I could have killed Farkas for his assault with the mask if it hadn’t felt so good to have arrived here. Wherever here was.
When the strange feeling of falling without moving subsided, I felt nearly dizzy with the sudden silence around me. No wind howling through open windows and broken walls, none of the many noises another human made, no breathing, no clanking of armour, no steps. The silence was absolute, and it was like a refuge.
And I was alone, truly and more alone than ever before, and it was impossible to be angry with someone who suddenly seemed to be infinitely far away. This solitude was a gift, the perfect refuge and shelter from the outside and I gave in to the immediate and deep relaxation that was fuelled by the unbreakable silence around me, and all the weights on my mind were suddenly lifted.
It took me a moment to discern what exactly made it so soothing, until I realised that is wasn’t something, but the absence of something.
Besides every single sound but my own breathing, the nagging presence in the back of my mind was gone, and I knew that no one and nothing would be able to follow me here.
I didn’t have to explore the room I was in, it was still the same I had come from and that I had never left, just that I knelt on a lush carpet now instead of debris and rubble, rich furniture around, colourful tapestries covering the stone walls, the whole room brightly lit by candles and braziers. And the shrine was there too, though intact now, the small faceless statues looking at me as if they expected something.
Fortunately I had my pack still on my shoulders when Farkas sent me here, and I took the Rahgot mask out. Holding it against one of the polished heads, it seemed to meld with it, fitting perfectly. They belonged together. There were eight of them waiting for their respective masks.
I had no explanation, not for the changes of the room, not for the knowledge that I was somehow somewhere else than before and at the same time wasn’t, but for once it didn’t matter. All that counted was the peace I felt, and the feeling of safety. The wooden mask was the key to this refuge, and it was the perfect hiding place and the perfect shelter.
There wasn’t much to explore, and I couldn’t see much through the narrow slits of the mask on my face anyway, but I also didn’t want to return at once. Only now I realised how tense I had been, how exhausting it had been to keep the strange voice in my head at bay since we had entered the ruins, and now I was reluctant to get back. Lying on my back, the mask on my face, I wondered if it would be possible to hide here for a longer period of time, if it was indeed possible to use it as a shelter if the emergency to vanish from the face of the world occurred.
But as exciting as this discovery was, it didn’t give me any answers – at least not those I had hoped to find, and we had only started our exploration of the ruins. The weird feeling of falling came back when I tore the mask from my face, the cold and dampness of the ruin all the more unpleasant after the cosiness of the sanctuary.
And as soon as I was back, the tugging was back as well, more insistent than ever. If I had dared to listen, to give in to this mind that had settled itself into my conscience, I would have understood the message.
I didn’t dare to, struggled to keep it out, to focus on my surroundings. I was alone, and I had to keep my senses together.
I realised it only on second thought. I was alone. Farkas was gone without a trace, including his pack. Nothing was left of my Companion, nothing gave a hint that he had ever been here. The eerie silence was deceptive and frightening, totally different from the one I had experienced only moments ago.
At first I was convinced that I’d find him outside, that he had become bored and went to examine the nearer surroundings. He wouldn’t have gone far, of that I was certain. Only when I noticed that the corpse outside was gone as well, only a frozen puddle of blood reminding of it, I realised that something worse had happened.
There were no traces of a fight, so he hadn’t been just attacked by a curious frost troll. Instead I found marks in the snow, footprints and the traces of two heavy objects that had been dragged away.
Whoever had taken him, he had been overpowered without opportunity to react and fight back. A werewolf on guard, with heightened senses and aware of the dangers around him. Whoever it was, he – or they – had to be incredibly powerful. And magic was the only way to overwhelm someone like Farkas without resistance.
Fear lay like a dark cloud over my mind when I envisioned golden-clad Thalmor soldiers dragging two corpses away. It was my fault. I had lingered too long in the peaceful quiet of the sanctuary, hadn’t been focused, had left him alone. I had dragged him here into these cursed ruins, he was only here to do me a favour. Vilkas would kill me if he had come to harm.
But perhaps that was what they wanted me to think. Even if they didn’t know about the wooden mask, they certainly knew that Farkas hadn’t been alone, our traces in the snow at least as revealing as theirs.
I didn’t feel the cold when I followed their track that meandered through the ruins and led upwards towards one of the larger buildings rising against the mountains that surrounded the valley, scurrying from shadow to shadow. Nothing was audible around me but the howling of the wind, biting through my furs.
When I cowered behind a broken wall, the heavy iron door in front of me firmly shut, I knew that I could not afford to hesitate, that I had to go inside. Farkas was in there, along with powerful mages that were probably Thalmor. And whatever we had searched for, it was in there as well.
All of them knew that I was coming. To creep up the stairs and push the door open only so wide that I could slip inside felt incredibly futile.
And as soon as it shut behind me, leaving me in complete darkness, only silence remained. The presence in my head was all of a sudden quiet – not gone, there was still this pressure in my neck, but not making itself known any more, as if it was watching me and assessing how I’d proceed further.
I found myself in a long, winding tunnel, fortunately narrow enough that I could touch the walls left and right of me with the tips of my fingers. I didn’t dare to light a torch, and the silence was as eerie as complete, no sound but my own harsh breathing audible although I knew that plenty of enemies lurked around. Cold sweat ran down my spine. My shield-brother was trapped in here, immobilised in the best case, dead in the worst. Something that had already proven that it could overwhelm my mind was here too, and I had no way to shut it out. And Thalmor on top.
The first faint shimmer of light made me shiver with relief. It came through a doorway that led into a small room, empty besides a few niches along the wall filled with brittle linen bandages and the shards of long broken burial urns. The exit was a heavy iron gate that was obviously opened by a prominently placed lever right in the wall. It was so prominent that I eyed it suspiciously, my experience with levers far too obviously supposed to open closed gates was rather unpleasant.
But there was no other way, I couldn’t find any trace of a trap, and I didn’t have a choice.
Nothing happened but the bars of the gate vanishing into the ground, nearly soundless beside a slight scratching noise.
The next room was a huge, circular cavern, nearly entirely empty besides two lines of pillars dividing it into three parts. Lit braziers adorned the columns high above my head, shrouding the edges in shadows and guiding my gaze into the centre. A narrow pit was carved into the ground, filled with an enormous pile of bones that was frighteningly familiar. Across from the entrance I had come through led another iron gate further into the mountain.
I crouched behind one of the pillars, hesitating to go on. Something was wrong with this room. How in Oblivion did a dragon skeleton get down here? And why was there no sign of life, no guards, nothing to stop me?
And then it was there, the voice in my head, assaulting me with so much force that I toppled over, nausea knotting in my stomach.
No sound was audible but the pounding of my blood in my ears, but a strange waft went through the room, making the glowing cowls in the braziers flare up in heat. I straightened with far too much effort, my palms propped onto my knees, cold sweat pooling on my temples as I searched my surroundings. Everything was silent, nothing moved. It wasn’t so dark that the shadows were impenetrable, nothing should have been able to hide from me.
What in Kyne’s name was this?
I nearly missed it at first, the faint scraping of bones on earth and bones against bones. Terror gripped me when the heap of bones in the middle of the hall started to move, the long column of a spine rising from the pile and stretching miraculously into the air, long appendages unfolding into the form of wings. A fleshless skull swang slowly from left to right, the dead, dark caverns of its eyes coming to rest on me.
“Drem Yol Lok.”
I cowered motionless, as if I could escape this insane situation simply by pretending not to be here, by ignoring what I heard and saw so clearly.
A skeleton of a dragon that moved and talked to me. Its… words, for lack of a better expression, were like an attack, taking over my mind and making me feel dizzy and weak, but in the end it were only words. There was no fire or ice, no fangs or claws threatening to shred me apart.
But on the other hand, it was only a skeleton. It shouldn’t be able to do anything at all.
“Welcome, Dovahkiin. Finally.”
The voice sounded nearly gentle, and still the dragon – its remains – didn’t move. It enabled me to rise finally from my knees and face him openly. Hiding was futile now, that much I knew.
“You… have called me?” I whispered the words. Perhaps he could hear my thoughts just like I heard him in my head, but thinking a conversation was just too weird.
“I had hoped you’d come sooner.”
Chaos swirled through my head. I had found the mysterious power that had called me here, nearly dragging me out of my mind. A dragon. Of course it was a dragon. But it couldn’t be a normal dragon, no, it had to be undead and buried here in the bowels of the earth. Frantically I tried to recall everything I knew about undead, which wasn’t much. There were draugr and revived skeletons and thralls, all of them falling into the category of to be hit until it’s really dead. None of them had ever tried to talk to me. None of them had ever called me.
And where was Farkas? And the mages who had captured him?
“Laas”, I whispered, the only shout I knew that wouldn’t be audible back to Whiterun. And then I saw it, the distinctive purple aura that swirled around myself, proof that I was a living being, and several faint silhouettes of similar coloured light behind the dragon and the wall of the cave. And I saw the blue tendrils that swirled around the enormous bones in the middle of the hall.
He was… a thrall, the energy that lent him this semblance of life whirling in erratic patterns through him. I had seen thralls before, the revived corpses that appeared so frighteningly alive, always together with Necromancers, the first time during that fateful fight when Farkas lost his soul. They were vessels for the will of someone else, their existence a mockery of life, entirely dependent on the mind that kept them in this world.
This dragon was a thrall. It was revived, not resurrected like all the others. And still it was not, because it had obviously thoughts of its own and spoke with me, in this unearthly, soundless voice. It wasn’t mindless, and whoever had dabbled with this pile of bones perhaps didn’t know how incomplete this enthrallment was. Perhaps it wasn’t possible to imprison the mind of a dragon. Perhaps he didn’t know that there was something like a mind at all.
But the dragon hunched in its nest like a fledgling, only the bare, brittle bones of its wings moving lightly. If there had been a membrane between them, it would have fluttered. As if it wanted to make itself as inconspicuous as possible.
I asked my questions out loud. “What are you?”
“A shadow, once banned into the darkness, called forth by the cruel light of the Kriisfahliil.”
“You call them Altmer. I knew them when they were still Aldmer. The eldest folk.”
I leant heavily against the pillar. This was only the first of many answers I needed, so many questions I wanted to ask – where was Farkas, was he alive, why did the Thalmor enthrall a dragon, why this one, why here, down in this cavern, why did he call me? I settled for the most pressing.
“Could you stop being in my head?”
Watching him intently, I had to realise that I could read his body language – the way he threw back his skull, the vertebrae of his long neck twisting like a snake, that was undoubtedly a heartfelt laughter.
“Krosis,” I could feel his amusement and an edge of superiority behind it that was humiliating, “no, I can’t.” And even if he could, he wouldn’t do it. Free me from his presence.
The initial fear subsided slowly for something like anger and curiosity. “Why have you called me?”
“Mindah, sister. Knowledge. I have something you need. And you have something I want.”
“Explain yourself.” Slowly I got used to this weird way to speak, although I wished he refrained from using dragon language. With every word, I feared the assault of a true Word of Power.
“Fos dreh hi laan zok? What is it you seek?”
My breath hitched. “Who does all this. Who brings the dragons back.”
“Alduin. The Destroyer. The Master.”
“He’s a dragon too. A dragon resurrecting his brethren?”
Again this faint, haughty amusement. “Dovah, geh. And so much more.”
“Tell me more.” But the single name he had revealed filled me already with flaring triumph. I knew about Alduin, the ancient foe of mankind that had been killed at the end of the Dragon Wars. I didn’t dare to think of the implications of the dragon’s claim now. Its meaning would come to me, sooner or later.
“Nid.” His voice was nearly a purr, a gentle rumble that cast a spell over me, fascinating and charming. Suddenly I wanted to know how it would sound if I could actually hear him. Suddenly I knew I had to keep him talking, to make him give me more of this… of this gentleness, of this knowledge.
“Why did you call me?”
“I can see your soul, Dovahkiin. It’s beautiful, you know that? So alive. So full of hope.”
“You can see my soul?”
“Why do you call me that?”
His head swayed slowly. “Briinah. Sister. You are, child of Akatosh.”
“But I take your souls.”
It became quiet, and suddenly I realised why I was here. Because I was the only one who could answer his call. Brethren. Brother and sister. I was here because he needed – wanted, demanded – my help.
“Hin fozir. You owe me.”
“I guess I do.”
“End this, Dovahkiin. Free me. They,” his head jerked back behind him, towards the iron gate that led out of the cavern, and I felt the fury well up in him, “ni lost ges. They don’t have the right.” The voice became imploring. “They’re haskei. Dangerous. Too powerful.”
They had a the power to resurrect a dragon, even if they were not in control of him. They worked with violence, disguise and deceit, stopped at nothing and left nothing but death behind to gain power and knowledge they weren’t entitled to. And they had Farkas.
In a flash, Delphine’s fanatic, unyielding expression in face of Vilkas’ contempt came to my mind. “There are greater powers at work than you can imagine.”
And it lay in my power to stop them, at least for now, and of course I would do it. That’s what I had come for, after all – among other things. I just couldn’t believe that this dragon wanted me to end his life deliberately, to end the spell that kept him here. It was a miserable travesty of life, but still conscious life.
“Why? Why do you want to die?”
“I am already dead.”
“You’re waiting for him to bring you back. I would have to kill you again.”
Bitter laughter sounded through my skull, a sensation that tingled in my ears. “He won’t come for me.”
He answered with another question. “Have you ever heard of Nahfahlaar?”
“No.” I had never been interested in the long lists of dragon names Farengar had stored away in his archive. Enemies didn’t have names, they weren’t individuals. Dragons were just oversized lizards that had to be killed, the power and knowledge of their souls indiscernible.
“The Jewel of the Imperial Crown, his scales crimson like crystallised blood, beautiful and strong. Once he betrayed his master, sought safety with the enemy, fought for a god and built an Empire. Proud to be vassal and pet, certain that this Empire was mortal and doomed like its Emperors. But the first, the greatest of them all – he wasn’t mortal, and he was a worthy master too.” The voice stilled, and the dragon slumped together, his broad jaw lying flat on the ground.
I had to think for a moment what his words meant exactly, but it was clear that he spoke of himself. “You have fought for Tiber Septim?”
A barely noticeable nod, merely a twitch of his head. “They didn’t like my story either.”
He meant the Thalmor. Gods, this was incredible. I didn’t even dare to think of all the things I could ask him and learn from him. But of course it wasn’t possible.
“And how…” I gestured around me, taking in the hall.
“Grutiik grutaan. Betrayer, betrayed and forgotten. I want to be forgotten again.”
I leant against my pillar, deep in thought. This had turned out so different than everything I could have imagined. First the strange mask and the sanctuary, now an undead dragon who asked me to kill him. The presence in my head was gone for the moment, the skeleton looking like a lifeless heap of bones again.
The decision was not hard to make, and still I felt queasy when I pushed myself off and went through the vast, empty space and past him. But he didn’t move, and the iron gate opened equally quiet as the first to an equally dark tunnel.
Just as I was about to enter, the mysterious draught I had felt before made the braziers in the hall flare up, providing at least a bit of light, though it was obscured by my own shadow. But this corridor wasn’t long anyway, and only after a couple of turns I had reached another doorway. The corresponding gate was open, but the holes in the floor clearly indicated its existence.
I pressed myself against the wall outside, barely daring to breathe. The room was brightly lit and cosy with an enormous fire blazing in a masoned fireplace. Two Thalmor wizards in their characteristic robes sat opposite of each other at a small table in the back, parchments and goblets between them, speaking lowly in a language I couldn’t understand. And Farkas lay curled together in a corner, his limbs twisted into a position that had to hurt intensely if maintained for longer, hands and feet bound with leather strips. And he was awake. His eyes were wide open in an expression of shock and helplessness, darting frantically through the room, his muscles strained against an unknown force. It couldn’t be just these meagre bounds he struggled against, I knew him good enough to know that simple leather strips weren’t able to hold him. And somehow I knew that Thalmor wizards had other means to secure a prisoner than this.
But whatever it was and although he lay only a few feet away from me, I could neither reach him nor make my presence known, the room too small and bright to move undetected. But at least he was alive. An uncontrolled twitch of his legs answered the question what held him there – one of the Altmer reacted at once to the faint movement, gave him a cruel grin and spat something that was probably an insult while bringing his hands together until magic pulsed between his palms in an eerie green glow. He released the spell on the lying body, and he became still again.
Paralysed. So simple and so effective. Neither strength nor experience or skill would help Farkas against this treatment, and considering the casual way the mage had formed the spell, they could keep it up forever.
I didn’t know how strong it was and how long it would keep him sedated, but I wasn’t willing to wait any longer anyway. I had already stalled far too long, and seeing the miserable state of my shield-brother let remorse well up. During my conversation with the dragon, I had nearly forgotten about him, and he was in this predicament solely because of me anyway.
There also wasn’t much of a plan to make. I pulled one of the arrows prepared with frost-spider poison out of my quiver and nocked it as silent as possible. My only hope was that one of the Thalmor was dead with the first shot and that I’d be able to deal with the other and his magic in close combat as I couldn’t use my Shouts in this small room. They would inevitably hurt Farkas as well, especially in that helpless state he was in.
Drawing, stepping into the doorway, targeting a slender, golden-skinned throat and letting the arrow fly was one fluid motion.
It hit, I knew it the moment I let it loose. Or it should have hit, at least. The breath of relief turned immediately into petrified shock though when it recoiled and fell to the floor as if I had shot against a solid wall.
The Altmer shot up, and only now I noticed the ward around each of them, shimmering like heated air. Magic formed in threatening coils, ready to be released. Lightning and fire, I realised absentmindedly, still standing like frozen in the door.
“You took your time, Dragonborn,” one of the mer snarled. And then the first bolt hit me, making my muscles spasm and my body bounce back against the wall of the tunnel.
It was my luck, if I had been on my back I would’ve never gotten up in time again. Trembling fingers closed around the hilt of my mace, my only thought to get away, out of this tight darkness, away from Farkas. Gods, if I hurt him further… I needed room, to breathe and to fight.
And back in the hall, I had an ally.
I ran through the tunnel, the light in my back fading, the one in front of me becoming brighter.
“Nahfahlaar!” I yelled as I darted through the opening into the hall, hoping that he’d recognise my despair. Two pairs of steps came after me, far too close, far too fast. Lightning found me again, even behind a column.
And the dragon played dead. Dread coiled in my stomach as the mages spread out so I was deprived of every opportunity to engage them in close combat both at once. I couldn’t fight one and let the other use his magic unhindered, I’d be dead before I knew it.
But I would be dead anyway. They both used lightning now that miraculously found its target, not matter what I tried. The grip on my mace became weaker, I doubled over in spasms and had increasing difficulties to regain my footing when bolt after bolt hit me, seemingly coming from everywhere, every search for cover or a hiding place futile.
Nahfahlaar, I thought desperately, slumped against the smooth stone of a pillar, my knees threatening to give out under me, my head dizzy with pain. He had to do something. He had sent me in there.
And then he was there, back in my head, the silken softness of his voice so welcome and soothing, something I could cling to and focus on.
“Krosis, briinah.” His whisper pierced into the core of my mind. “Rii Vaaz Zol.”
I’m sorry, Farkas. It was my last thought before I burst into agony.
A/N: Sorry for the delay, but sometimes procrastination is simply necessary.
For those who haven’t memorised every single Dragon Shout: Rii Vaaz Zol is the Soul Rend Shout, the draconic version of the soultrap spell.
Many thanks to www.thuum.org for their incredibly awesome work.