Grazhir :: Crossover :: Diagonal :: 18

18: Gathering Storm

“I’m fairly certain we’re not having an earthquake,” he said dryly as everything shook like the effects of the crash of a mammoth hitting the ground from low orbit after its giant caretaker missed a swing against some foe.

Kiri smiled and disappeared outside. He came back a good half hour later with a smirk on his face. The commotion had caused all the customers to rush out, so it was just the family there, taking the time to clean things.

“My dear ones, I was witness to a dragon attack at the western watchtower. Guards from Whiterun took care of it, along with a very special someone.”

“It’s that time, then,” he said, his cloth dropping to the counter.

“It appears so,” Kiri said. “I tagged her, just to be certain, but she headed back into Whiterun after the attack was over. I did witness her Shouting after she absorbed that dragon’s soul. Just a single word, but that was more than enough proof.”

He started to nod, then realized what his brother had said. “Wait, wait. Was she in disguise or something?”

Kiri nodded. “Sort of. She was wearing actual armor, if you can believe that, and it greatly resembled a dragon’s scales. Where she got her hands on it I have no idea. There was also a mask, so the only part of her face visible was her eyes, and I didn’t get close enough to verify what colour they were.”

“And how she fought?”

“Not quite the same way. Still primarily magic, but shock spells instead of her usual tendency toward setting things on fire. She also used a bow briefly, but considering how much she missed I can understand why she switched back to magic.”

Just then the world shook again as a Shout rumbled down the nearby mountain like the crash of a tidal wave. “Dovahkiin!”

“Great. The old men are involved now,” he said dryly. “Kiri…”

“I’ll shadow her, don’t worry. I will not get involved unless I absolutely have to. At least not obviously. This is her fight, and I wouldn’t want to cheapen her efforts or hinder her growth.”

He nodded. “Keep the spy on her. At some point I expect she’ll come back in here to visit, probably as herself. We have verification, we can offer our help when she needs backup. And hopefully she trusts us enough that when we point out that we know her secret, she won’t flip out on us.”

“The moment I feel her moving outside of the usual places I’ll start following her. In fact, let me make up a pack to take with me right now.”

The next morning Kiri suddenly looked up, grabbed the pack he had waiting, and hastened off.

*

Kiri sauntered in not long before closing two days later and came behind the bar. “She’s currently in her house in Whiterun,” he whispered on his way back up from setting his pack down. “But I know she’ll be on the move again soon, so I’ll have to restock and be ready to go, probably in the morning.”

He nodded. “There’s still some stew back there, some cheesecake, but if you want something else, just say so and I’ll make it for you.”

“No, that’s fine. Soon as this place is closed up, I’ll tell you what’s happened so far.”

Several hours later they were seated at the large table in the kitchen where Kiri said, “She and the housecarl she was saddled with hoofed it over to Ivarstead—and it’s probably a good thing that Horse is so average-looking—and spent the night there, then headed up the mountain in the morning.”

“What’s it like?” Val asked.

Kiri shrugged. “Cold, snowy, with the usual hostile wildlife. The path winds around in a kind of switchback and there are stones along the way with little history lessons carved into them. That housecarl was useless. A bear showed up to get angry and the girl just fiddled with her armor a ways back while Yvara took it down, though later on she used her bow.

“Considering she was decked out in steel plate armor, she should have been right up there in the thick of things, tanking hits and using her blade, not hanging back like an archer or mage. In any case, High Hrothgar itself looks fairly imposing, but no more so than any other fortified castle-like structure. The masters in there move around almost as stealthily as a thief, or one of us.

“Once she got inside one of the Greybeards approached, Master Arngeir, and they spoke. Yvara was fairly cagey in what she said. I got a chance to watch them imprint a word of power for Unrelenting Force into the floor for her to absorb, then as one of them directly shared his knowledge of that word with her, so she could use it immediately.”

“That could be handy,” he said, “if any of us could do it. Considering just how damn easy a Dragonborn has it for this stuff, if there were any words she really ought to have…”

“I paid very close attention, brother, and again when they went out back to do the same for a word for Whirlwind Sprint. Master Arngeir seemed almost scared of how easily she learned, not to mention envious, but he shook that off quickly enough.”

“Well, considering how much effort we all had to put into learning Shouts, I could see where he might feel like that, even if only for a moment,” Lal said.

“I wonder if she’ll have to deal with the remnants of the Blades getting in her face,” Lorenzo said. “That organization went seriously downhill after Martin died.”

“You’re just annoyed that they kept pestering us until we figured out how to use illusion to mask our practices,” Viper said.

Lorenzo shrugged. “Doesn’t change the fact that they’re a shadow of what they were, and after the Great War, well… Who knows how badly they’ve degraded? I have to assume some of them managed to survive.”

Kiri exhaled through his nose and, when no one else made a comment, said, “She was given a task to retrieve Jurgen Windcaller’s horn up north, so that’s her current agenda. I will be up early to lurk near her house in the city so I can tag along. But at some point I’d like to warp back up to High Hrothgar with Viper.”

Viper eyed the other Mist. “You’d prefer me to take the memory from one of them so I could share it?”

“Yes. Just in case. I could try to isolate one of them and mind-control him into explaining the process—both of them—but a more subtle method out the starting gate might make more sense.”

Viper nodded.

Sora frowned. “I want you to be careful. These men may not have absorbed dragon souls, but they must be very mentally strong to have learned to use a dragon’s power. Just because they’re pacifists doesn’t mean they won’t retaliate if they feel they’re being attacked. Viper, you’re exceptional, but … just be careful. Please.”

Rio made a rude noise. “Viper doesn’t get cocky, you know that. One threat from you regarding—”

Lal slapped a hand over her lover’s mouth to shut him up. “Don’t push your luck. Or do you really want a repeat of that incident where you annoyed Viper too much and—”

Rio slapped a hand over Lal’s mouth and made angry brows at her.

Sora heaved a sigh. “If she’s off on a quest to retrieve something, then logically she’ll be going back up there. I suggest that when she’s halfway back up the mountain to return it, you warp back and get Viper, return there, and take the opportunity to spy again, and get that information.”

“So that when she stops in here again, we can let her know we know,” Renato said, “and not have to tail her all the time.”

“Right.” He helped Kiri replenish his supplies before they all shuffled off to bed, and his brother had disappeared again by the time he went down to start breakfast.

*

Kiri strolled in and set his bag behind the bar before getting some mead. “She’s over at Elysium right now, as herself. Considering I watched her switch both gear and appearance…”

“So she’s keeping them separate, like we did with the Thieves Guild,” he muttered. “All right. We’ll have a meeting later, preferably with her involved, but…”

Frustratingly, Yvara did not show up at all that evening, so after closing Kiri caught them up on events which, in truth, wasn’t much. “There were bandits encamped outside the tomb, necromancers inside who were thralling people to mine ore, the usual skeletons and spiders—nothing particularly out of the ordinary.

“The housecarl was probably one step away from an unfortunate accident several times. Her attitude is seriously poor. Our Yvara rolled her eyes so often I’m surprised they didn’t roll right out of her head. Anyway, the horn she was sent to get wasn’t there. A note was in its place.”

“What about that attack we heard about?” Val asked. “Some cultists in town? The guards aren’t much to rely on for eyewitness accounts, and Brenuin was drunk as a lord at the time, so…”

Kiri nodded. “Two of them. They questioned her as to whether or not she was Dragonborn, she said yes, and they attacked in the name of Lord Miraak, the ‘True Dragonborn’. They were quickly enough cut down. If I encounter one you can bet I’ll be doing a little digging. If necessary, we can just take out any we stumble over. It’s bad enough we have Thalmor roaming around. We don’t need a bunch of psychotic cultists causing trouble on top of that.”

“Back up a second. The horn wasn’t there,” he said.

“Yes. Some ‘friend’ in Riverwood. Yvara seemed rather annoyed by the whole thing. Think it’s one of the Blades?”

“I suppose some of them could be hiding out here. After all, Nords revere Dragonborn, so if one was to pop up…”

“This would be a likely place,” Shi said. “In theory.”

Yvara didn’t actually drop by until the last day of Evening Star. She shuffled in and took a seat at the counter, and Sora automatically gave her a middling mead. “Been having fun?” he asked.

“Been working on enchanting,” she replied as she removed the cork. “I’m finally to the point of being able to double enchant things.”

“That would explain the rash of waterbreathing items that Belethor has been selling. It’s been a while. You should stick around after close.”

She gave him a funny look, but nodded.

“Hold on a minute,” he said. “I’ll bring you something to eat.” A few minutes later he brought out a square ceramic dish with baked penne in it and set it in front of her. “Well at least now, being able to enchant like that, you can ensure you’ve got what you need rather than rely on the whims of others out there.”

She nodded. “Plenty of people sell enchanted items, but a lot of the time it’s never what I’m after, too weak, or on the wrong things. Because really, who other than an exhibitionist runs around dressed like the Forsworn? And besides, you can only wear so many necklaces and rings before it’s like begging people to attack, and I get enough of that already.”

He shrugged. “Unless a person goes around with a massive entourage of heavily-armed, brutish-looking guards, or invisibly… Besides…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. A girl needs to get her beverage of choice somehow.”

“That reminds me. Serana said she was going to try mixing a blood potion with a bottle of mead to see what it tasted like. I keep hoping for word on that.”

“I could try if you want,” she offered.

“After close. I’ll provide the mead, you provide the potion.”

A couple of hours later they began cleaning up as Yvara mixed mead with blood in a large mug and took a sip. “Huh. I’m not sure how I feel about this,” she said, then had another sip. “It’s not bad, though. Just not sure if it’s good.”

“So, it was pretty exciting around here not long ago,” Sora said casually. “An actual dragon attacked.”

She nodded, sporting a wonderful poker face. “I heard two guards got hauled off by it.”

“Kiri went out to investigate when the ground shook. So, tell me, what did you think of Greybeards?”

Yvara shot him a look that managed to combine surprise with a glare. “Have you been following me?”

Kiri laughed creepily. “I followed the mysterious Dragonborn, my dear. That she just so happened to turn out to be you…”

Yvara sighed and had another sip. “I don’t know what I think of them yet. Arngeir seemed a bit divided on his reaction to me. He seemed impressed and fearful and envious, but still willing to help, even if only in a limited sense.”

Sora nodded. “Now you that you that we know, I can tell you something, because now you know.”

Her eyes crossed. “You’ve been spending too much time around Sheogorath, right?”

“Funny you should mention him,” he replied. “He ‘asked’ us to come north a few years ago, for your sake, so that we could provide support if you needed or wanted it.”

“Why does that fill me with dread?”

He shrugged. “It boils down to a few meanings. We’re here, if you need us, rather like how we helped when you and Serana were having your fun little adventure. We are all Tongues, though passing on words or understanding the way the Greybeards do is not currently in our stable of talents.”

“But it might be?”

“Possibly. Determination on that is pending. But. You’re a mage. Most of the Shouts we’re aware of magic can duplicate, or your vampiric powers. There’s not necessarily a point in using Aura Whisper when you can use a spell, or your altered vision, right? Same with something like Kyne’s Peace when you can pacify with a spell.

“We definitely don’t follow the Way of the Voice, but neither do we wander around Skyrim using Shouts for the hell of it. But of more importance, we’re simply here, if you need to talk. And if you need some back-up along the way, just ask.”

After another sip she said, “Okay. I’m having some trouble with the idea of Sheogorath sending you all here to be support, but okay. It’s crazy, but that means it makes sense, I think.” She paused to frown slightly. “As you probably know—” She eyed Kiri for a moment. “—the Greybeards sent me off on some test to retrieve an item, and it wasn’t there.”

“Right, there was a note,” Kiri said.

“I’m certain I can handle myself, but, I won’t say no to one of you lurking in the background when I go to deal with that note. Whoever left it had to be pretty clever to figure a way in when it was designed around the idea that a person entering could Shout.”

“I will be there,” Kiri said. “You won’t even know it. But if, for some reason, you need to talk to me, uh…” He looked lost for a signal.

“Rub your fingers together,” Renato suggested, demonstrating what he meant. “I’ve never seen you do that as a tic.”

Yvara shrugged. “Sounds good.” She looked at Kiri again. “What was your impression of Lydia?”

Kiri smirked. “Useless, and has a chip on her shoulder so large that she’s going to trip over her attitude at some point. She’s a fucking housecarl and she gets pissy any time you ask her to act like one, or, gods forbid, use some common sense.”

“So it’s not just me,” she said quietly. “I’d already decided to leave her at Breezehome for now. There’s only so much I can take before I do something crazy like snap and ditch her in front of an enraged giant. It’s like now that she has the excuse to be out and about as a housecarl she wants to take the first opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory or something. I do not understand Nords—eh, present day Nords. Serana isn’t like that, or her mother.”

“I don’t understand it, either. There were plenty of battlemages at the Arcane University and certainly not all the mages in the guild were elves. And even here the jarls have court mages, though that might be a concession to tradition and so they have someone to enchant things.”

“Well, I’m going to get some rest. I will start out whenever I wake up,” she said.

Kiri nodded. “I’ll be around if you need me, but otherwise I won’t interfere.”

She nodded and Viper escorted her out. They could hear him saying, “Please know that we’ve said nothing to Serana. That’s your prerogative.”

“That went better than I hoped, actually,” Sora said. “I expected her to be angry angry.”

“She might end up more confused when it sinks in that Sheogorath sent us up here. I mean, why? Sure, being revealed as Dragonborn when it’s been centuries since the last one is pretty interesting, but… Odds she’s read that book?”

*

“So…”

Sora jumped slightly and turned to glare at his brother. “Don’t do that, please.”

“Speak to you?” Kiri asked with an innocently confused look on his face.

Sora switched to a sad expression and watched as his brother pouted.

“Anyway. So far so good, but I had second thoughts about that earlier plan. Maybe it’s better not to try poking around in their heads.”

He nodded. “I had wondered when you didn’t pop in to pick up Viper. It might be a better idea to simply find out what words she knows. Because really? There’s only a few I’d even bother using myself. So what happened? And since you’re here at just the right time, you may as well help.”

Kiri sighed and picked up a cloth so he could start wiping down tables. “Okay. She went to meet this ‘friend’ who turned out to be some woman named Delphine.”

“Sounds Breton.”

Kiri nodded. “She had the horn and handed it over, and led Yvara down into her super secret hideout to talk about Dragonborn and Greybeards and trust. We’re talking serious paranoia here, and all of it aimed at the Thalmor. Yvara told her to shove it for the moment and took off to take the horn to Arngeir to complete her test. They taught her the final word for Unrelenting Force and did their little welcoming ceremony.

“Then she returned to speak with Delphine, who claimed that the dragons were coming back as opposed to coming out of hiding. And then we were off to Kynesgrove, so that Yvara could prove to Delphine that she really is Dragonborn. The humorous part was where Yvara pointed out that Delphine was in Whiterun the same day the dragon attacked, that if she had stuck around after getting some stone, she would have seen it then.”

“I’m pretty sure you skipped stuff there, but all right. So…”

“Yvara gets really sarcastic when she’s annoyed,” Kiri said with a smirk. “Big black resurrected a dragon from one of those funny mounds right in front of us, then flew away. Yvara and Delphine killed the one still there, Yvara absorbed its soul, and Delphine did something of a one-eighty. Delphine is one of the last remaining Blades, but she made it sound like their real purpose was dragon killing, not emperor protecting.”

Renato looked at him funny. “Their whole job when we got here was protecting the emperor and his line. Sure, fine, we didn’t have dragons flying around roasting the populace and they were forced to disband after the Great War, but…”

“I know. At any rate, Delphine is blaming all of this on the Thalmor.”

Sora rolled his eyes. “Anyone with any sense would blame the Thalmor, but I hardly think they’re so damn amazing that they started a chain reaction of dragon resurrections. You know, those large creatures which kill indiscriminately? And used to enslave people? Presumably elves, too?”

“I know, preaching to the choir, little brother. Delphine’s idea was to infiltrate the Thalmor Embassy, and dashed off to go make plans before Yvara could ask any other questions. She was right put out by that, too. It was then that she signaled and I came out of hiding. She said she needed to do some thinking and that I could go home for now.”

He nodded. “I guess we’ll see. But still… It’s really tempting to be proactive and, frankly, nosy here, and send one of you to go poke through Delphine’s mind. But since Yvara now knows why we’re here, we should consult with her on the matter. I guess.”

“Right.” Renato tossed his cloth in the bin. “Let’s see if she asks. It’s very tempting, I agree, to toddle off there and unearth the wealth of information that woman is surely hiding in her brain, but let’s not piss off our friend.”

*

Yvara rolled in with Brynjolf in tow, something which made Sora’s brow go up in mild disbelief. He automatically fetched out two bottles of mead and set them on the counter, then leaned forward to rest his elbows on the bar. “I’m missing something here.”

She yanked the cork out of her bottle as she took a seat and set it down. “Yes, I suppose you are. There’s this thing I want to do, and I worked out a deal with Brynjolf here, but…”

He wanted to complete that sentence, but refrained.

“Considering where I need to go…” She trailed off again, glanced around to see who was present, then said quietly, “I need to break into the Thalmor Embassy. I’m fairly certain between the two of us we can get in through the, uh, back door I found. But I wouldn’t mind having a tiny bit extra help, just in case, and I know you guys are not the least bit fond of them.”

“We haven’t gotten around to poking our noses in over there, true,” he said just as quietly, his gaze skipping sideways for a moment as Kiri popped up as if he’d been a part of the conversation from the start. “But going there would afford us the opportunity to acquire some potentially valuable information. It’d be a win-win situation.”

“Are you after something in particular?” Kiri asked.

“That woman wants me to find information, but she probably has some asinine plan that would put me at direct risk.”

“And not her?” he asked.

Yvara rolled her eyes in disgust and nodded. “Oh, and he figured it out,” she said, tilting her head toward Brynjolf.

Sora eyed the thief. “Interesting.”

“Is this the sort of thing where you’d need to remove something from the place?” Kiri asked. “Because even though we could be like shadows, if something important is stolen… That might determine who you’d want with you.”

“Very possibly, yes,” she said. “But I’m going in blind, really. I’m not sure either way. I’ll know what it is I’m after when I see it.”

Sora looked at his brother. “Val might be the right one,” he said, alluding to his Cloud’s persistent propagations—something he continued to suspect was part of the package deal they got from Sheogorath in compensation for a lack of “real” magic, the alteration of their inborn powers, like a melding of magic and flame—so long as he wasn’t trying it on anything too large or too complicated.

Kiri’s gaze bore into him for long moments, then he nodded. “And he can alert you if I’m needed for something unexpected. That being so, I will not get too deeply involved in anything for the time being.”

Yvara was casting a confused look at the two of them, but her expression smoothed out and she nodded slightly, as if to herself. “Oh… Right. I think I get it. Yes, that would be good. Hopefully not necessary, but good to have in the event.”

“All right. Let me get Val and ask,” he said, then disappeared into the back. Val was in his room, making a complicated structure out of sugar cubes. “Is that … supposed to be Markarth?”

“Yep!” Val said without looking up.

“I have a potential job for you, if you’d like to come downstairs.”

“Okay!” Val set down a partially carved cube and got up.

Shortly thereafter Val was off with Yvara and Brynjolf. He would have to wait on the details, but he was a patient enough man.

*

Val scurried in with a thoughtful look on his face and took a seat at the table in time for Sora to dish up breakfast. “It wasn’t anything special, going up there,” he said as he accepted a plate. “Just finding some documents. I made copies of the ones she found so they didn’t know they were stolen. There was someone down there in their little dungeon area, some thief fellow. Brynjolf went all wibbly over it, but between potions and Yvara’s healing spells, they were able to get him moving again.”

“So they’ll still know something happened,” he pointed out.

Val nodded. “Yep, and I offered to have Kiri come so he could cover that up, but they said not to bother. There was a dead body down there below the trap door, so they hauled that up, swapped the clothes around, and left it where the thief was. For all we know the Thalmor are too busy being important to notice small details.” After a shrug he dove into his food.

A minute later Val continued, “Anyway, we got the thief prisoner out and took off, though Brynjolf ended up stealing a horse so the guy could ride. Even after being healed he wasn’t in the best of shape. I expect those two went back to Riften. Yvara vanished somewhere along the way, but I figure she went back to her house to read that stuff.”

“And your opinion of the embassy?” he asked.

“I think Kiri and I should go there and give it another look,” Val said. “I’m not saying we should burn the place down or anything, but maybe we should consider burning the place down.”

Sora chuckled. “Something to think about,” he said. “It wouldn’t solve anything, though. The Thalmor would just send more people.”

Val shrugged. “Yeah. Just means more assholes to kill when one of us is in a bad mood for whatever reason. Because really, most of them actually buy into the crap they spout and think purges are a fun way to pass the time.”

That was not a sentiment he could disagree with.

*

Yvara rolled in with no expression, which meant she was unhappy about something. He fetched out a bottle of middling mead and set it on the counter, then ducked into the back long enough to get a bowl of Viper’s favorite salad for her.

She smiled briefly when he set it down, hissed, “I really dislike that woman,” then took a bite.

“Delphine?” he asked quietly.

Yvara nodded and said, “I get that she’s paranoid beyond belief, but she wanted me to go there anyway to get information. Then when I tell her what I found out, not having waited around for her make up some stupid plans, she doesn’t believe me until I throw a dossier at her.”

“What did she want you to do, then?”

“She had some damn fool plan about me going to a party there and finding a moment to slip away so I could find the information she wanted.”

“At a Thalmor party?” he said in disbelief. “A complete stranger shows up and that’s not supposed to be suspicious and cause the emissary to keep a close eye on you?”

“There’s some Bosmer who works there who hates the Thalmor,” Yvara replied. “He was going to help with that, but still… Yes, she finagles an invitation for me, this utterly unknown woman, and—well, as I pointed out, I wasn’t appreciative of the idea that she was thrusting me into the spotlight and placing me on the Thalmor hit list, assuming they could make the connection between a guest and things suddenly going missing.”

“She’d be providing an extra target, and distraction, for the emissary.”

“Exactly. Well, I can’t stay, really. I need to go chase down some fortress or something with her and that friend of hers I rescued. I’ll be in touch.” She wolfed down the remainder of her salad, grabbed the bottle and re-corked it, then took off.

*

Sora’s intuition started to creep up his spine, so he snagged Viper and whispered, “Something’s going on. Low key reaction this time, but I think we’re being targeted again.”

Viper nodded and disappeared, literally.

Sora continued to wash dishes as part of closing while he lamented getting to bed at a reasonable hour.

Viper and Kiri arrived a bit later dragging a large, dark-haired, bearded Nord man. He was pushed over onto his back and Viper reached down to touch the man’s forehead, then sat back after a minute with a sigh on his lips. “Maven again. He’s here to look only, but he’s had his own thoughts about the mission, which is probably why your intuition kicked in, Sora. He wouldn’t go against Maven’s orders, though.”

“I have to wonder if Brynjolf passed along the message,” he said. “Because if he did, she obviously doesn’t think we’ll retaliate in any meaningful way.”

“Then let’s be ‘kind’ to this one,” Lorenzo said, “and strike back a bit later, hard.”

“We just need to decide how,” Shi added. “And when. It’s been, what? Approximately a month since the last attempt?”

“Something like that,” he said. “Yeah, we’ll be kind again. Wipe his memory and dump him in Riften, drunk. We’ll talk about Maven soon. I just want to get to bed at this point.”

Kiri nodded and shared a look with Viper.

*

He looked up when he sensed Yvara approaching Filigrana. She came in with a grim look on her face and sat down with a sigh. He fetched out a bottle for her and said, “Something tells me you finally figured out what you’re supposed to do.”

She glared at him and yanked the cork out. “You could have warned me,” she bitched.

“Ah, no,” he said, shaking his head. “I thought telling you that a god sent us north so we’d be nearby for you was more than enough to kick your brains into overdrive trying to figure out why.”

“I’ve been distracted!” she cried and knocked back a good quarter of the bottle. “I need to trap a damn dragon,” she hissed quietly.

He looked over toward the door out of habit, despite it being closed, then said, “Like that one story? Numinex?”

“Yeah. And I just know Jarl Balgruuf is going to think I’m insane.”

“You do remember the part where I said we’re here to help…?”

She glared at him again and had more mead, then jumped a little when Viper appeared next to her and said, “So, I expect I’ll be heading to Dragonsreach to investigate a bit?”

“Please,” he said, unable to not smile. “Once you know the current score we can plan something out.”

“I will take care of that tonight,” Viper promised, “and we can discuss it over breakfast.” He paused to eye Yvara. “You should probably be here for that.”

She transferred her glare to Viper, who smiled insouciantly at her. “Right.”

The next morning Viper let Yvara in and ushered her to the table, where Sora slid a plate in front of her.

“That reminds me,” Sora said. “Did Serana ever say anything about the blood potion-mead experiment?”

Kiri shook his head. “And I didn’t think to ask.”

“Say what now?” Yvara said.

“We have your opinion on the mix, but we’re still waiting on hers, it seems,” he told her. “Anyway, report please.”

Viper nodded. “The jarl would deny the request on the basis of the continuing hostilities between the Empire and the Stormcloaks. His reasoning is that any sign of weakness would cause one side to attack, just as would happen if he were to make overtures to either side.”

“Now wait a minute,” Yvara said. “A handful of guards took care of that first dragon. Sure, a few people died, but…”

“But that was at the watchtower,” Lorenzo said, “not on the balcony of the jarl’s house.”

Yvara scowled. “So if, say, Ulfric was no longer an issue?”

“His death would be faster than joining a side in the war and winning it,” Rio said. “The man has his reasons. All of us here probably know that. But…”

“Yes, the Thalmor had a dossier on him, what was done to him, both in the Great War and regarding the Markarth Incident,” Yvara said. “But he can’t even govern his own city effectively. He ignores any calls for help unless they come from fellow Nords. He’ll accept non-Nords into his army, but…”

“So you’re not opposed to him having an unfortunate accident? And his right-hand man?” he asked.

“Galmar might not have Ulfric’s charisma,” Shi said, “but he does have a certain level of authority.”

“Tempting to soul trap them first,” Lal muttered.

“And what about that Delphine chick?” Rio said.

Yvara scowled. “Those two,” she said with a huff. “When we went to open up Sky Haven Temple, they stood back and let me do all the dangerous work. This, from people who supposedly serve and protect Dragonborn? The woman loves to try to order me around like I was her personal toy.”

Val laughed uproariously. “Oh, the images that creates in my mind…”

Sora heaved a sigh. “Val, stop being perverted.”

“So here’s a potential plan,” Shi said. “We take care of Ulfric and his right-hand man, sending that side of the war into a downward spiral. Perhaps those men will still fight, but without the leadership they presently … enjoy … and without the legitimacy he brings, I expect they would stay away from Whiterun. On top of that, we can persuade the jarl to allow Yvara to use Dragonsreach for her plan.”

“Well, I already have a name,” she said. “I know who to taunt.”

“Seriously, though,” Val persisted. “Should we check up on this Delphine chick and see what her real intentions are?”

Sora looked at Yvara who, after a moment, shrugged.

“I guess?”

“All right. Kiri, head to this Sky Haven Temple and do some digging. Once you’re back we can discuss how we’d like to do this. We could simply persuade Jarl Balgruuf, but…”

“The Thalmor want the war to keep going for as long as possible,” Yvara said. “That was in one of the dossiers I found.”

“Well, taking a side and winning that way would result in a lot of deaths anyway,” Lal said. “This would just shortcut the whole process.”

Sora started gathering up plates with Rio’s help as Kiri slid into a seat next to Yvara to talk location.

*

“Let’s make teams.”

Renato rolled his eyes at the obviousness of the statement and said, “I want Delphine and Esbern. Who’s with me?”

Lal raised her hand. “Partly because I think it won’t hurt for an illusionist to be on each team.”

Renato nodded and sat back.

“I want Maven,” Viper said.

Val flung his hand into the air. “Me, too! I want that bitch dead.”

Sora chuckled at his Cloud’s enthusiasm. “Right,” he said, then looked at Kiri.

“Ulfric it is.”

“I will,” Shi said with a nod toward Kiri. “We can take a few days to discuss how we want to accomplish our tasks, and then act, preferably on the same day.”

“I do wonder, though,” he said. “We take out Ulfric, the war is technically won, but I wonder if the currently pro-Stormcloak jarls would be replaced, or if they’d fall back into line.”

“Jarl Laila is a complete pushover,” Val said, “and her own court leads her around by the nose. Still, she’s better than Maven being in that position. Hey, wait a minute, we really ought to take out the idiots over at the embassy, too, right? Throw all that into confusion. Alinor isn’t exactly next door and they can’t teleport like the Psijic Order, so them getting word and sending out a new group would take a while.”

Sora nodded. “True.”

Kiri exchanged a look with Shi. “We could swing by there after we’re done with Windhelm. I’m sure we could figure out an accident that would take out the emissary and her cronies. We’ll figure something out while we’re there.”

*

Viper wandered over to Elysium the morning they returned to fetch Yvara for a meeting. Sora was ready with breakfast, though Yvara chose to have a blood potion to go with the food. After she sat down she said, “So, you guys have fun?”

“Well, my dear,” Kiri said, “I would say so. It’s a matter now on the one front for messengers to spread the word about the not so glorious demise of the Stormcloak.”

“What did you do?” Yvara asked.

Kiri laughed creepily. “I decided to combine things, with Shi’s approval.”

“Oh?” she said, leaning forward with interest.

“I’m going to assume you’re not a delicate flower so—”

She snorted rudely.

“—I will commend Shi on his excellent technique of disintegrating the linings of their throats, causing them to drown in their own blood while, at the same time, as I had helpfully warped us all to the embassy, they were fitted into human-shaped holes disintegrated in the embassy walls and pinned in place. Then I used illusions to drive every last Thalmor stark raving mad. When we left they were all drooling and babbling to themselves.” Kiri grinned. “It was a total coincidence that an Imperial Legion squad happened by the place and noticed their interesting new decorations.”

Sora hummed. “Interesting solution, guys. How about Team Haven?”

Renato and Lal shared a look, then Lal said, “It’s chilly up there in Sky Haven Temple. Renato thought they could use a little warming up, but then they looked too warm, so I cooled them down. It was sad when they shattered, but on the other hand, it’s not like their bodies could be reanimated.”

“Well, they were a disgrace to the Blades, so… Nothing like the ones we knew.”

Yvara eyed him. “Do I even want to know what plans they had brewing?”

He hummed. “The death of Paarthurnax, for one, with you as his killer.”

She scowled. “I’m sure there’s more.”

“She never had a thought in her head as to actually respecting you. She was so paranoid and dismissive of anything that didn’t come from her own head that you were supposed to just buckle down and behave for her, like a dog or something, and act on her commands. And so far, she’s been of approximately zero help to you.”

“All she really did was piss me off and put me in danger. I get enough of that just walking down the road in my real form. I didn’t need her asinine schemes to make it worse.”

“She would have,” Kiri said. “She was so paranoid it made her into a control freak. If she could have she’d have put a collar around your neck and attached a leash.”

“All right,” he said. “How about Team Honey?”

Val laughed. “Did you know? She has a room in the cellar of her manor in town that holds the remains of a Black Sacrament.” He fetched a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it over.

Astrid,

I thought your people were supposed to be reliable. I've performed the Black Sacrament, I've paid the proper penance and I've waited patiently for results. If you can't handle a simple assassination, I'll find someone who can. I want this contract handled, and I want it handled immediately!

Maven Black-Briar

He smirked and handed it to Renato. “Yeah, that didn’t work out so well for any of them, right? So…?”

Viper sighed faintly. “Val thought it would be apropos to leave her corpse in the middle of that Black Sacrament after he propagated a punch to her chest to liquefy her heart.”

“I guess that’s one way to cause a heart attack,” he commented quietly. “Good work, you two. I’m sure someone will find her at some point.”

“Probably the granddaughter, and even though she’s not as bad as the others were,” Viper said, “she’s still the one doing alchemical experiments and likes to go on about how it’s exhilarating to watch the heart stop and the eyes to go blind. A little trauma won’t hurt her, and she’ll probably be pleased.”

Yvara looked up from the note Renato had passed her. “I’m not a huge fan of attacking people who haven’t first attacked me, but I can see the value in assassins, and even shift my view in terms of a proxy attack on behalf of someone who has been wronged. If Ingun gets out of control, there’s every possibility that someone in Riften will drift this way on the advice of the beggars there and cut a deal of some kind with you guys. As for Delphine and Esbern? She wanted to use me like a puppet and Esbern was henpecked enough to go along with it. Hell, he may even have agreed—”

“He did,” Kiri.

Yvara sighed and nodded. “So…”

“I will head up to Dragonsreach with you long enough to ensure that the jarl will assist you,” Kiri said. “He may want a day for preparations, but what I do will stick. I would prefer he agrees of his own volition, of course.”

“Well,” Sora said, “let’s give it a day or so to see word reach here about Ulfric’s death, then move forward.” He turned to Yvara and said, “You probably won’t be able to take anyone with you…”

She nodded. “I know. I don’t think the gods would allow that. It … scares me, but…”

“But we already know just how skilled you are,” Val said, “that you’re intelligent, methodical—”

“And sometimes get a bit crazy,” Yvara interrupted.

Sora rolled his eyes. “Any decent fighter does, and it seems to be in the job description for anyone approaching hero status, never mind being one. Sometimes a little crazy is exactly what’s needed. Baffle your opponents with a ‘What the fuck just happened?’ status. Mind you, when I was sent to part of Oblivion—and I don’t mean the gates—I ended up there alone. That was a bit nerve-wracking, I assure you. But I found someone there who was willing to help, even if I didn’t need it in the end.”

“So you—wait,” Yvara said. “When I gained understanding of Dragonrend I had to be sent back in time briefly to get it. There were three heroes fighting the dragons on Alduin’s side, and Alduin himself. One died during that fight, but she went bravely. The other two… I assume they died honorable deaths, however a Nord truly figures that.”

Sora nodded. “So for all you know, those three might be there to assist you against Alduin. And four people Shouting has got to be more effective.”

“Yeah. It was just me and Paarthurnax at the Throat of the World, and we managed, but my poor heart… It was beating so hard I thought it would escape my chest. It took a while for everything to settle down after Alduin fled.”

“Adrenaline rush,” Lal said. “Yeah, that’ll do it. I assume it was Paarthurnax who told you who to taunt.”

Yvara nodded. “Who better to ask? He would know all of the ones presently flying around. So yes, he gave me a name and even explained why the guy would show up when I called.”

“All right. You two can head on up to Dragonsreach and sweet talk the jarl into getting that trap up there in working order. But while we’re waiting on that… Yvara, are there any Shouts you wanted to get, uh…”

“Unlocked?”

He shrugged. “However that works for you.”

She shook her head. “I have quite a few I’m able to use, but it still boils down to magic most of the time. You were right about that. I really do like Marked for Death, though. Never hurts to use that one on a tough enemy. Though…” She paused for a moment. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot I consider terribly tough at this point.”

Sora grinned at her. “The big bad I was sent against all on my own? Took him down with one web, and his two children. Just don’t let it go to your head too much and you’ll be fine. We’ll have to go dragon hunting at some point so I can see how effective my flames are against one.”

“Well, considering that Alduin seems to have resurrected approximately a million of the suckers…”

He nodded.

*

Brenuin rushed in two days later to spread the news of Ulfric’s death, so Kiri shot a look at Yvara, who nodded and got up. Sora turned his attention back to the beggar, handing over a bottle of mead.

“And they said the Thalmor did it,” Brenuin said, ripping the cork free.

“Well, they don’t like any of us, but… That seems like a drastic measure in support of the Empire.”

Brenuin necked down half the bottle before saying, “No idea. Everyone’s just throwing out weird ideas about what could have happened.”

“Huh. Since you’re here, can I ask you to make a delivery for me?”

“Hm? Depends. What kind of delivery?”

“Just a note, to Jorrvaskr. You can have a second bottle for it.”

“Sure!”

He quickly wrote out a note to the Companions letting them know their latest order was ready for pick-up, then handed it over along with a second bottle.

Kiri wandered in a short time later with a smirk gracing the corner of his mouth. “All clear,” he said quietly. “Yvara’s gone home to pack anything she might need. She’s got this really interesting enchanted pouch that’s rather like our tent, but far less cumbersome. And of course, she can always summon Luggage. Not sure it could get to her in Sovngarde, but…”

“Well,” he said, and sighed. “She’s strong. She had to be, to transition and come through that relatively sane. Maybe at some point she’ll tell us exactly what happened, but until then, I’ll go by what I’ve seen. So they’ll probably be ready tomorrow,” he said, not quite making it a question.

Kiri nodded. “I reinforced their desire to be helpful and follow through. I plan to be there, tucked away in a corner, to watch. Yvara’s said that dragons can’t be fooled by invisibility, but what we do isn’t magic, so it might yet work to keep me off the table as a potential snack. The one up at Kynesgrove certainly didn’t gun for me, but he was being kept distracted by her and Delphine.” He shrugged.

“All right. Suppose I could make up a care package she could take along. At least have something other than just blood potions with her.”

Kiri headed out the next morning, care package in hand, to watch Yvara head off to destiny. He was back an hour later with a bemused look on his face. “The plan worked perfectly, though Farengar is something of a fool. He tried to take scales and blood off the dragon while it was still locked into place. At any rate, Yvara hitched a ride and flew off to the east after making a deal with it.”

“Could be days or … who knows,” he replied. “How was her mood?”

“Good. She seemed amused, actually. She’ll pull through. I have faith.”

*

Something was coming. No—someone. Sora looked up from his account book, toward the door, and watched as it opened and revealed Yvara. She gave him a brief smile and walked over, to take a seat on one of the stools and prop her chin on her hand.

He automatically got her a mead and set it on the counter. “You look all right. Tired, a bit awed, but far more relaxed than you’ve been in a long time.”

“It’s done,” she said quietly, then pulled the cork out and took a long sip of her mead. “And you were right, I had help. The three I learned that Shout from were there and pitched in.”

He leaned in with his elbows on the counter and said quietly, “Kiri told me about the first one, over at the western watchtower, what happened in the aftermath. I could be mistaken, but … I rather doubt this one went the same way.”

Yvara shook her head. “No, his … essence? Whatever. It all flaked away and spiraled up into the sky. I figure … Akatosh put him in a time out, so to speak, for his hubris. Something like that. I expect he’ll be back, centuries down the road. Whenever it is that this world is ready to rebirth itself.”

“Now there’s an odd concept for people who don’t age,” he replied. “What happens to us? Do we stand on nothing in the void between the world and the stars while a new world forms? Or are we finally swept through the Dreamsleeve to be reborn along with the world?”

Yvara looked uneasy at that, her mouth twisting. “Not something I really want to think about just yet.”

“You get used to living,” he said. “Even when sometimes it seems like infinite boredom stretches out in front of you, there’s enough in life to make it interesting and exciting that the thought of not being is painful and frightening, the idea of not being yourself any longer.” He shook his head and got a bottle of mead for himself. “Not something to dwell on.”

“Not everyone,” she said. “I saw any number of souls in Sovngarde. And there are other places, though… Well, supposedly, should I die, I have a place in Sovngarde.”

Sora chuckled. “With a bunch of people who practice the three Fs?”

Yvara’s nose wrinkled. “Yeah. Speaking of which, I did not see Ulfric or Galmar.”

His brow went up. “They probably earned a place during the Great War, or even during their retaking of Markarth.”

“Alduin had this thing,” she said slowly. “A soul snare. Some of the souls there explained—badly, because they all talked like a damn bard—that Alduin used the mist to confuse their senses, to make it easier for him to swoop in and consume them, for power.”

He huffed. “I admit that I’m at least mildly amused at the idea of those two getting to Sovngarde only to be eaten by a dragon. Anyone else interesting you run across while there?”

“Kodlak, for one. Jurgen Windcaller. High King Torygg. Ysgramor. As much as I wasn’t looking forward to the big fight, if I’d spent any more time around that bunch I’d have started speaking like a bard myself, so I went ahead and spoke to the three, got on with things. After it was over Tsun, the… He called himself a shield-thane to Shor, and he guards the way to the Hall of Valor, testing people to see if they qualify to enter. Tsun sent me back and gave me a new Shout, to call one of those three into battle if I needed help.”

“I’m going to assume the place was markedly different from the Soul Cairn.”

“Oh yes, very much so. It was an idyllic place, though the sky was really weird. Beautiful, though.”

“Paradise was beautiful, but deadly. It was artificial, though. Did it actually take you a week, or have you been wandering again?”

“Oh, just a couple of days. I’ve been searching through Dwemer ruins in search of Aetherium shards. I found one quite a while ago, but then I saw this book and realized what I might have, so I’ve been searching for more pieces. I’m heading northwest next and leaving the south for last. It may amount to nothing, but it’s something to do while I’m furthering my skills.”

“Having goals within goals is not a bad goal,” he said, then smiled when she shot an annoyed look at him. “You hungry?”

*

Yvara came back a few days later and claimed a seat at the bar, accepting a bottle of mead from Sora. “Hello,” she said. “I would like to talk about borrowing someone for a little adventure.”

Viper materialized in the seat next to her and aimed an inquiring look her way.

She smiled at him and shook her head. “This is against Dwemer automatons, so…”

Viper’s mouth quirked down unhappily. “In that case, Val might be a good choice, or Shi.”

“Well, from experience, I can say that they shrug off frost attacks, and it’s hit or miss on fire and shock, so physical attacks are generally more effective,” she said. “Shock is the most effective magic overall.”

Sora nodded. “Well, let me get those two in here and see which one wants to help.”

Viper got up and drifted into the back, saying, “I’ll get them.”

When they arrived and took seats Yvara repeated the earlier information.

Despite Val looking excited by the prospect, Shi spoke up. “I am curious as to the effects of disintegration on these mechanical guards.”

Val immediately settled down. “I go out way more often than you do, so it’s all yours if you want it.”

“Thank you, Val,” Shi said quietly.

“I don’t think it’ll take more than today,” Yvara said. “The place is a bit southeast of Ivarstead, so getting there should be quick. At most, we’d be done sometime tomorrow.”

Sora eyed Shi for a moment, then said, “I have a few things I can pack for this, food-wise, while you guys get ready.”

*

“No, we took care of the big bad—which turned out to be a simply massive Dwemer construct—and Yvara was able to fashion a crown of sorts with those shards, though she could have chosen a shield or a staff,” Shi said. “The ghost, Katria, thanked her for seeing her dream through, and departed to wherever they go. I admit to being more than a little shaky on how ghosts work.”

He nodded after a moment. “I take it she took off in a random direction at that point.”

Shi nodded. “After we took out a dragon, yes. I don’t know if it’s because of my flame type or if they have no resistance to them, but taking it down was fairly simple. You have to be very quick. All those games we played…”

It was a few days later that Yvara showed up again, that time with Serana and Brynjolf in tow. Brynjolf shot him a disgruntled look as he took a seat and said, “You just had to take her out, didn’t you.”

Sora’s brow went up. “We’re not thieves. When people threaten us, we strike back in a permanent fashion if they don’t get the message. She had how many warnings?”

“Hey,” Serana said, “before you two get into it, break out the mead, please.”

He stepped back so he could get three bottles, set them on the counter, and said, “Speaking of that, what was your opinion of the mix?”

“Hm? Oh. Weird.”

“Fair enough. Though I wonder… Anyway, Brynjolf, if your lot was as stealthy and skilled as they ought to be to even warrant a guild structure, you wouldn’t need someone like her terrorizing the populace. She was like a spoiled toddler throwing tantrums with her power.”

Brynjolf sighed. “I know,” he admitted. “Things have been looking up.”

“You and yours are more than welcome to visit as normal customers. So long as you don’t come here with an eye for anything else, we’ll get along just fine. Now, are you guys hungry, or…?”

*

He was listening to Kiri tell Serana all about the Benirus Manor adventure when a courier entered the bar and presented him with a scroll. He took it and unrolled the thing to read: Went to Solstheim as ‘her’ to see about those cultists. Left a new housecarl with Valdimar. Will be in touch.

He handed the scroll to Serana. She read it and heaved a sigh. “Another one? I knew about the trip, but not this addition.”

“She must not think it’ll be too difficult if she didn’t take anyone with her,” he commented.

Serana shrugged. “I think she was worried about connecting anyone she cares about with her. I can’t say I disagree with the reasoning.”

He couldn’t either, though given it had only come up once that they could assume disguises and she had been distracted by any number of things, it was no surprise she hadn’t remembered that detail. On the other hand, he had never bothered to remind her of it. “Well, she knows she can ask. We can come up with something if necessary.”

In the end it was unnecessary. Yvara herself strolled in with a grin and took a seat at the bar. “Well, that was fun.”

“Cultists are fun?” he asked. “Actually, hold off on that for now. How about you stay after close?”

“Sure. I’ll go drop some stuff off at the house and come back,” she said.

He gave her some mead to go and got back to his usual duties for the remainder of the day. When Yvara returned she had Serana with her. Sora slid bowls of salad in front of them—Yvara brightened on seeing it—and waited until Kiri and Viper had glossed the last few customers out and locked the doors to say, “I’m going to assume that your crazy cultists weren’t much more for common sense than my crazy cultists.”

Yvara snorted. “In short, they were the minions of the very first Dragonborn, who was originally a Dragon Priest. That fellow decided he had better things to do than, say, take out Alduin. Apparently those three I learned from asked him to help, and he buggered off. He was saved from certain death by—” She stopped and bit her lip. “I don’t really want to say the name. The Daedric Lord of Knowledge and Fate.”

“Ah,” he said with a nod. Hermaeus Mora, then.

“He was trapped in that realm and made plans to retake control of Solstheim, which he ruled back in the day, through this bizarre form of mind control and his cultists. Originally, when I realized just what Daedra was involved, I freed the Skaal who were enraptured and got on the first boat back to Skyrim.”

“What changed your mind?” Serana asked.

“Well, on my way south toward Riften I ran into another one of those inept Dark Brotherhood assassins and that cheered me up considerably. I talked to Brynjolf and then got some rest, but—I dreamed.”

Serana stared at her in disbelief.

“Yeah, I know. We don’t dream. Well I did. I was worried because it was a Daedric Lord who seemed to think I was next in line to become a minion. Sheogorath is one thing. Akatosh came to me in the dream and more or less told me my soul was safe. I guess if it belongs to anyone it’s him. He also told me to go back and finish things. And let me tell you, wandering around in that realm is creepy, really creepy. All tentacles and oily black water and eyes that expand and pop and … blech.

“I had to fight a dragon while I was over there and Miraak showed up just as its soul was releasing and stole it from me. At that point I got angry, because no one steals from me and lives.”

Viper promptly stole a strawberry from her salad and aimed an insouciant smile at her. “Nobody?” he taunted, then popped it into his mouth.

She growled at him. “I expect a discount on my meal due to theft from a worker,” she said to Sora.

He grinned. “I hadn’t planned on charging you for it to begin with. It’s after close, remember? This is family time.”

“What happened with Miraak?” Val asked, leaning forward.

“Him? Well… He’s a dirty cheater, or was. I finished learning a Shout that would allow me to press a dragon into service and used that to get a ride to where he was. The dragon fought on my side, while Miraak had two on his. But they weren’t really troublesome as they mostly flew around, rarely landing. Miraak, on the other hand, had this trick. Every time I got him close to death he would speed up and sink into that weird black water, then pop back up in the center of the … arena and suck the soul out of one of his allies to restore his health.”

“What … a healing spell was too plebian?” Kiri said sarcastically.

“I guess. All it did was point out how very little he valued anyone but himself. The final time he did it he took out my ally, and then, after I was about to finish him off, he was speared by a tentacle and admonished for his lack of loyalty or something. I was able to gather up all his stuff before getting the hell out of there. And after taking care of a minor errand and stopping in to see the blacksmith there, I came home. If I ever go back it’ll be as myself.”

“What did you mean by mind control?” Kiri asked with a slight frown marring his forehead.

“I don’t know how he did it unless it was connected to that Shout, Bend Will. I didn’t try it on anything but that one dragon, but I assume it’d work on people.” She gestured toward Sora’s notebook so he placed it in front of her along with a pencil. After examining the pencil she used to write down: Gol Hah Dov. “At least, I think that’d be the closest equivalent. Speaking a language isn’t the same as writing it.”

“Huh. Not the kind of thing the average Tongue would want to use often,” he commented.

“All of it was learned over there, and two of the words came from the lord of that realm, so… I’d say it’s pretty special, and rare. And unless I am in desperate need for quick travel from one side of the country to the other and just happen to stumble over a handy dragon, not one that’ll get much use. Anyway, it’s possible he used some form of that to make the people of Solstheim do his bidding each night. Hell, I woke up that first morning to find myself helping them, but I was able to break out of it on my own rather than having to wait to be released. I’m not sure whether Rieklings count as people or creatures, but they were subverted, too.”

Serana wiggled her hand back and forth. “Not quite people, but organized in that fashion to a fair degree. I think they can talk.”

Yvara nodded. “Well, hopefully I’ll be able to spend some time working on my magic. I still don’t get why that Psijic decreed I’d be Arch-Mage—unless it had something to do with possessing actual common sense—but with time I’ll be able to work up to master level.”

“A clear goal,” he said agreeably. “So… Hopefully there won’t be more potentially world-altering events any time soon.”

It was back to business as usual the next day when a shifty-eyed young man skulked into Filigrana and took a seat at a corner table, anxiety hazing around him like a cloak.