, again a writing mass of eyes and tentacles as Storn stood there, groaning a little.

“You.... liar...” The old man groaned. “I... won't! Not.... for you...”

“Father, no!” Frea cried out. “Stop!” She turned to Auriel. “Do something!”

“Like what?!” Auriel demanded. “I'm not capable of taking on a Daedric Prince!”

Dragonborn.... you have delivered me the gift I requested. In return, I keep my promise as befits a Prince of Oblivion. I give you the Word of Power that you need to challenge Miraak.

Storn collapsed, dropping the book at Auriel's feet. She had the word, yes, but she hadn't wanted to do this. With reluctance she picked the book up; she would seal it away in the Archmage's tower back on Skyrim. Or maybe sink it into the ocean...

You will be either a worthy opponent, or his successor, as the tides of fate decree.

With that, Hermaeus Mora vanished, leaving the body of Storn, and a grieving Frea, as well as a Dragonborn wracked with guilt.

“Father!” Frea sobbed, kneeling by his body. “What have you done!”

She bowed her head, and Auriel turned away fully, closing her eyes; this was not her pain to witness, but she felt it all the same. Stinging memories of unnecessary deaths haunted her... and when she had gathered herself enough that she could look at the world again, she saw the memory of grief in Farkas's silver eyes.

“Go,” Frea said hoarsely. “My father sacrificed himself so that you could destroy Miraak and lift his master's shadow from the land. Go then, kill Miraak!”

Auriel nodded, and moved out of the village. They had seen enough for the day, and other than Farkas, she wanted no witnesses. She found herself a quiet spot near the ocean, then turned to her husband.

“If I fail...”

“You won't,” he said firmly.

“Let me finish. If I fail, Farkas.... Stay with the Skaal. Do what you can to protect them from Miraak. Please...”

He cupped her cheek, and she could feel a hint of his warmth through the leather glove.

“Okay,” he said simply. “But I don't think you'll fail.”

She smiled wearily.

“I appreciate your faith in me, but I'm hardly infallible. Failure happens to everyone.”

“Yeah, but I've never seen you fail when it matters. So you won't fail.”

She had to laugh, though it wasn't a happy sound. Farkas hesitated, then unhooked his breastplate, reached out, and pulled her close. Auriel buried her head against his shoulder and held on tight.

“....just come back to me,” he murmured.

She tightened her hold on him; she would not make promises she wasn't sure she could keep. Not to him. Instead, after a moment she lifted her head, and pulled him down into a gentle, lingering kiss.

Finally, reluctantly, Auriel pulled back.

“...I love you, Farkas,” she said softly.

“Yeah... I love you too.”

She pulled away from his hold, and turned to face the ocean, then reached into her bag, grabbed the black book that had lead her to Miraak the first time, and opened it.

It was time, and past, to finish this.

 

-

 

When her vision cleared she was in the spot she remembered, but there was no Miraak to be seen. She grimaced a little and sighed; it was to be another trip through Apocrypha again, then. It just figured.

She sought a path through the stacks, but unfortunately there wasn't one. She was made to go forward, to where there was no cover to be found, though fortunately not for long, the book she'd come to recognize as the one that moved her from place to place waited on a ledge, and shifted her to a different room. This one had cover and stairs, and a vaguely anticipatory air to it.

She jumped a food at a sound, turning her gaze upwards and behind. When nothing appeared beyond an odd floating light—everything had spikes and tentacles here, it seemed, including the lights—she slowly caught her breath and continued upwards. She was really starting to hate this place.

Up more stairs and around the edge of the room she slipped, dispelling lurkers who had not seen her as she tried to find the next book that would lead her onwards. Curiosity led her to grab a few books she did not recognize from memory, and one of those seemed to open the way to her, to which she sighed in relief. Up more stairs and through the opened gate she went, until she found the book that took her to the next spot in the mad realm.

She was slowly catching up to Miraak.

This one led to a dark hallway, lit at random and mostly lost to shadows. This, at least, was a place where Auriel could feel moderately safe, even though she knew she was anything but. She slipped and slid through them, using them to her benefit; her bow getting more of a workout than any of her spells. Seekers and tentacle pools did their best to damage and deter her; while she couldn't kill the tentacles, the seekers fell to her arrows.

Another book opened another gate, and she slipped silently towards it. This time she had to extend a hall, which led up to another tall room. Books fluttered through the air like birds or butterflies in this one, and she ducked on reflex as one actually swooped down on her. She hissed a soft curse at it, and kept a wary eye out for more of the rotten things; apparently knowledge had a nasty sense of humor.

She opened one gate by accident; it lead only to a dead end. Finding another of the 'On Apocrypha' books opened up her true path yet again. She wondered idly if Hermaeus Mora was subtly mocking her, even as she discovered the way.

She breathed out a quietly relived sigh as she slipped past a paper whirlwind and found the next transportation book. Auriel figured she would have to head up another floor at least before finally facing Miraak, and she found that she was correct. She also found that the seekers had a better capacity for invisibility, and swore a bit as she fought them down.

Taking a brief break to rest and eat, she muttered various curses under her breath; the lure of knowledge was strong, but this plane of Oblivion was nothing but annoying. She'd be happy to see the back of it.

Once replete, the took the stairs down, slipping into a hallway that was filled with harmless paper whirlwinds. She sighed a little; if only everything in the realm was so harmless, but that was not the way of knowledge. The number of things she wished she had never learned were well beyond count at this point.

The end of the hallway shifted on her, drawing in, and sending a different section outward. She muttered quietly, and followed the change in direction warily. This one drew in as well, and she backtracked irritably, then stopped short as she realized she had not gone back the way she'd come. Instead she was lead out to where there was no ceiling, only walls of books miles high, a single seeker that caught her by surprise—she was getting tired, more than ready to sleep at this point—and stairs that lead upwards to another of the On Apocrypha books.

The exit did not immediately present itself when she first looked, but creeping down the stairs revealed that another passage had opened in the walls of books, and she hurried down it. A bit without care, but luck was with her and enemies were not, though at first the hall seemed to dead-end into reading-styled alcoves. Frustrated and worn out, she stepped into one, ready to lay down when it extended out before her. She snarled at it in reflex, then slowly headed down the path.

Dark though it was, this time she was far more cautious; the seekers had proven their invisibility worked better, and the very air of Apocrypha worked against her. It carried whispers of half-words, enticing lures of knowledge; the rustling of paper, the faintest burbling of non-water... She almost walked into a pair and had to dive for cover to avoid their attacks.

She was really not liking this Plane of Oblivion.

It was a light that let her through this time, changing the shape of the hall. She was getting used to the Realm, no matter how much she disliked it, and wished, briefly, that she dared read the book again and return to Farkas. But if she stopped now, it was unlikely that she would get another chance to catch up to Miraak before he escaped Apocrypha itself, and she just... couldn't let that happen.

So she pushed on.

A gate barred her path to the book that would take her further on, and despite her best attempt at stealth, a lurker arose from the inky water that was held in the middle of the room. She dodged the tentacle-laden acidic spit, and shot it straight in the face. It didn't go flying, but another shot convinced it to lie down instead of attacking. A light beyond opened up the gate and she darted up the stairs to reach the teleportation book at the end.

She let out a hissing stream of curses as her sight cleared and revealed no Miraak, but only a series of twisted book-built hallways. She was so close she could practically taste it, but she still had to circumvent these ridiculous trials! If there was one good thing about this whole mess, it was that she was definitely going to have plenty to read on her vacation with Farkas.

Auriel dispatched the seekers she could see, and cautiously looked around; it seemed as though she'd reached the top of the library, where the four books she'd picked up seemed to belong. At least, according to the picture on one of the pedestals it seemed like the place for them.

Returning the books did... something, but she could see no overt effect. Gingerly she approached the pedestal in the center, and found what she hoped was the final book, the one that would take her to Miraak.

Though tempted to curse at first when he did not appear, she instead held her breath and listened. Oh yes, she was very close now. She could feel the thrum of a word wall nearby, and she moved with caution, energy returning to her as she neared the end.

The dragon was a surprise after the word wall, but after a moment she grinned. The last word of the Bend Will shout had been the word for dragon, and she was not inclined to pass up the chance to use it.

The dragon protested, then landed at her demand.

“Hail, thuri,” it greeted her grudgingly. “Your Thu'um has the mastery. Climb aboard, and I will carry you to Miraak.”

She found a place to sit just behind his head and held on tight. It was very much not like riding a horse, but it was exhilarating. Being above Apocrypha, instead of traveling among the stacks, was much more freeing.

“Beware,” the dragon warned. “Miraak is strong. He knew you would come here.”

Up they went, in a surprisingly smooth glide once they were off the ground. Apocrypha wasn't any more impressive from the air than it was on foot, but the rush of wind helped to clear Auriel's mind, and focus her, preparing her for the fight at the tower they were approaching. Soon, this would be over. Either she or Miraak, would be dead.

“Land there!” she pointed as they reached the peak of the pillar.

“Yes, thuri.”

He backwinged, then landed in the middle of the platform.

“Sahrolaar, are you so easily swayed?” Miraak asked mockingly. “We should properly greet our guest first. The first Dragonborn meeting the last, at the summit of Apocrypha. No doubt just as Hermaeus Mora intended. He is a fickle master, you know.”

Auriel scowled from her perch on the dragon's neck.

“But now, I will be free of him,” Miraak continued. “My time in Apocrypha is over. You are here in you full power, and thus, subject to my full power. You will die. And with the power of your soul, I will return to Solstheim and be master of my own fate once again.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it!”

Auriel vaulted off the dragon, and lifted her bow; the fight was fierce, and he took down his own two dragons as well as the one she had bent to her will to replenish his strength. But he could neither dodge, nor run, forever. His attempt at escape was thwarted by none other than Mora himself.

Did you think to escape me, Miraak? You can hide nothing from me here!

He appeared, suspended over the middle pool of poisoned water, then was speared by a tentacle. Auriel grimaced a little; why, if Mora had the ability to do this, had he required her to handle the fighting?

Daedra...

No matter. I have found a new Dragonborn to serve me.

“Oh like hell,” Auriel muttered under her breath.

“May she be rewarded for her service as I am,” Miraak groaned.

Miraak harbored fantasies of rebellion against me. Learn from his example. Serve me faithfully, and you will continue to be richly rewarded the Daedric Prince crooned.

Auriel shuddered, and then fell to her knees as Miraak's soul fled his body and became her own. She was not inclined to serve Hermaeus Mora, ever, and she had no doubt that the Prince knew it. But it was safer to keep silent.

From the center of the summit rose a pedestal, and on it, a black book rested. She prayed it would be the last time she read one of the horrible things, and picked it up. Her vision faded, and she welcomed it gladly; she had survived. She would be returning to her husband.

 

-

 

Farkas caught her as she collapsed on the shore, holding her tightly. He pressed his face into her hair and she heard him whispering her name over and over and over. Glancing over his shoulder, she was surprised to see Frea standing close by, awe in her face.

“I can feel it,” the Skaal warrior breathed. “The Tree Stone is free again. The Oneness of the land is restored. Does that mean... is it over? Is Miraak defeated?”

“Yes. Miraak is dead,” Auriel said wearily.

“Then my father's sacrifice... it was not in vain,” Frea bowed her head a little, and let out a breath. “He died to free us. Tell me... was it the only way? Did he need to die?”

“I... don't know,” Auriel admitted. “But without his sacrifice, I couldn't have defeated Miraak.”

“Then... it was the All-Maker's will, as he said. I know I should not doubt it, but it is good to hear, all the same. Thank you.”

Auriel nodded, and leaned against Farkas. She was just... so very tired.

“One more thing, Skaal-friend. Auriel,” Frea said after a moment. “I know it is not my place, but... may I offer a word of advice? A warning?”

“Sure...”

“As shaman of the Skaal, I am charged with the spiritual well-being of my people,” Frea sighed. “While you are not of the Skaal, you are Skaal-friend, and so I give you this warning; Herma-Mora forced you to serve him in order to defeat Miraak. Do not let him lead you further down that path. The All-Maker made you Dragonborn for a higher purpose. Do not forget that. Walk with the All-Maker, Auriel.”

There was silence, and then footsteps as Frea walked away, back to her village. Auriel shifted a little, mostly just so that she could better rest her head against Farkas's shoulder.

“Far?”

“Yeah?”

“....let's go home now, okay?”

“Okay.”

Auriel closed her eyes, and slept.

 

 

Chapter Text

Six

 

They stayed in Windhelm for a while; Auriel's exhaustion wasn't permanent, but she wasn't inclined to seek out new troubles; Farkas was more than willing to stay in Hjerim while she regained a measure of her energy, even forgoing the minor disputes Companions were sometimes hired to handle in favor of taking care of her.

Auriel was trying very hard to forget that she had ever been in Apocrypha. The dreams did not make it easy; nor did the presence of the Black Books, tucked on the highest level of a bookshelf. The whispers of knowledge that beckoned her were part of why she was glad Farkas was there, even when his gentle care wore on her last nerve. She had to get the books back to Solstheim, to Neloth; maybe then she could finally relax.

The day Ulfric arrived for a visit—and to handle some administrative work for Windhelm—was cold and snowy; fairly normal weather, really. Auriel hadn't even really wanted to get out of bed that morning, but Farkas had nudged at her gently until she had gotten up, then nudged her more until she was dressed and had eaten. If Ulfric wasn't family, she probably would have stayed in bed, manners be damned; agreeing to escort him to the Palace was starting to sound like a singularly bad idea...

Ulfric was attempting to be inconspicuous in his return to the city, but half a dozen Stormcloak soldiers made that a little difficult for him. Still, it was those soldiers that also ended up blocking a good chunk of the unexpected vampire attack. Auriel spotted them at the last second, and launched herself at Ulfric, yanking him from his horse; the vampire got one of the guards instead. Ralof promptly turned and attacked on the vampire in kind, while his companions took care of the two thralls that had helped to smuggle the vampire in.

Auriel and Farkas both flanked the startled Jarl, ushering him through the quickly growing crowd to the Palace of Kings.

“....well,” he said once the three of them were safely inside. “That wasn't quite how I wanted to be welcomed back to the city. I see your reflexes are as good as ever, my sister.”

He led the way through the main hall and up to one of the guest rooms, where he promptly sat on one of the beds. Auriel remained standing, shifting warily from foot to foot.

“That was too close,” she muttered, rubbing her face briefly. “I knew the vampires were trouble, but I'd no idea they were becoming so bold...”

“They are trouble, yes,” Ulfric sighed a little. “It seems everywhere I go these days, I hear about vampire attacks or werewolves, or Talos knows what else. According to some reports, the Hall of the Vigilant of Stendarr was destroyed by vampires, and there's even talk of a Dawnguard being formed in a fort near Riften, under the leadership of a man named Isran.”

Auriel sighed a little. So much for taking some time off to relax...

“Are you well, Auriel?” Ulfric asked, peering at her in concern. “You look pale and weary.... aren't you the one who was lecturing me on getting enough rest?”

“She sleeps,” Farkas said a little defensively, before Auriel could say the same thing.

Ulfric just raised an eyebrow, and the redhead sighed.

“I don't want to talk about it, Ulfric. Oh, and by the way...” she reached out and smacked him on the shoulder. “That is for your insistence that I go visit the Graybeards and get confirmed as Dragonborn. You have no idea how much trouble that caused for me!”

Ulfric chuckled ruefully, rolling his shoulder lightly; she hadn't actually put any force to the blow, it had been more to vent the lingering irritation. The fact that he'd let her was telling of the familial relationship they had.

“My apologies, my friend. That was certainly not the intention. I had simply hoped they would help you to better understand the language you speak, and the power your wield.”

“Well, they did do that,” Auriel sighed. “But they also got me pestered by a former member of the Blades, and I had to go traipsing all over Solstheim to make sure I wasn't leaving an enemy at my back! So I am not pleased. I-”

She wobbled, and Farkas was quick to catch her.

“Easy love,” he murmured, helping her to sit on a bench. “Here. Drink this.”

He popped the cork on a small bottle of Black-Briar mead, and handed it to her. She drank, but it was reluctant. She did not like using mead to help calm down; it loaned itself to far too many problems in the future, and she didn't want to depend on outside help to keep her calm.

“....what happened?” Ulfric asked quietly. “What is wrong?”

“You've heard of the various planes of Oblivion, yes? Places like Coldharbour, Evergloam, and the like?”

“Vaguely. I studied the Oblivion Crisis as a boy. Why?”

“I've been to Apocrypha. And Divines help me, a small part of me wants to go back there.”

She shuddered, and Farkas held her comfortingly, resting his chin lightly on her head.

“....I think you'll have to tell me the whole story, sister,” Ulfric said after a long silence.

“Only if you don't ask questions,” Auriel warned. “If you stop me, I don't know if I'll be able to continue.”

“I promise.”

So she told him; she told him of the cultists, of Miraak, of the Skaal, and of the terror and desire Apocrypha created. Of Hermaeus Mora, who would undoubtedly try to use her again and again to gain knowledge, possibly placing her in unenviable situations that she could not escape from as he did.

They did not, fortunately, have interruptions. They did however, find out that Ralof had been eavesdropping when Ulfric pulled open the door so that they could go downstairs for something to eat, and the blond man almost fell into the room.

“....Ralof,” Ulfric sighed, disappointment in his voice. “You should not be listening to conversations that are not your business.”

“Apologies, sire, but... well, it's hard to not listen to such a lovely voice,” he said sheepishly.

Auriel just groaned and hid her face in Farkas' shoulder; she was not in the mood to deal with him and his flirtations. Being married hadn't much changed that part of their interactions. Farkas, for his part, just sighed, and lifted Auriel up into his arms, cradling her gently.

“Go,” Ulfric ordered. “Say nothing of what you've heard. If a whisper reaches me, the consequences will be... unpleasant.

“Yes, sire,” Ralof nodded, and hurried off.

Ulfric then turned to Auriel, who watched with half-lidded eyes.

“You are in no position to go anywhere,” he said sternly, “unless it is to Hjerim, where I can check up on you. You are clearly exhausted and not yourself.”

“...someone's feeling bossy,” she murmured, a tiny smile flickering across her face.

“You're letting your husband carry you,” Ulfric pointed out.

“Mmm.... But it's rather nice.”

She could see her words caused concern, but couldn't deny or take them back. It was Farkas; as odd as it would have sounded two years back, leaning on his strength now felt natural. It helped that he didn't seem to mind her needing him, even when it caused him to worry.

“Auriel.... I can guess that you want to go after the vampires, but... please give yourself more time,” Ulfric said after a long minute. “If I can see that you're exhausted, no doubt others will, or have seen it as well, and they will not hesitate to take advantage of it.”

“They attacked you in your own city, in broad daylight,” she pointed out a little acerbically. “If we hadn't been waiting, they may well have torn through your guards and gotten you. What they have done has made it personal; but no one gets to attack my family and get away with it.”

“Auri,” Far tightened his hold slightly.

“No,” she said firmly. “They attacked that which I hold dear; they do not get reprieve from a return strike.”

“I'm not saying you should do that,” Ulfric held up his hands peaceably. “Just wait until you're strong again. You're a stubborn Altmer, I'm sure you can do it.”

“Auri, he has a point,” Farkas said quietly. “You really do need to recover first. Please...”

She grimaced, and sighed, relaxing again in his arms.

“Yes, yes, I know! I know...”

“If it would make you feel better, you could stay here at the palace,” Ulfric offered, a faint, wry smile on his face. “You can help me with the various administrative details I came here to take care of.”

“Very funny, Stormcloak,” Auriel huffed. “Do your own paperwork. It may actually keep you safe for a few weeks; in town they might be, but I doubt they're mad enough to try and storm the palace.”

“Damn,” He sighed theatrically. “Here I was hoping you might take some pity on me for it.”

“Not a chance, Ulfric. Not a chance.”

 

-

 

She did, however, take his advice about resting up. Talking about it had helped somewhat, though it could not entirely banish the desire to return to that benighted lands of books. Farkas did what he could to take her mind off of it; rather, he decided to teach her how to handle a sword. The longer blade wasn't that different from the dagger she carried, and they figured out after a bit of trial and error that sword and shield weren't half as effective as sword and dagger. In a bout of playfulness she agreed to try out a two handed weapon, but after the warhammer's head ended up unraveling—shoddy workmanship by amateur smiths—and flying across the room, he agreed that maybe she just should stick with what she liked best.

About the time that Ulfric finished all of his paperwork, Auriel decided that she was well enough to set off to Riften. They said fond farewells—Ralof had kept his mouth shut well, and she even deigned to give him a brief handshake, with Farkas over her shoulder to ensure it didn't go on too long—before setting off in opposite directions; Ulfric to Solitude, Auriel and Farkas to Riften.

Of course, it was impossible to go to Riften without visiting both Brynjolf and Karliah, Mostly because coming around Riften meant checking in on the status of the Guild. Brynjolf and Farkas circled each other for a while in a way that was highly entertaining to the two mer women, before settling into a cautious alliance. Karliah, meanwhile, caught Auriel up on the Guild's latest triumphs, and the amusing stories of what had happened since her last visit. After checking over the newest members and agreeing they all seemed sound, they left the city to find this 'Fort Dawnguard.'

It was, surprisingly, not that hard to find. They traveled through a snow covered pass, and came out in a valley that was a mix of green and white. A good portion of the water was frozen, but it still flowed readily enough. Fish hung out on racks to dry, and a young Nord paced back and forth before the water's edge. He jumped when he realized they were there, then ducked his head nervously.

“Hello there,” he greeted them a little shyly. “Are you here to join the Dawnguard too?”

Auriel shrugged lightly, making a noncommittal sound.

“Truth is, I'm... well, a little nervous. I've never done anything like this before. Would you mind if... If I came up with you two?”

First joining jitters were long behind her now, but she felt a touch of sympathy for the Nord, who looked as though he was only just out of adolescence. She stifled a smile, nodding slightly.

“I don't mind.”

He flushed a little, and scuffed his foot slightly.

“Hey, uh.... don't tell Isran I was afraid to meet him by myself.... Not the best first impression for a new vampire hunter.”

“Just walk, lad,” Auriel said dryly. “And don't panic. If they're looking for recruits, I'm sure you'll do.”

“...you look like someone who's killed lots of vampires,” the Nord said. “I'm sure Isran will sign you right up. Who knows if he'll take me.... I hope so.”

Auriel just shook her head slightly; nervous babbling. She turned him out and took in the sights as they approached the fort. The trees were golden-leaved hardy things; no doubt the kind that would bend in the winter weather, not break. A few rabbits crossed their path, hurriedly scampering out of the way of three pairs of tromping feet, and Auriel smiled faintly. It would be nice to have a pet, now that she didn't have to work quite so hard to avoid the Thalmor. A chance to stay at a home or homestead for longer than a few weeks, to be... well, as normal as she could be, all things considered.

As if sensing her thoughts, Farkas reached out and took her hand. She leaned comfortably against his arm and have his hand a soft squeeze.

The fort itself was huge, albeit in some mild disrepair. There was almost no one outside, though there were mildly fortified camps that suggested people had been there recently. There was only one person they found, and he seemed to be doing target practice with an odd device that Auriel had heard of, but never seen. Most folk in Skyrim still favored manual longbows to the newer crossbows. While she hadn't yet tried a crossbow herself, it looked like something worth testing.

There was a vegetable garden nearby that was flourishing; it made her smile wryly. Only in Skyrim could one find snow on the ground with the vegetables.

They finally encountered a guard at the entrance to the fort itself, a brown-haired Breton who introduced himself as Celann.

“New recruits, eh?” He studied them with a faintly perturbed look, then shrugged. “Go on in. Isran will decide if you've got what it takes. He should be just inside.”

Auriel nodded, and moved past him, pushing the door open.

Isran was a Redguard man, with what looked like a permanent scowl on his face, a thick black beard and a bald head. He wore battered armor that had clearly seen better days, and was in the middle of a 'discussion' with a member of the Vigilant Order of Stendarr.

“Why are you here, Tolan?” He asked irritably. “The Vigilant and I were finished with each other a long time ago.”

“You know why I'm here,” Tolan retorted. “The Vigilants are under attach everywhere. The vampires are much more dangerous than we believed.”

“And now you wanna come running to safety with the Dawnguard, is that it?” Isran's voice held a mocking edge to it. “I remember Keeper Carcette telling me repeatedly that Fort Dawnguard is a crumbling ruin, not worth the expense and manpower to repair. And now that you've stirred up the vampires against you, you come begging for my protection?”

“Isran.... Carcette is dead,” Tolan said softly. “The Hall of the Vigilants... everyone, they're all dead. You were right, we were wrong; isn't that enough for you?”

Auriel's eyebrows raised slightly; she'd heard that the Vigilants were having trouble, but to hear that the hall had been destroyed, the people all killed... That was news indeed, and she wondered how it hadn't traveled faster.

“Yes well...” Isran looked away briefly, and cleared his throat slightly. “I never wanted any of this to happen. I tried to warn all of you.... I am sorry, you know.”

That seemed to be the point at which Isran saw the trio standing in the doorway, and he turned away from the Vigilant to approach them.

“So who're you?” he asked, looking straight at Auriel. “What do you want?”

“To join,” she replied with a light shrug.

“Got a fire in your belly to kill vampires, eh?” He smirked a little. “Good for you. But look around, there's nothing really to join yet. I've only just started rebuilding the order.”

“Then you clearly need all the help you can get,” Auriel replied evenly.

Isran's eyebrows went up, and she just smirked a little. So maybe it wasn't nice to mock people, but was it mockery when it was truth?

“I need someone out in the field, taking the fight to the damn vampires while we're getting the fort back into shape,” he admitted lowly. “Tolan was telling me about some cave the Vigilant were poking around in. Seemed to think it was connected to these recent vampire attacks. Tolan,” he turned back to the Vigilant man standing there. “Tell her about... what was it, Dimhollow?”

Tolan nodded.

“Yes, that's it. Dimhollow Crypt. Brother Adelvald was sure it held some long-lost vampire artifact of some kind. We didn't listen to him any more than we listened to Isran. He was at the Hall when it was attacked...”

“That's good enough for me,” Isran nodded. “Go see what the vampires were looking for in this Dimhollow Crypt. With any luck, they'll still be there. And here, you should take a crossbow. Good for taking out those fiends before they get close.”

He slung one at her, and another at Farkas.

“And feel free to poke around the fort and take what you need,” he continued. “There isn't much yet, but if you can use it, grab it.”

“I'll meet you at Dimhollow,” Tolan interjected. “It's the least I can do to avenge my fallen comrades.”

“Tolan, I don't think that's a good idea,” Isran said warningly. “You Vigilants were never trained for-”

“I know what you think of us,” Tolan snapped. “You think we're soft, that we're cowards. You think our deaths proved our weakness. Stendarr grant that you do not have to face the same test and be found wanting. I'm going to Dimhollow Crypt. Perhaps I can be of some small assistance.”

Tolan stalked out the front door, and Auriel shook her head slightly. Wounded pride was never a good reason to go to battle, and she had no doubt that it would get him killed. Isran sighed a little himself, then turned his attention to the Nord that had followed them up. Auriel moved off into the fort to see what there might be worth using as Isran began instructing him on the use of a crossbow.

 

-

 

They ended up taking a cart from Riften to Windhelm, and then walking the rest of the way through the Pale to find the ruined Hall of the Vigilants. It was near to one of the forts she'd worked to liberate, Dunstad, and the Stormcloaks there gave the a hearty greeting, along with food and space to sleep through the cold night. Auriel was up early, and found that her energy level was much-improved. The prospect of fighting wasn't heartening, but getting to explore again... that she liked.

The went through the wrecked Hall first, in hopes that something there might provide a clue, but other than dead bodies, ash, and blood, there was little to be found. The path that led to Dimhollow Crypt was just beyond, and Tolan was nowhere in sight. The only sign that someone had been there was a sputtering torch planted in the snow. Auriel shook her head with an exasperated sigh, and motioned for Farkas to follow her in as silently as possible.

“These Vigilant never know when to give up,” she heard a male voice scoff. “I thought we'd taught them enough of a lesson at their hall.”

“To come in here alone,” a woman this time. “A fool like all the rest of them.”

“He fought well, though,” the male said appraisingly. “Jeron and Bresoth were no match for him.”

“Hah!” the woman again. Auriel motioned for Farkas to creep up with her. “Those two deserved what they got! Their arrogance had become insufferable.”

“All this talk is making me thirsty,” the male sighed faintly. “Perhaps another Vigilant will wander in soon....”

The cavern was snow-covered, making it difficult to step quietly, but with care they were able to creep closer.

“I wish Lokil would hurry it up, the woman complained. “I have half a mind to return to the castle and tell Harkon what a fool he's entrusted this mission to.”

“And I have half a mind to tell Lokil of your disloyalty.”

“You wouldn't dare,” she snapped. “Now shut up and keep on watch!”

Auriel smiled faintly, and nodded fractionally. The click of a crossbow and the soft twang of her bowstring was followed by two solid thumps, and both vampires hit the floor. The hound was unexpected, but Farkas managed a quick enough reload to take it out, and Auriel smiled faintly again.

“Maybe there is something useful in a crossbow,” she teased softly. “Or perhaps it's the one using it...?”

He grinned a little, and shrugged. Fondly she kissed his cheek, then turned to asses their next move.

Bars over the tunnel mouth meant that they had to find the release, but it wasn't too hard without an enemy in sight. Vampires smelled of dust, ash, and blood, while the hounds were a deep cold, almost like a frost wraith, really. There wasn't much of a breeze—and the undead didn't leave much of a scent—but it was still useful for tracking. And when they came across the dragur bodies, it was clear enough which brand of undead had control of the cavern.

The tunnels continued down, and the weight of the rock overhead was not a comforting feeling for Auriel, but she did her best to keep a lid on her unease. Her claustrophobia had gotten worse since her trip into Apocrypha... but there were still vampires farther in, and a secret needing to be uncovered.

Skeletons in the tomb seemed to serve the vampires, which came as no surprise. They were also, as always, terrible easy to take out. The vampires had taken care of the spiders, and Auriel smiled faintly; it seemed as though everything in this cave had it out for the undead. That was heartening.

A door led them further in, deeper, and suggested that the cavern itself was merely a front for what had truly been happening.

“I'll never tell you anything, vampire!” A Vigilant said as they slipped into the stone room. “My oath to Stendarr is stronger than any suffering you can inflict on me.”

She crept up silently, peering carefully over the railing, just in time to see the vampire shove a dagger into the Vigilants' chest.

“Are you sure that was wise, Lokil?” his female companion asked. “He still could have told us something. We haven't gotten anywhere ourselves with...”

“He knew nothing,” Lokil sneered. “He served his purpose by leading us to this place. Now it's up to us to bring Harkon the prize.”

Auriel set an arrow to her string, and loosed; she didn't much care what this vampire had to say, nor his help. If he wanted something down here, well, she wasn't going to let him have it. Farkas shot at the other vampire with him, and there were two more dead bodies, adding to the toll.

“...was that a good idea?” Farkas asked softly.

Auriel snorted a little, and shrugged.

“Do you really want to know what a vampire will do with something down here?”

“...not really, no.”

“Then it was a good idea. Come on. Maybe the Vigilant has something on him that can help us.”

Though there were no more enemies to be seen, they still moved with care and stealth. The journal they found near the Vigilant was, unfortunately, of little help. It seemed they would have to figure this out the hard way; through guesswork and luck.

The cavern, now that Auriel could stop and take it in, was impressive. A stone island rose from the middle of the lake, though the shape of it reminded her of the things the Skaal and the people of Solstheim had been building on Raven's Rock, things of Miraak's creation. Her first instinct was a desire to destroy it. She stifled it with some effort, and went to see what to do with it.

She depressed a button, and swore sharply as a blade stabbed through her hand, yanking back as a bluish purple glow sprang up from the inner ring of the island. Farkas caught her before she could fall, and hissed in sympathy at the injury. While still not well-practiced, Auriel managed to heal the injury with some effort, and carefully flexed her fingers to make sure everything was connected.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I feel like a fool,” she grumbled, working the tingles out of her hand.

He kissed her forehead, then looked warily at the light.

“What's that?”

“I don't know, but...” She glanced around thoughtfully. “My guess is that we have to somehow align the braziers before we'll see what treasure Lokil was speaking of.”

She pushed one to the outer rim, and startled only a little when it lit up with flames. The faint shake suggested her hypothesis, however, was correct. Farkas seemed wholly uncomfortable with this, and she couldn't blame him; the entire island was more than a little creepy.

After all the braziers had been shifted to their places, the island gave a final shake, and the whole thing shifted down with a grating of stone on stone, revealing a stone monolith. Carefully Auriel moved forward, seeking a seam of some type that she might be able to pry open. Instead, half the monolith shifted down, revealing a black haired woman, who fell forward as support fled. She had a scroll on her back, and when she looked up—for Auriel had stepped back reflexively uncertain of this new person and wary of repercussions—glowing eyes.

“Uh... where is... who sent you here?” she groaned, standing upright.

“Why?” Auriel asked warily. “Were you expecting someone in particular?”

“I was expecting someone.... like me, at least,” she admitted.

“You mean a vampire.”

“...yes.”

Auriel frowned. This spoke of something beyond what Isran thought; it might be more useful to keep this woman alive. Especially if the scroll on her back was exactly what she thought it was. It looked too much like an Elder Scroll to be anything but, really.

“Why were you locked away?” the redhead finally asked, giving Farkas a subtle hand-signal behind her back to stand down. Answers first.

“That's... complicated. And I'm not totally sure if I can trust you. But if you wanna know the whole story, help me get back to my family's home.”

Auriel cocked her head a little, considering. The woman stared back, unease mixed with defiance in her face. After a moment, Auriel nodded; something about the woman, vampire or not, was unthreatening enough that she was willing to agree.

“Where are we going?”

“My family used to live on an island to the west of Solitude. I would guess they still do.” She paused, then nodded a little. “By the way; my name is Serana. Good to meet you.”

“Auriel,” and Auriel nodded a little herself. “And this is Farkas.”

“Yours?”

“Yes. Very much so.”

Serana smiled faintly, then looked around.

“This place looks a lot different from when I was locked up,” she sighed a little. “It's going to be interesting finding the way out...”

“Oh, I'm fairly sure it's doable; just follow the fresh air.”

It was that easy.... for about five minutes. And then came the gargoyles. They exploded out of their stone forms with enough force that the stone hit hard enough to stun, knocking Auriel backwards into Farkas' hold. He growled and stood protectively over her, but it was Serana who took the pair out. Auriel, once she'd regained her wits, rubbed at her forehead and muttered a few choice curses. Well, at least she wasn't bleeding.

The way out led through a handful of undead. No vampires, but draugr and skeletons were annoyance enough. Serana shook her head a little with the battle done, and glanced at Auriel.

“Does the air feel... heavy down here?” the vampire asked. “Maybe it's just because I woke up, but I feel a bit.... woozy.”

“It's not just you,” Auriel shook her head, “though having just woken up probably doesn't help any. Come on, this way.”

She felt the thrum of the word wall before she saw it, and hissed quietly. Of course, there were a dozen undead of various types between her and it. She crept around the edges of the battle, picking her shots; she had just enough arrows to miss, but not so many that she wanted to.

Once they were done, and the word collected, only a door and a gate blocked their escape into the open air, both obstacles quickly removed. At the exit, all three stopped and breathed deeply, almost in unison.

“Ah,” Serana sighed, even as she pulled her hood up. “It's so good to breathe again! Even in this weather, it's better than the cave. Though it's so bright out here. How do you stand it?”

Auriel smirked slightly.

“By not being a vampire,” she said.

Serana snorted a little, a smile flickering across her own face in response.

“Fair enough. Which way are we going?”

“North and a lot west. It's going to take a while. Let's get moving.”

“Agreed.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Seven

 

They found a jetty just beyond what was left of Northwatch, and the island was vaguely visible through the cold mists. The boat was in surprisingly good repair, and with Farkas to row, they made it to the opposite shore quickly.

Serana hesitated at the midway point of reaching the castle, then reached out and caught Auriel's arm. Auriel turned with a raised eyebrow, and the vampire released her, making an apologetic face.

“Hey, so... before we go in there...”

“...yes?”

“I wanted to thank you for getting me this far, but after we get in there, I'll have to go my own way, you know. I think...” Serana shook her head lightly. “Just... don't attack anyone in here, okay? It wouldn't end well at all.”

Auriel nodded.

“One more thing. Let me take the lead. Don't say anything, okay?”

“....if you're that worried, I could leave you here,” Auriel offered dryly.

Serana shook her head a little, hastily.

“No, you've earned a reward just for getting me out of the crypt. I don't know what my father will offer you, though. So just... be careful.”

Again, Auriel nodded, and they continued up.

“Lady Serana's back!” came the cry. “Open the gate!”

The portcullis raised, and the... man? Vampire? Auriel couldn't actually tell with the wind blowing the wrong direction, and the light at his back.

“After all these years, Lady Serana's back,” he sighed happily. “Now that's something.”

Serana smiled a little, somewhat awkwardly, and made her way into the keep, Auriel and Farkas close behind. They were confronted immediately inside the door by another vampire, who glared at the three of them.

“How dare you trespass here!” he snapped. Then he stopped as Serana lowered her hood. “Wait... Serana? Is that you? I cannot believe my eyes!”

He turned and went to the balcony, leaning on it and clapped his hands to get the attention of the people below.

“My lord! Everyone! Serana has returned!”

“I guess I'm expected,” Serana said wryly.

They made their way down the stairs, and a vampire stepped down from the dais, a hungry smile on his face. Auriel felt Farkas's warmth as he stepped a little closer to her; she couldn't blame him for being protective since the other vampires were looking at them with sharp eyes.

“My long-lost daughter returns at last,” he said “I trust you have my Elder Scroll?”

Auriel hissed softly; so she was right, and the scroll slung over Serana's shoulders was an Elder Scroll. True, there had been no way to take it from her, but still. An Elder Scroll. Here!

“After all these years, that's the first thing you ask me?” she questioned, a flicker of hurt trawling through her voice. “Yes, I have the scroll...”

“Of course I'm delighted to see you, my daughter. Must I really say the words aloud?” he sighed. “Ah, if only your traitor mother were here, I would let her watch this reunion before putting her head on a spike.”

Feeling Farkas shift slightly, she reached back and lightly put her palm on his arm; they were only observers here, no matter how disquieting the attitude. With any luck, returning Serana would at least get them out safely.

“Now tell me,” the vampire lord continued. “Who are these strangers you have brought into our halls?”

“They're the ones who freed me,”Serana replied, turning her head slightly to nod at Auriel. “Her specifically.”

“For my daughter's safe return, you have my gratitude,” the vampire lord said smoothly. “Tell me, what is your name?”

“Auriel Talmanari,” and she lifted her chin slightly. “And you?”

“I am Harkon, lord of this court. By now, my daughter will have told you what we are...”

It was more a statement than a question; Auriel just nodded slightly. Harkon struck her as someone who had been noble so long that he wouldn't tolerate any slight, and she was not going to play with her husband's life.

“You're vampires.”

“Not just vampires,” he corrected. “We are among the oldest and most powerful vampires in Skyrim. For centuries we've lived here, far from the cares of the world. All that ended when my wife betrayed me, and stole away that which I valued most.”

She kept her cynical thoughts to herself; Harkon was very good at concealing his body language, and keeping his voice even. She could catch only a glimpse of a tell that suggested he wasn't talking about Serana, and it was far safer to pretend she saw nothing at all.

“...And now?” she asked instead.

“You have done me a great service, and now you must be rewarded,” he smiled winsomely. “There is but one gift I can give that is equal in value to the Elder Scroll and my daughter. I offer you my blood. Take it, and you will walk as a lion among sheep. Men will tremble at your approach, and you will never fear death again.”

Farkas made a faint sound in the back of his throat, but fell silent again when Auriel lightly squeezed his arm. She wasn't inclined to trade beast-blood for vampirism; the blood was quiescent, while vampirisim would be anything but.

“While flattered beyond words at your generosity, I find I must respectfully decline your offer.”

“So be it,” he frowned. “You are prey, like all mortals. This is the one time you will be allowed to freely leave this place. Return, and you will be nothing more than food.”

“You are generous,” Auriel murmured. “My thanks for the safe passage.”

She shifted her grip until she had Farkas by the wrist, and they quickly left the castle. It wasn't until they were on the opposite shore again, properly back in Skyrim, that she let out a long breath of weary relief.

“....that was close...” Farkas said quietly.

“It was,” she agreed, briefly scrubbing her face with her palms. “The Elder Scroll in his possession is no joke either. Tch.”

“Yeah.”

She sighed, an leaned against him briefly, then shook her head a little.

“Come on. It's going to take us a while to get back to the Fort, but Isran needs to hear about this as soon as possible.”

Farkas nodded, and they started back up the path in the direction that would return them to Solitude.

 

-

 

As they traveled back to the fort, Auriel occasionally found her thoughts returning to Serana and the scroll. Serana had said she would go hew own way, but it felt an awful lot as though they had abandoned her to the whims of Harkon. It was a disquieting notion... but there wasn't much to be done about it. She wasn't about to return to that place, not unless she had a small army with her.

Coming up the main path to find a couple vampires trying to attack really wasn't as much of a surprise as it probably should have been. Isran had it all but handled, and he spat on the corpses with a scowl.

“Look a this,” he muttered. “I should've known it was only a matter of time before they found us... It's the price we pay for openly recruiting. We'll have to step up our defenses. I don't suppose you have some good news for me?”

“Ah.... not exactly...”

“Damn. Well, what do you know?”

“The vampires were in Dimhollow looking for a woman that was buried there-” Auriel began.

“A woman? Trapped in there? That doesn't make sense,” he interrupted. “Who is she? More importantly, where is she?”

Auriel frowned at him.

“I took her home when she asked politely.”

Isran frowned back.

“I'm waiting to hear what this means, girl.”

Now she rolled her eyes irritably.

“They have an Elder Scroll,” she snapped.

“They what?” Isran's eyebrows rose in shock. “And you didn't stop them, or secure the scroll?”

“Do I look suicidal to you? It was a castle full of vampires where I learned the truth.”

“Hpmh,” he grumbled. “So they have this woman, and an Elder Scroll. By the Divines, this couldn't get much worse. This is more than you and I can handle.”

“Complain less, think more. There's something that can be done to change the status quo if you think hard enough.”

“Well of course there is,” Isran snorted a little. “I'm old, not stupid. We're just going to need some help. If they're bold enough to attack us here, this may be bigger than I thought. I have good men here, but... There are many people I've worked with over the years. We're going to need their skills, their talents, if we're going to survive this. If you can find them, we might have a chance.”

“Where do I need to go, and who do I need to find?”

“Right to the point, aren't you?” he smiled a little dryly. “I like that. Not like those fools in the order. We should keep it small; too many people and we'll draw unwanted attention to ourselves. I think we'll need Sarine Jurad. Breton girl, whip-smart, likes tinkering. Fascinated with Dwemer artifacts; mostly weapons. Last I heard, she was out in the Reach, convinced she was about to find the biggest dwarven ruins yet.”

“You think she'll help?” Auriel raised an eyebrow. “Those obsessed with Dwemer ruins are generally too.... focused on that to be helpful otherwise.”

“Might need a little convincing,” he shrugged slightly, “but she should. You'll also want to find Gunmar. Big brute of a Nord; hates vampires almost as much as I do. Got into his head a few years back that his experience with animals will help. Trolls in particular, from what I hear... Last I knew, he was out scouring Skyrim for more beasts to tame. Bring those two back here, and we can get started in coming up with a plan.”

Auriel nodded, sighed a little, then turned away, and made for Riften. The Breton would be easy enough to track; there were only so many places in the Reach to go, after all. But the Nord.... that was going to take some time.

 

-

 

Ironically, she heard about the Nord first, but that was because he was actually closer than she'd expected. Up in the mountains near Helgen, and thus, she went after him first. By the time they returned to Riften, there was word on the girl, at the far edge of the Reach. She took longer to get to, but the effort was worth it.

It was sort of nice to wander around all of Skyrim again. She could pretend that she was just exploring... and if they got attacked by bandits, dragons, and even a small handful of Thalmor, well, it was normal enough that it was oddly comforting.

By the time they made it back to the fort, there were noticeable improvements. Fishing supplies near the lake, a fully formed log wall with the ends sharpened and a gate, as well as a gate sentry. Well, rather Celann was at the gate, and after a moment waved them through willingly enough. There were a few more people walking around inside the gates as well, and Auriel smiled faintly to see the majority were women.

Stepping into the fort, she felt a change in the air; it tasted sharp, crackled slightly with magic. As they stepped into the main entry room, three gates sprang up, keeping them from going forward or back, and Auriel flicked a glance up to see Isran standing on the second-floor balcony, staring down at them.

Sarine made an annoyed sound, hands on her hips; Gunnar, who had waited for them at Riften, looked up at Isran in irritable resignation.

“All right Isran,” Gunmar sighed, pushing off the wall. “What's this about?”

“What're you doing?” Sarine demanded in the same moment.

“Making sure you're not vampires,” Isran said coldly. “Can't be too careful.”

Auriel rolled her eyes, and leaned back lightly against Farkas; something appeared to have spooked the Redguard enough to have him resort to an extreme measure. Light wafted up from the floor, pale cream and gold, then dissipated.

“So, welcome to Fort Dawngaurd,” Isran said, those his tone had warmed only slightly. “I'm sure you've heard a bit about what we're up against. Powerful vampires, unlike anything we've seen before, and they have an Elder Scroll. If anyone is going to stand in their way, it's going to be us.”

“This is all well and good,” Sarine sighed, “but do we actually know anything about what they're doing? What do we do now?”

“We'll get to that,” Isran snorted. “For now, get acquainted with the space. Sarine, you'll find room to start you tinkering on that crossbow design you've been working on. Gunmar, there's an area large enough for you to pen up some trolls, get them armored up and ready for use. In the meantime,” and he frowned down at Auriel, “we're going to get to the bottom of why a vampire showed up here looking for you. Let's go have a little chat with it, shall we?”

When Isran lowered the gates, she took the stairs quickly, wondering just why Serana would have taken the risk of coming to Fort Dawnguard.

To her irritation, he'd put Serana in the second floor small torture room, though she didn't look to have been harmed.

“This vampire showed up while you were away,” Isran growled, glaring at Serana. “I'm guessing it's the one you found in Dimhollow Crypt. Says it's got something really important to say to you. So let's hear it.”

Serana ignored Isran entirely, something Auriel found quite amusing, even as she cocked her head a little in curiosity.

“You probably weren't expecting to see me again,” Serana said gingerly.

“Honestly, no,” and Auriel raised an eyebrow. “It's quite a risk you took. What made you come?”

“I needed to talk to you,” the vampire admitted. “It's important, so please just listen, before your friend here loses his patience. It's.... well, it's about me,” Serana sighed. “And the Elder Scroll that was buried with me.”

“What about you?”

“The reason I was down there, and why I had the Elder Scroll. It all comes back to my father. I'm guessing you figured this out already, but my father's not exactly a good person. Even by vampire standards. He wasn't always like that though. There was.... a turn. He stumbled upon this obscure prophecy, and just kind of lost himself in it.”

“A prophecy?”

Auriel tipped her head slightly, curious. Serana made a face.

“It's pointless and vague, like all prophecies,” she snorted. “The part he latched onto was that vampires would no longer have to fear the sun. That's what he's after. He wants to control the sun, have vampires control the world. Anyway, my mother and I didn't feel like inviting a war with all of Tamriel, so we tried to stop him. That's why I was sealed away with the scroll.”

“Huh... that's....” Auriel frowned a little, contemplatively. She'd heard stranger, truth be told, but that was pushing believeability, even for her. “Well, it'll be fun trying to get everyone to believe you.”

“Well, let's do that then,” Serana smiled a little slyly. “I'm nothing if not persuasive.”

Auriel snorted a little in amusement, then turned to Isran. His glare said it all, and she sighed in exasperation.

“No, Isran, you can't kill her, get over it,” she said flatly. “We're going to need her help.”

“Why?!” he demanded. “Because of the story of some prophecy? About the vampires trying to put the sun out? Do you actually believe any of that?”

“Whether I believe it or not isn't the point,” she replied, making Serana snicker a little. “Harkon believes it, and Serana's plainly here to help. Or do you think she'd do this sort of hing for the fun of it?”

“Am I supposed to care?” Isran demanded. “Maybe it's insane, or has a death wish!”

Auriel stared at him flatly. Isran glared back, but she caught a flickering doubt in the back of his eyes. It let her pull back enough on her temper that she didn't punch the man, but it was close.

“I understand the hatred for vampires, but you're going into unreasonable behavior,” she said tartly. “She was not blackmailed, extorted, or otherwise induced to come here... right?” She glanced at Serana, who nodded, looking more amused than anything else. “So, she came on her own, she has all the inside information you could want on Harkon's plans, and the Elder Scroll. And you're going to be stubborn about this?!”

“Fine, it can stay,” he spat. “But if it lays a finger on anyone here, you're the one I'm holding responsible.” Then he glared at Serana. “You hear me? Don't feel like a guest, because you're not. You're a resource, an asset. And don't make me regret this outburst of tolerance and generosity. If you do, your friend here will pay for it.”

Auriel just rolled her eyes; the day she couldn't beat a stubborn Redguard into the ground, she'd retire from adventuring. Farkas growled a little in threat, but subsided when she waved a hand lightly.

“Thank you for your kindness,” Serana said with a biting smile. “I'll remember it the next time I'm feeling hungry.”

Isran just scowled at the three of them.

“Speaking of the Elder scroll,” Serana turned back to Auriel. “It probably has something that can help us stop my father, but... well, none of us can read it.”

“We need a Moth Priest from Cyrodiil,” Auriel sighed a little. “That's a long trip to make, and there's no guarantee we'll be allowed to visit their training grounds. I suppose I could send out word through contacts....”

“Some Imperial scholar arrived in Skyrim not that long ago,” Isran interrupted. “I was staking out the road when I saw him pass by. Maybe that's your Moth Priest.”

“Do you know where he might be staying?” Serana asked.

Auriel gave her points for the polite tone, but Isran wasn't terribly impressed.

“No,” he drawled. “And I'm not going to waste men looking. We're fighting a war against your kind, and I intend to win it. You want to find him, try talking to innkeepers or carriage drives in the big cities. But I'm done helping.”

He stalked off, and Auriel just shook her head at his back. Unhelpful idiot.

“So, how're you going to do it?” Serana asked,

“Well, the Moth Priest has to be here for a reason,” Auriel said slowly. “I can go up to Winterhold and see if Tolfdir might know anything, or Urag. Mages in the College. Do you want to come along, or stay here?”

“....I want to come with, but I don't know if I can trust your friend.”

Auriel snorted and smirked.

“Isran's not my friend, in case you hadn't noticed.”

“No, I mean... him.”

And she gestured to Farkas. Auriel blinked in surprise, then looked up at her husband. He blinked back in surprise, and Auriel frowned thoughtfully.

“I suppose nothing I say will change your mind?” She asked.

“No,” Serana shook her head. “I'm going out on a limb enough as it is with you and this whole Dawnguard. Sorry.”

The redhead sighed a little, and turned to her husband.

“It's okay, Auri,” he smiled a little down at her before she could even open her mouth. “I'll head back to Whiterun. Come find me when you need me.”

It was nice that he understood, without her having to say a single word; she didn't want to leave Serana here, not with Isran in a foul mood. She leaned up and gave him a soft kiss, which he gently returned.

“Travel safe, Far,” she murmured, resting her head briefly against his shoulder.

“Yes, love.”

 

Chapter Text

Eight

 

“I'm surprised you were willing to ask your man to go home so I'd be comfortable in joining you,” Serana admitted. “You're kind of a hard person to read.”

“Well, given that the alternative is you staying there, where Isran and the other less-sympathetic vampire hunters are at?” Auriel shrugged. “It's fine. I've adventured without Farkas before, and I can do it again, especially since you're hardly a slouch in a fight yourself.”

“Huh. Pretty sensible of you.”

Not that she didn't miss him, of course. While she wasn't dependent on her husband, his simplicity offered a balm to a mind that rarely stilled unless it was in sleep. He saw the shades of gray that she worked in, and gave her a bit of black and white when she was a little too lost.

“So who're we going to ask up at the college?” Serana asked.

“Urag. He's the librarian, and if he doesn't know where we could find a Moth Priest in Skyrim, probably no one does.”

“You're sure?”

“Mmhm. C'mon. It's going to be a long ride to Winterhold.”

 

-

 

The journey time was well spent; Auriel found she got on quite well with Serana after a few false starts. Carefully suggesting a cure for the vampirism had gone over like a brick, but as long as the topic was avoided, Serana was pleasant company. Auriel took the time to bring Serana up to speed on the various events that had shaped Skyrim over the past few years. She covered the war, named the holds and the Jarls, and specified which factions she herself was part of. Serana seemed more amused than surprised at the lengths Auriel had gone to for protection, even teasing her at times about overkill on preparation.

It was a surprisingly fun trip.

The College didn't exactly bustle thanks to the cold, but there certainly seemed to be more people than she recalled from her previous visit. The ones who knew her waved or called greetings as they crossed the campus, causing Serana to huff a faint laugh.

“You're really popular, huh?”

“That would be one of the benefits of being Arch-Mage, yes. There are many others, but notoriety is one of the main ones.”

Serana chuckled a little at the flippancy of Auriel's tone.

Urag was, as always, seated behind his desk when they reached the library. Again, Auriel had to wonder if he ever moved. Did he sleep there?

“Arch-Mage,” he nodded a little.

“Urag. Quick question; would you happen to know where we might find a Moth Priest in Skyrim?”

He blinked at her for a minute.

“A Moth Priest? What in Oblivion do you need a Moth priest for?” he demanded.

“....better if you don't know at the moment, Urag. Do you?”

“The obvious answer is to go to the Imperial City. The Moth Priests make their home in White-Gold Tower,” he snorted.

“Perhaps, but there's rumors that there is one up here. I'd hoped you might know about it,” Auriel replied.

“....well, yeah. He's looking for Elder Scrolls. You missed him by a couple of days; stopped in to do some research, and then headed off towards Dragon Bridge. Good luck catching up to him.”

Auriel smiled faintly.

“My thanks, Urag. Oh, and here are some of the books you wanted me to look for. They really were in some of the oddest places...”

She stacked several books up in neat piles on the desk, and he was quick to grab them and cart them away; for reading as well as sorting, or so she suspected.

“Not very social, is he?” Serana asked.

“He takes this job very seriously, and that's a good thing,” Auriel replied as they made their way back down the stairs. “Most of these books wouldn't be here if he didn't. Though this is turning into a definite goose-chase, us haring all over Skyrim to find this priest. I hope he's being more subtle than it sounds... if we're able to track him, so could someone else.”

 

-

It was a little annoying to not be able to catch up with the man before Dragon Bridge, but every town they passed through agreed that they'd seen him and an escort heading the same way, so at least he wasn't hard to track.

The first thing they did was scour the town upon arrival, but there was no sign of the potential priest. Instead, they were ambushed by other vampires, and it took the help of a few patrolling Stormcloaks to properly deal with them.

“Well, this day is turning out wonderful,” one of the soldiers muttered as the last enemy vampire fell. “First that old man and those Imperial guards show up, and now this?”

“What old man?” Auriel asked, turning towards him abruptly.

“Ah, just some old man and his guards,” the soldier shrugged. “Went across that bridge maybe a couple hours ago. You can probably catch them, if you're looking for them.”

“Great, thanks. Ser, let's go.”

Serana nodded, and they hurried over the bridge. The didn't find a priest, but an overturned wagon and dead guards were hard to miss. Auriel cursed softly, and they started going through the bodies, looking for anything that might indicate what had happened.

The sole vampire body held a folded up note that gave them their next direction, and Auriel sighed in irritation.

“Your father's people are a real pain, you know?”

“Well.... he wants the scroll, and someone to read it,” Serana sighed. “I suppose we should have expected this really. If Isran found out, then there was no way my father, with his extensive network, wouldn't catch on too.”

“Let's hope we reach the priest before they kill him,” Auriel muttered. “That would just end well.

“This place mentioned can't be too far,” Serana said. “The faster we move, the better, yeah?”

“Right.”

Forebears Holdout wasn't far at all, though it did take some careful trail reading. Or acting like she was trail-reading, since Auriel had picked up the scent of the priest at the wagon, and was using that to track him. The splatters of blood, while not fresh, laid a clear trail, and Auriel had to hope he wasn't too badly injured. If he died before they could get his help, that would take a difficult situation to an impossible one.

Like the cave Serana had been held in, the architecture was ancient, and yet still in good repair. It was patrolled by the odd dogs Serana had called Death Hounds, as well as other vampires, and at the far back there was a raised barrier. Auriel hoped that the priest was defending himself inside that barrier, and not dying.

The gargoyle statues were unnerving, but didn't look like they were inclined to come to life, so Auriel tried to ignore them as they picked off dogs and vampires in the way. The one who'd capture the priest was indeed trying to break his will inside the barrier, but the priest himself had a goodly amount of mental fortitude, and Auriel's arrow cut the vampire off mid-sentence.

It was nice when things worked out the way she wanted them to, really. She grabbed the waystone from the vampire's dead body, and hurried up the stairs to cut the power to the barrier. Of course, that was when things started going wrong, again. The priest was enthralled, and it took the concentrated effort of both women—both women trying to not kill him, at that—to subdue him and bring him back to himself.

“I yield, I yield!” he pleaded, twisting to free himself from their combined pin. “That... that wasn't mean you were fighting! I could see through my eyes, but I could not control my actions.”

Slowly, cautiously, they let him up. He grimaced and brushed himself off before giving them both an apologetic look.

“Thank you for breaking that foul vampire's hold on me,” he said, bowing slightly.

“I am Auriel. This is Serana. Are you all right?”

“I'm quite all right, thanks to you. Dexion Evicus is my name. I'm a Moth Priest of the White-Gold Tower. These vampires claimed they had something in store for me, though they wouldn't say what. Probably hoping to ransom me, the fools,” he shook his head slightly.

“Hn, not exactly,” Auriel sighed a little. “They wanted to have you read an Elder Scroll. That's... something that we need from you as well. We, being the Dawnguard... as well as the two of us.”

“You have an Elder Scroll?” he breathed. “Remarkable... I recall that the Dawnguard was an ancient order of vampire hunters. I would be more than happy to assist you with your scroll. Just tell me where I need to go.”

“Fort Dawnguard is near Stendarr's beacon, but I have a better idea,” Auriel smiled faintly. “We'll escort you, to prevent any more vampire issues.”

“That does sound like a good idea,” he admitted with a chuckle. “Very well, lead on.”

 

-

 

They fended off several ambushes on the way back to the fort, and were a bit more tattered than they'd left, but they did make it back in one piece. Isran met them in the main room, and while he didn't look terribly happy to see them, he did raise an eyebrow in surprise at their state.

“I'm impressed you could find a Moth Priest so quickly,” he said a little grudgingly.

“You say it like it was easy,” Auriel muttered. “Why don't you show him around? I need a bath...”

Dexion nodded quickly, looking quite eager to be shown the fort; while Isran grudgingly did just that, Auriel and Serana had quick baths, and changed into less travel-worn clothes. Serana declined to eat, but sat with Auriel, and they were soon joined in the eating hall by Dexion, who was practically glowing with enthusiasm.

“I have colleagues back home that would love to study this place in detail,” Dexion said. “It's fascinating, if not the most hospitable.”

Auriel chuckled a little.

“I will admit that it's an interesting sort of place,” she nodded a little. “Isran makes it a bit difficult, however. He is very.... driven. It causes a number of conflicts.”

Serana snickered a little and Dexion nodded sympathetically.

“Some people are like that. They are indeed very difficult to get along with. So, when shall I read the scroll?”

“Eat first. Then scroll.”

He chuckled a little himself, and obligingly had something to eat. When they were done, they moved into the center chamber, where the light was the best.

“Ready?” Auriel asked.

“Oh, most certainly,” he nodded eagerly. “Let's find out what secrets the scroll can tell!”

Serana handed him the scroll, then moved back. Slowly, Dexion unrolled the scroll, and the air seemed to quiver slightly.

“I see.... a vision before me,” he murmured. “An image of a great bow. I know this weapon! It is Auriel's Bow!”

Serana looked at her askance, and Auriel shook her head a little. While she did use a well-crafted bow when not casting, Auri-El's Bow was probably more accurate. Her name always did come back to haunt her in various amusing ways like that.

“Now a voice whispers,” Dexion continued. “It says 'Among the night's children, a dread lord will rise. In an age of strife, when dragons return to the realm of men, darkness will mingle with light and the night and day will be as one.' The voice fades, and the words begin to shimmer and distort.... but wait, there is more here! The secret of the bow's power is written elsewhere. I think there is more to the prophecy, recorded in other scrolls.”

Auriel stifled a groan; more scrolls. Of course. It couldn't be simple, could it?

“Yes, I see them now,” he nodded absently. “One contains the ancient secrets of the dragons and the other speaks of the potency of ancient blood. My vision darkens.... I see no more. To know the complete prophecy, we must have the other two scrolls.”

He rolled the scroll back up, and Auriel quickly moved to support him as he staggered.

“I think... I must rest now,” he said weakly. “The reading has made me weary...”

Isran stepped forward, and Auriel passed him over.

“Come on old man,” and Auriel was surprised to hear him actually sounding somewhat sympathetic. “We'll put you to bed.”

As Isran led the priest off, Auriel frowned thoughtfully. Serana tugged on her sleeve lightly.

“Do you have a moment to talk?” she murmured.

“...yes?” Auriel blinked at her a little. “What's wrong?”

“Not... wrong, really, but more in regards to those two other scrolls. I think I know where we can start looking.”

“Oh? Where?”

“Well, we'll need to find my mother, Valerica. She'll definitely know where it is, and if we're lucky, she has it herself.”

Auriel blinked a little, then cocked her head slightly.

“Didn't you say you had no idea where she was?” the redhead asked.

“The last time that I saw her, she said she'd go somewhere safe. Somewhere that my father would never search,” Serana frowned a little. “Other than that, she wouldn't tell me anything. But the way she said it... 'someplace he would never search.' It was cryptic, and yet she called attention to it.”

“It doesn't really seem like either parent was big on trusting,” Auriel said a little dryly.

“That's always a possibility,” Serana sighed a little. “She was almost as obsessed as my father by the time she shut me in. But I can't worry about that now. We need the scroll, and she's our only lead. Besides, I can't imagine a single place my father would avoid looking. And he's had all this time, too. Ideas?”

“If it were me, I'd wait for him to finish searching the castle, and turn his attention outwards before coming back in,” Auriel shrugged a little. “Generally when someone's finished searching a place, they don't come back to it.”

“...that almost makes sense,” Serana blinked a little. “There's a courtyard in the castle; I used to help her tend a garden there. It's where we grew ingredients for potions. She used to say my father couldn't stand the place. Too.... peaceful. I don't think we'll trip over her there, but it could be worth a look.”

“The only problem being the fact that we're not exactly going to be allowed in through the front door,” Auriel pointed out.

“True, but I know a way we can get into the courtyard without arousing suspicion. There's an inlet on the northern side of the island that was used by the previous owner to bring supplies into the castle. An old escape tunnel from the castle exits there; it could be our way in.”

“Then we should get moving,” Auriel said firmly. “The less time we waste, the better.”

“Agreed.”

 

-

 

They did delay a little bit in Whiterun, at Serana's teasing suggestion. It was nice to see Farkas, if only for a little bit, and fill him in on what was happening, before they went farther west and took the boat at the jetty back to the castle.

“The castle looks so big from down here,” Serana murmured as they worked their way around the shore. “I mean, it is big, but it looks... bigger.”

Auriel just nodded. The castle was an imperious, demanding weight over their heads. It made her glad there were no sentries to pour things like boiling oil on them. Then again, considering how isolated the place was, there wouldn't ever really been much of a point; who wanted to take over a castle at the edge of the ocean?

Other than a half-sunken boat blocking the way in, the inlet seemed in decent repair. The guards were skeletons, who were sturdier than the usual fare, but enough hits shattered them to pieces. Once inside, Serana moved up a little, though she didn't quite take the lead. The first room held only a skeever, harmless, and they pushed the doors open quietly to the next.

“The old water system,” Serana murmured. “On some days this would smell just.... be glad you weren't here then.”

Auriel grimaced a little; maybe Serana's nose was used to it, but the entire place reeked of blood, vampire dust, pain, and fear. Calling it unpleasant was being kind; it was almost unbearable.

“Take a left up here,” Serana said as they reached a bridge. “This is one of those weird double-barred security measures that my father put in when he got more paranoid...”

The pathway led into a room full of bones, and Auriel hooked part of her hood over her face to deaden the reek of blood and bone. Some of the bones were fresh, still ripe with bits of flesh and blood, as well as their former owner's pain and fear. How, she wondered, did Serana reconcile her more honorable traits with this sort of butchery? She didn't seem the type to revel in someone else's pain...

Naturally, the path led to a large frostbite spider which guarded the switch that lowered the other half of the bridge. Given how agitated Serana looked, Auriel yielded the fight to her. Letting her handle the spider seemed to relieve some of what Serana was feeling, and after they lowered the bridge, the continued on.

“This way should lead out to the courtyard,” Serana said when the paused for breath at the foot of some stairs. “Just head for the door.”

The courtyard was not only completely empty, it was a ramshackle mess.

“Oh no,” Serana breathed. “What happened to this place? Everything's been torn down. The whole place looks... well, dead. It like we're the first to set foot here in centuries.”

She moved to one side of the courtyard, climbing stairs that ended in a mass of broken stone, sighed a little and shook her head.

“This used to lead into the great hall,” she said. “It looks like my father had it sealed up. I used to walk through here after evening meals... it was beautiful once.”

She moved over to the other side; a fenced in area that looked as though it had once been well tended. It didn't appear to be a complete loss, but it was clear that Harkon had gone to a lot of trouble to wreck something that had once been magnificent. It was practically criminal to see such ruin.

“This was my mother's garden... It... do you know how beautiful something can be when it's tended by a master for hundreds of years? She would've hated to see it like this...”

Serana turned away from the garden, then stopped short and stared at the large statue in the middle of the garden. Auriel waited patiently as the vampire circled it.

“Something's wrong with the moondial,” Serana said after a moment. “Some of the crests are missing, and the dial is askew. I didn't even know the crests could be removed... Maybe my mother's trying to tell us something?”

“Let's find the missing crests,” Auriel suggested. “Put them back where they belong.”

“....yeah, okay.”

They found three among the detritus, and put then back where they belonged. The dial twisted and then stone sank down, revealing stairs and a door.

“...very clever mother,” Serana murmured, a smile on her face. “Very clever. I've never been in these tunnels before, but I'd bet they run right under the courtyard and into the tower ruins. At the least, we're getting closer. Come on.”

The tunnels they found smelled of mold and dust, old plants and dried bones. It felt like an old place, and even their lightest steps raised small puffs of dust.

“I've never even seen this part of the castle before,” Serana admitted uneasily. “Be careful. I don't know what might be around.”

The moved through a kitchen stained with dried blood, into a wrecked dining area that lit up as soon as Serana stepped through the door. Skeletons in chairs awoke from their long slumber, and attacked, turning into shattered bones by the end. A very unpleasant gargoyle was their next opponent; they tangled him up in a spiky bone chime, and moved on.

Braziers constantly being lit wreaked havoc on Auriel's ability to see; it kept going from a darkness she was adjusting to, to a bright light that nearly blinded her.

“If this is your mother's idea of humor, I am not pleased,” she grumbled, wiping her eyes irritably.

“...sorry?”

Hmph.”

They found their way to a second dining hall, one less fiercely guarded, but still not their destination. Auriel sat for a bit, trying to catch her breath as Serana tore through the skeletons.

“You know,” Serana said, “you being mortal is kind of slowing us down.”

“If you want to run on ahead, be my guest,” Auriel replied, taking a drink of water to clear out the dust. “I'm good with taking my time.”

It almost became a litany as they carefully moved through the halls. Skeletons and gargoyles, skeletons and gargoyles. The gargoyles hit harder, but they weren't fast enough to catch either woman. A shortcut led them over a skeleton infested great hall as opposed to through it, and to a stonemason's workshop, filled with gargoyles in various stages of completion. The fully finished ones took exception to their presence, and the closed quarters actually made it easier for the gargoyles than the two women. When they were nothing more than rubble, Serana wiped her forehead with a grimace.

“I don't think we've reached the top yet,” she muttered. “I'd bet there's some kind of secret passage around here.”

“Mmhm... The air's still flowing through. It's not fresh, but it's moving,” Auriel nodded absently.

“Where?” The vampire blinked a little, surprised.

“You can't feel it? I know this place is drafty all over, but the fireplace is entirely too obvious, Serana...”

Serana moved over and started inspecting the fireplace. Experimentally, she turned a candle holder, then jumped back as the fireplace it was set next to slid smoothly upwards.

“Leave it to my mother,” she shook her head a little. “Always smarter than I gave her credit for...”

They went up a handful of stairs, and came out into a large, empty room that had clearly been for spell casting of some kind. The interlocking, lowering circles in the middle of the room made that clear.

“Look at this place,” Serana breathed. “This has to be it. I knew she was deep into necromancy; I mean, she taught me everything I know. But I had no idea she had a setup like this... Look at all this! She must have spent years collecting these components... And what's that thing?” she frowned down at the circles. “Here, let's look around. There must be something that tells us where she's gone.”

“Anything specific?”

“My mother was meticulous about her research,” Serana nodded. “If we can find her notes, there might be something in there.”

They searched the room from top to bottom, saving the most obvious place for last. There, on the bookshelves, was an innocent looking journal, bound in leather. Auriel flipped it open curiously, and read a few pages, before she handed it to Serana.

“I think this is it, but what on earth is a Soul Cairn?”

“I only know what she told me,” Serana admitted.

“Well, that's more than I know, so let's hear it,” Auriel said dryly.
“She had a theory about soul gems. The souls inside don't vanish when they're used... they end up in the Soul Cairn.”

“...why would that matter?”

“The Soul Cairn is home to some very powerful beings. Necromancers send them souls, and get their own powers in return. My mother spent a lot of time trying to contact them directly. To get into the Soul Cairn itself.”

Auriel frowned thoughtfully. It seemed like a mad idea, but then, so did the Plains of Oblivion if you thought about them hard enough. A place called the Soul Cairn, where the soul-trapped ended up? Sure, why not.

“Well, I suppose if she opened the way to it, we can too. We just... need the right ingredients.”

“The circle in the room must be some type of portal,” Serana frowned thoughtfully. “If I'm reading this right, there should be a formula here that can get us into the Soul Cairn.”

“Then let's find these ingredients and get moving.”

“Oh... damnit,” Serana sighed in disgust. “We're going to need a sample of her blood. Which.... well, if we could get that, we wouldn't need to do this in the first place.”

Auriel raised an eyebrow slightly, a faintly wry smile on her face.

“What?” Serana asked.

“You're her daughter. You are her blood.”

“...Huh...” Serana blinked then nodded thoughtfully. “Let's hope that's good enough. Mistakes with these kinds of portals can be.... gruesome. Let's get started.”

They found the ingredients easily enough, and poured them into the silver vessel at the top of the stairs. Then Auriel looked at Serana.

“Are you ready to go? I'm not exactly sure what this thing is going to do when I add my blood...” The vampire woman warned.

“...what will you do when you find your mother?” Auriel asked.

“I've been asking myself the same thing since we came back to the castle,” Serana admitted. “She was so sure about what we did to my father, I couldn't help but go along. I never thought of the cost...”

“It makes one wonder what she was thinking,” Auriel cocked her head a little. “Was it for you, or for herself?”

“She always seemed happy before we heard of the prophecy. Then she changed. They both did,” Serana sighed. “I suppose we won't know until we find her...”

Lightly, Auriel touched Serana's shoulder.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I just... didn't expect you to care about what I thought of her,” Serana's smile was rueful. “Thanks for that... Shall we get going?”
“Yes.”

Serana nipped sharply at her own wrist, then held the bleeding arm above the bowl. The room rumbled sharply, and a blueish-purple light flared up from the circle below. The circles twisted, and Serana stepped back in surprise.

“By the blood of my ancestors,” she whispered as the stone from the circle shredded to form a series of stairs. “She actually did it! Created a portal into the Soul Cairn! Incredible...”

Auriel moved gingerly down the stairs, then swore and jumped back as lightning flickered over her skin.

“Are you all right?” Serana asked. “That looked painful.”

“You would not be far wrong,” the redhead winced, rubbing one stinging ear. “What was that about?”

“Now that I think about it, I.... should have expected that,” Serana's voice was sheepish. “Sorry. It's hard to describe. The Soul Cairn is.... hungry, for lack of a better word. It's trying to take your life essence as payment.”

“In other words, if I'm not dead, it won't let me in,” Auriel said flatly.

“...well, there are ways around it, but... you might not like them.”

“Tell me anyways.”

“Vampires aren't counted among the living. I could probably go through there without a problem,” Serana began.

“No,” Auriel said firmly. “I have no interest in becoming a vampire, thank you.”

“Well, then your other option is to let me partially soul trap you, and we offer that gem up to the Ideal Masters. It might be enough to satisfy them. It would make you a bit weaker once we're inside the Soul Cairn, but we might be able to fix that once we're inside.” Serana hesitated, then sighed a little. “Maybe.”

Auriel just sighed,briefly rubbing her forehead. Neither option sounded like much fun, but being soul trapped sounded marginally safer.

“All right. Do it.”

“You're sure?”

“Given the option, I think I'd prefer it done this way,” Auriel grimaced a little. “I'm certainly not letting you go in there alone.

“You trust me that much?”

Serana looked surprised. Auriel shrugged slightly, and started ticking off points on her fingers.

“You're standing against your father's plans, you haven't attacked anyone out of hand, you risked your life to get the information to the Dawnguard in the first place, and you've been an intriguing traveling companion. Inasmuch as it's sensible, yes.”

Serana blinked a few times, then looked away; it seemed like she was somewhere in between embarrassed and pleased, which was honestly a bit cute. After a moment, she shook her head, and returned to the business at hand.

“I'll make this as painless as possible; just hold still.”

She tried, but it still hurt. Auriel hissed, and dropped briefly to a knee before staggering back upright and shaking her head sharply to clear it.

“You all right?” Serana asked a little anxiously.

“Yes... Yes, the dizziness is fading. Did that work?”

“I think so... Come on, my mother must be waiting on the other side of that thing...”

This time Serana led the way, and Auriel followed cautiously. And together, they stepped into the Soul Cairn.

 

 

Chapter Text

Nine

 

Auriel wasn't entirely sure what to expect when it came to entering the Soul Cairn; the lack of expectations made it easier to accept what she saw.

The sky was a mix of blue and purple, with smatterings of black clouds here and there. A faint mist seemed to cover the land, and the ground reminded her of the ashy soil of Solstheim. Great block and silver monoliths rose in the distance, and every now and again, the souls of people could be seen wandering around. There were wisp-like creatures as well, though they were most assuredly harmless. Auriel stifled a swear as one of them simply passed right on through her.

It wasn't as disconcerting as Apocrypha, but that didn't make it pleasant.

“...so far, this place is about what I imagined,” Serana muttered, glancing around uneasily. “Not a place we should spend a lot of time in.”

“Well, until we find your mother, I don't see that we have a great deal of choice,” Auriel murmured. “So let's keep going and see what we find.”

Moving farther in, they found walls, much like the kind that surrounded a city. And, in fact, that's what the place resembled once they walked through the place where a gate would normally be. 'Buildings' soared above their heads, some looking like nothing more than little floating islands. A blue-white light shone at the far end of the 'city', and without really thinking about it, that was the direction they agreed to go in.

As they got closer, something resembling lightning flashed down from the unnerving sky, though it landed nowhere near them. Where it struck, black-boned skeletons rose, and all too often, attacked. They were no tougher than the typical skeleton, but in swarms they were decidedly annoying.

The castle, when they finally reached it, was surrounded by a barrier of some type. Just inside the barrier was a woman. She wore her dark hair pinned back in a strict bun, and stood with her back too them.

“Mother?” Serana called. “Mother!”

“Maker.... it can't be,” the older woman breathed. “Serana?!”

Valerica was an older version of the vampire that Auriel had come to know, but there was a coldness to her that Serana lacked. Her eyes were a deeper red, no doubt from her enforced inability to feed off the living, and she carried the same air of noble scion that Harkon had, all but demanding that her greatness be acknowledge. She did not look pleased to see them.

“Is it really you?” Serana, on the other hand, was smiling. “I can't believe it! How do we get inside? We have to talk.”

“Serana? What are you doing here? Valerica demanded. “Where's your father?”

“He... he doesn't know we're here,” the lack of enthusiastic greeting had hurt, and Auriel noticed that Serana quickly hid that. “I don't have time to explain.”

“I must have failed,” Valerica sighed. “Harkon's found a way to decipher the prophecy, hasn't he?”

“No, you've got it all wrong!” Serana protested. “We're here to stop him. To make everything right.”

It was then that Valerica noticed Auriel, and her frowned turned even more severe.

“You brought a stranger here?”the older vampire demanded. “Have you lost your mind?”

“No, you don't-”

“You,” And Valerica beckoned imperiously. “I would speak with you.”

Auriel shrugged and stepped forward.

“Speak then.”

“Who are you, girl?”

Auriel had to put up with imperious attitudes all the time, but something about Valerica prodded her in just the wrong way.

“I am Serana's friend, Auriel,” she replied, folding her arms over her chest. “If you want to know more than that, you'll need to get more specific. I'd prefer to not, since we're kind of on a time limit.”

“Oh, of course, mortals don't have time to get that specific,” Valerica's tone dripped with condescension.

“Mother!” Serana protested.

Valerica ignored her. Auriel glanced over, and relented slightly; Serana's distress was all to plain.

“Look, I rescued Serana from the tomb she was placed in, and yes, brought her back to her father because she asked me to. I honestly didn't expect her to come to Fort Dawnguard-”

Dawngaurd?!” Valerica drew back, plainly offended. “How dare you come with my child, a vampire hunter like yourself.”

“At least I did it because I give half a damn,” Auriel shot back. “I didn't bury someone in a tomb for who knows how many years to keep Harlon away from an Elder Scroll!”

“You think I'd have the audacity to place my own daughter in that tomb for the protection of her Elder Scroll alone?”

“Neither of you are stellar parents. Frankly, I wouldn't be shocked.”

Valerica spluttered for a minute, glaring; Auriel just stared back, arms folded tightly over her chest. So far, she liked Valerica about as much as Harkon, and frankly she was expecting Harkon to end this particular venture as a proper corpse.

“If it wasn't to protect the scroll, what was it for?” Serana asked, sounding a little upset herself.

To her daughter, Valerica reluctantly gave ground. The overt anger faded, and she let out a tired sigh.

“The scrolls are merely a means to an end,” she replied grudgingly. “The key to the Tyranny of the Sun is you, Serana.”

Auriel's eyebrows went up, and she glanced over at the younger vampire, who seemed equally startled by the revelation.

“When I fled Castle Vokihar, I fled with two Elder Scrolls,” the older vampire explained, as she started to pace behind the barrier. “The scroll you found with Serana speaks of Auriel, and his arcane weapon, Auriel's Bow. The second scroll declares that 'the Blood of Coldharbour's daughter will blind the eye of the Dragon.'”

“...And Serana, being a made vampire by Molag-Bal, is a daughter of Coldharbour,” Auriel frowned.

“You know more than I expected,” Valerica said, eyebrows raising in surprise.

“I asked pertinent questions, and I know how to infer. I might not be immortal, but I am Altmer.” Auriel was silent for a moment, then frowned. “Ah. I think I see. If Harkon finds the second scroll and has it interpreted...”

She glanced at Serana; already pale, the vampire's skin seemed to turn almost translucent as she understood. Serana was the easily-reached pureblood vampire.

“Now you see why I hid her away to protect her, and why I took the other Elder Scroll as far away as possible,” Valerica nodded. “If Harkon obtained Auriel's Bow, and used Serana's blood to taint the weapon, then the Tyranny of the Sun would be complete. In his eyes, she'd be dying for the good of all vampires.”

Auriel scowled a little; Valerica could have brought Serana into the Soul Cairn as well, instead of leaving her to eventual discovery. That little oversight was why they were currently in the Cairn.

“So, how exactly do you plan on stopping him?” Valerica demanded.

“Well, first we need your scroll, because unlike you, we don't have the information it takes to finish things. Mind you, killing Harkon is probably a good place to start...”

“Hmph. You care nothing for Serana, or our plight. You're still a vampire hunter at heart, no matter what; you're here because we're abominations and monsters in your minds.”

“You're only half right; it's not your plight anymore. You've run away from it. It's now Serana's plight, and Serana's future. Here's a thought, instead of ignoring her, why not ask her what she thinks of me?”

“This stranger aligns herself with those that would hunt you down and slay you like an animal, yet I should entrust you to her?” Valerica demanded, finally turning back to her daughter.

“Auriel has done more for me in the brief time I've known her than you've done in centuries!” Serana snapped.

“How dare you! I gave up everything I cared about to protect you from that fanatic you call a father!”

“Yes, he's a fanatic,” Serana sighed. “He's changed. But he's still my father. Why can't you understand how that makes me feel?!”

“Oh Serana,” Valerica sighed. “If you'd only open your eyes... The moment your father discovers your role in the prophecy, that he needs your blood, you'd be in terrible danger.”

“Says the one hiding in the Soul Cairn,” Auriel muttered.

“So to protect me, you decided to shut me away from everything I cared about?” Serana shot back. “You never asked me if hiding me in that tomb was the best course of action, you just expected me to follow you blindly! Both of you were just as obsessed!. Your motivations might've been different, but in the end, I'm still just a pawn to you too!”

Auriel hesitated, then reached out and lightly rested a hand on Serana's shoulder. The vampire shuddered a little, then slumped slightly.

“I want us to be a family again,” she said softly. “But I don't think we can ever have that. Maybe we don't deserve that kind of happiness; maybe it isn't for us. But we have to stop him, before he goes too far. And for that, we need the Elder Scroll.”

The older vampire went silent, looking at Serana as though finally, properly, seeing her for the first time.

“I'm sorry, Serana,” Valerica said after a moment. “I didn't know.... I didn't see. I've allowed my hatred of your father to estrange us for too long. Forgive me. If you want the Elder Scroll, it's yours.”

“Do you have it with you?” Auriel asked.

“You I still don't trust,” the vampire woman sniffed. “But for Serana's sake, I'll help you. The scroll is secured here. It has been ever since I was imprisoned. Fortunately, you're on the outside, and can breach the barrier.”

“How?”

“Locate the tallest of the rock spires surrounding the ruins,” Valerica instructed. “At their basis, the energy is being drawn from unfortunate souls that have been exiled here. Destroy the Keepers that are tending them, and it should bring the barrier down.”

“All right,” Serana nodded. “We'll be back soon, Mother.”

“One more word of warning. There's a dragon that calls himself Durnehviir roaming the ruins. The Ideal Masters had proclaimed him protector of the Keepers, and he will no doubt intervene if you're perceived as a threat.”

Auriel grimaced.

“....right. This should be interesting.”

 

-

 

Interesting was the polite version; it was damned difficult, and Auriel spent the fleeting moments they walked between places to wish she'd been able to bring Farkas along as well. Each Keeper required a different strategy, and took a little more time with every one defeated. Auriel was muttering dire things about the rent in her shirt as they walked back; it was mostly just to make Serana smile, a feat at which she did partially succeed.

“You managed to destroy all three Keepers.” Valerica nodded slightly in greeting as they stepped into the ruins. “Very impressive. Follow me, and I'll give you the scroll. And keep watch for Durnehviir.”

Auriel nodded in understanding; the last thing they needed now was a pissed off dragon, though knowing their luck, it was precisely the thing they were bound to get. Naturally, she was right; as Valerica led them in, the dragon swooped in overhead, roaring his fury. It made Auriel revisit a desire to visit the Graybeards again, and have them teach her the actual language, without the power behind the words. Surely, there had to be a way...

Despite Durnehviir's ability to summon the skeletal creatures of the Cairn, he was, ultimately, no match for the three women. Auriel approached, wondering if she would be able to take in his soul, but not expecting it. Sure enough, he burst into flames of blue and purple, then vanished from sight.

Valerica stared in surprise at Auriel, who paused briefly to count the arrows in her quiver. Hopefully they would be able to leave before she ran out. When she realized the vampire was still staring, she raised an eyebrow, a little sardonically.

“Forgive my astonishment,” the elder vampire said after a moment. “I never thought I'd witness the death of that dragon. It appears the volumes written about him were mistaken.... Of course, there's also the option that he may simply have been disrupted for a short period, and may well show up again. Let's not wait around to find out.”

Valerica led them to a small alcove, where she unlocked a chest, and lifted out the scroll, which she then passed to Auriel.

“Now that you have this, it would be wise to be on your way,” the elder vampire said. “If there's anything I can do before you depart, you must let me know.”

“If you could help me get back the piece of my soul that we used as payment, I'd appreciate it,” Auriel said dryly.

“Hmph. That, at least, is simple. Your soul essence was trapped inside a gem. When you two entered, the gem was 'given' to the Ideal Masters as payment. You simply need to retrieve the gem; once you do, your soul essence will be restored.”

“....a clue to finding it might be nice.”

“There's an offering table not terribly far from here. I'm willing to bet that the gem you're looking for is there. Anything else? Could be your last chance.”

“You're staying here, then.”

It wasn't a question so much as a statement, and Valerica turned to her daughter; Serana wasn't quite looking at her, but there was no denying the hurt behind the question.

“I have no choice,” Valerica sighed. “If I return to Tamriel, Harkon's chances of success double.”

“As much as I don't really want to agree with your mother, she is right to remain,” Auriel said a little dryly. “There aren't that many pureblood vampires in Tamriel. You're with me, which makes you pretty much safe, but I doubt Isran would welcome her. She's not so nice.”

Serana scowled a little, let out an annoyed huff, and stomped away.

“After what I've put Serana through, I would understand if she never wanted to see me again,” Valerica said quietly. “I'll leave that choice to her. Remember, Harkon is not to be trusted. No matter what he promises, he'll deceive you in order to get what he wants. And promise me you'll keep my daughter safe. She's the only thing of value I have left.”

Auriel nodded lightly, and revised her initial opinion of Valerica. Maybe she truly did regret what she'd done. After a moment, she turned, and moved to catch up with Serana.

 

-

 

Really, seeing Durnehviir when they stepped out of the ruin wasn't that surprising. Serana looked ready to pick a fight, and reluctantly stood down when Auriel waved her off.

“If he wanted to try and kill us again, he wouldn't be waiting. I think he wants to talk.”

“If you're sure,” Serana muttered warily.

“I would speak with you Qahnaarin,” he said firmly.

“I see you're not dead,” Auriel replied.

“Cursed, not dead,” the dragon corrected. “Doomed to wander eternally in this form, trapped between laas and dinok; between life and death.”

“And you're speaking to me because...?”

“I believe in civility among seasoned warriors, and I find your ear worthy of my words. My claws have rendered the flesh of innumerable foes, but never once have I been felled on the field of battle.”

Auriel snorted a little; though he was not the first dragon with whom she'd spoken, he was somewhat more arrogant than the one she'd ridden in Apocrypha.

“I therefore honor-name you Qahnaarin, or Vanquisher, in your tongue.”

“....I will not lie, you were a tough opponent.”

“Your words to me great honor.” Durnehviir sighed. “My desire to speak with you was born from the result of our battle, Qahnaarin. I merely wish to respectfully ask a favor of you.”

Auriel cocked her head curiously.

“Ask.”

“For countless years I've roamed the Soul Cairn, in unintended service for the Ideal Masters,” he said bitterly. “Before this, I rode the skies above Tamriel. I desire to return there.”

“You can't?”

“I fear my time here has taken its toll on me. I share a bond with this dreaded place. If I ventured far from the Soul Cairn, my strength would begin to wane, until I was no more.”

“And you think that I can help you?” Auriel cocked her head. “How?”

“I will place my name with you,” he proclaimed, “and grant you the right to call my name from Tamriel. Do me this simple gift, and I will fight at your side as your Gra-Zeymahin, your Ally, and teach you my Thu'um.”

“Done.”

“Simply speak my name to the heavens, when you feel the time is right,” he bowed a little.

Auriel bowed lightly back, and braced herself as the force of his name hit her. A dragon as an ally would be hard to turn down, especially when it came to fighting other dragons. As they left, heading for the nearby alter so that Auriel could reclaim her soul, Serana gave her a worried look.

“You sure that was a good idea?” she asked.

“He didn't try to kill us, and he can come in handy. Why are you worrying?”

“Well....”

Auriel chuckled a little, feeling more cheerful than she had in several weeks. A dragon as an ally... oh, this had potential indeed.

 

Chapter Text

Ten

 

The relief in leaving the Soul Cairn behind was strong enough that the both elected to sit for a while, just relaxing in the chill air of Valerica's secret chamber.

“I wish she could have come with us,” Serana sighed a little.

“Honestly?” Auriel glanced at her friend. “I'm thinking you possibly should have stayed, just to prevent Harkon from ever getting his hands on either of you.”

“It wouldn't stop him, you know.”

“No, it probably wouldn't, be he hasn't found your mother yet, and it took him this long to find you. But,” Auriel shrugged a little. “I am glad you returned with me. That place was worse than Apocrypha.”

“...what do you think we should do now?”

“I think it's time to head back to the college and see what Urag might know. We don't have one, but again, if he doesn't know where one might be, it's possible he can direct us to someone who does.”

“Hm... good point. Ready?”

“As I will ever be. Let's go.”

 

-

 

They got lucky; no vampire groups attacked them on the trip to the College, and Auriel relaxed further once they were actually on the grounds of the college. It was one of her places of power, and no one crossed that bridge without facing protective mages.

“Urag, this time we need to get more specific,” Auriel said without preamble as she strode into the library. “I know we don't have one here, but have you heard anything about an Elder Scroll in Skyrim?”

“What are you up to?” he asked warily. “This isn't something like what Ancano pulled, is it?”

“No, no. It's... complicated, but we're working on prevention, not causation.”

“Well, I can get you all the writings he have on it, but who knows if they'll be of any use,” he grumbled.

“Anything is better than nothing.”

He sighed and got to his feet, and went to search the shelves. He only brought back two, and Auriel raised an eyebrow, shrugged, and started reading.

“....who in the world wrote Ruminations?” she asked after a moment, frowning. “I've read many a cryptic writing in my time, but this goes well into the lands of incomprehension.”

“That would be Septimus Signus,” Urag shook his head a little. “He's the world's master of the nature of Elder Scrolls, but... well... He's been gone for a long while. Too long.”

“Where did he go?”

“Somewhere up north, in the ice fields,” Urag shrugged a little. “Said he found some old Dwemer artifact, but that was... well, yeas ago. Haven't heard from him since.”

“Do you know where specifically? Like on the map?”

Auriel pulled hers out, and Urag frowned at it.

“I think he said it was around here somewhere. Good luck finding him. Hope he's not dead.”

“Yes, so do I. We are going to have a bit of trouble if he is,” Auriel nodded, and handed the map to Serana. “Remind me to tell Tolfdir to up your salary. You've quite thoroughly earned this.”

Urag grunted a little as they left.

“Ice fields?” Serana asked.

“We're going to need to borrow a boat,” Auriel grimaced a little. “I doubt even you would want to swim in this water.”

 

-

 

Eventually the ice floes got too thick to pole between, but by that point they'd spotted the small cave in which Septimus had undoubtedly holed up in. Auriel half expected a frozen body with maybe a journal or notes of some type, but no, the man was whole, and physically healthy. His mind, however, was an entirely different story.

“When the top level was built, not more could fit,” he said, flicking a glance at them “It was and is the maximal apex!”

“....All yours,” Serana said, holding up her hands.

“Thanks ever so much,” Auriel sighed. “Septimus? I need you to tell me about the Elder Scrolls.”

“Elder Scrolls,” he said, delighted. “Indeed! The Empire. They absconded with them! Or so they think. The ones they saw.” He scoffed. “The ones they thought they saw!”

Oh, this was just going to get ridiculous, wasn't it? He looked like he was waiting for her to show interest, so she obliged by leaning closer.

“I know of one,” his voice dropped to a whisper. “Forgotten. Sequestered! But I cannot go to it, not poor Septimus. For I... I have arisen beyond it's grasp.”

If this man wasn't touched by some manner of Sheogorath's madness, she would eat her hood. Still, even the mad held nuggets of truth and wisdom, and as long as she was gentle, she could probably get the help she needed.

Maybe. If she was lucky.

“I have need of it. Do you know where it is?”

“Here,” he said.

Auriel glanced around skeptically; the Elder scrolls were too obvious to ignore, but maybe she'd missed it?

“Well, here as in this plane. Mundus. Tamriel. Nearby, relatively speaking,” he giggled. “On the cosmological scale, well, it's all nearby.”

She sighed a little, exasperated, but refrained from shaking the man. The madness wasn't his fault, not really; any mortal being, isolated for so long, went mad. Maybe not always like this, but that was the usual outcome. Besides which, Sheogorath was far more exasperating to deal with, and she'd managed to do that before.

“Septimus. Please. Can you tell me where it is?”

“One block lifts another,” he grinned. “Septimus will give you what you want, but you must bring him something in return!”

“All right,” Auriel said warily. “What do you want?”

“You see this masterwork of the Dwemer,” he gestured to the giant cube, frozen solid in the ground. “Inside is their greatest knowings. Septimus is clever among men, but he is but an idiot child compared to the dullest of Dwemer. Lucky then they left behind their own way of reading the Elder Scrolls. In the depths of Blackreach, one yet lies. Have you heard of Blackreach?“

She frowned thoughtfully, then shook her head.

“Tell me about it,” she said after a moment.

“Under deep. Below the dark. Hidden keep. Tower Mzark. Alftand. Point of entry, of the topping. Delve to it's limits, and Blackreach lies just beyond. But not all can enter there,” he warned. “Only Septimus knows the key to jump below the deathly rock.”

“Will you give me this key?”

“Two things I have for you,” he nodded. “Two shapes. One edged. One round. The round one for turning. Dwemer music is subtle and soft, and needed to open their cleverest gates. The edged lexicon for inscribing. To us, a hunk of metal, to the Dwemer, a library of knowings! But... empty. Find Mzark and the sky dome! The machinations there will read the scroll and lay the lore upon the cube.” And he smiled. “Trust Spetimus! He knows you can know.”

Auriel took the two objects Septimus handed to her, then grabbed Serana by the back of her hood.

“Let's go. Before his madness makes me crazy too.”

Serana didn't laugh, and followed Auriel back up to the surface, where the redhead promptly shook her head repeatedly in an effort to clear it.

“What was wrong with him?” the vampire asked.

“He's been alone here for years, probably studying that ridiculous box for all of them,” Auriel sighed. “Spend enough time by yourself, and you become touched by Sheogorath. It's.... not terribly pleasant.”

“I guess not. Where's... what's the place he mentioned... Mzark?”

“I don't know of a Mzark, but I do know where Alftand is. It's actually not that far from here, and we should be able to reach it fairly quickly.”

 

-

 

Alftand was just as deserted as Auriel remembered, but now that she had reason to investigate, she did so thoroughly. A journal revealed that there had been a group of people at one point, not connected to the College, and further perusal—mostly in hopes of escaping the bitter wind and pelting snow—revealed a somewhat rickety path that lead into a part of the mountain. Since there was no other way in, they followed it.

The found signs of the adventuring group... most notably their blood-marred camp. Serana grimaced.

“Wonder what happened here...”

“Let's not ask,” Auriel advised. “We may find out the hard way, and I'd prefer not knowing, myself.”

They found out, but not from any living survivor. Frozen bodies, and small bottles empty of skooma suggested a sad story, though. How long they had been dead was anyone's guess, but undoubtedly it was more than long enough for them to have been given up on.

As they pressed deeper into the ruins, the working Dwemer machinery became more overt, replacing the ice and snow they had walked in on. A faint scent reached her nose and Auriel made of face. Right, those two things did go hand-in-hand...

“Stay on your guard,” she said quietly. “Not only are we likely to run into Dwemer machines, there's also Falmer down here.”

“How can you tell?”

“They stink,” Auriel said succinctly.

“You can smell them in this cold?”

“....right, I never did tell you, did I?” Auriel smiled briefly, ruefully. “I'm a werewolf.”

Serana blinked a couple of times.

“Oh,” she said. “But... I've never seen you change.”

“And I've never seen you feed, though I'm sure you do,” Auriel shrugged a little. “I didn't change by accident, I chose it. And since I chose it, my transformations aren't bound to any sort of lunar cycle. I can change when I want, if I want.”

“I see. You're a little like me then, aren't you?”

“Perhaps,” Auriel shrugged again. “Perhaps the only difference being that I chose it, and can purify myself whenever I'd like. Right now, the advantages outweigh any primal instincts.”

“I could... probably do that,” Serana said after a minute. “But I just... don't want to.”

“I know. Let's keep moving.”

The first part of the ruin was almost irritatingly loud with steam-power contraptions popping up every few moments. Almost getting clipped by one nearly knocked Serana into Auriel. Auriel snickered a little, and pushed the vampire back up onto her own feet.

“Dwemer ruins,” she grinned slightly. “A pain in the ass, but you eventually get used to them,”

“Personally, I'd rather not,” Serana sighed.

“Yes, I felt the same way, and yet look at how well that's gone for me.”

“How many have you walked into?” Serana asked.

“....I have honestly lost count. They're all over Skyrim.”

They eventually found quieter hallways, though the Dwemer machinery seemed to be working on as ceaselessly as ever, and Auriel found a place to rest. Stone beds were neither warm, nor comfortable, but the few hours of sleep she got were better than nothing, and she was more willing to continue deeper in afterwards.

On they continued, past noisy Dwemer pistons, through a door that led to steam filled rooms, and air that almost qualified as warm; it also smelled strongly of Falmer, and blood. The encountered more Dwemer constructs first, and it was satisfying to show that one precise shot with spell or arrow could knock the gyro askew just so, and the machine would fall. It was almost a game between them, to see who could take it out first.

If nothing else, it helped to break up the tense monotony of creeping through a Dwemer ruin, trying to find Mzulft.

“I will say this about the Dwemer,” Auriel murmured as they stopped so that she could have something to eat. “They built all of this to last.”

“Yeah... I wonder what these must've looked like, when they were operational and full of people?” Serana asked.

“Probably a lot more impressive than this,” Auriel replied wryly. “Divines know they probably wouldn't have let this place get covered in ice if they had the choice.”

Serana chuckled a little and nodded, and after a few minutes they moved further in. Eventually they came to a dead end, where the path had fallen away. Auriel glanced down, shrugged, and lowered herself over carefully; she had little desire to hit the dead orc body she could see below. Serana followed after, and sighed.

“No going back that way,” she said.

“Nope. We'll have to keep searching; Dwemer ruins always had two or three ways out at least.”

“We're just going to kill anything in our path, is that right?” Serana asked, raising an eyebrow.

Auriel smirked.

“It's always worked for me before.”

“...sometimes, my friend, you are downright scary.”

The redhead laughed.

“I'm quite pleased to be so. Now, we're getting into Falmer territory, so it's best to be as silent as possible from hear on in. They may be blind,but they've evolved in other ways to make up for it.”

Serana nodded, and followed. Sure enough, not more than two feet down the path, they all but ran into one. Fortunately, knocking it off the path worked much the same as it would for anyone else, and the creature tumbled to what was likely a painful death.

They moved down the path, taking two more by surprise, then slipped cautiously past a jet of flame that was pointed straight down. The heat of it, brief as it was, actually felt quite nice, and Auriel breathed out a faint sigh of wanting; she was missing Farkas rather fiercely at the moment, and wished Serana had been more comfortable with bringing him along.

The rooms beyond almost seemed like storage and cooking areas; there was even a spot that held a very modern alchemic set up, something that Auriel side-eyed warily. She held no doubts that the Falmer concocted all the potions and poisons they used, but it was somehow more unnerving to see it as a fact than a supposition.

The next room was just plain fun. Oil spilled on the floor lit up in a brief, lovely chaotic fire, killing most of the Falmer within. Serana mimed applause at Auriel's skill, and the elf bowed in a faintly mocking fashion. Unfortunately humor fled as the next room was revealed to be a torture room, and they found bodies. If Auriel had to make a guess, it was some of the exploration team, the ones who had moved into the ruins instead of being slaughtered at the cavern entrance.

“Falmer really don't play well with other races,” Auriel murmured.

“....so I see...”

“They must've used the lift over there to get them in,” the redhead continued. “So there's our first way out, if we need it. You all right?”

“Yeah. You?”

“I'm fine.”

They found a few dead Falmer on the path, and Auriel shook her head a little.

“There's at least two of the band still alive,” she said after a moment of sifting through scents. “Male and female. Insane, clearly, as they should've been getting out, not coming deeper in.”

“I bet they're both Nords,” Serana muttered. “That race has more battle-lust then sense.”

Auriel snickered in agreement, as they moved through the next set of doors.

 

-

 

To say that the hallways was booby-trapped was a bit of an understatement. The trick was finding a spot to step that wouldn't set the trap off. Auriel was fine, but Serana had a couple of close calls, and then the Falmer on the other side didn't take too kindly to their presence. Beyond those doors, the ruin expanded upwards, and Auriel stared in no small amount of awe. It took them both a moment to shake off the need to stare in wonder at Dwemer architecture, but fortunately enough, the threat of Falmer attack was capable of doing that.

The found the switch to lower the bars after the Falmer had been dealt with, so naturally their next challenge was a steam centurion. The defeat of the metal monstrosity gave them the key to the Alftand lift, which Auriel twirled in her fingers thoughtfully.

“And here's exit number two.”

They also found the two missing explorers, trying to kill each other. Auriel watched, then glanced at Serana.

“You were wrong. That one's a Redguard, and the other's an Imperial. Or maybe a Breton? Too short to be a Nord, either way.”

“Good thing we didn't wager on it,” the vampire said blandly.

The two humans were too involved in their fight to notice the pair of women, and Auriel saw no reason to get between them. They weren't her people to look after, and she felt sure that Blackreach was close. As blades and shields clashed, she found the spot for Septimus's little ball, and slipped it in. Stone grated briefly, then sank down softly, becoming stairs that lead down to a door.

She glanced at Serana, who was eyeing the humans hungrily, shrugged, and went down the stairs; she didn't care if the vampire woman fed on them so long as she didn't come to harm.

Her first sight of Blackreach made her stop short in awe; it almost defied description. Glowing mushrooms stood twelve feet tall, and tendrils of their light hung from the ceiling. Water poured down in luminescent waterfalls, and the black ceiling far overhead bore patches of glowing moss, much akin to stars. She stood still, taking it in, and almost jumped a foot when Serana spoke up.

“It's amazing,” Serana murmured. “To think there was all this beneath the ice...”

“A city beneath a city....” After a moment Auriel shook her head. “I am definitely going to have to return here.”

They did their best to move in a mixture of speed and stealth; the last thing either woman wanted was the delay a grand battle would cause. At the same time, leaving the marvels of the underground world was almost sad.

“Mother would love this place,” Serana said softly. “After we.... well, after. I have to bring her here.”

“I may even join you, as long as she promises to not eat me or my husband,” Auriel said dryly.

“I'll make sure she's well-fed first.”

Eventually they found their exit on the far end of Blackreach. A lift took them up to the Tower of Mzark, and they took the time going up to brush the worst of the luminescence from their hair and clothing. It seemed inclined to stick, clouds of glowing spores more like dust than anything else; they were both in dire need of a bath, and Auriel vowed silently to take one as soon as she could.

The room they stepped into had clearly not been used in a long time. A thick layer of dust covered everything that had not molded or rotted away, and both Auriel and Serana had to deal with brief sneezing fits as they looked for anything that might be of use.

“How long do you think it's going to take to get clean again?” Serana asked, tucking a corner of her hood over her mouth in a bid to avoid stirring up more dust with further sneezing.

“Too long,” Auriel replied, pulling up her own facemask. “Lots of water, lots of heat. Ugh.”

Pulling open the doors led Auriel into a room that brought up all sorts of memories. She almost expected to see the Synod mage she'd killed stomping around the odd Dwemer mechanism. That was preposterous, of course, but it was a very similar set up.

Placing the lexicon that Septimus had given her into the receptacle activated the mechanisms, but with no clear instructions, all Auriel knew to do was to keep pushing buttons until something worked. Eventually, however, things seemed to align properly. The lexicon opened briefly, revealing inner workings of bright blue, and then another push of a button had it closing. The central pieces all slid outward, and the piece that held the scroll came down. Auriel grabbed the lexicon, and hurried down to pull out the Elder Scroll.

“That's it,” Serana sighed in relief. “That's the last scroll! Let's get them to Dexion.”

“Happily,” Auriel sighed. “Oh, so, happily.”

 

Chapter Text

Eleven

 

 

The first sight of Dexion made Auriel stop short.

“Oh no...”

“Ah, you're back,” he smiled a little ruefully. “You had a successful journey then?”

“Yes,” Serana said, then peered at him. “Your eyes are covered...”

“I'm afraid I can no longer be of use in the matter, my friends,” Dexion sighed a little. “I neglected the careful preparations required to read a scroll in my haste to read the first one. I thought I'd be able to allay the after effects, but... I was wrong. Now I'm paying for it.”

“What? What happened?” Serana asked, confused.

“He's blind, Serana,” Auriel sighed. “It my fade in time, it may not. Either way, we're going to have to find some other way of reading the scrolls.”

“How much are you willing to risk to find Auriel's Bow?” the Moth Priest asked. “Because there is another way.”

“We've come this far,” Auriel said after a moment. “Tell me what we need to do.”

“I can't guarantee you'll be free from harm,” he warned. “Becoming blind could be the least of your worries.”

“It's my risk, Dexion. Tell me.”

“Scattered across Tamriel are secluded places known as Ancestor Glades. There's one here in Skyrim, in the Pine Forest. Performing the Ritual of the Ancestor Moth inside the glade should provide the answers you seek.”

“What's involved in this ritual?” Auriel tipped her head a little.

“It involves the careful removing of the bark of a canticle tree, which will, in turn, attract the Ancestor Moths to you. Once enough of the moths are following, they'll provide you with the second sight needed to decipher the scrolls.”

“Carefully gather the bark of a canticle tree,” Auriel frowned slightly. “How do I go about do this?”

“In keeping with tradition, you must use a specific tool in the Ancestor Glade. An implement known as a draw knife. Every Moth priest is taught this ritual, but few ever get to perform it. You should consider yourself lucky... if it works for you.”

“What about the scroll?” Serana asked. “Should... should they be read in any particular order?”

“From what I saw in the vision, the Elder Scroll which foreshadows the defiance of the gods with the blood of mortals is the key to the prophecy.”

“Dexion, that doesn't tell us which scroll we need to use,” Auriel said dryly.

“I'm sorry,” he smiled ruefully. “That is all I can offer. I hope your journey goes safely.”

“So do I...”

The blind priest reached out, and Auriel shifted a little so that he could pat her shoulder before leaving, then made her way out of the fort.

“So, where are we going?” Serana asked.

“Falkreath most likely. It's the only place other than the Rift that has forested area. Pine specifically... we'll probably be partway up a mountain.”

“You're... not very happy about this, are you?”

“Not really, no. It just seems to be getting more and more complicated. It would be nice if things could go smoothly for a change.” Auriel sighed a little. “Though I suppose that's too much to ask, all things considered.”

Serana smiled ruefully.

“Yeah, well, it can't get-”

“Don't finish that,” Auriel grimaced a little. “If someone's listening, it'll be construed as a challenge. We really don't need that.”

“Not feeling terribly optimistic?”

“I prefer the term realistic,” Auriel snorted. “Blind optimism can be kin to foolishness, and I greatly doubt that we've reached the worst of it. That, I think, will come when we search for the bow. And of course any challenge that may follow after...”

“Do you ever stop thinking?” Serana asked after a minute.

Auriel smiled ruefully.

“My whole life is based on staying three or more steps ahead of the people who want me dead. So, no. Not really.”

“I don't know whether to be impressed or.. feel sorry for you,” the vampire admitted.

“Be neither. It is a skill I picked up out of necessity. I do not regret it, but there are days where I do not appreciate it either. Now, come on. The faster we're in Falkreath, the sooner we can find this glade.”

 

-

 

It took time to track down the Ancestor Glade. They were pointed at the Pine Forest easily enough, but between vampire attacks—Harkon had to be tracking them somehow. He was having far more luck at finding them than the Thalmor had ever had tracking her—and the challenges of the forest itself, they found the path more by luck than anything else.

The glade, when they finally reached it, seemed small at first. There was no sign of anything that looked like a canticle tree, a draw knife, or a moth. Serana made a slightly disparaging sound.

“If this ends up being a wasted trip, your friend Dexion and I are going to have some words when we get back,” the vampire complained.

Auriel frowned a little, studying the area, then made her way across the fallen log. This was too small to be such an ancient place, and she could feel the power buzzing nearby. A small stone corridor led them into the actual glade, and both women stopped to stare.

“Wow,” Serana breathed. “Look at this place... no one's been here in centuries. I doubt there's any other place like it in Skyrim. It's beautiful.”

Beautiful it was; set between mountains, the glade had flourished due to the gap in the ceiling that let in shafts of sunlight. The trees soared overhead, and yellow wildflowers dotted the ground; carefully they made their way down rumbling, moss-covered stairs, as little brown moths fluttered heedlessly around them.

The canticle trees and draw knife both were at the center to the glade, and Auriel gingerly scraped some of the bark off, hoping that it wouldn't damage the tree any. The moths didn't swarm to her, but when she walked near some fluttering around, they immediately moved to swirl around her.

“Look at that,” Serana giggled a little. “They've definitely taken a liking to you.”

They were lovely moths too, pattered mostly in shades of subtle brown and cream. As she walked around, more swarms joined her, and the air began taking on a peculiar feeling. A subtle anticipation. The moths landed on her in some places, and tickled her face and ears with their feet. It took some effort to keep from swatting at them, or shaking her head too hard.

When she ha gathered a handful of swarms, Auriel looked towards the sunlight that spilled down and winced; it was almost blinding in its intensity.

“You think it's enough?” Serana asked.

“Maybe. I'll try.”

Auriel moved carefully down to the light, took a deep breath, then pulled out the scrolls. They left patterns in the air when she unrolled them, and her breath caught as visions assailed her mind.

A map overlay. Once. Twice. Three times. Directions to a cavern as the map properly took shape, became landmarks she recognized. She thought she traced the path to the cave, but caught in the timelessness of the scrolls, she couldn't be sure.

Light flared, blinding her. Released from the visions, Auriel staggered, and Serana caught her arms gingerly, trying to avoid flattening any of the moths that had landed.

“Are you okay?” she asked worriedly. “You went as white as the snow... I thought you were dying there for a minute.”

“That....” Auriel shook her head weakly, unable to offer up the right words. The moths, their job done, fluttered away; the smallest tickles now gone left her feeling oddly hollow.

“You looked about a thousand leagues away,” the vampire said, shifting her grip now that the moths were gone. “Do you know where we can find the bow?”

“D.... Darkfall... Darkfall Cave,” Auriel said woozily.

“Then it's almost over,” Serana sighed in relief. “We can finally put an end to this ridiculous prophecy! Where is Darkfall Cave?”

“It's... up in the Reach.... close to Markarth. I can lead us there.”

“Well, then we should get going,” Serana said firmly. “That's a long way to travel, and we need to move before we get tracked down again.”

“....You're a bit late there, Ser,” Auriel murmured, pointing. “They have already.”

“What?”

Serana turned, then pushed Auriel out of the way. As the Altmer was in no condition to fight, she kept her head down as Serana dealt with the intruding vampires. When it was over, she returned and helped Auriel back to her feet.

“You really need to rest,” she said worriedly. “Is there a nearby place where you can do that?”

“Lakeview.... my house. It's.... it's not far. I just need to clear my head some.”

“Okay, yeah, come on. You can barely stand, let alone walk. Let's go rest there for a while.”

Auriel nodded, worn out by the effort of reading the scrolls, and allowed Serana to help her start back up the path to the exit of the glade.

 

-

 

It was a surprise to find Farkas at Lakeview, but not an unwelcome one; he took one look at both of them, then hefted Auriel into his arms, leading the way into the house.

“You two look like you've been moving for weeks,” he said quietly.

“You wouldn't be far wrong,” Serana replied.

“Auri?”

“M'okay,” she murmured. “Just... tired...”

She was just aware enough to be aid instead of impediment when it came to changing, but the moment her head touched the pillow, she was out. She drifted in the world of dreams for a while, images chasing themselves around in her mind; dragons, words of power, strangely colored bows that glowed with a pearly light, the same bows glowing a sickly red that reminded her too much of dried blood.

She catapulted awake as the light abruptly grew to blinding, and was caught by Farkas, who kept her from falling out of bed by the simple act of pulling her into his arms. She shivered briefly, briefly pressing her face against his shoulder as she fought to catch her breath

“....how long was I out?” she asked once she felt calmer.

“A while,” he murmured, smoothing her hair gingerly. “You okay?”

“Mmmmm, no. Not really,” she sighed. “Reading an Elder Scroll, being chase by vampires, and tracking a weapon known as Auriel's Bow.... no, definitely not okay.”

He nuzzled her gently, hugged her softly, and she let herself be soothed for a few minutes before she leaned back.

“As much as I enjoy this, I really shouldn't linger,” she said apologetically. “I've probably set us behind more than a little because of this.”

“Do you have like... some sort of spell on this place?” Serana asked, poking her head through the doorway. “Because we've been here for a couple days, and I think it's the longest we've gone without dealing with my father's minions.”

“....Now who's being pessimistic?”

Serana grinned, and shrugged.

“You still look pretty tired. I think we can stay for a bit longer.”

“You should eat something anyways,” Farkas urged gently. “You're too skinny.”

Auriel couldn't help but laugh a little ruefully; she really hadn't been taking care of herself all that well lately. Skimping on sleep and food to keep going didn't work terribly well for adventuring. She allowed herself to be talked into a large meal, and then pushed back to bed for some more rest.

It was nice to spend time with her husband again. Serana didn't seem to much mind the delay either; she was fairly impressed by the setup of Lakeview, and the number of books Auriel had collected kept the vampire very happy for the few days it took to recover from reading the scrolls. Farkas was solicitous, and cautious; he was trying to stay out of Serana's way and at the same time, not bother Auriel if she didn't want his attention.

It was actually a little amusing. When they left at last, both women were refreshed and relaxed, ready to return to the fight.

 

-

 

Darkfall was like most other caves, dark and damp, with the occasional smattering of light. They found their way more by touch than sight, eventually making their way to a dead end with a river rushing below, and a rickety bridge that led to nowhere.

“Down?” Serana asked.

Auriel sighed.

“So it would seem.”

“On three?”

“Might as well...”

They jumped down into the icy water, and then had to fight with the current to keep from being bashed into the hard stone of the walls or the riverbed itself. Eventually they were roughly deposited into the shallows where they both laid for several minutes.

“Remind me to never do that again,” Serana groaned.

“Somehow, I don't think you'll need it,” Auriel replied, sitting up with a wince and pulling her tunic off to wring out the worst of the water.

There wasn't a chance in hell she was walking down a dark cavern while squelching. Knowing their luck, they'd also end up back into frozen snow and ice; she hadn't been ill in a long while, and she preferred to keep it that way. Serana mimicked her, muttering dire things under her breath that made Auriel chuckle a little. She wasn't Farkas, but Serana was a good friend.

They found, eventually, a dry path. It was somewhat better lit, due to someone having set up torches and a brazier recently, as well as a still flickering campfire, though there was no one alive around it.

“Why would anyone want to set up camp here?” Serana asked.

“I'm more impressed that they found a way in that didn't involve getting bruises,” Auriel replied dryly. “Since they only thing here appears to be bodies, we can take it over and finish drying off before we have to deal with the trolls.”

“Trolls?” Serana made a face.

“Trolls,” Auriel nodded. “Probably what killed them, the poor fools.”

“Well, I'm in favor of drying off, but what then?”

Auriel tipped her head slightly; while the scrolls had led her to the cave entrance, it hadn't given her anything about the interior.

“Let's try the lower path first,” she said finally. “At the very least, we can double back if it's a dead end.”

They dried off properly, then headed down, following the planted torches and tipped braziers until they came to an underground lake, the place where the trolls made their home. Unlike the adventurers, neither woman was inclined to have such a threat hanging over their heads, and soon enough all the trolls were dead, enabling them to explore in safety.

They found, at the far end of the lake, something that looked to be a small shrine... and a mer of no race either had seen before. At their approach he turned to face them; both women stopped short, hands dropping to weapons warily.

“Come forward,” he said genially. “You have nothing to fear here.”

He was pale as the snow, with golden eyes, his white hair cropped short, and he wore armor of a type that Auriel could not place. He was taller than her by several inches, though he carried himself with a somewhat mournful, almost diffident air that made him seem smaller.

“I am Knight-Paladin Gelebor,” he introduced himself, bowing slightly. “Welcome to the great Chantry of Auri-El.”

“This... cave is a temple to Auriel?” Serana asked.

The humor under the question made Auriel snort a little and elbow her friend.

“Auriel, Auri-El, Akosh, Akatosh,” he shrugged a little. “So many different names for the deity of my people, the Snow Elves.”

Auriel blinked as her mind tripped over his words. Snow elf? He was a Falmer?

“...you certainly don't look like a any Falmer I've ever seen,” Auriel said after a stunned moment.

“I prefer Snow Elf,” he said, his tone shifting from warm to terse. “The term 'Falmer' usually has a negative meaning to most travelers. Those twisted creatures you call Falmer, I call the Betrayed.”

After a moment she just shook her head a little; it was no secret how the Falmer had come into existence, and she couldn't blame him his choice of moniker. It was just going to make her head hurt for a while...

“I hope you know why we're here, because the tale could be a while in telling,” she sighed a little.

“Of course. You're here for Auriel's Bow. Why else would you be here? I can help you get it, but first, I must have your assistance.”

“Of what sort?”

“I need you to kill Arch-Curate Vyrthur.... my brother.”

Auriel blinked a few times. Apparently this whole encounter was going to be nothing but surprises. It helped that Serana seemed just as startled by the request, though she elected to remain silent.

“You want me to... what? Why?”

“The kinship between us is gone. I do not understand what he's become, but he's no longer the brother I once knew. It was the Betrayed... they did something to him. I just don't know why Auri-El would allow this to happen.”

“Expecting protection from a god will be a long wait for a ship that may never dock,” Auriel said after a moment.

“So what did they do to your brother?” Serana interjected.

“They swept into the Chantry without warning, and began killing everyone without pause,” Gelebor replied tightly. “The Chantry was a place of peaceful worship. I led a small group of paladins, but we were no match for the Betrayed's sheer numbers. They slaughtered everyone, then stormed the inner sanctum, where I believe they corrupted Vyrthur.”

“...how can you be sure he's alive then?” Auriel asked.

“I've seen him. But something's wrong. He never looks in pain, or under duress.... he just stands there, watching. As if he's waiting for something.”

“And you never tried getting into the Sanctum to ask him?”

“Leaving the wayshrines unguarded would be an abandonment of my sacred duty as a Knight-Paladin of Auri-El,” he sighed. “And an assault on the Betrayed in the Inner Sanctum would only result in my death.”

“Well, at least you're sensible,” Auriel shook her head a little. “What, pray tell, is a wayshrine?”

“Here, I will show you.”

His hand glowed with a soft light as he turned and approached what looked to be a shrine buried in the earth. The spell rang softly as it struck the sun symbol at the top, and Auriel stepped back as the entire thing slid smoothly upwards, revealing blank inner walls, and a small, dry fountain at its heart.

“Incredible,” Serana murmured moving in for a closer look.

“This structure is known as a wayshrine,” Gelebor said. “They were used for meditations and for transport when the Chantry was a place of enlightenment. Prelates of these shrines were charged with teaching the mantras of Auri-El to our initiates.”

“What's the basin in the center signify?” Serana asked.

“Once the initiate completes his mantras, he'd dip a ceremonial ewer into the basin at the wayshrine's center, and proceed to the next wayshrine.”

“So these initiates had to lug around a heavy pitcher of water? Marvelous. How long would they have to do that?”

Auriel stifled a snicker, though not the wry smile of agreement. At least Serana was getting more involved, asking the questions that needed to be asked.

“Well, once the initiate's enlightenment was complete, he'd bring the ewer to the Chantry's Inner Sanctum,” Gelebor explained. “Pouring the contents of the ewer into the sacred basin of the Sanctum would allow him to enter for an audience with the Arch-Curate himself.”

“All that just to end up dumping it out?” Serana's expression was skeptical. “Makes no sense to me.”

“It's symbolic,” Gelebor said with heavy sarcasm. “I don't expect you to understand.”

Auriel covered her mouth to hide her smile as Serana rolled her eyes.

“So, let's get this straight,” Serana frowned a little. “We need to do all that nonsense to get into the temple, so we can kill your brother and claim Auriel's Bow?”

“I know how it all sounds,” he sighed. “But if there was another way, I'd have done it long ago. The only way to get to my brother is by following in the initiate's footsteps from wayshine to wayshrine, just as they did. The first lays at the end of Darkfall Passage, a path that represents the lack of enlightenment.”

“What's this place then, the starting point?” Auriel asked a little sardonically. When he nodded, she sighed. “How many are there?”

“There are five in total, spread far apart across the Chantry.”

“....are they all in caves?”

“Oh no,” he smiled a little. “The Chantry encompasses far more than a few caves, as you'll soon discover. But before I send you on your way, you'll need the Initiate's Ewer.”

He passed a silver pitcher over to Auriel, who hooked it to her belt. A lid would have been nice, since she had little doubts they were going to end up in fights whether they wanted to or not.

“We need to fill this at each wayshrine then?”

“Once you've located a wayshrine, there will be a spectral Prelate tending to it,” Gelebor nodded slightly. “They will allow you to draw the water from the shrine's basin, as if you'd been enlightened.”

“All right,” Auriel rubbed her face briefly with both hands, then nodded. “We should be off then.”

“This may be the last time we're able to converse,” he warned. “If you have any questions before you leave, I suggest you ask them. Otherwise, all I can do now is grant you my hopes for a safe journey.”

Auriel shook her head slightly, and headed up the steps; she had few doubts that she would see him again at the end of things. All her questions could wait until then.

 

-

 

A portal deposited them in Darkfall Passage. They stepped out of the ruins of a shrine, and started moving into the cavern they'd been deposited in. Strange creatures lit up the hall, then vanished as they approached. Auriel was fascinated, and couldn't quite keep herself from stepping back and forth, just to watch the creatures appear, then vanish.

“The number of things I could learn,” she murmured.

“Bow first, studying second,” Serana reminded her.

“Yes yes, yes yes.”

Along with the strange glowing creatures, the rocks themselves seemed to hold lines of luminescence. Auriel found herself wondering if it was paint, magic, or more plantlife. It reminded her of what she'd seen in Blackreach, but somehow... more.

Naturally, there were Falmer. Or rather, the Betrayed. It was hard to reconcile the vicious creatures with someone like Gelebor; the Falmer killed anything that wasn't their own race or a charrus, and seemed to lack any sort of refinement. While it was true that most of this lay at the feet of the Dwemer for causing it, the idea that the Falmer could ever be what Gelebor still was... well.

The cavern and tunnels were, unfortunately, full of them. Still, there was also an odd sort of beauty to be found among the dangerous aspect of the cavern. Flowers Auriel had never seen bloomed with glimmering light, and a purple moss seemed to blanket a good portion of the ground. Auriel had to wonder if it was the work of the Falmer, their forebears the Snow Elves, or simply a natural evolution.

It made her wish that she could have shared this trip with Farkas as well. He would have enjoyed it.

Great blue stones cast more light as they went further in, and Auriel wished she dared pause to try and grab even a small one as a sample. At the least she was able to grab several of the flowers. They were beautiful, and if they lasted, perhaps they could be transplanted.

A bridge through a waterfall allowed them to continue the journey; Auriel muttered a few choice curses on the other side and had to take her boots off so that they could drain properly before they moved on. She refused to squelch in a place where Falmer dwelt.

More traps and creatures were circumvented, until they reached an immense cavern, where the oddest of the odd was finally revealed. Deer, their hides patterned with bio-luminescent fur roamed the cavern. They weren't so bad; the sabre cats were far more dangerous. Despite being pattered like the deer, they managed to hide better, and Auriel stifled a swear as one seemed to just appear once it pounced on its meal.

“....makes you think a little of Blackreach, huh? Serana murmured coming up behind the elf. “Though we never saw anything like that...”

“Small favors; Blackreach was troublesome enough without sabre cats. Look,” and she pointed as they crossed the stone paths. “I think that's our first wayshrine.”

“Good!” Serana said with relief. “Just four more to go after this. Hope you don't spill the jug.”

“If you jinx me, I'll make you carry it,” Auriel retorted.

Serana made a face, and they made their way down gingerly; one brush with a poison spewing plant was enough to convince both of them it was worth avoiding, and the only way to get across seemed to be a convoluted path from the bottom up.

“Welcome initiate,” the spectral prelate greeted them. “This is the Wayshrine of Illumination. Are you prepared to honor the mantras of Auri-El and fill your vessel with His enlightenment?”

“Yes,” Auriel sighed.

She turned out the rest of his words, and rubbed her forehead wearily, glancing up only as the shrine was activated. She filled the ewer with a bit of water, then stepped through the open portal to the next shrine.

 

Chapter Text

Twelve

 

The cave they found themselves in led up and out, into a valley that mixed the glowing plants of the cavern with the more normal, everyday plants of Skyrim. The air carried a bite to it that was almost reminiscent of the Throat of the World, but Auriel thought she smelled water close by.

“Where are we?” Serana asked.

Auriel just shook her head.

“Undoubtedly off of any map we've ever seen,” she murmured softly. “I am so going to have to return here after we've found this bow.”

There were ruins in the valley, and the way they were laid out suggested that there had, at one point, been a path. Seeing as they had little else to go on, they followed the pieces of what had once likely been a well-tended and grand place. It was sad to see it such a mess, and Auriel couldn't help but wonder how it had once looked.

The path led them upwards, into cold, crisp winter air, and into a small pass guarded by a handful of spiders. While not terribly pleased, with the spiders, they were no more difficult to defeat than they had been innumerable times before.

Eventually the pass led back out into another valley, this one more normal and snow covered. If not for the fact that Auriel was looking for things unknown, she probably never would have spotted the book, half-hidden under the snow.

“What is it?” Serana asked.

“It's... written in the Snow Elf language,” Auriel sighed, carefully flipping the pages. “I'll have to take it back to the college and see if Enthir, or Urag can translate it for us. It will wait, however. Look, I think I see our next shrine.”

“Like it'll be that easy,” Serana snorted a little.

“Well, hush then, and let's find out, hmm?”

They did end up having to backtrack, for the shrine that had walked right on past in the valley was the Shrine of Sight, and until they went there the Shrine of Learning would not open. They were the easiest of the five shrines to reach. Their rough guide of ruins led them up to a lake that seemed frozen, but made alarming popping and creaking noises when stepped upon.

“Does this ice feel a little... thin to you?” Serana asked hesitantly.

“It does, but I don't see much of a choice about crossing it,” Auriel said grimly. “Hopefully it's solid enough-”

Ir probably shouldn't have been a great surprise when two dragons burst out from underneath, knocking the two women to the ice. It cracked and groaned alarmingly, but held under them as they scrambled up, and back, dodging blasts of frozen breath.

It was a fight that could have gone very badly, if not for Auriel summoning Durnehviir. While he distracted one, she and Serana were able to deal with the other. The summons lasted just long enough for them to take down their dragon before Dunehviir faded out, returning back to the Soul Cairn and leaving them a badly wounded second dragon that still managed to keep them on their toes before it died, and Auriel was able to claim the power from both.

After that, however, they stuck to the edges of the ice. Which was how they found a Word, without the typical word wall.

“This trip is not going anything like I'd expected,” Auriel muttered, shaking her head a bit to clear it from the unanticipated acquisition.

“Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?” Serana asked.

“It's a troublesome thing, smart ass.”

“Well, someone's got to keep the mood light. Come on, there's our next shrine.”

It was the Shrine of Resolution. By raising it, not only did they get their fourth filling, the portals enabled them to move far more swiftly around the valley. Not that there was a portal that opened to the Chantry itself. Serana sighed a little in disappointment, and Auriel chuckled ruefully.

“You too, hm?”

“Well, it was a hope, but it was also a longshot,” Serana sighed. “I suppose we should be lucky we got this far without spilling any of the water.”

“Especially with those dragons,” Auriel nodded a little. “I think if we take this bridge, we might find a way through, though.”

“Might as well try it,” Serana nodded. “Good thing you're not afraid of heights.”

“Never have been, never will be,” Auriel chuckled.

The bridge led them upriver, and straight into Falmer territory. Keeping them from spilling the ewer was not the easiest thing in the world, but there was little choice; there was only the one path, and it went straight through what seemed to be a village. As night fell, Serana paused, and glanced at her.

“You look tired... maybe we should stop and rest.”

“Bad idea. Falmer territory means they'll just keep coming, and there's no point in trying to sleep with them lurking,” she said quietly. “Best to just press on and hope there will be a safer nook farther up.”

“...all right, if you're sure,” Serana replied.

“Mmhm. Now hush.”

There was no escaping the creatures, of course; every step forward led them deeper into Falmer territory. They left bodies behind them, strewn like ragdolls across the paths. It was exhausting work, and Auriel found herself going somewhat emotionally numb. Later she would feel a modicum of sympathy for them—maybe—but at the moment they insisted on being in the way, on attacking, and there was no other option.

The mountain paths eventually led them to a cave from which the river seemed to be sourced, and they went in warily; it was mostly ice inside, at least on the ledges they attempted to walk on. And the water, when the did have to go in to cross the cavern, was the sort of cold that made everything go numb in seconds. Taking their time to dry off and warm up after made them slow down, but it was better they go slow than slip on the ice, or lose body parts to the cold.

For once, she was glad that her hair had been cut short; it froze quickly, but wasn't in too much danger of breaking off in chunks. It would need some careful tending—so would all of her, really—when they returned to the warmer parts of Skyrim, but it was one less thing to worry about.

The slipped and slid across the ledges, occasionally going onto hands and knees for better balance and grip. The ice was not their friend; between it and the Falmer traps, it was more a wonder that they managed to get up as quickly as they did.

“Better at making traps than making bridges,” Serana muttered. “What a strange race.”

Auriel nodded, though her attention was more focused on not sliding back down the ice. If this kept up, they were going to have to start using daggers to keep from slipping, and that was just wrong. Though if there was some humor to be found in the situation, it was that the Falmer occasionally had the exact same troubles. Watching them slip on the ice was worth a good portion of the fight to stay upright.

Finally finding a path that was more snow than ice, and led out into a narrow canyon was such a relief that they agreed to sit and massage aching muscles. It was hard to hold a non-slipping angle, and to scramble up without falling over layers of ice. Once they caught their breath and gotten the worst of the cramps out, they pressed on, even deeper into Falmer territory. Auriel was reminded very intimately of the Dwemer ruin where she, Karliah, and Bryn had all finally tracked Mercer. Unfortunately, this time there wasn't really much of a choice to avoid these creatures; they would simply have to kill them all.

There was no low road or high road here. Just the road, and unfortunately for most of the way they were killing Falmer. Auriel didn't even notice when the sun came up, and paid little mind to how cramped her fingers were getting, or how much her arms ached. They were not safe, they could not stop, she could not rest.

Eventually the road shifted, and led them down, though not for long. Making their way past more huts they found themselves traveling upwards through a dim pass. And fighting upwards through a dim pass when an errant noise meant they were caught.

To their surprise, at the top they found yet another Wayshrine, with another prelate waiting outside of it. It seemed almost blasphemous that they should encounter no more after fighting for so long, but the area was deserted, and so they wearily approached the spectral prelate. It was the Wayshrine of Radiance and it was the final shrine. Auriel was so tired that she almost curled up in the shrine itself, and possibly would have, if turning around had not revealed the Chantry to her.

The sun was behind the temple, giving it an ethereal glow; for a few moments, Auriel felt almost bathed in warmth. Something about the place called to her, whispered softly to a part of her that wanted to be at peace again. Serana muttered something under her breath about the sunlight that Auriel ignored, though she crossed the bridge as quickly as her aching legs would allow in deference to her friend.

They stepped into the courtyard, and she looked up at the immense bronze statue, briefly unable to comprehend what she was seeing.

“This is a statue of Auriel,” Serana said after a moment. “But it's usin