That Captain Valmir and his barely veiled scam still ran in circles through my mind. If he was really a Stormcloak, we’d have a problem. And we’d have a problem too if he was not. I wondered why he made me so suspicious, why I instinctively didn’t believe that he was what he claimed to be. If it was because he was an Altmer, or because of this haughty arrogance he didn’t even bother to hide.
I wondered if an attitude like that was an inherent Altmerish quality, just like that housecarl in Riften had developed his very own peculiarly Nordic variety of insufferableness.
Because of course they weren’t all like him, other mer I knew were different. Loreius, a farmer not far from Whiterun, was married to an Altmer, and although she was an exotic sight in her tall slenderness, with this golden skin and bright orange eyes when she came to Whiterun to sell her produce, she wasn’t treated differently from all the other merchants. Mer of all kinds lived in Whiterun, and they just belonged to the community.
And one of them just threw little crumbs of dry bread at me. They slipped behind the collar of my armour and tickled.
No way this guy was older than twelve.
“What are you brooding about?” In the light of a single torch, Athis’ face only consisted of sharp angles and deep shadows, accentuated by his white warpaint and the deep red shimmer of his eyes. It was familiar, and still it was so incredibly alien.
We sat leaning on opposite walls, chewing on a few dry biscuits. I propped my elbow on my knee and my chin in my palm. “May I ask you something, Athis?”
“Of course.” He sounded slightly puzzled.
“I wanna know… why this guy out there is such an ass and you are not. I mean… you’re both mer. I mean…” my voice trailed off. This wasn’t at all what I wanted to know. It was a silly question.
He seemed slightly puzzled. “Should I be more like him, or he more like me? And why?”
I shook my head. “Forget it. It was…” I wasn’t interested at all in Captain Valmir, I realised. I was interested in that guy across of me. “Why are you a Companion, Athis?” I blurted out. “I mean… Ysgramor waged war against your kind. Wuuthrad was an elfslayer. And… we’re something completely Nordic. How do you fit in there?”
He gave me a thoughtful, slightly amused look. “You humans and your addiction with history.” He chuckled. “Do you know how old I am, Qhouri?”
I shook my head. Of course I had thought about it, but I had never dared to ask.
I could just take a number. Any number. I knew elves could get ancient, but Athis… sometimes, he behaved as if he was barely grown-up, and then he revealed a wisdom that made me feel as if I had learned and experienced nothing so far. “Hundred?”
His lips quirked. “Wrong, but better than many others. Some people estimate me somewhere in my 30s. Often younger than Vilkas and Farkas, certainly younger than Kodlak or Vignar.”
“But you aren’t.”
“No, I’m not. I’m 297 this winter. When I was a lad of 100, the Oblivion crisis was barely over and my homeland was destroyed by a falling moon. And I’m not old, for my kind. There are mer – Dunmer – who have lived thousands of years.”
He took in my bewilderment with an amused smile. Such a lifespan… how was it possible to live through it? What had he seen and experienced? How many people had he seen die? And how could it be that he appeared so normal – so mortal?
“Does it matter, Qhouri?”
I gave him a feeble smile. “I… don’t know. I mean… I knew you were older than me. Probably older than all of us. But… 297. Wow.”
“No, it doesn’t matter,” he said sternly. “It only means that I’ve seen a lot more than you during my life. That I remember things you have to read about. And it means that I’ve learned to adapt to the changes in the world. It’s what we do. We go with the tide of times, and we see how the world changes. But in the end, that’s what we all have to do, especially in times like this.”
“But… isn’t that hard? To see eras end and everything turned upside down? To see people age and die? Wouldn’t it be easier if you were amongst your own kind?”
He folded his hands behind his head and stretched out his legs. “Yes, perhaps it would be. I’d like to go to Solstheim one day. Or perhaps, one day, I can even return to Vvardenfell.” He chuckled lowly, but his voice sounded wistful and nostalgic when he spoke on. “You know… nearly thirty years ago, I thought to join the Companions would be a challenge, after the war and the mess the Dominion had left behind. I wanted a challenge, I wanted to start over after decades of travelling and fighting for causes that weren’t my own. But it wasn’t. Askar didn’t find it strange at all that a homeless mer wanted to join. He was a liberal and curious man, and he gave me this chance without much thinking. Of course I wasn’t the first mer to become a Companion.”
“I know,” I threw in, “there were even elven Harbingers.”
“Aye. The Companions have changed over the eras as well, very much so. Their codex is simple but strong, and it allows them to adapt. Today they may sometimes appear like a bunch of drunken rubble, but they’re good people who know their place in the world. That Ysgramor waged war against the elves of Skyrim… that’s long gone and over. New challenges worth fighting for are waiting, and the Companions are up for it. Like the return of the dragons, for example. Perhaps it’s really a turn of times, the start of another new era.”
“That’s scary.” I shuddered.
He laughed lowly. “No, it isn’t. It’s just… change. You Nords have been the first humans on Tamriel, and you’ll probably also be the last, because you’re bullheaded to a fault. You don’t do things by half. The world should be thankful that the dragons decided to reappear here and not somewhere else.”
“Some people say we’re far too superstitious to be truly civilised. And far too emotional.” My master in Cheydinhal had said that, an Imperial himself, a picture of cultured understatement and sophistication. On the outside.
“Whoever says something like that is a fool.” He gave me a gentle smile. “Did you know that the Nerevarine was a Nord as well?”
“Yes, a guy from Solstheim. I’ve only seen him once… he had a hard time with our Ashkhan when he needed the tribes’ support. We weren’t very hospitable back then… nobody thought he’d survive the trials. But our Wise Woman liked him…” He chortled.
“I wish you were the Dragonborn, Athis,” I said with a sigh. “Or someone like you. You’ve seen so much… I know nothing, and I just stumble through this whole mess and have no idea what I’m doing.”
“He didn’t either, Qhouri. It is rumoured that he came to Vvardenfell as a prisoner of the Empire. Just like you came back to Skyrim. And still he became Azura’s Champion, defeated Dagoth Ur and destroyed the Heart of Lorkhan. A simple boy from Solstheim.”
“And he destroyed Vvardenfell in the process.”
“True, many hold that against him. But he couldn’t know what would happen when he severed the source of the Tribunal’s power. Perhaps they knew… and perhaps it was better that he didn’t, or he might have faltered.”
“So… you think it’s better to run head first against a wall instead to think beforehand of the consequences?”
“Yes. Sometimes walls have to be knocked down, and your Nordic bullheads work just fine for that kind of job. Let others take care of the rubble.”
“But it will still hurt.”
“You’re a Companion. Companions don’t ail just because of a bit of a headache, or we’d get nothing ever done.” The broad grin that spread over his face belied the harshness of his tone. And then he leaned forwards, his expression suddenly serious.
“I tell you something, Qhouri. I know much less than I’d like about all these Nordic mysteries that are unveiled at the moment… but I believe that you will get done whatever is necessary. And that this job is in good hands. You’re the Dragon of the North, after all.”
His words sent a shiver down my spine, and at the same time they filled me with warmth, because it was so easy to believe him. There was no reverence or awe, just a simple acknowledgement. He had seen and experienced so much more than we humans – I understood that a few mythical beasts suddenly appearing in a secluded corner of the world couldn’t evoke the same terror in him they caused in us Nords. And somehow, this was very soothing.
“Promise me something, Athis?”
“That you’ll still be here in three years. And that we’ll have the biggest birthday party Whiterun has ever seen!”
He laughed lowly. “When is your birthday, Qhouri?”
“In winter too. 28th of Morning Star.”
“Then we should celebrate my 300th and your 30th together, don’t you think?”
At least now I had something to work for.
If we had taken it literally when Valmir said that the ruins were haunted, I wouldn’t have screamed in terror when the first ghost materialised right in front of me – as much as a shimmering form of translucent, chilling mist could be called “materialised”. For a single moment it appeared as if it was confused and disoriented. And then it attacked with a wail, swinging an axe that made unsettling solid contact with my shield. When my mace crushed in a knee-jerk reaction against its head, it felt as if it plunged into a pillow – and at the same time I felt incorporeal bones break before the thing crumpled into a heap of glowing dust.
I shuddered, shaking myself to cast off the weird sensation. Athis just shrugged and dropped into a crouch. We’d have to be careful.
Forelhost was a distinctively Nordic ruin and therefore familiar, but it wasn’t a tomb like all the others I had visited so far. People had lived here in seclusion for more than a hundred years, and we found everything that belonged to such a settlement – living rooms, a large kitchen, storerooms, workshops, an alchemy laboratory and a forge.
And in one wing the dormitories, long lines of cots, every single one of them occupied. The skeletons lying on the mouldering mattresses were an eerie sight… some of them looking as if they had just gone to sleep, some twisted into abnormal positions as if they had died under torturous pain. Some held empty potion bottles between their bony fingers, more of these identical small phials cluttered on the floor or standing on nightstands.
Athis sniffed on one of the bottles.
“Poison?” I whispered, although no one was there who could have heard me.
He shrugged. “Not sure, too old. But… it looks certainly like that.”
We found the explanation of the gruesome scene in another room. The booklet lying on top of a workbench appeared as if it was placed there for any intruder to be found, and I took it carefully, the yellowed parchment looking as if it would crumple to dust as soon as I touched it. Most of it wasn’t legible any more, but it was obviously the journal of the commander of the forces that had besieged the bastion in a final foray to destroy the Dragon Cult once and for all. It told the story of this siege and of the last assault, of the discovery that the inhabitants of Forelhost had committed mass suicide and how half of his men fell to the poisoned water of the well.
It seemed we were the first who had proceeded so far into the ruins since those events, and we pressed on further. With everyone but Athis this whole trip would have ended in disaster, seeing the incredible intricate traps the Cultists had installed. Not only simple pressure plates unleashing fire beams or swinging blades that sliced everything in their way into handy strips of flesh. We encountered lightning traps fuelled by soulstones that had to be taken out from afar, pedestals that released poisoned darts and a floor disk that rose as soon as someone stepped on it, lifting the victim into a bunch of rusty spikes protruding from the ceiling. I froze for a moment when the floor beneath my feet started to move and only escaped a very messy death by jumping off it in the last moment. The dried puddles of blood in the middle of the circle could have warned me, of course.
Athis lured a powerful draugr mage into this trap, and we bent over with hysterical laughter when the living corpse got impaled by the spikes at the ceiling, twitching like an insect in a spider’s net, shooting erratic ice spikes until he finally stopped to move.
We also found the well that had killed Skorm’s men. The poison had faded over the centuries, but to dive through the icy water and continue the way in wet armour was more than unpleasant. I didn’t know how deep in we were, if it was still a roof or already the solid mountain forming the ceiling above us, but an icy wind blew threw the corridors that froze us to the bones. We found a spider lair, a skeever den and a cavern where light streamed in from above. It was a garden, the poisonous deathbell flowers nearly completely covering the ground.
And in the end we found another dragon claw, iron with light green glass talons, and we knew it couldn’t be far. A last brief rest, we emptied our waterskins of the last drops and readied ourselves for battle right in front of the circular stone door it would open.
“Let’s see what this Dragon Cult was up to,” Athis said lowly. He looked exhausted, a bloody scratch over his brow had smeared his warpaint, but his eyes gleamed full of excitement. I nodded sternly, glad to have him by my side, adjusted the symbols on the door and placed the claw in the lock.
We found… something. A thing. The familiar clang of coffins breaking open, the familiar shuffling of uneasy undead steps following it. We vanished into the shadows the best we could, trying to outline the forces we’d have to face.
In the background, from an adorned sarcophagus, rose… it wasn’t neither draugr nor ghost, but something different. A figure clad in tattered robes, its bare limbs the same withered, sickly pale appearance as those of all the other undead. But it was strangely incorporeal, power shimmering in a faint glow around it that didn’t only come from the intricate, gleaming staff it wielded. Its face was covered by a crude mask, the raw, noseless facial features carved into greenish polished stone or metal, I couldn’t make it out from the distance.
As soon as I took out the first of the draugr with a silent arrow through its temple, a hollow wail echoed through the cavern, and the thing jerked its head, its unearthly, glowing gaze piercing into mine. It saw me – however it accomplished that, through its strange mask and with me cowering behind solid stone. But a wall of fire suddenly obscured my view completely, streaming around the pillar. Athis pressed himself against my back.
I turned my head slightly. “What is that?”
His whisper was anxious. “No idea. But… we should kill it.” An arrow struck the wall behind us, an ice spike the pillar that gave us shelter. “And fast.” At least there was no wordwall in this room that could distract me.
A curt nod and we darted into action, going for the two draugr closest to us. They were better armoured than the ones we were used to, their horned helmets that let the blue glow of their eyes out through narrow slits giving them an even more terrifying appearance. I blocked a heavy strike, the impact denting my shield, but when my mace crushed against his neck, I felt bones break and the living corpse crumpled into a heap at my feet.
“FUS!” I yanked around, hearing the barked Shout that didn’t hit me and saw Athis fly, flailing and crushing to his back with a yell. But the lithe mer curled himself into a ball, pushed himself into a backwards roll and up to his feet again before his foe could close in on him, driving both his daggers into his abdomen, right beneath his breastplate. That were two.
An archer, a mage and the thing were left. Their master, obviously, not walking, but floating towards me with flattering rags.
“Out here,” I yelled the moment it lifted its staff, barely escaping another wall of fire that rushed towards us, retreating into the hall we had come through and further into a narrow corridor. Perhaps we could take advantage of the fact that it was faster than its companions, much faster, coming after us with no sound but a faint hiss. Athis and I ran backwards while shooting arrows and throwing darts at it, but the robes were reinforced with something that looked suspiciously like dragon scales, and even when we hit, it didn’t seem to do any harm.
When I nearly slipped in a greasy puddle, the mer yanked me upwards with a firm grip. We had reached a small circular room, a broken stone table lying overturned in the back, the only exit blocked by swinging blades. If we could lure the thing inside… but before I could ponder the idea any further, Athis pushed me behind the slab.
“Fight fire with fire,” he pressed out with a grin and ripped a torch from its holder.
The moment our foe appeared in the room and hit the floor with the end of his staff, releasing a new wave of fire that rolled towards us, Athis threw the torch into the shimmering oil covering the ground. And I did what I could do best.
The chamber became a blazing inferno, a storm of heat and flames surging over and around me while I cowered behind the shelter of the massive table, my forearms tightly folded over my head. I kept my eyes pressed shut, felt unbearable heat wave over my face and blister the exposed skin of my arms, wanted to scream but couldn’t, burning air and smoke searing my lungs. A few mummies lying in a heap in a corner burst with loud bangs into balls of sparks and burning dust.
It took forever, my lungs and head bursting with lack of air. And then the wave was broken and there was only heat left and smoke and coughing, but I had to breathe and move and do something when that other body that had pressed itself against mine in the tight space between the stone slab and the wall was suddenly gone. Tears and fumes blurred my view, but there was a shadow, darting and running along the wall, obscured by flames and smoke and shimmering air, and then it was gone.
Somehow, I found the breath to scream. “Athis!”
A wail echoed through the room, a wailing screech, the power of millennia dissolving into this sound, all the fury and hate this being had gathered since the ancient times when it had to admit defeat for the first time. Now it had become a torch standing in a sea of fire, rags and flesh burning. It had let go of its staff and reached behind it, its clawlike fingers clenched around Athis’ throat. He had driven his daggers into its neck and still held fast to them, both figures careening back and forth in an eerie struggle.
My mace smashed with an underhand strike into its armpit, swang upwards and came down onto its shoulder. The wail stopped all of a sudden, dissolving into a hiss that went through marrow and bone, its fingers coming undone from Athis’ throat and reaching towards my collar. But the glow of its lifeforce flickered already as the mer shoved his daggers deeper, his face contorted in pain and deadly intent, and the edge of my shield crushed into the gap between mask and robe.
I felt bones break and the hiss became a horrible, dry gurgle. Finally it dropped between us, twitching and burning with little flames flaring up anew. The mer fell into my arms, I gripped him around the chest and dragged him out of the room until the air became breathable again, although still reeking of smoke and burning ancient flesh. I only stopped when an ice spike hit my shoulder, yanked up my shield and felt the impact of an arrow.
There were still two draugr left, and of course they wouldn’t leave us alone. With the last remains of human intelligence they had waited for us to escape the inferno we had unleashed, standing in safe distance and attacking from afar.
Athis groaned in pain when I let his limp body slide to the ground, but he didn’t open his eyes, only his rasping breath proof that he was still alive. Sudden fury boiled over, providing me with new strength. This would end quickly now.
“FUS RO DAH!”
They may have been powerful, but they still consisted only of brittle bones, rotten flesh and fragile sinews. My shout crushed them both into the wall behind them and into each other, the heap of uncoordinated, flailing limbs nearly comical to watch. Even if another spray of ice that hit my burnt skin like needles made it hard to breathe and my arms heavy, I shattered them into a clump that was as dead as it should be.
When I rushed back, Athis had propped himself with his back against the wall, breathing hard, blistered, bleeding and with dark purple bruises around his neck, but grinning. All in all, he didn’t seem in much worse condition than I, which was a miracle considering his stunt.
I dropped to my knees beside of him. “You’re a lunatic, Athis,” I sighed, “what did you think?”
Fumbling a jar with healing salve from a pouch, he smirked at my relieved expression. “You don’t live on a volcano for ages without developing some fire resistance, Qhouri,” he snickered, his voice hoarse. “Come on, I’m fine. But I need some fresh air.” We treated our blisters and scratches with the cooling balm, gulped down a healing and a stamina potion each and finally struggled to our feet. I gathered the remains of the undead priest – beside that staff and the mask, only a few charred rags and blackened scales were left of him.
I really wanted to know what exactly we had killed here, and I would beat this knowledge out of Captain Valmir if I had to. This was certainly no simple priest that had outlasted the centuries.
When we left the ruins, we stood on the battlements of the bastion, high above the courtyard. The sun shone into my face, and despite my aching lungs I breathed in the cold, clear air deeply. We had spent the whole night and half of the next day in the darkness, and only now I realised how exhausted I was. Especially after I felt the familiar tugging at my conscience and found the inevitable wordwall behind a corner. A Shout that would conjure a lightning storm above my enemies could prove useful, though.
We weren’t particularly quiet as we made our way around the courtyard to the wall, but Valmir was obviously too occupied to notice our appearance, arguing with a stranger. When we heard him explain that he needed someone to go into the ruins and retrieve a staff for the Stormcloaks, my face fell in bewilderment. Did he believe us dead? Did he want to send reinforcements? Athis looked as clueless as I, shrugged and finally simply dove over the narrow parapet into the courtyard.
We didn’t have opportunity to ask for an explanation, though. As soon as he heard us approach, Valmir shot around with a snarl. The other man, a guard from Riften by the look of his armour, slumped together with a nasty gurgle as a dagger slit his throat while a fireball was already forming in the Altmer’s palm.
I groaned inwardly. Not again. Lifting my shield to catch the fiery missile, I pressed the hopefully last Shout of the day through my aching throat.
It was enough to let me crash into him. Before he could release his next spell, my dagger was lodged neatly into his chest.
I rolled away from the corpse, panting and so tired I could have slept right there. But in the end, my curiosity was stronger than my exhaustion. At first it didn’t seem as if he kept anything interesting in the many pockets of his armour, a few gold coins, some potions, a spare dagger, a handkerchief. A satin handkerchief. I stared incredulously at the item. It was immaculate. But then I felt a neatly folded sheet of paper between my fingers.
You will proceed to the ruins of Forelhost to retrieve the Mask from the Dragon Cult there.
If you are discovered, impersonate an officer. It is unlikely that anyone from Skyrim will be clever enough to see through the disguise.
Once you have obtained the Mask, bring it to Labyrinthian.
No signature, but I was enough to make me blanch, my head suddenly dizzy.
Disguise. No officer. The Mask. Dragon Cult. Labyrinthian.
There it was, the clue I had so desperately searched for.
Everything fell into place when Athis shook my shoulder and startled me from my daze, concern in his face. Draped over his arm, he carried what he had found in the tent of the false Stormcloak – the characteristic grey robe of a Thalmor wizard. His eyes grew wide when he took the parchment from my fingers and read it.
Somehow we made it down the mountain, I let Athis deal with the Jarl’s housecarl for our reward and with the carriage driver to take us home. My head was a maelstrom of thoughts and panic, pacing around in circles and drowning out everything else.
The Thalmor. Labyrinthian. The Thalmor in the Labyrinthian.
Delphine had been right. Something was happening there, and the Thalmor were involved. Remains of the ancient Dragon Cult, gathered in those ruins where something had acknowledged me as Dovahkiin.
I didn’t want to go back there. I had to go there. I had to get to the bottom of this plot.
I didn’t want to. I was scared.
It was late in the night when we arrived in Ivarstead, and Wilhelm didn’t ask questions, only took care that my tankard was never empty until the maelstrom was finally replaced by a drunken stupor. Athis was there when I whimpered through a nightmare of endless white and nothing, but apart from that, he left me alone. There was nothing he could have done. We both knew where this would lead, what I’d have to do. And I had to find the strength to do it all on my own.
No shallow encouragement from the mer, no downplaying my obvious fears. He knew about them, he had seen me after I had come back from that dreadful place for the first time. And he let me fight through them in my own pace, in my own way. Was just there to lean on.
Only when we sat opposite of each other on the carriage to Whiterun and I turned the mask pensively in my hands, studying the design and the dragon words engraved inside, he touched my wrist.
“Hey. You can deal with Thalmor.”
I looked at him from behind the streaks of hair that had fallen into my face. “The Thalmor are not the problem, Athis. Not even the fact that Kodlak will roast me if I get involved with them, or that I will have to return to Delphine and apologise.”
He leaned forwards, his elbows on his knees. And then he snatched the mask from my fingers, pressed it against his face and poked the end of the staff we had retrieved into my chest.
“Stop… fretting. Girl.” His voice came out as a daunting, hollow growl, and with his red, tousled, slightly singed ponytail that rose above the crude green features like a tattered broom, he looked so ridiculous that I stared at him for a moment and then burst into hysterical laughter.
No way he was older than twelve.