There was a light dusting of snow – the year’s first – on the ground when they reached Labyrinthian. Marcurio had immediately taken shelter in a funny little stone cupola-like building just inside the main gate. Alexa, meanwhile, had gone off to make sure no new trolls had moved in since the last time she had visited and Marcurio had set about clearing debris off the floor and starting a fire. It wasn’t long before Alexa was back, announcing that she’d decided she wanted to take a look at Shalidor’s maze and that he could stay where he was, in relative warmth and safety.
“What about the person we’re supposed to be waiting for?” Marcurio asked, gently trying to remind the dragonborn that they’d come to this particular ruin for a specific purpose.
“If the courier made good time I’d expect him to arrive in the next hour or so as he’s just coming form Morthal. Oh, one thing. His sense of humor can be a little inappropriate,” she warned. “Just don’t take anything offensive he says too seriously.”
“I hope you’re right,” Marcurio muttered as Alexa disappeared again. “I get bored very easily.
Marcurio heard the muttered curses long before he saw the Altmer stumble into view.
“You traveling with thane Alexa?” the elf asked, from just outside the door to Marcurio’s now pleasantly warm hideout.
“I am,” Marcurio nodded and indicated the other man should come in.
“Well thank the gods for that,” he announced dramatically as he flopped onto the sabre cat skin on the ground across the small cook-fire from Marcurio.
“Earmiel,” he introduced himself. “Consulting mage in Morthal.”
“Marcurio, mercenary out of Riften,” Marc replied.
“You’re not sleeping with her, are you?” the mer asked.
“With Lexi?” Marcurio blinked. Why did people keep asking that? “No, thank the eight. I mean, she was enough of a handful even before learning she’s dragonborn.”
“Alexa’s really the dragonborn?” Earmiel asked slowly.
“Oh… I, uh, guess you hadn’t heard that yet. But, yes. Crazy ability to absorb dragon souls confirmed! Also, she’s married now and has taken to dying her hair purple. That’s new too since the last time we went exploring together.”
Earmiel gave him a considering look. “Married to whom?”
Marcurio shrugged. “Don’t know. The only things I do know are that she doesn’t think I’ve ever met him and her dremora summon doesn’t seem to think the relationship is exclusive.”
“Not that sourpuss from the Companions then. That’s something at least. Do humans usually allow their summons to have opinions on their love lives?”
“No. Not that I’ve ever met a summon that would voluntarily talk to me either. I just figured that was another oddity about being dragonborn.”
“So where is she?”
“She said something about taking a look at Shalidor’s maze. Apparently with all the times she’s been through here she hadn’t bothered but now was the moment!”
“Typical,” Earmiel sighed.
“Hey guys,” Alexa laughed, as she and Meeko slid into the little building with them a scant hour after leaving to check out the maze. “Looks like I’m an Archmage now!” She held out a circlet for them to see.
“Is that a Diadem of the Savant?” Earmile asked, clearly stunned.
“I think so,” she replied, looking it over carefully.
Earmiel reached across the fire and cuffed her across the top of her head. “Do you even know what you’ve done?” he demanded.
“Nothing all that difficult,” she muttered, rubbing the top of her head. “I’m surprised Shalidor thought all that was necessary to be an Archmage was the ability to use a few staffs.”
“No,” Earmiel told her firmly. “The magic of the labyrinth, not the difficulty of the trials, decides if you are worthy.1 The unworthy are simply returned to the entrance or stranded somewhere within the labyrinth without even undergoing the final trial.”
“Are we really surprised that a magic maze would find the dragonborn worthy?” Marcurio asked him sourly.
“But there hasn’t been a reported success in centuries!” Earmiel responded. “If you’re really the dragonborn you need to keep a low profile, Lexi!”
“You call her Lexi too?” Marcurio asked in surprise.
“Yeah, okay, worry wart,” Alexa grumbled. “You want to go see this thing?”
“Yes,” Earmiel answered emphatically. “I would very much like to make it back to my own house before dark.”
“You coming Marc?” Alexa asked.
“No thank you. I think Meeko and I will stay away from possible time altering weirdness.”
“Alright, how does this work?” Earmiel asked, looking at the crumbling ruin around him.
“I’m not entirely sure it will. I’ve never tried taking a living thing with me before,” Alexa admitted. “Hold my hand and we’ll see.” She grabbed his hand, pulled the wooden mask down over her face, and…
It was suddenly a warm summer afternoon and the shrine around them was no longer a ruin. Each of the skylights in the domed roof neatly framed a sun at its center. That was certainly… unusual. It also indicated – as Alexa had suggested – that this place was either an incredibly complicated time anomaly or a pocket-plane. The shrine was also full of strange odds and ends neatly placed on the shelves.
“What are all these things?” he asked, looking around him.
“Trophies from my adventures, and a few things I didn’t know how else to lose in a way that wouldn’t turn them loose on the unsuspecting,” Alexa replied easily.
“The book on the lectern. It’s the alchemical text from a cult of Vermina. The things in the chest by the bookcase are artifacts from the Mythic Dawn, including robes and the sheath of Mehrunes’ Razor.2 I donated all four volumes of Camoran’s commentaries to the College of Winterhold’s collection when I got there.
“And this?” he asked lifting a knife which looked like an ebony dagger but was clearly made of something… organic.
“Careful with that! That’s Nettlebane. It was being used by hagravens to sacrifice spriggans when I acquired it. It is the one weapon that can harm the Eldergleam tree and, I think, it’s the one weapon that might be able to actually kill the Hist – not just the trees it resides in.”
Earmiel put it down carefully before turning to stare at her. A choice of expression made somewhat less effective by the fact she was still wearing the mask.
“Look, where else would you want me to put something like that?” she asked, in an annoyingly reasonable tone. “If it were possible to destroy it would have been long ago. And I certainly can’t keep it at the College. I’ve already caught the Thalmor ‘advisor’ there going through my things. Giving him access to something that could utterly destroy Argonia doesn’t seem like the best of ideas.”
“Alright, I get it, you’ve been using this place for your personal dragon hoard for a while now.”
“About two years, give or take,” she nodded.
“Take us back,” Earmiel sighed.
“One thing first,” she said, pulling Rahgot’s mask out of her bag. “I think this goes here,” she slipped it on one of the busts. It fit.
Earmiel frowned at that. “Why?”
“The ninth mask, Konahrik, is stored in the dragon skull. I think it was meant as a way to make sure that only the person all eight dragon priests agreed on could attain the last mask.”
“Ah. You trying to collect them all?”
“No. Just not interested in carrying them around with me. They’re associated with some really terrible things I’m trying to avoid remembering right now.”
“What?” Earmiel asked, confused.
Alexa removed the wooden mask and they were back in the cold of early Skryim winter. “When I kill a dragon I absorb their memories,” she explained, letting go of his hand. “The Dragon Cult is something best forgotten.”
Earmiel winced in sympathy. “So you say that skeleton over there was a skeleton when you found it here two years ago?” he asked.
“And yet you met a guy just a few days ago working in conjunction with this one, who didn’t know he was dead yet?”
“I think it rather unlikely the second man had been trying to get the dragon mask in question for more than two years.”
“Yes, most people would have given up in that time. I will need to think about this. Let's head back to Morthal. I have a nice, warm, house there.”
“Do you have a theory on the dead man?” Earmiel asked, as he mixed up a hot toddy3 for each of them. Marcurio and Meeko had elected to go to the inn rather than have drinks with Earmiel.
“I do,” Alexa answered. “But I don’t want to influence you’re thinking on the subject.”
“Alright,” Earmiel smiled. “So what was the maze like?” he asked, handing her a mug and settling himself into the other chair in the room.
“Labyrinths technically – two of them connected by an underground space – not a maze,4” she informed him. “Pretty boring really. A lot of walking broken only by the occasional gate that had to be opened with a spell. There was a word wall though. So I guess that’s something.”
“Oh, right. So you know those walls I told you about that chant in the dragon tongue?”
“Turns out the Greybeards think the best way for me to learn to speak dragon is to go read them all.”
“That… sounds annoying.”
“What did it say?”
“Noble Nord, remember these words of the / hoar father: Fearnot the specter of / death, for he is the herald of glory / and your guide to great Sovngarde,” she recited morosely.
“Well, it that’s the secret of life I’d like a refund,” Earmiel groaned.
“Yeah… if the Glamoril was in the labyrinth somewhere, like everyone seems to think, I certainly didn’t see it. Though it could be I’m just not worthy.”
“Sweetling, if a daughter of Auriel, given his own weapon, is not worthy of the secret of life, I doubt anyone else ever will be.”
Alexa burst out laughing and then batted her eyelashes at Earmiel. “Dear sir, you flatter so.”
“Oh please, we both know you can do better than that,” he smirked.
“When it proves either necessary or appropriate,” she acknowledged.
“So, I hear you’re married,” Earmiel offered in an offhand manner.
“Wow, that was a terrible segue,” Alexa laughed, managing not to choke on her mead-tea. “Would you like to try again?”
“No. But I wouldn’t mind an answer.”
“I am,” she answered simply.
“I see you’re still adventuring…” he prodded.
“Never stopped,” she replied.
Earmiel groaned dramatically. “Details woman! Give me details! I mean the least you could have done was invite me to the wedding so that I would be on hand to console all those poor disappointed men you undoubtedly left behind. But noooo, you were only thinking of yourself on your big day… I forgive you, of course. But I must have details!”
“And if I told you I have literally no memory of the event?” Alexa asked in a tiny voice.
“Well… I accepted a bet that I couldn’t outdrink some guy at an inn. He was already pretty far-gone so it didn’t seem like a big deal. Turns out he was actually an avatar of Prince Sanguine and I spent the next ten days running around Skyrim blackout drunk. When I woke up, I was married. My new husband and I seem to get along well enough so we figured we’d give it a try.”
“I’m not. I’ve even added the Sanguine Rose to my collection of things not to leave home without.”
Earmiel was quiet for a moment. “This wasn’t just before Helgan, was it?” he asked, eyes narrowed slightly in concentration.
“It was. Why do you ask?”
Earmiel was quiet for a moment as he clearly considered something. “No reason,” he answered finally. “You been to Markarth lately?”
“A couple weeks ago, why?”
“Just wondered if you’d told Dolly yet.”
“That I’m married? Is there some reason I should?”
“I just… kind of hoped you and Dolly...”
The little Breton gave a delicate snort. “As if that superiorly bred mer would have anything to do with a mutt like me.”
“Do you think Dolly really cares about that?” Earmiel asked, startled.
“Yes,” she answered simply. “He cares deeply about serving his people and he can’t do that with an inappropriate romantic attachment.”
“You are a beautiful and intelligent woman, a gifted mage, and an exceedingly proficient political operator,” Earmiel told her. “What part of that makes you ‘inappropriate’?”
“You mean aside from not being a pureblood Altmer?” she asked. “I am the dragonborn.”
“Arguably that makes you more directly descended from an aedra than any Altmer, not less,” Earmiel pointed out. A frown creased his brow as he watched her fiddled nervously with her mug rather than answer. “Lexi, my dear,” he began, leaning forward to cup his hands around hers, effectively pinning her hands between his and the mug she was holding, ending her ability to fidget. “What’s bothering you?”
She swallowed, and looked up, meeting his eyes. “Some would also say that it makes me the rightful Emperor of Cyrodiil, perhaps even of all Tamriel,” Alexa told him softly, finally admitting aloud to the one thing she’d been avoiding even thinking about since she’d killed her first dragon. “I don’t think the Thalmor are likely to approve of that.”
That was something Earmiel hadn’t considered, and probably true. He gave a resigned sigh and let go of her hands. “Alexa, you need a plan. The Thalmor are not to be taken lightly and I’d rather not see the day that Ondolemar is forced to sign the order for your execution.”
She burst out laughing. “When a Thalmor agent signs the order for the dragonborn’s head, which they absolutely will,” she told him, “it won’t be someone as lowly as the Second Emissary to Skyrim. And it won’t be handled by a bunch of Justiciars.”
“That,” he allowed, grudgingly, “is an excellent point. But it doesn’t change the fact you need a plan.”
“Any suggestions?” she asked, clearly not really expecting a response.
Thankfully he’d had more than a week to think about it – since his conversation with Dolly – and so had one ready. “Have you considered getting Dolly to upgrade your status to ‘asset’?”
She blinked in surprise. “What good with that do?”
“He’d be your ‘handler’, meaning he’d be the one officially determining the level of threat you pose to the Dominion and any complaints about you, from other Thalmor, would have to go through him.”
“I’m not a spy, Earmiel,” she told him.
“By my last count you’ve got four Jarls, the Companions, the inner circle of the Thieves Guild, and the Commander of Skyrim’s Justiciars wrapped around your little finger. You’ve also got the ear of more than one daedric prince. If you can’t turn that into the occasional chatty newsletter about absolutely nothing then I have significantly overestimated you.”
There was quiet between them for a while as Alexa thought about that. “Marc tell you I’m the dragonborn?” she asked finally.
“He may have mentioned it,” Earmiel admitted with a smile.
“Men are such gossips around you,” she noted a little absently. “Though I suppose that does make you an ideal spy. Kudos, by the way, to whoever sent you. Or did the Commander request you specifically?”
“I believe I told you I wasn’t in that business.5”
“You did. Doesn’t mean I believed you,” she answered.
“Then surely you know that, if you’re right, I would never actually admit to knowing what you’re talking about,” he countered.
She looked him over, searchingly, her face serine. “Just because someone else sent you here doesn’t mean I wont use you, you know that, right?”
He smirked slightly. “A Breton with only a quarter of a century under her belt thinks she can use a man she claims is a trained Altmer spy? That should be interesting to watch.”
“Lucky for you then that you’ve got front row seats at that particular show.”
“So what does the prologue of this production look like?” he asked, leaning in excitedly.
“Prologue?” she asked archly. “What makes you think we’re not already well into the first act?”
He laughed and topped off her drink with some more mead. “Hey, I still haven’t had a chance to study one of those chanting walls yet. You wouldn’t be visiting another one, around here, would you?”
She pulled out her map. “I haven’t visited High Gate Ruins yet,” she said considering the area around Morthal. “It’s from about the right time period to have a wall in it. And I’m sure Marc wouldn’t mind a day of resting at the inn here while we go check it out.”