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The Unluckiest Dovahkiin, or How I Learned To Start Worrying And Hate My Fate

Chapter Text

I had been in way too many life-threatening situations to count, from rampaging bears to bloodthirsty bandits, from beleaguered legionnaires to ticked-off thieves and angry assassins. But today was really taking the cake for me.

"Next! The renegade from Cyrodiil!" The Captain called out like the Herald of Death; even the sky seemed to echo those words. Somehow I knew this time wouldn't be like the other times. Not that I was in any way lacking in experience with facing death, but somehow there was just something about the sheer powerlessness I found myself in that really drove it in for me, especially on today, of all days. Somehow, unlike every other dark time in my life, I just couldn't see any silver lining or way out of this mess. It's not fair! A repressed part of me raged, one that I had been keeping mollified for most of my life, and I couldn't find a witty comeback, some smart snark that would convince me that it would work out. Even in the earliest days of my childhood words hadn't failed me like this before.

"The fruit vendor shook his fists angrily. "Come back here, you damned urchins! I'll call the guards on you!" Laughing at the absurdity of the "request", Marlene and I rounded the corner, and right into a member of the Imperial Watch. "Stop right there, criminal scum!" A phrase I had heard innumerable times at this point didn't help me control my laughter. What did, however, was the fact that I could see my childhood friend about to be grabbed by a second, clearly smarter, guard. Out of options, all I, as the "big kid" of the orphanage could do, was tackle the second guard and protect Marlene. While Marlene, reluctantly, got away with most of the food, I was naturally caught and thrown into jail. "Well, Marius, things could still be worse," I told myself while nursing a bruise, trying to convince myself that things would be fine. It still wasn't fair, though. All I'd wanted to do was to get some fruits to keep the younger orphans, since there was no way the orphanage could afford to feed all the displaced from when the Imperial City was sacked. And yet, clearly, no good deed goes unpunished. However, I refused to stay down. After all, I'd been doing the right thing, as far as I was concerned. No matter how this situation went, I'd find a silver lining, remain positive… keep that devil-may-care smile on my face so people wouldn't know how not alright I really was. Either I managed to escape, or I'd have my own accommodations in the Imperial City. Zero rent, two square meals a day, and hell, my new place even came with its own guards! Life in prison wouldn't have to be so bad, I thought to myself as I found a spare lockpick under my pillow…

"I said, next prisoner," the Captain repeated, snapping me out of my flashback, and I mentally cursed. Wasn't I at least entitled to having my life flash before my eyes when I was about to be executed? Damn Skyrim savages, lacking even the decency to let a kid have a few expository flashbacks to retell how he got there! "To the block, prisoner. Nice and easy." At least her Lieutenant had manners. I retracted my previous statement. The Nord soldier had been nothing but polite to me, nothing like the Imperial Captain. Perhaps it says a lot about my low expectations, that even receiving a modicum of tact regarding my impending death brightened my dreary day. After all, that'd been way more than I received from the Imperial City's Thieves Guild and the local branch of the Morag Tong.

"YOU'LL PAY FOR STEALING FROM US, BOY!" The hooded thief yelled at me, and I winced. Whoever this representative of the glorious Thieves Guild was, stealth and being quiet was clearly not his forte. "Technically, it wasn't yours to begin with…" I began, before quickly jumping, as an arrow flew past where my hamstring had been mere seconds ago. "We expected more from you, boy. Your skills were impressive, impressive enough to even have been the best of us… but in the end, you're nothing but a street urchin." A second voice, calmer and colder, rang out from the rooftops. Damn, the new Guildmaster had come out too. "Well, seeing as how most of you are in jail, I suppose I became the best thief by default…" I tried again, before quickly turning my head to the right, as a dagger sailed past my left ear. They were really determined, I'd have to give them that… but the few thieves that hadn't been caught had been those who didn't really do field work, and thus weren't at the sting. So what game were they playing, chasing little old me? The answer, it turned out, came in the form a Morag Tong poisoned dagger burying itself in my left arm. "You're right, kid… you outclass me and Julien here… and that's why we called for backup." By Akatosh, just how much did they hate me?! All I did was stop the old Guildmaster from stealing from my best friend Jacob and earning a pardon from the Imperial Watch by selling them out to Commander Maro. I thought they'd understand, I needed to clean my slate before I tried joining the Legion next month, and the vault in the Thieves Guild had enough to keep the orphanage well-funded for as long as I was gone. But apparently they took it far more personally than I'd thought, even going so far as to put a contract on me to the Morag bloody Tong. As my left arm burned, and the Morag Tong assassin came out of the alleyway, I knew I was surrounded. But still, I had absolutely no intention of giving in. After all, I'd taken down the Thieves Guild, and I'd be damned if I were to let these glorified criminals be the ones to put me down. Also, there were rumors that those killed by a Morag Tong blade would be doomed to an afterlife in Mephala's realm, something which was really outside of my plans for the day.

Eventually, I'd managed to lose them in the labyrinth of local alleyways, utilising my vast experience of the streets, and collapsed in a heap in some random citizen's attic. That had gotten really dicey, near the end. Luckily, a makeshift tourniquet from my torn top had slowed the poisoned dagger long enough for me to clean the wound and grab a Potion of Cure Poison. All in all, I had supposed, a net positive. After all, I had an awesome new dagger, an escape from Mephala… a minor net positive, to be sure, but still a net positive. And with me preparing for a new life in the Legion, who knew? Perhaps, I had supposed, the dagger would come in handy… as it had, when a bear had caught me and a fellow Auxillary unaware as we had been doing… something… in the woods.

As I stepped forward, got kicked into a kneeling position, and had my neck pressed to the block, I found my mind surprisingly clear. My prior rage had been replaced by a quiet sense of resignation. After all, upon reflection, clearly the Divines hadn't been with me since the very beginning. My luck had finally run dry. And no matter how optimistic or hopeful I got, there just wasn't any silver lining to being executed on my twentieth birthday in a foreign land. At least the nice Nord had offered to take my remains back to Cyrodiil, maybe give Marlene and Jacob some closure. And perhaps, with my death, they'd stop searching for the missing septims and gems, at least until those two were able to pawn off the valuables and raise enough gold to feed the new orphans, and maybe repair the leaking roof… huh, perhaps I could still see a silver lining. Not for me, but hey, at least it was something. As I stared at the executioner, I swore that, if I were to get out of this situation… traditionally, I'd promise something along the lines of turning a new leaf, swearing off of crime, that kind of boring stuff. But since this situation was completely out of my hands and in no way related to my previous crimes, I'd settle for just cursing the Nine and continue trying to live my own life, free of the influence of the Fates. At least I was being awarded an absolutely stellar view of an ugly large man, a bloody axe, a boring stone tower, and a lovely mountain, the peak hidden by a thick layer of clouds.

Finding the view surprisingly serene, I sighed and gave in to my resignation, wondering idly if there was time for more of my life to flash before my eyes. At least I probably wasn't going to Mephala's realm, at least Marlene and Jacob would probably have better lives, at least I'd made my peace, at least I'd enjoy a stellar view before I went to… wherever I was scheduled to go to, what with the snow-covered mountain, the lovely fluffy white clouds, the giant black dragon coming around the mountain roaring…

"What in Oblivion is that?!"

… wait, dragon?

Chapter Text

So no shit, there I was, about to be executed by my own people, for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a foreign land, on my 20th birthday no less... and a Dagon-damned dragon, quite possibly one of the first seen in the past thousand years, had just flown around the mountain, landed on the stone tower, sent the executioner's axe flying a bit too close to my neck for comfort, and was now observing the group I just happened to be a part of, probably just to watch me die.

Forget life not being unfair, at this point I was half sure (and rapidly approaching three-quarters sure) life and the Nine had a particular interest in making me suffer as much as was humanly possible in what I was certain was the last few moments of my life. Didn't matter how slender and exotic this black dragon looked, at this point I just knew that this was going to make my prematurely-shortened life more complicated. My optimistic viewpoint was proven completely correct when, mere seconds later, the black dragon roared (a most primal, guttural, and yet distinctly feminine shout, my primitive hind-brain noted... apparently I needed to get laid more, I was projecting feminine qualities unto a giant bloodthirsty creature that was supposed to have been extinct for over a thousand years...) and, I kid you not, flaming meteors began falling from the sky.

I'd been thrown in jail, backstabbed by members of the Thieves Guild, literally stabbed by a poisoned Morag Tong blade, and been charged at by a rabid bear with my pants down, but this day was really something "special". I couldn't even say this day took the cake, or it exceeded my most cynical expectations; that would have been when I found myself in the same cart as the leader of the Stormcloak Insurrection, being taken to be executed, just for crossing the border the same time as he had. Words, for the second time this day, failed me, for I had no way of adequately describing just how horrible of a position I was in. But for a brief, objective summary, I was bound, kneeling at the headman's block, a massive bloody axe mere centimetres from my neck, a decapitated head next to my right ear, a dragon staring down at me, and oh, did I forget to mention, the meteors raining from the heavens around me?! There might have been worse positions for me to be in, like having a portal to Oblivion opening right in front of me while I was relieving myself in an outhouse, but this definitely had to be near the top.

"Hey, Imperial! Get up! Come on, the gods won't give us another chance!" The Stormcloak Lieutenant I'd been on the cart with, Ralof, called out to me, and I finally tuned out my optimistic musings and the battlefield, the screams of dying men and the smell of burning flesh and flaming rocks, to take in my surroundings. Ralof was right; the legionnaires and guards were too distracted with the dragon to care about some mere prisoners, and the headsman had been killed where he fell, unlucky victim of a meteor. Not that I'd mourn him, of course, but that meteor had been way too close for comfort. More importantly, I finally saw a way out. My relentless optimism, coupled with a healthy dose of adrenaline, fuelled my legs as I pushed myself off the ground to an awkward standing position, and sprinted for a nearby tower that the other Stormcloak prisoners had taken refuge in.

As I caught my breath in the relative safety of the tower, my eyes took in the supposed top echelons of the Stormcloak Insurrection as they discussed the dragon, and I found myself unimpressed and wondering just how they'd been giving the Empire so much trouble. Sure, a few like Ralof and the Jarl Ulfric carried themselves like veterans, and sure, most of them were nursing their assorted cuts, bruises, and burns, but still, I'd seen better soldiers amongst the Auxillaries I had trained with, all those years ago. "Let's go! With me, up the tower!" Apparently their discussion had ended. Had to say, though, I was ambivalent by their choice of action. On the one hand, recon and intel was important when surrounded by enemies and facing a hostile that was virtually unknown, but on the other... well, if our escape was cut off, how would we get out? Jump? And on a side note, I thought to myself as I followed Ralof up the tower, would it behoove them to finally cut my bindings?

Reaching the first landing, our entire plan of "up the tower" was immediately made obsolete by the fact the staircase was blocked by rubble. Naturally. For Dibella's sake. "We just need to move some of these rocks to clear the way!" Yeah... I think you need to rethink your idea of 'some' there, Mr. Random Stormcloak. Well, at least 'some' action was better than sitting around with our thumbs up our asses, I supposed. Before I could turn to Ralof and ask for my hands to be free so that I could actually assist, the wall Mr. Random Stormcloak had been next to flew inwards, as if struck by a battering ram. Or, apparently, the black dragon's head. And just in case there was any doubt that Mr. Random Stormcloak survived being flung into the wall and crushed by the rubble, the overgrown lizard sent a jet of fire spewing at the pile of rubble, before flying away.

No time to wonder about what on earth his existence could have done to offend the lizard, there was no way we could move all this rubble anymore, even if it hadn't been super-heated. Definitely time to think of Plan B. "See the inn on the other side? Jump through the roof and keep going!" Alright, time to consider Plan C. Seriously, Ralof, are you mad? "Go! We'll follow when we can!" Basically, you're using me as a test to see if one could survive the jump? I trusted you, Ralof! I thought we were prison cart buddies! At least free my hands so I could use them to help me land! Before I could say anything, though, I heard the dragon roar in the distance, and was suddenly enlightened by the fact that jumping about a few metres without use of my hands was only slightly less dangerous than standing in what was full view of, say, an overgrown flying lizard, and decided to go with Plan B.

While I had some experience with jumping from heights in the Imperial City, like rooftops, jumping from the tower with the aim of landing on the second floor of the destroyed inn via the hole in the flaming roof without having my hands free was definitely a novel and unwelcome experience. At least my luck held out, though, as did my kneecaps, and from there it was child's play to get to the ground floor, where I came across the Nord Legionnaire, Hadvar, coaxing a child away from his injured father and behind some rubble, before the dragon landed in front of the man and cooked him alive. Handing the boy over to an older man, Hadvar finally noticed me, and remarked: "Still alive, Prisoner? Keep close to me if you want to stay that way." Yeah, I thought to myself, as he told the older man, Gunnar, to take care of the boy. This guy really ain't that bad. "I have to find General Tullius and join their defense." I stand corrected, he's probably insane. But there was no way I was passing up a meat shield, especially one that had a sword, and so I made to follow him. "Gods guide you, Hadvar," Gunnar wished him well, and I found myself hoping that maybe that'd spare some of that guidance for me. "Stay close to the wall!" Hadvar called out, and I instinctively flung myself against the wall, as the black dragon landed atop it and roasted a nearby archer. Damn, I owed the guy one now.

'Their defense', as it so turned out, was going about as poorly as holding an amulet of Talos in front of a Thalmor Justiciar. The parts of the city that weren't collapsed or rubble were in flames, and I think they all knew it was pointless to attempt to continue a defense. "Hadvar! Into the keep, soldier, we're leaving!" Most sensible thing I've heard all day, I could clearly see why Tullius was a general. Luckily, nobody was questioning what I was doing with Hadvar, or why I was following him. Hadvar's retreat, and by extension mine, sadly hit a minor snag when we ran across Ralof and a few Stormcloaks, also heading for the same keep. Before they could trade any more than a few verbal jabs, the dragon landed behind us, and I saw it's jaws open wide. Heart racing, I made to take cover behind Hadvar. However, as was entirely consistent and expected for this birthday, fate decided to screw me over again. Not only did I step on a splinter and trip on some ash, knocking Hadvar over, but my movement attracted the dragon's attention, and I swore I saw a glimmer of realization in it's eye, before hearing a roar of "FUS RO DAH!". Instead of seeing a jet of fire approach me, I saw the air in front of me ripple and distort, with the distortion quickly growing closer, before I was picked up off my feet and thrown into open door of the keep.

As I found myself flying through the air, for the second time that day, I swore I heard the dragon roar in fury, before feeling as much as hearing it proclaim: "Hin sil fen kos dii, Dovahkiin!" No idea what that meant, or who this 'Dovahkiin' was, but that sure sounded ominous. While I was sure I'd probably be able to draw my own conclusions if I had time to ponder and research, that was pretty much an impossibility at this time. My flight was quickly cut short, taking my line of thought with it, as I slammed into the keep's wall, before tumbling down the staircase, bouncing off the landing, breaking my fall in a barrel of empty bottles, and finally falling into blessed unconsciousness.

Happy birthday, ol' Marius.

Chapter Text

Clutching my head and groaning in pain, I found myself wondering just what on earth had happened last night. For some reason, I'd woken up less than a minute ago to find myself in some stone basement, lying on a broken barrel, surrounded by broken mead bottles and fallen rocks and rubble, feeling like a Orsimer Chief had swung a Daedric Warhammer on my head. And, by the feelings transmitted to me by the rest of my body, he'd gone to town on every other part of me, too. Moaning softly, I tried to move my aching limbs. While I was heavily winded, at least it seemed like I hadn't broken anything. Whatever had happened, it had definitely been a wild party; seeing as how I was having weird flashes of a slender exotic black scaly lizard with a rough feminine voice... I could best surmise somebody had slipped some skooma into my Cyrodilic Brandy. After all, there was no way I could have seen a dragon, right? What on earth had the event been, that made me drink so much, anyway? What day was it... ah, shite, how did I forget? It was my birthday! But wasn't I supposed to have reached Skyrim by the morning of my birthday?

As I slowly got up, I finally realised my hands were bound by rope. Damn, had I been thrown in jail again? Why would I be in a barrel of alcohol, then? Something, at this point, really wasn't adding up. "Still alive, Prisoner?" I heard a familiar voice call out, and the sound of footsteps approaching from the staircase. No, I grumbled to myself. That had better not be Hadvar's voice, and I had best not see Hadvar's face come down that staircase. Please, Divines, I'd take giant spiders, a bear, even a Mephala with a dildo, just not Hadvar. Not that I personally had anything against that man, but if he was showing up that would mean my skooma trip had to have been more than just a nightmare... also, seeing as how I had knocked him down while trying to use him as a meatshield, I doubted he'd have a favourable impression of me.

The Divines, sadly, and completely par for the course, I recalled, thinking back to the rest of my supposed skooma trip, did not fail to disappoint.

"Regrettably, painfully, and trying to figure out what in the name of Mara's left tit happened... but yeah, Hadvar, I suppose I'm still alive," I told him, taking care not to cut myself on the shards of glass, before holding out my bound hands. "Perhaps, if you would be so kind..." He sighed and took out a dagger, cutting it. "Thanks. So, what happened?"

"General Tullius and the few remaining Legionnaires mounted up on horses and rode down the mountain, back to Solitude. At the same time, a few squads of Stormcloaks snuck into the keep via the escape tunnels, seeking to rescue Ulfric Stormcloak. The Legion put up a strong fight, but between the dragon and being taken by surprise from 2 directions at once..."

"I'm sorry to hear about that, Hadvar."

"It wasn't your fault, Prisoner. If it weren't for you, I wouldn't even be here." That got me confused. Based on what fragments I could remember, he'd saved my life twice. Noticing my confusion, he explained: "You knocked me out of the dragon's attack, remember? That's why you got blasted into the keep." Huh, so that explained why he'd been so happy to see me, and willing to set me free... he'd mistaken my blunder in the name of self-preservation as a selfless act of charity. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I decided to play it down modestly. "Hey, you saved my life before that, right? No need to keep score, Hadvar."

Clapping my back, and almost knocking me into the broken glass, he continued: "Remind me to buy you an ale if we make it out of here, Orgnar usually has good stock. Anyway, Ralof, Ulfric, and the rest of the surviving Stormcloaks managed to escape, though there may still be elements of a rearguard left in the keep, which has been experiencing minor cave-ins, and it's gone mostly quiet outside. Any suggestions, Prisoner?"

"Let's get out of here. And feel free to call me 'Marius', Hadvar. I have a name, you know."

-INSERT SCENE TRANSITION HERE-

Having finally made our way through most of the keep proper, fighting off the occasional Stormcloak, dodging the occasional falling rock, and trading theories about the attack, we found ourselves staring at a cavern full of webs. "Tell me, Hadvar... am I looking at a nest of giant spiders?"

"You mean Frostbite Spiders, Marius? We kept a few of them around to guard the escape tunnel... the damned Stormcloaks must have somehow put them all to sleep when they were breaking in..."

Damn Divines, I was just joking about the giant spiders! What's next, a bear?! I found myself mentally cursing. "Mind passing me a sword, then? I'm not going to punch these things with my bare hands, Hadvar. Punching a Stormcloak in the helmet was one thing, but this..." I said, as I gestured... and, unfortunately, hit a web, tugging it and waking up a bunch of the damned spiders. Sighing in resignation, and seeing that there was no time for Hadvar to pass me a sword, I resigned myself to having to punch the filthy creatures, and kicked one of the spiders who had come a bit too close for comfort. Damn, part of me really wanted to shudder in disgust. The chitin wasn't exactly plate mail, and I could cave it easily enough, but the feeling of it's guts caving in with it's exoskeleton...

"Well, that wasn't so bad, now was it, Mairus?"

"It would have been a lot better, Hadvar, if only I had a weapon." I grumbled while attempting to wipe the gore off on my roughspun prison tunic. I'd really need to find a bath after this, if not just straight up jumping into a nearby river. At least I'd managed to escape being bitten, so that was a net positive.

"Hey, you turned down all the Stormcloaks' weapons." I winced. That was technically true, namely because most of their iron weapons had been broken or ruined by blood and fat, and I was more accustomed to the lighter weight of an Imperial sword than the heavier weapons they swung. Just as I was contemplating the difference in weapon weight between the Nords and Imperials, I almost collided with Hadvar, who had dropped into a crouch next to an abandoned cart of wine, his hand held up.

"Hold up. There's a bear just ahead. See her?"

Of course there had to be a bear. Hitting a new peak in resignation, I wondered if the cart had enough wine to get me drunk before Mephala herself materialised with a marital aid.

Chapter Text

"This looks like the way out! I was starting to wonder if we'd ever make it." Hadvar called out as we finally saw a stream of light in the cave.

"You know," I began, after first checking that we were out of earshot of the sleeping bear. "When they talk about 'the light at the end of the tunnel', they're usually not this literal."

Sadly, I failed to elicit any sort of response from Hadvar. Presumably, he had long-since grown immune to my witty banter. Hiding my disappointment, I crawled out of the cave with him, finally enjoying the feeling of sunlight, for the first time in hours, along with the cold dry air. While this definitely had the damp cave beat, I was beginning to half-regret not having killed the bear. While I still had yet to get my hands on a decent weapon, it would have almost been worth the fight, just to get some thick furs over these thin roughspun pieces of cloth. "Wait!" Hadvar hissed, as we both picked up on the beating of large wings, and we quickly rushed to hide behind a nearby large rock. Peeking our heads slightly over the rock, we ducked back behind it as a familiar shadow covered us briefly, before disappearing as it's owner disappeared around the mountain again.

"Looks like it's gone for good this time. But I don't think we should stick around to see if it comes back." As far as plans go, I'd rate this one above 'jump down a tower into a burning inn while having your hands bound', and below 'get to the keep, we're retreating'. "Closest town from here is Riverwood. My uncle's the blacksmith there. I'm sure he'd help you out." I smirked at the jab; looks like Hadvar had a sense of humor after all. But I wasn't going to complain, if it meant I'd finally get a weapon I could comfortably wield. At least things finally seemed to be looking up, I thought happily, traces of my old optimism returning to me, as we made our way down the side of the mountain, while he pitched a Legion recruitment that would have made an Imperial City recruiter proud, and completely unaware of the fact I'd been an ex-Legionnaire, and I even managed to find some furs on the way to town. Granted, the furs were attached to still alive, snarling, hungry wolves, but compared to the giant spider and giant flying firebreathing lizard, I'd take the wolves anyday.

-INSERT POV-CHANGING SCENE TRANSITION, ROUGHLY THE SAME TIME, A FEW HUNDRED METRES ABOVE AND TO THE RIGHT-

Alduin, Bane of Kings, the ancient shadow unbound, was not a happy World Eater. Her 3 hated enemies had used a whole new Thu'um, something they called Dragonrend, on her, forcing a whole concept even she, firstborn of Akatosh, in all her power and glory, could not comprehend or endure, an act of desperation topped only by their next action of using the Kel on her after she had retaliated and killed one of them. For a brief, timeless, moment, her connection to the time-stream had been cut, and she would have panicked... if the First and Most Powerful Dovah could feel such limited emotions. As it ended, she had thought, if not hoped, that her power was so great even the Kel had been unable to touch her. But then she had reconnected to the time-stream, and realized the terrible truth.

Disoriented, weakened from the recent (to her) battle, alone with no nearby allies, and with Paarthurnax, who had apparently been waiting at Monahven for thousands of years for her, approaching, she did the only thing she could do - she fled with her tail between her legs, though she'd never admit that to any dovah, roaring in frustrated denial. Before she dropped below the cloud layer, however, she sensed a presence, a fellow dovah sil, but different, somehow... it infuriated and intrigued her simultaneously, reminding her of the Arch-Traitor, May His Name Be Forever Lost To Time, He Who Had Somehow Enslaved Even The Dov. The battle between him and his enthralled dragons and mortals against Vahlok and nearly a full fifth of the mature dragons she'd commanded had been a legendary one, the energies unleashed sundering Solstheim from Keizaal itself. By all accounts, though, Vahlok had succeeded, and had done pretty well in his later stewardship of the newly-formed island. Perhaps she could take a page from his book; while the joor should by all accounts be glad to even be kept alive, and be grateful to slave away for their betters in the dov, they seemed to be more productive and less prone to futilely rising up under leadership like his. While the dov instinctively yielded to power, the joor, facing dinok as an inevitability, did not seem to mind facing it earlier for the chance to have better laas. Perhaps, she admitted reluctantly, she would have to make minor concessions to ensure a more stable, longer-lasting rule.

As she pondered re-establishing a new dov rule over the joor, and the shape it would take, she found the presence that had taken her to a small stone village, and she deigned to land on a nearby stone tower, to provide a vantage point to search out the presence. She was sure she had narrowed down the dovah sil to a small crowd of perhaps a dozen joor. Staring down at them, the bound joor, the one kneeling at the block staring at her, the heavily-armored ones standing around, she found herself frustrated that she couldn't narrow it down any further, and in frustration decided to raze the dwelling to the ground, deciding that, as she would have to tear down the current rule to establish a new one, she may as well start from here. With petty vengeance and frustration in mind, she used her Thu'um to rain meteors down upon the dwelling, before swooping down to hasten it's destruction.

Having vented her frustration by roasting a few unlucky fools that happened to be in front of her, bashing a few towers, and generally wreaking havoc on the unlucky village, she finally slowed her destructive wrath down, spying a small group of a few joor near each other. While she couldn't tell why her senses were drawn to them, she recognised one of them as one of the bound joor by it's hairstyle, another by it's shiny thick armor, and the last... the last, she recalled, had been kneeling on the block. Of course, the fact she could recall even one of the joor to be confusing, for higher powers such as herself did not concern themselves with individual joor, and such confusion fed into her petty irritation. Hence, she landed behind them, aiming to satisfy her confusion either by capturing or removing them. Her presence, however, attracted the formerly-kneeling joor, and she had to admit his reflexes had been the most impressive she'd seen in the past few hours, as he seemed to dive to the ground, perhaps attempting to dodge her Thu'um. As she watched him dive, she looked into her eyes, and it was like her lein changed.

She recognised the sil within the joor as that of a dovah. It was, indeed, similar to the Arch-Traitor's had been... Dovahkiin. Dragonborn. A creation and agent of meddling Father Akatosh himself, similar to her and the rest of the dov. A special joor, marked for greatness. Possibly terrible things, like his had been, but still great things. And yet, despite the similarities, the sil was so different. Rather than hatred and fear, she found curiosity well up within her. She noted his (for some reason, she just knew that this one was male) rugged physical form. She noted the quiet, almost imperceptible, sound of his body diving to the ground. She noted his smell and taste with her nose and tongue, a rich, heady musk. Most of all, she noted that his eyes held a deepness to them, which seemed to draw her gaze in, and a significant intelligence within that seemed to study her. She felt the aedra within her physical form stir and connect to the aedra within him. Such an intimate connection was a novel experience, even for so ancient and experienced a creature as herself. It confused her. It scared her.

It excited her.

She found herself, for the first time in a long while, truly wanting something. Someone. Her dov instincts within her stirred, as did more primal urges. She wanted to meet him dovah to dovah. She wanted to either dominate and subjugate this joor, or, and she would definitely never admit this, to duel with him for dominance, an encounter she was determined to come out on top of in more ways than one, as Alduin, the World Eater. Where once she would have merely craved praise and worship, gold and gems, she found herself now overwhelmed by a feeling of possessiveness. She would capture the Dragonborn alive, she swore as she let loose a weakened Unrelenting Force at him, aiming to incapacitate him and separate him from the others. She would have him! She would train and raise him as a suitable zeymahzin for her new rule! She would have his warmth beside her as she slumbered, his intoxicating scent on call at all times! Perhaps, if he performed his duties well, she would allow him to clean her, polishing her scales with his tongue, running his big rugged arms over where she needed relief, before she would use him to relieve herself of primal urges tied to her physical form. She would...

Be so engrossed in her fantasies and delusions, it turned out, that she misjudged the power and angle of her Unrelenting Force.

"Hin sil fen kos dii, Dovahkiin!" Alduin roared in frustration, before making her proclaimation.

Instead of knocking him further into the ground and knocking him out, she unintentionally knocked him into the open door of the keep, moving him further out of her reach. Enraged, she began to lay siege the building, causing numerous cave-ins within it's interior. And yet, despite the holes she knocked into the walls and roof, she was unable to spot him, despite his scent and taste still being so tantalisingly close. Eventually, though, she found that his scent faded, and she finally gave up trying to crack the keep open, roaring in denied frustration in fury as she flew away from the keep and back around the mountain. After all, she was dovah, and had time enough to plan and prepare. Firstly, she would find the other dovah and rally them, bringing them back from dinok if she had to herself. And then, with an army by her side, she would tear down the current joor society, leave him with no place to hide, and force a confrontation. There, she was sure, he would see sense, if not be made to see it. And then, she would have him. For she was Alduin! First-born of Akatosh, and the greatest of his creations! The World Eater herself! She would not be denied her possession!

Alas for her, and luckily for Marius, she failed to look down, engrossed in her plotting, as he and Hadvar exited Helgen Keep via the caverns just as she flew overhead.

-INSERT POV-CHANGING SCENE TRANSITION, RIVERWOOD, A FEW HOURS LATER-

Swinging my newly-forged steel sword, I was more than satisfied with it's weight, sharpness, and, most importantly, price. This had been the product of a few hour's work and the melting down of the broken Stormcloaks' weapons that Hadvar and I had been able to scavenge and carry out with us. True to his prediction, Hadvar's uncle, Advor, had been more than willing to help us out upon seeing us looking like we had, and I paraphrase, 'lost an argument with a cave bear'. Had to admit, man had a way with words. His generosity had only been further compounded upon hearing about the dragon attack at Helgen, and he offered us whatever supplies he could spare that we might need to get to Whiterun, so as to inform the local king, the 'Jarl', about the attack, and request stepped-up security. While I doubted that a few more guards would do any good against dragons, I did understand the feeling of just wanting to do something, anything, to try and seem productive, and even possibly stave off the inevitable, and hence I agreed. He even let me use the forge, along with a few spare ingots and leather straps, so that I could finally get a working functional weapon, and pointed me in the direction of the local general store as a place I could pick up other supplies that he simply didn't have, along with, possibly, some clothes. While I had managed to wash most of myself off, and while he had passed me some spare clothes, the Nord blacksmith was simply much bigger than I was, and loose, baggy clothing would only be a hindrance on the roads.

Stepping into the Riverwood Trader, I had a few expectations of how the sequence of events would play. I'd go in, sell off some spare ingots and broken weapons, get some clothing fitted for me, perhaps a potion of stamina or healing, some preserved trail rations, and would be right off on my way to Whiterun, which I'd reach before nightfall, Stendarr-willing. What I did not expect was to walk into a minor argument between the shopkeeper, Lucan Valerius, and his sister, Camilla. about a missing trinket. While they'd suspended their argument so that I could trade, I couldn't help but feel an expectant gaze fall upon me by Camilla. Now, having been the de facto big brother in the orphanage, there was no way I wouldn't recognise that gaze anywhere. Sighing in resignation (I'd always been weak to that kind of look), I decided to inquire about the argument and trinket after, and only after, I finished my trading first.

The gist of the story, it seemed, was that Lucan had a lucky trinket, a golden dragon's claw, which had been stolen during a break-in a few days back, and that the thieves had been tracked to a nearby tomb, 'Bleak Falls Barrows'. Ominous name if I'd ever heard one. For the reward of his entire previous shipment's profit, all he wanted me to do was sneak in and steal the golden claw back, and in doing so deter his sister from doing anything reckless. Straight-forward enough, I suppose. The tomb was on the way to Whiterun, the coin was good, I had more than enough faith in my thieving skills, though I didn't need to tell them that, and, perhaps the deciding factor in me accepting the quest, was the way Camilla had pressed her chest against me during the conversation, and how the lovely and comely lady had offered to guide me to the edge of town. I definitely had to go and get laid as soon as possible, I didn't think I was that easy back in Cyrodiil. But that could wait, I had accepted a quest, and I had my honor to consider, if I truly wanted to try turning a new leaf.

After all, how hard could robbing bandits in an empty tomb be?

Chapter Text

"Lucky trinket? You?" I stared at the golden claw incredulously, secured to my belt by some spare leather, before ducking a blade that would have taken my head off had I been too slow. "What do you do, such the luck out of everyone who touches you?"

In hindsight, I really should have realised the request had been way too easy. But I had figured the catch had been that the small band of thieves had actually been almost two dozen bandits, each armed almost as well as the Stormcloaks had been. Sneaking past those I could, and quickly dispatching those I couldn't, I'd figured that this kind of catch had been manageable, if not actually profitable, the looted septims transferred to a new home in my coin purse. In fact, I had mused that tomb-diving was almost profitable, as a few of the urns I had checked had occasionally contained gems and a few gold coins. Then I'd run into a room with a puzzle, and seen first hand the trap for guessing wrongly when one of the few surviving bandits had pulled the lever in the middle of the room, and essentially been turned into a porcupine. It'd taken me quite a few minutes to figure it out, namely because I'd refused to believe the animal symbols on the walls perfectly corresponded to the rotating pillars with animal symbols. It had been unbelievably easy. But I'd made it through into the next part of the cave, and found a webbed room, with a webbed-up bandit crying for help.

Now this, I had believed, this just had to be the catch. Of course fate would do this to me. Of course there'd be Frostbite Spiders. Lucan should really have mentioned this to me. This viewpoint was only reinforced when the webbed-up bandit noticed me and started struggling against his web, calling down a Giant Frostbite Spider, literally the largest I'd ever seen... life definitely wasn't fair to me. Most Frostbite Spiders were roughly the size of wolves. This guy? There were smaller bears. And then it reared up it's front pair of legs and fangs, and spat venom at me.

Luckily, unlike Helgen Keep, I knew roughly what Frostbite Spiders were, and I actually had a weapon, along with a bit of food in my gut and a nap or two, and the fight finally ended with me ducking under the Giant Frostbite Spider, quickly casting a simple Flames spell from my left hand at it's softer underbelly, before driving my blade through the weakened carapace with my right hand, and then dodging the fallen spider's fangs and body as it fell. Sighing, I turned to the bandit, and saw the golden claw attached to his belt. Seeing as how I needed to free him to get the claw, I sighed and acquiesced to his demands to cut him down. The ungrateful prick, somewhat expectedly, immediately turned around and ran further into the tomb, ranting about some treasure or power the Nords had hidden within Bleak Falls Barrow, and that the claw was the key, before he stepped on a trap and a spiked wall flung him into a wall and a remarkably well-preserved body. That, I had supposed, had been the final catch, and knelt down at his corpse, ignoring the groans coming from him, and took the golden claw for myself. The claw secured, I wondered if I should explore the tomb further, or if I should go and just return the claw. Just then, I realised that not only were the groans not stopping, but they were both multiplying and getting closer. Looking up, I saw the preserved bodies getting up, drawing the weapons they had been entombed with, and giving me a death glare that sent chills up my spine, before closing the gap towards me surprisingly quickly and swinging their weapons at me.

Cursing the damned golden claw, Lucan, Nord burial practices, Lucan, undead zombie warriors still smart enough to use weapons, and Lucan, I parried the next blow, and kicked the legs out from under my attacker. Nobody had mentioned the walking dead when they told me to take back the golden claw, Arkay damn it! How was I supposed to fool the magical senses of undead?! The one bright side about all this, I found out as I fought and dispatched the zombies methodically, was that, while they were smart enough to use weapons, the burial practice had clearly not kept their full faculties intact, nor preserved their flexibility, speed, or wide range of motions. Going for the joints, the knees, exploiting the over-eager swings to send a counter-attack of my own, it was, at least, easier to dispatch the beasts than the Spiders had been. But they didn't go down easily, and there were so many of them, and I soon found myself feeling tired, and my weapon's blade losing it's keen edge.

About 3 dozen zombies, a half-dozen chambers, 7 coffins that had burst open to reveal armored zombies, and 3 looted ancient nordic swords broken and ruined later, I found myself face-to-face with a Nordic puzzle door. Curiosity had won out over my self-preservation, and a healthy dose of sunk cost fallacy had eventually convinced me to see what the ancient Nords had buried within Bleak Falls Barrow, that they had decided to keep it behind at least 2 puzzle doors, a Giant Frostbite Spider, and about 40 zombies. Examining the door, I couldn't figure out how to pick the lock... but I noted the 3 rings around the centre had animal symbols, and that the centre had 3 holes, right where the 3 talons of the golden claw would fit. Studying the golden claw for the first time, I saw 3 animal symbols at it's palm. From there, it wasn't the hardest thing in the world to connect the dots, and as the puzzle door went down, and I entered the expansive cavern, I saw a stone wall with claw marks, a coffin, and, most excitingly, a chest.

Caution thrown to the wind, I went to the chest and quickly opened it, having found it unlocked and free of booby traps. Man, the ancient Nords really had treasure! A few gems, rings of silver, a golden necklace, a few hundred gold pieces, and, most excitingly, a steel blade with a blue sheen, the mere touch of which felt like static. An enchanted blade! Dang, these things could go for hundreds of septims! I then felt a whispering behind me, and turned around quickly, fearing another zombie attack. Instead, I saw the stone wall with claw marks, a single set of markings seemingly calling out to me, glowing faintly. I approached it, entranced, and the whispering got louder, the faint glow becoming a bright highlight. As I reached the wall, almost touching it, something peculiar happened. The markings, or words, I realised, seemed to imprint themselves on my very soul. Somehow, I just knew what the word was. "Fus". It reminded me of what the black dragon had shouted at me, before it had sent me flying. And yet, I didn't understand what Fus was, what it meant. I only knew the claw marks, and what is said. My reverie was broken, however, when the coffin I had found myself unconsciously next to burst open, and out of it came the biggest, most heavily-armed and -armored zombie I had ever seen.

The only thing that saved me at that moment were my rusty combat skills and instincts, which saw me roll out of the way as it brought a massive waraxe down on where I had been. The spot I had been at previously cracked and, more worryingly, froze over. A weapon enchanted with frost! I attempted to repeat my prior tactics against the other zombies on this one, but clearly they had taken more care preserving this zombie; I sprained my ankle trying to kick out his knee, and his swings had been feints that almost tempted me into very disadvantageous positions.

As I raised my blade and took a guard position, I knew I was in a very bad spot. While I may have been more lively, slightly faster, and perhaps more skilled, this zombie was far better armed and armored, and, most importantly, it wouldn't tire, while I was already tired from the past few dozen fights. I had to improvise, suddenly and violently and all over the place, if I were to get out of this alive. Just then, I noticed that, for whatever reason, it's back had a massive stone tablet, and a plan began to form in my head.

Knowing I had only one shot at this, I feigned slipping on the ice created by it's axe, and going into a controlled roll into the floor, dropping my sword. Taking the bait, it eagerly approached me, when I shot my left hand out, casting the Flames spell, and palming it's right ankle, causing it to stumble. While I felt like I broke my left palm, it had the desired effect, as it's metal boot heated up, and I swore I heard it roar in pain. Clearly fire had an effect on it. Before it could get up, I shoved my left hand, still casting Flames, on it's helmet, causing it to roar louder and more ferociously, and I grabbed the stone tablet, before smashing it against the creature's head. As I watched it struggle to get out in disbelief, I decided to deliver a killing blow, grabbing it's heavy blade as well as my broken hand would allow me, before decapitating it. Breathing heavily, I took a look at the stone tablet it had been buried with. Surprisingly, the 5-sided stone tablet had been completely fine, barring a few chips where it had been smashed against the floor. I wondered why the ancient Nord had been buried with it, but all I found on it was a bunch of intricate carvings, which I couldn't interpret. Besides, with my injuries, it'd be hard enough getting the loot I had already earned. The stone tablet was little more than an intellectual curiosity, I assured myself, as I limped back out of Bleak Falls Barrow to deliver the golden claw back to Lucan.

-RIVERWOOD, 3 HOURS LATER-

As I slowly limped back into town, feeling my aching body, torn ligaments, and broken bones, I was feeling surprisingly upbeat. Sure, I'd almost died a few dozen times, especially towards the end, but my skills, instincts, and improvisation were slowly coming back to me, I'd completed my quest, had quite a bit of loot to speak of, and hey, perhaps I could use the fact the quest had been far more dangerous than expected to perhaps ask for a bonus from Lucan. The Riverwood Trader, once again, didn't fail to surprise me, as I returned to find a Bosmer and a Nord youth arguing about Camilla. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised, though, as I watched them argue. Camilla was probably one of the few young women in the village, and these boys were probably the victims of puberty. Eventually, the Bosmer stormed off, as did the Nord, who ran into me. Before I could apologise and walk off, I saw his face grimace in a mixture of suspicion and recognition.

"Hey, you, Imperial... you were the guy Camilla was guiding around yesterday, right?" Good lord, I had only entered the Barrow yesterday? It felt like a lifetime and 2 functioning limbs ago. I nodded in response, and he asked, suspiciously: "What's your relationship with Camilla?"

"She was just showing me where Bleak Falls Barrow was; Lucan asked me to get his golden claw back." I gestured to the golden claw, still secured to my belt, and he seemed to accept it. I decided to keep my mouth shut about her proximity or method of convincing me to do take on the quest; while I was sure she did the same thing to this poor hormonal teenager, I didn't want to get him jealous and desperate. Especially not with my injured limbs. He sighed, and asked me what I thought of the Bosmer, Faendal, spending time with Camilla. Surprisingly, he didn't accept my sarcastic response of how men and women spending time together never led to anything happening between the two, and asked me to sabotage their relationship. Ah, young love. But still, while I may not have known Camilla that well or that often, I felt like she honest deserved someone better than a boy willing to fake a letter to sabotage her relationship, rather than approach and court her directly and honestly. For that matter, when I quietly slipped away and approached Faendal about it, seeing as how he offered me a fake letter 'from' the Nord, Sven, to carry out the exact same plot, I quietly decided he wasn't worthy either. Whatever the 2 of them did, they'd have to do it alone. In the mean time, I had a golden claw to deliver, and a hand and foot to fix.

Limping into the Riverwood Trader, I probably made a pretty dramatic entrance, covered in dried blood, holding up the golden claw, announcing "I found the golden claw", when I think about it in hindsight. But I was tired enough to sleep for a week; I decided to get straight to the point. Lucan stared for a few seconds, before sputtering.

"You found it? Ha ha ha. There it is. Strange... it seems smaller than I remembered. Funny thing, huh?" He took it from my outstretched hand, replacing it with a hefty bag of coins, and placed it on his counter. "I'm going to put this back where it belongs. I'll never forget this. You've done a great thing for me and my sister." Well, if it was just sitting on the counter, I can see why it was stolen pretty easily. He then eyed the blood stains I was dripping unto the floor, and jokingly said: "I better get back to cleaning the store. What a mess."

I grimaced and nodded, getting the hint, but just as I dragged my body out of the store, Camilla took hold of my good hand and looked into my eye, before thanking me: "It means so much to us to have the claw back where it belongs. Thank you."

Perhaps I was a sucker for a pretty face, but I found myself smiling slightly. "What will you do now, Camilla?" I asked, curious.

"I just want to find a good husband, and start a family of my own." She gave me a very pointed, meaningful look, and I wondered for a second what she was getting at, before remembering her 2 'suitors'. While I didn't want to get involved, I did owe it to her to be honest.

"Speaking of suitors..." I began, before I felt her move even closer to me, her gaze intensifying. Yikes, she really needed to find a good man fast. "I've been meaning to speak to you about Sven and Faendal."

"Oh." She sounded disappointed, and I noticed her face was flushed as she looked down. That was a reaction I honestly didn't expect, but I may as well finish what I started, and I fished out the 2 letters. "They both gave me fake letters to give to you, wanting me to tell you each was from the other."

Watching her face change was honestly pretty amusing. Watching her rip them up, storm back in, and throw them into the fireplace, however, probably brightened up the rest of my day. "I'm sorry, but I thought you deserved to know who your 2 suitors really were."

She looked at me and groaned, before explaining: "Honestly, I've never really felt much for them, so it's no big loss. But still, thank you, for telling this to me." There was a slightly awkward silence after that, before I decided to break it.

"I'd better get going... the faster the Jarl gets this message, the better."

"Are you sure I can't offer you a place to stay and rest for the night?" She looked pretty sad, so I decided to cheer her up.

"As much as I'd love to share your bedroom, Camilla, I really have to get going. Besides, I heard there's a Temple of Kynareth with a skilled healer in Whiterun. It'll be fine."

With that, she finally let me go, albeit with reluctance, and I set off before either of us could change our minds. As I did, I swore I heard her faint words of farewell: "You are a strapping young man! Don't be a stranger."

-DRAGONSREACH, 4 HOURS LATER-

As I stepped into Dragonsreach, stretching my newly regenerated limbs, I silently reflected that Alvor had been right; Riverwood really needed better security. Just on the way here, I ran into 3 wolves, which would have normally not posed as much of a problem had I not injured my left ankle and palm, and a Skyrim giant. While the Legion-issued traveller's guide had said that Skyrim giants were typically not violent unless provoked, this giant had charged right at me as soon as it had seen me. Though, in hindsight, it had probably been provoked, as there had been a woman shooting arrows at him, while two men and a woman guarded her with impressive blades, preparing to charge the giant. While I had been able to absorb most of the blow, the sheer shockwave had still somehow broken my lower left leg. Adrenaline coursing through me, I flung my blade forward, and managed to get a lucky shot into a major blood vessel in his wrist. As he roared in pain, the archer had managed to fire a final shot into his eye, ending him. Apparently my lucky blow had managed to impress them enough they suggested that I applied to join the Skyrim version of the Fighter's Guild, 'the Companions', though I still agreed to follow them into the city, which had apparently been on lockdown at the first sign of trouble. Despite the trouble this was causing me, I found myself liking the Jarl; he'd had one of the fastest and most sensible reactions I'd seen so far. Between the Companions' influence, the message from Alvor regarding the dragon, and a well-timed bribe, I'd eventually managed to get in. Couldn't blame the guard either, to be honest, I knew how my torn rags made me look. Clearly, I needed heavier, thicker armor. But first thing's first, get my new injuries healed.

The healing process had, honestly, been pretty quick. Amazingly quick. Even the local priestesses couldn't figure out how it had been so effective; the temple was still full of casualties of the Stormcloak Insurrection, or, as I soon learnt, the Civil War, as they called it. They had, eventually, chalked it up to a blessing by the Divines, which I decided not to retort against... seriously, if the Divines were really with me, how did I end up with all those injuries? Things had gotten a bit dicier, though, when I had asked for a spellbook, to learn how to heal myself. The head priestess, Danica Pure-Spring, had seemingly taken minor offense to that, insisting that if I wanted healing I could feel free to come to the Temple at any time, but eventually shameless flattery and the logic that I wouldn't be able to drop by the city if I was killed had netted me a spellbook for the Healing spell.

It was weird, I reflected, as I moved my formerly-injured limbs, and I wasn't just referring to the fact that Whiterun still had a shrine to Talos, let alone a preacher openly proclaiming the glory of Talos. That was definitely weird, though... it was almost like the White-Gold Concordat didn't apply here. Oblivion, I hadn't even seen a single Thalmor Justiciar outside of Helgen. The really weird thing, though, was the fact that my restored limbs felt stronger than before. That wasn't something that had happened when I'd been healed before. In fact, quite a few complained that healing of deep, severe wounds often led to the new limb being slightly weakened as compared to before. But I definitely wasn't going to complain. I could probably use the new strength to wield a shield better. As I pondered this advantageous conundrum and proceeded further into Dragonsreach, I found myself challenged by a Dunmer, Irileth, the Jarl's Housecarl, which I gathered was simultaneously confidante, bodyguard, and servant. Well, if I were in her position, I could possibly understand her paranoia, but as it stood I was rather annoyed. Swallowing it, though, I proceeded to tell her I had a message from Alvor regarding Helgen. That did it, and I was finally let through, where the Jarl, Balgruuf the Greater (as compared to what, I had yet to figure out,) interrogated me extensively regarding the attack on Helgen, which I attempted to answer as candidly as possible while hiding the fact I had been in Helgen to be executed.

As the questioning finally ended, I decided I liked this Jarl Balgruuf - he acted quickly and decisively to increase the guard, listening to the protests of his steward regarding the political ramifications but deciding the safety of his people came first. This mild affection was only increased when he offered me a reward, in the form of a choice of a steel cuirass from his personal armory, which I could take to be refitted as needed. Unfortunately, this was tempered when he enlisted my help again, this time to aid his court wizard, Farengar, in doing research regarding the dragons.

As I tried on the steel armor, testing the fit and finding it surprisingly snug and needing little further adjustment, I listened to Farengar begin his briefing about his project. "So the Jarl thinks you can be of use to me? Oh yes, he must be referring to my research into the dragons. Yes, I could use someone to fetch something for me. Well, when I say fetch, I really mean delve into a dangerous ruin in search of an ancient stone tablet that may or may not actually be there." Well, now, that caught my attention. An ancient stone tablet? Surely it had to be a coincidence, right? I decided to ask for some details regarding the delivery.

"All right. Where am I going and what am I fetching?"

"Straight to the point, eh? No need for tedious hows and whys. I like that. Leave those details to your betters, am I right?" Damn condescending prick. If I weren't so apprehensive, I'd be making sarcastic retorts by now.

"So what do you need me to do?"

"I began to search for information about dragons - where had they gone all those years ago? And where were they coming from? I ah, learned of a certain stone tablet said to be housed in Bleak Falls Barrow - a 'Dragonstone,' said to contain a map of dragon burial sites. Go to Bleak Falls Barrow, find this tablet - no doubt interred in the main chamber - and bring it to me. Simplicity itself." Divines, no. It couldn't be, it just wasn't fair! I decided to confirm the details one last time.

"Would the 'Dragonstone' be a 5-sided stone tablet, intricately carved, and weighing roughly 25 pounds?"

"That would, indeed, be it! Why? Do you have it?"

"Not yet," I replied, gritting my teeth in frustration.

Of course the one thing I didn't take from Bleak Falls Barrow would be the most important thing. Naturally.

Chapter Text

Content Warning: Slightly Mature Scene Somewhere Below


Well, at least it'd been a short hike back to the tomb. Thank Arkay for small blessings. Another thing I'd been happy to discover was that the zombies, or draugr, as I'd been told they were called locally, had remained dead, and that the puzzle door hadn't reset itself. If it had, I would have needed to drop by the Riverwood Trader again and ask Lucan to borrow his accursed unlucky golden claw. Not that I would have mind dropping by and greeting him and Camilla again, but somehow I doubted he'd want to lose his golden claw for a second time in a week. Before I delivered it, though, I did still drop by Riverwood, namely to drop off some supplies from Whiterun, and use Alvor's forge to repair some of my weapons. The frost-enchanted great-axe the big draugr had been using, for instance, had it's length shortened slightly, which had been surprisingly challenging; I hadn't known the ancient Nords had treated the wood used in the haft to be resistant to cutting and stabbing, though I could definitely see the value in that. I'd also increased the weight at the end of the pole, to provide a counterbalance and allow me to swing it better. Oddly enough, it had felt lighter than I had remembered, but now it was a much better fit for my size, so I did the modifications anyway. Surprisingly enough, while in Lucan's store, I hadn't encountered Camilla, who I'd been told by a flushed Lucan was upstairs, and 'not feeling well'. Wishing him well, and telling him I hoped he and Camilla recovered soon, before heading back to give Farengar the Akatosh-damned stone.

Entering the court wizard's quarters with a nod from the local guards, I noticed him and a woman in leather armor, wearing a hood, discussing what sounded like Farengar's project regarding the dragons, though the brief snippets I'd caught hadn't told me much besides something about a 'Dragon War' before the First Era before the woman noticed me, and interrupted his ramblings: "You have a visitor."

"Hmm? Ah, yes, the Jarl's protege!" It seemed like he legitimately hadn't heard me enter, or perhaps forgotten my very existence, but then again I'd seen his type before, academics who got so obsessed with their studies they had a tendency to block out everything else unrelated. I found myself idly wondering if he had to be reminded to eat and sleep, as he continued: "Back from Bleak Falls Barrow? You didn't die, it seems." Huh. I almost felt offended. Did he really think that lowly of me? Then again, though, I still remembered the forty-odd draugr, including the last and most dangerous draugr and his enchanted axe, not to mention the traps and the giant Frostbite Spider. I could definitely understand his surprise, the man had a point. Thus, magnanimously, I chose to let his comment slide, and pulled the ancient Nordic stone tablet out of my backpack, which he grabbed eagerly, like a starving beggar would grab a loaf of bread.

"Ah! The Dragonstone of Bleak Falls Barrow! Seems you are a cut above the usual brutes the Jarl sends my way. My... associate here will be pleased to see your handiwork. She discovered its location, by means she has so far declined to share with me." Turning to his 'associate', he continued: "So your information was correct after all. And we have our friend here to thank for recovering it for us."

"You went into Bleak Falls Barrow and got that?" If only she wasn't wearing a hood. I'd love to see the shock on her face. The surprise was evident in her voice, though, which seemed weirdly familiar to me. Perhaps she noticed the contemplation on my face, because she quickly continued, "Nice work. Just send me a copy when you've deciphered it," and left quickly. Me and Farengar exchanged a confused look, before sitting down to go over the stone.

We hadn't gotten much further than him establishing that it was a map of sorts, and overloading my head with trivia and speculations about dragons, some of which I shot down based on my previous encounter with the black dragon. I idly wondered where she was; indirectly and unintentionally, she'd ultimately saved me from the chopping block, in the end, before Irileth burst into the room suddenly, shouting: "Farengar! Farengar, you need to come at once. A dragon's been sighted nearby." Noticing me, she turned to me, and added: "You should come, too." Well, now, you can be sure that news snapped me out of my drowsiness. Just when I'd been wondering about where the dragon was... Well, there was no guarantee it'd be the same dragon as the one from Helgen, at least. I didn't know why, but something about the look in it's eyes when I'd made eye contact, along with it's subsequent proclamation, gave me chills. It felt like that dragon made it personal.

"A dragon! How exciting! Where was it seen? What was it doing?" Farengar sounded like a young kid at New Life Festival.

"I'd take this a bit more seriously if I were you. If a dragon decides to attack Whiterun, I don't know if we can stop it. Let's go." Irileth's commanding tone stopped Farengar's line of questioning dead in it's tracks. Privately, though, I agreed with Irileth, having seen the destruction the black dragon had caused at Helgen first-hand. And while Farengar's research, or the bits of it I was awake to listen to, hadn't spoken much of the whole 'raining meteors down from on high' aspect, but conservatively speaking, even the weakest dragon was a fast lizard with hide as thick as steel platemail, teeth like swords and a tail like a battering ram, possessing a breath that would rival even an Expert Pyromancer. Or Cryomancer, for that matter; some of the tales also spoke of a frost breath as well as the jets of fire. With that comforting thought in my head, I followed Irileth, Farengar, and a clearly-frightened, though surprisingly uninjured, Hold Guard, up the stairs behind the throne, where we came across Jarl Balgruuf studying a map. Looking up at us, he began questioning the traumatised guard gently.

The gist of the matter, the de facto war council and I would learn, was that a brownish-grey dragon had flown at the western watchtower from the south, who had sent a runner, the traumatised guard. The last he'd seen of the dragon had been it circling the tower. Relieving the guard, the Jarl had ordered Irileth to take a detachment of her best men to investigate, before turning to me, as I tried to hide and seem unimportant. Somehow, I just knew I wasn't going to get away from this.

"There's no time to stand on ceremony, my friend. I need your help again. I want you to go with Irileth and help her fight this dragon." There it was. Internally, I groaned. Straight-forward and to the point, Balgruuf continued: "You survived Helgen, so you have more experience with dragons than anyone else here." And there's the flattery. I found myself wondering if there was enough time for me to run to Riverwood, grab Hadvar, and toss him at Balgruuf. "But I haven't forgotten the service you did for me in retrieving the Dragonstone for Farengar." That last sentence honestly surprised me; I'd almost begun thinking that I'd been essentially pressed into service without recompense. Perhaps Balgruuf wasn't so bad after all, I thought, as he gave me both permission to purchase property in Whiterun, which honestly wasn't as big a reward as he probably thought, seeing the state of my purse, and a steel shield, treated and enchanted to resist heat and fire. Now that, that would be useful against the dragon. As I accepted the shield with gratitude, finding it also lighter than I'd expected, and made to leave with Irileth, I heard Balgruuf give her one final set of instructions: "One last thing, Irileth. This isn't a death or glory mission. I need to know what we're dealing with." She squeezed his shoulder gently, and replied: "Don't worry, my lord. I'm the very soul of caution."

I found myself struggling to bite back a dozen sarcastic retorts as the 'very soul of caution' rallied her half-dozen troops at the gates with choice uplifting speeches like "None of us have ever seen a dragon before, or expected to see one in battle. But we are honorbound to fight it, even if we fail. This dragon is threatening our homes... our families. Could you call yourselves Nords if you ran from this monster? Are you going to let me face this thing alone?" and "It's more than our honor at stake here. Think of it - the first dragon seen in Skyrim since the last age. The glory of killing it is ours, if you're with me! Now what do you say? Shall we go kill us a dragon?". What happened to 'this isn't a death or glory mission' again, oh soul of caution?

-WHITERUN WESTERN WATCHTOWER, 10 MINUTES LATER-

Evidently, by the time we'd reached the pile of rubble that had once been the western watchtower, the dragon had gotten bored of circling the tower, and had moved on as well. And yet, surprisingly, the watchtower proper was still standing, albeit slightly scorched. Irileth, commendably and unsurprisingly, wasn't prepared to take chances, and quickly snapped out orders to her men: "No signs of any dragon right now, but it sure looks like he's been here. I know it looks bad, but we've got to figure out what happened. And if that dragon is still skulking around somewhere. Spread out and look for survivors. We need to know what we're dealing with."

As we got closer, though, passing through where the outer walls had evidently been, a guard quickly came out, shouting: "No! Get back! It's still here somewhere! Hroki and Tor just got grabbed when they tried to make a run for it!" Before any of us could react, however, we heard a distant roaring, coming from the forest-covered mountain to the south, that rattled our bones as it got closer, and the survivor voiced out what I'm sure we all felt at that time: "Kynareth save us, here he comes again..." Kynareth, it seemed, was not listening, as the beating of wings got closer, and before we could react, a grey-scaled lizard grabbed the survivor with his feet, before swooping back up with it's captive. Belatedly, as the now-headless guard's body came falling down, and the dragon spouted a gout of flames in the air, Irileth barked: "Here he comes! Find cover and make every arrow count!"

As the dragon roared it's defiance and bore down on us again, Irileth's men dispersed, rightfully fearing it's fiery breath, before firing their arrows at the dragon, most of which simply bounced of it's thick scaly hide, though a few lucky shots found purchase in the gasp between it's scales, and seemed to do little more than tickle it. Talos save me, I swear I heard it laughing at one point, as it boomed out in satisfaction: "Brit grah. I had forgotten what fine sport you mortals can provide!" Now that ticked me off, and I quietly climbed up a nearby rock pile and readied the frost-enchanted battleaxe, waiting for my chance.

My chance came when the dragon turned around and dived down at a guard, perhaps intending to snatch him up and throw him into the air as it had previously. Before it could reach him, however, I leapt from the rocks, swinging my axe downwards as I did so. Perhaps Talos had actually heard my mid-battle prayer, as I managed to slice into it's wing, creating a coat of ice over the wound, stopping it's movement, and eliciting a roar of pain as the dragon, unable to control it's flight or momentum, crashed into the ground. For a brief second, the battlefield was still, as we dared hope that had finally brought it down for good. It slowly got up from the small crater it had made into the earth, and glared at me, before proclaiming: "Krif krin. Pruzah!" It then opened it's maw, and I felt as much as heard it roar a word, "Yol". There was no fire rising from it's throat, no way for it to have produced the fire so quickly, but fire still came out from it's mouth in a stream at me.

I watched the fire approach me quickly, and cursed the fact that I had my shield strapped to my back. If only I had it in my arm, perhaps I could have attempted to block the flames. As it stood, however, the only thing I had on hand was the battleaxe. As it stood, though, all I had left was a desperate manoeuvre. Bracing myself for the inevitable burns and torn muscles, I swung the battleaxe in as wide an arc in front of me as possible, relying on it's enchantment to kill as much flames as possible, while using the momentum to spin myself around, lowering my profile while I did so. The insane plan worked, the shield on my back nullifying whatever the battleaxe failed to, and the remainder heating up my steel armor to an uncomfortable degree, but at least not igniting my clothes or skin. Panting, I got up and turned around to face the beast, drawing my sword and supporting my tired upper body with my left hand as I did so, determined not to go down so easily.

"You are brave. Bahlaan hokoron. Your defeat brings me honor." I almost heard respect in it's voice as it approached me, the ground shaking, arrows simply bouncing off it's hide as the Irileth and the remaining guards desperately tried to get it's attention away from me. Perhaps this had been the first good fight it'd had in a few thousand years. Good, just gotta keep him talking, I thought to myself, feeling the Healing spell my left hand was casting slowly working it's magic. While there was no way I'd be fully healed before he approached, whatever damage my magicka got rid of would have to be enough. I'd survived the Imperial City, I'd survived the Morag Tong, I'd survived life in the Legion... hell, I'd survived Helgen, without my hands half the time. Oblivion would take me before I gave in to this overgrown lizard! As the lizard reared it's neck over me, preparing to bite into me with it's fanged maw, I knew I had to time this perfectly. Too fast, and I'd be wide open when he bit me. Too slow, and I'd be too dead to react.

They say that, in times of extreme stress, it feels like time slows down. I honestly didn't know about that, as most of the previous few times I'd been in extreme stress and about to die, the most I'd felt was my life flashing before my eyes, or perhaps felt like cursing, swearing, and sarcastically sassing everything. This time though, as the dragon's head lowered towards me, I finally understood that. I heard the guards shouting in horror, Irileth shouting in defiance. I could have sworn I heard a collective groan from the city of Whiterun. I could feel the hot breath on my head, and I knew it was my time to strike.

Faster than I had ever been, I swung my right sword, somehow finding the strength to parry the dragon's head away from my own. Before it recovered, I charged it, grabbing it's nostrils for purchase, and using my momentum to swing myself atop it's crest. Rearing up and snapping, it tried to dislodge me, and I found myself fighting for balance. Luckily, my legs held out, though I found myself ending up crouching on it's crest. This, however, would be more than enough. Raising my arm and sword as high as I could, I slashed at it's right eye once, twice, thrice, before jumping off as it staggered, and thrusting my sword into it's wounded eye. That finally did the trick, as it reared up before collapsing, staring at me with it's good eye. I saw a final glimpse of recognition in it's eye, and it exclaimed in fear: "Dovahkiin? No!"

There it was again, that name. "Dovahkiin". I didn't have time to ponder the beast's final words, however, as it's body suddenly began burning up as the light went out of it's eye. It was like watching decomposition, a hundred million times faster than normal. Within seconds, the entire body, skin, organs, and all, had burnt away, leaving behind but a glowing skeleton, with perhaps a few scales stuck to it. As I slowly approached the skeleton, pulling off the largest scale, the weird glow suddenly flowed from the skeleton into me.

The sensation was indescribable! As the glow flowed into me, and I seemed to absorb it, it felt like a part of my soul was finally waking up. It felt like one of my senses, one I never knew I lacked, had suddenly been restored to me. As if the blind could suddenly see, and the deaf could suddenly hear! My soul and spirit suddenly felt invigorated and energised, with it's awakening, and I felt the energy latch unto a part of my soul; the word "Fus", imprinted upon my very soul but mere days ago, suddenly felt unlocked. In a stunning moment of clarity, I found I suddenly understood the word of power, one of the words spoken by the black dragon as it sent me flying in Helgen, though not what it truly meant. More importantly, I felt myself understanding how to project the word, to give it physical existence with but a mere word and intent, and it felt like I had always known how to project it. Ignoring the gathering crowd of guards (surprisingly, none of Irileth's squad had been killed, though there were too many injuries for anyone's liking) and murmurs of "Dragonborn", I looked at the dragon's remains, and focused my intent into my voice (so similar to the feeling of gathering Magicka into the outlet for a spell, and yet so different...), before speaking the word I suddenly understood.

"FUS!"

The skeleton, which had to weight over half a ton, rocked back, as if struck by a massive hammer. Surprisingly, I had felt no counter-force, no recoil from the force. I looked back at the awed guards, and stepped towards them, wondering if they had an explanation for this.

It was really embarrassing, then, when I collapsed after 2 steps, and blacked out; the Word of Power had taken more out of me than I'd expected, and between that and all my injuries from the dragon, my mortal body simply had hit it's limits.

-DRAGONSREACH, JUST AFTER IRILETH AND MARIUS HAD LEFT TO FIGHT MIRMULNIR-

Lydia was not a happy Housecarl-in-training. She'd been so close to finally finishing, reaching orgasm, after a particularly long and tiring day of training. The etiquette lessons, especially, had been frustrating for her, as she'd always been the type of girl who enjoyed going out and adventuring, exploring, and fighting. However, she'd known how lucky she was to get the position of Housecarl, and had sworn she wouldn't let Uncle Balgruuf down when she'd been selected; it hadn't been hard to guess that the Jarl had pulled some strings to keep her close after he'd taken her in when she'd been only 8 years old, and give her a vaunted occupation, one that almost guaranteed a comfortable life; she didn't want to disgrace his name or disappoint him. That said, however... why in Talos' name did anybody feel the need to use more than one fork and spoon, let alone seven utensils. Learning the order they were used in, their purposes, and their names, had almost given her a migraine. Luckily, once the lesson ended, she was allowed to retire to her private quarters in Dragonsreach, one of the privileges of her position, where she had begun masturbating in an attempt to release stress.

Just as her fingers had found her clit, and her other hand had moved to stroke her moist opening, the Talos-damned alarm had sounded in the castle, and she'd been forced to quickly re-dress and armor up, as the entire garrison was put on full alert.

Needless to say, as Lydia left her quarters to find her uncle and ask for details, her stiff nipples rubbing tantalizingly against the rough fabric she'd wrapped around her considerable breasts and her inner thighs rubbing against each other slickly thanks to her natural lubricant, she was a very frustrated and unhappy Housecarl-in-training. These negative feelings within her were quickly extinguished, however, when she found Jarl Balgruuf leaning wearily in his throne, his face showing immense worry and sorrow. The Jarl, afterall, had been one of the strongest and stressed-out men she'd ever known, trying to maintain Whiterun's neutrality and prosperity throughout the civil war, showing genuine concern for all his subjects and trying to keep them united in these trying times. She even knew that he'd fought to keep Heimskr out of prison and away from the Thalmor's gaze, even though he'd refuse to tone down the Talos-preaching, and that he often snuck out to the Bannered Mare to have chats with his people. Her unsatisfied libido washed away by concern, she approached him, and asked: "Uncle? Is something wrong?"

His face as he looked up was that of a man twenty years older, and she knew whatever had happened was really wrong, and she wondered if something had happened to Irileth; his affection for his Housecarl had not gone unnoticed by anyone in Dragonsreach, and his late wife had often held suspicions, though she'd managed to hide them from him and Irileth. His next words, however, were definitely not anything she'd expected.

"Lydia, my dear niece... it's time for you to become a full Housecarl."

You could have almost heard a pin drop, if Dragonsreach didn't have such nice carpeting.

Lydia finally found her voice, though not her words, and sputtered. This had all been so sudden. She hadn't even been aware that the court had a new Thane. Whoever it was, though, she just hoped they wouldn't be one that cared much for etiquette or manners, and one that would allow her to go adventuring often. Or, at the very least, she prayed to Talos, that it wouldn't be the damned pompous Redguard Nazeem; while he hadn't been a Thane, he'd always strutted around the Cloud District acting like he would be one, and it was possible he'd finally gathered enough septims to contribute to a public works project, and even Uncle Balgruuf wouldn't be able to find an excuse to keep him out of the court between his wealth and a major work of charity. Her pessimistic musings and worries were halted, as she saw Balgruuf chuckling.

"Don't worry, my dear, it's not Nazeem. If he was even capable of parting with a single septim out of charity, he wouldn't be the Redguard we all know and loathe. I was only going to offer a newcomer to Whiterun a place in the court." Jarl Balgruuf assured her, though this only confused her further. How could a newcomer be given such a prestigious position in Dragonsreach? Had Balgruuf finally gone senile? He got out of the throne and took her hands in his, before elaborating.

"My dear niece... over the past 10 years, I've watched you grow into a fine young lady. Your mother would be so proud, even though I'm sure my sister would have some words to say about your etiquette and manners..." Lydia flushed at mention of that; evidently, her uncle had been keeping close tabs on her training. "But you're now past 18 and in your prime, and it's time for you to finally leave the nest and explore Skyrim while you can. And this newcomer, Marius... while he does not have much to his name, and I've only known him for a few days, he's been an invaluable asset to Dragonsreach during the recent Dragon Crisis. More importantly, I've seen into his heart; he is a good man, and I know I can entrust you to him."

"Uncle..." Lydia began, touched, before quickly hiding it under a facade of irritation and duty. "It'd be my job to take care of him, as his Housecarl."

"You know what I mean, my dear." Balgruuf chuckled, though Lydia didn't really, before his face regained it's weary look. "Unfortunately, the Crisis has just escalated. A dragon was seen descending on the western watchtower. Irileth and Marius have just left to investigate it."

Lydia understood his sorrow now, even if she couldn't fully share in it. He was a caring man, and she knew it had torn him up, having to do the right thing for his hold, ordering the Dunmer he loved and a good man who had clearly impressed him to their possible deaths to defend Whiterun. Still, though, she had some doubts.

"If so, why didn't you ask the Companions to accompany them? I'm sure the Companions would have relished the chance to fight, and Irileth and this 'Marius' wouldn't have minded the backup."

"Three reasons, Lydia. Firstly, everything the Companions know, Gray-Mane knows. And I know Vignar Gray-Mane is a Stormcloak sympathiser; I can't trust him to not use this situation to drag us into the Civil War. Secondly, as I told Irileth, this was not a death-or-glory mission. Intelligence was of the utmost priority. And, as you said, the Companions would have relished this fight. I couldn't be sure they'd retreat if needed. Lastly, we don't know how many dragons there are. For all we know, this dragon could be a decoy, to lure our forces out, while another attacks us while we're undefended. Regardless of their political leanings, Whiterun is their home; the Companions would defend it to the last." Balgruuf listed out his reasons, placing additional emphasis on what he told Irileth, and completely unaware of the speech Irileth had given to her squad just ten minutes earlier.

Before Lydia could continue the discussion, however, they heard a guttural roar, one that seemed to shake the very ground. A guard burst in, panicking.

"My Jarl! Housecarl! The dragon has been spotted descending on the western watchtower!"

To his credit, Balgruuf wasted no time in responding.

"Take me to the westernmost walls, with as many archers as you can round up! Do it, now!" He then turned to Lydia, before inviting her: "Would you like to see the battle?"

The two of them ran out and climbed the walls, attracting quite a gathering while they did so; by the time they had been in position to watch the fight, fully half of Whiterun had known about the dragon attack, and half that amount were on their way to the walls to watch for themselves. Pointing to a figure in heavy armor climbing a rock, he identified him to Lydia. "See the one over there, the one not in Hold Guard armor? No, not Irileth, that's Irileth in the leather armor. The one in the steel cuirass; I personally gave him that steel cuirass, you know."

"That's my future Thane? Doesn't look very impressive... what's he doing anyway?"

"I'm not so sure, Lydia, but I trust his courage, honor, and instincts. I'm sure he's-" Jarl Balgruuf began reassuring his niece, before his confidence in the man was proven correct as Marius leapt from the rock and intercepted the diving dragon, injuring his wing and causing him to crash into the ground. All around the Jarl and his niece, the men, women, and children of Whiterun cheered, as they saw the dragon, a creature of legend, be brought down by a mere mortal.

Their cheers were silenced, however, the excitement and encouragement turned into dismay and horror, as the dragon got out of it's crater, turned to their hero, and engulfed him with the flames of it's breath. To their surprise, however, the gout of fire eventually ended, revealing a figure still intact amidst the scorched and burning ground. Lydia found herself slowly getting more and more fascinated by this Marius, and her heart skipped a beat as he slowly got up. Unfortunately, while still not broken, their champion had clearly taken a massive beating, and did little more than glare at the dragon as it slowly made it's way to him, ignoring the rain of arrows the guards around it loosed as it would a small spring shower.

As the crowd let a loose a groan of sorrow, as the dragon's serpentine neck loomed over Marius, it's jaw open wide above him, she found herself desperately praying to a Divine, any of the Nine Divines, for him to be saved; for a miracle to come and pluck him out of danger. She had finally been made a full Housecarl, she had finally been assigned a Thane, and the Thane had proven himself a good man, willing to take personal risks for the city despite being a newcomer; it just wasn't fair for her to lose her Thane (she didn't know why, or even realise it, but she was already thinking of him as her Thane) before she had even got the chance to meet him!

"Akatosh, Talos... any of the Nines... please, save him"

She then watched in awe and surprise as he drew his blade and parried the head bearing down on him.

-JORRVASKR MEAD HALL, JUST AFTER IRILETH AND MARIUS HAD LEFT TO FIGHT MIRMULNIR-

Aela the Huntress was not a happy Companion. In fact, she was a very bored and frustrated Companion. After the fight with the giant yesterday, she found herself unsatisfied by her recent battles. Even worse, Farkas and Vilkas had apparently tattled on her and Skjor, and Kodlak was now keeping a closer eye on the two of them. They wouldn't be able to sneak out to hunt in their wolf forms for a while. And thus, she found herself merely sitting at the mead hall, as the ground shook for the second or third time that day, watching Njada and Athis have yet another brawl. She swore, if she had to watch such sloppy fighting for another hour, she'd probably start shooting at them, teach them to move quickly.

Sighing, she slowly got up, wondering if she should retire to her private quarters to read up on Archery tips, or perhaps relieve her stress through... 'other' means. Truthfully, she had only been waiting in the mead hall to see if the man she had met the day before, the one who had assisted her in taking down the giant, would show up. She couldn't place a finger on it, but there had just been something about him that had intrigued her, made her beast blood boil. And yet, he hadn't shown up yesterday, and he hadn't shown up today. She figured he'd probably forgotten about them, and decided to forget all about him.

Fate, however, had other plans.

"DRAGON! A DRAGON'S ATTACKING THE WESTERN WATCHTOWER!" Torvar burst into Jorrvaskr with the news, and every Companion in it snapped their heads at him.

"Dragon? Are you sure?" Vilkas began, clearly confused.

"Yes, I heard the guard shouting about it. The Jarl and his niece just ran down from Dragonsreach itself to check it out."

Now that surprised Aela; she hadn't thought the nobles capable of even getting off their chairs, let alone leaving Dragonsreach.

"When? And why were we not informed?" She snapped, grabbing her bow. While she knew he wasn't at fault (probably), her prior frustrations were compounded by the fact there was a big fight possibly going on, and she wasn't part of it.

Torvar gulped, recognising that tone, and replied, as diplomatically as possible: "About 2 minutes ago! And the guards said time was of the essence, so Irileth, her squad, and some newcomer called Marius left as soon as they got the message, since they had apparently been ready in the castle when the news came in."

"It matters not, let's go and take a look!"

While the Companions were the strongest, fittest, and amongst the fastest people in Whiterun, there was still a massive crowd in front of them, and they'd needed to fight through it to get up to the wall and watch the battle, meaning Aela, the fastest and most keen-eyed of the group, had only gotten there in time to see a familiar face leap off a rock and wound the dragon's wing, causing it to crash. Vilkas and Farkas reached her but a few seconds later, and spotted the familiar man.

"Say, Aela, brother... isn't that the Imperial from yesterday? With the giant?" Farkas began, clearly confused by this turn of events. Aela stared closer at him, her intensity enough to burn a gaze in him. So it was, and yet he seemed so different. He carried himself differently, his arms seemed bigger, his body more toned. And his face... it seemed so focused.

It suited him, she privately thought, before replying to Farkas: "Indeed, it is the whelp. And by the looks of it, he's not doing a bad job."

Just then, she saw the dragon get up and burn him, and inexplicable panic filled her heart. Her hand tightened around her bow, and she instinctively made to get off the wall and run down to the tower, to assist him in battle, when she found herself stopped by Vilkas and Farkas.

"Let me go! He needs help!" She snapped, her tone confusing them, but they refused.

"We can't! You wouldn't make it in time! I know you want to be down there fighting, we all do, but we'd need your skills if the dragon gets closer!" Vilkas began, having misinterpeted her actions as that of the hot-blooded gloryseeker he well knew, but Aela had been overwhelmed by her protective instincts. Farkas, luckily, had grabbed her before she'd done something rash, and continued from his brother: "Besides, have some faith, and look! The whelp yet stands!"

And so he did, much to Aela's amazement. Her instincts quelled temporarily, her rationality reasserted itself, and she wondered just why she had suddenly tried to help him so desperately. She didn't even know him, and yet her beast blood made her fascinated in him, a fascination that was only increased by his actions on the field at that moment.

Before she could respond, however, she felt the groan of the spectators, and saw the dragon looming over him. The Companions watched amidst the sounds of wailing and quiet prayer, too horrified to banter or act, as the dragon descended upon their champion, though the horror quickly turned into joyful glee as he swung his sword at it's head, deflecting it.

"What a blow! Truly, such remarkable strength!" Vilkas cheered, the two-handed weapon trainer admiring the sheer power needed to deflect such a beast's head.

"I've never seen anyone besides me move so nimbly in heavy armor!" Farkas remarked, as Marius leapt unto the dragon's snout, and began slashing at it.

Aela, too relieved to comment, simply nodded in approval, as she watched him accurately thrust his sword at the beast's eye, slaying it.

The crowd's whooping and cheering was only further compounded as the dragon's body burned up, and she heard a man in the crowd shout "Bah, dragons! These overgrown lizards are just as vulnerable to a well-placed sword as anything else!". The mood soon turned into confusion, however, as they saw a glow leave the dragon's skeleton and wrap itself around their champion, before suddenly entering him. Before anyone could remark, they felt as much as heard him say something, and the skeleton suddenly rocked back, as though struck by a warhammer.

"I don't believe it... Dragonborn..." Such murmurs and whispers began filling the crowd, though they quickly died as Marius took 2 steps and collapsed.

This time, when Aela ran down the wall to assist him, nobody stopped her.

-WHITERUN WESTERN WATCHTOWER RUBBLE, JUST AFTER MARIUS HAD COLLAPSED-

Irileth was not a happy Housecarl. Sure, she'd survived, as had her hand-picked squad. And sure, they'd just slain a dragon. But they'd lost the entire western watchtower, and, as the battle had proven, their steel arrows were remarkably ineffective to the overgrown lizards, though she'd hidden her doubts as they'd cheered the dragon's death. Another problem, one of a more personal note to her, was what she had sworn by Neverar during the more dicey moments of battle; as the dragon had swooped down at her and Aldi, she had promised that, if she lived past this battle, she'd finally do as she'd always wished since her youth, and confess her true feelings to her Jarl, Oblivion take the secrets and scandals. As the newcomer, Marius, had suddenly intervened at that moment, she had wondered if that was a sign from a Divine of what she should do. And speaking of the lad...

What was most worrying was what had happened to Marius, both regarding the mysterious glow, and the fact that he'd collapsed from his injuries. Jarl Balgruuf would be very concerned by this, and when her forbidden love was concerned, she was. At least he was still alive; the first thing she'd done was check for a pulse. But still, he needed serious healing; it had been a miracle he'd survived the fire as it was, let alone being alive enough to have pulled off that insane stunt and single-handedly slain the dragon after that.

Ordering her men to stop gawking around, they pulled out a makeshift stretcher from within the watchtower, before loading him upon it, taking care to give him the most dignity and respect they could. Whether or not he had truly been this mythical 'Dragonborn', something she highly doubted, he had still risked his life for Whiterun, and been heavily injured, despite being a newcomer to the town. It was the least they could do, giving the Champion of Whiterun an honorary procession back to the town, after all, with the guard whose life had been saved when Marius had leapt down serving as the vanguard.

As they approached the walls, however, Irileth noted with surprise that it seemed half the city of Whiterun were pouring out of the gates to meet the Hero of the Western Watchtower, including Aela at the forefront, the Companions just behind her, her star pupil Lydia, surprisingly enough, and, just to complicate matters further, the man she wanted to see both the most and the least at that moment in time, Jarl Balgruuf the Greater.

Her first thoughts upon seeing her secret love was one of worry. Here he was, running out of the city during a dragon attack, and without any armor or protection, no less? Was he suicidal? His frequent detours to the Bannered Mare without her company were bad enough, but this... if ever had she truly wanted to be able to control him, to truly protect him at every moment, now was the time. Then her eyes caught sight of his face, and the words of rebuke died on her lips.

He looked so haggard and weary, she thought sadly, and she truly wished, not for the first time, she could cheer him up. After his wife had died, he'd always been so distant, even to his kids, throwing himself into his duties as Jarl to escape. A feeling of odd joy soon welled up, as she found herself happy that he had been worried for her. She looked into his eyes, almost drowning in their reassuring presence, and the post-battle rush was tempting her to not only confess her truest thoughts, but also drag him off and claim him, enacting some of her deepest fantasies. In the end, however, she couldn't shame him in front of his Hold, and she had a duty to get Marius healed and protected from possibly over-enthusiastic wellwishers.

Before her men could stop Aela and the rest of the mob, however, a word rang from the nearby mountain, the Throat of the World. As the word echoed past the plains of Whiterun, and throughout the rest of Skyrim, the loud crack of thunder could be heard following, and the very ground trembled as the word rolled past. Everyone who heard the word, including the mob and the procession, halted, stunned, as they pondered the meaning of the message.

"DOVAHKIIN!"

Recovering quickly from her shock (she was a Housecarl who had just fought a dragon, after all,) she exchanged a look with Jarl Balgruuf, this one full of concern. She had heard the stories in his court, and she knew of only one group of people who could have pulled off such a feat of power.

The Greybeards were calling, and like it or not, the unconscious Marius' life had just become a lot more complicated.

Chapter Text

Content Warning: Slightly Mature And Explicit Content Below


-TEMPLE OF KYNARETH, JUST AFTER MARIUS HAD COLLAPSED-

The crowd let loose a collective sigh of relief, and Balgruuf, Irileth, and quite a few of the onlookers let out the breath they hadn't even known they'd been holding, when Danica Pure-Spring had examined Marius, and declared him to be out of mortal peril for the time being. In fact, he looked insultingly healthy, and Farengar had discovered a trace of Magicka in his left hand; evidently he'd somehow managed to heal himself during the battle. The knowledge that the Healing spellbook Marius had convinced her to sell to him had come in handy had comforted the priestess of Kynareth.

Still, however, he required a thorough physical examination, as far as she'd been concerned, and she wasted no time in enlisting the help of some of the nearby mob in taking off his half-melted steel armor. Oddly enough, quite a few onlookers had eagerly and enthusiastically volunteered to assist in the vital task of removing their hero's clothes, including Aela the Huntress and Lydia, and she'd had to actually reject a few of the applicants; the space around where he lay was limited, and he needed some breathing space.

Quite a few of the onlookers' breaths had been caught in their throats at the sight of Marius' chiselled torso, the definition of his abs providing a stark contrast to his slender body, and even Danica had to admit they were distracting. Her focus, however, lay more on the second- and third-degree burns that had covered his torso, having been hidden from view by the ruined armor. It was evident to her that, no matter how he'd looked at first glance, the battle with the dragon had injured him gravely. While she hadn't watched the battle, having been needed to tend to her patients, she'd heard how he'd emerged from the flames unbroken, before smacking the dragon's head away as it tried to bite him with but a single hand. And while she'd dismissed most of it as hyperbole and exaggeration (come now, leaping atop the dragon's head and stabbing it in the eye, before jumping off and devouring it's soul? Really?), it was clear to her that the flames, at least, had been accurate.

"Jenssen! Get a clean cloth and a bowl of water!" She snapped at the acolyte, who had also been transfixed by the sight before her. Acolyte Jenssen quickly squeezed through the crowd and retrieved the requested items, handing them over to the experienced priestess, who then began cleaning the burns with said cloth. If Danica hadn't known better, she'd have sworn the cold glares she'd suddenly recieved from the women around her had contained traces of envy. No time to ponder about that, though, she had a patient to save... as she kept needing to remind herself, trying to ignore the pleasure shooting through her fingers as she made contact with his bare skin. Time was of the essence, and she needed to heal him quickly.

Finally having finished cleaning the burns (and most definitely not having lingered on some parts longer than necessary, honest!), she gathered magicka to her hands, casting a Healing Hands spell at him. As soon as her hands touched him, though, all of his burns and assorted remaining injuries suddenly began healing themselves quickly. And while she still remembered his previous visit to the temple, this... this definitely surpassed his previous blessing.

"Kynareth preserve him, it's a miracle!" Danica gasped out, echoing the thoughts of the awed onlookers, as they watched his body patch itself up. It seemed that the Goddess of Renewal and Luck truly preserved their Champion. Even with the miraculous healing, however, Marius had yet to stir. Clearly, he still required rest. Which brought her to her next problem: the Temple did not have beds to spare for a non-critical patient. Furthermore, if he stayed here, she was half-certain a quarter of Whiterun would try to squeeze into the Temple. But where would he stay... perhaps a personal quarters would do? They would have to.

"Now that he's stable, help me move him to my accomodations for rest."

The heads of every woman turned to stare at her coldly, and she quickly, desperately, explained that he was no longer critical, and the communal healing hall needed the space for other patients, hence she would house him in her private quarters to rest. Surprisingly, Aela stepped forward.

"That won't be necessary, Priestess. Jorrvaskr still has many empty beds. Please, allow us to accomodate him for the time being."

That raised a few eyebrows, Danica's included. While the Companions were by no means selfish, it was still rare of them to offer such hospitality to non-members. Before she could question the sudden onset of generosity, however, Lydia butted in.

"Didn't you hear? Marius needs rest, not drinking and brawling. Besides, he's not a Companion! Why would you even want him, anyway?"

It was honestly hard to tell under Aela's green face-paint, but Danica would have sworn she was red in the face.

"We'd just like to extend our hospitality to the hero of the western watchtower, maybe ask a few questions about fighting a dragon. And besides, he might one day become a Companion, with the deeds of valor he's pulled."

Before the argument could escalate any further, however, Jarl Balgruuf and Irileth finally intervened.

"Enough! For the injuries suffered by my guest in service to my hold, I will personally house him in one of the guest rooms in Dragonsreach, for as long as he needs. Irileth, clear a path! Lydia, carry him. We're leaving." Jarl Balgruuf ordered, and Danica swore she saw a hint of triumph in Lydia's face.

She knew she should feel happy; her patient had found temporary lodging in Dragonsreach, after all. A small part of her, however, felt sad that he wouldn't be staying with her, and she sub-consciously gripped the hand that had touched his bare skin as she tried to figure out her emotions.

-JORRVASKR LIVING QUARTERS, LATER THAT NIGHT-

Aela squeezed the wooden chair with enough force to splinter it, venting her frustruations on the unlucky furniture.

For the past 2 days, she had been experiencing an emotional rollar coaster, beginning with the instant attraction she'd felt upon seeing Marius fight the giant, and heading into a resigned melancholy when he had failed to accept their invitation thereafter. Her feelings had eventually progressed into an unsatisfied frustration, being stuck in Jorrvaskr, and she'd cursed her beast blood for the first time in a long while; it made her strong, yes, and she normally hadn't found it a curse like Vilkas, Farkas, and Kodlak did, seeing as she'd always had bestial and bloodthirsty urges her wolf form allowed her to finally satisfy, and she'd usually acted on her instincts and emotions, rather than repressing them like the rest. However, recently they'd been acting up, and she couldn't understand why they'd suddenly changed slightly, and now relentlessly drove her to want to be with him, to protect and to claim him.

Before she'd had a chance to ponder much longer, however, the unexpected news of a dragon attack had driven all other thoughts from her mind, only for them to return, stronger than ever as she'd watched him almost single-handedly kill the dragon, before the battle. Now, thoughts of him filled most of her conscious thoughts. There had just been something about him that made previously-unknown feelings stir within her, the thought of him collapsing making her protective of the whelp, while his actions had earned her admiration. Then there was the thing he'd done to the dragon, and the summons of the Greybeards shortly thereafter, fascinating her; he was an enigma to be solved. And speaking of stirring feelings...

She felt herself flush, and heat pooling at her nether regions, as she remembered her actions earlier that evening. While she'd mainly been worried when he'd collapsed, once Danica had announced he was stable, the worry quickly turned into possessiveness. Her inner beast howled in fury that she had been denied her quarry, even though it had been right in front of her. Though she personally held no ill will to the other women, Lydia had earned her ire when her plan to take him into Jorrvaskr, under pretense of hospitality, and perhaps convince such a skilled warrior to join the Companions, had been foiled by the Housecarl-in-training. Danica had earned her envy, as well, as she had run her hand over his bare chest, first through a wet cloth, and then without anything separating their contact.

Her hands had unconsciously wandered under her short skirt by now, playing with her wet opening in an effort to relieve the aching heat within her. She rubbed her erect clitoris with one hand, while the other undid the clasps and buttons of her top, her nipples hardening uncomfortably as the memories of seeing his divine body, breathing in his heady masculine musk with her enhanced sense of smell, of running her hands over his body as she had helped to remove his armor furthered her arousal. By the Nine, had her armor always been this tight? She sighed in relief as her breasts were freed of the confining fabric, to be exposed to the cold air.

Her hands quickly picked up their pace, one aggressively playing with her overflowing womanhood while the other furiously kneaded her breast, pinching her hardened nipple, as those memories overwhelmed her. These hands, her hands, had touched Marius, and she enjoyed remembering the sensation of his body. Wishing that it was his hands touching her sensitive spots, she succumbed to her fantasies amidst a haze of arousal and pleasure.

Aela moaned in pleasure as Marius' large rough hands kneaded her breasts slowly, driving her insane with the anticipation of pleasure.

"Please," She managed to gasp out, as he began playing with her nipples individually. Left nipple. Right nipple. Left nipple. Right nipple... if he hadn't removed her underwear, it'd have been soaked. He continued the teasing until she couldn't stop trembling and shivering. She tried to beg for him to end the torture, but her words were slurred and incoherent.

Luckily for her, her lover took the hint, and decided to be give her blessed relief. Ceasing his ministrations on her breasts, his face dived between her legs, and she desperately sucked his thumb as his tongue slowly circled her slit, before giving her clit a quick kiss and plunging his tongue deep into her vagina. She bit down hard on his thumb, muffling her screams as the torrent of cum drenched his face.

After having spent the better part of a minute squirting, and finally coming down from his oral play, she found herself rather annoyed by the arrogant smirk on his face and how easily he'd made her cum, wanting to return the favor tenfold.

Pushing him to the ground suddenly, a wolfish grin adorned her face as she looked at his surprise, which only grew wider as she ripped off his pants with superhuman strength and exposed his erect manhood. Secretly pleased with how aroused she'd made him, she leaned down to kiss him, cutting off any protests he'd been about to make.

While she'd been keeping his mouth busy, her hands and hips hadn't been idle. Giving in fully to her carnal urges, the lust being further fuelled by her beast blood driving her to claim, dominate, mate, and breed, a small part of her wondered if she was in heat as she straddled his crotch, her hands guiding his upright penis to the still-overflowing womanhood within her lowering hips.

She moaned again, as his swollen head finally entered her vagina, which immediately clamped down on it, and eliciting a gasp from Marius.

"By the Nine, you-" Marius attempted to protest again, before her lips met his, her tongue slipping inside and coiling with his. She could taste herself on him, and it was driving her mad. Her tongue dominating his, she slammed her hips down onto his, his shaft forced deeper into her insides. Gods, he was just so big; she had never felt herself so utterly filled by a man before him. She lifted herself up, before slamming back down on him again, enjoying the delicious friction of his rock-hard member rubbing deep within her against her walls.

Sneaking a peak at her lover, she found he wore a dazed, drunk expression, heavily panting as he fought to breathe whilst moaning from the pleasure non-stop. Already aroused to an unbelievable degree, his vulnerability kicked out any semblance of rationality she'd tried to keep, and the instinct-driven lusty redhead began to violently ride Marius. This finally pushed him over the edge, and she felt him get even bigger within her, his member swelling.

"Aela, I'm about to cum," Marius groaned, attempting to warn her, perhaps in an effort to get her to slow down, or even pull herself off him. Instead, however, her pace quickened, and in a lust-driven frenzy she attempted to coax his semen from him. Finally giving in, he came, and the spurts of cum filling her, coating her inner walls, provided the last bit of stimulation she'd needed. Throwing her head back in pleasure, she shouted.

"CUMMING! I'M CUMMING!"

As Aela recovered from her orgasm in a pool of her own juices, she slowly looked around, realising that she was still in Jorrvaskr alone. Damn, that had felt so real, that pleasure so intense. Furthermore, she'd finally realized roughly what was happening to her: somehow, his mere presence had driven her bestial side into heat. Bitterly wishing that he really was her lover, that he really did lay under her instead of the cold floor, she swore that she'd somehow find a way to make him a Companion, and keep him by her side.

Luckily for her, she was so caught up in her delusions she failed to realise Farkas, Vilkas, and Skjor standing outside her room, wondering what had their Shield-Sister shouting so loudly, while Kodlak Whitemane, a few rooms over, chuckled about the members of his Circle were finally growing up, and swearing to get thicker walls installed for Aela's room.

-MARIUS' TEMPORARY QUARTERS, THAT SAME NIGHT-

Lydia stood guard over Marius' prone form, secretly enjoying watching him slumber, his well-defined bare chest gently rising and falling. There was just something about her Thane's presence which calmed her down. Idly, she wondered if this was what Irileth felt when she had been given the opportunity to serve Jarl Balgruuf.

While she would have served anybody, regardless of who they were, upon the command of her uncle, respect was a different matter altogether. The man her uncle had chosen for her, however, had more than earned her respect, when she'd learned of his deeds at the start of the Dragon Crisis, but a day before, and watched first-hand the battle between him and the beast, as well as the wounds he'd received in defense of the city of Whiterun. It also helped her willingness, of course, that he'd been so easy on the eyes, and she'd in fact volunteered to watch over the savior of the city until he recovered, even going so far as to insisting on being the one to do it for her (future) Thane.

Hearing him groan slightly, she quickly looked him over, wondering if her future Thane had finally woken up from his rest. While she'd be disappointed to have to stop watching, it'd be more than made up for by the chance to introduce herself to him, along with the assurance that he would have recovered enough to regain consciousness. Fortunately for her darker desires, however, he still slept deeply, and seemed to have been absorbed by a dream of sorts; while he wasn't shouting and yelling, she'd easily noticed that his once-peaceful face now looked weary, and he seemed to be talking in a mixture of Nordic and what sounded like the words she'd heard the dragon speak. Checking around to see if anybody had been looking (nobody was), she grasped his hand with hers, remembering the comforting gesture her guardians had used to do when she'd had nightmares. However, while it did, indeed, calm him down slightly, it had an unanticipated side effect: she was now enjoying the feeling of his hand in hers.

As she slowly traced the contours of his palm with her fingers, enjoying the rough calluses, the warmth radiating from him, she idly wondered what kind of life he'd lived before then. Honestly, she knew next to nothing about him before he'd come to Whiterun; all they'd known about him was that he'd been almost killed at Helgen, after crossing the border into Skyrim. Silently, she vowed to learn more about him, whatever it took, once he woke up. Until then, however, she'd just have to enjoy his sleeping form.

Within minutes, however, the warmth she'd felt from his hand had spread throughout her body, and she'd felt a tingling sensation in her abdomen. Recalling, as she did, that her interrupted masturbation session, as well as the fact that he'd been partially responsible for it, she leaned over him, pondering the morality of her choices. It had, in all honesty, not taken a long time to come to a decision; she was a Skyrim-born Nord, after all, and tended to be very straightforward and honest with herself.

Quickly getting up and shutting the door, after ensuring that nobody had been watching, she quietly moved his hand down, onto the chair she sat in, and spread her legs. Parting her underwear to the side, she moved forward, before rubbing herself against his outstretched hand.

The sensation had been electric, and she'd quickly grown addicted to it, as she continued rubbing her soaked womanhood against his hand, enjoying the uneven, rough texture of his warm skin against the slick smoothness of her lower lips, small motions at first that had become increasingly more pronounced, as she grew bolder. She didn't know when she'd have this chance again, she thought, and thus she resolved to make the most of the situation.

The experimentation had been minor, at first, perhaps a brief pinch of a nipple as she rubbed her clitoris against his fingertip, or having his fingers so invitingly, tantalizingly close to entering her slit as she'd rubbed against them, but very soon his entire arm was covered in her lubricant, and she found herself having to fight back moans of pleasure as she enjoyed herself a lot more than she'd in any way intended. Unfortunately, however, there was only so much she could do with the target of her affection sleeping, and she settled for simply relieving her prior frustrations for the time being.

Gritting her teeth, she rubbed herself against his fingers one last time, coating them in her fluids, and trying hard to stave off the orgasm she was so painfully close to; she wanted to really enjoy this one. Examining them, she nodded her approval when she saw them glisten, and held them steady, before slowly sliding them in, allowing herself long-awaited penetration.

It was like an electric shock ran through her, destroying any resistance, and she gasped as the orgasm hit her like a wave, her body convulsing. Before she could react, the second wave crashed into her, and she found herself leaning forward, bent over Marius, biting lightly into his shoulder as she rode out the orgasm on his fingers, her inner walls tightening. As the wave of pleasure finally came to an end, she slowly pulled his fingers out, amazed at the fact she hadn't accidentally broken them, and fixed her attire before kissing him on the brow, half-dazed. Before she could fully register what she'd just done, drowsiness finally kicked in for her, and she fell into a peaceful dreamless slumber by his bedside, the last thought in her sub-conscious mind the feeling of him on her lips.

-MARIUS' TEMPORARY QUARTERS, THE NEXT MORNING-

Not to, in any way, disparage Danica Pure-Spring's company or the hospitality of the Temple of Kynareth, I found myself thinking as I slowly regained consciousness, but I hope they'd fully understand if I said I would never want to find myself back inside the temple, and especially not finding myself regaining consciousness within it's interior.

Slowly making to get up, my body and limbs strangely not protesting with aches, I quickly realised that I had woken up not in a communal hall, but instead a small, private, unfamiliar room. Where I had expected to see symbols and statues of Kynareth, I instead found paintings of individuals I failed to recognise, and one of Jarl Balgruuf. And where I expected to hear the moans of sickly farmers and injured soldiers, I got the gentle snores of a beautiful brunette in steel armor, sleeping peacefully in a chair by my bed. Where I expected to find the smell of blood and incense, I instead found an unfamiliar scent, sweet and heady, and perhaps most pressingly, where I expected to see shredded armor and grevious injuries, I found myself unarmored, bare-chested, and with nary a scratch or scar. Clearly, something was off.

As I wondered how the dragon had managed to kill me, and if Arkay had been in a very good mood to allow me to not spend my afterlife in torment, the door to the room opened, and Jarl Balgruuf stepped in, flanked by Irileth, Proventus, and Farengar, each wearing a concerned look on their face that vanished as they saw me sitting up, before confusion took it's place with my next words.

"Hey guys... how'd you all die?"

Balgruuf regained his composure first, and inquired: "Marius... you know you're not actually dead, right?"

"Then how do you explain this?" I countered, gesturing to my uninjured body, and the comfortable room and still-sleeping brunette.

That got a laugh out of all of them, as I smirked and got out of bed slowly, taking care not to wake the woman. Luckily, my time in the communal rooms of the orphanage had helped immensely in that regard. Ignoring their warm gazes, I silently made my way to them, and they led me outside the room, which transpired to have been a guest room within Dragonsreach, and closed the door, before giving them a look, demanding an explanation.

"Just before we begin, Marius... what's the last thing you remember?" Farengar began, as we walked out of the living quarters and down to the main hall. I wracked my head. "I remember we killed the dragon, I think? Then something weird happened, and next thing I know, I'm waking up in the closest mortal approximation to Sovngarde. Why?" I then noticed the doors to Dragonsreach had been barred, and manned by guards. "Don't tell me the dragon survived, and got us all?"

"Don't worry, my friend. You got the dragon, in perhaps one of the finest displays of strength, skill, and bravery this city has ever seen." Baalgruuf reassured me, seemingly unconcerned in the slightest by the doors. Irileth continued for him: "Unfortunately, though completely naturally, you overexerted yourself with such a stunt, and collapsed. That was yesterday evening."

That caused me to raise an eyebrow. Not that I'd been out for so long, but that I'd been out for only a few hours. My injuries weren't just healed, after all; they were non-existent! Farengar pre-empted my question, adding: "It is truly astounding, how fast you healed when we brought you to the Temple of Kynareth. Danica barely had laid hands upon you before the injuries quickly healed themselves; they've attributed this abnormal healing to a miracle from the gods, though that healing spell you casted on yourself probably helped." I was surprised he'd actually spotted that; Farengar was definitely a court wizard after all. He only proved this to me as I spotted a manic gleam in his eye, and he began interrogating me about what I'd done, if it had happened before, and if he could cause me an injury, "just a small wound", so that he could test it out for his research.

Luckily, his questions came to an abrupt and welcome end when Irileth had grabbed hold of him and covered his mouth upon a nod from Jarl Balgruuf, who then said: "And speaking of things 'abnormal'... what can you tell me about what happened at the watchtower, with the dragon?" Damn. I'd hoped to avoid this question until I could figure it out for myself. No use playing the fool now, though, best I could hope for was to be honest and see what he knew.

"When the dragon died, I absorbed some kind of power from it." Short, direct, and vague. Perfect.

"So it's true. The Greybeards really were summoning you."

What.

"The Greybeards?"

And so, to cut an exceedingly long explanation short, it'd turned out the Greybeards, ascetic monks who lived on the slopes of the massive mountain I'd almost been killed staring at, and masters of some ancient form of magic called the "Thu'um ", or the Voice, had sent a summon 'thundering' through Skyrim, specifically summoning... me. Little ol', completely unimportant, orphaned street urchin Marius-from-Cyrodiil. Why? Because it turned out I might, just might, be something called the 'Dragonborn', an ancient Nord legend that could kill dragons and steal their power, because the 'Dragonborn' was uniquely gifted in the Voice, 'the ability to focus your vital essence into a Thu'um, or a Shout'. It really sounded like something out of the old myths and legends, but at the same time... it did provide a very convenient explanation for what had happened to the dragon, and me after that. Barring a brief interruption by his brother, Hrongar, arguing with Proventus before order was quickly restored, he eventually suggested that I better get up to High Hrothgar immediately, which wasn't a bad idea, though he'd mentioned something about climbing the "7,000 Steps", which sounded significantly less okay. Ultimately, though, he had a point, they'd be the best bet for helping me hone my gift, and perhaps learn more about who, or what, I was supposed to be. As I made to leave, however, he interrupted me one final time, suddenly adopting a loud, formal tone.

"You've done a great service for me and my city, Dragonborn. By my right as Jarl, I name you Thane of Whiterun. It's the greatest honor that's within my power to grant." This day was really just full of surprises. If my jaw could hang any lower, I'd have been tasting the floor. As Irileth passed a chuckling Jarl Balgruuf a handful of septims, I finally found my voice, and quickly cut in.

"This is a joke, right?"

"Watch your tone, Marius. The Jarl is serious; this is the highest honor he can bestow upon you." Irileth reprimanded me.

"I'm not referring to the title of Thane, I'm referring to him making me Thane! I first came to this city but 2 days ago, just after escaping the executioner's axe at Helgen! I doubt half of Whiterun's even heard of my name, Irileth! Why me?" I confessed my doubts. His court looked at me, before Balgruuf stood up, clasped my shoulder, and told me: "Come with me."

As I followed him, he spoke to me over his shoulder: "Marius, being a Thane is more than just being well-known, though it certainly helps. A Thane is a champion of the people, one of my trusted confidantes, a person I know I can trust to aid me and the Hold when the time comes. And your actions over the past 2 days have more than qualified you for that position." I wracked my brains, trying to remember what I'd done over the past 2 days, before I remembered the quests I'd taken up. Clearly, he'd mistaken my mercenary actions as altruism, and while I usually would have encouraged such misunderstandings, this had just been too much to take in, too much potential responsibility, especially just after the revelation that I might have been some Nord legend, foretold by prophecies. Whispering to him under my breath quickly, I tried to disavow him of such notions.

"If you mean me delivering Alvor's message and the Dragonstone... those were just business transactions."

"And the dragon-slaying?" I saw his raised eyebrow, and his amused tone at my attempts to justify myself irked me.

"Purely self-preservation and luck; if the dragon hadn't come for me the way it had, when it had, I wouldn't have even faced it, let alone slain it."

"Whatever your motivations, your actions and their outcome remain the same, my friend. And besides," Balgruuf paused, stopping at the barred doors. Nodding at the guards, the doors were unbarred and opened, revealing a sight I'd never thought I'd have seen: a massive crowd, perhaps a full third of the population of Whiterun, were gathered outside the doors, the mob stretching back down the stairs and past the Wind District; I swore there were still people in the Plains District staring up at me. Forget tasting the floor, at this point my jaw was probably hitting the Gildergreen. While most of the mob were unfamiliar to me, there were still some faces I recognised: the greengrocer, Carlotta, the prospective merchant, Ysolda, even the 4 warriors, members of the Companions, had been right outside the door. As I stood there, stunned wishing I had actually been properly-dressed, the crowd cheered, and Balgruuf smacked my shoulder, continuing drily: "I think you'll find that half of Whiterun has, in fact, heard your name. As has the other half." He then re-adopted his loud, formal, 'official Jarl' voice, and declared in front of the crowd: "We are honored to have you as Thane of our city, Dragonborn."

Damn Jarl plays the game well, I bitterly cursed as the doors closed again, though the crowd's cheers had not abated in volume. He'd gone and made it official and public; there was no way I could escape being Thane now. Resolving to make the best of the situation, I decided to ask what perks I'd get.

"I assign you Lydia as a personal Housecarl, and this weapon from my armory to serve as your badge of office. I'll also notify my guards of your new title. Wouldn't want them to think you're part of the common rabble, now would we?" He took a well-honed and well-crafted steel battleaxe from a kneeling servant, before handing it to me. The "Axe of Whiterun", he'd called it. Just when I'd been in the market for a new weapon too; I hadn't known what had become of my sword or the ancient battleaxe. Then, I registered the first part of his sentence. Who? A what?

Before I could inquire any further, I heard a low feminine voice address me in a serious tone: "The Jarl has appointed me to be your housecarl. It's an honor to serve you." Turning around, I saw the brunette woman who'd been in my room earlier. Perhaps not all surprises had to be bad today, I thought to myself, looking this 'Lydia' over.

-KYNARETH'S REALM, AETHERIUS, ABOUT AS CLOSE TO THE SAME TIME AS PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE IN A REALM WHERE LINEAR TIME IS MORE SUGGESTION THAN LAW-

Kynareth, Goddess of the Skies, Winds, Luck, and Nature, Kyne (as she still sometimes thought of herself as), looked down at her elder brother's newest creation, and secretly breathed a sigh of relief that he'd managed to escape unharmed yet again. While she could have sworn she'd done as Akatosh asked, and birthed him under an auspicious star, it seemed that every time she looked away for more than 5 minutes, his luck would always suddenly take a downwards spiral. Still grimly remembering the first time she'd looked away, briefly (from her perspective) after his birth to tell Akatosh his youngest child was safely in Mundus, she'd turned back to find him lying abandoned outside a run-down orphanage.

Since then, she'd been forced to take a more proactive interest in his life, as he'd ended up encountering, and escaping, everything from angry guards, to angry assassins, to angry bears. As he'd grown older, and she'd watched him grow from a bouncing baby boy to a cocky young man, she'd noticed that a core aspect of his personality had always remained constant: he always remained optimistic and hopeful that life would work out for him, although he'd never taken it for granted. Touched by such innocence and hope, despite everything that had happened to him, she sometimes fantasised about what it would have been like to descend upon him one day, just to tell him she'd been watching out for him, that his optimism and hope wasn't misplaced, that she had indeed been trying to turn his luck around. Would he be angry? Confused? Grateful?

When her main aspect had returned from informing Akatosh that his youngest son was finally leaving for Skyrim, she'd discovered that, not only was Marius already in Skyrim, but he had been about to be executed. Panicking, unsure of how she could save him this time, her incorporeal spiritual heart had almost stopped when one of her brother's other creations, his eldest daughter, Alduin, had suddenly reappeared from the Throat of the World, fresh from her 7000-or-so year journey through time, before descending on Helgen.

Throughout Marius' escape through Helgen, Kynareth had essentially been working more than overtime, minor gusts of wind stopping the falling axe from landing on him, slightly slowing his descent while guiding his fall through the broken roof of the inn, stopping Alduin from getting her hands on Marius by redirecting her Unrelenting Force... if she kept interfering so openly and directly, she feared Nocturnal would soon take an interest in Marius, especially since her nephew had already had a background in thievery and less-than-legal acts.

As he'd finally escaped Helgen, she'd done one final act for him, keeping the wind from blowing upwards and, thus, stopping his scent from being detected by Alduin, before she went to ask Akatosh if this was fine. Her eldest brother's answer, however, had simply been to point back at Marius, and she'd watched as he conquered Bleak Falls Barrow, survived his first encounter with the draugr, and earned the respect of some of the members of Riverwood, before helping to slay a giant. She'd almost sprinted down, however, when he approached her temple in Kynareth, seeking healing, and quietly imparted a minor blessing of healing upon him, made permanent by manipulating his dormant aedric soul.

He'd made excellent use of it, as she'd watched in horror as one of his elder siblings, Mirmulnir, had attempted to roast him alive, and decided to ignore the consequences, manipulating the winds to aid him in his battle. She then watched with pride as he claimed his birthright as Dragonborn, and his true self finally awakened, although that pride turned into slight embarrassment for him when he'd collapsed, spent. Her actions, and his subsequent awakening, however, attracted attention of just about every being in Tamriel, and several in Oblivion and Aetherius, including Nocturnal, who was very curious in this supposed mortal that her very distant sibling had been sheltering.

As his body had been brought to her temple to heal, and she sensed the probings of many of the Daedric Princes, she found herself feeling exceptionally protective of her favourite nephew, and vowed to take an even closer guard over him.

Chapter Text

"Remind me again, why couldn't we have just taken the carriage to Solitude or Morthal, my Thane?" I heard Lydia's biting, sarcastic voice, and chuckled.

"Why, to enjoy the sights, of course!" I gestured magnanimously at the snow-covered megalithic structure that was the Weynon Stones, and the endless snow-covered forests of the Pale, before lowering my voice and continuing: "Also, I'm not sure if I'm still on the Legion's Wanted List, so it'd probably be best if I avoided their stronghold for a little while..."

"Weren't you part of the Legion before coming here, my Thane?"

I sighed for what had to be the millionth time, trying to think of an answer. Both on the journey to High Hrothgar, and the subsequent journey back down to Ustengrav, Lydia had shown an exceptional interest on my previous life before coming to Skyrim, something which I personally chalked up to both her having been in Whiterun for most of her life, and her attempts to get to know her Thane better, perhaps in a misguided effort to serve me better. And while I had managed to deflect the questions for the past week or so, still trying to wrap my head around everything that had happened since slaying that accursed lizard at Whiterun, my mental defenses were wearing down. And, to be honest, it wasn't as if I hadn't enjoyed her company. She'd been an exceptional bodyguard on the road, and good company during my travels, although she had seemed a bit overenthusiastic when it came to warming up my bedroll when we made camp every night, even if I was in it. By the Nine, that lass's body was one most men would give their right arms for, and I was very-much a red-blooded man yet! At least I had a decent tolerance to such acts; quite a few of the young'uns from the orphanage, despite having developed such comely bodies, still carried out the habit of their younger years, and insisted on sharing a bed with me. Even so, it had been a while since I had last lain with a woman, and my self-control was wearing thin. And yet, I was determined not to undermine the inexplicable faith I was sure my new Housecarl had in me; I would not insult by her using her like a cheap harlot, not do anything to lose my longest-term companion on my absurd journey through this strange land.

And what a journey it had been over the past week! After being almost kicked out of Dragonsreach by Jarl Balgruuf (via a backdoor through the dungeons; the Cloud and Wind Districts were still too full of well-wishers for me to willingly risk navigating), we first headed to Ivarstead, picking up some winter supplies and enjoying the feeling of an actual bed (although Lydia had insisted on sharing the same room as me, being sworn to protect my person at all times, despite my attempts to reassure her that I doubted assassins would know of my arrival to the quiet town of Ivarstead; her dedication to duty was truly admirable.) My reassurances were proven false the next day when, upon leaving the inn, we were ambushed by 3 robed cultists, their faces covered by weird, identical masks, demanding to know if I was the Dragonborn. Before I could deny it, Lydia had announced that, yes, I was the Dragonborn, and wanted to know why they were asking. Their response had been memorable.

"Your lies fall on deaf ears, Deceiver! The True Dragonborn comes ... You are but his shadow. When Lord Miraak appears all shall bear witness. None shall stand to oppose him!"

And then their 3 Lightning Bolts had fallen upon my well-prepared ward, before Lydia swiftly decapitated one and stabbed the other, while I parried the third one's blade into his chest. I mean... really? A lengthy monologue where their intentions to kill me are announced, and they think we'd just stand around not doing anything while they slaughter us? Clearly, these were amateurs at best. Oh, we'd checked the bodies, and found some note some figure called 'Miraak' ordering my execution from Solstheim, and that the cultists had evidently taken a vessel, the 'Northern Maiden' from Raven Rock to Windhelm. While it wasn't big news that someone wanted me dead (Lydia had been surprised by my nonchalance to such a minor event), it was, indeed, intriguing as to who this Miraak was, and why he wanted me dead for being a 'fake' Dragonborn, if I was supposed to be some Nord hero. However, the fastest way to answer that, I figured, would have been to go up to the Greybeards and learn what the Dragonborn really was. Besides, if these were the best assassins he could send, I figured I could procrastinate for a little bit. With that comforting thought in mind, we handed the corpses (bereft of any jewellery or valuables, of course) over to the local guards, gave our testimonies, got intercepted by some burly Nord who wanted to deliver supplies to the Greybeards (I could neither find a reason to refuse, nor betray Lydia's expectant gaze, sadly), and thus descended up the 7,000 Steps.

After spending the better part of a day climbing the 7,000 Steps, having to wrestle what Lydia insisted was a frost troll when I could have sworn it was a giant, learning Theology from 10 Etched Tablets on the way up (thanks, Kyne and Paarthunax!), depositing the supplies, and finally reaching the monastery of High Hrothgar, my first thought was probably how sacred and serene the ancient place felt. I'd once been told that the summit of this mountain, the 'Throat of the World', was where Kyne first created Man, by breathing upon the mountain. While I hadn't believed it in my youth, I found myself perfectly willing to believe it as I entered the hallowed halls of High Hrothgar, and encountering 4 silent robed ancients meditating.

One spoke for them, an old man named 'Arngeir' who asked me to demonstrate that I, indeed, had the ability to Shout. After murmuring "Fus" at him with the minimal intent required to focus my Thu'um into reality, he seemed to accept that I was, indeed, Dragonborn. That had been rather anti-climactic, to be honest, but not more so than what my overall training had consisted of. After explaining that I wanted to know what it meant to be Dragonborn, I was told that the Greybeards had always sought out those of Dragon Blood and guide them to their destiny. That probably explained Miraak's cultists - he was probably a fellow Dragonborn, and couldn't accept that there was more than one, the power-hungry 'Lord'. Before I could inquire about my fellow Dragonborn, I was told about the reason I could learn these Shouts so quickly, that my 'non-existent' focus and discipline remained to be seen, before another one, 'Master Einarth', granted me both his knowledge and understanding of what was, apparently, the second word of the shout that Fus was of, 'Ro', or 'Balance'. As I absorbed his understanding, the familiar feeling of my soul awakening came to me, and it felt as if a path I hadn't known existed beyond the word Fus had been both illuminated to me, and unlocked. Testing out the new Shout, "Fus Ro", and awing Lydia even more, I was surprised to feel how much stronger it was, and that Shouts typically consisted of three words, each consecutive word increasing it's strength, as well as how much easier it had grown after constant practice. While on the road fresh out of Whiterun, I had tried my Shout, but found my throat strained after each use at the beginning, although it typically recovered after 15 seconds or so. With that said, however, the longer Shout held a larger strain on my throat, and I was thus back to lengthy rests between shouts. They then brought me out to the freezing courtyard, and granted me the knowledge and understanding of a new word, 'Wuld', or 'Whirlwind', the usage of which apparently made me shoot forward a short distance at tremendous speeds, something extremely dangerous on the frozen ground. And... that was the end of it. No other words, no more training, they simply commented about how fast I learnt the shouts, before tasking me to retrieve the horn of their founder, 'Jurgen Windcaller', as a final test. When I asked if there was more they could teach me, I got some bovine manure about how the journey of learning was as important as what I learnt, and I was politely thrown out of High Hrothgar with but a simple "Sky guard you."

And so, cursing every step of the way, I made my way back down the 7,000 Steps, pausing only at the base of the mountain to vent my frustrations by slaughtering some bears for some Nord hunter named Gunmar, Lydia torn between laughing at yet another graceful exit from a distinguished dwelling and wondering if I was simply a bad luck charm (can't say I blamed her, though), before I realised an important problem - I had no idea where this 'Ustengrav' actually was. Sighing, Lydia had taken out my mapped, and pointed out it's rough location, in the warm and welcoming swamps between Hjaalmarch and the Pale, before suggesting we go down to Riften and take a carriage to either Morthal or Solitude (she declined to mention Dawnstar, at least understanding a cold Marius was not a happy Marius). Riften, the lawless underbelly of Skyrim, home to the Thieves Guild, the Cyrodilic branch of which I was most undeniably out-of-favor with? It was then that I suggested we take a lovely stroll through Skyrim instead, save some septims, walk a few hundred kilometers...

"I'm still waiting for an answer, my Thane," Lydia's impatient prompt brought me back from that moment 3 days ago. Since then, our journey, north from Ivarstead through the Valtheim Towers, west to Whitewatch Tower, and finally north past the Weynon Stones, before we planned to make camp near the Hall of the Vigilant (also, secretly, I felt I owed the Vigilants a visit at least, their aid to my old orphanage invaluable), before heading north-west past the mountain to finally, hopefully, reach Ustengrav tomorrow afternoon. Sighing, I finally decided to share a bit of my sordid past.

"You know I was in Helgen, right?" Lydia nodded. Good, that simplified things.

"Did you know I was on the chopping block with Ulfric Stormcloak?" Now that got her attention.

"Wait, didn't you say you were ex-Legion? Did you join up with the Stormcloaks after that?" Lydia began interrogating me, and I swore I heard suspicion in her voice.

"Now, hold on a second, do you think the Stormcloaks would even accept an provincial?" I asked, referring to the Stormcloaks' well-known dislike of Imperials, and she chuckled. Seeing her suspicions wane, I continued: "I was crossing the border into Skyrim at just the same time and place as Ulfric had apparently been leaving, and we both fell into General Tullius' trap."

"So, what you're saying, my Thane, is that you were unlucky?" I laughed at Lydia's fake surprise, alerting the garrison at Fort Dunstad as we passed by.

"You know me so well, my dear Lydia. In fact," I swear I saw her eyes shine with my compliment, and continued: "You should just call me by my real name already."

"I-I-I could never show such disrespect, my Thane!" Lydia exclaimed, her face flushed. Perhaps the thought of showing such disrespect angered her more than I thought, I found myself pondering, although before I could reassure her we saw smoke.

"Smoke! Where the Hall of the Vigilant is supposed to be!" Lydia pointed out the obvious, sounding surprised.

"Could they be sending a smoke signal?" I asked, not sure how the local Vigilants of Stendarr do things.

"I doubt it, my Thane," Lydia replied, still refusing to use my given name. "They've always used local couriers, when they couldn't just send a squad of Vigilants to send a message themselves."

I could definitely understand that, the couriers of Skyrim were much more hardcore and dedicated to their duty than any I'd ever seen. By Kyne, a courier had, just the other day, apparently chased me all the way from Dragonsreach all the way to High Hrothgar, ambushing me just as I was being kicked out by the Greybeards just to pass me a letter from the Jarl of Falkreath. Any response I may have given, however, died in my throat, as we drew closer and found the Hall of the Vigilant burning, with corpses strewn everywhere, a single figure in the traditional robes of the Vigilants slowly marching past the ruins into the mountain.

"Wait!" I tried to call out, but the wind drowned up my voice, and the surviving Vigilant continued his somber journey up the mountain. "What happened here?" I asked Lydia, as we approached the ruined hall.

"I don't know, but whatever it is, it looks like it happened just a few days ago... it can't have happened too long ago, word still hasn't reached the other settlements yet." Lydia said, before kneeling down at one of the bodies. "My Thane, you know Alchemy, right? What's this dust?"

Kneeling down at one of the corpses dressed not in Vigilant-garb, but instead in some black armor quite a few of the others shared, I pulled out a small bowl, scooped up the dust I could, and quickly tasted it, much to Lydia's surprise. Her surprise was increased tremendously when I suddenly turned invisible, and I winced. I knew this taste, this effect. Vampire dust.

"Vampire dust... vampires did this," I began, gesturing at the burnt-out Hall, kicking the still-smouldering embers, before getting up. While it would be so easy to just ignore this wreckage, I owed the Vigilants this much, at least. "I'm going after that Vigilant, see if he needs help. I won't force you to join me; you can always go and warn the rest of Skyrim..."

Lydia scoffed, grabbed her blade, and walked up to my side, declaring: "I am sworn to protect you, my Thane, with my life if necessary. Don't insult my honor." Truly, I didn't deserve such a Housecarl.

The Vigilant's tracks, as it turned out, led to some ancient Nord tomb, which Lydia helpfully informed me was called 'Dimhollow Crypt', before voicing what I'm sure we were both thinking: "I have a bad feeling about this." Further discussion, however, was halted when we heard voices coming from within the tomb, and as we snuck in, we saw the Vigilant lie dead, by a fallen torch, 2 greyish-black-armored figures with glowing orange eyes, which I began to believe were all vampires, looking down at him, and conversing.

"These Vigilants never know when to give up. I thought we'd taught them enough of a lesson at their hall."

"To come in here alone... a fool like all the rest of them."

"He fought well though. Jeron and Bresoth were no match for him."

"Ha. Those two deserved what they got. Their arrogance had become insufferable."

"All this talk is making me thirsty. Perhaps-" The Vampire was interrupted when an arrow flew into his throat, causing him to choke on his own blood. The other looked around, surprised, before a second arrow found her knee. She barely had time to whistle for the Death Hound, before Lydia took her head off. She didn't have time to congratulate herself, however, as a massive dog, black as shadow, leapt at her, it's bite cold as the grave. A third arrow landed in it's eye, felling the foul beast, before it had down more than land a shallow bite on her through her steel armor.

"Lydia! You alright?" I called out, running down to her. She was still clutching the bite, wincing, though she tried to reassure me she was fine, just having been caught unaware. Ignoring her, however, I pulled her hand away, and examining the bite, surprised that the wound seemed like it had frostbite damage as well. Yet another unwelcome surprise, courtesy of Skyrim. At least, as a Nord, she was physiologically resistant to the cold. Sighing, I prepared a simple Healing Hands spell, and put my hand over her wound.

"A healing spell? Are you a priest?" Lydia asked in mock surprise, and I chuckled. She'd always say that every time I'd heal her during our travels. She then got up, found the lever for the gate, and we continued our journey into the depths of Dimhollow.

After what seemed like a few hundred death hounds, skeletons, vampires, and their thralls (if this was the group that hit the Hall, I can see why even the Vigilants would fall), as well as a few dozen draugr and frostbite spiders (always the damn spiders) defending the tomb, we finally entered a spacious cavern, just in time to listen to a vampire taunt a captured Vigilant about not knowing what they found, and killing him. Now that got my attention, and I looked into the cavern, seeing a weird stone chamber in the open space, and what appeared to be a pedestal in the middle, surrounded by braziers, 2 vampires and a thrall heading down towards it.

"I don't know what that is, but the vampires were willing to act so openly just to secure it..." I began, turning to Lydia, who nodded to me, drawing her bow. We didn't know what the vampires would do at the pedestal, but they'd been willing to wage open war with the Vigilants of Stendarr just to get it. In the end, though, after the hard-earned experience of the past half an hour and two dozen dead vampires, these last 2, and their very mortal thrall, didn't pose any significant challenge to our investigation. Securing the cavern, I studied the pedestal, and touched a button at the top I found. Before I could react, a sharp pain coursed through my right arm, as a sharpened spike shot upwards, and Lydia rushed towards me in concern, before halting as the surroundings were bathed in an eerie purple glow.

"I'm fine," I gasped, waving my right arm at her, while cursing my carelessness. Luckily, though, I didn't feel any poison coursing through my veins, just a dull pain that eased as I healed myself. As I looked around, I noticed something about the weird glow, the floor, and the braziers. "Is it just me, or does this line here look like it lines up with that brazier?"

5 minutes later, and a lot of heaving, we eventually managed to push to the last brazier into place, solving the puzzle of the chamber. As it clicked, the chamber shook, before the centre opened up, revealing strong necromantic energies that escaped, finally freed. The floor then began lowering, showing that the pedestal had merely been the top-piece of a weird stone monolith. Tapping it, one of the sides slid down, revealing a mysterious woman with some scroll on her back entombed within, who promptly collapsed on the floor. Well... that was unexpected. Reaching a hand out to her over the protests of my protective Housecarl, she took it and stood, disoriented, and I was surprised to see how bright orange her eyes were, far brighter and deeper a color than any of the other vampires I'd seen before. My concerns were not abated as she finally began speaking.

"Unh... where is... who sent you here?" Well, I had no idea how to tell her I sorta stumbled into the tomb by accident, of my own volition, so I decided to press her for more information.

"Who were you expecting?"

"I was expecting someone... like me, at least." I heard the slight hesitation in her tone. She'd been choosing her words carefully. Lydia, who'd been standing nearby, watching the mysterious woman with suspicion, interjected.

"What do you mean, "like you"? Are you a..."

"Vampire, yes." She replied as if it was the most obvious thing, and I remembered Lydia had been unable to see the orange glow in the vampires' eyes in the crypt. As her hand shot towards the hilt of her blade, and the woman's eyebrow raised, I quickly interrupted, trying to defuse the situation.

"Why were you locked away like this?" Now her reluctance was clear on her face, and she answered hesitantly.

"That's... complicated. And I'm not totally sure if I can trust you."

She had a fair point, I thought to myself as she paused, clearly thinking on her next course of action, and the feeling's more than mutual.

"But if you want to know the whole story, help me get back to my family's home." She finally finished, clearly feeling optimistic, and I mentally sighed.

"Where do you need to go?" I asked carefully, hoping that I'd be able to pass by Ustengrav and get the Horn first.

"My family used to live on an island to the west of Solitude. I would guess they still do." Well, at least Ustengrav was on the way there, I mused optimistically, as she finally introduced herself.

"By the way... my name is Serana. Good to meet you." She offered her hand, and I took it, much to Lydia's highly-visible consternation.

"Marius. Likewise. Any idea how to get out of here?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. This place looks pretty different from when I was locked away." That reminded me, I still didn't know how long she'd been locked away, and asked as much as we began walking, though her response, asking who was the High King of Skyrim, had me chuckling. Lydia, in my place, answered that the matter was up for debate, and Serana merely commented that it was yet another war of succession, though she was shocked to learn that there was, apparently, an Empire, one based out of Cyrodiil. Clearly, she'd been in there longer than Lydia or I expected, which was worrying, to say the least. She then reiterated her demand that I take her home, so she could figure out what was going on, as we reached the other end of the cavern, and the 2 gargoyle statues suddenly burst to life.

Dispatching the stone creatures had been rather difficult, to say the least, as their bodies of stone had been proof against Lydia's blade, to say nothing of my arrows. Even Serana's lightning bolts, so powerful that the air around it crackled and sparked just from the proximity, had merely been grounded against the forms. Luckily, though, I still had my blacksmith's hammer from when I had been forging and repairing my armor and arms, and the blunt impact had been able to finally create cracks in the rocks, chinks in the armor exploitable by Lydia's skilled bladework.

As the last gargoyle crumbled, and we made our way through a draugr-filled arena, the questions had continued; I'd asked about who had locked her in the crypt whilst dodging a battleaxe, and she'd told me about how her parents had had a falling out while electrocuting two unlucky draugr, while Lydia had sighed and quietly requested permission to kill all the undead while parrying an ancient blade. And, as I stood in front of what I now knew were called 'Word Walls', learning the word 'Gaan', the word for 'Stamina', the massive gilded scroll attached to her back caught my eye, and I jokingly asked if it was an Elder Scroll. Her quiet confirmation, however, only worried me. Clearly, this situation was a lot more complicated than I'd imagined, and a part of me secretly agreed with Lydia that we should have just left her in the tomb. Seeing her clear relief upon finally leaving the tomb, commenting on how the bracing fresh air of the Pale beat out the staleness of her tomb any day while she pulled up her hood, I felt my regrets melt away, although I knew that getting her to... wherever she needed to go, would have to take top priority. The Greybeards wouldn't be happy with the delay, but the Horn would have to wait for another day.

2 days, a lot of trekking, a slain dragon (not the black dragon of Helgen, naturally), quite a few questions from Serana about my personal life that Lydia showed a surprising amount of interest in, and an enchanted dingy at a jetty later, I found myself on an island off the coast of Solitude, staring at a massive castle that just screamed "Spooky Vampire Lair" so loud, even from whatever depths of Oblivion Mehrunes Dagon had been for the past 200 years it would still be obvious. Lydia was clearly of more than half a mind to grab me, toss me back in the boat, and get us to the mainland with all haste, though her professional restraint won out in the end. Before we could collect our thoughts and proceed, Serana decided to give me a warning first, about what to expect, although from what she'd told me about her family situation I didn't think I'd needed that warning; I was more than 'on guard' by that point.

After a slight fuss from the watchman, which was quickly resolved when Serana took of her hood and showed her face (was the watchman over 500 years old, or did they just hang her portrait inside their guard post and wait for the better part of a millenia?), we were finally let in, and I was treated to a most disgusting sight. Men and mer occupied the macabre court, some bearing the distinctive glowing orange eyes, well-dressed, but most staring ahead vacantly, eyes blank, wearing rags. Some of them served the vampires goblets of what I was sure was blood, while others simply lay on the table, acting as meals for the vampires. Not even the Thalmor deserved such fates, and I could see why Serana had warned me that I'd need to keep my cool; the temptation to lob a fireball was overwhelming, and only the fact that I needed information, as well as how obviously powerful and ancient this court was, stayed my hand. As Serana descended the stairs, her presence announced by the watchman, the head of the court, who I gleamed was her father, addressed her.

"My long-lost daughter returns at last. I trust you have my Elder Scroll?" I was having second-, third-, and fourth-thoughts about bringing Serana here now, and not only because of these dangerous, powerful, and ancient beings wanting an Elder Scroll; I doubted her father held the slightest concern for his daughter, my mortally-challenged short-term companion.

"After all these years, that's the first thing you ask me? Yes, I have the scroll." It seemed that Serana, too, was more than tired of his attitude.

"Of course I'm delighted to see you, my daughter. Must I really say the words aloud? Ah, if only your traitor mother were here, I would let her watch this reunion before putting her head on a spike." Man, Serana hadn't been kidding about them falling out. I'd bet Ulfric and Torygg's widow, Elisif, had a better relationship than this. The mild chuckle that mental image brought to me also attracted every vampire's attention in the court, and her father gestured at me, before continuing: "Now tell me, who is this stranger you have brought into our hall? "

"This is my savior, the one who freed me." If I hadn't been so busy keeping Lydia's hand off her sword, I'd have been flattered by what had essentially been an accident.

"For my daughter's safe return, you have my gratitude. Tell me, what is your name?" Well, now I had the Khajit by the tail, I supposed. Show fear, and they'd just walk right over me.

"I'm Marius," I began, hoping that my name wasn't well-known yet. After all, only the people of Whiterun should know of me. Unfortunately, the vampire lord's interruption proved me wrong.

"Marius, newest Thane of Whiterun, Hero of the Western Watchtower, Dragonslayer, the Dragonborn?" He asked, and I saw Serana's eyes open wide, while my dearest (and only) Housecarl's not-insignificant bosom swelled with pride. I gave her a slight shrug, guessing my lie about absorbing the slain dragon's soul being simply something that happened when they were killed was no more, as he continued: "Our mortal agents have heard quite a bit about you, and the court finds you most interesting."

"It seems I am at a disadvantage, for you know my reputation, but I do not," I countered. Keep them talking, these people just love to talk about themselves, and eventually some detail'd slip. "Who are you?"

"I am Harkon, lord of this court. By now, my daughter will have told you what we are." Yeah, he didn't disappoint. Making a mental note to look up this 'Harkon', I decided to be blunt.

"You're vampires."

"Not just vampires. We are among the oldest and most powerful vampires in Skyrim." Harkon boasted, though I didn't doubt his power, seeing the work of his forces at the Hall of the Vigilant, along with his private island. He then continued: "For centuries we lived here, far from the cares of the world. All that ended when my wife betrayed me and stole away that which I valued most."

While I could, charitably, assume he was talking about Serana, somehow I just knew he was referring more to the Elder Scroll on her back, which begged the question, though... how in Akatosh's good name had he managed to get one in the past? This visit was raising so many questions, and I knew I wasn't going to like the answers. Deciding to push my luck, I asked: "What happens now?"

"You have done me a great service, and now you must be rewarded. There is but one gift I can give that is equal in value to the Elder Scroll and my daughter. I offer you my blood. Take it, and you will walk as a lion among sheep. Men will tremble at your approach, and you will never fear death again." A better man would have said no immediately, never even considering such temptation. Unfortunately, however, I was not a better man, and I considered his 'blessing' for a while. Stalling, waging an internal war between my conscience and my baser instincts, I asked: "And if I refuse your gift?"

"Then you will be prey, like all mortals. I will spare your life this once, but you will be banished from this hall." That didn't sound good, but at the same time, the idea of serving an eternity under him didn't appeal to me. Seeing the hesitation on my face, he continued: "Perhaps you still need convincing?"

The very shadows seemed to wrap around him, as he bent over, shaking. Within seconds, however, his cocoon burst in a red mist of blood and shadow, revealing a pale winged creature, with the head of a bat. The very air trembled at his presence, and Lydia drew her sword, as he continued: "Behold the power! This is the power that I offer! Now, make your choice!"

While I could almost taste the power in the air, and a part of me truly wanted to embrace it, staving off mortality, and using such power to right any wrongs done to me... in the end, I couldn't say yes. Ultimately, I wasn't a man who wanted power. And, ultimately, I wasn't prepared to lose my good looks, and have that as my true form. Looking him in the eye, I told it to him straight: "I don't want to become a vampire. I refuse."

Gasps rose up from the crowd, and I saw fear creep into Serana's eyes, as Harkon looked me over and Lydia moved closer to me. I could tell, he hadn't been denied in centuries, especially not in front of his court. When he spoke, though, his voice was dangerously calm, though I sensed a tinge of anger within: "So be it. You are prey, like all mortals. I banish you!" With a wave of his hand, a black bolt struck me and Lydia, and we suddenly found ourselves standing outside the jetty, at the boat. Boarding the boat, Lydia was the first to finally speak: "Not that I ever doubted that you'd refuse vampirism, my Thane, but... are you sure that was wise?"

"I've already got the Morag Tong, the Thieves Guild, dragons, and that other Dragonborn called Miraak out to kill me, Lydia. This Harkon can get in line," I reassured her, although I could see the concern line her face. "And besides, how could I risk my stunning good looks by turning into a man-bat?"

That finally got a chuckle out of Lydia, and she continued with a lighter tone: "It would have been an improvement, my Thane. So... what do we do now?"

I sighed, weighing our options. I didn't know of any group that specialised in killing vampires, and the closest I could think of, the daedra-hunting Vigilants of Stendarr, had been wiped out. "We'll have to send in the Legion, but they'd never accept it; Tullius would never split his forces with the Stormcloaks around."

"What about the Companions?" Lydia suggested, and I thought about it, before shaking my head.

"Strong fighters as they may be, there just isn't enough of them. Not to mention I could never afford their help. No, I'll just raise this to Jarl Elisif, throw the matter into her hands. And then, finally, I'll drop by Ustengrav and get the damned Horn."

It would be half a day later, as we were on our way up to Solitude, that we ran into an Orc named Durak, who approached us, saying: "You there. The Dawnguard is looking for anyone willing to fight against the growing vampire menace. What do you say?"

Chapter Text

"Say, my Thane..." Lydia began, raising her shield and catching two 2-pronged arrows. "Fort Dawnguard was supposed to be east of the hellhole known as Riften, right?"

"Yes, my Housecarl," I replied, dodging four more arrows.

"And we went there to tell the Dawnguard the information we got about the growing vampire menace, right?" Lydia continued, pausing only to pull out an arrow and throw it back at it's sender like a miniature javelin.

"We did, indeed, tell that Isran about it, after Durak gave us the location of the vampire hunters. Why?" I replied, while pulling out a new weapon I'd been given from them, a pre-loaded crossbow, out of it's holster, and fired it at our nearest pursuer, taking him down, and having little effect on the mob pursuing us.

"So why, in the name of Talos' thick chest hairs, are we out in the Reach?!" Lydia exclaimed, as we cleared the cave entrance and triggered the trap, causing boulders to fall on most of our Forsworn pursuers, and imprisoning the rest within the cave, their only exit now covered by rubble. Not that it would hold them forever, but long enough for us to get a significant distance away. I then pondered the question, recalling the events of the past week.

After we had given Isran the news, and he had recovered from his mild heart attack, he apparently came to the conclusion he needed to expand the ranks of the Dawnguard. Not that it was a difficult conclusion to come to, to be honest; there had probably been less than 50-odd combat-ready regulars. If a skeever or Thalmor had shown up, offering assistance, I'd have bet my last septim Isran would have welcomed them, though only after his usual paranoid once-over. Meanwhile, the vampires held a castle of their own, off the coast of Solitude, and had an army large enough to not only wipe out the Hall of the Vigilant, but also send out raiding parties to quite a few towns, both in search of surviving Vigilants and spreading chaos. While civilian casualties so far had been limited, due to how every major hold had their guards on high alert for Stormcloak or Legions spies thanks to the Civil War, panic was growing.

My eyes had widened in surprise when I heard the first name Isran had suggested, and when he confirmed that Gunmar was, indeed, a big burly Nord with orange-brown hair, a thick beard, and had last been heard of hunting bears, Lydia had collapsed with laughter at my cursing and swearing. At least his second and third names, Sorine Jurard and Florentius Baenius, didn't ring a bell with me; Skyrim wasn't that small a world, luckily for my sanity. After all, at that rate, what would be next? Would a local innkeeper be some legendary dragonslayer?

Making our way back to Ivarstead, and barring a few detours, we were, at least, relieved to discover that Gunmar had continued lodging there for the time being, awaiting news of more man-slaughtering creatures to hunt and kill. From there, it had been surprisingly easy to convince him to help Isran; his code of honor demanded he help Isran stop the growing vampire menace, and the Elder Scroll they possessed was but the frosting on the sweetroll. Better yet, he'd been able to pinpoint Sorine's location to somewhere in the Reach, which was much more helpful than Isran's vague comments that she had been studying some ancient Dwemer ruins; evidently Sorine and Gunmar had a better relationship with each other than Isran had had with either of them. And, while he hadn't known Florentius' location, he told us that Sorine had recieved a package from Florentius via courier, containing some schematics for an upgraded crossbow from some Vigilant expedition of a tomb. Hopefully, that meant that Florentius and his Vigilants had escaped the destruction at the Hall, though their fates were up to Arkay and Stendarr. Thus, telling Gunmar we'd meet him at Fort Dawnguard, we set off for the Reach.

"Well, Gunmar told us this was where Sorine should be," I lamely replied to Lydia, shaking off the memories. It had been an eventful week since we'd left Fort Dawnguard; as we'd passed by the mountain range to the south of the Rift, three-quarters of the way to Ivarstead, I'd spotted a familiar face. Deciding to investigate, with a confused Lydia in tow, I'd been pleasantly surprised to find the young boy from Helgen, Haming, looking down at me, along with his suspicious grandfather, Froki, who'd apparently thought I'd been there to convert him to worship the Nine Divines.

After a brief conversation, where I'd explained I just wanted to look up a fellow survivor of Helgen, and that I had only been there on a misunderstanding, Froki had finally relented (and Lydia finally relaxed her sword-arm), and had, instead, offered me the chance to partake in Kyne's Sacred Trials, though not after filling my head with theocratic theories about how Kyne was the true Kynareth, widow-wife of Shor (or was it Lorkhan?). I'd tried to let him down gently, explaining I was on an important quest, and he relented after looking me over, and asked if I had studied the 10 Etched Tablets, and paid pilgrimage to High Hrothgar. Confirming it had granted me with a simple necklace, that he called Kyne's Token, and said that it bore the blessing of Kyne, and should make animals more reluctant to attack me, as well as somehow aiding in the luck of my shots, as well as, possibly, making me closer to Kyne. While I hadn't truly believed it, I decided to accept the old man's token, figuring I probably needed all the help I could get.

On another detour, as we'd entered Whiterun (with me in a hood to try and keep my identity safe), I'd learned that Warmaiden's had recently gotten a shipment of Dwarven Metal Ingots, which I'd promptly bought and turned into a new one-handed warhammer, as well as a few dozen crossbow bolts for my new crossbows.

Eventually, we'd entered the Reach, and had spent the past 3 days fighting off Forsworn, along with Hagraven and the occasional summoned Daedra, although the last location we'd passed by, Druadach Redoubt, had led to this latest incident, where a literal army of Forsworn had chased us as we'd made our way through the cavernous system, until we'd triggered the boulder trap that blocked off the cave's exit.

Sighing at the memories, Lydia and I continued walking further west, passing by a stream, and ignoring the peculiar sight of a mudcrab with a pouch in it's pincer. Shaking my head, ignoring the temptation to ask Lydia if this was a common sight, we eventually spotted the figure of a woman standing over a Dwemer structure at the top of the hill. Looked like we found our target.

Introducing ourselves to Sorine, and confirming her identity, made me remember Farengar with fondness. She was certainly eccentric, and she even sounded vindicated when we told her that vampires we becoming a problem, saying that she had told Isran. Clearly, they hadn't parted on the best of terms. Unfortunately, even her most pessimistic worst-case scenarios paled in comparison to them possessing an Elder Scroll, and the smirk had fallen right off her face. Eventually, she'd relented, but insisted on getting back her pouch of dwemer gyros, citing them as the key to figuring out how an enhanced crossbow functioned. Sighing, sadly unsurprised by this new request, I asked her where she last saw it.

"Do you think mudcrabs might've taken it? I saw one the other day." Sorine had answered me, a serious tone in her voice, before it cracked, and she laughed, continuing: "What would mudcrabs want with my satchel, anyway?" I'd began chuckling as well, at the absurdity of the sentence, but then I remembered the peculiar mudcrab, and me and Lydia exchanged a glance, before rushing back down the hill, determined to find the thieving mudcrab.

After 15 minutes (and 20 dead mudcrabs), we finally trekked back up the hill, and handed a very bemused Sorine a satchel full of dwemer gyros. After being thanked, and recieivng a schematic for something called an 'Enhanced Crossbow', we told her we'd meet her and Gunmar (the delight on her face at the thought was obvious) at Fort Dawnguard, before asking where we could find Florentius Baenius. Her response, that he was at the Ruunvald Excavation, north of Riften, was not amusing, and I silently swore we'd take the carriage back; I was not walking back to the other end of Skyrim again.

-KYNARETH'S REALM, WHEN MARIUS WAS RECEIVING KYNE'S TOKEN-

Kynareth felt a brief resurgence of her older aspect as Kyne, and wondered if somebody was telling tales of the youngest days of the universe, back when Akatosh was Auri-El, and had slain her husband Shor, who would become known as Lorkhan.

Deciding to put aside such thoughts, she decided to peer back to Tamriel, wondering who would be speaking of such ancient legends as to elicit those oldern thoughts of hers. After all, Akatosh was no longer Auri-El, and she was now more than Kyne. To focus back on when they were, rather than who they were now, after being shaped by mortal beliefs, would not help her youngest nephew survive the Dragon Crisis, nor would it bring back Lorkhan; being angry at who Akatosh once was would not be productive for Man and Nature to make it through Alduin's machinations.

She sighed, the thoughts of Akatosh's first-born troubling her. She could guess Akatosh had a plan, since he saw further and deeper through time than any of his fellow aedra did, but she still wondered why he did not summon Alduin through a show of force, to rebuke her for her actions. Her siblings, too, were divided, with Mara being one of the most vocal proponents for redeeming Alduin, while Arkay and, surprisingly, Stendarr were all for punishing the wayward aedric child. She supposed his more militant followers after the Mehrunes Dagon's attempted incursion into Mundus had influenced him. Personally, she felt that leaving it to Akatosh and his newest mortal child would probably be the best bet. And speaking of the Last Dragonborn...

She paused for a whole second, trying to process what she observed. Her erstwhile favourite mortal nephew, who she had been forced to take her eyes off of for a bit to misdirect Mephala, Azura, and Nocturnal, was being preached at about her older self, Kyne, by some old follower of the Ancient Nordic Pantheon. She sincerely hoped that he hadn't told Marius any of the more raunchy and embarrassing tales of her youth; she was still powerful enough to cause some serious smiting, even despite all the limits on her powers and interactions.

More pressingly, as she peered closer at Marius, she found herself feeling highly concerned that it hadn't seemed like his aedric spirit and innate powers had grown. Had he been shirking his duties as Dragonborn? While it had been true Alduin was playing things very safe, attempting to build up her forces quietly, after having met Marius at Helgen, Kynareth knew that the two siblings would eventually clash, and by the looks of it, Marius was in no way ready to win the fight. Perhaps, she mused, it was time to have words with Paarthunax and Jurgen's disciples; under their guidance and the resurgence of dragons he should have been far more powerful at this time than he was.

As part of her went to ask Paarthunax about this, another part of her watched as her mortal follower offered Marius Dragonborn the chance to partake in her sacred trials. She froze, feeling a thrill. The Sacred Trials were, essentially, a way for mortals to earn favor and attention from the patron god, Kyne in this case. However, she wasn't just Kyne, and Marius wasn't just a mortal. She briefly recalled back before she and Shor were even married, and he had tried to woo her, before pausing, wondering why the memory had returned, unbidden.

Continuing her voyeurism, she watched, inexplicably disappointed, as Marius had rejected. She should have been happy, after all; not only did this mean her nephew would have more time to work on the Dragon Crisis, but that he wouldn't have to find out about her old self as a callous youth of an aedra, wild and foolish. And yet, she felt stirrings that would have had her sister Mara surely comment snidely, a trait that she knew Marius had inherited. She thus decided to do something foolish.

Briefly expending some of her power, she manifested more of herself upon Mundus, probing Marius for any divine blessings, and was pleasantly surprised to find traces of her own blessing upon him; presumably, when he had visited one of her holy sites, he had meditated, and the local divinity had latched upon his aedric soul and clear mind. Looking slightly deeper into the past, she found he had visited High Hrothgar, and wondered how she had missed that. No matter, though, there was more work to be done. She then opened the mortal's eyes to Marius, revealed he already had her blessing, and implanted in him the suggestion of simply handing over her sacred token.

She watched, pleased, as he proceeded to do exactly that, and felt an inexplicably joy fill her as he accepted her token, and wore it. As her follower explained what it did, she sighed happily, finally realising why that token had stirred such feelings within her. Unlike the current symbols of Kynareth, this symbol, one of Kyne, was identical in shape to the token she had presented to Shor in their courting days. She wondered why wistful thoughts of love were filling her mind, before deciding it didn't really matter. After all, she had needed a way to keep the daedra from corrupting her precious nephew; what better way than when he had a strong symbol of her on his person?

As she pooled more of her power into his token, she briefly wondered asking Mara for advice on how to please mortals.

-RUUNVALD EXCAVATION, 1 DAY AFTER FINDING SORINE JURARD-

"I have got to take the carriages more often," I remarked, as we finally trekked our way up the mountain to what was one of the last two remaining holdouts of the Vigilants of Stendarr known to the Dawnguard, according to Sorine Jurard. She had elected to join us on the carriage to Riften, and had proven to have a decent grasp of tactics, despite her eccentricities. During the one-day journey back, which had both been much faster and far more comfortable than my one-week trek to the Reach, Lydia and I had shared most of the information we had received from Isran, as well as been able to put together, while she had run theories by us, most of which had been shot down out of sheer absurdity, as well as give information on any potential allies the Dawnguard may have had left. This included what remained of the Vigilants in Skyrim.

Discounting mercenary bands like the Silver Hand, which were not only unreliable, but focused on werewolves instead of a more-generalized skill-set that would be required for fighting the Volkihar Clan of ancient vampires, the remnants of the Vigil would be our best bet for allies. After all, while the Vigilants as a group had been effectively decimated, numerous individual Vigilants still roamed Skyrim, and these survivors were the toughest and most cunning the Vigil had to offer, especially once Volkihar agents began combing Skyrim for survivors, which they typically attempted to eliminate with extreme prejudice. Furthermore, the vampires had been too public with the destruction of the Hall of the Vigilant; once rumors had spread of it's destruction, the Vigilants that didn't go into hiding had begun making their way to one of their more-remote outposts: Stendarr's Beacon, south-east of Riften and south of Dayspring Canyon, the entrance to Fort Dawnguard, now held the largest concentration of Vigilants in Skyrim, and continued to grow daily. If they survived the Volkihar Conspiracy, as Sorine had begun calling it, the Vigilants would have a chance of rebuilding. Of course, their chances would be helped, if contact was made with the other, lesser-known Vigilant's holdout, Ruunvald Excavation.

Our destination, the Ruunvald Excavation, had been a secret Vigilant excavation site. Based on what Florentius had shared with Gunmar and Sorine, it had started as a pet project for a Vigilant scholar, one Moric Sidrey, who believed that there was some artifact of great power to be found in those ruins, one that the Vigilants could find useful in their mission. While few had believed him, he had secured enough support and funding to establish a small excavation team just a few months prior. Apparently, he had found something, because soon enough there were somewhere roughly forty-odd Vigilants digging up the tomb, and even a few huskies had been sent to guard it. Oddly enough, however, outside of manpower requests and excavation finding summaries, there hadn't been much mention of Ruunvald, which was presumably how the Volkihar vampires hadn't struck it yet. What was even odder, however, was how, when we finally reached the excavation site, we found not a soul. No vigilants, no huskies, not even any bodies. Clearly, something was wrong.

The ancient Nordic tomb was eerier, if such a thing was possible, than even the macabre Volkihar cult. For one thing, despite all the signs of life, the lit torches, the dishes of food, the unmade bedrolls... there was still no signs of life. This trend continued until we reached the innermost temple, guarded by snarling huskies. That went from eerie to confusing; on the one hand, at least there was some life, even if it was hostile. But on the other, why were Vigilant dogs hostile to us? Approaching them cautiously, I felt the amulet around my neck burn, and suddenly the vicious guard dogs were as friendly as puppies; a few even presented their bellies for rubs, their tails wagging so hard I'd believed they would sprain it. Lydia chuckled at the adorable sight, before shooting me a confused look. I could only return a confused shrug, having no idea how they'd gone from snarling guard dog to whining puppy in 5 seconds, but I decided against questioning it. Telling the dogs to "sit" and "stay", we entered the inner temple.

The first thing we heard, upon entering the temple, was a constant chant.

"Minorne..."

It was an all-pervasive sound, rebounding throughout the temple thanks to the acoustics; it was honestly a wonder we hadn't heard it. I felt it begin to invade my thoughts, and quickly shook my head. Whatever this mantra was, I had a job to carry out. The source of the mantra, however, made me rethink my actions temporarily; looking into the inner chamber, I saw the missing Vigilants, prostrate before a hooded Altmer holding a staff, with a caged Vigilant next to her. The gem embedded in the staff was so captivating... looking at it almost made it overwhelm my thoughts, allowing it to be filled by the constant mantra... I shook my head again. Damn, I almost got hypnotised... wait... was that what happened to the Vigilants? I looked around again. Yeah, they were clearly under some Illusion magic. If I killed the caster without breaking the spell, I didn't know what would happen; it could free the targets, simply kill them, or even make them frenzied. Slowly drawing my bow, I took careful aim at the staff's crystal. This was a distance much greater than I'd like for such a small target, but I didn't want to risk alerting the Vigilants. Hoping that Kyne's Token really did have some enchantment to help my aim, I drew my bowstring, and took a breath. My concentration, however, was broken when Lydia suddenly grabbed my arms from behind, and shouted: "Minorne! I have found an intruder!"

By Molag Bal's vile hairy asscrack, I'd forgotten about Lydia!

Being dragged by my hypnotised Housecarl to meet some vile illusionist Altmer named Minorne with a small army of enthralled Vigilants was a novel experience. But, to be perfectly honest, I felt like I was having a lot of 'novel experiences' since I'd come to Skyrim. While Lydia's grip and hold were firm, I could feel that she wasn't applying any of her techniques to ensure I couldn't escape; while trekking, I'd requested a bit of hand-to-hand combat training from Lydia, and she'd enthusiastically taught me a lot of wrestling moves, especially enjoying pinning me until I was physically incapable of movement, let alone escape. Thus, from experience, I could tell I could probably escape, had I really used force. Unfortunately, I felt highly hesitant; Lydia was a close companion of mine, and I didn't want to hurt her. Furthermore, breaking free now would have simply led to me being surrounded by a small army of Vigilants. Hence, I allowed myself to be dragged forth, up the steps, and came face-to-face with Minorne... that probably wasn't the best idea.

Face-to-face with Minorne, I resisted the urge to comment on her crow's feet or the crazed look in her eyes. Instead, I did what I knew would tick off megalomaniacs the most; I ignored her. Turning my head away from her, I looked at the caged man, and said, simply: "Judging by the fact that you're caged and not kneeling down chanting some bitch's name non-stop, I sincerely hope you're Florentius Baenius?" He looked delighted, and replied: "I knew it! I knew Arkay would save me. I asked for help, and he sent you!"

He then looked at the situation I was in, and followed up: "Though, I didn't see this coming... Arkay works in mysterious ways, I guess."

I chuckled, while Minorne got more and more irritated. I then analysed the situation - I was now right in front of the caster and her staff, the focus of her spell, with only my Housecarl to guard me... by physically restraining my limbs. I could definitely work with this, though I'd need to time it right. The angle, her ability to react, I had to time it all just right...

As she raised her staff higher, I invoked my birthright, the power granted to me by Akatosh: the Thu'um. While the Greybeards hadn't been willing to teach me a full Shout, and I'd been too busy trying to stop the Vampire Menace to really hunt down Word Walls, I at least knew a few basics. Such as, say...

"FUS RO!"

The Unrelenting Shout flew from my lips and hit her out-raised staff, tearing it from her grasp. Before she could react, it hit the ceiling, shattering the gem. Immediately, the spell broke, and the Vigilants (and my dear Housecarl) began to stir, dazed from their mental trauma. Unfortunately, before they would recover, I would be at the mercy of an angry Altmer warlock. Fortunately, Lydia's grip had slackened and, most importantly, I still had the pre-loaded crossbows in their holsters. As she threw a lightning bolt at me, searing my left hand and paralysing the entire arm, I drew my other crossbow. At that distance, there was scarcely a need to aim; a pull of the trigger ended the warlock.

As the Vigilants tried to get their bearings, and I casted a Healing spell on my left arm, I spotted a key on Minorne's belt, and decided to try it on Florentius' cage. To my delighted lack of surprise, it was the right one, and Florentius almost crushed me in his hug, saying: "I owe both you and Arkay a great deal. I'm sure I'll manage to repay him later, but you... What can I do to thank you?"

Well, if that wasn't the perfect opening, I didn't know what was.

"Isran needs your help."

6 hours, and a lot of convincing later, with some possible aid from Arkay himself, we led Florentius, Moric, some other Vigilant called Volk, and the surviving Vigilants, to Stendarr's Beacon. They hadn't taken news of how the Hall had been hit while they'd been hypnotised well, and wanted revenge. At least they had been easy enough to channel back to the goal; Lydia was very upset at how she'd been hypnotised and almost betrayed me, and my attempts to tell her that it worked out in the end had done little to console her. As our somber group marched past Dayspring Canyon, we saw the telltale smoke of Stendarr's Beacon, somehow different. It was darker and larger than usual. Florentius looked around wildly, saying: "Arkay says there's something wrong at Stendarr's Beacon!" Well, that sounded ominous. Picking up the pace, we soon heard the sounds of battle, and reached Stendarr's Beacon to find it the site of a massive battle, vampires pouring down from Lost Tongue Overlook to the west, as the surviving Vigilants, battle-hardened, put up a strong resistance.

It wouldn't have been enough against these numbers, even if these were the strongest and smartest that the Vigil had left to offer, even with all their preparations. This looked like almost a full-third of all of Castle Volkihar's troops, and gargoyles carrying death hounds were still flying in. They needed reinforcements. Luckily, they had us.

With a warcry of "REMEMBER THE HALL!", the Vigilants of Ruunvald charged into their flanks, smashing into the unprepared vampire army with the fury of desperate, angry men. Swords found purchase in undead flesh, maces pulverised ancient skull and the stone-flesh of gargoyles, and, perhaps most importantly, the few magic-adept Vigilants in our band wove magics from the school of Restoration, channeled them, and unleashed the concentrated fury of the very sun itself, burning away much of the front lines. The spell had been a recent discovery from Florentius, who claimed it to be a gift from Arkay, who said it was a gift from Akatosh's original aspect as Auri-El. We didn't question it, we just fought.

Amidst the chaos of battle, Lydia and I found ourselves fighting back to back, her shield protecting my flanks, while my crossbows fired at vampires who looked to be casting magic; her sword slicing into any that would have bitten or clawed me, and my Voice keeping the larger groups at bay. Meanwhile, all around us, claws found flesh through Vigilant robes, maces shattered bone, shield, and armor, and the huskies duelled death hounds in a bloody melee. Between us, the Vigilants of Ruunvald, and the Vigilants of the Beacon, we must have killed 4 to 5 times our number in the first few minutes of the battle.

It didn't matter that much when the enemies outnumbered us 10-to-1, and more kept pouring in. While our spells were highly effective against the powerful vampires, one of the things that made them so good, that we could use them freely without worrying about being affected by it ourselves, also meant that it was useless against the vampire thralls. Furthermore, while the death hounds also hated the sun, the gargoyles were a different beast themselves, and soon our pincer movement devolved into our group being encircled, resisting with the fury of doomed men, cut off by the main body of vampires, besieging the beacon. I swung my warhammer at a passing gargoyle, my crossbows long-since spent, while Moric Sidrey was ripped apart by death hounds to my left. Suddenly, the movement of the vampire troops ceased, and a more ornately-armored vampire walked up to us, his cape flowing, singling me out amongst the rest.

"Ah, yes... you. Serana's saviour, the prey who could have been a predator, but turned it down. Of course you would be responsible," he began, his rich voice flowing like the scratching of a coffin by a dead man.

"Responsible? I didn't gather the Vigilants at the Beacon!" I countered, confused, and he laughed.

"Silly mortal, I wasn't referring to your pathetic attempts at resistance. The Vigilants were never a threat to us." He laughed, and I felt the surrounding Vigilants ready their weapons, not taking kindly to the perceived insult.

"The only reason why we're here is the only reason why we destroyed them at their Hall - they were merely in the way of us and Serana." That statement chilled and confused me. Serana? What did she have to do with this attack? Before I could react, he gestured, and I felt an iron grip lift me from the ground.

"Answer me this, and I'll let you live as our pet, mortal: Where. Is. Serana?" He questioned me, his glowing eyes boring into me, and I resisted. It wasn't the hardest thing, resisting his mind magic; Minorne's magic, focused through the staff at Ruunvald, was more compelling than this. He sensed it too, and said, simply: "So be it."

As he said that, a burly familiar man, in unfamiliar armor, shouted: "NOW! FOR THE VIGIL!", and crossbow bolts flew from the trees in the south, faster than I'd ever expected, burying themselves in the ornately-armored vampire, as well as many of his kin, and Lydia took the opportunity to chop off the wounded creature's arm, freeing me. After the volley, numerous figures charged from the treeline, each bearing the symbol of a shield in front of a sun. The Dawnguard had come.

While the vampires had been able to handle 2 groups of well-trained, vengeful, and prepared Vigilants through sheer weight of numbers, their current, decimated, army, suffering heavy casualties from the pincer move when we'd reinforced the Beacon, was unable to properly deal with a third group, especially with the Dawnguard being well-trained, vengeful, very well-prepared, and highly-specialised vampire hunters, with their frontline taking the sun spells to the next level; the few vampires at the front who had survived the devastating sneak attack, and been fast enough to react, burned as the Dawnguard Heavy Infantry, led by Celann, Durak, and Gunmar, charged them, each wreathed in an aura of sunlight. Those that survived the burns, the Dawnguard chopped into with axes and smashed with warhammers, the wounds left by such weapons smouldering. Some vampires tried to claw at them, while others attempted to drain their life with their unholy spells. Thralls tried to defend their masters with blade and bow. All were far less effective against the Dawnguard's heavy armor than they had been on the Vigilants' robes.

Meanwhile, in the sky, the stone-flesh of the gargoyles was of no much for the increased punch of the enhanced crossbows the Dawnguard wielded, a weapon I had the sneaking suspicion Sorine had rushed to finish and mass-produce with Gunmar's help, Florentius' schematics, and her completed research into dwemer gyros. With their air superiority gone, and their forces devastated by the 3-pronged attack, the remaining vampires fled, leaving their thralls to hold their retreat. The final tally of the battle was a third of the surviving Vigilants dead, and half of the survivors heavily injured, though the Dawnguard had taken no casualties, against a full three-quarters of the Volkihar forces. However, there were still unanswered questions, and no time to rest, as Gunmar greeted me after the battle, and all but dragged me off to see Isran, Lydia following behind, unhappy with how I was being man-handled, and Florentius coming in as well, to serve as both liason between the Dawnguard and Vigilants, and because he wanted to greet Sorine as well.

-FORT DAWNGUARD TORTURE ROOM, 10 MINUTES LATER-

"So," I began lamely, trying to ignore Isran's suspicious looks, Serana's look of a puppy finding it's favourite chew toy, Lydia's look of contempt, and Sorine's, Gunmar's, Celann's, and Florentius' teasing looks, amusement dancing in their eyes. "What's going on?"

"You probably weren't expecting to see me again." Serana began, before Isran's gruff voice cut in, addressing solely me.

"This vampire showed up while you were away. I'm guessing it's the one you found in Dimhollow Crypt. Says it's got something really important to say to you. And seeing as how a literal army of vampires showed up hunting it down, and almost finished what they started at the Hall, I think it's probably pretty important." He finally acknowledged Serana's presence, turning to her and saying: "So let's hear it."

Sighing, wondering why it seemed that everything these days seemed to fall to me, I decided to start the conversation with a simple question.

"What are you doing here?"

"I'd rather not be here either," She replied, gesturing at the old Fort Dawnguard, literally on the other side of Skyrim from her ancestral home. I could see her point; it wasn't nearly as crumbling as it had been when I'd first stepped foot in it, a week ago or so, but it was a far cry from the amenities of Castle Volkihar. She then continued: "But I needed to talk to you. It's important, so please just listen before your friend, here, loses their patience." I could definitely see her point, though I wasn't sure which friend she was referring to; Isran was clearly having a debate about whether to shove a stake through her heart, or simply toss her out of a window at daybreak, and Lydia was loudly sharpening a Dawnguard war axe. The 4 Dawnguard officers began snickering, and I glared at them, before motioning at her to continue.

"It's... well, it's about me. And the Elder Scroll that was buried with me."

"What about you?" I asked, concerned. Meanwhile, the sharpening somehow got louder.

"The reason I was down there... and why I had the Elder Scroll. It all comes back to my father. I'm guessing you figured this part out already, but my father's not exactly a good person. Even by vampire standards." I nodded, understanding perfectly. Hell, forget 'vampire standards', I think he'd probably disgust even Molag Bal. Ignoring Isran's muttered question of "Vampires have standards?", she continued again: "He wasn't always like that, though. There was... a turn. He stumbled onto this obscure prophecy and just kind of lost himself in it."

"What do you mean... "lost himself"?" I asked, curious. I honestly couldn't see Harkon ever actually having been a nice guy.

"He just became absorbed... obsessed. It was kind of sick, actually. The prophecy said that vampires would no longer need to fear the sun. For someone who fancied himself as vampire royalty, that's pretty seductive." Yeah, that sounded like the Harkon I knew for the whole of 2 minutes... Wait, what was that about the sun? Before I could ask, she finished her statement: "Anyway, my mother and I didn't feel like inviting a war with all of Tamriel, so we tried to stop him. That's why I was sealed away with the Scroll."

Her testimony raised so many questions, key of which, to me, was wondering what on earth kind of parents she'd had. In the end, though, now wasn't the time for such personal questions. Placing my hand on her shoulder, trying to be comforting, I replied, with as soothing a tone as I could manage: "You took a big risk coming here."

"I did," Serana confirmed, before locking gazes with my own, and her tone warmed up. "But something about you makes me think I can trust you. I hope I'm not wrong."

"No, you're right." I answered, reassuring her. "I just wanted to know why you'd come here. Also, how did you even get here?"

I saw her bit her lip, and she began: "It's a long story..."

-CASTLE VOLKIHAR CASTLE, 15 MINUTES AFTER MARIUS WAS BANISHED-

Serana, the Pure-Blooded Vampire Lord, Daughter of Coldharbor, was not a happy hundred(s)-year-old undead vampire. Just under a week ago, from her perspective, her mother, Valerica, had sealed her inside an ancient Nordic tomb, Dimhollow Crypt, before sealing the sarcophagus within a chamber, designed to only react to blood pure from any Volkihar-taint, setting up the brazier puzzle as further security, and filling the hole with an alchemical reagent made with her expertise on necromancy, designed to cause temporal stasis until being released into the environment. Before the sealing, Serana had cried, wept, demanded to know why her mother was imprisoning her, separating her from the only one of her two parents she'd thought truly cared about her. Valerica had explained things coldly, clinically, stating that her husband, Serana's father Harkon, was going mad with power; obsessed with the concept of being free from the tyranny of the sun, he would either fail, and bring ruin to their clan, or succeed, and every race, faction, and group in Tamriel would wage war on every vampire, determined to reverse it. Either way, he had to be stopped.

Serana's gaze had gone cold, her jaw clenched, as Valerica passed her one of Harkon's two Elder Scrolls, determined to keep her, and it, away from him. Her mother wasn't reassuring her; by Oblivion, she wasn't even acting like Serana had emotions! Valerica just seemed to assume that Serana would do it out of loyalty, or reason. As Valerica had begun explaining how the blood test would work, and why it was so important that the blood of the person in question be free of Volkihar-taint (she didn't want her husband's agents to be able to free her; his vampires and their thralls would bear the taint of Clan Volkihar, and she knew he was too obsessed with vampiric superiority to even consider employing mere mortal agents), or why the brazier puzzle was set up (to prevent some mindless earth digger from accidentally uncovering her from her prison just by spilling blood upon the blood testing mechanism), Serana silently stewed, heartbroken. She had simply, mindlessly, allowed her mother to fill her with the sweetest mortal blood they could find, and got into the sarcophagus, barely registering Valerica's comments that she should be free within a few centuries. She had actually welcomed the darkness when the chamber closed, the cessation of her senses, unable to register anything around her. After all, it wasn't like her parents cared about her as an actual person anymore...

She hadn't known what to expect, when the tomb had finally been unsealed, and herself awakened. Would it be her mother, finally triumphant over her father in their power struggle? Or would it be her father, bearing her mother's bloodied head, determined to get revenge for their betrayal? Would she be looking at a new vampire order? Mortal scholars working for her mother? Whatever her wildest fantasies during her timeless slumber had been, she was sure that the last thing she had expected was to come face to face with an Imperial explorer, with a Nord Housecarl in tow, who had stumbled upon her tomb almost entirely by accident.

She sighed in her private chambers, the memories of Marius stirring within her. The Nedic-Atmoran crossbreeds hadn't been the most common in Skyrim in her days; to hear that they had established an Empire in Tamriel had honestly been a surprise; to hear that they had established an Empire in Tamriel from Cyrodiil, that encompassed even Skyrim, had almost cracked her unflappable facade. At least there was yet another war of succession; it had been nice to know Nords didn't really change over the centuries she'd been asleep. But still, waking up to find how much the world had changed had been one thing. Waking up to gaze into his emerald eyes had been a whole new experience.

Marius had borne an innocence she had thought dead in Nirn, courtesy of her family and experiences with Molag Bal; he had known nothing of plots, the Elder Scroll, or even who she had been. And yet, in the brief time she'd spent with him, he'd shown her more concern than her entire family had in their extended lifetimes. He'd asked about her well-being, hadn't seemed to care that she was a vampire (though his harlot of a Housecarl had), and had offered her help without even the slightest hint of hesitation, or request for reward. Perhaps it said a lot about the life she'd led, but that simple show of concern had instantly enamoured her of him.

She sighed again, sadly. Her damnable father had banished him for choosing to remain mortal. While a part of her understood why he chose to reject the curse of vampirism, a part of her had wished, selfishly, that he had accepted, if only so he would be safer from her father and her clan. It would have also helped that she would have, thus, been able to take the time to train him privately, share their burden together... spend eternity together...

Serana shook her head, wondering where such thoughts had come from. He was her friend! She wouldn't want Marius to become an undead just so they could be together forever, right? And yet, she couldn't deny sometimes wishing her sometimes-friend, Marius' Housecarl Lydia, hadn't accompanied them on the journey to Castle Volkihar; while they had bonded, affectionately discussing the questionable actions their mutual friend had sometimes taken, Lydia had seemed overly-possessive of her Thane, at times, and had stopped them from sleeping together, letting him warm her cold, undying body, gazing deep into each others eyes...

Serana slapped herself this time, trying to get rid of these thoughts with more force. Trying not to focus on his looks and personality, she remembered, instead, how he had been banished from the hall, and worry filled her again. She wanted to go to him, and make sure he was okay. More importantly, though, she had to figure out how and where to go; Lydia and Marius hadn't mentioned where he was a Thane of, and she knew that to ask around would simply invite suspicion. But still, she felt that she had to at least warn him about her mad father's plans to incite full-scale vampiric dominance. She didn't want him caught in the crossfire.

She honestly hadn't known why she had chosen to come back to her father's castle, when she had been locked up to keep him away. A part of her thought that she had hoped, beyond any and all reason, that she would come back to find her mother in control of Castle and Clan Volkihar; if that scenario had truly happened, her mother would have already freed her, right? Perhaps a smaller part of her, some minuscule part, had hoped that her father would have become a changed man, after the disappearance of his wife and daughter. After all, the world had changed enough that someone like Marius could walk it. A thrill shot up Serana's back as that thought crossed her mind; she realised that Marius had, somehow, given her hope that people, even immortal scum like her father, could be better.

And yet, that hope had been shattered. He hadn't changed. If anything, he had been more obsessed than she'd foretold. It definitely wasn't safe for her here. The only problem, as far as she was concerned, was that she didn't know where else to go next. If only Marius had mentioned more about himself!

As she waged a silent dilemma, she overhead a conversation between her father and Fenan Sadri, his right-hand.

"My lord! We have bad news!" Sadri sounded urgent, worried.

"Speak, Sadri, but take heed not to ruin our feast! This is the feast of a hundred lifetimes; my Elder Scroll, finally returned to me! Nothing can stop me now!" Harkon sounded pompous, arrogant, and pleased. More importantly, he still placed emphasis on the Elder Scroll over his own daughter. Fighting back tears, and the urge to stab him in the back, she continued listening in.

"Our agents tell us that the Dawnguard has made contact with, and will probably succeed in recruiting, Marius Dragonborn!" Oh, right, he had been Dragonborn. Serana had honestly forgotten that; he had seemed so humble and human, it often slipped her mind.

"So?" Harkon still sounded unconcerned.

"Are you not worried that those vampire hunters may interfere with our plans, my lord?" Sadri sounded incredulous; he was honestly sharper than most gave him credit for.

"We already have the scroll. What can mere mortals do to us?" Harkon's tone sounded dangerous now, daring Sadri to challenge him. To his credit, Sadri backed down.

"As you say, my lord. I also wish to inform you the Dawnguard is sending 2 scouts to spy on us."

"They're setting foot on my island?" Serana's father was angry now, as Sadri had predicted, and that anger was targeted at the Dawnguard. "The Dawnguard... they're the rabble located in Dayspring Canyon, south-east of Riften, right?"

"Yes, my lord."

"You know what to do."

As she heard Sadri's footsteps fade away, she swore her undead heart was beating in fear. She had to warn him now! And thanks to Sadri's unintentional warning, she now had an idea of where Marius was heading to next. She just hoped that the secret exit in the Courtyard, through the Undercroft, still hadn't been fixed yet.

-FORT DAWNGUARD TORTURE ROOM, 11 MINUTES AFTER THE BATTLE OF THE BEACON-

"... and that's what happened." Serana finished explaining, and I shook my head at how summarised her explanation had been.

"You just... "snuck out"?" I repeated, incredulous, and she nodded. I sighed. There really wasn't time to question it. I turned to Isran, and gave him a summary of the situation. His raised eyebrow said enough about what he thought. Of course, this wasn't helped when Serana suggested we just read the Scroll ourselves; she herself pointed out that the only ones who could, Moth Priests, were half a continent away.

"Some Imperial scholar arrived in Skyrim a few days ago." Isran cut in suddenly, and I looked up at him in surprise. For him, this tacit show of support was the equivalent of waving a banner. More importantly... what were the chances?! He covered up his embarrassment, continuing: "I was staking out the road a few days ago when I saw him pass by. Maybe that's your Moth Priest."

"Of course! Some Volkihar agent must have sent word for him once Harkon had word that I, and by extension his Elder Scroll, had been found! He'd have needed a way to read his precious Elder Scroll, after all," Serana spoke to me, seemingly excited, before turning to Isran, and asking: "Do you know where he's staying now?"

"No, and I'm not going to waste men looking." Isran replied gruffly, though I understood the underlying meaning behind his words; there just weren't enough Dawnguard members to do such an act. "We're fighting a war against your kind, and I intend to win it. You want to find him, try talking to anyone who'd meet a traveller. Innkeepers and carriage drivers in the big cities maybe." Translation: I still don't trust you, vampire, but I won't stop you from looking. "But you're on your own." Translation: Just don't expect anything from me.

I felt my blood chill, and apprehension take me, however, as Serana turned to me with a smile, and I found myself praying that I wouldn't have to go on yet another recruiting mission. Once again, however, I was proven wrong.

"Any idea how we're going to find a Moth Priest? Skyrim's a pretty big place."

All I'd wanted when I started this accursed journey was a damned horn!

Chapter Text

The past day of trekking up north, leaving the Rift and heading through Eastmarch on our way to Winterhold, had been a rather awkward one, to say the least, and I honestly couldn't place my finger on why that was so.

Was it because we were passing through Stormcloak territory? True, the past few patrols had mocked me for being a 'provincial', and almost completely blamed me for the Thalmor and the White-Gold Concordat, but that harassment had been with me since I'd first left Whiterun, and entered the Rift, well over 2 weeks ago. I doubted that these groups of Stormcloaks were, in any way, getting to me more than the previous ones.

Was it the change in atmosphere? True, the weather in southern Eastmarch was rather different from any I'd experienced in Skyrim before; the sulfurous stench permeated the cracked land. However, I personally welcomed these changes; it'd been the first time since crossing the border I'd felt like removing layers of clothing, instead of piling them on. The unusual landscape was also, honestly, rather interesting, and I had, more than once, felt the temptation to remove my armor and enjoy a nice soak in one of the warm pools of water that dotted the landscape.

Could the reason for this awkwardness, then, be my company? I shot a glance at my 2 companions, sticking closer to me than I would have personally been comfortable with. I had travelled with Serana and Lydia together for a time, yes, when we had escorted Serana back to her ancestral home, which she promptly escaped from. And yet, while the 2 of them had at least partially gotten along, with Lydia snarkily asking for permission to slay the undead every so often back then, now they were all but glaring daggers at each other from different ends of my body; each seemed to have claimed one of my arms as their property. This change in attitude was unnerving, to say the least.

Sighing, I turned to Serana, who perked up at the attention, and decided to be direct; I was starting to lose feeling in my arms at this point.

"Serana, is there any reason you've decided to latch on to my arm? Not that I'm minding, but I think you're cutting off blood circulation."

Serana looked crestfallen, and she took the tone I'd expect a dejected puppy to have, as she reluctantly let go.

"Sorry, Marius, it's just that... well..." Her voice trailed off, and I felt that I had hit a sore spot.

"It's okay, Serana, you can talk to me when you feel comfortable; that's what friends are for, right?" I tried my best at being reassuring, and her face lit up, though I felt Lydia's grip on my other hand tighten.

"Well, besides Lydia when she's not suggesting my execution," Serana began slowly, and I shot a weary glance at my Housecarl, now wearing the same armor as the Dawnguard Heavy Infantry, barring the enclosed helmet. "I'd honestly say you're my only friend in Skyrim, if not Tamriel as a whole.

"I mean, I'm a centuries-old-vampire who's been sealed from the rest of Nirn for the better part of a millennia; everyone I used to know is either a skeleton, dust, or another vampire. And I think you've seen my father's court; they're not exactly the most moral or friendly of vampires." I chuckled at that, before mentally sighing. While it felt nice that Serana trusted Lydia and I enough to unload this emotional baggage on us, I wasn't exactly the best at talking others through their problems, to say nothing of Lydia's tact. And yet, my new friend clearly needed someone to talk to; the fact she reminded me so much of one of the younger orphans didn't help any reluctance I may have had. Holding up my free hand, I decided to make a suggestion.

"Hey, guys, let's make camp here. It's warm, open enough that watch duty wouldn't be too difficult, and, most importantly..." I trailed off, looking for any other reasons to convince the two, and my eyes settled on one of the mineral-rich warm pools of water in a nearby crater. "I'd like to take a nice, warm bath, if it's not too much to ask."

Surprisingly enough, Lydia and Serana didn't find much complaints with my suggestion, and, as we put down our bags to look for our bedrolls, I continued our previous conversation.

"Surely there must be some surviving person you're close to, Serana. You told me your parents had a falling out, and I've seen your father firsthand, but what about your mother? You told me the two of you were working together."

"I suppose I was closer to my mother, Valerica," Serana conceded, before continuing harshly: "But she changed, too. My father's obsession drove my mother almost as crazy and obsessed as he was. After all..."

Lydia and I were now hanging on to her every word, our hands pausing. This didn't sound like the sarcastic, confident vampire we'd known. Serana sounded so sad, so vulnerable, as she continued softly: "What kind of mother just locks you up with an Elder Scroll for over 500 years, without a single word of comfort, just to stop her husband?"

I honestly hadn't known the details behind her sealing; this was a tale as depressing as any the scruffiest child at the orphanage had told me. Even Lydia's eyes seemed less harsh than they had been. Seeing the pain in her face, I decided to finally share of the stories the 2 had bugged me for, and I'd successfully deflected, during our previous journey.

"Alright, kiddies, gather round." I began, clearing my throat, and ignoring Serana's seniority. The unpacking and the bath could wait, I supposed; neither they nor we were going anywhere, and I doubted any harm would befall the Moth Priest if we took a few hours off, and while Jurgen's Horn had already waited half a month, it's not like it was going to go anywhere. Lydia and Serana sat on a nearby log, while I folded my arms, and began.

"Remember when Serana asked about how my parents were, and I feigned temporary deafness?" This got a chuckle out of the 2. "The truth is, to be honest... I never actually knew them.

"I was found at the doorstep of some poor, nameless orphanage in a ruined district of the Imperial City in Cyrodiil on the 17th of Last Seed, 4E181. My caretakers at the orphanage, an elderly couple who ran the place off of donations from the local Temples and aid from the occasional Vigilant or priest, were kind-hearted and good-natured, but there were just so many orphans even over a decade after the Battle of the Red Ring. Only the children that really needed help earned more than cursory attention; the rest, like me? We were just left to do our own thing."

I took a deep breath, studying their faces now. The next part, I was certain, would lower whatever good name I may have had in front of my 2 travelling companions. Especially my trusted Housecarl... mentally, I cursed Balgruuf for essentially forcing the title of Thane on me. I had yet to reap any of the benefits, and I had already failed to live up to the expectations I was sure being a Hold's champion had. Especially the expectations I felt Lydia held me to; for some reason, from the very outset of our journey, it had felt like Lydia had held an inflated view of me, for reasons still unclear to me. And yet, something told me this was the time to be honest about my less-than-clean past, or at least as honest as I ever got. My trusted companion deserved to know who I really had been. It was time to disappoint her.

"To survive... I had to do many things I wasn't proud of." I paused and gauged my audience's reaction. Serana looked like she was getting it, though Lydia looked confused. At least none looked ready to sell me out to the Legion. "I stole. A lot. It started with small things when I was 5; an unattended ring here, a few fruits there... all of it started with good intentions first; to feed and fund the kids that continued to arrive at the over-burdened house.

"Within a year, I had begun influencing the others. The kids that knew what I was doing would lie to cover for me, while my best friend, Marlene, began stealing with me. Of course, eventually, I got caught by a city guard, and thrown into jail... and that's where things really got worse

"The Cyrodilic Thieves Guild had plants in the prison, ready to inform them about any potential talents, or rivals, that arrived. A day after I was imprisoned, a hooded figure approached me, and gave me a simple ultimatum: join the Guild, or be left to rot for unsanctioned stealing. It wasn't much of a choice. For the next 10 years I was, effectively, one of the top field agents in the Guild. The deeds became bolder, the targets more valuable, and the situations more dangerous. Eventually, though... I couldn't take it anymore. It wasn't one big incident, one final botched job, one underpaid cut of the mission that did it, just a lot of smaller things.

"I couldn't have just up and quit, though. The Guild would still have been active, and I would still have needed a job and cash for my ever-growing family, especially when Marlene and her younger brother, Jacob, wised up and turned a new leaf. Luckily, that was around the time I first met Commander Maro, head of the Penitus Oculatus, the Emperor's special security force. Our first meeting was an awkward one, to say the least; I'd been contracted to steal his wife's signet ring, and plant evidence of an affair, with the aim of ruining the family man's reputation, and distract him long enough for the Guild to pull off an even larger heist.

"Turns out, though, the then-Guildmaster had been getting jealous of my success, and my growing popularity amongst the newer members. Bastard sold me out to the Penitus Oculatus, though he hadn't known how I'd infiltrate the man's house. Pays to always keep one's tricks as much of a secret as possible. It was still a surprise to sneak into the Maro's bedroom only to find him sitting in a chair, feigning sleep, whilst 4 Penitus Oculatus spellswords were spread out in the shadows across the room, all on high alert, scanning most possible points of entry. 1 or 2 guards outside the house is security; I was clearly expected.

"I think I gave them the biggest surprise, though, when I finally revealed myself right behind Maro's chair, waving hello to each of the hidden spellswords. They almost wanted to kill me for trespassing and wounding their pride, but Commander Maro was so impressed by my stunt he offered me a choice: I could either serve as a double agent, and take down the entire Thieves Guild, for a pardon from the Imperial Watch... or I could be executed right there and then. Once again, not much of a choice.

"The plan was simple, though I secretly added in a few extra details. I'd returned to the hideout, after having given the location of every secret exit to the Penitus Oculatus, and quietly disabled the alarm system and the traps. From there, I snuck into the guildmaster's office, stole his records on every field operative, and secretly stole the key to the Guild's stash. Then, I let in Penitus Oculatus strike teams.

"It was a rousing success; the entire Guild was effectively dismantled overnight, and the stragglers who hadn't been in the headquarters that day were snagged by agents, either waiting in the old hideout as a trap, or hunted down with the files I'd given them. Meanwhile, in the chaos, I'd managed to take most of the Guild's ill-gotten gains, which I then managed to hide inside the orphanage, with instructions to Marlene and Jacob, who'd inherited the orphanage, on how to gain access to it. I wasn't completely heartless to the guild, though; in the aftermath, while most of the older, lifelong thieves were either executed or imprisoned, I'd managed to cut a deal with Commander Maro, and he offered most of the younger thieves, the ones capable of, and deserving of the chance of, turning a new leaf were given roughly the same offer I'd been: serve the Penitus Oculatus, and never steal again, or serve their sentences. I think a quite a few of them still work for Commander Maro right now.

"Naturally, with my luck, though, things didn't exactly end on that good note. The next few days after that weren't peaceful; inevitably, some had slipped the net, the majority of them being the paper-pushers, those who steal more by scamming and monopolising, and required the Guild for protection... and they wanted revenge. I spent about 3 days being chased by Morag Tong assassins while fighting to survive the wound inflicted by a poisoned dagger before I managed to get to a Penitus Oculatus safehouse, where even the Morag Tong couldn't get me.

"From there, I tried to go straight, though my reputation in the Imperial City preceded me; I was essentially working odd jobs until my 16th birthday, where I joined the Imperial Legion for nearly 4 years. Not much to say about my service, to be honest; I served as a scout for the Second Legion, at the border between Cyrodiil and Valenwood. Most of what I did there was, unofficially, guarding Bosmer refugees fleeing the Thalmor, and helping clear the roads the refugees took. The things I saw there... between that and the fact that military discipline just didn't suit me, let alone my sharp tongue, and that someone had let slip both to my entire Legion my ill-spent youth, and to the Thalmor my less-than-legal activities... I didn't so much quit the Legion as run from it a month before my 20th birthday. Then, I secretly donated most of my savings, along with any ill-gotten gains I may have still had, to the orphanage, and left Cyrodiil for Skyrim, hoping to start a new life, in a place where Thalmor influence was supposed to be lower, and where nobody should have known of me or my past."

I paused, and shook off the memories of the past, not wanting to be overwhelmed by it. For some reason, it seemed like there had been something in my eyes. I supposed the still-recent memory of having to drop my entire life and flee still rankled. Like I always told myself though, had to try and keep a positive outlook.

"And that's why I was at Helgen when a dragon tried to eat me!" I finished, as brightly as possible, trying to lift the mood. My trusted Lydia looked like she was in deep contemplation, while Serana simply looked at me and sighed.

"Marius... you know how pure-blooded vampires are made?" Serana began, and I shook my head, not knowing the finer theological points of vampirism.

"I was born a human; the first vampire was... given the gift, unwillingly, by Molag Bal. I'd rather not go into details, but let's just say my family subjugated themselves to him in a degrading ritual together, in order to become pure-blooded vampires." She explained, before adding: "Not really wholesome family activity, but I guess it's something you do when you give yourselves to a daedric lord. The point, though is... I come from an insane family of daedric worshippers, and had been one. What's a bit of thievery as compared to that?"

I chuckled, grateful at her way of saying she didn't mind my past, and turned to Lydia, awaiting her reaction. Eventually, she looked up at me, her eyes hard, and I unconsciously gulped. Then again, I'd prepared myself for this when I chose to say as much as I could.

"My Thane," Lydia began, and I found myself happy she was at least still calling me her thane. "I appreciate you finally telling us about your past, but..."

"Wait," I interjected, confused. Lydia had never been one to soften her words. "You're not mad?"

"Oh, I'm mad, alright. I'm mad that you only told us this now, even though I'd asked you about it for over a week non-stop!" Lydia responded, hitting me lightly on the shoulder. "Also, I'm mad that you seem to think I'll think lesser of you for what you once did.

"Granted, things may have been different if I had grown up in Cyrodiil, or been one of the victims of your crimes, but as it stands, you made some mistakes in your past, and did your best to make up for it. And," she added, more softly. "As far as I'm concerned, I saw you make up for it when you defended Whiterun, a city you'd only been in for a day or two, against that dragon, risking your life in the process."

"Wait... you saw that battle?" I was incredulous; while I knew the people had heard about that battle, I hadn't known they'd actually watched it.

"Almost a quarter of the Hold did, my Thane."

"Was it that noteworthy, though?" Serana interrupted, confused. "We took down a dragon just over a week ago, and it didn't seem that tough." Lydia and I shot each other a glance, and sighed.

"Serana... your innate affinity for magic is strong and, boosted by your vampiric abilities and ancient knowledge, are far more powerful than what we had access to at that battle," I answered her, recalling how the dragon's tough hide, which had done little more than be singed by Irileth's Lightning Bolts, had been torn into by Serana's magic. Lydia then continued: "The dragon we fought had it's wing broken, not to mention numerous other injuries, after fighting 2 giants and a mammoth, and was in a forest, where there was a lot of cover from it's fiery breath, if it had wanted to use it liberally; it hadn't wanted to burn the forest down around it, if you'll recall. The dragon at the watchtower? He fought it in a plains, the only cover available the rubble from the watchtower it destroyed. And my Thane single-handedly slew the dragon."

"Lydia, you forget Irileth and her squad," I sighed, before finishing my response to Serana. "So, in summary, dragons are actually pretty tough. Sure, you or Harkon could single-handedly take on weaker dragons, or those with injuries, and still come out on top. But most dragons will slaughter most vampires any day, to say nothing of most mortals."

"I didn't know it was that bad," Serana admitted, before continuing, curiosity evident in her tone: "So, how did you single-handedly slay the dragon?"

"Once again, I had help-" I began, before Lydia interjected again, breathlessly.

"You should have seen it! He first sliced into the dragon's wing while it was flying, saving a guard it had been about to descend upon, and causing it to crash into the ground! I think they're planning on naming the new crater after him, by the way." I flushed with embarrassment at Whiterun's plans for the site of the battle, as Lydia continued: "When the beast came out of the crater and shot a jet of flames at him, we thought he would be dead, but no! He emerged, standing, while the ground around him had cracked and blackened from the sheer heat! Then, when the dragon got cocky and tried to simply bite him, he smacked it's head away with one arm, before jumping on it's head and stabbing it in the eye a few times, killing it!"

I honestly had no idea where to even begin with correcting Lydia's account of the battle; somehow, in my memories, there was a lot more screaming, and a lot less heroism, to say nothing of her interpretation of my actions. Serana, looking at the 2 of us, asked: "And did that dragon also suddenly burn away in a light?"

"Yeah... apparently, that was me absorbing it's soul... that's how they first learnt I may be Dragonborn..." I answered, letting Lydia catch her breath, and Serana laughed.

"I still can't believe you told me that was just something all dragons did when they died!"

"It is when they die around me..." I began, before frowning, mentally reviewing our conversation. "By the way... so what does me being your only friend have to do with you staking a claim on my arm?"

Serana's face would have been flushed if blood actually flowed through her undead veins, and I could have sworn she muttered "Dang, I'd hope you'd forgotten", before she asked, in an innocent tone: "Isn't that what friends do?"

I had to concede that point; it was, indeed, how Marlene had acted around me, and I was certain that the Nords of Skyrim were for more physical than we had been. Our talk of friends and family, however, had gotten me curious.

"You've talked about your family already, but weren't there ever any friends in your past?"

"No to that as well," Serana answered with a frown, before adding: "Even when they weren't obsessed vampires, they weren't exactly the best parents. My father was always trying to get more power, or plot vengeance over perceived slights, while my mother was always too busy with her research into alchemy and necromancy. So, as a child, I was always left alone to my own devices. I think I spent most of it in the Undercroft, sneaking past whatever experiments and guards would be lurking or posted there."

"Sounds like you were creepy even as a child," Lydia interjected, and I shot her an annoyed look, though Serana laughed at that. "Compared to you and Marius, I'm sure I must be."

Patting her head roughly, as I had always done to the younger kids, I reassured her: "If there's one thing I've learnt, it's that who you were doesn't necessarily set in stone who you'll be. Lots of the kids in the old place first came in really rough; with a bit of guidance and a hand here and there they grew up to be some of the finest men and women I ever had the pride of taking care of."

"Not to mention you, my Thane." Lydia added, and Serana nodded, confusing me.

"Started as a street rat, joined the Thieves Guild at 6, and now you're the Dragonborn, working to protect Tamriel from an ancient vampiric conspiracy to get rid of the sun. I'm sure your parents would be proud of you." Serana told me, her hand on my shoulder, before adding: "You know... the necromantic arts I've learnt also taught me a bit of divination; if you're interested I could contact the spirits to ask about your lineage..."

"That's probably the nicest thing anyone's ever offered me," I began, before thinking it over. In the end, I'd already pondered that question in my youth, and my answer would remain the same. "I'm afraid, though, that I'd have to pass on that. Not that I'm not curious, but it really doesn't matter; as far as I'd like to believe, they were good people who had a good reason for doing it. If they weren't, all that happens is that I'd be disappointed. Also... in the end, I'm only right here, where I am, as the Marius you all know and get disappointed by, because I've lived through what I did, and acted as I had."

Now Lydia was squeezing my shoulder. By the Divines, did I really seem so pitiful? Deciding to be a bit mischievous, as well as wanting to know more about my Housecarl (and wishing to hide any embarrassment I may have felt), I turned to Lydia, and asked: "You know... you haven't told us about your childhood, Lydia..."

"Do I have to, my Thane?" She whined, and I chuckled.

"Do I need to make it an order?" I asked jokingly, and she punched the shoulder she had just squeezed.

"That's an abuse of authority, but I guess I have no choice... there's not much to tell, to be honest. I was born to Jarl Balgruuf's sister, and had a happy childhood growing up in Whiterun. Unfortunately, however, things eventually changed...

"My mother had taken up the healing arts, and my father served as her bodyguard. The tales they would tell of their initial meeting, and subsequent misadventures throughout Skyrim, still warm my heart to this very day. When I was 8, however, they left for the Eastmarch Legion Camp, full of heavily wounded casualties after Ulfric had launched an offensive to secure Darkwater Crossing; the corundum ore helped with Stormcloak steel production, while geographically speaking it was a good outpost from which to cross into the Rift or Whiterun. When they were there, however, the Stormcloaks decided it was time to mop up the remaining Legion forces in Eastmarch.

"In the dead of night, while the legionnaires were demoralized and disorganized, with most forces tied up either dealing with the casualties, calling for reinforcements to replace and evacuate said casualties, or being said casualties, the main Stormcloak army struck. It wasn't a battle... it was a massacre. The only reason there even remains a Legion presence in Eastmarch is because, at daybreak the next morning, heavy reinforcements managed to ride in to relieve the beleaguered defenders from both Whiterun and Rift Legion Camps.

"The Stormcloaks had wanted to ensure the Legion was kicked out of Eastmarch. That included the wounded. By all accounts, they had originally wanted to ignore my mother, as she had been a mere healer, and a Nord. However, she chose to defend her patients, despite being no match for the veteran rebels of the Great War. As she said, she had taken up a duty to heal them, and, by her honor, she would not allow them to be slaughtered in their beds like livestock. My father, naturally, chose to defend her. They had experience and teamwork. The Stormcloaks had experience, teamwork, and numbers. They had no chance.

"In the aftermath, I was sent to Dragonsreach, to be raised by my uncles Jarl Balgruuf and Hrongar. While Hrongar didn't even want to look at me, saying it hurt too much, how I reminded him so of his late sister, the Jarl chose to offer me the best means of living he could - he made me a Housecarl-in-training. And thus, until I met Marius, I stayed in Dragonsreach, being trained in combat by Irileth, politics by the Jarl, administration by Proventus, and class from Fianna and Gerda."

In the silence that followed, I found myself petting Lydia's head as well, surprised by her story. Eventually, though, I found my voice, and asked: "Is that why Hrongar keeps pushing Balgruuf to fight the Stormcloaks?"

"Aye, as well as why he's so obsessed with training for combat; he doesn't want to lose another family member in the same way."

"Sounds like you've got a better opinion of him than I expected," I replied, and she nodded.

"He's my uncle, and I understand how he feels. But, in the end, I consider myself blessed I at least enjoyed 8 years with them, unlike you two depressing things," Lydia answered honestly, though a hint of her sharp wit crept back at the last part.

"Besides, Balgruuf and Irileth were good teachers and guardians, and if I hadn't been a Housecarl-in-training, I wouldn't have become my Thane's Housecarl." I flushed at her optimism, knowing how serious she was; one of the first things I'd offered when we'd started adventuring was to let her go free. Her response had been the first time I'd seen her really mad, and when she stressed how important her oaths and honor were to her, I found myself wishing for the dragon back.

"You sound like you knew for sure that Marius would become your Thane," Serana drily commented, and Lydia shook her head.

"Honestly, that was a small fear of mine, that my future Thane would be some weak milk-drinker who would never let me go adventuring or exploring Skyrim," Lydia admitted, before adding: "For a while, the person closest to becoming a Thane was Nazeem. Now that would have been a nightmare."

The mental image of Lydia being Nazeem's Housecarl had me roaring in laughter, and I commented: "I can't possibly imagine you offering to warm Nazeem up by sharing his bedroll."

"I would never, my Thane!" Lydia shouted, sounding insulted, and I raised my arms, conceding. Serana, however, looked confused, and asked: "Sorry... but who's Nazeem?"

"Oh, almost forgot you haven't been to Whiterun yet," I apologised, before explaining: "Redguard, male, late thirties... weaker than a skeever, with an ego bigger than your father's."

This time, it was Lydia's turn to laugh, while Serana raised an eyebrow in disbelief.

"He's not kidding," Lydia backed me up. "He's the kind of person you'll have to see to believe."

"I think I'll pass," Serana said dismissively with a laugh. I was relieved to see her mostly back to her relaxed self, and decided to call an end to the impromptu sharing session, lest I accidentally reveal something embarrassing about my past. Looking up, I was surprised to see the sun had almost set over the horizon already; last I'd checked, it had been just past midday.

"Alright, before night falls, how about that dip in the springs?"

And that's how I found myself admiring the twin full moons of Nirn, Lydia, and Serana; clearly, they had absolutely no qualms about their appearances, far more so than most women I'd known, but I wasn't one to insult a lady's honor by acting shy or turning aside my glance if they had no reservations with letting me watch. The fact that the two ladies sharing my bath were extremely attractive women did nothing to dissuade me, and I casually admired Lydia's gleaming shoulder-length brown hair as it stuck to her tanned body, the muscle tone evident even in the dim light of Secunda and Masser, as her hands sensuously ran over wet body, massaging and rubbing it. Meanwhile, Serana provided a lovely contrast, her shorter raven-black hair, visible now that the sun had gone down and her hood had been safely removed, stood out against her glowing orange eyes and pale skin. While her body was nowhere near as defined as Lydia, her shapely figure held an inviting softness to it, and the her breasts stood out over Lydia's more slender figure, though Lydia was still far comelier than she had originally appeared; evidently, her armor hid a lot. While there had been public mixed baths in the Imperial City, and I had been no stranger to public hygiene, sharing the bath with 2 beauties of this standard in an open-air hot spring was a very novel experience, and I found myself hoping they wouldn't ask me to aid them in scrubbing their unreachables; disciplined though I tried to be, I was still a warm-blooded man, and my self-control had it's limits. Enjoying another look at their naked forms, I could see they appreciated my attention, although I was certain nothing would come of it... for now, at least. There were world-threatening crises that needed to be thwarted, after all, and this was but a temporary break. Still, though, I found myself wondering about what could be, and sighed. Whoever these 2 women chose, they'd have them wrapped around their finger. Feeling a twinge of envy, I decided to put such thoughts out of mind. No matter how all my previous relationships had ended, no matter how poor my luck with women was, there was still hope I may find a partner, after all. I had the rest of my lifetime to search for my soulmate. For the time being, I'd settle for increasing my projected lifetime.

-EASTMARCH HOT SPRINGS, LATER THAT NIGHT-

Serana sighed, enjoying the refreshing feeling of being clean. It had been quite a few centuries since she had last had a bath, after all, and she had been fled the castle before she had the chance to properly unwind. It had been a good night, enjoying the natural springs and the cooling breeze, and an even better day, finally getting quite a bit off her chest, and learning more about her new friends.

Friends... that was a word she had known, but never properly understood, in the past. She knew friends were supposed to be an existence similar to family, sometimes even rivalling, if not outright, surpassing them in closeness, with the key difference being that the bond that connected friends were shared interests, experience, or attraction, as opposed to being purely blood, but if that was just it her friends would have probably been the skeletons she had spent her childhood sneaking past; they shared the most experiences being in the dark, damp Undercroft, after all, far more time spent together than her and her parents had.

Lydia and Marius, however, had a bond with her that, she supposed, qualified as close to friendship as she could get. It was weird, though; she barely knew them, having only travelled with them for less than half a week, and Lydia had often joked about killing her, but she felt inexplicably comfortable around them. And, when she had come to them asking for help in dealing with her father, they had, eventually, accepted. If only she knew why her thoughts, and gaze, kept drifting to Marius, something they did not do with Lydia; perhaps not all friendships were equal, and thus she felt a greater attraction to Marius than Lydia. It was more than likely, after all, if she based it off shared experiences; as he had revealed earlier, he had shared a similar childhood to her, or at least a more similar one than any she'd known, although his attitude to it wasn't one she was familiar with.

She still puzzled over the relationship between Lydia and Marius, wondering why seeing their closeness made her chest tighten. She could tell the two of them were close, but, if she had to compare them to her parents, she'd have honestly thought that those two were the married couple. To be fair, though, that applied to almost every other two people she had seen. However, she could sometimes swear that Lydia had an almost-possessive look on her face when she interacted with Marius, which also didn't make any sense to her; as far as she knew, it wasn't like friends were exclusive, or couldn't be shared. She sighed again, this time in annoyance. Healthy human relationships were still a mystery to her, a product of her stunted childhood, though at least she was slowly learning.

Lydia sat over her Thane's sleeping form, wrapped in it's bedroll, and enjoyed the cool wind as it dried off her still-wet body. While she highly doubted that any pests would bother Marius this night, including a certain vampire attempting to usurp her exclusive position, she still wanted to be on guard. Besides, from here she could watch her Thane sleep peacefully.

She had honestly meant every word she had told him, that she wouldn't hold any of his previous crimes against him; she had seen many orphans from the aftermath of the skirmishes of the Civil War, and she knew how hard their lives were. And that was in Skyrim, where the children were still hardy Nords, and the culture of helping one another was still strong. She didn't even want to imagine how it would be in the Thalmor-ruined Imperial City, where Thalmor agents were still allowed free reign, where the Thieves Guild had still been strong...

Wishing she could share his bedroll again, so as to comfort her Thane, she spared a glance at Serana, and felt slightly guilty. Serana's past had rivalled that of Marius', and she couldn't even imagine to wake up after a slumber of half a millennium, finding a changed world around her. Not to even speak of the fact Serana clearly still barely understood healthy human relationships. And yet, though she honestly didn't hold ill-will to the vampire, or believe her to be a threat... there was just something about the increasingly-frequent looks she gave Marius that had Lydia on edge at times. No matter how much trust she wanted to give Serana, she was still a vampire, no matter what Marius said, and the predatory gaze Serana had when looking at Marius just didn't bode well.

As if sensing Lydia's thoughts, Serana spoke up: "I can see you looking at me, you know... vampires are nocturnal hunters. I know you don't trust me."

Lydia sighed, knowing that this discussion was inevitable. She did, however, still owe it to her friend to at least try for tact, and not throw around false accusations.

"You did try to sneak into his bedroll last time, and I haven't seen you feed even once since we freed you from the tomb. I'd like to trust you, but..."

"You're worried I might try to feed on Marius?!" Serana sounded insulted.

"I'm a Housecarl, it's kind of my job to be paranoid with regards to any potential threat to my Thane." Lydia explained, and Serana sighed.

"I have something called Blood Potions I stole from Castle Volkihar, and even if I didn't, I still know how to alchemically process animal blood to serve as a substitute," Serana said, reaching into her bag and drawing out a stoppered ornate glass flask, filled with a red liquid, before continuing: "I wouldn't hurt one of my only friends just to feed, even if I didn't have those options."

Lydia held up her hands, as a conciliatory gesture, and Serana relaxed.

"I trust that you'll never intentionally harm him, and that you mean well," Lydia finally replied. "But, to be honest, I've seen some of the gazes you've given him, and I'm concerned."

"Gazes?" Serana adopted a defensive tone, trying to hide how flustered she felt.

"I won't fault you if your feelings for him go beyond mere friendship," Lydia continued, knowing first-hand how desirable was Marius without even realizing it. "Since, to be blunt, I feel the same way about him. But, Dragonborn though he may be, Marius is still mortal, while you're an immortal vampire. I don't want to see him, or you, get your hearts broken when the inevitable happens, and I definitely don't want to see you try to solve the immortality issue by turning Marius, no matter how well-meaning you may be; you and your family's 'good idea', after all, led to all of you becoming vampires..."

Serana barely processed Lydia's concerns, or her accurate guess of some of her thoughts, or even the well-meaning verbal jab Lydia had snarkily added at the end. She was still trying to figure out her very first statement.

"Wait... what do you mean, "beyond mere friendship", Lydia?" Serana finally choked out the question, and Lydia paused in disbelief.

"Don't try to deny your feelings for Marius, Serana. I've seen the way you look at him..." Lydia warned, feeling insulted, before she finally got a good look at Serana's face in the dim light of the moons and stars. "By the Nine... you're serious."

Serana nodded, replying: "Could you explain further?"

"By Mara, it's simple; you're in love with Marius." Lydia answered bluntly, seeing no use in lying to Serana.

Serana's brain essentially froze, trying to process this new information. A part of her was terrified; her parents had been in love, and look at how they'd turned out! A bigger part of her, however... also felt terrified. She simply couldn't fathom being in love. And especially not with her best friend. She just couldn't imagine it, no matter how well it explained things. Luckily, before she had a mental breakdown, she realized what else Lydia had said.

"What do you mean, you feel the same way about him?!" Serana exclaimed, incredulous, before quickly quieting down as Marius stirred.

"Don't wake Marius up, you fool!" Lydia hissed quietly, before placing her hand on Marius' head, trying to relax him, and he eventually settled down, back to his deep slumber.

"You're lucky he's a deep sleeper. And I meant what I said; I love Marius too. In Skyrim, where life is short and harsh, there's no time, or use, in denying my feelings. I genuinely love him; I've loved him since I saw him selflessly and nobly defend Whiterun from the first dragon attack. But what made me truly fall for him is the fact that, to me, he's the best Thane I'd ever want.

"Like I said before, one of my fears while training to be a Housecarl was that I'd get an abusive Thane, one that would expect me to act as a glorified servant, spending my days rotting in a house cooking and cleaning, and especially one that never earned a Housecarl. But Marius? Not only does he allow me unprecedented freedom, but I've also come to love his gentle, caring nature as much as his strength in battle. The little things, like giving me a cut of the profits, offering to pay for our meals, not treating me like a glorified packmule... even just now, when he heard out you and I, shared his own life story, and suggested that we bathe, rather than simply going in himself and expecting us to stand guard, even though he never had any obligation to do any of that... I can't think of a better man to serve, let alone spend my life with."

Serana's mind boggled at Lydia's speech; her passion hadn't been expected, and possibly bordered on fanaticism. She did, however, find herself slowly understanding a bit of it, likely due to sharing some of those feelings. Something bugged her, though.

"Have you ever told him?"

"I tried to make advances on him, when we were travelling to High Hrothgar, but I doubt he noticed. Man's denser than a rock, unfortunately. Once we left, though, I decided to postpone it for a while; Marius hides it well, but I can see the weight of the expectations upon him taking their toll. My priority for now is to protect and guard his person."

Serana chuckled, before saying: "Well, if you don't do it soon, maybe I'll snatch him up."

Lydia frowned, though a hint of amusement crept into her voice, as she retorted snappily: "I thought you didn't understand love?"

"What better way to understand than via first-hand experience with the man I do love?" Serana asked, half-joking, half-serious, and Lydia mentally cursed her. "Anyway, Lydia, I'm probably turning in for now."

"I thought you didn't need to sleep?"

"I'd still like to rest, meditate, ponder what you just told me. Night, Lydia... and thanks."

"Night, Serana."

As Serana lay down separately, Lydia sighed again, knowing her competition had just grown stronger. As she stroked her Thane's head, enjoying the softness of his hair and the warmth of his body, she reaffirmed that he was, indeed, worth it. She had meant what she had said to Serana, every word of it; she couldn't envision herself with any other Thane, not after being spoiled by Marius. She only wished that, some day, when all this was over, she'd have the chance to come clean to Marius, and tell him everything, including what she had done with his fingers when he'd been unconscious (she supposed she could save that tidbit for after the wedding, though). Until then, all she could do for the man who had gone from thief to Thane would be all she had done; she would protect him, and everything he had, with everything she had, up to and including her life if necessary. From not just physical dangers, but from his fears, from his worries, from any who would judge him for who he had been without seeing who he now was, she would be there for him, where none previously had, for she could not and would not ever risk losing him. Not her Thane.

Unfortunately, neither she nor Serana could do little to relieve his frustration when they reached the College of Winterhold to find that the Moth Priest had left but an hour ago, in a special carriage, for Dragon Bridge.

Chapter Text

I'd experienced many novel things in Skyrim, ranging from the surprisingly cultured to the horrendously barbaric. I'd seen dragons rain destruction from the very sky, and slain a dragon of my very own, I'd seen a clan of ancient vampires holding court on their own private island, I'd even seen a crowd of appreciative citizens line up just to catch a glimpse of me. But somehow, the experience of shivering inside recently-bought furs, taking refuge within the Frozen Hearth from a blizzard, all because I'd missed a carriage, was depressingly familiar to me.

Sighing, ruing the fact my breath wasn't just visible, but that my spit could probably hurt someone, I glanced over at my two companions. The saying 'misery loves company' was true. However, Lydia and Serana didn't seem in the least bit affected. At least Serana had the excuse of being dead, and thus not being affected by extreme temperatures. By Kynareth, Lydia looked like she was enjoying the cold! I glared at my happy Housecarl, and fought the urge to sneeze. At least she had noted my slow descent into death by hypothermia, and had taken my coin pouch out of my frozen hands to buy me some warm stew. Truly, I couldn't decide if I didn't deserve such a caring Housecarl, or to continue cursing her for being happy, though my mood swung over to grateful as the hot bowl entered my outstretched hands, and I could feel my frozen fingers again.

As I regained my sensation of touch, as well as my temper, the hooded Altmer, Nelacar, finished his discussion with the innkeeper about some odour the elf's "experiments" had apparently released, and turned to walk away, his gaze sweeping past me in the process. His gaze then returned to me, as if studying me, and I saw Lydia tense up slightly, apparently suspicious at the attention I was receiving, whilst Serana looked up from her sulking, her mind finally off the fact we wouldn't be heading to the College this day.

"You there," the elf called out, cautiously, and I signalled at Lydia to relax, curious as to what he singled me out for. "You're from out of town, aren't you?"

"Indeed I am," I replied, not in the least bit surprised at how obvious it was; Winterhold was a crumbling town, with but a mere dozen or two inhabitants living in the town proper. A new face would be easily recognizable in such a case. "What of it?"

"Would you happen to be interested in a job?" Nelacar propositioned, and I raised my eyebrow.

"Depends on where I'd be going and what I'd be doing," I answered simply.

"Oh, I wouldn't mind it so much, Dragonborn," Nelacar began, and the three of us immediately drew our weapons, to the panic of the innkeeper and his patrons.

"How did you know?" I hissed, while Lydia raised her weapon threateningly, while Serana gathered lightning at her finger tips. Surprisingly, though, Nelacar laughed.

"Did you think your identity was a secret, Marius Dragonborn?" Nelacar asked, sounding honestly surprised, before chuckling at the obvious bemusement on my face. "It's been almost a month since the dragon attacked Whiterun; the tale of the Unknown Hero, the Imperial with the soul of a Dragon and the spirit of a Nord, with ebony for hair and emeralds for eyes who walked into Whiterun one day and single-handedly slew a dragon has probably spread past Cyrodiil, though few have actually seen you in person, hence why I wasn't so sure about your identity..."

I lowered my weapons, stunned at the revelation, while Lydia and Serana chuckled and sheathed theirs, knowing I didn't exactly appreciate the attention. Meanwhile, now that attention was fully on me, the inn's occupants seemed to take note of my appearance, and murmurs of "Did he say "Dragonborn"?" and "He has the hair and eyes!" began to rise, and the innkeeper tried to return Lydia the coins she'd given him, saying that it was on the house, although she knew me well enough to try and spare me the attention.

"Please, call me Dagur. And I insist; I couldn't possibly charge the Dragonborn for a cheap meal! It's my honor as a Nord to provide food and lodging to all guests!" the innkeeper, Dagur, pressed, and Lydia relented, knowing that she could not change his mind. Meanwhile, it seemed that everyone wanted to personally give me a pat on the back and a word of encouragement. Trying to get out of the crowd, I raised my voice slightly, and addressed the damned Nelacar: "So, what would I not mind so much?"

Seeing through my ploy, he dragged me down to the basement, while Serana followed, and Lydia tried to pacify the riled-up crowd. Down in his lab in the basement room, he began his explanation.

"I don't mean to trouble you, Dragonborn, but if you happen to be passing by Lake Ilinalta, namely the north-western bank, and come across a sunken fort, Ilinalta's Deep? Would it be too much trouble to ask you to help me retrieve a certain Daedric artifact from it?"

"You want me to go to that old haunted fort, and take something from the Daedra?!" I asked, incredulous, and he nodded. "Not that I'm accepting this suicidal venture, but which artifact is it?"

"You saw the Shrine of Azura to the south, up the mountain?" Nelacar asked, and I shook my head. "Figures... anyway, bout maybe a few decades ago, a 'teacher' of mine, one Malyn Varen, stole Azura's Star from the Shrine.

"To give some context... I'm sure you know what soul gems are right? Or, at least, what they're used for?" I nodded this time, having done some enchanting in my more sordid days. "Good. The problem with using them for enchanting, however, is that the gem is always consumed. They're frail. Except for one. Azura's Star. The Daedric artifact that allows any number of souls to pass through it. Some of us wanted to find out how. I was working under Malyn Varen, then. If only we knew what he was really planning..."

"What did he do?" I asked, not liking where this was going.

"Malyn wanted to alter the Star. He was dying. Disease. He thought he could store his own soul inside. Become immortal." Already, I didn't like where this was going, as he continued: "It drove him mad. Students started dying. Eventually, the College exiled him. He took a few loyal disciples to Ilinalta's Deep and vanished.

"I know I'm asking a lot from you, having to brave Ilinalta's Deep, but, recently... I've been feeling guilty about my role in all this, and I want to set things right. I don't have regrets in aiding him with forcing Azura's Star to accept and store black souls, even if we never succeeded, but he cannot be allowed to attain immortality via the Star! Think about it; an immortal madman, with a group of loyal disciples? Who knows what havoc they could wreak?"

I sat down, processing the information I'd received. This conspiracy had been a lot to take in, though by the sounds of it it didn't have to be dealt with nearly as pressingly as the impending Vampire Crisis, or the overarching Dragon Crisis. However, I had a question.

"What if I just take it to Azura, return it to her?"

"Don't take it back to Azura!" Nelacar exclaimed, and I raised an eyebrow at his outburst. "The Daedra are evil. They're the reason Malyn went insane." Somehow I doubted that statement; he'd have needed to already be insane to think that stealing a Daedric artifact was a good idea, let alone trying to corrupt it against it's very nature. For the sake of fairness, however, I asked how he thought Azura had done so.

"Azura is no ordinary Daedra," Nelacar replied, and I nodded, knowing that she was a Daedric Prince. "She commands an entire realm inside of Oblivion. The more Malyn worked on the Star, the more She was able to damn him. Look, the reason why I'm specifically asking you, the Dragonborn, to do this, is because you're probably one of the few mortals who could get away with defying a Daedric Prince."

I nodded in understanding, though not agreement. Few people would be foolhardy enough to do so. For that matter, neither was I, though I merely told him I would consider his words and act as I deemed best, and he agreed, clearly thinking he had me convinced. Fortunately, before Serana or I could say anything to disavow him of that notion, Lydia popped her head down, telling us the blizzard had cleared and we could head to Dragon Bridge now. Making polite farewells to my newest hopeful, and the half-dozen occupants of the Frozen Hearth, I left Winterhold as fast as I could without actually running.

As we headed down south, aiming to take the carriage from Windhelm to Solitude, I looked up, wanting to see if the Shrine of Azura was, indeed, easily visible. Without the blizzard, it turned out, Azura's shrine stood out more so than even the College of Winterhold. Seeing my gaze, Serana finally spoke, having apparently finished the pondering she'd started since we'd gone into the basement.

"Marius... I know you're tough, but I hope you're not planning on listening to Nelacar," Serana began.

"I wasn't-" I tried to protest, but she continued talking over me, having apparently rehearsed the speech beforehand.

"Because crossing the Daedra, and especially the Daedric Princes, is always a dangerous proposition. Don't get me wrong, I'm not doubting you, and some definitely shouldn't be obeyed, like Mehrunes Dagon, Molag Bal, and Mephala... but if you can, try to avoid it, especially for the more neutral Daedric Princes. Of course, it's best not to get involved if at all possible." Serana finished her advice, looking serious, and I didn't know whether to laugh, or be touched at how concerned she was. Lydia, meanwhile, looked shocked, not knowing that I had been tasked with potentially crossing a Daedric Prince.

"Relax, I intend to give it to Azura once I get around to looking for it; I've got no intention of pissing off one of the Dunmer's gods, my life's complicated enough as it is." I reassured Serana and Lydia, before adding: "Besides, it's not a pressing matter for the time being; securing the Moth Priest and stopping Harkon is our current priority, followed by dealing with the dragons next. But, still... thanks for the concern, Serana."

-FOREBEARS' HOLDOUT, HALF A DAY LATER-

Parrying the sudden slash from the distinctive Akaviri blade of the recently-freed Moth Priest, I found myself cursing vampires, ungrateful Moth Priests, ritualistic bindings, ungrateful Moth Priests, attempts at enthrallment, the Dawnguard, and ungrateful Moth Priests.

Reaching Dragon Bridge after the blizzard, sadly, had not been the hardest part of finding the Moth Priest. Once we'd dropped by, I'd asked one of the guards if he had seen the Moth Priest, and was told he had headed south, past Dragon Bridge. Following the trail had led us to a burning cart with dead legionnaires and horses, as well as a dropped note, which had said that the Moth Priest had been captured by vampires and taken to Forebears' Holdout, to have his will broken and to become a thrall. Wasting no time, we'd headed further south, into the cave, and fought through more of the wretched death hounds, gargoyles, a few Volkihar vampires, and their thralls.

Between the new Dawnguard arms and armor, and Serana's superb magics, the battle had been rather one-sided, and none of us had taken any injuries from the cave's defenders. The Moth Priest, however, had remained trapped behind an impenetrable barrier of magical energy, and Serana had helpfully explained that this was the cause of a ritual; by returning the spell's focus to it's proper location, we could deactivate the barrier, or as Lydia had simplified it, find the key for the lock. Luckily, the head vampire, an Orc with a massive underbite matched only by his overgrown bottom canines, had carried the ritualistic focus, a Weystone Focus, as Serana had called it. As the two went up a staircase, to place the focus in the spell's focal point, I had remained with the Moth Priest, trying to see if he was yet conscious. When they'd deactivated the barrier, however, he'd suddenly jumped up and slashed at me, and I'd barely had time to raise my war axe in defense before he'd opened my guts.

"Serana, there's something wrong with the Moth Priest!" I yelled, as he renewed his assault. By Talos, though the force behind his blows felt lacking as compared to a bear's, this Moth Priest had clearly received martial training, and it showed in the speed of his swings. I wasn't sure if I could subdue him without injuring him; I wasn't even sure I could stop him without killing him. Serana and Lydia ran downstairs, and saw me desperately dodging and parrying his blows. Lydia raised her weapon, and was about to charge him, before being stopped by Serana, however, who shouted back.

"Are his eyes unfocused?" She asked, and I felt the urge to retort.

"I don't know, I was a bit too focused on his sword!" Now that I looked closer, however, it did seem like his mind was elsewhere. "Yeah, he looks like he's in a dream!"

"That means he's partially enthralled!" Serana yelled back, as a lucky blow of his knocked the axe from my hand. "There's still time to save him, then!"

"And how," I grunted, finding my empty hand reflexively shooting out to catch his own sword-arm, trying to stop him from swinging. For some reason, possibly due to his advanced age, he felt too weak, completely at odds with his previous swordplay. There wasn't time to ponder this, though, as he tried kicking me, succeeding only in bruising his foot against my greaves, though it didn't deter his assault in the slightest. "Do I save him?!"

"Hit him on the head and knock him out!" I didn't have time to wonder why it was so easy; there was no use in over-thinking this one. I simply headbutted him, his head whipping back as my helmeted face smashed into his forehead.

"I didn't quite mean that hard..." Serana quipped, seeing the blood flowing from his forehead, while I quickly casted a simple Healing Hands on his injury, fixing his injuries, and he soon stirred back to consciousness.

"Ow... my head... it feels like an Orc berserker took a hammer and used my skull as a drum..." the Moth Priest groaned, and I tried to look as innocent as I could under my helmet. He then turned to me, and his face seemed to shoot up and realization.

"You saved me from the vampires! I must thank you for your timely rescue!"

"Relax, old man, I didn't do it out of altruism," I replied gruffly, wanting to get straight to the point. "The Dawnguard sent me to protect you from vampires; both they and we have need of you."

"What could vampires or vampire hunters want with an old man like me? I'm just a Moth Priest!" the man exclaimed, bewildered, and I sighed, wishing I was as naive as him.

"That's exactly why; we have an Elder Scroll, and we need you to read it." I answered bluntly, and his eyes widened.

"An... an Elder Scroll?! You must be joking! ... you're not, are you?"

"Afraid not." Lydia interjected, as I noticed something in the corner.

"The situation is that bad, huh."

"We're trying to get an edge over them by getting you to read it for us, while stopping them from getting their hands on you." Serana added.

"Ordinarily, I'd be a lot more skeptical... but I was just abducted by vampires, so your words do have some credence," the Moth Priest conceded, before inquiring: "So, where are we headed to next?"

"Oh, we're located in Fort Dawnguard," I called back absent-mindedly, taking my time with the chest's lock. By whatever Divine or Daedric Prince governed thieves, this lock would challenge even a master lockpicker! Luckily, however, I had 10 years of experience, and after a bit more fiddling the lock finally gave way, revealing a large white crystal. "Why was this beauty locked up by the vampires?" I wondered out loud. Serana, however, gasped.

"Marius, I don't think you should touch that-" she warned, just as my fingers brushed against it. Immediately, a loud feminine voice, imposing and commanding, boomed, seemingly originating from both the crystal and no where simultaneously.

"A new hand touches the beacon. Listen. Hear me and obey. A foul darkness has seeped into my temple. A darkness that you will destroy." I did not like the sounds of what I was hearing; it seemed that yet another cosmic force wanted to make me it's pawn. Before I could do something stupid, like retort, however, the voice continued it's command. "Return my beacon to Mount Kilkreath. And I will make you the instrument of my cleansing light."

Serana was the first to break the stunned silence.

"That crystal reeks of daedric magic," Serana finished her belated warning lamely, looking sheepish, while I mentally cursed. No matter what I did, it seemed that it was my lot in life to be tangled up with the powers beyond.

"Which Daedra?" I asked, preparing for the worst. While I really didn't want to deal with any of them, some were worse than others; few would prefer Molag Bal to Azura, for example.

"By the sounds of "foul darkness" and "cleansing light", it sounds like Meridia." Serana deduced, and Lydia nodded.

"It would make sense; Mount Kilkreath did have a Shrine to Meridia." Lydia agreed.

"Meridia's one of the nicer Daedric Princes, right?" I asked, and Serana shrugged.

"She's seen as one of the more benevolent ones, I suppose. Really big on loving light and life energy, though not so much on necromancy and undead."

"Ah... I can see why that would be a problem for some of us..." I acknowledged, already seeing the problems Serana may have had with Meridia, before an idea started forming in my head. "Mount Kilkreath's just north of Dragon Bridge, right?"

Lydia and Serana nodded, not liking where I was going with this.

"Serana, you escort our new friend over here," I clapped the still-stunned Moth Priest on the back as I said that, before continuing: "To Fort Dawnguard. Meanwhile, Lydia and I will return the... "beacon" to Mount Kilkreath."

"Remember what I said about getting involved with the Daedra, Marius..." Serana began, and I nodded.

"Best not to get involved if at all possible, right? Don't worry, I understand that you speak from experience," I reassured her, acknowledging her past deal with Molag Bal. However, thanks to my usual luck, I was already grabbing the metaphorical tiger by the tail. "Unfortunately, since I touched it, and she acknowledged me... it seems I'm already involved. Best to just finish her task as soon as possible, no? Besides, if she's really that such an enemy of the undead, her aid may prove valuable against your father."

"Fine, I get your point," Serana relented, before adding: "But I'm coming with you."

I had to raise my eyebrow at that.

"Do you really think that your undead self should be entering a Shrine of Meridia?" I asked, and her face fell. "Besides, our friend over there needs help; I think he may have passed out standing up."

Serana sighed, knowing I had a point, but feeling very reluctant to concede.

"Just... just promise me you'll take care of yourself, Marius. As my best friend."

"Don't I always?" I chuckled, and she groaned.

"That's exactly what I'm worried about."

"Don't worry, Serana. I'll make sure he doesn't get up to much trouble." Lydia added, and I found myself wondering just what kind of person those 2 saw me as. Silently, I vowed to prove them wrong; this would be a simple delivery, nothing more.

-KILKREATH CATACOMBS, A FEW HOURS LATER-

Lining up my crossbow's sights to the necromancer's head, I slowly released the breath I had been holding, and lightly squeezed the trigger. As Lydia and I watched, the sharpened dwarven bolt flew straight and true, whizzing past the shadowy corrupted shades floating around him to bury itself in the back of Malkoran's skull, and I shot Lydia a cocky grin, satisfied that I had been vindicated.

True, delivering Meridia's Beacon to her shrine hadn't been a simple delivery; I'd been disavowed of any notion I'd clung to of that when I'd returned the beacon to it's pedestal, and found myself, and it, floating steadily up in the air, much to the surprise of my Housecarl and I. Meridia had wanted to give me instructions privately, it had seemed, and had wanted to force upon me an offer I had literally no way of refusing, something which I found myself having a bit too much insight into for my liking, as I had floated a few hundred metres above Mount Kilkreath through no discernible means, and in no time at all I found myself agreeing with her demands to have me clear her temple of undead.

However, while the undead had been... unusual... floating corrupted shades of the belligerents of the Skyrim Civil War, insubstantial figures of skeleton and shadow, these new creatures had retained enough substance that the swing of a blessed Dawnguard War Axe had still proven detrimental to their continued existence, and between mine and Lydia's skill and arms, and Meridia's beam of light leading the way, this ruined temple had proven no harder to clear than any before, and we had soon found ourselves at the heart of the foul corruption in no time.

I could have almost sworn I'd felt as much as heard Meridia hissing in anger in my head, as we'd silently opened the door to the deepest catacombs of the ruins of Kilkreath Temple. There, the necromancer, Malkoran, sat meditating before a defiled sword, whilst 8 other shades floated guard around him. The worst thing about the defiled sword, seemingly used as the focal point of some unholy ritual, was that it somehow seemed familiar. Even if Meridia hadn't placed it's image in my head, I had still heard legends about her legendary blade, enough to recognize it as the light from her beam struck it, illuminating it. Dawnbreaker. If it had been in this blasphemous state, it was little wonder the undead ran amok the way they did.

Now, I wasn't a religious man; by Oblivion, I'd spent the first 20 years of my life feeling that the Divines wouldn't have time to spare even a thought for the lowly Marius, before coming to Skyrim and finding that they were beginning to take an unhealthy interest in me. Perhaps it was Meridia in my head, subtly influencing me. Or maybe it was the piles of dead soldiers, all desecrated, their souls knowing not eternal rest, and had nothing to do with the blasphemy of Dawnbreaker. But, at that moment, I felt cold disgust recoil within me. Malkoran had to be stopped; and I had just the tool for the job.

As his body toppled over, and his shade boydguards charged us, before being summarily dispatched, Lydia rolled her eyes as I shot hee a triumphant look, and said: "See? Now that wasn't so much trouble, was it?" Naturally, as soon as those words left my mouth, Lydia was vindicated by Malkoran's twitching body, which suddenly birthed a shade of it's own, which immediately roared and blasted us with freezing air.

Malkoran had been a powerful necromancer in life even before corrupting Dawnbreaker, and his shade demonstrated his power first-hand; I was surprised I wasn't immediately frozen solid by his localized blizzard. Lydia, meanwhile, being far more resistant to cold as a Nord, was the first of us to react, swinging her axe at him. However, this gave us our second surprise; our physical attacks could not affect him, his insubstantial form simply reforming out of shadow whatever we attempted to cut, and Lydia was sent flying into the wall by a casual backhand, where she lay unconscious.

I, on the other hand, my stamina drained from the cold, fought to keep my focus about me enough to cast a fire spell. As the fire left my hands, and I was treated to the lovely warmth, Malkoran's shade chose to double down, and my flames began duelling with his frost in a battle that did not favor me or my limited magicka pool. I needed to change this situation, somehow. Luckily, Meridia provided an answer.

"Use my cleansing light!" Meridia's voice boomed in my head, and I spied the beam of light hitting Dawnbreaker. It was honestly a better idea than anything I'd had, though I had to act quickly; his spell would soon overpower mine, and I didn't want to take my chances against a sustained assault. And yet, I didn't know how to get him in the light; how would I physically manhandle his shade into the beam? Unless...

Ducking and rolling out of the way of his freezing blasts bought me a valuable few seconds, even if the streams still nicked my feet, hampering my mobility. Turning to face Dawnbreaker, and his still-bleeding corpse simply lying in front of it, and the beam of Meridia's light striking it, I prayed to Meridia that my insane gambit would work, and to Kynareth that my aim would be true, for I had but a split-second to adjust it.

"FUS RO!" I shouted, and an Unrelenting Force generated itself from my lips at Malkoran's corpse. At the same time, a strong wind blew in from the temple doors. While it wasn't strong enough to move any of us, let alone a stable corpse lying on the ground, it could gently nudge other things.

Like slightly correcting the course of a certain necromancer's body, having been sent flying in the air from a Shout being used on it.

Malkoran's shade screeched in agony and horror as his old body remained transfixed in the light, still floating, and the shadow substance of his form suddenly seeming more distinct and substantial. Wasting no time, I grabbed his shade, and fought the urge to shudder. Just being in contact with him felt like plunging my hand into a frozen lake, and the chill of death numbed my fingers. But still, I held on. And still, I advanced with him towards Dawnbreaker. Not for Meridia, I truly cared not for the Daedra in the end. Not for vengeance, I felt nothing but pity for the desecrated corpses, and even less for Meridia's temple. Not even for the Dawnguard; they already had the Scroll, the Moth Priest, and a well-defended fort to continue the fight. No, I continued on for far simpler reasons: For my fallen Housecarl, so that her body wouldn't be desecrated, her soul corrupted and bound to the malevolent necromancer; she deserved a longer life and a better death than that. For Serana, to whom I had promised to return safely to; I couldn't leave her friendless and alone, and I especially couldn't prove her right! For my companions, and myself, I drudged on, and shoved his shade into the beam.

The light had detrimental effects on me, it's merest contact against the skin on my arms causing a crackling, burning sensation as if lightning was washing through my very arm, and I was treated to the surreal sight of seeing the flesh of my arm burn away and regrow anew in an endless cycle, fuelled by the energies of Meridia and, it seemed, my magicka. But as badly as I had it, the undead had it far worse, and I was glad I hadn't brought Serana as I watched the shrieking Shade of Malkoran essentially disintegrate in the face of Meridia's cleansing light; not even dust remained. Malkoran was finished.

Panting from the exertion, I quickly made my way to Lydia's prone form; it seemed that being exposed to Meridia's light had physically invigorated me, though I still felt the signs of magicka exhaustion. However, I still had more than enough magicka left over for a simple Healing Hands spell, and I mended Lydia's wounds. As she awoke, and made the usual jab about me being a priest, Meridia's voice returned, still booming and commanding, though somehow softer in tone.

"It is done. The defiler is defeated. Take Dawnbreaker from its pedestal."

Looking over at Lydia, and confirming she was fine, I walked towards the enshrined sword, and drew it from it's pedestal. Immediately, a bright light engulfed me, robbing me of my vision temporarily, and I soon found myself relieving the uncomfortably familiar feeling of floating a few hundred metres above Skyrim. As I slowly regained my vision, I confirmed that I was, indeed, back above Mount Kilkreath, and face-to-face with a familiar glowing ball of light.

"Malkoran is vanquished. Skyrim's dead shall remain at rest. This is as it should be. This is because of you." Meridia intoned through the orb, before continuing to declare: "A new day is dawning. And you shall be its herald. Take the mighty Dawnbreaker and with it purge corruption from the dark corners of the world. Wield it in my name, that my influence may grow."

Biting back my instinctive initial response of "I'll keep the sword. But find someone else to spread your religion." because pissing off the Daedric prince that has you floating a few hundred metres above a mountain is not a good idea, I instead adopted my most diplomatic tone, and answered: "I'll wield this mighty blade in your name."

"May the light of certitude guide your efforts." Meridia greeted, in as cordial a farewell as I could expect, before the light faded, revealing the crystal that had started it all, and the two of us floated back down to Skyrim, with the beacon landing right in it's original resting spot at her statue, while I landed somewhat less gracefully in a heap in front of the statue and my Housecarl, who had rushed out of the temple as soon as I had vanished, and made it out just in time to see my descent. As she helped me out, I studied the golden sword, which had remained in my hand throughout the entire journey. The gorgeous golden sword was unlike any I had seen, neither Dwarven nor Elven in make, but what drew in my eyes was neither the unique design nor embers that seemed to run throughout and smoulder under the surface of it's entirety; the most stunning feature of the weapon was the shining crystal embedded within it's guard, reminding me of a scaled-down version of Meridia's beacon. I suppressed an unconscious shudder, silently praying that she wouldn't be able to view and manipulate Nirn, and me, through this crystal like she had with her beacon, but somehow I didn't want to test that theory. Sharing a silent nod, we turned around and ran for the nearest carriage, as the beginnings of a sudden thunderstorm broke around the mountain.

-THE COLORED ROOMS, OBLIVION, AT ROUGHLY THE SAME TIME-

Meridia, Daedric Prince of Life, the Lady of Infinite Energies, and former patron of the sworn enemy of the Knights of the Nine, Ayleid sorcerer-king Umaril the Unfeathered, was a very happy Daedric Prince; her humming in fact startled even her normally-unflappable Aurorans, the golden-armored horned bipeds wondering if they'd somehow missed her day of summoning (they hadn't).

And why shouldn't she have been happy? It had been a hard 200-odd years for Meridia, as it had been for all the Daedra, and between the Knights of the Nine seeking vengeance on her followers for the actions of her former champion, and the then-newly-formed Vigilants of Stendarr seeking to prevent another Oblivion Crisis by stamping all worship of any Daedra, her power and influence in Mundus had waned significantly. To add further insult to injury, in recent times, the powerful necromancer Malkoran had discovered one of her few remaining temples, Kilkreath Temple, where her artifact, Dawnbreaker, had been enshrined, and had then proceeded to defile it; channeling the power of Dawnbreaker to perform his unholy rituals, desecrating her temple, and removing her beacon from it's rightful place, before giving it to his allies in the Volkihar Clan to secure.

However, that had changed but scant hours ago, as Meridia, who had been lounging in a somewhat depressed state in her throne, wondering if she should look for her ring again, had suddenly detected a strong, powerful presence come into contact with one of her influences on Nirn. Peering down, trying not to remain hopeful, she soon discovered that her stolen beacon had just been re-discovered, this time by an adventurer with a blindingly-bright soul.

So entranced was she by his light, she hadn't even cared about the vampire following him; she had barely had time to jump up, try to fix her appearance, and deliver the impressive speech she had prepared a few years ago for if someone had stumbled across her beacon. Meanwhile, the Aurorans in her throne room had struggled not to snicker at her actions, all the while wondering what had happened to fluster her so. As she had watched, the adventurer had promptly (by her standards) taken the beacon to the mountain, and she felt as if a part of her power was reunited with her greater whole, and she took the chance to channel a portion of herself through the restored beacon, so as to speak to him in person.

As she gave instructions to the mortal whilst the pair were suspended above Mount Kilkreath, she took the time to study him to a far greater degree, now that she could, and while she was surprised to find she couldn't quite place what he was, though a part of him seemed familiar, it was outweighed by the pleasure she took in learning he had yet to be claimed by another Daedric Prince, not even that wretched manipulator, Hermaeus Mora, who seemed to take a twisted pleasure in trying to get his tentacles on every individual of even reasonable power and interesting fate, and she silently told herself that, if he did as she asked, she would make him her champion, a promise that only grew more likely as he had efficiently cleared her temple of the unwilling Shades, and even quickly assassinated Malkoran himself.

Unfortunately for her chosen, he hadn't predicted that, as a necromancer, Malkoran would have contingencies in place regarding his death, and his own defiling presence had re-risen, a far more powerful Shade than those he had previously fought. She had watched in apprehension as the adventurer had been blasted by Malkoran's Frostbite spells, and his servant had been sent flying into the wall, though that feeling had been turned upside down as he had not only weathered the localized blizzard, but focused through what must sure have been an arduous experience to cast his own Flames spell, countering the effects of the vile shade's spells, and had even begun to match his spells to Malkoran's. While she had guessed he had been powerful by the fact he had retrieved her beacon, she still found herself impressed by both his mental fortitude, his quick-wittedness, and his magical power, though she knew he wouldn't have been able to match Malkoran in an extended match of magic, and she had decided to nudge him in the right direction.

What Meridia had expected her chosen to do with the information had been something simple, like perhaps a Telekinesis spell, or maybe knocking Malkoran's corporeal form into her light with a well-thrown projectile. What she hadn't expected was for him to roll out of the way, and utilise Kynareth's rare gift to Men, the Thu'um, to send his body flying up, nor had she anticipated that Kynareth would indirectly aid him with a well-timed breeze, but still, it did the job. Before she could warn him, however, of the detrimental effects of her light on normal mortals, she saw him manhandle the shade, and shove him into her light, coming into contact with it himself. Once again, however, her new chosen subverted her expectations.

Instead of being simply burnt away in the face of her light, she had gasped in surprise as the physical manifestation of her power and presence penetrated into his flesh, and her warmth flowed into him without breaking him. Stripping away the layers, as her essence mixed with his, she finally realised what he was, underneath his mortal shell; her champion had an aedric essence, similar to the half-breed Umaril, but far purer. As his form endured her forced entry, her power actually began healing him, new life springing forth from the point of contact in a constant cycle of rebirth, and baser thoughts that she had long since thought dormant upon her transformation from Magne-Ge to Daedric Prince. Before she could explore these thoughts further, he withdrew his hands from her light, the shade vanquished, and moved on to healing his servant. It was there she spied the secondary effect of their intimate contact; his healing spell had somehow incorporated her light into it, and controlled it's release. The resulting spell was far more effective than it would have otherwise been, though she doubted any would notice. That, however, could wait; she had a promise to fulfill, and a reward to give, and had been elated when he had accepted his position as her champion, her chosen, although she had sensed he held some hesitation. She could always entice him further later on, though; for now, she had to ponder upon what she had observed.

As she lounged upon her throne, humming happily to herself at the restoration of her power and the acquisition of her new champion, she looked back upon what he had done, and the potential the union between the two held. During her more callous days, in eons long past, when she had just become Daedra, she had held the desire to create life, stemming from her overflowing love for it. However, as Daedra, she was no longer able to create in Mundus, only able to change. So consumed had she been in her youth by her desires she had abducted mortals from Iliac Bay to experiment, and even given Umaril her favor when he had promised to use his lineage as the son of an Et'Ada to fulfill her wish. As time went by, however, her love for mortals and unfulfilled desire to create life had eventually been warped into a hatred of those who would pervert life into twisted mockeries of it, the undead and their creators. However, now that she had found this mortal with an aedric essence, perhaps one of the purest she had seen in centuries, and had seen first-hand how her concentrated power had interacted with his... perhaps it was time to revisit those desires. Perhaps, if she injected her essence into him, and he used it as the foundations upon which new life would spring...

Chuckling to herself, lost in her revived desires and her plotting on how to turn her chosen champion into her consort, she failed to notice her Aurorans panicking and desperately trying to figure out what on earth had her so worked up, especially once an observer told them that Kynareth was suddenly, at the moment, displeased with Meridia.

-FORT DAWNGUARD, HALF A DAY LATER-

Entering Fort Dawnguard, Lydia and I were greeted with shushing noises upon our return by both Isran, the Moth Priest, and most of the gathered Dawnguard, while Serana, standing in a corner separately from the rest, whispered to us: "Dexion's about to read my Scroll."

"Now, if everyone will please be quiet," the Moth Priest, whose name was apparently Dexion, said, glaring at us, before continuing: "I must concentrate."

It was honestly kind of disappointing, watching him merely open the scroll; I wasn't sure what to expect with having an Elder Scroll be read, but I expected a more dramatic occurrence than a literal reading. With that said, however, I suppose I should have been grateful he didn't spontaneously combust or disappear, and instead managed to clearly tell us what he saw, just as I was grateful he had held the attention of the ex-Vigilants such that none questioned the Daedric artifact in my possession.

"I see a vision before me, an image of a great bow. I know this weapon! It is Auriel's Bow! Now a voice whispers, saying "Among the night's children, a dread lord will rise". In an age of strife, when dragons return to the realm of men, darkness will mingle with light and the night and day will be as one. The voice fades and the words begin to shimmer and distort. But wait, there is more here. The secret of the bow's power is written elsewhere. I think there is more to the prophecy, recorded in other scrolls. Yes, I see them now... One contains the ancient secrets of the dragons, and the other speaks of the potency of ancient blood. My vision darkens, and I see no more. To know the complete prophecy, we must have the other two scrolls."

As we watched Dexion retire to a private room wearily, and the gathered on-lookers began discussing what they'd just heard, I gave Serana a glance, and decided to confirm a portion of what I'd just heard.

"He said... other two scrolls, right?"

"Yes, Marius, he did."

"And, as far as you know... your mother only had one other scroll, right?"

"Indeed," Serana replied again, still not seeing where I was going with this. Lydia, however, groaned silently behind her, clearly beginning to guess my thoughts.

"So... where would you suggest we go to look for information on the last Scroll?"

"The College of Winterhold, naturally..." Serana's voice trailed off, as realization struck her, and I saw her eyes sparkle.

"Does this mean we finally get to visit the College?" Serana squealed happily, and I sighed, not relishing the prospect of another long journey up north, as well as the risk of being stuck in another blizzard, and I began desperately searching for any reason I could to put it off, to Oblivion with the whole "darkness will mingle with light and night and day will be as one". Eventually, my mind stumbled upon an excuse, flimsy and risky though it was.

"I suppose," I wearily responded, before adding: "But let's make a detour by Ilinalta's Deep first; I may as well get Azura's Star before we head back to Winterhold."

Chapter Text

As far as meeting new people go, walking up the mountain south of Winterhold to the Shrine of Azura, to immediately be greeted by a Dunmer priestess saying: "Azura has seen your coming, traveler. It was not curiosity, but fate, that has led you here." has got to be one of the more memorable ways I've first met someone, which is an impressive feat when that count includes threats of physical violence, actual physical violence, and a dragon accidentally saving me from being executed by wrecking the whole town I was in before sending me flying into a fort and knocking me out, though it was at least refreshing that violence didn't seem to imminent this time. Cryptic, sure, but not violent.

"Seen my coming"? What do you mean?" I asked, just to be polite.

"Azura has given me the gift of foresight. I had a vision of you walking up the steps to this altar long before you were born." The priestess explained, and I shrugged without comment, though I saw Lydia roll her eyes. Not that I didn't want to share her disbelief, but the sentiment rang hollow when she, Serana, and I had only come to Winterhold chasing a prophecy, and when I was apparently some Nord hero who was prophesied to show up when the dragons returned, which both they and I did. Indeed, it was entirely possible that fate was trying to tell me something, with all this talk about prophecy, but for now I couldn't grasp it, nor did I think it relevant, and thus I put it out of mind as she continued: "You have been chosen to be her champion. I know it is unexpected, but do not worry. It will all unfold as she has predicted."

"About that..." I began, but she talked right over me, seemingly unwilling to listen.

"You must go to a fortress, endangered by water, yet untouched by it. Inside, you will find an elven mage who can turn the brightest star as black as night."

"Yeah, I know about the sta-" I tried to interject as she paused for breath, but still she continued.

"It is cryptic, I know, but Azura's signs are never wrong. I believe the fortress may refer to Winterhold. Ask if they know this elven enchanter-Azura's Star!" Azura's priestess exclaimed, as I pulled out the star from a belt pouch, a deadpan expression on my face.

"By the way," I began, whilst Serana and Lydia fought to stifle their laughter. "The fortress was Ilinalta's Deep, not Winterhold, and the elven enchanter was an ex-College member named Malyn Varen."

"I knew the Lady of Twilight had sent you for a reason. Hand it over to me. I will ask Azura to restore the Star to its original purity." The priestess commanded, and I happily obliged, glad to be rid of the damned artifact. The star had somehow seemed broken when I had gotten it, nothing like the glorious star of legends, and I hadn't actually ran into this Malyn Varen when I had obtained the star; if he had been as obsessed as Nelacar had claimed, I'd have doubted it would have left his sight for even a second. More to the point, though, I didn't want to attract any more attention from the Aedra and Daedra than I already had; sometimes, I could swear I felt a presence observing me from the now-sheathed Dawnbreaker, and at other times I almost thought I felt Kyne's Token around my neck heat up and tug and pull.

"I will commune with Azura," she said, as she placed the broken star on the altar, and prayed: "Azura. Mother of Roses. Goddess of Dusk and Dawn. Your chosen champion has returned your Star to you."

After a brief moment of silence, where absolutely nothing interesting or dramatic happened, she turned to me, and said: "She wishes to speak to you herself. Please. Place your hands on the altar, and you will hear her voice."

Now I was certain that Dawnbreaker was glowing brighter, and Kyne's Token was heating up and tugging away from the statue. Unfortunately, no matter how much I'd like to listen to Meridia and Kynareth, I essentially held the Khajit by the tail again; the priestess, and Azura, evidently, were waiting, as was emphasised when the priestess repeated "Please place your hands on the altar. Azura wishes to speak with you."

"Greetings, mortal." A cool feminine voice rang in my head, as soon as I touched the altar. "You have followed my guidance through the veils of Twilight, and rescued my Star from Malyn Varen. But his soul still resides within, protected by his enchantments. Until he is purged, my artifact is useless to you."

"Is there any way to cleanse the Star?" I asked, hoping Azura would be able to do it herself.

"Eventually, the Star will fade back into my realm in Oblivion," Azura began, and I breathed a sigh of relief. The good news, however, ended there. "But I doubt you have the hundred or so years it would take to wait. No, only one option remains. I will send you inside the Star. You will banish Malyn's soul there. Tell me when you are ready, mortal."

"Did she just say she'd send Marius into what is, essentially, a soul gem?" Lydia asked Serana quietly behind me, voicing part of my disbelief.

"Yes, she did." Serana confirmed.

"I'm sure Azura has foreseen everything." Azura's priestess assured them, though it didn't do much to quell my doubts. Unfortunately, though, Azura hadn't exactly left me with much of a choice in her wording; somehow, I could just guess that telling her to go to Oblivion and running for the College wouldn't endear me to her, and as benevolent as Azura could be, her grudges were legendary. The tales of how she'd punished the ALMSIVI Tribunal over 200 years ago for their roles in the death of Nerevar, in the First Era, were still told in hushed whispers. And besides, in the absolute worst-case scenario, I could always just sell the Star for septims.

"I'm ready to enter the Star." I brightly told Azura, with far more bravado than I felt.

"Have faith, mortal. I will be watching over you." Azura's voice reassured me, before my surroundings suddenly changed, and I found myself seemingly within a greenish-blue crystal, with a figure staring at me, in black robes.

"Ah... my disciples have sent me a fresh soul-" The spirit of Malyn Varen began, before I drew Dawnbreaker, pointed it at him, and Shouted "WULD!", sending my body shooting forward as if it were a gust of wind. While he may have been a powerful enchanter, strong enough to subvert the very nature of Azura's Star and defy mortality, with gifted disciples and subdued daedra to command... in the end, he had grown soft, having only feasted on weakened souls since his entry into the Star, and my surprise attack came from an angle he'd never expected, Thu'um magic being uncommon in Skyrim in this day and age, and he had no defenses as I, and my pointed blade, flew into him as if loosed from a bow, stabbing him through the heart and ending his threat. Sure, it was less-than-honorable, but I wasn't an idiot; I'd survived this long by being pragmatic, not by giving a master mage time to realize something was wrong and actually act against me.

As Malyn's spirit gurgled his last words, Dawnbreaker's light burning him from within, Azura's voice rang out, echoing through the confines of the crystalline chamber.

"The Star is free to purify itself. Don't worry, mortal. I will return you before you are cleansed." Cleansed. That didn't sound good for my continued well-being. Luckily, Azura was true to her word, and my surroundings abruptly changed again, back to the snow-covered altar and statue at the top of the mountain.

"My Star has been restored, and Malyn's soul has been consigned to Oblivion. You have done well, mortal. As was destined, you are free to use my Star as you see fit." Azura congratulated me.

"Thanks, but would you mind not looking into my future instead?" I asked hopefully, praying that I'd have one less daedra to worry about.

"Oblivion has been watching you since the day you were conceived, mortal. Do not think that your life has been served by your will alone." Azura explained sternly, though I caught a hint of amusement in her voice, before she proclaimed: "Go now! I have seen the threads of your fate in the Twilight, and you still have much to accomplish."

That boded well, though that didn't exactly surprise me; if I really did fulfill my destiny as Dragonborn, I'd have to save Skyrim from the Dragon Crisis, on top of my current attempts to stop the Vampire Crisis. Azura, however, was not done, and she silently added: "Feel free to take my priestess, Aranea, with you as reward for your service, Guardian of the Star; I have released her from my service so as to allow her to serve you, in any and all ways you may imagine."

Surprised, I pulled my hand off the altar, and accidentally knocked into the priestess, whose name was apparently Aranea, and who looked slightly downcast.

"While you were in the Star, Azura gave me a vision. Her last, she said. I have never been without Azura's foresight since escaping Morrowind. I don't know what to do." Aranea explained to me, looking like an abandoned puppy, before her face brightened, as an idea seemingly struck her. "If you need me, I'd be honored to accompany you, Guardian of the Star. It would give me a purpose."

As soon as those words left her lips, I felt Lydia and Serana staring holes into my skull, and a chill went down my back. Tempting as it was to have a well-trained priestess of Azura watching my back, and especially one as easy on the eyes as her, something told me saying yes would not end well for me.

"How about you head to Raven Rock, take care of the Dunmer there spiritually as well as with your magic?" I suggested quickly, trying to ignore their painful stares, and Aranea thought it over carefully.

"Perhaps... that doesn't sound like a bad idea, spreading Azura's wisdom to my fellow survivors of Red Mountain... and I suppose I could always lead pilgrimages to Azura's Shrine and maintain every month or so..." Aranea conceded, and I mentally sighed in relief as she gave me a warm farewell of "It's been an honor, guardian." as Lydia, Serana, and I descended from the mountain and headed to the College, determined to finally continue on with our quest.

-BRIDGE TO THE COLLEGE OF WINTERHOLD, 25 MINUTES LATER-

"Cross the bridge at your own peril! The way is dangerous, and the gate will not open. You shall not gain entry!" The female Altmer declared, barring our entrance into the College, and I sighed, somehow feeling disappointed at not expecting that my entry to the College would, naturally, not be so easy.

"May I enter the College?" I asked, as diplomatically, as possible, and her eyes narrowed.

"Perhaps." She answered suspiciously, before interrogating me again: "But what is it you expect to find within?"

"I just wanted to see what it looks like inside." I answered sarcastically, tempering my impatience, and to my surprise she laughed.

"Ha! Humor is often in short supply here." She responded, as jovial as I'd ever heard her, but then her previous demeanour returned, and she continued: "But I sense that perhaps you're after more than just that. It would seem that the College has what you seek. The question now is what can you offer the College? Not just anyone is allowed inside. Those wishing to enter must show some degree of skill with magic. A small test, if you will."

Well, that sounded reasonable, and I was prepared to ready my healing magic when Lydia cut in, surprising both of us.

"Would you grant entry to the Dragonborn?"

"Dragonborn?" Now the mage sounded dumbfounded, and she continued, rambling as much to herself as to me and my companions: "It's been so long since we've had any contact with the Greybeards. Do you really have the Voice? I would be most impressed to see that."

I couldn't decide whether to thank Lydia for making my entry much easier, or to curse her for announcing my identity again; I'd even worn a hood to Winterhold this time around in the hopes of disguising myself as much as keeping the cold out. What was done was done, however, and I casually Shouted, sending an Unrelenting Force into the sky, parting some of the clouds and scaring a few of the birds that lived there, as well as surprising my examiner.

"So the stories are true... you are Dragonborn!" She exclaimed, when she had finally found her voice. "Normally, you'd need to show some aptitude with one of the schools of magic, but you... I think there is much that we can learn from each other. I think you'll be a superb addition to the College. Welcome, Apprentice."

Her last words had me confused. Apprentice? All I'd wanted was to visit the College's library, get a book on the Elder Scrolls or two, and hopefully a clue at where to start looking for the Dragon Scroll. And yet, somehow I'd apparently been added to the College's members. Before I could protest, or even resist, however, I found myself essentially dragged as much as lead by the Altmer mage across the bridge, while Lydia and Serana followed suit, Lydia torn between laughter and concern, and Serana studying her surroundings and showing both a sense of being impressed and disappointed. Things further escalated as I was thrown in front of the Master Wizard, Mirabelle Ervine, and given an orientation of the College grounds, though after 10 minutes I was able to eventually sneak away, just before I was introduced to my fellow apprentices, and went to the library, known as the Arcanaeum.

There, whilst Serana admired the literature collection, I asked the surly Orsimer librarian, Urag gro-Shub, for help getting an Elder Scroll, whereupon I was insulted for my lack of knowledge, given a lecture of the nature of said Scrolls, and finally thrown 2 books, one of which was unhelpful in finding said Scroll, and the other... well, the other, called 'Ruminations on the Elder Scrolls', contained snippets like "Can we flow through the Scrolls as knowledge flows through, being the water, or are we the stuck morass of sea-filth that gathers on the edge?" and "We are the chicken inside the egg, but also the dirt." To call it unhelpful was an understatement; it was utterly incomprehensible, and I told as much to Urag.

"Aye, that's the work of Septimus Signus. He's the world's master of the nature of Elder Scrolls, but..." Urag's matter-of-fact tone trailed off, and he thought about it for a second, before continuing: "Well. He's been gone for a long while. Too long."

"He's dead?" I asked, incredulously; I refused to believe I'd come back to Skyrim's frozen north just to hit a dead-end.

"Oh no. I hope not. But even I haven't seen him in years, and we were close." Urag corrected me, and I sighed in relief, before he continued: "Became obsessed with the Dwemer. Took off north saying he had found some old artifact. Haven't seen him since. Somewhere in the ice fields, if you want to try and find him."

And that's how I found myself having to sneak out of the College and wandering the frozen sea to the north, looking for a hideout hollowed out of a glacier, whilst surrounded by glaciers as far as I could see, through a fog as thick and white as a snow bear. Fortunately, though, it wasn't actually that hard to find; between Serana's flame spell and Lydia's furs, I staved off snow blindness and hypothermia long enough to spot and enter the one glacier with torches and a wooden door.

-BLACKREACH, FOUR DAYS LATER-

"Say, Serana..." I began, whispering as quietly as I could lest I be heard and detected; while most of the sightless twisted elves and their insect companions had been slain, my time in these depths had not helped my paranoia.

"Yes, Marius?" She replied innocently, wondering what my purpose for calling out to her was.

"Septimus Signus sent us to look for Mzark Tower through Aftland, right?" I asked quietly, wiping my newfound glass sword on a dead elf's head, cleaning the blood and fats off of it and giving the corpse localized frostbite.

"He did, indeed, say that an Elder Scroll lay in the depths of Blackreach, forgotten by the Empire." Serana confirmed, harvesting blood and body parts from a corpse.

"So..." I took a deep breath, before letting loose the question that had been nagging at me. "Where on earth have we been lost in for the past 2 days, and why?!"

"Probably the depths of Blackreach, my Thane, and still looking for that Elder Scroll." Lydia answered coolly, though her face betrayed her excitement; by Akatosh, she looked like she was enjoying our extended adventure, with the resemblance her face bore to the children's on New Life Day.

"Someone's enjoying themselves..." Serana said wryly, as we finished our respective tasks and made ready to move on. I smirked in response, while Lydia chose to smile happily; during our bonding session in the hot springs, she had admitted she'd wanted a life of adventure and excitement, and it seemed that the past four days had satisfied her wanderlust immensely.

It had been an eventful and exhausting four days since we'd left Septimus Signus's Outpost in the far north, and discovered the partially-excavated entrance to Aftland half a day's journey south-west of Winterhold. From there, after a night's uneasy rest in the abandoned camp, we'd spent the remainder of the next day making our way through Aftland, dealing with the occasional insane excavation member, abandoned dwemer spider or sphere automaton, and, eventually, a glut of a newly-discovered faction of enemy; the blind feral sadistic elves that Serana had sworn reminded her uncomfortably of what she'd studied about the ancient Snow Elves of Skyrim, the Falmer. Whatever had happened to the original Falmer after the Return, where Ysgramor and his Five Hundred Companions had attempted genocide against them, and the survivors had been forced into hiding with the Dwemer, was the source of as much debate as what had happened to the Dwemer themselves, and it looked like we'd found the what, if not the how or why. After about 2 hours of wiping out their 'lairs', for lack of a better term, as well as most of the feral elves and their chitinous insect companions, and being extremely thankful for the thicker Dawnguard armor and resistance to poison we'd acquired since our journey began a month or so ago (as well as the dozen or so Cure Poison potions Serana had made), we'd eventually descended into what would best be described as a dwemer cathedral, guarded by a golden giant automaton in the shape of a man.

The golden guardian, which Lydia had helpfully informed me was known as a Dwarven Centurion, had unfortunately awakened as we had approached, and it's first action had been to release scalding steam at us. Luckily, while unexpected, it had been no harder to deflect than a regular Flames spell would have been, and the steam that hadn't been cooled by Serana's Frostbite spell dissipated harmlessly against my charged ward. However, this particular automaton design was, evidently, far smarter than the spheres and spiders we'd faced, as it'd used that opening to close the distance. What it hadn't anticipated, however was that Lydia had waited to protect us, and it's first blow with it's axe-arm was deflected to the side, preventing it from splitting me in half vertically, whilst it's second blow with it's hammer-arm I managed to stop dead bare-handedly, surprising everyone, not least of which was me; I had attempted to block it's blunt blow with my hands, true, as I'd lacked the time to draw my blade, but I'd expected to ride the momentum of the blow, and at least be sent skidding back, if not making a controlled fall.

As I'd gripped it's hammer, my conscious mind trying to process what had just happened, the hand-to-hand sparring lessons, drilled so deeply into my subconscious by my Legion days they overrode my flight instincts completely, suddenly kicked in, and I found myself punching the giant in the knee, and actually denting the metal and forcing it to kneel, instead of simply breaking my fist. Lydia and Serana then watched on as, capitalising on it's moment of weakness, I'd then proceeded to press my assault on it's unarmored joints connecting it's lower half to it's upper half, effectively crippling it with a final solid blow to it's lower torso. From there, the automaton had been insultingly easy to finish off, as it had lain on it's back, flailing it's oversized arms around and failing to hit anything, while I climbed onto it's chest, and ripped out it's glowing dynamo core, shutting it down permanently.

After looting the automaton, finding a surprising number of dark three-pronged arrows alongside it's core and the scrap metal we managed to salvage from the body, and an odd key, we made our way to a gated elevator, already unlocked, and found 2 corpses laying within, possibly the last members of the doomed expedition. We chose to leave them were they lay, rather than give them proper burials; we didn't know them, and we honestly figured that leaving these explorers within the ruins they'd excavated was the best due we could leave them. Lydia did, however, take the dead Redguard's targe, the unique shield sporting large sharp steel spikes at it's front, before we'd used Septimus's Attunement Sphere on the odd table they'd died behind, causing it to unlock and open, showing a staircase that led even further beyond the depths of Aftland's cathedral; it seemed we'd found Blackreach.

To be fair, saying we'd 'found' Blackreach doesn't do our first impressions justice. As we'd descended the stairs, and opened the doors at the end, we'd been treated to a massive cavern, possibly the size of the Imperial City itself in terms of size. The massive cave wasn't dark and dull, however, no. Glowing fungi both blossomed from the ground, dwarfing even some trees, and grew from the ceilings, their roots more reminiscent of stalactites than actual roots. Meanwhile, the cavern walls glittered, geodes, gems, and crystals obvious even despite the sheer distances involved. Numerous dwemer dwellings littered the landscape as well, the stone and dull gold-bronze structures iconic of the dwarves standing long after their creators had disappeared. And in the centre? It wasn't just a walled city that lay in the centre of Blackreach; Aftland had been a 'city', and I suspected that the gated elevators barely visible in the far corners led to more mere dwarven 'cities'. The heart of Blackreach, the Dwemer capital city, was illuminated by what looked like a miniature sun, and within it Falmer were scurrying about, along with other, less twisted, figures. Meanwhile, by the river which flowed through the cavern, specks of crimson light could be seen, eerily reminiscent of Nirnroot, although I'd never known of Nirnroot with a crimson glow. All this information overwhelmed us in the second it took for our conscious mind to absorb and process the sight before us, and I'll admit even I felt adventurous and excited as the sight floored me, to say nothing of how Lydia was clearly visibly restraining herself from running down there.

Naturally, we skirted the edges of Blackreach, sticking to the northern end and heading west; the sections of Blackreach not visibly swarming with Falmer or their insect companions were being guarded by patrolling dwarven spheres, and our simple job was to find the underground entrance to Mzark Tower to get the Elder Scroll. After all, we'd reasoned, once all this was over, we'd have more than enough time later on to explore every inch of this cavern in-depth.

After 2 days of organized wandering, and numerous false leads, including a staircase that had led me right into yet another Centurion, this one curiously guarding a glass sword with a powerful frost enchantment that I had happily taken, and far more slain falmer parties than I'd cared to ever deal with, I was thoroughly sick of Blackreach. Big as the cavern was, it was still a dark, enclosed space, and I longed for the feeling of the open outdoors, the sun (or freezing wind) on my skin. Serana, having spent the better part of a millennium in a sarcophagus, fully shared this sentiment. Lydia, however... I wouldn't say she'd happily spend her life here, she was no where near that fanatical, but I'd probably wager a thousand septims she'd happily stay here for another month. The rest of us, though? Forget coming back here next time, only the sobering thought of the vampires wreaking havoc on Tamriel kept us from heading back up to the Great Lift of Aftland. The only reason we'd even lasted this long was the decent amount of travel rations and preserved meats we'd picked up at Winterhold before leaving, as well as Dawnbreaker and Azura's Star serving as decent infinite torches.

As the 3 of us continued south along the western-most end of Blackreach, systematically scouring the cave for potential exits, I idly noted that we were almost reaching the south-western corner of Blackreach already; I'd lost track of time while wandering, to be honest, with the only breaks to our repetitive sight-seeing tour being patrolling dwarven automatons, patrolling falmer, and geode deposits and crimson nirnroots, both of which Serana insisted on harvesting whenever she had the chance. As I wondered if she'd surpassed 100 pounds of crimson nirnroot and geode-mined soul gems yet, I saw a bridge slightly north-east of the south-western corner, leading to what appeared to be another dwarven tower, one probably housing a staircase.

"So... think that's Mzark Tower?" Lydia asked, as we drew near, and I heard excitement in her voice; to her, while the adventure was enjoyable, there was also the feeling of accomplishment at the end of the journey to relish.

"Probably, but that's what we thought about the north-western one. Flip a coin?" Serana suggested.

"Let's check this one out," I answered, before stowing Azura's Star and drawing the glass sword, continuing: "But be on your guard."

It was thus simultaneously depressing and relieving when we ascended the elevator to find ourselves in what appeared to be an abandoned dwemer laboratory.

Well, to be honest, calling the Tower of Mzark a 'laboratory' was a bit of an understatement; it'd have been like saying Blackreach was 'just a cave.' While the entrance hall that the elevator led to was a disorganized mess, it was still clear that much research and living had taken place within it's interior whilst it had been inhabited; the room was littered with dwemer utensils, forks, spoons, bowls and plates, while on the shelves sat books dating back to the First Era, along with numerous rolls of paper, both blank and illegible, and a few scrolls of mundane utility that were quickly pocketed (I was sure I'd find a use for a Scroll of Muffle eventually). Serana, meanwhile, had found numerous alchemical ingredients and weird vials, surprisingly preserved despite having been locked up far longer than even she had been, and had taken to looting the unattended satchels with a glee I found almost nostalgic, and Lydia studied a golden mask with a face on it, the helmet of dwarven metal bearing numerous dents and scorch marks. Clearly it's use had been as much practical as ceremonial; perhaps it had been used for protection during more explosive experiments? The main draw of Mzark Tower, however, the reason why I couldn't simply call it a laboratory, it lay in the next room, the vast tower from which it drew description.

At the base of the tower, as the first sight our eyes held upon entry, lay a massive dwemer sphere, similar and yet different to the dwemer 'lockbox', as Septimus had described it, that lay within the glacier that he had made into his outpost, scaled up perhaps ten times; it looked like it could hold half a dozen dragons easily. At the top of the sphere was what appeared to be a focusing lens, directed at the sphere itself, as well as an entire platform built around it. The platform had a ramp leading further up, allowing one to reach an overlook above the sphere, one which held a four buttons, all of which were covered over, and a receptacle for a cube. Meanwhile, above the sphere itself hung five ornate golden arms of dwemer metal, each housing one or more blueish-green lenses, none of which reflected or focused anything. This was clearly a device meant for some unknowable great knowledge, to be deciphered and transcribed safely; ironically, all I really held interest was in getting the scroll itself, and had absolutely no idea how to actually work this complex device.

Pulling out the blank lexicon Septimus had given me, I placed it in the receptacle, and immediately the rightmost two buttons unlocked themselves with a hiss of steam, the turning of some gears, and a loud bang somewhere below. Shrugging, and figuring it was worth a try, I gingerly pressed the second button to the right, and watched as the top of the sphere rotated itself, the area visible to the overlook now showing blueish-green crystals, similar to the lenses above it. After a few more presses, and a few more rotations by the sphere, a sudden click was heard, and the gears around the lexicon spun and turn, causing the lexicon to open, revealing a blue core. Meanwhile, the second button to the left unlocked itself. Pressing that button caused a hiss and a whine to be heard, and this time the lenses above moved about. However, even in their new position, they weren't focusing light, and I confidently stabbed my finger into the button again, whereupon the lenses reconfigured. Now they were focusing light, the beams striking the crystals on the sphere, and the leftmost button unlocked itself. As simply hitting the buttons randomly as they'd opened had worked out for me so far, I hit the newly unlocked one.

This time, however, all the lens-bearing-arms fell away from the ceiling, and from the ceiling descended an complex-looking mechanism, within which a massive green crystal was gingerly balanced, surrounded by rings of dwemer gold, some of which held smaller crystals of their own. As we watched, the rings rotated around the crystal, and it rotated about it's axis and descended separately, before splitting in half to reveal a golden scroll. Clearly, we'd found the Elder Scroll.

As Serana secured the now-closed lexicon, it's surface covered in blue runes, and Lydia reported that she'd found a door under the overlook, one leading to an elevator, I walked over to the scroll, and cautiously grabbed it, paranoid that it may have held some security measures. Like everything else in the tower, however, there were none, and I quickly stashed the Scroll in my backpack, not wanting to be in contact with it any longer than I needed to. Even in my backpack, I could feel it's weight; when I'd briefly come into contact with it directly, it had felt like the full weight of the world had been contained within, a great yet terrible burden just waiting for one to bear it, waiting all these millennia just for me to finally retrieve it. Grabbing it had felt like I had been fulfilling a part of destiny, which... worried me. All I wanted to do with the scroll, after all, was to prevent destiny, to stop the Volkihar Clan from fulfilling their prophecy regarding the Tyranny of the Sun. So why had it felt like I was meant to use it somewhere and somewhen else?

As we left the elevator, having ascended a great distance, and I found myself once again freezing my nether regions off at the top of some mountain somewhere to what appeared to be south of Dawnstar and north of Whiterun, I forced all thoughts of destiny out of my mind, determined to get Septimus's cube to him and, finally, never have to go to Winterhold again.

-SEPTIMUS SIGNUS'S OUTPOST, ONE DAY LATER-

"I've inscribed the lexicon." I announced bluntly, any pride having long since withered away in the cold, after Septimus had finished his raving and ranting. We'd returned to his outpost, runed lexicon in hand, feeling both curiosity at what he'd do with it, and a sense of finality, wanting to get it over with for good. Unfortunately, he'd been in one of his moods, and was unresponsive to reality, having an animated discussion with the air next to him about some incomprehensible vagaries regarding something licking window panes and smoking the glass, and had remained in that state for approximately 15 minutes, during which time Serana and I grew more impatient, and Lydia's urge to simply return him back to reality via cranial concussion grew. Eventually, though, he'd calmed down, and I reported my new acquisition.

"Give it, quickly." He replied rudely, before snatching it out of my hands and studied it intensely. After a few seconds, though, his eyes widened, and he exclaimed: "Extraordinary. I see it now. The sealing structure interlocks in the tiniest fractals. Dwemer blood can loose the hooks, but none alive remain to bear it. A panoply of their brethren could gather to form a facsimile. A trick. Something they didn't anticipate, no, not even them. The blood of Altmer, Bosmer, Dunmer, Falmer, and Orsimer. The elves still living provide the key. Bear you hence this extractor. It will drink the fresh blood of elves. Come when its set is complete."

Well, that sounded inconvenient, if not far too much trouble for me to bother with, and Lydia's curiosity visibly deflated as I internally debated the best way to tell him exactly where he could shove his extractor. Before I could actually speak, however, Serana pulled one of the curious red vials from a pouch, and Septimus's eyes widened.

"About that blood..." Serana began, before the extractor dropped to the floor, and his newly-empty hands snatched the vial, opening it and sniffing, eyeing, and even tasting it's contents. Meanwhile, I decided against commenting on anything more for the rest of the day; if I consciously acknowledged and pondered the presence of the blood of millennia-gone dwarves in Serana's pouch, I was certain I would go mad. This decision was vindicated when Septimus suddenly smashed the vial at the dwemer lockbox, and the lock... caved inwards, like an invisible nail was pushing aside it's entrance, revealing a chamber within that Septimus charged right into before the rest of us could enter.

"What is this..." Septimus's voice called out from within, before I could ask him whether his precious Heart of Lorkhan was within. It sounded incredulous, disbelieving, and most of all, not impressed or awed. Instantly, the hairs on my arms raised, and my instincts screamed at me that something was wrong. Lydia and Serana, sensing something was wrong as well, got into our usual formation, Lydia readying her shield at our vanguard while Serana weaved wards of protection behind us. "It's... it's just a book?! I can see. The world beyond burns in my mind. It's marvelous..."

As we cautiously entered the box, hearing his last words, we were treated to the lovely sight of Septimus Signus, the great College researcher of the Elder Scrolls, author of the incomprehensible book 'Ruminations on the Elder Scrolls', and all-around madman turn to ash, ash which flew off in the unnatural wind current produced when the box opened. Meanwhile, upon a pedestal in front of us, lay not some ancient heart of a long-dead god, but instead a book; a thick book with a patchwork cover of numerous types of leather, a book which I somehow felt compelling me, silently and subtly, to open up and drink of it's contents as a dehydrated man would an oasis in a desert, like a curious child would a sweetroll. A book which somehow promised the power of knowledge, and all I would have to do to claim it, was to take it and unleash it's contents onto the unsuspecting world. Come, drink deeply of me, it whispered.

However, no matter what it promised, I was still me; I'd rejected power when the Volkihar Clan had offered it to me, just a month or so ago, and their offer had been far more tempting. Whatever within that book was attempting to compel me, it was clear it did not know who I, Marius, truly was. For the same reasons that I'd snubbed Harkon, for the same reasons that I had tried to avoid becoming a pawn of the Daedric Princes, no matter what they offered, for the same reasons that I had yet to accept that I myself was the mythical Dragonborn, and had loathed being named Thane of Whiterun...

Amongst the first lessons I'd learnt within the Thieves Guild in Cyrodiil, what had stuck with me the most was that power had a tendency to corrupt, and this was nowhere more true than with power that had simply been handed down to one, without them being prepared for it or earning it. So many of the corrupt patrons of the Thieves Guild, screwing over their fellow Man not out of necessity, but because they'd been blinded by power and greed; even as I had worked for them, I'd always loathed them, and swore to never become like them. But perhaps, most importantly, was this: after experiencing my lovely childhood, and having made peace with the fact that the Divines had not been looking out for me for most of my life, I'd promised myself that I would forge my own destiny, and Oblivion take my pre-determined fate and destiny; I had no interest in being a pawn for the powers which had done nothing for me. Despite all I'd seen and encountered since coming to Skyrim, I was still Marius the stubborn oaf, and my strong-headed determination helped me throw off the book's compulsion. Thus, when my hand closed around the uncomfortably familiar leather cover of the book, instead of opening, my hand had simply held it up, whilst my other grabbed a leather strap, and bound the book close.

"Are you okay, my Thane?" Lydia asked, as I shoved the bound book into my backpack, and I saw her reach out to it, clearly wanting to take it from me. Before she could do so, however, Serana grabbed her hand, and quickly hissed: "Don't touch that! That book reeks of Daedric influence."

"Daedric influence?" I asked, scarcely believing my ears. "The daedra are involved? Again?"

"Afraid so, Marius." Serana replied.

"Can we just burn it?" Lydia suggested hopefully, and I smiled at her optimism as Serana shook her head.

"Chances are, it's a Daedric artifact, so... destroying it on Mundus would just send it back to Oblivion, where after a time it's patron would be free to send it back to Mundus. Probably why the Dwemer sealed it away, if they were the ones who did."

"Let me guess, I can't just throw it away either?"

"I'm guessing it was somehow bound to you when you touched it, Marius. To be honest, I'm surprised you didn't just disintegrate like ol' Septimus over there did." Serana said, nudging the empty pile of robes that once housed the pile of ashes formerly known as Septimus Signus."

I sighed simply at the prognosis; by the looks of it, I'd been saddled with yet another Daedric artifact.

"No use worrying about it for now, then; let's just get out of here and grab the next Elder Scroll," I began, heading to the exit, before a... tear opened up at the entrance of the dwemer lockbox, in the black-purple fires of a summoning from Oblivion. However, instead of something simply appearing in the flames, the heatless fire suddenly turned into a green sludge, and from within the floating tear in reality tentacles shot out, as did numerous eyeballs of different shapes and sizes, all blinking irregularly and separately from one another, yet all focused upon a single target: me. For better of for worse, it seemed that the artifact's patron had arrived, and it announced itself with a booming, oozy, slimy voice, like drowning slugs gurgling from the bottom of the ocean.

"Come closer, my champion. Bask in my presence. I am Hermaeus Mora. I am the guardian of the unseen, and knower of the unknown. I have been watching you, mortal. Most impressive. Now you have my Oghma Infinium. It contains the knowledge of the ages as revealed to Xarses, my loyal servant. For hundreds of years it's been shut away from the world. Septimus was a useful tool for unleashing it. Now it is in your hands. Let us work wonders together..."

"I am not your champion, monster." I interrupted, refusing to let myself be cowed by this being (or at least show that I was), and the voice from the wretched abyss actually paused, the eyeballs studying me in greater detail. The voice then continued, sounding far less pleased, and also far less intimidating now that the factor of surprise was gone.

"Who do you think brought Septimus here? Who do you think protected you on your journey to open the box and loose my knowledge on this world? Your free will is an illusion. Whether you acknowledge me or not is your own business. But I will be in your mind."

Before I could retort, or say something I would regret, the wretched abyss imploded upon itself, leaving no trace it had ever been.

"You know..." I began while scowling heavily, after a stunned silence. "I really hate the Daedra; bloody tentacles-and-eyeballs just had to have the last word."

"You sure you okay, Marius?" Serana asked, putting her hand on my shoulder.

"I've been better," I admitted. Physically, I didn't feel any different; the Oghma Infinium didn't weigh anything when compared to the Elder Scroll it was next to. Mentally, however... I would admit, I was shaken. This had been the third Daedric Prince I'd had the displeasure of meeting, and unlike Meridia and Azura, there was a certain quality about him that reviled me. I forcibly pushed it out of my conscious mind for now, however; there was no use worrying about it, since I couldn't get rid of the damned book yet, and freaking out would just concern my companions and make surviving the ongoing crises that much harder.

"Serana. Any idea where the next Elder Scroll would be?" I asked, forcibly changing the subject, while heading back to the entrance of the glacier; I had no intention of remaining within the hold of Winterhold, let alone the late Septimus's outpost.

"We need to find my mother, Valerica." Serana answered, thinking on it. "She'll definitely know where it is, and if we're lucky, she actually has it herself."

"You said you didn't know where she went." I replied, recalling our previous conversations about her family. By the sounds of it, her mother hadn't been much better than her father, she'd just focused it more on ensuring vampiric survival rather than Harkon's completely-healthy-and-sane direction of vampiric superiority.

"The last time I saw her, she said that she'd go somewhere safe... somewhere that my father would never search. Other than that, she wouldn't tell me anything. But the way she said it... "someplace he would never search." It was cryptic, yet she called attention to it." Serana recalled, before adding: "I can't imagine a single place my father would avoid looking, though. And he's had all this time, too. Any ideas?""

"How about... in Castle Volkihar?" Lydia suggested jokingly, trying to lighten the mood, and I chuckled. Unfortunately, however, Serana began pondering this statement, and admitted, much to my dismay: "That almost makes sense! There's a courtyard in the castle. I used to help her tend a garden there. All of the ingredients for our potions came from there. She used to say that my father couldn't stand the place. Too... peaceful."

I shared a glance with Lydia, the two of us having no idea where to even start retorting. Should I point out the inherent risk Valerica would have taken in hiding there? Or perhaps the insanity of bringing Serana and two Elder Scrolls into Harkon's stronghold? While the saying that the best place to hide something was right under one's nose sometimes held water, he had literal centuries to scour the castle. In the end, Lydia quipped, before I could: "They aren't going to let us use the front door, you know."

"True. But I know a way we can get to the courtyard without arousing suspicion. There's an unused inlet on the northern side of the island that was used by the previous owners to bring supplies into the castle. An old escape tunnel from the castle exits there. I used that to escape, and I think that's our way in."

I sighed, and resigned myself to my fate. Unfortunately, this truly was our best lead, as far as resident expert Serana knew, and I couldn't come up with a good reason not to go through with our suicidal plan. Cursing Lydia, I simply said: "Let's go to the castle's secret entrance."

On the bright side, at this rate I wouldn't have to worry about Hermaeus Mora attempting to corrupt my soul for much longer.

Chapter Text

"You know..." Serana began to suggest, while my arms continued their repetitive circling motions, slowly and silently rowing our small dingy north-west as I had done for the past few hours. "We could have just taken the boat at Icewater Jetty to the secret entrance, instead of stealing a boat from the bandits at Broken Oar Grotto."

"We're trying to sneak in, right?" I asked, taking a break to stretch my frozen fingers, restoring blood flow to them so that I could check my compass. The fog this far north was too thick for me to see through clearly, and while I was sure there was some magic or Shout that could conveniently clear such thick clouds and fog, the weather was currently working in my favor, hiding Serana and I from view as we made our suicidal approach to Castle Volkihar. By my rough estimates we were on course, and had rowed far enough to be north of Castle Volkihar, on the far side of the main entrance (and watchmen and guards); it was finally time to start rowing south. "Dawnguard intelligence states that Icewater Jetty, as the main route of entry to Castle Volkihar, is under constant surveillance by your father's agents."

"Fair point." Serana conceded, before asking: "Then why not just swim from the shore off of Northwatch Keep? That stretch shouldn't be guarded, and I know the Waterbreathing Spell."

"Swim?" I asked, incredulously. While the past 2 weeks of travelling together had impressed upon me both her intelligence and knowledge on dealing with daedra, vampires, and Elder Scrolls, the past day of travel had really driven it in to me that she held a certain naivety when it came to the harsh real world, ironically; it seemed that her centuries of unlife and sheltered (if unloved) childhood hadn't done much to hone her survival skills, especially when dealing with others. Not for the first time since we'd split up at Winterhold after departing from Septimus Signus's Outpost, I found myself missing Lydia and her sarcastic wit. Unfortunately, however, Serana and I had been forced to rush to Castle Volkihar, time being of the essence in deciphering the prophecy and stopping Clan Volkihar's schemes; the point had been really driven in by the attack on Winterhold by a vampire assassination squad, targeted mainly at us. Whilst casualties had been limited to a few injured guards (Winterhold's lack of populace in it's main town had helped), who had promptly been given potions of Cure Disease by us to prevent Sanguinare Vampiris, it had reminded us that the vampires were not sitting idly by, waiting for us to wipe them out. Lydia, however, had been sent back to Fort Dawnguard, to warn Isran about both what we had learnt and what we were planning on doing next, as well as possibly securing whatever new technologies Sorine, Gunmar, and Florentius had developed in the two-or-so weeks we'd been gone. She hadn't gone willingly, and I'd been forced to invoke my authority as her Thane whilst appealing to her sense of reason to get her to leave, no matter how reluctantly. At least she had gone, though; not only did the Dawnguard need to know that we were heading to Harkon's stronghold, right under his figurative nose, with the aim of looking for his wife, but it was a personal relief that Lydia would not be partaking in our insane suicidal mission, and that she would be as safe as I could make her, being in Fort Dawnguard. Sadly, however, I was unable to do the same for Serana; it had been her idea, and she refused to be left out when there was the chance she'd get to finally meet her mother, and I needed a guide to take me through the castle, in the end.

"Yes, Marius. Swim." Serana answered simply. "That's how I snuck out the first time."

"Well, firstly," I began to reply. "As a living being, I feel both fatigue and the need to breathe. And whilst I know both healing spells that restore stamina, and you could teach me the water breathing spell, there's still a few more problems."

"Like?" Serana asked earnestly, eyebrows raised. Clearly, she hadn't actually thought about it from my perspective.

"Like the fact that I'm in heavy metal armor, and that the sea this far north is freezing, and I'm not a Nord. And there's absolutely no way I'm going into Castle Volkihar without all the armor I can get."

"Oh." Serana replied blankly, finally seeing the problem. "Sorry."

"It's alright; I don't think you've ever actually encountered the problems of wearing metal armor this heavy." I waved it off, before deciding to cheer her up. "Now, mind casting Clairvoyance again? I need to see if we can start rowing south yet."

"No problem!" Serana said brightly, seemingly cheered up by being of aid, and she outstretched her hand, palm facing downwards, and a blue light shone from it towards where my compass indicated was not south, but south-east, drawing a straight line.

"Looks like I overshot it a fair bit..." I conceded sheepishly, as I began changing the dingy's course. To be fair, I honestly hadn't had much experience at sea; a childhood spent in the slums of the Imperial City and a military career spent on the border of Valenwood did not translate well into a glut of naval experience.

"Uh, Marius?" Serana called out, concern evident in her tone, and I immediately stopped rowing, having adventured with her enough to know that, when she called it in that tone, something was up. Luckily for our boat (and us), the waves continued pushing us south-east.

"I'm hearing the waves."

"So?" I asked, wondering why that had alerted her. "We're in the sea."

"No, I mean, I'm hearing the sounds of the waves breaking against-look out!" Serana warned, and the waves which I had originally been so thankful for carried our tiny boat into the stone embankments of the hidden dock before I could take evasive manoeuvres, crashing the ship and sending us flying up onto the dock itself.

Luckily, Serana received minimal damage, having had sufficient time to brace herself, and between my less-than-graceful landing onto the softer sand instead of harder stone and my heavy armor being heavily padded, I survived the fall, though I was decently sure I had a lot of bruising. Unfortunately, however, this was where my atypical run of good luck ended, and the sadly-familiar sound of an arrow whistling through the air made me force my prone body to roll to the right, treating me to the lovely view of an arrow of old Nordic design burying itself into the sand where my head had been only seconds earlier.

"Serana! Skeleton! On the top!" I called my attacker's position to Serana, as I saw the undead creature slowly reach into it's quiver, before a fireball engulfed it, and it collapsed. While this skeleton had been different from the other skeletons I'd encountered, with it's armor reminding me more of a Draugr Lord and it's overall solidity and strength made me recall the Corrupted Shades I'd fought in Kilkreath Temple, it was still a mindless undead, and it's actions showed that well; if it had been smart about killing me, it would have gone prone, or at least crouched, to minimise it's profile whilst still taking advantage of the high ground, as opposed to standing tall and slowly drawing arrows. This viewpoint was only reinforced when two more of these "super skeletons" (as I called them, at least) slowly shambled out, only to be quickly dispatched by Dawnbreaker.

"I thought you said this was a secret exit?" I asked quietly, as we slowly made our way up the docks and towards the entrance of the castle.

"It is; no one should know about it." Serana defended.

"So why was there a welcoming party of skeletons?" I retorted, and she visibly pondered on this for a while.

"Perhaps... my mother set this up." Serana eventually suggested quietly. "Maybe they've been here, dormant, the whole time, and something finally triggered them and woke them up?"

"Like what? The founding of the third Elder Scroll?" I asked again, genuinely curious.

"Possible, but unlikely. Maybe they were keyed to something like the presence of living people. Either way, it's more likely an automated defense than our secret entrance being actually compromised."

That happy theory wasn't helped, however, when we went deeper in and got attacked by a bald vampire in rags, who sent a pack of death hounds at us, and as Dawnbreaker turned the undead hounds to ash I fought back the urge to comment about how the secret entrance seemed to lack the very unimportant feature of secrecy.

Seriously, the only thing I could think of that needed more secrecy than this tunnel would be a Dark Brotherhood, Morag Tong, or Thieves Guild hideout.

-VALERICA'S STUDY, TWO HOURS AND FORTY MINUTES LATER-

As the two of us finally stumbled into Valerica's impressive alchemical and necromantic laboratory (by normal standards, at least; the Tower of Mzark was not exactly a good baseline to compare the rest to), I found myself mentally recanting every doubt I'd ever had regarding the study's secrecy.

After the initial shock of the feral vampire and her death hound companions, Serana and I had essentially run a gauntlet of what I could only describe as the Skyrim Special of puzzles and traps to advance, ranging from the typical trick of having numerous chains and/or levers opening a gate with another chain and/or lever which opened the way forward, to the Volkihar classic of motion-activated gargoyles and skeletons, and even new additions to my memory like a moondial in the courtyard with missing pieces, that when completed caused it to reveal a tunnel to some older ruins (examining the courtyard revealed that the passage between it and the main Volkihar Keep had been sealed up, barring a narrow crawlspace Serana admitted to having made with her telekinetic powers when escaping; at least the mystery of how Harkon had never found the secret entrance from the courtyard was revealed.) Valerica had, clearly, spared no expense, but every restraint and inhibition, in seeing that she would not be found. There had even been the lovely classic of turning the Dagon-damned candlestick to reveal a secret entrance. With how old this family was, though, I wouldn't have been surprise if they'd invented it...

"Look at the place. This has to be it!" Serana exclaimed, looking around. "I know she was deep into necromancy. I mean, she taught me everything I know. But I had no idea she had a setup like this."

"Look at all this. She must have spent years collecting these components." Her hands now pointed around the study, pointing to the tables covered in alchemical ingredients, and I had to admit, it surpassed Mzark Tower in variety and quantity; I hadn't seen void salts or daedra hearts lying around there. Her hand then pointed to the stone rings that made up the middle of the room, and she asked out loud: "And what's this thing? I'm not sure about this circle, but it's obviously... something. Let's take a look around. There has to be something here that tells us where she's gone."

Seeing my raised eyebrow on the landing above, she explained: "My mother was meticulous about her research. If we can find her notes, there might be some hints in there."

As I looked over the bookcases lining the walls, the first thoughts that came into my mind were 'needle' and 'haystack'; the only place I'd seen with more books was Urag's Arcanaeum, and this time I wasn't going to have a librarian of minimal friendliness and dubious helpfulness to point me in the right direction. Luckily, however, closer examination of one of the bookcases revealed a thinner book, with a brown plain cover, simply leaning to the side, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that this thinner book which mentioned Harkon, Serana, and Dimhollow Crypt, as well as an extended exile to some other plane called the 'Soul Cairn', was most likely Valerica's Journal.

"I've found your mother's notes." I called out to Serana, whilst holding it out in my hand, and Serana's eyes widened as she saw the thin brown book.

"You did?" Serana's voice carried disbelief, presumably at how the book had been found so quickly. "Let me see them."

I casually tossed her the book, which she caught easily, and decided to ask her about some of it's contents before she lost herself reading her mother's last written words (at least, as far as we knew): "What's this 'Soul Cairn' that she mentions?"

"I only know what she told me." Serana admitted, as she opened the book and began studying it. "She had a theory about soul gems, that the souls inside of them don't just vanish when they're used. They end up in the Soul Cairn."

"Why did she care where used souls went?" I asked, doubting Serana's mother had altruistic reasons.

"The Soul Cairn is home to very powerful beings. Necromancers summon souls and receive powers of their own in return. My mother spent a lot of time trying to contact them directly, to travel to the Soul Cairn itself." Serana explained, a hint of worry creeping into her tone.

"If she made it there, we'll find her." I reassured her, walking up to her and placing my hand on her shoulder, and though her face was still buried within her book, I saw her shoulders relax.

"That circle in the centre of the room is definitely some type of portal." Serana began, looking up from the journal. "If I'm reading this right, there's a formula here that should give us safe passage into the Soul Cairn."

"What do we need?" I asked hesitantly, not liking where this was going.

"A handful of soul gem shards, some finely ground bone meal, a good bit of purified void salts..." Serana answered, referring back to the journal, before suddenly closing it. "Oh... damn it..."

"What's wrong?"

"We're also going to need a sample of her blood. Which, if we could get that, we wouldn't even be trying to do this in the first place."

"You share her blood." I suggested half-heartedly, not wanting to see all our effort sneaking into Volkihar Castle go to waste just like that.

"Hmmm..." Serana pondered it, before nodding. "Not bad. We'd better hope that's good enough. Mistakes with these kinds of portals can be... gruesome. Anyway, enough of that. Let's get started."

"... are all of those ingredients here?" I asked incredulously, wondering if she had just been expecting the reagents she wanted to just be sitting on a table.

"Oh, definitely. Mother would have plenty of those materials in her laboratory. We just need to find them." Serana said brightly, and I looked over at the tables of alchemical ingredients. Well, if there was a place in Skyrim that would have those, I guessed it would have to be here. On the bright side, at least, this was far less of a 'needle and haystack' situation Valerica's journal had been; the aforementioned reagents were at least distinctive enough to be recognizable at a quick glance, especially when it transpired that Valerica had apparently placed them all in distinctive large silver bowls, and within two minutes Serana and I had all the ingredients in a vessel on the second floor, overlooking the stone circles.

"Are you ready to go? I'm not entirely sure what this thing is going to do when I add my blood." Serana said hesitantly, her hand outstretched over the vessel, and I could tell from her tone that she wasn't asking just out of consideration for me; she was afraid of potentially meeting her mother after all this time.

"Can I ask you something first?" I replied, deciding to play along.

"Of course. What is it?" Serana hid the relief in her voice well, but I'd been with her long enough to see it. Unfortunately, now I actually had to think of a topic. I could joke around, trade the typical witty banter, ask what her plans were once vampires weren't trying to plunge Tamriel into eternal darkness... in the end, though, I chose to be a friend, and face the mammoth in the room.

"What will you do if we find your mother?" I asked bluntly, and she turned around to stare at me, before finally admitting: "I've been asking myself the same thing since we came back to the castle. She was so sure of what we did to my father, I couldn't help but go along with her. I never thought of the cost."

"I don't know what she was thinking." I replied quietly, unsure of what to say, and she nodded.

"Neither do I. She always seemed happy, before we heard the prophecy. Then it all changed. She became a different person. They both did."

"We won't know until we find her." I reassured Serana, and my hand found her shoulder again. This time, however, she rested her head against my hand, and her smaller hands gripped my fingers.

"Yes... yes, you're right. I'm sorry. I just didn't expect anyone to care how I felt about her. Thank you." Serana answered into my hand, and I decided to pretend I didn't hear the sobs she was fighting, or the warm wet feeling I sensed on my hand. She'd been using the Vampire Conspiracy as a means of escape, ironically, from thinking about her family, and I didn't think anybody had expressed concern for her or forced her to confront her emotions since she'd gotten out of Dimhollow; between her current company of Dawnguard vampire hunters like Isran, and the fact that her remaining vampire family were trying to kidnap her and bring her back against her will, I'd say it was a pretty safe bet. She was, however, a strong girl, and she soon recovered, no hesitation evident in her tone as she asked: "Are we ready then?"

"Let's get that portal open." I answered, my helmet hiding a proud smile on my face, and with a simple response of "All right. Here goes.", Serana lightly bit her left hand, her sharpened elongated canines breaking the thin skin of her wrist, before she rotated her wrist so that gravity pulled a few drops of blood into the vessel.

As soon as her blood came into contact with the reagents, the entire room shook, as though a local earthquake had just struck the study, and from the circle came the familiar ominous dark purple glow of Oblivion.

"By the blood of my ancestors..." Serana breathed quietly, staring as the circle began fragmenting itself, and bits of it rotated around and floated, until it eventually formed a staircase leading into a yawning void that spewed purple fires. "She actually did it... created a portal to the Soul Cairn. Incredible!"

'Incredible' may not have been the word I'd have used for the spectacle, but it was, at least, far more impressive a portal than the wretched abyss that was Hermaeus Mora had made in the glacier. All my instincts, however, screamed at me to plug the void with anything and get out of there, and I didn't think they were wrong; this was similar to an Oblivion Gate, like the ones Mehrunes Dagon had opened during the Oblivion Crisis some 200 years ago, and somehow I knew that to go in there would not be ideal for my continued good health and well-being, the same way I knew how to breathe or walk or talk.

"Well... let's do this..." I began, breaking the silence, because sometimes one simply has to do something, and I descended down the steps before she, or my common sense, could stop me. As I hit the bottom step, and my foot came into contact with the purple flames, I didn't know what to expect. Would it be quick and instantaneous? Slow, drawn-out, and painful? Whatever my pre-conceptions, it was all proven wrong when the flames suddenly engulfed the part of my body in contact with it, and I felt a sharp pain, along with a crackling sound, like lightning coursing through my body. Hissing, fighting back the urge to roar in pain, I quickly drew back, the flames offering no resistance, and almost lost my footing on the perilous staircase in my panic. I was used to pain, sure, but this... this somehow felt different.

"Are you alright?" Serana asked from the top of the stairs, before adding a concerned quip: "That looked painful."

"It was." I ruefully admitted. "What happened?"

"Now that I think about it, I should have expected that." Serana admitted, before adding: "Sorry."

"It's hard to describe." She explained. "The Soul Cairn is... well... hungry, for lack of a better word. It's trying to take your life essence as payment."

That didn't sound good. In fact, it sounded like it was trying to kill me, or take my soul.

"So there's no way in, then." I stated flatly, hoping that Dexion would be able to figure out enough with just the Dragon Scroll. Serana, however, had a thoughtful expression on her face.

"There might be," Serana began slowly, and warning bells rang in my head as she continued: "But I don't think you're going to like it. Vampires aren't counted among the living. I could probably go through there without a problem."

"Are you saying that I need to become a vampire?" I asked incredulously, wondering if my ears had failed me.

"Not you first choice, I guess?"

"There has to be another way." I stated firmly.

"Maybe... we could just pay the toll another way. It wants a soul, so we give it a soul. Yours."

"Wouldn't that kill me?" I asked incredulously for the second time that minute.

"My mother taught me a trick or two. I could partially soul trap you and offer that gem to the Ideal Masters. It might be enough to satisfy them." Serana explained, before she saw the stunned look on my face and added: "It would make you a bit weaker when we travel to the Soul Cairn, but we might be able to fix that once we're inside."

"Those are my only options?"

"I'm sorry. I wish I knew a better way, something that would be easier for you." Serana said sadly, before she took my hand in hers, and looked me in the eyes, reassuring me: "Just know that... whatever path you choose, I won't think any less of you. Sometimes, things just have to be done. I know that better than anyone."

-SERANA'S POINT OF VIEW, VALERICA'S STUDY, AT THE SAME TIME-

Despite being clinically dead and, thus, lacking vital signs like a pulse, Serana swore she could feel her heart beating rapidly as she sought Marius's green orbs through the slit in his helmet.

As she had said when offering him the two choices, she truly understood that things just had to be done, that the fate of Tamriel rested on one's shoulders and that the only way to save it was one of great personal sacrifice; she wondered if her mother had gone through the same agonizing dilemma when sealing Serana in Dimhollow Crypt, the same torture Serana had when she had effectively told Marius that, to get the Blood Scroll, he'd either have to offer a bit of his soul to the Ideal Masters, or to Molag Bal, even after he'd rejected Harkon's offer the last time. A part of her hoped Valerica had indeed been plagued by guilt, though whether this part of her wanted to know her mother had at least held concern for her or had simply wanted to spite Valerica, she didn't yet know. A growing part of her, however, believed that Valerica probably hadn't cared.

As the silence stretched on, and she saw the uneasy, serious look on her face, it finally struck her, how bad the options truly had been to him; if he had been fine, he would have added a quip by now, something to break the tension in the air, to hide how worried he truly was, to let Serana know he was alright. But no, for the first time since she'd known him, he was completely serious, something that even Hermaeus Mora had failed to do when trying to force him to become his champion.

There hasn't been a quiet moment like this, Serana thought to herself, slowly getting caught up in the mood. Not one where the two of us were just by ourselves, this close to each other, with such a serious atmosphere... if only it had happened under happier circumstances... if only there was another way.

It probably said a lot about Marius and Serana's relationship that the option of her entering the Soul Cairn by herself without him to find Valerica had never even crossed either of their minds.

"I don't see any other way." Serana's sharp hearing picked up Marius's quiet voice, and her heartbeat jumped. She hadn't been completely truthful; she did indeed have a preference for one of the two choices she'd offered to Marius, and it wasn't the one that would weaken him in a realm of Oblivion. Her reasons weren't purely altruistic, though; her feelings from when he'd first rescued her had only grown as she'd gotten to know him, and he'd showered her with the attention and affection she so sub-consciously craved, and that her family had denied her. Lydia's intuition had been right when she'd guessed that Serana had felt tempted to turn him, so that they may enjoy eternity together. In the end, however, she cared too much about her best friend to turn him into the kind of existence that had caused her so much suffering, especially not when he was unwilling, no matter how much Molag Bal's corrupting influence tempted her to do so regardless of his will. Remembering that, she attempted to calm her dead heart down, reasoning that he had not chose vampirism yet, and was still unlikely to do so.

"I'll become a vampire."

He chose vampirism.

Serana's heart, which had just resumed it's usual stillness, suddenly felt like the drum of an overenthusiastic bard.

"Are you sure?" Serana choked out, scarcely believing her ears. Her sense of reason, which she'd relied on for so long to keep herself from doing anything Marius may not have wanted, was suddenly at risk now that she had his permission, and unbidden scenarios began flitting through her imagination. Trying to retain her self-control, her sharp mind quickly searched for all the reasons she could think of to dissuade him, and she elaborated: "I'm willing to turn you, but you need to think it through. You'd become the very thing you've sworn to destroy. I don't know how the Dawnguard will react."

"I'm ready." Marius said sternly, and she heard his voice drop a few octaves to a deeper baritone, something she'd realised he unconsciously did when he felt really stressed out. Now she felt guilty, both for what she had pushed him to do, as well as the fact she was looking forward to it.

"Turning someone is a very... personal thing for vampires." Serana began explaining, trying to fill the silence while she mentally prepared herself for the act. "It's intimate, for us. I don't want you to feel like I'm forcing you into this."

"In that case," Marius said, in the usual forced light-hearted tone he adopted when he was trying to lighten the mood, and she felt relieved that he'd calmed down. "I'm glad you're the one doing it."

Her heart stopped for a brief moment when she heard him say that, before it began hammering twice as fast as before. If blood still flowed through her veins, she would have blushed. As it stood, her self-control simply entered a suicide pact with restraint, and they flung themselves out of the metaphorical window, causing her to miss his follow-up remark of "I don't think I'd have enjoyed sharing an intimate moment with Harkon, when he offered last month."

"Let's not waste too much time, then." Serana said, fighting to keep the eagerness, the hunger, from her voice. "I promise to try and make this as painless as possible."

Her trembling hands gripped his head and right shoulder as he grabbed the padded leather collar of his armor and tugged it down, revealing the tantalizing sight of his bare neck. She then exerted strength gently but firmly, increasing the distance between his head and shoulder, revealing more of his neck, and he quietly turned his head from her.

"Hold still." Serana commanded, and her imaginary heartbeat tripled in speed as she slowly leaned into his submitted neck. In truth, she was as much nervous about turning Marius as anticipating the act; whilst she instinctively knew how to turn another creature just as any adolescent of any species would know how to propagate it, she hadn't been turned in this manner, nor had she gotten close enough to anyone else during her unlife as a creature of the night to have felt even the urge to turn someone else. What if I mess up? What if I hurt him? What if I go too deep? Such thoughts plagued Serana's mind, and she quietly wished she had gotten more experience. At the same time, though, a part of her was glad that Marius would be her first, just as she would be the only one to claim Marius. Emboldened by this thought, her sharpened canines elongated as her head drew close to his bare flesh, and she saw him unconsciously shiver as her cold breath struck his skin.

"Serana..." She heard Marius groan, as she continued exhaling on his neck, and her thirst for his blood, for him, only grew. Oh, how she longed to prolong this moment! To continue experimenting, to see his every expression and reaction to her stimuli! Unfortunately (though very fortunately for Marius), between her growing arousal overwhelming her, and the fact that they had a job to do, she soon lost patience for foreplay, reasoning that they could always choose to do so in future, and she finally unleashed her fangs, slowly sinking her teeth into his neck, enjoying the feeling of his skin parting under her, her long hard extensions penetrating the holes made just for them, and as she finally hit the wall of a blood vessel, she began to suck, eager to finally taste him on her tongue.

As his fluids flooded her mouth, and her tongue unconsciously licked his neck, seeking more of his flavorful blood, warmth seemed to flood through Serana's body. As she ingested his essence and begun the transformation that would transform him, she felt her heart beat in time with Marius, and the aforementioned warmth grow in intensity, coursing through her veins. By now,, there was no force in Tamriel or Oblivion that would stop her until the deed was done, and she continued sucking, intoxicated from both the flavor of his blood and the pleasure of the act itself.

"Serana..." Her enhanced hearing barely picked up Marius call out her name again, with greater urgency, and her arousal spiked again, causing her to drink even more deeply of him even as she felt his calloused hands grip her wrists. Sighing in contentment, she wished someone had told her this intimate act was this pleasurable; by Oblivion, she hadn't felt this alive since...

Since... before the ritual...

Wait...

Serana's eyes shot open, as her mind finally connected some dots through it's haze of inebriation, and she finally ceased drinking Marius. The warmth, by now, had pooled in her nether regions, but she didn't have time for that. Something felt wrong...

"You okay, Serana? Your face is flushed, and your pulse is insane." Marius's concerned voice reached her ears, specifically the words "flushed" and "pulse"... words that shouldn't be applicable for any undead, any vampires, under any circumstances... "flushed" implied that blood was properly flowing through her veins, and between that and "pulse" implied that her heart had been actually beating, which if coupled with feeling like before the ritual, before she'd become a vampire, meant...

Serana's hands immediately shot to her chest, and gasped, as much in surprise as suddenly feeling the need for oxygen for the first time in centuries. She felt so alive because she was alive!

Unfortunately (or fortunately, Serana wasn't sure which), soon after she had stopped sucking Marius's blood, her life signs faded, and she felt back to her normal undead self. But still... how had sucking Marius's blood not only failed to give him Molag Bal's blessing, but also temporarily stripped it from her?

"Hey Serana, I don't feel any stronger... in fact, I don't feel any different... is that normal?" Marius's voice shook her out of reverie, and she finally noticed the healing spell he'd been casting, focused at his neck. Shame began eating away at her; she had promised to try and make it as painless as possible, but had given in to her lust far too easily. An apology would have to wait, though; something had clearly gone awry.

"Well, your heart's still beating, so I guess you're still alive. And not a vampire." Serana replied casually.

"Wait, wasn't your heart beating as well?" Marius asked, curious, and Serana was thankful that she wasn't alive again; the reason behind it would have made her glow crimson, which would have concerned him, and that cycle would eventually lead to her being able to substitute the Solitude Lighthouse in the brightness of her blush.

"That was... unexpected. Just like how you're still alive. Any idea how or why?"

"Who knows?" Marius answered with a shrug, before jokingly replying: "Maybe Auriel's really looking out for me."

He may have meant it as a joke, but to Serana that almost made sense. The Divines had been known to protect favoured mortals from disease and ill fortune, and as a Dragonborn (whilst Marius continued to deny it or treat it as a joke openly, Serana had guessed he was more than human by this time) he was a direct creation of Akatosh, spiritually. Akatosh's youngest, the Last Dragonborn (or so the prophecies went), and Akatosh had once been Auriel, whose influence they were trying to maintain indirectly by preventing her father from ending the Tyranny of the Sun. By Oblivion, it would even explain why she'd also temporarily gone back to life; turning a person involved their essence, their soul, as much as their blood, and since he had an aedra's soul, Akatosh's/Auriel's protection might have carried over, and begun purging her system of Molag Bal's corruption.

"Well, whatever the reason, I guess turning me failed. Looks like we have no choice but to soul trap me." Marius pointed out, and Serana's shame only grew; she had actually forgotten the reason why she had begun sucking his blood, so engrossed as she was in the act of it. Quickly pulling out a black soul gem she had mined from Blackreach, she explained: "You'll find yourself weakened within the Soul Cairn. I know this is difficult for-"

"Didn't I just show it when I asked you to turn me, Serana?" Marius interrupted, and she saw a quiet smile on his face. "I trust you completely."

"Alright then, you know the drill. Hold still, I'll try to make this as quick and painless as possible, and let's hope this works." Serana said, flattered by his words, before she tried to cast the partial soul trap on Marius. Unfortunately, however, the soul gem shattered in her grasp, surprising both of them.

"I swear, this has never happened before." Serana murmured, wondering if she was simply cursed.

"Performance issues?" Marius joked with a smirk, and Serana gently punched him in the shoulder, reflecting she should have guessed a regular soul gem wouldn't work either, if her theory about Marius having a more-than-mortal soul held true. In fact, as a Dragonborn who had devoured the souls of other dragons, his soul was essentially too strong for it to be even partially trapped, even in a black soul gem. At this rate, though, they wouldn't be able to enter the Soul Cairn, and her mind desperately tried to think of a solution. Just then, her eyes fell upon Azura's Star, still hanging from Marius's bandolier.

"Of course! Azura's Star!" She exclaimed.

"I'm sorry, what?" Marius asked, surprised.

"A normal soul gem might not be able to contain your dragon's soul, but Azura's Star, as a Daedric artifact, should be more than strong enough to handle the stress." Serana explained.

"But I thought Azura's Star couldn't hold a black soul, like mine?" He asked.

"Hopefully, with your soul being what it is, there may be an exception. Your soul has been inside, after all. Now, pass me the Star, and hold still."

Sighing, he complied, and she tried it again, praying to Azura for success. This time, Azura's Star held, and the two shared a sigh of relief.

"Let's go. My mother must be waiting on the other side of that thing." Serana said, pointing to the Soul Cairn portal, and hoping that it was true. Now that they had a potential way in, all the doubts and worries she'd had since being locked up in Dimhollow came flooding back, and only the sight of Marius, her friend who had sacrificed so much to offer them this chance, kept her from being overwhelmed. After all, no matter what, Marius was still with her, and she had faith that all would be well.

-MARIUS'S POINT OF VIEW, THE SOUL CAIRN, THREE HOURS LATER-

In my short life, I've probably been told to go to Oblivion over two dozen times, a surprising number of which were by Marlene, jokingly (I hoped), and an even larger number of which were by completely serious enemies, who genuinely wanted me dead. A fair few had even come close to succeeding, and the old scar where a Morag Tong dagger had pierced me still ached infrequently. The first person to actually succeed, however, was Serana, and I honestly couldn't say I expected my friend to be the one to do it. Granted, it had taken 3 tries, including an attempt to turn me into a vampire, which had failed for some odd reason I couldn't figure out, and 2 soul trap attempts. I'd be lying if I said having a part of my soul taken away from me, placed inside a Daedric artifact and weakening me, with the intention of delivering it to some masters of Oblivion called the Ideal Masters to be eaten didn't sit well with me. Any discomfort I felt from that, however, paled in comparison to the emotions stirred by my first sight of the realm where trapped souls go to.

My first thought, upon entering the Soul Cairn, was that of a dead world. The glowing purple sky with floating crystals that a flash of light occasionally shot up towards, the dead trees, stripped of all but the bark on their trunk, the way weathered stone towers and buildings randomly littered the landscape, with the only major structures left standing being the walls around the place... even the thin air, which would have made it hard to breathe had I not acclimated to such conditions during my trek up to High Hrothgar, and the dry ground, where no life should be able to grow... this realm was not one meant for life. Idly, to prevent myself from focusing too much on my surroundings, I'd wondered if this was the world Mehrunes Dagon had meant to create, when he had begun the Oblivion Crisis 200 years ago, and Serana had voiced both of our thoughts: "The air, the ground... this is all wrong."

As we had descended the steps, and noted the weird husk-like... fungi, for lack of a better term, that seemed to be the only things growing in this desolate realm, we soon saw our first signs of... 'inhabitation' was a stretch, but we found a number of souls sparsely populating this realm. We soon learnt, however, that very few of them could be interacted with; most seemed to have given in to despair, and only repeated a few lines without looking at us, presumably stuck in the last moments of their lives, before being soul trapped and sent to this realm, where they now spent their time waiting to finally pass on.

On the brighter side, however, a few of the hardier wills had maintained a semblance of their personality, and we had ended up asking a few for directions, though none of them had been able to help us find the exact location a centuries-old exiled vampire refugee carrying an Elder Scroll might have been hiding. They did, however, point to a few towers both around and within the secondary layer of walls, where they were decently sure powerful beings did inhabit, and which were guarded by the Ideal Masters' creatures, as well as a shielded structure within the secondary walls that was definitely containing something or someone, and finally what they described as a stone abattoir called the 'Reaper's Lair', deep within the secondary walls. Naturally, we decided to leave the Reaper's Lair for last, and the shielded arena in the centre for second-last. A few of the souls also tried to get us to trade soul husks for whatever detritus they had that had been sucked into this plane of Oblivion with them, or asked us for certain favors, like findings a dead horse's skull. While I had been tempted to simply get on with the mission, between Serana's expectant gaze and the knowledge that this was all I could do for the condemned souls, I promised to fulfil their requests if I could. There had also been a few pages, in no specific order, detailing the early life of the legendary Saint Jiub the Eradicator of Morrowind, just after he had finished serving jail time for murder, and been released to Morrowind. Now that had been a revelation; few religious Dunmer I'd met had talked about the saint's sordid past, and with these pages I could sort of understand why; who wants to pretend their paragon of virtue is just another mortal, as fallible to temptation as the rest of us? I personally disagreed, though; knowing the legendary heroes had the same start made them more relatable, far more easily aspired-to and respectable than one who had simply been born pure and perfect. Serana, however, had more interest in who this Saint Jiub was, as he had been long after her time, and I'd tried my best, and failed, to explain what I knew whilst we checked out the towers.

Unfortunately, our first three guesses were wrong, and while the towers, guarded by black skeletons that reminded me eerily of the Shades I'd fought at Mount Kilkreath, were indeed home to powerful ancient undead, I doubted Valerica had been one of three towering humanoid entities, with black smoke for heads and glowing purple dots for eyes, wreathed in powerful bone armor tougher than even the hide of some dragons, wielding bone weapons. Whilst physically they were probably as strong as Dwarf Centurions, these beings held even less imagination and skill than the automatons of the Dwemer; they held not even the slight spark of previous personality and skill that some Draugr Deathlords still possessed, which would have been more than sufficient for the usual dregs of weakened souls pulled into this forsaken realm by Soul Traps, perhaps. But Serana was a skilled magician, and my time in Skyrim had been characterised fighting creatures out of myth and legend, dragons and hordes of vampires and their thralls, skilled magicians and numerous man-slaying beasts that roamed the wilderness; I was more than used to countering the slight disadvantage of raw power by this point in time, even in my partially-weakened state, with a small chunk of my soul and power gone. Arrows loosed from a bow that was slowly aimed had the trajectories predicted and avoided easily, devastating overhead blows from the greataxe were easily side-stepped, leaving it's wielder open for a precise counter-attack, and the stone-wall defense of one's shield was easily penetrated with my short stature and superior speed, leaving it no room to retaliate with it's mace. Weirdly enough, the 3 'Keepers', as some soul had named them when asked, had been overlooking some soul gem fragments, all within oddly-shaped chests under the massive crystals that dotted the sky. I'd tried to approach, at first, but had soon felt the familiar soul-searing pain as when I'd tried to enter the Soul Cairn the first time. Serana, meanwhile, had no obstacle, and retrieved the 3 gem fragments, which all looked as though they should have fit together when pieced together and bonded, somehow. After that, we were down to 2 locations - the Reaper's Lair, or the arena in the centre, whose barrier was no longer visible. It honestly wasn't a difficult choice, and Serana and I joked about it as we walked along the path to the arena, along with discussing other topics.

"So, Marius... I thought you were supposed to be weaker, now that some of your soul's gone." Serana began, after our laughter rang out through the Soul Cairn, the sound of our amusement at odds with the sombre mood of the dead plane of Oblivion.

"That is what you told me, and I do feel slightly weaker." I admitted, flexing my arm to get a feel of it. "But I still feel much stronger than I was before I came to Skyrim."

"I guess that settles it." Serana declared as we neared the arena. "Your soul's definitely more than human."

"How'd you come to that conclusion?"

"I trapped about half the soul a regular person would have. And, as you're sti- Mother?" Serana's reply was cut short by her sudden question, as we saw a figure exit the arena doors. She soon exclaimed "Mother!" and ran up the stairs, whilst I silently mused that we should have just gone straight to the arena behind her; it seemed that Valerica had been hiding within the shielded arena the whole time, and if we'd just headed straight for the centre, we'd have been able to leave two hours and three near-fractures ago.

"Serana?" Valerica called out in disbelief, staring slack-jawed and wide-eyed at my companion, as if she simply couldn't believe her eyes.

"Is it really you?" Serana asked in response, a hint of disbelief in her voice, before the words began flowing out of her mouth, like water out of a broken dam. "I can't believe it! We have to talk!"

"Serana." Valerica's voice coldly cut in, and Serana's next sentence died in her throat, much to my surprise; Serana had told me Valerica wasn't exactly parenting material either, a while back, but I hadn't expected this. By where-we-were, Harkon had shown her more affection than Valerica just did. My disappointment only deepened when she followed up by demanding: "What are you doing here? Where's your father?!"

"He doesn't know we're here! I don't have time to explain!" Serana said desperately, in a submissive tone I had never heard from her before, as if she were trying to appease her mother, and my disgust only deepened. Valerica, meanwhile, remained focused on her obsession - Harkon.

"I must have failed. Harkon's found a way to decipher the prophecy, hasn't he?"

"No, you've got it all wrong! We're here to stop him, to make everything right!" Serana's voice seemed even more servile, more desperate. Unfortunately, before I could interject, it seemed that Valerica finally noticed me, as she stared at me, and asked: "Wait... you brought a stranger here? Have you lost your mind?!"

"No, you don't-" Serana tried to explain, but Valerica would have none of it.

"You." Valerica pointed at me and said, interrupting Serana. "Come forward. I would speak with you."

"Listen, lady..." I began, as I stepped forward, but it seemed like Valerica just loved the sound of her voice, as she interrupted me, as well.

"So how has it come to pass that a vampire hunter is in the company of my daughter?"

"How'd you know I was a vampire hunter?" I asked, momentarily stunned.

"You bear the symbol of the legendary Dawnguard... hard to believe it's still around, after all these centuries, when even back in the day they were little more than myth..." Valerica explained, before shaking her head, and continuing: "That's not the point. It pains me to think you'd travel with Serana under the guise of her protector in an effort to hunt me down."

"Guise?" I asked, feeling insulted. "I've been protecting her since Dimhollow, you daft leech!"

"Coming from one who murders vampires as a trade, I find it hard to believe your intentions are noble." Valerica replied loftily, not acknowledging my clever jab, though I could see her left eye twitch ever so slightly. "Serana has sacrificed everything to prevent Harkon from completing the prophecy. I would have expected her to explain that to you."

"Yeah, Serana already explained to me about how she got locked up in Dimhollow for a few centuries to stop Harkon." I said, hostility creeping into my voice, and I saw Serana wince slightly behind me, and though Valerica's expression remained unchanged, I would have sworn her eye twitch intensified. "And that's why we're here; we need your Elder Scroll to learn the prophecy and prepare to thwart it, as well as ensuring Harkon can never get it."

"You think I'd have the audacity to place my own daughter in that tomb for the protection of her Elder Scroll alone?" Valerica shouted back, anger creeping into her voice, and she bared her fangs at me as I simply nodded, while Serana scratched her cheek with a finger, and simply whistled quietly. "The scrolls are merely a means to an end. The key to the Tyranny of the Sun is Serana herself."

"What?" Serana exclaimed, surprised by the sudden revelation, while I simultaneously exclaimed: "What do you mean?"

"When I fled Castle Volkihar, I fled with two Elder Scrolls. The scroll I presume you found with Serana speaks of Auriel and his arcane weapon, Auriel's Bow. The second scroll declares that "The Blood of Coldharbour's Daughter will blind the eye of the Dragon."" Valerica explained, as if speaking to a child, but the revelation was enough to blunt my hostility for the time being.

"Coldharbour's Daughter... Daughters of Coldharbour... female pure-blooded vampires..." I whispered, piecing together what I remembered from the Dawnguard and Serana, and finally seeing the connection. "The Tyranny of the Sun requires Serana's blood?"

"Now you're beginning to see why I wanted to protect Serana, and why I've kept the other Elder Scroll as far from her as possible." Valerica said. I didn't even have to ask if Harkon would have killed Serana if he knew the prophecy; all the conversants here knew Harkon well enough to know how far he'd go for his ambitions.

"I would never allow that to happen." I declared firmly; I had so few confidants in Tamriel, let alone the frozen wasteland of Skyrim that I was still a stranger to, and there was no way I'd lose a good friend, especially not to fulfill some ridiculous prophecy that would doom Tamriel.

"And how exactly do you plan on stopping him?" Valerica asked in a bored tone, whilst Serana looked away from us, her expression hidden.

"By killing him." I replied bluntly, and Valerica merely shook her head.

"If you believe that, then you're a bigger fool than I originally suspected. Don't you think I weighed that option before I enacted my plans?" Valerica asked, and this time it was my turn to stare at her. Perhaps it was the feeling of being talked down to by the person I'd almost been turned into a vampire and lost a part of my soul to find, or perhaps it was the atmosphere that had riled me up. Perhaps I was just too fatigued for niceties, after the past few weeks of fighting the Volkihar Clan and delving numerous ruins and caverns without rest. Whatever the cause, I finally decided to retort.

"And what, pray tell, were your plans?" I asked, angrily approaching the ungrateful undead. Before another torrent of condescending words descended from her opening mouth, though, I began my usual sarcastic snarking: "Lock Serana in a random, barely-defended tomb in the middle of the Pale for half a millennium while you hide in this dead realm of Oblivion? And what? Wait for Harkon to just give up? To die of old age? For one of his numerous courtiers to finally put a stake in his back? If so, great plan. I can barely comprehend the mind that thought that one up. Not that Serana or I would even know your plans, though, since it's not like you told her anything or even asked her for her opinion when you did it."

"You care nothing for Serana or our plight!" Valerica shouted back at me, her composure finally cracking. "Whether or not you've become one of us in order to survive the Soul Cairn, you're still a vampire hunter at heart. You're here because we're abominations in your mind. Evil creatures that need to be destroyed."

"Think what you will; I won't expect a paranoid zealot vampire who firmly believes they're right to trust a vampire hunter they just met." I spat, shrugging my shoulders. "But, at least, believe in your only daughter, who trusts me."

"Serana?" Valerica asked, incredulous; apparently she'd been assuming Serana had been blackmailed or bribed into following me the whole time. Turning to address Serana, she interrogated her: "This stranger aligns himself with those that would hunt you down and slay you like an animal, yet I should entrust you to him?"

This time, however, Serana didn't flinch away from her gaze, nor did she lower her tone. Even after knowing Serana for the time I had, I couldn't tell why, now, she had finally found her spine; how much more surprised was Valerica when Serana met her gaze, her back straight, steel in her eyes and fire in her tone as she argued back: "This "stranger" has done more for me in the brief time I've known him than you've done in centuries!"

"How dare you!" Valerica shouted back. "I gave up everything I cared about to protect you from that fanatic you call a father!"

"Yes, he's a fanatic... he's changed." Serana admitted, before continuing the argument. "But he's still my father. Why can't you understand how that makes me feel?"

"Oh, Serana. If you'd only open your eyes." Valerica chastised. "The moment your father discovers your role in the prophecy, that he needs your blood, you'd be in terrible danger."

"So to protect me you decided to shut me away from everything I cared about?" Serana shot back, and I felt a small sense of pride, both at how she'd refused to relent, and that she was snarking as much as I would have. "You never asked me if hiding me in that tomb was the best course of action, you just expected me to follow you blindly. Both of you were obsessed with your own paths. Your motivations might have been different, but in the end..."

Serana hung her head sadly, as her voice trailed off, whilst Valerica stood there, stunned speechless. Glaring at Valerica, I moved over to Serana, and put my hand on her shoulder, as we'd done for each other so many times. That little bit of comfort, of mere human interaction, helped her find the strength to squeeze out the truth she'd been refusing to acknowledge for so long.

"In the end, I'm still just a pawn to you, too."

In the silence that followed, whilst I pretended not to notice the tears from Serana's eyes, she admitted quietly: "I wanted us to be a family again, you know. But I don't know if we can ever have that. I certainly don't think so. Maybe we don't deserve that kind of happiness. Maybe it isn't for us. But Marius and I have to stop him. Before he goes too far. And to do that, we need the Elder Scroll."

"I'm..." Valerica began, before choking up, and whilst I may have felt any number of things for what she had put Serana through, even I had to admit, watching this family drama was painful. "I'm sorry, Serana... I didn't know... I didn't see. I've allowed my hatred of your father to estrange us for too long. Forgive me. If you want the Elder Scroll, it's yours."

"As for you," Valerica continued, turning to me this time. "Your intentions are still somewhat unclear to me, but for Serana's sake, I'll assist you in any way that I can."

"Are you able to give us the scroll now?" I asked, trying my best attempt at tact. Whilst Serana and I would definitely not forget what she'd done, at least Valerica was showing genuine remorse; I wouldn't be the one to damage any chance my companion had of reconciliation with her blood parent.

"Yes. Please, follow me." Valerica said, motioning for us to enter the arena. As we walked alongside her, she explained: "Usually, this building would have a barrier, created by the Ideal Masters to keep me from escaping. This barrier, completely impenetrable to all, was maintained by the Three Keepers, atop the tallest rocky spires. But for some reason, just half an hour or so ago, the barrier mysteriously went down, something that hasn't happened in centuries."

"Wait, the Keepers were keeping you imprisoned here?" I asked, confused, and when she nodded I asked: "So... what would happen if we killed them?"

"You two are the reason the barrier's down?" Disbelief coloured Valerica's tone, and Serana and I made affirming noises. "Very impressive. But if it was an outside influence... we'll need to keep watch for Durnehviir, then. With the prison's barrier down, he's almost certain to investigate."

"Durneh-what now?" I asked, incredulously, as we entered the arena. For some reason, that name had reminded me of a dragons name. But this was the Soul Cairn, a realm of Oblivion for the undead. Surely there was no way...

"Wait... I hear something!" Serana suddenly called up, and before I could ask what it was, the distinctive unmistakable sound of a dragon roaring filled the arena, followed by the flapping of wings, before a dragon rose up around the arena, heading for straight for us. Because, of course, I just couldn't have a straight-forward and easy mission free of dragons, now could I?

As the creature landed on the building in front of us, lightning flashed ominously across the sky, as if heralding it's arrival. Meanwhile, Serana and I were treated to our first look at the dragon, 'Durnehviir'. It was definitely a dragon, but at the same time, there was just something inexplicably off about it. Say what you will about Alduin, the World-Eater, with it's ominous black body that darkened even the night, or even the dragon that had attacked the Western Watchtower of Whiterun, the dragons I'd faced had all possessed a certain nobility about them. Their bodies were killing machines, but at the same time, the majestic forms radiated both the power they had been born to as well as hinting at the intellect they possessed, far more than base animal cunning. Durnehviir, though? Rather than the sleek shiny scales I was so used to, I was treated to a dull, sickly-greenish-brown body, a color that reminded me of fungi, of dried corpses, of the weird husks that littered the landscape. Where I would have expected to see drool, or blood, instead I saw a greenish slime coating it's upper body, resembling wet bile. The creature's wings were in tatters, and holes were present in bits of the creature's tough hide, as if maggots had eaten away at it. This thing... it may have once been a dragon, but now? Perhaps it's mind still remained, but to say it had the body of a dragon was like saying the Keepers and their servants were men. As we watched, momentarily stunned by it's appearance, it looked up to the sky above us, and breathed a Thu'um. But where I'd have expected to see fire, ice, or even meteors coming down from the sky, Durnehviir fired a bright purple light, like the ones of the Conjuration School of magic, which split into six smaller orbs, which then spread out across the arena. Before I could ask what it had done, the ground underneath me shook, and as the creature flew off it's perch, charging straight at us, a black skeletal hand broke through the dirt of the arena, grabbing me and preventing me from moving out of the way.

If I had my full strength, I might have been able to merely kick the offending skeleton upwards, ripping it out of the ground and sending it flying at Durnehviir. As it stood, however, I performed a far saner course of action; as Durnehviir flew at me, I hit the floor, whilst at the same time drawing the daedric artifact that had aided me so much both during the Volkihar Crisis and my brief sojourn through the Soul Cairn. Whilst the denizens of this realm were highly-powerful undead, strong enough to match even giants in strength, they were still undead, and thus still vulnerable to Meridia's cleansing light, channeled through Dawnbreaker, and the hand grabbing me disintegrated with the rest of it's body as I stabbed Dawnbreaker into the ground.

Serana and Valerica, meanwhile, had both summoned numerous undead and atronachs of their own to defend themselves, as well as withdrawing to a more defensible location, where the numbers of the massive hordes of undead rising from the ground served only to funnel them into a meat grinder. This was both bane and boon to my current situation; whilst it meant I would be alone, facing the undead that hadn't been drawn away by them, it also meant I could use Dawnbreaker's power freely, without fear of my undead companion or my undead target getting caught in the crossfire.

There wasn't much time to look out for them after that, however, as Durnehviir finally closed the distance between us. Instead of merely swooping past, as I had anticipated, it instead landed right in front of me, in a landing that would have been rough even if the dragon had full wings. Suddenly, being on the ground in front of an undead mockery of a dragon seemed like a horrible place to be, and before it could recover from the landing I quickly rolled onto my back, pulling Dawnbreaker out of the ground, and shouted "WULD!", sending me shooting a few metres straight up into the air, right before the creature's very eyes, and I could have sworn, as I stared into Durnehviir's eyes, that I saw surprise and curiosity. And then gravity took me, and as I fell I swung Dawnbreaker every so slightly forward in front of me, such that my momentum would drive it through Durnehviir's head. Unfortunately, however, Durnehviir withdrew, leaving me to land on a black skeleton that had approached our duel, breaking my fall on it.

As I got up, and prayed desperately that no one besides Durnehviir had seen my embarrassing fall, Durnehviir reared it's head, as though preparing to unleash another Thu'um. This time, however, I was ready, and by the time it had lowered it's head and opened it's mouth, I had already closed the distance, and my Unrelenting Force Thu'um had already left my lips. While I had yet to learn the third word of power, for some reason I couldn't quite recall in the heat of battle, two words together were enough to smash it's snout with the force of a battering ram, causing it to flinch, and throwing off it's aim.

It was here that the relative differences in our experience showed. While I still didn't know why the dragons had only begun returning a few months ago, judging by the way most of them had fought, most of them had shown recent battle experience, both with each other and with other human warriors. This Durnehviir, however? It was obvious he had become too used to fighting mindless undead, or the dregs of souls that had fallen into this realm, and hadn't had a real challenge in a long time, especially not with a fellow Thu'um user. Me, on the other hand? I was far stronger now than when I'd first entered Skyrim, when I'd first fought the dragon at the watchtower all those months ago, even with a part of my strength and soul gone, and I'd unwillingly gained a lot of experience fighting dragons since then. Even as the skeletons grabbed at me, clawing at my armor ineffectually, attempting to slow my advance and stop me from reaching Durnehviir, I simply, coldly, lifted Dawnbreaker, and swung it in a wide arc, and the skeletons struck by the blade exploded in flashes of bright light, which burned the rest of the horde where they struck. Even Durnehviir flinched and burned in the light, his husky, rotten skin vulnerable to Meridia's cleansing light. Without giving him a chance to recover, I quickly made use of the brief reprieve before the unaffected undead at the back closed the distance to strike at the former dragon. Cutting through it's hide felt less like the tough, steely hide of dragons, and more like the soft, squishy innards of the falmer's pet insects, the disgusting guts cushioning the blow. It was still, however, undead flesh, and it burned as Dawnbreaker cut through it. As it thrashed in pain, I withdrew my blade, before gripping on to Durnehviir's head and stabbing it in the eye, finally felling the beast.

As Durnehviir's body collapsed, all the undead it had summoned disintegrated into a black mist, coating the floor, and Valerica and Serana left their besieged corner just in time to see me sheathe Dawnbreaker, and Durnehviir's body get consumed in a purple fire, flesh, scales, hide, and bone all disappearing. As I pondered why I had not absorbed it's soul, like a normal dragon, Valerica approached me, and in a tone I would have called respectful had it come from anyone else, told me: "Forgive my astonishment, but I never thought I'd witness the death of that dragon."

"What makes you say that?" I asked, curious. Something in her tone told me I wouldn't like the answer.

"Volumes written on Durnehviir allege that he can't be slain by normal means. It appears they were mistaken, Unless..." Valerica trailed off ominously, and I fought the urge to shake her and shout at her to stop being so cryptic; we were doing so well trying to be civil now, after all.

"Go on." I said through gritted teeth, praying I'd like the answer. Naturally, I didn't.

"The soul of a dragon is as resilient as it's owner's scaly hide. It's possible that your killing blow has merely displaced Durnehviir's physical form while he reconstitutes himself."

"How long will that take?" I asked, figuring that I, at least, now knew the reason why I hadn't absorbed his soul.

"Minutes? Hours? Years?" Valerica replied with a shrug. "I can't even begin to guess. I suggest we don't wait around to find out. Now let's get you the Elder Scroll and you can be on your way."

With those last words, she jogged over to a small building in the side of the arena, while I reflected that Serana had clearly gotten her wit from her mother. As we followed behind her quickly, she opened up an ornate long wooden chest, with a curious silvery-white metal instead of metal or steel holding the chest together, and stepped aside, gesturing for me to take, which I gingerly and reluctantly did so, treating it with the same caution as I would afford an angry Thalmor Justiciar who'd seen me with a symbol of Talos. After all, I already had one Elder Scroll, and the Oghma Infinium; there was a limit to how much sources of forbidden knowledge I wanted to carry, and that limit was one Elder Scroll and one daedric artifact back.

"With this Elder Scroll, and Serana's, you should have two. The last one, however, is up to you-" Valerica began advising, before Serana excitedly cut in. "That's it! That's the last scroll!"

Valerica's eyes bulged as Serana had said that; clearly she hadn't expected us to have found the Dragon Scroll yet, and she tried again: "Good luck reading-"

"Come on! Let's take it to Dexion!" Serana interrupted, and Valerica's eye began twitching as I quietly explained to her: "Dexion's a Moth Priest."

"Now that you've retrieved the Elder Scroll, you should be on your way." Valerica gave up, and simply wished us luck and farewell. Serana paused upon hearing this, and asked, in a voice like a dejected puppy: "You're staying here?"

"I have no choice, Serana." Valerica said quietly, reluctantly. "I'm also a Daughter of Coldharbour, my daughter, and my blood is just as valid as yours. If I return to Tamriel, that increases Harkon's likelihood of bringing the Tyranny of the Sun to fruition."

"We'll return for you when we can." I promised her firmly, though I had to admit I wasn't being completely altruistic. Valerica and I were finally getting along, true, and she did at least seem to be on the path to reconciling with Serana, but more importantly, my friend had finally found her mother, and I didn't want them to lose each other again. Also, there was no way I'd let Valerica run from what I was sure was going to be an awkward few meetings with Serana, meetings that would probably have made me want to introduce them to a good psychiatrist, the ones in the Legion that helped the men who were traumatised from battle.

"I appreciate your concern for me, but Serana is all I care about." Valerica said, as firmly as I had. "You must keep her safe at all costs. Remember that Harkon isn't to be trusted. No matter what he promises, he'll deceive you in order to get what he wants. And promise me... promise me you'll keep doing what you've been doing. Promise me you'll keep my daughter safe. She's the only thing of value I have left."

"I promise, on my life." I said, looking her in the eye, and she surprised me by smiling, and extending a hand, which I grabbed and shook firmly. It seemed that, happily, I'd been partially wrong about Valerica; despite all her actions, she had, and still did, truly care for Serana. Perhaps there was still hope for the two of them to become as close to a normal family as ancient undead daedra-worshippers could get. After a few seconds, I let go, and decided to wait by the entrance of the arena, giving Serana and Valerica some private time and space to exchange some personal words. In the meantime, I would ponder Valerica's warning about Harkon.

To be honest, I didn't really get it, even after sitting down and thinking about it. Perhaps Valerica thought that Harkon had something to offer me, but I doubted it; he'd already offered me strength and power via his blood, and I'd already turned it down. Besides, I didn't have any intention of even negotiating with Harkon; I knew how conflicted Serana was about knowing her father needed to die, which was why I intended to be the one to do it, and I'd do it as quickly as I could. There would be no banter, no battle of words, no verbal riposting. If I had the chance, and the tools and ability to do so, I would kill Harkon, before Serana had time to second-guess the action. For Serana's sake, for Tamriel's sake, even for Valerica's sake (she wouldn't leave this realm until Harkon was dead, and nobody deserved to stay in the Soul Cairn any longer than absolutely necessary), I would do this heinous deed, so that my friend wouldn't have to. As I silently gathered my resolve, Serana parted from Valerica, and together we left the arena's doors.

And came face-to-face with a reformed Durnehviir, perched on a nearby building, watching us.

"Stay your weapons. I would speak with you, Qahnaarin." Durnehviir's guttural voice boomed, as my hand instinctively reached for Dawnbreaker, and I paused. While it was entirely possible that this attempt at parley was a trap, my instincts told me that Durnehviir's words could be taken at face value; dragons were proud, intelligent creatures, after all, and if I could resolve this and get out of here without having to yet again fight the dragon, which could apparently pull it's physical form back together an infinite number of times, I'd happily try for the diplomatic solution.

"I thought you were dead." I responded, warily, and though I raised my empty hands, to show my lack of a hostile intent, I still kept my arm near my sheathed blade. Just in case, and all.

"Cursed, not dead. Doomed to exist in this form for eternity. Trapped between laas and dinok, between life and death." Durnehviir explained, and I heard sorrow in his tone. I felt like I had been getting soft; not only had I given Valerica the benefit of the doubt today, but now I also felt pity for the dragon.

"So... why are we speaking?" I asked, curious, whilst giving Serana a side glance, asking her with my eyes if what he said was possible. Her nod made me relax my arm; it seemed that his sorrowful state wasn't a ruse.

"I believe in civility amongst seasoned warriors, and I find your ear worthy of my words." Durnehviir replied, before declaring: ""My claws have rendered the flesh of innumerable foes, but I have never once been felled on the field of battle. I therefor honor-name you "Qahnaarin," or Vanquisher in your tongue."

"I, uh, I found you equally worthy." I stammered out, not used to such praise, especially not from a dragon, and I saw Serana chuckle out of the corner of my eye. Durnehviir, meanwhile, bowed his head to me, and said respectfully: ""Your words do me great honor. My desire to speak with you was born from the result of our battle, Qahnaarin. I merely wish to respectfully ask a favor of you."

"What kind of a favor?" I asked, cautiously; I didn't think I'd be able to do anything for this ancient dragon.

"For countless years I've roamed the Soul Cairn, in unintended service to the Ideal Masters. Before this, I roamed the skies above Tamriel. I desire to return there." Durnehviir told me, longing evident even to me in his voice.

"What's stopping you?" I couldn't even begin to fathom what was stopping such a powerful creature from carrying out his will.

"I fear that my time here has taken its toll upon me. I share a bond with this dreaded place. If I ventured far from the Soul Cairn, my strength would begin to wane until I was no more." Durnehviir explained, and sat upright on his perch, showing me his worn-out husk of a scaly hide, all the holes still clearly visible. I didn't need to inquire any further; that simple sight explained more to me than a thousand words could.

"How could I help?" I asked, feeling sorry for the undead dragon, and Durnehviir nodded, clearly pleased with the direction of the conversation.

"I will place my name with you and grant you the right to call my name from Tamriel." Durnehviir told me, before continuing: "Do for me this simple honor and I will fight at your side as your Grah-Zeymahzin, your Ally, and teach you my Thu'um."

"Just call your name in Tamriel? That's it?" I asked, incredulous. Surely there had to be more to it than that. Durnehviir merely chuckled, and shook his head.

"Trivial in your mind perhaps, to me, it would mean a great deal. I don't require an answer, Qahnaarin. Simply speak my name to the heavens when you feel the time is right." As Durnehviir said that, he bowed his head to me, and transferred me the understanding required to Shout his name, like a Thu'um, much in the same way the Greybeards had done so, all those months ago. With that, I bowed my head back respectfully, and said my farewells to Durnehviir, before me and Serana headed straight for the portal back to Tamriel, not wanting to spend another minute in the Soul Cairn.

"So..." I began, as Serana and I returned to Valerica's study. "How do you feel, now that you've met your mother?"

"Honestly? Relieved, I guess." Serana said with a shrug. "I know she's alive, and I got to say what I wanted to say all those centuries ago. Thanks for supporting me with that, by the way, Marius."

"Don't mention it; what are friends for?" I asked, looking away, and there was an awkward silence, before Serana finally said: "The sooner we get the scroll to Fort Dawnguard, the sooner we deal with my father."

I merely nodded, and made my way to the balcony, and Serana followed, before realizing something.

"By the way... how are we supposed to get back? The boat's wrecked, and I don't think you're going to willingly swim." Serana pointed out, and I merely smiled at her, before asking: "Want to see if calling Durnehviir's name really works?"

Serana's look of shock, as I loosed the Thu'um and a purple orb of fire appeared in the sky where I had been looking at, which eventually constituted itself into the usual grotesque form of the undead dragon, was only matched by Durnehviir's look of surprise when I interrupted his formal greeting to ask him if he could take us south-east, with all due haste, since we were still technically infiltrating Castle Volkihar, and thus very deep behind enemy lines, and Durnehviir's summoning from my Thu'um had been very loud and flashy. Their surprise was only matched by the looks of utter disbelief the Dawnguard watchmen gave us half an hour later when they looked up in the sky to see us quickly descend on the back of an undead dragon, which dematerialised in an orb of purple fire as soon as it landed. Of course, none of them could match the look on my face when I entered the Fort triumphantly, only to find Dexion, our only way of reading the scrolls, blindfolded, apparently having gone blind since we'd last met, meaning that all of our effort was for absolutely nothing.

Chapter Text

"How did this happen?" I murmured in an exhausted tone, as I slumped into a chair by the side of the entrance hall, staring dumbfoundedly at Dexion's blindfold. Serana, meanwhile, wasn't taking Dexion's blindness better than I was, and leaned against me, the exertions of the past few weeks finally catching up to us.

"It's my fault." Dexion explained, and I felt guilty at hearing the guilt in his tone; after all, I may have lost a part of my soul, but at least I still had all my senses and limbs. "In my haste to read the first scroll, I neglected the careful preparation required. I thought I'd be able to allay the after-effects, but I was wrong. Now I'm paying for it."

"Can anything be done to help you?" Serana asked, also clearly feeling guilty; it had been her scroll which had done it, after all. Dexion smiled sadly, and shook his head.

"No. It'll have to run it's course, and there's always the chance I may never recover."

"Then we're finished." I said flatly, not having felt this powerless since Helgen. While it was true the situation wasn't completely hopeless, as we had all 3 Elder Scrolls, and Harkon had none, if we had no way to learn the prophecy in order to thwart it, we'd have to defend and keep it from Harkon until he and his court were all dead. Which honestly wasn't the best strategy against a court of immortal undead creatures. Nor was it likely we could simply assassinate him or assault him and his court; his fortress was nigh-impenetrable, barring the tunnels Serana and I had exploited, and the Dawnguard just didn't have enough power to be sure that sending in all their forces and exploiting it would even have a 50-50 chance of winning, let alone any guarantee of success for such a risky course of action. At least the situation could be worse; even though, in the long-term, Harkon would only have to wait for our natural deaths, in the short-term at least the Dawnguard had the advantage. We just needed to exploit that advantage in order to come up with a better one later on.

"No, there's another way." Dexion replied softly, breaking me out of my optimistic musings, and I looked up sharply, like a dehydrated man in the Alik'r Desert seeing water. "The question is, how much are you willing to risk to find Auriel's Bow?"

"What do I need to do?" I asked, cautiously. His last question held an ominous tone to it, but I'd already invested too much to turn back now. Besides, I couldn't talk about risk, not to Dexion, who the Dawnguard had essentially pressed into reading the scroll and losing his sight.

"I can't guarantee you'd be free from harm. Becoming blind could be the least of your worries." Dexion warned, which I thought was an unnecessary gesture on his part; I kind of gathered I wouldn't be free from harm when he'd asked "how much are you willing to risk". But still, I did appreciate that he was giving me a last chance to back out.

"Don't worry about that. Just tell me." I reassured him, slowly straightening up in my chair.

"Scattered across Tamriel are secluded locations known only as Ancestor Glades." Dexion explained, passion creeping into his tone, and I winced slightly, my time with Serana having familiarised me with what that tone meant for me. "There's one in Skyrim, in the Pine Forest. Performing the Ritual of the Ancestor Moth within the glade should provide you the answers you seek."

"Explain this... "ritual"." I asked, scarcely believing it to be that easy.

"It involves carefully removing the bark from a Canticle Tree which will in turn attract Ancestor Moths to you. Once enough of the moths are following, they'll provide you with the second sight needed to decipher the scrolls."

Well, I supposed that explained the ritual's name. Still, though, his explanation raised a lot more questions in my head than it answered, such as that part about the 'second sight', or why it sounded like he wanted me to read the scrolls myself. In the end, I chose to start from the smaller details.

"Carefully gather the bark?" I asked, confused. "How?"

"In keeping with tradition, you must use a specific tool in the Ancestor Glade, an implement known as a Draw Knife." Dexion began, and I found myself fighting off my accumulated fatigue. "Every Moth Priest is taught this ritual, but few ever get the chance to perform it... you should consider yourself fortunate if it works for you."

"All right, my next question." I said, when he finally paused to catch his breath. "It sounds to me like you want me to read the scrolls myself."

"I would believe that was implied." Dexion replied simply. "That is why I warned that danger would be involved. Merely losing one's sight can be considered fortunate, when thinking about what other effects reading an Elder Scroll can have on an untrained and unprepared mind."

I shuddered, remembering Septimus Signus and his inane and insane ramblings, and decided to address that minor contentious point: "What makes you think I have a chance of deciphering them, then? Even you, a Moth Priest, would have difficulty doing it."

"Hence why I said there was danger involved." Dexion repeated patiently, before adding: "However, I do think you have the best chance of us all. The scrolls can be said to almost have a mind of their own, to use a such a limited term. If you have found them, it is because they have allowed you to."

Well, that wasn't reassuring in the least. In fact, for a person like myself who wanted to simply live his own life in peace, it sounded an awful lot like the scrolls, powerful fragments of creation itself, had seemingly decided it to be my destiny to recover them, which was counter-productive to my aims. Between that, the fact that I was supposed to be one of Akatosh's own as the so-called "Dovahkiin", and all my run-ins with the various daedric princes, some of whom I still bore the artifacts of, my life's goal seemed to be in major jeopardy. For the time being, however, at least I had the highest chance of successfully reading them in the Dawnguard, and I'd gambled on far worse odds before.

"Do I need to read the scrolls in any particular order?" I asked, resigning myself to yet another suicidal task, and Serana slowly rose up behind me, knowing what my tone meant.

"From what I saw in the vision, the Elder Scroll which foreshadows the defiance of the gods with the blood of mortals is the key to the prophecy." Dexion answered sagely, and my eyebrow rose.

"So that one first, and the next is?" I pressed, and he just shook his head.

"You only need to read that scroll, and it should be fine."

"... then why, by Stendarr's holy name, did I need the other two?" I asked, my eye twitching.

"The key to deciphering the prophecy was to read the main scroll, the scroll of blood, whilst possessing the scroll pertaining to the sun and the scroll pertaining to the dragon at the same time." Dexion explained, and I sighed, giving up.

"All right, let's resupply and get ready to move out, Serana." I said, as Dexion bade me farewell with "Good luck. I hope you find the answers you seek."

"By the way..." I said, passing by Isran, who had been leaning against a wall, watching our discussion. "Where's Lydia?"

"Oh, your Housecarl?" Isran's asked, in his usual gravelly tone. "She went on a Dawnguard assignment after she came back with word of your suicide mission. Some bandits in the Reach apparently found some old weapons, from back in the Second Era. Powerful runed weapons, the likes of which even Gunmar, Florentius, and Sorine together couldn't hope to recreate any time soon. We need every edge we can get."

"You sent her out by herself?" I asked incredulously, feeling protective of my companion. Even though, rationally, I knew she could easily take care of herself, the Reach was a dangerous place, and the sound of ancient and powerful Dawnguard weapons being found could attract the vampires' attention; I doubted they'd simply let such rumors go about uninvestigated, and thus allow their foes to claim such weaponry and grow more powerful.

"Of course not. I'm not stupid, boy." Isran snapped, meeting my gaze, and I knew in his paranoia he'd came to the same conclusion as I had. "I sent Agmaer with her, for experience, as well as Ingjard."

I nodded, having seen the big burly Nord woman once before; I could believe she would be of assistance to Lydia.

"So, Isran. Sorine and Gunmar made anything new?" I asked, mollified, and Isran sadly shook his head.

"They were experimenting with using pulleys instead of springs for the next batch, but sadly the steel they were working with wasn't able to handle the stresses."

"How about dwarven metal?" I asked, recalling all the dwarven spheres and their built-in crossbow arms on my way to, and through, Blackreach, and Isran simply nodded.

"I'll suggest it to them when I get the chance. So, what else did you need?"

"I ran out of crossbow bolts about a week ago." I admitted, scratching my head in an embarrassed manner. "The only ammunition I've had since then is the dwarven bolts I've scavenged off of the dwarven spheres. Which reminds me... here, some old schematics I found inside Blackreach, as well as a few dwarven bolts. Sorine and Gunmar might figure out something from them."

Isran accepted my gifts with a nod, and asked: "All right, my turn. What's the story behind the dragon, and why should I trust it?"

I sighed, having known that this would come up eventually, and debated on how to explain it to him. In the end, I decided to go for the short, simple, and sweet answer.

"He's just a dragon we found in a plane of Oblivion." I said with a shrug, and Isran's eyes boggled, and his normally-unflappable and stoic composure cracked. By Kynareth, that was cathartic; I hadn't seen this reaction since I told him the vampires had an Elder Scroll. "And I don't need you to trust him. Just trust me, and know that I can deal with him."

"Same deal with the dragon as with your pet vampire." Isran told me, and I internally sighed. He still didn't want to acknowledge Serana, especially not when she was present. "If it hurts anyone, I'll deal with you personally."

Once he saw me put my hands up easily, showing I got it, he relaxed a fraction, and tossed a pouch at me, which I opened to find a few hundred crossbow bolts.

"Here's some ammunition." Isran called over his shoulder, as he turned around and walked off deeper into the castle, with my findings. "Sooner you figure out the prophecy, and what to do with Auriel's Bow, the sooner we can deal with the vampire menace, and your pet vampire doesn't have to stain my castle."

Translation: I've already prepared what I thought you'd need. Good luck with the reading of the Elder Scrolls, we'll need it to deal with Harkon. Also the sooner that happens the sooner your vampire friend will be safe, but I can't be honest.

I smiled and nodded despite his turned back, to show that I got it, and gestured for Serana to join me as I left the fort, having little other reason to stick around, and she quickly ran over to my side, and asked: "So, Marius. How are we going to get to Falkreath? Going to call Durnehviir again?"

I smiled wryly at the jab and shook my head, replying: "Nope. We're not in any imminent danger, and riding a dragon's a bit too flashy; I'd rather not announce to all of Tamriel where I am and where I'm going to whilst carrying the 3 Elder Scrolls your father so desperately wants. Besides, I don't think the Dawnguard watchmen have recovered from the initial sight yet. We'll take a carriage from Riften. Fast, quiet; we should be in Falkreath by tomorrow without anyone being any wiser."

-RIFTEN STABLES, 30 MINUTES LATER-

Mjoll the Lioness, Thane of Riften, (one-sidedly) sworn enemy of the Thieves Guild and Maven Black-Briar, former adventurer, and unrequited (and unknown) crush of Aerin, was not a happy champion of the people. She'd just had another run-in with the Thieves Guild just earlier that day, her lectures to the townspeople had gone largely unheeded if not unheard, and to top it all off she'd just had a nightmare about... 'that' day, her first true defeat and brush with death, against the undefeatable golden colossus in the depths of Mzinchaleft, and the loss of her valued glass blade, Grimsever, handed down to her by her father when she was but a wee lass. Between that and the general unpleasantness of the day, she had felt once again overwhelmed, both by how futile her efforts seemed to be, as well as the thoughts of being a disappointment to her parents, for both losing her gifted blade and seemingly failing in her chosen task, and she had eventually chosen to sneak away from Aerin and leave the city walls, spending some time outside to get some fresh air. Of course, at the stables, fresh was a relative term, but Mjoll had long since grown accustomed to the smell of horses and their excretions, thanks in no small part to her wealth of travelling experience.

Sighing, she shook her head, trying to clear her head of such unbidden thoughts and memories. Even though she knew, deep down, she still longed for adventure and excitement, and that her speech about how losing Grimsever was a sign that she was just wasting her time in search of waste was just an excuse; the truth was, without her valued blade, she felt weak, powerless, vulnerable. None of that mattered to the her of now; she had accepted a new role, to cleanse Riften of it's corruption, and by the Nine she would succeed with or without it! Clenching her fist to psyche herself up, she got up from the hay bale she had been sitting on, ready to go back into Riften, when she suddenly halted. Even though she could barely here any noise over the ambient cacophony of wildlife in the nearby forests, her trained instincts, despite the years of inactivity for anything more than amateur thieves and assassins, told her someone was approaching, and her head snapped up.

Mjoll found herself frowning as she saw the two figures approaching, and her hand subconsciously reached towards her battleaxe. Riften had suffered from quite a number of random vampire attacks in the past month, and whilst they had been repelled by her and the Hold Guards, she couldn't help but wonder if all the attacks had been linked, if the vampires had truly organised themselves as the rumors had said, if everything was truly being planned out by an ancient conspiracy. She relaxed fractionally as they drew closer, however, and she saw their appearances. Whilst the slender figure, probably female, wore a suspicious cloaked robe and a hood, the taller figure next to her wore a thick grey coat with metal plates, with his face enclosed by a full helmet with a distinct boxy-look, and on his pauldrons a recognizable symbol of a shield in front of a sun. While she didn't know what a member of the near-mythical Dawnguard was doing in Riften, she had heard that the Dawnguard had reformed, and based themselves in a secluded fort to the south-east. And while it was true that some vampires had taken to performing false flag operations by wearing Dawnguard armor during their attacks, which only lent credence to the rumors that the vampires were both organized and locked in a deadly struggle in the shadows with the Dawnguard, it would have made no sense for only one of the pair to wear Dawnguard armor, whilst the other wore the far more suspicious cloak and hood.

Still, though, something about the Dawnguard agent seemed wrong to her, and as Mjoll studied him further she finally realised what it was about him that had made her so cautious. Despite the two of them having approached close enough by now that she could hear snippets of their conversation, the woman's rich sultry tones contrasting with the man's deep baritone, the man still wasn't making any noise while moving. Despite being in full heavy armor. Either that armor was really heavily padded, it was much lighter than it looked, or the man was trained for stealth and subterfuge in a manner beyond mere human levels. And judging by the way he carried himself, it was more than likely to be the last option; while it was hard to tell from this distance and through his heavy armor, his posture, centre of balance, and even the way he shifted and placed his weight as he walked... it reminded her more of the thief she'd had a run-in with earlier that day than herself, or one of the Companions she'd had the pleasure of meeting once. But still, despite her biases, she had to admit that it would have made sense; if the Dawnguard really were involved in a shadow war against an ancient vampiric conspiracy, and this was more than just an outbreak of random vampire attacks like some had tried to declare, it would only be normal that their operatives would be trained for stealth and assassinations as well as normal combat. Then her eyes fell upon his equipment, and she gasped.

It wasn't the bandolier or numerous belt pouches that the man carried which drew her eyes, though she did consider him to be very well-prepared, even by the standards of a veteran adventurer. It wasn't the two weird miniature horizontal bows on handles that gave her pause, sheathed as they were by his legs, though she did note they were already pre-loaded and holstered in such a way they could be easily drawn and aimed; clearly, he was ready to fire them as soon as necessary. It wasn't even the ornate, breathtakingly beautiful golden blade, which had embers visibly smouldering under it's surface, which somehow brightened the area despite still being sheathed. It was the familiar-looking green glass sword on the other side of his hip that drew her gaze. Somehow, she just knew, if she were to look at it drawn, she'd see the same frost enchantment as Grimsever, and even the same grooves and notches on it's blade and hilt that she and her father had once carved, all those years ago.

"Excuse me, traveller!" Before Mjoll knew it, she had already called out to the travellers, and was approaching him. While she couldn't read the man's expression through his helmet, or the woman's expression from her hood, their body language was clear; caution was only natural when being approached by a stranger, she supposed. But still, she had to know.

"Can you please show me that glass sword?"

Confusion was evident now, and the two exchanged a glance, before the man shrugged and drew the blade. She gasped. It was definitely Grimsever; she'd recognise that blade anywhere. How it could be here, though, she couldn't comprehend.

"How... where did you find this?" Mjoll stammered out, and the two seemed to share a glance, before going deep into thought. After an uncomfortably long silence, which couldn't have been more than a few seconds, the man finally spoke.

"Kinda hard to be sure, since we went from underground... but shoulda been somewhere south of Dawnstar? South-west?" That matched up with the rough location of Mzinchaleft, alright. But there was one thing she had to know.

"How did you get it? What about the golden colossus?" Mjoll just couldn't see anyone beating that golden colossus, but based on his build and posture she could understand if he had simply been able to sneak around the automaton. The man's answer, however, surprised her.

"How, you ask... I stumbled across it by accident, it attacked, I fought back and won, and then I claimed it?" The man seemed to ask, before the woman elbowed him gently, and spoke up: "Fought back is an understatement... you should have seen that fight! He overwhelmed it bare-handed by himself!"

The only reason Mjoll's emotions didn't overwhelm her were because the revelation that the enemy she could have never hoped to beat in her prime was so casually defeated by this Dawnguard operative floored her, and all she could do was slowly stammer out her story: "This sword... Grimsever... it was lost years ago in a Dwemer ruin. I was adventuring in the depths of the ruins of Mzinchaleft when I was attacked by a massive construct... like nothing I had ever seen. When the colossus struck, Grimsever was knocked from my grasp and I was wounded badly. It was only through blind luck that I was able to crawl away from the Dwemer abomination and make my way to the surface. Without it, I felt almost as defenseless as a newborn... and you actually were able to reach it and yet return to tell the tale. And with such ease!"

She could see the man seem uncomfortable, almost embarrassed, so she decided to get to the point: "How much do you want for it? I'll do anything to get it back."

For some reason, she thought that the woman was suddenly glaring at the man, but put it out of her mind, focusing more on the man's response. His actions, however, continued to stun her, as he wordlessly handed it over, hilt first, before making to board the carriage. Humbled as she was by his generosity, there was no way she could simply let him leave like this, and she cried out: "Wait! Please wait!"

As the pair turned to face her, she realized that she had no idea what she was about to say next, a rarity for one as straight-forward as her. What was she supposed to say? Mere words would never be enough to express the gratitude she felt, but her pride wouldn't allow her to simply beg to serve and follow him as repayment. In the end, she chose to offer the only thing she had pride in - her body, or more specifically her martial prowess and skills as an adventurer (although she probably wouldn't have declined if he'd asked for it in another way).

"I see I still have much to learn. If you'd permit me, I'd be honored to accompany you in your travels for a time." Mjoll said, bowing to the pair.

Once again, the woman seemed to glare at the man, though Mjoll couldn't figure out why, and the man finally coughed, and said: "I'm honored by your words, but the two of us need to get going right now. Special urgent Dawnguard assignment and all."

Before Mjoll could respond, or press the matter further, the two jumped unto the back of the carriage (she couldn't help but wonder how the man, in heavy metal armor, could jump that high), told the man to head to Falkreath, and they and their carriage promptly left.

As she sat back down on the floor, staring at her long-lost sword, her conscious mind finally tried to process what in Oblivion had just happened. She'd been outside Riften, when two strangers had just walked up to the stables, one walking like a thief and carrying Grimsever... and he'd apparently both been able to defeat the colossus she'd been defeated by (bare-handed, too!), and that he had just given it back, no questions asked, no payment demanded. Her face flushed, and she felt floored as she finally realised what had happened. Truly, what a noble man that was! She'd never seen such selfless generosity in all her travels, even from Aerin (close friends though they were, she sometimes felt like he had an ulterior motive for his actions), to say nothing of her time in Riften. Somehow, when she recalled the scene again, she swore she could see sparkles around his illuminated noble figure, even though it had been just after sunset, and her face flushed. If Mjoll had spent less time adventuring and more time being a woman, she might have been able to identify the budding feelings she was experiencing. But if she could, she would have been able to figure out what Aerin felt for her a long time ago. Alas, as it stood, all she could do was sit back and try to figure out why her heart was beating so fast, and why her face felt so warm, as well as what his name was.

Luckily for her, and unluckily for Aerin, it was at that moment that another carriage pulled in from the North, and three other Dawnguard operatives alighted from their carriage. Deciding to take a chance, she approached them as well, and asked: "Excuse me, travellers! Do you mind if I ask you a question?"

The leading operative, her voluptuous chest evident even through their heavy armor, halted the group, and took off her helmet, revealing a Nord with brown eyes and brown shoulder-length hair, who bade her to speak.

"Would you happen to know of a male Dawnguard agent, deep baritone, bout this tall, who carried both an ornate golden sword that radiated light and this blade?" As Mjoll asked her question, and held up Grimsever, she saw the Nord's eyes widen, before the distance between them suddenly closed, with the Nord gripping Mjoll's hand tightly.

"Where did you get that?!" The Nord's voice was cold as ice, but her eyes showed worry. Mjoll, however, was more impressed by the strength of her grip, and her speed that had even the other two Dawnguard members unable to act, and she choked out: "R-relax, he gave it to me; this blade, Grimsever, used to be mine, and as soon as I told him about it he simply returned the blade to me, without requesting any compensation, and just left."

The Nord, upon hearing her story, simply let her go, and smacked her gauntleted hand on her face, before sighing deeply and helping her up. Looking her straight in the eye, the Nord apologised: "Sorry about that, I just thought that you might have hurt him; I haven't heard news about him for days, and I know he has a certain... weakness to women. I'm Lydia, by the way, and I'm that guy's Housecarl."

Housecarl... Mjoll didn't know why, but when she heard that, she felt both simultaneously relieved and a certain emotion she couldn't quite place. On the one hand, as a Thane she had a higher status than the Housecarl in front of her, and Thane-Housecarl romances were rather uncommon, as could be seen between Mjoll and Aerin. On the other... this Lydia was clearly close to the man, and for some reason she felt that she'd happily switch places with her. Shaking her head, she pointed out: "So you do know him... what's his name?"

Before Lydia could respond, one of the Dawnguard agents behind her piped up: "You guys talking about Marius, right? One of the best in the Dawnguard, that man is."

Ignoring Lydia's sharp command of "Silence, Agmaer!", Mjoll spent a brief second wondering why the name had sounded so familiar, when it finally struck her. Even though her usual watering hole, the Bee and Barb, lacked a bard to tell the tales and spread the stories, rumors still flowed into Riften, about the newest Thane of Whiterun, the legendary Last Dragonborn, who single-handedly defeated a dragon; Marius Dragonborn, who according to tales had last been spotted in Winterhold. While Mjoll had initially dismissed most of the tales as exaggerated, if that man had really been the Marius Dragonborn, she probably owed the rumor mills an apology; if anything, the stories didn't do the man justice. As she finally accepted that the man truly had the ability to defeat that undefeatable dwarven colossus, she heard Lydia cough, trying to get her attention, and she asked: "Ahem... if you don't mind me asking... just out of curiosity, where was my Thane heading?"

"I do believe he said he was heading to Falkreath." Mjoll answered innocently, and was promptly shocked when Lydia looked to her companions, and told them: "Alright, you guys get these Dawnguard Rune Artifacts to Fort Dawnguard. I'll head over to Falkreath and join my Tha-"

The two Dawnguard members promptly grabbed Lydia's arms, and began frog-marching her south-east of Riften, as the taller one spoke over her protests: "No way, Lydia. We need your skills to ensure these safely get to Fort Dawnguard; you know how many vampire attacks we suffered between here and the Reach, right? Besides, you don't even know where in Falkreath he was heading towards, right? Come now, let's go find Isran and get the details..."

As Mjoll watched the receding figures of the trio, she found herself chuckling at their antics, before realising, finally, how dark it had become. Night wasn't safe, especially not outside the city walls, and she slowly made her way back inside. For some reason unbeknownst to her, she found herself tempted to do as Lydia had tried, and simply make her way to Falkreath. Rationalizing it as wanting to simply learn from a far superior warrior, she decided to discuss the events of the day with Aerin. Despite whatever misgivings she sometimes felt about him, he was an intelligent and well-educated provincial, and she felt sure he would be able to answer her questions. Oddly, she noticed that the dull ache she'd felt earlier that day had disappeared, which she chalked up to getting Grimsever back, although it was replaced with a sharp ache in her chest when she thought about Marius Dragonborn, which she figured was simply because she hadn't been able to compensate him.

Alas, in her excitement and confusion, as she openly carried her finely-crafted and unique glass sword, she forgot some of the fundamental unspoken rules of Riften, such as those pertaining to the visibility of valuables, and especially the one regarding watching one's words in Riften, and the walls having ears. Unfortunately for Marius, and all the secrecy he had been trying to preserve, numerous Volkihar spies reported in on their observations, including one for whom it became personal after hearing Mjoll's story, and Harkon's court was easily able to piece together the information and figure out where he and Serana were heading, if not what they were doing.

-ANCESTOR'S GLADE, SIX HOURS LATER-

"Hmph... not very impressive, is it?" Serana remarked, as she looked around the cave we'd just entered, and turned her nose up. "If this ends up being a wasted trip, your friend Dexion and I are going to have some words when we get back."

Her words barely registered in my mind, as I looked around the glade. The hairs on my arms stood, and I felt a current flow through me, with each step I took deeper into the cave. There was no mistake; this was the place. It radiated power with it's very presence, in the same way that the Elder Scrolls had, or the black dragon had, or even Harkon's true form had; this was an ancient and powerful place, back when Tamriel, and most of Nirn, had barely been created, and for some reason I could almost taste the energies contained within this physical location. Even whatever artifacts and amulets of the Divines I had seemed to resonate with this location; the amulet of Kyne I'd gotten what felt like an eternity ago (but in reality hadn't even been two months ago) heated up against my bare chest, underneath my armor, something I hadn't felt it do for a while.

"Wow." Serana said, echoing my thoughts, as we slowly wandered further through the narrow cave and entered into the glade proper. "Look at this place. No one's been here in centuries. I doubt there's any other place like it in Skyrim. It's beautiful."

'Beautiful' was an understatement, in my opinion, as we were treated to the sight of a miniature forest and waterfall within the glade, with numerous moths simply fluttering around. All I could marvel at was how peaceful this place was, how at odds it's serene and tranquil appearance was with the power I could feel radiating from it. The quiet of this glade was unique in all my time in Skyrim, different from the tranquility of the Tower of Mzark, of Valerica's Study; those were dead places. Somehow, it felt like I'd returned home, with how comfortable I found myself slowly feeling. That was a terrifying thought; me feeling at home in such a place of power, and I decided to put that worrying notion out of my head for now, complete my mission as fast as possible, get out of this place, and never visit it, or even think about it, ever again.

As we descended further into the glade, and my thoughts turned back to reading the scroll and the ritual involved, my breath was almost stolen by the sight of a small spring at the bottom of the glade, reminiscent of the calderas of Eastmarch, a shaft of light highlighting it, a small, beautiful tree flowering next to it, and a small stone structure housing something. As my eyes focused on it, I saw the glint of sharp metal between two ornately-carved wooden handles, and pointed it out to Serana. I'd been wondering about where in the glade the ritual's objects would be kept, and it seemed, for once, that fate was on my side.

Descending the glade had been easy, as had grabbing the draw knife, and throughout the process I found myself wondering when the next shoe would drop, but apparently the Moth Priests felt no need to provide more security for their ritualistic objects and sacred places than merely keeping quiet about them. "Well, we got the knife..." Serana began, examining the draw knife, before she shrugged and sighed. "Now all we need to do is track down one of those canticle trees."

"Any suggestions?" I asked, feeling vindicated now that I saw the catch, and she shook her head.

"I could tell you all about the alchemical properties of plants, and how to grow most of them, but that's about it. My mother was the botanist of the family." Serana replied, and as I recalled the garden in the courtyard of Castle Volkihar, I could definitely believe it. At the very least, I'd believe Valerica was better at botany than Harkon.

"How about a Clairvoyance spell?" I suggested, resorting to our last option. While it had been more than useful during our return to Castle Volkihar, at least then we'd had a clear mental image of where we wanted to go. In this case, with no idea as to what a canticle tree looked like? How useful would it be? Serana's face was uneasy, presumably sharing the same thoughts as I was, but she followed my idea, and as magicka pooled into her right hand a whitish-blue orb appeared, from which a line of energy flew out... leading us right towards the small tree next to the stone pillar.

"You've got to be kidding me..." I murmured, dumbfounded. There was absolutely no way it was this easy. It just couldn't be. This was me, after all; for all my life, from my earliest days as a street urchin to my service in the legion, even the simple tasks of getting food for the week or going to the latrine with a member of the fairer sex ended up with me running from city guards or breaking my hand punching a bear in the jaw. But nope, Serana recast her Clairvoyance spell, and it still pointed to the tree. The canticle tree was right next to us. Resigning myself, I simply took the draw knife, and carved some bark from the tree, mildly impressed with how the knife seemed to go through it like butter. When I was done with my task, Serana piped up: "Hope the moths like the bark as much as Dexion said they would."

As soon as I nodded at her remark, a few moths, which had been fluttering languidly near the tree, changed their course towards me, and began orbiting me. I had to admit, it was a somewhat heartwarming, if surreal sight, and Serana's next remark, while joking in nature, held a warmth to it: "Look at them... they've definitely taken a liking to you."

She paused, however, and frowned, before continuing, her tone a bit more serious and perplexed: "And unless I'm seeing things, you're starting to... glimmer."

I merely shrugged, not knowing how to respond to that, deciding to busy myself with putting the draw knife back where I'd found it, for the sake of future Moth Priests. I personally hadn't noticed anything, but Serana had far sharper senses than me, especially when it came to light, so I decided to take her word for it. Before I could think of a response, though, the beating of small wings became audible to even me, as swarms of moths from all around the glade began flocking towards me, and soon my vision was partially obscured by all the moths fluttering around me. At this point the light had become visible to me, as well, and Serana had partially shielded her eyes, as she quipped: "I think that might have been what we were waiting for. Let's see if we can read the scroll now."

Enter the column of light and read the Elder Scroll, a voice seemed to reverberate in my head, as I pulled out the Elder Scroll pertaining to blood, and I slowly approached the shaft of light hitting the bottom, tuned out from the world around me. Serana seemed to be saying something, but I didn't catch it. Within the shaft of light, my hands operated like an automaton's, opening the Elder Scroll for me, and as I stared into the Scroll of Blood numerous patterns and symbols I couldn't decipher burned themselves into my vision in the rough shape of a circle, even after the Scroll was lowered out my vision.

Repeating the process a few times, eventually most of the symbols and the circle blurred, whilst a key pattern in the centre shone. One last time I opened the scroll, whilst the part of my mind that helped me make sarcastic comments wondered why I had to keep repeating this, whilst Dexion had merely opened the scroll to read it, and the pattern spread out, like cracks growing, forming what I thought looked like a river. Before I could ponder more about it, my surroundings disappeared in a white flash, replaced by a view of Skyrim's north-east, a part of the map I'd become familiar with for quite a while. Symbols appeared in my view; to the top-right was a wolf, and the bottom-left the horns of a ram. And in the centre, between the mountains and part of the river, three lines appeared, reminding me of either the claws of a dragon or a reversed-'h'. Knowledge was pressed into my head, as the moths continued to flutter. A cave entrance. Darkfall Cave. Here I would find Auriel's Bow, and fulfil... somebody's destiny. It wasn't clear whose; could be mine, Serana's, Harkon's... might even be nobody's. And with that, my vision flashed white, once more, before the amulet around my neck suddenly burned, and everything went black, making me think the Elder Scroll had claimed my vision. My last conscious thought was that I could somehow feel something pulling my consciousness in a direction I could feel, but not name.

-KYNARETH'S REALM, AETHERIUS, AS MARIUS WAS READING THE BLOOD SCROLL-

Kynareth, Goddess of the Heavens, Winds, Luck, and Nature, Blessed Kyne, was a very conflicted Divine. On the one hand, even though her new-favourite nephew and mortal hadn't been killing as much dragons as she and Akatosh had intended, and he hadn't fulfilled (or even made much progress with, to be honest) the Prophecy of the Last Dragonborn, he was still growing into a strong young man, and he had even, coincidentally, acquired key items that would be important to his latest quest. On top of that, the more he'd worn her amulet, and the more she'd observed him, the more her infatuation with her nephew had grown. However, between his quest to prevent Aetherius from being sealed off from Mundus by the Volkihar Clan, and his run-ins with the Daedric Princes, she'd been essentially working non-stop for the past few weeks, fighting off most of the more-curious Daedric Princes from gazing upon him (the Aurorans of the Colored Rooms were still repairing the damage she'd caused in her tantrum, though curiously Meridia had seemed too pre-occupied to even notice, let alone react), nullifying some of the corrupting effects of the artifacts he'd picked up, creating a massive fog on the Sea of Ghosts to hide his infiltration of Castle Volkihar, and aiding his approach by shifting the currents to take him there faster. His preternaturally bad luck, however, had interfered in the last one, instead crashing his boat against the docks, which would have given her a heart attack had she actually possessed a physical heart. Just as she'd been wondering how he'd get back, however, when he'd retrieved the Elder Scroll of Blood, he'd trumped every single one of her expectations by summoning one of her erstwhile and long-lost nephews, Durnehviir, from the Soul Cairn and using him as a flying carriage service. She'd even given him aid in that place of power, one of Skyrim's Ancestor Glades, a subtle manipulation of wind to allow all the moths in the glade to smell the scent of canticle bark on his person.

While she was doing it for Tamriel, she did also possess an ulterior motive, admittedly, one that had required much help and preparation from Mara, and wheedling and pleading to Akatosh to carry out. Helping him get the Blood Scroll, hastening his reading of it, all of it had been to allow her to draw his consciousness to Aetherius, and thus finally meet him, as she'd been planning on doing for a while, and that led to one of the other things that made her feel conflicted; she had no idea what his reaction would be. She knew how fate seemed to enjoy to screw him over, and his reluctance to thus leave anything to the Divines. More to the point, she was dressed up very differently from how she'd been when she'd been Kyne, and met Shor. Her sister, Mara, had told her that men like him were attracted to "strength and vulnerability", or something along those lines. Thus, she had softened her facial features from how her temples had generally portrayed her, whilst wearing a mixture of both what she had been told was the height of fashion in Cyrodiil at the time, as well as her ceremonial armor. It felt unusual to her, and she had numerous second-thoughts about this affair. It was too late, however, even for a god, as Marius's soul materialised on her plane.

Her first thoughts, as her divine senses finally viewed him directly for the first time, rather than through her usual divinations of Mundus, was how different he looked from when he'd been on Mundus. Whereas on Mundus he looked like a simple mortal Imperial, albeit an attractive one from her completely-unbiased viewpoint, here in Aetherius his soul showcased his true heritage; a Dovahkiin, hybrid of Man and Dragon, his Dragonborn soul held features of both. While he was still clearly Marius, in Aetherius his soul was far larger than his mortal form had ever been. Armorless, he didn't look the least bit vulnerable; while his lower body was still Man (and she noted silently that he had, indeed, been well-endowed), from the chest up his chiselled abs were hidden under a thick layer of dragonhide, the distinctive spiked scales covering his upper body. His forearms, especially, were thickly-armored, as were his shoulders, his natural armor forming pauldrons to protect his joints. His head was still clearly human; instead of gaining draconic features, his dragon heritage manifested itself around his head as a horned helmet, covering his beige skin and expression. Vibrant gold, red, and blue colors pulsed through the draconic parts of his soul. Her breath had long since been stolen; while she'd seen some Dragonborn souls before from the Septim royal family, she'd never seen one of such power and exoticism, yet balanced so well with his human half.

"What's going on?" Marius's low, cautious timbre brought her back to her senses, and she saw him studying both the differences in his looks and his surroundings, as well as her. Thankful that her helmet hid her drool, she winced as he carefully asked: "I'm not back in Oblivion, or dead, am I?"

"Be at ease, Marius Dragonborn, the Last Dragonborn." Kynareth proclaimed, her melodious tone ringing through the realm as she tried to reassure her nephew. "I am Kynareth, and I have called your soul into Aetherius to merely speak with you."

His eyes shot up at her form of address, before recognition seemed to seep into his gaze. "Wait... Kynareth? Like, the Goddess of Luck and the Heavens, also Kyne, that Kynareth?"

His nervousness was palpable, and surprising to the divine stalker as she had rarely seen him break composure, when she nodded, and he eventually blurted out: "You know, when I said those things in Helgen, and in Cyrodiil, about how the Divines never seemed to be looking out for me, I was joking, right?"

So that was it. She smiled, finding her nephew surprisingly cute, like a mischievous child who had been caught with his hand on a sweetroll, and merely waved her hand: "I understand, young Marius. Your luck, to be honest, has been preternaturally bad, and it took a lot of my energy and attention trying to help you. However, on the other hand, would you have been able to develop and maintain such an optimistic attitude towards your life, had you not first experienced such hardship?"

Visibly stunned, he pondered this, for a second, before shrugging, and changing the topic: "Alright... so, why do I look so different? What's with all these scales and spikes and hide on me?"

"As Dragonborn, your soul isn't merely mortal." Kynareth explained, deciding to entertain his questions. After all, doing so would both allow them to familiarise themselves with each other, and get more comfortable, while hopefully giving her time to calm down, before she asked her main question. "What you're seeing is your true soul, a hybrid of dragon and man. Do you have any more you wish to say?"

"I have just one last thing to say, if you would be so kind as to entertain me." Marius replied, diplomatically, before he knelt unto one knee, stunning her. "For both the healing of your temple in Whiterun, and for all the aid you've given me on my journey, I offer my sincerest gratitude."

Flustered, Kynareth fought to keep her voice even, as she stammered out: "Think nothing of it; I was merely doing my duty to one so dutiful as you, Marius; few would wear my token for as long as you have." Kynareth then paused, before finally asking the question she'd been wanting to, for quite a while: "In fact, if you'd like, and if you're willing to accept, I'd be more than willing to take care of you and your needs, when you return to this realm."

Marius visibly pondered about this, before bowing his head, and saying: "I would be honored to have one as beautiful and powerful as yourself perform such a service for one as insignificant as myself, but I hope you'll understand if I were to say I'd like to delay my return to Aetherius for as long as possible."

Slightly despondent as she was by the latter half of his response, the first part of his sentence left her feeling ecstatic enough that any displeasure was washed away, a set of feelings she'd not been familiar with for millennia. She'd offered to take care of him, i.e. be his wife, and he'd been open to it! Sure, she'd have to drop by her late husband's mead hall when Marius passed from Mundus and to Sovngarde to collect Marius, but at least she'd have him! Fighting the urge to cheer, to rush off and ask Mara and Akatosh for advice, she stammered out a response, and made a gesture, sending him back to Mundus. There was so much to plan, so much to do! Unfortunately for Marius (and for her), in order to prepare for his arrival, to make a hovel suitable for the two of them, she'd first have to take her attention off of him for quite a while, getting advice and permission from her two siblings.

She only hoped Mara and Akatosh wouldn't tease her too much, when she delivered the news to them.

-ANCESTOR GLADE, MUNDUS, BARELY A MINUTE LATER-

As I blinked, and my surroundings returned to the Ancestor Glade I'd last seen before reading the Elder Scroll, though now without the moths, I pondered on what Kynareth had revealed to me. By the sounds of it, I truly was Dragonborn, and there would be no escaping my fate. On the bright side, and as I considered the bright side I mused that, perhaps, she had a point about how my bad luck had made it easy for me to see the bright side in all things, I now had a new design for an armor, a novel armor made out of the bones and hide of dragons. Whilst I knew I was nowhere near skilled enough a blacksmith to make it yet, I did have quite a few spare dragon parts, from the fights I'd been in, and I at least had enough smithing experience to know how to draw up blueprints, design them practically, and experiment about. More over, at least I could be assured that, in death, Kynareth would see that my soul would be brought to it's final resting place peacefully, a comfort I'd never known, and I found myself wondering why Kynareth had been so generous, or why she'd sounded like it had been a big deal, merely helping me pass on to my final resting place when I died. At least I'd been able to rein in my sarcastic tendencies when in that unfamiliar environment, and it seemed like she'd appreciated the flattery and gratitude I'd given her, as well as having been in a good enough mood to have not acknowledged all my less-than-reverent statements. But, more importantly, I had the information I needed to find Auriel's Bow and free my companion from her prophecy.

My thoughts, however, were soon interrupted by a well-intentioned if poorly-timed wave of a hand in front of my face, and as my eyes were spotted focusing, my companion, the hand's owner, piped up in a voice full of concern: "Are you okay? Almost thought I lost you there... you went white as the snow."

"Don't worry, I'm fine." I said with bravado, before admitting: "It just... felt strange. Very strange."

"I could see it in your eyes. You looked about a thousand leagues away." Serana told me, and I winced at the raw worry in her tone; the fact that she wasn't even trying to disguise her concern with her usual sarcastic wit and banter spoke volumes about what she felt, and I decided against telling her how far away I'd really been. Seeing the recognition in my eyes, even through my helmet, she coughed, and hastily changed the subject: "So, what about Auriel's Bow? Do you know where we can find it?"

"It's in a place called Darkfall Cave, which lies in the mountains north of the Reach and west of Haafingar." I said confidently, before lamely adding upon seeing her raised eyebrows: "The scrolls gave me its exact location."

"Then it's almost over. We can finally put an end to this ridiculous prophecy." Serana said, relief evident on her face despite her steely tone, before she took my hand and added: "Let's get going, then; I want to get there before my father has a chance to track us down."

As soon as those words left her lips, we heard the sound of footsteps, many of them, and we turned back to the direction we came from to find a dozen Volkihar vampires, their thralls, and four gargoyles, all bearing down upon us, sprinting down the path we'd taken, the path leading to the only entrance or exit to the glade, and I hastily drew Dawnbreaker and parried a well-aimed icicle as the enemy let loose a triumphant noise, a mixture of a hunting cry and a call to battle.

The main thought running through my head, as the vampires continued their charge, Serana readied a destruction spell in one hand and a ward in the other, and I assessed the situation (cut off from friendlies, outnumbered, enemies running down the only exit, out in the open in a basin, easily visible to those in the cliffs above us, mildly disoriented from reading the scrolls, and in the possession and/or company of every key to fulfilling Harkon's obsession), was that I could really, really, really use Kynareth's attention right about now; my preternaturally bad luck seemed to have just kicked in, once again.

Chapter Text

As my head finally won it's struggle against my heavy, water-logged helmet and broke the surface of the fast-flowing water, and my beleaguered lungs fought to get all the blessed oxygen they could through my gasps, I found myself choking out curses against Darkfall Cave, the weight of my armor, the Elder Scrolls that led me here, and the Oblivion-damned builder who put up such a shoddy bridge, it had fallen apart as soon as I'd placed my weight on the midpoint of it's deck. And then, as the current spat me out into a dimly-illuminated cave, and I landed with a dull "thud" onto a bed of rocks, I added curses against whatever higher power had, apparently, designed this cave. Meanwhile, having used my arm and leg as a support the whole time, my undead companion pulled herself up and off of her makeshift human cushion (me), and as I grabbed hold of her proffered hand she made a joke about understanding why the cave was called Darkfall Cave; her lack of requirement of oxygen allowing her to recover from the fall and the unplanned swim faster than me and make such a jibe. Loudly groaning at her lame pun, I was silently thankful that my helmet hid my smirk even as I pulled it off, allowing the water trapped within to flow out. Naturally, this small moment would of course be interrupted by the sounds of scurrying many-limbed creatures and the clicking of fangs, and as a glob of frostbite venom harmlessly splashed against Serana's hasty ward I drew my steel battleaxe, the symbol of my position as Thane of Whiterun and the weapon I'd neglected to even touch for two months, all the while reflecting on why we'd come here (and adding Skyrim's Frostbite Spiders to the list of things for me to curse against)...

While it hadn't gone as well as planned from Ancestor Glade, two days ago, with us being surrounded by a large Volkihar kill-team, Serana and I ultimately had both lots of experience in handling the vampires as well as Dawnbreaker, and 5 minutes (and a lot of swings, slashes, parries, and a few crossbow bolts) later I was leisurely healing the few wounds I'd sustained from lucky shots while the Volkihar squad lay dead around us. Still, though, the message was clear: the vampires had somehow tracked our movements. Before we could head to Darkfall Cave and retrieve Auriel's Bow, we'd need to misdirect them.

Luckily, misdirecting them was easy; it had become, if not an established fact then a well-spread rumor at this point, that I was the rider of the undead dragon Durnehviir. Thus, I had summoned Durnehviir and had him independently fly towards the East, whilst Serana and I would sneak out of Falkreath Hold and into the wilds of the Reach, under the cover of both darkness and Invisibility and Muffle spells. Durnehviir, for his part, had readily agreed to this plan, relishing the chance to stretch his wings in Tamriel once more, and his only concern, for my safety, was easily allayed by both my strength and the preparations we'd made.

For one of the few times in my unlucky life, the plan had worked like a charm, and the only vampires we'd encountered in the two days of trekking had been unaware of our presence; probably just random patrols who'd had the misfortune of having us run across them, and hadn't required even the use of Dawnbreaker to take out. Eventually, we'd reached our destination, in the mountains between the Reach and Haafingar, and entered the dark cave to find a rope bridge, which had collapsed as we'd crossed it...

"Done and done." Serana said, lowering her hands and cancelling whatever spells she'd been charging or casting, and my mind returned to the present. The spiders had been ferocious, dozens of them climbing down from the ceiling, and by their size and some of the skulls in the cave they'd probably been strong enough to take down trolls; by far the largest and strongest I'd seen in Skyrim before. In the end, however, they were still merely mindless spiders, and Serana's spellcasting abilities had only grown while the Axe of Whiterun was as functional as ceremonial, although the weapon had apparently grown lighter since it'd been forced into my hands; I somehow found the steel weapon light enough that I could easily wield it with one hand despite it being a two-handed battleaxe, and had proceeded to do so in the chaotic melee of the past few minutes.

I honestly found myself disappointed as we descended further into the web-filled, recently-depopulated cave; this was not what I had expected, as the supposed final resting place of the Auriel's Bow, the legendary weapon of the Chief Elven God, supposedly wielded by it's namesake against the forces of Lorkhan in the time before time itself, and creating Red Mountain by shooting a bow with the Heart of Lorkhan, the artifact that the late Septimus Signus had hoped to find in that Dwemer lockbox, all those weeks ago. I'd expected some grand tomb, a monument and temple to Auriel, instead of this troll- and spider-infested network of caves; hell, there hadn't even been any dead adventurers or explorers, barring a few unlucky souls who'd, in apparent defiance of all reason, logic, or sense, chosen to set up camp right in the middle of said caves. A hastily-scrawled note on one of their bodies I'd discovered, whilst Serana was wondering out loud why anyone would do such a thing, only raised more questions; I could scarcely believe anybody, excluding Gunmar perhaps, would even consider peaceful co-existence with those ferocious beasts, let alone actually attempt to live so close to such creatures peacefully. With that mystery in our heads, we'd descended even deeper into the caves, disarming the traps the dead fools had somehow managed to set up and avenging their deaths by dispatching the trolls we'd encountered as quickly and silently as possible, and after 15 minutes of making our way through a particularly spacious and wet section of the cave we finally came across something new.

Our first clue that we'd neared something interesting had been the lighting. Serana, ever so sensitive to light, had been the first to notice, but even I was able to pick it up; up ahead, rather than the orange glow of flames and torches, or the dim green glow of Skyrim's weird bioluminescent fungi, we saw a bright whiteness from some dry ground, slightly above the small stream that filled the cave, and it took a few seconds before we finally processed what we saw; somehow, in this deep recess of Darkfall Cave, sunlight penetrated it's depths. The next clue had been the candles around a shrine to what appeared to be the sun, as well as some collapsed marbled stone columns and a well-carved sunken dome, sharing the same architectural style. Serana and I would later discuss it, and I'd be informed that this building style dated back to the Merethic Era, long before Serana's family even, and was commonly found in known Snow Elf habitations. The third clue, and probably the one that gave it all away, was the presence of a white-armored white humanoid, which somehow reminded us of the twisted Falmer save for his lack of overly-elongated ears and the presence of his eyes, telling us: "Come forward. You have nothing to fear here."

Perhaps, in my younger and more innocent days, such a greeting would have had me instantly suspicious, and I did honestly almost shoot him out of surprise, but thanks to my service to the Legion and the months I'd spent in Skyrim, I'd grown enough to kill the impulse to do so. It probably helped that he was in what appeared to be a shrine to some deity of the Sun, whose influence we were supposed to be protecting, and I'd seen enough proof of divine intervention in Skyrim to not discount the influence of the Divines; having had both a very intimate encounter with my caring... aunt, for lack of a better term, Kynareth, as well as apparently being the walking physical manifestation of Akatosh's anti-dragon divine intervention, I'd be a fool to believe that the Divines weren't starting to take a more active role.

Of course, it probably also helped that this hadn't been the first time I'd been greeted in such a way; I still remembered Azura's priestess, Aranea (in ways that she'd probably be both flattered by and tempted to gouge my eyes out for, on the exceptionally rare lonely nights I'd been adventuring through the wilds... my need for physical intimacy remains undiminished, and has probably in fact increased), and especially her exceptionally unique greeting atop that mountain. At least this elf had toned down the surprise and gestures a fair bit. With all those points in mind, I put the crossbow I'd subconsciously grabbed back in it's holster by my hip, and approached him with raised arms, to show that we were willing to hear things out.

"What's that?" Serana murmured, drawing my attention to the dome. "I can feel some kind of power from it..."

Before I could respond, however, in what can only be described as an attempt by the Fates and the Divines to prove my positive opinion of the white-haired white elf wrong, he began: "Auri-El has seen your coming, traveler. It was not curiosity, but fate, that has led you here."

Presumably seeing the look on my face, the white elf suddenly took a step back and tried to diplomatically explain: "Forgive me for that, but Auri-El told me it was the best way to introduce myself to you. I am Knight-Paladin Gelebor. Welcome to the Great Chantry of Auri-El."

"This cave is a temple to Auriel?" The disbelief in my voice was only matched by my surprise. I absolutely refused to believe this troll- and spider-infested cave was a holy site, dedicated to the chief god of the Elven pantheon; I was pretty sure there were more holy sewers in Riften than this place. This "Gelebor", however, seemed to have misunderstood the reason for my confusion, and explained: "Auriel, Auri-El, Alkosh, Akatosh... so many different names for the sovereign of the snow elves."

Now, you'd better believe, that last part got my attention, and my hand restarted it's motion towards my crossbow, as I asked warily: "Snow elves? So you're really a Falmer?"

Surprisingly, he sighed, and his tone held resignation as he insistently explained: "I prefer snow elf. The name "Falmer" usually holds a negative meaning to most travellers." Bitterness then entered his voice, as he continued: "Those twisted creatures you call Falmer, I call the Betrayed."

At those words Serana's curiosity visibly peaked, and I saw all the signs of her about to begin a lengthy interrogation. Pre-empting her questions, I decided to just cut to the chase, for both the sake of my sanity, and the elf's ears: "I imagine you know why we're here."

"Of course. You're here for Auriel's Bow." I appreciated Gelebor's matter-of-fact tone, and resignation re-entered his voice as he rhetorically asked: "Why else would you be here? I can help you get it, but first I need your assistance."

"Do I have a choice?" I asked, just as rhetorically as he had, and also not in the least bit surprised my help was needed yet again; it seemed that everyone and their pet skeever in Skyrim had some pressing issue that could only be solved by my direct intervention. Surprisingly, however, he answered seriously: "Absolutely. You could turn around and travel back from wherever you started, empty-handed, or you could assist me."

Giving up on my usual snark (apparently, service to Auriel had removed his sense of humor), I decided to just ask, as direct as possible: "What type of assistance do you need?"

"I need you to kill Arch-Curate Vyrthur... my brother."

And the surprises from this "true" snow elf just keep on coming; truly, this fine day did not disappoint. Serana spoke up for me: "Kill your brother? Why?"

"The kinship between us is gone." Gelebor explained, and I thought I heard something close to sadness enter his voice. "I don't understand what he's become, but he's no longer the brother I once knew. It was the Betrayed... they did something to him, I just don't know why Auri-El would allow this to happen."

"What exactly did the Fal... the Betrayed do?" I asked, with as much sympathy as I could inject; thanks to my childhood, I was a massive sucker for resolving family issues, as well as fully empathetic to that feeling that the Divines had turned their backs.

"They swept into the Chantry without warning and began killing everyone without pause." Even Serana flinched at the venom in his voice.

"Didn't you fight back?"

"The Chantry was a place of peaceful worship. I led a small group of paladins, but we were no match for the Betrayed's sheer numbers. They slaughtered everyone and stormed the Inner Sanctum where I believe they corrupted Vyrthur."

"How do you even know he's still alive?" I interrupted, genuinely curious.

"He's alive. I've seen him. But something's wrong. He never looks as though he's in pain or under duress. He just... stands there and watches, as though waiting."

"Have you tried getting into the Inner Sanctum?" I probed, needing all the information I could get if I wanted to pull this off; by the sounds of it, he wanted us to storm a fortress teeming with Falmer, and as important as Auriel's Bow was, I figured we could just as easily turn back and kill Harkon right now, knowing that it was safe in this hidden "temple" to Auriel, behind hordes of Falmer.

"Leaving the wayshrines unguarded would be violating my sacred duty as a Knight-Paladin of Auriel." He explained simply, and before I could ask what he could possibly be guarding these "wayshrines" from, whatever they were, aside from the occasional troll, he added: "And an assault on the Betrayed guarding the Inner Sanctum would only end with my death."

"Wayshrine?" Serana asked, her curiosity getting the better of her, and Gelebor's mouth curled upwards; the restrained joy in his voice suggested he had enjoyed this part of the job, as he said simply: "Yes, let me show you."

Before any of us could react, he turned to the sunken dome behind him, and with a word, a gesture, and some magic I'd never seen before, the sun symbol glowed a bright orange, and gave off a reverberating sound like it had been struck like a drum, before the entire dome suddenly began rising up and out of the ground, revealing a hollow interior save for a basin in the middle. Serana summed up my thoughts adequately: "So, this is snow elf magic. Incredible."

"This structure is known as a wayshrine." Gelebor began with his matter-of-fact tone, though I could sense Serana's words had, indeed, flattered him. "They were used for meditation and for transport when the Chantry was a place of enlightenment. Prelates of these Shrines were charged with teaching the mantras of Auri-El to our Initiates."

"What's that basin in the centre signify?" Serana interrupted.

"Once the Initiate completed his mantras, he'd dip a ceremonial ewer in the basin at the wayshrine's centre and proceed to the next wayshrine."

"So these Initiates had to lug around a heavy pitcher of water. Marvellous." By the sounds of it, Serana had stopped being impressed, and her sarcasm had finally returned. Sarcastic Serana continued: "How long would they have to do that?"

"Well, once the Initiate's enlightenment was complete, he'd bring the ewer to the Chantry's Inner Sanctum." Gelebor explained patiently, ignoring the sarcasm in her voice. "Pouring the contents of the ewer into the sacred basin of the Sanctum would allow him to enter for an audience with the Arch-Curate himself."

"All that just to end up dumping it out? Makes no sense to me."

"It's symbolic. I don't expect you to understand."

"So, let's get this straight. We need to do all that nonsense to get into the temple, so we can kill your brother and claim Auriel's Bow?" Man, Serana's sarcasm wasn't letting up today, and Gelebor sighed tiredly in response.

"I know how it all sounds, but if there was another way I'd have done it a long time ago." Gelebor admitted to Serana, before addressing me directly, presumably thinking me less confrontational and sarcastic than my companion: "The only way to get to my brother is by following in the Initiate's Footsteps and travelling from wayshrine to wayshrine just as they did. The first lay at the end of Darkfall Passage, a cavern that represents the absence of enlightenment."

"How many more wayshrines are there?" I asked, completely resigned to the fact that I would be partaking in this 'nonsense', as Serana so eloquently put it.

"There are five in total, spread far apart across the Chantry."

"These caves must be massive." I noted, mentally relieved that, at least, there were only five wayshrines, and it could most definitely have been worse, and Gelebor chuckled at my words.

"Caves? Oh no." Gelebor corrected my assumption with mild amusement, as though he'd dealt with that misconception before. "The Chantry encompasses far more than a few caves, as you'll soon discover. But before I send you on your way, you'll need the Initiate's Ewer."

Taking the ornate jug from him, I secured it to the bandolier on my chest with a simple knot, and clarified: "So I need to fill this at each wayshrine?"

"Once you've located a wayshrine, there will be a spectral Prelate tending to it. They will allow you to draw the waters from the shrine's basin as if you've been enlightened."

"I'll... be off, then." I said, grabbing Serana by the arm before she could ask about the "spectral Prelate", or pass a comment about me being enlightened.

"This may be the last time we're able to converse." Gelebor told me, as he walked me into the wayshrine and towards what appeared to be a portal into a cave. "If you have any questions before you leave, I suggest you ask them. Otherwise, all I can do now is grant you my hopes for a safe journey."

"I'll take those hopes with gratitude." I reassured him, now covering Serana's mouth whilst she glared up at me, and delivered a quick response as we stepped through the portal: "But really, no more questions. Let's go and kill an elf and get a bow."

"That... wasn't as unpleasant as I thought it would be." Serana said, as we found ourselves instantaneously in the other wayshrine; I hadn't even felt any transition or change between stepping through the portal and ending up in this Darkfall Passage. "Kind of soothing, actually. I feel a little warmer now."

"That's probably because we're deeper underground." I suggested with a shrug, putting it out of mind in favor of taking in our surroundings. Before I'd noted anything further than the weird pinkly-glowing worms on the cave's walls, illuminating our passage, the sounds of footsteps and the rustling of wings could be heard from upfront, as a horde of falmer and their chittering insects suddenly rushed us from the opening, along with a new type of the insects, ones that apparently had wings.

-WAYSHRINE OF RESOLUTION, THREE HOURS LATER-

"Hey, look over there, in the centre of the frozen lake." I called out to Serana, as we left the fourth wayshrine and looked back down at the frozen lake.

It had been a long journey through Darkfall Passage, requiring first the slaughter of dozens of Falmer and their insect companions, both of the usual type and the new, winged, variety. After that, we'd then simply abused the fact that they were blind, and snuck past hundreds of them, in their dwellings throughout the passage, via judicious use of the Muffle spell. That had continued on for slightly under an hour, as we made our way through the long passage, and even past an underground waterfall, until we'd eventually made our way to one of those descending cave walls/fake doors it seemed every cavern in Skyrim possessed, this one almost covered in pull chains and traps; when we'd pulled the lever to lower it, poison darts and spikes had flown from the walls, whilst massive claws had flung out of the ground and the ceiling, all directed right at the entrance.

After the traps had all been fired, we'd cautiously walked through the entrance, and found ourselves inside a massive cavern, covered with massive glowing green fungi that reminded me of Blackreach, with a waterfall leading to a stream running through it. As we peered closer we saw numerous plants that Serana couldn't recognise or identify, as well as numerous deer and sabre cats roaming the cavern, these mammals curiously possessing a purple-patterned fur coat I'd never seen before, and across the cavern, beyond a suspended land bridge, lay the next wayshrine and it's spectral Prelate.

After going along with the Prelate's assumption that we were there to honor Auriel and his mantras, we'd filled the ewer with some water from the wayshrine's basin, and watched as one of it's walls suddenly became a portal to a different cave. Figuring that the portal was our way forward, we walked through it, not knowing, truly, what to expect. Whatever our expectations, however, they were easily surpassed by what we'd walked out of the cave and into: a massive frozen valley, with more snow and ice than I'd seen even in Winterhold, and a massive temple at the top of the vale's mountain, which I assumed was the Sanctum proper.

After we'd gotten over our awe (we'd been in this position before with Blackreach, after all), we'd made our way through the vale, pausing only to fight off the curious and/or hungry inhabitants that attacked us, and gingerly picked our way through the next 3 wayshrines. At the fourth wayshrine, the Wayshrine of Resolution, we'd been roughly a quarter of the way up the mountain (and been through a small village of Falmer), and by the looks of it, the last wayshrine was further up the mountain, as we couldn't see any other wayshrines in the valley itself. It was then, as I looked back down over the frozen lake, however, that something caught my eye.

"Is that a Dragon's Word Wall?" Serana asked, pointing to the same curved stone wall on a small patch of snow that I'd been looking at, and I nodded, seeing the scratched carvings even despite the distance; the faint glow called out to my soul, somehow, despite the distance. And, since it was but a short detour from where we'd been heading...

Learning the word 'Lah', or 'Magicka', and absorbing it into my soul, in a way I still couldn't truly describe yet knew, automatically connected it to the word I'd learnt when I first met Serana, 'Gaan' in the same way that 'Fus' and 'Ro' were connected, and thus was a Shout somehow made more potent. "I wish I had such a way to just learn Shouts by looking at a stone wall. Would cut down the time I'd need to spend studying." Serana teased snidely, and I smiled tiredly as we turned away from the Word Wall, knowing that she knew what I really thought of my 'gift'.

Naturally, of course, it was just as I was thinking about how the Divines had essentially forced upon me a power I'd never asked for in order to handle a responsibility I'd never wanted, that the ice under my feet exploded upwards and outwards, sending me flying through the air and rendering all the effort I'd subconsciously been putting into not slipping on the frozen ice for naught.

-UNDER THE FROZEN LAKE, AS MARIUS WAS REACHING THE WORD WALL-

Two ancient creatures stirred, for the first time in millennia, as a presence they hadn't felt for that long intruded upon their domain, and neared their physical forms. Veterans of those ancient conflicts before the Dominance of Mortals over Tamriel, they quickly shook off the vestiges of their long slumber and cautiously assessed the situation, now fully alert.

The two set out their senses, the inherent additional senses that were their birthright, that went beyond the mere five senses the limited mortals possessed, wondering what had woken them up from their sleep, and were surprised to sense a strong Dovah's presence at the Word Wall one of their cultists had carved a long time ago. They couldn't fathom how this Dovah had approached so sneakily; they hadn't heard the flapping of strong wings, and no dragon would have simply walked into this forgotten vale (not to mention somehow been able keep their heavy footfalls quiet on the ice) or hidden their presence like a coward, nor could they figure out why a fellow Dovah would willingly intrude on this place, an ancient and holy sanctum of Father Akatosh's. The Word Wall's word of power was merely 'Lah', and none of the Dovah actually used Magicka. More importantly, though, why would a Dovah actually need to approach a Word Wall? The language of the Dov was instinctive within the minds of all Dov; what use would a Dovah have for another Dovah's glorified memorial?

And yet, their senses did not lie. There was, still, a strong Dovah presence, just a few feet above them. For some reason, after millennia of peaceful rest, hiding in the sanctuary of their divine father, a dragon had apparently, for some reason, snuck all the way to the Word Wall above them, allowed it's spirit to suddenly surge in strength and presence, and was now idling about.

Ever the cautious one of the pair, Voslaarum advocated to his mate that they should remain hidden, deep beneath this frozen-over lake. After all, they'd made it this long, having survived Alduin's 'survival-of-the-fittest' reign, the Domination of Mortals, and the Retribution of the Akaviri Blades, by having hidden in this ancient sanctuary, unbeknownst to even the Falmer who had built it. It was entirely possible that this was all a massive coincidence, after all, and the Dovah above them would simply just fly off.

Naaslaarum, the more hot-headed of the two, had more than enough of hiding like a coward. She wanted to get out there and assert her dominance over this intruder, to chase it out and establish their territory; it had only been her fondness for her mate when he'd pleaded with her that they needed to get out of the constant battles for dominance that had allowed her to even have stayed hidden within this forgotten vale for so long. But having been awoken from her comfortable slumber against her mate's warmth, to say Naaslaarum was a bit cranky was like saying Alduin was a bit bossy. Right now, she simply wanted to punish the intruder for disturbing their territory and her time with Voslaarum.

Voslaarum, having had to calm his mate down before, offered a compromise: if the intruder leaves right there and then, then they would leave the intruder be, forgetting it's trespass, and he'd put in additional effort to make his mate extremely comfortable, now that they were awake. However, if it moved towards them, it's actions would be taken as an act of hostility, and the two would work together as only the close bonded mates could, and take down the interloper together. Voslaarum honestly doesn't think he'll need to act; while he had no idea how the dragon above had snuck all the way to the word wall, there was no way it would just walk towards them, unless it was looking for a fight. After all, where was there for a dovah to walk, in this closed off forgotten vale? The few caves that led to the rest of Skyrim were far too small, after all, for a dovah to use.

Fortunately for Naaslaarum, and unfortunately for Voslaarum, they had no idea of the intruder's true form, and when Marius stepped onto the ice, Naaslaarum and Voslaarum, for the first time in millennia, moved, crouching their bodies, untouched by time or age and just as ready to fight as the day they'd been made, and preparing to shoot out of the ice at two different points, in a surprise pincer ambush.

And thus did Faal Laat Grah do Naaslaarum ahrk Voslaarum (The Last Flight (lit. translation: Battle) of Naaslaarum and Voslaarum), as it would come to be known by scholars and aspiring historians and chroniclers of the mysteries of the Last Dragonborn's adventures, take place, in the middle of the frozen lake of the Forgotten Vale.

-20 FEET ABOVE THE FROZEN LAKE, AFTER NAASLAARUM AND VOSLAARUM PUNCHED THROUGH THE ICE-

As I found myself flying through the air, a sensation which was slowly becoming more and more uncomfortably familiar to my body, I found that my experience allowed me the time to spare on some thoughts. Naturally, I once again spent most of my time cursing the Divines and Fates, without whom I wouldn't have had to go through hundreds of Falmer in this forsaken and forgotten place. Surprisingly, however, I also spared a thought to show some concern: the ewer, four-fifths full of water from the wayshrines, was being sent flying with me, and would soon impact the ground with me. And I most certainly did not want to test out it's durability and resistance to falls.

"Where'd you come from?!" Serana cried out in surprise, not having been thrown into the air like I had, and my muddled thoughts finally realised I hadn't actually taken a close look at what had sent me through the air like a child's doll. Multi-tasking, rolling in the air so that my back (and, hopefully, the padded armor around it) would take the brunt of the fall, I finally came face-to-face with my assailant, soaring through the sky: two uniquely serpentine dragons, the likes of which I'd never seen before, one spewing jets of flame through the air whilst the other breathed frost as they roared around me. Even though I'd faced numerous dragons at this point, including the unliving Durnehviir, my heart still felt fear. These dragons were unlike anything I'd ever faced in power, and worst of all, not only were they apparently co-operating, but they were also capable of using the terrain to their advantage. And then my momentum finally stalled, before gravity reasserted it's influence over me, and I began falling.

Here's a quick experiment: find a frozen lake, any frozen lake. Grab a 200-pound boulder. Wrap it in thick heavy metal. And drop it from about 20 to 30 feet from the air, and see what happens. Perhaps the ice I landed on just happened to be a bit thin, or perhaps I'd been falling faster than I thought, but I ended up punching another hole through the ice, before my armor began taking water and I started sinking, enjoying my second impromptu bath of the day. Hastily, I cast a simple Waterbreathing spell, as Serana had taught me on our way back from infiltrating Castle Volkihar, and relaxed fractionally. Sure, I was now in an unfamiliar environment (as I'd said on the trip to Castle Volkihar, I was most definitively not trained for marine and underwater combat), where my movements and motions were slowed tremendously (though slightly less than I would have expected), and though I could probably swim to the surface despite the weight of my armor, it would exhaust me. However, Serana was a powerful mage, and even though she was up on the surface by herself, I had confidence she could protect herself, and even keep them busy for a few seconds. And then the two dragons burst back into the water, creating more holes in the frozen lake's ice, and began speedily swimming at me.

"WULD!" I bubbled out quickly, as the two winged serpents closed in on me, and my body was propelled forward into one of them, much to it's surprise. A minor miscalculation it had made was that it's breath weapon was far less effective underwater than it would have up above; water did not propagate it as well as air did, and it flinched as it's breath failed to deflect the heavy, now heated, metal-armored human-shaped projectile that smashed into it, stunning it briefly.

Taking advantage of that brief window of opportunity, I ignored the burning sensation on my chest and tried to punch it in the eye, hoping that it was a weak spot I could exploit. However, between the hardness of the scales that were it's eyelids, and the viscosity of the water around us, I failed to do anything more than bruise it's eye; not an easy feat, to be sure, but not a victory that would help me survive being in range of the dragon's mouth. Of course, I didn't actually need to have my mailed fist in it's eye socket to carry out my next course of action; it just would've reduced the wasted energy.

The dragon thrashed about in agony as a simple Sparks spell was channeled through my hand and unto it's eyeball, and it reflexively blinked, trapping my gauntlet on it's eye. Before I could do anything more than free my hand from the gauntlet by ripping it off, the other dragon barreled into me, and it's jaws closed around me, it's teeth puncturing my armor and the flesh under it.

While I was still able to withstand the pain and blood loss thanks to a combination of a strong constitution, mental fortitude strengthened by military training and life experiences, and the usage of most of my magicka reserves for constant healing, I won't deny I was in a very bad spot. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately to an exceptional degree), bad spots seemed to be the default mode my life had been in from the start, and were, as my former Legion instructors had remarked, where I seemed to be most at home with. Besides, unlike Helgen, meteors weren't raining from the heavens, my hands weren't bound, I had weapons within arms reach, and, most of all, I actually knew what I was fighting against.

One of the things I'd learnt about dragons was that, as tough and resistant as their scales were, their innards were significantly less able to soak up damage, and this was especially true with regards to frost-breathing dragons and fire. Another thing I soon realised, one that I was certain no sane person would have even considered, was that being between the jaws of a dragon gave a person an excellent opportunity to abuse the first point. Slipping my hand through the gaps between it's teeth gave me a few cuts and abrasions, to be sure, but they were a lot less serious than being digested, and soon, with my hand within it's mouth, I sent a stream of Flames down the gullet of the frost-breathing member of the pair.

Naturally, as was my luck, these dragons seemed to be a fair bit tougher than the average dragon, and the simple gout of Flames wasn't enough to outright fell the beast. It was, however, enough to get the creature to roar out in pain, releasing me from it's grasp. Taking advantage of my new freedom, I bubbled out another Whirlwind Sprint, sending me flying out of the water and back into the air. Serana, to her credit, quickly recovered from the surprise of my sudden reappearance, and cast a quick Frostbite spell on the spot I was about to land on, reinforcing the ice and preventing me from punching straight through it again.

This time, when the pair punched through the ice again to seek their vengeance, we were ready for them, and now that I had Serana backing me up, as well as the key terrain feature of 'not being underwater', it was a much-fairer fight. The Flames spell I'd cast had apparently done more damage than I'd thought; the frost-breathing dragon no longer breathed any frost, and instead opted to simply swoop straight down at me, just like the dragon at the Western Watchtower. Unlike then, however, this dragon was already injured, and not only was I faster, but I wielded a far better weapon than I had at the time. The head of the Axe of Whiterun met, intercepted, and eventually went through the head of the dragon, using it's very momentum against it, and it crashed into the ice with the usual burning glow I'd come to associate with slain dragons before the usual light of it's soul flew into me. Seeing this, it's partner roared in what I could only think was fury, sending fire spewing through the air, before glaring sharply at me through it's one good eye, the metal of my torn-off gauntlet still glinting in it's other...

Though we couldn't have known it at the time, Serana's quick thinking and actions would inspire a new tactic that the Imperial Legion and Stormcloaks would go on to use to great effect during the last battle of the Second Dragon War, not even a year later. Using the metal gauntlet like a lightning rod and magnetic bullseye, Serana sent a Thunderbolt at the dragon, channeling a massive surge of electricity through the dragon's eye via the gauntlet and into it's skull, bypassing it's resistant hide and frying it's brain. The dragon roared one last time, this time in pain, as it clearly lost control of it's ability to fly, before it's twitching corpse fell from the sky like a sack of bricks, with all the grace and weight that mental image entails. While falling, it's hide began to burn off of it, in the typical manner of dead dragons having the soul stolen, and I felt partially renewed as I absorbed it's light, and the dragon's skeleton smashed into the frozen lake, shattering into dozens of individual components against the thick, hard ice and sending fragments all over.

"Help me get the most intact bones from their corpses," I began, turning to Serana, before the adrenaline flooding my system finally ran out, and I stumbled unto my knees, the damage done to my body finally catching up to me. Serana immediately ran to me, ignoring my previous command, and let out a gasp of shock as we finally had time to properly examine the state I was in. Most of the armor on my right flanks had been punctured, rended, or torn away; some of the jagged metal had even been pushed inwards, causing further injury. My right hand was bruised, presumably from punching the dragon in the eye, and had many cuts, presumably from when I'd shoved it into the other dragon's mouth. My right wrist was sprained, from when the gauntlet had been torn forcefully from my armor, and the injury had only been further exacerbated when I'd used it to swing my axe at the other dragon, and act which had also dislocated my left shoulder. And all the while, I was still soaked to the bone from my brief swim into the freezing lake, and between the wet and the low ambient temperatures I was probably about to get hypothermia in a few minutes, if I was lucky.

"What in the name of Coldharbour happened beneath the ice? Haven't you been healing yourself?" Serana demanded, and the anger in her voice made me wince. Though I knew the anger was born of worry, and while I usually didn't care too much about what people thought of me as long as I didn't attract attention and could use their perceptions... somehow, I felt guilty for making her this upset, and I forced out a sentence through my chattering teeth as she cast a small Flames spell near me, warming me up (my magicka reserves had finally been depleted): "I did... if I hadn't, I'd have died from the blood loss under the ice. But, for some reason, it's not healing as much as usual..."

"Or your wounds were just too deep!" Serana snapped back at me, and the only reason I didn't flinch from her fury was because I was just too weak to do so. "Seriously, Marius, what happened down there?"

"Flew through a fire breath and into a dragon's skull, lost my gauntlet punching it's eye, got bitten in the chest by the other dragon..." I mumbled out blearily, slowly losing focus, before her warm hand roughly grabbed my shoulder, and the pain woke me back up.

"Whatever happened down there must have been desperate enough that you had to go to such insane lengths." Serana murmured, widening one of the bigger wounds that hadn't healed, and I winced in pain as she grabbed a red potion from one of her numerous alchemical pouches and poured it into the wound.

"Unfortunately, I'm no healer, and even if I was I doubt I know any healing spell that could undo damage of this magnitude." Serana said, repeating the process for the rest of my wounds in my chest, before heating up one of the broken-off metal pieces of my armor and using it to cauterize the cuts that she could. "We're gonna have to do this the old-fashioned way, and even though my alchemical mixtures should accelerate the healing process with little risk of disease, it's almost definitely not going to go back to just the way it was. I don't think we should continue with you in this state..."

"I... have not... come this far... to go back empty-handed..." I choked out, her words focusing my mind more sharply than even the pain. I knew I was falling prey to the sunk-cost fallacy so many gambling parlours used to maintain a client base, but at this point I just wanted to get the bow and get the thwarting of the Tyranny of the Sun over and done with. Her concern touched me deeply (we may have been close companions for a fairly long time now, but I hadn't expected her to be quite so worried about my welfare), but it had blinded her to the bigger picture. We were in some forgotten land, with no nearby healing houses, no one knew where we were, and my armor was in ruins. And to make things worse...

"Besides, I doubt we can get out before night falls." I said, forcing my tone to lighten up as I got back up to my feet. "And I'm already freezing to death as it is. The Sanctum's probably our best bet at this point."

"At the very least, get something proper to wear first, Marius." Serana said, taking off her cloak, before I reiterated my request for dragon bones; I'd gotten this idea for dragonbone armor, and while I didn't have the tools to even attempt to forge a set right here and now, I could still force some of the bigger fragments into the holes in the armor, before using a Flames spell to melt the jagged edges around the bone to keep it in place. While the padding under the armor was a lost cause, it would, at least, be better than nothing, and Serana relented.

"Don't misunderstand my intent, Marius." She called back, heading towards the two dragon skeletons. "I've already lost one family; I can't afford to lose you, as well."

Serana's response floored me, and for a second I found myself wondering what exactly she had meant by that. Could it be? Did she think of me in that way? Was it possible for me to be more than just friends? I shook away such thoughts; this was probably what she meant when she told me not to misunderstand. We'd only known each other for two months or so; even the fastest of couples I'd known had only even considered union under Mara after three or four months. Besides, we were in the middle of a Vampire Crisis, to say nothing of the odd dragon attack; this was no time to get distracted (if I really needed to get laid, which it increasingly seemed like I did, I could always sneak off to Riften for a quick night out). Coming to a conclusion regarding her words, I turned my head away to hide my embarrassment, and chose a safe response: "I care greatly for you too, Serana... you're like the little sister I never had."

An awkward silence followed my words, and I could only assume I'd embarrassed Serana greatly with my open admittance of affection. Trying to fill it in, I looked at the Wayshrine above, and finally remembered something.

"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit..." I cursed in a panic, and did a quick check of what gear I still had. The pre-loaded crossbows were still in their holster, although after the recent few unexpected swims I'd probably have to do basic maintenance on the loading mechanisms, and with the wet strings and bolts I wouldn't rely on it beyond close range. Dawnbreaker and the Axe of Whiterun were also still with me, though the axe would probably also need some sharpening after this adventure. Beyond that, and the assorted knick-knacks, tools, and survival essentials I'd picked up and forgotten all about, the most important thing, the Initiate's Ewer, had survived intact. Unfortunately, the water inside the ewer was a slightly different matter.

"Cheer up, Marius." Serana said, as she helped me fit the bone chunks into the holes in my armor. "We can always just go back to the Wayshrines and refill the fancy elven jug."

"How do we go back to Darkfall Passage?" I asked drily, and she chuckled melodiously.

"I'm sure you'll figure something out; despite your atrocious luck everything seems to work out for you in the end, right? Until then, just think of it as an... extended family trip. With your little sister."

Silently bemused by the fact that she was apparently unwilling to let it go, we made our way back to the nearest Wayshrine, only to be reminded there that the Wayshrines had portals between each of them, and it was child's play from there to fill the jug from the four previously-visited Wayshrines, and make our way to the last one.

-AURIEL'S CHAPEL, DEEP WITHIN THE INNER SANCTUM OF AURIEL, THREE HOURS LATER-

When one talks about a chantry, a temple, or some other massive religious building, especially one dedicated to the chief god of the Snow Elves, Auri-El, one tends to have certain expectations, and the exterior of the Inner Sanctum, at least, certainly lived up to them. The massive white structure, built into the cliff by the looks of it, and it's giant statue of Auriel towered over us, and would have stolen our breath had the trek to get to it not done so. But still, after a journey through a falmer village and a falmer-infested glacial cave, which would have been a challenge had I not just encountered the two dragons under the ice, we'd finally made it to the Inner Sanctum, resting place of Auriel's Bow. The method of opening the door was just as flashy and pointless as I'd expected, after seeing Snow Elf magic for the whole day; we'd poured water into the basin just in front of the front doors, which had immediately flowed out of the basin and into a sun-shaped depression in the foyer in front of the doors. There, it had caused the gem above it to shine with a green light, and thusly did the doors unlock themselves, while I wondered if I could have saved a lot of time and energy by just pouring out my waterskin into the depression from the very start.

Our expectations were horribly subverted, however, upon entering the Sanctum proper; between the pillars of ice, piles of rubble, crumbled walls, and frozen falmer statues, it looked more like a museum of the macabre than the greatest place of worship of Auriel. Or, at least, we'd thought that the frozen falmer were mere statues, initially; when Serana had stopped to take an enchanted necklace off of one, the statue had burst to life, revealing that it was, in fact, an actual falmer, frozen while alive. Shock spells weren't of much effect against it, as the electricity simply discharged harmlessly off the ice, fire spells risked raising the ambient temperatures, and waking up the other frozen falmer statues (we didn't know which were alive or not, and we didn't want to risk it), and frost spells were next to useless against them. Serana's dagger couldn't punch through the ice with a stab, and it was too slippery to slash properly. It was, in fact, safer to say they were now more like animated ice, than actual living falmer, and Serana had spent a fair half a minute struggling with it. However, like the living stone gargoyles, they seemed to be exceptionally weak to blunt force, and a punch from my uninjured hand, which had dented even a Dwarven Centurion's armor plate, shattered it in an explosion of frozen gore.

Some sections of the sanctum had collapsed, or were blocked off by the ice, and thus had necessitated detours, through more glacial caves, but eventually, after perhaps a quarter of an hour of wandering, we finally came across a massive hall, the left frozen over and covered with massive icicles, the right untouched enough by ice we could still see the original architecture. Both sides of the new entrance were absolutely covered with more inanimate frozen falmer and their insect companions. At the end of the hallway, beyond a thick wall of clear ice, lounged a figure upon a frozen throne. I didn't need my instincts warning me to make a guess who the figure was; the only other true Snow Elf I knew was Gelebor, so this had to be his brother, Arch-Curate Vyrthur. Our assassination target. It honestly wasn't personal, and for a moment I debated the morality of killing a target who hadn't actively done anything to me, in cold blood. And then, like all religious elves I'd met so far, he established himself as a prophetic dick, by beginning the conversation with, in an arrogant sneer: "Did you really come here expecting to claim Auriel's Bow? You've done exactly as I predicted and brought your fetching companion to me."

"Wait, is he talking about me?" My "fetching companion", Serana, asked me in a slightly confused, surprisingly hopeful tone, and I decided there was no good way of answering that question without inflating her ego, as Vyrthur continued in a more annoyed tone due to the interruption: "Which, I'm sorry to say, means your usefulness is at an end!"

And then, in a manner that was completely expected, the frozen falmer and insect statues began bursting to life, one by one, before they descended on us in a tidal wave of frozen monsters.

I'd like to call the ensuing battle that followed an epic defense, one that relied on the well-honed teamwork between Serana and I to cover each other's backs against an overwhelming horde of dangerous ancients, frozen from a time beyond our limited lifespans. Of course, I'd be a complete liar if I said that, and while I have no compulsion against lying (indeed, when asked later on about what happened in the Inner Sanctum, I would shamelessly give the aforementioned story), the reality of the fight was that, between my old blacksmith's hammer, a few good fire spells, and Serana's exceptional repertoire of Destruction and Conjuration spells, it would be a lot more accurate to call it a long, drawn-out pest extermination, while Arch-Curate Vyrthur, ever a good sport, called out jests and taunts from behind the safety of his icy wall the whole time, and even brought the ceiling down on us a fair few times. Don't get me wrong, they were still dangerous creatures, even if they hadn't had the added bonus of falling rubble keeping Serana and I distracted, and a lucky hit would be the end of me, especially with my new injuries from the frozen lake, but compared to almost everything else in Skyrim I'd met, fought, and survived... by Oblivion, they didn't even use weapons or poison, like 'normal' Falmer did, and unlike the first frozen falmer we'd seen, they didn't even have the element of surprise anymore. Eventually, we just ran out of the ice pops to kill, and he got up in a furious rage.

"Centuries of preparation!" Vyrthur ranted, as Serana and I cautiously re-approached his icy wall, and Serana called out: "Surrender and give us the bow!"

Musing at how soft-hearted my undead companion could be at times, a closer look at Vyrthur allowed me to finally realize Vyrthur was doing far more than ranting; he was now glowing, and a bubble of what I'd recognized as Snow Elf magic was forming around him. Meanwhile, the surroundings seemed to be bending and folding towards him, and numerous pointed massive icicles from the left wall had already been drawn unto his magic bubble, facing outwards...

"Get down!" I yelled, and knocked the unarmored Serana to the ground as Vyrthur finally released his spell, and all the accumulated debris, rubble, stone and icicles, flew out in a massive wave of energy, completely destroying the roof and walls, and sending sharp ice and stone fragments flying throughout the room with the force of a cannon. Luckily, the ice and stone wasn't able to actually pierce through my thick metal armor, even as damaged as it was; it was meant to ward off gargoyle claws and vampire fangs, and the dragonbone fragments plugging the holes was even tougher than that. Unfortunately, however, the fragments were able to dent the armor, and since my armor's padding had been essentially destroyed... sure, I was able to shield Serana from the flying shards and survive, but I was definitely going to walk away from this with a lot of new bruises.

"Are you alright?" Serana asked me in a concerned tone, having gotten up before my moaning self could. Kneeling down over me, she held a hand out to me, and as I grasped it she said, resolve taking over concern: "Come on, we can do this. I know we can. He's up there, on the balcony. Come on!"

Vyrthur, it transpired, hadn't gotten out of it unscathed either. He stood on top of a landing in the balcony, clutching a bleeding right arm, and barely seemed to react as Serana took the left staircase and I took the right, blocking off his exits and surrounding him. Once again, this time trying to hide just how badly my injuries were slowly getting, Serana decided to try for a bluff with the firm diplomatic solution, and fiercely said: "Enough, Vyrthur. Give. Us. The bow!"

Either Vyrthur wasn't buying it, however, or he was just too determined to give up, and he turned to Serana and spat at her: "How dare you. I was the Arch-Curate of Auri-El, girl. I had the ears of a god!"

"Until the Betrayed corrupted you." Serana sassed him, having little patience in handing over the initiative to let him monologue. "Yes, yes. We've heard this sad story."

"Gelebor and his kind are easily manipulated fools. Look into my eyes, girl. You tell me what I am."

Sighing, Serana and I humored him, and now that we were finally up close, I realized his eyes held a distinctive orange glow, one that I'd learnt to recognize almost anywhere during the recent battles against the Volkihar Clan. Serana's disbelieving voice summed it up best: "You're... you're a vampire? But Auriel should have protected you..."

"The moment I was infected by one of my own Initiates, Auri-El turned his back on me." Vyrthur's tone held venom, and I got the feeling he'd been repressing these feelings for a long time, not having anyone to let it out to. "I swore I'd have my revenge, no matter what the cost."

"You... want to take revenge... on a god?" Serana asked in disbelief, and I also could have sworn my ears had failed me.

"Auri-El himself may have been beyond my reach, but his influence on our world wasn't. All I needed was the blood of a vampire and his own weapon, Auriel's Bow."

"The blood of a vampire... Auriel's Bow..." The pieces were finally clicking together, and it appeared Serana had come to the same conclusion as I had. "It... it was you? You created that prophecy?"

"A prophecy that lacked a single, final ingredient... the blood of a pure vampire. The blood of a Daughter of Coldharbour." Vyrthur was now standing over Serana, speaking into her face, and I think he was just as surprised as I was when Serana grabbed him by the neck and lifted him off the ground effortlessly, her face still facing down, expression hidden by her hood.

"You were waiting... all this time for someone with my blood to come along." Vyrthur visibly gulped as Serana finally looked up to face him, and for the first time since I'd met her, I finally realized just how dangerous Serana the Pure-Blooded Vampire could really be. With murder in her cold orange orbs, she hissed at him: "Well, too bad for you... I intend on keeping it. Let's see if your blood has any power to it!"

Before either of us could react, she drew Vyrthur in, and sank her fangs into him in anger. This was different from the intimacy Serana had mentioned when she'd tried to turn me, the private moment the two of us had shared in Castle Volkihar. This wasn't the work of Serana, the naive girl who'd always suggest smart ideas that overlooked a key detail or two. This was the action of a predator, fighting against a fellow predator and rival. Vyrthur struggled in her grasp, but between his injuries and the amount of magicka he'd expended trying to take us down in the Chapel, he wasn't able to properly break her grip. In a final act of desperation, he used his feet and kicked off against her stomach, winding her, whilst gathering the last of his magicka to send a shockwave of force outwards around him. While it was enough to push her back, it was nothing like the cannon-like power he'd demonstrated to bring the Chapel down, and we were still standing easily, while Vyrthur was on his knees, breathing heavily from the exertions. Baring her fangs and hissing, Serana gestured, and telekinetically lifted Vyrthur, before advancing him over the edge of the balcony.

This was nothing like I had ever seen her act, and while I had absolutely no mercy or pity for the vampiric Snow Elf who'd started the whole prophecy nonsense and dragged me into a massive secret war, I couldn't let my close companion, someone as close to me as a sister, kill like this. Ruthlessness and cold-blooded killing wasn't in Serana's nature, of that much I was certain after having known her for the past two months, and I wasn't about to let her do something I knew would haunt her once she'd regained her senses. Grabbing her outstretched arm, I attempted to lower it, hoping the action would lower Vyrthur too, and Serana angrily clocked my helmeted head with her free hand. Clearly, she was lost to the predator within her, her reason lost in her animalistic fury and drive for revenge. Refusing to give up, I decided to wager on the one thing I knew drove the vampiric instincts the most: hunger.

Serana gasped in surprise as I shoved my injured, unarmored arm into her mouth, puncturing my arm with her fangs, but she quickly began to suckle at my arm, like a baby at a mother's nipple, before her eyes finally regained the light of reason I'd always known. Gasping in surprise, she pushed away my arm, and asked through a blood-stained mouth: "Marius? ... Why?"

"I didn't want you to kill Vyrthur in cold blood, Serana. I won't let you." I said firmly, while drawing one of my crossbows and shooting the now-released Vyrthur in the knee, crippling him.

"Why? Why are you defending that scum?! Marius, he's the reason my family completely fell apart! Why my mother was stuck in a realm of Oblivion! Why I was locked up in that damned sarcophagus!" Serana demanded, and I knew the fury within her hadn't been fully extinguished. Not that I could blame her, though; Vyrthur had, indirectly, ruined her life.

"Serana..." I began empathetically, patting her still-outstretched arm with my injured hand. "I'm not defending this piece of shit. I'm defending you. I'm defending the human girl in you, the Serana I've come to know and love. I'm not going to spew some cow manure about how killing him makes you no better than him; you can't actually stoop to his level. But I will tell you this: killing him in cold blood isn't you. It's your father in you, the pure-blooded vampire in you. The Serana I know and believe in is better than this. If he has to die, I'll do it in a heartbeat; my soul's stained enough as it is. But I won't let you do it."

"This is very touching and all," Vyrthur drawled out sarcastically from the floor behind us, and I turned to him as he continued: "But you forget, Serana's soul has already been stained since her pact with Molag Bal. You're trying to save a damned, soulless creature, fool."

"Serana's been fighting for Tamriel the whole time, since she heard your stupid prophecy. How'd you handle vampirism, again? You made some bullshit prophecy about blotting out the sun and dooming all life in Tamriel! Also... I believe in second chances. I have to, for me and for her; if there's no redemption for someone like Serana, then there's no hope for someone like me."

"So... you're using her as a means for you to atone; a reflection of your own sins."

"I'm not "using" her, I just don't want to see my friend go down a path of darkness like I did!" I snapped angrily.

"I still don't understand..." Vyrthur murmured, but before I could ask what he meant, he continued: "She and I, we're both vampires! But even though she willingly became one, while I was accidentally infected... why? What's the difference between me and her! Why is an agent of Auri-El trying to save her soul when I was abandoned?!"

"And you!" Vyrthur continued demanding, this time directing his tirade towards me, while I tried to process what he'd said. "We both serve Auri-El! So how come you didn't become a vampire when she bit you? Tell me why, Son of Auri-El! What makes the two of you so special! Why are the two of you recieving such favor while I, his Arch-Curate, was cast aside like mere rubbish?!"

I honestly couldn't answer Vyrthur; I didn't even know where to start with our differences. He was the Arch-Curate of Auri-El, and I was the youngest of Akatosh, true, but other than that, our lives couldn't have been more different. He'd lived his whole life comfortably with complete faith in his patron Divine, by the sounds of it, until he was betrayed; I'd grown up in horrible conditions, convinced the Divines had never been with me from the very beginning. Serana, meanwhile, had apparently been a daedra-worshipper, thanks to her family. So why were we the acting champions of Auriel and Tamriel?

The only other difference I could think of, and the one I would mention to Vyrthur, was the difference in how we'd reacted to our respective crises of faith. Serana, after having woken up from her slumber, had proceeded to work with mortal enemies, people sworn to kill her, for the good of Tamriel. When I'd been about to die at Helgen, I'd simply made my peace while retaining the hope that everything would work out, or that I'd make things work out. Vyrthur, on the other hand? He tried to doom all life on Tamriel, started a massive secret war centuries in the making, tried to take revenge on a god and corrupt his artifact... and, thinking about it, if Vyrthur had been the one controlling the Betrayed, that would also mean he caused the Slaughter of the Inner Sanctum, and killed almost all of the remaining Snow Elves.

Vyrthur snorted in derision at my words, though I could see my words impacted him, and asked sarcastically: "So what? All of this was a test by the great Auriel?"

"Of course not; can't you just accept that things happen sometimes because Fate's a cruel, callous mistress, and that the Divines have nothing to do with it? The problem is, we managed to get over moping, and decided to try and do our best with what we could, while you ended up still revolving your life around Auriel, just now in vengeance and not worship.

"Look, I personally do not give a damn about your continued state of existence, Vyrthur. All I want is the bow; hand it over, and we can end this with no further bloodshed." I delivered my ultimatum, and watched his reaction. My words had clearly made an impact on him, though not necessarily the impact I wanted, and I could see he was struggling with the decision. In the end, though, if Vyrthur was ever the type of person who could have tried to atone for his sins, that person had probably died with the other Snow Elves when the Betrayed attacked, or when he'd committed one of his other, numerous, atrocities. To try for redemption, to admit I could be right, meant admitting he was wrong, and that meant admitting everything he'd done, all he'd wronged, had been for nothing. And Vyrthur, for whatever reason, could not accept that.

"My vengeance against Auriel is all that matters!" Vyrthur said, getting to his feet, and drawing a dagger. "And I think, now, I'll start with his youngest child, Dovahkiin!"

He lunged at me with those words, and had he been in a better condition he may have actually gotten me. But between the wounds, the exhaustion, and the bolt in his leg still crippling him, he was too slow for my combat-honed reflexes.

Now, if I were a better man, it would have been so easy to disarm him, to non-lethally suppress him, and offer him more chances for redemption. But I wasn't a better man. I was Marius, tired, angry for my companion Serana, a simple man who only wanted the small pleasures in life, but who'd been forced to take an active role in a conflict whose scale I could barely comprehend because of his actions. It wasn't my place, or in my interest, to redeem him, and I instead drew Dawnbreaker, dodged his overeager lunge, and plunged Dawnbreaker into his chest. Before he turned to ash, Vyrthur murmured quietly, as his last words: "Farewell."

Strangely, as I looked upon the ash-filled armor that had been Vyrthur, I found myself wishing he would, in the end, find peace, the best courtesy I could extend from a fellow wronged by fate. Serana walked up to me, rested her head on my shoulder, and said: "I know he deserved that, and I don't feel guilty, but I can't help but think, now... how would he have been like if he'd had someone like you, Marius? And how different would I be if I hadn't had you? Do you think... I'd be someone like him?"

Not knowing the best way to answer Serana's question, I instead leaned against her head for a few seconds, resting my hand on her warm hair, before I finally dodged the main issue of the question: "If by "someone like me" you mean "a sane brother to talk him out of folly", he had Gelebor."

Lightly biting my shoulder in response, Serana quietly said: "Marius? Thanks for stopping me from giving into the my rage."

Deciding to pretend I didn't hear that, I patted her head, before deciding to address a fundamental problem I'd noticed in the Chapel. Grabbing his armor and handing it to her, I explained: "This... looks like it'll fit you. And you're gonna need all the protection you can get, if we're going to ever confront Harkon. Light enough to be hidden under your robes too. And if you ever think about it's previous wearer... consider it an insult to him, all right? He ruined your life, now you wear it to ruin his plans."

Serana flinched at the memory of Vyrthur, but decided to heed my advice, and I quickly turned my head as she began to disrobe in front of me, and began busying myself with the suddenly-captivating task of removing my armor to check on my injuries, while continuing my sentence quickly to hide my embarrassment: "Once you're done, let's grab Auriel's Bow and get out of here. I'm still freezing."

Naturally, of course it was at the moment where Serana and I were both disrobed that they balcony's Wayshrine suddenly rose up, and Gelebor casually sauntered out with Auriel's Bow, saying: "So, the deed has been- oh my... It looks like other deeds have been done as well. By all means, take your time; I've waited centuries for the Chantry to be restored, I can wait a few more years."

I couldn't tell if Gelebor was just being cheeky, or if he was being his humorless, completely serious self, but it would take us a long fifteen minutes before we could finally clear up that misunderstanding, and finally retrieve Auriel's Bow from Gelebor, along with twenty special elven arrows he called "Sunhallowed Arrows", receive what was, in essence, a beginner's introductory manual to using the two, and explain to Gelebor the circumstances around his brother. We would later look on Gelebor's reaction fondly, when Durnehviir finally returned us to Fort Dawnguard, and Lydia, who had apparently not known about the dragon-riding business, came out to bug us for every juicy detail regarding the epic feat, before her gaze fell upon my less-than-ideal state, and her face and attitude changed, ending with the two of us (mainly me) receiving an exceptionally long and sarcastic lecture.

Chapter Text

As my knees slowly lost their feeling, and my brain began tuning out whatever stimulation it was receiving from my ears, I mused that Lydia was, indeed, Irileth's student. I'd seen Irileth lecture Jarl Balgruuf, and for the first time I found myself envying him; Irileth had nothing on Lydia's Nordic passion. Unfortunately, Lydia knew me too well, and could see my attention was slowly drifting away. Deciding drastic measures were needed, Lydia decided to regain my attention by grabbing my still-healing arm hard, and as I hissed, she renewed her verbal assault: "Are you even listening to me, my Thane?"

"Of course I am, Lydia." I said quietly, the knowledge that her anger wasn't born of malice preventing me from being my usual snarky self. "I heard you the first dozen times."

"Remember what you told me, when we parted ways at Fort Dawnguard last week?" Lydia continued on as if she hadn't heard me, though the increased pressure on my injured wrist told me that she did, at least, register my snide comment.

"Don't worry about me, I can take care of myself." I said monotonously, knowing and dreading what would come next.

"Indeed, my Thane, you assured me you could take care of yourself; that's why I even agreed to act as a courier, rather than protecting you as I was supposed to! So why is it that you come here, on the back of what appeared to be an undead dragon no less, looking like you just fought in the Oblivion Crisis?!" Lydia's voice reached a new level of fury, though the way her hand had lowered itself to my own, and her fingers tickled the lines of my palm, showed me just how much she'd missed me, and worried about me.

"The dragon was a friend I sorta tamed in Oblivion..." I began, and immediately knew I said the wrong thing, as her hand roughly grasped mine, and she demanded to know what, by Talos, Akatosh, and Kynareth, I was doing in Oblivion.

"The wounds were something he got from a dragon ambush through the ice of a frozen lake; it's honestly a miracle he survived." Serana spoke up next to me, trying to quickly change the subject before Lydia began prying to deep into our brief sojourn to the Soul Cairn, and especially how she'd attempted to turn me into a vampire, and subsequently stole a minor portion of my soul to feed to the masters of that realm of Oblivion. Unfortunately for her, this just attracted Lydia's ire to her, and I felt guilty as I breathed a sigh of relief as the pressure on me was relieved, and Lydia rounded on her instead.

"Don't think I've forgotten about you, Serana! You were supposed to protect him; how did that happen?"

"They burst through the ice, sending him flying into the air, before he smashed through the ice and disappeared for a minute or so. Next thing I know, he flies back through the ice, missing half his armor, and two angry wounded dragons coming after him." Serana explained guiltily, and Lydia merely sighed and smacked her palm against her face.

"My Thane... we really can't afford to even take our eyes off of him for even a second, can we?" Lydia mused, amused sarcasm finally creeping back into her tone, and I attempted to protest: "Hey! What's that supposed to mean? It sounds like you think I'm some sort of child!"

"Zip it, Marius!" Serana snapped at me, just as Lydia also said: "This discussion doesn't concern you, my Thane. It seems the problem is that you seem to get into trouble as soon as I leave you unsupervised; the only solution I can think of is for me to be with you for the rest of your life."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked, bemused by the extreme solution my supposedly sane Housecarl had suggested. "Be practical, what about when I'm on the latrine, or asleep?"

Luckily, before the conversation could escalate any further, Isran finally decided to intervene, and cleared his throat with a cough, before asking: "Not that we aren't enjoying the entertainment, but if you three would be so kind as to be done flirting for a few minutes, perhaps we could address what we should do, after your most-recent mission?"

The three of us nodded in unison, my cheeks in particular burning red. When Serana and I had first returned, Isran had gazed upon the artifact on my back in wonder, and had exclaimed "The bow... you have Auriel's Bow!" before being interrupted by a curious, and then furious, Lydia, and it seemed that he had been waiting for her to get on with it, excitement dampened, so that he could continue his debriefing.

"The day hasn't been won while Harkon still walks Tamriel." Isran began again, and I knew that he'd considered the same prospects of hiding the keys to the prophecy from an immortal, ageless, undying vampire as I had, and not liked his chances. He then turned to me, still ignoring Serana, and asked: "But what of Serana? Can she be trusted to lift a blade against her own kind? Her own family?"

"I trust her to do the right thing, Isran." I vouched for her firmly, before adding: "She's had no problem doing it so far."

"Let me address the Dawnguard, and then we'll be off. The men deserve to know that we've finally gained the upper hand." Isran told me quietly, and I knew, then, that he believed me. Turning away from me, he called out in a loud voice that echoed through the Fort: "Everyone! Gather 'round!"

"For too long we've allowed these vampires to poison the night and kill our people!" Isran began his impassioned speech, as the inhabitants of Fort Dawnguard gathered, and I was honestly surprised to see how far we'd come, from the small band of maybe a half-dozen vengeful vampire slayers. I knew Gunmar, Sorine, and Florentius, of course, and Agmaer, Ingjard, Durak, Celann, and Dexion had gathered too. But I honestly didn't recognize the other four dozen-or-so Dawnguard members, and it also came as a surprise to me to see members of the Vigil of Stendarr present at the briefing too. It didn't matter who they were, though; all were soon captivated and cheering, as Isran continued his speech: "Now we finally have the means to strike back! We now have Auriel's Bow.

"The gods themselves have favored us and we must answer with action! The time has come to finally put an end to Harkon and his unholy prophecy! We will march on their lair and destroy those wretched abominations so they can no longer corrupt our world.! This is our fight, and this is our fate. This is the time of the Dawnguard!"

He allowed the cheering, which had now peaked, to continue on for a few seconds more, before continuing: "All right, Dawnguard. You guys have an hour to grab all the gear you think you'd need from the armory. We'll meet back by the map near the dining hall for the briefing on our plan to destroy those filthy vampires' lair. The liaisons to the Vigil, gather whoever is willing at the Beacon and tell them to meet at the mentioned place and time; tell them it's finally time to avenge the Hall! Agmaer, I'll need you to help me deliver an important message to a trustworthy contact in Riften; her support is vital to our plan. And Marius, come with me after this; I've got some things to discuss with you regarding your "acquisitions" from that big Dwemer cave. Blackreach, I think it was called. That's all for now. Dismissed!"

With that final word, the crowd split up into a mass of activity, the kind of purposeful, organized chaos I'd seen so often in Legion mobilizations, and Serana, Lydia, and I got up to follow Isran towards the forge.

"So, what's this about?" I began, as Gunmar and Sorine waved at me from the forge, and Sorine brightly answered for Isran: "Hey, Marius. Long time no see, and thanks for all those cool designs you brought back from Blackreach. It took us a fair bit of time, but we were finally able to decipher and recreate them."

"The first one was a design for dwarven bolts with an explosive fiery arrowhead." Gunmar continued. "It took a fair bit of... "testing" to get right, and it's a good thing Florentius is an expert at Restoration spells. We were able to mass-produce these, and even make a design that used the more common steel bolts."

"I'm guessing these will be the main weapon in the siege?" I asked, as he passed me a large bag of dwarven bolts, and a small bag of exploding dwarven bolts, and he nodded.

"We'll be out-numbered during the siege; we'll need weapons that let us hurt large groups of enemies in order to even stand a chance." Gunmar affirmed my conclusion, before passing me two golden crossbows, and Sorine renewed her explanation: "The other thing you found in Blackreach was a design for dwarven crossbow that used pulleys. Luckily, we were already experimenting with such a concept, so a prototype was quickly made and tested."

"And how are they?" I asked, examining the dwarven crossbows even as I slowly replaced my old, water-damaged crossbows.

"This thing can punch through multiple stone gargoyles easily." Gunmar answered, and my shock was evident on my face. "Unfortunately... they're expensive and time-consuming to make, and we were only able to make four before the order to move out was given. Isran and Sorine will be taking one each, and you'll be given the last two."

"Why are y'all being so generous?" I asked cautiously, every instinct telling me I wouldn't like the answer, and the three Dawnguard leaders just chuckled.

"We'll get to there later, Marius." Gunmar said, waving off my concerns. "The last acquisition we have is thanks to your Housecarl over there, Lydia, who along with Agmaer and Ingjard were able to recover a cache of ancient Dawnguard technology."

"You're too kind." Lydia said, with a mild blush, before picking up where Gunmar left off: "We were able to recover three runed objects of interest: an axe, a warhammer, and a shield. The shield drains the wearer's stamina, to create an effect similar to the Stendarr's Aura spell the Dawnguard Heavy Infantry have been using to such great effect. The axe, as far as we can tell, grows stronger in power against the undead as it kills more of them in a day, and the warhammer is able to create a Fire Rune. I'll be using everything but the warhammer; Marius, I'll be passing it to you later."

"Once again, you guys... what's with the sudden generosity? Shouldn't these trump cards be spread out evenly amongst the squad leaders on the front lines?" I asked again warily, and Isran sighed, before finally giving me an answer: "You see, Marius, our plan is going to rely on you agreeing to undertake a near-suicidal mission, and the only way Lydia would even consider agreeing to it was if we gave you every possible chance of success."

I delivered my response blankly and flatly:

"What."

-EXCERPT TAKEN FROM "SALVATION OF THE SUN: A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE DAWNGUARD-VOLKIHAR SECRET WAR AS TOLD BY ELDER SCRIBE DEXION EVICUS", WRITTEN BY SCRIBE JARRUS CATO IN 5E 12-

Following the epic battle between Marius and Serana against the Snow Elf vampire Vyrthur and his frozen Falmer hordes (as was covered in the previous chapter), the mythical Auriel's Bow was retrieved from the Chantry of Auriel by the pair, who then made all due haste back to Fort Dawnguard. This miraculous recovery was heralded by observers as a turning point in the war between the Volkihar Clan, and solidifed the Dawnguard's superior position for the rest of the war.

After all, between the successful recovery missions of the Elder Scrolls at Blackreach and the Soul Cairn portal in Castle Volkihar, as well as the retrieval of Auriel's Bow, the Dawnguard now had complete possession of both the key to deciphering the Tyranny of the Sun, as well as the means of fulfilling it. In addition to that, the Dawnguard had recently uncovered both designs for more powerful crossbows and bolts from the ancient Dwemer in Blackreach, also courtesy of Marius, and three pieces of ancient rune equipment from the Reach, courtesy of Housecarl Lydia and her strike team.

Isran, Sorine Jurard, and Marius, however, saw further ahead, and did not share in our optimism. We were up against an undying, unaging foe, immune to disease, poison, and most other means of natural death, and one who had proven to have spies and agents active in most Holds at this point in the war. Unless we could guarantee absolute security for eternity, they would eventually be able to steal the artifacts, and with it carry out their accursed prophecy.

And so it was that, as the general mood of Fort Dawnguard turned to revelry with Marius's return, Isran decided that the time had come to go on the offensive. Castle Volkihar had to be stormed, it's inhabitants exterminated, and Lord Harkon's death confirmed beyond any possible doubt. Gathering the available members of the Dawnguard into the entrance hall, as well as the liaisons from the various allied groups like the surviving Vigilants of Stendarr, and delivered his famous 'Time of the Dawnguard' speech, which for brevity's sake I won't repeat in this book; many Imperial historians and scribes have recorded it down, word for word, and almost any major library in the Empire has numerous copies of it available for viewing.

With the Dawnguard and their allies rallied, well-equipped, and in the strongest position they could hope to be in, Isran called for a strategy meeting in the next hour, and the plans to take Castle Volkihar were slowly laid out.

The first step of the plan called for all available Dawnguard agents, as well as their allies, to firstly sneak out of the heavily-monitored Dayspring Canyon, and rendezvous at Broken Oar Grotto, the site where Marius had also begun his infiltration of Castle Volkihar. Naturally, the first step was almost certainly doomed to failure from the start, as all the leaders and high-level members knew; not only would they have to sneak past the heavily-monitored entrance to Dayspring Canyon, but they would also have to pass through the infamously-corrupt Riften, which had, at that point, become known amongst the intelligence communities for crawling with spies from every faction, as well as make their way from one end of Skyrim to the other, guarding their supplies and evading Volkihar spies and patrols the whole time.

It was during this messy first phase where the Dawnguard's premier agent, Marius, and his talents, would shine through. Knowing that their exit from the Rift, at least, was impossible to hide, Marius would instead propose the strategy of misdirection. Dawnguard teams in the field were sent to Winterhold, Whiterun, and even a small team to Ivarstead. Meanwhile, the abundance of spies in Riften was taken advantage of, and information was deliberately leaked through channels the Volkihar considered reliable that the Dawnguard was planning on securing the allegiance of the College of Winterhold, the Companions, and the Greybeards respectively. Furthermore, a rumor was leaked that the Dawnguard would be planning to split up the collected Elder Scrolls amongst the different trusted factions, as a contingency so that no one assault could ever secure all three key Elder Scrolls. The vampires had no reason to doubt their intelligence; it had been accurate about Marius heading to the Ancestor Glade, and the only reason it had failed was that the six Volkihar kill-teams had underestimated the Last Dragonborn.

With the lies propagated, and the decoy locations baited, Volkihar forces were being drawn in from their hideouts all across Skyrim, including elite kill-teams from Castle Volkihar itself. This had the additional, unintended benefit of both weakening their defenses, and also reducing the number of spies in Riften and patrols across Skyrim. Marius wasn't done yet, however, and the man who had recruited Sorine, Gunmar, Florentius, and even yours truly, pulled another card from his sleeve.

Apparently, while in Blackreach, he had discovered an ornate glass sword, and naturally taken it, either as a weapon or for profit. As luck would have had it, this sword was Grimsever, the lost sword of Thane Mjoll the Lioness of Riften, even at the time famous (or infamous, depending on who you asked) for her anti-corruption policies and actions, as well as her personal war against Skyrim's Thieves Guild. A chance meeting with Mjoll as Marius had taken a carriage from Riften to Falkreath had resulted in Marius returning Mjoll's sword, most widely believed to be for altruistic reasons, as well as Mjoll being endebted to Marius, and convinced of the righteousness of his, and the Dawnguard's, cause, even going so far as to contact Isran, and pledge her support. Thus, when Isran sent Mjoll a message through Agmaer, she happily obliged.

It is unlikely that few, if any, of Riften's citizens knew what to think when the famed Mjoll the Lioness, open enemy of the Black-Briar family, went into the Black-Briar Meadery that day, and placed four massive orders of mead, each of roughly ten to twenty cart's worth of goods, to be sent to four different locations. Three convoys were to be sent to the College of Winterhold, Jorrvaskr, and Ivarstead, ostensibly in order to improve her relations with the aforementioned groups, while a fourth was to be sent to her close friend, Thane Bryling of Solitude, another famously honor-bound and anti-corruption court member in Skyrim's political landscape. Volkihar spies, however, with the aforementioned false information that Dawnguard agents would be heading to the first three locations, possibly with the three Elder Scrolls even, were quickly able to come to the conclusion that Mjoll was being used to smuggle Dawnguard agents and supplies to the first three locations, with the fourth to either lend legitimacy to her story, or to provide a distraction for the first three to make their way to their destination successfully.

The convoy heading to Solitude, naturally, was the one convoy containing actual Dawnguard agents; the Volkihar clan, in their arrogance and hubris, took the bait completely, never once second-guessing their decisions. 100 Dawnguard Agents, consisting of 60 Heavy Infantry and 40 Crossbowmen, along with the Dawnguard's leadership, 12 Armored Trolls and 28 Huskies, and a week's worth of supplies like food, wood, oil, and ammunition for the small Dawnguard army were hidden in massive barrels meant to hold hundreds of gallons of mead, and snuck past Volkihar detection, remaining undetected even after they'd reached Broken Oar Grotto.

Meanwhile, nearly 200 Vigilants of Stendarr, almost two-thirds of the surviving Vigilants who'd rallied at Stendarr's Beacon, made their way to Solitude's massive Temple of the Divines under the guise of pilgrims. While some Volkihar agents did notice them, and deduce their true identities (the Vigilants, as one of the most militant of the religious groups dedicated to the Divines, were never good at subtlety), the lies fed to the Volkihar Clan were so strongly believed that it was simply assumed that they would be merely trying to retake their burnt-down Hall, either as a diversionary attack or as an opportunistic attack in tandem with the Dawnguard's actions, and the Vigilants were largely ignored as a result (Dimhollow Crypt, the vampire's true objective, had already been cleared out, and Serana rescued; the Hall no longer held any strategic value to the vampires, and had in fact been all but abandoned by them soon after they'd burnt it down).

At Broken Oar Grotto, under the cover of midnight the next day, the next stage of the plan took place. Agmaer, after having delivered Isran's message to Mjoll, had been sent to Bryling in Solitude, in order to prepare for the next phase. When Marius had cleared out Broken Oar Grotto, he'd only done so in order to steal a boat, and hadn't actually thought any further with regards to the consequences. In truth, Solitude had wanted to reclaim it for a long time, as it's position made it an excellent location to carry out ship repair and maintenance for larger warships that were unable to safely navigate through the arch Solitude had been built on and into the East Empire Company's port. However, when the Skyrim Civil War (or Stormcloak Rebellion, to my Cyrodilic readers) had broken out, and High King Torygg had been killed, any plans to assault it had been shelved. Thus, Agmaer had rushed to Solitude, in order to make a trade with Bryling; in exchange for Broken Oar Grotto, and the knowledge of the man who'd allegedly cleared it out for Solitude, Bryling, Falk Firebeard, and Jarl Elisif the Fair would, secretly and unbeknownst to the public, make 40 rowboats temporarily available to the Dawnguard for their usage, for as long as was needed, and free-of-charge. Naturally, this exchange was kept confined to the highest level of Solitude court and government, and even the other Thanes, like Thane Erikur, had been unaware of it.

The second stage of the plan was deceptively simple: under the cover of darkness, 39 of the 40 rowboats would go straight for the island Castle Volkihar was on, each having numerous Muffle spells cast on them, carrying the 100 Dawnguard Agents, their leaders, the dozen trolls, the huskies, and the roughly 200 Vigilants. Meanwhile, the last rowboat, carrying Marius and Serana, was sent on a special mission, which will be covered later in this chapter. Sorine's estimated timing for the naval portion of the trip had been mostly accurate, luckily, and the Dawnguard forces landed outside of Castle Volkihar barely an hour before daybreak, whereupon they wasted no time in fortifying their beachhead against a potential counter-attack, and preparing their siege equipment.

Daybreak on the 1st of Frostfall was marked by the sounds of massive explosions, and the many of inhabitants of Solitude (mainly the guards) reported having awoken with a start, fearing that the Stormcloaks had somehow acquired cannons, and was laying siege to the city of Solitude. Meanwhile, in Castle Volkihar, many of the thralls and skeletons on the castle's battlements, who were only just beginning to enjoy the use of their sight thanks to the rising sun, were killed or destroyed in the first opening salvo of the Dawnguard crossbowmen, their exploding dwarven fire bolts causing massive damage to the castle's upper floors.

Unfortunately, the Dawnguard lacked two important things during a siege: siege experience, and siege engineers. Instead of creating a breach in the walls of Castle Volkihar for their troops to exploit, they were only able to cripple the vampires' ability to retaliate via ranged attacks, which admittedly wasn't bad. While the enemy was now thoroughly alerted, the Dawnguard, still, had the element of surprise, and as Harkon's court scrambled to figure out what was happening, the Dawnguard was able to land 2 more salvos on the castle, each disabling defensive positions the defenders could have used. But still, a breach had yet to be created, and as half the crossbowmen moved to the occupied guard tower on the bridge, the castle's doors opened, and the main gate raised, as a small scouting force of 50 skeletons, 20 thralls, and 3 vampires sallied forth, determined to punish the invaders who had the audacity to desecrate the soil of Castle Volkihar with their filthy presence.

Against most squads, a force of 73 would probably have been bad odds, and as it was this small scouting squad was already a fifth the size of the Dawnguard coalition's; in the aftermath of the battle, forensics teams and body counters of the Dawnguard would estimate that, even with the vampire's having sent out their forces to the three decoy locations, there were still 1,500 skeletons, 500 thralls and blood slaves, 50 young vampires, 40 blooded vampires, and 8 truly ancient vampire lords, the members of Harkon's court, including Lord Harkon himself. On top of this, there was an estimated 80 death hounds, and 30 gargoyles also present. Furthermore, the Dawnguard coalition had  further split their forces into six squads, with two squads, the crossbowmen led by Sorine Jurard and stationed in the occupied watch tower and Florentius's group of healers and Restoration experts, being permanently stationed at the rear, to serve as support, an early warning system, and security for their supplies. The other four squads, where the Heavy Infantry and more combat-oriented members of the Vigil had been split into, had adopted a rotation system, with two squads serving in the front, one as a reserve, and one to be resting and recovering. Unfortunately for the scouting force, they did not have the luck of meeting Durak's or Celann's squads, or Gunmar's animal auxiliary corps; the two squads that intercepted them was Isran's and Lydia's forces. The battle that followed was short, brutal, and would more accurately be described as a "one-sided massacre".

To the credit of Clan Volkihar, the 7 Ancients (Lord Harkon himself was not present at the battle, having secluded himself in Volkihar Cathedral for reasons that will be covered later on) that made up Harkon's court were able to quickly figure out that they were under attack by the Dawnguard, and while messages were sent out to every Volkihar agent and kill-team in the field to head back to Castle Volkihar and assist in the defence, effective immediately, a massive counter-attack was hastily organized to slow down the Dawnguard advance, who had at this point wiped out the advance party the Volkihar had sent, and were now making plans to breach the gates themselves.

Before the Dawnguard advanced across the bridge, the gates were raised for the second time in an hour, and out of the doors marched a tide of 1,000 skeletons, 350 thralls, 50 young vampires, and 78 death hounds. Meanwhile, the 40 blooded vampires made good use of their centuries of magical knowledge in the rear, casting supporting spells on their forces and occasionally firing massive powerful Destruction spells on the Dawnguard's front lines, while the high,-ranking 7 Ancients coordinated the defense from within their dining hall and makeshift council chambers. As the Dawnguard's vanguard squads advanced across the bridge to meet their foe, the gargoyles stationed on the bridge burst into life and tore into their flanks, and while little actual damage was dealt, it served as an effective distraction as every surviving gargoyle descended from the battlements or flew up from under the bridge, the Volkihar line met the Dawnguard's, and the Battle of the Bridge truly commenced.

The Battle of the Bridge was the first large-scale assault of the Dawnguard-Volkihar Conflict since the Battle of Stendarr's Beacon, and the largest-scale battle in the entire war. To put it into perspective, almost 1,850 creatures were crammed into the bridge leading to Castle Volkihar, which was maybe 5 metres (~16 feet) wide and no more than 30 metres (90 to 100 feet) long.

At it's onset, dozens of skeletons marched forward as mere cannon fodder, dying by the dozens as they soaked up the exploding bolts, until a small wall of bones provided cover from the shots and blasts from the Dawnguard crossbowmen. Meanwhile, the gargoyles tied down the Dawnguard infantry until the surviving skeletons, death hounds, and thralls were able to charge them, which they did. To their credit, the disciplined infantry quickly closed up and formed a shield wall, but against the sheer weight of those numbers the advance was instantly halted, and only a combination of excellent tactical thinking by the respective squad leaders and the superior weaponry of the Dawnguard prevented them from being drowned in a wave of foes.

The chaotic melee that ensued gave birth to many tales that would, at first glance, sound like exaggerated rumors by drunkards. The Dawnguard Infantry would typically start a counter-attack with their long, two-handed warhammers, taking advantage of it's reach to crush numerous skeletons, before drawing their axes and fighting the near-mindless thralls. The Vigilants on the front line would provide support with their own mundane weapons and array of Restoration spells meant for anti-undead use, but when the vampires entered the fray only the specialists in the Dawnguard could hope to stand a chance against them. Any gaps that appeared in the lines would be heavily punished by both sides; should a hole in the Volkihar side appear, and the Dawnguard mass and attempt to punch through, the vampires in the back would send Destruction spells flying towards the enemy concentrations, of such power that even the Dawnguard Heavy Infantry, in their specially-made suits of metal armor, could not fully withstand them. The Vigilants who were hit by the spells fared even more poorly. In the same way, crossbowmen would fire exploding bolts whenever the enemy massed, and while the morale of neither side ever wavered (the Dawnguard too stubborn, and the Volkihar fodder too mindless), the area-of-effect bombardments were still undeniably effective at preventing breakthroughs; even if they couldn't by themselves change the course of the battle thanks to the limited magicka and ammunition reserves, they still killed dozens each time, and each bombardment would be followed by a rain of bone fragments, bloody gore, and body parts.

Meanwhile, in a similar vein to their masters, packs of death hounds charged at their foes, only to be attacked from their flanks by the huskies the Dawnguard had brought, their undead furless flesh providing little in the way of protection against the canines' sharp teeth. The huskies had been originally bred as guard dogs by the Vigil to protect weaker members from bears and wolves; the pack hunters always went for the throat, while the death hounds had gotten use to dealing with larger, more cumbersome targets. Although the death hounds outnumbered the huskies almost 3 to 1, and would make good use of their overwhelming numerical superiority, the death hounds would all but become extinct by the end of this battle.

The gargoyles, meanwhile, had mostly survived the initial seconds of the battle, having scattered as soon as the Volkihar forces had charged, and an hour into the battle were sent out once more to tear into their flanks, and hopefully distract the infantry long enough for a few kill-teams to sneak through and threaten the crossbowmen. This time, however, the flanks were secured by Gunmar's armored trolls. The gargoyles, one-on-one, were a match for the Heavy Infantry in terms of defense and strength. The trolls, trained by Gunmar, were a match for five men. As the first gargoyles flew into their flanks, their bloodlust peaking, massive furry claws shot out, either stabbing through them with the massive blades on their forearms or just grabbing them as easily as a boy catches a toy, and the fury of the gargoyles turned to fear and confusion as they finally met their match in the unleashed monsters. Gargoyles were casually ripped limb from limb whenever they were caught by the trolls, and one witness even claims that a troll was flown at by three gargoyles simultaneously, and each took hold of a different appendage (the two arms, and the head), before flying in different directions, trying to rip it apart. The troll merely roared in defiance before smashing it's arms together, slamming the two gargoyles on it's arms into each other and shattering them, and proceeded to, allegedly, grab the one on it's head, bite into it's neck, and fling it's corpse at a fourth gargoyle that came flying at it. Ludicrous as this claim is, there are no less than twenty accounts of it occurring on two separate occasions. All that can be said is that, by the end of the second hour, there were no more gargoyles left alive on that part of the island.

At the same time, on the front lines, instead of growing weaker and more tired as the rest of the Dawnguard did, one warrior was becoming more and more powerful. As mentioned earlier, rune equipment had been retrieved by Lydia and her strike team, and two in particular were making themselves known on the front, both being carried by the person that had rediscovered them. The Dawnguard Rune Shield drew could draw from it's wielder's stamina to create a potent aura of sunlight, concentrated to lethality against undead, and numbers were meaningless against it's constant bubble of light. But it is the other piece of equipment, the Dawnguard Rune Axe, which would shine so brightly over the course of the battle. Through means unknown, the axe seemed to absorb the negative energy of undead it slew, and converted it into sunlight, concentrated around the axe's head. The more undead it slew, the stronger it got, and the only drawback was that it lost it's charge each dawn. The battle had taken place seconds after dawn that day, and the Volkihar clan had thrown over a thousand undead right at Lydia. By the beginning of the second hour the axe had grown so powerful that it's head was no longer visible; observers would describe the weapon as having an axe head of pure, blinding light, and even the lightest brush of it against an undead's flesh spelt instant death.

And so it was that, in the second hour of the siege, with the armored trolls having served their purpose in dealing with the Volkihar's aerial superiority and being moved up to the front, and Lydia's Dawnguard Rune Axe achieving near-unparalleled lethality (it was still second to the legendary Dawnbreaker, Meridia's golden beacon of light. Surprisingly, rumors still persist of it's usage during this very conflict by Marius himself; I for one do not know why people would besmirch the Last Dragonborn's good name by naming him champion of the daedra, even though I can personally testify that Meridia did, at least, express interest in him), that the Dawnguard was finally able to achieve an uncontested breakthrough on the bridge. The trolls thick hide and crude armor was able to resist most of the spells the vampires could throw at them, while between their monstrous strength and Lydia's skill and weapon the Volkihar front line almost melted away against their onslaught. Behind the front line, members of Florentius's Restoration Corps had been brought to the front, and their wards and healing helped solidify the trolls' defense against Volkihar counter-attacks.

The Battle of the Bridge hadn't ended yet, however. For the past 2 hours, the ancient vampires had been preparing numerous Alteration spells, and as the last of the Volkihar forces on the bridge mindlessly threw themselves at the Dawnguard to buy time, the nearly-untouched blooded vampires fell back behind the gate, which descended for the first time since the battle began, and the spells were finally cast. Numerous wards, hardening spells, and other assorted defensive spells none of the Dawnguard even recognized were all cast on the already formidable gate, and nothing in the Dawnguard's arsenal was able to even scratch it.

It was at this time, as the Battle of the Bridge reached a stalemate, that it seemed the Dawnguard had been truly out-maneuvered. More educated readers may have been wondering why the Dawnguard, despite having the supplies to maintain the siege for a week, chose to forgo the typical siege tactic of starving the defenders out, and had instead opted to throw their forces at the Volkihar's defenses over the course of two hours, an exceptionally rushed speed by siege standards. The truth was the Isran and the Dawnguard had, essentially, gambled everything they had in this all-or-nothing battle. Their leadership, high-ranking members and a vast majority of their forces and their allies' forces had been dispatched, and with their backs to the water withdrawal wasn't an option; a defeat here wouldn't cripple the war effort, it would have annihilated any organized resistance to the Volkihar's machinations. On top of that, the Volkihar had sent out immediate recall orders to all teams across Skyrim, and were thus expecting reinforcements to lift the siege within the next day or so, if not the next few hours. Meanwhile, two of the Dawnguard's squads had taken such massive casualties they'd been essentially destroyed as an effective fighting force, and almost a third of the Dawnguard coalition's men were killed or injured to the point of being unable to fight. Even if they hadn't, Castle Volkihar still had blood slaves, thralls, and blood potions to feed off of. There was no well to poison, no supplies to starve out, and both sides knew it. Time was firmly on the vampire's side, as it always had been, and it seemed that Isran's gambit had failed, even as the Dawnguard's lines firmly stood their ground in front of the gates, and refused to accept the inevitable and give any ground.

It probably came as a surprise to the vampires, then, as their last line of defense, the great gate of Castle Volkihar, suddenly began rising inexorably, and the Dawnguard forces smashed into the remaining Volkihar groups.

Isran hadn't only gambled on a frontal assault against a castle built to withstand a siege; the paranoid man and his advisers in the Dawnguard were nothing if not prepared. The vampires had also made a gamble, you see, one that had almost paid off. By committing most of the remaining forces within the castle to the Battle of the Bridge, and leaving almost nothing in reserve, they hadn't left any watchmen to provide security within the castle itself, to protect against infiltrators, saboteurs, and assassins. This normally wouldn't have been a problem; the ancient vampires were old and powerful enough to take care of themselves easily against most threats, of course, as would befit the most high-ranking members of Harkon's court, built upon a hierarchy of power and age. This time, however, they were up against Marius Dragonborn.

As the rowboats had left Broken Oar Grotto, one had split away from the group, and made it's way north. This one, helmed by Marius and Serana, were taking the long way around, the exact same route as the one they'd taken the first time they'd gone to infiltrate Castle Volkihar. For reasons unknown even now (I personally blame hubris and arrogance, as usual), the vampires hadn't investigated how Serana had escaped when the conflict began, or how Serana and Marius had infiltrated the castle. As a result, with all eyes on the battle in front, nobody noticed the lone rowboat pulling in from the north an hour into the battle, quietly docking at the unused inlet, and it's two passengers entering Castle Volkihar's secret entrance.

Nobody alive save Marius and Serana know the events that actually transpired within the castle itself, but Marius's mission had been deceptively simple: upon sneaking in, they were to assassinate the Volkihar's high-ranking members, including Harkon if they thought they could, and raise the castle's gates for the besiegers to enter, if needed. Ironically, Volkihar plans to infiltrate Fort Dawnguard and assassinate their high-ranking members would be discovered in the castle in the aftermath of the battle, as a side note; both sides had remarkably similar plans, as it turned out. From the aftermath of whatever did happen in the castle, as witnessed by the first of the Dawnguard to enter and occupy the enemy castle, the ancient vampires had put up a massive fight, and many rooms were found to be in various states of damage, if not outright collapsed and destroyed. But still, Marius and Serana had prevailed, and Castle Volkihar was now occupied by the Dawnguard.

With the castle secured, save Volkihar Cathedral, last holdout of Lord Harkon of Clan Volkihar, the remaining Dawnguard and Vigilants began to fortify their position, set up makeshift triage centres where the Restoration experts focused their attentions on the casualties, and prepare to defend the castle against the incoming Volkihar forces. The Dawnguard could have simply destroyed and abandoned the castle now that they'd mostly taken it, but Harkon's death wouldn't have been confirmed. More importantly, if the assorted Volkihar forces were allowed to escape and scatter through out Skyrim, the war would have to continue on; drawing in the surviving vampires for one decisive crushing victory was the optimal course of action, the Dawnguard leadership decided. As their lookouts spotted the massive vampire army on the horizon in over a hundred ships and boats, and their remaining forces scrambled to the newly-repaired defensive positions and battlements of the castle, and prepared to rain explosive fire crossbow bolts on the enemy ships to prevent them from escaping, Marius, Serana, Lydia, and Isran prepared to break into Volkihar Cathedral, and confront the head of the ancient clan once and for all...

-OUTSIDE VOLKIHAR CATHEDRAL, FIFTY MINUTES AFTER THE BATTLE OF THE BRIDGE-

"Are you sure you're ready?" I quietly asked Serana, recalling her rant to her mother not even a week ago, even as my grip tightened on the pull chain and we prepared to open the gate and storm what Serana had referred to as "Volkihar Cathedral", the one remaining place in the castle we'd yet to search. For whatever lucky reason, one of the few in my life, we hadn't encountered Harkon during our infiltration of the castle, and given how the high-ranking members of his court had fought in trying to protect this one gate, it wasn't hard to narrow down where he could possibly be.

"Don't worry, Marius, it'll be fine. At least, it will once Lydia gets that stupid glowing axe away from me." Serana joked, and Lydia took a few steps back with her Dawnguard Rune Axe, and said: "Hey, we were supposed to kill all the vampires, were we not?"

"All right, people, let's do this." I said, and put some strength into my hand, pulling the chain and raising the gate to Isran's cry of "For the Dawnguard! For Skyrim!", before the four of us burst through the cathedral's doors, which immediately slammed shut behind us.

The first thing I noticed about the supposed 'cathedral' wasn't the utter lack of recognizable religious symbols. It wasn't the massive grey mace, glowing a sickly green, laid in a fountain of blood like an offering. It wasn't the pile of bones littering the corners of the room. It wasn't even the big grey vampire lord floating in the middle, clearly expecting us. It was the smell. The smell of blood, of bones, of death. Serana would later tell me that her father had a habit of taking potential vampires here for induction into his bloodline and court, and most lacked the strength of body and will necessary to survive the transformation. From what I could surmise, this room held the stench of five centuries of failures, and it was surprisingly difficult to resist the urge to gag. Isran and Lydia stayed by the doors, covering the exit to the room, while Serana and I approached Harkon, who affably greeted us as though we'd merely dropped by for a spot of tea: "Serana, my darling. I see you still favor keeping a pet."

"You know why we're here." Serana ignored her father's jab as she casually approached him, trusting that we had her back secure, and Isran and Lydia tensed up and readied their weapons even as my hands moved to the rune hammer and Dawnbreaker I'd made such good use of during my second infiltration of the castle.

"Of course I do." Harkon answered in his usual condescending tone, before shaking his head and continuing, somehow sounding genuinely hurt: "You disappoint me, Serana. You've taken every thing I've provided for you and thrown it all away for this... pathetic being."

"Provided for me?" Serana repeated, incredulous. "Are you insane? You've destroyed our family. You've killed other vampires. All over some prophecy that we barely understand."

I gulped again quietly, and as Isran and even Lydia watched with growing alarm, and Harkon's eyes filled with pride, Serana's tone lowered to a growl, and her eyes grew cold and murderous as only Vyrthur and I had seen during our confrontation in Auriel's Chapel, as she declared in a strong, firm voice: "No more. I'm done with you. You will not touch him."

"So, I see this dragon has fangs." Harkon remarked in an amused tone, and as Serana and Lydia bristled at his referral to me, he chastised: "Your voice drips with the venom of your mother's influence. How alike you've become."

"No..." Serana's back straightened as she defiantly locked eyes with her father, and he actually twitched slightly, not having expected her sudden stubborness. "Because unlike her, I'm not afraid of you. Not anymore."

Turning his head away from Serana, seemingly dismissing her words, he rotated to face me, and readopted his usual condescending tone: "And you... It appears I have you to thank for turning my daughter against me. I knew it was only a matter of time before she'd return with hatred in her heart."

"Hatred born of your neglect." I pointed out drily, refusing to let myself be rattled by his words, or his demeanour.

"A small price to pay for the betterment of our kind." Harkon said loftily.

"Your kind is a blight upon this world!" Isran yelled angrily from behind us, and Harkon scoffed at the interruption.

"Yes, yes. Always the noble vampire hunters. And what happens when you've slain me? Is Valerica next? Is Serana?" The rhetorical question was addressed to all of us, but I knew whose response truly mattered in this conversation.

"I would never harm Serana." I said, recalling the intimate moments we'd shared, from our accidental meeting in Dimhollow, to her bite in Valerica's study, and the time we'd spent in the Ancestor Glade and Chantry of Auriel. I'd meant what I'd told her, out on the frozen lake, and I felt no shame in admitting out loud what I felt about the closest thing I had to a little sister in Skyrim: "She's too important to me."

"Then my daughter is truly lost." Harkon said, clearly misinterpreting my words and Serana's expression, and we ignored the odd sound of gnashing teeth from behind me. "She died the moment she accepted a mortal into her life."

"Enough of this!" Isran exclaimed, finally having lost his patience with our chat, and Harkon merely nodded.

"Yes, quite. I'm growing quite weary of speaking to you and my traitorous daughter. I'll give you a single chance to turn over the bow to me. There will not be a second."

There was a very pregnant pause, as we digested his words, and tried to process them. Eventually, I spoke up first: "All right... how do you know about the importance of Auriel's Bow?"

"I've always known about the full prophecy." Harkon said impatiently, although he didn't miss a chance to gloat. ""Among the night's children, a dread lord will rise. In an age of strife, when dragons return to the realm of men, darkness will mingle with light and the night and day will be as one" and "The Blood of Coldharbor's Daughter will blind the eye of the Dragon", am I right? Valerica didn't take the two scrolls in time to prevent me from learning about it, no matter how much she desperately believed and hoped she did, oh no. She took them from me so that I wouldn't be able to find out where Auriel's Bow was, just as she took Serana from me and hid herself so I wouldn't be able to use their blood to carry out the ritual."

"So you've known that you'd need to sacrifice either your wife or your daughter, this whole time?" I asked in disbelief, barely able to comprehend his mentality, and he scoffed arrogantly once more.

"Like I said, a small price to pay for the betterment of our kind. I'm sure the old Serana, at least, would have agreed had she known what was at stake."

Like husband like wife, I suppose, I mused, as Serana's eyes grew even colder. Both assuming they know exactly what Serana wants, and what she'll do, when in actuality they know absolutely nothing about her.

"Okay... so, what in Oblivion makes you think we'd just hand Auriel's Bow over?" I continued my questioning, and Harkon merely shrugged.

"You're not stupid, and you know the power I possess, the power I can offer you. By the sounds of it, though, I assume you're refusing."

"You're not stupid, what do you think?" I threw his words back at him, before drawing my two weapons and lunging straight at him. In the time before I managed to close the distance, however, he said: "Very well then, you leave me no choice."

For the first time in a very long while, my lunge failed to connect, as Harkon's physical form split into a cloud of bats, before they rematerialized by the altar into his usual vampire lord form. At the same time, the gargoyles in the cathedral burst into life, and the piles of skeletons reanimated themselves, the wave of foes briefly overwhelming Serana, Isran, and Lydia. Sure, within moments they'd been defeated by my experienced allies, but they'd bought Harkon valuable seconds, and a red- and black-tinged bubble of energy surrounded him, deflecting my next few blows towards him.

"Use Auriel's Bow!" A familiar-sounding voice called out, and for some reason I couldn't identify it as Serana's, Isran's, or Lydia's. However, it was still a better plan than trying to get through his apparently-invulnerable shield, and thus I took a quick step back, called out to my companions to cover my back, and holstered my weapons back into their sheathes by my hip, before drawing Auriel's Bow and one of Gelebor's special arrows from my back. Hoping (but not praying; I was already apparently acting-champion of Auriel. If he still needed me to make conscious and active prayers after all I'd done, I'd have a few choice vulgarities for him) that my aim was true, I quickly drew my bow, aware that the skeletons would just keep getting up until either him or us were dead, and fired a Sunhallowed Arrow from Auriel's Bow.

To call the result "impressive" would be like saying the ocean was "a bit wet", and I felt that Gelebor had actually been understating it's power when he'd described the sunbursts the Sunhallowed Arrows created as simply being a "spectacular effect". The resulting explosion of light put the exploding fire crossbow bolts we'd been using to shame, and even Isran, Lydia, and I had to shield our eyes from the flash. The skeletons all around us had actually been turned into mere dust, and although Serana had miraculously been mostly untouched by the rays of light (her cloak came in handy in such situations, I supposed), she still visibly staggered, having been more sensitive to the light than the rest of us. And the main target of the sunburst, Harkon? His bubble had exploded outwards, unable to take the energies released, and the pillars had even cracked from their proximity to the explosion, but the vampire lord himself was surprisingly unharmed, and was, in fact, laughing.

"I should have known such a cheap trick wouldn't have worked against the wielder of Auriel's Bow, and the constant thorn in my side who stole my daughter and my Elder Scrolls." Harkon chuckled, acknowledging my accomplishments for the first time since I'd rejected his offer to join his court, at the very start of the conflict, and I instinctively swapped out the bow for my two melee weapons, and widened my distance. Harkon still sounded cocky, sure, but this time, he sounded like he was actually taking me seriously, and had an ace up his sleeve, and that turn of events definitely didn't bode well for me in the least; I'd come in here, preparing to fight a cocky centuries-old vampire lord, and expecting to be able to abuse his underestimation of me. If he didn't, I was going to be in for a really bad time. My instincts were proven correct when he fervently grasped the mace on the altar, and suddenly moved in front much faster than I'd anticipated, faster than I'd actually thought possible. Only my well-honed combat experience, skills, and reflexes from my time in the Legion, and my past few months of adventure throughout Skyrim, allowed me to bring up Dawnbreaker in time to block the blow, and kill most of the power behind it. Even so, the mace still slammed into my unprepared, still-injured side, and I gasped in pain as the remaining force still sent me flying into a pillar, cracking it further.

"Can you believe the folly of the Vigil?" Harkon asked rhetorically from above my recovering form, and as Isran and Lydia charged at him, and Serana fired a lightning bolt at him, trying to protect me, he casually blocked it all with the glowing mace, with the contemptuous ease of a master swordsman blocking a strike by a toddler. Briefly disappearing from my sight in a cloud of bats, he rematerialized behind Isran, and with another blow he sent the man flying into a wall. Isran failed to appear from the cloud of dust and stone fragments that followed his impact, and Harkon continued his taunting:

"Apparently this artifact, the very Mace of Molag Bal himself, was just sitting in some abandoned house in Markath before a lone Vigilant discovered it! The poor fool didn't even know what he found, and instead of securing the weapon he simply stood outside the house, trying to recruit help!" Harkon continued his story with a dramatic sigh, this time repeating the same trick on Lydia, and while Lydia was skilled enough to deflect the blow away from her body, she was still pushed back into a group of reanimating skeletons. Shouting Lydia's name, I tried to rush to my Housecarl's aid, but Harkon reappeared in front of me again, and for the second time I was pushed back into the weakening pillar.

"Manners, mortal." Harkon chided, before resuming his tale: "Now where was I... oh, yes. This was just after I'd unleashed my kill-teams with orders to kill-on-sight any surviving Vigilants, after we'd burnt down their Hall. Somehow, he'd survived the attack on the Hall, and the subsequent purges, by being so fixated on the house he'd never even left Markath, and thus remained in complete ignorance of world events. One of my agents eventually found him, and entered the house with him under the guise of a concerned citizen. He'd been intending to kill him inside the house and blame it on the daedra, so imagine his surprise when Molag Bal partially manifested and ordered him to kill the Vigilant!

"After easily dispatching the ignorant fool, my agent then proceeded to investigate the abandoned house, and found a rusty old mace, and a disused shrine to Molag Bal himself. My agent quickly contacted me, and a kill-team was dispatched to secure and retrieve it, while I communed with Molag Bal for advice on how to restore it to it's full glory. The ritual was simple, as far as daedric-worshipping rituals go: find the Boethiah cultist who'd desecrated the shrine and the mace, get him to renounce his faith in Boethiah and turn to Molag Bal, and then consecrate the mace with his blood. A few hours in the dungeons with my best torture technicians broke his will, and for good measure we bathed it in the blood of a hundred more Boethiah worshippers. And now look at me! Powerful enough to take on the Last Dragonborn, the best the Dawnguard has to offer!"

"Get away from him!" Serana shouted, as Harkon finally finished his story, and he dematerialized into another cloud of bats as a thunderbolt flew through the spot he'd been mere moments before. Once again, he rematerialized behind Serana, and once again his mace flew. Unlike me or Lydia, however, Serana lacked the reflexes or the martial skill necessary to even intercept the bow, and with a sickening crunch she was sent flying across the cathedral and into the opposite wall, where she failed to stir.

I felt cold and angry on top of my concern as I yelled the name of my other companion. I'd known Harkon was an unrepentant monster, but to see him send his daughter flying reminded me too much of the abusive parents I'd seen some younger kids escape to the orphanage from in my childhood, and with rage fuelling my system and dulling the pain in my side, I forced myself up once again, this time managing to block Harkon's next strike by wielding Dawnbreaker with both hands, even as I was pushed back once more.

"You know, Marius, you remind me of me." Harkon said casually, even as he delivered a flurry of blows it took all my concentration to block, each impact forcing me back another step.

"I won't thank you for the insult." I choked out through a mouthful of blood, determined to remain defiant to the end and not let Harkon get the satisfaction of seeing me weakened. Harkon merely chuckled, seemingly not even exerting himself throughout our entire exchange.

"Always a witty retort, a snappy comeback, mortal; so much effort to hide your pain and fear. No, that's not why you remind me of myself. It's because, just like me, you're willing to use anyone and anything you can to get power, even going so far as to court the daedra themselves!" Harkon declared triumphantly, and I will admit I felt shaken by his analysis of me, even if he'd gotten my motives wrong. After all, both of us were wielding daedric artifacts, with the intent of using them to win the war for our repective sides. Unlike him, however, I hadn't crossed any lines to gain Dawnbreaker, and my resolve returned to me.

"I'm nothing like you, monster! You've killed hundreds of unrelated innocents, torn apart your family, and you'd sacrifice your own daughter to achieve your ambitions! At least, no matter what I may have done in my past, there have always been some lines I've never crossed!" I argued back angrily, defiantly, and in a moment of distraction he kicked me in my injured side, winding me slightly, before slamming me back into the pillar for a third time with a powerful backhand, this time collapsing the pillar, and a part of the ceiling, on top of me.

"You're right, foolish mortal." Harkon agreed as he slowly advanced towards me, ready to deliver a mortal blow, and I slowly reached for my fallen warhammer as he continued trying to break my will with his speech: "The difference between you and me is that you lack the courage to seize true power! Hide behind your facade of morality all you want, the truth is that you're afraid of doing what it takes to win!"

As my hand closed around the shaft of my rune hammer, Harkon casually stepped on the hammer's head, keeping it pinned to the ground, even as he picked me up by the neck and lifted me out of the rubble.

"You know, Marius." Harkon sneered in my face as I spat at him, determined to keep him talking and riled up while I tried to think of a way out of this. After all, I'd always found a way despite what life threw at me, and this shouldn't have been any different. Meanwhile, Harkon continued to gloat: "I don't think I'll kill you. Death would be too kind, after all the inconveniences you've caused me. I think I'll just nail you to the outer wall of Castle Volkihar, and let you watch as I sacrifice Serana, corrupt Auriel's Bow, end the Tyranny of the Sun, and turn your precious, devoted, comely Housecarl into a mindless thrall to serve only me. Only after you've witnessed everything you've fought for be lost, and had your will broken and your spirit crushed, would I consider letting you die."

Apparently taking offense to the threats against my life and well-being, and probably not appreciating the way Harkon had spoken about her, my "precious, devoted, comely Housecarl" chose this exact moment to hurl her rune axe at Harkon, it's axehead glowing brightly as it flew through the air. Harkon, of course, saw it coming and dodged it easily, but I could have kissed Lydia right there and then, for what it had accomplished.

Slightly distracted by the flying axe, when Harkon had dodged it he'd shifted his centre of gravity slightly, taking some of the pressure off of my hammer. Seizing the opportunity, I channeled some stamina through the hammer's head, and struck it lightly against the floor, creating a Fire Rune directly under Harkon's left foot, which exploded before he could react, further throwing off his balance.

Forcing myself to capitalise on the now-expanded window of opportunity Lydia and I had created, I drew my pre-loaded crossbows, one with an exploding bolt and the other with a regular bolt, and took careful aim; my next gamble would require near-perfect timing and aim to have even a remote chance of success. The exploding bolt, launched a split second earlier, impacted the staggered Harkon first, and knocked him backwards, into his altar. The regular dwarven bolt pierced his right hand immediately after, before continuing along it's flight path into the altar itself, embedding both it and Harkon's hand into the stone of the altar.

Before Harkon could dematerialize in a cloud of bats again, rendering all that effort for nought, I quickly drew Dawnbreaker, pulled myself off the floor and into a crouch, and with a Whirlwind sprint my flung my body across the distance near-instantly, before coming to a stop in front of Harkon, with the daedric artifact of Meridia buried deep within his chest, deep enough to have penetrated even the stone behind him.

Amazingly, even after all that, even as a furious golden light poured from the wound in his chest, and Dawnbreaker burned his heart to ash, Harkon still refused to die; the Mace of Molag Bal empowered him far beyond anything I could have expected. Snapping a kick at me in pain and fury, he sent me flying through another pillar once again, and my abused armor finally began falling apart even as more of the ceiling collapsed.

For some reason, though, he still didn't dematerialize in a cloud of bats, even as Lydia helped me back up onto my feet. Perhaps his gift from Molag Bal was being interfered with by my gift from Meridia. Perhaps he'd just taken too much damage, and the ability had been forcibly shut down in favor of staying alive. Perhaps he simply couldn't while being penetrated. Whatever the reason, the result was still the same: Harkon was trapped against his altar by my bolt and blade. A trapped Harkon wasn't an immobilised Harkon, however, and his left hand began reaching for Dawnbreaker, about to pull it out of his chest.

Another dwarven bolt flew out from behind me, smashing and trapping his left hand against the altar this time, and even as Harkon thrashed and struggled Isran emerged from the hole in the wall he'd been knocked into, dropping his now-spent crossbow to the floor, and he rushed Harkon with Lydia's rune axe.

The result was pretty much the same as when I'd tried it, and I caught Isran as he got sent flying, an action which my still-injured arm deeply regretted. Despite all the mortal wounds we'd dealt him, Harkon was still not dead, and proving the saying about cornered beasts to be true, he continued struggling furiously, causing the stone of the altar he'd been crucified to began to crack. Clearly something needed to be done, and fast.

"Marius..." Serana's voice coughed out from behind me, and as I turned around I saw Serana slowly getting up from the wall Harkon had knocked her into, rubbing the new dent in the ancient Falmer's armor that had protected her against the supposedly-mortal blow. It looked like the steps I'd taken to address her lack of armor after we'd fought Vyrthur had paid off, after all, even as her hand trembled when she attempted to point to the new hole in the ceiling, and she struggled to speak: "Auriel's Bow... try it again... on the Eye of the Dragon..."

"Lydia, Isran, cover Serana! I don't want to risk hurting her as collateral damage." I barked out those orders even as I drew Auriel's Bow and another Sunhallowed Arrow. We'd seen how spectacularly resistant Harkon had seemed to be to the initial sunburst, so if Serana was suggesting another method, it was probably going to be even more powerful, and I had no intention of allowing friendly fire to occur. Not that I knew what was going to happen, but I trusted Serana, and Lydia and Isran trusted me.

Taking careful aim, I knew I would only have one shot at this. Harkon was about to shatter the stonework of the altar, and once he did so I'd be almost defenseless; my warhammer lay by the rubble of another pillar, Lydia's axe lay by Harkon's feet where Isran had dropped it, Dawnbreaker remained buried within Harkon's chest, and I doubted I'd have time to reload my crossbows or nock another arrow and draw my bowstring before he closed the distance again. This had better work, I found myself telling Auriel in my mind, as I looked towards the mid-morning sun, and loosed the arrow.

For the first second or so, there was nothing but silence, and Harkon laughed, gloated about how we'd wasted our one shot at killing him, even as I drew another arrow, and prepared for the inevitable melee that would follow. In the next few seconds, however, my arrow finally reached the sun, and it released a blindingly large and intense flash of golden light, and seemed to to double in size. Five seconds after I let loose the Sunhallowed Arrow, a massive beam of light enveloped the entirety of Castle Volkihar, and through the hole in the ceiling, it's arrival heralded by a choir of Nordic bards, did a bright golden shaft of pure sunlight audibly descend upon the cathedral, transfixing the altar, and Harkon crucified to it in a manner reminiscent of an offering, right in the centre of it's path.

"No... Serana... your own father..." Harkon gasped out, as the light engulfed him, and he screamed like a soul damned to Oblivion. As the light continued burning him, his mace, Molag Bal's weapon, simply faded away, and red flames began to burst out from the wounds in his body that quickly consumed him. When the light finally faded away, all that remained was a charred black skeleton, crucified to a cracked stone altar, that quickly crumbled into ash as the ravages of time finally caught up to it. The war was finally over. Lord Harkon was finally no more.

-EXCERPT TAKEN FROM "SALVATION OF THE SUN: A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE DAWNGUARD-VOLKIHAR SECRET WAR AS TOLD BY ELDER SCRIBE DEXION EVICUS", WRITTEN BY SCRIBE JARRUS CATO IN 5E 12-

And so it came to pass, in a subversion of the original prophecy, that a Daughter of Coldharbour helped the Eye of the Dragon turn it's gaze on the night's rising dread lord of her own blood. The light mingled with the darkness as the two briefly became one, and the darkness was swept away by the Tyranny of the Sun.

The actions of Marius during his epic battle against the dread vampire lord Harkon (one seems to observe a pattern, looking through the events presented over the course of this book, that the Champion of Auriel seems to have had numerous epic battles), as covered in the previous chapter, would have greater-reaching effects than the mere destruction of Harkon's corporeal form. Many of the Last Dragonborn's enemies had been using the time he'd been distracted with this conflict to plot, plan, and prepare against the Last Dragonborn, and when the Great Solar Flare occurred (as the event would be known to the general populace), they took it as a sign of Marius's growing power and favor with the Divines, and escalated their plans. Indeed, 4E 201 and 202 would become infamous amongst historians as a tumultuous period and an age of strife for Skyrim, even more destabilising than the Skyrim Civil War that preceded it. As for events more directly-related to the subject matter of this book however, the Dawnguard-Volkihar Secret War, we will have to return to the occupying Dawnguard army, facing off against the Volkihar reinforcements.

As the battle raged between Marius and his team against Harkon, the first Volkihar forces were making landfall on the soil of Castle Volkihar. The Dawnguard coalition forces were full of courage and resolve, but seeing the size of the forces arriving, easily three times the size of the one they'd fought at the Battle of the Bridge, would have made the morale of even the stoutest of hearts falter.

The Dawnguard were in a difficult position, frankly speaking. Sure, they now had a castle to hide behind, battlements to rain fire down upon the enemy, and the magically-reinforced gate would probably hold until the end of time itself. However, they only had supplies for a week, almost a third of the original force were either providing medical care or receiving it, and most of their high-ranking members were either guarding the way to Volkihar Cathedral (Gunmar, Sorine, Florentius, and Celann), or within it's confines, battling the empowered Harkon (Marius, Lydia, Serana, and Isran).

An hour after the end of the Battle of the Bridge, another opening salvo of exploding bolts was launched across the titular bridge, this time from the castle towards the beach, marking the start of the short Dawnguard Defense of the Bridge. The blasts were targeted at the incoming transport ships, and all but the most unlucky hits were able to sink, at the least, the smaller rowboats that made up the bulk of the Volkihar transport navy. While there were just too many ships to sink them all, the Dawnguard crossbowmen were able to, at least, slow the flood of reinforcements down to a trickle.

Meanwhile, on the bridge itself, the Volkihar forces that had already landed began their advance, and met with a squad of Heavy Infantry, Dawnguard Huskies, and Armored Trolls defending the gate itself. In a manner similar to the earlier battle, gargoyles wrestled with trolls, death hounds duelled Dawnguard huskies, and thralls and vampires swarmed the well-equipped soldiers. The odds were heavily tilted in the vampire's favor, and all sides knew it. The Dawnguard weren't just outnumbered 5 to 1; for every 1 Dawnguard soldier, regardless of species, there were over a dozen vampires, suicidal thralls, or mindless skeletons ready to distract them long enough for another to lend a mortal blow. Eventually, sheer numbers would tell against the skilled, exhausted mortals.

But the men of the Dawnguard trusted Isran, whose plans and paranoia had not only stopped the Volkihar from securing many early victories uncontested, back when many had refused to accept that there was even a vampire crisis. They trusted Lydia, their beautiful trainer, who'd turned her wealth of experience into easily-digested lessons and battle plans, and who'd personally beaten most of them by herself during sparring matches. And they believed in Marius, the Last Dragonborn, whose heroic exploits were the stuff of legends; many of them had been simple Nord hunters who'd been inspired to take a more proactive role against the growing vampire menace thanks to the stories the bards had told about his actions. Their faith would be rewarded.

Fifteen minutes into the Defense of the Bridge, as the Dawnguard's forces contracted slowly in the face of the relentless vampire hordes, the very foundation of Castle Volkihar seemed to shake, and the roof of one of the buildings collapsed inwards. Taking this as a good omen, the Volkihar forces threw everything they had at the castle, and the surviving ships were quickly emptied as every vampire desperately rushed the gate, each wanting the glory of being the first to step foot in Castle Volkihar, and hopefully from there reap the rewards Lord Harkon would be sure to give. Many members of his court had been killed, after all, and perhaps it was finally time for a new generation of Volkihar court members. Nothing was left in reserve during the final, all-or-nothing assault.

Two minutes later the Great Solar Flare occurred, and as the Sun seemed to swell in size oppressively the Volkihar assault faltered for the first time, as the symbol of their oppression, the great tyrant that served as the check to the expansion of their power, the denier of their true birthright, expanded. Seconds later, a massive beam of light enveloped the castle, and the entire island, engulfing the combatants.

It is important to mention that the events of Volkihar Cathedral were restricted largely to the Dawnguard high-ranking members and leadership. Isran, in his paranoia, feared that power-hungry people might try to imitate Lord Harkon, and gave the report telling the true account of what had happened "top secret" classification, and omitted it from the official accounts. However, as an honorary member of the Dawnguard (the least they believed they could do, after I lost my sight reading the Elder Scroll for them), I was privy to this information, and having received personal permission this is the first public account of the battle to have included the true story of the battle (in the previous chapter). With that said, thanks to the past few decades of misdirection and deception, rumors still abound about the cause of the miraculous Great Solar Flare which saved the Dawnguard.

One of the more common misconceptions, especially amongst the already-religious Vigilants and ex-Vigilant Dawnguard members, was that the Divines themselves intervened. While technically not wholly inaccurate (as Dragonborn, Marius's actions can qualify as divine intervention from a certain point of view), believers of this myth take Isran's "Time of the Dawnguard" speech literally, especially with regards to the gods favoring them, and cite the Dawnguard meeting the call of the gods with action as them fulfilling the will of the Divines, and thus granting them salvation from the undead hordes. Many even take this one step further, believing that it was the son of Auriel, of Akatosh, the Last Dragonborn, who called down the wrath of the gods themselves to smite the Volkihar foe. These fanatics, as far as I have been able to gather, view Marius Dragonborn as an avatar of Akatosh, similar to Martin Septim himself, if not an actual Divine in his own right, a piece of trivia I know Marius would have been horrified to find out. Even so, in the days after the Great Solar Flare, as vampire attacks dwindled to nothingness, the bards popularized the tale of Marius smiting the vampires (how they found out is beyond me, my personal guess is that they simply attributed it to the at-the-time mysterious and relatively unknown Last Dragonborn, and happened to be coincidentally correct), and amongst a grateful populace did cults dedicated to the Last Dragonborn begin to sprout up. The battles between the cults of the Last Dragonborn and the Solstheim-based Miraak cultists in Skyrim are numerous, though not well-recorded, and are best left as the subject of a different book, one focusing on the conflict between the First and the Last Dragonborn.

What can be safely said, and is actually relevant to the topic of this book, is that as the light finally faded, somehow failing to damage any on the Dawnguard side, the Volkihar side had been revealed to have all but vanished. The skeletons, vampires, and death hounds that had been assaulting their position had turned to dust upon contact with the light, burnt by the very light they'd tried to extinguish, while the gargoyles were left as little more than lifeless sunbleached statues. Only the mindless thralls were left alive by the solar flare, being mortal, and even they hadn't been left untouched by it's passing; the thralls stumbled around the front lines, without direction or sight, and many had burns inflicted upon them. The Dawnguard soldiers, in an act of mercy, quickly killed their surviving foes. And so it was that, within four hours since the first shot of the siege had been fired, the Dawnguard-Volkihar conflict had finally come to a close, with the Dawnguard coalition taking significant casualties but in uncontested control of Castle Volkihar, and the Volkihar clan, including their thralls, familiars, minions and creatures, had been essentially wiped out in the whole of Skyrim...

-VOLKIHAR CATHEDRAL, JUST AFTER LORD HARKON HAD BEEN TURNED INTO A PILE OF ASH-

"Well, now that's done." Serana said in a heavy voice as she stared at the pile of ashes that had been her father, and even as Lydia nudged the pile with her foot, making sure it didn't suddenly reanimate or something, I grabbed Serana's shoulder, and asked: "What will you do now?"

"I'm not sure." Serana admitted, ignoring Lydia spitting at Harkon's ashes, before adding in a slightly joking manner: "I'll probably stay with the Dawnguard, for as long as they let me. They're respectable fighters, and I think they see the benefits of having a vampire on their side, now. Of course, if you've got any more adventures planned..."

"I do indeed, and I'd love to have you along." I said, clapping Serana's back, and watched as Serana's face brightened.

"That's what I wanted to hear." Serana said happily, and for the first time since our second meeting in the Dawnguard's torture chambers, I found myself comparing her yet again to an overeager puppy. Of course, the moment was soon ruined.

"It's over. He's finally dead, and the prophecy dies with him." Isran gruffly interrupted, finally approaching us from the wall he'd been knocked into, and paused to examine the pile of ashes. Surprisingly, he then turned to Serana, and awkwardly began: "I... I suppose this is difficult for you."

"I think my father really died a long time ago." Serana admitted, just as awkwardly; she and Isran had never held a conversation that hadn't been antagonistic or sarcastic before, and I hadn't expected Isran to be the one to start it. "This was just... the end of something else. I did what needed to be done. Nothing more."

"I think perhaps... I think you did more than that. You have my thanks." Lydia and I fought the urge to laugh quietly from behind as we watched the pair; all of us had been so close to death just mere moments before, and now all that tension was breaking. Moreover, Isran sounded like he was experiencing physical pain, giving a vampire gratitude.

"Really now... don't mention it... ever." Serana said, ending the conversation, and Isran agreed: "Indeed. Let's never speak of this again."

Turning to me suddenly, he then asked: "So, boy, what will you be doing now? The beast is dead, and Auriel's Bow is in safe hands. The Dawnguard will now be dedicated to safeguarding it, making sure that prophecy will never come to pass. But even with the Volkihar Clan gone, there are still vampires out in Skyrim, preying on the weak and innocent. Even so, I can't possibly ask any more from you, young Marius; you've played a key role from the beginning of this conflict to it's conclusion, and you and your team have more than earned an early retirement from the Dawnguard."

I can't deny that his offer surprised me, and I earnestly considered it for a second, before quickly answering: "It's been a good run, Isran, but my role in the Dawnguard is done with Harkon's death." Deciding to play up the role of the noble soldier even more, since I had nothing to lose, I added: "I only joined to keep innocents like Serana safe, not to kill vampires anyway. Now that she's safe, I should really continue on with my mission as Dragonborn."

Isran, Lydia, and Serana completely bought my bluff, and Isran offered his hand to me, which I grasped and shook, and he continued: "We'll miss you, Marius, but I completely understand. Enjoy your new castle, and if I may give you a word of advice? You might want to drop by the Blue Palace in Solitude, and mention the Dawnguard and Broken Oar Grotto. I'm sure you'll get an excellent reward."

"What did you guys do in Solitude? And what was that about my "new castle"?" I demanded, trying to figure out if I'd heard Isran correctly, and he nodded like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Of course. "Spoils of war", and all that. Besides, the Dawnguard already has our own castle; we don't need another."

"What would I want with an old, possibly-haunted, castle in the middle of an ocean?" I asked, incredulous, and Isran merely shrugged. Deciding I really didn't want it, I turned to Serana, and asked: "Hey, Serana. You want your ancestral home back?"

Punching me lightly in the shoulder, Serana simply said: "I'll pass; too many memories of a crappy family. My mother might want it, though..."

Slapping my head, I finally remembered Valerica, still trapped in the Soul Cairn, and most importantly my promise to her. Grabbing Serana's hand, much to Isran's amusement and Lydia's surprise, I turned and made my way back to Valerica's study, and more pressingly the still-active portal to the Soul Cairn. I didn't look forward to the feeling of having my soul being nibbled on by hungry daedra again, but while I was here and all...

"I'll explain on the way back to Fort Dawnguard, but there's something I need to take care of first!" I called out to Isran and Lydia, as I led Serana through the courtyard, and quickly explained: "I can't believe I forgot about Valerica for a while; now that Harkon's dead, and Castle Volkihar's ownerless, I'm thinking it's time to see what Valerica thinks about returning to her beautiful garden."

To say absolutely nothing of my forceful negotiations with the avatar of the Ideal Masters, the Reaper, or the lengths I went through getting Valerica back safely, the way Isran constantly nagged at me for bringing in yet another vampire, and Lydia renewing her chastising lecture on my borderline-suicidal recklessness, when they learnt about how I'd jumped into the Soul Cairn for a second time (and how I'd entered it the first time; luckily, we managed to leave out the failed attempt to turn me into a vampire), picked a small fight with beings on par with a daedric prince, and brought back Valerica, made me wistfully reminisce about my battle with Lord Harkon, as for the second time in less than a week my ears shut down and my knees turned to jelly.

Chapter Text

"Hey, Dexion." I greeted the Moth Priest after our triumphant return to Fort Dawnguard, having eagerly escaping Lydia and Isran in the organized chaos that was the unloading of our supplies, troops, and equipment, and the Moth Priest waved in my general direction, seeming genuinely happy to see me return.

"Ah, young Marius! By your continued existence I take it Harkon has been slain?" Dexion asked, and I nodded, before remembering it was a wasted gesture.

"It was touch-and-go for a moment there, after Harkon grabbed Molag Bal's personal weapon he started tossing us around like toys; it's only thanks to Auriel's Bow we were able to make it out of there." I explained, affirming his statement, and he gravely nodded.

"Harkon's lust for power drove him to many things, but in the end it was his greatest downfall. I'm just happy you were successful in reading the Elder Scrolls." I winced at his words; he may not have meant it in that way, but it was true that I'd had no problem reading it, while he had lost his sight doing so. I briefly considered asking him for advice with regards to my vision of Kynareth, but eventually decided against it, and cautiously replied: "The Elder Scrolls have served me well, Dexion."

"Of course they did. I never doubted for a moment." Dexion answered loftily, before continuing: "If I may ask, what will you do with them now?"

"They're indestructible, and after the fight with those two dragons I'm in the market for some good armor." I said jokingly, and as he blanched at the thought I hastily asked, not wanting him to have a heart attack: "Did you have something in mind?"

"I did, in fact." Dexion replied, mostly hiding the shock he'd felt at the audacious thought I'd planted in his head. "Quite perceptive of you. I'd very much like to have those scrolls. Someday I may be able to return them to their rightful place in the Imperial City. How would you feel about turning them over to me?"

"I'd be happy to hand them over." I said, drawing the three Elder Scrolls out of my bag and passing them over, and it felt like a weight had been lifted off of me. As important and valuable as those "fragments of creation" were, I still wanted nothing to do with them.

"Thank you! You're too kind!" Dexion's gratitude and excitement was overwhelming, and I briefly flinched, thankful he couldn't see it. With a few empty words of farewell, I decided to go retreat to my companions, intent on figuring out our next course of action.

"You've returned, my Thane." Lydia said drily as I warily approached her and Serana, who'd apparently been having a discussion, and as she smirked I finally relaxed, confident that she wasn't going to chew me out again. "Finished what you came here for?"

"Indeed, Lydia. Auriel's Bow was handed over to Isran during our trip back, and is now being safely locked away in a vault deep in the underbelly of Fort Dawnguard, warded by some of the most powerful Restoration, Alteration, and Destruction spells Serana, Florentius, and Valerica were able to craft. The Dawnguard Rune Equipment's been handed over to Dawnguard, to help them actually guard said artifact, and now I've managed to pass the Elder Scrolls to Dexion, who'll be taking them to the Imperial City post-haste. I'd say my business here is all but done."

"So, what's next then, for the great Marius Dragonborn?" Serana asked in a teasing manner, and Lydia chuckled as I answered: "Actually, that's a good question. I wanted to ask the both of you for your opinions on what we should do next. I was thinking of heading back to Mount Kilkreath and returning Dawnbreaker to Meridia's temple, but that's not exactly an urgent priority for me; I just think Dawnbreaker's served it's purpose and I should put back the daedric artifact before it starts trying to corrupt me and make me too reliant on it."

"Wait, so you're getting rid of the Rune Hammer and Dawnbreaker?" Lydia asked, clearly concerned for my physical and mental well-being. "Are you sure you want to go without any weapons? I know you're strong, but..."

"I still have the Axe of Whiterun, Lydia." I reminded her, remembering she'd never actually seen me use it before, and even as she looked reassured I added: "Also... I've been thinking of making a new sword and set of armor, so I'll probably drop by either Warmaiden's or Riverwood and ask to use their forge. Any other suggestions?"

"Well, Marius, Lydia..." Serana spoke up, and our attention turned to her. "I've actually been thinking that I'd like to cure my vampirism."

I think I'd have been less surprised if Serana and Lydia both suddenly stripped naked and yelled at me to sleep with them right there and then, and by the stunned silence coming from Lydia I could see she was having the same thoughts as me.

"Before you ask, it's not just something I spontaneously decided." Serana explained. "It's been something that's been bothering me since it turned my family into... well, you know. But I only really started thinking about it when we fought Vyrthur, and I lost myself to my vampire side for a bit. I talked about it with Isran on the way back, and he happily recommended to me a man named Falion, in Morthal, who apparently knows some things about this."

"Whatever your decision, we'll support you, Serana." I said, before adding: "And that's also not that out of the way; Morthal's on the way to Mount Kilkreath anyway."

"Well, that fits with my recommendation too, I suppose." Lydia agreed, getting up: "I was going to suggest that we drop by the Blue Palace and see what the "excellent reward" Isran mentioned could be. I just hope more finally recognize my Thane for his deeds."

"I don't mind; Solitude and Mount Kilkreath are pretty near by, anyway." I said absent-mindedly, trying to figure out why I felt I had wanted to do something near Morthal. Started with a "U", something I had been supposed to do a fairly long time ago... I shook my head, clearing my thoughts. Trying to think too hard on it wouldn't help it come, this I knew from experience; it would be better for me to focus on the present. "Well, you two, let's get ready to head over to the carriage stop by the Riften Stables; maybe we can catch the first carriage out."

"No!" Lydia and Serana both shouted together, and I raised my eyebrow as Lydia hastily explained: "I mean, it's been so long since we've slept together in an actual bed, my Thane! Would it be possible for us to stay in an inn, enjoying the comforts of civilization, for one night?"

"It's not even daybreak." I pointed out drily. This all seemed suspicious, and it seemed like Serana was in on whatever Lydia was planning, but I trusted the two of them with my back and my life; they were probably plotting a victory celebration, at the worst, nothing actually malicious or dangerous, and I did owe it to my Housecarl to at least humor her, after all the worry she claimed I'd given her over the past week or two. Didn't mean I had to make it easy, though. "Also, please don't tell me you want us to stay in Riften, Lydia."

"Of course not, my Thane! Your safety is my number one concern!" Lydia exclaimed, insulted, and she pouted as I chuckled. "I was thinking, let's take a slow hike up to Eastmarch, enjoy a warm dip in the hot springs, and spend the night in, say, Kynesgrove."

"Works for me." I said brightly, recalling the memory of our shared bath a month or so ago. Even dealing with the incredibly-biased Stormcloak Hold Guards would be worth it, if it allowed me to enjoy that sight once more. And since Isran had actually given me a decent amount of septims, as compensation for both my work and the injuries I'd sustained... "Let's get going, then."

-BRAIDWOOD INN, KYNESGROVE, SIXTEEN HOURS LATER-

"Remind me again, Lydia, what the plan is?" Serana whispered anxiously, her nerves making her worried that she'd mess up Lydia's carefully-laid schemes. She'd never done something like this before in her youth or undeath, long as the latter had been, and the fact that her target this night was Marius did not help things in the slightest. "Just to be sure that nothing goes wrong."

"The plan is simple." Lydia sighed quietly, rubbing her temples from her corner of the dark rented room. She'd been toying with this idea since they'd passed by the area last month, having noted how Marius had enjoyed the calderas of Eastmarch, but had only begun to seriously entertain thoughts of going through with it after they'd split at Winterhold, and the meeting with Hermaeus Mora. When she'd passed by here on the way back to Fort Dawnguard, the plan had solidified in her head. "Get Marius to Kynesgrove, that was easy. Titillate him to the point of frustration, done. And then we reserved the biggest room in the inn, I privately bribed the innkeeper to take a very long walk through the grove up the hill. All that's left is confronting Marius and being completely open and honest with him."

"But what if he rejects us?" Serana asked nervously, looking over at the target of their affection sleeping soundly in his bed, at the other end of the room (her vampiric night vision meant that the dark was not issue). When Lydia had approached her after they'd returned to Fort Dawnguard, and invited her into her plot, Serana had eagerly agreed, wanting to finally shake up their relationship, but now that it was actually time, she'd begun getting cold feet. She'd still go through with it in the end, though; Serana was nothing if not determined, and the way Marius had called her his "little sister" on the frozen lake had convinced her drastic measures needed to be taken, before such an image was solidified in Marius's mind. To be perfectly honest, the events that transpired within the massive Chantry of Auriel had convinced that drastic measures needed to be taken for many things.

Serana still remembered how her mind had cleared, after being completely lost to her rage and her more primal instincts, to find an injured Marius trying to restrain her, his arm in her mouth, and a slight fist-shaped dent in his helmet. Even the sweet taste of his blood in her mouth, and the way she felt herself briefly live again, hadn't been enough to erase the horror the realization had triggered in her; no matter how disciplined and careful she was, how strong Marius was, her continued existence as a vampire, which had already brought nothing but tragedy and ruin to her and her family, was nothing but a danger to the one bright side she'd had of immortality, meeting Marius. Even if she hadn't watched him desperately try to save her soul, though, she might still have accepted anyway; ever since she'd become aware of her own feelings, the last time they'd enjoyed the hot springs, she'd known what she wanted, and those feelings had only grown as their adventure had progressed, and she'd seen the lengths he went to for her. Sure, when pressed he'd often say it was purely luck, or coincidence, or accident, but personally she knew he was just embarrassed to admit to anything.

"Did you see how he was eyeing us in the hot springs?" Lydia scoffed dismissively, referring to how he'd openly appreciated her show in the spring. She would have definitely noticed; she'd been observing him far more keenly than he had them, though she hid it better. Lydia's feelings had been strong even since Whiterun, but as her advances had been seemingly ignored by her Thane, she'd decided that she could be simply satisfied with being his Housecarl, protecting him and adventuring with him, for the time being. There would be time in the future for her to come clean, she had figured.

That had changed when they'd split at Winterhold, and Marius had sent her to alert the Dawnguard as to the location of the last Elder Scroll. She'd fought, resisted in every way she'd learned from Irileth, as Marius had tried to undertake the suicide mission to Castle Volkihar; she'd even been willing to break her oath to serve and obey him, if that was what it took to ensure his safety. Only the concern and sorrow she'd seen in Marius's eyes had allowed her to eventually listen to him, and as she'd watched him walk away with Serana towards the enemy's stronghold, she felt her heart break with worry. Satisfaction was shattered by anxiety, and soon gave way to resolve. Marius had a duty as Dragonborn, Lydia knew with her head, with logic, and no matter how much he'd pretend to want nothing to do with it, he'd still fulfill his destiny and duty as Dragonborn in the end. Her Thane was as honor-bound as any Nord she knew, and easily twice as hard-working. But even so, she could no longer simply watch by the sidelines contentedly as he undertook even more dangerous tasks. At the very least, she wanted to enjoy even more whatever little time she could spend with him.

The tipping point, the event that had shaken away any doubt, had been when her Thane had returned from his mission to retrieve Auriel's Bow. She'd paced for days after returning to Fort Dawnguard with the runed equipment, annoyed by how she'd narrowly missed her Thane and Serana by minutes, heart heavier with worry once she'd heart stories about how he'd returned riding a dragon. Her spirits had lifted as soon as the watchmen reported seeing her Thane's dragon in the sky, with two figures on it's back, and she'd happily rushed to the rooftop, eager to see him even as she prepared to interrogate him about riding a dragon. And then the undead dragon had landed, and as her Thane gingerly disembarked from the dragon her heart had dropped like a rock, as she saw the state he was in. Only her years of training allowed her to maintain professional stoicism as she took in the sorry sight of her Thane's dented helmet, the sight of his bare right arm, bruised and showing some major puncture wounds, and the massively-dented breastplate which clearly had some makeshift work done on it (the whole right side had clearly been almost entirely ripped away, and had been filled in been some white material). Even so, her emotions had almost overwhelmed her, and she'd quickly channeled all her anger, worries, and relief into lecturing him, lest she do something she would regret. Like shedding a tear, or hugging and kissing him. Lydia shook her head, not wanting to remember that moment. It had already solidified her resolve, and remembering either it or how he'd desperately fought Harkon would only make her more likely to act hot-headedly, and thus ruin her careful plans. Strong, confident Nord of action that Lydia was, she knew that getting through Marius's thick head would require a bit more finesse than usual, hence why she'd carefully calculated each action of that day. "Don't worry about it, Serana. Marius is definitely attracted to us, even if he won't consciously acknowledge it."

Serana breathed a quiet sigh of relief at Lydia's reassurance, and got out of her bed. "No time like the present, I suppose." Serana replied, beginning to creep her way to Marius's bed, and Lydia confidently moved to the other side of his bed.

"By my estimate, the innkeeper should be quite a distance away, in the grove right now. We should have a few hours to do this." Lydia said in agreement, taking away her Thane's blanket, and she fought back her ever-present carnal urges as they flared at the sight of his bare chest, deciding to take it slow. There'd be the whole night to indulge, after all.

Naturally, it was at this exact moment, right as the two had leaned over the sleeping Imperial, and were about to begin showering him with their affections, that the innkeeper would burst into the room, shouting: "A dragon... it's attacking! A dragon's attacking Kynesgrove!"

Chapter Text

-THIRTY FEET ABOVE KYNESGROVE DRAGON BURIAL MOUND, FIVE MINUTES BEFORE LYDIA BEGAN HER PLAN-

Alduin, Bane of Kings, the ancient shadow unbound, was still not a happy World-Eater. Sure, the first stages of her plan to resurrect her dovah-ruled Skyrim-spanning empire had gone off without a hitch, and she now had a sizeable force of over a hundred of the dov, brought back to life from the numerous burial mounds on the south-eastern and eastern outskirts of Skyrim, hidden in the treacherous mountaintops that were inaccessible to all but the dov. And sure, she'd been able to recover from the wounds she'd taken from her 3 hated enemies, thanks to how she'd sent lesser dovah to wreak havoc and force any mortal enemies that may have survived to this day to either commit themselves to the defense of the human dwellings, or to chase false leads. Leaving aside the descendants of the Akaviri that had invaded Tamriel to hunt them down, the "Dragonguard" or the "Blades" as her followers had informed her, it seemed that even the Dovahkiin had been too busy to thwart her plans. Even so, she still felt unsatisfied, and it didn't take an ancient dovah to see why.

Ever since she'd met the Dovahkiin at Helgen, Alduin had developed what might be lightly called a "fixation" with him, and even though she only spoke of it to her most trusted lieutenants, like Odahviing, it was pretty much an open secret amongst all of her dovah that she factored him into everything. And, while the other dovah may have thought she was just being cautious, having possibly learnt an iota of caution from her defeat, Odahviing saw things differently. Alduin had purposely left clues at every resurrection site, which were designed to lead one well-versed in Dovahzul to Skuldafn, their impregnable fortress and greatest nesting grounds. When he'd asked her about it, she'd gone oddly defensive and evasive, and only their long years of friendship had allowed Odahviing to finally get an answer: Alduin wished to lure the Dovahkiin into a trap, dominate him as she would any other dovah, and turn him over to their side. The Arch-Traitor had been a powerful foe; a properly-groomed and trained Dovahkiin would be a valuable asset indeed. Odahviing, personally, had been very skeptical of how trustworthy a Dovahkiin could ever be, having been part of the force sent to deal with the ambitious Arch-Traitor, and he'd heard something unfamiliar in her voice, making him think she was possibly harboring ulterior motives. Ultimately, though, she was his thuri, and his was merely to obey her. It did get easier, of course, once she was vindicated when the Great Solar Flare occured, and all linked to Father Akatosh could feel him showing his favor in a very public display of power; the Dovahkiin was growing in power, and it would be for the best if his thuri dealt with them personally. 

Naturally, Alduin had not been completely honest and open about her reasons for wanting to see this age's Dovahkiin. Time and distance had done little to dull her wish to possess her little joor, and while she didn't lose herself to her fantasies, desires, and emotions like she had at Helgen, that was only because the frustrations she'd felt from being unable to make them a reality drove her to gather, consolidate, and grow her strength, all the while making preparations to lure him in. She'd actually become increasingly upset the more he hadn't shown, taking it as a personal slight against her significance, that she wasn't worthy of being personally dealt with by him, which had in turn only increased the frequency and intensity of her fantasizing, in particular what she'd do to him once she finally got her claws on him, and thus perpetuated a vicious cycle. Her trusted subordinate, Odahviing, was second only to Paarthurnax in how well they knew her, though, and naturally he'd asked her about it. She'd deflected and snapped, in turn, and felt she'd successfully fooled him, for the was one thing she could admit to no other dovah; she could barely even admit it to herself, after all. And then she felt his power, felt Father Akatosh's announcement, as the Great Solar Flare occured, and everything changed.

While Alduin had refused to believe that the Dovahkiin was in any way weak, she had mollified her frustrations somewhat by convincing herself that he was avoiding a fight with her, afraid of her power. But the Great Solar Flare showed that he had, somehow, in the span of only 2 months, he'd grown very powerful. If that rate of growth kept up, her little joor might grow powerful enough to challenge her, before she managed to assert her dominance. If it kept up, he might even, as impossible as it sounded, dominate her, instead. And therein lay the one thing she could never admit: as much as her entire being would have loved to dominate him, a small-but-growing part of her did hope for him to dominate her, instead, and possibly even exercise his rights as victor to breed her. Hence, before her forbidden fantasies grew further, she had to dominate him. Drastic measures and riskier plans were called for.

Her plan was truly simple. Alduin herself would act as bait, and fly over to one of the dragon burial mounds, the one at Kynesgrove. Meanwhile, four other dovah, including Odahviing, would be waiting inside the nearby forest. Once the target had been confirmed, they would proceed to burst out of cover, and abduct the target. The massive Alduin had done the first job successfully, leisurely flying through Eastmarch from Skuldafn, and many joorre had taken notice. With that, word would reach the Dovahkiin about her movements, as long as he was near other groups of humans. She'd even circled around the small wooden building near the burial mound, and the mound itself, a few times, just to give the news more time to spread. Hovering above the dragon burial mound for quite a while, however, made Alduin a bit testy, and after about ten minutes of waiting she'd decided to write it off as a lost cause this time around.

"Sahloknir, ziil gro dovah ulse! Slen Tiid Vo!" Alduin commanded with her Thu'um, deciding that she may as well resurrect another dovah into her army and get out before the armies of the joor showed up. Not that she couldn't take them, but there was no need to, for now. The earth of the burial mound cracked and burst open as a skeleton of a dovah crawled out of it.

"Alduin, thuri!" Sahloknir exclaimed in surprise even as the flesh slowly materialized against his bare bones, burning themselves back into being. Of all the things he'd expected upon returning to the land of the living, one of the last things on the list was seeing his old thuri for the first time in millennia. "Boaan tiid vokriiha suleyksejun kruziik?"

"Geh, Sahloknir, kaali mir." Alduin began, before pausing and turning. Two joorre had just appeared at the edge of the clearing, and she excitedly examined them. To her dismay, however, she found that her bait had lured the wrong prey; they weren't the male Dovahkiin she'd expected, but were instead two females, both lacking the sil of the dov. Disappointed, she quickly lost interest in further studying them. They'd been seen one of her secret advantages, and could not be allowed to leak it to the joor. Turning back to Sahloknir, ignoring how they drew their blade, Alduin decreed to the newly-resurrected dovah: "Sahloknir, krii daar joorre."

As Sahloknir turned to comply, Alduin flew towards the tree line, gathered her dovah, still hiding in the forest, and together they departed. Her frustrations had only grown with this latest failure, and how her biggest gambled still hadn't netted the prize she truly wanted. Some day, she swore silently on the flight back to Skuldafn, you will be mine, Dovahkiin!

-KYNESGROVE DRAGON BURIAL MOUND, AS ALDUIN WAS DEPARTING-

Delphine, owner of the Sleeping Giant Inn, quiet, unassuming innkeeper in Riverwood, Farengar's research partner, acting Grandmaster of the Blades, and current partner of Mjoll the Lioness, was not a happy dragonslayer.

It had also started out so well, once the dragons had begun returning. Even as the horror sank in upon hearing of the attack on Helgen by the returned dragons, a small part of her had rejoiced, feeling hope for the first time. After all, if the dragons were returning, then it was time for the Last Dragonborn to show himself, according to the prophecies. Wasting no time, she had begun preparations, helping her contact in Whiterun, the court wizard Farengar, with his research on dragons and dragon burial sites, and had used him to help make a map of dragon burial sites, in order to determine how they'd been returning. Soon after that had been established, thanks to the help of a relatively-unknown mercenary, tales had surfaced of how a stranger to Skyrim and to Whiterun had helped them slay a dragon that had attacked their Western Watchtower, and the stuck-up old traditionalist Greybeards had even sent a summon throughout Skyrim, with their proclamation of "Dovahkiin!" Things were, indeed, looking up, and even as Delphine had snuck into Ustengrav, and entered the Tomb of Jurgen Windcaller from one of Ustengrav's secret passages, she mused happily on how, finally, the last of the Blades would finally have a Dragonborn to serve. Perhaps he'd even lead the Blades to a new era of supremacy, where the Thalmor, the dragons, and the Greybeards were all gone!

That had been over a month ago, and as time had gone by Delphine's spirits had slowly fallen more and more. No matter how much she'd waited, no stranger had shown up in the Sleeping Giant, asking for the attic room, and doubts had quickly began besetting her paranoid mind. Perhaps the new Dragonborn really was a Thalmor plant! That would mean the Greybeards, too, had been infiltrated by the Thalmor! Luckily, before her paranoia led her to make some questionable conclusions, and carry out some activities which she would almost definitely regret, word had reached her about a massive black dragon, heading to Kynesgrove, the spot she'd made an educated guess would be the site of the next dragon's resurrection.

Upon hearing the news, Delphine knew she had to move immediately, and try to intercept the dragon that had been bringing the rest back to life if possible, even if the Dragonborn hadn't been around. She had a duty to the people and, most importantly, to her sworn duty as a Blade, to deal with the dragons. Of course, she wasn't suicidal; whatever it was that was capable of bringing the rest back to life would be a force of unmatched power and knowledge. Before she'd left to Kynesgrove, she'd quickly sent a runner to Riften, to ask a capable warrior, and secret Blades-sympathiser, for aid. Mjoll the Lioness, her confidence restored with Grimsever, had jumped at the chance to train herself against a dragon, and as an infamously moral Thane in the most corrupt Hold in Skyrim, even the paranoid Delphine trusted that she wasn't a Thalmor agent. Of course, coming face-to-snout with her first actual dragon let the reality of fighting the legendary creatures hit her in the face like a dragon, and for the first time, she found herself woefully under-prepared.

"I am Sahloknir! Hear my Voice and despair!" The dragon announced to the surprised duo, who to their credit didn't outwardly show any fear. Mjoll, in fact, was relishing a fight; for the first time in many seasons, the familiar weight of Grimsever rested in her clenched fist, and if she wanted to be anything like the one she idolized, the man who'd easily defeated the insurmountable wall that was the golden colossus, the best way to start would be to get lot of combat experience against strong foes.

Delphine, meanwhile, was sure they'd prevail. Her confidence had taken a shaking up when she'd finally seen the reality of fighting a dragon, true, but she was the (acting) Grandmaster of the Blades! Fighting dragons was one of the things she'd trained for! Besides, if even the Hold Guards of Whiterun could do it, surely two highly-skilled warrior women could do it, right? That conception survived the first few breath weapons the dragon fired at them, the surrounding rocks and trees making decent cover, but essentially died as Sahloknir whipped his tail at Delphine, and smashed her into a tree.

Mjoll hastily moved to cover Delphine's prone form, frustrated. Grimsever and the Blades agent's Akaviri blades were match enough for it's claws, teeth, and hides, true, which was the only reason why they hadn't already fallen to the beast, but all they were able to do, so far, was to merely defend. She hadn't expected the sheer size or overwhelming power of the dragon, again, despite having lost to another strong colossus once before, and this "Sahloknir" didn't open himself for counter-attacks. If anything, any openings he showed were feints designed to lure in over-eager attacks to be themselves swiftly counter-attacked. Her resolve did not falter, though; how could she aspire to even be of use to Marius Dragonborn, let alone attempt to learn from him, if she couldn't clear this hurdle?

As the dragon continued it's relentless fly-by assaults, and the pair desperately parried and blocked tooth and claw with skilled sword swings, they found themselves inexorably pushed back further and further, until their backs were right against the trees. The foul beast smirked triumphantly as it landed right in front of them, just out of reach of their weapons while still being able to launch attacks at them should they try to break out, and reared it's ugly head. Knowing this was the end, that they had no way to dodge it's breath attack, Delphine defiantly gathered her magicka, preparing to cast a simple ward. Sadly, her magical knowledge and abilities weren't anywhere near even a novice mage's; she'd always elected to hone her skill with the blade. Even so, she refused to do nothing about her inevitable demise; she'd survived almost 30 years of Thalmor reprisals and hunter-killer squads by refusing to give up, and had managed to survive, if not fully beat, such odds. Not for the first time, she cursed the Dragonborn who never showed, who planted false hope in her head, who made her take reckless chances.

Mjoll the Lioness did not share her partner's thoughts. Ever the reckless adventuring Nord archetype, even though her pride drove her to win the battle, her spirit would have honestly been fine with an epic battle and a good death in order to go to Sovngarde. Honestly, she hadn't done too badly as a Thane of Riften, and champion of the people. She'd formed an anti-corruption task force with Thane Bryling, and had been actually slowly getting a list of names of people associated with the Thieves Guild and the Black-Briar Family. Under her watchful eye, the declining Thieves Guild had only regressed even further, and in many of the Holds they'd used to own people no longer even knew them, let alone feared them. The common folk outside of Riften, the farmers and such, the people who hadn't indulged in the corruption? Their lives had honestly only been improved, even as organized crime had slowly fallen, and her policies to increase their security had passed. By Oblivion, she'd even been instrumental in helping Isran and the Dawnguard out with their apparent plan to end the vampire menace once and for all; while she didn't exactly believe the whole story the Dawnguard had told her (ancient vampire clan has the legendary Elder Scrolls, and want to permanently extinguish the Sun? Really?), she did have to admit, since the massive solar flare almost a week ago, vampire attacks across Skyrim had dropped to nearly-zero. The only regrets she found herself wishing she'd been able to fix, even as she gripped Grimsever tightly and prepared to charge at the dragon, was that she wished she'd been able to clean up the great corruption of Riften, make people actually care about cleaning up the city's corruption issue, take down the Black-Briar family... and repay the great Marius Dragonborn, for restoring her confidence by returning her father's sword to her.

As if to show the Divines had a flair for the dramatic, just as the dragon lowered his head, and prepared to unleash his deadly breath attack at the pair, and Mjoll began her charge at the dragon, a steel battleaxe flew from the dragon's right, downhill of the encounter, and firmly buried itself in the dragon's eye, causing it to flinch, spewing it's jet of fire harmlessly (to the pair, at least) up into the air. Before anyone could react to the absurd sight (a mere steel axe, thrown accurately enough to hit the eye, and hard enough to punch through the scales protecting it?), it's owner jumped in from the right, his black hair and green eyes illuminated by the dying embers of the dragon's breath, used the embedded axe as a stepping stone to boost himself up onto the dragon's head, ripped the axe out of it's skull, and brought it back down unto it's other eye, ending it. Of course, to prove that fate apparently had a sense of humor, that was only the second-most unbelievable thing about the encounter. Mjoll would recall the memories of the male Dawnguard agent from the Riften Stables weeks ago, and while she hadn't seen his hair and eyes then, the armor was a match, even though it had been significantly less dented and hastily-repaired. As for Delphine, however, the sight of the dragon burning away, and a light leaving it's corpse and flying towards the man was tied with the fact she actually recognized the man as the unknown mercenary that had delivered the Dragonstone to Farengar in Whiterun, at the start of the conflict.

-THE SKELETON OF SAHLOKNIR, FIVE SECONDS AFTER HE HAD HIS SOUL EATEN-

As I checked my axe, and found it very damaged, I found myself mentally cursing my actions. I'd been woken up from a perfectly enjoyable dream by the innkeeper bursting in, shouting about a dragon attacking Kynesgrove, and had decided to vent all my frustrations on the poor dragon who'd unfortunately been around to earn my ire. Venting said frustrations, however, had involved me recklessly throwing my axe at him, jumping on his head, and smashing my axe into his skull with all the strength I could muster. Thanks to that, the wooden hilt was slightly splintered, the blade had chipped a fair bit, and I was looking at yet another lecture from my overprotective Housecarl. As I dreaded the thought, a voice came from behind me, making me spin around.

"I... it's true, isn't it? You really are Dragonborn." I didn't recognize the woman in leather armor, but her voice sounded familiar. The woman holding the ornate green glass sword in iron armor, though, was someone I felt like I'd met before. Either way though, nobody should have recognized me as Dragonborn, and I suspiciously asked: "Who are you and what do you want with me?

"Marius Dragonborn! We meet again!" The iron armored-woman interrupted, as the leather armored-woman began to answer, and as I raised my eyebrow, Iron Armor continued on: "You returned Grimsever to me, and now you aid me against a dragon! Please, permit me to accompany you in your travels and learn from you! I will serve you in any role you need!"

"Long time no see, Mjoll." Lydia's cold voice came from behind me, and a shudder ran down my spine as I felt two sharp glares directed at my back. "Thanks for all the assistance you provided to the Dawnguard last week."

"Don't think anything of it." Mjoll said casually, apparently oblivious to Lydia's gaze, but before she could continue Leather Armor loudly interrupted her: "My name is Delphine, one of the last members of the Blades. A very long time ago, the Blades were dragonslayers, and we served the Dragonborn, the greatest dragonslayer. For the last two hundred years, since the last Dragonborn emperor, the Blades have been searching for a purpose. Now that dragons are coming back, our purpose is clear again. We need to stop them."

"The Blades? Who are they?" Lydia asked, my Housecarl ever protective of me, and Delphine then launched into a long rant about how nobody even remembered the Blades anymore, how they'd use to serve the Septim Dynasty, and how they'd been waiting two hundred years for a new Dragonborn. Honestly, no matter how much I'd love to have attempted to deny being one, they had seen me just absorb a dragon's soul, and it seemed that this Delphine, this Blades member, knew enough to recognize what I did. Besides, Lydia and Serana would have immediately announced I was Dragonborn, anyway.

"That's all well and good, but what were you doing in Kynesgrove? How'd you know that a dragon was attacking?" I asked, when she finally paused to take a breath, and I once again regretted my question, as she explained: ""The dragonstone you found in Bleak Fall Barrows was a map of ancient dragon burial sites. I took a look at which ones were now empty for the past month, and the pattern wass pretty clear; it had seemed to have been spreading from the southeast, down in the Jeralls near Riften. The one at Kynesgrove would have been next if the pattern held, which we immediately learned was true when my spies heard reports of a dragon heading to Kynesgrove from the southeast."

"What do these ancient dragon burial sites have to do with it?" Serana asked, even as my mind fought to maintain lucidity.

"You guys haven't figured it out?" Delphine asked, skeptical. "Dragons aren't just coming back, they're coming back to life. They weren't gone somewhere for all these years. They were dead, killed off centuries ago by my predecessors. Now some dragon's somehow bringing them back to life, and I need you to help me stop it!"

I absolutely recognized the tone in her voice as the sound of a dedicated zealot who was about to forcefully recruit me, yet again, but I did need some answers, and I communicated my very resigned resolve to Lydia and Serana with my gaze as she dragged me back to the Sleeping Giant Inn in Riverwood, with Mjoll constantly asking me questions and requesting to be of service to me right next to us, and a bemused and amused Serana and surprisingly angry Lydia gritting her teeth in tow behind us. The bright side of returning to Riverwood, at least, was that Alvor was as friendly as ever, and had allowed me to even use his forge. Unfortunately, I lacked the experience to work dragonbone, and Alvor didn't have many good pointers for me either, though at least he'd had the materials and experience to hammer out the dents, repair the padding, and cover up the bone fragments (I'd ask him to leave them in, since they seemed more effective than the treated steel of the Dawnguard). Camilla Valerius had also greeted me, and had happily taken my advice to not begin dating Sven or Faendal. Any further conversation, however, was cut short by my two companions dragging me away and all but throwing me into the Sleeping Giant. The highlight of the day, however, had to be when Delphine went back to inn, reached under the back of the counter, pulled out crude grey horn, and gingerly passed it to me, saying: "I knew the Greybeards would send you for the horn if they thought you were Dragonborn, and taking it was the only way I could be sure this wasn't a Thalmor trap. Since you've already demonstrated it at Kynesgrove, though, I have no further need of it. I'm just surprised that you didn't show up here earlier, asking for the "attic room", but instead went straight to Kynesgrove."

I honestly didn't have the heart to tell her, Serana, or Lydia that I'd completely forgotten about Ustengrav and the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller.

Chapter Text

"I still cannot believe people willingly wear these clothes!" I hissed quietly, as I picked at the tight, itchy collar of the fancy brown robes nobles typically wore to parties in Skyrim.

"Haven't you already worn these before? I still think it suits you." Mjoll replied, amused by my reaction, even as Jordis the Sword-Maiden casually but firmly grabbed my hands and forcefully lowered them, preventing me from taking off the uncomfortable top.

"That was only because you insisted that I had to wear it in front of Elisif, Falk, and Bryling." I complained, even as Jordis slowly piled more and more jewelled gold necklaces on me, and I felt like a display mannequin for some fancy clothes shop. By the Divines, I was wearing more than enough to have run my old orphanage for years!

"It was a formal event, rewarding you for your actions in Solitude." Mjoll pointed out matter-of-factly, before adding: "I think it's nice that people are finally recognizing your deeds, Marius Dragonborn. You're far too humble, in my honest opinion, and based on what Lydia and Serana have been telling me, you deserve a lot more credit than the general public, or even you, gives to you."

"I really don't need people to recognize me at all; if they absolutely had to, I'd rather it not be in these robes." I retorted as Jordis grabbed my hand and began trying out different rings for my fingers.

"You've been complaining about it for two days, Marius Dragonborn; I honestly thought you'd have been happy to get the reward." Mjoll said, in a slightly hurt tone.

"I'm happy about getting this house, really, Mjoll." I reassured her, and her face perked up as Jordis fit a golden band snugly around my finger, and I continued: "But I didn't expect to be made Thane, and, more relevant to the subject at hand, I didn't think I'd have to wear this suit to the Blue Palace, let alone wear it again."

"Well, Thane, the Blue Palace is one of the more civilized courts in Skyrim. It is only natural that there are certain expectations placed on members of it's prestigious court, even newer members like yourself." Jordis eloquently explained, even as the sound of teeth being ground together from behind her made her cease her manhandling of me.

"I'm not even heading to the Blue Palace!" I protested, before remembering that Jordis didn't actually know that I was to attend Elenwen's party at the Thalmor Embassy later that evening, let alone that I was to be infiltrating it under a fake name in order to steal some files. Jordis, to her credit, didn't back down.

"Then what, pray tell, will you be doing, Thane Marius? Why am I helping you dress up?" Jordis asked inquisitively, though I heard the determination in her voice. The person grinding her teeth in the back of the room heard it too, however, and didn't appreciate it.

"Watch your tone, Housecarl Jordis!" Lydia snapped at her junior, who flinched at the ice in her tone. "You've only been serving my Thane for two days; you-"

"Easy, Lydia! Easy..." I said, putting my hand on her shoulder, trying to calm her down. Lydia could really get over-protective when it came to my well-being, and she knew how dangerous my task was going to be, as well as how important it was that the assignment remain a secret. Glancing over at the bemused Mjoll, who seemed to be trying to figure out why Lydia seemed so testy, as well as my stunned new Housecarl, Jordis, I decided to be honest, and tell her the truth: "Well, Jordis, you see... I actually have an invitation to Elenwen's party today."

"You have dealings with the Thalmor?" Jordis asked in an almost insulted tone, before she saw Elenwen's personalized invitation in Lydia's outstretched hand. To her credit, she was able to quickly mask her look of disgust with a forced smile, and didn't stumble over her words: "I'm so happy for you, Thane Marius..."

"That's enough of that fake smile, Jordis. Marius Dragonborn has absolutely no dealings with the Thalmor; if anything, given how I used to help wood elf refugees escape their rule during my time in the Legion, they'd probably celebrate if they heard I died." I explained, and her expression changed to one of genuine respect once she heard a bit about my past. "But Marius Dragonborn does have some files of interest he needs to pick up from the Thalmor Embassy, and a black-haired, green-eyed Imperial by the name of Scenicus Nomine just so happens to have an invitation..."

"Wait, so... you're sneaking in to the Thalmor Embassy under a fake identity?" Jordis questioned, scandalized, before her face changed into one of awe, and she excitedly asked over Mjoll's laughter: "That... is so cool! What are the files? Who are you working for? Are you really a Thane? Did you really do everything they say you did? What's-"

"Easy, easy!" I interrupted yet another Housecarl, patting my over-excited new companion on the head, and began to explain: "It all started last week, just after the dragon's attack on Kynesgrove..."

-SLEEPING GIANT INN, RIVERWOOD, SIX-AND-A-HALF DAYS AGO-

"Let me get this straight." I began, after Delphine had finished her explanation. "You want me to get into the Thalmor Embassy, their center of their operations in Skyrim, which you've just described as "locked up tighter than a miser's purse", because you think they're our best lead. Why?!"

Delphine sighed at my outburst, and re-iterated: "I've seen their security; they could teach me a few things about paranoia... anyway, I have nothing solid. Yet. But my gut tells me it can't be anybody else. The Empire had captured Ulfric. The war was basically over. Then a dragon attacks, Ulfric escapes, and the war is back on. And now the dragons are attacking everywhere, indiscriminately. Skyrim is weakened, the Empire is weakened. Who else gains from that but the Thalmor?"

"Point and paranoia, both noted. Even if, theoretically, I were to agree to this insane plan, how would you have me infiltrate the Thalmor Embassy?"

"The Thalmor ambassador, Elenwen, regularly throws parties where the rich and connected cozy up to the Thalmor." Delphine explained: "I can get you into one of those parties. Once you're inside the Embassy, you get away and find Elenwen's secret files. I have a contact inside the Embassy. He's not up for this kind of high-risk mission, but he can help you. His name's Malborn. Wood elf, plenty of reason to hate the Thalmor. You can trust him. I'll get word for him to meet you in Solitude, at the Winking Skeever - you know it? While you're doing that, I'll work on getting you an invitation to Elenwen's little party. Meet me at the Winking Skeever with Malborn, and we'll finalize the plan there. Any questions?"

"Your plan sounds even worse now that I've heard the details." I answered, drily. "First off, how do I know I can trust your contact? Secondly, how am I even supposed to get in? I'm not exactly invisible, you know. And most importantly, thirdly, you want me to interact with the rich and connected? You do realize I'm about as far-removed from Imperial and Thalmor high society as one can physically get, right?"

"First off, don't worry about Malborn. He's not a dangerous character like you, but he hates the Thalmor at least as much as I do. He's a wood elf - the Thalmor wiped out his family back in Valenwood during one of their purges that we officially never hear about, but I think you and I would be very familiar with. Luckily they don't know who he really is, or he wouldn't be serving drinks at the Ambassador's parties.

"Secondly, you'll have a real invitation, don't worry. I've prepared a lot of false identities over the years, just in case, and there so happens to be a black-haired, green-eyed Imperial named "Scenicus Nomine" amongst them. And as for the third point, all you need to do is act like a Thalmor toady in front of everyone, and most importantly don't actually interact with anyone, and you should get past the guards. I don't have time to coach you regarding all the subtleties of Scenicus Nomine, so try to minimize contact with the guests and the Thalmor, slip away from the party without raising the alarm, find Elenwen's office, and search her files. Your lack of experience shouldn't be an issue, and Malborn should be able to point you in the right direction."

"You're kidding, right?" I asked, incredulous, before suggesting: "Why couldn't you just sneak me in as some servant or cleaner or something? That'd put me under a lot less scrutiny, not to mention a lot less pressure, and it'd be something I'd have actual experience in."

"I don't even want to know why you have experience sneaking in as a menial laborer, Dragonborn." Delphine answered curtly, shaking her head. "But I don't think you know how the Thalmor think; unlike in the Imperial City, the staff require a lot more clearance than the guests. To put it lightly, who do you think requires more trust: a guest in an open entrance hall with the exits monitored constantly, and watched by the ambassador herself and a dozen Thalmor Justiciars and soldiers, or an unattended cleaner, with access to the rooms of the high-ranking Thalmor agents, and constantly in the company of said agents?"

Conceding the point, I turned to my two followers, and asked: "Lydia? Serana? Your thoughts? I'm definitely not a fan of this, but we do need answers with regards to the dragons coming back to life; if they can keep being resurrected, our defeat is a matter of time."

"I don't like the risks either, my Thane, but I will defer to your will." Lydia said, in one of the strongest shows of support I'd ever seen, and Serana also chimed in: "You always seem to get out of the reckless situations you always get yourself into, Marius. We can always drop by Morthal when this is all over."

"There's no need for that, Serana." I replied, tossing the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller in the air, before catching it. "I need to take a detour to High Hrothgar anyway; you guys drop Serana off by Morthal so she can get her... "affliction"... cured, and then make your way up to Solitude. Lydia, you can arrange with Mjoll a meeting for me in the Blue Palace, since you said you wanted to see what Isran was talking about; use her connection to Thane Bryling. Delphine, settle your contact. I'll meet you guys in the Winking Skeever in Solitude once I'm done with whatever the Greybeards wanted this for; I've got a pretty fast way to get off the mountain."

"Are you sure you don't need some company, my Thane?" Lydia asked, and I considered relenting. Ultimately, however, whatever concerns of Lydia's I'd be relieving by letting her come along would be outweighed by the worries I knew she'd get if she witnessed me mounting Durnehviir once more. More importantly, however, I trusted in her judgement and in her loyalty; no offense meant to Mjoll and Delphine, but Mjoll didn't strike me as the sharpest blade in the armory, and Delphine's time in hiding had clearly unhinged her, and I silently communicated as much to Lydia with my gaze, and she relented, mollified. With our plans confirmed, we split up, and for the first time since Whiterun, I found myself travelling alone.

-HIGH HROTHGAR, FOUR-AND-A-HALF DAYS AGO-

"Ah! You've retrieved the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller." Arngeir observed from where he had been meditating as I entered the main hall of High Hrothar, clutching the grey horn in one hand, and I nodded as a form of greeting even as he and the other Greybeards began to rise from their kneeling positions, and he continued: "Well done. You have now passed all the trials.

"Come with me. It is time for us to recognize you formally as Dragonborn." Arngeir commanded with a beckon, and I obeyed, trying not to think about how I hadn't actually ever been to Ustengrav, had actually forgotten all about the horn, and had only gotten it from Delphine because I'd shown up at Kynesgrove purely by coincidence. Some things were best left unmentioned, after all. "You are ready to learn the final word of Unrelenting Force, "Dah", which means "Push"."

"Dah..." One of the other Greybeards whispered, and the stone he'd been facing cracked to form the draconic word for "Dah", in a manner I was familiar with, having seen this all before, and the Greybeard granted his knowledge and understanding of the word to me, and the word connected itself to Fus and Ro in my soul, even as Arngeir continued his explanation: "With all three words together, this Shout is much more powerful. Use it wisely.

"You have completed your training, Dragonborn. We would Speak to you. Stand between us, and prepare yourself." Arngeir instructed, and I apprehensively followed his instructions, saving my snide comments for later, as he warned: "Few can withstand the unbridled Voice of the Greybeards. But you are ready."

The very foundations of High Hrothgar itself shook, the rocks under me trembled, loose stones fell from the ceiling above me, and even I felt myself almost buffeted by the raw power of the mortal masters of the Thu'um as all four of the Greybeards began speaking at once: "Lingrah krosis saraan Strundu'ul, voth nid balaan klov praan nau. Naal Thu'umu, mu ofan nii nu, Dovahkiin, naal suleyk do Kaan, naal suleyk do Shor, ahrk naal suleyk do Atmorasewuth. Meyz nu Ysmir, Dovahsebrom. Dahmaan daar rok."

Their faith in me, however, was not misplaced, and even as they observed me after they'd finished their greeting, I stood tall and straight, refusing to let myself show weakness. I'd been forced to accept that I was Dragonborn since I'd met Kynareth in Aetherius, whether I liked it or not, and I would not let myself be blown away by even these masters. More importantly, though, I was Marius, and I'd faced far worse, ranging from the two dragon ambushers under that frozen lake to the daedra-empowered might of the progenitor vampire lord of the Volkihar Clan, and I'd withstood all those. With respect and awe in his voice, Arngeir finished: "Dovahkiin. You have tasted the voice of the Greybeards, and passed through unscathed. High Hrothgar is open to you."

"What was that ceremony all about? Were you Shouting at me?" I asked awkwardly, feeling slightly embarrassed, as the other Greybeards dispersed to continue their meditation (or whatever it was they actually did), and Arngeir solemnly answered: "We spoke the traditional words of greeting to a Dragonborn who has accepted our guidance. The same words were used to greet the young Talos, when he came to High Hrothgar, before he became the Emperor Tiber Septim."

"But what did you actually say?" I pressed curiously, wanting to know what the traditional words were. Serana would definitely want to know, ever-curious intellectual that she was, but I'd have bet that Lydia, too, would be interested in me being greeted in the same way as Talos.

"Ah. I sometimes forget you are not versed in the dragon tongue as we are." Arngeir chuckled. "This is a rough translation: Long has the Stormcrown languised, with no worthy brow to sit upon. By our breath we bestow it now to you in the name of Kyne, in the name of Shor, and in the name of Atmora of Old. You are Ysmir now, the Dragon of the North. Hearken to it."

"I'll... try my best to live up to that." I said, not liking the sound of having to hearken to the same title as the one Talos himself had been bestowed; it seemed that the possibility for me to lead a quiet life slipped further and further away with each passing day. Remembering the Horn, and wanting to change the topic, I asked: "By the way, what should I do with the Horn of Jurgen Windcaller?"

"Oh, we would appreciate it if you could return it to Ustengrav." Arngeir casually answered. "Put it right back where you found it, just in case we need to test a future Dragonborn."

Apparently I wasn't the first Dragonborn to curse and swear when told to return the Horn, though I was the first to almost collapse an entire wing of High Hrothgar, not having known how much more powerful my Voice was now that I'd learned the full Unrelenting Force shout.

-THE WINKING SKEEVER, SOLITUDE, TWO-AND-HALF DAYS AGO-

"Alright, Malborn has the gear I want to sneak into the embassy, and Delphine's handed me the invitation and a set of party clothes for the party in two night's time. Is there anything else I missed?" I asked, hoping for a "no", so as for me to be free to buy the strongest alcoholic beverage in this inn, and get very drunk.

The past two days may have had some ups, such as finding out my destruction of the Reaper had the unintended, but not unwelcome, consequence of freeing Durnehviir's soul from bondage under the Ideal Masters, but overall they had not been nice. I'd had to go through Ustengrav just to return the Horn (at least I'd learned a new word, and absorbed some power, from Ustengrav), I'd accidentally run into a small group of necromancers trying to resurrect someone called "Potema" when I'd gone to return Dawnbreaker (and something told me Meridia did not appreciate it too much), and the first sight I'd been treated to when I'd entered Solitude was a man having his head chopped off, a sight which reminded me uncomfortably of Helgen. All in all, I'd have liked a piece of good news, and as was ever consistent in my life, I didn't get it.

"Well, my Thane..." Lydia began, and I could tell by her expression that, while she was excited, she also knew I'd just hate the news.

"What is it, Lydia?" I asked, resigned to putting off my drink for now, just as Mjoll finally returned from wherever she'd been, carrying two bottles.

"Ah, Marius Dragonborn! Drinks are on me!" Mjoll said, and I could have almost kissed her as she handed me a bottle of Spiced Wine. Her next words, however, made me contemplate throwing my now-half-full bottle at something. "The good news is, Lydia and I managed to settle your meeting with the court pretty easily; Thane Bryling, Falk Firebeard, and Jarl Elisif the Fair were very excited to meet the person who cleared out Broken Oar Grotto and Wolfskull Cave, and they wanted to meet you as soon as possible."

"That's... great." I said through gritted teeth, wanting to have had more time to prepare myself for such a high-class event, if not avoid it altogether entirely and let Mjoll and Lydia collect my reward for me. "So, will I be meeting them tonight? Tomorrow morning?"

"Such a kidder as always, Marius Dragonborn." Mjoll chuckled, amused. "I just got back from telling them in you've just arrived in Solitude; we'll be meeting them in fifteen minutes."

"What." I deadpanned, bemused.

"You'll need to get changed; fashion and appearance are important in the Blue Palace, and I wouldn't want you to get snubbed for no reason. Your appearance will reflect on Bryling and I as well, you know." Mjoll continued on as if she hadn't heard me. "Delphine's party clothes should be presentable enough, I suppose. Such a shame, I would have loved to buy some new robes for you."

"How am I supposed to find a changing room and get out of my armor in fifteen minutes?" I demanded to know, before immediately regretting my words as Lydia all but dragged me into a private room, and efficiently stripped me of my battered armor and clothes, before calling Mjoll in to aid in forcing me to wear the party clothes. Outside, I heard Delphine making an affirmative grunt in response to Malborn's question of "Are they always like this?", but I wasn't able to defend my good name, at the time.

My first thoughts, as I approached the Blue Palace, was how much I hated it's inhabitants for forcing me to wear such an uncomfortable piece of clothing. My second thought was to hope that whatever was about to happen, would at least happen quickly, so that I could change back into some simpler, less itchy clothes. My third thought was that the "Blue Palace" was a lot less blue than I'd originally imagined. Sure, the roof was blue, but other than that the rest of the exterior, and most of the interior, seemed perfectly normal.

"Ah, you must be Marius Dragonborn!" A well-dressed red-haired man, who I assumed was the Falk Firebeard Mjoll had coached me about, approached me, and offered his hand, which I stiffly shook. "Mjoll has told Thane Bryling and I so much about you."

"Marius will do." I replied succinctly, wondering when the name "Dragonborn" had been formally adopted as my family name, and the stern brown-haired woman by his side laughed.

"Mjoll was sharing with us a supposed account of you felling a dragon with one hit, on top of stories of how you were apparently involved in a secret war against an organized cabal of vampires." The brown-haired woman, whom I assumed was Thane Bryling, said in a jokingly skeptical manner, though excitement was evident in her voice. "From one warrior to another, I would like to know the exact details. What was it like?"

"It really wasn't anything." I said, uncomfortable with the attention, and tried to redirect the conversation back to the subject at hand. "Look, Isran suggested that I come here; something about Broken Oar Grotto?"

"Of course, Marius. We'll present you to Jarl Elisif the Fair, and she'll bestow your reward upon you." Falk answered casually, as if I'd asked about the weather, and before I could protest the two led me up the stairs to a landing in front of a throne, upon which sat a beautiful young woman with long red hair, whom I assumed was Jarl Elisif the Fair; the title was well-deserved, even though I personally preferred my companions. The throne's occupant spoke first: "You must be Marius Dragonborn."

"And you must be Jarl Elisif the Fair, who I've heard so much about." I said, trying for the diplomatic approach as best as I could. Unfortunately, though, most of my experiences with sweet-talking people had been more to either swindle them, or get out of a tight spot; trying to keep my tone as fancy as possible just for the sake of appearances was a novel, and uncomfortable, concept.

"Your leader in the Dawnguard, Isran, explained to us that you were willing to cede control of Broken Oar Grotto to Solitude merely for a small fleet to carry some troops over." Elisif began, apparently not taking offense to my words. Meanwhile, I fought to maintain a neutral, stoic expression, even as I processed what Elisif had just told me; I had wondered where the fleet had come from, but I hadn't known Isran had essentially traded the bandit-infested grotto I'd cleared out by coincidence as political currency. Elisif then continued: "However, that was merely a trade with the Dawnguard itself. Between your actions in clearing out the raiders who threatened that shipping lane, and in investigating Wolfskull Cave, all done by your own initiative, and without prompt or formal request, I would like to offer you a personal reward, on behalf on Solitude."

"That won't be necessary, you're being much too kind." I forced out through a fake smile, even as I was internally conflicted between personally actually wanting a reward so I could pay for armor and a place to live, and not enjoying any of the attention on me in the slightest, especially when I didn't even remember half of what they were talking about (Wolfskull Cave, for example, I didn't actually remember investigating, even though it had been mentioned quite a few times at this point). Elisif, however, laughed off my words.

"Before you arrived, I had Falk look into you, and while most of your past before coming to Skyrim is a mystery even to his intelligence networks, it's clear to us that you've been doing a lot of good since the start of the Dragon Crisis, and through the recent outbreak of vampire attacks. More importantly, Falk said I could count on you, and I trust his judgement." Elisif reassured me, before declaring, in a more pompous and generous tone: "Marius Dragonborn, for your services to Solitude in the retaking of Broken Oar Grotto, and the investigation of Wolfskull Cave, as well as your services to Skyrim throughout the Dragon and Vampire Crises, I am pleased to award you the property of Proudspire Manor. Speak to Steward Falk after this ceremony to collect the deed to your new home, as well as for options on decorating it."

"That... that is far too much, my Jarl." I yelped out in alarm, even as Falk, Bryling, Lydia, Mjoll, and the assorted guards, hanger-ons, and sycophants applauded me. For the first time in my whole life, I finally had my own house; perhaps the Divines had heard my secret wish, and answered my prayers. Unfortunately, however, there was more.

"There is also room in my court for a new Thane. It's an honorary title, mainly, but there are a few perks someone like you could make use of." Jarl Elisif continued on, in her best "magnanimous ruler" tone. "The title can only be granted to someone who is known throughout my Hold, and who owns at least one piece of property in my city. As of my previous declaration, you now meet both criteria. By my right as Jarl, I name you Thane of Haafingar. Congratulations."

"This truly is far more than someone like me deserves." I answered her curtly, even as the applause grew in volume, before I whispered to her, suspicious: "No, seriously, what's the play here?"

"Falk and I were just thinking it would be best if we tied down the Dragonborn who's done so much for us with money, power, and positions. Think of it as... an investment into your future and your continued relationship with Haafingar." Jarl Elisif whispered sweetly to me, with a kind smile, and I found myself marvelling at her ability to keep a straight face even as she slipped back into her "magnanimous ruler" voice: "I grant you a personal Housecarl to watch over your home and this weapon from my armory to serve as your badge of office. I'll also notify my guards of your new title. Welcome to my court, Thane Marius Dragonborn of Haafingar!"

As I watched the members of the court cheer for me, I found myself uncomfortably remembering how I'd been made Thane of Whiterun as well, but what really drove home the similarity was when a young beautiful blonde Nord in iron armor (apparently the default armor for all young and budding Housecarls) approached me, presented me with an exceptionally well-crafted and well-honed ebony sword, and said: "Jarl Elisif has appointed me to be your housecarl. It's an honor to serve you, Thane Marius Dragonborn."

Admittedly, though, the sound of grinding teeth in the background was new.

-PROUDSPIRE MANOR, JUST AFTER MARIUS HAD RECOUNTED HIS STORY-

"So, let me get this straight. After being crowned Ysmir, Dragon of the North, and having to return the horn you spent a month or so looking for, in order to sneak into the Thalmor Embassy and steal some secret files for a certain group of dragonslayers, you came to Solitude to prepare for the party, and accidentally got made Thane?" Jordis asked skeptically, as I finished recounting the previous week's events.

"Well, when you put it that way..." I began, before she continued in an excited tone, apparently not needing breath: "That is such a wild story, Thane! But, I must say, your luck is truly something else..."

"You don't know the half of it." I muttered under my breath, even as the occupants of my new house burst out laughing at her observation, and I found myself wondering if Jordis was gullible, naive, or just incredibly trusting.

"Now that I know what you're dressing up for, Thane Marius, I know exactly what accessories to put on you." Jordis said in an elated tone as she changed the ring on my hand for an even tackier one, apparently having absolutely no doubts whatsoever in my story. Fortunately for my continued sanity, Lydia quickly reminded us of the time, and over Jordis's protests I walked out dressed as I already had been, which is to say uncomfortably, with Mjoll and Lydia in tow, and proceeded to Katla's Farm at the bottom of the cliff, where Delphine had arranged to meet us with a carriage.

"Hmm. I guess that will have to do. You should pass for a real guest, at least until you open your mouth." Delphine observed as I approached her carriage as naturally as I could. Which is to say, as stiffly as a scarecrow. "Ready to board the carriage to the embassy?"

"As ready as I'll ever be, I suppose." I said drily as I boarded the carriage, not even bothering to try for a more sophisticated tone; I'd have to maintain one for the rest of the evening, and if I were to succeed at it I'd need to conserve my energy as much as I could. Mjoll and Lydia, meanwhile, waved at me.

"I'll need to get back to Riften before the entire city collapses under it's corrupt weight without my intervention. Also, I've heard Maven Black-Briar would be at the party; her absence from the city would be the best time for me to try and push some changes." Mjoll spoke to me, and the frustration in her voice was barely evident. Clearly, she'd actually relaxed a fair bit since I'd first met her at Riften Stables. "Look me up if you ever return to Riften, Marius Dragonborn. I'll be more than happy to help you in any way I can!"

"Thanks for the offer, Mjoll." I replied, genuinely touched by her gratitude. And to think, all of this over some random sword I found in some random dwarven ruins. "I hope you understand, however, if I were to say I wouldn't go to Riften even if every other Hold was burning to the ground."

"Take care of yourself, my Thane." Lydia offered, even as Mjoll shook her head and chuckled, and as the two left together Lydia called back: "Don't do anything I wouldn't let you do! You know how you have a tendency to get into trouble when unsupervised..."

"Hey! What's that supposed to mean?!" I protested, even as Delphine and the hooded carriage driver began shaking with repressed laughter, and I reflected it was the first time I'd seen her actually loosen up since I'd met her. Trying to change the subject, I quickly asked: "Are you going to keep laughing, or is this carriage finally going to depart?"

"Just make sure you get back out of there alive with the information we need. Good luck." Delphine bade me with a stoic expression, even as the carriage went up the mountain, and her form slowly shrank. Leaning into the carriage, I tried to get as comfortable as I could, and failed miserably. Something told me this was going to be a long evening.

-THALMOR EMBASSY, HALF AN HOUR LATER-

"Ah! A fellow latecomer to Elenwen's little soiree. And arriving by carriage, no less! I salute you, sir!" A Redguard man I'd never met before greeted me as I alighted my carriage, and I instinctively tensed up as he obliviously cozied up to me, and began sharing what appeared to be his life story: "My lateness is due more to getting lost on the way up this gods-forsaken mountain than to any desire to actually arrive late. I prefer to arrive early. Often the day before the party. So as not to miss out on any of the drinking. There's not enough drinking in the world today, wouldn't you agree? I will just... rest here a moment. Although it is damnable cold out here. I don't look forward to the trip back down... Perhaps we might share a carriage after the party? I know, I know - we've just met. But think, by the time the party is over we'll no doubt be fast friends. I look forward to it. I'll go after you. Although these fellows know me. I never miss one of Elenwen's parties, you see."

"No, please, after you." I said, in the most sophisticated voice I could pull off, wanting to observe how a dignitary would enter the Embassy so I could imitate it. Unfortunately, however, he argued: "Please. You first. I insist."

Noticing the guard eyeing the two of us, and not wanting to make a scene, I decided to instead fall back on my previous experiences in trying to infiltrate guarded places: act as casually and naturally as possible, like one belongs exactly where they are, and has a divine-mandated right to be there. Granted, that had worked best when I'd been infiltrating as one of the eternally-unnoticed servants of nobles, but it was all the experience I had, and all I could do was try to modify it to fit this situation.

"Welcome to the Thalmor Embassy. Your invitation, please." The Thalmor soldier guarding the Embassy's entrance stopped me with a bored voice as I approached her, and I silently mused that, even in the tyrannical oppressive regime that was the Third Aldmeri Dominion, the hired help was still bored, underappreciated, and, if I had the look on her face right, probably underpaid. Reminding myself that these were members of the Thalmor, and thus deserved absolutely no sympathy, understanding, or tips, I resisted the urge to begin building a rapport with her I could later abuse, or flick a septim as her (people of my supposed stature did not take notice of the servants or underlings, even if they were highly attractive), and flashed my invitation at her with a casual "Here you go", as if I were communicating with a talking statue. By the way I watched her glazed eyes look over the piece of paper, I could tell she hadn't really even paid attention to my invitation, or scanned it for any errors or inconsistencies, and in the usual forced cheery tone that underlings usually had when they had no passion for their work and didn't expect anyone to actually hear them, but still had to adopt as part of their job, she said: "Thank you, sir. Go right in."

Walking past her, and the other assorted guards and their rote words of welcome and greetings, I turned my nose up, and strolled up the stairs and right through the Embassy's doors as if I owned the place, and by the way I was unchallenged, I assumed that my disguise was working. That happy state of being, sadly, lasted only up to the entrance corridor, where upon a female Altmer, in the typical robes of Thalmor Justiciars, immediately approached me, and said: "Welcome. I don't believe we've met. I am Elenwen, the Thalmor Ambassador to Skyrim. And you are...?"

"My name is Scenicus Nomine. Pleased to meet you." I said confidently, trusting in my cover, and gently kissed her proffered hand. With a surprising giggle and a blush, she replied in a friendly manner: "Ah yes. I remember your name from the guest list. Please, tell me more about yourself. What brings you to this... to Skyrim?"

Fortunately, before I had to begin wildly inventing details about Scenicus Nomine's life and risk blowing my cover, Malborn quickly distracted Elenwen with some talk about running out of wine, and the Redguard I'd met at the entrance stepped into the Thalmor Embassy. With a mild twitch in her eye, she said to me: "My apologies. We'll have to get better acquainted later. Please, enjoy yourself."

Tempting as it would have been to stay and watch Elenwen have a conversation with the Redguard she ever so clearly did not want to have, I did have a mission to accomplish here, and I casually sauntered over to Malborn's position at the counter, and pretended to order a drink.

"You made it in. Good." Malborn greeted me in a relieved tone, even as he passed me a bottle of alcohol, and quickly briefed me: "As soon as you distract the guards, I'll open this door and we can get you on your way. Let's both hope we live through this day..."

Barely acknowledging his words, I strolled away from the counter and towards the floor, trying to prepare myself for what I was sure would be the most difficult part of the day: mingling.

Surprisingly, the first person I noticed was Jarl Elisif the Fair, who looked like she wanted to be present at the party about as much as I did, although her fake smile hid it better than mine could. Before I could slink away, however, she noticed and recognized me, and approached me with a polite, interested: "Thane Marius? I'm surprised to see you here! Steward Falk never told me you had any dealings with the Thalmor..."

"You must have mistaken me for someone else, my dear." I said firmly, while giving Elisif a pointed stare. "My name is Scenicus Nomine, and I do believe this is my first time meeting a beauty such as yourself. May I have the pleasure of knowing your name?"

Luckily, before we were overheard, Elisif got the message, and with a sly grin she answered: "I am the Jarl of Solitude, Elisif the Fair. So, "Scenicus", what brings you to this party?"

"More business than pleasure, I'm afraid." I said under my breath, trying to communicate purely by my gaze that my sentence was as honest as I could make it at the time and place, and Elisif nodded.

"By all means, I'd love to hear more about your business some time in the future, "Scenicus"." Elisif wrapped up our conversation, and as she walked past me she whispered: "Perhaps you'd like to drop by my private quarters in the Blue Palace and tell me all about it?"

"I'd be delighted, my Jarl." I whispered back through a grimace, and as she left in a satisfied manner I tried to figure out what in Oblivion had just happened, and if it was too late for me to leave Solitude. I hadn't unpacked and settled into Proudspire Manor yet, after all. As I internally debated the manner, an old black-haired lady approached me, and introduced herself cryptically: "It is not eyes that reveal another's true nature. It is the heart."

"I'm sorry?" I asked, having no idea what the old crone had said, and she laughed.

"It's alright, dragon, I know who you are. Jarl Idgrod Ravencrone, of Morthal, at your service. Your "little sister" says hello."

"You know her? How is she?" I demanded to know, not having seen Serana since we had split; she had yet to return from Morthal, last I had heard.

"Her affliction has been cured, and you should see her sooner than you'd think." Idgrod said confidently, before adding in a sagely tone: "Now do not dilly dally, and carry out your business quickly; your gentlemanly stunt at the entrance corridor has caught the eye of our host, and she will soon seek you out again."

"How did you-"

"Know? Some say the Divines grant me visions of things to come. Others call me a senile old lunatic with an overactive imagination. Or perhaps I am a simple old lady with a gift for reading people, and a soft spot for causing mischief. It matters not what you believe; irregardless, you have been warned."

"I'll take your warning to heart." I told Idgrod truthfully, not wanting to risk blowing my cover during an intense interrogation session with an interested and attentive ambassador. Since she'd told me so much, though... "Any suggestions on how to carry out my business?"

Thinking about it for a bit, Idgrod finally told me: "Thane Erikur is sweet on that Bosmer serving girl, Brelas. See her, the one with the ample bosom and the excellent child-birthing hips, holding the tray of Colovian Brandy? Now, if you could provoke an outburst from him regarding her, not only will it capture all attention for a few moments, but it will also embarrass Erikur. And you didn't hear this from me, but Jarl Elisif would secretly be very grateful if Erikur's standing and prestige were to be lowered somewhat; he has a fair bit of power, and she'd be able to force concessions from him regarding certain issues."

I nodded my approval, liking how the plan sounded. Elisif owing me a favor might help smooth things over when she interrogated me in her private chambers, and more to the point I had absolutely no love for Erikur. Having met the man once, to my great displeasure, I sometimes found myself wondering if he was Nazeem's long-lost sibling. Either way, his ego definitely could use a bruising, and as I approached him to discuss Brelas I found myself having absolutely no regrets.

That changed after five minutes of hearing him passionately go on about the exoticism of Bosmer women, and how Brelas in particular was an exquisite specimen even amongst the inhabitants of Valenwood, before my encouragement finally worked (it would have been sooner, but unfortunately for my ears, I had struggled to repress my disgust) and he'd downed a bottle of Colovian Brandy, approached her under the pretext of wanting another bottle, attempted to kiss her and fondle both her chest and bottom simultaneously, got slapped, threw a tantrum, and had her thrown into the dungeons. Indeed, as I slipped through the door Malborn had opened for me in the chaos, I found I had two regrets. Firstly, I hadn't wanted to cause an innocent by-stander to get thrown into a Thalmor dungeon, and secondly, I would never be able to unhear whatever Erikur had said, and that it had taken me five whole minutes to convince him to act. I just hoped the files would be worth the partial loss of my sanity.

-ELENWEN'S SOLAR, TWENTY MINUTES LATER-

"The Thalmor are just as clueless as the Blades are!" I silently cursed, pocketing the two dossiers, the hastily-scribbled note regarding the intelligence they'd gathered on the dragon resurrection phenomenon, and a key, labelled "Interrogation Chamber", that I'd found just lying around in the locked chest of the locked office I'd snuck into, before quickly popping my head around the corner to make sure I was still undetected. Satisfied that the guards were as oblivious as they'd been for the past twenty minutes or so, I quickly scanned the room for anything of further interest, as I contemplated my next course of action. The note had mentioned an informant, which I guessed was the "Gissur" I'd overheard asking the Thalmor interrogator for a reward, and a lead undergoing something called "Intermediate Manual Uncoiling", which, if I had to hazard a guess, was probably unpleasant to experience. Just then, the glint of light being reflected off a shiny surface came into my view, and I figured I could deal a minor blow to Thalmor finances and prestige (not to mention lining my pockets) while figuring out the next step.

It had been insultingly easy to infiltrate the Embassy once I'd gathered the dwarven dagger and lockpicks I'd given Malborn from the kitchen, happily ditched the fancy and flashy brown party clothes for something a little darker, less movement-restricting, and more comfortable, and casted a Muffle and Invisibility spell. By Oblivion, I'd probably only really seen three or four pairs of guards patrolling the space between the kitchen and the private office I'd just robbed.

I didn't question it, didn't question why, for the first time in forever, my luck seemed to be holding, why this place was not, in fact, locked up tighter than a miser's purse. It was pretty easy to guess: the Thalmor were complacent. After all, the Empire wouldn't send spies to infiltrate the Thalmor's Embassy in the backwater, chaotic province of Skyrim, not when Cyrodiil had one to infiltrate instead. The Blades were scattered and decimated, and the survivors had made it this far by hiding, not trying to fight back against the Thalmor. The Stormcloaks? They'd sooner raze the building to the ground than try to infiltrate it. In other words, infiltrating the Skyrim Thalmor Embassy was pointless, which was why I'd been succeeding so well.

Unfortunately, as I should have expected, my luck didn't hold up, and as I slipped out of the office, and checked the way I'd come in, with two dossiers, a note, a key, a few elven daggers, a lot of golden jewellery, and a few gold bars weighing me down, I found the entrance I'd come through swarming with guards, and as I listened in the cause soon became apparent: my infiltration had finally been noticed. It was time to decide my next course of action.

Honestly speaking, it actually wasn't a hard decision to make. I couldn't hide here indefinitely; eventually the Thalmor guards would swallow their pride and ask the mages for help (or be overruled by a furious Thalmor official), and my hiding spot would be given away by a simple Detect Life spell (a spell which I honestly regretted not learning. Unfortunately, Alteration wasn't one of Serana's specialties; while I had proficiency enough in the Alteration School of Magicka to cast it, I had failed to find someone to teach me the spell). And, while it probably was simple enough a task to sneak up to the second floor, and either Unrelenting Force a window and run, or just pick the window's lock and climb down, there were other factors to consider. For one thing, I'd be leaving without solid, updated intelligence on what the Thalmor knew about the dragon resurrections. For another, while escaping with the aforementioned lead would slow me down significantly, I'd be depriving the Thalmor of what the lead would know, while simultaneously recovering whatever the lead knew for the Blades. And lastly, and most pressingly, there was a staircase in a room right next to the office I had just stolen from that led down to the dungeons, according to the plans Malborn and Delphine had shown me during the briefing. Thus, sadly, with absolutely no thought of the morality of leaving an unarmed captive to the mercy of the Thalmor (I swear), I made the completely pragmatic choice of going down to the dungeon, attempting to rescue the prisoner, and steal whatever documents the Thalmor had down there.

To her credit, the lead was actually still stubbornly resisting by the time I'd snuck into the dungeons, and as I looked down at the dungeon floor from the landing the entrance had led to, I found myself nodding in approval and respect at the blonde Imperial woman, manacled to the wall of a cell by her wrists, as she spat a mouthful of blood at the Thalmor guard who'd just punched her, even as the Thalmor interrogator shook his head in frustration, and took out what looked like a dossier from the chest next to the table he'd been seated at.

"Let's begin again." The interrogator began, in an exasperated tone, and I could tell this had gone on for longer than he'd have liked. "Tell me what you know."

"I know that, if you keep this up, the Guild and I will have found our next target." The woman said defiantly, and even as she earned herself another punch in the face the fire in her eyes still hadn't died out.

"Look, this is pointless. Nobody even knows you're gone. Just tell me about this man, and we'll consider letting you go." The interrogator held up a sketch of an old man, and the woman shook her head.

"Sorry... I may have seen him around the Ratway once or twice, but it's so hard to remember... all these blows to the head must have affected my memory." The woman drawled sarcastically, and I found myself almost chuckling at her audacity even as I slowly balanced myself on one of the beams above the interrogator. "All I know is that the crazy old man paid us a lot of money to keep his whereabouts a secret."

"What if I offered you even more money?" The interrogator offered, seizing that glimmer of hope her words had offered, and she laughed.

"Perhaps you should have considered that before skipping right to the torture, hmmm?"

"I'm done being nice. Guard, let's begin Intermediate Manual-" I didn't allow the interrogator to finish his sentence, and cut off his words with a thrown elven dagger to the top of his skull. Even as his body toppled to the ground, and the guard's training kicked in, I carefully dropped myself from the beam, bleeding off the little momentum my controlled fall gave me by tumbling quietly forward from where I'd landed, and quickly threw a Sparks spell at the guard, the electricity from my hands dancing along his elvish metal armor. My novice Destruction spell wouldn't be enough to kill him, surely; the armor's inner padding would at least insulate his vital organs. But it did, at least, cause extreme pain and slight burning and paralysis along his less-protected extremities and face, and the few seconds his uncontrolled twitching bought were more than enough for me to draw and throw my other elven dagger into his face.

"I knew the Guild would come for me!" The woman said in a relieved tone even as I picked up the dead interrogator's dossier, and checked it through. It honestly still wasn't much, but it was still a small lead, and if the Thalmor wanted this old Blades agent, this "Esbern", he probably knew something, at least. "I haven't seen you around the Ratway before, though..."

"Guild?" I echoed absent-mindedly, not knowing what she was talking about. The key to the manacles had to be somewhere in this room, and I eventually found it on the interrogator's corpse.

"You're... not a member of the Thieves Guild?" The woman asked, confused, and I paused as the weight of her words finally hit me. "Could have fooled me; even I didn't notice you come in, and from your posture and the way you walk-"

"I used to be part of the Thieves Guild. The Imperial City one." I said firmly, deciding to tell a partial truth; I had no idea if Scenicus Nomine had ties to the Thieves Guild as part of his backstory, but I, personally, wasn't comfortable discussing it with a random stranger, especially not when I was trying to get out of the Embassy. By Oblivion, I was even starting to have second thoughts about freeing her, although I still moved to unlock her wrists; putting aside the coldness of leaving someone to the mercy of Thalmor torturers, I didn't want to let the Thalmor get any more intelligence out of her.

"Oh, right. I heard they got busted a few years back by the Penitus Oculatus." She said sympathetically, rubbing her freed wrists, before continuing: "So, you managed to escape, I take it... and what, exactly, are you doing in the Embassy then?"

"... business?" I asked awkwardly, deciding against telling the full truth to a member of the Thieves Guild even as I pulled out the daggers from the two corpses and hid the bodies, and the woman laughed as she picked up the dead guard's sword, and suggested: "Listen, the name's Vex, and I think you'd make a great addition to the Skyrim Thieves Guild."

"What makes you think I want to join?" I asked, not liking where this conversation seemed to be heading. I was definitely not in the mood for being forcibly recruited by another faction, let alone one that I'd worked so hard to escape before.

"Either you've stolen those from the Embassy, or you're in the habit of just carrying around a lot of golden jewellery." Vex answered drily, pointing to a golden circlet with inlaid emeralds sticking out of my stuffed pouch, and I quietly cursed. Before the conversation could continue, and I could say something I'd regret, the two of us instinctively slipped into the shadows as we heard the door opening, and a pair of Thalmor guards walked in, escorting Malborn and Brelas.

Fortunately, the guards hadn't had their guard up, having expected the dungeon to be the last place an intruder would try to hide in, and Vex and I were more than skilled enough in the art of stealth to take out the two guards and free the two Bosmer. Unfortunately, even though Brelas didn't hold me responsible for her arrest (I felt no need to let her know of my role in encouraging Erikur's sleaziness), Malborn more than made up for it; his literal first sentence to me after I'd freed him was: "I should have known this would end badly. I can't believe I let Delphine talk me into this."

"Good to see you too, Malborn." I greeted him easily. "What's next for you?"

"Now the Thalmor will be hunting me for the rest of my life." Malborn said bitterly. "I hope it was worth it."

"It was, we've got a new lead on the dragons." I reassured him, even as I silently prayed that this "Esbern" would be the lead we needed. "So, this trapdoor? Where does it lead to?"

"Guards used it to clear dead prisoners; it should lead to some empty cave at some point lower on the mountain." Brelas answered for Malborn, even as she tried to calm him down by massaging his shoulder, and I mused that shared incarceration must have made them closer than I could have guessed. I sighed internally even as Vex watched the couple with an amused look; even a Bosmer who had worked for the Thalmor, just lost his job, and was probably about to be hunted by said Thalmor for the rest of his life, seemed to have better luck at romance than me.

"We should go, quickly; before they took us to the dungeon, Elenwen was talking to some of the robes that just came from Alinor, and they've probably already pin-pointed your location. The guards could be here any minute!" Malborn hissed, interrupting my thoughts, and Vex immediately moved to study the lock, even as I searched the dead guards for a key to the trapdoor.

Exactly one minute later, with the trapdoor still locked, and the key still not found, the doors slammed open once again, and Elenwen and a small Thalmor army marched into the tiny dungeon. Deciding stealth was overrated, I turned to face the trapdoor, and for the first time, tried out a full, three-word, Unrelenting Force Shout. Even as the soldiers began running down the stairs towards us, the wood of the trapdoor shattered inwards from the directed force, like a glass window meeting a battering ram, and the four of us quickly jumped down the trapdoor, and into the reeking cave.

As it turned out, apparently the Thalmor had dumped so many bodies in the cave, it had actually attracted a scavenger, and a Frost Troll roared in surprise and anger at us as we landed right in front of it. Between an angry Frost Troll and an angry Thalmor army, however, I'd have happily taken a full dozen trolls, and I jumped at the Frost Troll and punched it in the mouth, stunning it, before signalling to the rest of the group to make a break for it. Pausing only to toss the prone troll at the first Thalmor soldiers to descend, I sprinted out of the cave and, for the first time in my life, watched as my bad luck kicked in so hard it actually overflowed and somehow became good luck: just as Thalmor soldiers began pouring out of the entrance of the Embassy as well, draconic roars cut through the night, and two large dragons swooped down at the Embassy, either attracted by my overt display of power in that Thu'um or, far more likely, having passed by the wrong place at the wrong time. At the same time, the carriage that had taken me to the Thalmor Embassy earlier pulled up in front of us, and the hooded driver shouted at me: "Idgrod said you might need my help today! Now hop in!"

No matter how grateful I was for the rescue, I just knew there was no way Serana was going to let me live down the fact I hadn't recognized her earlier, and there was no way she was going to keep it a secret from Lydia and the rest, either. At least Malborn, Brelas, and Vex were too stunned by the sight of the two dragons fighting an entire Thalmor army to make any comments or continue complaining for the rest of journey.

Chapter Text

-OUTSIDE THE THALMOR EMBASSY, JUST AFTER THE DRAGON ATTACK-

First Emissary Elenwen of the Third Aldmeri Dominion to the Imperial Province of Skyrim, outwardly-loyal Thalmor Altmer, supposed sadist and secret romantic, and Overseer of the Thalmor Justiciars in Skyrim, was not a happy Thalmor Ambassador. In fact, as she pinched the bridge of her nose with one hand and rubbed her temples with another, and quietly pondered on how a supposedly-cushy job had gone so wrong, she slowly became less "upset and unhappy, and more "depressed and despondent".

Her best lead to find an expert on the dragon resurrection phenomenon, an old archivist named Esbern, had just been taken from the Embassy's dungeons, two members of her staff had been caught aiding the culprit, who was now believed to be working for the Thalmor's greatest rivals of the Fourth Era, the Blades, quite a few trinkets of considerable value, not to mention a few files of significant importance, had been stolen from her Solar, dragons had attacked the Embassy and inflicted massive casualties on her forces (over half of the recently-arrived detachment of high mages from Alinor were dead or unconscious and badly wounded), and one of her fancy parties, one of the few perks of being assigned to this backwater province, had been crashed, causing considerable damage to her reputation and prestige. The next few parties were going to be even more lavish, and the security stepped up, to show her guests that her power was not diminished, that she could still guarantee their safety at her party, and that the Thalmor were in no way cowed by the events of this night. And speaking of guests...

"First Emissary!" A guard called out to her, and she recognized him as the one she'd assigned to be in charge of the investigation.

"What is it?" She snapped, not in the mood for pleasantries, and the guard gulped.

"We've finished our investigations into the potential intruder, Emissary." The guard answered as diplomatically as he could, obviously well-aware of the fact she could have him undergo Advanced Manual Uncoiling with a snap of her fingers, and resisting the urge to make a break for it. "Most of the regular guests were accounted for, and all of them had an alibi. Except one"

Elenwen nodded at the guard to continue, and the guard let loose a sigh of relief. If she hadn't, he'd have rather thrown himself into the jaws of the dragons than continue standing next to her. Elenwen barely paid him any heed, though; she found herself dreading the name he would mention. She'd caught a glimpse of his black hair as she'd barged into the dungeons, and the intruder and his associates had jumped down the broken trapdoor, but still denied it to herself. There was no way he'd be responsible. It just couldn't be...

"Scenicus Nomine is the only guest to not be accounted for, nor offer any alibi regarding his absence." The guard reported, and her mood plummeted further, if such a thing were possible. The one guest she'd taken a genuine liking to, the one guest she'd had in Skyrim who hadn't seemed like he'd been to the party solely for the food and drink, the one guest who'd treated her like a lady... was the man who'd stolen most of the intelligence on the Blades in the Embassy. Elenwen couldn't decide if she should roast the man alive or sentence him to a hundred years of Extreme Manual Uncoiling, but the decision was soon made as the guard continued: "Furthermore, we have no record of a Scenicus Nomine even in Skyrim; based off of the surviving witnesses' testimonies, we've tentatively identified him as one Marius Dragonborn."

"The new Thane of Solitude?" She asked, incredulous. They had received reports from their contacts about Haafingar's newest court member, true, but Elenwen had initially dismissed the intelligence she'd gotten about the man audacious enough to adopt the same title as the Septim dynasty had as inane fiction; she could scarcely even comprehend any one person doing a tenth of what they said he did, let alone connecting the alleged deeds to the soft-spoken gentleman who'd caught her fancy.

The stories flying around about Marius were wild and contradictory, and rumors were a dime a dozen, ranging from him single-handedly slaying a dragon that had destroyed Whiterun's Western Watchtower and eating it's soul to him wiping out an ancient clan of vampires, wielding the artifact of the Daedric Prince Meridia, Dawnbreaker, wielding the legendary bow of the chief god of the Mer, Auri-El, having formerly been a member of the Thieves Guild... the list just went on and on. One of the more unbelievable rumors that she'd taken an interest in (aside from the rumor of him being a massive womanizer and notorious heart-breaker), however, was the one the had him be an actual Dragonborn, like Tiber Septim (or Talos, as he had become; no matter what the Aldmeri Dominion would publicly claim, they most of all knew what their ancient enemy had ascended to). While she personally didn't put much stock in most of these rumors, it did raise a major concern.

Skyrim had always been critical to the Dominion's plans of throwing down Talos, destroying the Towers that maintained reality, transcending mortality, and returning to divinity, true, especially the engineering of the Stormcloak Rebellion (weaken the Imperial province which provided a significant number of hardy and skilled fighters, while eroding the loyalty of the group most likely to struggle against the exclusion of Talos from Divines, and by extension the group most likely to refuse the authority of the Dominion). But compared to the emphasis placed on espionage and sabotage missions in the Imperial City, Thalmor operatives in Skyrim had far more freedom and far less oversight, a fact many of them, especially Ondolemar and Elenwen, happily abused. Elenwen would never have been able to throw so many lavish parties if the Thalmor's bean-counters had actually gone over her accounts, for example, and she knew for a fact her close friend had actually taken to secretly buying Amulets of Talos from more mercenary individuals, and then submitting it as proof that Talos worship was still active in Markath, and using it as an excuse to further slack off and rack up expenses other the pretense of "investigation".

But seeing as how the last Dragonborn the Aldmeri Dominion (the second, not the third) had fought sent the Brass God Numidium to besiege Alinor and the Summerset Isles, a task it had succeeded in accomplishing within minutes (and may also have caused a minor Dragon Break while doing so; some more radical, if not insane, Mer claimed that Numidium was still, somehow, besieging the Summerset isles, despite both it's victory and subsequent destruction centuries ago, as well as being fought off by some high mages outside of their observable reality. While most citizens dismissed such claims as fanciful nonsense, there were the weird crystal chrysalises that occasionally re-appeared in the ruins of the Crystal Tower, which made viewers disappear if observed for too long...), any confirmed Dragonborns would probably supersede even the Blades as top assassination targets, just in case such a tragedy were to reoccur. In fact, the presence of a new Dragonborn individual in Skyrim could possibly even turn the backwater province into the Thalmor's top priority, surpassing even the war in Hegathe (as the Altmer called Hammerfell) and their subversion of Cyrodiilic authority.

Elenwen sighed again as she weighed her options. She liked the autonomy, luxury, and freedom her location gave her; it had been more than worth risking murderous Stormcloak-aligned Nords, being posted to the remote backwater province. Dragons, however, were a different story. An honest-to-Auri-El Dragonborn, working in tandem with the Blades? Fighting the meteor-summoning dragon from Helgen with just her bare fists would be an easier death. The prospect of calling in more Thalmor and informing Alinor of the events occuring in Skyrim was one she still dreaded, and yet she didn't see any choice. Alinor would have her head if they found out she'd been hiding information of this importance, and since, unfortunately, the high mages sent from Alinor to assist with a dragon or two hadn't all died, the intelligence would be reported no matter what. Her anger only grew as she considered the situation, and every iota of it was directed squarely at her unfortunate former interest. She blamed him for ruining her comfortable position in Skyrim. She blamed him for breaking into the Embassy and stealing all the intelligence they had. She blamed him for forcing her and Ondolemar to need to practice pretending to follow the Thalmor doctrine once more, and for them to actually do work. She began to blame him for the dragons returning, since if he hadn't been in Skyrim to fulfill the Last Dragonborn prophecy the dragon probably wouldn't have attacked Helgen, kicking off the Dragon Crisis (it made sense to her desperate, enraged, reaching mind). She even began to blame him for her loneliness and less-than-ideal love life; if he hadn't been a Blades agent, she might've been able to find true love, and thus would not have been distracted by the honeypot, leading to the break-in in the first place!

As one of her guards reported remembering seeing an informant from Riften come in regarding the Dragon Crisis, and she gave the order to send out a Thalmor infiltration team and a strike team to wait around Riften for signs of Marius, follow him to Esbern once he showed up, and capture him and Esbern once contact was made, she silently swore that she would break the Dragonborn, and punish him for all his transgressions, real or imagined. Even as she imagined the myriad of ways she could possibly passionately punish him into obedience, she solemnly vowed to make him regret breaking into the Embassy and her heart.

-RIFTEN, THREE DAYS LATER-

As I got off the carriage with Lydia, Serana, and Jordis, and looked over at the gates separating me from the most corrupt city in Skyrim, I found myself regretting ever having broken into the Embassy in the first place. In fact, as I stopped Jordis from being fooled by a corrupt guard trying to convince her to pay a "visitor's tax", and we entered to see two blackmail attempts, a bribe, and a shakedown all simultaneously taking place in front of us, I debated the merits of just burning the city down to the ground, and getting Serana to use a Clairvoyance spell to find Esbern in the ashes (I had absolutely no doubt Esbern would be able to survive a mere city burning down; based on the dossier I'd stolen, the Blades loremaster had apparently survived all the way from before the Great War and decades of dedicated hunting by the Thalmor, despite being in his seventies, and was harder to kill than a roach). Fortunately for Riften (though not for me), the first person to notice me was Mjoll, my benefactor, who immediately interrupted my thoughts with: "Oh, is that Marius Dragonborn?"

"Hey, Mjoll. It's been a while." I said casually, hoping that she'd forgotten what I'd said when we'd parted even whilst my companions greeted her as well. Unfortunately for me, she still remembered.

"I didn't know the other Holds had burnt to the ground, Marius Dragonborn." Mjoll teased, and even as Lydia and Serana chuckled quietly, and Jordis looked on in a confused manner, I gritted my teeth and said: "They're not, Mjoll. We got a lead from the party that led us here."

"So I take it that it went well?" Mjoll asked, and I shrugged quietly, replying: "As well as one could hope, I suppose."

"Forgive me for interrupting, Lady Mjoll..." The Imperial man behind her, who I could only see as her manservant or butler, interrupted our conversation, glaring at me for some odd reason. "May I know who this is?"

"Ah, Aerin, I completely forgot!" Mjoll exclaimed with a laugh, before slapping me on the shoulder. "This is the Marius Dragonborn I've told you so much about, the one who got Grimsever back!"

"She exaggerates the story." I reassured this "Aerin", whose glare only intensified at the sound of Mjoll's praise. Sadly, he didn't seem to buy it (my companions making agreeing noises to Mjoll's version of events probably didn't help), and he firmly said: "That's all well and good, but we must go now, Lady Mjoll. Our lunch will get cold."

"Just a minute, Aerin." Mjoll brushed him off, and hurt and irritation flashed in his eyes; a look I'd become unfortunately familiar with in the Imperial City. By the looks of it, it seemed that Aerin had feelings for Mjoll that went beyond master and manservant, and by the way Mjoll talked about Aerin (i.e. barely) it was in no way reciprocated. And now, apparently, he was jealous of me for getting Mjoll's attention, as was my luck. Before I could clear things up, Aerin marched off testily, leaving with a mere: "Then I shall be off first, Lady Mjoll."

"You must forgive Aerin. He's not usually like that." Mjoll said apologetically, even as I shrugged easily, and hoped my companions wouldn't take his words personally. Things would be easier for Mjoll and Aerin if I informed her of the reasons behind his behaviour, sure, but after the way he'd acted I felt no need to do him a favor, and I decided to skip straight to business: "Delphine said a man by the name of "Brynjolf" might be able to help me find our lead. Said he's... "well-connected"."

"Brynjolf?" Mjoll scoffed disparagingly, before beginning to rant: "He's essentially the face of the Thieves Guild, though to call it a "guild" is ridiculous. How can people who would betray one another over a gold coin be considered part of an association? They're the worst kind. Even the Dark Brotherhood abides by a strict set of rules and tradition. These thieves are just rabble."

"I know, I know..." I said, trying to soothe Mjoll's anger; I knew she wasn't going to like what I had to say next: "Unfortunately, seeing as how the Thalmor were willing to capture and torture a member of the Thieves Guild for information, they're our best chance at finding our lead right now."

"Let the Thalmor and the Thieves Guild wipe each other out, then." Mjoll declared, and I sighed, knowing this was not going to be easy.

"I have no love for either, as you should know, Mjoll." I began, holding her hand, and her expression softened. "But a war between the two would probably burn Riften to the ground, and while I don't care much for this city, I know you do."

"Fine!" Mjoll spat out, after a few seconds of clearly-intense internal conflict. "But only for Riften. And only because it's you, Marius Dragonborn. You could have easily sold off Grimsever when you found it, or refused to give it to me, or even charged me a Jarl's ransom for it. But you gave it freely and of your own will; if there's any man here who deserves my faith, it's you. Brynjolf's probably in the Bee and the Barb, right over there."

"Thanks, Mjoll. Don't worry, it's not like I'm going to join up with them or anything." I reassured her, steadfastly refusing to acknowledge how Aerin apparently deserved less faith than me, and trying to ignore how suggestive Mjoll's words had first sounded. A chuckle from behind me got my attention, and I turned around to see the prim and proper Jordis trying to stifle giggles, for some unknown reason, whilst Serana and Lydia were sighing and shaking their heads. Mjoll, meanwhile, bade me farewell, wished me good luck with getting information out of Brynjolf, warned me about his wily ways, and denounced him in ten different ways, before turning and leaving. Bracing myself, I decided to just get the deed over with, and went into the designated inn before a thief could pickpocket me. Apparently, however, Skyrim was just full of prophets, or people who talked in riddles; the moment I stepped foot into the Bee and the Barb, a red-headed man in the thick clothes I'd come to associate with high-class folk (and itching, discomfort, etc.) accosted me, asking: "Never done an honest day's work in your life for all that coin you're carrying, eh lad?"

"I'm sorry, what?" I asked, keeping an eye on the amused Serana, annoyed Lydia, and bemused Jordis, and the man chuckled, before elaborating: "I'm saying you've got the coin but you didn't earn a septim of it honestly. I can tell."

That accusation, coupled with the unwelcome memories of my less-than-ideal past and how I'd worked to rise above it, got me riled up, but before I began defending myself it struck me: this was all just a scam! He probably couldn't actually have been able to tell that a certain portion of my money had come from pawning off the stolen goods from the Embassy, and had probably just said such strong words to provoke a response. If he had, somehow, been right, he'd probably have been able to blackmail a share of whatever ill-gotten gains his target (me) may have had, or whatever else he wanted, and if he hadn't and I'd reacted to strike at him, he could've then threatened to called the guards on me if he didn't receive compensation, since I'd struck the first physical blow. And if I just ignored him and walked away? He could pursue me and keep the act up, or he could just as easily change targets, looking for the next person who looked like they had more money than sense. It honestly wasn't a bad tactic, and the way he'd delivered it with such charisma and confidence was worthy of applause, but this was a tactic I'd seen before, when I'd been with the Thieves Guild. And if he was using their tactics...

"Say what you will about my money, it's none of your business." I said as neutrally as possible, keeping my expression as unreadable as I could, and he looked confused for a split second. Using that as an opening, I continued: "You know what could be your business? Someone well-connected told me to look for Brynjolf, said he could help me find someone. I'm willing to put up a decent finder's fee, if you can get me in touch with him."

"Interesting proposition." The man admitted, before asking, in a tone of curiosity that sounded so genuine I was almost fooled: "But what makes you think I have the connections you're looking for?"

"Well, the fact that you're dressed so well, despite Riften being such a den of corruption and thieves, tells me that you don't actually fear being targeted by the local Thieves Guild, so you're probably connected to them in some way." I explained, before gesturing to his female associate, who'd been inching her way towards us, hand on the dagger she'd been hiding behind her back, and continuing: "But between you using a pretty standard method to try and con me of my septims, and your friend over there, who I saw shaking down some stable boy earlier, coming to back you up, it's not hard to connect the dots."

Looking at me in a stunned manner, he suddenly burst out laughing, before gesturing at his associate to stand down, an action she did so with reluctance. As I returned the gesture, and my Housecarls' hands left their weapons, he looked me over, and said: "Not a bad deduction, lad. The name's Brynjolf, and how may I help you?"

Relieved that things were going smoothly, I answered: "Actually, I'm looking for this old guy hiding out in Riften."

"Who are you looking for, and how much are you willing to offer?"

"I'm willing to negotiate, and as for who I'm looking for... is it possible to have this conversation in a more private location?"

"I see, a name you can't say out loud." Brynjolf said, more cautious now that he knew the person he was selling out was dangerous, and thus, also, worth more. "Well, I'd be more than happy to help a new friend out, lad. Just follow me."

"Friend?" I asked, incredulous, even as our group, and a few more hangers-on I assumed were associates of his, went down into what he called "The Ratway", and I protested bluntly: "This is purely a business transaction, Brynjolf. I have no intentions of further associating with you."

"Well, now, no need to be so harsh, lad." Brynjolf answered in mock hurt, before he finally led us to a private, dingy, underground bar. "Now, let's talk business, lad. Who's the person you're looking for, and what'd he do that requires so much secrecy?"

"His name's Esbern-" I began, before I was interrupted by a familiar blonde Imperial woman walking out of a private room with a bald Breton, whose face lit up at the sight of me (to the surprising chagrin of my companions, and the bemusement of everyone present), and I found her suddenly invading my personal space, as she cut in: "Ah, Marius! What are you doing here? Have you finally re-considered my offer?"

"Any idea what's going on?" The Breton asked Brynjolf, who merely shrugged and glanced at my equally-confused Housecarls, and chuckling ex-vampire. Seeing as how I wasn't likely to be free any time soon (nor was I in a hurry, to be honest; Vex was a beauty, and I was but a man), I decided to explain: "Esbern's the man I'm looking for, and I have no idea what exactly he did, but the Thalmor want him so much they kidnapped Vex and tried to torture her for information a while ago."

"So this is the Marius you've been talking about non-stop for the past few days, little Vex?" The Breton asked Vex, who was still giving me a very meaningful look, and I made an affirming noise whilst Serana quietly explained the situation to a very-amused Jordis and a very-annoyed Lydia. He then glanced over at Brynjolf, who nodded, and answered: "Alright, since you did help us by rescuing our little Vex, I'll be open with you, lad. We do know where Esbern is, and since the Thalmor did this to one of our own, we'll even help you out as much as we can from the sides. Of course, this isn't free."

"It never is." I answered simply, feeling surprisingly nostalgic to be having this kind of conversation once more. "How does two thousand septims sound?"

The assorted "patrons" of the Ragged Flagon, and my companions, made shocked noises, surprised by my outburst of generosity, but Brynjolf and the Breton shook their heads, and he answered: "Money's good and all, but we were thinking of something more long-term..."

"What the hell, Brynjolf?" Vex stood up for me, unexpectedly, and as she went over to the two, Lydia suddenly grabbed my arm, in a manner I could only assume was protective. "He saved my life!"

"I know, Vex. Listen..." Brynjolf responded with a sigh, before he called her and the Breton over, and began whispering. Unable to hear what they were saying, I turned to Serana, hoping her sensitive hearing would be able to pick it up, but she shook her head; her enhanced senses had gone with her vampirism. Eventually, they must've reached a consensus, because the trio turned back towards us, and as a smiling Vex looked at me, Brynjolf counter-offered: "See, lad, you've got a good eye, so I'm sure you can tell by the state we're in that we're not doing so well right now. What we need is a good operative right now, and based on what I've seen, you fit the bill."

"We know you used to be with the Imperial City's Thieves Guild, before they got shut down hard, Marius." Vex added, and the Breton huffed in agreement behind her. "We can offer you the chance to earn a lot of coin, a new guild to run with that has your back, and lots of companionship and excitement in your life, along with giving you Esbern's location for free. What do you say?"

Once again, I truly wish I could say that I immediately rejected their offer out of hand, that I had truly turned a new leaf, and would never even consider going back to my old ways. That I was the unshakable paragon of virtue and justice that Mjoll seemed to be, and somehow magically found Esbern on my own, without continuing any negotiations with the Thieves Guild. Unfortunately, though, I was Marius, former thief for a reason, and even if my actions at the Embassy hadn't been one of the first times I felt alive and excited (despite being in mortal peril; in Skyrim, that seemed to be the normal state for me), even if the prospect of being rich had no temptation whatsoever over me, I was still a pragmatist, and I couldn't throw away our best lead. Perhaps I might have even just accepted with little hesitation, had my companions not been with me. But, in the end, I was more than my past; I'd resolved to at least try and turn a new leaf. Moreover, with Lydia, Serana, and now Jordis watching, and with my promise to Mjoll in mind, I had a reputation to maintain. Turning to the expectant trio, I simply answered: "Ten thousand septims, I won't ever tell Mjoll the Lioness where your hideout is, and I'll tell you who the snitch who got Vex abducted was."

Now that offer got their attention. Ten thousand septims was easily ten times what they'd expected for such information, and having one of their most determined pursuers be kept in the dark about their location was important, but a snitch? I still remembered how I'd been hounded through the Imperial City for days by both my former allies and the Morag Tong assassins they'd hired, and I had only had them thrown them in jail. One of their close-knit family had betrayed them to the Thalmor and gotten what appeared to be a very high-ranking member kidnapped and tortured. Their faces hardened, as they realized that their little Vex had been sold out by one of their own, and with sudden venom and coldness replacing the previous warm charisma, Vex replied: "Deal. Give me his name, now, and I'll chop off his balls and feed them to the pigs."

"He calls himself Gissur, or at least that's what I overheard the inquisitor call him in the Embassy." I replied while handing over my entire coin purse, suddenly feeling a little bit of pity for the poor man, and I had to remind myself that, as a Thalmor sympathiser and informant, he deserved no pity, mercy, or empathy. "Ring a bell?"

"That thrice-damned beggar?" The barkeeper suddenly spoke up in disbelief, before angrily exclaiming: "He just left, not even five minutes ago! And he didn't even pay his tab yet!"

"Don't worry, Vex." The Breton said, as Vex looked like she was about to break something. "We'll put the word out for him; there won't be anywhere in Riften he'll be able to hide."

"Thanks for informing us about that snitch." Brynjolf said to me. "We'll handle him from here; the Guild cleans up it's own messes. Now, about Esbern; the crazy old man lives in the Ratway Warrens. Always wondered why he insisted on living in that hellhole, but now we know."

"I'm afraid you're going to have much bigger problems than that." I said solemnly, having gotten a bit of unwanted familiarity with the methods Thalmor strike teams and their informants tended to use from Valenwood. "If he's gone it's probably because he went to alert the Thalmor that Esbern really is here, having overheard us. Or the "Scenicus Nomine" that broke into the Embassy is; while I went in under a false name, my face was still seen by Elenwen and quite a few guards. Either way, we're probably going to have company real soon."

"We'll soon teach them nobody messes with the Thieves Guild, don't you worry. You just go and find your Esbern; deny those damn elves their prize" The Breton reassured me, and I shook my head.

"No need for glorious last stands, old man. Actually, go ahead and sell out Esbern and I." I said calmly, and the trio looked at me while I was insane. My companions did too, for that matter; there were a lot of gasps of surprise from behind me, and I was well-aware that my reputation for noble self-sacrifice had just risen. I had plans, though, none of which involved me dying any time soon, and I explained: "But do emphasize that I already have the information, and would almost certainly be getting Esbern out by the time they've arrived.

"In this case, I've struck one of the biggest blows they've ever tasted in Skyrim, and Esbern's been top of their wanted lists for decades; they won't risk us slipping away. Based on what I've seen in Valenwood, when they get into these hectic situations, they tend to panic and rush in. Gissur, as their informant, will probably go straight in with them, to help locate Esbern and I; he'll want to show them he's useful, probably hoping to get a bonus. They'll send one runner out to deliver the intelligence to whatever spies and informants they have outside.

"Now, here's the important part: my Housecarls and I, and Esbern if he's cooperative, will make sure none of the Thalmor make it out of the Warrens. You guys, and Serana, on the other hand, I'm going to need to monitor the runner, but leave him until he makes contact with the spy. Then, you guys will need to take out both. That way, the information linking Esbern and I to your guild should never reach the Thalmor, and by the time the Thalmor manage to sneak another strike team this deep into Stormcloak territory I should be long gone with the lead."

"Not a bad plan, lad." Brynjolf admitted, and he nodded to Vex and the Breton, who immediately moved into a back room, presumably to make preparations, or take a secret exit out. "Are you sure there's nothing I could offer that would entice you into accepting my proposal?"

"Perhaps let me focus on stopping the dragons, so that there's still cities to rob." I said drily, and as my companions and Brynjolf chuckled at my words I collected a few potions Serana handed over to me with a smile and a wish of "good luck", moved towards the door the barkeeper motioned towards, and continued my quest to find the crazy old man, all the while feeling surprisingly sympathetic towards the Thieves Guild. They seemed a lot more friendly than the Imperial City's Thieves Guild, true, but considering the way Mjoll often talked about them, I hadn't expected to find myself wishing they'd survive the day. I just hoped the ten thousand septims would be worth it.

-OUTSIDE THE DOOR TO ESBERN'S HIDEOUT, THE RATWAY WARRENS, THIRTY MINUTES LATER-

"By the Divines, you stubborn old man, open the door! You need to get out of here!" I yelled at the door, and as the room's inhabitant continued yelling at me to go away, I resisted the urge to just break down the door; if Esbern was really as dangerous as the Thalmor believed he was, it wouldn't end well for me, or half of Riften. Seeing my frustrations, my young Housecarl, Jordis, decided to try a more diplomatic approach, and we swapped places: "Esbern? Open the door. I'm a friend."

"What?! No, that's not me. I'm not Esbern. I don't know what you're talking about." The voice continued denying anything and everything, and as I vented my frustrations out on the Thalmor soldier who'd just charged me, Jordis calmly answered: "It's okay. Delphine sent me. She said to "remember the 30th of Frostfall.""

"Ah. Indeed, indeed. I do remember. Delphine really is alive, then?" Esbern answered, now sounding relieved, and even as I threw up a ward, and Lydia fired her crossbow at a Thalmor inquisitor, he continued: "You'd better come in then and tell me how you found me and what you want."

"This'll just take a moment... this one always sticks... there we go." I shot a glance back at the door at Esbern's murmurings, and the sounds of numerous locks falling away, and was rewarded with the sight of Jordis's utterly astounded face, even as both the voice and the sound of locks continued: "Only a couple more... there we are!"

I like to think of his face as he opened the door as a reward for my patience; his expression was one of utter confusion, followed by mild panic, as we burst through the door as soon as he began opening it, Thalmor-summoned Storm Atronachs firing lightning at us, shouting at him to close it. As Lydia, Jordis, and I pushed against the door, Esbern re-locked the door, with surprising nimbleness for his age, before setting what appeared to be a black powder trap on the door. Turning over to the panting lot of us, even as I mused quietly that that was a lot of black powder, and that I was lucky I hadn't tried to break down the door, Esbern finally began: "So Delphine keeps up the fight, after all these years. I thought she'd have realised it's hopeless by now. I tried to tell her, years ago..."

"Listen, old man, surely you saw what was right outside the door!" I shouted, and even as he shook his head, Jordis continued: "The Thalmor have found you. We need to go, now!"

"Yes, yes, so you said. But so what? The end is upon us. I may as well die here as anywhere else. I'm tired of running." Esbern answered, hopelessness in his voice, and as the three of us shared a look, Lydia finally spoke: "What do you mean, "the end is upon us"?"

"Haven't you figured it out yet? What more needs to happen before you all wake up and see what's going on? Alduin has returned, just like the prophecy said! The Dragon from the dawn of time, who devours the souls of the dead! No one can escape his hunger, here or in the afterlife! Alduin will devour all things and the world will end. Nothing can stop him. I tried to tell them. They wouldn't listen. Fools. It's all come true... all I could do was watch our doom approach..." Esbern ranted, even as the door trembled against the onslaught, and I stared at him, trying to process what he'd said. The dragons returning was a catastrophic event, I'd always known, but I hadn't expected it to be the literal end of the world. Lydia, however, shook her head, before she replied with confidence: "By Alduin... do you mean the dragon who's raising the others? And do you refer to the prophecy of the Last Dragonborn?"

""Yes, yes! You see, you know but you refuse to understand! Oh, yes. It's all been foretold. The end has begun. Alduin has returned. Only a Dragonborn can stop him. But no Dragonborn has been known for centuries. It seems the gods have grown tired of us. They've left us to our fate, as the plaything of Alduin the World-Eater." Esbern answered back, in his despondent tone, but I barely registered it. In fact, I hadn't like a single bit of what I'd been hearing. Kynareth had called me the Last Dragonborn, when I'd been pulled to Aetherius a few weeks ago, but I hadn't known anything about a prophecy. And now, based on what Esbern was saying, it was apparently my destiny to face off against Alduin, the World-Eater, raiser of the dead, in order to save Tamriel. Before I could cover my ears and bury my head in the wall, Lydia triumphantly answered: "It's not hopeless, Esbern. My Thane, Marius Dragonborn, is the Last Dragonborn."

"What? You're... can it really be true? Dragonborn?" Esbern asked in complete disbelief, staring at me, and as I tried not to flinch at his and Jordis's awe-struck gaze, or glare at my grinning Housecarl, strength entered Esbern's voice, and he proclaimed: "Then... then there is hope! The gods have not abandoned us! We must... we must... We must go, quickly now. Take me to Delphine. We have much to discuss."

"Slight problem with that." Lydia piped up sarcastically from next to me, as the heavy wooden door began to crack. "There's the tiny matter of a small Thalmor army between us and Delphine."

"What did you even do to them, old man?" I asked, risking a peek through the door's peephole. "There must be over two dozen of them!"

"It's alright, I've been preparing for the Thalmor finding this place for years." Esbern reassured me, all the while dodging my earlier question. Pointing at us, he merely asked: "Do you guys have any way to make use of a distraction?"

And that's how I found us enduring the smell of burning feces and sneaking through the rubble under the guise of Serana's invisiblity potions, after Esbern's black powder trap had gone off ("You have no idea how long I've been waiting to set that off!" Esbern had exclaimed happily, as he'd prepared to ignite the fuse), and his massive Frost Atronach had barrelled out of the newly-unobstructed entrance like a charging mammoth at the stunned survivors, and taking our time in picking off the remaining soldiers before we picked up Serana, and made our way back to Delphine.

-ENTRANCE TO SKY HAVEN TEMPLE, THE REACH, FIVE DAYS LATER-

"You did it. There's the entrance!" Delphine exclaimed in pleasant surprise as the hall suddenly lit up, and the giant face on the wall slowly swung inwards to reveal a staircase leading upwards. Meanwhile, Esbern continued his loud and open admiration of Akaviri arts, architecture, and magic, and as I cast healing magic on my bleeding hand my companions offered me a helping hand, one which I took while mentally cursing the Blades.

It had been a rough week or so since we'd rescued Esbern from the Thalmor army, and none of it had made me any fonder of the remnants of the organization which supposedly vowed to serve me. The first two days had been spent dodging Thalmor patrols between the Rift and Riverwood, and based on a few notes carried by some of the dozens of Justiciars we'd killed, the Thalmor had both found out my true name and identity, and had also put out a hit on me.

After we'd eventually thrown off our pursuers and made it back to the Sleeping Giant Inn undetected (and I finally realized the meaning behind the inn's name), and we'd witnessed what could be loosely described as an awkward "heartwarming reunion" between Esbern and Delphine, he immediately pulled out some old book I'd never heard of, began expositing about some ancient wall in ancient temple the ancient Blades had stored their accumulated lore on dragons on, and within minutes it had been all but decided by the pair that we'd set off for the temple, somewhere in the Reach, without any input whatsoever from me and my companions, or any time to prepare.

Unfortunately, I'd invested too much time and effort, and burned a few too many bridges, to simply walk away from the Blades this far into our partnership, no matter how tempted their assumption I'd blindly follow their actions made me. Serana and Lydia, too, had privately shared their concerns with me regarding the suspect motives of the Blades, but Jordis, in her seemingly-infinite gullibility and naivety, had seen no problem with the plan, and it was with a resigned acceptance that we'd joined the pair, fought through a rather large army of Forsworn, scores of their weird briar-hearted animated corpses, and dozens of Hagravens and their summons and companions, navigate through the trapped temple at the base of the mountain as we'd ascended (which had included the ever-so-typical rotating faced pillars and the pressure plates of either safety or fire, the latter of which they'd insisted on using me to solve), and, finally, required me to draw blood from myself in order to unlock a "blood seal". Naturally, somewhere around this point, I was starting to have serious doubts as to their supposed loyalties.

"So, does it show how they defeated him? Isn't that why we're here?" Delphine's impatient questions cut through my thoughts, and I finally realized we'd been standing in front of a wall for quite some time, zoning out while Esbern had been explaining what most of it meant. Apparently, he'd finally finished explaining about the history of Alduin's reign, as depicted on the far end of the wall, and had finally begun looking at it's centrepiece, Alduin's defeat.

"Patience, my dear. The Akaviri were not a straightforward people. Everything is couched in allegory and mythic symbolism..." Esbern explained, like an instructor to a recalcitrant young child, and I immediately internally groaned, not looking forward to yet another long lecture on Akaviri architecture. Luckily for my lucidity, he quickly got to the point: "Yes, yes. This here, coming from the mouth of Nord heroes - this is the Akaviri symbol for "Shout". But... there's no way to know which Shout is meant."

"You mean they used a Shout to defeat Alduin? You're sure?" Delphine asked Esbern, in the manner of a person who desperately wants to disbelieve what they've just heard, and I found myself sharing her feelings; if a Shout really had been used, there was only one group in Skyrim we could turn to. And I didn't fancy another climb up High Hrothgar; the memory of me accidentally Shouting a bit of the reinforced roof down was still rather fresh in my mind. Esbern, unfortunately, confirmed that a Shout really had been used, one presumably specific to dragons, or even Alduin, and as he start rambling again, Delphine turned to me, and asked: "Have you ever heard of such a thing? A Shout that can knock a dragon out of the sky?"

Jordis, not having ever interacted with Delphine before, innocently suggested: "The Greybeards might know."

A few minutes of heated debate erupted, on the nature of power and the duty of those wielding it to use it versus the danger of being corrupted by it between Delphine and my companions (my companions, having seen the danger posed by individuals like Vyrthur and Harkon, were naturally a bit more restrained in the application of power than Delphine was), during which time I tried to think of any other person or group that might have been able to aid me. I'd only been able to think or, and eliminate, the College (the elf mage I'd met on the bridge had wanted to learn about Shouts from me, and they were a group I wanted to avoid, seeing as they'd tried to forcibly recruit me) before Delphine eventually turned to me, told me that they were going to stay right up here, where it was safe, instructed me to go consult with Arngeir and his "little cult", watched with a cold gaze as Serana came out of an old, unused armory with a sword of distinctive Akaviri origin she claimed was enchanted (I'd gained a little familiarity with the type of sword, having been on the receiving end of one wielded by an enthralled Moth Priest), and wished me the best of luck.

As I stepped out into the open courtyard, took in the thin, bracing mountain air, and told my companions to watch for the Blades so I could summon Durnehviir without interruption (something told me letting the dragonslayers know I could summon an undead dragon from Oblivion wouldn't end well), I found myself hoping that the Greybeards would be cooperative, that their ancient monastery was still as open as they'd claimed when they'd Shouted at me, and that they'd forgotten about how I'd almost broken a bit of High Hrothgar, all the while resolving to avoid mentioning the Blades if I could help it.

As it turned out, my hopes were wrong.

Chapter Text

""The Shout used to defeat Alduin"? Where did you learn of that? Who have you been talking to?" Arngeir impatiently demanded to know upon hearing my request for information, and not for the first time I found myself wondering where the true allegiance of all the groups supposedly made to assist the Dragonborns really lay. Fortunately, my companions, save Lydia, had agreed to my request to head back to Solitude and try to assess how bad my situation was politically, with both Elenwen and Elisif knowing of my actions; I doubted their patience would have held, watching me undergo such treatment a second time around. As it stood, however, Serana and Jordis were back in Haafingar, and Lydia was standing guard outside High Hrothgar, leaving only me to deal with the angry Greybeard.

"Does it matter?" I asked cautiously, studying the spokesperson of the Greybeards. I'd never seen him like this before; even his prior instructions had at least held the facade of respect. This time, however, I sensed impatience, anger, and even a tinge of fear. By the looks of it, he was having suspicions about who I'd been working with, and was either scared of them, or scared of interacting with them.

"Yes. For matters of such gravity, we need to know where you stand. Or who you stand with." Arngeir interrupted my thoughts pointedly, and I got the hint; clearly, Delphine's dislike of the Greybeards was more than reciprocated. Keeping with my resolve to not mention the Blades, I instead tried a more diplomatic approach, and gave a half-truth: "It was recorded on Alduin's Wall."

Unfortunately, Arngeir was apparently more versed in the lore behind Alduin's Wall than I'd expected, for he quickly exclaimed: "The Blades! Of course. They specialize in meddling in matters they barely understand. Their reckless arrogance knows no bounds. They have always sought to turn the Dragonborn from the path of wisdom. Have you learned nothing from us? Would you simply be a tool in the hands of the Blades, to be used for their own purposes?"

"We're just allies of mutual convenience and goal; all they want is to defeat Alduin. Surely you want the same thing?" I said defensively, not bothering to insult his intelligence by even trying to lie. I didn't like how he'd called me a puppet, but what really struck me was how close his remarks were to my silent concerns, that the Blades were really using me. Unfortunately, I'd apparently said the wrong thing, for Arngeir doubled down on his angry rant: "What I want is irrelevant. This Shout was used once before was it not? And here we are again. Have you considered that Alduin was not meant to be defeated? Those who overthrew him in ancient times only postponed the day of reckoning, they did not stop it. If the world is meant to end, so be it. Let it end and be reborn."

Needless to say, his response stunned me. Sure, he was wrapping his words in cryptic wise-sounding words, but he was honestly lucky I'd asked Lydia not to come in with me; by the sound of his bullshit, he was actually willing to let the world end, rather than actually help me, the one he'd crowned "Ysmir of the North", all because of some petty feud between him and the Blades. Besides, even if his words had merit, and destiny had already decreed that the world was to end, that didn't mean that I had to lie down and accept it; my entire existence up until now was defying odds, luck, and the very fates. I was, however, less impulsive than Lydia, and rather than even consider hitting him out of anger, I merely asked him, in a cold tone: "So you won't help me?"

It seemed, at least, that I hadn't been the only one unamused by his statement; he had only begun saying: "No. Not now. Not until-" before another Greybeard, one I recognized as Master Einarth, chastised him, and the foundations of High Hrothgar shook once more, and Lydia burst through the door with her sword raised, as he said: "Arngeir, Rok los Dovahkiin, Strundu'ul. Rok fen tinvaak Paarthurnax."

In the awkward aftermath, as I tried to signal to Lydia that everything was fine, Arngeir apologized to me: "Forgive me. I was... intemperate. I allowed my emotions to cloud my judgement. Master Einarth reminded me of my duty. The decision whether or not to help you is not mine to make.

"So, can you teach me this Shout?" I asked hopefully, glad that progress was finally being made, and Arngeir shook his head, and admitted: "No. I cannot teach it to you because I do not know it. It is called "Dragonrend," but its Words of Power are unknown to us. We do not regret this loss. Dragonrend holds no place within the Way of the Voice."

"I thought you knew all the Words of Power." I said inquisitively, judging that he wasn't actually lying to me, and Arngeir explained: "But not Dragonrend. The knowledge of that Shout was lost in the time before history began. Perhaps only its creators ever knew it. But I am not the one to speak of it to you, which is for the best. It was created by those who had lived under the unimaginable cruelty of Alduin's Dragon Cult. Their whole lives were consumed with hatred for dragons, and they poured all their anger and hatred into this Shout. When you learn a Shout, you take it into your very being. In a sense, you become the Shout. In order to learn and use this Shout, you will be taking this evil into yourself."

"If the Shout is lost, how can I defeat Alduin?" I asked, refusing to give up. I may not have accepted that I was the Last Dragonborn, here specifically to fulfil the prophecy and defeat Alduin, but I had accepted that I was a Dragonborn, and held the highest chance of success. Also, this wasn't the first hopeless situation I'd been in, and more to the point, the way he'd acted so defensive upon hearing about Dragonrend suggested that, while he didn't know it, he knew of someway to learn it.

"Only Paarthurnax, the master of our order, can answer that question, if he so chooses." There it was; the only question left was why he hadn't wanted me to find out about it. That could wait, though; I finally had an opening. In a matter-of-fact tone, I seized the initiative, and said: "I need to speak to Paarthurnax, then."

"You weren't ready. You still aren't ready." Arngeir shot back, before sighing, and admitting: "But thanks to the Blades, you now have questions that only Paarthurnax can answer. Come. We will teach you a Shout to open the way to Paarthurnax."

"I need a Shout to get to him?" I asked in disbelief, as he led me to the courtyard, and he answered: "Oh, yes. He lives in seclusion on the very peak of the mountain. He speaks to us only rarely, and never to outsiders. Being allowed to see him is a great privilege."

Eyeing the flesh-rending cold winds beyond the courtyard stairs that led up the mountain, I shuddered, and shared a look with Lydia. I could scarcely imagine how tough this Paarthurnax was, or the mindset he possessed which had led him to inhabit such an inhospitable mountain, but, at least according to Arngeir, I had a way of getting up there. Lydia, not possessing the Voice, would probably not be able to follow me up the mountain, and we both knew it. Walking up to me, she dragged me to a private corner of the courtyard (the Greybeards were more than happy to give us time, judging by how they all looked away and huddled around a small fire), and began: "Look, my Thane..."

"Don't worry, don't worry." I flashed my best Oblivion-may-care grin and tried to reassure her, not wanting another lecture just before I was due to meet Paarthurnax. "I'm pretty sure I can't possibly get into any trouble at the top of the deserted mountain, right?"

That elicited a small chuckle and a light punch on my shoulder from my protective Housecarl, but as her face became serious again I subconsciously gulped; her lack of sarcastic snarking told me this was probably a heavy topic. Eventually, while I was trying to keep my eyes from being drawn and sucked into my Housecarl's (I'd never gazed at her at such distances before, and I found it hard to avoid being captivated by her beauty), she finally answered: "It's because it's you that I'll always worry, my Thane. If you need aid, I'll rush up the mountain for you, no matter what."

Touched by her words, I patted her on the head, even as I tried not to retort at what I could only interpret as a jab at my bad luck, and tried to change the subject: "Look, Lydia... when this is all over, what's say you and I go on a private adventure, just the two of us, okay? It'll be just like the old days, before we got caught up in all the Dawnguard nonsense. You did say you always wanted a Thane who would let you adventure, right?"

She perked up slightly at my suggestion, and I mused that, death-or-glory Nord warrior woman archetype that she was, Lydia was still just a woman, and had to have some adventures that didn't have the fate of Tamriel as the stakes to wind down. So did I, for that matter. I wasn't able to alleviate all of her fears, though, and as she buried her face into my chest, she declared: "It's a promise, then. I'll be right here, waiting for you to come down, no matter how long it takes. An adventure planned by my Thane... I look forward to it already."

"Hey, now..." I said, trying to back away, but she held on tight. "No need to raise those expectations that much; you're putting too much pressure on me."

"I've always had high expectations of you, my Thane." Lydia laughed into my chest, before she released me, and said: "Now go, and don't do anything I wouldn't let you do. And you'd better pick a destination with very nice scenery; I've got something I'd like to tell you when this is all over."

"I'll try my best." I called back over my shoulder, before I went over to where the Greybeards were still huddled over the fire, learned the Shout "Clear Skies", and blew away the bone-chilling winds, before I stepped through the arch that marked the nominal boundary between High Hrothgar and the Throat of the World. I hadn't expected any of that from Lydia, to be sure, even though she'd been my companion in Skyrim for the longest time, but I honestly couldn't say I was against her behaviour. It was a welcome change from the usual lectures, even though I knew implicitly she was only looking out for me, and the last time her unexpected side had surfaced I'd enjoyed a nice evening (and view) in a hot spring, followed by my first night in an actual bed in quite a while. It hadn't been her fault the trip had been ruined by a sudden dragon attack, and the dragon that had done it had been punished. Even as I quickly dispatched a few ice wraiths, and ascended further up the mountain, I tried to think of nice locales that my Housecarl would enjoy, wanting to return the pleasant surprise she'd sprung on me. It had to be as close to perfect as I could feasibly get, a suitable reward for my oldest friend in Skyrim, and the chances of combat had to be as close to zero as I could make it. Not that I believed my luck could really make even a simple stroll into mortal peril (my luck was bad, but there were limits), but it didn't hurt to be on the safe side.

Unfortunately (and perfectly naturally, sadly), I was soon forced to revise my assessment of my luck, as I finally reached the top of the mountain, and was immediately greeted by the beating of heavy wings, and the sight of a clearly-ancient dragon (tattered wings, dull-colored body, slightly chipped horns and spikes, etc.) swooping down, before it landed right in front of me, and said: "Drem Yol Lok. Greetings, wunduniik. I am Paarthurnax. Who are you? What brings you to my strunmah... my mountain?"

Cursing the Greybeards for neglecting to mention that Paarthurnax had been a dragon, I found myself musing that Arngeir's anger upon hearing I'd been in contact with the Blades suddenly made a lot more sense, even if it still grated at me; the Blades were pretty fanatical dragonslayers, and the Grand Master of the Greybeards was, apparently, a dragon. Still, they could have at least trusted me with the information. Looking him in the eye (easy enough for me, when his eyes were about as big as my head), I did my best to project confidence, and hide the fact my hypothermia-induced shivering with a simple, sarcastic, unimpressed: "I wasn't expecting you to be a dragon."

"I am as my father Akatosh made me. As are you... Dovahkiin." Paarthurnax answered, in a matter-of-fact tone, and before I could ask how he knew who I was, he continued: "Tell me. Why do you come here, volaan? Why do you intrude on my meditation?"

"I need to learn the Dragonrend Shout." I said, deciding to get to the point; while I doubted the old dragon actually had anything to do on the top of this mountain, pissing off the meditating dragon while I was on his home turf seemed like a bad idea. Also, I was slowly losing feeling in my fingers, and didn't want to prolong the discussion. "Can you teach me?"

"Drem. Patience. There are formalities which must be observed, at the first meeting of two of the dov." Paarthurnax answered, before he turned to face the broken Word Wall, and elaborated: "By long tradition, the elder speaks first. Hear my Thu'um! Feel it in your bones. Match it, if you are Dovahkiin!"

"YOL TOOR SHUL!" Paarthurnax Shouted, and a jet of fire flew from his mouth onto the Word Wall, far brighter and stronger than that of any dragon I'd faced so far. As the gout of fire finally died down, I saw the typical scratch-like symbols of the Dragon Language now etched on the Word Wall, just like how the Greybeards had etched the words of their Shouts onto the floor of High Hrothgar. Turning back to me, he motioned towards it with his head, and said: "A gift, Dovahkiin. Yol. Understand Fire as the dov do."

Approaching the glowing symbols on the still-hot Word Wall, I learned the three Words of Power that made up the Shout Paarthurnax had just used, in the same manner as I did most Words I'd encountered. Paarthurnax then nodded at me, granting me his understanding of the Words as the Greybeards did, and said in a pleased voice: "Now, show me what you can do. Greet me not as mortal, but as dovah!"

"YOL TOOR SHUL!" I Shouted back at him, as I'd seen him do, and from my mouth a massive wave of fire flew, more like a fireball than a stream of fire (I supposed I lacked the lung capacity to maintain it as the dragons did), which eventually impacted into the old dragon, and made him stagger backwards, as though struck by a battering ram. Before I could express concern, however, he laughed gleefully, and exclaimed: "Aaah... yes! Sossedov los mul. The Dragonblood runs strong in you. It is long since I had the pleasure of speech with one of my own kind."

Pausing to casually spit out a mouthful of blood, he lifted off with surprising strength and grace for his size and age, and perched himself on the Word Wall in a manner I presumed was more comfortable for him. He then eyed me with something almost akin to respect, and continued: "So. You have made your way here, to me. No easy task for a joor... mortal. Even for one of Dovah Sos. Dragonblood. What would you ask of me?"

"Can you teach me the Dragonrend Shout?" I repeated, and he sighed, saying: "Ah. I have expected you. Prodah. You would not come all this way for tinvaak with an old dovah. No. You seek your weapon against Alduin."

"The Greybeards didn't want me to come at all." I admitted to him, and he laughed and shook his head, before replying easily: "Hmm. Yes. They are very protective of me. Bahlaan fahdonne. But I do not know the Thu'um you seek. Krosis. It cannot be known to me. Your kind - joorre - mortals - created it as a weapon against the dov… the dragons. Our hadrimme, our minds cannot even… comprehend its concepts."

"How can I learn it, then?" I asked, refusing to give up.

"Drem. All in good time. First, I have a question for you. Why do you want to learn this Thu'um?" Paarthurnax replied in response, and I paused momentarily. His question hadn't exactly been unexpected; he'd been asking me philosophical questions non-stop since I'd arrived, after all. The answer came to me easily, but I didn't understand why he'd asked the question. Eventually, I just settled for the simple truth: "I need to stop Alduin, I guess?"

Paarthurnax nodded thoughtfully, and countered: "Yes. Alduin... Briinah. The elder sister. Gifted, grasping and troublesome, as is so often the case with firstborn. But why? Why must you stop Alduin?"

Now that question caught me off guard, and I took a long pause to think. Why was I, Marius, former thief-turned-legionnaire, fighting against the physical manifestation of the apocalypse, in a land I barely knew, and had kept trying to kill me? Was it because of some ancient prophecy, some path destiny had specifically picked out for me? I scoffed at the idea; I'd spent the past month or two overturning the prophecy that would have had Serana killed, Auriel's Bow desecrated, the Sun extinguished, and vampires reigning supreme across Tamriel. And I'd spent more than enough time spiting and griping at destiny and fate as it was. Was it for the countless innocents that would perish if Alduin won? I doubted it, seeing as how I was still the unscrupulous self-serving Marius (at least, I thought I was).

My thoughts then turned towards my companions, who'd slowly joined me as I'd adventured, and survived, through Skyrim. Serana, who had fought for centuries against her own family to be free of her fate, for the sake of Tamriel. Mjoll, the Thane I'd met by chance, who'd helped me attain compensation and power in Solitude, whether I'd wanted most of it or not. Jordis, the newest addition to the team, everyone's innocent, naive, gullible little sister, even Serana's, who we felt the need to protect from those who'd trick her, yet held a sort of charm that'd been key in cozying up to the powerful, paranoid, and/or arrogant. And I thought of Lydia, my oldest companion, who'd been with me from the outset, back when few, if any, had heard of me, and her sarcastic yet respectful tone. The way I'd woken up after that first, fateful fight to find her by my bedside. If the world ended, I wouldn't be able to keep the promise I'd just made to her. Self-serving as I was, there were still people I'd wanted to protect, and when I made a promise I kept it. More importantly, as an inhabitant of the world, if it ended, I'd die, too, which was not ideal for me in the least. Finally, I had my answer.

"I like this world. I don't want it to end." Namely because of the individuals that inhabited it, most importantly me.

Paarthurnax chuckled as he heard my simple response, and admitted: "Pruzah. As good a reason as any. There are many who feel as you do, although not all. Some would say that all things must end, so that the next can come to pass. Perhaps this world is simply the Egg of the next kalpa? Lein vokiin? Would you stop the next world from being born?"

"The next world will have to take care of itself." I said firmly with a shrug, and Paarthurnax's chuckle turned into full-fledged laughter. "Paaz. A fair answer. Ro fus... maybe you only balance the forces that work to quicken the end of this world. Even we who ride the currents of Time cannot see past Time's end... Wuldsetiid los tahrodiis. Those who try to hasten the end, may delay it. Those who work to delay the end, may bring it closer."

"But you have indulged my weakness for speech long enough." Paarthurnax continued, effectively ending the philosophical discussion. "Krosis. Now I will answer your question. Do you know why I live here, at the peak of the Monahven – what you name Throat of the World?"

"Dragons like mountains, I guess?" I hazarded a guess, and he grinned, before shaking his head, and answering: "True. But few now remember that this was the very spot where Alduin was defeated by the ancient Tongues. Vahrukt unslaad... perhaps none but me now remember how she was defeated."

"Using the Dragonrend Shout, right?" I pressed, happy to finally be getting back on topic. Actually taking a deep look at myself, and why I did things, made me slightly uncomfortable, I would admit; I wasn't sure I'd like what I'd find. Perhaps I hadn't changed enough, and was still far too much like my old self, or perhaps I'd changed too much, and was no longer recognizable as me. More to the point, though, my numbness had spread past my fingers already, and I had resorted to casting small Flames spells continuously underneath my gauntlets to keep myself from freezing.

"Yes and no." Paarthurnax shot down my hopes, before elaborating: "Viik nuz ni kron. Alduin was not truly defeated, either. If she was, you would not be here today, seeking to... defeat her. The Nords of those days used the Dragonrend Shout to cripple Alduin. But this was not enough. Rek mulaag unslaad. It was the Kel – the Elder Scroll. They used it to... cast her adrift on the currents of Time."

"Are you saying the ancient Nords sent Alduin forward in time?" I asked, incredulous. Sure, I knew Elder Scrolls were items of immense, even reality-changing, power, but I could scarcely imagine them sending the World-Eater forward thousands of years. Also, how unlucky would I have to be, that she'd returned on my birthday, and the day I crossed the border into Skyrim?

"Not intentionally." Paarthurnax confirmed. "Some hoped she would be gone forever, forever lost. Meyye. I knew better. Tiid bo amativ. Time flows ever onward. One day she would surface. Which is why I have lived here. For thousands of mortal years I have waited. I knew where she would emerge but not when."

This was all fascinating, sure, but I couldn't figure out what this had to do with helping me find out the method of defeating Alduin, and asked as much, to which Paarthurnax merely explained: "Tiid krent. Time was... shattered here because of what the ancient Nords did to Alduin. If you brought that Kel, that Elder Scroll back here... to the Tiid-Ahraan, the Time-Wound... With the Elder Scroll that was used to break Time, you may be able to... cast yourself back. To the other end of the break. You could learn Dragonrend from those who created it."

"I... I think I may know where it is." I answered, as my memories of the Elder Scroll containing the secrets of dragons came unbidden to me, from it's discovery in the depths of Mzark Tower, to it's usage in the Ancestor Glade, and, finally and most recently, my sale of it to a certain blind Moth Priest, who'd been planning to head back to Cyrodiil the last I'd heard, over two weeks ago. Forcing my freezing legs to move, I rushed over to the edge of the mountain, and shouted back at the surprised Paarthurnax: "Just... give me an hour or two! I need to make sure it's still there!"

Luckily, Paarthurnax seemed too shocked by the sight of Durnehviir being Shouted out of Oblivion to do anything hostile, and as I quickly jumped on him, and made for Fort Dawnguard, I found myself praying that, just this once, my luck wouldn't really be as bad as everyone thought it was.

Chapter Text

"You have it. The Kel - the Elder Scroll." Paarthurnax noted, in an almost awe-struck tone, as I returned barely half an hour after I'd flown off on Durnehviir. Luckily, with the Stormcloak Rebellion going on, travel between Cyrodiil and Skyrim had been disrupted, and Dexion Evicus was still the honored guest of the Dawnguard, most of whom had been happy to see me. Sorine and Gunmar, in particular, had laughed particularly loudly, when they'd heard the reason why I'd returned, and it seemed that most of the high-ranking members of the Dawnguard had a rather skewed opinion of my luck. Dexion had happily handed over the Dragon Scroll, though (and only the Dragon Scroll), with a simple bidding of good luck. "Tiid kreh... qalos. Time shudders at its touch. There is no question. You are doom-driven. Kogaan Akatosh. The very bones of the earth are at your disposal. Go then. Fulfill your destiny. Take the Scroll to the Time-Wound. Do not delay. Alduin will be coming. She cannot miss the signs."

I merely nodded at his words, and steeled my resolve. I still remembered what the Scrolls had done to Dexion, and how winded they'd left me in the Ancestor Glade. Of more concern, however, was how my soul had, apparently, been spirited away to Aetherius, where I'd come face-to-face with Kynareth herself; no matter how friendly she'd been, I still didn't fancy another spiritual experience. It was nothing personal, but the idea of the Divines taking any further interest in my life was not one that appealed to me. Once again, though, it seemed that I had no choice, and with a sigh, I held up the Dragon Scroll in front of my face, and rolled it down. A familiar undecipherable circle of pattern and symbols etched itself into my vision, before it all disappeared in a flash of white light.

The first thing I noticed, as my sight slowly returned to me, was that the sky seemed to be on fire. Actually, the whole mountain top seemed to be bathed in an ominous red light; either that or the view the Scroll was giving me was filtered through a translucent red sheet, I honestly couldn't tell which. Bodies of both mortals and dragons littered the Throat of the World, a far cry from the white tranquil stillness I'd come to expect with it, and three figures that I could only assume were the ancient Nords Paarthurnax had mentioned killed a dragon that had just touched down, boasting about restoring Alduin's dominion.

In the eerie peace that followed, they began arguing about their course of action, and to the surprise of two the third one pulled out an Elder Scroll, presumably the same one I had just read, and the male warrior chastised the Scroll's bearer. Before they could come to any sort of agreement, the female shouted that Alduin approached, and my breath stilled as, for the first time in two months, I saw the massive black dragon that had called down a storm of meteors, and casually destroyed the entirety of Helgen as though it was but a house of straw.

To be honest, I probably should have realized that the massive black dragon from Helgen had to be the World-Eater, since no other dragon I'd met had possessed such abilities or power. But still, finding out that I'd already witnessed Alduin's capacity for destruction first-hand came as an unwelcome surprise to me. I knew I'd have to face the World-Eater, sure, but I hadn't actually known Alduin's true power before that. Now? I forced myself to breathe out, trying to avoid being overwhelmed by my fear, even as Alduin summoned a rain of meteors I'd become more familiar with than I'd have liked. Helgen had been the biggest single disaster I'd personally witnessed, true, and given how many times I'd almost died, on my birthday no less, it held a special place in my nightmares, which was probably why I'd refused to let my thoughts dwell on it. The worse part was that Alduin had seemed to almost been specifically targeting me, throughout Helgen, as though she'd held a personal grudge.

In the end, though, I found my inner strength to confront my fears through one simple fact - I'd survived Helgen. I was Marius Dragonborn, the survivor of everything life had thrown at me previously, and I added Helgen to the list. Time had spat her out into a time completely unprepared to deal with the devastation she'd wrought, and I'd still made it through in one piece, despite everything she'd done. And now, I would be able to see her at what was, presumably, the height of her power, and watch her defeat at the hand of the Tongues.

"JOOR ZAH FRUL!" The Tongues Shouted at her in unison, and even as she staggered from the impact, and fell out of the sky, I instinctively learned and understood the Words used in the shout. I needed no teacher to grant it to me; as Dragonborn, despite having the supposed soul of a dragon, I was still mortal, and thus was able to comprehend and wield it as no other dragon ever could.

Despite their valiant effort, despite the creation of a new Shout, one specifically tailored to take down dragons, Alduin was still the physical manifestation of the apocalypse, the gifted firstborn of Akatosh, and even as she roared in frustration and confusion on the ground, and her foes goaded and taunted her, she still held defiant. Perhaps, though, I was losing it slightly; when the female warrior claimed she saw fear in Alduin's eyes, I found myself agreeing with her, having interpreted Alduin's defiance as a brave front to hide her fear and confusion. After all, how many times had I done the same? Alduin, at least, had the bite to match her bark; as the female warrior approached too close, Alduin's head and neck shot out, and she grabbed the warrior in her mouth as she lunged forward, her teeth biting deep through the primitive Nord armor. I didn't need to hear the other warrior call out in anger; even if the bite hadn't been a mortal wound, the way Alduin had then flung her around like a ragdoll, before flinging her against the then-intact Word Wall with enough force to break a chunk of it off (and at the same time answering why it had been broken in my present), had most definitely assured her death.

In desperation, knowing they were now completely outclassed, and with more dragons visible on the horizon, the Tongues resorted to using the Elder Scroll, and I watched as the remaining warrior fended off Alduin as the Scroll's wielder recited an incantation I could not recognize. At it's completion, though, what I could only describe as a transparent spherical hole in Mundus suddenly occured, centred around the black dragon, one which led to a place I could not see or name. As Alduin struggled, the sphere slowly closed in around her, and with an audible, ominous, crackling sound, both she and the sphere disappeared, leaving only the duo alive on the mountain. The last words I heard, before my vision flashed into a white nothingness, again, was the Scroll's wielder saying: "Yes, the World-Eater is gone... may the spirits have mercy on our souls."

Having my vision return to me, and finding myself back in the present, without the fiery sky or ominous red glow, and with the Elder Scroll mysteriously back in my backpack, was a welcome event, one that would have filled me with relief. As was completely bloody normal for me at this point, that wasn't what happened. Instead, as my vision returned to me, I was greeted by the sight of Alduin descending upon me, exactly as she had in the vision of the past I'd just witnessed.

-HIGH HROTHGAR'S COURTYARD, JUST AFTER MARIUS HAD LEFT FOR THE THROAT OF THE WORLD-

Lydia was not a happy Housecarl. In fact, even though she was forcing herself to put on a smile and talk to the Greybeards, she was an extremely unhappy Housecarl. Sure, she'd managed to wrangle a promise from her Thane that he wouldn't do anything stupid (which she honestly found worthless; the problem wasn't his lack of caution, he had plenty of it, but his infamously-bad luck that assured that, somehow, everything would just go to shit), as well as a promise that he'd take her on what she could only view as a private date through Skyrim. But, still, watching her love walk up the windy mountain path alone, his figure slowly swallowed by the clouds, unable to follow him, or do anything to help him... it went against everything she stood for, as a proud Nord warrior, a woman of action, and his protective Housecarl. And yet, Lydia trusted her Thane implicitly, and thus forced herself to let him go through that arch.

Of course, when they casually mentioned to her that Paarthurnax, the Grandmaster of the Greybeards, was a dragon, she smacked her face in exasperation, completely unsurprised by his luck, and began chewing out the Greybeards for not having mentioned that earlier.

Her rant had been cut short after a few minutes, as they'd heard the beating of wings, and watched as a massive figure flew down the mountain. Arngeir and the Greybeards couldn't figure out why Paarthurnax was leaving the mountain, and Lydia couldn't figure out why her Thane would suddenly leave on Durnehviir (not that she mentioned Durnehviir to the Greybeards; she'd overheard Arngeir refusing to assist her Thane, and didn't feel the need to be completely open and honest with the monk, no matter how revered or honored the Greybeards were by Nords), but as they hadn't heard any sounds of battle or hostility, save a bit of Shouting that Arngeir had assured her was just how Paarthurnax insisted on being greeted by those of Dragonblood, she figured Paarthurnax simply had somewhere he'd needed to rush to, and continued her vigil.

Half an hour later, as she'd begun roasting a bit of jerky by the fire, the figure had returned, flying back up the mountain hastily, and she and the Greybeards had let it go, figuring that Paarthurnax had finished his business. She'd secretly perked at the thought; if Paarthurnax had returned already, chances were that her Thane would be finished with his business very soon, and he'd be able to come back down thereafter. That happy thought had lasted for roughly five minutes, before another figure, this one black, suddenly shot up the mountain, even faster than the previous one. The thought of another dragon up there worried her, and she turned to Arngeir, asking: "Hey, Arngeir... Paarthurnax doesn't have any dragon friends, does he?"

"Thanks to his actions in turning against the dragons, and aiding mortals, during the Dragon War, the other dragons consider him a traitor of sorts." Arngeir replied, with a worried look on his face, and all the Greybeards got up from their kneeling position, and looked to the Throat of the World with concern.

"Then who could that have been?" Lydia demanded to know, worried for her Thane. The top of the snow-covered mountain was not a good place to have a fight, for someone who couldn't fly.

"I have no idea; Alduin has little reason to attack Paarthurnax, not with the Dragonborn being a much bigger threat to her." Arngeir answered. "Perhaps it is a lesser dragon, come to take revenge on Paarthurnax. We haven't seen one before, but we've always been aware of the possibility..."

"Then why aren't we going to help them?" Lydia exploded. "My Thane and your Grandmaster are up there."

"Paarthurnax can more than handle himself against most dragons." Arngeir answered dismissively, although it was clear he did, in fact, wish to go up the mountain. "And your Thane is the Dovahkiin; I have faith in his Akatosh-given abilities."

"He's still just a man!" Lydia shouted back, angrily; it had taken her a while, but she'd finally come to understand why she couldn't help but worry about her Thane a few weeks ago, despite him being the mythical Dragonborn. She'd finally understood it when she'd seen him come back from retrieving Auriel's Bow, but, for the first time, she was finally putting it into words, and letting it out. "The summit of the Throat of the World is a narrow mountaintop, with no where to evade a dragon's breath! He can't just run down the mountain, either, thanks to the winds!" Where most saw an invincible hero, standing strong against the unstoppable force that was the various crises that afflicted Skyrim, his companions, namely her, saw Marius for what he really was, and what made him the most inspirational (to her, at least). They saw the mere man that was the Dragonborn, fighting against overwhelming odds, and suffering and sacrificing much personally, for a cause he was more than reluctant to take up, and only barely scraping through each battle, each time slowly being worn down more and more. "If something goes wrong, even he can't survive a twenty thousand foot drop! We have to help them!"

"Patience, young one!" Arngeir rebuked loudly, but her words had clearly gotten through. Sighing sadly, he explained: "By our oaths as Greybeards, we are forbidden from using the Voice for anything other than the glory and worship of the Gods. To abuse our gifts, even to help others, is forbidden; we would risk being corrupted by the sheer power that is the Voice, as the ancient Nords were, and would thus invite retribution from the Divines, as occurred with the disaster at Red Mountain. The last time one trained by us in the Thu'um used it for personal glory, he killed the High King of Skyrim, and so started the Civil War that plagues our land to this very day."

Any further debate, or potential rash action, was forcibly stopped by the sounds of vicious roaring from the top of the mountain, as well as a few words she could barely make out. One of the few words she was able to hear clearly, though, was a dragon shouting "Unslaad hokoron!" Turning to Arngeir and the Greybeards, her question of what was going on, and what that word meant, died in her throat as she saw their ashen expressions.

"Unslaad hokoron... Unending enemy..." Arngeir whispered, and even as fire rolled across the sky, the roaring and Shouting climbed in volume and intensity, and the very mountain itself shook under the onslaught of forces battling at it's summit, he continued: "There is only one Paarthurnax would call that. Alduin is attacking the Throat of the World!"

"We have to do something!" Lydia said, quickly marching towards the arch that Marius had left through, before a hand stopped her.

"Wait! If you go up there without the Voice, you'll die before you can even get to him." Arngeir cautioned, yet not at all sounding like his previous, obstinate self. Before she could ponder his change in tone, he continued: "We will open the way for you, just this once."

"I thought you guys weren't allowed to act?" Lydia asked, confused by the change of heart.

"We are not allowed to abuse our gifts and directly interfere, true. That is our oath." Arngeir admitted, before adding: "But we are not acting directly, but merely clearing a path to our Grandmaster. What you choose to do, is not our concern; we merely ask that you aid our Grandmaster while helping the Dragonborn. Now go, quickly!"

Their plan was foiled, however, when the sky suddenly turned blood red, fire began raining down from the skies, and the peak of the Throat of the World, the highest mountain of Tamriel, exploded, causing an avalanche that blocked off the path beyond High Hrothgar.

-SKULDAFN, JUST AS MARIUS WAS READING THE ELDER SCROLL (DRAGON)-

Alduin, as had become the norm at this point, was still not a happy World-Eater. All of her efforts to capture her joor had failed, and now something was wrong. In fact, as the firstborn of, and the one closest to, Father Akatosh, and thus the one most attuned to the flow of time, she could feel something travelling against the normal flow of time, right at the wound in reality, at the top of Monahven, and didn't need to be a genius to guess what was happening.

Her treacherous younger brother, Paarthurnax, must have been meddling again, and had told someone about how she'd been defeated previously. That someone must, then, have somehow retrieved the Kel that had been used to banish her, back in the Merethic Era, without her noticing, and somehow brought it back to Monahven, where they'd then used it to view the past. Alduin snorted in arrogant disdain, at the thought; she'd smack down all who opposed her, irregardless of whether that Thu'um was used once more. The only question was, who was Paarthurnax helping...

Alduin froze, as she finally realized the only joor it could be, and before Odahviing or any of her other lesser dragons could ask what was wrong, she immediately took off for Monahven, her mood finally brightening for the first time in a long while. It had been more than possible that the ancient enemies of the dov, the Dragonguard, or the Blades or whatever they called themselves now, had found out about the Thu'um being used; Sahloknir had never returned from Kynesgrove, after all, and she'd eventually accepted that the joorre she'd seen had, somehow, prevailed. However, based on what she'd been told by her trusted lieutenants, they were fanatical enemies; there was no way they'd have stooped to working with Paarthurnax.

Meanwhile, her quarry, her joor, her Dovahkiin, still remained at large. She'd known he'd been gathering strength; all the dov had heard the proclamation by Paarthurnax's mortal followers, and one of her patrols had detected an incredibly strong Thu'um somewhere up north, at the mountain range just before the sea. She hadn't been willing to gamble her forces attacking her younger brother's followers (sure, she could resurrect them, but it cost her quite a bit of energy, and she knew that it would be safer to be cautious while the Dovahkiin was still about), and their prey had somehow slipped through the patrol's grasp, when they'd been distracted by a small army of delusional elves. But now, if it was really her Dovahkiin reading the Kel...

Alduin arrived at the base of Monahven within minutes, and immediately shot up through the thick cloud layer, her hide rendering her impervious to the biting cold. She couldn't risk a foe that strong learning that Thu'um, but, more importantly, Alduin could barely contain her impatience, and her excitement at the prospect of finally seeing him again. It'd been exactly two months since she'd seen him at Helgen, and if she could just get to him, while he was disoriented from reading the Kel, or even while reading it, she'd be able to capture him without much of a fight (she discounted Paarthurnax; as a fellow dovah, her younger brother couldn't use Dragonrend).

Finally clearing the cloud layer, she beat her wings strongly, maintaining her altitude, and finally came face-to-face with her enemies. Regrettably, by the way his eyes were focused on her form, she could clearly tell he was no longer reading the Kel. Surprisingly, though, she found herself minding it less than she thought she would; instead, she felt herself enjoying how her joor was focused so intensely on her. Deciding to try to get him to capitulate to her superiority and power without resorting to force yet, she attempted to intimidate him, and loudly boasted: "Bahloki nahkip sillesejoor. My belly is full of the souls of your fellow mortals, Dovahkiin. Die now and await your fate in Sovngarde, or surrender and swear fealty to me!"

"Lost funt. You are too late, Alduin!" Paarthurnax interrupted her, and even as she growled at her younger brother, he shouted: "Dovahkiin! Use Dragonrend, if you know it!"

"Suleyki mulaag, Paarthurnax. My power has waxed, while yours has waned." Alduin snapped at her brother, but the anger she held at both his treachery and his interruption paled, in comparison to the gratitude she felt at him having lured her quarry to this spot, where he couldn't escape. Feeling generous, she offered: "Aav uv dir. Join me or perish with your mortal friends."

"Unslaad hokoron! Never again!" Paarthurnax declared, and she felt her anger grow at her younger brother's betrayal. "You lost yourself, and indulged in meaningless petty cruelty, at the expense of the joorre! I will be of no further part of it!"

Before she could use a Thu'um to punish him, she saw her Dovahkiin open his mouth, presumably finally having shaken off the after-effects of using the Kel without preparation, and an emotion akin to fear rushed through her. The Tongues, her ancient enemies, had been able to inflict something she still couldn't comprehend, and she knew their Voices paled in comparison to his raw power. She couldn't risk letting him use Dragonrend, and let loose a quick Unrelenting Shout at him. Unlike at Helgen, though, he was able to dodge, but it stopped him from using his Thu'um, at least.

Not giving him a second chance, she dove straight at him, wanting to secure him physically, and restrain him (oh, how long she'd been waiting to finally restrain him). Her Dovahkiin was just full of surprises, though, and as she flew at him, she heard him Shout, with a Voice that made Monahven tremble: "YOL TOOR SHUL!" Going too fast to change her course, she took his fire head-on, all the while dazed by both the impact and by how he'd greeted her, as a dovah to another dovah, formally. Few other dovah had dared to do it to her, typically electing to instead automatically defer to her authority and power, and she found her long-repressed carnal instincts beginning to boil over (though that may have just been the actual fire). If she'd been obsessed with him before, it was nothing compared to the feelings coursing through her now, and if not for Paarthurnax also trying to fight her off, she may have attempted to just mate with him, right there and then. As it stood, she really wanted to abduct him, and take him to a little nesting ground she'd already picked out in Skuldafn. Sure, she'd probably have to break his will and dominate him, but she'd probably have fun with his defiance for quite a while. And then she crashed into the unmelting snow of Monahven, which, for the first time in the history of Tamriel, melted around her smouldering body, the heat produced by her Dovahkiin's Thu'um too strong for it to ignore. Seeing this sight, she grinned, feeling true fulfillment and enjoyment, for the first time in a very long while.

Her Dovahkiin hadn't ended with his breath of fire, however, and she found herself admiring his cunning as he cast a quick frost spell at the melted snow around her, and the water around her froze into ice, which impeded her movement. Strong and smart; he was sure to be an ideal mate for a superior being such as herself! Ignoring Paarthurnax's weak talons and teeth, her thick black hide having been more than proof against it even before the ravages of time had chipped and broken quite a few of them, she began to flex her strong wings. Even as her icy prison cracked, and Paarthurnax yelled something at her Dovahkiin, she found her spirit filling further and further with excitement. Most of her fights before this had been easy, far too easy, and she'd lost her excitement for battle after a few too many overwhelming victories. But this fight, where her opponents, her potential mate, was giving it his all, and actually succeeding in being more than a mere nuisance? For the first time in a while, she felt like going all out, not out of anger, spite, or pettiness, but solely because she knew her enemy could take it, and she could finally have a good fight. Flapping her wings, she finally broke through the ice, and shot up into the air just before her Dovahkiin could reach her with his blade.

As the two locked eyes, Alduin found herself grinning in mid-air, ignoring Paarthurnax circling the top of Monahven. Instead, in the split second before the two fired their Thu'ums, she found herself studying her Dovahkiin closely, with her superior senses, taking in his facial features, his heady scent, the sound of his voice. When that moment ended, she roared at the sky, unleashing her Thu'um first. A second later, her eyes widened as she heard Dragonrend leave his mouth.

"JOOR ZAH FRUL!"

Before she could get out of the way, his Shout slammed into her, and once again she found herself completely disoriented, her mind, body, and soul suddenly feeling too incredibly limited for all the senses she possessed, and her wings and Voice suddenly failed her. As she fell back to the ground, for the second time that day, she found that the only consolation was that her body and soul were, slowly, adjusting to it.

-THROAT OF THE WORLD, AFTER ALDUIN AND MARIUS HAD EXCHANGED SHOUTS-

Arngeir had told me, when I'd asked about Dragonrend, that even the act of learning it would be akin to me taking in the matchless anger and hatred the ancient Nords had possessed towards the dragons, and that I'd be staining my soul, taking that evil into me. Arngeir had been wrong; he'd made an assumption based on what he'd known about Dragonrend, but, never having known the Words of Power used, he'd never been able to understand it. Perhaps the Tongues had used their anger and hatred to shape the Words into a Shout against the dragons, but the Words themselves were nothing evil. Mortal. Finite. Temporary. I hadn't needed a teacher to grant me understanding of the Words, unlike the other Shouts, because, as a mortal, I already understood those concepts intrinsically, in a way no immortal dragon ever could. I didn't channel hatred or anger into Dragonrend, merely everything I already inherently knew about those Words and what they truly meant, as I could experience them, and let them flow into Alduin. Unfortunately, I hadn't been quick enough on the draw, and she'd managed to summon a storm of meteors before she'd been grounded, and robbed of her Voice.

Jumping out of the way of a meteor, while watching my footing carefully, I found myself wishing I still had a shield, and silently vowed to make sure I acquired one, somehow, if I made it out of this alive. Alduin, meanwhile, slowly got up, but the look in her eyes was the same as they'd been in my vision of the path. Perhaps it showed that Dragonrend was in effect, or perhaps it was truly fear, as that female warrior had claimed. Either way, I was now sharing my narrow mountaintop with a very angry World-Eater, and my effective space to run about was shrinking thanks to the meteors (that were, surprisingly, failing to melt the snow, despite being flaming rocks). I'd been in many bad situations before, but this, somehow, just felt unfair to me. Alduin then roared at me, in challenge and anger, and I ducked just in time to avoid sharing the same perforated fate the female Nord had. Clearly, a cornered World-Eater was not a harmless World-Eater.

Paarthurnax, who'd been about to use the opening created by Alduin's lunge to attack her neck, suddenly backed off, roaring in pain, as the volume of the falling meteors suddenly increased, and Alduin gave him a brief look, before focusing right back on me. Gulping, I forced myself to hide my fear, and readied my Akaviri blade once more. I was terrified, as was only natural when face-to-face with the World-Eater, but all I could do now was fight. I couldn't outrun the meteors, or risk the freezing winds, even if I could just leave Paarthurnax and flee, and jumping off the Throat of the World was even more insane. Also, with the gaze Alduin was intensely giving me, something told me she wasn't going to just walk off if I surrendered, or if she would even let me surrender. Panicking mindlessly would be even less useful. All I could do, at this moment, was channel that fear that coursed through me and made me alert, dodge the incoming meteors, and kill Alduin.

Throwing myself to the side, another meteor narrowly missed me, and I quickly turned to the red skies, and used a full Unrelenting Force to deflect another two incoming meteors. As expected, Alduin saw this as another opening, and closed in on me, prepared to lunge at me again. It hadn't been just a dodge, though; it had been a feint, and as I deflected her strong blow with my blade, I quickly Whirlwind Sprinted under her, and thrust my blade up into her softer underbelly. Her black scales were thick and hard, moreso than any other I'd had to penetrate, but this Akaviri blade had been made specifically to slay dragons, and it was able to do the job without snapping. The scariest thing was, even as Alduin roared, and swatted me with her tail and sent me skidding backwards, I swear I saw a gleam in her eye that scared me. By Akatosh, she was enjoying this! Her maw curled back, exposing her teeth in what I would have described as a grin had it not been worn by the World-Eater, and she laughed and taunted me, although I didn't understand, or even listen to, what she was saying. As I looked back at my blade, the terror that threatened to still my heart and my hand faded. Blood. My blade was bloodied. She wasn't invulnerable by any measure, and I'd been the one to draw blood.

The next few swings and parries were purely defensive, on my part; I'd confirmed that Alduin, at least, could bleed, and that she was still a very dangerous dragon. Time wasn't on my side, and my luck wouldn't hold with all the meteors raining down from the sky, but fighting mindlessly would be the fastest way to get myself killed. I needed to see what Alduin was physically capable off, besides sending me flying backwards with a casual whip of her tail. Even as I baited out, and narrowly survived, a few blows, lunges, and bites, I observed that, while overwhelmingly strong, she was relatively unskilled, which sort of made sense; even with most of her power stripped away, she was still, by far, the strongest encounter I'd ever faced, which was worrying when taking into account that that list includes dwarven colossi, a pair of dragons using ambush tactics and terrain, and a daedrically-empowered vampire lord. Also, unfortunately, most of my previous tactics would probably not be very helpful; sure, I could try that desperate tactic of shoving my hand into her mouth and firing off Destruction spells with wild abandon, but somehow I didn't want to actually take that risk unless I had aboslutely, positively, no choice whatsoever. There was, however, one thing I could try...

Gripping my blade tightly, I repeated my trick with Whirlwind Sprint, piercing a different spot in her underbelly, and once again received a lash by her tail for my trouble. This time, however, I rode the blow, almost rolling off the mountain, even. Distance was key; I couldn't risk using these at such close ranges, not unless I wanted to become Alduin's meal. As I came to a stop near the edge, I dropped my Akaviri blade, momentarily surprising Paarthurnax, and even Alduin. I wasn't ceding the fight, though; I was switching my weapons. My now-empty hands dropped to the pre-loaded crossbows by my hips, and with one fluid motion I drew, raised, and fired the strong dwarven bolts. Aiming for the eyes would have been ideal, but I honestly didn't even need to aim to, at least, score a hit on Alduin, and I had a very limited window to complete this tactic.

Even as the bolts dug deep into Alduin's neck, my crossbows were already being roughly shoved back into their holsters, and I was preparing the most destructive Shock spell I knew. Sure, my knowledge of the School of Destruction was nowhere near on par with Serana's, and this wasn't a powerful Thunderbolt by any means. But, still, adventuring with her had taught me a bit more than the basics, and even as I simultaneously charged two Lightning Bolts, I lined up my shots, eyeing the two dwarven bolts, and cast them both, hoping this would work as well for me as it had for Serana.

It didn't of course; Alduin was just too powerful, as I had expected. But it still dealt incredible damage to the World-Eater, and even as she reared up, flinching, and roared in pain, I quickly grabbed both my Akaviri blade from where I'd dropped it, as well as the ebony sword Elisif had given me, and continued my assault. A full Unrelenting Force Shout was released at her still-reared head as I ran under her, disorienting her further, and I used the extra time I bought to deliver as many blows as I could against her underside. Even as the muscles in my arm strained against the constant swinging, and the resistance put up by her tough hide, I attacked. Even as my swords became too slick with blood, and stopped being effective cutting tools, I attacked, discarding them to use my fists. Even as she recovered, and tried to force me out by slamming her body against the floor, or swatting at everything underneath her with her tail, I endured, trusting in my armor to take the brunt of the damage, and continued punching. Even as she reached to bite at me, and succeeded in grabbing a bit of my armor, I held on with my left hand, and continued punching with my right. Even as my left arm strained against her pull, and my right fist slowly grew more and more bruised, even as she ripped off a chunk of my armor, and I fell to the ground, even as I felt most of my old wounds cry out and reopen in my right arm, I kept swinging it with as much force as I could, determined to end her. Lydia would have given me a lecture, Serana would have called me reckless, and Jordis would have been in admiration of my actions until she found out how badly injured I was getting (she reminded me more like one of the younger, inquisitive children from the orphanage, than even Serana did, at times), and I even I found myself wondering, momentarily, why I was pushing myself so much. It wasn't a hard question, by any means; if I didn't end her here, she'd end me. This battle, which potentially had the fate of the world and all the souls that resided in it, alive or dead, had devolved into a desperate struggle for survival between me and Alduin. My relentless assault was beginning to pay off, though, and Alduin's movements became sluggish. If things kept up, at this rate, I'd eventually win.

I hadn't factored in one thing, though; to be fair, it wasn't like I had many previous battles using Dragonrend to learn from. Alduin had been struck by Dragonrend before being sent forward in time, and had been under it's effects. And yet, she'd still been able to fly, and use her Thu'um, almost immediately after her return, as was evident by looking at Helgen. Which meant that, most likely, Dragonrend wasn't permanent. It had a finite time limit. As her movements slowed further, and she doubled over, I took the opportunity to leap onto her head, hoping to finish things by hitting her weaker spots, like her eyes. Clinging onto her snout, lining up a punch at her eye, gave me the perfect chance to witness the exact moment the look in Alduin's eyes subtly shifted, back to how they'd been when she'd first arrived, and as my hand was momentarily stayed, in my surprise and fear, she took straight to the air, and I hit the ground hard.

"Meyz mul, Dovahkiin. You have become strong." Alduin complimented me, sounding almost earnest, and Paarthurnax, still forced to keep his distance thanks to the meteor storm, and I both looked on, him in (presumably) grim determination, and me in fear. Alduin then flared her wings, and against the nightmarish backdrop of the blood-red sky and the rain of fire and stone, her bloodied black figure was probably the scariest thing I'd ever seen. She was grievously wounded, sure, but the fact that she was now flying again, made my resolve falter, which wasn't helped by her boasting: "But I am Al-Du-In, Firstborn of Akatosh! Mulaagi zok lot! I cannot be slain here, by you or anyone else! You cannot prevail against me."

"Use Dragonrend again, Dovahkiin!" Paarthurnax called out to me, shaking me out of my funk, and I immediately readied my Shout again, even as I bent down to retrieve my weapons, not wanting to risk fighting with my bare, bruised, bloodied, hands a second time. I was winded, injured in more ways than I could count, and my magicka had been exhausted on those shock spells, but I would be damned if I gave up without a fight. Literally, in this case; Alduin was supposed to devour souls in the afterlife, too, according to Esbern, so if I died here without taking Alduin down, she'd still be able to eat me wherever it was my soul went when I died. But, if I could at least weaken her enough for Paarthurnax, or someone else, to finish the job, I'd probably be safe, or at least as safe as a dead person could be. My death was in no way ideal, of course, but it looked like increasingly like the most-probably outcome of this battle. Alduin, however, had no intention of letting me use Dragonrend again, and swooped straight at me with a declaration of "Not this time. Not again."

As it turned out, though, I'd made a second miscalculation. While the first one could, at least, be blamed on inexperience, the second one was the result of me getting too focused on Alduin, and forgetting, momentarily, about my surroundings. As she dove down at me, and I prepared to loose another Dragonrend Shout, a lucky meteor, the last one of the storm, in fact, impacted the ground right between the two of us. I hadn't been expecting it, and wasn't able to brace for the impact. The energies released by it's high speed collision sent me flying, and my concern when I'd first fought atop the Throat of the World was soon realized as I was carried over the edge of the mountain.

To his credit, Paarthurnax didn't simply hover around helplessly; as soon as I was launched over the edge, he did his best to try and catch me. Unfortunately, he'd been on the other side of the mountain when I'd been hit, and age had tattered his wings, slowing his speed slightly. Alduin, meanwhile, had been already reaching for me when I'd gone over the edge, and despite her injuries was still the faster flyer; once Dragonrend had worn off, it had been like all of her previous strength had returned to her. As I fell twenty thousand feet, with all the grace of a rock, I saw Alduin closing in on me quickly, and especially noted the triumphant gleam in her eye. I refused to give her the satisfaction of catching me, though, and before her talons closed in around me, I let loose one last Dragonrend, which made her flinch and tumble to the ground just as I was currently doing. Feeling mildly vindicated, I turned my attention to the rapidly approaching ground, and began trying to figure out the best way to avoid becoming a flattened sweet roll.

Unfortunately, as I reached an altitude of about two thousand feet, I still hadn't thought of a good, solid, workable idea. I'd thought of two bad ideas, though, but I doubted I could wrestle with Alduin in mid-air, and use her as a shield against my descent, at least not at our speeds. Unfortunately, the other idea was untested, and I only had theoretical knowledge of the methodology of it, thanks to the Word imprinted upon me in Ustengrav. I couldn't be sure how long the effect would last, either, or how it worked, but it still seemed a tad bit safer than grappling with the World-Eater, or becoming a crater. Waiting until the very last second, just as I was about to hit the ground, I closed my eyes, and Shouted:

"FEIM-"

Chapter Text

-NEWLY-FORMED CRATER, BASE OF THE THROAT OF THE WORLD, TWO MINUTES AFTER IMPACT-

Alduin, Bane of Kings, the ancient shadow unbound, was, for the first time since she'd returned, a very happy World-Eater. Sure, she was bleeding profusely, quite a few of her bones were broken, and she could feel her internal organs leaking and failing underneath her thick black hide, and sure, she'd been horribly electrocuted, hit by yet another Dragonrend, and fallen roughly twenty thousand feet, but she'd had what she could only consider the best and hardest fight of her life. In the span of mere minutes, she'd been forced to fight harder, faster, and smarter than she'd ever had to in the countless aeons she'd spent in this physical plane. For a brief second, in fact, she'd almost entertained the notion of actually ceding victory to her Dovahkiin; even if she hadn't been captivated by him and his strength from before the battle had even started, she couldn't help but admire his sheer resolve, even as she'd been forced to withstand a countless flurry of blows that had injured them both equally. Even the ancient Tongues, her hated enemies, the ones who had come closest to defeating her, had earned little more than her ire, for both the way they'd essentially cheated, and how they'd lacked the strength to back up their taunts. Even if she was willing to admit she'd felt something close to fear during that battle (she wasn't), that fear had only been the irrational, automatic fear of her vast mind and intellect suddenly being forcibly limited in a manner she could scarcely comprehend, and had nothing to do with the skills of her foes. The way they'd then cheated, using the Kel to send her forward, rather than fight to the death or submit like true, honorable warriors, had only grated at her further.

Not her chosen joor, though, oh no. He'd chosen, admirably, to fight to the death, even when her superior mind and body had finally adapted to the effects of Dragonrend, adapted enough to throw off it's shackles and allow her to use her full strength once more, to the surprise of them both. Even when he'd been sent flying off the mountain by her meteor, he'd still decided to fight on, and his second Dragonrend had robbed her of her flight once more. In the end, though, she, Al-Du-In, the Firstborn of Akatosh, had proven victorious over her Dovahkiin, which was but the final event which pushed her mood from happy to very happy. And speaking of her Dovahkiin...

Alduin slowly got up, and crawled out of the massive crater her impact had created, feeling each and every wound she'd sustained from the battle. If she could have seen herself, she'd have found herself an extremely sorry sight; the numerous gashes in her thick black hide which dripped, the way her entire body had streaks of red dashed about it, the two metal bolts sticking out of her long neck which were slowly being pushed out, the way her wings had been twisted and bent from the massive impact, and the smell of burnt blood and meat about her, all made her current image a far cry from the invincible physical god she'd always been. Of course, that was subjective, and to almost any joor she'd still be a nightmarish sight. Pain was a novel feeling, as was the feeling of her bones slowly knitting together and her numerous wounds slowly closing up, and she vowed she'd reward her joor once she'd collected and dominated him; to the victor went the spoils, after all, and she was very eager to collect her future prime slave. That thought, and her happy feelings, all but died as she reached his crater.

It wasn't just the way his right arm bent at an unnatural angle which got to her, nor was it the numerous gaping perforations in his chest. It wasn't how his hands just looked broken, or how he was covered in more blood than even she was. What really stopped her in her tracks was the way her Dovahkiin lay in his crater, unmoving, unbreathing. Also, the way he was light blue, transparent, and looked more like a spectre than a flesh-and-blood mortal.

She refused to believe her eyes. Surely, her eyes, possibly still affected by Dragonrend, must have failed her. She'd been lost in her lust for blood and battle, true, but she hadn't thought he'd been injured to nearly this extent. And yet, she couldn't see him moving, even as she growled at him, trying to wake him, nor could she hear his heart beat, or the intake of his breath. Feeling worried now, she attempted to nudge him gently with her snout, but found that it simply passed through him, as though he wasn't even there.

Alduin backed away, roaring in frustration. It couldn't be! He couldn't have! She'd never allow it! And yet, all the while, he never stirred, or reacted in any way, and eventually she was forced to accept the truth: she had caused the death of her chosen potential mate, her joor. The mournful cry she let out echoed through the plain she landed in, a wail full of anguish and despair, and she hung her head in sorrow.

It wasn't the end, though; as the Firstborn of Akatosh, she held the dominion over the sil of all the dov, and as Dovahkiin, she was certain that she could resurrect him, as she could any other dragon. Or, at the very least, it was worth a try. Unfortunately, even as she reared up above him, the Words that made up the Shout died in her throat, as her mournful cry was answered by a roar of frustration and anger, and she saw Paarthurnax descend from the clouds, eager for vengeance.

Before she'd attacked the summit of Monahven, and even during the battle, she'd been more than confident that Paarthurnax would not be able to touch her, but her confidence had taken a beating with her physical form. Sure, she was still Alduin, even despite all of her injuries, and would be more than able to swat down most dragons that would even consider challenging her even now, but her younger brother had been the Secondborn of Akatosh, and also held a significant amount of power. Moreover, her meteor storm had forced Paarthurnax to stay out of quite a bit of the battle, and he was in far better shape than she was, as an unexpected result. In her current condition, it was more than possible that he'd be able to overpower her, and finish what her Dovahkiin had started. Thus, for the second time, Alduin was forced to retreat from Monahven, thanks to both Paarthurnax and his mortal allies.

Not all was lost, and Alduin still had a way to be reunited with her joor. Another perk of being the Firstborn of Akatosh was the exclusive birthright of the secret of Skuldafn: a working portal to Sovngarde. Previously, she'd only ever treated it as a source of food and energy, and had jealously restricted access to it to only herself. Her Dovahkiin had fought with courage and bravery against overwhelming odds, and if that didn't qualify as a glorious death that rated entry into the Hall of Valor in Sovngarde, she didn't know what did. Turning back to his prone form one last time, she proclaimed a vow to wait for him in Sovngarde, no matter how long his soul took, and flew back to Skuldafn.

Preoccupied as she was by her Dovahkiin's soul, she failed to respond to (or even register) most of the concerned calls of the various dovah in her army, as they saw her injured form upon her arrival. Instead, the first thing she did upon her return was to go through the portal, devour a few dozen souls to regain her strength, and set up her soul snaring mists, intent on not letting the Dovahkiin slip through her grasp. Preparations made, she then made to perch on her personal Word Wall, in the centre of the mists, and began her vigil.

Unfortunately, though, she'd been so focused on his soul that she had overlooked a few details, such as what it would look like to the less-loyal, strength-respecting members of her species; they'd all heard the fierce battle, and the raging energies released, before seeing their thuri return from Monahven, bruised, battered, and bloodied, who had then proceeded to rush into her personal feeding grounds with nary an explanation. None would dare openly rebel against her, of course; all the dov gathered in Skuldafn were grateful to their tyrant liege for having resurrected them from the dead, and weren't about to take down their saviour. With that said, though, more ambitious dovah would soon begin subtly defying her previous orders. As she failed to exert her authority, on account of her vigil, more and more dovah would soon begin acting on their own, without orders or authority, and even Odahviing, desperately trying to rein them in, would quietly find himself questioning his loyalties at times.

-EXCERPT TAKEN FROM "THE TURNING OF THE WHEEL: AN OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE SECOND DRAGON WAR", WRITTEN BY BLADES LOREMASTER MIRA THE GUIDE IN 5E 10-

The Explosion of the Throat of the World, also known as the Fall of the Two Gods by the more religious, on the 17th of Frostfall marked the two month anniversary of the Destruction of Helgen, the nominal start point for the Second Dragon War (or the Dragon Crisis, as they called it back in those days), and would leave a far greater impact on Skyrim than merely the Dragonsfall Crater that still scars the plains of Whiterun, where a former, unlucky, Stormcloak camp was once located.

It had been an uneasy period, those first few weeks since the whole thing began, but after the initial attack on Whiterun's Western Watchtower, and the subsequent defeat of Mirmulnir at the hands of Dragonborn Marius, the dragon attacks slowly became little more than a rare disaster, akin to an earthquake perhaps, and between that and the seemingly-inexplicable increase in vampire attacks, the hardy Nords slowly adapted, some even viewing it as, quite possibly, the new "normal". Sure, there were a few self-serving malcontents on all sides, more than happy to spin the increase in disasters as the result of a faithless populace, and try to sway the weak-willed to act in a manner they may not have otherwise (generally involving either induced recruitment or the spending of gold on ominous-looking trinkets of dubious use), but on the whole life went on as it always had, with few changes.

The month of Frostfall was to shake up the status quo, with the epic battle between the World-Eater and the Last Dragonborn the final catalyst of the changes that would mark the last years of the Fourth Era.

The Great Solar Flare that marked the start of the month had frightened a superstitious populace, but as the plague of vampire attacks that had become characteristic of Hearthfire (or Heart Fire, as some Nords called it; the reason behind the difference in naming eludes me) suddenly ceased, it became viewed as a good omen; a sign that the Divines hadn't abandoned the Sons of Skyrim, and were interceding on their behalf. The more religious, insane, or dramatic of people went so far as to thank Dragonborn Marius for it, and started forming cults and proselytising, but even they weren't too far off the mark.

The dragon attack on sacred Kynesgrove, which lay in the deeply traditional and religious Hold of Eastmarch, raised doubts about the veracity of such fanciful stories, but the way it was quickly ended by Dragonborn Marius's timely intervention with no loss of life quickly laid such doubts to rest. Subsequently, when a thief infiltrated the Thalmor Embassy, and it was subsequently attacked by dragons the same night, and when the Ratway in the corrupt city of Riften partially collapsed due to an explosion of unknown origins, their claims had almost seemed vindicated.

When streaks of fire rained down on the Throat of the World, the bright searing light visible even through the thick clouds, and roars and explosions were clearly audible even as far away as the Blue Palace, nobody knew what to make of it. After all, what kind of divine might would have punished the holy Greybeards? Then, reports began coming in, all along Eastmarch and the Rift: the black dragon that had destroyed Helgen and attacked Kynesgrove had been spotted once more, flying to the Throat of the World. By this time, though, an unnamed source had leaked the Prophecy of the Last Dragonborn to most of the general public, who had begun slowly piecing things together. One didn't need to be a genius to realize the black dragon who started the whole conflict, and whose appearance had heralded the return of the dragons, was probably Alduin herself.

As the battle raged on, and on-lookers began to slowly gather at a safe distance, some of the fanatics began to pray, pray for the Wheel to turn upon the Last Dragonborn, and for the World-Eater to not be victorious. Then, the mountain shook, one last time, before two figures broke through the clouds. Too far away to make out any details, it was still obvious that one was a dragon, and the other a humanoid. Amazingly, the two still duelled throughout their fall, and to the excitement of the crowd, the dragon seemed to be hit by a Shout, and began tumbling uncontrollably.

The inhabitants of the City of Whiterun probably had the best view of the impact, and it's populace, many of whom had personally witnessed Dragonborn Marius's defeat of Mirmulnir, looked on as the pair slammed into the ground, sending men, horses, tents, dirt, debris, and dust flying through the air. As the city watched with bated breath, the bruised, bloodied black World-Eater climbed out of it's crater, looked around, and seemed to cry out in pain and anger, before quickly flying off. Their cheers were quickly silenced, however, when a second dragon descended from the clouds, picked up the limp, unmoving man, and flew back up. None of the observers knew what to make of what they'd witnessed.

Over the next few days, as dragon attacks seemed to suddenly spike, as if taking revenge for their injured leader (knowledge of dragon psychology was severely lacking, back in those days), and no Dragonborn returned to fight them off, public support for the Skyrim Civil War would plummet, and a discontent and terrified populace blamed the two sides for having been too obsessed with their petty conflict to aid in the fight against the dragons, and protect the people they were supposed to. Some extremists even went so far as to blame them for the World-Eater's return, citing some alternative translation of the prophecy regarding the Sons of Skyrim spilling their own blood. Meanwhile, the target of their worship seemingly martyred, cults dedicated to the Last Dragonborn swelled with new followers, and the prayers both directed for him and to him in those days were said to have  rivalled even those to some daedric princes.

The two factions of the Civil War were not idle during this period, naturally. The politically-minded on both sides had been more than happy to claim any events that had favored their faction as a sign from the gods (the Legion were quick to use the events of Kynesgrove and Riften to drum up support and boost their recruitment efforts, whilst the Stormcloaks were able to cite the dragon's attack on the Thalmor Embassy as a sign that the Divines wanted the elves out of Skyrim), and now that the winds were changing, so too did their tunes.

Of course, neither side was led by self-serving war profiteers; General Tullius, Legate Rikke, Ulfric Stormcloak, and Galmar Stone-Fist were all loyal soldiers, fighting for causes they truly believed in, and were willing to utilise all the political ammunition they could get their hands on to win the war. The Legion and the Stormcloaks, too, were populated by men and women willing to fight and die for their beliefs as only the Nords ever could. No side was willing to simply back down and cede victory and Skyrim to their foe, despite the clamouring of the masses. With that said, though, the Civil War took a shift in direction, and actions that would never even have been considered before the 17th of Frostfall were suddenly on the table.

For the Imperial-aligned forces, it all began when the then-Thalmor Ambassador, First Emissary Elenwen, had requested the assistance of Solitude, capital of the Hold their Embassy had been located in, with regards with identifying the culprit behind the infiltration of the Embassy, and aid in the quest to bring him to justice. Ordinarily, thanks to it's strong ties to the Empire, and with a relatively new and young Jarl desperate to prove herself (and retain the support of the Empire), such a request would have been immediately accepted, without any questions or delays, especially when it was brought to light that the Jarl had been present at the Embassy the day it had been infiltrated, and had even been observed communicating with the lead suspect. This time, however, Jarl Elisif the Fair was uncharacteristically and inexplicably uncooperative, and had dragged her feet, stalled, and even feigned deafness once (to the secret amusement and open bemusement of many in her court and Castle Dour, Legion Headquarters in Skyrim), in a previously-unthinkable act of quiet defiance.

Despite the accusations and biased propaganda the Stormcloaks often spouted, the Empire held absolutely no love whatsoever for the Third Aldmeri Dominion, and this held truer nowhere else than within it's Legions, who had fought, and been maimed, battered, and slaughtered by, the Thalmor's armies, and had witnessed first-hand the aftermath of their atrocities in Valenwood, Elsweyr, Alinor, Hammerfell, and Cyrodiil. Before Frostfall, however, they had at least tried to openly maintain a stance of neutrality regarding Thalmor forces in Skyrim.  When Jarl Elisif the Fair had refused to aid Elenwen in the investigation, the nominal Fifth Legion, upon seeing their political leaders in Skyrim cease to maintain the facade of respect and politeness they had previously kept up, would soon follow in their superiors' lead regarding their supposed "allies".

By most accounts, the first occurrence of open dissenting thought began with then-Legate  Fasendil, a veteran of the Great War and experienced in the methods the Thalmor often employed, in the Imperial Legion outpost in the Rift. He had started publicly spreading his theory that the Thalmor were secretly spreading dissent and unrest in the province of Skyrim, and escalating the Civil War, in an attempt to weaken their enemies before a Second Great War. With the benefit of hindsight, and a dossier taken from the Thalmor Embassy in Skyrim during that period that was left to me by my predecessor (who never explained how he'd gotten it, or who had given it to him; presumably, the old man found it while taking a stroll through the woods), we now know that most of Fasendil's claims were, in fact, accurate. During those days, though, there was no way of verifying the accuracy of that information. Despite this, the rumor soon spread like wildfire throughout the camp, and the legionnaires were more than willing to believe their beloved Legate. Hence, when they received word of Thalmor Justiciar teams operating in the Rift, searching for my predecessors and the unnamed infiltrator (who had made it to Sky Haven Temple the week before), it didn't take much for them to decide to give the information to the Stormcloaks in Eastmarch and the Rift.

When this betrayal came to light, and Fasendil was recalled to Castle Dour, the true extent of the changes taking place would become known. Rather than be court-martialed, General Tullius and Legate Rikke decided to cover up the incident, and secretly commend the Altmer Legate. The Thalmor were furious, but were unable to prove that Fasendil had done it, and with their position in Skyrim a lot more precarious than usual with the change in mindset, all they could do, in the end, was lodge an official complaint with General Tullius's superiors back in Cyrodiil, and carry out military manoeuvres as an implied threat to the Legion in Skyrim, an act the Legion was more than willing to pay in kind. Thanks to the nature of bureaucratic incompetence, the size of the Imperial Legion, the distances involved between Solitude and the Imperial City, and the unreliable nature of travel thanks to the chaos of the Civil War, no official reprimands would reach General Tullius until after the Fourth Era had ended, during which time they were promptly ignored when not treated as a source of amusement.

The Stormcloaks, meanwhile, were more than happy to accept the information this change of heart had prompted, and were completely willing to reciprocate the actions of their nominal enemies. After all, they fancied themselves honorable warriors, and rather than fight for an independent Skyrim free from Imperial authority, most of the rank-and-file had joined up for merely for the right to freely worship their ancestor god, Talos, as well as kick out the Thalmor, who been kidnapping and torturing suspected Talos-worshippers. If the Imperial Legion was willing to sell out the Thalmor, who were they to complain?

Ulfric Stormcloak, while not happy with how his personal army were apparently collaborating with their enemies, and bonding over the mutually-enjoyed pastime of Thalmor-killing, supported and encouraged these actions. Besides his personal grudge against the Thalmor (thanks to their capture and subsequent torture of him during the Great War), he needed the time to reorganize his army, and recruit new troops. The loss of the Stormcloaks at the Whiterun outpost and it's experienced commander had been devastating, but the loss of the outpost itself had the potential to alter the course of the war by itself. It had been strategically positioned so as to allow it's men to observe the movements of any significant number of troops across the vast plains of the Hold of Whiterun while remaining relatively undetected, and served to guard the western flanks of both Eastmarch and the Rift from potential aggression. Moreover, if Jarl Balgruuf the Greater continued to reject his overtures, it would serve as an effective forward base of operations to allow him to take Whiterun. Hence, the unofficial non-aggression pact between the rank-and-file suited him just fine.

As a result of a unique combination of all these factors, the political landscape of Skyrim at the end of Frostfall was almost unrecognizable compared to it's beginning. The Skyrim Civil War, which had been slowly escalating after the vampire attacks had ceased, and planners had become more and more used to factoring in the potential of dragon attacks, was suddenly toned down to near-nothingness, as the leaders of both sides suddenly had pressing reasons to prevent an escalation in the conflict, and the rank-and-file slowly lost their motivation to kill one another. Barring small-scale skirmishes unofficially ordered by overeager commanders, conflict between the two groups would be kept at a minimum. Meanwhile, tensions between the Thalmor and the rest of Skyrim were at levels not seen since the Great War itself, and dragon attacks were occurring with such frequency and intensity that the movement of any large groups was rendered effectively impossible.

For the first time since the rebellion had begun, the possibility of an armistice, if not a peace treaty, was no longer zero. All that was required for it to occur was for the leaders of the two factions to swallow their peace and agree to sit at the table (a prospect which would have required at least one of the proud men to make the first move), a trusted individual or group to act as mediators, a secure, neutral location to serve as the meeting place, and a judge that both parties could agree on, whose impartiality was unquestionable, whose authority could not be challenged, and whose record was beyond reproach.

Luckily for Skyrim, one such individual existed who had the means, ability, and connections needed to organize such an unrealistic effort, and contrary to popular belief, he hadn't been killed by the Fall of the Two Gods.

-? ? ? , ? ? ?-

Never again, I found myself thinking as I slowly regained consciousness, never again will I ever use an untested Shout in the heat of battle.

As I finally passed the threshold between mere consciousness and actual lucidity, I instinctively sucked in a deep breath, as the memories of the fall, and the Shout, came back to me.

The Shout to Become Ethereal had probably saved my life, it was true, as my form had turned intangible, and detached from the physical realm; the impact, which had been hard enough to form a pretty deep crater, last I'd remembered, had done absolutely nothing to my body. But it had a side-effect I hadn't anticipated: making it so that almost everything physical just phased through me (the only exception, as far as I could tell, was the ground, and whatever surfaces I happened to be standing on) had meant that even the air had simply passed through me. Having the physical world be unable to interact with me had made my attempts to draw breath completely futile, and I'd damned-near suffocated. Between that, the extreme exertions I'd put my body through in the fight earlier, all the injuries I'd sustained from the battle, and the additional wounds that had been inflicted during my fall (I'd felt the back of my abused, perforated breastplate actually melt against my back during re-entry, to say nothing of the other forces involved), wounds I hadn't been able to negate thanks to only being able to use the Shout at the last moment, I had finally hit my limits and succumbed.

Looking around blearily, as my sight returned to me next, I found that something seemed a little... off. I was lying in a cot made of rock, instead of a massive depression in the ground (which would have been more comfortable), my armor, instead of having melted itself onto me, was mysteriously off, I was smelling a soothing aroma instead of dirt, burnt grass, and blood and gore, and the sky seemed a bit too dark and grey to be natural. Also, the clouds looked like rocks, that was probably a dead giveaway, along with the lack of a massive black dragon.

Blinking rapidly, my mind slowly processed this information, and came to the questionable conclusion that the afterlife looked an awful lot like the inside of a stone jail cell. Alternatively, and far more likely...

I shot up as the adrenaline purged the last remaining traces of drowsiness from my system, when I finally realized I wasn't where I had landed at all. Or, at least, I tried to; my body was wrapped in thick layers of hardened bandages, as were my arms, and I had the additional weight of three young beautiful sleeping women tying me down; the brunette had entwined my right hand with hers during her obviously uneasy rest, and her grip was too strong for me to break, while the blonde seemed to have been using my left arm as a sturdy bolster, clutching it tightly even as she dozed off peacefully, and the black-haired girl had apparently decided my bandage-covered chest would make a nice pillow, and had even begun nipping my uncovered sides in her slumber.

Sighing, I found myself quickly running out of energy, and gave up on trying to break free. I wasn't sure where I was, but if Lydia, Jordis, and Serana were here, it was probably going to be fine. Also, based on what I'd felt when I'd shifted my body under the bandages, I could probably do with a little rest; I hadn't felt any bones shifting against one another, thankfully, and I seemed to have made it out with four mostly-functional limbs, but even the slightest movement had made me feel like screaming, if not cursing and swearing vigorously. By the looks of it, I'd probably pushed myself a little bit too far, during the battle with the World-Eater, but hadn't felt anything while under the effect of adrenaline.

My jostling had been less slight than I'd believed, though, and my companions began to stir. Lydia was the first to act, but she was, apparently, still half-asleep, and possibly still dreaming. Looking at me through heavy-lidded eyes, her brain slowly put one and two together, presumably got ten, and figured it was close enough. Smiling (the first I'd seen since waking up; she'd had a grimace on her face when she'd been sleeping), she suddenly pulled my hand (and me) towards her, hugged my head, and kissed me.

Now, I'd received some kisses from the fairer sex before, but most of them had come from little girls, viewing me as their surrogate brother or (in some extreme cases) even a father. I hadn't received one from an 18-year old woman, one whom I harbored no small amount of desire for, and the only reason I didn't do anything I might have regretted instantly was because I'd been too stunned by what had just happened to even appreciate or enjoy it. Her eyes suddenly shot open, in the middle of the kiss, and she quickly broke it, exclaiming: "My Thane! You're awake!"

Fortunately, the other two had yet to fully awaken, and the dignity and modesty of me and my Housecarl were preserved. Deciding to do my best to forget what had just happened (since she, presumably, wasn't going to acknowledge it either), and trying to ignore the way I'd felt as though someone had cast a Sparks spell on my lips and a Flames spell on my cheeks, I answered: "Of course I am. Why wouldn't I be? What happened? And why are they here?"

Her face fell slightly, and she asked, cautiously: "My Thane... how much do you remember, exactly?"

"I'm not amnesic, Lydia." I laughed, before wincing at the pain it caused to my chest. "I'm just wondering why I'm... wherever I am, and why Serana and Jordis are here, and not in Solitude."

I'd completely expected one of Lydia's lectures, at my apparent flippancy, but I felt the need to show that, outwardly at least, I was still the same wisecracking Marius that had gone up the Throat of the World. Also, I didn't see any reason why anyone should have known of my battle with Alduin, so I felt my punishment should have been lessened somewhat. To my complete and utter surprise, though, she merely hugged me tightly, and answered: "You're still alive, and that's what's important."

"Okay, what's going on-"

"Marius! You're finally awake!" "Thane Marius! You're alive!"

Serana and Jordis, both finally fully awake, interrupted my question with their ecstatic exclamations, and I winced in further pain as I was roughly man-handled by my companions.

"Yes, I'm alive." I replied drily, confusion growing. "Why do you guys sound so surprised by that?"

"Because of your battle with the World-Eater!" Jordis answered excitedly, and I frowned, not liking where this conversation was heading.

"Why do you two know about it?"

""You two"?" Serana repeated, an eyebrow raised. "Marius, it's not a stretch to say the whole of Skyrim knows about it! We could hear the battle from the Blue Palace!"

"Oh, that reminds me." Jordis added, seemingly as a casual afterthought. "Jarl Elisif the Fair says she has no intention of selling you out to Elenwen, as long as she gets that private explanation in her bedchambers she was promised, Thane Marius."

"Well, that's nice to hear, but it still doesn't answer one question." I answered quickly, trying to steer the conversation as far away as I could from that topic. There were more pressing matters to attend to, at any rate. "Why are you guys here? Where is "here", anyway?"

"Marius... how long do you think it's been? And where did you expect to be?" Serana asked, clearly concerned, and I raised my eyebrow.

"Can't have been more than a day or two, right?" I answered, with more confidence than I felt. "And since I'm not in a crater at the base of the mountain... I actually have no idea where else I'm supposed to be."

"My Thane..." Lydia began cautiously, and I knew that tone at once; Lydia knew I wasn't going to like the answer, and was probably wondering if just lying would be easier. Eventually, she must've come to a reasonable conclusion, as she continued: "You've been resting in High Hrothgar since the battle ended. Paarthurnax brought you up here, after the craven World-Eater fled the scene with her tail between her legs."

"And?" I pressed. If I'd really beaten back the World-Eater, Lydia should've been ecstatic, since she always said I deserved more recognition. Jordis, at the very least, would've been excited at the news. Either way, this sombre, shifty mood was pretty telling.

"And... and the Greybeards should really have told us their Grandmaster was a dragon, Thane Marius!" Jordis added quickly, clearly trying to distract me. In the face of my stern glare, though, she wilted, and elbowed Serana in the sides. Getting the hint, Serana backed her up: "Yeah... when we got the reports of a dragon picking you up and flying off, we immediately rushed back to High Hrothgar. That was embarrassing... we almost broke down the door trying to get answers."

"And when was that?" I continued relentlessly, and Lydia finally caved in. Sighing, she answered: "Two weeks. You've been out for two weeks."

"Happy First of Sun's Dusk." Jordis added lamely, in the stunned silence that followed.

"What? How?" I finally choked out, trying to comprehend what I'd been told. I couldn't believe I'd been out for that long.

"Well, actually you almost woke up as soon as Paarthurnax dropped you off in the courtyard." Lydia admitted sheepishly, before adding: "But you were so badly injured you passed out again. Then you tried to wake up again, but the Greybeards Shouted at you to keep you asleep, and then Serana returned and gave you some alchemical mixtures to stop you from waking up for a while, along with a lot of medical attention and foul-smelling pastes and potions which she poured into your wounds."

"I don't think I was injured that badly..." I protested, but she quickly rebuffed that notion.

"My Thane, when you were dropped off in the courtyard, your armor had been almost welded to your back, and you had holes in your chest and sides we could see through."

"You dislocated both your shoulders, twisted your right wrist, broke your right arm, and shattered most of the bones in your right hand. And that's not even considering the massive third-degree burns, or the injuries on your left arm and torso, Marius." Serana added, somberly. "If it wasn't for your unnatural receptiveness to Restoration magic and healing spells and potions, you would be dead. Even so, just like back at the Chantry, you were too wounded for it to fully heal you."

"What actually happened up there, Thane Marius?" Jordis chimed in, her natural curiosity making me wonder what happened to the Housecarl that had helped teach me diplomacy and tact. "How did you fight off the World-Eater?"

"A bit of skill, a lot of luck, and a dragon of my own." I said off-handedly, trying once more to get back up. As my over-protective companions made a fuss and stopped me, I sighed inwardly, and asked: "Look, guys, at least let me take a walk around the courtyard; apparently, I haven't used my legs for two weeks, and I don't want them to waste away."

After a few minutes of arguing, wheedling, negotiating, mild bribery, begging, lying, and the making of false promises, I was eventually allowed to walk outside, with what I still considered excessive assistance, and I took my first look at the outside in two weeks, while Lydia and Serana aided me, and stood vigilant and ready to throw me back in bed at the first sign of weakness or danger.

Clearly, things had changed; the sky wasn't red anymore, at least, but the pathway beyond the arch was completely buried under a thick layer of rocks and snow. Meanwhile, the well-maintained courtyard was slightly less well-maintained, and had slightly more debris than I remembered. Also, Paarthurnax was there, talking to the Greybeards, which was very much unexpected.

"Ah, Dovahkiin. Lot krongrah." Paarthurnax greeted me, and the Greybeards around him bowed to me. "You truly have the Voice of a dovah. Alduin's allies will think twice after this victory."

"That was a victory?" I asked incredulously. Sure, I considered it a personal victory whenever I survived, but I couldn't see how the previous battle could be viewed as a "victory" for Tamriel. "My broken ribs tell me they're pretty sure they didn't win that battle."

"Ni liivrah hin mere. True, this is not the final krongah - victory." Paarthurnax admitted, before reassuring me: "But not even the heroes of old were able to injure Alduin in open battle, much less injure her and force her to retreat. Alduin always was pahlok - arrogant in her power. Uznahgar paar. She took dominaton as her birthright. This should shake the loyalty of the dov who serve her."

"The old tales say that she is able to travel into Sovngarde to devour the souls of the dead. Paarthurnax can explain more; the old tales don't say how she does this." Arngeir followed up, making me raise an eyebrow.

"Why are you telling me this?" I asked, confused by that extra tidbit of information, and Arngeir stared pointedly at me, before replying: "Well, as Dovahkiin, you're going to want to go after her, right?"

Honestly, that was probably the last thing I wanted, but he did have point, loath as I was to admit it. Alduin could not be given too much time to recover her strength. Also, I had a reputation to maintain, in front of the Greybeards and my companions, and thus I (reluctantly) agreed, as if it had been my plan all along, and ignored the pointed looks Lydia and Serana gave me.

"Alduin has many ancient fanes, Dovahkiin, that allowed for travel to Sovngarde, and could serve as hiding spots to recuperate." Paarthurnax began. "But, seeing the direction she escaped to, the most likely place she fled to was Skuldafn, the greatest umriid of the dov, high in the eastern mountains."

"That would fit with most of the accounts we heard on the way here." Serana interrupted, pulling out a map and circling a series of mountains between Windhelm and Riften with her finger. "Alduin, the black dragon, was said to have emerged from somewhere around here just before the attack on Kynesgrove and the Explosion of the Throat of the World."

""Explosion of the Throat of the World"?" I echoed incredulously, and Serana merely chuckled.

Jordis, shrugging in response, answered for her: "It's one of the names Skyrim's been calling your duel with the World-Eater, and is probably the least insane one."

Deciding wisely not to press the matter, I suppressed my curiosity, and turned back to Paarthurnax, continuing: "So, what's the catch with Skuldafn?"

"All of her remaining strength will be marshalled there." Paarthurnax said, thoughtfully, before adding: "And you will not be able to travel to Skuldafn by foot; it's location is accessible only to those with the wings of a dovah."

"And I'm guessing you or Durnehviir can't just fly us there." I said, not liking what I was hearing, and Paarthurnax nodded somberly.

"I am well-known as a vax - a traitor, and Durnehviir made a lot of enemies in his quest for power. Unless you would like for us to fight off dozens of dovah while carrying passengers, I would recommend a different solution." Paarthurnax pointed out, before suggesting: "One of Alduin's allies could take you. Motmahus... But it will not be easy to... convince one of them to betray her. Perhaps the hofkahsejun - the palace in Whiterun... Dragonsreach. It was originally built to house a captive dovah. A fine place to trap one of Alduin's allies, hmm?"

Trying to figure out if my ears had just failed me, I decided to summarize our so-called "plan", just to be sure: "You want me somehow get access to Dragonsreach, so that I can use it to capture one of Alduin's allies, so that he can take me to her stronghold, where her remaining strength will be gathered, at a location that is inaccessible to mortals might I add, in order to allow me to travel to the afterlife, and fight her one more time?"

"That is correct."

"Can't you just kill me and send me to Sovngarde right now?"

Chapter Text

"I'm sorry, friend, I must have misheard you." Jarl Balgruuf said, after I'd approached him and asked to use Dragonsreach to trap a dragon. "I thought you asked me to help you trap a dragon in my palace."

"You heard right, Uncle." Lydia answered, even as I sighed in a complete lack of disappointment. "It's the best bet we have to stop the dragons."

"Even so..." Jarl Balgruuf responded, before sighing, and beginning anew: "Look, as happy as I am that you survived the Fall at the Throat of the World, Marius, Lydia, what you're asking for is insane. Impossible! You want me to let a dragon into the heart of my city, with the threat of war on my doorstep?"

"It's the only way to find Alduin before it's too late, Jarl Balgruuf." I replied, letting Lydia rest. Aware of the need for Jarl Balgruuf's support, I played up Alduin's threat, and dramatically continued: "If she manages to recover from that battle, she'll return, stronger than ever, and then we'd all be doomed, both in this life and the next!"

In the stunned silence that followed, Serana and Jordis gave me amused looks, while Lydia gave me an exasperated one, to which I merely shrugged in response. Sure, I was laying it on pretty thick, but this was a matter of the apocalypse; Balgruuf could forgive me for exaggerating things slightly. Balgruuf finally spoke up, his face ashen: "So... the rumors, the prophecies, the wild stories the bards throw around... they're true? The World-Eater, Alduin, has really returned? Doesn't her return mean it's the end times? How can we fight her?"

"Well, we already did." I pointed out drily, motioning at my numerous injuries. Even Irileth chuckled, and Balgruuf said, in a far more light-hearted tone: "Ah, yes. We all saw the battle, the fall, and the subsequent crater. Excellent work on driving her away, and I suppose I really shouldn't have been surprised that you'd be wanting to finish the job. Now, what's this nonsense about trapping a dragon in my palace?"

"We've pinpointed Alduin's hideout to a temple, high in the eastern mountains." I explained, happy that discussions were finally getting somewhere. "Unfortunately, it's so inaccessible only a dragon could bring us to it. So, we need to capture one of Alduin's dragons, get it to defect, and have it fly us to it; while I know a dragon or two that might help, they're not exactly in Alduin's good graces, and chances are we'd be attacked before we get anywhere near there."

"That makes sense, Marius. I want to help you, Dragonborn. And I will." Balgruuf promised, before shaking his head. "But I need your help first. Ulfric and General Tullius are both just waiting for me to make a wrong move. Do you think they will sit idle while a dragon is slaughtering my men and burning my city? No, I can't risk weakening the city while we are under threat of enemy attack. They've been too quiet recently; they've got to be planning something. I'm sorry."

"Could they not just be taking a break from the offensive, with the onset of winter?" Serana suggested, and we all just stared at her. Eventually, I answered her: "Serana... they're Nords. If they ever let hypothermia, snow, and below-freezing temperatures stop them, they'd never get anything done."

"Jokes aside..." Lydia said in an annoyed tone, even as Jordis and Serana burst out in a fit of giggles, and Balgruuf gave me a pointed look. "Uncle, is there really nothing you can do?"

"There is, but I need your help, first." Balgruuf answered, continuing to give me a pointed look. However, I was still slightly addled from whatever Serana had given me, to help with the pain, though, and I misinterpreted his look, and came to a very different conclusion. Looking him straight in the eye, and thinking of how nice it would be if I had an army to deal with the dragon army I'd been told was garrisoned in Skuldafn, I suggested, to the surprise of everybody: "What if I ended the Civil War?"

"... my Thane..." Lydia said, looking at me with concern. "Can you explain what you mean by ending the Civil War?"

Looking around, my mind registered all the looks of shock on my companions and Balgruuf, and the cautious, almost fearful look that was on Irileth's face, and on the guards and other members of Balgruuf's court. Slowly, I recalled the looks of shock and awe I'd received when I'd walked down up the path to Whiterun, went through the front gates, and strolled into Warmaiden's to get some replacement armor, as well as some materials to repair my weapons, as well as what Jordis and Serana had told me, about how all of Skyrim basically knew about my battle, and Whiterun had actually watched it. Belatedly, my mind reached the same conclusion they evidently had, and I quickly clarified: "I meant by negotiating some sort of truce, or armistice, or peace treaty or something, you guys! I'm not going to single-handedly win the war for one side, or assassinate Tullius and Ulfric, if I could even do that..."

"Well, in that case, then I would be happy to help you with your dragon-trapping scheme." Balgruuf said, clearly relieved, before adding: "But getting both sides to agree to a truce will be difficult at this point. The bitterness has gone too deep. Maybe... hmm... what of the Greybeards? They are respected by all Nords. High Hrothgar is neutral territory. If the Greybeards were willing to host a peace council... then maybe Ulfric and Tullius would have to listen."

"Good idea. I'll talk to the Greybeards." I said, before turning to Serana and Jordis, and asking: "How long would it comfortably take to get from Solitude to High Hrothgar?"

"About two to three days, Thane Marius. Why?" Jordis asked. Looking at my companions, and working out rough distances and timings in my head, an idea eventually formed.

"Alright guys, I have a plan. Time is of the essence, so we'll have to split up again." I instructed, and their eyes filled with resolve and determination. "Lydia, you're the most well-versed of us in Nordic culture, tradition, and etiquette. I know you don't like Ulfric Stormcloak, but I'm going to need you to convince him to come to High Hrothgar for a peace conference, mediated by the Greybeards, in nine days time, at noon on the Eleventh of Sun's Dusk."

"I won't fail you, my Thane." Lydia answered seriously, nodding.

"Jordis, you're the best of us in navigating the intricacies of Solitude's politics, and you're also a local of Solitude. I want you to go to Jarl Elisif, and convince her to get Tullius to that peace conference, at the same time."

"I won't let you down, Thane Marius!" Jordis answered excitedly, clearly eager to be of service.

"Serana, I'm going to need you to go to the Dawnguard, and tell them I'm going to need their help real soon. At the same time, drop by Riften and ask Mjoll to inform the Blades; I don't think they're going to want to be left out of this."

"Even though they never showed up? Sure thing, Marius." Serana said easily, before asking: "What about you? What will you be doing?"

"I'll head up with Jarl Balgruuf later, and try to convince the Greybeards to actually host the damn thing." I said, shrugging. This wasn't going to be easy, but I did have Paarthurnax's support, so, hopefully, this wouldn't be too difficult. "In the mean time, I'll see if Adrianne has my armor and materials ready, and probably go and pick up some odds and ends that may come in handy."

"Well, Marius, if you need supplies, there's a storage room in the basement, right below the kitchen." Balgruuf offered, after wishing his niece and my companions good luck, and they'd all left. I nodded in response, pleased that I wouldn't have to steal anything, for a change, and as I made my way to the proffered room I said: "Thanks for the offer, Jarl Balgruuf. I'm sure I can find something."

I'm honestly not sure what I was expecting to find down in the basement, probably some preserved jerky or meat I could eat, or even a spare sword and some metal. I do know, however, that a locked wooden door that had ominous whispers emanating from it was not on the list. Uncharacteristic curiosity getting the better of me, I cautiously listened at the door, when a feminine voice like a thousand legs crawling down a spine hissed in pleasure, and whispered: "At last! I've been waiting for someone more fit to carry out my will. The child is spirited, but lacks... agency."

"Is there someone behind the door?" I asked, slowly backing off. This was raising too many red flags, especially after I'd realized something was compelling me to be curious. Whatever it was that was trying to influence me was, at least, not overtly hostile as far as I could tell, and I figured the best course of action would be to keep it talking until I could fully get out, and ask Balgruuf what the hell happened.

"Regrettably, I cannot reach your plane so directly, anymore." The voice lamented, and the way she said "plane" made me consider forgoing slowly backing off in favor of just running away. "But I forgive you for not recognizing me, dear Marius. You have never had the pleasure of hearing my whispers; few hear my whispers anymore."

"Mephala..." I whispered, the scar in my left arm suddenly burning, and the voice began to laugh, before continuing languidly: "Very good, dear Marius. It is I, Mephala, the Lady of Whispers. I tug at the web of connections between mortals. Love, hatred, loyalty, betrayal. It has been a long time, since I had a taste of you, in the Imperial City. I hope you have used the dagger I gifted to you well."

"If by "gifted" you mean "thrown into me by one your worshippers", then yes, I shoved it through a bear's eye after punching it in the nose." I replied, voice dripping with sarcasm, and she laughed once more. "Look, lady, what do you even want with me? The contract on my head should have ended years ago."

"And indeed it did." Mephala answered. "But I've drawn you here because I have a proposition, dear Marius. The boy was good at sussing out secrets. You, I expect to take a more active role. First, you must open this door. A piece of my power has been locked away behind it, and even my eyes cannot see past the seals. I'd much rather it be in the hands of an ambitious and talented person such as yourself."

"And why would I do that? What could you offer to me?" I asked off-handedly, my hand already on the door leading out of the storage room. Honestly, I could think of a few things the Daedric Prince could offer me, especially since the previous battle had highlighted to me my lack of power and weapons, but I had no intention of listening to Mephala's proposal; Harkon's accusation of him and I being similar, and both of us willing to consort with the daedra for power, still stuck with me, even a month later.

"Besides the most mind-blowing sex you'll ever have?" Mephala asked, rhetorically, and I rolled my eyes at the Daedric Prince of Sex and Lies. "Well, my lovely Morag Tong won't ever try to kill you, and you would have authority over them. But I think what would interest you the most would be the secrets and plots I know about. For example, if you knew what Hermaeus Mora has planned for you, you'd be begging for my help."

That gave me pause; I hadn't had any further dealings with the Daedric Prince of Excessive Eyeballs and Tentacles since Septimus's disintegration in that glacier, and in the brief time I'd met him I hadn't been impressed by his personality. Mephala, knowing she had me lured into her web, tried to ensnare me further, and continued tempting me: "Oh, all the details, all the pawns on the board he has. You've already had dealings with Meridia, and my sister Azura, and all they could offer you was a shiny glowing sword that burns undead, and a glorified star-shaped soul gem. Do as I ask, take up my sealed power, and accept my influence instead of theirs, and I shall guide and protect you as no other could."

I thought over it for a second, and weighed the potential danger the other daedra princes posed, versus the potential danger to my soul Mephala did. The tipping point, though, was the memory of one of her assassins almost killing me, and damning my soul to her realm of webs. Pushing the door open, I spoke over my shoulder: "Goodbye, Mephala."

"Wait, Marius!" Mephala called out, sounding panicked. This time, though, I didn't pause. As I walked back up the stairs to the kitchen, slightly shaken by my meeting with her, she continued shouting: "Don't you walk away from me, dear Marius! You'll regret this! You accepted that skank Meridia's blade; why won't you take mine..."

Balgruuf, naturally, was concerned when I told him his basement was probably possessed by Mephala, though he wasn't as surprised as I'd have expected, not even when I told him one of the children in the castle was probably under her influence. Nevertheless, he promised he'd inform Farengar and they'd do "something" about it, I silently swore to never go down into the basement of Dragonsreach for as long as I lived, intervened in a mercenary attack on Jorrvaskr, and left to pick up my order from Adrianne.

-EXCERPT TAKEN FROM "THE TURNING OF THE WHEEL: AN OFFICIAL HISTORY OF THE SECOND DRAGON WAR", WRITTEN BY BLADES LOREMASTER MIRA THE GUIDE IN 5E 10-

The Eleventh Hour of the Eleventh Night of the Eleventh Month of 4E 201 marked the signing of the  Treaty of High Hrothgar  (also known as the  Tullius-Ulfric Treaty  (although such a name is misleading as it discounts the actions of Jarl Elisif the Fair, the nominal leader of the Imperial-aligned Holds, along with all the other involved parties)  or, to use it's formal name, the  Treaty of Armistice Between The Stormcloak Secessionists And Stormcloak-Aligned Holds of The Pale, Winterhold, Eastmarch, and The Rift (represented by Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak of Windhelm) And The Septim Empire Of Tamriel And Imperial-Aligned Holds of Haafingar, Hjaalmarch, Markath, and Falkreath (represented by Military Governor to Skyrim General Tullius, Commander of the Fifth Imperial Legion), Declaring an End to Hostilities Between The Two Factions In The Province Of Skyrim, And Granting Increased Collective Autonomy And Self-Governance To The Province Of Skyrim (as represented by the duly-elected High King of Skyrim as determined by the Moot) While Acknowledging The Overall Authority Of The Emperor Of The Septim Empire Of Tamriel Over The Province Of Skyrim, Signed At High Hrothgar On The 11th Of Sun's Dusk, Year 201 Of The Fourth Era ), as well as the end of a years-long conflict which had seen one of the Empire's most important provinces, both culturally and militarily, gutted, bloodied, and thrown into disarray.

(Author's Note: To maintain the scope of this book to purely the Second Dragon War and it's after-effects on Tamriel, and because most of the events of the Skyrim Civil War, including the series of events that would serve as the direct prelude to it, have already been covered in earlier works, this author will avoid going through most of the terms of the Treaty itself, such as those involving reparations, or the garrisoning of troops (the Official History of the Skyrim Civil War already covers most of the terms, the rationale behind them, why they were agreed to, and the effects they were to have on the different Holds of Skyrim). This book will, instead, only cover the peace conference, and the terms that were to have an effect on the Second Dragon War, it's aftermath, and an impact on the Septim Empire as a whole.)

The organization of the peace conference itself was not an easy one. While, as mentioned previously, the unique set of circumstances that had occurred from the beginning of Frostfall up til then were to allow for the possibility of a conference, the fact still remained that the leaders of the two armies were determined, prideful men, and neither wanted to be seen to back down first, and even if they weren't, travel across Skyrim was being disrupted by the increased dragon attacks. However, the organizer of the peace treaty, the Dragonborn Marius, was an even more determined man. He needed to capture one of Alduin's dragons in order to gain access to Skuldafn relatively unopposed, and to that end his best bet was the usage of Dragonsreach. His good friend, Jarl Balgruuf the Greater of Whiterun, was a cautious man, though, and his priority was the safety of his city.

Admirably, the Jarl had been maintaining a neutral stance with regards to the conflict for it's entire duration, as it's position in the centre of Skyrim made it heavily dependent on trade; joining one side would not only leave it's other side open for attacks, but also, possibly, cause them to disrupt trade, and thus disrupt the city's economic lifeblood. He was also a wise man, and (correctly) assumed that both sides had plans to invade and seize Whiterun, should it look like he swayed too much to one side, or was about to join the other. In this case, however, when the hostilities between the Stormcloaks and the Legion dropped significantly (thanks to the Fasendil Incident), he was not in a position to know of the events that had led to it, or even why it was occurring. Naturally, though, rather than consider the possibility that the two armies were beginning to cooperate, he merely assumed both sides were building up their forces and stockpiling supplies, possibly in preparation for a renewed offensive. Thus, it is more than understandable that, when asked for permission to use Dragonsreach, he was very hesitant about redeploying his guards, as well as risking putting a fire-breathing dragon in his palace. He did offer to aid, though, provided Dragonborn Marius was able to guarantee the safety of his city.

Now, the Dragonborn could have merely declared the city to be under his official protection, and between his by-then legendary reputation as the Man Who Called Down The Sun and The Man Who Brought Down The World-Eater, and his connections in the Rift and Solitude, it would have been respected by all non-suicidal inhabitants of Skyrim. Dragonborn Marius was a good man, however, and instead saw an opportunity to kill two dragons with one arrow. Ambitious as any Dragonborn (or, indeed, any true dragon), he instead declared that he would end the hostilities and bloodshed that had plagued the province, so as to both save the people of Skyrim and put to rest the Jarl's fears. The Jarl, trusting his friend's ability, agreed to their audacious plan, and Dragonborn Marius carefully assembled a group of skilled negotiators, and dispatched his diplomatic teams across Skyrim, to call Jarl Elisif, Jarl Ulfric, General Tullius, their assorted aides, and even my predecessors, the surviving Blades, to High Hrothgar.

At noon on the Eleventh of Sun's Dusk, all the parties reached out to by the Dragonborn arrived at High Hrothgar. It had not been a difficult journey, surprisingly, but it had been a very uneasy one. Fortunately, however, it seemed as though this peace conference was blessed by the Divines themselves; none of them suffered any dragon attacks, despite their increased frequency. Unfortunately, however, tensions flared once the parties met; there was just too much bad blood and history for them to simply meet as friends there and then. The Stormcloaks almost refused to sit down as long as the Thalmor Ambassador, Elenwen, was present, the Greybeards wanted to kick the Blades out, and the Blades wanted to kill the Greybeards' Grandmaster, for "previous crimes". For a moment, it looked as though the peace conference was doomed to certain failure, as even the Greybeards descended into bickering, and any goodwill of the past month looked like it might be washed away.

Dragonborn Marius had not gone through all this trouble just to see it all wash away, though, and the skilled negotiator acted. Throwing out the Thalmor Ambassador out as his first action (Dragonborn Marius secretly despised and distrusted the Thalmor, thanks to his prior actions in the Second Legion. Some accounts claim, however ludicrous it may be, that he personally knew the infiltrator that robbed the Embassy the month before, and acted to protect their identity), he would proceed to assign an escort to the Blades, to reassure the Greybeards that no treachery would stain the sacred halls of High Hrothgar, while using the show of acceding to Stormcloak protests so as to make them more agreeable to his future negotiations and showing them that he would still judge fairly, despite his past in the Legion. General Tullius, for his part, protested the move (as a prideful man, he did not take kindly to his delegation being summarily changed at the whims of his enemies, even if he, too, held no love for the Thalmor, and never wanted Elenwen there in the first place), but after a quick, private talk with Dragonborn Marius, Tullius grudgingly accepted the change, agreeing to use it as political capital for the negotiations.

Despite the progress that was made, however, the tone of the conference had been set, and negotiations were fought with more ferocity than some battles had been. Even the Greybeards, mediators that were trusted to be politically neutral, sometimes paused to rebuke their former student, Ulfric, or make jabs at the expense of the Blades. Throughout all of this, however, Dragonborn Marius stood firm, and demonstrated his ability. When the two factions were arguing over some terms in the treaty, he would be there, with a perfectly reasonable suggestion that both could agree on, even if they were reluctant. When negotiations hit a deadlock, he would often take out the two leaders to the courtyard, ostensibly to cool their heads. Soon, they'd return, and the deadlock would be broken. Thanks to all of this, and hours of furious negotiations, the  Treaty of High Hrothgar  was eventually signed, and Dragonborn Marius's reputation as a fair and just individual would become cemented not just within both the factions, but throughout the whole of Skyrim, especially when his role in the negotiations came to light.

The signing of the treaty marked the end of the hostilities between the two armies, and the beginning of the increased autonomy of the province of Skyrim. However, there was one important caveat, that initially had all gathered parties balk at, but which the Dragonborn insisted was necessary: a temporary alliance between the Stormcloaks and the Fifth Legion, under a joint command of Tullius and Ulfric, answerable only to Dragonborn Marius himself. The Dragonborn had gambled all of his political capital on the formation of this army, which would eventually be christened the "First United Skyrim Army" as a formality, or the "Skyrim Legion", or "Army/Legion of the Dragonborn", unofficially, and had put on the line his reputation. Many concessions were given to each side, and the Dragonborn had to accept numerous limitations, including an oath to never use it to attack any Hold in Skyrim, but, after furious debate, the impossible alliance between Stormcloak and Legion was finally signed into existence.

The Army of the Dragonborn was not a gamble for power, of course, and the delegates trusted the reputation of the Dragonborn enough to allow it, despite all their reluctance. Skuldafn was the last bastion of the dragons, and their greatest stronghold. Strong as the Dragonborn was, he was not suicidal, nor was he willing to bet the fate of the world itself on being able to fight through and sneak past over a hundred dragons; strong as he was, the initial leg of the journey would require a dragon to take him, which was, obviously, not subtle. And thus, he requested forces to besiege Skuldafn (while it could not be accessed by mortal means, advancements in siege weaponry in the past few centuries meant that lobbing flaming rocks over great trajectories was not impossible, or even difficult) to lure out the dragons, and act as a diversion for his infiltration. This may seem uncharacteristically harsh, but given the stakes, it was easily justified both at the time and with the benefit of hindsight (either the soldiers fight and risk their lives for the best chance for the world to survive, or fail in their quest, and be doomed both in this world and the afterlife).

Indeed, even General Tullius would note in his later memoirs that, despite not being a Nord, or a local of Skyrim, he had come to appreciate the harshness of the land, and the type of determined, stubborn men it bred, and there was honestly no doubt that the men under his charge would volunteer in a heartbeat, upon learning of both the stakes, and the foe they were against; the political cost to the Empire of not securing a victory in Skyrim paled in comparison to the risk of letting Alduin recover, and wreak havoc upon the world. In his memoirs, he states that, if he had thought they would have refused, he would have refused as well, and was tempted to still do so for his men if not for his sense of duty to both the Empire and Skyrim, a notion surprisingly echoed by his counterpart in the Stormcloaks, Ulfric Stormcloak. The two men were honestly not so different, and their combined leadership would prove stunningly effective through both the Second Dragon War and the subsequent wars to follow.

This sentiment was not shared by Emperor Titus Mede II, or the Elder Council, back in the Imperial City in Cyrodiil. The Skyrim Dragon Crisis had only been raging for over two months at that point in time, and it's impact had been largely limited purely to the province of Skyrim. Thanks to the sheer distances involved, and how courier travel had been largely disrupted by both the Rebellion and the Crisis, reports had only begun to trickle back, largely via messengers and spies on trade vessels that sailed between Solitude and Cyrodiil, regarding the resurgence of the Dragonborn, as well as the events occurring in Skyrim, and went largely ignored by all but the highest echelons of the Imperial Court. All that was to change once the  Treaty of High Hrothgar  was signed, and General Tullius sent a sleek courier ship rushing to the Imperial City, with this as a priority message (few carrier fowl were capable of travelling the long distances between Skyrim and the Imperial City, and the few that could were easy prey for Thalmor interceptors).

The unrest this caused in Cyrodiil, while legendary, is not under the scope of this chapter, and will be covered in a later chapter. Back in Skyrim, on the Eleventh of Sun's Dusk, the signatories had no way of knowing what effects their actions would have on the Emperor and his Council, and on the Septim Empire as a whole. All they knew was that they were finally ending a years-long conflict that had killed thousands, so as to prepare the army for one more future conflict. The Skyrim Civil War was over. The actual Second Dragon War (as a recognizable conflict, with clashes between two military forces) had just begun. Now, all the Stormcloak-Legion alliance and it's new leader could do was prepare for the upcoming conflict.

-HIGH HROTHGAR COUNCIL CHAMBERS, AS THE TREATY OF HIGH HROTHGAR WAS BEING SIGNED-

Sighing and rubbing my temples, I silently vowed that, if I were to ever make the suggestion to get involved in politics again, I would make sure Lydia was around and ready to knock some sense into me; the way they'd been arguing back and forth for eleven hours straight had me honestly wondering if murder would have been the easier solution.

It hadn't been all bad; a trying experience like pulling teeth, rather than an impossible experience like ripping off one's balls. I'd made sure the delegates passed by the new Alduin-shaped hole in the ground, on the way up, so as to show them what we had been dealing with. It had also helped that Esbern had made a very dramatic speech about the return of Alduin, and that Paarthurnax had been resting in the courtyard; any time one of them began to feel stubborn, I'd take them outside, show them the ruined top of the Throat of the World, and the big dragon who was saying that we needed this to happen. Sadly, though, I hadn't been able to employ that tactic on the Blades or the Greybeards, and had to, instead, rely on Jordis and Mjoll to rein them in.

Eventually, though, with the help of the aides and the cooler heads we'd brought, terms had eventually been agreed to, and a treaty written down and signed. Sighing in satisfaction, I watched as Arngeir confirmed the details and minutiae one last time, the tired, impatient men (including me) agreed, and the conference was closed, considered a success. Sadly, though, my part was not yet finished, and I asked: "Now that that's over, we can begin the unofficial war council. General Tullius, Jarl Ulfric, how quickly can you have your forces and supplies prepared for anti-dragon warfare and ready in Eastmarch?"

"The Legion's always been good at logistics and training." General Tullius boasted, before admitting, much to our surprise: "But, Ulfric should probably have his men and supplies ready before us; this is his hold, after all. I'd say I need a two months, maybe three, before I can get the troops promised ready, without degrading our ability to defend the Holds from dragon attacks."

"We'll need time to integrate the troops." Jarl Ulfric agreed, wisely deciding not to antagonize his Imperial counterpart. "But most of them are Legion veterans, from the Great War, so drilling them in Legion tactics and formations shouldn't be too difficult; we can probably cut it down to under two months, if we're lucky. Getting the men to trust each other, though..."

"I'm have complete confidence in both of your abilities." I reassured the two of them, lying through my teeth. If this didn't work, after all, the entire army, and especially me, would be dragon chow in this world, and Alduin chow in the next. Jarl Elisif spoke some words in support of Tullius, but deigned to ignore Ulfric, which was still an improvement, considering that he'd murdered her husband. Luckily for me, Ulfric's presence had distracted Elisif, and she hadn't been able to follow up on questioning me, like she'd originally wanted.

"Alright, so, tentatively we're looking at the start of next year..." I continued, considering the weather, before turning back to them. "Legate Rikke, Galmar Stone-Fist, we're going to need the two of you to train the combined unit; I know that you all share a history, but I need General Tullius and Jarl Ulfric to aid in planning the battle."

Watching them begrudgingly accept their shared role, and silently vowing to send Lydia, Mjoll, or one of the Dawnguard leaders as an independent observer, I pointed to Fort Dawnguard on the chamber's map, and continued: "I've already informed the Dawnguard to make their blueprints for crossbows available, as well as work on scaling it up to the size of a ballista, if possible. Serana can provide advice on the best way to use the bolts; besides Lydia, she's been with the Dawnguard the longest, and should know the best tactics they've employed that revolve around it's usage."

"That should cover the training of your army." Arngeir interjected, barely hiding his distaste at how we were using High Hrothgar to plan a battle. "But what of your role? Jarl Balgruuf, I assume you are familiar with the Dragonborn's plan?"

"Yes, I'm ready to do my part." Balgruuf spoke, in my defense. "Just say the word, and my men will help you spring this trap."

"But the difficulty remains - how to lure a dragon to Dragonsreach at all?" Arngeir asked rhetorically, but even I had to admit he had a point. General Tullius, unamused like the serious military commander that he was, asked: "Well that's an excellent question. You haven't overlooked that little detail, have you?"

"Ah. I believe I can be of help here." Esbern cut in, to my massive relief; him helping me save my reputation almost made up for how I'd been treated like an errand boy by the Blades, along with their marked absence after my duel with Alduin. Most of that goodwill disappeared, however, when he droned on about Words of Power, and Dragon Names, but the gist of it seemed to be that I could Shout a dragon's name, to call it to me as if I were challenging it. Lacking any better idea, I accepted his scroll containing the draconic characters for "Odahviing", and secretly swore to confirm it with Paarthurnax as soon as they left.

"Are you going to summon the dragon now?" Jarl Balgruuf asked, nervously, as the Blades left. I understood where he was coming from; despite his claims that they were ready, he had still clearly expected a day or two to move some men and perform some maintenance on the chains of the trap. To his immense relief, I shook my head, explaining: "We won't be ready for another few months; if we summon him too early, we risk him being exposed as a traitor. No, we'll summon him just before the offensive."

"My men will be ready by then." Jarl Balgruuf promised, and Ulfric took his turn to interject this time, asking: "And what of you, Dragonborn? What will you do during this time?"

"I'll be making preparations of my own, of course." I announced, remembering how outmatched I'd been by Alduin, even with Dragonrend. Pulling out a note I'd taken from a dead cultist (and promptly ignored, if not completely forgot about) two and a half months ago, when I'd first arrived at Ivarstead with the aim of climbing the 7000 Steps and finding out if I was Dragonborn, I turned to Ulfric, and asked: "Would you happen to know if there's a ship that can take me to Solstheim?"

Chapter Text

"If you're looking for passage to Solstheim, too bad. I'm not going back there anymore." The captain in front of us said defensively, his eyes barely concealing fear, and Lydia and I shared a look, knowing that we'd finally found our man.

It had been a fast-paced few days since the treaty had been signed, but, luckily, I'd been able to delegate most of the work to the more-capable in the Legion and the Stormcloaks. Recruitment drives were ongoing, resources were being stockpiled, food production and consumption was being tallied, and new arms and armors were being smithed. In that time, though, I hadn't been idle, and part of my preparations for heading to Solstheim was to do research on the locals, and particularly what kind of supplies they'd need, and would be willing to pay for. I was heading there to deal with this "Lord Miraak", supposedly another Dragonborn, in the hopes of negotiating with him and securing his knowledge, power, and allegiance if possible (and stopping him and his cultists if not), but I was still the ever-pragmatic Marius, and, since I would be there, I figured getting money and resources for the newly-formed army I'd created, along with possibly securing more allies, would not necessarily be a bad thing.

Jarl Ulfric had proven spectacularly useless in that regard. His city's disdain for non-Nords was infamous, but I had assumed that he was a pragmatic and rational sort; as the ruler of a port city, knowing his city's imports and exports to other places, such as Solstheim, should've been quite high on his list of priorities, especially with the war going on. After all, the East Empire Company also operated in his city, and given their ties to Solitude, it should've been only natural that the things they shipped in and out of the capital Hold of the Stormcloak Rebellion would receive the utmost scrutiny.

Instead, he had dedicated himself largely to warfare, patriotic speeches, and the bankrupting of his city, banking purely on the fanatical fervor and loyalty of his people to keep his Hold from collapsing, and had held a disdain for the Dunmer, the Gray Quarter (even without the drunken Nords shouting insults every morning to distract themselves from their unemployment, it was still a shithole), and even shipping, although he, at the very least, wasn't as biased against non-Nords as Imperial propaganda had claimed (that is not as much of a standing ovation as it may seem; he was merely apathetic and indifferent to non-Nords, as opposed to violently racist). As a result, whatever records I was able to find came from before the Great War, which suggested that Raven Rock might be a mining settlement, and Lydia and I had arrived in Windhelm, disguised as a merchant couple, looking to sell basic goods like preserved foods, water, Nord mead (as dangerous as alcohol might potentially have been in the mines, it was still pretty popular, as far as I could tell, as it wasn't prone to spoilage), tools, and materials like iron, wood, and steel to maintain any tools.

My first thought upon entering the city, watching two drunken Nords harass a Dark Elf, intervening out of general principle, getting spat at, and having to restrain my protective Housecarl from beating him to death, only reinforced my pre-conceived notions that I really did not want to be in Windhelm. At least the Stormcloak soldiers recognized me as Dragonborn, by this point, and had stopped making implied threats at me every few metres.

Still, none of this endeared my journey to Lydia, who had been vehemently against the idea of me willingly going to the island power-base of "Lord Miraak", who'd already tried to have me killed before, and had tried to drag me away as soon as I'd explained the rationale behind my announcement in the council chambers of High Hrothgar, and had only relented on the concession that I take her with me. I hadn't seen any reason to object; Mjoll had agreed to train the troops and liaise with the Blades, Serana had agreed to help plan new strategies based on our prior adventures, as well as teach the contingent of surviving Imperial Battlemages, and Jordis was acting as an ambassador in my stead in the war council, as well as helping me keep an eye on the Thalmor from her position in the courts of Solitude. Besides, not only would this help my cover as a merchant, having a bodyguard and travelling companion, but I had also promised to take her on an adventure with just the two of us, before I'd fought Alduin, and I intended on keeping that promise. As we made our way through the Gray Quarter towards the docks with our "supplies", though, and past a few brawls between the inhabitants of the slums and some individuals in distinctive robes and masks, I did start to wonder if this was really the wisest course of action.

Eventually, of course, we'd made our way through the minor slum war (luckily without requiring the protection of my new suit of ebony armor, concealed under the simple hooded cloak I wore to protect myself from the harsh winter winds and cold; if I'd really been struck, I doubt I could have reined Lydia in) and into the docks, and begun asking around about a ship to Solstheim, whereupon we were told that only the Northern Maiden made that route anymore, and promptly pointed in the direction of a decently-sized ship. Upon approach, however, it's captain had immediately run out the cabin, waving his hands frantically, and told us that he had no interest in going back to the island.

"Are you the captain of the Northern Maiden?" I asked, just to be sure, and the man eyed me suspiciously, as well as my cargo, before replying: ""Sure. Yeah. That's me. Why? Who sent you?"

"Nobody sent me." I said soothingly, and his eyes seemed to relax. He immediately tensed up again, however, when I continued: "I was just attacked by some cultists who came here on your ship, and so I'd like to investigate..."

"Now hold on!" The captain interrupted me, before gulping nervously as Lydia unsheathed her blade at his outburst. As non-threateningly as possible, he then explained: "That wasn't my fault... I didn't know they were going to attack anybody. I don't even know how I got here."

"How can you not know how you got here? You sailed here, didn't you?" Lydia demanded to know, incredulous, but I could see that the captain wasn't lying to us; he seemed too frightened to tell a coherent falsehood.

"It's hard to explain... I remember those people with the masks coming on board, then..." The captain began, suppressing a shudder at the memory. His mask of resolve cracked soon, though, and he continued desperately, in a fearful outburst: "The next thing I remember, I was here and they were gone. That's not right, losing whole months like that. There's been something strange happening on Solstheim for a while, but after this... I'm done. I'm not going back to Solstheim."

"Months?" I echoed, trying to comprehend, but the captain had clearly hit his limit, and he shook his head, unwilling to continue. His first mate took over, and explained: "Aye, landlubber, months. We remember preparing to leave Solstheim on the 18th of Last Seed when the masked freaks boarded. Next thing we know, it's some time in Sun's Dusk, the masked freaks have set up shop in the slums of Windhelm, and are engaged in some fanatical and violent debate with the locals about who the true "Dragonborn" really is, and Windhelm is even worse than it ever was, what with all this talk about the World-Eater returning."

"Yeah... what nonsense..." I said evasively, not knowing what to make of the latter half of his story. Deciding to steer the conversation back to safer topics, such as our reason for being in this shithole of a city, I turned back to the captain before Lydia could comment, and implored: "Look, captain, I need you to go back to Solstheim, one last time."

"Have you been listening to me?" The captain asked rhetorically. "I'm not going back there."

"Sure you are." I said in a friendly tone, setting down my crate. Pulling out a coin pouch, I tossed it to him, and continued: "Firstly, people are trying to kill me, and I'm not taking no for an answer. Secondly, this is your chance to take revenge on the cultists. And thirdly..."

As his eyes went wide as he opened the coin pouch, I finished with a grandiose: "I'll pay you triple the market price."

"Well... a man's got to make a living, after all." The captain answered, after a quick internal struggle. Sighing, he waved us onboard, assigned men to transport our crates, and said: "Fine. We'll cast off immediately."

-THE WATERS OF RAVEN ROCK, TWO HOURS LATER-

"Well, here we are." The captain called out to us, and Lydia and I came out of the lower decks as he continued: "This is Raven Rock. Can't say I'm all that glad to see it again. Good luck. Maybe you can figure out what's going on around here."

Looking around as our boat rounded the bend and began it's final approach to the docks, my first thought was wondering why everything was so brown and grey. The architecture was weird, sure, but I'd seen weirder architecture during my unofficial trips into Valenwood. Even the architecture in Skyrim was very different from the Imperial City, not to mention the differences between the Holds (Riften and Markath, for example, held little similarities). The way the world here seemed so dull, though, was very off-setting, and it took me a while to reconcile my first image of Solstheim with my pre-conceived notions of Skyrim's off-shore island. At least the island was covered in snow, like most of Skyrim was at this time; I may never like the cold as a true Skyrim-born Nord would, but it was slowly becoming a familiar feeling to me. The next thing I took note of was the massive wall that covered eastern and southern borders of the town, and the mountain that towered over it. Lastly, before we docked, I noticed the group of hard-working miners, slowly doing... something to some stone obelisk at the western outskirts of the town, something that required scaffolds.

"So this is Raven Rock, eh? Not all that much to look at." Lydia said with disdain, snapping me out of my sight-seeing, and I chuckled at her flippancy. Before I could answer her, however, I felt the ship dock, and a well-dressed Dunmer greeted me with a curt: "I don't recognize you, so I'll assume this is your first visit to Raven Rock, outlander. State your intentions."

Finding his bluntness refreshing, especially after the political wrangling and diplomatic overtures I'd been forced to be a part of for the past few days, I waved Lydia down, and said confidently: "My name is Marius, and I'm here to trade-"

"Hold on, now..." The Dunmer interrupted me, before asking: "Are you the Marius Dragonborn?"

Unsure of how and why he'd know of me (based on what I'd heard, few went between Solstheim and Skyrim, which meant word of me shouldn't have spread this far), and especially unsure of his loyalties (for all I knew, he could have been working with Miraak), I tensed up, subtly signalled to Lydia not to do anything yet even as I heard her tense slightly in response to my reaction, and cautiously confirmed his statement with a simple: "Yes, I would be... who's asking?"

To my complete and utter surprise, however, he warmly replied: "Ah, the Guardian of Azura's Star; I thought I recognized the star hanging by your waist! Welcome, Champion of Azura! I am Second Councillor Adril Arano, and on behalf of House Redoran and Councillor Morvayn, I welcome you to Solstheim."

"I thank you for the hospitality." I said stiffly, too stunned to even show my shock. I hadn't expected to be recognized this early, though I would admit being recognized for having Azura's Star was a slight improvement over being recognized as the dragon-slaying Dragonborn, especially if Solstheim was crawling with Miraak's cultists. Although, it did raise a question that I had to voice out: "How did you hear about me, though?"

"Aranea Ienith, the High Priestess of Azura." Adril answered simply, and it took me a while to connect the name to the prophetic and ominous Dunmer I'd met at the Shrine of Azura, in Winterhold, all those months ago. Pleasantly surprised that I could be sure I had one ally on the island, I inquired further: "How is Aranea doing?"

"She's done a lot for the community of Raven Rock, spiritually, as one of the priestesses of the Temple of Reclamations." Adril entertained my inquiries, before suggesting: "I'm sure she would be happy to know you're here; would you like to meet her?"

"That sounds lovely, but I'm afraid we must get on with our business." Lydia interjected, grabbing my shoulder roughly, and I sighed and shook my head, answering: "Sorry, but it is what it is."

"Ah, yes, you said something about trade? We don't get much supplies from Blacklight, seeing as this is a mining town on the frontier where all the mines dried up; we're always in need of critical supplies."

"Well, we have some supplies to trade..." I said, internally debating telling him more; it sounded like he had a good opinion of me, at least, and talks would be more productive if I could be honest. Finally deciding to extend some trust towards the Second Councillor, I continued: "But, in truth, I'm actually here to make diplomatic overtures as a representative of Skyrim."

"Are you trying to pull us into your petty civil war, because, if so-" Adril answered wearily, and I shook my head quickly, before interrupting him: "Haven't you heard? The Civil War's over, at least for the time being. I'm acting as a representative of a newly- and temporarily-unified Skyrim, looking for allies to help deal with the dragons."

"The dragons have become a nuisance here, as well." Adril admitted. "We've been able to force them back beyond the Bulwark thus far, but between them and the Ash Spawn that have been attacking the Bulwark..."

"So you'll consider our offer?" I asked, hopeful, and Adril sighed, and shrugged, before noncommittally replying: "I can't make any promises, but I will discuss it with Captain Veleth, and if we find it to our liking, I'll raise it up with Councillor Morvayn."

"That's as fair a deal as any, I suppose." I said, nodding my approval, before gritting my teeth, and doing something I knew I'd regret. Gesturing towards my crates full of supplies, I continued: "In that case, to sweeten the deal, you can have all these supplies, for free. I just have one more question, though."

"Speak your mind, Guardian of the Star." Adril replied with wide eyes, stunned at my outburst of self-serving generosity, and I asked: "Do you know who Miraak is?"

"I... I'm unsure. I swear I know the name, but I cannot place it." Adril answered, shaking his head, before he admitted: "Captain Veleth might, though; I think he apprehended a few drunkards the other day that may have mentioned it. He said he was going to investigate the Ash Spawn attacks outside the Bulwark, if you want to speak to him. Just tell him I sent you."

Thanking him, I left him to speak to the ship's captain and pick up the supplies on his own, and together with Lydia I made my way out past the great wall, looking for answers.

-OLD ATTIUS FARM, OUTSKIRTS OF RAVEN ROCK, FIVE MINUTES LATER-

"Thanks... I wasn't sure I'd make it off this farm alive. I wish I could have said the same for my man here. Captain Veleth, of the Redoran Guard." The weirdly-armored Dunmer said between pants, looking ruefully at his dead subordinate, and I nodded at Captain Veleth, before pointing to the piles of ash that had originally been humanoid in form and hostile, and asking: "I assume those were ash spawn?"

I'd only just gone past the walls when I'd spotted a group of armored Dunmer being driven out of an abandoned building by the weird ash-based creatures, who'd been horribly resilient to their weapons. They didn't seem to have vitals to pierce save for one specific stone in their "chest", being ash as they were, and slashes and smashes were only marginally more effective against them. Before they'd killed the last survivor, though, I'd intervened, plugging one in the chest with my crossbow, while an Unrelenting Shout literally caused a group of them to disintegrate. From there, Lydia and I had helped finish off the remaining ash creatures, with little difficulty thanks to my Thu'um.

"Some of the Redoran Guard have taken to calling them "ash spawn"." Captain Veleth admitted, before shrugging his shoulders, and searching the piles of ashes. "Me? I don't care what they're called... all I know is they're a danger to Raven Rock and they need to be stopped."

"How did that bring you to this old farm?" Lydia asked, and I suddenly had a foreboding premonition of needing to take care of this mess. Before I could gesture at Lydia to keep it down, however, the Dunmer pulled a note out of a pile of ashes, somehow, before turning to us, and answering: "We were going to search for clues that might lead me to wherever they're coming from. I know it isn't the best place to start, but we knew they've been coming from this direction. And, by the looks of it, it paid off."

"What's the note say?" I asked in resignation, knowing that I wouldn't be raising Miraak for a while, and Veleth answered, face showing extreme confusion: "The note says it's from General Falx Carius, but that's impossible."

"Impossible? Why?" Lydia asked, and Veleth answered before I could: "Well, Carius was the Imperial garrison commander at Fort Frostmoth, but he died over 200 years ago when the Red Mountain leveled the place. There's no way he could still be alive."

"Let me guess; you want me to investigate Fort Frostmoth, and kill him if he's still alive?" I asked drily, and Veleth nodded, not detecting my sarcasm in the least.

"I can use all the help I can get, and you've shown, with your weird voice magic, that you can deal with Ash Spawn far more easily than any in the Redoran Guard can." Veleth answered earnestly, and I sighed. No good deed went unpunished, truly. Accepting that my quest for information regarding Miraak would be slightly delayed, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I was, at least, making some local allies, and that it probably wasn't the legendary General Falx Carius who was behind the Ash Spawn Attacks. Telling Veleth I had some information I wanted in exchange once I returned, Lydia and I thus set out for the former Fort Frostmoth.

Honestly, infiltrating the old, crumbling Fort Frostmoth was nothing difficult, especially after the Siege of Castle Volkihar; most of the walls had already fallen, and the ash spawn weren't the most imaginative of guards. Between their lack of ability and my weirdly-effective Unrelenting Force Shouts, it took us maybe fifteen minutes to get through them and reach Falx Carius.

Falx Carius was not like the ash spawn at all. He did have his heart replaced by the same weird red stones that apparently powered the other ash spawn, sure, which probably explained how he was animate, if not alive, but he still held his former intelligence, the skills that once made him the legendary champion of the Legion, and, most importantly, his flesh, bones, and skin, which made him a bit less susceptible to my Unrelenting Force Shouts as compared to his ash spawn minions, and combined with his massive cudgel he almost caught me off guard during his initial blow.

In the end, though, I was Marius Dragonborn, and while he was a formidable opponent in his prime, I had faced off with the World-Eater and had survived. Even as he tried to press the advantage, the head of his hammer crackling with wild, chaotic energies and discharging fire, ice, and electricity as he drew closer, I was already recovering, and preparing to draw my crossbow. Most importantly, though, I wasn't alone. I didn't bother blocking his blow, instead trusting Lydia to deflect it away from me, and even as her old steel sword shattered under the assault of the more powerful hammer, she still skillfully used it's momentum to deflect his cumbersome weapon away from me, as well as give me an opening she knew I'd exploit, without any danger to herself. The crossbow shot was an easy one, and the two hundred year-old undead former champion of Fort Frostmoth fell once more, with a last gasp of "I've...failed..."

I felt nothing but pity for the creature that had once been Falx Carius; his "Empire" had changed so much as to be unrecognizable from two hundred years ago, he'd been killed during the events of Red Year, and someone had raised him back up with just enough of his former self to still be loyal to his old ideals, but not enough that he'd been able to adapt to the new, unfamiliar world. In the end, he'd attacked an Imperial settlement, and they'd been forced to call upon someone like me to put him down. I decided not to dwell on it too much; the man was a legend in the legion, although not to the same extent as the mythical (and possibly fictional) Hero of Kvatch and Nerevarine, but, at least, I never personally knew him as anything more than a story. Getting back up and reloading my crossbows, I casually thanked Lydia, spied her broken sword, and passed her Carius's cudgel, and fought off her half-hearted attempts to make me use it. Remembering how Falx Carius had been felled, though, I quietly resolved to get her a small buckler as well, just in case, and together we went back to Veleth, to report that his problem was fixed.

-RAVEN ROCK, TEN MINUTES LATER-

"It's a shame. There are quite a few tales of General Carius's exploits, including the founding of Raven Rock." Veleth said ruefully, when I reported his death, and I shrugged, having already dwelt on it too much. Before I could get around to asking my question, though, he nudged a potato sack, and continued: "Councilor Morvayn told me to give this to you if you made it back in one piece... and you got rid of General Carius. Also, he said something about not being able to accept so many supplies so freely, so..."

My eyes widened significantly, when one of his men opened the potato sack to reveal a massive amount of septims. Remaining stoic despite my response, he said: "Ten thousand septims, out of the Councillor's personal pocket. And Second Councilor Arano told me about your proposition, which I've agreed to tentatively; the dragons have been getting to be more and more of a nuisance, and you've proven yourself by taking care of Falx Carius and the ash spawn."

"That... that sounds excellent." I breathed out, incredulous at how things seemed to, for once, be working in my favor. Before the other shoe could drop, though, I figured that it would be best if I took advantage of this, and began: "Actually I have two questions for you. Firstly, what's that unusual armor you're wearing?"

"Ah, this is bonemold armor... quite impressive, wouldn't you say? It's fashioned from actual bone that's been reinforced with a resin-like material and then shaped to form the armored plating. It might appear brittle, but I'd wager it could stop the blow of a weapon better than iron or steel." Veleth explained, tapping his bonemold sword against his armor, and suggested: "If you'd like to know more, Glover Mallory, our local smith, can probably teach you."

Committing the name and mentioned techniques to memory, I decided to continue on, and asked: "Do you know someone called Miraak?"

"I might know someone. Or maybe not. I can't remember..." Veleth said, rubbing his temples in clear discomfort, and I tried for a more gentle approach. Lowering my tone slightly, I coaxed: "It's okay... just tell me if you know him."

"I... I can't. I just can't be sure. I think maybe he had something to do with a temple. A temple here on the island. Or maybe it has something to do with the Earth Stone. Does that help?"

"It's a start, I suppose." I said thankfully, before grabbing the potato sack, and pulling the stunned Lydia away with my other hand. The smith, Glover Mallory, was luckily not far, having set up shop near the centre of town, and his forge was honestly a dead giveaway. What caught my eye, though, as I walked up to his shop, was a Shadowmark above his door, marking him as a member of the Thieves Guild. Deciding not to comment on it, and vowing to keep a closer eye on my coin pouch, I approached the smith, and asked: "Glover Mallory? Captain Veleth recommended we visit your shop for our needs."

"Did he, now?" Glover asked, thoughtful, before shrugging, and moving to sharpen a sword. "Either you're here to get showered in sparks, or you're looking for something to buy. Out with it."

"Actually, I'm here to learn to ask about bonesmithing." I said, and he gave me a once-over, before asking: "And why do you need to know about working bone? Bonemold equipment may be stronger than regular iron and steel, but it's nowhere near as good as that ebony armor you're wearing."

"That may be true for regular bonemold, but what if I were to change the type of bone being used?" I asked, gesturing at Lydia, and Glover's eyes widened as my Housecarl stepped forward and opened a sack, revealing lots of dragon bones and scales.

"How... where did you even get these?" He finally choked out, and Lydia fought to keep her grin down, while I answered as neutrally as possible: "We've been fighting dragons in Skyrim for the past few months, but recently I've been thinking I need better weapons and armor."

"Fascinating, fascinating... so, lad, do you want me to try my hand at it, or did you ask for lessons on making bonemold equipment because you wanted to try it yourself?" Glover asked, examining the bones, and I nodded, replying: "I have some rough designs in my head, but I haven't actually drafted any blueprints. Also, I'm a bit lighter in frame than most people in Skyrim, so overall it'd be easier if I smithed it myself."

"Fair enough, lad. And what are you offering for my lessons?" Glover asked, putting back the bone he'd been examining (Lydia and I made sure of that), and by the gleam in his eye I could tell that he'd decided he could probably wring a lot of septims out of me. Sighing, I answered: "Eight thousand septims, but I'm going to need you to throw in a lightweight buckler for my Housecarl as well."

"Ten thousand septims for a Stalhrim buckler and the bonemold formula, and I'll need you to do me a favor." Glover counter-offered, and I ignored Lydia's stunned expression as I considered whether it would be worth it, to do a favor for a member of the Thieves Guild. Seeing the look on my face, Glover continued: "I just need you to talk to Crescius Caerellius. The foolish old man's taken my pickaxe again, and I want it back."

"Why all the fuss over a simple pickaxe?" I asked, buying time to decide, and he shook his head, answering: "No, no, no. This isn't just your run-of-the-mill pickaxe... I'm talking about an Ancient Nordic Pickaxe. They don't exactly grow on trees, you know."

"What's an Ancient Nordic Pickaxe?" I asked, finding his terms surprisingly reasonable but wanting Lydia to recover so I could get her opinion, and Glover explained: "It's the only tool tough enough to crack Stalhrim, is what it is. Not many of those beauties left in the world... forging them is a lost art. The one Crescius "borrowed" came from the Skaal Village up north. I, uh, traded them some goods for it."

"You mentioned Stalhrim earlier... is Stalhrim some kind of ore?"

"Calling Stahlrim an ore is like calling my forge a campfire. Some say it's "enchanted ice," but I think there's more to it than that."

"I assume it's rare."

"I don't think I've come across more than a chunk or two in my lifetime, and smithing's my trade. If you're looking to learn more, you should head over to the Skaal Village. Someone there's to bound to know about it than I do." Glover admitted, trying to play up the value of the buckler, and Lydia suddenly pulled me away, before whispering in my ear: "My Thane, what are you doing? Even an item with as little Stalhrim as a buckler would be easily worth a few thousand septims; why are you buying such a thing for me?"

"I just figured my sword and shield shouldn't go around without a shield, Lydia." I said, ruffling her hair, and she punched me hard in the shoulder. Rubbing my aching arm, I continued whispering to her: "Look, we're going to need everything we can get in the upcoming fight. As strange as this sounds even to me, this is no time to be frugal; hoarding money is not going to do us any good if we're all dead and the world's eaten, Lydia. So, at least, just let me ensure your safety as best I can."

Turning back to the amused Glover before Lydia could see my face heat up, I finally a