The destruction of an entire town and the loss of countless innocents; one man's agonized screams. Which do you suppose provoked in me the more visceral response? And what does that say about me as a hero?
To be fair, the damage was done in Karthwatch before we even got there. All we could do was look for survivors and try to help them get to safety. There were some sticks to smash and arrows to shoot, but the only person we really tried to save was the jarl, and she too was a lost cause before we found her.
In many ways it was just another disaster to look upon with sympathetic but jaded eyes. And then we moved on.
But just now... It was all such a frantic blur, I might need to find a place to sit down and try to recollect what just happened. Fennorian's safe now, that's what's important. He'll be okay once Lyris gets him back to Solitude. And I'll join them, once my heart stops beating quite so fast.
We knew he was in trouble, once we found his scattered notes and tracked down the guy he'd failed to keep his appointment with. That's why we headed here as quickly as we did. But if we'd been quicker... if we hadn't spent so much time finding and freeing those werewolves, and fussing with that Dwarven puzzle and all of those traps and mechanisms... then maybe it wouldn't have been his screams that greeted us within that laboratory, ricocheting off stone and brass as I propelled myself through the corridors, as if every angle and surface of that place was designed to amplify and spread the horrors being enacted in that inner chamber...
That's what the blur was. Racing ahead of Lyris, letting her finish off the grunts I peppered with arrows on the way by, not even really knowing where I was going except that I had to be getting closer. Weren't the screams coming from just around the corner?
And the voice taking such delight in describing what he was about to do... that was Exarch Tzinghalis. Speaking so lovingly of his tools and what they would do to Fennorian's flesh until he finally couldn't take it anymore.
This was the power of the Gray Host. The ability to harness technology, magic, whatever they needed to bring noncompliant kin to their knees. To make them serve, or take from them whatever could be of use until there was nothing left to take.
Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.
And then there they were, and there Fenn was, and it was finally my chance to stop it. I don't even remember what Tzinghalis did or how he fought, and it doesn't matter. He was standing between me and my tormented friend, and he had to die.
Fennorian was hooked up to some kind of complicated contraption. There had to be a way to shut it off and release him. He kept talking at me while I was scouring the machine. He was sure he was a goner and there was no point in trying to save him. Shut up. He thought we should just leave and go warn Solitude of the impending storm. Shut up!
I found a lever and just yanked it as hard as I could. It seemed like the only thing I could really do that wasn't just taking hold of him and wrenching him free. And in retrospect it's a damn good thing that it worked. I suppose there was always the option of seeing how Dwarven brass stood up to Lyris' axe, but he was free. We weren't too late to keep the machine from draining everything he had.
But he was drained, close to his limits. He needed to replenish his vitality somehow. Blood, of course... that was how his kind had to recharge. He would never attack someone to feed, but a willing donor... if someone were willing to let him...
There was desperation in his eyes. He knew what he needed, but he was also afraid of losing control if he got it. What might happen if he went too far, if the bite went too deep, if he took too much... what might happen, if I were to offer what I had...
The flask. We had his flask, that he always kept with him, that kept him from needing to find a willing donor while he was away from home. We'd found it left behind in the aftermath of his struggle. That would be enough. That would be what he needed, to regain just enough strength. To keep from fading away. To keep hold of what hadn't been taken from him.
And so, he's going to be fine. He's going to make his way with Lyris back to the surface, away from this loathsome place, away from the stench of cruelty that's still making my head swim. I need to follow them. I can see the way out now, now that I've got my bearings a little better, now that the fog of recollection is starting to lift.
Just a few more deep breaths. There we go, and we can start thinking ahead instead of looking back.
So then, after all that... What kind of hero am I, if I'm more shaken up about my friend being tortured than about a hold maybe not even existing anymore? If it crossed my mind even for a moment that we could have left those werewolves in their bonds and just bullied their pack leader into getting us to Fenn sooner? If I'm angrier about what the Gray Host did to this one person, than about them doing the exact same thing to countless others?
I think I need to pull back for a moment, to take a broader view now that my head's starting to clear. We saved more than one person today and made sure that the bastard who hurt them won't ever hurt anyone else. So that is a good day's work, despite my personal motivations and misgivings. And Fenn... will probably be okay. I hope. He's the one with a real reason to be shaken up. That needs to be my focus now. Being as supportive as he needs, and doing what I can to see an end to all the pain these wretches are causing. As far as that goes, I suppose it's not such a bad thing for it to be personal now. Because it sure as hell is.
What wouldn't we do for our family? For those we love? For those we have lost, or could lose, or who have lost their way?
Watching Svana up there presiding over the memorial service, you'd have a hard time guessing what she's just gone through. Some might call it maturity, or putting her responsibilities first, but I suspect she's mostly putting on a strong face until she can grieve in private. Grieve, and come to terms with what she's just done.
She asked me earlier, when the reality of our dilemma was becoming clear, if I could consider killing my own parents. I told her I wasn't sure. Like so many things, I'd have to know the circumstances and my options before I could make any kind of decision. But I had that image, as soon as she asked, of the two of them smiling at me across the kitchen table, my pa offering his encouragement and wisdom and Ma never failing to look out for her own. Neither of them could ever do something so unthinkable, so atrocious that killing them would be the only way to save a kingdom and its people. At least, that's what I have to believe.
But Svana had to confront that very scenario, and make that very decision. And maybe it was my strength that got us through that fight, but she didn't shy away from what needed to be done. She put her people, her city and her kingdom first, knowing that it was too late to try to protect them the way we'd wanted to.
I'm still trying to fathom why Svargrim would sacrifice all those things, when he'd seemed so determined to defend them. The thirst for power is obvious, but to what end? Was he really that paranoid about Jorunn invading, and thought he needed unrivaled power to drive him back? If that's the case, then destroying the city you're trying to defend seems a bit counter-productive. Maybe Svana was right that he wanted to rule all of Skyrim, and considered a bit of scorched earth back home to be an acceptable tradeoff. Or maybe, having lost faith in his wayward heir, he wanted to ensure that he'd never have to give up his throne, and the rebuilding could take as long as it needed to once he didn't have to fear death.
Ultimately, though, Svargrim's motivations don't matter that much, despite the massive devastation he enabled. The king was little more than a power-hungry puppet for the real mastermind behind the harrowstorms. And while the Gray Host's Ashen Lord is still largely shrouded in mystery, I have seen enough to understand why he's doing what he's doing.
He wants his family back.
From what I can piece together, Rada al-Saran and those he calls the Exarchs, his "beloved brothers and sisters in arms," are beholden in some way to Molag Bal, and their souls have been trapped in Coldharbour for who knows how long. The harrowstorm ritual draws those souls back to Nirn, and those big stone cocoons provide vessels for them to reconstitute their bodies from what's left of the remains in those reliquaries they dragged up from Bangkorai. Or something.
At any rate, the Exarchs are restored, and their souls are freed from their bonds in Coldharbour. Which was Rada's aim all along. And the more of them are reborn, the more help he gets moving forward. And it seems that killing them sends them back to their prison in Coldharbour, which was probably the one thing that made him angriest about our interference.
What was it he said? That I'd sent them "back to the hated Molag Bal"? Putting it that way, it almost sounds like we ought to be on the same side. If only he hadn't gone the mass murder route and decided to terrorize an entire kingdom. But then, he wasn't concerned about the cost when it came to restoring his family. At least when it was a cost that somebody else was paying.
There was one brother mentioned in his notes, a thirteenth Exarch unnamed by Rada, who seems to weigh heavily on his heart. Someone who betrayed him and now merits only retribution. I can't help an inkling that it might be someone I know, someone whose name and likeness have come up enough times to make me wonder if he has some place in all of this. Someone whose vampiric progeny seem to be of great interest to the Gray Host and their innovators.
I'm not sure I'll be holding my breath for any long-lost faces to make a reappearance, though. The scions of House Ravenwatch have certainly done their best to move on without Verandis, as hard as it's been without him. It feels like it's been so long since those fateful events at the Doomcrag. But Gwendis still feels the pain of his loss as keenly as ever, and I'm certainly not one to judge her.
She and Adusa-daro are here too, trying to stay inconspicuous among all the embattled Nords. It's good to see both of them back in fighting form. Adusa may have borne the brunt of Lady Essenia's inhumane experiments, but I know that Gwendis' determination to rescue her sister was draining in its own way. She'd already lost one of her beloved family, and she wasn't going to let it happen again. Fighting alongside her brought back memories of a fortress in Wrothgar, and the desperate drive I felt to protect Alinon the way I hadn't been able to protect his best friend. Maybe losing something makes it all the more important to hold onto what we still have for as long as we can.
I suppose that's what Skyrim will be doing now that Svargrim's storm has been quelled. Much has been lost, but there is still much to protect. Svana will be at the forefront of those efforts, I expect, along with the mages producing Fenn's elixir and whatever support Jorunn can provide. Maybe they'll be able to move forward strengthened by something a little bit closer to unity. And until we find out what the Gray Host's next move is, I'll be waiting.
I'm not even sure if I should be upset about it. Things could have been a lot worse, after Gwendis and I found our proof that Verandis was directly involved with the Gray Host. I was having some unfortunate Zeira and Nikolas flashbacks watching Gwendis grapple with the idea that her mentor might have been one of those monsters. But even back then, millennia ago, he was still a voice of reason advocating for peace between vampires and mortals. For all the good it did.
There were flashbacks to another dream-walk, too, when I watched Verandis try to reason all too feebly with Baron Montclair. For every repeated insistence that preying on mortals wasn't necessary, or that there were too many of them for the vampires' supremacy to be assured, it didn't make a bit of difference, until he decided it wasn't worth trying anymore. And so the Gray Host went to war, and was crushed at the Bangkorai Garrison, and the rest is history.
Well, at least until the history that's currently being written. The one person who considered Verandis a true friend among the Gray Host's ruling council was also the one person who survived that crushing defeat. And not even that friendship could temper Rada al-Saran's determination to see his brethren restored to their rightful place of lordship.
I wonder if Verandis turning away from what had been their shared dream is what Rada considers such an unforgivable betrayal. He and Meridia could have an interesting time sharing gripes over drinks if that's the case.
I assume Rada at least appreciates that it was his friend's research that enabled him to even consider freeing his Exarchs from Coldharbour's grasp. Even though Verandis abandoned that research when he discovered how his methods tormented mortal souls, Exarch Tzinghalis was all too happy to pick up where he left off. And so here we are with our fully-refined modern-day harrowstorms.
It was a much simpler ritual that we found described in the journal that Verandis had left behind in the Gray Host's old hangout. Except for the part about how it was supposed to pull souls out of Coldharbour, I would hardly have recognized it as the basis for the harrowstorms. But Gwendis was confident it would still work. I saw the gleam in her eyes as soon as the thought struck her. We had everything we needed, thanks to an old reliquary left behind where nobody would notice it. All the materials, all the instructions, everything we needed to bring back the most important person in her world.
I wanted to ask Gwendis if she was sure, if this was really a good idea, if it would even work without a town full of people to draw life energy from. But her gaze was fixed on the face of that stone husk, and I know all she could see was the face of the man she would have done anything to save. We'd never been able to do anything for him before, but here was our chance. He'd consigned himself to eternal torment in his maker's realm to save the place he called home and the people he had always sought to protect. If we could restore him, steal him back from the hated Molag Bal... Gwendis couldn't let this chance slip through her fingers, and I had little choice but to help.
What appeared from that stone husk... was a monster. A ravenous, feral fiend in the shape of Verandis Ravenwatch. It was all we could do to stay on the defensive against his barrage of blood magic, as Gwendis pleaded with him to recognize her. And then, just as we were on the brink of putting him down for good, I can only assume his nobler nature prevailed - and there in a flash of light knelt the Verandis we had known.
He knew right away what we'd done, and thankfully he didn't scold us for it. He was more dismayed to hear that we knew about his past with the Gray Host, even though he'd thought it long-since buried. But learning that they were on the move again, he was just as determined to find out what his old friend was up to and take whatever steps were necessary to stop it.
Gwendis was so overcome with joy at seeing him again that she could barely speak. But I'm sure she'll have an earful for him once they get back home. I expect they'll be able to sort things out, once they get some time to themselves, and it'll certainly be good to have Verandis' expertise in dealing with his old cohort.
So things are actually looking pretty good, all bumps in the road considered. And hey, we actually got someone back for once. It's a nice change.
The Reach wouldn't have been my first guess of destinations when I finally got the summons from House Ravenwatch. Eastern Skyrim, maybe, if the Gray Host decided to make a move there while Jorunn was distracted with diplomatic relations out west. Maybe even Wrothgar, or back down to cut a swath through Bangkorai. Come to think of it, Jackdaw Cove is still crawling with Reachman cronies who would probably love to welcome them in.
But no, Verandis wanted to meet me in the Reach. It did make a certain amount of sense, once I thought about it, to strike at the heart of Rada al-Saran's barbaric allies. Maybe causing enough of a ruckus back home would draw those witches away from their work with the harrowstorms and leave Rada to fend for himself. A bold strategy, given that it involved walking into the heart of enemy territory, but there was a certain appeal in taking such decisive action.
And so I dragged myself across the craggy wastes of southern Skyrim, making sure to draw as little attention as possible, only to find Verandis standing right outside the gates of Markarth trying to get an audience with the Reachmen's leader. Well okay, so he was going to play a diplomatic game, weasel our way into the ear of the high chief to poison the well from the top. Not a bad idea if you want to avoid a giant rumble when you're outnumbered.
Wait, he... he was there to help the Reachfolk? To offer legitimate aid? And it wasn't just a ruse to get close?
Okay hold up. So the Gray Host had been tracked south, not to meet up with their Reachman allies, but to turn on them. And rather than just letting them destroy their house from within, Verandis wanted to team up with the savages to drive out our... common, I guess, enemy?
Hoo boy. This mission is already so not what I expected. And not just because trying to talk sense at yet another petulant king with no reason to accept our help was not what I had penciled into the agenda.
Verandis was earnest about it, though. Maybe he wasn't paying attention to what was going on in Glenumbra while he had his own troubles in Rivenspire, and I suppose he can be forgiven for not knowing about Bangkorai, and the Rift, and Wrothgar, and Betnikh, and Falkreath, and... am I missing anything? I feel like I am.
Everywhere you turn, there are Reachfolk trying to reshape the world with their corrupted nature magic. And now we're supposed to break bread with them on their own turf as if none of that had ever happened. I suppose there's that old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but honestly I'm not all that convinced that everyone here sees the Gray Host as an enemy. I'm hearing a lot of talk about "invaders," and I guess that refers to the Gray Host, but I've also been cautioned to show respect to witches and not to look down on Hircine's blessed. And yes, I know there are good werewolves, just like there are good vampires. The trick is telling the difference.
Sigh... I guess that's the trick here in general. Not everyone in the Reach is a bloodstorm-slinging witch, after all. And the ones who are getting attacked by those witches are probably just as pissed off at them as we all are. When it comes down to it, most people just want to protect what's theirs. And for once, we're actually in a place that the Reachfolk can legitimately call theirs.
So... if the Gray Host want to turn traitor and bite the hands that fed their storms, I'll be here to stop them, along with whatever Reachfolk see fit to join me. And I'll try to remember not to call any of them barbarians while I'm here.
So um... I may have been slightly... less informed about the Reachfolk than I thought. Like how they're not all just "Reachfolk." I mean they are, but they also have dozens of different clans that think differently and have their own ideas about how to live their lives and are just as likely to war each other over a feud as take up arms against a common enemy. Sometimes clans even just dissolve and whoever's left finds another clan to join. It kind of reminds me of Murkmire, but less organized and with more yelling.
This leader, Ard Caddach of Markarth, isn't even considered the rightful king by most of the outlying clans. He'd like to be, but there's an independent spirit here that doesn't take to being confined to a stone city under the thumb of a self-proclaimed monarch. And so the ard contents himself with his city of stone, while nursing ambitions of uniting all those disparate clans. Sounds kind of familiar, now that I think about it.
I'm not sure how much of an agent of his vision I'll be this time, though. While we succeeded in currying his favor with a few favors of our own, we also learned that he's essentially granted the Gray Host free rein in the Reach as long as they leave Markarth alone. I can't tell if that qualifies as being in league with them or just kind of short-sighted, but either way I'll be keeping him at arm's length. Something bothers me about the way he's trying to get his people all crowded into the city for their own safety, though. Maybe it's the recent memory of another city that became a mixing bowl for a huge deathstorm. But hopefully it'll be nothing.
Caddach's bigger problem, at least in his own mind, is the outlander "rebels" who are actively fighting the Gray Host and trying to discourage people from taking refuge in Markarth. That seems like the better idea to me, but I guess all he cares about is the fact that they're causing trouble for him and going against his word.
Verandis seems to think we can play both sides of this little rebellion, ingratiating ourselves with the ard while also trying to recruit the rebels. I've given up on trying to think my way around his strategizing, so hopefully we'll get farther with the people who actually see the threat as a threat. And hopefully the guy I just got done placating won't find out and decide he hates us in the meantime.
I'm not entirely sure how to take this Rada al-Saran. I mean I know he's our enemy, and I know what's going to have to happen in the end. But somehow nothing really seems straightforward with him.
How many times now have we had the chance to confront him, only for him to poof away in a cloud of blood? He wants us out of his way, he's angry about things we've done, and still he hasn't taken decisive action to end us. Even though he could sense me there lurking in the shadows, even though he knew there was nothing I could do to him on my own and he could have cut me down whenever he wanted.
And yet, what he wanted was to speak with me. To give me the chance to speak with him. It was a courtesy, he said, that would not be extended again. And yet he extended it.
I think perhaps he wanted me to know more about him. Nothing he told me could really be used to further thwart his plans, but he gave me a certain picture of the man behind the evil schemes. A Yokudan warrior obsessed with perfection, who would use any tool at his disposal for the noble purposes of love. In his mind, it really was as simple as that.
In return for painting this picture, he wanted me to provide glimpses of the mysterious ally that he could sense in my thoughts but couldn't quite perceive. But he must have known who it was. He wouldn't have asked the questions he did if he hadn't suspected. Perhaps he simply wanted to see if I would play by his rules and be truthful. And as guarded as I knew I should be, he seemed gratified that I chose not to hide behind deception.
I don't know how much of a problem it will be if he knows that Verandis is alive and here working to stop him. I suppose there's always a chance that their old bond of friendship might be a conduit for Verandis to get through to him and convince him to change his destructive ways. But one thing I'm becoming more sure of is that Rada is supremely sure of himself. He knows exactly what he's capable of and believes unequivocally in what he's trying to accomplish. And when he promises that he will take far more than my life if I continue to oppose him... I believe him.
But then, I'm not so easily dissuaded either. Maybe Rada knows that too. And maybe his confidence in his superiority and my triviality will give me some sort of edge in the confrontations to come.
Just in case, though, I'll be looking over my shoulder whenever I dwell in the shadows.
Okay, so I'm working with Reachfolk now. I consider some of them allies and some of them are even maybe kind of friends. But that doesn't mean I have to be happy about everything they do and believe, right?
I mean it's good to know that not all of them are evil storm-slinging witches, even if there are an awful lot of witches around. But they understand that their powers can be used for any number of ends, and the Icereach Coven seems to be universally acknowledged as evil. So we can be on the same page there.
But this whole spirits thing? Where the spirits are actually Daedric Princes? And some of those Princes are, oh I dunno, Molag Bal and Nocturnal? Should I not have a problem with this?
I'm trying to be respectful of the people I'm helping and being helped by, and so far I haven't made any gaffes like calling them savages or making faces at their religious customs. But I couldn't quite keep my mouth shut when Arana wanted me to go seeking blessings from those Princes - sorry, spirits - even though she assured me that years of seeking their favor hasn't bitten her in the arse yet.
I managed to refrain from elaborating on the various ways I've had my arse bitten over the years, since at that point just going through the motions to secure our alliance seemed preferable to arguing about it. But between her, and Karthwasten, and pretty much everybody else here, it's getting harder not to make faces.
I should probably decide it's not that big a deal. It's certainly not my place to tell other people what to believe, and it's certainly not the first time I've dealt with people who worship Princes I have personal issues with. But maybe it's different when they ask me to show the same reverence to their gods when everything within me wants to do the opposite.
At least with Arana it was only Hircine. I guess I've had a few run-ins with the Lord of the Hunt and his followers, but if there was anything troubling at the time, it hasn't stayed with me. At least with him you pretty much know what you're getting. And I am, as often as not, a hunter.
Fortunately whatever I did appeased him, and Arana is satisfied that our alliance has been endorsed. The way she spoke about it went beyond a simple handshake or even a formal contract. A Reach alliance is a bond in blood and fire, never meant to be broken. I just hope our new oath-kin never give us cause to reconsider our ties.
One thing about it, though - I've been treated as an outsider in an awful lot of places, and eventually grudgingly accepted in many of them, but I wouldn't have expected the Reach to be the place where acceptance meant a bond deeper than the land itself. I'm still not quite sure how I feel about that. But I guess I'd better learn to trust my new ally's faith in the spirits that guide her, even if I'll never truly share that faith.
She told me at one point that she could smell the blood of the Reach in me, that spirit of freedom and resilience that runs through every Reachman's veins. I'm starting to see that as more of a compliment the longer I spend here. For them, everything comes back to the land. The land of the Reach is harsh and unforgiving, and it shapes every person who must fight to survive here. Even that nature magic that I've always seen as so corrupted and unnatural springs from a sacred connection to the land. Walls of hewn stone and metal contraptions are what they see as unnatural. And maybe I can see their point.
I don't think I'm ever going to completely change my way of thinking, just as they would never change theirs. Whether it's about Daedric Princes or the merits of a good sturdy stone house, we each have to stand by the values that define us. But maybe it's possible to find a kind of middle ground of understanding. And maybe that's worth continuing to not make faces, as tempting as it might be.
Let it not be said that the Reachfolk don't have their own romantic intrigues.
Or at least I guess that's what this whole thing turned out to be, after I got recruited to help resolve what seemed to be yet another dispute between squabbling clans. This one revolved around a generations-old feud that the local arbitrator thought should be reconciled by an arranged marriage between the son of one clan chief and the daughter of the other. And since the chiefs were turning their respective noses up at the whole idea, it was thought that an outsider offering her blessing to the happy couple would shame them into doing likewise.
I'm still not really sure what my blessing was supposed to prove. Maybe that if I could honor their traditions, they should too? There's been kind of a lot of that honoring traditions going on here. But I guess if they'd all shown up to begin with, they weren't completely opposed to the idea, and they just needed a little goose to get things moving.
Except that the happy couple wasn't actually happy, and did not wish to be goosed into anything. Which didn't entirely surprise me, given that this was a political marriage that had nothing to do with them being star-crossed lovers or something. They hadn't even met before they were tossed into a cave to "get acquainted" prior to proclaiming their everlasting commitment to each other.
They did find common ground, though, in a mutual determination not to marry each other. And that was enough for them to put aside their clans' differences and work together to get out of it.
If it had just been that, this would have been easy. I know arranged marriages have their place, and sometimes people can be persuaded to put diplomatic gains ahead of their personal wishes, but when two people are so thoroughly opposed to getting married, I'm not going to be the one to tell them to just go through with it.
Except... something changed as we set about trying to find another way to convince the clans to set aside their old grievances. The two of them spent more time together, and actually talked to each other, and found themselves being drawn to each other. And gradually, in each of their hearts, that resistance to the forced marriage was worn away.
Except... the man had already made a promise years before to a dying friend, that he would marry the friend's sister and provide for her in the years to come. And the two of them had made a secret pledge to each other that they would be wed - a pledge that this match would force him to break.
Sigh. Nothing is ever easy around here, is it.
I wasn't entirely sure, right up until the end of it, what was going to happen. Even though it was up to me to tell the couple what they should do, and I made the recommendation that I thought would let them both have what they truly wanted, ultimately it was up to them to declare their own intentions before their clans and the chief-of-chiefs. But I feel more at ease after seeing them both agree to the match, even though a vow was broken in the process. And maybe a heart too, although that pledge had been born of duty rather than love.
But I think something better will come of it all. Love turned into hate is what caused this bloody feud in the first place. Hopefully hate turned into love will be what ends it. And not just for the sake of the clans, but for those two hearts who might find happiness together that they wouldn't have known apart.
Damn it's nice to see something work out the way it should. Especially when it's been unfolding for what feels like forever.
How long ago was it that I watched Lyris discover the depth of Sai's feelings for her? That their hearts found that shared, unspoken understanding? They've been content since then, I guess, having whatever they had without calling it what it was. I haven't actually seen them together since we parted ways at the Harborage ages ago, but I know that wherever they've gone, together or separately, that connection has remained strong.
Seeing them working here together in the Reach only confirmed that. The mission they were on was Sai's, but Lyris was doing everything she could because it meant so much to him. And I know just how much it meant - a possible lead on a means to finally reach the pinnacle of his sword-singing tradition and manifest the spirit sword that had always eluded him.
I wouldn't have expected the secret to come from Rada al-Saran of all people, however indirectly. But it's a good thing he and that old Reach hero decided to leave their big revelation inscribed on a bunch of rocks in a cave. I also didn't expect uncovering the secret to involve quite so much singing. But at least nobody asked me to pick a tune out of those etchings.
What I could have told you right from the start, and what I almost felt like shouting at them until they figured it out for themselves, was that the thing that Sai most wanted to fight for, the song that filled his heart, was standing right in front of him the entire time. He'd come as far as he could fighting for duty and honor, but it was the power of love that lifted him over that final hurdle. And that meant finally acknowledging what - and who - he's always longed to embrace.
I'd call it a storybook ending, but I have a feeling it'll only be the beginning of something wonderful for them both. And hopefully I'll get to see that part of their story too.
For all the talk of Daedric Princes and old gods and ancient powers, I've not once heard someone here mention the name Sithis. And yet here we are, watching the souls of Markarth get sucked into a giant pulsing ball of concentrated Void.
I've been wondering about this, ever since Verandis and I determined that those weird glowy anomalies near the Library of Arkthzand were pockets of Void energy. It's as if the Void were leaking into our realm, corrupting whatever it touches. But the Void, as I understood it, is an ever-present nothingness hiding just behind the somethingness of our reality. It's something that's there, but not. It's a concept that's fairly easy to treat on a kind of theoretical, metaphysical level, especially after spending enough time with the faithful of the Dark Brotherhood. But what we're seeing here is a very real manifestation of the Void, invading and warping and consuming. And Sithis apparently has very little to do with it, even if that old mantra about the Void claiming all souls is certainly holding up.
As higher powers go, Namira seems to be the big player here, if only behind the scenes. The Dark Heart itself was a gift from the Spirit Queen, according to Arana, a means of bestowing her power on those who appease her with blood sacrifice. A prophecy passed down by her chosen witches of the Ghostsong clan speaks of a great darkness being unleashed when the Heart is awakened, sparing only Namira's true believers. A convenient exemption for those who would hasten the Heart's stirring, even if most of them ended up dead too.
Whatever Namira's general feelings on death and death offerings, it turns out that she wasn't super keen on seeing her giant ball of Void energy being fueled by wanton slaughter and siphoned by greedy vampires. And so to see her will truly done, she called forth a champion of her own, if only for a moment. Just long enough to finish the fight with Lady Belain and put a temporary halt to the Heart's feeding.
And then, when the need for a champion was past, so too was Namira's strength withdrawn. Even though that was the only thing that had kept Arana from succumbing to the wounds that she must have known would be fatal, even as she assured me that she only needed a moment to catch her breath.
She wasn't angry about being cast aside by her benefactor. She had done Namira's will, beyond her mortal limits, and that was enough for her. But that didn't make me feel any better about walking away through her final portal and leaving her to meet her end alone.
She's far from the only soul lost to the Void today, but I hope she finds a peaceful rest knowing that she helped save many more. For now, at least. The Dark Heart may have slowed down, but it doesn't seem inclined to go back to sleep. And there's no doubt that Rada al-Saran still has plans for it that went far beyond Lady Belain's desire to rejuvenate her vampire clan.
Verandis seems to think Rada might have found a way to sever the Gray Host's connection to Molag Bal, perhaps by replacing it with a connection to the Heart. There's definitely some kind of link that's already being formed, and Verandis can already feel it drawing him toward the darkness. He's resisting, of course, but I can't help wondering how long he might hold out if the pull grows too much stronger. He's already contemplating whether he might be able to use the Heart's power for himself, as distasteful as the idea must be. But after seeing how feasting on the Heart's energy worked out for the Nighthollow clan, the last thing I want to see is Verandis becoming another mindless Void addict.
I'll try to keep an eye on him, as much as I can. It looks like we're going to be tracking Rada and whatever Exarchs he's been able to bring to his side, hopefully to finally find out what he's doing and come up with a way to stop it for good. Preferably before the Void claims any more souls.
You knew for sure this time, didn't you. And you didn't even try to hide it. Even as your wards were making me promise to bring you back, we all knew there was no guarantee that any of us would find a way out after jumping feet-first into the Void.
But there's a big difference between being trapped and leaving someone behind. And as glad as I am that we didn't all end up stuck in that rocky purgatory, I took no joy in saving myself at the expense of yet another friend. Especially knowing that on the other side of that portal awaited the two people who would be most devastated to see who wasn't accompanying me.
Fennorian consoled himself with the thought that at least this time he'd gotten to say goodbye, but Gwendis just wanted me out of her sight. As much as it stung, I understand why. We'd been through so much on Verandis' account, and now here she was right back at square one. Now that I think about it, it's a feeling I know all too well. But she didn't even have the chance to try to do something for the man she cares so deeply for. She had entrusted his welfare to me, and I had let her down.
But deep down I think she knew, as I did, that it wasn't my choice to make. Verandis believed that the problem of Rada al-Saran was his to solve. The rise of the Gray Host had its roots in his research, carelessly left unguarded to fall into the hands of someone whose ambitions trumped all moral limitations. As before in Rivenspire, it might be debated how much responsibility he deserved for the results of other men's actions. But he took that responsibility all the same, knowing it would most likely mean making a choice about how best to atone.
And I believe he had made that choice before we ever jumped. If he could find any way to make things right, even at the cost of his own life, he would pay that cost for the greater good. Again.
He didn't tell me what he was planning when he sent me through that portal. Only that he had come to fathom the Dark Heart's power, and understood how to use it to stop the storm raging through the Reach. How many souls had been claimed by that point? How much power was there coursing through him, intoxicating him with possibilities, showing him at last the vision of Rada's promised salvation?
And yet the possibility he chose was the one that sent all that power back where it came from. Back to the souls whose essence had been stolen, the lives whose potential had been cut short. And somehow, that which had been drawn into the Void found its release, relinquished by the nothingness so that it could become somethingness again.
I don't think I'll ever understand how he did it or how it even physically happened. But there was Arana again, flesh and blood and breath and spirit. She'd had awareness of the existence within the Void, like drowning in a vast icy current. And then a light, and a warmth, and a hand and a voice reaching out to guide her to where she needed to be. And in that same moment, somehow, all those other souls found their guide back to where they needed to be, and suddenly Markarth was alive again.
It's easy to muse, now that there's time for musing, how nice it would be to command the forces of life and death at will. To say "I don't think so" when someone is taken from us too soon, or to find a way to reach those who have been gone too long. But I know that's not the way it works, even having seen what I saw today. Verandis became the master of a small piece of the Void, and bade it return what it had taken. That's all. A singular feat of will and power, to be sure, but not one that's likely to be repeated, even if the master yet remains in control of his domain.
Because, after all that, for once the story didn't have to end with a bitter victory celebration. It must have seemed like quite the practical joke for Verandis to reappear the way he did, having sent Arana ahead with a cryptic message about a friend waiting to meet me. And I can only imagine that the look on my face was the payoff he was hoping for, even if he was a bit self-conscious about his "ghastly" new appearance.
But that's a small price to pay, I'd say, for not having to spend eternity on a cold rocky outcrop halfway between here and Oblivion. Well I suppose there's also the small matter of his soul being melded to the Dark Heart, and being bound to it as a self-appointed guardian. But at least he still has a soul, and he can do his guarding here and not there.
Was it Rada who pushed him out of his sanctuary? Or was this one last gift from Namira, or perhaps the Void deciding that this particular soul could be put to better use in service to itself? Either way, Verandis' story didn't end where he expected it to, and it may yet last for a good while longer. Even if he'd like nothing better than to fade into obscurity and be forgotten along with the Heart and its dark powers.
As if any of us would ever forget him. He seems not to have considered that some among his confidants will live considerably longer than others. And even when I'm not around to swing by this little corner of Blackreach anymore, you can bet that those heirs of House Ravenwatch will hold him to his promise to come visit the old castle whenever he can. It is awful nice to go back home sometimes, after all.
Of course, it might not be improper to say that I have a home there now too. I seem to have become an honorary member of the Ravenwatch somewhere along the way, and now Verandis has made it official by bequeathing his own name to me. I don't know that much about noble house naming systems, and I don't think I'll stop being Ilsabet Menard, but I do understand how much it means for Verandis to bestow such a personal gift. Especially considering what he confided in me along with it.
I had the image, as he spoke, of someone who's been drifting for a very long time, and has a very long time still to come, and knows that nothing he anchors himself to has to be permanent. Even should he occasionally wish for some kind of connection, some foothold to rest on for a spell, a focal point to distract him from the curse casting shadows over his existence, it never had to last longer than he wanted it to. Either the currents of time or trouble would sweep it out of his grasp, or all he had to do was loosen the bonds and drift away, back to the way it'd always been.
He wonders, he said, if he's ever fought as hard for something or someone as Rada fought for his Gray Host. Or was it easier to just let go and start over? I wouldn't presume to tell him I could relate, but for a moment I glimpsed a vision of myself still on that cliff in the Colored Rooms, my voice hoarse from shouting and my body battered from throwing myself against that invisible wall. Would continuing to fight, as hard as I could for as long as it took, have gotten me any closer to my heart's desperate desire? Or would it only have kept me from seeking out everything I've seen and done since then?
What could Rada al-Saran have accomplished in all these millennia if he hadn't been consumed with retrieving his Exarchs from Coldharbour? Could he have learned from the failure of his ambitions of conquest, forged new bonds with new friends, brought new life to the ancient Ansei tradition as Sai lamented? Could he have found something even more fulfilling if he had somehow been able to move past the tragedy of loss and find something new to be his anchor?
Only Rada himself could really answer those questions. Maybe his devotion to his Gray Host really was stronger than any other force in his world. But Verandis, by walking away from the Gray Host, was able to drift toward something he can truly be proud of establishing, something he knows will continue to be his foothold long after he's faded into his self-appointed obscurity. That is what the Ravenwatch name truly signifies. And that is why it makes me tear up just a little to think that he considers me a part of it.
I didn't come down here to get all schmoopy, though. It mostly seemed like a nice diversion from the hubbub back in Understone Keep, even if you'd think I would've had enough of underground caves and glowy mushrooms and sunken Dwarven citadels. I wonder if it's been long enough for anyone to notice that I'm gone. With any luck they'll have broken out the mead by now, which should keep everyone pretty well occupied for the rest of the night.
The Ard of Markarth, the Skald-King of Windhelm, and the Jarl of Solitude, all getting drunk together in the heart of the Reach... who ever would have seen that coming? I still don't know what kind of diplomatic magic was at work while I was off tootling around in the Void, but it must have been pretty potent. Good for them, though. We need all the proof we can get that we don't have to be tearing at each other's throats when there are bigger baddies at the door.
It's almost as surprising that Lyris and Caddach hadn't started throwing punches, at least as of when I snuck out. Arana's doing her best to keep Caddach's temper in check, and maybe Lyris is feeling more mellow with Sai around, but I know she still holds it against the ard that he let Mannimarco do his test run for the Planemeld right in his backyard. I had to agree with Lyris that the Worm King's name wasn't one I expected to hear again, especially not out in the sticks of southern Skyrim, but I guess it's a small world. Maybe Arana can have a talk with her new chief about thinking twice when sketchy people want to do sketchy things outside his nice stone walls.
Lyris and Sai, meanwhile, seem to be getting more comfortable with the whole being close to each other thing. (Yes, Sai, I was absolutely interrupting.) My heart pretty near did a backflip when Lyris actually used the phrase "the man I love" while she was talking about the two of them going off traveling together. It was reminiscent of that parting in the Harborage, of course, but with only the merest hint of melancholy this time, and way more hope and excitement for my friends' continued happiness.
Fennorian was kind of adorable too, both playing up his role as my superior in House Ravenwatch and trying to express his thanks for helping him get through our adventures. He certainly has come a long way since he could barely look Shelaria in the eyes back in the Unhallowed Grave. He may credit me with getting him through those tough times, but I won't have any doubt in him if I ever need to take him up on his offer to return the favor.
You know, I came to this place expecting to find only adversaries, but here I am amongst an awful lot of friends. What was it Verandis said just now? Friendship is a net that catches us when we fall? Maybe it did sound less cheesy in old Yokudan, but it is a nice thought to have. Even here in the endless gloom of Blackreach, or the even more endless expanse of the Void, just knowing you're not alone gives you the freedom to keep trying, knowing that even if you fail it doesn't have to be the end.
Okay now it's me sounding all cheesy. Maybe it is time to get back up there and see about some mead.
Oh look, Mabel, them Daedric Princes are at it again.
Dagon this time. I guess he didn't learn anything from the failures of Molag Bal and Nocturnal before him. Although to be fair, this particular plot was hatched some fifty years ago, when a certain Reachman decided he wanted to be Emperor of Tamriel. And I guess Dagon can't be faulted too much for wanting his due out of the bargain.
Of course, he didn't count on me being part of the bargain when he came to collect. Or a plucky Wood Elf, or a resourceful Dremora. And between the three of us, hopefully we can do what we do best and put a stop to it. Just as soon as we figure out what "it" is.
I wish Eveli would tell me more about her dreams. I can't help thinking of someone else who had prophetic dreams, that we didn't fully understand until we saw them playing out around us. The fire and brimstone she's described doesn't sound like a fun time, but it seems right on brand for the Prince of Destruction. I'd almost wonder if Eveli has some connection to Dagon that we don't know about, but it's more likely that the connection belongs to that sketchy book she's been carrying around. But as long as she doesn't really want to talk about it, she's the one who'll have to shoulder that burden.
It also would have been nice to interrogate the guy who sent her to fetch that book. My initial thought was that he was trying to revive his fallen emperor's machinations, and was setting about pulling together the scattered pieces of this Ambitions project. But his distraught partner insisted that he was trying to "set things right," and Eveli seems to be convinced that he was just a tragic victim in all this. The first of many on the list of Leovic's apparent confidantes, as it turned out, each of whom knew just a little too much about the Empire's dreadful secrets.
And so our focus has shifted from the fires of Oblivion to the political landscape of the Blackwood region of... Cyrodiil? Black Marsh? I'm not actually sure who lays claim to it at this point, although I guess it's more appropriate to say that it claims itself. Leyawiin reminds me of Lilmoth and Senchal, the port city perched on the edge of the swamp, the melding of disparate cultures, the local militia trying to maintain some semblance of order and identity in the wake of the Empire's fall. Sai Sahan even seems to be the big cult hero around here, having single-handedly liberated the city from the Daedra-mongering Reachfolk while Varen was busy ousting their master. Or so the stories go.
I almost caught myself thinking how nice it would be to have Abnur Tharn along to help navigate the political waters around here, considering that pretty much everybody we're dealing with was on the Elder Council with him back in the day. And considering that his name was conspicuously absent from the list of Leovic's accessories, it would be really interesting to know what he knew about them and this whole deal, and why he was left out, and whether he would still be a target if he were here nosing around with us. But... leave it to him to not make things that easy.
I have other problems right now, though. Well, aside from the trying to stop councilors from being murdered thing, which so far is going absolutely horridly. I had a distinct feeling when I found the note next to Farrul Lupus' body, and saw the handprint smudged in black ash. "Oh hell," is about what it amounted to. I mean stopping nefarious plots is one thing, but if this is official Brotherhood business, then suddenly it's a lot more complicated. Somebody put a contract out on each of these people, and the Black Hand endorsed them and passed them on to be executed. That's just how it works, and so it's harder than it should be for me to share Eveli's righteous indignation, despite my uncertainty about whether these people really deserve to be silenced or not.
But the more we see, and the more bodies pile up, the more something just doesn't feel right. All of these hits, all at once... either someone put on a hell of a Sacrament, or...
I wonder if I can find a chance to slip away and head back to the Sanctuary, to see if Speaker Terenus or Matron Astara knows anything about what's going on. The Gold Coast isn't that far away, is it? But no, we need to stay hot on the trail if we're going to stop any more people from being killed. Even if my gut is telling me that there's no way this is all going to end well. The choice right now is to not let people die when we can save them, and as long as I'm still in hero mode, that's what I'm going to do.
So... I had to tell Eveli. I tried really hard not to, but after a certain amount of trying to convince her that this wasn't how the Dark Brotherhood operated, that they wouldn't go out of their way to kill someone who wasn't named in a contract, and maybe letting slip a little more than I should have about how Sacraments worked, I got that narrowed-eyes look that told me she was starting to form a picture in her mind. I probably could have persuaded her that it was something I read about in some book, but that nagging feeling in my gut told me that this mammoth in the room wasn't going to stay pushed behind the drapery forever.
It's probably ironic that this whole thing came out because I was trying to defend the Brotherhood, convinced as I now am that they're not the ones leaving these smudged notes. I don't know why this all has to be an issue now, when it's been ages since I was actively wielding the Blade of Woe. I guess I'm still Speaker Terenus' Silencer, although he doesn't seem to have minded my very extended sabbatical, and that certainly doesn't mean we had anything to do with the very murders I've been trying to help prevent.
But no matter. I've owned up to that part of who I am, and Eveli seems to have accepted my authority on the subject, even if she reacted predictably badly to the whole murderer thing. I'm trying to tell myself that it's about time she learned that heroes don't have to be perfect, and maybe you should be careful who you put on a pedestal, but I'm probably going to be glad that she was willing to defer the reckoning conversation until after we check up on a couple more hopefully-not-dead-yet councilors. Maybe things won't be so bad once she's had a chance to cool off, and maybe I'll come up with something to say to not dig myself into an even deeper hole.
Well, I've somehow managed to get myself a partner.
Not a Lyris-type partner, or Eveli, or even Revus Demnevanni. I wonder, how many people have I teamed up with to take on various missions over the years? But they've always had their own lives to lead, and their own paths to follow, and we've always parted ways once the work was done.
I expected it to be the same way with Bastian, once I got done helping him extricate his handful of a foster brother from the clutches of those nefarious cultists. But he surprised me with a proposition as I was preparing for the inevitable farewell. He was more than ready to be done playing babysitter to the little lordling, and once he got Quistley shipped off to Daggerfall he'd be conveniently without a charge. And so, if I thought I could maybe use some backup from a somewhat accomplished mage, he reckoned we did work pretty well together, and so if I felt like having him along as I continued my adventures...
I'm still not entirely sure why I said yes. I mean I certainly don't need a babysitter or a bodyguard, and I'm used to looking after myself while I'm on the road. I guess maybe it does get a little lonely sometimes, but it's also nice having time to myself in between dealing with people and their problems.
And Bastian, too, had been one of those people with problems, just the latest on the long list of folks who couldn't quite handle things without my help. Except that once he got over being whacked on the head and tied up, he actually held his own pretty well when we got into the thick of things. He had a certain zest for battle that was kind of enjoyable to watch. And there was something... earnest about him, as if he truly believed in the ideals of stopping the bad guys and saving the day.
Maybe that resonated with me, reminded me for a moment of what it felt like to really be a hero. And if he saw something in me that likewise inspired him, and made him think I was someone worth sticking with, maybe it was worth giving our partnership a shot.
And now, we get to the fun process of adjusting to each other and seeing how things will really work. Which is going... interestingly.
We decided early on that his magic could most effectively be put to use on heal duty, and he seemed content with staying back in support mode while I do my usual charging after things that want to kill me. I'm getting better at reminding myself not to get too far away from him while I'm running around firing arrows. Mostly. So far so good, though, and it is refreshing to share a moment of triumph at the end of a tough fight.
We have some... philosophical differences about a few things. Well, a lot of things, most of which fit into the category of "things you wouldn't want a guard to see you doing." Which means I don't really want Bastian to see me doing them either, but thankfully so far he hasn't raised any objections when I ask him to wait outside for me or send him off on some trifling errand while I "take care of a few things." He's given me a look a few times though, traces of the same sort of look he gave me the first time I made off with some trinket or other in front of him, when he took it upon himself to give me a little lecture about the virtues of starting over. But if he suspects I may not have gone completely clean since then, he's at least keeping his admonishments to himself.
I probably should have seen this coming, after I asked him to tell me a little about himself and his response included a treatise on his moral and ethical leanings with regard to theft and killing. I wonder if he noticed me squirming just a little. I should be better about not squirming at this point, but keeping up a perfect poker face is easier when you're not dealing with someone you've just made a semi-permanent commitment to.
At least he does seem to be impressed when I pop open a treasure chest out in the wild, and he seems to be very interested in what I'm going to make when I gather materials. Having someone along commenting on everything I do will take some getting used to, but then it is kind of a nice change to hear an actual person's voice instead of just the thoughts inside my own head.
So, we'll see how it goes. I wonder how long it'll take him to learn not to stand between me and urns...
So good news, Councilor Faleria was fine and found the records she was looking for, and Councilor Vandacia had managed to survive the attempt on his life before I got there. It's a nice change not to be arriving too late for once. And Vandacia's guards had even apprehended the would-be hitman, so I'd get the chance to interrogate him myself.
There was actually a certain amount of dread in my gut as I headed down to the holding cells. If I was right, I'd finally get to confront whoever was framing the Brotherhood. But if I was wrong...
But what we found was an open cell door, and a trail of acid leading to a side exit. Sloppy, but convenient for me.
I'd given Bastian a brief rundown of our mission as we traveled, of course omitting certain salient details. I probably should have considered the unpleasant ramifications of the Brotherhood thing when I agreed to our partnership. But he was suitably excited about tracking down an escaping criminal, so I tried to keep my reservations at bay.
The trail led us into some Ayleid ruins on the outskirts of Gideon. There was a camp set up there, currently vacant, but obviously recently inhabited. Something told me that I didn't want an extra pair of eyes seeing what there might be to see, so I asked Bastian to look around the other wings of the ruins to make sure no one was hiding in the shadows. He dutifully headed off, with a reminder to be careful.
What I found was a letter, to someone named Elam, from someone named Astara. Well damn, it was the Brotherhood after all, and on top of that it was my Brotherhood. Suddenly the foiled assassin's cool, calm demeanor made a lot more sense.
And there he was, on the other side of a grate, deciding it was safe enough to beckon me over for a chat.
He confirmed everything I've been thinking about this whole murder affair. There were no contracts put out on any of these people, and the telltale handprint was an easy forgery. He even refuted Vandacia's assassination attempt story, pointing out that if he had set out to kill the councilor, he'd be dead.
Unfortunately he didn't have any ideas about who the pretenders might be, but he was looking forward to seeing what my investigations uncovered.
With that, Elam disappeared in a cloud of smoke, and I got the letter squirreled away just as Bastian returned to report that he hadn't come across anything except skeevers and bog dogs. Before he could start asking questions, I steered him toward the exit so we could get back topside.
By the time we got back to the governor's mansion, I had my story ready. I'd caught sight of the assassin before he slipped away, but I'd only spoken to him long enough for him to affirm that the Brotherhood wasn't behind the murders.
Vandacia, of course, was not happy, especially when I got to the part about how the escapee claimed not to have attacked him. All lies, he said, just as you'd expect from one of those Dark Brotherhood villains.
With nothing but my word against his, I wasn't about to convince the councilor of anything, but all I really needed was to buy enough time for Elam to make himself scarce. And then Vandacia could be as grumpy as he wanted about Lovidicus sending him the most incompetent and gullible mercenary he could find.
It seemed like we might actually get out of this. All we needed to do was offer our regrets and take our leave.
And then it all went to hell.
"There was that letter you found, maybe that would help?" Bastian said hopefully.
"...Letter?" Crap, he saw that?
"That was what you put into your pack right before we left, wasn't it? I was going to ask about it then, but you were in a hurry to get back and report."
Dammit. "Oh, um, I don't think that was anything -"
Vandacia's already stern face turned even more cross. "You're not considering concealing evidence in an effort to aid the escape of a known assassin..." He narrowed his eyes. "...are you?"
Dammit. I should have thought faster on my feet. I should have thought of something to say to deflect attention, convince them that it really was nothing. If I'd had another piece of paper in my pack, I could have pulled that out and then been surprised when it had nothing at all to do with the Dark Brotherhood. I could have found a glass of water to accidentally spill all over it so it couldn't be read. I could have, I don't know, tripped and knocked myself out and then eaten the damn thing in the ensuing confusion.
But no. With those two men staring me down, each of them having different reasons to expect me to do the right thing, I... Dammit. Elam knows to watch his back, doesn't he? He wouldn't let himself be caught unawares. I should have asked him why he let himself get caught to begin with. But if they manage to track down that cave, he'll be ready. Right?
I can't even really be angry at Bastian. He thought he was helping. And I can't even tell him why this was a problem.
At least I was able to think up a plausible excuse to get him out of my hair for a while, sending him after those antiquities we scried for earlier while I headed back to Leyawiin. That should keep him busy long enough for me to see what other bombs want to explode in my face. And to think about whether this whole partnership thing was really such a good idea. But even then, to tell him why...
Dammit, I shouldn't have to let him down like that. I should have known this whole big damn hero act would fall down around me sooner or later. It was bad enough with Eveli, but I'd really like for this not to end in a huge blazing firestorm.
Calm down, Ilsabet. It's time for damage control now. And maybe it won't be that bad. Maybe.
So. Things could be worse. Things could absolutely be better, but they could sure as hell be worse. We have an actual bad guy now, and none of my friendships have fallen apart at the seams. I can work with this.
Eveli has indeed cooled down some, although I think it was the apparent betrayal of trust that hurt her more than anything - that she's known me all this time and I never mentioned that I was an assassin. I pointed out that that wasn't a thing until after our time in Orsinium, that I just kind of fell in with them during my subsequent travels to the Gold Coast. It was, um, a simplification of events, but I certainly wasn't about to give her a detailed history of my spiral into darkness.
She at least came to terms well enough that accompanying me into a Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary only gave her a little bit of the willies. I actually felt fortunate that it was her along with me for that little investigation, especially considering that Captain Rian would have been happy to send his entire brigade if they hadn't already been stretched thin guarding the dignitaries in Leyawiin. But with a little bit of breathing room, and hopefully the chance to talk to Elam again, there was hope that we could still dodge the massive arrow I'd inadvertently pointed at the new Sanctuary. And booking it out of town before Bastian showed back up with our antiquities meant one less thing to have to worry about there.
Thankfully Elam found us pretty quickly after we got inside. I wasn't any happier than he was about having to rehash our conversation about the Brotherhood's non-involvement in Leyawiin's current troubles, or about neither of us being any closer to tracking down our true adversaries. And then, of course, our adversaries decided to bring the fight to us. Waking Flame cultists portaling into the Sanctuary, forcing Elam and me to go into defense mode while Eveli ran back to report to Leyawiin.
So. Dagon cultists who used me to get inside a Sanctuary and slaughter a score of dark brothers and sisters. It's about damn time I had justification for a good solid killing spree. And with Bastian and Eveli out of the picture, and no more reason to hold back, the Blade of Woe came to my hand just as naturally as it ever had. I could just imagine the satisfied smirk beneath Elam's mask.
Between the two of us we made short work of everyone in our path, including the two higher-ups who barely had time to get their taunts out before we cut them down. They'd already sent word to their master, though, that they'd broken in and retrieved whatever was hidden in the Imperial cache buried beneath the Sanctuary. Something that would lead them to one of the Four Ambitions, which they were even more desperate to find than we were.
Elam, as he himself noted, wasn't the only one being careless with incriminating letters. And apparently our villain of the moment missed the lesson at bad guy school about signing your correspondence with an initial.
So, there was a reason for Councilor Vandacia to lie about Elam attacking him, just as that feeling in my gut had suspected. I wouldn't have called him being the Waking Flame's high priest, the way Leovic's writing had made it sound like they were different people. But at least our shocking betrayal came fairly early in the proceedings this time. And now, while Elam indulged in a little extra vengeful bloodshed back at camp, I had a focal point for my heroic ire.
Bastian was standing around fidgeting when I arrived at the Leyawiin gates. I could almost see the wave of relief washing over him when he saw me riding up. He'd been worried, when he arrived back in town to discover that I'd gone off on another mission without him, and it seemed to be taking an awful long time for me to get back. But I wasn't in the mood for small talk or overprotective chiding.
"The Brotherhood was framed and Vandacia's the bad guy. Let's go."
"Oh. I see. Well... That might explain the commotion around the castle..."
Vandacia hadn't wasted any time springing the trap on his fellow councilors once Eveli and I were sent away. Too bad for him that we didn't actually die in his ambush on the Sanctuary. But that still gave him time to dispatch Felaria and very nearly do the same to Lovidicus before we forced him to poof away. And he got ahold of the documents that Eveli's brother had been about to decode, leaving us with nothing but an unfamiliar Argonian phrase to work with.
So... could be better, but could be worse. And onward into the wilderness we go.
Great. I get a new partner, and I'm trying to be the big badass hero that he has a reason to tag along with, and then I go and practically break down crying in front of him.
That damn magician, though... and how could I not, when what he had to show me was...
What was it he said? That he'd favor me with a display of my heart's desires? An obvious hack, an illusionist just trolling for some coin on the road. But okay, maybe some rainbows and sparkles would be a nice diversion. And it's not like I'm hurting for coin.
He asked me to choose what type of form his magic should take, and I picked the one that was something about shrouds. I'm not sure I even thought about what that meant. It sounded melodramatic or something, and hey why not let him put on a show.
But... it was... the spirit that appeared was the unmistakable figure of the Golden Knight, floating in midair, writhing as if struggling against some unseen bond.
My heart stopped and instinct took over. I launched myself toward him, flung my arms around him, desperate to keep him from drifting away. But my arms found only air, only light and sparkles, and the more I grasped and flailed, the faster they dispersed.
There was a satisfied chuckle, and there was the mage merrily portaling away now that his work was complete. Of course he wouldn't have been able to tell me anything, about how that image came to him, what it meant for him to appear to me. And so there I was left, standing in the middle of the road with nothing in my arms, and nothing in my mind but questions and angst.
A voice spoke up behind me, quiet and uncertain, tinged with concern. "Ilsabet... are you..."
I'd almost forgotten Bastian was standing there. It hadn't mattered, when all I could see was that specter floating away from me. But of course now there he was, trying to make sense of the spectacle I'd just shown him.
I didn't answer him. What the hell could I say, that he couldn't see on my face?
"That man we saw - you know him. He's someone important to you."
All I could do was nod.
He looked somberly toward the now-empty space. "I'm sorry to say, I don't think that vision is one you're meant to hold onto."
Of course not. How could it be. Nothing but wishful thinking and light.
I felt my fists clenching and my eyes starting to sting, and the last thing I wanted was to be standing in front of someone I'd been trying to impress.
But just as I was about to turn and make up an excuse to not be there anymore, he raised his arms toward me, and let them awkwardly hover there. "May I?"
It took me a moment to understand what he was asking, and then I nodded in spite of myself. And then, wrapped in the comforting protectiveness of his hug, suddenly it didn't seem so important to keep up pretensions.
I didn't completely lose it, I don't think. But along with the tears came the thoughts, and eventually the words.
"That man... he called him a ghost. Said - something about 'the end.' But... he can't be gone, can he? It... it can't be over. There was still a chance... there has to still be a chance for me to find him..."
"He's someone you've lost, then."
I nodded. "He was... taken away. But he was still there. Still alive. I know he wouldn't give up. And I wouldn't give up on him. But..."
Bastian let out a troubled breath, and I knew he was following the same mental course I was. Those wrapped in shrouds... what it looks like at the end...
"It's possible... that it was simply an illusion," he ventured. "Perhaps something drawn from your subconscious, a manifestation of your fears. There are magicks that can do that, and it would certainly be easier than summoning an actual person's spirit. I... would assume, anyway."
I furrowed my brow. Maybe there could be other possible explanations, but...
"At any rate, if we can't know for sure, best not to assume the worst," he said. "Even if there's nothing else to hold onto, you can still hold out hope."
You know, he really does come out with the cheesiest lines sometimes. But... I couldn't say he was wrong.
I felt myself starting to come back around. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make a big fuss. I just wasn't expecting... that."
"It's all right. Take all the time you need."
I lingered there for another minute or two, bolstering myself with deep breaths, and then it was time to stand on my own again.
"I think I'm okay now. Thank you."
"That's good to hear."
He relaxed his hold on me, and I stepped back and quickly rubbed the last of the incriminating wetness from my eyes. He watched me, his eyes still betraying that hint of concern, until I gave him what I hoped was an affirming nod.
He nodded back, and then... "I hope this isn't too forward, but... would you tell me about him?"
Now that was a question I wasn't prepared for.
"If it's too personal, I understand. Or if it's something that's hard for you to talk about. But... if you're willing, I'd like to know more about this person who means so much to you."
And that is how I came to be sitting under a tree in the middle of a swamp, telling Bastian Hallix about Darien Gautier. I didn't spill my guts about absolutely everything, of course, but his eagerness to listen somehow fed my willingness to speak, and it was all too easy to get caught up in reminiscing about those long-ago adventures in faraway High Rock and the dashing guard captain who helped me save the world.
And then, of course, the bittersweet victory in Coldharbour, and the heroic reunion in Summerset, and I could almost feel the weight of that sword in my hand and see the words on those pages. And then, the nothing but dead ends ever since.
Bastian just let me sit in silence for a while after that, and I could feel his sympathetic eyes on me as he thought about what to say.
"If there's anything I can do to help you find him, just say the word," he offered at last. "Maybe my connections back in Daggerfall..."
"It's not that simple. But... thank you."
"Right. Of course not. If it were, you would already be with him."
So, he understood. It was a heartening feeling.
"You have a special connection to him, I can tell," he went on. "No matter what happens... as long as you keep that in your heart, you'll never truly be alone."
Him and his damn cheesy lines. "You know, I'm trying not to tear up again here."
He returned my wry smile, and regarded me for a moment. "Thank you for telling me about him. I feel like I understand you a lot better now too. I mean, hearing about your adventures is one thing, but for you to open up to me like this, it's reassuring. So thank you for that."
I raised an eyebrow. "You say that like it's a big deal."
He looked away and shifted awkwardly. "To be honest, I haven't been entirely sure you wanted me around. I've been doing my best not to be a burden, of course, but we both know you don't really need my help in combat, and... well, your rather terse manner when speaking to me, and the way you're always sending me away to attend to trivial errands..." He looked back at me. "I wasn't sure I was someone you could see as a friend."
Something dropped in my chest. Here I'd been, rambling on about one of the most deeply personal things in my life, and it had been enough to make me completely forget about the philosophical differences and the damn Brotherhood and anything else that had made me want to keep him at arm's length. But... he had noticed me keeping my distance, and it had weighed on his mind. But maybe it didn't have to be that way. Maybe there could be a middle ground.
"I think... you've been a fine friend," I said. "And... I should probably thank you. There aren't too many people I can talk to about this."
His smile and his posture both relaxed. "I'm glad to hear you say that. And... I'm glad I can be there for you. It's good to have a partner I can trust."
We shared a moment of acceptance, and then something occurred to me. "I, um, might still send you off on errands a lot though."
Was that a trace of that old look, or was I imagining it... "Well, if those mundane tasks are how I can be of use to you, I suppose that does free you up for more important matters."
I totally did not look shifty as hell as I silently agreed with him.
"But I also hope you feel you can rely on me for more than mundane tasks," he continued. "Anything you need, that's why I'm here. Even if it's just to talk. I may not always know what to say, but I can always listen."
I nodded. He'd certainly proven himself there.
His tone brightened. "And if something does come along, and you need to go off on a daring rescue mission, I'll be right there alongside you. If you'll have me."
"That... would be nice. But I wouldn't hold my -" Wait, we were supposed to be clinging to hope here. "Well... if I hear anything from Gabrielle, you'll be the first one to know."
"Gabrielle Benele. She's a -"
"Wait, you know Gabrielle Benele? The Gabrielle Benele? Do you know how many times I've read her treatise on the classification of schools of magic? It's absolutely visionary!"
I couldn't help an indulgent smile. Of course he'd be a Gabrielle fanboy.
"Yeah, it's... pretty great," I said. "And yeah, she's a friend of ours. Mine and Darien's."
He was practically beaming now. "Well, if a great mind like that is helping you search, there's not a secret in Oblivion that can hide for long. Did you know she's considered one of the foremost experts on contemporary scrying techniques? Wait, you studied with the Antiquarian Circle in Solitude, didn't you? Don't tell me that she was the one who..."
It was his turn to ramble now, apparently, as we found our way back onto the road. I'll admit I tuned most of it out, as my thoughts inevitably turned back to that gold-tinged vision, and the nagging possibilities it portended. Those fears and worries wouldn't go away, of course, but at least now... maybe I didn't have to shoulder them alone. Maybe...
Wait for me, Darien. For us. If there's still a chance, still some hope to hold onto, don't let it be the end just yet.
So, the Ambitions are people. Maybe they qualify as weapons too, but they're definitely people. Which adds some complications to the "find the Ambitions and destroy them before the Dagon cult can get ahold of them" plan I figured we'd be following.
The woman and man we found in the ojel-bak didn't even know they were Ambitions, or what Ambitions even were. They'd just been living there in the vault, or in other vaults like it, for their entire lives, being cared for and told they would have a special purpose when the time was right. I imagine it would be pretty boring, always being cooped up in the same place and never seeing anyone besides your sibling and some questionably-sentient servants. And Emperor Leovic, I suppose, back when he was around to check in on his pet project from time to time.
Would they have been better off, if they'd just stayed there in their sanctum, hidden from the world above? Or would the Waking Flame have found them eventually and wrested them from their solitude, without the chance to decide for themselves who to throw their lot in with?
We're lucky, probably, that they decided we were the better option. And not just because they totally fried the people they decided were the bad guys. With any luck, being with the good guys will actually succeed in keeping them safe, and they'll decide that they don't want to go along with whatever destroying the world scheme the Prince of Destruction had in mind for them.
And if not... if they do end up going down a path to fulfill their apparent destinies... how much would it need to matter that they're people and not just weapons?
That's... probably a question I'm going to hope I never have to ask. Something to look forward to, then, the way these things usually go. But we'll see. For now, they're our wards, and we'll do everything we can to keep them safe and happy. And hopefully that'll be enough.
Well... "formal event date" is not something I would have expected to be in Bastian's job description when he signed on with me, and I'm pretty sure he wasn't quite prepared for it either. But hey, whatever works, right?
We were fortunate that Elam's intel got us to a lead on where Vandacia might be heading next, possibly with another one of the Ambitions. And if the bad guys are having a big fancy party, and you can get your hands on an invitation, you're pretty much obligated to crash it.
We needed suitably fancy clothes, though, and would you believe that that tailor from Hew's Bane has set up shop right here in Leyawiin. Fortunately the silk I rounded up for him covered the cost of three fancy outfits, and I was a little relieved to see that everything on display was significantly more modest than his idea of proper desert wedding attire.
I'm pretty sure Eveli got the best fashion deal of any of us, but I did have to chuckle at her reaction to having to trade her leathers for frippery. It's been a while, but I kind of know how she felt. It didn't take her long to start admiring herself in the mirror, though, despite her protestations.
When Bastian finally emerged from his dressing room, he was fussing with the cuffs of his stylish long jacket. "Does it look okay? It feels rather constricting..."
I shifted in my own unreasonably tight bodice. "Aren't you used to dressing up? Daggerfall high society and all?"
He tugged at his collar. "I generally wasn't the one being paraded around at those formal functions. Never really minded letting Quistley have that particular spotlight."
"Well I think you look quite dashing," Eveli said. "At least you look like you belong in those fancy duds, which is more than some of us can say."
"I'm not sure what you mean," Bastian said, getting his first good look at her. "That dress looks lovely on you."
"Aww shucks, you're just trying to butter me up."
Not to spoil the mood, but... "Should we get down to planning our next move?" I said, now that we were all ostensibly outfitted for the mission.
"Right. So... we only have one invitation and one coin," Eveli said, glancing through the borrowed document. "It does say 'Salvitto and guest,' so I guess that means two of us could go. But one of us would have to pretend to be him, right?"
We all stood in thoughtful silence for a moment. Then Eveli and I looked at each other, and I could tell she was thinking the same thing I was. She smiled, and I nodded, and then we both looked at Bastian.
He looked at me, and then at Eveli, and some amalgam of realization and apprehension passed over his face. "Wait..."
"So, how do you feel about hobnobbing, mister high society?" Eveli said gaily, putting a hand on her hip.
"You want me to try to impersonate Salvitto?" Bastian already sounded worried.
"You are the closest thing to a noble we have," I pointed out. "And you even sort of look like him. I'm sure you can pull it off."
Eveli gave Bastian an appraising look. "Yeah, I can kind of see that. You don't happen to share the same barber, do you?"
Bastian sighed. "There's more to a person than appearances. I don't know anything about the man. And I'm not exactly adept at deception."
Eveli looked at me. "Well, you could let the expert here do the talking."
I had to take a moment to clear my throat, and then I turned back to Bastian. "I can handle the talking, yes. You're just there to have a good time with a couple of lady friends on your arms. And if anybody asks, you think Dagon is great and you can't wait for him to rain down his fires of destruction and stuff."
"A couple of friends? What about Eveli, then? If the invitation only mentions one guest..."
"That's an easy fix," I said, reaching for the invitation. One carefully-scribed "s" later, we were good to go.
And so we made our way to the docks, and made it onto the ship, and it was actually kind of enjoyable hanging on Bastian's arm and watching him put on airs while we made a few rounds of small talk with the other partygoers. I wouldn't have thought that hoity-toity socializing could be so exhausting, but by the time we headed for our bunks, the advice we'd gotten about sleeping away the remainder of the voyage was sounding pretty good. Nobody really wanted to tell me where we were headed, but I figured it didn't hurt to be rested when we got there.
And then I woke up in hell. Would somebody explain to me how you sail an actual boat into the Deadlands? Is it that overlapping Nirn/Oblivion thing in between that lets you get from one to the other? How does the boat not get set on fire when the water is basically lava?
I don't know, but apparently the Waking Flame crew has managed to figure it out. And they were all remarkably nonchalant about running a ferry route literally into Oblivion. I guess you get used to it after you've done it for a while.
Eveli and I were probably lucky that we'd been in the Deadlands before, but I could see Bastian wondering what the hell he'd stepped into. He kept his game face on, though, as we passed through the assembled greeters and servants and sycophants and made our way into the great hall where the VIPs awaited an address from their high priest. Lyranth had shown up too, sadly not sporting a fancy dress. I'd be interested to know what qualifies as fashionable to a Daedra.
We, of course, had some reconnaissance to carry out before the shindig got underway. It was easy enough to slip out of the main hall, but with the three of us moving together, I decided to take our chances trying to keep to the edges of rooms and stay out of sight without going into full stealth mode.
That lasted for about the space of two hallways. The True Sworn brute who spotted us didn't even let me finish asking where the bathroom was before he pulled his very large sword. At least I got the chance to show Eveli how to fight in a dress.
There was a lot more fighting in dresses after that. I might have considered stealthing my way through if it had just been me, but crouching in a dress was one traumatic experience I was not keen to put Eveli through. And if none of the guards were going to be inclined to give us a pass as meandering guests, then we might as well permanently silence them before they could sound an alarm.
We found Vandacia's prize showpiece chained up in an inner chamber. Unlike the twins, Sombren was at least a little more aware of his place in the grand Ambitions plan. He was also very not interested in being sacrificed to further this plan, and we were more than happy to spring him before Vandacia got too far into his main event. (I have to admit, unleashing a cadre of stinkbugs on the hoity-toity gathering was quite satisfying in itself.) One Lyranth portal later, we were back in Gideon with three out of the Four Ambitions in our keeping.
My fancy dress didn't make the trip nearly as intactly, sad to say. Eveli had it right, that this is why you think twice about wearing fancy duds to storm Oblivion. But, all's well that ends well, at least for the moment, and she and Bastian at least might get some more use out of their finery somewhere down the road. And even if not, we'll all have an interesting story to tell.
The picture of everyone in their formal clothes is very nice! (Also, the line about asking the cultist where the bathroom was made me snort.)
I spent a not-insignificant amount of time just standing there at that point in the quest so I could smash the screencap button during the few seconds when there weren't any other players in the way. (And also did some ace Photoshoppery to get rid of the quest marker over Eveli's head. Fortunately she bobbed her head around enough that I could nab a clear shot of the curtain behind her to paste in.)
And if you're going to go snooping around in someone's evil party fortress, you gotta have a good excuse ready.
(And the bit in this entry that always gets me is Eveli's sick burn about Ilsabet's expertise in deception. It might be true but you don't have to say it like that. )
A Redguard and a ghost. An Argonian and a Dremora. Talk about odd couples.
It's been quite some time since I helped out the Redguards of the Alik'r Desert with their little zombie problem, but I sure remember how freaked out they all were about the idea of getting anywhere near the undead. I could tell that Yisara had similar reservations, when she enlisted me to help her go snooping into the salacious history of Castle Giovesse. She was at least brave enough to venture into the ghostie-infested ruins in search of her next great romance novel plot, but when it came to the actual fighting and talking, she was more than happy to leave the direct interactions to me.
And then one of the ghosties turned out to be really hot. And noble. And gallant. And exactly the sort of person Yisara's great-great-grandmother had fallen in love with long ago.
Did someone say romance novel plot?
There was also the small matter of Grandmother Alizinda poisoning her lover in a fit of jealous passion, but bygones, right? Mathen recognized the charming spirit of his lady love in her descendant, and when the truth came to light of the deception that led to Alizinda's rash reaction, there was no way he was going to hold it against the lovely lady now standing before him.
And so Yisara found herself in the midst of a love story that must have surpassed anything she could have conjured up for her heroines. There was a choice to be made, of course, since Mathen's spirit had been lingering restlessly for some two hundred years, and it might have been nice for him to finally find his rest. But when what both of them really wanted was to stay with each other, and see where their story might lead, I knew that's what had to happen.
I ran into them again at the inn in Gideon, and was pleased to see that they're still getting along quite well. There are some... complications, mostly revolving around him not having a physical form, but it sounds like they're making the most of what they have, and on the plus side having an invisible ghost boyfriend cuts down on the amount of awkward explaining you have to do. At least as long as people don't catch Yisara talking to herself too much.
And then there was Governor Keshu's ambassador and his... would old flame be too much of a bad pun? It's not the first battlefield romance I've seen, but I'm pretty sure it's the first one that started with a summoning. Now I'm not going to judge people who find flame atronachs attractive (too much), but at least Dremora have personalities. And if you ignore the fact that they're usually trying to kill you, I could see developing a positive working relationship with one under the right circumstances. And maybe even having that working relationship deepen into something more.
Of course, Xocin's compatriots were more focused on the usually-trying-to-kill-you part, and had serious reservations about his obsession with his summoned minion. But that didn't matter to Xocin. All he could see was the possibility of summoning his beloved back, of shortening the time it would take to recall her from the Deadlands after she had sacrificed herself for him back during the Akaviri war.
To pine for so many years, knowing his love was out of reach, and then to be tantalized with the prospect of finally being able to bring her back... it goes without saying that I couldn't question his drive to do whatever he needed to do. And so I helped him as much as I could, after his first hasty attempt had backfired and left both him and the vital ritual stone drained of magical energy. And when the compatriots had to offer their counsel about whether it was a good idea to bring an outcast Kyn to Gideon, potentially with a cohort of angry Dremora on her heels, it wasn't hard to see the value in having her insight on hand as we prepare for the inevitable showdown with Mehrunes Dagon's forces. And seeing their reactions as they stood face-to-face again, the relief and joy and love, I knew we'd made the right decision.
So, sometimes things can work out okay for people, even if you would never imagine them being a happy couple just looking at them. So yay for that.
Oh, and then there was the woman who was hoping she could still get hitched to her beau after he kind of got himself killed while he was on hallucinatory medicine. Is posthumous marriage actually a thing? Maybe I should suggest that she borrow Yisara's lantern and see if his ghost is still floating around. Orrr maybe I'll just leave that one alone.
So. Turns out there's a shrine to Nocturnal here in Blackwood. It's a modest affair, no big temple like Kilkreath, just a sitting area and a statue surrounded by creek beds. I might call it a pretty place for some quiet reflection if I didn't know whose face it was leering down from that statue.
I've been noticing the crows scattered around Blackwood, ever since the job broker in Leyawiin gave me that assignment to deal with some eggs in some old ruin. They might have been just regular old crows, just going about their business, but having Nocturnal's name in the back of my mind made me just a little warier when I saw them lurking about. And maybe it also made it easier to put off pursuing that little assignment, until I'd almost forgotten it was on my to-do list.
And then we came across the shrine and the statue. I'm not sure how I've been missing stumbling across it, since it's not that far from Leyawiin. But something over thataway caught my attention, and we went to check it out, with no idea of what waited to greet us.
What greeted us was Nocturnal, the Lady of Shadows herself, speaking through the statue at her shrine.
She wanted an audience with me. Demanded that I approach her. It wasn't a polite request.
I could feel every fiber of my being bristling. And then I heard Bastian's voice, quiet and resolute. "I'm right behind you."
He knew, of course. Why my face had hardened into stone. Why I was envisioning that statue smashed into bits. He would have been behind me, whatever I decided to do.
And so I approached her.
She didn't want to talk about Summerset. Such a petty quarrel was beneath such an eternal being, she assured me. I might have been more convinced if she hadn't been spitting insults and threats as soon as I walked up. But she had a job for me, something she needed done. Something that had been stolen from her, that she needed returned. A simple errand.
I wasn't sure whether to laugh in her face or spit in it. She really expected me to chase after some trifling chore for her, after everything she'd done? Was she going to return what had been taken from me?
I don't think I've ever turned down anyone who's asked me for help. Even when the task was distasteful, when I didn't feel good about doing it, I did it because I had been asked to. And so I wonder if she understood what it meant, when I turned my back and stomped away from her. It wasn't even worth telling her off. She could watch me go and wait forever for me to come back.
And then on the way out I passed the woman I'd spoken to when I first arrived, the acolyte who had lost Nocturnal's favor by allowing the precious relic to be stolen. Nocturnal had promised her a lifetime of sleepless nights for her failure. It wasn't expected to last for long.
Not that I needed to care about what happened to some subservient lackey to the Night Mistress. Maybe she should have chosen her masters more wisely, or done a better job living up to their expectations. Either way, not my problem.
I'm not sure how long I spent stomping through the hillsides, stopping only to smash some ore or wrest some hapless plant from the ground, with Bastian trailing silently behind me. But eventually I wore myself out, and came to rest on some dilapidated dock jutting out into the river.
It was a while longer after that when Bastian finally spoke up. "So... what do you want to do?"
I took in and let out a deep and bitter breath. "What do you think? We'll do what we always do. Find someone who actually deserves our help and help them."
His expression was troubled. I should have known that meant trouble for me. "And that woman, the acolyte... do you think there's anything we can do for her?"
I set my jaw and glared out over the water. "She made her choices. If she has to atone for her so-called sins, it's not my job to save her."
He furrowed his brow. "Ilsabet... I know how you feel, but..."
"Then you know why this whole thing is absurd. Why would she even think I would go along with this? Does she think I'm that much of a pushover? That she can just order me around like one of her devoted servants? Why does this even need to be a discussion?"
He was quiet, but I couldn't let myself feel too bad about snapping at him. He should have known how things were. How things had to be.
But that didn't stop him from trying. "But what if... it weren't about Nocturnal? What if it's about saving someone who made a mistake? Do you really think that woman deserves torment and death because she couldn't stop her friends from stealing a sickle?"
I scowled. He made it sound like some run-of-the-mill everyday blunder. The kind I'd set right countless times before.
"You wouldn't be doing this for Nocturnal," he continued. "You'd be doing it for someone Nocturnal wants to hurt. Someone you have the power to save from that fate. Isn't that worth at least trying?"
Dammit. I shouldn't have let him get to me. And I shouldn't have let him see that he was getting to me. But when I looked up at him, he had that hopeful look on his face, as if he were just waiting for me to make the right choice.
Sigh. "So what, you think I should just pretend everything is hunky-dory and skip off to do the harridan's bidding."
"Well... you don't have to be happy about it. I'm not happy about it either. But if there's a bright side to all this, then we can look to that long enough to get through it."
I sighed, and let myself indulge in another several moments of grumpiness before taking the inevitable course. "Fine. I guess we can at least go talk to her dumb friends. And if there's a necromancer involved, then we can see about stopping him. But I reserve the right to decide how far this goes."
He nodded, his face already relaxing. It was something, and it was enough for now.
And so we talked to the dumb friends, and did our best to set them on the straight and narrow, and followed the trail of the necromancer back to Bloodrun Cave. This time I didn't have anything to hide from Bastian as we skirted around the Sanctuary, and he didn't ask how I knew my way around so well. Neither of us felt any remorse about sending the necromancer to a hopefully permanent grave. And then the Shade Sickle was in my possession, and we were back to the question of what would happen next.
I answered that question before Bastian could even ask it, as soon as we stepped back out of that oppressive cave. "Fine, we'll bring it back. As long as she promises not to torture her minion, and we don't have to have anything to do with her once this is done."
It was easier to rationalize, now that I knew what the necromancer had planned to do with the tool, how he was going to use it to reap people's shadows and turn them into obedient thralls. He needed to be stopped, obviously, but if there were others who might follow in his wake, then maybe the relic was better off tucked away someplace where it could be hidden and protected. Well... assuming the dutiful lackeys could keep a better hold on the dang thing.
Nocturnal didn't bother thanking me, of course. I suppose her smug satisfaction at the fruits of my skilled labor was supposed to be thanks enough, and there was always the standard adventurer's reward to fill in the gaps. The acolyte was at least a little more grateful that I had given her an opportunity to regain her mistress' favor, even though in her mind she deserved whatever punishment Nocturnal saw fit to impose. "Faith isn't a matter of convenience," she said. And I guess she saw enough worth revering in her Prince's power and wisdom and eternalness to make up for any qualms about her less... admirable features.
Sigh. Nocturnal, Meridia, Namira... they're all so venerated by their faithful believers, even as my eyes are drawn to the selfishness and destruction and pain that surround them. And there's nothing I can really do about that.
It's unfortunate, really. If it weren't for... everything, I could actually see myself having some affinity for Nocturnal. I do like my shadows, after all, and there's certainly more than one thief who claims her patronage. But all the shadows' favor in the world won't erase the image of a corrupted sword and what it took to restore it. And that's something I don't think I'll ever stop carrying with me, no matter what the future holds for my grudging professional interactions with the Lady of Shadows.
With that little chore taken care of, I decided I didn't have a whole lot to lose by looking into that crow thing over in Arpenia. Turned out to be none other than the Blackfeather Court, having been lured by shinies into being unwitting power sources for some cultists trying to open portals into Evergloam. And they were not at all happy about it.
It probably should have been funny to me, and I can only imagine what Bastian thought, but I had no problem at all helping out these particular servants of Nocturnal. As imperious and arrogant and doofy as they are, they've established themselves as my friends. And that goes beyond whatever their mistress' designs might be, especially since as often as not they're doing their own thing anyway. So it was just natural to help them, and if helping them meant screwing over some actually-nefarious Nocturnal cultists, so much the better.
It's given me some food for thought since then, as I carried those eggs back to Leyawiin to entrust them to the lady who wanted to keep them safe until they hatched. I have... very strong feelings about certain Daedric Princes, and not much is going to change that short of some pretty drastic changes in our relationships. But just as I saw back in Kilkreath, those grudges don't have to extend to the people who happen to place their faith in those Princes. Those people, as often as not, are just looking for something to believe in, some hope that they can make their lives better. And maybe those people are just as deserving of a hero's aid as anyone else.
Bastian smiled at me, as we settled in for a well-earned drink at the tavern, out on the balcony where we could watch the sun set beyond the city walls. "You did good work today," he said, and I was too tired to give him more than a side-eyed sigh in response. But I think he knew as well as I did, that that work probably wouldn't have gotten done without him and his prodding. So... maybe this partnership thing is paying off after all.