Three pairs of siblings, two of them twins, all of them related by blood. Moorside Inn was a turmoil of laughter and chatter and greetings when I entered, the bunch of people clumping up at the bar not even noticing that the door opened.
Less than an hour ago we had entered Morthal in stonen silence, nothing left of the relative easiness of the first days. Vilkas had been his usual broody self since the moment he crawled out of the tent, but that wasn’t unexpected, especially not after the incident with Talsgar.
But Farkas wasn’t much better, taciturn, edgy and disturbingly quiet, and it became worse the closer we got to Morthal. We barely exchanged more than a few sentences over the day, only his gaze spoke volumes – worried on me, probing and searching on his brother. Enervating. But he said nothing and I didn’t want to ask with Vilkas around, even if he held a distance from us.
I felt irritated anger rise over his behaviour. Did he have second thoughts? Had he finally realised how hazardous this game we played was? Nothing I needed less than him getting cold feet now, especially as the responsibility for this whole trip lay in my hands now. I had to make a decision, but with every step I made I could imagine less to see through with this plan. With every step, I was more convinced the first thing I should do in Morthal was to find a courier and send him straight to Jorrvaskr.
But it would be ridiculous to send Vilkas home now, after I had forced him to stay the night before.
We had split up when we arrived, the men going straight to the inn while I went to visit Idgrod. She offered me to stay at her hall, and she seemed genuinely disappointed when I told her that I’d only stay for one night and that I didn’t have time to spend the evening with her. For a moment, I wanted nothing more than to tell her everything that had led me here and ask for her advice. Nothing drew me into the company of Farkas’ family. None of them knew what had happened and why I had come here with both of the twins.
But I had promised to join the others, and now I watched this weird family that they had somehow made to work. The brothers were the centre of the crowd, Farkas with one girl on his hip and the other on his hand, chatting vocally and boisterous with Jonna, Carsten and Falion. As if he had shrugged off all worries as soon as I was out of sight and he had his family around him.
Here, he could relax, was just a father and a friend, loved and adored. Here, he could free himself from everything I burdened him with and that he always carried without complaint. He had a right to do so, even if I couldn’t do the same. Seeing him here in this company of which he was such an integral part, I realised again why I didn’t like to come here. He needed this for himself. It was his vacation from me.
He had earned it, manifold. I felt left out, but it wasn’t his fault. I wouldn’t blame him for being happy.
Vilkas stood beside him, silent but relaxed. He already belonged more to this group than I ever would. For the moment, they had forgotten about me, about Blackreach and Alduin, and were only a family while I was only a stranger, a guest, welcome for a few hours and not missed when gone again.
I could only guess that it was Siona who was the first to spot me standing at the door. She let go of her father’s hand, strode through the room and stood before me, her hands in her hips and a reproachful frown on her cute little face.
“You promised to keep him safe!”
I recoiled from the venom in her voice, lost for words. But her outcry had gathered the attention of the adults, and they turned as one to the door.
“Siona!” Farkas barked, fast steps carrying him towards us. He took his daughter by the shoulders and gave me an apologising gaze. “It wasn’t her fault. I told you already.”
“But she’s right,” I said weakly. “I didn’t keep you safe.”
“Qhouri, please!” He rolled his eyes, shrugged and turned, giving me a gesture over his shoulder. “Come in. We’ve been waiting for you.”
No, they didn’t. My eyes searched for Vilkas who watched us stoically. I jerked my head towards the door and left. It was time to get this over with.
Athis would call me cranky, and he would be right. I missed the mer as I waited on the small porch in front of the inn, leaning with my elbows on the balustrade. It wasn’t late enough for Morthal to be entirely quiet, a couple of guards made their way through the village, lights flickered behind the windows of Highmoon Hall and of the guard barracks, I heard laughter and the crying of a child. But the night lay like a blanket around me, itching like rough wool on naked skin and choking my breath.
I missed the mer, his snark and support and understanding. If he were here, I wouldn’t have to make a decision.
I didn’t want to make it. I didn’t want to delve into the black abyss that was Blackreach, didn’t want to search for this Scroll and read it, didn’t want to leave my husband behind and spend so much time with his brother.
I didn’t want to, but I had to. Vilkas came out and leant beside me, his back to the railing, his arms crossed over his chest.
I turned my head to him, but he stared at the window, golden light streaming over the wooden planks. In there were people who liked him because they didn’t know him.
“Will you behave down there?” I asked briskly.
He took his time with his answer. “I hope we mean the same when it comes to behaving,” he said finally. There was a smirk in his voice, as if he wanted to mock me.
“You know exactly what I mean!” I snapped.
“I will protect you with my life, Qhourian. But will you behave too?”
“What do you mean?” I narrowed my brows in anger.
“I will be your shield-brother, not a hireling you can order around. Will you work with me like you would work with Athis or Ria?”
No, I wouldn’t. With Athis or Ria, there would be fun and teasing and an unspoken understanding. We would care for each other. Nothing of this was possible with him.
“You still seem to believe that this is about you, Vilkas. It isn’t. I can’t waste my strength on you.”
Now he turned around and mimicked my posture. He was close enough to feel his bodywarmth, our elbows nearly touching. I had to suppress a shudder.
“We can’t make this work if you don’t believe me.” He stared stoically ahead.
And with this he was right. Perhaps every single step that had led us here and brought me into this impossible situation had been a big mistake. I didn’t believe him, and I didn’t trust him. He had done nothing to earn it.
So far, I had had Farkas with his optimism by my side and a lot of time to argue this decision for myself. But now I was on my own and the arguing had to come to an end. What seemed reasonable before coiled now in dreadful foreboding in my stomach.
This whole idea had been insane.
I let out a deep breath of defeat when he turned his head to me. Bright eyes in a face hidden in shadows.
“I know this is about Alduin,” he said lowly. “If nothing else, I want as much as everyone else on Nirn that you’re successful against him. And I gave you a promise. Let me prove it.”
“Your reasons to make this promise were entirely selfish.”
“As were yours when you considered it.”
Silvery eyes searched my face and lingered on the scars on my cheek. There was no anger, no derision. “We’re both selfish, Qhourian. We both want peace with each other, because everything else would cost us too much. But we can only find it if we try.”
Perhaps he had come to the same conclusion as I. Perhaps we’d be able to learn.
But all perhaps and what ifs, doubts and delays would lead to nothing. Vilkas only added another risk to an already terribly dangerous journey, but I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction that I didn’t dare to take a risk. If it worked, he would be a great help. And if it didn’t and worse came to worst, I’d just deal with him like I dealt with dragons and Dwemer machines. I wasn’t helpless against him.
There was no use in stalling any longer. I straightened myself. “Okay.” He flinched slightly, as if he hadn’t expected this. “Please tell Farkas I’m off. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He nodded, turned without another word and vanished into the inn.
I contemplated what to do now. I didn’t want to go back inside, and although Idgrod would certainly be happy to share a goblet of wine with me, the thought to feign interest for the latest local gossip made me cringe. I wanted these last hours for myself. Gather my thoughts, gather my strength, come to peace with the weight of the following weeks.
Weeks with Vilkas, and I already felt exhausted before we had even started.
But before I could make a decision, strong arms wrapped around my waist. “You didn’t think I let you spend this night without me, did you?” Farkas whispered into my ear.
The tension that always held me in its grip when I had to deal with his brother rushed from my body with a ragged breath. I sagged into the warmth of his embrace, blinking against the wetness in my eyes. “Can just as well get used to it.”
He turned me around, forced me to face him. His thumb caught a tear that spilled over. “I hope you don’t. I certainly won’t.” He made me smile. He always made me smile, no matter what. Something else I would miss terribly. His expression was serious. “I’m sorry, Qhouri. I wasn’t much of a help today.”
“I’d like to know that at least one person I can take seriously thinks this is a good idea.”
He swallowed. “It’s just… I don’t wanna let you go. I wanted to tell you not to go without me.”
“But you can’t. Siona has reason enough to be angry with me.”
“She’s a brat.”
I rested my head against his shoulder. “No. She loves you. They will be happy when I’m gone and you stay here.”
“I’d rather go with you. You know that, don’t you?”
“I wish we could just run off,” I whispered. “Let Alduin eat the world.” Run away from everything – Falmer and Dwemer, Paarthurnax and the Worldeater, Vilkas and his family.
He held me for long minutes until I felt his index under my chin. “Okay,” he said with a smile.
“Let’s run off. Just for tonight.” He glanced at the sky, took my hand and pulled me down the stairs. No moons were out yet, but the hazy air made the stars sparkle. “Come on. We only need our bedrolls.”
We didn’t run far, only until we had found a sheltered place in the mountains south of Morthal, a small delve between a few boulders we could use to fasten a tarp between. Beneath it, it was nearly cosy.
We went hunting because it was my last opportunity for who knew how long, chased some goats and a bear through the rocky terrain. After we had fed we chased each other, playful and wild, upwards until we had arrived at the peak and our howl echoed down into the abyss of the Labyrinthian stone chaos that lay spread out beneath us like the playground of a giant.
Back in our refuge, the excitement of the change still coursing through our veins, we didn’t need words. Our lovemaking was frenzied and urgent and rough, he ravished my body and I marked him as mine until we became one in an explosion of white light and nothing was left but him and me.
My head was hazy and empty, my heart still hammering against my ribs. We lay tangled together, exhausted, sweaty and caught in the aftermath of a bliss we could only experience with each other. I wanted to stay like this forever, on top of him, our legs tangled together and with his arms around me.
“Hmmm?” His hands wandered lazily over my back.
“What do you think of… “
When I became quiet he tilted his head until he could look into my face.
“Could you imagine to have another family?”
I didn’t really think before asking, and now I drew my head away, feeling silly. What an incredible daft moment for such a question. But his embrace tightened, then he turned to the side and spread one hand over my stomach. And he forced me to look into his face.
“It would be a gift,” he said quietly, “the biggest gift of all to have a family with you. If you were the mother of my children… some day. And it’s already a gift that you dare to think of it. That you ask this question.”
I covered his hand with mine, took in his expression full of seriousness and amazement. “Some day.” I smiled, feeling relieved and strangely light and brittle, and tears dropped down on his chest as his arms closed around me.
“I don’t wanna let you go,” he whispered. “I wish we had more time together. I wish this were over already.”
He gave himself to me that night, completely and selfless, filled me to the edge with his love, his tenderness, his passion. We memorised each other with every sense, soothingly familiar touches led to something new, another unexplored layer, so much more to return to. The shivering embrace of completion held us together for the rest of the night, no room left for doubt. I knew where I belonged.
The attack came out of the blue – literally – and I knew again why I hated icewraiths with a passion.
We were crossing the glacier that led up to Alftand, the ruins already visible in the distance, and the bright midday light on the dreary, uniform white landscape of ice and snow made my eyes water. The swarm was nearly invisible, only the blazing flashes when the creatures were hit by direct sunrays left red dots in my field of view that obscured my sight even further.
They attacked our faces, the only parts of us that weren’t covered in furs, as if they were directed by our bodywarmth. With my lighter blade and the protection of the shield I was in a slightly better situation than Vilkas. But all that became irrelevant when the world around us suddenly exploded in a ball of white, even more blinding than the endless snow around us.
The woman appearing behind the curtain of ice was beautiful. Ethereal and fair, seemingly floating in a cloud of glittering mist and clad in white rags that swayed around her rime-covered body in a breeze nobody else could feel. Beautiful and deadly, and her smile was glorious and raving mad as she spread out her arms. Transparent crystals grew in her palms, and the gesture seemed to order her wisps into a new, concerted, even more ferocious attack.
I had only heard in stories of the mysterious wisp-mothers, didn’t know if it was a ghost, a spirit or a creature and if the wisps were independent entities or a part of her. They were said to steal children and lure travellers into their demise.
We didn’t have to be lured, though, had run directly into her trap. But this was the first serious fight Vilkas and I got in together, and now it became obvious how little we were used to each other. We lacked the instinctive knowledge where the other was and what he was doing, and we failed as shield-siblings. I fought as if I was alone and he did the same, and instead to stay together and decimate the creatures one by one, we let them separate us. His fighting style was unpredictable for me, he never was where I assumed him to be, and the efforts to look out for him ripped me out of the flow of my own fight over and over again. I couldn’t concentrate on him, on the erratic movements of the wisps and my own dance over the slippery, cracked ground all at once.
The phantasms seemed to attack in a choreography I couldn’t figure out. They were insanely fast, whirling around us, advancing, making contact with nearly imperceptible touches that left bleeding, numb wounds and a feeling of weakness. I thrashed around, swinging my blade in erratic attacks like a child in his first sword training, hitting nothing over and over again. When I hit one of them accidentally, it collapsed with a faint, melodious chink into a glowing heap of ice.
Vilkas was out of my sight when his pained scream tore through the air, only to cut off far too abruptly. I was panting for breath, dizzy with exhaustion and fighting against the weight of my sword and my armour, but I spun around, searched for him and fell into a run in an instant. He lay on his back, the wisp-mother hovering above him. One of the ice-spikes that she had formed out of thin air stuck in his side, blood pooling beneath him in a bright red puddle that was rapidly growing. His head thrashed around and his hand clenched and unclenched around the grip of his sword, but he made no movement of defence as she bent down to pierce the crystals that protruded from her palms into his chest.
It was a knee-jerk reaction, and the force of the dragonfire rippled the chill in the air with a power that went through marrow and bone. The ghastly creature flew back with an unearthly, hollow scream.
With their mistress’ demise, the wisps stopped their attacks. As I stood with my hands on my knees, fighting for breath, they circled around me and finally simply vanished. My strength came back, at least enough to run over to Vilkas’ dead-still body and drop down by his side.
Farkas had complained about it before, that the Blades’ armour wasn’t sturdy enough. The cuirass was made of single metal plates that lay like scales over each other, attached to a fine layer of chainmail. It wasn’t as heavy as the massive steel of the wolf armour, but it also wasn’t as resilient.
The ice-spike with its razor-sharp tip had pierced through the plates and snapped one of them off, and now ice and steel were stuck in the flesh right above his hipbone. He bled heavily, and it got worse as the missile started to melt.
Additionally, he had obviously hit his head during the fall. It would have been easier if he had been completely unconscious, but he was just dazed, his legs twitching uncontrollably until I straddled his thighs, his head thrashing around and his gaze unfocused and hazy. His breathing was shallow and ragged, the piece of metal and the ice-spike moving with every rasping pant.
“Lie still,” I hissed, frantically cutting the straps of his armour and the fabric of his tunic around the wound.
He would bleed out if I didn’t act fast, but he would bleed out even faster if I just removed the objects. Most important was to close the wound. I had my healing spell ready when I gripped them and jerked them out together.
What I didn’t notice while I was concentrated on his wound was the change of his expression into something between panic and fury. When his body stiffened and moved, it was already too late, and the steel-clad fist crushing against my jaw let me topple backwards.
“Ouch!” I touched the bruise in my face with trembling fingers, my head still ringing with the bells of Oblivion as I tried to sit up.
Vilkas had hit me. I had saved his fucking life – again! – and he had hit me. A clump of ice formed in my stomach, its cold seeping into my bones, leaving only numbness worse than the spells of the wisps.
We hadn’t been cautious enough. I hadn’t been cautious enough, I had let my guard down, lulled into this madness by the relaxed atmosphere between us as long as Farkas was around. Treacherous, like everything with this man.
My gut had warned me since we had left Morthal. Vilkas had spent the night at Moorside and was already waiting for us in front of the inn when Farkas and I came back that morning, together with Jonna and Carsten. I clenched my husband’s hand when I saw the impatience in his brother’s face, but we had already said everything there was to say. I didn’t want to leave, he didn’t want to let me go. He slung his arm around my shoulder as we approached the little group.
“You two go and kick some Falmer asses,” he said sternly, holding his brother’s gaze. Vilkas nodded, and Farkas went ahead through the village until we had reached the bridge that led out into the swamps. He pulled me against his chest and pressed his lips to mine.
“I love you,” he whispered into my mouth, “come back safe.”
I felt his love and his strength and his confidence stream through me like a surge as I drowned in his kiss. This was what I fought for, what I wanted to return to. When I went ahead over the bridge, I clenched my teeth and didn’t look back while he drew Vilkas aside.
But Farkas was gone when the village vanished behind us in the morning mist, and I was alone with his brother. Travelling with Vilkas was different from everything I was used to, and it wasn’t pleasant. The logistics of the journey were easy enough to deal with, that wasn’t the problem. We had planned our route beforehand, I hunted for us to save our rations, we shared the watches, the load and all the little duties that had to be done.
But we had nothing to say to each other, no point of contact, no connection. Nothing to build upon, only a load of things that stood between us.
Perhaps it was his broody mood or my own bad temper, perhaps both our stubbornness, but after the silence had lasted for the first hours, it became impossible to break it. All we exchanged over the next two days were short sentences, where to make camp, who took which watch, if to roast or to cook the game I brought.
I became nervous and irritable under his constant scrutiny, conscious of myself, as if he was only waiting for me to make the first mistake. And I slept even worse than usual, knowing that it was he who held watch over me, no matter how often I told my subconsciousness that he would do his best, that he had promised and that it was safe with him.
Still better than to fight, I told myself. We can make this work. He still has to prove himself. But with the silence came the doubts, the speechlessness between us clouding my mind like a dark fog. I wasn’t used to be alone in the company of someone else. I was used to camaraderie and friendship, implicit understanding and mutual support.
I retreated into myself and tried to ignore him the best I could, but every once in a while, I felt his gaze on me and saw a fleeting smirk break his stoic expression. For him, this was only a game. Perhaps it had been just a game right from the start, and I had forgotten that winning was the only option once Vilkas started to play – no matter the cost.
And now he had hit me. Again. Because I had healed him. That he didn’t know what he was doing, hazy from pain, bloodloss and concussion… I wouldn’t accept it as excuse. He had been sane enough to recognise what I did. I didn’t think when I used my magic on him, it was the only reasonable thing to do, and his reaction just proved that he had no control over his instincts.
I forced myself to breathe deeply to suppress the riot in my head. I would not panic now. I would not freak out. I was not afraid of the man who lay before me, covered in blood and watching me with shock and confusion in his expression. I shut him out with conscious effort when I scrambled to my feet, shouldered my pack and went away.
“Qhourian!” He called after me in a weak, rasping voice. “What are you… wait!” His words were slurred.
Something between a sob and a laughter escaped me. It seemed I had won our game, but it was a hollow victory. He had his pack and his share of the potions, he could take it and go to Oblivion.
Why was I so naïve? Why didn’t I trust my gut feeling once in a while? I could have been where I was now right after I brought Farkas to the useless college healers. I would find this Scroll. I didn’t need anybody to help me, and least of all the maniac I left behind, lying in his own blood.
I had no idea what he would do now, but I didn’t believe he’d have the balls to return to Morthal and confront his brother. Perhaps he’d run straight to Morrowind now, never to return. But when I entered the platform that would take me into the bowels of Alftand, I closed the door behind me just to be sure. Vilkas didn’t have any lockpicking skills either.
Everything was unchanged when I reached the bottom, the corpses of the Imperial man and Redguard woman still lying where we had left them, the stairs I had unlocked with Septimus’ device still leading down into the darkness. I started the descent without further delay, only a small patch of light from a torch guiding me deeper and deeper, the steps circling a huge column over and over again.
The door at the bottom looked like every other Dwemer gate I had opened so far. I had no conception of the miracle that lay behind it.
“Holy Ysmir!” My whisper sounded far too loud.
Everything else was forgotten. I had entered another land. Another kingdom. Another world, and it was beautiful.
It was only a cave, technically, but my mind was unable to draw a line between the concept of something surrounded, restricted by walls of rock and this. This wasn’t a cave… it was a landscape.
I stood on a platform a few feet above the ground, stairs leading down on one side. What I could see from my lookout – and I was certain it was only a tiny part of the vastness I’d have to explore, the background vanishing in glittering mist – looked like a city. Dwemer ruins were impressive even in the most ruinous state, but this… this weren’t ruins. I saw paved streets meandering through over hills and through valleys, connecting huge complexes of buildings, palaces and towers as well as small huts. I heard the gushing of a waterfall in the distance, the humming sound of Nirnroots and a faint clanking of metal against stone that let me freeze. And it wasn’t dark, far from it. Looking up, a sky full of stars twinkled down on me, faint sparkles in every imaginable colour, but the majority of the light came from the… plants. Mushrooms. Whatever they were. They were huge, as high as the buildings, their caps spanning wide and adorned with tendrils that moved lightly in the gentle breeze. And they glowed, emitted a soft, bluish light that sparkled on the dust in the air and produced harsh, black shadows beneath them.
The most distinctive impression of everything I could overlook was that it didn’t seem deserted. It looked friendly and inviting, as if the inhabitants of this place would come out of their houses and welcome me to their home any moment. Even the sounds I heard, the subtle movements on balconies and bridges and the Dwemer Centurion that patrolled openly in front of the small house nearest to me couldn’t disturb this impression.
I took him out with a couple of arrows and fortunately without alerting anything or anyone else. Inside of the building, I found a skeleton and a journal, and the fact that it had been occupied by an alchemist from Cyrodiil only 150 years ago was strangely reassuring. I wrapped his brittle remains into a cloth, barred the door from the inside and made myself comfortable. Someone else had lived here and searched for knowledge, his notes proved it, and not too long ago… at least not too long considering the age of this place.
The seclusion of the little chamber and the content feeling to have reached this incredible place after so many failed efforts let my exhaustion break through. It was absolutely silent in my refuge, the thick walls sheltering me from everything outside, and I felt content and confident when I placed my bedroll on the stone platform that served as a bed.
“Cast upon where the Dwemer cities slept, the yearning spire hidden learnings kept.
Under deep. Below the dark. The hidden keep. Tower Mzark.”
I recalled Septimus Signus’ mad ramblings as I prepared for my first expedition into the depths of Blackreach. Alftand was checked, Blackreach as well. Now I had to find the last of the names he had given me, the Tower Mzark. Probably one of the higher buildings, I chuckled lighthearted to myself.
I prepared carefully, packed arrows, potions and food for a two-days-trip although I planned to return here for the night. Now that I had seen the first glimpse, I was even more convinced that our assumptions had been right and Blackreach spanned in fact an area about as large as all of Hjaalmarch Hold. I’d have to spend weeks down here, unless I was very lucky and the mysterious tower was just around the corner. Not very probable, though.
At least I was able to make vague assumptions about what I had to expect in this realm. I had read about the war between the Dwemer and the Snow Elves that had raged down here, and considering how Alftand had been overrun with Falmer, this place had to crawl with them. It only seemed so peaceful and quiet because it was so large. I would find them, rather sooner than later, and I’d have to deal with them.
But I was well rested and prepared, and eager to start my exploration. It had taken me long enough to get here.
The man toppled backwards and head first into my refuge as soon as I opened the door, his weapon drawn and tightly gripped, light blue eyes staring up at me. My sword was at his throat before he could move.
“You’re a nuisance, Vilkas. Give me a single reason why I shouldn’t kill you right here and now.”
“I brought your supplies. You’re gonna need them.”
“Nobody would ever know it. The last guy who’s been down here died 150 years ago.”
He didn’t move, lay still on his back and just stared with his pale, enervating gaze, his feet still outside of the room.
I removed the blade. “Get out of my eyes. Now.”
I glared at him while he sat up and pushed himself to his feet. “It’s not open to debate. Leave.”
Now he stood, leaning against the doorframe. He didn’t look me in the eyes.
“No. You either kill me, or I’ll stay. I don’t care what you say, I’m gonna keep you safe.”
He knew exactly that I wouldn’t kill him. I wasn’t desperate enough to kill him. Just furious and determined not to let him get the upper hand again.
I took a deep breath. “Cool down, brother. IIZ SLEN!”
Vilkas would defrost cold, wet and with his wrists tied to the alchemy table. If a Falmer paid him a visit while I was gone – well, tough luck. At least he’d have a lot of time to think over and decide what was worse: to face me, or to face his brother and tell him that he let me down.
Under deep. Below the dark. The hidden keep. Tower Mzark.
Closing the door behind me, I hummed my new mantra and looked around. A well preserved broad road, paved with smooth cobblestones, led from my hut out into the distance. Smaller alleys branched and curved away between blocks of buildings, others vanished from my sight between the hills of the undulating and rocky terrain. It was tempting just to follow this road, considering that it probably connected the most important buildings, but too many of those glowing mushrooms stood by its side, and the giant encased in a metal frame in the middle of a large place kept me away.
From the right I heard the gushing of a waterfall, and so I decided to follow the cave wall left of the entrance. It was as good a start for my exploration as any other direction. The landscape was rocky, rugged and dark enough to provide excellent cover, and I got past platforms with the typical Falmer huts and some buildings sticking to or built into the rocky walls unseen and, more important, unheard.
The Falmer gave me the creeps. So far, the place wasn’t exactly overrun with them, but there were enough of them to keep me in constant alertness. It would be easy enough to overwhelm me if I was careless, and I had learned from painful experience that they weren’t just mindless beasts. They were intelligent, able to work together and build traps, and they certainly had some kind of communication system between the various groups down here. In the worst case, a single corpse left behind could alert the whole population… something I wanted to avoid at all costs. And so I tried to sneak by, memorising landmarks on my way, searching for larger buildings in the distance.
Everything went fine for the first hours… probably, I had lost every sense of time in the meantime. It had been late afternoon when I entered the Alftand lift, but I didn’t know how long I had slept and how long I had spent out here. But I became tired, the constant necessity to remain alert in this alien environment with its weird lighting and dark shadows exhausting.
Looking back the way I had come, then forwards where I still had to go, the curve of the cave wall barely visible, I sighed inwardly. It would really take weeks to get this done, especially as my slow creeping wasn’t exactly efficient. On the other hand… the thought to stay down here for so long, to live amongst the Falmer without them knowing, to get to know this place like no one had known it before me for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years… this thought had something strangely appealing.
I always wanted a room for myself. Now I had a whole kingdom of my own.
But for now I had to turn back, and I decided to move away from the safety of the cave wall and explore another way.
It was a bad idea. An exceptionally bad idea.
Walls everywhere. Buildings everywhere. Incomprehensible metal constructions, gates that led nowhere and unclimbable rocky slopes everywhere. And in-between Falmer who heard every breath, Dwemer constructs who sprung to live to every careless sound and movement and the largest chaurus I had ever seen, black monstrosities that lurked freely in the shadows between the glowing mushrooms.
I had left more than one corpse behind in the meantime and suffered more than one wound and bruise myself, with enemies jumping at me out of dark corners or blocking a way I thought I had to go. Every time I prayed that the shrieks of dying Falmer and the rattle of collapsing automatons wouldn’t bring the entirety of Blackreach’s army on me. I called forth my wolf senses, felt the shifting in the air around me. The city became alert. They knew of the intruder. They weren’t hunting me… not yet. But it wouldn’t take long until they did.
I had to get out of here, but I was lost, completely and utterly lost. And when I finally dared to admit it to myself, it didn’t matter at all any more which direction I took.
I tried to follow the sound of the waterfall I had already heard from my little hut. But it was hopeless, every sound echoed manifold through the cavern, reflected from walls and barriers and didn’t give any hint of direction. And now I cowered hidden in a maze of metal pipes, the gurgling of running water everywhere around me, and the shadows moved. Every single one.
Don’t panic. Running around aim- and purposeless would only get me killed faster.
I just had to find a lookout. Something high, the roof of one of the larger buildings, or one of the bridges that connected them high above the streets. And then I could only hope that the landmarks I had memorised looked the same from every direction.
It was in fact possible to sneak through a city full of enemies with inhuman sense of hearing, though painfully slow, moving from shadow to shadow and with long breaks in-between to cool down my own nerves and my environment. It was not possible to sneak through those buildings once inside. Ever-glowing lamps which probably hadn’t stopped working since the disappearance of the Dwemer lit them brightly, and they were guarded and inhabited. Or at least the one I had chosen was, all three floors of it. I had to fight my way through, and I did so with desperate determination, shot and shouted and slashed, was hit by lightning strikes and crude poisoned sword blades, but I made it out alive.
If the Falmer didn’t know I was there yet, they certainly knew it after the carnage I left behind. But it was worth the effort. I was over and over smeared with blood and gore, my head dizzy from the poison I couldn’t neutralise fast enough, I limped from a nasty strike that had slipped by the dragonscales into my thigh, and my magicka was completely drained, but I found myself on a narrow metal bridge high above most of the buildings – and high above the main street, the street that would lead me directly back home.
Home. I had to smile at the thought. Strange how that little house in this unfamiliar, hostile land had become home in the few hours I had spent there. Especially considering that Vilkas was still waiting there for me, and he would not be amused.
The bridge became a ramp that led down to the ground level again, not too far from the street – and not too far from the metal Centurion I had already seen from the distance. Either I underestimated his mechanical senses or I overestimated my ability to sneak by, I didn’t know… but it took only a single false step on my way down the hill and a pained hiss when the injured muscle was strained, and the giant broke free from the frame he was mounted in with the typical steamy hiss.
He stomped towards me with heavy steps, much faster than the first one I’d encountered with Farkas, and I couldn’t back away quickly enough as the pebbles under my feet slid away and made me trip. I had no choice but to shout him down. The pressure of the vaporised water spread the wreckage over a large radius, and a small, razor-sharp fragment of Dwemer metal pierced its way through my armour and into my thigh – again. I cursed inwardly. Now it was adorned with two bleeding holes I could have no regards for. Not after the racket I had made. I ran down the street openly and as fast as I could, expecting an army of Falmer and chaurus to close down on me every second, and crashed through the door of my hut.
Vilkas stood with his back to me at the alchemy station, grinding something into a mortar when I stumbled through the entrance. He turned without a word and let his gaze wander from my head to my toes and back, took in my wrecked, blood-smeared appearance, and his eyebrows rose inquiringly while I could just stare at him – dumbfounded.
“Why are you… How did you…” I stuttered.
He didn’t react to my incoherent stammering and held up three bottles. “Healing, magicka or antidote?”
The nerve this man had. I was shivering, waves of nausea were rolling through my stomach and I couldn’t think straight any more. Whatever he had to say, it would have to wait.
Nothing was as tempting as my bedroll at the moment. I limped through the room, fell onto the stone platform and was already half asleep when I fumbled one of my own potions out of my pack and strapped off my pauldrons.
The last I heard before sleep claimed me was his lecture. “Leather strips stretch when they get wet, and ice turns to water when it melts, Qhourian. Perhaps you should consider these simple facts next time you try to take someone captive.”
The last I felt were some additional pelts that were draped over my exhausted body.