Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 11

11: Between Noise

Aside from the loss of Martin, immortalized in the statue of his victory’s vehicle, and the damage to the temple, there was little to immediately notice. The sky had returned to its customary blue and the sounds of fighting had stopped, though night was sure to fall shortly.

Chancellor Ocato scurried in looking relieved and pleased. “What happened? Where’s Martin? I must congratulate him! Mehrunes Dagon is defeated! Cast back into Oblivion! We’ve won!”

He pursed his lips, then tilted his head at the statue. “Martin is … gone.”

“What do you mean … gone? We saw the temple dome explode, the avatar of Akatosh appear…” Ocato looked over, then back. “That was Martin?”

“Yes. I think he shattered the Amulet of Kings.” It was the only explanation he could think of, anyway.

“…The joined blood of kings and gods. The Amulet of Kings. The divine power of Akatosh.”

“And Martin’s blood, too…”

“Then Martin is gone,” Ocato said, his expression shifting to one where Sora actually thought the man might lose his composure for real.

“But the gates are sealed, it seems.”

“Yes. Sealed forever. Mehrunes Dagon and his ilk can never threaten Tamriel again. Martin is dead, but he died an emperor, and a hero to rival Tiber Septim.”

‘Eh? What little I read about him waffled all over that and made him sound like a violent maniac at times.’ “What of the Empire?”

“This victory is not without cost. We’ve lost Martin Septim. What an emperor he might have made,” Ocato said wistfully. “His sacrifice was necessary, but it leaves the Empire without an emperor. I don’t know what happens now,” Ocato said (surprising the hell out of Sora, who was accustomed to the lies of politicians).

“There are troubled times ahead for the Empire, but now is not the time to worry about the future.” Ocato’s voice took on a somewhat falsely cheerful tone. “Let’s just give thanks that we’re alive. As the Chancellor of the Elder Council, my concern now is how to choose his successor. We can hold the Empire together in the short term, but I don’t know what will happen. The provinces have been restive for years, even before the latest crisis.”

Sora nodded and was about to make his excuses when Ocato brightened up again. “In my capacity as Lord High Chancellor of the Elder Council, I hereby proclaim you Champion of Cyrodiil! And, as a small token of gratitude for your service to the Empire, I will order a suit of Imperial Dragon armor made for you. It is normally worn only by the emperor himself. But you deserve no less, Champion. You have earned the highest rank possible in the Order of the Dragon, the illustrious order of Imperial Knights founded by Tiber Septim himself. It is a high honor. Only six other Champions have been awarded in the history of the Empire. Please check back in approximately two weeks!”

Sora managed to get away after that and outside the city entirely. Despite dusk being upon them he started across the bridge. “Unless you guys have reason to object, I say we go the hell home. If we keep a steady pace we should make it there fine—cloak if we have to. And then we can sleep ourselves out in safety.”

“Sora, are you all right?” Renato asked softly. “I know you felt some measure of fondness for Martin.”

“It’s fine. He rose to the occasion after a bit of a wibbly start, right? I’m a little upset, especially the part where I’m the Champion, but I guess I am the head of our merry band of psychos, so… Assuming I understand what happened correctly, this world has been saved, which means—hopefully—we have repaid our debt. We can focus on our planters and hives and the new Filigrana.”

“I wonder what’ll happen to the remainder of the Mythic Dawn cultists,” Lorenzo said.

“We could always help out there,” Viper said, “should we happen upon any while out on errands.”

He nodded. “I’m sure the authorities won’t get too upset, but let’s keep it out of sight as much as possible, unless one of them is stupid enough to summon that armor in plain sight of witnesses. Fairly certain all bets would be off in that case.”

“I’m hoping since we’ve been gone for a fair amount of time that we’ll see some cool changes at the castle,” Renato said, absently shooting a bear lunging their way.

“Yeah,” Lorenzo said, “and not a bunch of shouting or those looks because we were kinda too busy to stop in.”

“Well, so, the rotation thing didn’t work perfectly, but I can always be really mean and refuse to cook if anyone gives me a hard time,” Sora threatened.

Viper froze for a moment and grabbed his arm. “You would not do that to us.”

He laughed. “Not you three. You were with me. You’d probably get yelled at, too. Or maybe they’ll just be happy that it’s over and we won’t be taking trips like this any longer.”

When they did make it to the castle it was around midnight, so the portcullis was closed. The man-at-arms patrolling the curtain wall raced down to open it for them and welcome them home. They split inside and up the stairs, with Renato and Sora headed for the master suite. Preparation for bed was a bit rushed, but they fell into bed and curled up together before passing out.

The next morning he took a proper bath and dressed in fresh clothing, then wandered down to the kitchen, where he promptly shooed the cook away and set about making a meal. Renato snickered off to the side where he was gathering ingredients. The cook had yet to learn that pouting would get him nowhere with the master of the castle. He was just cracking some eggs with the idea of making tamogoyaki when the rest of his family strolled in, paused in surprise, then rushed forward.

“When did you get back!?” Rio cried. “And where’s Viper and Lorenzo?”

“Still sleeping, I presume,” Renato said, “and around midnight.”

Viper floated in and shook his head. A moment later the cook suddenly said, “I must take a horse and cart to Chorrol and resupply!” He dashed off, and Kiri and Viper collaborated to toss up a barrier.

“Little brother,” Kiri sing-songed.

“Yes, Aniki?”

“I sense something has changed. You’re far too relaxed. What’s happened?”

“The Oblivion Crisis is over,” he said simply and went back to making breakfast.

Renato sighed and filled everyone in on recent events, and by then they were all seated around a table and tucking in.

After taking the edge off his hunger Sora said, “So while the news is sinking in, let’s have a status report. We were too tired last night to pay attention to any changes around here.”

Kiri nodded. “I have mind-controlled a fair number of bandits into the construction of Filigrana. Three quarters of them are off quarrying or delivering stone, while the remainder prepare the site to my specifications.”

“Lal and I have been building planters on the curtain wall walkways and in the courtyard,” Rio said, “but Kiri drew up some plans to extend parts of the front wall. It’d take some doing to integrate them into the existing stone work, but it should be possible.”

Lorenzo glanced at Kiri. “If you don’t mind…”

“Not at all.”

“We considered, seeing as how we have that eyesore not far off,” Shi said, “cutting into the hillside to make more room.”

“You mean toward the gate remains,” he said.

“Yes. It would be an enormous amount of work, but with such a compliant workforce thanks to Kiri, we could probably enclose that space and use it for either an outdoor training area or—”

“Horses!” Dino said excitedly. “I could get a lot of horses and start breeding them. Yeah.”

Sora bit his lip as he stared at the blond, then smiled. “We could do that. Have you been using your Sky Flames to make the two I saw think you’re the head of the herd?”

Dino nodded. “Yep, just like you explained it. Please say you made a note of what stables were selling what horses.”

“Of course. I’ll share after we’re done eating. But keep in mind, until that extension can be built, there’s not much point in having more than a handful of horses, say, a stallion and two mares. I’d rather see breeding stock—” He stopped. “Actually, while chickens can easily wander the courtyard mostly unattended, things like sheep and cows would need work.”

“We’d only need one cow, Sora,” Val said. “We can’t possibly drink enough milk to warrant more than that.”

“Mm, maybe. But we’d need to make a lot of cheese. How am I supposed to make cheesecake and cannoli and similar things with the wrong cheese? I know I stashed a book on cheese-making when we packed, along with a number of related supplies. How are we fixed for things like flour and eggs and tomatoes and herbs—I would really, really like to make some sort of pasta dish.”

“I’m a little surprised,” Lal said.

“By?”

“How little time all this took. We’ve been here, what, a month? Approximately. Maybe it’s to do with a different mindset.” She shrugged. “I know, the distance between what they call cities is ridiculously small compared to what we’re used to, but…”

“I’d hate to think of a Cyrodiil comparable in size to Italy,” he said. “We’d have all become accustomed to horses, for one thing, and we would have had to increase how many went with me each time, if nothing else to ensure the horses lived while we were otherwise occupied.”

Dino nodded. “It was around five hours from Treviso to Rome—longer if you went by train. Around ten days walking speed, I suppose, accounting for sleep and meals.”

“Well, I did use a temporary measure once, but maybe I could come up with something that could be attached to their harnesses, something like the earring I made you all those years ago,” Kiri said. “After all, I don’t think reinventing the steam engine for cars would go over well here.”

*

That afternoon, as he was investigating the updated training room, he noticed not only was there a candelabra at the far end of the archery hall, but that it was behind the target. Flames that close to a straw target was odd, even if the thing was currently unlit. Investigation proved it to be a switch, as when he gave it a tug it tipped forward, and the back of the hall opened up to reveal a hidden door.

He thought about just trundling on in, but knew that he should take at least one of his friends in case there was something nasty along the way. He pulled the candelabra again to close the door and retreated back upstairs. Shi happened to be walking down the corridor and he was grabbed and hustled off back downstairs.

“Where are we going, Sora?” Shi asked amiably.

“Found a secret passage. Figured you guys would get upset if I charged on in alone.” He reached up to tip the candelabra again.

Shi hummed thoughtfully. “I wonder how many more hidden passages are in this castle.”

Down the passage was a wooden door, and beyond that appeared to be a dead end. That is, until Sora got curious and started pulling on things, like the carved-in pillars, which by all rights should not be movable. And yet one was. The back wall of the niche moved out of the way, as did the little spot that could in theory serve as seating. “All right, now I feel compelled to test every last one of these I see in the future,” he muttered.

Shi went in first again and took out a skeleton off to the left. There was a large square room beyond with a walkway around three quarters of it. Stairs led down in a U shape at the far end to a watery area. There were tables and chairs along the gallery, planters with dead trees in them, and a lich on one of the landings—he thought it was a lich, anyway.

He and Shi took it out without any trouble, and scored a scroll off the body.

Ignorant fool! I could have delivered Lainlyn to him and more. But time is no consequence to me any longer! While he is growing old, I will be only growing stronger, to await the day when I will return to claim my rightful place among the powers of this world!

He rolled his eyes.

The darkness is not so bad. I come to like it. My companion is not very talkative, but that is just as well. I see now that my procedure was somewhat flawed—the flesh was not fully imbued with life as I intended. But his spirit remains strongly bound. He will provide me with an excellent test subject, as long as I am careful to do no permanent damage.

He wondered if that referred to the skeleton. This person had to be a necromancer.

Sometimes I awaken, and do not know where I am or what I have been doing. How to tell the passage of time here? Why should it matter to me? I believe the change is coming over me quickly now. My lord Mannimarco would be pleased.

“Make a note to dig up that name,” he murmured.

Deep night darkness. Sometimes sleep under moon visible. Howl sweetly. So sweet. My darkness. Silence.

“Apparently whatever process this was is fatal to the brain,” he said with a shudder. The scroll was tucked away and the water investigated. There was nothing to find except a single chest with a few septims inside. “Think we could rehabilitate this area?”

“I don’t see why not. Those trees might be dead now, but I sincerely doubt someone transplanted live ones here just to watch them wither. Do you think those glowing stones serve as a replacement for the sun? We could always empty one out, fill it with new soil, some plants, and stick a few of those stones nearby. So long as we remembered to come down and water regularly, we’d find an answer.”

He nodded and peered over the railing. “And I wonder about where that water came from and if it’s clean. If we have a water source inside the castle that’s a huge benefit. We could turn this into a giant bath, or a fish pond, or…”

“I agree. Something to discuss over lunch. For now how about we close the outer door.”

They did that and then proceeded to check every last candelabra and pillar in the castle. The wine cellar had a door that led up a passage which ended in another of these niches with pillars to either side. Pulling one of those out opened the way to the anteroom off the Great Hall. And finally, in the master bedroom, another pillar opened up a storage closet of sorts that Sora immediately wondered if he should change into an actual closet, and a journal by a Lord Jaren that explained exactly who had been down there in the hidden grotto.

I hope I have done well. I don’t know. Perhaps I should tell the others. But what hope would they have then? I will have to tell Kelvyn, one day, when it is time for him to assume the lordship of the Castle. He, at least, may forgive me, as I am his father.

I must collect my thoughts. Lord Kain returned last night, while the others were gone to the city. Thank Onsi it was only myself and Garridan—faithful friend! I have sworn him to secrecy. He was only too happy to let me take responsibility for what we did.

Later: I am more resolved than ever that the others must never find out. They must never know what Lord Kain has become, our liege lord—we sacrificed everything for him!

I will set it all down here, clearly, so that others may judge whether I have done right or wrong.

When Garridan woke me to tell me that Lord Kain had arrived, I was overjoyed at first. Garridan’s grim face soon warned me that all was not well, but he would not tell me what was wrong. Only that Lord Kain was accompanied by Arielle Jurard, a name to freeze the blood—a Breton battlemage of sinister reputation in Lainlyn.

Lord Kain was waiting in the great hall with Arielle Jurard. He was heavily cloaked, unsurprisingly as it was a foul night, but I wondered why he had not removed it upon entering the castle.

I greeted Lord Kain warmly, ignoring his companion for the moment, but when he spoke, it was only haltingly, and with a grating edge that I had never heard before. “Where are the others?” was all he said. Arielle Jurard quickly intervened, explaining that Lord Kain was unwell and needed a place to rest.

By the time Kain was abed, I was fully alarmed. He moved like an old man, and barely spoke in my presence. He left a foul odor in his wake, and remained cloaked until I left him in my chambers. I then demanded that Arielle explain herself, which she was only too willing to do. Her story was appalling. Apparently Kain had perished in battle shortly after we left, but by her arts she had returned him to life, and now planned to gather an army of Knights to resume the war against Baron Shrike. Her eyes glittered with pride as she told me all this—she is so far gone in madness and evil that she actually believed that I would go along with her plan to install a necromantic puppet on the throne of Lainlyn! For all Baron Shrike’s cruelties, he at least is mortal and will one day pass on the rule to an heir.

Somehow I was able to hide my shock from Arielle Jurard, and pretended to agree to her plan. “The other knights will need to have Lord Kain’s … condition … explained to them before they see him,” I told her. “Otherwise the surprise of seeing him may lead some to regrettable actions.” Thinking quickly, I suggested that she tend to Lord Kain in the grotto until I had prepared the others. She agreed without suspicion—I wonder if her mind has become disordered by her evil practices—my performance could not have been all that convincing.

Once they were inside, I shut them in, with Garridan’s help. May Tu’whacca have mercy on Lord Kain’s soul… As for Arielle Jurard, I wish nothing but endless night on her foul spirit.

I’ve had workmen cover up the doorway. Only a few of the others were ever aware of that passage behind the training room—luckily Kelvyn was not among them. I’ll have to come up with some story to satisfy those who ask about the grotto—or tell them the truth and face the consequences.

He set the journal back down and looked up. There was a trap door in the ceiling; it led to part of the roof. The view was nice.

At lunch they filled the others in and Lorenzo immediately started making plans to run some experiments in the underground grotto, and asked Shi to assist him.

*

Sora was tending the bar at Filigrana when Viper drifted over with an odd look in his eyes. At least these days they got to see his face on a regular basis. Viper got close enough to whisper, “See that fellow in the back right corner?”

“The one who’s half-potted on mead and drooling a bit?”

Viper nodded. “Just overheard something very interesting. He’s been having a kerfuffle with another fellow, wants him dead. What do you think of the idea of me investigating deeper to see if we’d be interested?”

He frowned slightly and said, “Pro bono?”

“As a way of sparking the rumor mill. If this is a viable target opportunity—not just some girly slap fest over a drunken violation of the man’s sheep herd—then the man he’s got it in for could coincidentally die. If we could find a few people like him, and do a few hits… Think of it as advertising costs.”

“And some bright soul starts noticing these coincidences—possibly helped along by shady persons staging revealing conversations around other persons—and we get actual customers of the other variety. And those ones would have to pay. But…”

Viper raised his brow.

“Sort of how we kept our neighborhood in Grosseto clean. We could do that for anyone who comes here and … we notice something … and it’s real need, not just…”

Viper nodded. “I see. And yes, I think that could work out. It would mean either myself or Kiri doing the initial investigation. But we could always plant tracers on people we’re interested in, then track them back to wherever they sleep that night, poke around—and that’s assuming I can’t manage it on the spot.”

“For the moment, you have the go ahead to investigate this guy’s claim. We can have a meeting tonight after closing, so everyone can chime in, but I think the overall plan’s a good one. It’ll probably bring us to the attention of that group of assassins, but we can talk about that, too.”

Viper nodded again, the corners of his mouth quirking up briefly, and drifted away.

*

“Nice idea, Viper,” Kiri said admiringly. “And now that we have people coming in… Though, it doesn’t hurt that Sora has quite the reputation to attract them to us.”

He scowled. “I’m almost embarrassed to be called a hero and a champion. But then, Giotto was a vigilante, so I suppose it’s not quite so bad. If we’re all agreed, I’d like anyone on duty paying attention to what people are saying. If you find a candidate, let Kiri or Viper know, whoever is there. If we decide to ‘help’ the customer, we can figure out a plan and decide who gets to go do it. But that brings up the issue of that assassin’s guild or whatever it is.”

“Ah,” Lorenzo said. “I read a book about them. The leader of a cell is always called the Night Mother and it’s a combination daedric cult and business, basically. They worship Mephala. They were outlawed for some time, but then royalty started using them something like an assassin’s guild.”

“I suppose the Oblivion Crisis cut into their paycheques,” he quipped.

“It’s a little hard to scare up some gold when you’re fleeing for your life from daedra,” Rio said cheerfully.

“I will investigate,” Viper said. “I got enough from his mind yesterday to know where to look, and I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

“All right. Then you guys can draw straws or something if it pans out. But for now, bed.”

*

Viper returned two days later, in time to help with the washing up after they closed, and then filled them in on what he’d found. “The case is so: the target seduced the man’s daughter, convinced her to gather up as much money as she could—and of course she took it from her father’s stores—and run away with him. They made it to the next city before he dumped her with the excuse that she traveled badly, and left her to figure out what to do with herself, penniless.”

“Not great, but not terrible,” Sora said slowly.

“The daughter is twelve.”

“Ah.”

“I vote we rip his spine out through his nostrils,” Lal said. “Or his anus, whichever.”

“All in favor?” he asked.

Everyone nodded, so Sora fetched a sack he’d prepared earlier containing one black marble and the rest white. “Okay, anyone who wants a shot, secure a marble. Whoever gets black gets the hit.” Hands dived for the sack and he had trouble holding on to it.

Shi beamed—well, it was beaming for him, anyway—and held up the black marble triumphantly.

Viper fetched a map out of his cloak and slid it over. “Now pay attention,” he said, then projected an image into the air over the table for Shi to study. He kept it there until Shi nodded.

Shi returned a week later and joined them for breakfast. “It is done. The target had an unfortunate accident. He was walking home after a night of drinking away his spoils, tripped, landed on an oversized hook, and in the process managed to, indeed, rip his spine straight out of his body.” He looked at Lal. “Not quite what you suggested, but close enough.”

“I don’t even want to know how you pulled that off,” she said reverently, then reconsidered. “Er, no pun intended.”

“None assumed,” Shi said agreeably. “On a secondary note, I was visited by a member of the Dark Brotherhood.”

His brow shot up. “So that gossip was true. You’d have said if you weren’t all right, so what happened?”

“I knew he was in the room almost before he got all the way in,” Shi said. “He came close to the bed and whispered, ‘You sleep rather soundly for a murderer,’ at which point I stopped feigning sleep and sat up. When I said nothing he continued with something about Sithis and the Night Mother. Said his name was Lucien Lachance, a Speaker for the Dark Brotherhood. Apparently—if I’m interpreting what he said correctly—this Night Mother is capable of sensing murder and sends one of her people off to investigate, and recruit. Either that, or they have one hell of a spy network.”

“And how exactly does that pitch go?” Renato asked.

“He gave me rough directions to a man at an inn and said killing him would be my initiation, that he would return should I do so and—how did he put it?—he would come ‘bearing the love’ of my new family.”

Val snorted, then started chuckling. “Right,” he drawled.

“I got a free dagger out of it, which I promptly disintegrated once he was gone.” Shi tossed an issue of the Black Horse Courier on the table. “Funnily enough, I found this when I stopped at the Imperial City. It describes the Black Sacrament used to call upon the services of the Dark Brotherhood. Either way, I shall be going nowhere near this Rufio person he pointed me at.”

“But what about bandits and the like? This Night Mother must be something special if she can filter all that out,” Lal said.

Shi shrugged. “Just be aware that we might run into the man again.”

*

Over the next year Sora seduced the locals with Italian cooking and people kept dying every so often under peculiar circumstances. They had found several other unfortunate souls in need of assistance, and while those sent were also visited by Lucien Lachance, none were ever visited twice.

During that time they had done a few favors for people in Chorrol. The Captain of the Guard had been subtly led to find love (and get an attitude adjustment), a stolen painting had been recovered for the Countess and the culprit fingered, a man was helped to reclaim the family farm for his two sons, a missing Argonian was located for the shopkeep of Northern Goods and Trade, and the puzzle of a man and his mysterious twin was figured out.

He had just checked his stock of mead up front when a haggard-looking man took a seat at one of the tables and cast a furtive look his way. Rio went over to see what the man would like, and was shortly at Sora’s side.

“I think he might be one of those other customers,” Rio said quietly. “In any case, he heard about our wonderful mead and our unique cuisine. A middling mead and some pasta salad for him.”

‘Thank Kami that we’ve all experienced some changes,’ he thought. Lal had been practicing her skills to keep in shape and had realized, after some time had passed, that the ice she had created several days before had yet to melt. It made it far simpler to keep food refrigerated or frozen, and allowed Sora to make up massive batches of sauce with the bounty of their garden. “Just a moment,” he said, then ducked into the back to dish up a portion of the salad. Back at the bar he slid the bowl onto the counter and rooted around for a middling mead—not to sweet and not too dry. “We’ll see if he has the courage to say something outright.”

Rio nodded and grabbed the food to deliver it.

The man did not that day, but he came back every day for the next few. He eventually sat at the bar and was served. Sora got tired of the wait and said, “You look a bit downhearted.”

The man grunted and shoved some pasta into his mouth.

Sora nodded slightly and moved away to clean some mugs from previous customers. Lal’s powers were not the only ones to be affected. Kiri and Viper could create lasting illusions, which meant that some things were but an imagination away.

Val could propagate something and the resulting creations were persistent, though Kiri took the initiative and tested food items on his mind-controlled bandit workforce to see the long-term results. Kiri also planted some propagated seeds in a separate bed, to see what would happen there. Insofar as they could tell the produce was perfectly normal, but Sora was unwilling to rely on any of it.

Their conscripted workforce (after having dug out a huge chunk of the hill north of Battlehorn, built up all the extension walls, and built Filigrana) had been sent to Hammerfell to get rid of them. Kiri had accompanied them to the border and seen them off, mental compulsions having been used so that his brother could safely return home and no longer have to strain himself so badly.

The man coughed when he walked by to rack the mugs he’d washed and said quietly, “Some odd rumors heard about this place.”

Sora set the mugs in place and replied, “Odd? I didn’t think our menu was so strange.”

“Such like … there be another menu.”

“We do keep a few special options in reserve,” he said vaguely.

The man nodded and returned his attention to his meal. Kiri drifted by and Sora made a subtle hand sign at him. His brother nodded, and Sora could see the subtle wisp of Mist Flames reach out toward the man and latch on.

It was nearing midnight when the man coughed again as Sora passed by and said, “How do a man see t’other menu?”

“You look as if you have a story to tell,” he replied, and leaned on the bar in a confidential posture.

“Well, you be a hero and all,” the man said, which made Sora twitch. “Ah, well…” The man took another sip of mead. “Got this problem, see. There’s this Dunmer done me wrong. Managed to get him arrested, but they only charged him for theft. He still be in prison, up the Imperial City.”

“What did he do to you?” Sora asked quietly.

“Had this farm, see? But all me livestock is dead or stolen. Caught him red-handed, I did, slicing the throat of me best cow. I wish he were dead for what he’s done, not only to me, but to those animals. Poor cow gave good milk, the sheep their fleece. No need for them to die like that. He bragged, he did, that I weren’t the first he’d done it to, the bastard.”

Sora hummed. It sounded good on the surface, but investigation would prove one way or the other. “Who is this Dunmer?” he asked, remembering that fellow in the cell across from his so many months ago.

“Valen Dreth. Gossip done filtered out that he witnessed Emp’ror Uriel go through the prison on his way to his death. Man’d think the guards’d be less talky.”

‘So the same man, probably,’ he reasoned. ‘And while I expect they’ve either locked off access again, or stationed guards down there, I know how to get back to that cell.’ Sora nodded. “Interesting. Let me think about it for a few days. A way might open to net you some justice.”

“Aye, but at what cost?” the man asked.

“Come see me in two days and I’ll let you know.”

*

He pulled Viper aside in the morning and said, “I have a job for you. Kiri tagged the guy, but I know exactly where to go to check into the customer’s story. If you’re all right with it, you can just take the route directly from my mind, go check the target, and report back.”

“Will you let me see the conversation with the customer?”

“Of course,” he said.

Viper nodded and reached out to touch Sora’s forehead. As before he could feel that lurking presence, and he concentrated on his meeting with the customer the night before.

‘Now the route,’ he heard, so he switched focus to when he woke up in that prison cell and his escape.

A few minutes later Viper touched his forehead again to remove the mind link. “A bit nasty, that one. I will go investigate and be back in time for you to speak with that customer again.” He patted Sora on the arm and drifted away.

He returned a day later and filled them in over breakfast. “The target, Valen Dreth, is scheduled to be released in a few weeks. He is guilty of what our possible customer claims. Depending on the location he either steals the livestock for sale, or kills and butchers it all to eat or sell. He’s left a number of people bereft of their livelihood. He’s better than bandits who kill you before making off with your wealth and goods, but not by much considering some of the people he’s targeted may well have fallen on hard enough times as to turn to banditry themselves.”

“And once he gets out he’ll probably keep doing it,” Sora said, nodding. “Some farms are off the beaten path to have enough room for planting, and the patrols don’t necessarily go by more than rarely. I don’t have a problem with offing the guy.”

“The route in to his cell is guarded now,” Viper informed them. “A good few dozen down there, but I snatched copies of all the keys I could find. I considered jamming the locks, but that might have caused them to make changes that’d be harder to deal with, and I did not want to shoehorn Sora into being the one to have to go. Whoever does go, I left a series of markers in place that only we should be able to see.”

“Rather like my fluorescent markers,” Shi said.

“Yes. I suppose someone sneaky enough could exit after the hit by going up through the prison, but getting back the way in would be sufficient and far less risky. There are enough gaps in the patrols to make it easy to slip by. Interestingly enough, they’ve erected a shrine of sorts where Emperor Uriel fell.”

“Huh. Well, shall I get the bag?”

Heads nodded, so he fetched out the sack of marbles and held it ready. Hands dived in and grabbed a sphere each. Val was the winner; he grinned happily as he put his marble back.

Viper handed him a set of keys. “The markers leading in to the target’s cell are round and on the floor right in front of the doors you need to take. The ones leading out are simple horizontal bars and they wrap around the wall.”

Val’s expression went confused.

“Imagine an L-bracket.”

“Oh, oh, okay,” Val said.

“We still need to figure out some kind of payment,” Sora reminded them. “He’s lost his livestock so it’s not like we can ask for much. But there needs to be at least a token payment. Maybe we can ask him to scour the nearby area for alchemy ingredients.”

“Or make him wash dishes for an evening,” Lal suggested. “He’s already spent a fair amount of money just on drink and food at Filigrana trying to work up his courage, right?”

He hummed. “Right. Something like that. I’ll let him know, assuming he comes back. Val, be ready to go.”

“Yep. I’ll pack some supplies before we open for the day. You give the signal and I’ll take off to do the job.”

The customer showed up not long after noon and took a seat at the bar. Sora served him without comment, then picked up his hashi.

The man eyed him funny as Sora deftly sliced his tamagoyaki with his hashi and grabbed a piece. “Them’s strange,” he commented.

“Food from my homeland is prepared in bite-sized pieces, usually. You never need anything but these, with few exceptions,” he replied, then popped the egg into his mouth.

“Heard tell them Akaviri got slanty features like yours.”

“I’ve heard the same,” he said after he swallowed.

“Got any news, have you?” the man said after another minute had passed.

“I do, in fact. I know someone who is prepared to help you.”

“And the cost?” the man said warily.

“When we close tonight, help me clean up.”

“Eh?” The man stared at him in disbelief.

He nodded. “I’m not heartless. Every night when we close this place needs to be gone over. Sweeping, making sure the tables are clean, that sort of thing. You do that for me tonight, and your problem will be taken care of.”

The man laughed creakily and shook his head. “You not be … them.”

His brow went up. “If you mean what I think you do, no. But then, if you had suspected I was, you’d not have asked for my help, would you.”

“Can’t rightly pay for that now, can I?” the man said. “Had to sell off me farm as t’were.”

“You know…” Sora bit his lip and considered. His intuition wasn’t against the idea, so he said, “Would you like a job? We take turns with the livestock here, but…”

The man’s eyes went wide.

“It’d be room and board, some coin so you had some to save up or spend in Chorrol. We’ve got cows, sheep, goats, chickens… Horses, too, but those are more my friend’s thing. And of course, we’ve got plenty of vegetables and whatnot growing.”

“Over at castle?”

He nodded. “We made sure to build up the walls to protect it all from banditry. The hives aren’t protected, but bees usually take care of themselves. We do have to take out the occasional bear, though.”

“Ah…” The man sipped more of his mead. “Coin’s running out and got no place to be. Aye, I’ll take you up on that.”

Sora smiled and signaled to Kiri, who drifted over. “Aniki, can you run a message over to the castle to get a spare room prepared? I’ve hired us someone to help out with the livestock and farming.”

“Miles be me name,” the man interjected quietly.

He smiled again. “Miles, then. In the morning after breakfast I can show you around the place.” A message popped up in front of him, an illusion from Kiri, asking if the hit was a go. He nodded and popped another piece of tamagoyaki in his mouth.

“I will do that,” Kiri said, then drifted out.

“Are you lodging in Chorrol right now?”

“Aye, at Grey Mare.”

“Well, gather up whatever you have stored there when you’re ready, and I can put it in the back until it’s time to head over to the castle. My brother will have made sure a room is ready for you. And of course, I’ll make sure the men-at-arms know you. We bring the portcullis down once it starts to gets dark. No sense inviting enterprising sorts to come nose around looking for things to steal.”

“Makes sense,” Miles said agreeably. “Well, aye. I’ll finish me drink and trod off t’get me things. Come back.”

“If you need help, just say so. I’ll have someone go with you.”

“Nah, not got much. Won’t take long.”

*

The next morning he made breakfast as usual, then showed Miles around the lower floors of the interior, then out into the courtyard and “secondary” courtyard so he could see the planting areas and the area where the animals were kept. He pointed at the stables and said, “Those are mostly Dino’s and he and Romario take care of them. I think he’s aiming to create a new breed. If you need a horse for something, though, ask, and he’ll probably lend you one. Over there is a storage shed for tools. Our blacksmith makes sure those stay in good shape, or makes new ones if needed.”

“Got the idea, methinks,” Miles said. “See cart over there to put things in. You showed where to bring everything.”

He nodded. “And just bother the cook if you want something to eat. The only meal I normally cook here is breakfast. He takes care of everything else, since we’re at Filigrana. But if you want, you can always come have your lunch and dinner at the bar, all right? Up to you.”

“You make some right odd stuff, you do, but good, real good.”

He smiled. Aside from spending a few hours once a week to feed Sky Flames to his little plots, he had little to do with the gardening. The only ones of them who actively enjoyed the duty were Val and Lalia, because they both welcomed the general solitude of working with plants.

Miles nodded and headed for the shed, so Sora returned to the castle interior to make a fresh batch of noodles for the day, then headed upstairs to his room so he could take a bath. He was making a fresh batch of the pasta salad (it sold really well, for some reason) when Val bounced in and gave him a hug from behind.

“All taken care of?” he murmured, mindful of the cook moping in the corner.

“Yep. I’ll give you the details later,” Val said as he stole a grape tomato.

Sora smacked him. “Be a sweetheart and fetch out the dressing I made earlier, will you?”

On his way to Filigrana he stopped in the side “courtyard” and told Miles, “I’ve been informed that your issue has been taken care of. You’re not the only one he ruined, but you are the last.”

Miles widened his eyes. “Aye. Right.”

“Remember, you can eat here or at Filigrana. Suppose it depends on which type of food you prefer. I’ll see you later.”

Miles nodded, so Sora departed with his crew for the day of Rio and Viper.

Two days later the Black Horse Courier had a story about the peculiar death inside the Imperial City Prison, wherein a prisoner, one Valen Dreth, scheduled to be released in a few weeks, had mysteriously suffocated due to a sudden and inexplicable throat tumor.

*

Several months later Lorenzo came to him and handed over a silver ring. He took it and saw nothing particularly special about it, though it felt … off … somehow.

“Wear it,” Lorenzo said.

He gave his Lightning a dubious look, but did as he asked. He was more than a little surprised when he vanished, even from his own sight. “Eh?”

“Remember those stones we kept finding? Well, we can’t use magic in the conventional sense, but some of those stones give you access to specific magic. And you need that access in order to enchant things with that magic, using that altar.”

“All right.”

“One of the stones I found granted a spell or power or whatever you want to call it that gives you what the mages would call Chameleon. Renato was appropriately amused, I assure you.”

He removed the ring and looked at it again. “What else can you enchant?”

“Speed, how high we can jump, agility, stuff like that, as well as the very interesting options of spell reflection and spell resistance. Well, technically, we’re all classed as Bretons, it seems, so we have an inherent resistance to magic of fifty percent. But we can bump it to one hundred with enchantments.”

“Hostile magic, I assume.”

Lorenzo nodded. “And also a shield of sorts, though I can’t seem to get that one to go all the way. I guess being completely invincible is a bit much to ask.”

Sora snickered. “Well, can you make me a ring that’s … well … something I wouldn’t normally wear, like gold or copper. Then I’ll know it immediately,” he said, offering back the ring. “And I wouldn’t say no to ones with shield and resist, though I’d prefer those on something I would wear all the time.”

Lorenzo hummed. “I’ll figure something out. On a different note, I was doing some reading—”

Sora rolled his eyes in affectionate exasperation.

“—and I ran across references to some supposed power of the Septims. Tiber Septim was the big one. He was a ‘Dragonborn’ like the other Septims, but he could use the power of dragons. He could shout in their language, like a—how can I put this? You know those silly shows on TV where the hero yells something and—” Lorenzo stopped with a look of frustration. “They shout. When they do that in this dragon language, it does things, like—oh, like a Force Push in Star Wars, for example.”

“Just … shout?”

“Yes. People who aren’t Dragonborn have to spend years learning how to do it. They call those people Tongues.”

“How imaginative,” he said dryly. “Why bring it up? Because it’s something we could conceivably learn and use that isn’t magic?”

Lorenzo smiled. “Precisely. I’m going to track down as much as I can, but I figured I’d mention it to you so that you could join in when I have enough material to work from.”

“All right,” he said with a shrug. “Considering I can no longer indulge in video games, I’ll need another hobby.”

*

A Khajiit walked into the bar and looked around, then took a seat in the corner where it was nice and shadowy. He seemed a bit nervous, which made Sora curious. Shi went over to take his order, which turned out to be a bottle of the strongest sweet mead they had, plus, “He asked about the special menu.”

“All right, tell Kiri. I’ll go talk to the guy.”

Shi nodded and drifted off, so Sora grabbed a bottle of his Dragon’s Tongue mead and delivered it to the customer. “You inquired about the special menu?” he asked quietly.

The Khajiit nodded at one of the seats and uncorked his drink so he could take a long sip from it. After Sora sat down he picked at the cork with his clawed nails. “This one is unsure if the tales are true.”

“Depends on what it is you’d like off the special menu.”

“This one has heard tales that one might find help here.”

“It’s possible,” he said as he saw wisps of Mist Flames attach themselves to the Khajiit. “Why don’t you tell me what’s troubling you?”

The Khajiit had more mead before saying, “There is this couple in Leyawiin, where this one lives. They are … very unhappy … about this one’s brothers and sisters having a place there, and our friends from the marshes.”

“So they’re racist.”

The Khajiit nodded. “This one is amused and appalled because they spend so much time at two places in town run by the same. This one would think they would avoid dining out.”

Having stopped in at Leyawiin more than once he knew that Five Claws Lodge was run by an Argonian and Three Sisters’ Inn was run by Khajiit, so that made it seem more than a little hypocritical. “What has this couple done specifically?”

“They have talked the Council into ruling in their favor. This resulted in our land being taken and given to them. Moreover, this one has learned that they intend to do the same with the two inns in town. They deprive us of our livelihoods, systematically.”

“I see. All right. Here’s how it works. You tell me their names, and I have this investigated. If what’s found matches up, something will be done.”

“For a price.”

He nodded. “The price depends, however. The very first person to order off the special menu was destitute, so his payment was to help me clean up here one night, but only after his claim was verified.”

“This one knows you are the one they call hero and champion.”

Sora rolled his eyes. “It’s a bit hard to say no when a god makes it clear they expect you to do something. Anyway, after the information is verified, then it can be acted on, a permanent kind of justice.” He wasn’t nervous about saying it even that openly because he knew Kiri would be able to find him anywhere with that tag in place and correct any damage if the fellow talked.

The Khajiit spent a few minutes sipping his mead, then said, “Betto and Julitta Plotius. This one wishes to know how long verification would take.”

“Up to a week. Leyawiin is a fair distance.”

“This one understands and will return in a week. This one would like another of these to take along,” the Khajiit said and put two stacks of ten septims each on the table.

He smiled. “Be right back.” The gold went into his pouch and his other customer was soon on his way.

Kiri drifted off after him a few minutes later, invisibly. Several minutes after that Viper showed up to take his place. “Another one?”

He nodded. “Well, once it’s verified. Two racists who keep managing to take the property of other races, leaving them with nothing.”

Viper shook his head slightly. “I don’t think that’s something we can ever escape from.”

*

Kiri returned four days later and filled them in over breakfast. The cook and Miles were conveniently suffering from induced inattention and heard nothing of the entire conversation.

“Our new friend is correct. Those two are rabid in their racism and have indeed managed to take their lands. They are presently building up a case—if you can call it that—to get both the Three Sisters’ Inn and the Five Claws Lodge as their property. If they can manage that, they’ll move on to the next victim, Five Riders Stables, using the deteriorating states of the previous ones as further arguments against having any of them in Leyawiin.”

“The question is how to deal with them,” he said, “and what our Khajiit friend actually wants.”

“Eh… Kiri could always mind control them long enough to write out incredibly damaging journals detailing all their plans,” Lorenzo said, “and those get accidentally-on-purpose found, and they’re arrested, and die mysterious deaths in prison, or on the way there.”

“Or maybe Kiri gets them to write it all down, and then the two of them die in an unfortunate encounter with the local wildlife while they’re scouting for more territory to annex,” Lal said. “And someone finds their journals and makes a huge production out of it.”

“More plausible,” he said, “and it isn’t duplicating an earlier trick. I could see Kiri and Lorenzo working this one.”

Lorenzo looked up in surprise. “Me? What…? Maybe paralyze them while they happen to be standing next to some hostile local wildlife or something?”

“There is a silver mine south of the city,” Kiri supplied. “There are trolls in there.”

“What about a price, though,” Renato said. “This guy has lost his land. How’s he going to pay?”

“Though he did not say so,” Kiri said, “he came on behalf of all of them. They’re really worried. So they could probably pool together some coin amongst the group. At one hundred gold each, that’d be a thousand.”

“Do we have any idea what the other guys charge?” Rio asked.

Sora shrugged. “Unless we run into that Lucien fellow again…”

*

The Khajiit showed up again a few days later, so Sora went over to talk to him.

“This one would like more of that strong, sweet mead.”

“Sure.” He fetched some from behind the bar and returned, then took a seat as he slid the bottle over. “I assume you’re still interested in the special menu.”

The Khajiit nodded as he shoved a claw into the cork and pulled it out. “This one is.”

“Well, the situation’s been investigated and we’re prepared to enact some justice. The questions remaining are twofold.”

“These are?”

“One is the type of justice, and the second is the price. So to the first, what are you and those you represent hoping for?”

“This one being here is a choice. This one was not driven from his homeland,” the Khajiit said. “But this one, and those like him, are being driven away now. These ones cannot act openly.”

“Hence coming here.”

The Khajiit nodded. “This one admits, a permanent justice would be preferred.”

“All right. Then the price.”

“Something tells this one that the Breton would not be interested in moon sugar.”

He smiled and shook his head. “No. The rest of us just don’t have your, hm, tolerance to that. I’m willing take a number of things. Ingredients you’ve picked up along the way, a few hours of labor, gold, trade goods…”

“This one is authorized to offer a horse and two hundred drakes that was pooled.”

He nodded. “That’s fine.”

The Khajiit slid a pouch over, presumably containing the coins. “The horse can be picked up in Leyawiin from the stables after word of this justice. Make mention of the recent rise in the price of grain. Atahba will understand.”

“You can expect action within the next few days,” he replied.

The Khajiit nodded. “This one would like another of these before he goes,” he said, and slid two stacks of ten septims onto the table.

*

A knock came at his bedroom door and he looked up in confusion. It was nearing two in the morning. Kiri and Lorenzo were on the other side. Once they were seated he said, “What’s up?”

Renato aimed a disgruntled look at the two.

“You remember that Lachance fellow?” Kiri asked. “He showed up again, but this time Lorenzo paralyzed his ass.”

Sora smirked as Renato laughed. “I have to assume you two took full advantage of the situation at that point.”

“Of course we did, dear brother,” Kiri purred. “This Lachance fellow is a man like any other, if a lot more skilled at skulking around and stabbing people from behind. In any case, while we had him at our mercy, I mind-controlled him so he would spill his guts—figuratively speaking.”

“And then erased his memory of any of it,” Renato said.

Kiri nodded. “It seems this Night Mother is annoyed that we’ve set up business, but as we’re helping people who would never contact them in the first place due to monetary issues—they charge a minimum of one thousand septims per job, more if the target is important—she’s not too terribly concerned about us. More that she wanted to bring in new agents for the Dark Brotherhood, since it’s obvious we’re not common thugs.”

“The interesting thing,” Lorenzo said, “is that the Night Mother has been the same person for ages. She’s dead. Her body rests under the Lucky Old Lady statue in Bravil. There’s a crypt down there, with her body and that of five babies.”

Sora wrinkled his nose.

“The story goes that she bore Sithis five children, then sacrificed them to him,” Lorenzo continued. “In any case, she hears the prayers of those seeking out the Dark Brotherhood and informs the Listener, who then tells the Speakers, like Lachance, and they assign duties that way.”

“The Black Sacrament,” he said.

Kiri nodded. “And obviously, being a spirit—or possibly the Daedric Lord Mephala—she can see when murder is committed and send someone to investigate. It’s possible she knows exactly what we did to Lachance.”

He sat back and considered. “So just in case, we should all be a bit more wary. I’m not feeling anything in particular, but if we are talking about entities that are gods to us, well, I’m not sure I would. That being so, let’s continue to stay away from anything but the type of clients we’ve been handling so far.”

“So Viper and I need to be checking to see if they came to us simply because they didn’t want to pay the Dark Brotherhood’s prices,” Kiri said with a nod. “I’ll mention it in the morning.”

“We’ll leave the rest of the report until breakfast.”

The cook and Miles were distracted again and Kiri started things off. “I used illusion to lure the targets off to investigate the mine south of Leyawiin because of the silver deposits there. We skulked along behind them and, once they were inside and within range of the trolls, Lorenzo paralyzed the two. We stood back and let events play out. The two of them were torn to pieces, of course.”

“I expect it’ll be a few days at least before we hear more,” Lorenzo said. “Kiri did get them to make up those journals containing all their racist thoughts and plans. The husband has a cousin living in Anvil, so I expect word will be sent to her and the journals will be discovered.”

“Yes, and I will return there after breakfast,” Kiri said. “I want to keep an eye on things and ensure that happens, that they get shared around.” He looked at Sora. “I will wear a different face.”

“So…” Dino said, trying not to look too eager. “I have a new horse waiting for me?”

Sora eyed him. “At what point did you participate in any of the jobs we’ve done?”

“Aw, come on,” Dino wheedled. “I love horses!”

“We know,” he said with a sigh. He was secretly amused by just how much room horses took up in the kid’s brain, but showing that was not something he would do. He had no idea if the difference could be attributed to alternate dimensions and the differences in Dino’s starting circumstances, or if Reborn had beat that sort of thing out of him in Sora’s original dimension. At least in Tamriel he was free to pursue what made his heart soar. “All right, you can have the horse.”

“Yeah!” Dino cried happily.

“But—”

Dino looked at him warily. “But?”

“You have to help me with my next batch of sauce. That’s a lot of tomato to cut and strain. And possibly with grinding wheat, and rice…”

Dino groaned.

“You can always not get a new horse and have to eat what the cook makes,” he said with a smile.

“However that works out,” Kiri said, “I have one other thing to add. We stopped in at Bravil on the way back, at the Mages Guild there. I convinced one of them to do some enchanting for me. It’s not something they offer, and indeed, will tell anyone who asks that they need to have access to the Arcane Academy for enchanting, but the head has an altar stashed away.” He pulled a sack out of his clothing and opened it, then slid an earring to each of them.

Sora picked his up; it looked almost exactly like the one Kiri had originally made for him to anchor his disguise. “And this does?”

“Lorenzo can’t manage to enchant for waterbreathing, and the only ones who stand a chance at doing it with flames are Val, Rio, and Lal. This time, at least, Renato can heal us after they’re inserted, and Viper, Lal, and I can handle the part where you don’t even notice the pain of the piercing.”

“Why don’t we just do this with the ones for magic resist and shield?” he asked. “The only one that absolutely has to be easily removable is the Chameleon item.”

Lorenzo nodded. “I can do that if you want. Unlike rings to help with flame use, enchanting can work on just about anything. I’ll cast more of them and get everyone settled.”

They went about their business until two days later, when a delivery of the Black Horse Courier revealed the fate of the Plotius couple, their tragic deaths at the hands of trolls, and the terrible scandal they were hiding regarding their racist behavior. The Countess was quoted as saying it was a sad day when the deaths of two prominent citizens were discovered, which Sora found hilarious given that she was as racist as the targets if some of the things he’d overheard while in the castle were true.

“So much for that one,” Renato said. “I wonder what will wander our way next.”