It wasn’t that bad. Of course it was uncomfortable, they put me in some shabby threadbare clothes, it was cold and damp and filthy, I was hungry and the company of the other prisoners wasn’t exactly delightful. But it could have been much worse, it was just for one night, and next morning a whole reception committee stood ready to celebrate my release from Windhelm’s jail.
Not only had Athis come as early as possible to pay my fine, he was accompanied by a couple of Stormcloak soldiers.
“You’re in trouble, Qhouri. I’m sorry,” he said with a sheepish grin as he handed me my weapons. “The Jarl wants to see you.”
I groaned. Not even a night in prison granted anonymity. I shot my companion an angry glare. “Why? What did you tell them?”
He lifted his hands in defence. “I just tried to get you out of here as soon as possible! I thought the good name of the Companions would help with that… and yours, of course.” He leant to me. “I couldn’t know that it was the brother of the Jarl’s housecarl you bashed up yesterday!”
Our walk through the dark hallways of the Palace of the Kings took place in grumpy silence, Athis not daring to talk, the guards probably not allowed to. But now that I was here, my curiosity stirred, and I took in the new impressions eagerly. Apart from the Dwemer palace in Markarth, the Palace of the Kings had to be the most impressive building in all of Skyrim. Not that I wanted to live here, it didn’t feel exactly cosy with the bleaking torches flickering in an icy breeze on its dark, naked walls and with the Stormcloak’s war banners as the only decoration… but it was certainly imposing.
The main hall was huge. We entered through a side door, and one of the soldiers pointed me towards the throne while the other took Athis by an elbow and led him to the other end, to an enormous table laden with food. At least he would get some breakfast.
The carriage to the chopping block in Helgen had been my only opportunity to meet Ulfric Stormcloak so far. I remembered a man in an expensive armoured cloak, at first bound, gagged and proudly surrendered to his fate and later a commander, taking the reigns over the chaos in the destroyed city because he had to. The man I faced now, sitting on Ysgramor’s throne above the rest of the hall, was different. Powerful. Confident. Dangerous. Although his bearing seemed entirely laid-back, he radiated pure self-esteem – an awareness of his own might, physically and politically, that he deliberately used to intimidate. He looked down on me for several minutes, provoking the distinct feeling that he enjoyed tremendously that I stood so far below him.
“Ah, Dragonborn,” he finally said, tilting his head in a gesture of amused interest, “how was your night?”
His voice was perhaps the most remarkable on him. Dark, well articulated, not a hint of an accent. And trained. Even a whisper would be heard at the other end of the hall if he wanted. The power of his Thu’um lingered beneath it… or perhaps he just used it to get this effect.
I didn’t like him.
“Could have been worse, Sir,” I said with a small smile. If he had hoped to find me obsequious, he was mistaken.
“Impressive. You broke his jaw and a rib, and he lost four of his few remaining teeth. I don’t like it when my second in command has to spend his precious time caring for his useless brother. You’re a nuisance, Dragonborn.”
“Then your second in command should teach his brother some manners, Sir, and I will gladly spend my time in your city as quiet as possible,” I spat.
His eyes narrowed in anger, but the annoyance was suddenly replaced by curiosity… and irritation.
“Fierce…” he mumbled, “but I have the feeling we’ve met before.”
I couldn’t believe it. He knew who I was, he certainly knew that I was a Companion, but he didn’t remember Helgen? I couldn’t suppress a grin.
“Last time we met, Sir,” I chuckled, “you were due for the block. As was I.”
A bad memory, obviously, his scowl proved it, but he was openly surprised. “You were in Helgen? I don’t remember you… just… there was a nameless girl in rags.”
“Yes, that girl. One of your men helped me to get out.”
He lingered in his seat and waved a servant to refill his goblet, but his intense stare didn’t shift for a second. Slowly his scowl altered into a grin. A predatory grin.
“Hm… one of my men, you say? It seems… you owe me.” I had seen this kind of grin too often on people who were too used to get too easily what they wanted. “I could make use of your… special abilities.”
He was crazy.
“I’m a Companion, Sir. We don’t deal in politics.” It was the most polite refusal I could think of. Not polite enough for him, though. And not convincing enough.
His eyes narrowed to angry slits. “You’re also a Nord, woman! You’re a warrior, you’ve travelled high and low through the province… you have eyes and ears. Don’t you see how Skyrim suffers under the thumb of this dying and corrupted Empire? Don’t you see your duty?”
I raised an eyebrow in astonishment. He called on my duty? Really? I liked him less with every sentence.
“You’re right, Sir,” I said pensively, choosing my words carefully. “I’ve seen a lot during my travels. Farmers not far from here who called the Companions from Whiterun to deal with the dragon that burnt down their harvest and paid them from their own purses because their Jarl didn’t care. A citizen of Kynesgrove I had to rescue from a bandit lair because the Windhelm guards declared themselves not responsible. A wretched slum in your own city where my friend and shield-brother had to spend the night because he wasn’t allowed to stay at the room in Candlehearth he paid for.”
To see his face contort in fury was nearly amusing. I wondered when somebody had dared to speak to him like that the last time. Being Nord and Dragonborn proved to be useful… occasionally.
“We’re at war, woman,” he roared, “a war that will determine our future! Everybody will have to bring sacrifices for this future, free of oppression, free of the reign of the cursed elves, with a country and a people that will finally be able to form its own destiny!” He lowered his voice to a thick rumble. “I would like you to be a part of the emergence of this, of our destiny. What good can come from defending a dying era? You believe I fight for a throne and a crown? No… I fight for the honour of our people. For the freedom and the self-respect of my home country, things the Empire has denied us for far too long. Sometimes in such a fight, loyalties have to stay behind.”
“These are grave words, Sir… and I’m by no means an expert in military strategies. But I’m an expert in loyalties, I know them from experiences that are precious to me. All you can offer is worthless to me as long as only one of my shield-siblings has to fear for his honour, his property or his life when he visits your city. Because one day he will have to fear the same when he visits your kingdom.”
I had finally managed to frustrate him. “If you hadn’t wreaked havoc in the inn, your precious elf would be as welcome as everyone else!”
“No, Sir,” I shouted, “I just won a stupid brawl one of your precious Nords started without any reason. Nothing would have happened if my precious elf were tall, blonde and blue-eyed. And believe me, Jarl Ulfric,” my voice lowered to a snarl, “he fights for Skyrim’s people just like the bravest of your men. For its people, not for a polity. Because it’s his home and has been for decades, the same it’s yours and mine.”
“Is this your last word, Dragonborn?” His eyes were icy.
Suddenly I was tired. Tired of this open fanaticism, of his onesided attitude. Tired of his belief that he had the right to press me.
I calmed myself. “Sir… I hate the Thalmor as much as you do. You know the Grey-Manes in Whiterun. Eorlund Grey-Mane’s son Thorald has recently joined your ranks. Ask him where he was before he came to you, and ask him what he has experienced there. You will find that you have… something in common. The Dominion is the plague that taints and corrupts not only Skyrim, but everything they lay their hands on. And believe me, I know how much you hate them. I have… met… Elenwen.” For a moment, his eyes showed a hint of uncertainty. A hint of… terror. But it was gone after a split second.
“But my duty, Sir, isn’t just tied to us Nords. It isn’t even tied just to Skyrim. And apart from that… honestly, my war is more important than yours. You’ve been at High Hrothgar, you should know.”
He sat rigidly on his throne, seemingly unimpressed with my words. But his voice was tight. “We will meet again, Dragonborn. You will have to choose sides… sooner or later.”
I sighed. “Perhaps, yes. Until then… let me fight my battles, as you fight yours.” I bowed briskly, turned and left. Athis awaited me at the main doors, and the guards let us leave without a further word.
What an impressive, arrogant bastard. I just hoped I didn’t make myself an enemy during this encounter.
And Athis looked… strange. At me. While we finally left this wretched, wonderful city.
“Stop that, Athis,” I nudged him, “what’s the matter?”
“You’re insane, Qhouri,” he muttered, “and… I don’t know what to say.”
I grinned. “That’s a first,” I said drily.
But he just sat down on the parapet of the bridge that led out to the stables.
“No,” he said, “I mean it. What you’ve said in there…” he pointed back to the gates, “it was brave, but that’s not unexpected of you. But I didn’t expect you to be so… unyielding against the Jarl.”
I dropped down beside him and tipped at my temple. “Stubborn, Athis. I’m really bad at making compromises.”
“I’m serious, Qhouri. I’m not used to someone fighting for me. Not like that.”
“Don’t get sentimental, brother. You would’ve done the same, and many people would do it for you as well, they just don’t have the opportunity to argue with that moron in there. And it’s not just about you. Think of Ria. Irileth. Arcadia. Adrianne and her father. Elrindir and Anoriath. Whiterun alone would lose half its population if his stupid ‘Skyrim belongs to the Nord’ became true. And the better half, probably.”
Athis finally got his smirk back. “You’re no good Nord, Qhouri.”
I laughed. “No, I’m probably not. I’ve been lost to his cause the moment some scrubby Dunmer saved my poor skin.” I lingered for a moment. Thought what exactly about Ulfric Stormcloak had made me so… angry. Defensive.
“And apart from that… he’s a manipulative bastard, with that voice of his and his blasted attitude and that speech he held. Probably my luck that he just remembered me as a frightened girl.”
“Well, the speech you held him certainly wasn’t the one of a frightened girl!”
I grinned at my shield-brother and stood up. “Come on, grey-skin, we’ve spent far too much time here. I’ve got to fetch you a star… from the bottom of a lake!”
Lake Ilinalta, the source of the White River, was quite a distance to travel, and our delay took it’s toll in form of a missed carriage. The wagon to Markarth we wanted to take initially was long gone, and the only one waiting was the one to Falkreath. To take it would bereave us of the opportunity to make a stop at Whiterun, but there wasn’t much choice. At least we’d be able to spend a night at Ivarstead and enjoy Wilhelm’s hospitality.
During the ride we had lots of time to muse over the map and guess the location of Malyn Varen’s hiding place. Nelacar had just said that he had vanished to Ilinalta… but the lake was huge, with dozens of potential hideouts for a mage gone mad at or near its shore. It wasn’t much more than a guess, but we decided to start our search on the northern side; the southern seemed to be more unlikely, with its settlements and its proximity to Falkreath. Even the Falkreath watchtower was located close enough to the lake to provide a nice overlook over the waterside.
Our first try was a cave near the western end of the lake, but we knew it was a blank as soon as we approached. No mages, no thralls, no undead, just a lonely hunter slumped on a rock in front of the narrow entrance. But he needed help, and urgently – he shivered violently, barely able to form coherent words.
“Curse…” he muttered with chattering teeth, pointing at the dark opening, “healing… please.”
A few scratches trailed over his bare chest, and his leather breeches were ripped in some places, but he certainly didn’t seem to be severely injured. Hesitantly I approached him with my healing spell prepared, and he literally fell against me when I touched one of the bruises with the golden light.
It seemed it didn’t matter at all where the spell made contact with his body. He bathed in the light, held my wrist against his chest until my power was completely depleted. But his ragged breath had eased significantly, and finally we were able to understand him.
“Spriggans,” he panted, “they cursed me… thank youp. But they got the others. Ari and Niels. I need to get them out of there.”
The man was in no condition to fight anything larger than a rabbit. I looked back at Athis who just nodded.
“‘t will be a fine warmup,” he said and addressed the man. “What’s your name, friend?”
“Valdr. I’m… we were hunters. Chased a bear.”
Athis already turned to the entrance. “Okay, Valdr, you stay here and rest. We’re gonna see after your friends.”
The large cavern wasn’t as dark as it looked from the outside. Many gaps in its ceiling let bright daylight flow in, giving a manifold of plantlife opportunity to grow inside. It seemed empty when we entered, apart from some rustling in the distance and a dead body only a short distance from the opening. The woman had tried to crawl to the redemptive exit, her fingers still clawed into the mud. But her corpse looked horrible – deep gashes along her back which would have been lethal all on their own, but apart from that the body appeared bloated, her skin littered with swollen blaines. She looked as if a swarm of bees had stung her to death.
Athis’ face crinkled with disgust, but before we could even make another step, a subtle movement in the corner of my eyes caught my attention. A tree started to move towards us from a ledge further away. A glowing tree. The spriggan was hard to focus on, it seemed to vanish from sight, then appeared again, and it was surrounded by a swarm of… whatever had taken Ari’s life.
The creature wasn’t fast, or perhaps it took its time to approach us, but while I backed away and nocked my first arrow, Athis just drew his dual daggers, grinned at me over his shoulder and charged in. With a new battlecry.
“Skyrim belongs to the Nords!” he yelled from the top of his lungs,
“to the Nords and the Nords only!” he stabbed the accumulation of firewood into every opening he could find,
“for freedom and honour and elven filthlessness!” he swatted frantically at the strange insects that swarmed him,
“and all hail to Talos!”
I bent over and nearly choked from laughter.
Of course my arrows were completely useless against a creature made of hardwood – and of course I could have thought about that before. And so I unsheathed my sword and joined him when I finally had caught my breath and the giggling had stopped. They were weird creatures, these spriggans. More plant than animal, a manifestation of a nature spirit and beautiful in their own way. Of the strange, breathtaking beauty that is so often equally deadly.
It slashed out against us, slow but with astonishing strength, and fingers like sharpened twigs tried to find an opening in our armours. My dragonscales provided much better protection than Athis’ reinforced leather, and so I tried to get its attention, tried to keep its focus on me while the mer danced around it and sunk his blades into the small gaps between branches and vines of shimmering, polished wood. Slowly we got into the rhythm of the fight, found out that there were sinews we could severe and that stabs behind the wooden shell actually hurt it. It did not bleed, of course not, but it became slower and its unearthly glow weaker, just to expire completely when the creature finally collapsed to the ground.
Now it really looked like a heap of firewood. Athis seemed to have the same idea.
“Fire would be useful here…” he said with a smirk, but I rose my hands in resistance.
“Only if I have to!”
We proceeded further into the cave, searching for the second victim – we both knew we wouldn’t find any survivors. We found the corpse lying beside a little pond, guarded by a huge cave bear – a glowing cave bear. Athis stopped me with a grip to my shoulder and ducked into the shadows.
“He’s bound,” he whispered, “controlled by another spriggan. They can make animals fight for them… let’s try and lure him away. I really don’t wanna take them both at once.”
Finally I could get back to my bow. I backed off as far as my range allowed and started to stuff the beast with as many arrows as possible. These cave bears were huge, much larger than their relatives living out in the forest. And they were fast once their tremendous weight was in motion, but nevertheless I was able to inflict some very painful injuries to him, even if they were not deadly. It also helped that Athis drove both his blades into the bear’s neck when he stormed past him, even if he was dragged along with the furious animal when he wasn’t able to free his daggers in time.
But between the two of us, a lot of running, dodging and cursing we were able to take him down – just to see another challenge approach before we were even able to catch a breath.
This spriggan didn’t bother to disguise itself in the foliage. It was enormous, at least two feet larger than the first, and it glowed in a deep orange, like molten stone or a sunset after a misty day. And it was much faster and stronger than its little sister, which made our approved tactic much less viable.
Even Athis stopped his mocking and shouting after some rounds with this foe and cursed violently when I was hit by a long, iron hard, incredibly strong arm that sent me flying against the cave wall. For a moment everything went black, and I still saw stars when I stumbled back to my feet. It was high time, though – one of Athis’ daggers was stuck in a small gap in the back of the creature, and he struggled frantically to pull it out again, unaware that it was about to crash him backwards into a large trunk.
“Athis,” I yelled, “out of the way!”
This was what it meant to work with a shield-sibling – to trust each other so far that commands like this, shouted in the midst of chaos were followed in a split second and without thought if they even make sense. Athis complied immediately, he left his stuck weapon for good and leaped away from his foe, giving me space and precious seconds to launch my attack.
“YOL TOOR SHUL!”
The Dragonfire shot through the cavern and crashed the creature into the wall just like it had done it with me. And it started to burn… it wasn’t only scorched, but small flames blazed all over it, found nourishment in its flesh until the whole body burnt like an oversized torch. All fighting was forgotten, we watched in awe as the spriggan staggered through the cave, its limbs flailing in silent agony. It made absolutely no sound, no audible hint of pain besides the crackling of the fire that devoured it… and the splash when it finally plunged into the shallow pool at the cave’s end, dead.
“Your friends are revenged, Valdr,” Athis said to the waiting hunter. We found him where we had left him. “Do you need any further help? They deserve a proper burial.”
“Thank you so much,” the man replied, “but I won’t impose on you any further. You’ve already done much more than what was asked for.”
He told us that he and his friends had been one of the hunter groups roaming the wilderness. A sparse, harsh life, but one of the ultimate freedom. They made a living from the land, only sold some of their goods in a city when they were in need of their services, like a blacksmith or a healer. Small, secluded camps throughout the landscape that were provided with some supplies ready to use for everyone who came by were their only concession to a settled life.
Although his hesitation was obvious, Athis managed to convince Valdr to return to Falkreath and get some help to take care of the remains of his companions. I noticed how naturally he turned to Athis to discuss what to do now, how he listened to his advice, and I saw how the mer put away his usual cynicism, his usual way of finding something hilariously funny in literally everything and became emphatic, caring and convincing.
It wasn’t really much that we had done for him, but at least he was safe and healed enough to leave this place. And he had a valuable hint for us when Athis asked him if he knew anything about rogue mages around the lake. He hadn’t seen any, but told us some rumours about a sunken fort that was suspected to be haunted. People vanished in its proximity, and no trace of them was ever seen again. The hunters never went near the cursed building, Valdr said there was no prey around anyway, and better safe than sorry. But he could mark it on our map, and we finally knew where our next destination lay.
In the end, he donated Athis a dagger, replacement for the one the mer had left in the burning corpse of the spriggan. He called it his lucky dagger, and it had been a gift to him as well by his deceased friend Ari. It looked like a heavily used, simple steel dagger, but Athis took it with emotion and gratitude and sheathed it carefully at his belt.
It was good to stay in the back, sit on a log, deal with my bruised ribcage and let the men speak. Farkas never liked to take centre stage, he didn’t like to argue, discuss and haggle, not with strangers and not about business, and so he usually left the talking to me. And often he was more useful anyway when he just stood in the back and looked intimidating.
Athis was different, and I enjoyed how he had taken over. Especially now, while we were on his very own mission, given to him by a Daedric Prince. He was in charge, and he acted like it, naturally and confident. I wasn’t really astonished; his personality was the one of a natural leader, with his wit and his convincing charme, and in experience he surpassed us all. But it was a nice change for once.
We were already leaving when he had another idea and held the hunter back once more.
“Would you do us a favour when you get back to Falkreath, Valdr?” he asked.
The man complied at once, and Athis handed him some coins. “Then please, send a courier to Jorrvaskr in Whiterun, with a message that Athis and Qhourian are still busy and that we don’t know yet how long it will take till we can return. Will you do that for me?”
Valdr’s eyes grew wide. “Jorrvaskr? You’re Companions?” Athis just nodded.
“It’s an honour to be of service. I’ll see to it first when I get there.”
“Thank you, friend,” Athis smiled.
“What was that for?” I asked when we were finally on our own again, searching for a suitable campsite, “since when are we on a schedule?”
He grinned at me. “We aren’t. You know for whom that message is.”
“Oh please, Athis,” I laughed, “don’t you think Farkas knows how this works? It takes as long as it takes, as always.”
“Of course he knows. But we wanted to be back some days ago, and now he will already be pacing through Tilma’s precious red carpet and drive all of them crazy.” His arm wrapped amicably around my shoulders. “I’m happy for you, Qhouri. He does you good. And I know you’d be insufferable if you were in his place.”
He was right, and I should have thought of it on my own.
I showed my friend a feeble smile. “Thank you, Athis. Thanks for thinking. I mean… I love to be out with you, and this is exciting and I’m used to be away for a long time… but I miss him.”
He smiled warmly. “I know. We’ll hurry, okay?”
Rogue mages were worse than bandits. By far.
Of course I knew that the majority of mages in Skyrim were honest people who tried to blend in as well as possible. They were scholars, healers, court mages, also mercenaries… they tried to be as useful as possible in a society that would never accept that a fireball could be as effective as a piece of steel.
The first mage I had ever got to know better was Farengar, Jarl Balgruuf’s court wizard, and he was a prime example of an assimilated mage; a scholar, deeply absorbed in his studies, not giving a damn what others thought about him, overall a bit weird, but harmless, friendly and helpful when asked in the right way. And respected, not for what he did but for his loyalty and his position at the court, a position he had certainly worked hard for.
But I really asked myself why so many of the holes in Skyrim’s landscape were inhabited by rogue mages, cruel, evil people who did everything to solidify the bad reputation of magic in the province. Shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the Mages College to keep these guys in check? If it was, they did a lousy job, and our case proved it. To simply dismiss a colleague who killed his own students and used their souls for his forbidden experiments, and to let him get away and build up a new operation base… that seemed strangely inappropriate.
The robbing and killing the ordinary bandits did was bad enough, but what these guys did was worse. Much worse. They played with lives, afterlives, unlives and other people’s souls, ruthless and unscrupulous. They strived for power under the disguise of their studies.
Magic could do so much more damage than a simple blade, a damage of a kind so different and more dangerous than physical injuries. Although I tried not to be prejudiced – I had powerful magic at my own disposal, after all – the distrust and outright hate many Nords showed against it was somehow understandable.
And in this case, I shared it. Enough to look forward to the exploration of the sunken keep at the edge of the lake more eager than concerned.
After a short climb over a frail ladder we stood in near darkness and in gurgling water that went nearly up to our knees. Awesome. At least the entrance hall was empty.
It took some time until my eyes had adjusted to the dim light, and the first thing that greeted us was a skeleton, shackled to a pillar and overgrown with slimy moss. A warm welcome, but Athis just snickered at the sight – now we could be nearly certain that we were in the right place.
That Malyn Varen fellow and his experiments had to be extremely fascinating, considering that a rather large number of his disciples had actually decided to follow him to this place. If he succeeded to seal himself into the star, what was in it for them? Nobody should be able to live in a ruin that lay mostly beneath the water level, but somehow the mages kept the waters at bay. But it was still a horrible refuge, dark and damp, full of mud and rot and mould.
Our progress was slow, and we were lucky that our opponents were spread out so wide – not because their numbers were so small, but because the complex was so huge. They came over us in waves, gathering in those rooms that were most easiest to defend.
Fighting mages was always different from fighting warriors, with armour not doing much good and their bloody ranged attacks, but these were a peculiarly nasty lot. Not only did we usually have to kill them more than once, their colleagues reviving the corpses as soon as they fell, the ruin was also filled with narrow stairways, water-filled moats and balconies they used to their advantage. And they had a huge fondness for ice attacks, probably because there was so much water available. Athis had an especially hard time against them, gasping and staggering and cursing every time another barrage hit him, when the walls were covered with rime and the stale air got a chill that made our breath freeze. But the mer gulped down his frost protection and stamina potions and kept going without break, dark resolve in his features.
We were both wet and frozen to the bones after we had to wade through a waterfilled pool, dispatched half a dozen revived skeletons and another couple of necromancers and finally reached a broad stairway that spiralled upwards along the outer walls of a tower. Athis looked up, a brilliant smile appearing on his face.
“It’s up there,” he whispered. “I can feel it.”
I laid my hand on his shoulder. “Then let’s go and end this.”
No more enemies were waiting for us, and Malyn Varen was dead.
Or rather… we found a skeleton and his Grimoire beside it, and on first glance it wasn’t unreasonable to call him dead. After reading the booklet, we weren’t so sure any more that this was the correct description of his state.
It seemed that he had been successful.
Although his mad experiments had collapsed the fort into the lake, he had countless lives – and souls – on his conscience and he had broken the Star into several pieces during the process, he had actually managed to turn the artefact into a black soulgem and to seal his own soul inside. And it seemed he had a fatal affinity to demolish his own refuges. To keep the Star from breaking completely, it had to be fed with more and more mortal souls – the reason why his disciples were still here.
But we had cut off his supplies.
The pieces lay at his feet, blackened silver and dead gems, dull and lifeless – but Athis took them with reverence and wrapped them carefully into a cloth, and his expression showed all the fury and sorrow he felt given its humiliated state.
I took his wrist. “Come on, let’s get out of here,” I muttered and pulled him with me to a trapdoor. I had a vague idea where we would appear outside, the top of the tower reaching over the water level. We’d have to swim again, but it was better than to find our way back through the maze of the fort.
Athis left before me, and I released my Dragonfire on the place, shouted with every bit of power my body could release. The stonemelting inferno, so much hotter than usual flames, would hopefully help to ultimately collapse the building and let it sink into the waves of the lake. I didn’t want anybody to enter this wretched place again.
The way back to our makeshift camp was spent in silence. To see the mer so deep in thought, so shaken disturbed me. The shame he felt was etched deeply into the lines of his face.
“I’ve failed,” he muttered when we had settled at our little fire, “I’ve failed Azura. I should’ve come much earlier. And now the Star is destroyed.”
I tried to comfort him and squeezed his shoulders. “It’s not your fault, Athis. You’ve seen the remains of Malyn… he’s probably already gone for years. We don’t know. And the Star isn’t lost as long Azura doesn’t say it’s irreparable. You don’t know for sure what she wants. Perhaps there are ways to restore it.”
My words seemed to soothe him, and when I took the first watch he managed to sleep, the bundle with the fragments pressed tight against his chest.
I wondered how it felt to have such a personal connection to a god. To have real contact, a real exchange. When I had been in the Eldergleam Sanctuary, I had the feeling that Kynareth was with me. That she watched me, perhaps, and that her presence helped me to fulfil my task. And I had looked upon the sapling I brought back to Whiterun as her gift, as her personal blessing. But that was just my interpretation, it was what I wanted to believe. Of course she hadn’t spoken to me, and I doubted she ever spoke to Danica, not in the way Azura obviously spoke to her priestess at the Shrine.
Such a personal connection could be a blessing the same it could be a curse. But at least her followers knew if their god cared or if they were left alone.
We were up early next morning and considered how to proceed.
“You wanna make a stop at Jorrvaskr, Qhouri?” Athis asked, and he tried to sound as genuine as possible.
Yes, I wanted. I missed Farkas, Whiterun lay on our way anyway. and it would be nice to sleep in a bed once more. But seeing his face, I shook my head. A stopover would cost us at least one day, with an evening with our siblings, lots of stories to share, the mead flowing freely… I knew how this went. And Athis wanted nothing more than to return to Azura’s Shrine and get his judgement from the Daedra. I wouldn’t hold him back.
I shook my head. “No. Let’s take the road and hop onto the first carriage for Windhelm or Winterhold we get, okay?” I said with a reassuring smile.
“Thank you, sister,” he said gratefully. “I feel I should hurry. I feel she’s waiting for me. For her Star.” He hesitated. “But if you want… I can go alone. If you’d like to go home.”
I nudged him into the side. “Don’t be stupid. We’ve started this together and we’ll end it together. No way I’m gonna let you face your Prince alone.”
We were lucky and could jump onto a carriage that passed us shortly before Riverwood, heading for Windhelm. To see the silhouette of Dragonsreach pass by in the distance made my heart jump, but Athis’ withdrawn demeanour stopped me from saying anything. He was anxious and nervous like I had never seen him before, shifting restlessly on his wooden bench.
We couldn’t avoid Windhelm entirely as we had to stock up on supplies, but at least it was midday when we reached the city, and Athis agreed to wait at the stables while I visited the market for potions, arrows and a few travelling rations. Less than an hour later we were on our way northwards, avoiding the Stormcloak camp near the coast, eating away the miles along the shore in a fast pace. We marched deep into the night, the silver light of Masser and its reflections on the water illuminating our way, rested only for a few hours and were up again with the first sunlight.
Not a single word of complaint came over Athis’ lips during these hours although the chilly wind from the north went through marrow and bone. His thoughts were with his deed, with the fragments he kept hidden under his armour, with Azura, and he was determined to reach our goal as fast as possible.
Only when we stood at the foot of the winding, icy path that led up into the mountains and to the Shrine, he reached out for me, showing a weak smile.
“I’m glad you’ve come with me, Qhouri. Thank you.”
“I’d go everywhere with you, Athis. Don’t forget… you’re her champion.”
He just nodded and continued.
The priestess wasn’t surprised to see us back. In fact, she seemed to have expected us… or Athis, respectively, as she turned away from her altar as soon as we climbed the steps, her hands held out in a greeting gesture of blessing.
“You’ve returned, Champion. Have you brought what the Lady of Twilight asked you to find?” she asked, but there was confidence in her voice.
A confidence that seemed to diminish when Athis reached into his armour, unfolded the cloth without a word and presented her the fragments. It diminished, but it wasn’t gone. A kind of quiet communication seemed to take place between the two Dunmer.
Aranea took the pieces reverently from his hands and placed them on the altar.
“I will ask Azura to restore the Star to its original purity.” The priestess turned away from us and laid her hands flat on the stonen, polished surface, and suddenly she seemed to be gone – her mind was somewhere else, gone from Nirn, and she had forgotten about our presence.
She was speaking with her god, as casually as if she was just speaking with someone standing right beside her. I watched her in awe.
When she returned, she looked… confused.
“She wants to speak with you herself, Champion.” Her strong features were crinkled with amazement. “Please… place your hands on the altar, and you will hear her words.”
Athis hadn’t said a word so far, and he didn’t start to argue now. Just his eyes wandered to my face with a look of… it wasn’t fear. It wasn’t even concern. More something like veneration, reverence, and a hint of unworthiness. I touched his shoulder lightly, assuringly.
But when he turned to the altar and laid his hands upon it, he did so with a confident motion, rested all his weight on his palms. Just a moment later, his face showed the same expression of absence we had seen on Aranea’s. I didn’t hear anything, of course not, but this time I felt something – a light tug on my conscience, a faint presence that let the hair in the nape of my neck stand on end. I wasn’t sure if I envied or pitied my friend for this experience.
It took endless minutes until Athis returned, the priestess waiting with the same tension as I. But when the mer suddenly slumped in front of the altar, I was by his side with a jump, holding him upright. Now his look was overwhelmed, stunned by the contact to his Prince, and he barely seemed to breathe. He let me draw him away and sat down on the rock I led him to without resistance.
Finally he started to speak. “The star can’t be restored in its current state,” he said with a deep sigh. “Not with Malyn’s soul inside. She wants to send me inside, and I have to defeat him.”
I felt my jaw drop to my chest.
“She wants what?”
Athis showed an unhappy, lopsided grin. “She wants to send me into the star to kill that lunatic.”
“But… how’s that possible?”
“I believe… it’s something like another plane of existence. Malyn has occupied it, made it his own and protected it with strong enchantments. That guy is powerful,” he shuddered. “He will fade, eventually, without the souls to feed him. But it can take ages. Azura wants me to clean it now.”
I looked into his confused, awestruck, determined face.
“And you want to do her bidding.”
He searched my eyes and nodded slowly. “Yes. I want to.”
He laid a hand on my shoulder. “Qhouri… I don’t know what’s gonna happen, and she promised she’ll be watching over me. But I’d feel more safe if you’d watch over me as well.”
I swallowed. “Can’t she… send us both? I’ve a bad feeling about this…”
He shook his head. “No.” His smile was genuine. “Have a little faith, Nord girl. If not in Azura, then at least in me.”
“I have, Athis,” I muttered, “but even more I’d like to have faith and your back.”
But the mer was determined to do this, to play his role as Azura’s champion to the bitter end.
He stood up, checked his weapons, checked the pouches with the emergency supplies on potions and his deadly poisoned darts tucked neatly into the thick leather strap across his chest, did everything we usually did to prepare for a fight – as if he believed all this would help him when his Prince sent him to another plane. Into the Star. I wondered which part of him would go there… and if I’d be able to help him at all if anything happened.
The only thing we knew for sure was that if he died in there, he’d die for real, up here on this lonely, windswept peak, shadowed by Azura’s idol.
When he stood before me, ready for battle, his lanky body shivering in the cold but with a small, confident smile on his lips, I took off my amulet and fastened it around his neck.
“Take this. It’s the one Farengar made for me,” I muttered. “It will guard you.” I let my hands rest on his shoulders and leant my forehead against his. “Come back, brother,” I whispered, “may the gods watch over you.”
A hint of his usual, confident grin flashed up, and he touched his own hip. “With that protection and my lucky dagger – what are you afraid of?” His eyes sparkled, and then he went over to the altar without further hesitation.
I sent a quick prayer to Akatosh and Kyne to have an eye on him, fully aware of the irony of this notion.
Aranea stood at the foot of the shrine, motionless, with an unreadable face.
Athis sank to his knees in front of the altar, sent a last glance up to the face of the tall statue towering us all and laid his hands onto the surface.
And then he was gone. His body slumped against the stone, his forehead resting against its polished edge.
I knelt down beside him. I didn’t know what I could do to watch over him now… but the least was to feel his heart beating. His body felt limp and stiff at the same time against my touch.
Nothing happened for a long time, minutes or hours, I didn’t know. Or at least nothing that left any sign on his body. He murmured some unintelligible words, but he didn’t move. There was absolutely no indication what was happening, if anything was happening at all.
I had to remind myself that he was good at this. If what awaited him in there was anything like a normal fight against a powerful mage, Azura couldn’t have chosen better. He was tough and strong, fast in his reactions and his wit and stealthy when it mattered. He had been a warrior all his life and survived, he would not die now against a dead mage. I forced my own breath to calm down to the rhythm of his steady heartbeat.
He nearly jerked out of my grip when his body suddenly arched back, tense like a drawn bow, gasping for a breath that didn’t want to come. But his face stayed frighteningly blank, and his hands remained firmly on the altar, as if they were glued to the shimmering stone. But when he started to tremble and his ashen face paled beneath his warpaint, I just knew he was in pain although no sound but a ragged breath came over his lips. And there was nothing I could do but to tighten my embrace, to lend him my strength and to hope that there was still some kind of link between his body and his mind that let him feel it. There had to be, seeing that the pain he endured influenced his body as well.
It was terrifying.
While his mind – or his soul, or both – fought this deadly fight against Malyn Varen, his body fought its own battle against pain, injuries and exhaustion. I did not know what the mage did to him, but it obviously brought him to his limits. And I could do nothing but to watch and to listen.
He was injured. I knew he bled, I could feel his lifeforce drip away, but there were no wounds. I held my healing magic ready, but I had no indication where to apply it.
And then something hit him, with such force that his body fell to the side and started to slip limply out of my grip. But I caught him and held him upright, grabbed his wrists and forced his palms to stay on the altar. He had to finish this. He had to stay in that place until it was over, I could not allow that he lost the link. I could not allow that he had to stay in there. My fingers tangled with his, held them in place, and I let the golden light of my restoration magic pulse through his body, directionless but hopefully not without purpose.
“Go on, Athis,” I muttered into his ear, “go on, brother. Don’t you dare to die in there. Don’t you dare!” I couldn’t stop to whisper senseless nonsense and encouragements, gritted teeth grinding against his ear, the cold fist of fear clenching my chest with the same force I held his dead still body in place. It took too long. I felt tears roll down my cheeks, but I wouldn’t loosen my grasp as long as I could feel his heart beat.
But it had an end. He straightened, tensed, his eyes shot open and revealed a blackness that drowned out everything else, and I felt him urge forwards despite the motionlessness of his flesh.
A strangled hiss escaped him, his head tilting back into his neck, against my shoulder, up to Azura’s face.
And then he was back and whole again. “Done,” he whispered faintly and sucked in a rasping breath. I held my own, waited for him to exhale, for another word, a look or a sign that he was truly back. But there was nothing.
He had stopped breathing.
He had succeeded, had done Azura’s bidding and come back, and now he lay curled up in my lap, lifeless, his body as motionless as it had been only moments ago, his mind gone… again.
The fist of fear closed down, firmly and ultimately when my palm rested flat on his chest and felt nothing. For a moment nothing was audible but the howling wind that roared in my ears, drowning out everything else. No pain, no cold, no exhaustion, no grief – just nothing. Athis had stopped breathing.
We sat like that for endless minutes, his lifeless eyes still staring up to the idol of his Prince, my hand stroking his face, the skin of his cheek cool beneath my fingertips. He had always been cold. I closed my eyes to refrain the tears from falling down on him as my mind slowly wrapped around the fact that he was gone.
I heard it before I saw it, the bright ray of light that hit the altar. It was a connection, a quivering line linking the star the statue held in her hand high above us and the fragments still lying upon it. The ray sang, emitted a monotonous, high, quivering sound, but it wasn’t meant for me. The priestess still stood at the bottom of the pedestal, but even she heard it, she tilted her head to her neck, her face lit up with wonder.
And then the artefact was whole and complete again, beautiful in its glory. The gem in its centre split the beam into a cacophony of colours that swept over the mer’s body, waves of light that bathed him in Azura’s grace… and in her mercy.
To hear his breath return, raspy and shallow, was the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. We didn’t move, his face gleaming in the light, and I held him, halted my own breathing until I thought my lungs would burst, waited for his chest to move once more and for the next sound coming from him. And finally it came… gasping and hesitating.
But his fight was far from over. I carried him into the shelter of the priestess’ little hut, wrapped him into furs and laid him down onto her bedroll. My struggle for him lasted hours. I cried and I yelled at him every time his breathing stopped again, hit and stroked him to keep him here. I wouldn’t let him slip away. I had promised to watch over him and had been so helpless during his fight, I wouldn’t let him die now. Not like this. Not after he had already proven that he was Azura’s true champion, and not after she had already kept her promise, watched over him and sent him back.
I shuddered when I searched him for injuries and my hands were suddenly covered in red moisture. The wounds he had suffered only appeared slowly on his body, as if it took his flesh some time to remember them, but that made them nothing less lethal.
A blade, the edge of a heavy axe or a greatsword had hit him into the side, sliced through the thick leather of his armour and left a deep gash – the hit that nearly had ended him in there. Several more severe slashes added to the bloodloss, his left wrist was twisted and broken and large blistered burns covered his unprotected arms. But he had probably been hit by much more powerful magic than just a few fireballs, it had caused injuries I couldn’t see, not on first glance, but his armour was strangely scorched in several places. And there was nothing I could do about the broken rib I found, could just hope that it didn’t pierce his lung.
I cursed my limited powers, depleted my strength to the very bottom as I tried to close his wounds and to stop the deadly bleeding, until I couldn’t gulp down any more potions without heaving them up again, until I saw stars and my vision blurred from strain and exhaustion. I tried to instill him a potion, but he wouldn’t swallow, I was afraid to choke him, and soon the red juice mingled with his blood on the furs.
Shortly Danica’s warning flashed through my mind, that healers had killed themselves while trying to save others. But of what use was my magic if I couldn’t even prevent my shield-brother’s death? I wasn’t even a healer, had neglected my studies and my training, but I would find and draw forth every last bit of power hidden in me to save him.
But it wasn’t enough, his breath still so ragged and unsteady, his wounds still bleeding when I collapsed on top of him, my vision blackening out. Devoid of strength and devoid of hope I slumped against the wooden wall of the hut with his head in my lap. I wanted to stay like this, at least shelter him from the cold winds coming through the gaps between the planks and watch over him until the darkness claimed us.
He had saved my life so often, in so many more ways than just during the battles we fought together. He had been the first friend of my life, the first one who made me laugh again. He had always just given, his strength, his unrelenting optimism and biting humour, his honest advice and his knowledge, and I owed him so much… and now I had failed him. Silent tears fell down onto his face and traced lines into the grime of warpaint and blood when I tried to bring forth the golden light and nothing happened.
It was a faint, barely noticeable movement that let me start up from my lethargy. Crimson eyes stared up at me with alarming intensity. His lips moved, but no sound was audible until I bowed down to him, brought my ear against his face.
“Don’t cry, girl,” he whispered, and the edges of his mouth curled into the lightest glimpse of a smirk before he slipped back into unconsciousness.
Athis fought for his life, relentless and stubborn, and after that first sign of consciousness I didn’t leave him again. I rested only for minutes in an attentive half-slumber that let me jerk up with every movement and sound he made. When I was finally able to instill him the first healing potion and he swallowed and I could see how it worked, so much better than my magic, I cried again – tears of relief, this time.
The priestess had brought the restored, purified star and laid it reverently onto Athis’ bruised chest while he was still unconscious, as if it was another kind of altar. Apart from that, she left us alone, let us stay in her hut and spent her time meditating. I didn’t mind. She wasn’t a healer like the priests of the Divines. I’d bring my shield-brother back to his feet, and if it was the last thing I’d do.
But the mer was tenacious. He fought against the pain and the weakness, struggled to sit up just to open his wounds again with the effort, struggled to make his first steps when he still could barely stand without blacking out. Sometimes I wanted to tie him up or give him a hit on the head just to force him to rest. The first that was back in old strength was his sharp tongue and his humour.
After half a day’s trip to Winterhold to stock up on supplies I caught him sitting outside, leant against the altar, wrapped in furs and enjoying the first sunny day we had up here. He played idly with the Star, examined the intricate work of silver and gems, but his gaunt features twisted into a broad grin when he saw me coming up the stairs.
“Wanna go hunting mammoths with me, Qhouri?” he said playfully.
I grinned back at him, the relief to see him sit there, breathe and speak still overwhelming.
“You’re in no condition to hunt a fox, brother, much less a mammoth.”
“I know, I know, but soon!” He held the Star up so the jewel in its centre caught a few sunrays. “And then this thing will make us rich! Farengar will happily bleed in coin for every soul we bring him,” he snickered.
“You’re insufferable,” I laughed. “Don’t let Azura hear you.”
He just smiled. “Azura knows me,” he mumbled, and then he beckoned me to sit beside him and let his head drop against my shoulder.
“You brought some sweetrolls, sister? I need sweetrolls to heal… I wanna go home, you know, and I promised you to hurry…” His words faded into quiet mumbling and then into light snoring, and I didn’t move for hours in fear to disturb his sleep.
We finally left the Shrine two days later. I wasn’t convinced that he was strong enough for the journey to Windhelm, but Athis was unyielding. He wanted to go home, and I’d carry him on my back if necessary.
The march along the shore we had made in one day last time took us three now. Athis was relentless, but he was far from being healed, and I had a hard time to convince him that it served no one if he overestimated his strength and collapsed again, here in the middle of nowhere.
“Farkas will kill me anyway if I don’t bring you home soon,” he muttered when I set up camp once more long before sunset, his face ashen with exhaustion.
“Yes, and everybody will kill me if I bring you back as a corpse,” I snapped at him as I built a fire with some dry driftwood, but I regretted it as soon as I had said it. He didn’t deserve to be snapped at, but I was so tired, carrying most of our stuff and watching over him and our camp during the long hours of the nights. He tried to do his part, tried to take watches to let me get at least a few hours of sleep, but even if he managed to stay awake, he wouldn’t be able to defend us anyway if a frosttroll, sabrecat or horker should decide to pay us a visit.
These long hours of guard duty left me a lot of time to reconsider the events, all alone with myself, the light of the moons and the auroras glittering on the endless vastness of the sea. I would have given my life for the mer, gladly and without hesitation, and I still remembered with a shudder the bottomless despair that had gripped me when I thought him dead.
What I shared with Farkas was still so new, so different from everything I had ever felt before, it still confused me sometimes. I had missed him during these weeks with Athis, although I tried not to give in into these feelings, not to let it distract me. But it was there, always lingering in the back of my mind. I missed him more than I wanted to admit to myself, missed his presence, his touch, the way he enwrapped me with his love. And I knew he felt the same, wherever he was and whatever he was doing.
I missed him in a way I would never miss Athis. But nevertheless I knew that the foundation of my relationship to these two men that were so completely different was the same. It started with an easy camaraderie and gratefulness for every time we had saved each others life and had grown from there, into a deep trust and a feeling of care.
Both were incredibly precious to me, and I was incredibly thankful to have them both in my life.
To see the looming walls of Windhelm appear in the distance evoked a sigh of relief from us both, and we literally fell into the carriage waiting at the stables.
“Whiterun,” I muttered, and then I fell asleep on the wooden bench before we had even passed Kynesgrove.
To arrive at the Whiterun stables in the early evening, the golden light of the sun setting Dragonsreach on fire, the walk through the familiar streets where familiar faces were busy packing together their market stalls or heading home to their families, the stairs up to the Gildergreen, Heimskr’s mad yelling and the first sight of the mead hall… it was wonderful to come home.
I pushed open the front doors of Jorrvaskr, and Athis squeezed past me with a happy grin.
The tension in the air hit me like a cloud of reeking, quivering smoke as soon as I followed him. His grin faded when he saw the expressions on the faces sitting around the fire. Njada stood up, but she didn’t greet us… she just briefly laid a hand on my shoulder, then drew him away without a word.
Something was horribly wrong.