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Through Fire and War

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The sun was high and golden. The earth beneath my bare feet was warm, and I dug my toes into the dirt, fingers lightly tracing the lingering marks from the slave collar that once circled my throat. Another stepped beside me, and I turned my head and grinned. They smiled back at me, long black hair and fine robes stained with dust. I linked my arm in theirs, all elbows and gawky limbs we both had yet to grow into, and the world stretched out before us, endless. A voice echoed in the distance, saying “And so we grew together.”

 


 

Morning came, light through the narrow window waking me, and I crawled slowly out from my nest of blankets, the strange dream hovering in the air like a mirage. It was vivid in a way my dreams rarely were, images clear and lingering—I could still see the face of my companion, taste dirt-road dust and hot sunlight on my tongue. It troubled me, though it should not have, simple and innocuous as the subject-matter was.

That voice…I knew that voice, in a bone-deep way that offered little explanation. For some reason it sent shivers down my spine. I shook my head—I would place it soon enough, or forget it entirely. At least it was a restful night of sleep for once, free of nightmares or strange memories that woke me with my own tears.

 


 

It was another Council meeting, representatives of six houses and seven clans all spread around a great table, united only in their ceaseless bickering. I rubbed my temples and sighed, a slight smile tugging at my lips. These were my people, every stubborn and irascible inch of them, and I couldn’t help the fondness that filled me at the sight.

Someone slid smoothly into the chair next to mine, and I turned my head and smiled to see my most constant companion, a wry smile to match my own playing across his face as he gazed out at the chaos we had wrought. “Look at what we have accomplished,” he said to me, quiet laughter in his voice though none but I would hear it. “Greedy heads of houses and belligerent ashkhans, all squabbling for higher standing in a new world order that hasn’t even begun, too wrapped up in their petty problems to even notice what is happening around them.”

Yes,” I agreed, hearing the joke in his words where others would not. “Look at what we have accomplished. Not so long ago they would not even dream of being in the same room with one another. Now, not only are they all together, they are speaking to each other at length!”

He snorted, hiding the noise in his raised hand, smile widening. “Is that your plan, then? Get them to argue so much that when you band them together, they hardly notice after complaining to one another for so long?”

Indeed,” I said solemnly, fighting my own smile—as de-facto head of this meeting, I could not laugh at it. “Look, already Lord Dres Rumil and the Ahemmusa ashkhan are bonding over their mutual dislike of Hlaalu Indaryn.”

I do believe you could get a Dwemer logician and a priest of Azura to bond over mutual dislike of Hlaalu Indaryn,” he dryly informed me, forcing me to bite down upon my cheek lest I burst into highly inappropriate laughter. I envied him his straight face—he, after all, had been raised to this sort of thing, while I yet struggled to appear as the solemn and wise leader everyone had declared me to be, when in fact I was simply the only person they would all agree to speak to.

Shall we continue, then, with this great hoax of ours?” I asked him, gesturing at the chaos before us with an inviting glance.

Oh, let us, do,” he said lightly, eyes dancing with hidden mirth. “We simply cannot let Vivec have all the fun.”

That wouldn’t do at all,” I agreed, glancing over to where my advisor seemed to be talking Lady Dres Maryon into a glazed stupor. He always was fond of his words.

A slender hand rested atop my own for a brief moment—I turned my hand and squeezed it gently. Together, laughing at our own audacity, I dared to believe we could accomplish anything.

A distant voice echoed through my bones. “Side-by-side, we can achieve the impossible. It has always been so, my friend.”

 


 

 

It was the voice that woke me, sound still humming through my bones as my eyes blinked open. I had had dreams like that before—distant images of another life, long discussions about not much in particular, a small rotating cast of characters—but always the details, the names and faces, blurred and faded in my mind, evaporating with the dawn. Now they lingered, making me shiver with both strangeness and familiarity.

I had my suspicions about the identity of my companion in the dreams, but though it troubled me, I could not help but hope that more dreams such as this would greet me in my sleep, and less of the nightmares. My dreams were never unaccompanied nowadays, and I found I preferred this incarnation to the one with the thrumming voice and the hands whose touch inspired only terror. Even if the dreams and nightmares did indeed come from the same source, a night in which I did not need to fear my sleep was something to be treasured, and I found myself oddly grateful.

 


 

 

Darkness and warmth surrounded me. The chambers were dim, but the warmth in my chest had little to do with the smoldering hearth, and everything to do with the familiar body in front of me: black hair and sharp eyes above a long, slender torso, gangly limbs, and hips that fit snugly into work-scarred palms. I smoothed a thumb over the jut of a hipbone, pressing a soft kiss to the flesh just above it—he huffed above me, fond, and I buried my smile in his skin.

Tease,” he admonished me gently, voice quiet in the darkened room. I dropped another kiss onto his side, stifling a snicker at the slight twitch, and took him into my mouth, the gesture as familiar as the form beneath my hands. The noise he made was gratifying, and I hummed smugly around his girth, proud of my slight mischief.

Gentle fingers combed through my hair, brushing my ears, and I closed my eyes in quiet pleasure. “You are so very beautiful, my dearest friend,” he whispered above me, like a confession. I could not return the sentiment, though he too was beautiful, especially flushed as he was, eyes bright with wanting; I curled a gentle hand around his calf and focused on his length within my mouth instead, making him gasp and moan.

Some minutes later, feeling him tense beneath my hands, I released him, sliding upwards to place my mouth upon his neck. His hands moved to wrap about my hips, and I smiled in the dark, biting gently at his collarbone before leaning up to murmur in his ear: “I would have you in me tonight.”

His moan was greatly rewarding, but I had only a moment to savor it before he turned his head and seized my mouth in a fierce kiss. By the time he released me, I was warm and pliant in his hands, a contented hum growing in my chest. “Tease,” he accused again, laughter in his voice as he turned me so I lay under him, safe in the cage of his arms. I smiled at him, unrepentant, and stole a playful kiss from his lips. When I leaned back, he followed, and soon we were entwined, bodies following each other in a familiar dance.

Voryn,” I gasped as he moved above me; he pressed a kiss to my brow and murmured “Beautiful,” again, though this time I was the one moaning. I bit at his jaw in retribution, and he laughed, hoarse and perfect.

Afterwards, we lay together, drowsy and content. We did not often get to do this—linger over our lovemaking, nor fall asleep together afterwards—our respective duties consuming so much of our lives that there was but little to spare for ourselves. I watched, silent, as his breathing slowed and quieted, features smooth and gentled in sleep. My eyes lingered on his face, as familiar to me as my own and far dearer, and I fell into slumber with a smile on my lips.

“Return to me, my dearest friend,” the deep voice whispered, "for you are loved and cherished still."

 


 

 

Gasping, I bolted upwards as I woke, face wet. Shaking horribly, I curled into a protective ball where I lay on the on floor, while across the room Caius stirred, awakened by my distress.

“Whassat?” he muttered, followed by a rough approximation of my name. “Whass wrong?”

I bowed my head onto my knees, a bubble of hysterical laughter trying to escape my throat. “Nothing,” I gasped, a terrible humor gripping me. “Nothing, only I cannot sleep, it seems, for dreaming.”

Caius, upon considering me, seemed to decide that nothing was truly amiss, and dropped back into the sound sleep of the drugged, undisturbed by the tremors and slight sobs still wracking my form. How I wished it had only been a dream that so upset me, as he believed. But this had been a memory, a true and cherished thing, and it was because of this that I was so distraught. My lover, in the dream, had not been a stranger, for such a lover had haunted my dreams most of my life, faded scraps of memories leaving little but impressions. This one was so clear, so immediate, like all the rest of the dreams that had so often been sent my way these past few months, and it gutted me with grief, for I knew everything in it was irretrievably lost to me. I knew this in a bone-deep way that had nothing to do with logic, or memory, or the voice that haunted each of my dreams—that time, that lover, was gone, and it was my fault.

I wrapped my arms around myself, quietly sobbing my grief into the night. “No more,” I pleaded in a whisper, to whom I had no clear idea. “Please, I beg of you, no more.”

The night did not answer; but when my eyes finally shut once more, I slept through the night without dreaming.

 


 

 

After the dream in which owner of the voice, whom I now knew as Dagoth Ur—once Dagoth Voryn, I knew to my grief—declared me Indoril Nerevar, I had no more haunting dreams, nor indeed the particular brand of nightmare that stalked me with his face. During my battle with the mad god-figure, I had reason to be glad of this, for I could concentrate on staying alive rather than what I knew his face looked like under that golden mask. His voice straddled the line between deeply familiar and wholly strange, and it was with relief that I turned from his taunts to attack the Heart itself.

Now, I knelt at the far end of the cavern, watching Akulakhan slowly collapse in on itself, with the prone form of the former god laid out across my lap, where I had carried him when the Heart was vanished and the artificial god begun to shatter. His mask had fallen along the way, and my hands shook as I gazed upon his face. I knew that face, knew what it looked like in peaceful slumber; what it looked like resting beside me, in a bed shared by lovers. I knew all this, and it gutted me to see it here, like this, death-like from wounds inflicted by my own hands, which were now shaking incessantly as I fought to keep from being sick at the sight. Clasping that form to me, clad as a villain though it was, I bowed my head over his and wept, for all that we both had lost.

Rasping and low and familiar, free of the belling tones that had colored it before, his voice rose to me: “To kill me in this way, and then to weep so over me…you are indeed cruel, my love.”

Startled, my eyes flew back to his face, blurred by my tears but still so terribly familiar. The sight, and his voice—the voice that my poor, shattered memories yet insisted meant warmth, and safety, and love—made me tremble where I sat.

“Tell me now,” he murmured, eyes sliding shut, “while I still draw breath. Are you truly Nerevar, returned to me after so very long?”

Shaking, I shook my head, less in denial than in permanent confusion. “I…I don’t…” I had told him, outside the Chamber, that I knew no more than he, but now… A lifetime of remembered dreams: of three close friends who forever turn, smiling, to murder me in the dark; another friend, lying forever dead at my own hands; and a lover, cherished beyond all measure, whose dreams were always safe, and warm, and from which I always wake face wet with my own tears. Gazing down at the fallen god’s face, the same face that had lain beside me in countless dreams—I thought I might finally understand why. “I remember you,” I finally managed, voice hoarse from my tears. “All my life, I think, I have dreamed, of the others and of you. I do not know if that makes me Nerevar. But I remember you, and each time I awake to my own weeping.”

Dagoth Ur gave a choked, gasping laugh, the sound infused with an impossible melancholy. “Then truly, you can be no other,” he sighed, “for none but he would weep so for one such as I, fallen so long ago. Our once-friends cannot even weep for themselves. You cannot have come from them.” He coughed, whole form convulsing at the gesture. “Azura is indeed cruel, my love, to have me die at your own hand. At least you fell at the hands of others. I will not forgive you this, but neither shall I forgive her.”

“There is much to condemn, my friend,” I murmured in reply, blinking away fresh tears, “and little indeed that is worthy of forgiveness.”

He lay silent for a time, and I kept motionless vigil, afraid that every breath would be his last, knowing that soon enough it would be. Finally, his eyes opened, be-taloned hand seeking mine—I placed it in his grasp, feeling no more horror at his touch, and his mouth opened to speak.

“This, then, is my punishment to you,” he breathed, barely audible over the roar of the lava far below. “I leave you widowed, my husband then-and-now, with the same pain you left with me so long ago. May you bear it as I have, greatest and most painful agony of the soul. May you bear it better than I have, though I do not think you will—you have always loved so deeply.”

With those words, his eyes slid closed, and Dagoth Ur was no more. I shuddered as a great, cold emptiness seemed to spread throughout my chest, as though where once there was a living heart, now was only hollow stone. This, I thought hazily through the pain that wracked me, this is what truly drove him mad so long ago—this pain of knowing half of yourself has gone forever beyond your reach.

In the Chamber of the Heart, surrounded by the dead and the works of the dead, I did the only thing I could—I bowed my head, and wept.