So a stablemaster's daughter and a moon sugar farmer's son walk into a skooma smuggler's den...
That sounds about as ridiculous as it was, at least in retrospect. I guess after a certain point it's easy to forget that whether you're an Eye of the Queen or the Hero of This and That, deep down you're also still that hometown boy or girl that your family has always known. Especially if you're in your hometown with your family.
It's probably a good thing that Raz turned out to be the lazy son lounging around his mother's farmstead. I probably could have handled the skooma runners by myself, but it never hurts to have good backup. And even though he was on a much-needed break from espionage and roughing up baddies, I got the feeling that he appreciated some excitement to liven things up. But hearing the way his mother and brother and neighbors talked about him, and seeing him have to juggle the fallout from some of the less savvy choices of his younger days, it certainly painted a different picture of the sleek walker I know. Just like the sleek walker would be a pretty strange picture for the folks who knew him way back when.
I wonder if Raz will tell his family the truth about his occupation. He might have to, since that Bosmer kind of blew his cover with the message from Queen Ayrenn. It gets me thinking about what I'm going to tell everyone back home when I finally see them. I guess there isn't really a reason to hide things from them, since my being the Vestige isn't much of a state secret, but... I don't know, it just feels weird to show up out of nowhere and start going off on endless tales of derring-do. I wonder if they'd even believe half the stuff I could tell them about.
Maybe it's silly to worry about what my family would think of me. It was easy not to think about it when I'd pushed them out of my mind, but ever since I made that promise to Ian it seems like I've been noticing constant reminders of how important family can be. Even going back to Tharn and his insistence on using the correct terminology for his half-sister, and what an embarrassing blight she was on the Tharn family name. He had nothing to do with her game of tyranny, but as cool and professional as he stayed, he had a personal stake in ending it, and in the end I think preserving the integrity of that family name meant more to him than the fact that he had to kill a member of his family to do it.
That guy with all the cats in Riverhold brings up the question of how you even define family. Where some might see a pet, he saw a daughter, and meanwhile his actual daughter had no connection with him. He was okay with that, because of who she was as a person and the life choices she and her mother had made. In that case there were things that meant more than blood. (Although I'm still not convinced that guy had all of his marbles, for what that's worth.)
Then there was Ashur feeling a personal responsibility to rectify his grandfather's possible mistake, even though it had nothing to do with him and shouldn't have been any kind of reflection on his ability to do his job. It was just something he had to do, to make sure no one could ever question his family's track record.
The people of Hakoshae were more into the idea of proving their own track records by inviting their ancestors to come and judge them. Maybe that makes more of a difference when you have famous ancestors who accomplished great things. I don't even know the names of my ancestors going back that far, but I can hope that Gramma Eloise and Grampa Henri Bergeron and Nana Bette and Francis Menard are looking kindly on their granddaughter's mostly-heroic exploits after I put their names on that paper lotus.
Maybe it's just as well that I come from a humble family. Less to have to live up to, as Magnate Feina-Darak found out, and I'm pretty sure nobody's seen fit to put a curse on us. ...Now I just have to avoid getting my own curse on the rest of the Menard line, if there's going to be one. I don't even know if I can think about having kids of my own someday. I should probably avoid marrying into any royal lines where producing heirs is part of the job description, just to be safe.
I guess that'll be something for Khamira to consider somewhere down the line, after things have calmed down and she's thinking more like a monarch than a revolutionary. Her lineage is definitely the biggest part of her claim to the throne, though. Even after unseating Euraxia, she's hesitating to lay claim to the crown until the Mane can verify her identity as King Hemakar's daughter. If I had any doubts, all I needed to see was her reaction to the king and queen's reappearance as Euraxia's reanimated thralls. I couldn't imagine seeing my own parents turned against me that way, and it's no wonder that Khamira had a hard time coping with having to put them down. She pulled herself together admirably, though, and I just hope she'll be able to continue pushing herself through the trials to come.
If we do make it through this thing, we'll have some great stories for our eventual grandchildren. "Say, let me tell you about the time Granny faced down a dragon and lived to tell the tale..."
I quite enjoyed this episode, as my elf just recently completed the same N Elsweyr quests and it was all very fresh and relevant. It was a surprise to run into Raz on that farm!
Thanks for the compliment. It is nice to take a break from the angst with some lighter material.
The recurring family theme tied in especially well with Ilsabet's old life resurfacing, so I knew I had to write about Raz's visit home. I already knew that he would show up with his family at some point, but it was pretty funny putting the clues together when the farm lady was going on about her good-for-nothing lazybones son.
It seems that Euraxia wasn't the member of her regime I really needed to watch out for. As cruel as she was, and as many awful things as she did, we knew what we were getting with her. Turning Khamira's parents against her was probably the most surprising thing she did, and even then they were simply zombies for me to put down.
Zumog Phoom showed some of his cards when he broke faith with his queen, but even then betrayal isn't anything new. Neither are grand ambitions or strategic alignment with ever-stronger masters. And it could have been just more zombies waiting for us when we pursued the necromancer to his sanctum. But no, he had something more insidious in store. And it didn't take long for me to see just how he planned to break our little band of would-be heroes and even use us as fuel for his dark ritual.
The great weapon that Phoom wielded against us was not some undead monstrosity, but our own regret. And after seeing what he did to Prefect Calo and Zamarak and Tharn, I expected my own personal confrontation. How many souls could he have called back to remind me of my failures? I told myself, as we progressed further into the lair, to be ready for the attempt. To steel myself against whatever former friends or forsaken innocents might come before me. Even... even if it was him, wasting away while I distract myself from my inability to save him. No matter who it was, I had to stay strong in the face of despair.
But it was General Nala-do who was waiting to meet us in the fourth chamber. Phoom had summoned her spirit back, but she had rebuffed and struck down the lackey who tried to turn her into a tool. He must have expected Khamira to accompany us, and wanted to taunt her with the general's sacrifice. It might have been effective, given Khamira's emotional state after the confrontation with Euraxia, but Nala-do was strong enough to keep that from being an option.
I'm not sure whether to be relieved that I didn't have to face my regrets, or a little bit miffed that Phoom apparently didn't think I was worth the trouble to tempt. That's the pride and spite talking, I know. It's easy to feel that way when I know the danger of being tormented has passed. It's easy to imagine that I could have made a difference if I'd been given the chance to prove my resolve.
Maybe he just wanted to strip my allies away, believing that I'd be easy to take down alone. Or maybe it was torment enough to make me lose one more friend. He probably would have enjoyed watching my reaction to seeing Cadwell disintegrate into ash, right at the moment when I thought I'd saved him.
I should have made a bigger deal out of helping Cadwell and stopping the necromancers from digging up the parts of his body. Nobody else seemed to care, until it was too late. Maybe they were preoccupied with the rebellion, but I should have been able to do something. It was obvious that the bad guys were up to no good and we'd have to stop them eventually. So why not at least try to get to a body part or two before they did? Why not use Cadwell's visions to get a jump on our enemies? Why did we have to wait until the last possible moment to try to help my friend, and why did it end up not even mattering in the end?
This is going to be my challenge now, not being held back by this new regret. I need to be strong enough to go after the evil that remains, knowing that the real Cadwell would be just as determined to take down his old self. I'll fight even harder on his behalf.
Of course he's back. Of course he's fine. He's made of chaotic creatia. All he needed to do was reform in Coldharbour and he's good as new. How did I forget that that's how it works?
Of course it helped that I managed to take down his double at about the same time he was putting himself back together. He and Khamira weren't wrong about the Betrayer's strength and skill with a blade. But I think the Betrayer underestimated how rusty he'd be and how strong his foes might have become in the millennia since he last saw action. Or maybe he was so focused on chasing the power in front of him that he paid too little mind to the shadows creeping up behind him.
Either way, I beat him. I'd like to say I stopped him, but Khamira and I weren't able to reverse the moon-trajectory that he set into motion. And so it remains for us to race the dragons to the seat of Jode's Core, and do whatever we can to keep them from reclaiming what was stolen from them so long ago.
At least Khamira will have the ancient hero Anequina on her side. I wish I could have seen more of the memories the Lunar Lattice shared with her, but just watching the subtle transformation as she became more and more attuned was kind of fascinating in itself. To be connected so intimately with so much history, to feel that kinship with those who came before her, as the spirit-visions coalesced and clarified, I could see her growing more... whole. She may still be processing what she saw and figuring out how to use the abilities that the moons' resonance awakened in her, but I have no doubt that the gift of her ancestors will make all the difference in the confrontations to come.
And I'll be standing with her, as long as she needs me to clear the path. For now that means rounding up the rest of our heroic band, and then we'll see what awaits us at Anequina's Moon Gate.
I should keep a list of the places I've been to that weren't quite on Nirn. Coldharbour, the Colored Rooms, the Far Shores, Artaeum, Clockwork City... and now, the Plane of Jode.
Were we actually standing on the moon? I’m not sure I've ever imagined what the moons would be like to actually go to. Maybe we were on the inside of the moon, since "core" sounds like it would be in the center. But there was a sky, or something like it, awash in vivid oranges and purples, although it mostly served as a backdrop for the dragons flying around and calling down lightning storms on our heads.
It was probably wishful thinking that we'd be able to get the Moon Gate closed before the dragons barged through. We would have had a fight on our hands either way, since I doubt they would have been happy to have the door slammed in their faces. But it almost seems more fitting that this was how it went, to have that mystical backdrop for the final battle to save Elsweyr.
That's a strange way to think about things, isn't it? Having just fought a desperate battle with a dragon that only succeeded because of the support of my allies and the power of an ancient relic, it's not the desperation or the heat of combat that's stayed with me. It's imagery, sensations, awareness of the people around me. Maybe that's the adrenaline having worn off, but even in the midst of battle I had the feeling that things would be all right as long as I stayed focused and steady. Tharn's protective wards would be there when I needed them. Khamira would find the way to move the moons. The Dragonhorn wouldn't shatter the moment I blew it. None of those things were certain in the moment, but there was a certain faith swirling around us, as if the will of Jode itself was buoying us.
And now, as I look around the faces assembled in the throne room, it's easy to acknowledge the part they each played in helping us secure victory. But my thoughts are drawn more to the personal side of what it means for each of them to be here. Zamarak finally finding the resolve to unsheathe his claws and become a leader among soldiers, and finding his place as a Claw to the Queen he's always sought to protect. Cadwell discovering his old self and putting his infamous past to rest. Prefect Calo staying true to his own sense of honor, even if it meant finding creative ways to disobey the despots in charge, and trying to bridge the chasm of distrust between Imperial and Khajiit. Lord Gharesh-ri finally seeing his ward take her rightful place on the throne of Rimmen, after years of uncertainty and turmoil.
We're all here now, in this palace we reclaimed, and for a little while at least the work can give way to celebration. This isn't the first coronation I've been to, but it's certainly a lot fancier than the impromptu crowning back in Rivenspire. Khamira's working the gown-and-headdress look pretty well, considering how annoyed she was about having to trade in her leathers, and fortunately I managed to find something a little more formal than armor or a leather minidress so I don't look too out of place.
Raz showed up too, and chided me for not asking for help with the dragon situation. I had wondered why he wasn't getting involved, but it didn't occur to me that he was waiting for an invitation. Queen Ayrenn wanted him on the scene here to make sure nothing unfortunate happens with the transition in leadership, so I guess his vacation time is over.
Notably absent from the festivities is one Abnur Tharn. He said he hates pomp and parties, but he was also troubled by a message he received from the Mane. It may be that Kaalgrontiid was not defeated as soundly as we had thought, but Tharn won't know for sure until he does some nosing around down south.
I'll let him decide whether he needs me to provide further heroics. For now, though, I think my mission is going to be seeing if I can get Prefect Calo to demonstrate some of his Khajiiti dance moves.
Bonus Entry: Fanfic of the Fanfic
If I Wrote In-Game Dialogue Designed Specifically to Break My Own Character
So I was thinking again about that quest where Phoom uses people's regret against them, and how Ilsabet expected him to try it with her too. Obviously in an MMO there isn't going to be a scene tailored to an individual player character, but... what if there could be? That got me imagining how such a scene might go, and then I grabbed a pencil, which is where things really get dangerous.
And so: Picture, if you will, the dark recesses of Zumog Phoom's lair...
[Leaving the exhausted Cadwell leaning against the doorframe, Ilsabet ventures cautiously into the next room. It seems to be empty, but then a shimmering cloud appears - and along with it, the ghostly form of Darien Gautier. He's wearing the ragged remnants of the Golden Knight's vestments, and his features are haggard. He looks at her with morose eyes as she comes to speak with him.]
- Well... this isn't quite where I imagined we'd meet again.
- Darien... Is it really you? You're alive?
- I can't tell if I'm alive or dead anymore. It's dark... so dark...
- Hold on, Darien. Just tell me where you are. I'll come for you. I swear I'll save you.
- You know, I once thought you were the only one who could save me. After what you told me, I thought... Maybe that's why I did it. I gave myself for you, you know. Because I thought you would do the same for me.
- I would. You know I would.
- It's easy for you to say that. Do you know how cold it's been? How empty? Just waiting there in the dark... and you never came. Because it was easier to run away, wasn't it. Easier to distract yourself with something new.
- Darien... I did try...
- You made some pitiable attempts and then turned your back on me. I see now, you only wanted what I could give you. When it really mattered, you failed me. That "love" of yours was just a lie. Everything you've ever done, it was all for nothing!
- No... I wanted to save you...
[Ilsabet.exe has stopped responding.]
And then probably something realistic and sensible would need to happen, like one of the other party members showing up and killing the ghostie to free her from the ritual battery, and then she'd give herself a pep talk about pushing past the regret because there's a quest that needs finishing.
But... no, this is a fanfic of the fanfic, so we're going all in.
[As Ilsabet emotionally collapses, Ghost Darien grins cruelly and reaches out to pull her into the cloud of siphoning energy. But just then, a dimly-glimmering portal fades into existence and the semi-corporeal form of actual Darien flies out and punches his ghost double right in the face. His fist sends a luminescent ripple through the apparition, disintegrating it.]
Darien Gautier: That's enough out of you!
[He dusts his hands off and turns to the Vestige, his face marked with concern.]
- Hey, are you all right?
- D... Darien?
- For someone so handsome, that guy sure was a jerk. Don't pay any attention to that nonsense he was spouting.
- But... he was right. I couldn't save you.
- Hey. I know you tried. I heard you calling for me. I would've liked to call back, but... complications.
- Then... are you...
[His form begins to gently flicker.]
- I'm going back now. I'm not even really sure why I'm here, actually. I felt some kind of pull, and then... there you were, all in distress. You're good to go from here, right?
- I... yes. Thank you.
- Glad I could help, somehow. Never forget, I believe in you.
- I won't. Be well, Darien.
[With one last encouraging grin, Darien and the portal fade away.]
With renewed determination, Ilsabet proceeds onward to kick ass and take names. (I guess technically she still loses Cadwell, but that turns out okay like an hour later.)
And... scene. We now return to your regularly scheduled canon headcanon.
I finally made good on that promise to Ian. The internal struggle between nervousness and longing kept me away longer than it probably should have, but eventually I knew that I needed to just go. After all, if Raz could handle going back to see his family, I could too, right?
I wonder how many times I've crisscrossed Glenumbra, always subconsciously avoiding that certain patch of woods. I knew where it was, though, and how to get there, and it wasn't long before things started looking a little bit familiar. It's not like I knew every tree in that forest, of course, but there's a certain cast to the color of the grass, the shape of the hillocks, the scent of the moss clinging to the trees. Something that just feels like home.
I didn't meet anyone along the way, until I was actually on the main path leading into town. I heard frantic barking, and then a tawny-colored dog came bounding toward me, swiftly followed by a young man wearing leather armor with a bow strapped to his back.
"Hey, easy, Dais, easy. It's just a traveler. You don't have to -" He stopped short when he caught better sight of me, and his eyes widened.
I just smiled at him. "Hi, Jacob."
I didn't have to guess who I was looking at this time, but the years had left even more of a mark on the younger Richard brother. He'd gone through a pretty substantial growth spurt, and some of his more babyfaced features had evened out. He was missing the scruffy almost-beard that Ian had sported, and as I got a better look at him, I had to admit that he looked pretty respectable in his ranger leathers.
"Ilsabet..." he murmured, and after another moment of indecisive hesitation he strode toward me. He stopped a few paces away, and stood there rubbing the back of his neck. "You actually came. Ian said you would, but..."
"Yeah. I had some things to take care of first, but... I'm here."
"Well... you... you're coming into town, right? Your pa and ma know you're coming?"
"Not yet. I wasn't sure when I'd make it over here, so... I figured I'd just come."
"Well... I'll come with, then. I'm supposed to be on patrol, but..."
We headed toward town together, and I caught him sneaking surreptitious glances at me as we went. The dog hopped along right beside me, and I had to be careful not to let her trip me up as I did my best to pat her on the head. "I'm surprised Daisy remembers me. She wasn't even a year old last I saw her."
"You ain't an easy person to forget," Jacob replied.
I had to take a moment when the tree line gave way to buildings, just to take it all in. There was a dream I had once, wasn't there? Coming back to this place, seeing it all appear before me again? But it was real this time, drifting down that main thoroughfare, and I could see the faces of the people who turned to look as I passed. I was really here, really home.
The place seemed so much smaller than it used to, when the boys and I used to race from one end of town to the other and I could never quite make it the whole way without getting winded. But there everything was, right where it was supposed to be, houses and shops and gardens and animal pens, just like I'd left them. Except - right there, where the Bissonets' house was, looked like a bough finally came down off of that big ol' hickory tree and caved in the roof. And over there, the Thurstons' rabbit warren, they'd definitely built that bigger than it was before. Or were they using it as a chicken coop now?
As I walked, memories came back to me, awareness of a place I'd barely thought of in all this time but apparently had never really lost. And then, there was the stable, and the house, and Ma's little scraggly patch of flowers out front.
I don't even remember what I said as I stood in the doorway. I mostly just remember the looks on my parents' faces when they saw me, and then a giant blur of what came after.
Ma cried, and then I cried, and eventually Pa cried too. The whole thing was a jumble of crying and hugging and blubbering and thanking the Divines and it was a long while before we all settled down enough to do any real talking.
When Ma came to her senses, she of course insisted that I sit myself down and have something to eat, since I must be half-starved after coming all this way and the pot of stew was almost ready anyway. Of course she was so discombobulated that Pa had to sit her down and do the dishing out himself.
By this point some of the neighbors had gotten word and come around, and Jacob had fetched Ian and their ma and pa. They all oohed and aahed over my armor, and Pa reckoned I must be a pretty good shot now with a bow like that, and Ranger Richard seemed kind of proud reminiscing about my first lessons with him and the boys.
They all of course wanted to know about Elsweyr, and if the rumors about dragons were really true, and any attempt at a carefully rehearsed narrative quickly devolved into answering scattershot questions and demonstrating dragon mannerisms. I'm not sure if everyone believed that I'd actually killed a dragon, but the wide-eyed looks on the faces of the younger kids and my pa's "that's my girl" expression were all the validation I really needed.
Through it all, as the room filled up and faces came and went past the open door, Ian just stood back against the wall with his arms folded, watching my display with a small smile on his face. He let other people ask the questions, but my answers were directed as much to him as to anyone. He wanted to know where I'd been, what I'd been up to, and while there were a whole lot of adventures that I never got around to mentioning, I hope he was satisfied with what he got to hear.
He told me later, privately, that he hasn't said anything to Ma and Pa or anybody else about me having a man. I was a little bit surprised, since it would be kind of a big news item to share, but maybe he didn't want to put himself on the spot having to field all of their inevitable questions. Or maybe keeping it quiet will make it seem less real. I was glad for it, at any rate, since I had more than enough to contend with already without trying to figure out how to explain Darien to Ma.
She did pull me aside at one point, though, and without being too obvious about it, she made some comment about it being nice to see both me and Ian back home and how he's been shaping up quite nicely since he's been back, even though when he first turned up he was awfully disheveled, but she thinks if he just had someone looking after him properly he'd turn out to be a fine young man, unless of course I'd come across an even finer young man somewhere in all my travels...
That's about where I cut her off, with the observation that I really wasn't ready to settle down yet, and being out on the road so much meant I wasn't exactly in the market for a husband. She gave me sort of a look, like she was trying to decide how much of an excuse that was, and then she let up and said she reckoned I still had time before I needed to get serious.
I'm still not sure if I was right not to say anything about Darien. It occurs to me that I've never actually talked to anyone about him, aside from that awkward conversation with Ian back in Daggerfall. Maybe it would be nice to have someone to share my thoughts and feelings with, who might be as excited about him as I am. I mean I can just imagine telling Ma about my brave knight, former captain of the Camlorn guard and stalwart of the Fighters Guild, who swept me off my feet with his heroism and charm as we saved the world together.
...Except then it would come around to the part where we're not actually officially a couple, and I may not ever see him again, and I don't even really know if he's still alive, and... yeah, it's better that I didn't even say anything.
It was getting dark outside by the time Ma shooed the last of my dwindling audience out the door so that I could get some rest. It didn't occur to me until I was sitting at the table watching her spoon the last of the stew into a bowl just how exhausting a full day of storytelling could be.
Pa came back in from bedding down the horses just as Ma was getting everything set out. They both sat across from me, contenting themselves with some bread and cheese. "Next time let me know ahead to make more stew," was Ma's only comment on the mismatched meals.
After a day of recounting grand tales of adventure, and somehow coming up with answers to a host of questions from a large and inquisitive audience, the hardest things to say turned out to be the most obvious things that should have been said, to the two people who most deserved to hear them. I probably should have just come right out and apologized, for waiting so long to come home, for never reaching out to them, for not even letting them know I wasn't dead. And the words tumbled around in my mind, trying to set themselves right, as we sat there watching each other eat and Ma shared bits of gossip about how everyone in town was doing these days.
They must have seen something in my face, at the moment when I was about to try, when I was finally taking that deep breath. It was Pa who spoke first. "Ilsabet," he said, in that deep tone that always meant he was about to say something serious and I'd better pay attention.
"I'm sure I don't need to tell you it's been hard, feeling like we'd lost you," he began, and I felt my insides tightening. "The Divines don't give us the foresight to look ahead, but they sure don't stop us from looking back. I thought it was about time you learned some responsibility. Got over that fear of yours. That's what I told myself, just that morning. And I was glad when you agreed to go. Maybe a little proud, even. Like you were finally gonna grow up a little."
The furrows on his brow deepened, and he tapped his bread crust against the side of his dish. "The only thing I've been able to think since then, is I'd have broken my own ankle riding to Aldcroft, ten times over, if it'd meant not making you take that ride. If things - anything - had been different, you'd have still been here."
"It wasn't your fault..." I said, sounding much feebler than when I'd said the same thing to Ian.
"No. It wasn't any of our faults, but some no-account moor bandits and whichever higher power decided to toy with us that day. And the bandits paid for their end of it."
I let myself smile a little. "I know. Ian told me about that."
Pa nodded. "That don't stop any of us from feeling what we feel, though. And it hasn't been a good feeling. So..." He gave the bread two more taps, and then laid it down on the dish. "I'm glad I don't have to feel that way anymore. I'm glad I can sit here and look at my little girl. And more than that, I can see she really has grown up. But... not because she got over herself about riding a horse."
"I can ride horses," I said, maybe a little too quickly, but it got a bit of a grin out of him.
"You can do much more than that," he said. "And I just want you to know I'm proud of you. Maybe it would've been better if you'd never gone, but if that's how it had to be, I'll take having you back, how you turned out to be. It sure does help knowing things are gonna be better from now on."
I really didn't know what to say to that, as the tears threatened to well up in my eyes again. If the table hadn't been in the way, I might have wanted to throw myself into his arms.
Then Ma spoke up, quietly. "Of course, you might have found some time here or there to write a letter to your mother..."
"Marlene..." Pa said, and they exchanged looks that told me they'd talked about this.
She might not have been wrong, but it seemed like a good time for taking the high road. "How about I do better with that from now on? If... I have any more exciting adventures, I can be sure to write to you about them?"
Ma turned to me. "More adventures? You're planning on leaving again?"
"Well... not right away, necessarily. I don't have any immediate plans, I mean as long as the dragons don't decide to come right back and take everything over again."
"I thought you took care of the dragons?"
"Well, most of them, we think, but there's a chance..." I sighed. "It's not something you need to worry about right now. I doubt anyone's gonna come chasing after me to go right back to Elsweyr."
"Mm-hmm." Ma didn't seem entirely convinced, or satisfied, but Pa briskly clapped his hands together.
"Well then, I guess I'd better get your room cleared out, so you can get a good night's sleep," he said, getting up from the table. "We left everything where it was, but we needed a place to put a few things, so..."
I followed Pa back to the ladder that led to what qualified as my room, as Ma busied herself cleaning up supper, and he handed down the various sacks and boxes and odd bits of tack that he'd stashed away within arm's reach up there. And then, after leaving the bulk of my armor and gear down below and taking care of evening ablutions, with one last goodnight hug for each of them, I retired to my bedchambers.
...And by bedchambers, I mean the little triangle-shaped nook that you might call an attic if you were feeling charitable. The space wasn't really good for anything but storage, but I'd claimed it for myself as soon as I was old enough to have a say in where I slept. It was my den, my domain, the hideaway for all of the little treasures I amassed in my adventures.
I still remembered exactly where to put my feet so the rungs wouldn't creak so much as I climbed up, but I didn't duck quite far enough to keep my hair from snagging on that rough wooden beam. The hook for the lantern was still there, and thankfully Ma had shaken out the bedroll while I was washing up.
I've slept in more different places than I could count, and most of them were not what you'd call luxurious. As often as not I don't even have a roof over my head when I make camp for the night. As I lay there, in that room that I've spent more nights in than any other place, there was a strange sense of dissonance about it. This place was familiar, but it almost seemed like I'd grown bigger since I was here last. Having the roof so close over my head, barely enough room to wiggle my toes against the frayed seams of the bedroll... The space felt confined, confining. But it was also... mine.
It was kind of fun in the morning, admiring those old treasures and reminiscing about my various acquisitions. I thought about taking some of them with me, but it seemed right for the things that were part of my home to stay in my home. I don't really need more stuff to carry around, for one thing. And most of them are just silly knickknacks, not worth much even to look at, but they were important to the person I was. They were her treasures, so they should stay in her den.
I stayed in bed later than I usually do, well after I started hearing Ma and Pa moving around down below. I was a little surprised that Pa didn't call me down to help with morning chores, but at least this time I didn't have to hide in my bedroll and pretend to still be asleep to get out of starting work. The smell of sizzling bacon finally drew me out, though, and I wonder if that was by design or Ma just figured I could use a hearty breakfast whenever I got around to rousting myself.
As I creaked my way down the ladder, I heard Pa calling from the front room. "Ilsa? Who's Kasura?"
This was followed by a loud shushing sound, and I walked in to see Ma tugging at a paper Pa was holding. She froze when she saw me, and I just sighed and held out my hand.
I should probably just accept that pretty much anyone can find me if they really want to. At least it's usually messengers and not assassins or constables. I also need to stop saying I don't have plans to do things that somebody somewhere is going to decide I ought to be doing.
At least it's only Daggerfall this time, and not all the way back to Elsweyr. Yet. The dragons are indeed still a problem, so it's only a matter of time before I'm on my way back there. Hopefully armed with whatever ancient Dragonguard wisdom Kasura and I are able to dig up at this tomb she found.
I did get to enjoy the nice breakfast Ma made, and I promised again that I'd write more often and come back to visit when I could, and Ian came by with a quiverfull of arrows that he'd fletched for me just as I was getting my things packed up again. He of course was dismayed that I was leaving so soon, but Ma shrewdly suggested that he walk me to the edge of the forest once it was clear that she couldn't put off my departure any longer.
He was pretty quiet most of the way, until the buildings had given way to trees and the dirt road to thinning patches of grass.
He stopped walking then, and turned to me. "Hey, Ilsabet, before you go... I want you to know that I've been doing a lot of thinking. I'm glad you came, first of all. I mean we all are, but... I'm glad you didn't forget. Or... feel like... maybe it would be better if you stayed away."
I nodded. I might have still had some regrets, but coming here wasn't one of them.
"And..." He took a deep breath. "I know how things must have seemed before, when I found you. I realized afterward how I must have... well, it's not really what I would have wanted you to think of me. And... I want you to know..."
He was struggling to find the words again, but this time I didn't feel moved to cut him off. I waited, wanting to know what he so genuinely wanted to say.
Finally he looked up at me. "I know you never belonged to me. And I'm okay with that, if that's how you want it to be. And I see now... you don't belong to us anymore either." He gestured back toward the town. "And that's okay too. But... I hope that we can still belong to you. Even just a little. Even if the world out there is way bigger than our little corner of it, you'll always have a home here."
Tears stung my eyes, and I quickly blinked them away.
"I think I understand that now. Better than I did. It's... a good thing to know."
He smiled softly and nodded. "Oh, and one more thing. I hope he comes back to you. Soon."
"Yeah... me too."
He held out his hand. "Fare thee well, Ilsabet the Hero."
I clasped his hand, and we stood looking at each other, and then I moved closer and hugged him. "Thank you, Ian. And tell everybody else, I said thank you."
I felt him let out a breath. "Whatever we can do for you, we'll be here," he said quietly. "I'll be here."
Our parting wasn't awkward this time, or unsettled. It was maybe a little wistful, and I could see those embers still burning in his eyes as he watched me go. But he'd found whatever peace he needed with our situation. And I'd found peace too, knowing that I had a very good friend back home, along with loving parents and any number of other friends and acquaintances who wished me nothing but good fortune.
I still don't know where all the river will take me, or when I'll have another breather to make my way back there. But I'll carry the awareness of that place with me, that little corner of Glenumbra, a beacon of love no longer hidden in the recesses of my memory.
Just in case anyone wonders what some of these incidental backstory characters look like, I totally didn't go overboard creating them on my alt account and setting up photo shoots this week. oh lord I spent so much time on this please send help
It must be really boring being a dragon. Not the ones flying around wrecking stuff, but the ones who just sit in their lairs for centuries and never go anywhere or do anything or see anyone. Do they just spend all their time admiring their treasures and thinking about how great they are? Do they secretly hope that some would-be dragonslayer or hapless kwama miner will wander in to provide some excitement? Maybe if you live as long as they do, a few centuries of downtime doesn't seem like a big deal. It would get you a good solid nap, that's for sure.
On another note, this grapple bow is the most fun thing ever. Why did we not have these before now? I probably didn't look very dignified careening around the rooftops after my training was technically over, but I don't care. If the Dragonguard could only leave one thing behind, this would make their whole legacy worthwhile. I mean I guess that special Dragonhorn is a big deal too, but I'll let Sai be excited over that. He's the one who gets to carry it around and use it, anyway.
I'm glad I did spend some time down on the ground here at the Abbey of Blades. They've come a long way restoring the place after Mannimarco's attack, but there's a lot of work left to do. Kasura is keeping up with mentoring some new students, though, and I could sense their determination to keep the school's spirit alive.
I also discovered a very interesting little shrine, featuring a rather familiar big axe. Lyris did indeed join Sai at the Abbey after the Companions dispersed, and just as I had hoped they were very happy together. Then she was suddenly gone, moved to take on some new mission on her own. I can see how much Sai misses her, even as he trusts the necessity of her departure, and it may be that leaving her axe behind shows her intention to come back and reclaim it. She did really love that axe, after all, almost as much as she loves Sai.
There's a nice quiet patch of land beyond the lake, across from what's left of the buildings. I wonder if the two of them ever went over there and just sat together. Seems like that would be a nice thing to do.
I'd better not get too comfortable with my pensive musings here, though. Duty calls to me, just as it did to Lyris. Maybe I'll get in a few rounds with a shovel before I go.
I know I complained about the dry heat back in Anequina, but I was not expecting it to be raining buckets when I arrived in the port of Senchal. It makes it a lot harder to get acquainted with a city when I'm dashing from shelter to shelter and can barely hear what people are saying over the torrential pounding.
Fortunately it let up pretty quickly, but as I finally progressed past the docks, there was a pervasive smell of moss and mustiness that never really went away. It was more than just the effects of humidity and exposure to sea air. Senchal, as I soon discovered, is a city risen from its own ashes that hasn't quite been able to wipe away the grimy residue of its ravaged past.
I suppose it's a testament to resilience that the city is even still here. Having a devastating plague sweep through is bad enough, but the panic-driven fires that followed burned out more than just the infection. When the same thing happened during the Thrassian Plague, the entire city had to be rebuilt. This time, though, there was just enough for the survivors to cling to, and even though many of the old societal structures were wiped away (including the actual royal family of Pellitine), people found ways to continue to survive. Many of which were not what you'd call above-board.
Pellitine was long considered the more civilized and sophisticated half of Elsweyr, at least by the people who lived there. I suppose that makes it all the more ironic that the place has fallen into such a lawless state. It didn't help that the Empire's attempt to provide aid went haywire with the fall of the Empire. What remains, though, is the closest thing the city has to upholding law and order: the Shields of Senchal.
Imperial bureaucracy is certainly alive and well here. You can't just walk in to ask for a ship when you need to sail to an island to confront a dragon that might wander over and toast Senchal at any moment. There are forms to fill out, and appointments to schedule, and you'd better hope you're important enough to even qualify for a few minutes of the boss man's time.
Or, if you're resourceful and in a hurry, there's always stealing, bribing, and forgery. A great start for any heroic mission.
If you want stuff stolen without anybody noticing, though, I got you covered. And I only smirked a little bit when the harbormaster groused about Bretons thinking they can get away with anything.
So that got us into the room with General Renmus, the leader of the Shields of Senchal. Although I guess his official rank is general of the Thirteenth Imperial Legion. He seems to be doing the best he can keeping things running without orders from on high. Reminds me a bit of Prefect Calo and the Cygnus Irregulars, minus the technically-in-charge tyrant. But Renmus definitely takes his job seriously, even if it's debatable what his job actually is.
As far as he was concerned, his job did not include handing a ship over to a couple of total strangers on a suicide mission to go fight a dragon. He needed all of his resources in the city, just in case that city needed to be defended. Even if - especially if - it was from a dragon.
I guess I shouldn't say total strangers, actually. He knew very well who Sai Sahan was. And he had some pointed things to say about Sai's failure to protect the emperor they had both served. Sai handled it graciously enough, and I mostly held my tongue, but it did seem like a pretty snide way to treat someone who still regrets that failure more than anyone else.
And so now we're on our own, considering less above-board means of procuring a ship. General Renmus' daughter actually had some ideas and some contacts for us to look into, so that's at least a start. And hopefully the dragon won't fly over and toast us in the meantime.
So, Meridia is a collector of people. That might explain a few things. I've never heard her described as the Lady of Greed before, but this Bruccius fellow who handles job brokering in Senchal had quite a bit to say on the topic. It was kind of interesting to find someone who didn't espouse the usual reverence for the benevolent Lady of Light. I stayed noncommittal, of course, and I think the man was too preoccupied with his bum knees to notice any special interest I might have taken in paying a visit to a Meridian temple.
And so, another guardian to kill, another statue to shout at. She ignored it all, of course. She probably doesn't even pay attention to such a run-down temple, if she even knows it exists. It was almost sad to look at it, the statue, all covered with moss and neglect like so much of the environs here. There weren't any worshippers or attendants that I could see, just the radiant-armored Auroran servant dutifully going through its appointed motions.
I should have known better than to think I'd get anywhere there. I didn't think I would, really, but it's hard to keep my pulse from quickening when an illusion of opportunity appears.
I found out after I collected my bounty that the old temple is called the Shrine of the Reforged. I haven't decided yet if that's somebody's idea of a sick joke. Maybe I'll choose to just let it remind me of the one reforged lightbringer who really matters.
So I met my friend Zhasim from Wrothgar who was an Orc but he's actually a Khajiit, and he's come down to Pellitine to work with his (Khajiit) mother's family in the moon sugar trade. Blah blah thieves and smugglers and skooma, but the important part is that he found a lady he really likes, and she likes him too, and IT IS ADORABLE. Seriously, it does my heart good to see two people just genuinely drawn to each other without the angst and the sacrifices and whatever else usually makes these things go horribly wrong. Those thieves didn't stand a chance once I realized what was really at stake here. I mean I would have taken care of them anyway, and saving an honest merchant's business and thwarting skooma-runners is always a noble endeavor, but I was not about to let these jerks ruin my friend's chances of getting together with a woman who's clearly as smitten with him as he is with her. And now they're going to go on the road together and learn more about each other's cultures and his uncle is super happy for them and I might actually start giggling. So I'd better get back after those dragons or whatever before I embarrass all of us.
Knowing you're going to lose someone doesn't make it any easier to let them go, does it. Even if you've known right from the start that that was how it was going to end.
I know I've asked myself before, would I have let myself fall for Darien so completely if I'd known that I would lose him? After everything that's happened, I'd still have a hard time giving it all up just to spare myself some heartache. I can say that, though, with the benefit of hindsight, knowing just what I'd be giving up. Ka'ishka made her commitment to the man who captured her heart before she knew how sweet their life together would be, trusting that it would be worth that eventual inevitable heartache.
There's something brave about that. And Ka'ishka stayed brave, when her love needed her most, when the time came for his lifelong illness to finally claim his life.
There was more to it than that, of course. I wouldn't have gotten involved here in Black Heights if it had simply been one man's quiet passage to the afterlife. There was a darkness hiding at the threshold of that passage, just waiting for Vijari to step close enough to hear its drumbeat in his heart. Fortunately, Ka'ishka had sensed something drawing her mate away, something that didn't feel quite right. And she had reached out for help to make sure that his final journey to Khenarthi's embrace would be unimpeded.
I almost didn't recognize Adara'hai until she reminded me of the cleansing of the Temple of Seven Riddles. That seems so long ago, but her cantor's voice is just as strong as ever. And we needed it, to drown out Lorkhaj's drums and still the disquiet in Vijari's soul. It was a strong force that pulled him toward the Great Darkness - not just the insatiable greed of Namiira, or the irresistible rhythm of the Bent Dance, but something perhaps even stronger: a father's love.
As terrible as it is to lose a wife or husband or lover, losing a child must be even more terrible. And so after Vijari's father lost his wife, and knew that his son would be next to succumb to their inherited disease, his soul was desperate. He would do anything to save the ones he loved, but he couldn't do it. Not without help. That help was generously and alluringly provided by the purring voice of Namiira, offering him a home where he and his son could be together forever. All he had to do was pour his bitterness and anguish into the pigments of his legacy, and then wait for Vijari to join him at the Wall of Life.
There's a kind of love that's at home in darkness, wanting only to keep and possess. But there's also a love that seeks to give. A light that shines brightest when the darkness is at its most overwhelming. And that's the power that ultimately cleansed the Wall of Life and brought Khenarthi's sweet breath back to this place. A man barely strong enough to stand was able to paint over the Great Darkness with vibrant shades of hope and faith. Not just for himself, but for something greater. For Ka'ishka and all of the others who would be walking the pilgrim's path after him. That's the kind of love that drove Vijari, right up to his final breath.
Part of me wishes we could have reclaimed Vijari's father the way Shando-ri reclaimed Arum-Khal. But letting his father go was part of what Vijari had to do. He understood the love in his father's heart, and he forgave him for what that love led him to do. Perhaps, even if the darkness in that heart was too far gone, that small wisp of light will count for something.
The Wall of Life really is lovely. I'm still not sure how to interpret the dots and swirls as life stories, but just taking it all in tells a sweeping story in itself. And that's not a story that's going to end any time soon.
Skordo sure has a knack for getting caught up in some really unpleasant business. Between the racists and wrecked ships back in Wrothgar, and now this people-hunting skullduggery, it's making me wish for a good quiet tavern.
I mean who decides to hunt people for sport? Hunting animals and monsters is sport enough for most folks. Speaking as someone who's killed more than my share of people, I can't even really see the allure of it. If you wanted the extra challenge of an opponent closer to your own level, you could become a bounty hunter or a soldier or something. At least try to have something approaching a reason for it.
But... that's actually part of the point, isn't it. The people who signed on for Lady G's "excursions" weren't looking for someone on their own level. They weren't even necessarily looking for a challenge. They were looking for easy pickings, so they could feel big and bad while they were taking potshots at cowering Khajiit. When getting muck on your boots upsets you more than murdering people, it's probably time to reevaluate your values.
I'm actually kind of surprised Skordo was considered such a prime catch, considering that even unarmed he could have put any one of those milksops into the ground. I suppose a certain amount of challenge was enough of a selling point that Lady G found it worth the risk to her clientele.
As savvy as she was at business, though, Lady G must have skipped "spotting an obvious setup" day at bad guy school. I figured she had me pegged when I super-conveniently turned up with a big tough Orc to replace the big tough Orc her lackeys had lost, but letting me join her hunt turned out not to be the trap it probably should have been. I didn't even pull my usual stealth ambush maneuver when I moseyed into her lounge to confront her. It was only sporting to let her show me what she could do, after all. Unfortunately for her, that wasn't much.
It was maybe a little less sporting to let my poisoned arrow finish her off instead of going for a nice clean kill. But nobody said I couldn't make her suffer just a little, the way she'd made so many others suffer. I just wish we could have freed more of them before the hunt came to an end.
On the plus side, if there is a plus side, this whole ordeal gave me the opportunity to see Skordo in the closest thing to a dress that he'll ever wear, and overhear his attempt to make highbrow small talk with a nobleman. That was more of an ordeal for him than it was for me, of course, but he actually pulled it off remarkably well. My sneaking and pilfering might have taken slightly longer than necessary just to prolong the entertainment, but don't tell him I said so.
He was right that Darien would have laughed himself silly if he could have seen us. I mentioned Darien to him, after he told me that story I'm not allowed to repeat, and he said he'd heard about what happened in Summerset. I guess the news has gotten out, then, at least a little. Hopefully that means someone's gotten to Gabrielle, wherever she is.
Skordo's got a new traveling companion for the rest of his time in Elsweyr, a feisty little Alfiq who will hopefully manage to keep him out of trouble. As long as nobody calls him a Soup Spoon, they should be okay.
Hum hum, a cult full of people convinced that they'll be promoted to some glorious state of being once their evil overlords take over and kill everybody else. Why does that sound familiar? Seems like I might have done this pretending to want to join the cult to learn what they're really up to thing before, too. Did it go better the first time? I'm pretty sure it did. I don't remember having to sprint out of that temple with a flying death machine frosting my backside. At least I saved someone from getting sucked into the cult, and nobody asked me to kill my partner. So it... could have gone worse?
We did get some valuable intel, too. This Laatvulon and his dragon cronies using this green aeonstone stuff to siphon power from their followers is a pretty big takeaway. And we know where they're going to hit next. And um I guess having survived being directly attacked by a charged-up, not-undead dragon is a moderately big deal.
I tried really hard to be silent and speedy on my way out, after Caska and I busted up their fancy green rocks. That was made harder by the fact that I didn't really know where I was going. I managed to sneak past most of the cultists and ambush a few more, but things did get a little noisy once or twice when my cloak didn't quite hold out as long as I needed it to. And then what I thought was going to be the exit plopped me right where I had least wanted to be, right in front of the big boss himself.
At that point stealth went out the window, in favor of tumbling down scaffolding and dodging ice belches. And then came the sprinting through tunnels and ravines and flattening myself into wall crannies while I waited for the ice breath to pass, just hoping I was moving toward some semblance of an escape route.
I can only assume that Laat being really mad also made him really sloppy, since he didn't notice me plummeting into a lake or swimming across to huddle next to Caska under an overhang. He didn't give up looking for us, though, and for all I know he's still flying around the fortress yelling for the hunters to show themselves. We'd be lucky if that were the case, actually. I definitely don't want him showing up in my face unexpectedly again.
At least he wasn't around during our initiation to recognize me from the quarry. I'd even changed my outfit to try to be less obvious, but I guess I can toss the whole disguise idea. I don't think he's going to forget me any time soon after what we've pulled.
The initiation itself revealed some interesting tidbits. Ra'khajin, that necromancer who raised Nahfahlaar's would-be ally, is Laatvulon's official Dragon Priest. Seems like dragons choose champions too, and this guy got the job by being subservient along with powerful. He'll get to be the new Mane once the New Moon wipes everybody else out. All things considered, I'd rather stick with Khali.
On the plus side, if we can't stop the dragons from taking everything over, Tharn will at least get his wish of the Three Banners War not mattering anymore. That was actually part of the trial master's sales pitch. That and Daedric scheming, which actually sounds tempting to me. Maybe I should reconsider this whole joining the cult thing. It would be pretty satisfying to see a dragon punching Daedric Princes in the face. I'd probably look pretty good in those black leathers, too. I'm not as partial to the green bits they put on everything, but I guess that goes with the aesthetic. I wonder if Laatvulon would be open some fashion advice once I'm one of his favored lieutenants.
Oh, right. Too late for that. I guess I'll have to content myself with overthrowing the evil overlords before they can destroy everything we care about. Ah well, we take what we can get.
Just had a char complete S Elsweyr not long ago so this quest is pretty fresh. Love your humorous take on it. It was nice that you could talk that silly young kitty who wanted to be a cultist into going home.
Okay who the hell does Meridia think she is? Is she serious right now? Because if this letter actually is somebody's idea of a sick joke, then they'd better tell me so before I do something they're going to regret.
What the hell does she mean he betrayed her? He did everything she asked. I mean we weren't able to stop the other Princes from getting to the Crystal Tower, but we stopped Nocturnal from taking it over. He's the reason we stopped Nocturnal from taking it over. And she felt the need to punish him for that? After she broke her promises to him?
I need to calm down before I break something. These poor Khajiit don't need to have their stuff smashed just because Meridia is the absolute worst. I can't believe I ever thought she might be worthy of my allegiance, even if it was just for his sake. She was never worthy of someone as noble and selfless as Darien Gautier. And if she thinks she could ever find a better "vessel," she deserves whatever she gets. I pity the poor sop who gets stuck with the job. This J'saad had it bad enough, and he didn't even make it through whatever "trials" she saw fit to put him through. He might be better off, honestly.
That stone, though, it spoke to him. That's what his letter said. He could hear her voices through it. But she doesn't want to speak to me, does she. I should have kept the stone. I should have kept it right by my side until she couldn't stand hearing me nagging her through it. That's what I get for not thinking clearly and trying to be respectful of the poor woman who just lost her mate. I can't exactly ask for it back now, since she decided not to drop it into the river after all. Maybe it'll remind her of him and bring her some sort of comfort. And if that deceiver tries to manipulate her too...
I need to get out of here. Somebody show me to the nearest dragon. I need an awful big punching bag right about now.
The Chosen Warrior. The one worthy to don the mask. Guided by the wind, driven by inner flames, mender of the tapestry of time.
That's what I have become. Or maybe that's what I have always been. I merely needed to prove it, to the cosmos, to the dragon who would be my partner and empowerer, perhaps to Alkosh himself. It was a path walked by another hero, in another time, and the trials I faced were the same trials she faced. The darkness I faced was the same darkness she faced. She could not banish the great evil in her time, but because she laid the path and lighted the way, one who came after was able to finish what she began. The will of Alkosh prevailed, and the Demon from the East is no more.
I've been tasked with proving myself countless times before now. This wasn't even the first gauntlet of challenges I've undergone since I arrived in Pellitine. But there was a deeper significance to these trials, alluded to by inscriptions placed along the way. Each test was an illustration of what it means to be a hero. But as I discovered after I actually met Ja'darri, in a vision of golden sand, the trials of the Halls of the Highmane were a reflection of her own battle against the darkness within her heart. At a time when she'd given up on everything, when taking her own life seemed preferable to losing herself to Lorkhaj's drums, she'd been given a lantern and a sword and a second chance to confront the darkness instead of running away from it. A chance to defeat it, once and for all. And in reclaiming her life, she proved herself worthy of something greater: the sacred duty of protecting Alkosh's tapestry of time from the evil that would unravel it. And now, she was finally able to pass that duty on to a similarly worthy successor. As it was always meant to be.
The trials, in their execution, were simple enough. Pathfinding, combat, puzzles. I believe, in retrospect, that the true test was reaching an understanding of what they each signified.
Finding the path might involve looking in unexpected places, or taking a risk by stepping out into the unknown. A hero must sense the guiding winds, but they must also choose to move forward, emboldened by conviction, knowing that doing so will allow others to follow in their wake.
Combat is very simple on its surface, especially as a test of strength and resolve. One side wins, the other loses. One lives, one dies. But a hero's purpose isn't mindless violence, killing just because they can. And being fearless, even in the face of certain death, isn't about casting aside concern for what might be lost. Keen awareness of what might be saved - that's the fire that fuels a hero's resolve. The Dark Behind the World has no pull on me when I already have a world I call home. I don't need Lorkhaj's pounding heart when my own beats so strongly. No matter how all-consuming the darkness, the flames within me burn stronger, fueled by the light of everyone and everything I fight for.
The tapestry of time... is a little harder to wrap my head around. I suppose it's a kind of reassurance that there is a natural order, a "right" way of things. And when something threatens to make that way not right, a hero must navigate the maze and tug on just the right threads to restore the way things ought to be.
Knowing what way that is, though, knowing how things are supposed to be... I've never been very good at figuring out that sort of thing. I might know how I'd prefer things to be, but life is rarely about me just getting what I want. Is there one correct answer to the choices I'm asked to make? Is there some higher power that wants things to go a certain way, and are they disappointed in me when I choose something different?
If receiving Alkosh's blessing means anything, maybe it's that I've been doing okay even if I'm pretty much making stuff up as I go along. Maybe Alkosh - Akatosh - cares more about the grander picture of the universe than about who gets to be Mane or who gives up their life to shepherd a new tribe into Murkmire. Maybe, even, the ability of common folk to make choices is itself part of the natural order he wants to preserve.
I'm... not sure I've ever thought of the world like that. Good and evil, right and wrong, maybe it's not about absolutes. Maybe the true picture woven into the tapestry is all of us bungling through this imperfect world doing the best we can. And the tears that need to be mended are the ones that would strip that possibility away, that would chain us all to new masters and never give us the chance to do better.
Darkness, and all it represents, is a drawback of living in that imperfect world. But it's also an opportunity. It is in darkness that the light shines brightest. It is in adversity that our choices truly matter. All of us can make a difference by trying to make things just a little better. By sharing our light with those who need it. That's our true power, isn't it?
Perhaps this light isn't the type bestowed by a magnanimous goddess with ulterior motives. Perhaps it's the kind we all hold within ourselves, that resonates between us. Is that the divine will of Akatosh, the natural order he wants us to protect? If so, then perhaps... no, I know better than to commit to something that might bite me later on. But... perhaps the Dragon King of Time is a higher power to keep my mind's eye on. If he keeps guiding me, as he's done at such critical times before, then it's not the worst path I could follow.
How many times have I said that, ever since the debacle at the Halls of Colossus? Dammit, Tharn. Damn your smug self-assurance, your refusal to listen to reason, that unquenchable belief that you know best. That you know what's best to do. That you know how best to save your Empire, save Elsweyr, save this entire damn world. And only you could do it this time, wasn't that right. You and a dragon.
It wasn't that long ago that I was the one saving the world along with a dragon. But I had the rest of my allies there too, standing and fighting beside me. Tharn had only himself, because that's how he wanted it. Because he was the only one who could do what had to be done. Did it actually make him feel better to stand alone at the end, on some sort of pinnacle where only he belonged? Or did he feel even a twinge of loneliness, wishing that someone could have been there to share knowing glances, to let him know it would be okay?
I'm probably reading too much into things again. He was probably entirely satisfied with himself and his showing, proving himself superior to even the most desperate threat. He did save the world in a way that nobody else could, after all. And if you're going to die before long anyway, you might as well do it in the most badass way possible.
That last bit might be a presumption on my part, but it wasn't hard to see that his time was drawing short. The way his body's weaknesses were catching up to him, the effort that it took to maintain his accustomed mastery of magic. I might have taken a couple of catty jabs at the cracks in his superiority complex, until I realized that there was a legitimate concern beneath the haughty veneer. He played it off as the inconveniences of old age, but I can only imagine the frustrations of being undermined by something as cosmically insignificant as a human body, when the mind and animus still have so much vitality and drive. But all that has begun one day must end, and there's something to be said for keeping a body going so long past its usual expiration date.
Meanwhile, for the rest of us, life goes on. I'm not going to find a tree to cry behind this time. I didn't even begrudge Khamira dragging us all to a meeting in Senchal. I even put on my official Dragonguard uniform for the occasion. We did some great things, and it's high time for a celebration now that Elsweyr is safer than it's been in a long while. But I'm not going to forget that last glimpse of Abnur Tharn concentrating on a barrier and exhorting his allies to save themselves. We're here because he isn't.
Maybe he'll get that statue Khamira was talking about. I can just imagine how much it would tickle him, to have his smug visage looking down its nose at the masses for ages to come. It's probably the least we could do for the man who saved us all.
I haven't been paying much attention to the turning of the seasons while I've been off fighting dragons, but it didn't take long for me to notice the air turning crisper as I headed back north. Once I realized how close it was to New Life, I reckoned my visit back home could wait a bit, and headed over to Eastmarch to see if Breda had set up shop again.
She was there in the tent outside Kynesgrove, jovial as always, along with the usual assortment of merrymakers and the keg of complimentary mead. This time, though, there was a new addition to the throng: an Imperial man, who seemed more contemplative and sober than anyone had a right to be on such a festive occasion.
He was a merchant, he said, who had taken to doing what he could to help those who had fled the chaos and carnage in Imperial City. His purpose here was to offer celebrants the chance to participate in something he called "Old Life Remembrance" - a ceremony where messages are sent to those who have been lost, so that those who remain might find peace with the past and hope for the future.
Well... I'm not one to turn down a commemorative event, and this one seemed to carry more significance than chucking mudballs at people or jumping off bridges in my scanties. All the talk of deceased loved ones was maybe a little gloomy, but if all I had to do was write down a message and burn it, how hard could that be?
It was quite a hike to get out to the shrine, but there it was, complete with spare scraps of parchment and the smoky stubs of a few hardy candles. I wondered about the handful of travelers I'd passed on the road, whether they'd stopped to make their offerings or even knew the shrine was there. Either way, it was probably just as well that I had the place to myself when I arrived.
The Imperial had mentioned that sometimes people get a response from Aetherius, but I wasn't expecting much. Most of these rituals are about the gesture more than any kind of results. Like when I put my grandparents' names on that paper lotus back in Hakoshae. They didn't have anything to say to me then, and I wasn't going to expect anything here. This was more about me, saying what I needed to say to people I was never going to see again.
But where to start? Who amongst the many I've lost and killed most needed to hear my thoughts? My mind immediately turned to Tharn, but that wily bastard probably has ways of knowing what I think about him. And if Darien isn't really gone, then... no, if there was a chance that a response could come back, then I wasn't about to take the risk of knowing why it did or wondering why it didn't.
So then... who? And what could I possibly say to them that would make a difference? I'd had plenty of time to mull it over on the ride out there, but I'd let myself get lulled by the passing scenery instead of getting down to what I knew would be a difficult question to answer. But if I was going to do this thing, there was no more putting it off.
I picked up a piece of parchment, and ran my fingers over its weathered surface. Maybe I couldn't choose just one person. But... maybe I didn't need to. Maybe if I said the right thing, whoever needed to hear it would hear it.
And in that case, there was really only one thing I could say. And it only took a moment to write it down.
I folded up the paper and tucked it into the midst of the stack of refugees' messages that the man had sent with me. They would all go up together, up in smoke, mine no more important than any of theirs.
I watched the paper burning, as the line of kindled orange edged its way across the pages, leaving ash in its wake. Then even that, too, was carried away by the wind. I stood and watched as the smoke rose and dispersed, and I watched as the flame was blown out, having done its job as it had done for so many before me.
Just as I'd thought. No voice from the heavens, no great thunderclap of enlightenment, just me maybe feeling a little lighter after getting something off my chest. At least, I could imagine that I was feeling lighter. That was the point, right?
I turned to go, and something shimmered at the edge of my vision. A faint miasma, drawing my attention to something that hadn't been there a moment before.
A man in full plate armor. Orcish make, with an elaborate helm.
It was just an apparition, the kind of glowing form I've seen in countless tombs and battlefields. But it was definitely him.
He didn't speak. He just looked at me, and then his imperious bearing softened into a slight bow. And then the miasma dissipated, and he was gone.
But... there was something else. Another shimmer, and then another. And suddenly I found myself confronted by a series of faces I'd never expected to see again, one after another.
Leythen. Nala-do. Kassandra. Little Leaf. Varen. King Dynar. Solgra. Shazah. Iachesis. Even Veya, as she was in Balmora. All of them nodding at me, or bowing, or even offering a faint smile.
Did they know what my tears meant, as I watched them appear and disappear before me? Did they know why I could do nothing but fall to my knees and weep, just trying not to lose sight of any of them as my vision clouded over?
Do I know? Even now, when the ghostly parade has long since passed, when I've had time to compose myself and pull my wits together? Is it all still about the guilt and grief, drowning in remorse as I try to feebly offer up an apology I know I can never make good on?
It... it can't be, can it. Not when the whole point of this thing was to acknowledge the past and move on. I've told myself to move on, so many times. But... maybe I needed... maybe I needed them to tell me to move on. Is... is that what they did...
Was this about them telling me what I needed to hear? Even if there were no words, was that smallest of gestures enough to tell me what they each wanted me to know? And do I dare to believe that they really meant it, that what all of them want for me is to let go of the regret and move forward with a heart unburdened?
My Imperial guide wasn't any help. He wouldn't even let me tell him about what I saw after I burned my papers. It's meant to be private, he said, a profound moment of reflection for me alone. But he believes that those who get a response from Aetherius are those who needed some kind of sign. I don't think I could argue with that.
Maybe being on the other side of Aetherius affords a different kind of perspective than what we have to make do with down here. Maybe the things we felt so strongly about in life, the enmity and grudges and ambitions and failures, don't seem so important in the great beyond. Maybe all it takes is a two-word apology for them to see everything a mere mortal carries in her heart. And... maybe, for them, it's enough.
It wouldn't be hard for me to go on angsting about it, second-guessing every little detail of what I saw and refusing to accept that any of them could forgive me. And I'm probably not going to go blithely running to High King Emeric to reassure him that his old friend doesn't really mind that I killed him anymore. But... if they did want what's best for me - and I'm pretty sure moving forward qualifies - what greater disservice could there be than to insist on clinging to contrition? What more could I do for them now, than to accept the gift they've given me and put it to good use?
I think... maybe... I am feeling a little lighter now. Somehow. I might not have become a completely new person in the blink of an eye, but I might be able to find a different way of looking at the world as I pass through it from now on. The year to come might not need to bear the burdens of years gone by. And... you know what, a reckless leap into ungodly-cold water might be just the refreshment I need right now.
This event turned into a pretty significant deal for Ilsabet, and I'm glad the timing worked out to get this entry in before Greymoor picks up. When the very first person who appeared for her was Kurog, I knew I had to do something with it.
You know, sometimes it's nice to see a messenger who doesn't beat around the bush. "A plot that threatens not only Skyrim, but potentially all of Tamriel." Ominous, maybe, but at least I know how deep the water might be before I jump in.
I wonder if Skald-King Jorunn considered the implications of bringing me on board his important mission on behalf of the Pact. I mean he must be aware by now that I'm an agent of the Covenant, assuming Meridia hasn't been busy maintaining her veil all this time. I thought about that, as Lyris and I were charging through the Palace of Kings trying to save Jorunn, that if I were any other Covenant loyalist, it might not be such a terrible thing for the leader of the Pact to suddenly meet a tragic end. If I hesitated at all, though, it was only for a moment. Alliance politics is one thing, but I'm not going to stab someone in the back after he's reached out to me for help. And I'm certainly not going to let a bunch of witches and vampires get what they want, especially if that's turning the Skald-King into an undead puppet.
And then of course there's the fact that Lyris would never forgive me. She's signed on in service to the Pact now that the Empire doesn't need her muscle, and her tingling danger senses must have been what drew her back to Skyrim from the Abbey of Blades. She was happy to have me on board, of course, and I'm sure it never crossed her mind to question my loyalties. Nor did I intend to give her any reason to.
It's a good thing, too, that the king has such reliable and determined agents on his side. While the snippy guard outside was insisting that everything was fine, those witches and their nasty critters were moving right on in and slaughtering the entire place. It doesn't say great things about the security in the Palace of Kings, but that's for Jorunn to think about.
Note to self, though, if I ever see another flyer promoting a "lucrative opportunity," I need to run very fast in the opposite direction. It's basically a catchphrase at this point. It's certainly more succinct than "Hey come on over to this not-at-all-suspicious remote location and we totally won't drag you off to be enslaved in some otherworldly cave and/or murdered to fuel a sacrificial ritual."
The caves, though, that was something else. It's like someone took an entire Dwarven city, popped it underground, and threw in a bunch of Coldharbour-colored mushrooms for ambience. I have kind of a hard time believing that this entire place was sprawling under Skyrim without anybody knowing anything about it besides old folk legends that nobody really believed. But there it is, and there it sprawls, and I have a feeling I'll be seeing more of it if this witch-chasing business goes much further.
In the meantime, I suppose I could sit around in Windhelm waiting for the Skald-King to work his diplomatic magic. Orrr I could get in a little sightseeing in Solitude while I wait for the go-ahead. I mean it's not like there's anyone there who would know the Vestige from any other mild-mannered Breton. No harm in a little advance recon, right?
Why didn't anyone tell me there was a giant temple to Meridia right next to Solitude? One with actual people in it? If I'd known, maybe I would have headed straight there. Maybe I would have gotten there before everything went to hell. Maybe I would have been there when everything went to hell.
Could I have stopped the storm if I had been there? Or would I have been swept up in it too? I'd like to think it would have been as simple as smashing up some bundles of sticks and putting some arrows into anybody who tried to stop me. It was a pretty expansive operation, though, and it's a pretty good bet I wouldn't have had any idea what I was getting myself into. Not that I really understand how these storms work even now. But at least Fennorian was there to handle the brainpower side of things while I did my smashing. If I'd been on my own, who knows what might have happened.
But why did this all have to go down today, just as I discovered that this place even existed? Under any other circumstances, I likely would have stormed into that temple demanding answers from Meridia's faithful. Instead I stormed it on their behalf, striking down the monsters that preyed on them. And believe me, it gave me no satisfaction knowing that most of those monsters had once been among them.
These people didn't deserve any of this. This was a disaster not of their own making, and they had nothing to do with my own personal grievances, as tempting as it would be to hold them accountable for their mistress' faults. They probably didn't even know anything about Darien. And they certainly wouldn't have been able to pry any answers from their conspicuously absent goddess.
Many of the survivors are now wondering why their beloved deity didn't come to their aid when they needed her. Some are even questioning whether their faith has been misplaced. I could have told them it wasn't surprising, given her habit of discarding loyal servants at a moment's whim. I could have recounted her history of using her followers as pawns and then leaving them to die in the wilderness. But I'm not that spiteful, not when it would only hurt those who have nothing to do with my spite. These people have suffered so much, and the last thing they need right now is to have an outsider callously stomping on the shards of their shattered faith. Where they go from here... well, that's up to them.
And so I left Kilkreath behind me, just one more red dot on the trail of leads that went nowhere. I couldn't resist one look back, at the giant lifeless visage of the Lady of Light looming over the temple and the surrounding mountainside. Those outstretched hands should have been holding aloft some welcoming beacon to guide the weary toward their refuge. But there's no light there now, only a cold emptiness. It's kind of sad, really. But that's just how it is.
I finally found Gabrielle. I finally told her. No one else had. She's been too caught up in her work, I guess, to get random news out of Summerset. And I guess my message never got to her because that work diverted her from the Mages Guild back to her academic pursuits with the University of Gwylim.
I found the flyer on the wall advertising the Antiquarians Circle not long after arriving in Solitude, and I finally made it over there once things had calmed down a little. I like finding and acquiring stuff, so it seemed like a natural fit. I had no idea what would be waiting for me after I finished my initiation interview.
When the woman upstairs mentioned it would be Gabrielle continuing my training, my heart just about stopped. It took effort to stay polite and listen to the rest of her spiel before asking where Gabrielle was. And when I finally made it down the stairs, I had to stop and just stand there looking at her like a dolt before I finally said hello.
She was excited that I'd joined their group and was eager to teach me how to use their magic tool, but I had to slow her down so we could really talk. I couldn't quite bring myself to just blurt out the news, so I asked her what she's been up to since I saw her in Anvil. She was still looking for Darien, she said. She hadn't been completely consumed with abstract historical studies. She had to believe that there was still a way to reach him in the Colored Rooms.
I told her, then, that I'd actually seen him in Summerset. How he'd fought beside me. I don't think I was ready for the look of dismay that came across her face, once the initial shock had passed. It didn't make sense to her, that he could have come back to our world and not even tried to contact her.
He had a good reason, of course, but the explanation that he hadn't had time before disappearing back into Meridia's clutches didn't make her feel any better. I tried to soften the blow by telling her about Darien's message to us, how much he cared about us and wanted to stay in our thoughts. But I could see it in her eyes, how much it hurt her to think that she'd missed her chance to see him again, even for just a moment.
I felt that twinge in my chest again, but this time it was just as much guilt as sympathy. I'd been the one who shared that precious time with our friend, when she'd been working so tirelessly toward our common goal. And to tell her about everything that had happened, everything that we'd done together... it would have felt like I was flaunting everything she couldn't have. And so the conversation I'd been longing to have for so long trailed off into listening to her chatter about gazing into lenses and merging facets.
I wonder if it's possible that she... no, I shouldn't make assumptions. We both care about Darien greatly in our own ways, and what's important is that we're both dedicated to helping him, just as we've always been. And she is choosing, after all that, to look on the bright side. If Darien was able to make it out of the Colored Rooms once, we know it's possible he could do it again. And of course that's motivation to keep trying to get to him, as if either of us would ever give up. I just pray, for my friend's sake as much as anything, that choosing hope will pay off.