Eyes on the Prey: 18. Wrangling

eotp_wp_018_wranglinga

“You’re leaving?”

I stood in the doorway between the twins’ rooms, hand raised to knock on Farkas’ door, when the one on the opposite side of the corridor opened and he left his brother’s chamber, throwing a remark over his shoulder that they’d meet at the stables in an hour. Concern and urgency shadowed his face, but a warm, welcoming smile flashed up when he saw me and pushed his own door open. I leant against the door frame, the room was chaos and he made it only worse when he rummaged through a chest, throwing potions, clothes and spare armour parts into a heap on his bed.

“Yeah. Gotta go to Morthal. Vampires. Good to see you back.”

Suddenly I felt numb. Of course I couldn’t just fetch him and expect that he’d join me to Labyrinthian. When I didn’t answer, he turned his head, his gaze wandering over my face.

“What is it?”

“Vampires? Are the girls okay?”

He clenched his teeth, worry flitting over his face. “Yes. I hope so. But another little girl is dead, and Jonna panics. Idgrod has requested us to come as soon as possible.”

“You go with Vilkas?”

“Aye.” He turned a whetstone between his fingers, assessing if it was still usable, then flipped it with an impatient motion onto the pile on his bed.

I gnawed on my lip, questions racing through my head. Should I tell him at all what had happened in Riften? Of this new lead? That I wanted him to come with me to Labyrinthian? That I needed him to come with me?

The thought to enter these ruins without his company filled me with dread. But he had other obligations, and his mind was elsewhere anyway. No way I could deter him to go to Morthal now.

“Good luck,” I said lowly, “come back safe.” I turned to leave. And suddenly his head jerked up, nostrils flaring. I felt his gaze between my shoulder blades and cringed.

“Wait.” His voice was low. “What’s wrong, Qhouri?”

I shook my head. “Nothing.”

“I know your scent when you’re scared. And you’re a lousy liar.”

I stared at him with wide open eyes, cursing his senses. But he rose and stood before me, his eyes boring into mine, his preparations forgotten.

“Gods, woman, talk to me! What is it?”

I swallowed, sweat pooling on my temples. “I have to go back to Labyrinthian.”

His eyes shot wide. “Divines. Why?”

I fumbled Valmir’s orders out of my pocket and handed them to him. “We killed a dragon, a dragon priest and a Thalmor in Riften. I have to find out what’s going on there.” I gave him a feeble smile. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”

I hadn’t heard the door behind me clap.

“Thalmor? You killed a Thalmor? Are you insane?” Vilkas’ harsh question came from across the hall.

I groaned. “It was he or us. What should I have done, let him roast us?”

Farkas eyes were fixed on the parchment. “You wanted… I should come with you.”

“But you can’t.” I took it from his fingers.

“What has happened?” Vilkas demanded to know.

“The Thalmor are searching for remains of the Dragon Cult and take them to Labyrinthian. I have to know what they’re up to.” I couldn’t resist. “Seems Delphine’s paranoia wasn’t entirely baseless.”

His face darkened into an angry scowl that only deepened with Farkas’ next question.

“Can you wait till I’m back?”

“No. Finally there’s something, a clue… I can’t risk that the Thalmor beat me to it.”

“Don’t you even think about it, brother.” With a few steps Vilkas stood like a wall in the doorway, trapping me between the men.

Farkas raked his hand through his hair. “And if there’s… more than just Thalmor? What if something happens?” That was exactly what I dreaded, this something that had already happened once. I knew that for him, I was easily readable.

“You’re not serious,” Vilkas growled. “Don’t you even think about hunting the figments in her head instead to protect your daughters.”

“And you stop telling me what I have to think!” Farkas shouted, fury flaring in his face as he turned his attention to his brother.

The sudden silence after this outbreak was ear shattering. The brothers locked eyes over my head, a silent struggle of Vilkas’ cold wrath against Farkas’ angry confusion. And suddenly I understood that this wasn’t about the decision between Thalmor and vampires. Vilkas tried to carry his aversion for me over to his brother, made him a pawn in this trial of strength by questioning Farkas’ loyalty.

It wasn’t about which choice was reasonable. He simply wouldn’t allow that his brother did anything against his will.

Vilkas’ voice was menacing and calm. “You would abandon your daughters for her?”

Farkas’ breath hitched, he took a step back and sank down on the edge of his bed. But he looked at me as if he searched for guidance. “I promised to have your back when you need me,” he said lowly.

I couldn’t help him. “Yes, you did. But you also promised Jonna that they can rely on you.” I turned to leave, but Vilkas blocked the exit, acting as if I wasn’t there at all.

“You make way too many promises, brother,” he remarked coldly.

Farkas buried his head in his palms. “Vilkas… please. It’s just vampires. Dangerous, but nothing special.” Slowly he lifted his eyes to his brother, dark with distress, but his jaw set in determination. “Go for me. Please. Take Skjor with you and keep them safe for me.”

Vilkas made a heavy step into the room before I could object, shoving me to the side like a piece of furniture, towering over his brother. “Of course I will go, they’re my nieces. It’s not me who’s breaking a promise here,” he snarled. “But you? You can’t have everything, brother. You can’t be a Companion, a father and her… protector.” He made a derisive gesture towards me. “You already broke your promise to Kodlak for her. And now this? What will you abandon next, after your honour and your children?”

He took in his brother’s horrified expression with a complacent, cruel glare, the silence only broken by a desperate groan that broke from Farkas’ throat. I had no idea what he was talking about… but it was obviously much more than just the decision between Thalmor and vampires. And it made my blood boil – that Vilkas bullied him around like a child, that Farkas let him and that both used me as a pawn now.

At least that was how I felt. They could go to Oblivion, both of them.

“Do what you want,” I pressed out between clenched teeth, “but leave me out of it.”

But Vilkas grabbed my arm when I brushed past him, his grip like a vice. “Leave you out, Dragonborn? How so, when you can’t do a single step on your own? When all of Jorrvaskr only circles around what you have to do?”

My slap hit him with so much force that his head snapped into his neck, leaving instantly a distinct hand print on his cheek. He released me from his grasp with a shocked gasp.

“You ass!” I hissed, trembling with fury, “stop acting as if your brother was my thrall! No one will abandon anything here!” A low growl formed deep in his chest, and I recognised the familiar dark rings around his irises. His hands clenched into white-knuckled fists as he fought to control himself, the muscles in his neck strained into thick cords.

But I would not back down from a wolf with a temper and stared him down, held his gaze… and full of astonishment I realised that I could read him, that he wasn’t quite as deadpan as he probably thought himself. There were fury and cold calculation, the desire to lash out and to retreat into himself. And beneath all that flaring temper that he caged in with so much effort, there was a deep, desperate tiredness… and a hint of fear.

Something had hurt him. I didn’t know what or when, and I didn’t know if he showed this to me deliberately or if it was just a slip in his composure. But it made me avert my eyes from his stare.

A barely visible smirk curled his lips. Barely visible, but full of triumph.

I turned to Farkas who had watched us with wide eyes. “I don’t have time to deal with this bullshit, and you haven’t either,” I said tersely. “Move your ass to Morthal, I see you in a few days.”

None of them held me back when I stormed out of the room, out of Jorrvaskr and up the stairs to Dragonsreach. Before I left, I had to speak with Farengar, show him the mask and ask him about connections between the Labyrinthian and the Dragon Cult. I remembered having read something about it and was sure it was in one of his books.

The court mage knew at once what I meant and went to gather the tome from his shelves. He also offered me the comfortable armchair in front of his desk and a goblet of wine. The quiet in the mage’s study soothed my ruffled nerves, and to read about Bromjunaar, the capital of Skyrim during the era before the Dragon War that only became the Labyrinthian much later focused my mind on the task before me again. The highest ranking priests of the Cult had lived and ruled from there, and no one knew what was left of them in the depths of the ruins.

Meanwhile, Farengar tried to decipher the dragon speech that was engraved into the inside of the mask, but he couldn’t make much of it… only that it belonged to a priest named Rahgot. And that it had to be ancient and indeed dated back to the Merethic Era, judged by the crude, raw design. Well, at least the thing we had killed in Forelhost had a name now.

When I was finished I put the book on his desk and leant back in the chair, hands folded behind my head, watching Farengar as he worked concentrated on the mask that lay on his enchanting table.

He had dropped whatever he had been doing when I stormed into his study with my questions and demands and snatched the mask from my hands with an eager grin. He had been friendly and helpful from the very beginning, just like the Greybeards and so many others.

And like the Companions. They were always there, with help, advice and their sword arms. Of course I did my share of work for them as well, but that was only fair. But I would never have come anywhere near where I was now without them.

Perhaps I was too used to this, to take their support for granted. Perhaps Vilkas was right, perhaps I asked too much and perhaps I was really far too dependent on them.

And perhaps I panicked far too easily.

Farengar chuckled under his hood. “You may lay your feet onto my desk if it helps you relax, Dragonborn.”

I had to grin. “Don’t call me that, court mage.”

He shot me a look over his shoulder. “Want another wine? Our cellars are still full with vintage from Skingrad. Good stuff. It was the last the Jarl got from Cyrodiil before the borders were locked.”

“Clever. Thank you, but I already got plastered last night. And I should get going.”

“Always in a hurry.” He shook his head.

“Tell that the dragons. And undead. And Thalmor.”

“Thalmor?” he asked alarmed.

I grinned, standing up. “Don’t worry. The Jarl gets an advance warning before I start a war with the Dominion.”

“That would be appreciated,” he muttered into my back as I left his room.

As I trailed down the steps from Dragonsreach, I contemplated seriously just to take a room at the Mare and leave Whiterun with the first light. Or to leave right away. Not to return to Jorrvaskr at all, to avoid all the discussions and awkwardness and quarrel. But that would mean to admit defeat, and I wasn’t willing to show any weakness to a Vilkas who sat certainly brooding over a mead in the hall and let everyone take part in his sour mood.

If they could bear him, they could bear me too.

But he wasn’t there when I entered Jorrvaskr. Only Aela sat with a stranger at a table in a corner, and Ria and Athis had gathered with Vignar and Brill by the fire. The old man shared another episode of his life with the whelps, either about his time in the Legion or one of his many adventures as a Companion. He did this from time to time, got lost in his own memories, in recounts of events long gone and over. Never had I seen someone put him off when he was in this mood, no matter how verbose and tedious his narratives sometimes became. He was the eldest of us all, and we respected his age as much as his experience.

I pulled a chair into their round and joined them, popping open a bottle of ale. This was exactly what I needed now, to listen with half an ear to a story that didn’t concern me and let my mind wander.

But when the door to the living quarters clapped and heavy steps came up the stairs, I knew who it was without having to look. I actually started to distinguish my siblings by means of their scent and the pattern of their steps, I realised. And this was a wolf, but it was not Vilkas.

I should have just stayed at the Mare.

Farkas took quietly a free chair, stretching his legs towards the fire. But he didn’t join us, held a careful distance, didn’t listen to Vignar and didn’t get himself a drink. But he had taken his seat in a way that I always had him in the corner of my eye, and his silent stare made me nervous.

Athis leant to me. “When will you leave?” he whispered.

“At dawn. Wanna join me?”

His eyes wandered to Farkas. “What’s with him?”

“I’d rather go alone,” I frowned. “He’s a fool. Nearly as bad as his brother.” The hushed conversation earned us an angry glare from Ria. She seemed genuinely interested in Vignar’s rambling.

Athis was quiet for long minutes. When he bowed his head to my ear again, I expected another lecture about the importance of shield-siblings. But it wasn’t. “Clear it up,” he whispered. “Don’t part in anger. It’s not worth it.”

Vilkas had obviously parted in anger too, and not only with me. I felt a headache approach and buried my forehead in my palms. Nothing of this would have happened if I had returned from Riften just a single lousy hour later. Or if I had gone to Dragonsreach first.

Athis’ elbow nudged me into the side, but he stared stoically into his mug, only his lips curled into a small grin. I nudged him back, stood up and left the hall towards the training yard. An icy wind swept over the patio, making me shiver after the warmth of the hall. Slowly I ascended to the Skyforge, found a place where I could lean against the warm stones of the eagle’s wing. It was one of my favourite spots with its beautiful sight over the city on one side and the plains on the other.

Farkas settled quietly beside me, close enough that I felt his bodywarmth.

“You really pulled that off.”

“Yes. I’ll come with you.”

“No, you won’t.”

A small smile quirked his lips. “Vilkas and Skjor are already halfway in Morthal. I’ve nothing better to do.”

“You’re a fool.”

“Perhaps. I’m a fool, he’s an ass and you’re a stubborn bitch. Doesn’t change that he’s wrong and that I’ll join you.”

“But you should be in Morthal now. Jonna will give you a hard time when Vilkas tells her why you’re not there. And you know he won’t miss the chance to tell her.”

“But that’s not the point. The point is that everybody can deal with a few vampires, but no one knows what awaits you in Labyrinthian. I dragged you out there once, I can do it again.”

No, that wasn’t the point either. The point was that we had shattered something tonight that had been brittle and fragile before, and I wasn’t sure if it was possible to mend it again.

And what I needed more than anything, more than his protection and strength and confidence was peace in Jorrvaskr. It was my refuge, the short times of respite here were what kept me going. Nothing was worth to destroy this peace.

“You will regret this. I don’t want you to fight with Vilkas over me, Farkas. And even less do I wanna fight with him over you. It’s ridiculous.”

He clenched his teeth. “He’ll get over it.”

I regarded him pensively. He had this look… that he always wore when an idea had clawed itself into his brain.

“It’s not worth it. That you clash with him like that.”

His face darkened into a scowl. “Will you stop telling me what is worth it?”

I blushed. At least he didn’t shout at me. “But it will only become worse from here. Your brother hates me. “

“Yes, and at the moment he hates me too. We’re in this together. But he’ll get over it.”

And in this he was wrong. Of course he knew his twin much better than I, but my gut feeling told me that it wouldn’t get better, that Vilkas wouldn’t get over it. No doubt he would reconcile with his brother. But I had the dark feeling that between us, nothing was left of our truce, and I had no idea how to patch it up. Farkas was so easy to deal with because he was so open, never afraid to show what was going on in him. He was easy to trust because he was so trusting himself. Vilkas trusted no one, was reticent, offish and always on guard, and he was a mystery to me.

“Can you tell me what he meant… with that promise to Kodlak?”

I felt him tense beside me, but he remained quiet.

“I’m sorry,” I said hesitantly. “It’s not my business.”

He turned his head to me. “No, it’s okay. I’ll tell you. It is your business… in a way.” His hands clenched in his lap as he gathered his thoughts. “When I… when we were in Dustman’s Cairn… it was the first time for months that I changed. And in a way… I was glad I had to do it.” He swallowed heavily.

“You… why?”

He sighed deeply. “It’s a long story. Kodlak… he is ill. No one knows how long he has still to live… a few months or a few years, but he is dying. Rotting away. Danica can only slow the process, but not heal him.” Deep sadness lingered in his voice. “He knows this, and he wants to go to Sovngarde. He’s a warrior after all, it’s where he belongs, into Shor’s Hall. But he can’t, not with the beastblood. As a werewolf, he belongs to Hircine, and he will go to his Hunting Grounds when he dies.”

It took me a moment to stomach these news. I knew Kodlak was ill, but whenever I met him, he didn’t seem ill. He didn’t look like a dying man. But I had learned quickly to trust him, to confide in his wisdom and understanding, much faster than I thought possible… and I understood what he meant to the Companions, especially to the twins. He was their father figure, the one who had raised and formed them. To see him like this and to know that he had perhaps only months left… and that not only his life, but his soul was in danger, it had to be terrifying.

When Farkas spoke on, his voice was strained with emotions. “He is searching for a cure. That’s why we see so little of him… he’s working all the time on his research. And… when he became aware of the problem, he asked us to follow him. To get rid of the blood when possible, and not to use it any more. To stay free of Hircine’s influence.”

“And that was the promise you gave him.”

His face twisted in pain. “Yes. Skjor and Aela refused, of course. For them, it’s a blessing, not a curse. But Vilkas complied at once… because of Sovngarde, but mostly… because he has always struggled with the blood. He had always difficulties to reign it in, to tame his wolf. Much worse than anyone else. For him, it has always been a curse. He wants to get rid of it, and he has only changed once since that day.”

“That one night in the Underforge.”

He nodded. “I went through this with him because I thought they were right, he and Kodlak. They’re smart, after all. And… Vilkas wants it so much, this cure. We’ve joined the Circle together… I couldn’t leave him alone with that decision.”

I watched him pensively. “You had to change in Dustman’s Cairn, or they would have killed us. He understands that, doesn’t he? I mean… you had to defend yourself.”

He gave me an odd look. “I could have fled if you hadn’t been there. Come back later and take on them one by one. If I had been alone, I could have made it without the change. But not with you trapped in there.”

My breath hitched. “And that’s why he says you broke your promise for me.”

“Aye. But… for me, it was more than just self-defence. It was a relief to change. I didn’t know how much I had missed it. And afterwards… it was the beastblood that kept me alive, when I was trapped in that void. My wolf saved me, and when it was over, I knew I couldn’t go on like that. That I can’t deny him. I don’t know what I’ll do when Kodlak finds the cure. But until then, I can’t change what I am. And I won’t torture myself, not like Vilkas does it.”

“He’s so itchy because he doesn’t change any more?”

He shot me an amused look. “You call that itchy?” But he became serious again quickly. “He always had a temper, and he was always a broody bastard… but it has become worse since then. Much worse. Not to use the blood doesn’t mean it’s not there. The wolf is still a part of him, you can’t just ignore him… and he makes himself known. But Vilkas fights it instead to live with him. He fights all the time…” His voice trailed off.

“Even if it’s like torture to himself?” I asked incredulously. “I mean… he sees it, doesn’t he? He’s not stupid, he must know that he’s an insufferable, choleric ass. I don’t think he’s really happy with himself…”

He gave a short, unhappy laugh. “No, he isn’t. But he is stubborn… and he believes that he mustn’t give in, that his honour demands that he stays true to his word. He hates to be a pawn of Hircine… and he doesn’t want to disappoint Kodlak. Especially not after I have failed him.”

He sat slumped together, staring at his feet with jaded eyes. I laid my hand on his shoulder, but before I could say anything, he lifted his face to me, and it revealed all the pain he felt. All the intractability of this situation. Sometimes, there was no solution.

“What he said today… it’s not about honour or our promise to Kodlak or the girls,” he said in a strained voice. “He thinks I abandoned him.

He had revealed so much to me… so many mutual recriminations and disappointments, so much guilt and distrust. I was grateful for his openness, although I wasn’t sure if I understood everything he had told me, all the implications that came with it. To make this decision, to disappoint his Harbinger as much as his brother, had certainly not been easy for him. To be condemned for it had to be even worse, and to be condemned by his twin…

Honourable werewolves. I remembered my feeling during my first real conversation with Vilkas. There’s more to come. You’ve no idea what you got yourself into. My sense of foreboding had been right.

“I don’t believe that, Farkas. You have to make your own decisions, it’s not that he can do it for you. But that doesn’t mean that you abandon him. And I’m sure he knows that you’ll never let him down. He’s… different when you’re together. Calmer.”

“Unless you get involved,” he said with a sad smile.

I couldn’t bring myself to meet his gaze. “But that’s because he can’t stand me, not because of you. And… he has reason enough, I reckon. I haven’t been exactly nice either. I’ll just try to stay out of his way. Not to peeve him further.”

He searched my face with eyes that seemed to gleam in the dim light of the glowing coals. “Qhouri, I…” He bit his lip. “It’s not your fault. You don’t have to do anything. I’m just glad you listened.” He inhaled deeply. “I’m glad I could tell you. Aela and Skjor… they don’t understand him. And the other whelps… this is something they don’t know. Not in detail, at least.”

We sat quietly side by side, I leant against his shoulder, his warmth sipping through my tunic. Slowly I felt him relax. I didn’t want him to come so close, I didn’t want a confidant, and most of all didn’t I want to get drawn into the twins’ personal problems. But sometimes, it simply didn’t matter. Sometimes, all that mattered was that he needed someone to listen.

“You think you’ll manage to get up with dawn?” I asked finally.

A tentative smile formed on his face, his hand coming up and ruffling through the hair in my neck. “Yeah. Sleep well, sister. I’ll be there.”

================================

We spent the last night before we’d enter Labyrinthian not far from the ruins, in the mountains to the north-east of it. We had spotted a dragon above a snow-covered peak, flying in tight circles over a certain spot that made us curious. It wasn’t a burial ground we found, though. It was a word wall, and in front of it a shrine to Akatosh, the massive monolithic altar littered with offerings. A good, safe place to rest after we had slayed the beast.

In the morning, I prayed for a blessing, for guidance, strength and a grain of luck. It was strangely fitting. If Akatosh was the father of the dragons, I was his daughter too.

Farkas had filled me in about the few facts he knew about the enormous field of ruins we were about to explore. He only knew the outer area, although there were several entrances to the underground parts he could mark on our map. And from our resting place, we had a good overview of the stone chaos. Now in the light of day, it didn’t look half as intimidating as during that blizzard when we had been here first, and from our lookout we made out some prominent, impressive structures we’d investigate first.

But as soon as we neared the ruins I started to feel it again, this slight tugging at my conscience, a small disturbance that made the muscles in my neck strain, and it became stronger the closer we worked ourselves to the centre of area. It felt a bit like the call of the wordwalls I often sensed long before I came close to them, but this time it was more a careful approach, an attempt to make contact instead of the brutal intrusion into my mind I had already experienced. And it was much less frightening than what I remembered, although there was no doubt that my reaction back then hadn’t been just a figment.

Something was here, and it made itself known. And we would find out what it was.

I was better guarded this time, aware of what could happen and tried consciously to block it out, but more than once Farkas caught me distracted, listening or staring at nothing. But he was alert enough, nudged me back into attention when my mind slipped away and made me concentrate on our surroundings, which was hard enough. A thick layer of snow covered the ruins, glistening in the sunshine and muffling every sound in a way that made it entirely impossible to make out distances or directions, and the walls everywhere as much as the wheezing of the wind between the buildings didn’t make it any easier.

But the whole complex was nearly entirely barren and unpopulated anyway. Only a few frost trolls lingered on their lookouts on top of walls or roofs and weren’t exactly quiet in their threat behaviour, roaring and beating their chests in a display of strength and territorialism. They were as easy to make out in time as to dispatch. And every time we climbed a set of steep, slippery stairs, the bright sunlight enabled us to overlook the field of ruins in its entirety – no way to get lost under these conditions. In the distance, down in the plains at the foot of the mountain, another typical structure lay embedded into the landscape – Dustman’s Cairn.

From above we had seen that the layout of the whole site was in fact fairly symmetrical, with huge buildings at the eastern and western edge and a dominating dome in the centre.

The broad entrance of this dome, marked by monolithic standing stones, opened into a narrow aisle that led along the outer wall and surrounded the inner chamber that was accessible from the opposite site. We had spent that fateful night in a dome of similar layout, albeit much smaller, it provided perfect shelter from the harsh winds and snowstorms.

Farkas wrinkled his nose as soon as we entered the nearly pitch-black interior, sniffing before he lit up a torch. “Careful,” he whispered, “something in here is already dead. And it doesn’t reek like dead frost troll.”

It wasn’t. A frozen corpse in a fur-lined, hooded robe lay sprawled on its stomach in front of the door to the inner chamber, strangely twisted as if he had tried to crawl into safety. Which was obviously prevented by the orcish dagger stuck in his back. A shortsword was strapped to his hip, but there were no signs of a fight. This had either been an ambush or an attack from acquaintances. When we turned the body, the pale, chiselled features of an Altmer looked up to us, showing nothing but utter surprise.

Another Altmer who – perhaps – wasn’t what he appeared to be. But the contents of his pockets yielded no result, and we went on, opened the door to the main chamber.

A strange sight awaited us after we had lit the torches in the circular room. It was smaller than it looked from the outside, and it was devastated. The floor littered with rubble, broken masonry, shattered urns, rotten furniture. It didn’t look like normal decay, not even the one that took place over millennia – it looked as if everything in it was destroyed wilfully. Opposite of the door rose a round, elevated platform with strange pedestals on top, small statues that had once been human but were shattered as well, the faceless heads mostly broken off. And in the centre the head of a dragon, withered but unharmed.

And in front of the pedestals lay a folded sheet of paper and another mask. As if someone had only recently placed it there, and only for us to find. I had the nagging feeling that the raw features carved into ancient, polished wood grinned at us.

At least we had found a proof that indeed something was happening here in Labyrinthian, and that my suspicions hadn’t been mere phantasms. But the effortlessness with which we had made this discovery filled me with unease.

But in the end, it was obviously only a lucky coincidence that spared us a lot of work and blood. The parchment was the note of a mercenary, the rough handwriting barely legible, and contained a short explanation what had happened here. I read the account of their journey into the mountains and how their client, once arrived at this building, had put on the mask and vanished without a trace, just to reappear again hours later. This strange event repeated itself several times until the hired thugs lost their patience and stabbed him to death once he appeared again, stole his equipment and left. All this had happened not too long ago, the corpse of the Altmer was only a few days old.

I was rapt into my lecture and only vaguely aware that Farkas who had inspected the room and the remains of the pedestals hunched down beside me. I did not notice that he took the mask, turned it curiously between his hands and pressed it on his face.

But I noticed that he was suddenly gone.

The shock gripped me to the marrow.

That fool! This was at least as bad as flipping levers of which one didn’t know what they’d do. To play around with magical things – he should have really known better!

On the other hand, we had both tried on the Rahgot mask just because it looked so weird, and it had done nothing beside giving us a small boost of stamina.

But I had no idea where he was now. The Altmer had obviously taken no harm wherever the thing had brought him, and this titbit of information was the only one that didn’t let me panic completely while I waited for Farkas to reappear. And it was obviously possible to come back – although I didn’t know how, perhaps it needed more than just the mask for it.

If he was trapped wherever he was… cold sweat ran down my spine when my line of thought abruptly halted at this point.

And when he suddenly popped back into existence, his sword in one hand, the mask in the other and a broad grin plastered over his face, I wanted to stab a dagger into his back.

“This is awesome, Qhouri,” he declared, “you gotta see that!”

The last I saw before I was sucked into a tunnel of darkness was his laughing face and his paw-like hand pressing the mask to my face.

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