They recognise the place as quickly as they start to feel an itch on their face.
As quickly as the appropriate dread starts to fill them at the recognition.
They should not be here.
They should not.
They swore they would not come back here.
They couldn’t be here now.
A mixture of dread, confusion and righteous fury burned through them at this – as they contemplated whether they should grab a weapon or prepare some magic…only to realise, as they looked down, that there was no weapon there.
And the familiar, comforting, dance of mana could not be made to flow upon their fingers.
All that happened, was the uncomfortable itch spreading – enough so that the corner of an eye and their mouth started to twitch with the effort to ignore it.
It looked like they were going to have to find some way out again on their own.
They at least knew how it worked.
They just needed to find the book.
Eyes narrowing, they started to turn around to look for it, gauging a direction to go-
“Have you not yet learned?”
Came the familiar, horrifying voice that it was only a matter of time before it came to them again.
A drawling, tired sort of voice, as if you were not quite important enough for them to bother fully stirring from a deep slumber.
A drawling voice, filled with an unmistakable measure of power, thrumming and clinging to every bit of each syllable.
“Look around as you wish. You know what you will see.”
The dragonborn stared defiantly up at the eldritch abomination above them.
A hard task, with the inky, writhing blotches’ evershifting eyes.
And the dragonborn’s own heart starting to beat that bit more.
They had seen many a horrifying thing and not batted an eye at it.
They had faced down the world devourer, halted a vampire older than the Empire, stopped the first of their kind and gotten drunk with “Uncle Sanguine”…but there was something else terrifying about Hermaeus Mora.
Not the eyes or the voice.
“Nothing, without me.”
Not the fact he could swat them like a gnat.
“Come, my champion. Come closer.”
It was that.
That and the wretched memory of a man, their kin they supposed, name Miraak – and what he had made of them.
They tried open their mouth to refuse – protest that they had not come here willingly, he could hold no domain over them.
Only to find that nothing would work their either.
Hands flung to their throat as they tried at least desperately to say something, anything – only for not even a gasp to work its way out.
Not their voice!
The weapons – even the magic – were one thing.
But they couldn’t lose their voice!
He could not take that from them!
Lapping darkness started licking at their feet, ink growing and rising, as their face twisted into a furious snarl, desperation just beneath the surface of their eyes, if they wondered it was now that he had chosen to collect upon what he saw was his-
And then they woke up.
Flying up with a yell on their tongue, blowing out the tree nearest where they slept – and awakening Serana too, with a nasty start.
They breathed deeply and rapidly, as she came over, asking what was wrong.
As they forced the panic back down, eyes scrunching shut as they forced themself to just cool it.
It was a bad dream.
That was all.
They did not need to fear him…not yet.
He would not get his tendrils on them.
So, they best just do what they always do and get on with everything.
One slain monster and recovered artefact at a time.
And then they were back.
The very next time they sank back down into a slumber.
The inky blackness they doubted could be called water, having also risen further since.
Now claiming their waist.
And the unbearable itching having crawled it’s way down to their neck and shoulders.
But this time at least, they would not be cowed.
Simply once again meeting the many eyes with their narrowed ones.
“I will not be cowed by what is not real.”
It was a sincere surprise to them, to the point that they weren’t even sure if they actually had or not, that their voice seemed to be working this time.
“So sure are you, dragonborn, on what it is that you think you know.”
“That I am. I am many things, but I am not a fool who will be quaking at imaginary phantoms.”
“Many things you are, my champion. But all knowing is not one of them. Were you, you would never have come to me.”
The dragonborn stared to give a slight scratch at the worst of the itch on their face then, unable to completely ignore it.
But they kept their gaze steady.
“I did not come to any phantoms in my head. I had a deal with the actual Hemaues Mora, which is now concluded. He has no more sway over me than you.”
He could not make them do anything. They would not be his new Miraak. Never. They would not bend their knee.
No expression, of course, could be made from the writhing blotted mass – but the atmosphere changed, there was a shift in it, almost like a slight change of mood.
One still not decipherable, but there.
“I have warned you before. You are not the first to have thought as you do. Clung, so tightly, to such a frail illusion. I have still been there. I have still broken them all.”
Mouth opened once again to spit out a retort at that, bravado at how many before had thought them so easy to manipulate – but there was a wet, ripping sound then, that cut them off before they could start.
Like two pieces of meat being pealed away from each other, before one slab was put on a fire to burn.
As a dampness started trickling down their face, oozing out over their hands, a dot of red dripping out into the deep black below – swallowed in an instant by it, insignificant, tiny, with no chance whatsoever at resisting that unfathomable tide.
“Do you remember what else, you are?”
Them waking up was much less violent this time.
They simply opened their eyes, glanced around – then let off a deep sigh.
Tiredness still clinging deep to them.
They hoped their mind doing it’s best to horrify them didn’t continue for too much longer: they couldn’t afford to keep losing sleep like this.
But, well, they were awaken now – so they best get up for today.
Serana likely already would be, with her sleep schedule: perhaps they would get a chance to just talk then.
That would certainly be….most pleasant.
They got up then, stretching out and hearing joints that had been scrunched up in this too small bed crack as they did.
Once again as they rolled their shoulders back.
A sound they admittedly did like, it was …satisfying.
But that done, they got up and started heading to the door and-
The itching they’d felt in the dream came back with a nasty vengeance.
With an annoyed and pained grunt, they went to try vigorously scratch it away, hoping they’d not just inadvertently slept somewhere with fleas.
All the same, they opened up the door and stepped out into the main body of the inn. No sign of Serana though, they realised, as they tried spot her.
And it was just then, that the wet ripping sound came again.
Only this time there was pain, incredible pain like you’d expect when a massive hunk of your flesh is ripped off of your face.
Landing on the floor with a wet thwap.
But that, wasn’t why they screamed.
That was the other pain, as the itching then roared to feel like they were on fire, spreading and spreading throughout until they were burningburningburning-
Blood-soaked fingers furiously raking their nails through their skin, unable to stop themself as their mind screamed to get the burning skin off, off, off!
Faintly, they could hear the innkeeper yelling- but all they were saying back, desperately, was for a person they trusted even more intently than the agony ripping through them: “Serana!”
They stumbled out towards the door as they did, scrambled mind thinking how the snow just might help, as more hunks of them tore off.
Worry flared deeply for Serana too then, as they toppled outside and she still made no response.
That wasn’t like her.
Wasn’t like her at all.
Had something happened while they slept?!
Something had apparently gotten to them after all, as this burning couldn’t just be bed bugs.
And people knew she was with them…they swore, if somebody had even tried hurt her-
They wavered then, even then as their body broke apart, on whether to try go into the snow or go back to try find her.
It was no choice at all.
Teeth gritting, they reached out to reopen the door to go try find her-
Only to freeze, as they stared at a gash on it from where skin had been torn from, even as they continued to itch and tear away with their other one.
Or rather, as they stared at what was underneath it.
Baked in blood, the colour was a mystery…but the texture…
They couldn’t process it.
They refused to process it.
The rough, scales that now peaked out from where they had torn from their skin.
Scales, like that they had worn before on armour.
Each gash, peaking out.
Some areas, there was just about no skin left.
Just draconic scales, coating the mangled limbs.
A broken, wretched gasp – as almost as if on cue to this realisation, bones began to crack.
Leaving standing an option, no longer, as the mighty fell down into the cold ground.
They tried once more to call for Serana, hoping to at least here her call back this time – but instead spat out blood and teeth as they felt their body warp.
A shriek filled the air in response as those nearby wavered, as if unsure on whether to help or run.
They did run with the second shriek though – an animalistic and thunderous sound, piercing through the air loud enough to make the world feel like it quaked, as they reared up.
Smashing down hard enough for another quake, ground cracking beneath them with the weight.
Weight of body and…
Arms warped. Twisted out and spread. Fingers and bone and skin now having warped into-
This time, the scream was not in pain.
That, seemed to have faded away now. Certainly to a level manageable for someone capable of taking as much brutal punishment as them.
This time, the fresh shriek was out of something they felt about very few things – pure and utter terror.
Terror, as they were forced to realise and scream out of a fanged, lipless mouth about what had somehow happened to them.
What couldn’t have somehow happened to them.
It couldn’t! It couldn’t have!
But their warped, now malformed body that somehow felt….
For the first time in their life. They very, very first time.
Squirming, crawling in their own skin, spending so long wondering if it was perhaps guilt at something or just not being good enough.
It didn’t fit. It never fit. Their own flesh never fit – no matter what else changed, that never did.
That nagging, incredible itch that they had to learned to ignore and to push away.
An itch, that even as they stumbled and shrieked and fought to try comprehend what was going on, they couldn’t help but notice was gone.
For the first time ever, they somehow felt right.
A part of them, singing oh so, so sweetly from within this body of scales and claws and wings – how wonderful this was.
Flesh fitting their soul.
At last. How it should b- No!
No. No this wasn’t right. And it wasn’t wonderful. It didn’t feel wonderful.
Just look at all the panic already caused!
It wasn’t, no matter how much, it felt…it felt…they needed to…
They couldn’t think what to do. They had to go back. They needed to go back.
Damn it all!
Panic climbing and climbing and climbing and climbing like up a most treacherous mountain-
Mountain! Paarthurnax – perhaps he would know something! He of all people had to!
He had to!
They just had to-
A panicked, wild swoosh of an – oh please, please no – a tail, smacking into a building with a crack as the wall shattered, the building coming down with it and piling on top of them: them letting off another panicked yell as the sharp shards jabbed into their flesh and they took in the damage they caused.
Just as instinctually they tried move back, only to stumble over themself – falling to the side, as they failed – or perhaps more, deeply and subconsciously in their mind, refused - to account for being bipedal no longer, legs not being the same and arms warped into wings getting int the way.
Another building fell, with that stumble.
And with harsh yells guards had by then already started collating together, rearing up swords and bows alike, as they started their attack.
Metal piercing and jabbing into their flank, as swords swung and arrows flew.
A deep seething rage started to cloud over their mind then, so strong and sudden that fighting it was like fighting against a raging storm with nothing but a raft.
Growing and growing with each pierce of arrow and sword.
How dare those tiny little things attack them?
How dare they?!
Do they now know who they are? Do they not know all that they have done for them, as they lived out their in safety?!
And now they would dare attack them?!
A raging roar, as they lifted their head upwards and prepared to yell, their own undeniable power thrumming behind it, to get these ungrateful, insignificant people away from them!
The rest of it died in their throat then, as finally they reached that moment – that clarity, in the eye of the storm, in just what they were truly doing.
Who they were yelling at.
That dreadful realisation, was enough to prevent what would have happened, had they finished their yell.
But even so, with what already had been spoken…all they could do was watch in horror, as the guard in front of them burned.
Metal and flesh searing and melting.
Flames licking over and setting the wood of the building behind alike, aflame.
Watch in horror and recoil in further horror, as a feeling of deep satisfaction pried in at the corners of their mind –
A satisfaction, saying, how this was only right.
How they were supposed to be and do, as a dragon.
They pushed that right back, shoving it out as far as they could do – no.
No, that was not them.
They’d stood against dark sentiments before.
Dark, terrible things.
As had others and if Paarthurnax could not only do it too but help teach others to do it, then they would not fall to their base urges!
This would not be them! They would not allow it! Not ever again!
And yet here they were. A town starting to burn and a man already dead.
A whisper floated through their mind, in the second between nightmare and waking, a whisper of a drawling voice they wish they had never heard at all, had only they somehow been able to face Miraak without it –
“You also, are a dragon. You also seek to learn how to bend the world to you. And for that, one day, my champion, you will return to me.”
The worst part of this mental assault, the dragonborn later had to concede to Serana, as they sat with a mead in hand – were the questions it left.
As much as they held tightly to the fact that it was most likely some twisted dream their mind had concocted – there was still a part of them that wondered, if that was indeed the case.
Or if….as had once been spoken to them - “Your free will is an illusion. Whether you acknowledge me or not is your own business. But I will be in your mind.”
A rattling concept, worse than the pain of ripping flesh and cracking bones, that they wanted to be able to be rebuked.
They hated that.
They hated that with a vehement passion.
That whether this was real or not, in this case – Hermaeus Mora, had…well, he’d won.
In a way.
Resentful as it was to come to that realisation, he had.
With how much they wanted to know now, a question that could best and perhaps only be answered by him.
Although, they would never ask him.
That much was still the case, no matter how much that fear was present.
They would not give him that victory.
They would take this stand still, no matter how much pain might come their way.
For they were dovahkiin and they would not be cowed.
Nor would they bend.
“Be warned. Many have thought as you do. I have broken them all. You shall not evade me forever.”