As had happened once before,1 one moment Ondolemar was alone in his room, with the door closed, and the next Alexa was standing there the door still closed behind her.
“Your ability to simply appear is a little concerning, Breton,” he told her, putting the report he was working on in a drawer.
“Did you enjoy your pilgrimage?” she asked, indicating the ceremonial ewer she had lent him with a glance.
“I did,” he replied, standing up.
“It was everything you said it would be: beautiful, transformative, enlightening,” Ondolemar acknowledged, removing the ewer, the jewel,2 and the notebook from the shelf, and handing them to her. “Your friend Gelebor was something of a revelation.”
“He certainly is that,” she acknowledged as she put the things he handed her in her pack. Done she left her pack against the door and went to stand by the fire, one shoulder against the wall, her arms wrapped around herself.
Ondolemar observed her, for a moment, in concern. For the first time in the two years he’d known her Alexa seemed… fragile. “Is there something I can do for you?” he asked, trying to keep his sudden concern out of his voice.
Alexa nodded without looking at him. “We are friends, right?”
“I believe so, yes,” he replied, trying to keep his face and tone expressionless.
“I think I need your help,” she told him her eyes still locked on the flame of the Dwemer gas-lamp fireplace.
“Alexa…” He stepped forward, took her by the shoulders, and turned her to face him. “What has happened?”
He frowned at her in confusion. “So I’ve heard. What of it?”
“You know?” she demanded incredulously.
“Your friend Gelebor was rather clear on the subject.”
“Of course he was,” she remarked bitterly. “Why didn’t he tell me?”
“That I can’t help you with,” Ondolemar replied with the ghost of a smile. “Is there some reason you appear to be upset?”
“I don’t want to be Empress of Cyrodiil,” she admitted softly.
“Who says you have to be?” he asked.
“Since the founding of the First Empire every dragonborn, acknowledged as I have been, has become Emperor of Cyrodiil. Do you think anyone – Imperials, Thalmor, daedra– will believe me when I tell them I have no desire to be Empress?”
“Do you truly not?”
“Oh for the love of Mara!” she groaned. “If I wanted any of that I’d be halfway to Cyrodiil by now!”
“No,” he disagreed, “you wouldn’t. Not until you’ve done whatever it is Auriel created you to do.”
“Which I would love to do if only he would say something!” she snapped. “But he hasn’t told me anything! There’s been no guidance or supervision!” She turned away from him throwing her arms up in exasperation. “The river does not explain itself to the leaf caught in its currents. Even if that leaf is, apparently, its daughter.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you throw a tantrum before,” Ondolemar noted dryly.
She sagged slightly. “I went to the Chantry. I stood before His shrine and prayed for answers. With every fiber of my being I begged Him to explain what is happening to me. Pleaded to be told what it is He expects. Nothing.” She gave a tear-cracked snort of laughter. “Me, the person who can’t walk past the shrine of a daedric prince without them trying to talk her ear off, and the only higher power I actually need to talk to...” her voice caught in the throat and she was silent.
“He didn’t give you his bow for nothing, Alexa,” Ondolemar told her softly.
“That’s what Gelebor said.”
“And who would know Auriel better than the one who has served him for more than four thousand years?”
She seemed to think about that for a moment, her eyes never leaving his face. “Why are you not freaking out about this?” she asked. “Dragonborn haven’t historically been good news for elves.”
“Truthfully it’s almost a relief to have an explanation as to why your life is so strange,” he told her.
She rolled her eyes at that and went back to looking at the fire.
“What can I do for you, Alexa?” Ondolemar asked again. “Why are you here?”
“I… I think I need someone to stand between me and the Dominion,” she told the fire. “Just long enough for me to do whatever it is that must be done, and then…” she turned back to him, “I’ll go. I won’t trouble anyone, I won’t seek the Ruby Throne, I’ll just… disappear.”
“You’re asking for my protection?” Ondolemar whispered his voice catching in his throat.
“I know you’ve had me listed as a potential asset for some time now,” she told him.
That was not something he’d expected to hear. Ondolemar went very still. “Would you mind explaining how you know that?”
She looked up, meeting his eyes again. “The night with the Wabbajack… you passed out leaving me completely unsupervised in your rooms. Probably not the smartest thing you’ve ever done.”
“Don’t be like that. I haven’t used anything I learned against you or tried to blackmail you with it. I just… wanted to know if I could trust you.”
“Is there some reason you were worried you might not be able to trust me?” he asked.
“You mean aside from the whole elven supremacy thing?”
Right. He sighed. Well, Earmiel had suggested defining their relationship… “And what can you offer the Dominion that would make you a worthwhile asset?” he asked her, taking an official tone.
“You’re joking, right?” she demanded incredulously.
“Answer the questions, Alexa,” he told her sternly.
“Do you want to know the things I’ve learned about dragons, like how to tell if they’re more likely to breathe fire or ice?” she asked.
“That will do,” he acknowledged. Frankly, given Elenwen’s current obsession with the subject it was, quite possibly, the most valuable information anyone could offer him. “And you promise me that you are no threat to the Dominion?”
“I am only a threat to things that threaten me,” she replied. “Learning that I’m dragonborn hasn’t changed that.”
He nodded, his eyes never leaving her face. “If I change your status to ‘asset’ there are rules to that relationship, you understand that, right?”
“It seems to me I already inform you of interesting things I come across,” she pointed out. “What else is there?”
“I’ll want you to check in with me regularly, even if only by letter. Important, or sensitive, things you are to bring to my attention in person.”
“You’ll be required to inform me of credible threats to the Dominion.”
“Dragons,” she deadpanned. “They’re a serious threat to life everywhere. Oh, and me. But I’ll try to keep a low enough profile no one thinks to put my ass on the Ruby Throne.”
“And if I tell you to do something?” he asked.
“I’ll think about it,” she answered.
Ondolemar pressed his lips together in annoyed acceptance. He had expected that. “Good enough,” he sighed. “Lastly, everything you do will reflect on me. Please don’t do anything insanely embarrassing.”
“You do realize I don’t know enough about Altmer culture to know everything that category would include, right?” she responded a hint of her usual humor returning to her voice.
“I fear that if I bothered to make you a list you’d only find something to do that wasn’t on it,” he replied wryly.
She actually smiled at that.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked her gently.
“I’m absolutely certain I’d rather be dealing with you than that ‘advisor’ the Thalmor have at the College of Winterhold.”
“Ancano?” Ondolemar asked in surprise.
“Is that his name? He still hasn’t introduced himself, even after I caught him going through my things.”
“He always was rather rude,” Ondolemar admitted.
“If he’s a spy he’d get further by being friendly than by telling everyone around him they’re not worthy of his time.” Alexa’s eyes narrowed as something occurred to her. “He’s not being punished for something, is he?”
Ondolemar smiled at that. “If he were, I certainly wouldn’t tell you.”
“Well that’s a yes. What did he do?”
“I believe I just said I wouldn’t tell you,” Ondolemar told her, walking over to his desk and pulling an official document out of a drawer. “Here,” he said. “Sign this. I’ll fill in the rest before sending it to the Embassy.”
She glanced over the form and then signed at the bottom.
“Alright,” Ondolemar said, putting the document away in the same drawer as the report he’d been working on. “Now, dragonborn, tell me about dragons,” he commanded, taking his usual seat in front of the fire.
A slow smile spread across her face as she sat opposite him. “Does the fact I’ve promised not to lie to you about them mean you’ll automatically believe anything I say?”
“Lets find out,” he replied, dryly.
“Is there some place you would like me to start?” she asked.
“Do you really absorb power from the dragons you kill?”
“Yes. Specifically I absorb their souls,” she answered.
“And you are unharmed by this?” he asked, suddenly concerned. It had never before occurred to him to wonder what actual affects being dragonborn would have on her.
“It… is an odd sensation but not physically harmful,” she answered. “I cannot yet say if the passing emotional instability it causes is in any way cumulative. The nightmares are more than a little bothersome. The severity of those does appear to be increasing.”
“The end of the Mythic Era was not a pleasant period of time,” Alexa clarified.
“Ah,” he shifted slightly in his chair to face her more fully. “And the dragons. Where are they coming from?”
“From out of their graves,” she answered simply.
Ondolemar frowned at that. “Explain.”
“Dragons are immortal and will only cease to be if their souls are absorbed by either another dragon or a dragonborn. If ‘slain’ by anything else they… still exist. Their soul remains within their bones only requiring an infusion of life force to return them to full life. I can hear them now, in the ground. Speak to them even though they mostly refuse to converse.”3
“Who brought them back?”
“Alduin is bringing them back,” she told him softly, her eyes wide and focused on something only she could see. “The process is ongoing.”
“How do you know?”
She blinked once, deliberately, and then met his eyes. “I was there when Alduin raise Sahloknir outside Kyne’s Grove. I saw how it works and also that it left Alduin, at least temporarily, too weak to fight me himself.”
“Is there a way to avoid confrontation with the dragons?” he asked.
“If you are not dragonborn, it should be possible,” she answered with a slight sideways tip of her head. “You see, for the most part, the dragons do not seek the death of mortals they seek to establish dominance over them. So, if they’ve already seen you, don’t argue with them, don’t stand your ground, just run. If they haven’t seen you yet, hide, low to the ground and stay still. Like many aerial hunters movement catches their attention. Stay still and they may miss you altogether.”
“And if confrontation is unavoidable?” Ondolemar enquired.
“Waiting for a dragon to land, in order to fight them, isn’t an option if you want to survive,” she informed him seriously. “Dragon Shouts – their breath – are several times stronger than the equivalent spell. I’d be surprised if a competently cast Greater Ward could take more than a single hit. But, with enough mages or archers, you could, conceivably, do enough damage, in the first few seconds of the encounter, that the dragon might choose to disengage before it gets the chance to Shout more than once or twice,” she offered dubiously.
“So it would be imperative to stay spread out,” Ondolemar observed.
Alexa nodded in agreement. “It would also be well to remember that, having been forced to retreat, a dragon is likely to become rather unreasonable. They may choose to slake their damaged pride by proving their dominance over some less well-equipped group. Or, possibly, by finding an ally and slaying those that shamed it in a very public fashion.”
“Meaning that if my Justiciars make one angry enough it might attack the city,” he concluded.
“And how many have you killed?”
“Three,4 so far,” Alexa answered.
His eyes narrowed a little at that. “If dragons are such an overwhelming force that you caution trained Thalmor Justiciars to avoid conflict with them, how is it possible that you have killed three?”
“I am dragonborn,” she replied, as if that single fact should explain everything.
“And by what means does that alter the situation in your favor?” Ondolemar responded pedantically.
Alexa gnawed thoughtfully on her lower lip, clearly thinking hard about something before answering. “To put it in the crudest way imaginable,” she began, “I am to dragons as a black soul gem is to creatures with black souls. Even as handling a black soul gem can affect a person with a black soul proximity with a dragonborn affects a dragon.”
“Meaning that the transfer of power may begin even before the dragon’s death?”5 Ondolemar asked.
“Broadly speaking. Though, frankly, I don’t fully understand it yet,” she admitted.
“I see…” Ondolemar pondered that for a moment. “What is the dragon’s purpose, now that they have returned? What do they want?”
“To reinstitute the Dragon Cult,” Alexa answered with a slight shrug. “Oh, that reminds me!” she gasped, perking up visibly. “Dragon Priest masks… The Altmer outside Forelhost, calling himself Captain Valmir, recruiting people to retrieve Rahgot’s mask, out of his draugr defended casket, ‘for use in the civil war’… I assume he was a freelancer and not one of yours?”6
It took Ondolemar a moment to unpack what she was asking. “Not ours as far as I know,”7 he sighed. It took all his Thalmor training not to burry his head in his hands in equal parts irritation and despair. If someone had sent a Thalmor agent to search for artifacts of power, in Skyrim, then the internal power struggles back in Alinor must be getting worse. “But retrieving artifacts of ancient power isn’t really something Justiciars do,” he finished.
“So you wouldn’t know even if it were?” she summarized with a soft, somewhat knowing, smile.8
“What makes you think he was Thalmor?” Ondolemar enquired, dreading the answer.
She gave him a bored look. “Altmer claiming to be a captain in the Stormcloaks? Not exactly likely. Claiming to be a Captain in the Imperial army, slightly more likely, if he’d had a proper uniform. He didn’t. That and I don’t get the impression General Tullius sets much store by ancient magical artifacts.”
“He was posing as both?” Ondolemar demanded incredulously, his mind actually boggling at the idea.
“He was. From where he was camped he could see the road pretty well.9 He’d guess the allegiance of the person he saw coming and dress appropriately.”
“So you’re saying the complete lack of professionalism is what makes you think he was a member of the Thalmor?” Ondolemar enquired, archly.
“No,” she answered. “That’s what makes me think he was a freelancer. No way to tell if the Thalmor were the ones who hired him of course. But I’d have expected the Thalmor to be able to provide an agent with the correct Legionary uniform at least. Though thinking the peoples of Skyrim are too stupid to notice does sound like Thalmor – or maybe just Altmer – arrogance at work…” she added her voice dyeing away at the end, leaving the statement incomplete and open for further consideration.
“That is rather troubling,” Ondolemar agreed, pushing the many implications of this information away for further consideration at a later date. “But, as I said, even if it were a Thalmor operation if it didn’t involve the use of Justiciars I wouldn’t necessarily have been informed,” he lied. If it really was a Thalmor operation he should have been informed, if only to prevent his Justiciars from accidently interfering with it.
“Ah, well that’s too bad,” Alexa shrugged, apparently letting it go. “Given that the mask is rather underwhelming I was wondering what the going price was.”
“No you weren’t,” he laughed. “And that’s a little depressing. One tends to imagine dragon magic as impressive, not ‘underwhelming’. What’d the mask do, out of curiosity?”
“Improves stamina, the use of heavy armor, and two handed weapons.”10
“Three things?” he noted in surprise. “That’s unusual at least. How many masks are there?”
She closed her eyes for a moment… “Nine in Skyrim though only eight were ever gifted to men…”11 she snorted suddenly, half laughing, and opened her eyes. “The organization commonly called the ‘Dragon Cult’ was actually not a cult in scholastic terms, but a religion much the same way the worship of the Eight Divines is a religion.”
“Meaning one religion containing the cults – by which is meant the rituals and observances belonging to the worship of a single deity12 - of eight separate Aedra,” Ondolemar said, in the tone of one reciting a lecture. “Remember to whom you are speaking, Breton.”
“As if you’d let me forget,” she teased. “Anyway, point being, the Dragon religion, in Skyrim, handed out eight masks. Indicating the existence of eight high priests and, therefor, eight individual cults dedicated to the worship of eight individual dragons… one for each Nord gods whose worship the dragons sought to supplant with their own.”13
“And the ninth mask?” Ondolemar asked curiously.
She closed her eyes again, searching through the memories. “Konahrik. Meaning ‘Warlord’ in dovahzul…” She opened her eyes. “Akatosh, obviously, was replaced by Alduin, though they are not, from the perspective of the here and now, the same thing… Kyne – Kynareth – oh,” her eyes flicked as she put something together. “That’s interesting.” She fell silent.
“Yes?” he prodded.
Alexa blinked once, returning to the world around her. “Oh, uh… Emblem four, on the way up the seven thousand steps says,
Kyne called on Paarthurnax, who pitied Man.
Together they taught Men to use the Voice.
Then Dragon War raged, Dragon against Tongue.”
“You’re about to tell me that this Paarthurnax was the dragon cult’s replacement for Kynareth, aren’t you?” Ondolemar asked his voice weary with the inevitability of it all.
She nodded. “His high priest was Krosis – meaning Sorrow… his mask may be lost to the world as Krosis was disgraced, and his temple destroyed, when Paarthurnax’s treachery was revealed.”
“Destroyed how?” Ondolemar asked.
“They dragons broke the earth beneath it and called forth fire?” she murmured, in a confused tone, her eyes momentarily blank and unseeing. “Oh,” she blinked away the memories again. “That makes sense. It was where the hot springs flats south of Windhelm are now. That certainly explains the ruins and the three dragon burial mounds in the area.”14
“Dragon’s can change the land?” he demanded.
“Enough of them together? Sure. You must understand, dragon magic – even the stuff we’d classify as Destruction or Illusion magic – is more like tonal architecture or really powerful Alteration magic. All of it, even the least of their spells, works by altering, not the caster or the target, but the world.”
“No wonder the primitive Nords thought the dragons were gods,” Ondolemar muttered. “About how long do we have before all the dragons have been raised?”
“I don’t know,” Alexa answered. “I know that the map of dragon burials I found indicates that, at the time of its creation, the Dragon Cult had managed to bury the remains of twenty dragons. But I also know that they were not able to bury all the dragons that died before the Dragon Cult was finally destroyed, and that several dozen dragons were slain, centuries later, by the Akaviri.”
“And how many dragon priests masks have you come across?”
“Two: Rahgot, meaning Anger, who served the dragon who’s worship replaced Mara, and Vokun, meaning shadow, who served the dragon who’s worship replaced that of Orkey…” Alexa frowned at that, tipping her head to one side. “Huh. Now that’s interesting. All the individuals who became the high priests partook of their dovah’s immortality. It wasn’t until after their dragon’s were slain that the priests had to start draining life force from their followers to maintain their immortality. Bernadette Bandian will be interested to hear that.”
“Who?” Ondolemar asked in slight surprise before his brain managed to process the rest of what he’d just been told. “Wait, what? Are you saying they literally drained life from people like vampires?”
“Bandian is a member of the College of Winerhold,” Alexa told him. “She studies Draugr. She’s also the person who reported, just before Helgen, that not only do the dragon priests continued to drain energy from their followers even now, but that the dragon priests were becoming ‘livelier’. At the time everyone thought she’d just finally run mad. And, yes, dragons drained life force. Though, before the dragon’s death, only dragons were allowed to drain life force from cult members. The thu’um, you see, is a focusing of one’s vital essence. The stronger your vital essence – the more of it you have – the strong your thu’um.”
“So if you can augment your own vitality with the vitality of others your thu’um grows in strength,” Ondolemar concluded for her.
“Exactly. Dragon’s rank themselves based entirely upon the strength of their thu’um so it became a way to reinforce their hierarchy. The more followers you had, the more essence you could draw, the stronger your thu’um, the higher ranked you were, the more followers you could keep, and so on.”
“I suppose the good news is that the dragons will be weaker now than when they had worshipers?” he suggested.
“Ah-ha, silver lining found!” Alexa exclaimed, laughingly.
“And where do you stand in the hierarchy, Dovahkiin?” Ondolemar asked softly.
“Please don’t call me that, it’s creepy. And I don’t know. I’ve killed three dragons now and I have no idea where any of them would have been in the current hierarchy because one hasn’t been established yet.”
“So we should expect to see dueling dragons in our near future?” Ondolemar enquired.
“That would seem to be a logical outcome of the situation,” she replied, noncommittally.
“And is the power of your voice increased by the vital essence of the dragons you absorb?”
“Meaning you now know how to Shout?”
She looked around her. “You don’t really want me to light your room on fire, do you?”
“So you only know destructive Shouts?” he enquired, a little imperiously, just to bait her.
“You do realize that it takes most people about a decade to learn their first Shout, right?”
“I did not know that,” he replied, with a slight smirk. Watching Alexa be put out by being asked to demonstrate her new ability was more entertaining than it probably should have been. “How long did it take you?”
“I don’t really count because I can gain the knowledge of how each Shout I know works from the dragons I kill.”
He arched an eyebrow. “Well then?”
Alexa rolled her eyes at him. “Fine. FEIM!”
Ondolemar blinked in surprise at the spectral being now sitting in the chair across from him and actually jumped, very slightly, when Alexa reached out and passed a hand right through him.
“Happy now?” she asked, after dispelling the effect.
“Don’t show that to Earmiel,” Ondolemar advised, his tone more serious than he’d intended. “He’d lock you up in an attempt to study how it works.” Just then a sudden knock on Ondolemar’s door startled them both.
Alexa rose quickly and picked up the pack she’d left against the door, swinging it over he shoulder.
“Enter,” Ondolemar commanded, loudly enough to be heard through the door.
The door opened. “Sir,” a Justiciar began, stepping into the room, before coming to a startled stop.
“Don’t worry, I was just leaving,” Alexa announced, sliding past him, and out the door, before the Justiciar could decide if he should apologize for interrupting.
Ondolemar repressed a sigh. It seemed Tantha and Cyril15 hadn’t noticed Alexa arriving either. “What is it?” he asked the Justiciar wearily.
The Justiciar held out a sheaf of papers. “This week’s reports. And Sanyon16 is still missing.”
Ondolemar nodded, accepting the reports. “Presume dead at this point. I’ll let the embassy know.”
That evening Ondolemar sat at his desk considering the New Asset Form with Alexa’s name on it. The aedra, he reflected, had a terrible sense of humor. They had just presented him with the dragonborn – a career making asset – and she was the one human in the world he was likely to protect. A dangerous situation, for him, as there were those among the Thalmor who would claim that merely having such an impulse was proof he’d been compromised. That the impulse was directed towards the dragonborn… treason might not be beyond the bounds of what they would claim.
He read over what he’d written on the form and grimaced slightly. If anyone ever found proof that he’d filled out this form inappropriately – that he’d already known Alexa was the dragonborn and not mentioned it – well, emissaries had disappeared for less. But recognizing her, as the dragonborn, in this initial form, would make it likely that Elenwen would assign herself as Alexa’s handler, which would render this entire exercise pointless. So, for the first time in his life, Ondolemar had falsified an official form.
And for what, a nasty, self-doubting, voice in his head demanded? What are you getting out of this arrangement? Were you even thinking at the time or did you just let the situation run off with you? He considered that question carefully, going back over the beginning of Alexa’s visit in his mind.
He had immediately noticed that, for the first time in their nearly two year acquaintance, his playful, standoffish, Breton had seemed… fragile, even scared. Looking back on it now he could acknowledge that her apparent fragility had troubled – possibly even upset– him. Worse he’d felt a brief flash of elation in response to realizing that she’d come to him with her problems only to be flooded by an empty feeling of dread when he’d understood that there wasn’t anything he, or anyone else, could do about their root cause. Objectively speaking that level of empathy for an asset was always trouble.
His Breton, the nasty, spiteful, voice enquired?
Ondolemar winced and pinched the bridge of his nose. That was just the kind of slip-up that could get him in real trouble.
At least, this once, be straight with yourself and call this what it is, that nasty little internal voice admonished, a stupid attempt to stay close to the human you’re infatuated with. And just because you are singularly well positioned to watch her back it doesn’t mean you’ll actually be successful in buying her any extra time before the Dominion decides she has to die. And, when that happens, what will you have gained, again?
Some understanding of a new threat, that was for certain. And, eventually, the accolades that would come from having ‘unwittingly’ acquired the dragonborn as an asset. He would be the agent of the hour, right up until someone realized he wasn’t using his asset to its full potential. Or they realized exactly how narrow his agreement with her was. On top of that, given the way Thalmor internal politics worked, being the handler of, arguably, the most important asset in Skyrim would mean other Thalmor agents would be practically lining up to tear him down. If this charade went on too long someone would find out. But, if he’d said ‘no’, in all likelihood he would never have seen Alexa again…
He set the form down and stared blankly at the wall in front of him and let his mind go utterly blank. Finally he sighed. So that was it then. Lose his relationship with Alexa or risk everything else. It was official, his time in this wretched city had finally driven him insane.
Still… he’d learned enough from her, in one evening, to keep Elenwen happy for months, if he doled the information out correctly. The ambassador was obviously terrified of the dragons. Even if, Ondolemar privately suspected, any dragon that tried to eat Elenwen would, rightly, conclude she was inedible and spit her right back out again, that fear could be used to his advantage.
He signed the New Asset Form and put it in with the rest of the monthly reports he’d be sending to the Embassy, when the Thalmor courier arrived, in a few days.
He then sat, indecisively, at his desk for a moment. A few of the thing Alexa had mentioned in their conversation that morning were odd enough to require real consideration. The story about the Altmer attempting to collect dragon priest masks… was bad. Whether or not he was actually a Thalmor agent wouldn’t matter in the eyes of any Nords who learned of his attempt to acquire historically significant artifacts from their ruins. Worse, given that there were eight masks, there was every possibility there were more people, like him, out there. Furthermore Altmer didn’t just show up in Skyrim without the Thalmor knowing about it. The Embassy kept an eye on every Altmer in the country from Ulundil, the man that ran the Windhelm stables, to Legate Fasendil himself. The fact that this “Captain Valmir” wasn’t on one of Ondolemar’s lists was deeply troubling. Even if his mission was too secret to trust to a report, Ondolemar, as Second Emissary, should have been informed of it the last time he’d visited the Embassy.
Ondolemar pulled another piece of paper from the drawer and began to write.