Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 16

16: Chance Meeting

He looked up when the screen door was opened and two people walked in. One was the female mage from nearly a week ago and the other was a male Dunmer. Based on her height, Sora was willing to bet she was Breton. He smiled at them and waited to see where they’d sit.

She forged ahead and took one of the stools at the bar and her companion sat in the next one over, so he said, “Welcome to Filigrana,” and placed menus in front of them. “I’m Sora. Let me know what you decide on.”

She tilted her head in a way that showed off her red, slit-pupiled eyes with black rims, then looked down at her menu. “You’re the only place I’ve seen so far in this country that has something like this.”

“We’re not from around here,” he said.

“You have a Cyrodiilic accent, so I’d say not. Eh, how about a middling mead.”

He nodded and stepped back so he could fetch a bottle out and place it before her.

“I’ll … have the same,” the Dunmer said, and was promptly served one as well.

“I haven’t the faintest idea what any of this stuff is,” she said. “Surprise me.”

His eyes narrowed as he considered. “All right. And if you hate it, I won’t charge—this time. For the food, anyway.”

She pulled the cork out of her bottle and took a sip, then nodded. “I’ll have to try the other varieties at some point. Erandur, just wing it.”

The Dunmer sighed. “Fine. Surprise me.”

Sora chuckled. “I’ll be back in a few. If you need anything while I’m gone—” He pointed at Renato, who was busy washing mugs. “—he’s your man.” He retreated into the kitchen to pull the lasagne he’d made a bit earlier out of the warming slot above the fire and dished up two portions, then added two onion and goat cheese tarts for each.

The incipient hero eyed her food a bit warily before taking up her utensils and slicing into it. She paused before eating, but went back for a second bite. Erandur tried a tart and hummed in a positive way, so he moved sideways and gestured at Shi. “Will you bring in another case of the middling, please?”

Shi nodded and disappeared into the back.

“I wonder how people would react to cheeseburgers,” Renato mused quietly.

Sora huffed a laugh. “We could try it, I suppose. Nords do love their meat, though it seems to me they just hack it off the nearest animal and pass it through the fire before diving in.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” Renato replied as he set another mug in the drying rack. “But I’ve seen it happen too often to say you’re exaggerating.”

“Maybe on a busy night I could make the equivalent of sliders and hand out free samples.”

“How about … once a month … you do a special night.”

“So, cheeseburgers and fries one time, and pizza another? Something like that?”

Renato shrugged. “We can talk about it during the breakfast meeting. Come up with some ideas. Aside from Ri’saad and his bunch I don’t think anyone has any particular preferences anyway.” He finished up the last mug and reached under the counter to get himself a drink.

He glanced back to see that both of their two new customers were well into their meals and showed no signs of stopping, which boded well. “So, can I assume that the flavor isn’t lost on you?”

The woman looked up and gave him a barely-visible flat stare.

He gave her a knowing look. “Just curious.”

“It’s very flavorful,” she replied. “I’m enjoying it more than I expected.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Don’t know how often it’ll come into play, but you never know, right?” Given that Erandur did not seem surprised, he was either aware she was a vampire, or just plain clueless. “But, knowing that, it means I have some idea what else you might appreciate. Or you can just keep saying surprise me.”

Kiri wandered in and leaned on the bar. “Dear brother, may I please have a Pearl?”

“Were you planning to get into a fight with a mage?” he asked as he fetched one out.

“No. I simply feel decadent today, but not so decadent as to go for Gold. Besides, it makes me think of poor Val, roaming the coast of Solstheim, cracking oysters open.”

“There are actual pearls in the Pearl Reserve?” she asked.

Sora nodded. “It changes the flavor slightly, but the value is in the magic resistance. But that assumes a person is the sort to swig alcohol in battle rather than a potion.”

“And we’re in Skyrim.”

“Exactly. It saves time, presumably. Interested in dessert? I have some cheesecake back there.”

She bit her lip, flashing a bit of fang. “That sounds really weird, but I’ll try it. Erandur?”

“Certainly.”

Sora looked at his brother and Renato, both of whom nodded. “Be right back.”

A few minutes later he brought out a tray with five plates on it and fresh forks, and slid plates into place, then took up his own fork. He had just taken a bite when Val whipped the door open and came in.

“Cheesecake!” Val cried happily. “Is there raspberry sauce back there?”

“Yes.”

Val dashed into the back and was at the bar a minute later with his own plate. “Are we having a cheesecake party?”

“Nothing exploded, so no. Get a good haul?”

His Cloud nodded. “Yep! I must have opened a billion oysters, too. That ash gets everywhere.”

A tentacle snaked over Val’s shoulder and waved in the general direction of the cheesecake, causing the as yet nameless incipient hero and Erandur to stare in disbelief.

“You know you don’t like this,” Val said, pausing to shrug the backpack off his back and let Oodako out. “I’ll get you some fish in a few minutes, then run you a salt bath, okay?”

Oodako squiggled back and forth a bit, then disappeared into the kitchen.

“What … was that?” the woman asked flatly.

“My animal companion,” Val said. “He’s an octopus.”

“I have no idea what you just said, but okay.”

“Think of him like a summon, sort of,” he said, “except he’s not.”

“The not being ghostly part was a clue,” she said dryly.

He grinned. Perhaps they would all get along just fine. “Just out of curiosity, have you tried Black-Briar mead?”

She shook her head.

“When you do, do me a favor and tell me your opinion next time you’re here? I’ve tried it and I found it wanting, but I can’t be anything but biased.”

“I heard in Whiterun that you make it yourself,” she almost but not quite asked.

“Yes. When we decided to move north we just packed everything up and reestablished ourselves here. It took a year for the new colonies to start producing a good amount of honey, but that’s normal. We brought enough along with us with that in mind, so it didn’t impact the production of new mead. If it’s made right and bottled right it’s good for years, even decades. It usually gets drunk well before that, though.”

“Even the reserve varieties?” she asked skeptically.

Renato snorted. “The, ah, wealthier patrons like to show their wealth fairly often, so yes.”

She grimaced slightly.

Sora’s brow went up. “Ran into Nazeem?” When she adopted a questioning look he said snottily, “Do you get to the Cloud District very often?”

She laughed and nodded. “Yes. Ran into him my first time around here. For someone supposedly so important to the jarl, I sure never see him up there when I go visit with Farengar to see if he has anything interesting for sale.”

“He likes to buy the Gold Reserve, just because he can,” he said quietly. “But we made it to sell it, so it’s all good. If you haven’t already, check with Ri’saad when his crew is camped outside Whiterun. They often have some interesting things for sale.”

She nodded again. “I have. Some of it was a bit too dear at the time, but I am definitely keeping him in mind. With the sheer number of bandits who keep volunteering all their gear for me to sell off…”

That boded well; it sounded like she could handle herself just fine out in the wilds.

She reached into a pocket and withdrew a handful of coins, then stacked them up on the counter; it was enough to pay for both meals. “I expect I’ll be back.”

“We’d love to have you.”

She got up and headed out, Erandur in tow. It was only after they were most certainly a fair distance away that Renato said, “We still don’t know her name.”

*

Sora wandered out of the kitchen when he heard the front door open and saw the as yet nameless incipient hero. She and Erandur took seats at the counter and she said, “Sweet this time, and … surprise us.”

“Sure.” He fetched out bottles for them, then disappeared into the kitchen again. He had made the usual batch of pasta salad earlier and figured it was worth a shot, but he also had a huge pot of beef stew keeping warm near the fire, so he made up ramekins of the salad and bowls of the stew, along with fresh bread and butter, and brought the tray out to serve from.

The woman eyed the salad, then shrugged and picked up her fork to taste it. She hummed thoughtfully, then set down her fork and tried the stew instead. That occasioned another hum. Then she looked up at him and nodded. “Also good.”

“Excellent.”

“The mead is a bit sweeter than I would want most of the time,” she added, “but it’s still good. I’ll have to try the dry next time.”

Lal brought out a fresh batch of nibbles and placed them on the narrow counter behind the serving one and promptly took a tart from it to eat. Before she bit into it she spotted Viper in his shadowy corner and said, “Kiwi and strawberry.”

Viper got up and floated over so he could grab three of them. “I don’t suppose…”

“Yes, I can make that salad. I only need some spinach.”

Viper nodded and floated away with his prize.

“Wait,” the Breton said. “Just how many of you are there?”

“Eh… Nine? No, ten, if you count the orphan we took in. There’s usually two or three people on duty aside from me. We almost never have anyone rowdy who has to be booted out the door, but it’s better to be prepared. We don’t get the same amount of business as a place like the Bannered Mare, because we’re outside town, but the farmers tend to stop in at the end of their day, and guards coming in off duty sometimes.”

“And anyone who specifically wants your mead,” she said.

He nodded. “We don’t sell it in town, or anywhere else, actually, though people stopping in have a tendency to buy a few bottles to take with them—or in the case of the Companions, quite a lot. We’ve had people come from as far as Solitude, and there’s one fellow in Windhelm who specifically comes here so he can buy up a bunch to resell in his—what was the place called?”

“The New Gnisis Cornerclub,” Lal said. “I’m Lal, by the way.”

The woman paused, her mouth open slightly, then said, “I never did introduce myself before, did I. Yvara.”

Sora laughed softly. “Now I can stop calling you ‘that Breton woman’ in my head.”

Yvara snorted and flipped her hood back so that Sora could finally see her eyes clearly, and that she did, indeed, have dark blue hair. It wasn’t that he held a lack of belief in what Sheogorath had told him, just that seeing it with his own eyes was nice.

Viper floated back in with some spinach in a basket and entered the kitchen, presumably to wash it.

“Wow,” said Rio from his table. “You’re no longer unique, Lal. She has the same hair colour.”

Lal gave him a look. “I hardly think my hair colour is what makes me unique.”

“You know what I mean!” he protested.

“And the fact that Lorenzo has green hair didn’t already muck up this uniqueness?” she said.

Rio pouted.

“I don’t think you’re going to win this one, Rio,” he said, then looked back at Yvara. “Had any fun adventures lately?”

She stared for a moment. “Eh, I am presently tracking down a necklace of some legend. I figured why not? I’m curious to see what’s so special about the thing.”

“As good a reason as any.”

*

His intuition had been prickling for the last hour, so Sora signaled to Viper, who floated over. “Something is about to happen. No idea what, of course. Keep a sharp eye out on anyone who comes in, please. If I sense them, I’ll point you right at them.”

Viper nodded and floated back to his corner.

A short time later he looked up sharply as his intuition spiked; the door opened and a Dunmer lady walked in. She was dressed in clothing typically worn by traveling merchants, but that meant little. She picked a table mid-way down the room, so Renato went over to speak with her.

Sora looked at Viper and made a vague nod in her direction, and Viper reached up to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear, a way of saying, “Tagged.”

Renato drifted over with a smirk. “I just love it when people come in and have no clue what to make of the menu, but aren’t willing to outright say it and risk looking stupid,” he said quietly. “Middling mead and some stew.”

Sora grabbed out the right bottle and handed it over, disappeared into the kitchen long enough to make up the order, then returned and handed the tray over to his lover. The “merchant” in question handed over the coin for her meal, then tucked in, her gaze casually sweeping around the room.

She made no waves; she simply ate her meal quietly, drank her mead, and then drifted off a short time later.

That night during close Viper said, “She lurked around the exterior for a while, scoping the property out. Didn’t find the hives or any of that, though she did peek into the barn.”

“She a thief?” he asked. “We did get rid of that Shadowmark, but…”

Viper shook his head. “No, I was able to catch a few stray thoughts from her. She’s here to fill a contract, so that means Dark Brotherhood most likely. I can’t imagine someone contacted the Thieves Guild to steal something we have, but I could be wrong.”

“Really,” Renato drawled. “Think she has any idea who it was posted by?”

Viper shrugged. “When we take her out I can check, or Kiri can mind-control her into telling us what she knows. She may not, but if she is Dark Brotherhood, that gives us a reason to give a damn. They never really bothered us in Cyrodiil, but considering how badly things went there, this bunch may operate on a different set of rules.”

“They may not even have the Night Mother here,” Lal said. “We have no idea what happened to her after Bravil had that amusing little skooma war and her crypt was raided.”

“Any idea when she plans to act?”

Viper shrugged again. “She seemed to be taking her time assessing the situation, which means she’s either newish, or meticulous. Either way, I don’t expect an attack tonight, but she might prove that thought wrong. We need to be on guard after lights out.”

“All right. Kiri, Viper, do a check of all methods of entry and block most of them with the usual illusions. If she’s going to infiltrate, let’s limit her and make our job easier. We can split the watch so that everyone has a chance to get some sleep. Hide Lucia’s room entirely and make sure she doesn’t wake up in the middle of the night. The last thing I want is a traumatized child screaming in horror.”

Nothing happened for several days, but then he got that prickly sensation up his spine again and twitched a finger at Kiri. “I think it’s tonight,” he whispered. “Warn the others, please.”

They were waiting when the Dunmer soundlessly sneaked in through an opening on the first floor. It was screened to help keep insects out, but removing it was a simple enough matter, which she did. She was also slender enough to fit through, making it a nice way to infiltrate, assuming you had the means to hang off the roof in order to do any of it. Sora gave her credit for her obvious skills and technical achievements, but that only went so far.

Kiri had her under his control a second after she hit the floor with nary a whisper of sound. She mechanically walked over to the nearest chair and took a seat, then stared straight ahead.

“Who sent you?” Sora asked.

“Astrid, Mistress of the Dark Brotherhood sanctuary near Falkreath.”

“Who are you here to kill?”

“The proprietor, a Breton who goes by the name Sora. If I felt like taking out the others who reside here, that’s all to the good and worth a bonus.”

He frowned. “Who put out the contract?”

“Maven Black-Briar.”

“Why?”

“I do not know, but I can assume it has to do with the competition for her business.”

Sora looked at his family to see if they had any questions.

“Tell us about who else resides at the sanctuary near Falkreath,” Kiri said.

“Astrid is our leader. Arnbjorn, myself, Festus, Babette, Nazir, and Veezara.”

“Anything special about any of these people?”

“Arnbjorn is Astrid’s husband and a werewolf. Babette is a child vampire. Veezara is a Shadowscale, one of the last.”

“What about the Night Mother?” Rio asked.

“We don’t know where she is, nor does Astrid follow the old ways.”

When no one else spoke up Sora said, “You do realize you’re going to die, right?”

“Yes. But I’ve always known how I would die.”

“And when?”

“No.”

“You have your family and I have mine. You came here, knowing you could die. We’ll be kind in how we do it, as you were only following orders, but let’s see if you were right, then,” he said, then extended his web into her chest and depressed her system so much that she dropped into unconsciousness and then death. After the last signs of life left her he said, “Let’s at least give her something approaching a decent burial.”

“I can always go bury her in the ash on Solstheim,” Val said, “but the most practical method would be to incinerate her so her body couldn’t be raised by any necromancers who stumbled over it.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Lorenzo said. “And as a nod to her belief system, I won’t even add her ashes to the compost.”

“All right. Discussion?”

“Well,” Lal said slowly, “I don’t think this is cause to storm the Dark Brotherhood. Maven, on the other hand…”

Renato nodded. “Yeah. She sent an assassin after us. I think we should repay that. She has three family members alive in Riften.”

“The granddaughter is slightly estranged,” Shi said, “because she prefers alchemy over the family business. Maven has threatened to cut her off. Her son Hemming is a willing accomplice in her schemes. The grandson, Sibbi, is in jail right now, for killing a man. He’s supposed to be in there well into next year.”

“Killing the granddaughter would be pointless,” he said. “Let’s start with the one in jail. Volunteers?”

“He’s said to be a womanizer, if that helps,” Shi offered. “The man he killed was the brother of his fiancé, and he was cheating on her with another woman.”

“Oh, really?” Lal said. “Can I be the one to go?”

“I don’t see why not,” he said, gazing around to see if anyone else was keen to go. “All right. Get that taken care of. We’ll just have to see if Maven has enough sense to connect the dots or not. If she doesn’t, I’m sure Hemming won’t mind being object lesson number two.”

*

“Job’s done,” Lal said at breakfast a few days later. “Sibbi—may the poisonous, entitled, womanizing snake rest in discord—is dead. I managed to catch him just as he was having some mead, so when I froze all the fluids, it made for an interesting corpse.”

“Did you stick around to see the reaction of the guards?” Rio asked with a smile.

“They were appropriately baffled considering that he wasn’t covered in frost as if a mage had taken him out. I can only imagine how Maven took the news, but we can find that out the next time someone makes the rounds.”

“It’s almost that time anyway,” he said, “so we should know soon enough, assuming she lets anything slip where we’re in a position to hear it.”

*

Yvara came through the door without her usual companion, causing Sora’s brow to go up. She took a seat at the counter and sighed before saying, “Middling mead, please.”

He stepped back so he could get the right bottle and hand it over. “You look … tired. It’s been a while, too.”

“Oh, well, I do like to wander,” she said, yanking the cork out and taking a sip. “We had a bit of a thing up at the College.”

“Oh? Do tell,” he said, leaning forward so he could rest his elbows on the counter. “Because the most interesting thing that’s happened around here recently was the Dark Brotherhood trying to assassinate us all.”

She blinked at him. “What?”

Sora nodded. “Only thing we can figure is that Maven Black-Briar is hacked off at the competition, so she made a contract. But assassins have to be really, exceptionally good to get past us.”

Yvara eyed him for a moment. “I heard a lot of commotion when I was just in Riften. Seems Sibbi Black-Briar met an unfortunate end in jail. Of course, I found it humorous when local gossip said he was drinking mead at the time.”

Sora smirked. “Yeah, almost ironic in a way. The only other thing that might be comparable would be him choking on one of those honey-nut treats people seem to be so fond of. But really, you look done in.”

“I’ve had a few Dark Brotherhood assassins come after me,” she said, “but they were all … pathetic.” She shook her head as Kiri slid into the next seat over. “I was almost embarrassed by their behavior. What kind of an assassin comes after you in broad daylight with a war cry on their lips?”

“You must have gotten someone new, then, because the one we got took the time to scope the place out, and took a couple of days to actually act,” Kiri said.

Yvara nodded. “I still have no idea why one was sent after me. As to the College, well…” Her voice dropped a bit as she said, “The Thalmor ‘Advisor’ there went completely mad. We had found this strange artifact during an excavation at Saarthal. It was … mesmerizing. I could tear my eyes away from it, but other people were just fascinated.”

“The Thalmor wanted it for the power?” Sora said.

“Yep. He managed to kill off the Arch-Mage and had everyone locked out of the Hall of the Elements.”

Viper appeared in the seat to the other side of Yvara and said, “And you ended up being a big damn hero, right?”

Yvara looked his way. “Why would you think that?”

“You don’t seem like the type to just walk away. So what happened?”

After a moment she said, “I was sent off to retrieve a special staff after the Arch-Mage was killed. That was a real trip. I ran into his ghost, I guess you could say. Found out why he was so damn detached all the time. He did something not so nice when he was younger, before he ever became Arch-Mage. But Erandur and I got through the place fine in the end, even if I still think Erandur has something of a death wish, and having to deal with any number of draugr—even the shouty types—ghosts, a troll… There was even a skeletal dragon in there that got up from its nap to attack along with a whole lot of skeletons. Got the staff. Had to take out a Thalmor agent on the way out, but after killing a dragon priest, he was—I nearly laughed in his face.”

“I assume things had gotten worse back at the College,” Sora said.

Yvara nodded. “Things tend to work out that way. The Arch-Mage’s second was dead, killed by our Thalmor friend, and the staff and students had been pushed all the way out to the bridge leading to the College. Some weird barrier. The staff I went after was able to drain it, so we could get in. We had a big fight inside the lecture hall. He started things off by paralyzing Erandur and Tolfdir.”

“But you, as a Breton, probably shrugged that right off,” Viper said.

“Yes. Our Thalmor friend is dead now, and the Psijic Order retrieved the artifact. I can only hope they don’t all go crazy, but something tells me it’ll be fine.”

“You know,” Sora said, “you could have asked us for help if you were going into such a dangerous situation.”

She blinked at him. “Why would that even occur to me? You people run a meadery. It’s only just now that I’ve learned you take assassins in stride.”

“True,” he replied. “Keep it in mind for the future, all right? All of us are practically immune to hostile magic, and we are more than skilled in taking down opponents.”

“But not Sora,” Viper said. “You can’t take him with you.”

Sora scowled.

“I don’t mean that he’s not capable,” Viper said quickly, “just that we don’t like it when he’s off adventuring and doesn’t have a few of us along, that’s all. He’s the head of this family.”

“And the only one who can cook worth a damn,” Renato said with a faint grin.

“Speaking of cooking,” he said, “are you in the mood for food at all? I made some of that salad Viper absolutely adores, so you could try that.”

Yvara glanced at Viper, who had a hungry look on his face, then said, “Sure, why not. So far everything I’ve tried has been great, even if I’m not sure what half of it is.”

Sora nodded. “And yes, Viper, I’ll get you some, too.” He was back a couple of minutes later with the food and set it in front of them, then moved off down the counter to see what Brenuin wanted. By the time he got back Yvara had demolished her salad and was staring into her bowl with a sad look. He eyed her in amusement, mainly because Viper had the exact same expression on his face—his version of it, anyway.

“So who took over as Arch-Mage?” he asked.

“Oh, um… Yeah, that would be me,” she said, acting embarrassed. “The, uh, spokesperson for the Psijics who showed up unilaterally tapped me for the spot. Tolfdir seemed to think it was a great idea, despite me not having mastered even one school of magic yet. I talked to the staff and they’ll be spreading the workload around for now. As I pointed out, I can’t get better if I’m stuck in a tower all day doing paperwork. They can teach me about all that when I stop in for visits. Eventually I’ll learn what I need to know on both fronts.”

He nodded. “Judging by your accent I’m going to say you came from High Rock, and probably not with becoming Arch-Mage in mind.”

“Just decided to become a mage,” Yvara replied. “This was most certainly unexpected. Still, these guys are way better than what I’ve heard about the Synod and the College of Whispers.”

Sora laughed softly. “Well, the Mages Guild was dissolved not long after the Oblivion Crisis. Idiot non-mages decided they were part of the problem, because magic was involved in opening the gates. The two groups that sprung up are more interested in gaining favor with the Elder Council than they are in doing anything of real worth. Why people get so weird about magic I don’t know. There are just as many or more bandits out there, and they tend to use weapons.”

Yvara rolled her eyes. “I ran into a member of the Synod. He sounded like a snotty bastard who’d been driven crazy by being trapped by the Falmer and all his buddies being killed off. Pretty easy to flatter into giving me the information I wanted, though. All right, well, I want to get some rest, so I’ll be off.”

She stared to reach into her pouch for coin and Sora stopped her. “It’s on the house this time. You looked like you needed it.”

He noticed, as she departed, that Viper’s gaze lingered on her retreating form. Maybe his Mist had a crush? If so, it’d be the first time Viper had ever shown interest in someone.

*

Two weeks later Yvara returned, this time with a companion, and it wasn’t Erandur. Sora smiled as she took a seat and flipped her hood back, nodded at her friend, who had eyes very similar to Yvara’s, and said, “What’ll it be?”

“I figured since we were headed to the College I’d pick up some mead to take with me.”

“The usual?”

“Yep. A half dozen should be good.”

He stepped back and started snagging bottles to place on the counter, then swept the coin she stacked up into the coin box.

“I don’t suppose…” she said.

His brow went up. “Try me.”

“Do you know anything about Moth Priests?”

“Yes. I’ve met more than a few in my time. They’re usually excellent fighters. They’ve been on the hunt for Elder Scrolls ever since every last one of them up and vanished from the White Gold Tower right around the time the Great War ended. There was one who passed through here a few days back. He said was headed for Dragon Bridge after he had a chance to do some research at the College, so I would still check there first. Up to you. I expect you can run pretty fast.”

She wrinkled her nose at him and started stowing the bottles away.

“And if you remember, bring those bottles back. I can sterilize and reuse them. If not, it’s no big deal.”

Yvara nodded. “If I remember, sure. But we should get going. Maybe we can overtake the fellow.”

He was told, after they left, by Viper, who had been unobtrusively listening, that the unknown female seemed to think Sora was a lot more dangerous than he looked. He wondered just how old she was, and what Yvara had gotten mixed up in this time.

*

The next time Yvara arrived was two weeks later. Sora’s brow went up in surprise when he saw a spider-legged chest click in behind her and the unnamed vampire. “You have got to explain that thing,” he said in lieu of a greeting.

Yvara smirked and took a seat. “I found it in a place called Blackreach, in an old Dwemer building. Some alchemist made it, but died down there to Falmer arrows. He was doing research on crimson nirnroot, which apparently only grows down there.”

“Was he, by any chance, an Altmer by the name of Sinderion? Had a workshop in the cellar of the West Weald Inn in Skingrad where he used to research regular nirnroot.”

“You some kind of a history buff?” the vampire asked.

“I’m not much of a reader, but things have a tendency to stick in your mind when you’ve lived it,” he replied, then ignored her in favor of Yvara, who blinked at him, then reached into the pack she had and produced six empty bottles to hand over.

They went into a bin for those. “Thank you. I’m glad you remembered.”

“Lived it?”

“Yes,” he said with a nod. “I am…”

“You were almost twenty-seven when it happened, tesoro,” Renato said, “so we’re approaching three hundred years old.”

Yvara took a long look around the room, then said, “You don’t look like vampires.”

He shook his head. “Something a hell of lot weirder. It’s a very long story, and if we become good enough friends, I’ll tell you. Maybe over some of that salad.” He almost laughed when her expression went hungry.

“I’ll hold you to that,” she said. “Especially considering one of you has that … whatever you called it as a pet.”

“Octopus. Most of us have one. Cashew?”

His squirrel popped out of his hair and chittered a greeting, then spit a flower out onto the counter.

Yvara blinked stupidly. “And I thought my life couldn’t get any stranger after meeting Sheogorath,” she muttered.

“Really? You, too, huh? Did he give you any gifts?”

“Well, yes, but… I ended up inside the mind of the deceased Pelagius III, and after a very bizarre afternoon, walked away with a new set of poncy clothing I’ll never wear but instead stuck on an armor stand, and the Wabbajack.”

“I’m starting to think he hands those things out like party favors,” Kiri said as he practically materialized in place off to the side.

“There’s this weird thing where every time one of the guards cracks that snide joke about sweet rolls, this bolt of pink lightning comes down and transforms the guard into one. I’ve built up something of a collection of them in my house. And I’ll never eat another again.”

Sora snickered.

The vampire shifted impatiently and Yvara glanced over before saying, “You told me if I ever needed backup, you could help.”

“Yes. What kind of a fight are you going to get into this time? I can spare five people.”

Yvara bit her lip, flashing some fang. “A group of vampires who want to permanently blot out the sun.”

“Kiri, will you get everyone in here, and make sure Lucia is busy with the animals so she doesn’t walk into this conversation?”

“On it, brother.” Kiri drifted outside while twitching his fingers. He was back before the stragglers arrived, but once Lal and Rio showed up Sora got things started.

“I want five volunteers to go help take out a nest of presumably ancient and powerful vampires to aid our friend here.”

Val started jumping up and down. “Me! I’m going!”

Kiri nodded. “I’ll go. Unless Viper is interested.”

“Why not both of you?” Yvara asked curiously.

“Because Viper and Kiri are our illusionists, and we like to have one of them here for when a more subtle, peaceful solution is needed for something,” Sora said.

“Weakness to fire, right?” Renato said.

Yvara nodded. “Generally so, yes. But a resistance to frost.”

“I’ll go.”

Lal and Rio both shook their heads. “Still, with us here, we can pacify people. It should be fine if both Kiri and Viper want to go.”

Sora nodded. “A fair point.”

“I will go,” Shi said.

“All right. How far is it?” he asked Yvara.

“It’s northwest of Solitude, an island out on the water.”

“We can all water-walk, so it’s not like we’d have to cram into a rowboat,” Renato said.

“All right. I’ll start making up some supplies,” he said. “You’re going to be gone for at least a few days, if not a week, so…”

“I’ll give you a hand, tesoro.”

“You guys won’t be eating very well, but that can’t be helped. I can give you stuff that you can heat over a fire without too much trouble.”

“What about the tent?” Kiri asked.

“Yes. But take some of the fencing with you. What you have for the horses is fine on its own, and they’re hardy enough to stand the cold that far north while you guys are beating the stuffing out a bunch of power-hungry morons. I’d want them dead for that ludicrous plan alone. Anyone who comes up with a plan that stupid is unlikely to be someone you can reason with.”

Yvara snorted and swiftly covered her mouth as her companion’s forehead wrinkled.

“I’m assuming you two normally dine on the bandits stupid enough to threaten you?” he asked.

Yvara nodded. “And there’s plenty of those out there. What I don’t drink immediately I drain to make into blood potions, so I always have sustenance handy. Luggage is really handy for that. He’s a lot bigger on the inside than he seems.”

“Well, that pasta salad is cold, and that’s good for up to a week so long as its kept chilled. I have some bread I baked this morning. Various sweets. I also have a stew I started that should be ready shortly. It’ll take a little while for it to cool down enough to put in containers, but…” He eyed the spider-chest. “That can keep up with a horse?”

“Or me sprinting full out, yes. And I can summon it.”

“I see. Well—no, you can store all of that in the tent. That way the horses won’t be burdened. All right, I’ll get started. You two are free to come into the kitchen if you want.”

“I’ll keep watch out here with Lal and Rio,” Kiri said.

“Thank you, Aniki.”

In the kitchen he swiftly started gathering up various boxes to put things in and began to load them up with his lover’s help. Because Val was going he included a whole cheesecake he had planned to sell, and tucked a jar of raspberry sauce in with it. As soon as that was done he grabbed things for the pasta salad and set some water to boil after salting it and dashing in some oil as Renato picked up a knife and sharpened it in preparation for cutting vegetables.

“So the idea of storming a vampire castle is just…” Yvara’s brow went up questioningly.

“I’ve killed more than a few myself, as have my family. It’s no big deal. And like I said, we’re more or less immune to hostile magic. If one of them does manage an infection, there’s always potions for that, or a shrine. We’ve handled vampires, headless zombies, necromancers, bandits—you name it, we’ve killed it, for the most part. We even got our hands on an Elder Scroll once, but that was to help someone break a curse.”

He tossed a fair amount of spiral pasta into the boiling water and gave it a stir, then shifted so he could put together the dressing. “We’re a bit jaded, as a result, but through it all, we’ve continued to sell mead. Maybe after this fight we can sit down and I’ll explain more fully.”

“He … told me,” Yvara said slowly, “that you would be a good resource.”

Sora looked up with a smirk. “But you weren’t sure what to believe, because Sheogorath is nuttier than a squirrel?”

Cashew chittered in annoyance at the comment and thwapped him with his tail.

“I was sent on a quest by him once. He ‘asked’ me to make a prophecy come true at a town in Cyrodiil. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable refusing, but overall it was amusing, despite having to end the lives of some sheep.”

“People, or animals?” the vampire asked dryly.

“Animals,” he replied. “Did you try the mead?”

The woman frowned and nodded. “Yes.”

“Sheogorath suggested I make some with copper in it, to see if it would taste like blood, but Lorenzo pointed out that copper is pretty toxic in quantity, so I didn’t bother. The thing with Sheogorath is, he likes to remind you that he’s around. It’s not necessarily all that often, but from the sound of it, you get reminded a lot.”

Yvara nodded. “And nobody ever seems to notice it happening. It’s bizarre.”

“Be aware,” he said, “that you may be wandering around nowhere in particular, and some crazed-looking person may run up to you and beg you to use the Wabbajack on them. They don’t care if they get turned into a mudcrab, so long as they feel Sheogorath’s influence. As to how they know you have it?” He shrugged, then set the dressing aside to work on crumbling some goat cheese.

Renato scraped a board of cucumber into the dressing bowl and moved on to an orange pepper. “He’s even visited. Nothing like having a god pop up at your residence to startle the hell out of a person.”

“I didn’t think they could physically visit,” the vampire said a bit skeptically.

“Oh, they can,” Yvara said, looking at her companion. “I ran into a disguised Sanguine at a tavern. He tried to lure me into a drinking contest.”

“I think a physical manifestation comes with certain rules considering what Martin Septim did,” he said as he chucked the cheese into the bowl, then turned so he could take the pasta off the fire and run cold water over it to stop it from cooking further. “Mehrunes Dagon can’t stomp back in to cause direct trouble, but a mostly harmless night of debauchery? Not so disruptive. I guess Akatosh has a sense of humor.”

Yvara tilted her head to the side in consideration. “You were there? During the Oblivion Crisis.”

He nodded. “Right in the middle of it. You couldn’t walk very far, it seemed like, without a damn gate opening up and daedra spewing out of it. There was one place I remember, two gates opened, so we split up to take care of them. The one I took had a dead horse outside and another one not far in. That upset me.”

“We woke up one morning, got ready to go on a trip, walked outside the castle, and Sora suddenly looked to the right,” Renato said. “There was that damn glow. Raced up the steps to the curtain wall and sure enough, a gate had opened overnight, up the hill. But they were pretty simple to close, especially if you knew how to be unseen, or paralyzed everything in your way. Daedra reform a bit after you ‘kill’ them, so it was faster to just avoid them entirely.” He tossed the last of the vegetables into the bowl and put his things into the second sink.

“How were they closed?” the vampire asked.

Sora eyed her for a moment, wondering why she wouldn’t know if she was even close to his age, then said, “Each gate was powered or held open—whatever you want to call it—by a sigil stone. Remove that from its cradle and the whole thing would collapse. Thankfully, any non-daedra would get shoved back to where they’d entered. We ended up with quite the collection. They could be used in enchanting. Or, you know, garden decorations.”

He gave the pasta a good few shakes and tipped it into the bowl, then tossed everything. Renato fetched out a container and slid it over, then went to get containers for the stew.

Val wandered in with the tent in his hands. “Whenever you’re ready, I’ll set this up so we can get it loaded.”

The vampire eyed the thing skeptically.

Val just grinned at her. “You’ll see. Hey, what’s your name? I’m Val.”

The woman stared at him, then said, “Serana.”

“Cool! Sora, I’ll just leave this here by the door for now. No sense setting it up early.”

“All right. Might as well pack, then.” After Val dashed away he said, “It’ll be a short while before the stew is ready, but once we can get the tent loaded, you’re good to go.”

*

His family rolled in a week later looking both weary and amused. He got mead out from under the counter and set them up. “Have fun?” he asked, taking a moment to check them over.

Renato nodded. “It was a blast. Yvara and Serana should be over in a bit. She’s living in that house on the other side of Pelagia’s farm, near the watchtower.”

“Huh. Maybe I should make that salad…”

Viper gave him one of those looks and jumped back up to go outside. Sora could only presume he was gathering ingredients.

“Mission accomplished, though.”

“Of course,” Renato said, scowling at him. “And yes, we all chugged Cure Disease potions just in case. It’s obviously possible to be something other than a fluff-brained, blood-starved wreck, but I’d rather not find out personally.”

“I would hate for you to lose those gorgeous black eyes,” he said with a faint smile.

“I hope they get here soon,” Val said impatiently.

“You could start unloading the tent,” he suggested. “That would keep you occupied for a little while.”

Val nodded and jumped back up, taking his mead with him.

Sora served a few customers, one of whom was Nazeem, holding an empty court in the corner and drinking Gold Reserve. Nazeem sneered when the door opened and Yvara walked in with Serana. If the man was worth killing he would consider it, but farmers were actually important, and trash talk could be ignored up to a point.

Val dashed back in a minute later with the folded tent and said, “I’ll unload it after.”

“I’ll just get our lovely customers to shuffle off early,” Kiri murmured, then proceeded to do exactly that.

“Right,” he said, getting out mead for the two ladies. “So, what happened?”

Renato said, “We hoofed it to Solitude and looped around the coast to get to the jetty for the castle in question, then boated or water-walked our way across. The vampires there weren’t too pleased to see us, made their gargoyle statues come to life—they have some nice stuff on them, by the way—and we fought our way in, shredded the vampires inside—they lived like pigs, it was disgusting—and while we kept an eye on the place in case any more showed up, Yvara and Serana took care of the big bad.”

“You use Chaos Shot?”

“Yep. Worked like a charm. The smell was awful, though.”

He wrinkled his nose at the thought, then said, when Viper came back inside, “Let’s move to the kitchen so I can make that salad.”

He was making the vinaigrette when Yvara said, “So what’s the story behind your longevity if you aren’t vampires?”

“Do you believe in alternate dimensions? Or other worlds?”

“…Sort of,” she said. “There’s a lot of theories about what Nirn really is, and the planes of Oblivion, the Void … if those moons up there are really parts of Lorkhan’s body … stuff like that. I guess it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch for there to be entirely separate places, but…”

“We were born on a planet called Earth. I was transported from my world to a duplicate due to an accident while sparring with an enemy turned friend who happened to be capable of seeing sideways into alternate versions of our universe. Lost a lot of memories because of a head wound I got when I landed. Met my family. I did eventually regain my memories. The thing is, we were cursed.”

“With immortality?”

He shook his head. “No. We were cursed into the form of toddlers and didn’t age. But fast forward a good thirty years. We were still cursed, expecting to die that way. I came upstairs to the bar one morning to see a strange man. White hair, very odd eyes, manic expression, and a red and purple outfit. Had a cane.”

“Sheogorath?” Yvara murmured.

“Yeah. He made us an offer. He would shift the curse onto other people if we agreed to come to his world in his dimension. Like I said, we expected to die in those cursed forms, or end up as something horrifying, a kind of undead, with no power except what we leeched off the leader. At any rate, we discussed it, made a decision, and packed up. Sheogorath came back a week later and transported us through the Void and Oblivion and we found ourselves in Cyrodiil on the day the emperor was assassinated, back in our proper bodies.”

“Well, you got to see it happen. The rest of us were chilling out next to an Ayleid ruin after taking out some bandits,” Renato said, “one of whom happened to be Khajiit, not that we had any clue what we were looking at, considering there are only ‘human’ races on Earth.”

“Wait a minute,” Yvara said. “I’m not exactly a history buff, but I have read about the Oblivion Crisis. It started right after he died. The book I read said he escaped the White Gold Tower through the prison area, through one of cells, into the sewers under the city.”

“Yes, that happened.”

“The prisoner the book mentioned…”

“Yes, that was me.”

Yvara scrunched up her face and took a long swig of her mead. “You’re the Champion of Cyrodiil?”

“And the Hero of Kvatch, the Savior of Bruma, the killer of Mankar Camoran, mighty slayer of mudcrabs, and the person who did a whole hell of a lot to ensure that Martin Septim could defeat Mehrunes Dagon, even if it wasn’t by relighting the Dragonfires. And I can’t even do magic. None of us can.”

“Then how—” Serana stopped. “Is it some odd talent like Tiber Septim’s Shouts, but … not?”

He nodded. “There were people on our original world who could use—well. It’s a way of utilizing your life force to certain effect. But each person is different. We call them flames, but they don’t necessarily burn, and not everyone can even see them. Renato can heal people, for example. Lal and Rio can freeze a person, or duplicate the effects of a pacifying spell. Kiri and Viper are illusionists. Lorenzo can use lightning. Shi can disintegrate things.”

“And Val can do some very odd things,” Serana said. “I don’t think I have ever seen a spell which could duplicate some of the stuff I saw you do.”

Val grinned and nodded.

“But my brother taught me some interesting tricks, and I taught everyone else, which explains why we can do things like walk on water without magic. Back in our world it was something of a secret. You do things people can’t explain and they start getting scared and try to jail or kill you, or they try to use you or experiment on you. In a world like this? Anyone can do magic if they put some effort in. Doesn’t mean we advertise those abilities, though.”

“If it weren’t for the fact that Sheogorath himself mentioned you, and having seen some of it with my own eyes,” Yvara said, “I would think you’re completely mad.”

He finished up the salad and started portioning it out into bowls—Val grabbed them one by one and passed them around, along with forks—and said, “Our patron is the Prince of Madness. We should not have retained our agelessness, but he either forgot that detail or deliberately let us keep that, maybe to have his own set of champions available. Either way, we’re as immortal as you two, without the need to drink blood or get a bit grumpy in the sun.” He looked at Renato. “Do we even still have anything from back then?”

Lorenzo snorted and said, “I do still have some functioning laptops in the lab.”

“Ah. In any case, in and around all of that going on, we inherited a castle after saving it from bandits, and set up a new Filigrana. A little illusion goes a long way in preventing people from asking questions about why you never seem to get any older.”

“You’ve spent hundreds of years simply running a bar?” Serana asked skeptically. “And you fight that well?”

He smiled at her. “No. We’ve learned another skill, but that’s a story for another day. We’re also assassins.”

Yvara tapped the table. “So that’s what that beggar in Solitude was hinting at. And come to think of it, the ones in Riften. And I’ve seen the one from Whiterun in here.”

“The Gray Fox used the beggars as information sources. He also protected them and made sure none of the guild thieves ever stole from them. I figured, why not use the same tactics?”

“And you’re not Dark Brotherhood?” Serana asked.

“Why would we be? The only god we’ve run across is Sheogorath. Wait, that’s not entirely true. I did a favor for Malacath in order to obtain an artifact for Martin. But we don’t worship Sithis or Mephala, despite all the webs you see around here. We tend to help people who actually need help, and not all of them have to pay, or even have the means to. It depends. One fellow I had help me clean up Filigrana that night as payment, then offered him a job taking care of the animals and some gardening work. He got room and board, money, and he was doing the same things he did before that someone ruined his life and he was forced to sell his farm.”

“They won’t even take contracts where the pay is too low,” Val said. “And they don’t seem to care about the why of things.”

“Huh,” Yvara said. “What can you do? You didn’t say.”

“My ability is that of harmony. Renato and Kiri are convinced that’s why people love my cooking and the mead. But when it comes to being an assassin? I use my flames in some inventive ways.”

They both looked confused, but chose not to question it further. Instead Yvara said, “I guess that means that Sheogorath cares about this world.”

“I presume so, though his rationale might be somewhat incomprehensible to us. I kind of figured that it’s hard to have chaos that entertains him if none of us are here on a physical world. I don’t think all Daedric Lords are evil, and I don’t think we can necessarily ascribe human morality or emotion to them, though some of them I’d rather drop my dignity and run screaming in the other direction from.

“Maybe Sheogorath wanted someone who needed help, and hadn’t grown up with the same prejudices or indoctrination as the average mortal on Nirn, but would care enough to get the job done.” He shrugged. “And maybe he was in cahoots with Akatosh, because Uriel Septim himself told me he had seen my face in his dreams and was expecting me to be there, in that cell. Who was the big bad at the castle you had to take care of?”

Serana shifted and stabbed her fork into a strawberry, then said, “My father. He found an Elder Scroll a long time ago, figured out part of some prophecy in it, and … went mad. Turned out the whole thing was partly a hoax, though how it was accomplished I will probably never understand.”

“We ended up having to find three of things, and I had to read them.”

He looked at Yvara sharply. “You seem all right.”

She nodded. “Oddly enough, yes. But one fellow said that Elder Scrolls have minds of their own, and won’t be found unless they want to be. So maybe I was supposed to be involved. And how many people can say they’ve visited the afterlife. Or an afterlife. Did you know? People who are soul trapped go to a special place rather than something like Sovngarde or the Dreamsleeve?”

He suddenly felt a bit bad about Lorenzo’s enchanting experiments as he shook his head.

“There’s this place called the Soul Cairn. People who get soul trapped end up there. A lot of them are miserable, but some don’t even realize they’re dead. Or maybe it was just that one guy. It’s pretty creepy. I don’t even know if it’s possible for anyone there to end up in the Dreamsleeve and reincarnated later on.”

“Sounds almost like Purgatory,” Rio muttered.

Yvara shrugged, visibly not getting the reference. “I don’t understand what point there would be for the overlords of that place, the Ideal Masters, to keep so many souls around when all they do is nothing, but considering they like to trick people I don’t think I’ll be asking. There was a dragon in there they’d tricked. He taught me how to say his name. Said all I’d have to do is shout it when I was in Tamriel and he would come, but only for five minutes.”

“Sounds like a lifetime for someone who’s been trapped in a place like that,” he commented. “And over far too quickly.”

“Considering that the Soul Cairn is mostly desolate, always night, and usually with lightning flashing in the sky, I’d say so,” Yvara replied. “Still, I don’t understand how he expects me to call him out of there. It’s not like I have the lung capacity of a giant.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t seem like anything to worry about for now.”

“What curse was that Elder Scroll supposed to take care of?” Serana asked.

He had to stop and think about that for a moment considering it had been a week since they had last spoken. “The Gray Cowl of Nocturnal was cursed to essentially wipe out the identity of anyone who put it on. The person’s entire past was removed from history, people’s memories, the written word. Viper became curious about this odd man who kept showing up. We couldn’t figure out who he was, but we were fairly certain he was both connected to the Thieves Guild and under a curse, so we investigated more deeply.

“Turned out he was the current Gray Fox. The previous one had passed on the curse, and this one spent a decade trying to figure out how to break it. We got involved, mainly because we’d been cursed and it was only a Daedric Prince getting involved that helped us. True, we had repaid that help, but… A number of things were quietly appropriated, an Elder Scroll was made off with, and he used that to figure out what to do.

“Of course, there we are, delivering his wedding ring to his mystified and heartbroken spouse, and he pops up after seeing her still upset over his disappearance, proclaiming his name, and what happened to him.”

“It was kind of funny, actually,” Renato said. “She promptly told him she would never admit to his identity because of his ties to the Thieves Guild, so he renounced his life of crime forevermore—never mind that the blacksmith there was a fence and continued to be—and passed on the leadership of the guild.”

“To me,” Sora said sourly.

Yvara smirked. “I take it you didn’t stick with that.”

“Hell no. We gathered up something we had previously ‘borrowed’ from the Temple of the Ancestor Moths while avoiding all the retired priests there, and quietly returned it, then I left the cowl at a shrine to Nocturnal. Since we’d used disguises the entire time we were helping, no one could find us afterward, so it’s not like we had thieves pestering me to come be a guild master. We more or less ignored them after that point.”

“And the Elder Scroll?” Serana asked.

He shrugged. “No idea what happened to it. Maybe it returned to the library on its own, or wandered off somewhere else. They’re supposed to be fragments of creation, so I don’t have that much trouble believing they could have minds of their own, so to speak. It wasn’t where he used to spend time and it wasn’t in the Guild Master’s quarters, so… I’m just glad I was never expected to read it myself. Maybe having the favor of a god would protect you, but I wasn’t in any hurry to test it.”

“What do you mean by harmony?” Serana persisted.

“It can mean several things. Creating lasting bonds with other flame users, making other people feel what I want them to feel, or harmonizing my way through a door or wall.”

“But other aspects? You said none of you can do magic. What about alchemy and enchanting? Or using enchanted staves?”

“Because of certain inborn characteristics,” Lorenzo said, “we can enchant. We were classed as Breton when we arrived, so I can enchant things with magic resistance. The stones in Cyrodiil, which are different from the ones here, give you certain powers, which made it possible to do certain enchantments. But yes, we’re limited that way. Alchemy, though, any idiot can do, even if not necessarily well. From what I can tell the Nords here in Skyrim developed a different way of handling enchanting, probably because of when they developed the aversion to magic.”

“Huh.”

“As for staves? I don’t think any of us have tried,” Sora said. “But those use the enchantment and the charge from a soul stone, so … I guess we could? Maybe? The Wabbajack isn’t really a good metric to judge by.”

Yvara snorted. “I have this urge to take mine to Windhelm and use it on Ulfric, just to see what he’d turn into.”