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.