Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 14

14: This Silence

On their way to the Temple of the Ancestor Moths, Sora noticed something very odd. He had passed by the little village before in his travels, but now there were no people present. However, he could clearly hear the sounds of someone working the central plot of land used for farming. He couldn’t see a hoe or anything, but he could see clots of dirt being moved around and vegetables disappearing off the plants.

Sora frowned and slid on his enchanted glasses. Sure enough, there was someone working the garden, an Orc if he was not mistaken. He hopped the fence to speak to the person and heard, “Talk to Diram in the inn. I’m tired of this minstrel’s freakshow our town has turned into.”

“All right.” He headed for the building with an inn sign and entered, barely managing to spot two forms there before he was spoken to by one of them, a male.

“Excuse me. We have a small problem that we hope you can help us with. You may be wondering why you can’t see me. We are all wondering the same thing.”

“So you don’t know what happened?”

“Everyone in Aleswell suddenly became invisible several weeks ago,” the man—elf? Dunmer?—said. “It was sort of fun at first, but the novelty has definitely worn off now. You can imagine how difficult it is to run an inn while invisible. Once you get a reputation as a haunted inn, you can just forget about it. So we’ve all been keeping quiet, hoping the spell will wear off. But we’re running out of patience. We’re sure it was Ancotar’s doing, but we can’t find him. If you can help us, we will be extremely grateful.”

“Ancotar?”

“He’s a wizard who took up residence in the ruins of Fort Caractacus a couple of years ago. He’s caused us no end of trouble with his magical experiments, but nothing as bad as this. We’ve tried to find him, but had no luck. If he’s still living in the fort, he’s hiding from us, and no wonder. If you could find him and get him to remove this cursed invisibility, we will all be in your debt.”

“Is that the ruins a bit south of here?” he asked.

“Yes, southeast. Follow the path down the hill. But watch out for the invisible monsters that infest the ruins!”

“We’ll go check into it.” The walk down was pleasant enough if a person didn’t mind being attacked by invisible lions. The glasses let him see them coming, even if his intuition also gave him nudges of warning.

Ancotar was blurring around the fort’s courtyard. “Go away! I told you to leave me alone!” When Sora just stood there expectantly he heard, “Oblivion take you! What is it you want from me?”

“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about an invisibility spell, would you?”

“Yes, I’ve been working on a new one. As you can see, it works quite well. Why?”

“I hate to break it to you, but the people of Aleswell up the hill are all suffering from invisibility now, even their dogs.”

“Oh… Really? Everyone in town? That must have been what all the shouting was about a few weeks ago. I’m afraid I was engrossed in an experiment that required my full attention. You see, in order to increase the efficacy of the spell, the radius was likely to approach the—never mind. I don’t mean to bore you.”

“It’s fine. Tell me more,” he invited, hoping to get on the fellow’s good side without having to cheat.

“Ah, a fellow mage!” Ancotar cried happily, completely misinterpreting. “Please excuse my rudeness earlier. I find most people extremely tedious. Completely ignorant of the arcane. I came out here to get some privacy for my research. Instead, I was constantly bothered by the local peasantry! ‘The explosions are scaring the sheep’ or ‘A plague of rats ate all our crops’. Every day another complaint!

“No understanding of the pitfalls of experimental magic! Finally, I decided that permanent invisibility was the only way to get some peace and quiet. I know! You’re about to quote Vanto’s Third Law—don’t worry! I haven’t actually found a way to violate the Conservation of Perception! The invisibility isn’t actually permanent. You can tell the villagers not to worry, it will wear off eventually.”

“…Eventually?”

“Well … in a year or two? Maybe a bit more. There’s no way to be absolutely sure. That’s the exciting thing about basic research!”

“Unfortunately, being invisible is ruining business. They can’t wait a year or more.”

“Really? I find being invisible quite refreshing. But, if it will get everyone to leave me alone, fine. I did work out a counter-spell last week … if I can just put my hand to it … ah! Here.”

Sora felt something nudge his hand and wrapped his fingers around it; it turned out to be a spell scroll.

“Stand in the center of town, to make sure you get everyone. Oh, and make sure… Never mind. Should be fine.”

His brow went up. “What should be fine? And make sure of what?”

“Well… Just in case, it might be best if you wore this ring while you recite the scroll. I make them myself. Very useful for this kind of research. Not that I think anything will go wrong. Serious side effects are highly unlikely.”

He felt another nudge and accepted a ring, which went into his pocket along with the scroll.

Ancotar wandered off, so Sora took a look around before leaving and found a journal, which he nosily decided to read.

12th of Rains Hand: Today I begin my great project on the spontaneous generation of life. I expect that there will be difficult days ahead, but if I succeed, my place among the great mages of history will be assured.

23rd Rains Hand: Still not able to even reproduce Empedocles’s results with maggots. I’m beginning to think his reputation is overblown.

3rd Second Seed, Tirdas: Empedocles was right! The mistranslation of “sunlit” to “scorching heat” explains my earlier problems. From now on I will work only in the original daedric, despite the risks.

Fredas (mid Second Seed?): Local peasants came by to complain about the noise. I promised them that all that was behind me. A pleasant if dull-witted crew.

Morndas (I think): The experiment today went better than expected. Although the number of rats produced was surprising, they were all remarkably docile, just as Malham predicted (although only I have ever proven it empirically!).

Middas: Villagers again. More complaints. You would think they’d never seen a rat before! They are starting to become a real nuisance.

I’ve run into a terrible snag. Galerion’s Ninth Law appears immutable! If the total life generated cannot exceed the cube of the source, this line of research may prove a dead end. I must reread Empedocles for any hint that he was able to circumvent this barrier.

Next day: The locals are becoming insufferable! While I was walking in the woods, some of them broke into my laboratory and spilled the solution I was preparing—nearly a full quart of purified imp gall wasted! They did not seem to grasp the absurdity of a crowd of unwashed peasants with dung on their boots complaining about the smell. It is well past time I did something about this problem.

Two days later: I dug up the notes from my permanent invisibility thesis. No time like the present to put theory into practice!

Today: The spell worked! Not perfect invisibility, of course (Vanto’s Third Law), but it was more powerful than I expected. And there were none of the side effects that Professor Traven had predicted. Ha ha, even in my youth I was already outstripping my elders. Now I can get back to my real work in peace.

Back up the hill he put on the ring to be safe, shooed Renato, Lal, and Rio off a ways, and read the scroll in the center of the garden. He saw some pretty lights and assumed it worked, but to be sure he waved at his family and entered the inn. Two Dunmer (one male and one female) and an Argonian were present, all visible.

“Thank you, thank you!” Diram said. “I can’t tell you how good it feels to be able to see myself again. My sisters, on the other hand… I wouldn’t mind if they had stayed invisible!” He laughed. “Ah, me… Friend, you are welcome at the Aleswell Inn anytime. Free of charge.”

“Just glad all of you are fine again,” he said, then nodded and departed.

“Life on Earth was never this weird,” Renato said as they continued their journey toward the Temple of Ancestor Moths.

*

The shortcut back to where Savilla’s Stone was normally kept was sealed—or at least not openable from the outside—so he phased through it to save time rather than run the gauntlet again. Afterward they headed mostly west, with the intent to overnight in Bruma before heading home.

They were halfway to the inn when an overdressed fellow raced over and said, “Have you given more thought to the Countess’s offer? I assume you enjoyed that stipend she gave you.”

Sora stared at him in confusion. “I cannot for the life of me remember what you’re talking about.”

“Please see the Countess at your earliest convenience,” the man urged haughtily. “In other words, now.” He stalked off a ways and then stared in what was obviously meant to be an intimidating manner.

The last time Sora remembered speaking to the Countess of Bruma was back during the Oblivion Crisis, and that’d been over a year previous. “Seriously, I have no idea,” he muttered. “He probably did give me a stipend from her, but…”

Renato shrugged as Lal said, “Then we go see her. See what she wants. If it’s a bother, you can just say no, presumably.”

“I guess so…”

It was early enough that the Countesss had not yet finished court hours, so they entered the castle and Sora approached her. That man had slipped in ahead of them and was standing not far away from her.

“I trust that the stipend Tolgan gave you whetted your appetite?” she greeted him with.

He smiled awkwardly.

“I assume you’ve noticed all of the Akaviri relics I’m displaying,” she said in response.

‘Hadn’t bothered to pay attention, actually.’

“Well, it’s safe to say I’m a collector of sorts. I’ve invested a great deal of time and money acquiring these bits of ancient history. In fact, I’d be so bold as to proclaim my collection the most complete in all Cyrodiil; perhaps even beyond. Except for one thing. A particular relic has eluded me for many years. Possessing this piece of Akaviri antiquity would make my collection complete. I’m of course referring to the Draconian Madstone.”

“I see,” he replied, having no clue what she was on about.

“The stone is a fine bit of Akaviri craftsmanship. Worn like an amulet, this talisman is said to protect the wearer from poisons of any type. The Madstone appears as a snake coiled around and encircling itself. The eyes of the snake are supposed to be precious gems or some such. Through my sources, I’ve learned that the last reported location of the Madstone was the ruins at Pale Pass. Are you familiar with the history of Pale Pass?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Back at the end of the First Era, raiders from the continent of Akavir attempted to gain a foothold here in Tamriel. At that time, the Empire was broken into smaller factions. Reman Cyrodiil decided to unify them and form an army to repel the Akaviri raiders. The force became known as the Army of Reman. The two armies clashed in what’s now northern Cyrodiil. The Akaviri were strong and well supplied.

“But their greatest error was marching through Morrowind on the way to their objective and dismissing the response it would garner from Vivec. They didn’t count on Lord Vivec forming an alliance with the Trident-Kings of the Dreugh. From Morrowind, he struck at their rear flank. Not only did this make the Akaviri fight on two fronts, it also cut off access to reinforcements and supplies from the sea.”

“So this alliance ended the conflict?”

“Not quite. The Army of Reman knew that the organized Akaviri forces were commanded from a hidden post in the mountains. Rumors placed it in a snowy vale called Pale Pass. That’s where Reman focused his attention. As his forces fought their way across the Jerall Mountains, the Akaviri suddenly surrendered. It was assumed they were overwhelmed and gave up.

“The only strange part was that the command post and Pale Pass were never found. It was dismissed as rumor and the Army of Reman celebrated. It’s come to my attention that the post did exist and it happens to be the last reported location of the Draconian Madstone. If you retrieve the Draconian Madstone for me, I’ll be happy to compensate you by rewarding you with another Akaviri artifact. Are you game?”

Doing so would give him personal information about the mountains shared with Skyrim, their northern neighbor. And also, it was not as though he was on a schedule. “Certainly.”

“I had a feeling you’d accept. Good. Then let me tell you how you’re going to find the Madstone. I’ve come into the possession of a diary written by an Akaviri messenger. I suspect that the text within can lead you to the ruins. Here’s a translation of the passages we could still read. It was quite damaged. I’ve also included a rough map that was drawn in the diary as well. I’m also providing you with a unique key that was supposedly found with the diary. I’m assuming it will prove useful when you arrive at the site.”

“Even with the information you have, no one’s been able to track it down?” he asked with minor suspicion.

“I paid several scouts to try to find the ruins at Pale Pass before I hired you. They were only able to locate the first of a series of landmarks. These landmarks are mentioned within the diary. The one referred to as Dragonclaw Rock has been located. The rest is up to you. My scouts reported bitter cold and dangerous creatures in the area, so they couldn’t proceed. Be cautious, and return home soon. Good luck.” She retrieved a scroll and offered it to him, saying “The messenger’s diary will make a nice companion to the Madstone in my collection.”

He smiled again and nodded, then moved away to examine the scroll. Unrolling it revealed that the map she mentioned was actually two, one from her scouts, and a normal one showing where Dragonclaw Rock was in relation to Bruma. The hand-drawn map showed the way to be west from there to a statue, then north. The journal only covered a few days.

Day Three

It is with a heavy heart and a trembling hand that I pen this latest entry. It has been several days since I have seen anyone else on the road from our garrison at Grey Ridge. The road is lonely and treacherous. I am rationing my supplies to prepare for a tough path ahead. As long as Reman Cyrodiil’s army hasn’t located our headquarters at Pale Pass, the journey should be fairly uneventful. I admit, I am nervous. It is an honor to be selected to carry these orders to our fort, but sending me alone is a calculated risk. While it is not my own life I am worried about, it is the importance of the contents of the orders that aggrieves me. If they are somehow lost, the fort will not know that their supplies are going to be delayed by a month. Without that knowledge, the fort may choose to press the attacks on the front line as their supplies dwindle. They are counting on those supplies to be there sooner. I must not fail getting this message there. The slate rock that the orders have been carved upon for safety weighs me down; it is a constant reminder of the more than physical burden that I carry.

 

Day Seven

It has been two days, and I have finally arrived at Dragonclaw Rock. The huge formation is a welcome and invigorating sight. The giant stone appears to reach down from the north and strike at the heart of Reman’s forces like our armies have been doing for the better part of a year now. I have still encountered no one else on this trail. I hope that as I head due west along the narrow path, I will find someone who can give me some news as to how our men are faring in the war.

 

Day Eight

After winding my way westward, I have come within sight of The Sentinel: a huge statue placed there by some unknown artist many years ago. It stands watch pointing north, as if daring anyone to cross the borders into the Imperial nation. Reman would be quite angry if he knew we used this very statue as a waypoint into his domain. Last night, I encountered another one of our messengers who had been beset by a pack of mountain wolves. His leg was hurt badly, but I managed to help heal it with an ampoule of medicine I carried with me. He said his name was Sylaj, and he was on his way from Pale Pass to request more supplies. I discussed with him the irony of our meeting, and he decided to travel with me back to the fort since his mission would be needless. We plan to leave at nightfall.

 

Day Nine

I am using much of my remaining strength writing this. As we had made our way north from The Sentinel, we were attacked by perhaps the same pack of wolves that had attacked Sylaj. He had chased them off earlier after being bitten, but now that they had tasted blood, they had returned in greater number. Fighting back to back, Sylaj and I slew at least 8 of the beasts, but not before one of them clawed my gut and left a terrible wound. We were able to drive them off, but now I am bleeding badly, and the only medicine I had I gave to Sylaj. We have decided to continue north until we reach the portal to the Serpent’s Trail and seek cover inside. I will try to write more soon, but I must sleep. I am so very tired.

 

Day Eleven

This is the last entry I shall be able to write. We entered the Serpent’s Trail nearly a day ago, seeking shelter from the elements and the wolves. What we did not foresee was the creatures that had decided to make the Serpent’s Trail their home. I did not see them clearly, but they were huge and strong. Sylaj died instantly as one of them cleaved off his head with a single stroke. There were three of these huge, ugly man-like creatures. I ran as fast as I dared through the dark tunnels trying to escape. But as I fled, one of them hurled a boulder at me and struck me square in the back. I managed to crawl through a smaller opening and escape the lumbering monsters, but I soon realized that crawling is all I would be able to do. I think the boulder shattered my spine. I can no longer feel my legs. My wound from the wolf attack has reopened and I have lost much blood. I fear that this is as far as I shall be able to go. I have failed my mission. I have been unable to get these orders to the fort at Pale Pass. I am so close, yet it may as well be leagues away since I can no longer walk and my strength is draining. If a fellow messenger or soldier picks up this diary, please get the orders to the fort before it is too late. And please tell my wife, Vata, that Xhaferi will always love her.

‘A sad tale, but… Well, it explains the map.’ He rolled up the scroll and tucked it and the maps away. “East gate, guys.”

The siege engine from the Great Gate was still there looking all diabolical. He was surprised that no enterprising blacksmith had stripped it down for the metals. They followed the path beyond it and wound around north, then northeast. Dragonclaw Rock was four rocks, one standing in for the hand part and three others, diamond-shaped, as the claws.

The path led north, and a game trail went east, but he turned west and started walking, keeping an eye out for a statue of some kind. He knew something had to be up when he ran across some of those not-spider creatures and scanned the surrounding area. To the south was a statue of an armored figure, so he checked it out more closely, then reversed direction and went north instead.

Not very far off was an iron door set into the stone of the hillside. “After what the journal said, I’d prefer we’re proactively sneaky, so let’s put on our Chameleon rings,” he said to his family. “There’s no point in fighting if we can just breeze by, though looting anything that looks interesting is always part of the plan.”

Lal and Rio nodded, and fetched out their rings. Renato did the same, and once they were ready he cracked open the door. With some patience and attention to detail—someone had trapped the tunnels and some of those were still active—he stumbled over a skeleton propped up against one of the walls. There was a stone tablet in its hand, so the long-since dead figure was probably the messenger in the diary.

Considering they had glossed past several massive ogres already, rats, spriggans, and bears, it wasn’t hard to imagine just how bad the poor bastard had it, though it did beg the question as to how the man's journal had made it back out to civilization. He grabbed the tablet and tucked it away, then continued on. A door led him back outside again; it was dark and snowing, and the visibility was subsequently poor.

The valley had its own complement of ogres and other creatures, not to mention statues, ruined buildings, and frozen ponds. There were two towers visible, but only one of them had a doorway leading deeper. The interior of the fort looked surprisingly similar to an Imperial fort interior, which he found odd, but he shrugged it off.

The place was infested with skeletons wandering around, each of them holding an Akaviri blade and shield—they were very similar to the ones the Blades used, anyway—but he ignored them and continued on through the maze of corridors and rooms, his family following along behind using their links.

There were traps in place, as well. Some triggered by pressure plates, some by some other method to launch a stream of darts from holes in pillars. He knew he was in the right place when he saw a ghostly man up ahead, up some stairs. There were braziers to either side at the bottom, filled with ghostly pale blue flames.

When he got close enough he could see that the man was armored and had a sword across his back.

“You have made a long and perilous journey,” the spectre said, “but there is no time to rest. The Army of Reman is at our doorstep, and our supplies have dwindled. We have awaited your arrival. Tell us, what news do you bring from Akavir?”

He was about to web into the fellow when he remembered the stone tablet he’d picked up, so he got that out and offered it. “Here are your orders.”

“Well done, soldier. Your mission is complete, and you have my thanks. Now we may rest. Long live the Akavir!” The spirit faded away into nothingness.

Sora tucked the tablet away again after a moment to keep as a souvenier, then wondered what to do. Just as he was about to start searching, the wall behind where the spectre had stood shuddered and moved out of the way to reveal a long hidden room with several chests and a plinth of some sort.

The Draconian Madstone was on the circular plinth, so he grabbed it. His family took care of looting the chests.

“Weird how all the skeletons just … dropped ‘dead’ after the ghost passed on,” he commented on the way out. “And you know what?”

“What?” Rio promptly obligingly.

“I don’t think I like this adventuring stuff all that much. Also, the Countess’s scouts are imbeciles.”

Rio laughed loudly.

*

“Have you recovered the Madstone?” the Countess asked eagerly.

He nodded and held it out to her.

Her mouth dropped open and her brows went up. “I … never thought it possible. I mean … I had hoped … but to actually hold it in my hands,” she said, and slowly took it. “It’s more beautiful than I imagined it.” Then she smiled. “Congratulations. I had a feeling you were the right person for the job. And it seems I owe you a reward. This Akaviri ring was found with the messenger’s diary. It awards the wearer with increased agility and resistance to harmful magic. It’s known as the Ring of the Vipereye. I hope it serves you well in your future journeys.”

The ring went into a pouch, to later be tossed into a jewelry box in his suite and most likely forgotten.

*

He walked into his kitchen and shooed the cook away; the man pouted outrageously and slumped in the corner. It was time for Sora to make up a huge batch of fresh pasta and sauces. ‘That’s it,’ he thought. ‘No more crazy quests, no more intrigue, no more nobility asking for help with their silly collections. I will cook and take care of my family and send people off to go assassinate others. Just as soon as another customer shows up, that is.’

He spent a good chunk of the morning making up various forms of pasta and setting them aside to dry while his pots of sauce simmered away merrily. He was considering what to make for dinner for later while at the bar when Lal wandered in and leaned against him. “Hm?” he said.

“I was wondering… I would kill for some lasagne.”

“So you’re saying you’ll be on duty today at Filigrana,” he replied, turning his head so he could kiss her cheek.

“Of course, Sora.”

“All right. Fetch whatever vegetables you want in it and we can take them when we go. I’ll pack up the rest of the stuff.”

When they got over to Filigrana and opened for the day some of his regulars drifted in and ordered their usual. As it was the weekend, Reynald and Guilbert Jemane were in attendance, taking a break from the farm Sora’s family had helped them recover.

“It’s about time you got back,” Reynald said as he pulled the cork out of a mead bottle. “The food is just not the same when you’re away.”

He smiled. “Hopefully I won’t be making any more long trips in the near future. I’m happier here, with my family.”

Reynald took a long pull off his bottle and nodded. “It’s nice to have family. None of you guys look alike, though, except for you and the creepy guy.”

He snickered at the description of Kiri. “Sometimes we choose our family. Sometimes they choose us. And my brother would laugh if you said that to his face.”

“What’s the soup today?” Guilbert asked.

“Minestrone.”

The two brothers exchanged a look, then nodded. “And some of that bread you make with it?”

“Sure. Give me a minute.” He was back out shortly thereafter and slid the food into place. “How’s the farm doing? No more trouble with ogres, I hope.”

“No, it’s fine. Just the usual wildlife trying to eat our crops. Nothing out of the ordinary. Is that an offer to come help if something tries to move in?”

He shrugged. “I don’t see why not. But if you call us in on a rat problem…”

Reynald laughed. “Ah, I don’t think so. Fairly certain we can handle some rats. Ogres would still be a bit of an issue. But after all the work we’ve done with our crops, my muscles have built back up. Oh, did I mention?”

His brow went up.

“My brother here met a nice girl recently,” Reynald practically sang.

Guilbert groaned and ducked his head to have more of his soup.

*

“Red Mountain erupted,” Kiri said, waving a copy of the Black Horse Courier around.

“Eh?”

“I heard that, too,” one of their customers said. “Thing blew up and took out Vvardenfell, even up as far north as parts of Solstheim.”

“According to this some prophecy was fulfilled a few years before the Oblivion Crisis,” Kiri added. “The Nerevarine Prophecy.”

“At least we weren’t involved this time,” he muttered and set a freshly-washed mug aside.

“The Ingenium—whatever that was—stopped floating up in the sky and crashed, setting off the volcano. They’ve been having earthquakes and all sorts of disasters over there because of it. Refugees have been pouring into Skyrim, Solstheim, and various other places in Tamriel, but just as many expatriates returned to Morrowind to try to help those who were there when it happened.”

“Well, that’s on the other side of the country. Hopefully it won’t effect the weather patterns over here too badly,” he said.

The weather was a bit dicey for the next few years, not to mention a bit polluted, but of more interest in the sphere of world affairs was the secession of first Black Marsh, then Elsweyr, from the Empire, not to mention an invasion by Black Marsh into Morrowind as vengeance for having enslaved Argonians for thousands of years.

*

“Oh, wow,” Renato said softly. “Chancellor Ocato was assassinated. This is going to cause all sorts of problems.”

“People fighting to see who gets to take over running the country?” Rio said.

“I suppose so,” he said slowly. “On a side note…”

Renato eyed him. “What?”

“Have any of you noticed we haven’t aged at all? It’s been ten years since we got here.”

“Tesoro, you know I don’t pay attention to anything beyond how much I love—”

Kiri brushed by, cutting Renato off, and wrapped his arms around Sora. “You will always be my beloved baby brother.”

Renato scowled.

Viper looked up from his strawberries and smirked. “I know what you were thinking, and may I say, I am disappointed.”

Sora watched as Renato switched his ire from Kiri to Viper. “I’m allowed to think certain things about my lover,” he said firmly. “But—”

“He was envisioning just how enthralled he felt when you bent over that—”

Renato reached out and snatched Viper’s bowl away. “Oh, look, fresh strawberries, just for me.”

“I will end you,” Viper hissed and snatched it back, curling one arm around the bowl to prevent further theft attempts.

“As amusing as this is,” he said with a chuckle, “I’m serious. We’ve not aged. Do you think Sheogorath…”

“Maybe when he shifted the curse he didn’t get all of it,” Shi suggested. “The not aging part.”

“So we’d be like vampires without the aversion to sun and blood-sucking parts?” Rio said.

“Maybe he wanted to keep something of a … hold … on us,” Lorenzo said. “If we’re ageless, we’ll be around for him to chivvy about to cause mayhem for him, or other things. Daedric Lords do generally need agents to get things done for them on the mortal plane, especially since the barrier was reestablished, and this time without the need for the Dragonfires and someone of Septim blood.”

“If that’s the case,” Renato said smoothly, “then I’ll have an eternity to express how much I love you, Sora.”

He sent a smile at his Sun.

“I still plan to bite, though.”

Viper rolled his eyes. “Did you know?” he said to Sora. “He really likes it when you—”

“Viper,” Renato said warningly.

Viper scoffed and turned back to Sora.

“Oh, my darling little st—” Renato started to say in a falsetto.

“One more word,” Viper interrupted, “and I’ll accidentally let slip about that little incident I witnessed approximately, oh, a month ago?”

“How about we agree not to spill each other’s secrets,” Renato said diplomatically.

“Fine.”

Kiri laughed creepily. “Now the drama is out of the way, I’d like to make a suggestion regarding our situation here. Even before Ocato was knifed in the back—or however he was killed—things have been fairly restive in this country. More and more regular people have been harmed by the jockeying for position and the infighting happening.”

“And…?” he said, choosing to set aside his confusion over the antics of his Sun and Mist.

“I was thinking of finding a few more groups of marauders or bandits and brainwashing them for the purpose of patrolling the area around this castle, and the road between us and Chorrol. They could build their own housing, and keep any spoils they got from taking down bandits outside our control.”

Thoughtful looks abounded around the table before Lal said, “Well, if you do that, I plan to make sure they can actually protect people and not just flail around like idiots and accidentally stick each other with their swords and arrows, or worse, the people they’re supposed to be protecting.” She glanced at Rio.

He nodded. “And I’ll help.”

“I suppose I could…” Sora paused. He wasn’t willing to cook all their meals, but neither was he willing to ask the castle cook to do it either. “I guess they could come into Filigrana for lunch or dinner so long as they’re off duty, but any other food they’d have to figure out on their own. I guess it’d depend on just how many people we’re talking about. One meal a day per person doesn’t sound terrible, and almost any idiot is capable of making a stew or whatever on a camp fire.”

Lorenzo snorted. “Even one meal a day cooked by you would be one hell of a reason to behave themselves.”

“We harvest quite a lot out of our own garden and planters,” he said, “more than enough to feed extra people. We could also purchase from people like the Jemanes if we needed extra, though I have to wonder if produce from them would be comparable considering…”

Lorenzo shook his head. “I analyzed ours versus other people’s and there’s a marked difference. There’s a reason why people keep coming back and it’s not because the tomatoes are juicy. Well, I mean…”

He snickered.

“You know what I mean!” Lorenzo said huffily.

“Yes. So, I think I’m all right with this idea. I like the oversight by Lal and Rio. I like the idea of giving them reasons to want to keep being a positive force rather than reverting to banditry. How about you start with one group? Get them in the right mindset, trained up, and on patrol between here and Chorrol. Maybe some kind of insignia showing that while they’re not part of the Imperial Legion, they are part of a guard system.”

“I can come up with something,” Shi offered. “Or we could just borrow the insignia from the previous owners of this castle.”

“Weren’t they from Hammerfell?” Lal asked dubiously.

“Point. I’ll think of something.”

“We have a ridiculous amount of gold,” Kiri said, “so we can supply our new force with at least one set each of decent armor as part of the bargain for ripping away their free will, set up an account with the armorer in Chorrol, or have our blacksmith handle it. They can always resupply from whatever they get as spoils.”

“Or they can fucking learn how to repair what they have,” Lal said firmly.

His brow went up at the profanity. No prude he, but Lal was not normally given to swearing in his hearing. “I think that’s a fine idea. Throw in a little additional responsibility to the mix. Um… While they’re in training, I’ll cook them two meals a day, but once they’ve graduated to actual patrols, just the one—unless they feel like spending some of their coin on a second one. Sound reasonable?”

“I approve,” Viper said, then pushed his empty bowl away. “A lot of what we eat is inexpensive anyway, so it works out to be a net gain. The value is in the preparation.”

Sora held back at smile. His Viper wasn’t nearly the miser as the one he originally met, and his Mist’s take on it was more amusing than annoying. Part of the difference could be attributed to the harmonization, but the slide into a new dimension unlike their own had to have been one hell of a lot of reinforcement against the idea that people lived the same lives over and over again. And why save or stockpile what you couldn’t take with you?

Kiri set off a bit later to go track down the nearest camp or ruined fort infested with bandits and Sora hauled supplies over to Filigrana with the help of Lal, Viper, and Renato. “I’ve never understood how the Black Horse Courier stays in business,” he said as he unpacked. “It’s not like they charge for the damn things.”

“Ah, but they do have a service they charge for,” Lal said. “People can go to their office and pay to have letters delivered by their couriers when they distribute papers to the various cities. They make enough money off that to pay for all the printing costs, plus costs for food and the usual.”

“Skooma-laced wine and Khajiit hookers?” Renato suggested.

Sora groaned. “There are days…”

“Would you behave?” Lal scolded, threatening to clock Renato in the head with a zucchini.

Renato opened his mouth again, his eyes sparkling with mischief, but Sora silenced him with a look. “Save your perverted proclamations for after hours, please.”

“Oh, tesoro, that’s a blank cheque you just wrote me.”

“That you’re hoping I’ll cash, I know. Now make yourself useful and set up the stuff I need for today.”

Renato leaned in for a quick kiss and got to work.

Kiri came back a week later with a group of six “former” bandits in tow and they were properly brainwashed into compliance. Sora wondered for a moment just when his mind had accepted the idea that brainwashing was perfectly all right to do if it served a “good” purpose.

Lal and Rio took over at that point, putting the six through hell in terms of material acquisition, site preparation, building a place for them to sleep, and then, training. Lal was merciless, and Rio was almost the same.

“When it’s time I’ll get another batch,” Kiri said at breakfast one morning. “They can always crowd in six more beds while the next barracks is being built. I don’t think hot-bunking is a viable option, not if we want people patrolling the road between here and Chorrol to start during our operating hours. If they go in pairs, that should give each pair time for a quick meal, and they can always take some bread along with them, or sandwiches.”

Sora nodded. “Yeah. And if we get, say, twelve people total? That’s one group sleeping, one at leisure, and two patrolling if we go by threes. I don’t want too many reformed bandits too soon, you know?”

“As a safety note, I’ll implant a compulsion to never attempt to enter Battlehorn Castle in all of them,” Kiri said.

*

“I never regretted saying yes,” Dino said in a whispery voice.

He smiled and rubbed the blond’s hand, though Dino’s hair had long since turned to white. “You got what you wanted in the end. A life with horses, something your father never would have supported you on. You just had to come to this crazy place to do it.”

“And suffer without electricity, or entertainment aside from drunken people singing bawdy songs at the local inn, cars, or telephones. On the other hand, no solicitors calling you and offering to replace your roof for a really low price.”

“I think I miss things like video games the most,” he said. “And being able to look stuff up so quickly. I never regretted offering you a job, but you should already know that.”

Dino smiled. “I wonder where we go. To what we expected before, or…?”

“I fully expect that you’ll meet up with Romario.” He did wonder, though. Did every dimension have its own version or versions of the afterlife? Considering that he was a favored mortal of a Daedric Lord, did that mean if he died he would go to the Shivering Isles? People spoke of certain afterlife realms in Aetherius, but just as many priests talked of the Dreamsleeve, where people went to be reincarnated.

“I hope so.”

He leaned over and kissed Dino on the forehead. “Your family is waiting, so I’ll clear out and let them monopolize you.”

“You’ll take care of them, right?”

He snorted. “Of course I will, even if they are all confused about why their Uncle Sora looks so damn young when he clearly isn’t a vampire. And they’d probably riot if they didn’t get to enjoy Filigrana every so often. I won’t say good-bye, but rather … safe journey.” He smiled and got up, then departed.

Later that night they got word that Dino had passed on during a nap. Sora finished up the evening at Filigrana, went home, and took a seat on his bed.

Renato sat next to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “This part I don’t think I’ll get used to. I can understand why a vampire would make others, just so they had company throughout the long years. He was happy.”

“He was,” he said, and sniffed, trying to ignore the way his eyes prickled.

“Let’s get ready for bed, hm?”

*

He was getting the chairs down off the tables in preparation for opening when his intuition made his spine wibble. He slowly turned around and nearly had a heart attack when he saw a transparent Sheogorath standing there, idly swinging his cane.

“Hello, old boy!” Sheogorath said cheerfully. “There’s this thing…”

“Oh?” he said warily. Over the years Sheogorath had occasionally popped up in his dreams and “asked” him to run a few errands. They usually involved someone getting horribly embarrassed, so Sora wasn’t too averse to simply doing as “asked”. And for all he knew, refusing would see them all turned into toads or suddenly have to deal with the effects of centuries of aging.

Renato, Kiri, and Shi all entered the room and eyed the apparition.

“Things are going to get … feisty … soon. Within the next few years, certainly. If I were you—and I’m not, of course, as you people are way too sane. I have tried and tried to get you to see the utter beauty of madness, but you keep retreating into those bizarre notions of logic and rationality! Where oh where did I go wrong!?”

“Feisty?” he prompted.

“Oh, yes!” Sheogorath said, rapping the end of his cane on the floor. “I would consider taking a holiday for a few years. Say, until—well, I’ll let you people figure that out. At the very least, button this place up tighter than a virgin’s chastity belt! Ta ta!” he cried, then faded out, leaving behind a shimmer of purple and red sparkles.

“Whatever is going on, I plan to blame it on the Thalmor,” Renato said, then shook his head and started pulling chairs off tables and setting them in place. “Odds are, they’re behind it anyway.”

“I wonder if…” He trailed off. “Never mind. I doubt Sheogorath would have bothered to visit if this wasn’t, gods help us, serious. I, personally, do not want to up stakes and go hide out somewhere like Pale Pass for an indeterminate number of years until whatever is going to happen blows over.”

“With all the fighting that’s been going on, the Thalmor, the secessions, and a brand new emperor,” Shi said slowly, “I think the fighting may well increase, possibly near here. Perhaps I am wrong, but I wonder if the Thalmor are going to invade. All that’s left of the Empire at this point capable of action is Cyrodiil, Skyrim, and High Rock. Morrowind is still too busy recovering, and Hammerfell is in the middle of a civil war.”

“We have a couple of years to prepare, then,” Renato said. “To do whatever we can to make this place unattractive, repulsive, or invisible to anyone looking to use it for a tactical advantage, or simply doesn’t care if we’re in the way. We may have a slight advantage simply in that we’re so close to the border with Hammerfell, because if the Thalmor do roll in, they probably won’t be interested in our little patch of Cyrodiil. They’d be going after the cities and especially the Imperial City.”

*

Three years later the war started.

“Okay, so I was wrong about them not giving a shit about Hammerfell,” Renato said as they stood up on the curtain wall walk and watched troops march by.

Gossip and rumor flew around more slowly than on Earth, but it still got around with remarkable speed. The Thalmor, leading the Aldmeri Dominion, had invaded with Cyrodiil and Hammerfell as targets.

Kiri and Viper had spent the last couple of years working with Lorenzo to create Mist-imbued pieces of the titanium-vanadium alloy, and Shi had spent parts of his off-hours carefully disintegrating small spots on the castle exterior to place those pieces. The same had been done for the exterior of Filigrana, and the pond nearby had been ringed with posts that also served to hold lanterns.

The end result was that Kiri and Viper could, given a little warning, cloak both parts of their property and cause people to stick to the road and give them a miss. The troops passing by on the way to and from the fighting in Hammerfell never even seemed to notice Battlehorn or Filigrana.

Unfortunately, with that much martial activity, Filigrana itself was doing little in the way of business, mostly a few brave souls from Chorrol, so Sora made the decision to close up for the time being and simply made deliveries of his mead to the Grey Mare and the Oak and Crosier.

It wasn’t until four years later that the war ended with Emperor Titus Mede II finally destroying the Aldmeri forces in Cyrodiil, but in the process he nearly exhausted his own resources and the White-Gold Concordat was hammered out, giving the Thalmor exactly the concessions they had demanded at the start of the war, and Hammerfell seceded from the Empire along the way.

The protections on Battlehorn and Filigrana were relaxed only after everything had died down, and one of the first papers from the Black Horse Courier, which was still going strong (if a little battered), informed them that every Elder Scroll in the Imperial Palace had mysteriously vanished one night and that the moth priests had scattered in an attempt to find and reclaim them.

Sora reopened Filigrana, though customers were few and far between for some time.

“It’s not like we need the income,” Viper said, “though income is always nice.”

Rio scoffed. “We already have more gold than most nations. We have so much that Sora created that Filigrana Gold Reserve version of mead with real flakes of gold in it. And the Pearl Reserve.”

He shrugged. “They amuse people and make them think they’re something really special.”

“And it makes it possible to jack up the price,” Viper said happily. “Mead prices have already risen to twenty septims a bottle, and the reserve versions go for five times that.”

“They will probably start coming more regularly once people realize things have calmed down,” Shi said. “Though stopping the sales to the two inns in Chorrol might help them to remember we’re over here, along with actually telling them.”

Lorenzo shook his head. “We could, though I expect the present owners would be unhappy that they’d be losing a source of income.”

“Too bad,” Viper said. “I think we should add more varieties. Lorenzo has figured out how to extract the fortifying effects of certain plants. We could make an alternative to Shadowbanish Wine, for example.”

Lorenzo eyed him. “Shadowbanish, huh? This wouldn’t happen to have anything to do with Viper’s Bugloss giving a Night-Eye effect, and such a mead would be named after you, in theory?”

The corners of Viper’s mouth turned down unhappily. “What if it is?”

Lorenzo grinned at having nailed the reason and said, “I don’t have a problem with it. We could name varieties after each of our flame types for all I care, except that Storm and Lightning would be odd to figure out.”

“Let’s not make this too complicated,” he said. “Having Gold, Pearl, and Viper is fine with me for ‘Reserve’ varieties. One as an excuse to increase the price, one to help people resist the elements, and one for Night-Eye.”

Viper’s mouth quirked back up.

“Just extract what I’d need for the Viper variety, all right? I’ll start making a batch of that and we can add it to the menu down the road once we’ve ensured it works right.”

*

He was having a perfectly lovely dream involving him and Renato at the Pacifier Spring—it was warm and they were having something of a soak in it—when the scene abruptly changed to that throne room again. Sheogorath was seated on his ornate chair, cane restlessly tapping at the floor.

“Hello, old boy!”

He smiled nervously. “Hello,” he said softly. The room was the same as before, and it was not a place he was likely to forget. It had the same divided nature of red and purple, and that bored-looking balding man was standing quietly off to the side.

“There’s this thing…”

‘Kami-sama,’ he thought. “I see. Or, I will see.”

“You will!” Sheogorath said happily. “Things got a little bumpy there for a bit, but that’s settled down, though not necessarily in a happy way. We’re approaching another crisis point, old boy, and I’d like you to be present for it.”

His eyes widened. “Please tell me I don’t have to the save the world again.”

“Technically, you didn’t save it the last time,” Sheogorath pointed out. “You facilitated the man who could based on his research.”

Sheogorath had a point, but Sora felt he was nit-picking there a bit.

“In any case, no!” Sheogorath cried. “This would be another instance of … providing support. No, dear boy, you are not to be a hero or champion this time. Despite what many might think, and as much as I enjoy chaos, there must be something of a stable foundation for that chaos to play out upon. It has been so long now that no one suspects you are anything other than the descendants of yourselves.”

That was true enough. They had used Mist to make people not ask questions about any of that, though a discussion had occurred where they considered using illusion to make them appear to age so they could “have children” and let those “children” grow up to take their places. “What is it you want us to do?”

“My dear boy,” Sheogorath said, leaning forward and pointing his cane at him. “I would like you to move to Skyrim! That is where the next major event of prophecy will take place! I would have considered sending you to Morrowind, but that prophecy was all just a sham! The emperor just kept throwing prisoners at the problem until one of them actually managed to do the job. And besides, that was a bit before your arrival here. Martin, the dear boy, desperately needed competent help, and you gave him that and more!”

He took a moment to absorb that and finally said, “Skyrim?”

“You heard correctly. Events will be heating up in a few years and I’d like you, my favorite little mortal, to be there. I have a good feeling about the person who will be rudely and abruptly dragged into being a pawn of the gods. They might even vie for the spot of my favorite mortal! Share it, perhaps?” Sheogorath looked thoughtful for a moment, then grinned too widely. “She’s a bit like you on the whole ageless thing.”

“…Is she a vampire?” he guessed.

“Glorious!” Sheogorath cried happily. “Such a smart little mortal you are. So, pack up! Move yourselves to Skyrim! Get yourselves established so that when the day comes, you’ll be in a position to be a foundation stone, as you once were for Martin.”

Sora woke up with a sigh on his lips, his audience with Sheogorath having for some reason segued into a dream—nightmare?—involving a Cheese Sacrifice Ceremony being held at Cheesemonger’s Hollow somewhere in the Shivering Isles. By the time he woke up the place was practically swimming in cheddar.

“What is it?” Renato murmured.

“Another dream.”

His lover pulled him closer for a moment, then released him and sat up. “I’m almost afraid to ask, but lay it on me.”

“We’re moving to Skyrim in the near future,” he said dryly. “Another world-altering event is set to happen, and Sheogorath wants us there to be a … support … to the poor sod who’s stuck with handling it. She’s a vampire, apparently. I’m going to assume she’s a sane one, like Hassildor.”

Renato shook his head. “That’s going to be a ton of work, but okay. Not something we can argue. But I sincerely hope that this time doesn’t involve us going off on long trips. Hopefully this champion does their own fighting. It’s not that I minded getting the chance to work out the kinks of the transition, but…”

“We need to have a family meeting and then start figuring out how we’re going to transport what we’re taking.”

“What about the castle?”

He bit his lip. “Marcel and his family can have the place.” Dino’s descendants had long since taken over the stables outside Chorrol. Well, Dino’s and Romario’s given that some of their children had married. The castle environs had not proven conducive in the long run to horse breeding—not enough room for them to get in their exercise—so they had eventually purchased the North Country Stables and greatly expanded it into a horse farm, and continued Dino’s work on attempting to breed the equivalents of both Palomino and Clydesdale.

“But we should probably remove all the Mist-metal and fill in those spots with mortar,” he added. “I mean, who knows? We might need it later on. And they can’t use it at all.”

“Good point,” Renato said. “Gonna be a royal pain to rip it all out again, though. We only have so much and propagating more doesn’t work, so…” He got up and started a fire to heat water for bathing.

Sora got up as well and flicked the covers back into place. The very thought of transporting their things north to Skyrim made his head ache, but Marcel would probably gladly give them horses even without the exchange of the castle, and he stood to make a bundle if he decided a castle was a bit much for the family.

He brought up the dream during breakfast and, predictably, everyone reacted with varying degrees of surprise, annoyance, and excitement.

“Come on!” Rio said. “We’ll get to explore a new country!”

“It is cold up there,” Lal said.

“Some, but it’s only bad farther north.”

“We’d only have two real choices on where to settle,” Shi said. “Markarth is out because of all the troubles with the Forsworn. The Reach might have been reclaimed, but that hasn’t stopped the fighting, and the area is fairly hilly and rocky. Falkreath is a possibility, perhaps on Lake Ilinata, but that area is a bit out of the way. It is, however, one of the places we’d end up in if we took that pass through the mountains. I see Riften and Whiterun as our options in terms of average temperature and size.”

Kiri said, “Falkreath is out, if only because I’m fairly certain there’s a Dark Brotherhood sanctuary in that area. No sense being so close to one. The other place not to go would be Dawnstar, as there’s an abandoned sanctuary there. Too cold, anyway.”

“Whiterun seems to be the center of things commercially,” Shi said, “and fairly neutral.”

“So if we head north past Bruma and into Skyrim, we’ll come out in Falkreath,” he said. “There’s another pass over by Riften, I think, but that seems like we’d be going out of our way.”

“Let’s go over the maps we have after we’re done eating,” Lorenzo suggested. “Then we need to start planning how to do this. How much can Cashew carry? How much can we pack into the te—never mind, we’ll actually need that to sleep in, so there’s only so much of it we can use for storing stuff.”

“With the Mist-metal we take back from the castle protections we should be able to fashion a warding circle for each night,” Renato said. “Protect the tent, any horses, carts, that sort of thing.”

“As to what, that’s fairly simple,” he said. “The Mist-metal, all my mead and supplies, seeds and samples of everything we grow, all our food stores that won’t go bad on the trip, and our personal effects—yes, that includes my kitchen stuff,” he said with a quick look at Val. “I don’t see the point in hauling furniture when we can just make new stuff, though the lab equipment will have to come. I expect, depending on where we settle, Kiri may need to mind-control some bandits to do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to renovations.”

Once they were done eating and clean-up was handled, Shi spread a map over the table for them to look at, while Lorenzo brought a few books from his room. “As you can see from this, assuming the Imperial Cartographers are to be believed, Whiterun Hold is our best bet in terms of land to farm on. Whiterun itself seems to be something of a trade hub due to its central location. There’s also a nice river that runs by the city.”

“Potential power source, water for purification, never a bad idea,” Lorenzo said. “We should probably store your current batches of mead in the tent. So long as we leave enough room for sleeping bags…”

He shrugged. “Considering nothing gets shifted during transport, yes. Right. Whoever isn’t helping at Filigrana today, get started on the lists and plans. I won’t start any new batches, obviously, not until after we’re resettled. And start reclaiming that Mist-metal from the castle. The stuff on Filigrana probably isn’t enough to bother with, though. We can buy a cart or wagon in Chorrol, or make one, whichever.”

“Okay, we have our assignments,” Renato said. “Let’s get to it.”

By the next morning Lorenzo had a meticulously written out plan of action, including complicated mathematical equations regarding the volume of available storage inside the tent, packing instructions, and an itinerary based on the projected route. Sora took it all in with a bemused air; things had not been this complicated when they’d arrived.

“I can recast those pieces into a light but flexible linked fencing we can just jam into the ground at the post points so that you two can work your illusion mojo,” Lorenzo said.

“Mojo?” Viper said. “Since when is it mojo to a scientist like yourself?”

“Since Sheogorath entered our lives. The fencing should roll up well enough so that we can strap it to the side of a wagon or cart—”

Sora stopped paying attention and instead grabbed the lists to check.

Two months later they were packed and headed north.