Grazhir :: Crossover :: FeS2: Add-Ons :: 05

05 Skyrim

20062015

Skyrim

“Look out on a summer’s day with eyes that know the darkness in my soul.” — Don Mclean, Vincent


“Seriously?” Harry asked.

“Oh yes,” Derek said, pointing his laser at the screen. An old woman was depicted there, dressed in a somewhat roughly-fashioned blue-green dress over an off-white undershift. All of it was well-worn and dirt stained the lower hems. She wore rough-stitched leather boots and her white hair was pulled back into a bun at the base of her neck.

“Why do you want her dead?”

“One of the children presently at Honorhall Orphanage will, should the woman die, be adopted and grow up to be one of the best jarls Skyrim has ever seen. One of the children, an orphan by the name of Aventus Aretino”—the image changed to that of a young boy—“ran away from the orphanage and has been performing the Black Sacrament. This is a signal to the Dark Brotherhood, a guild of assassins, that a contract is being offered.”

“Is Aretino the boy in question?” Tom asked.

Derek shook his head and the image changed again. “This is Hroar, the child I’d like to assist.”

“Okay,” he said. “So, just nip in, whack the old lady, and then Tom and I can take a holiday in a new world.”

“Essentially. You would need new wardrobes for this, though. Whether you want to look prosperous, or something else, is up to you. There are magic users there, and they wear a type of robes.”

“May we see what they look like?” Tom asked.

Derek nodded again and the image changed. Harry eyed it for a while and said, “I actually rather like those.”

“I do, as well,” Tom said. “Cael.”

Cael popped in and bowed.

“Take a look at the clothing on the screen. How hard would it be for one of you to reproduce them for myself and Harry? More masterfully crafted, and with colour changes?”

Cael turned his attention to the screen and skittered closer. Derek obligingly rotated the figure slowly so the house-elf could get a complete look. Cael looked back at Tom and nodded. “Cael can do this easily. Shall Cael make a set for each to see how they work out?”

“Please do,” Tom said.

Cael bowed again and popped out.

Harry smiled at the idea of a change in fashion from the robes standard in the magical world. He liked the way they flapped around behind him like the magical world’s take on a trench coat of sorts, but change was good, too. “Okay,” he said briskly. “Anything else of interest in that world?”

“The usual plethora of races, though some of them are more beastly than you are accustomed to,” Derek said, changing the screen to display smaller images of the various races. “A host of gods who meddle from time to time with the mortals, often leaving artifacts of theirs on the planet for people to find or earn or be cursed with. There’s also a war in progress, between the Empire and the country or province in question, Skyrim.

“The Empire is seated in Cyrodiil, and has nominal control over the provinces on that continent, with certain exceptions. But each still has its own system of government. For Skyrim that entails having jarls for each of the nine holds, plus the High King, which is similar to the duchies of Cyrodiil and the Emperor. The war is nominally over religion, but there are deeper issues and marked instances of racism at work.”

“But how much would that effect us?”

Derek shrugged. “Not much, really. Soldiers for either side leave the civilians alone unless it’s to drum up support or recruits. The only organization you might need to be wary of is the Aldmeri Dominion, governed primarily by a group of Altmer, or High Elves. They will arrest or attack anyone who professes belief in Talos as one of the Divines, and gladly torture. Their people in Skyrim are called the Thalmor and wear distinctive robes or armor.

“For travel options there is walking, riding, or hiring a carriage. Many parts of Skyrim are bitterly cold and suffer frequent blizzards, but that won’t especially be a problem for either of you. No real technology aside from one now extinct or missing race of elves. Either way, all you have to do is Cloak yourselves to avoid any trouble if you’re not interested in getting into fights with bandits, necromancers, vampires, and other miscreants.”

Harry shrugged. “I have to assume their magic isn’t like ours.”

“Well, no,” Derek said, and went on to explain.

*

Harry patted his new robes down and smiled. They were a lovely charcoal grey and forest green, with decorative stitching and designs in silver. Tom’s were similar. Derek had set them down just outside a place called Merryfair Farm, and supplied them with a map and local currency, called septims after the last Dragonborn line of Emperors in Cyrodiil. It was perhaps eight o’clock in the morning and a lovely day. “It’s rather pretty here,” he said after a look around. “Lots of birches.”

“And spiders,” Tom commented, sending off a spell to kill it.

Derek had assured them that any magic they used would be mistaken for aetherial magic, so they would be free to fight normally. “At least it’s not acromantula,” he replied. “According to the map we just follow the dirt path east to the main road and south to the town.”

Tom nodded and off they went, enjoying just wandering around in a new place, and shortly thereafter the northern gates came into view, with stabling facilities off to the right. Two guards stood to either side of the gates and, as they got close enough, one stepped forward to demand they pay a visitor’s tax.

Tom glared at the man, who backed up quickly and started waving his hands around frantically. “Just a joke! Really. I’ll open the gates for you.”

Once inside the town he noticed that it was . . . quaint. Worse off than Hogsmeade in terms of overall construction and level of cleanliness. But it still had a certain charm. Plenty of people were present, either chatting with each other or roaming, and as they started walking they were stopped by an intimidating fellow—or he would be had he and Tom been any other people, perhaps.

Harry rolled his eyes and sent a quick imperius at the fellow, causing him to ignore them, but a sharp-eyed girl on one of the bridges over the canal eyed them oddly. He skimmed her thoughts and learned that the brutish man was named Maul and worked for one Maven Black-Briar, mead maker, patron of the Thieves Guild, and all around bitch.

Maven had no qualms about making people disappear, and Maul was supposed to make sure any strangers in town knew the score. Maul was a former member of the Thieves Guild, and the girl, Sapphire, was currently one, but the guild was seeing some hard times, which was hilarious to Harry’s mind.

‘What a lovely town,’ Tom commented sarcastically. ‘Let’s find a tavern so we can listen to the local gossip.’

‘Yeah. Eh, I think that building up ahead, past the girl.’ Inside they encountered a bunch of mouthy Nords, some Argonians, and various others. ‘Good thing Derek showed us images of the various races ahead of time, because these Argonians would have startled the hell out of me.’

One of them approached as they found seats and said, “Welcome to the Bee and Barb. Is there something I can get you?”

“What do you have?” Harry asked, and was treated to a listing. After a quick telepathic conversation he said, “Eh, venison steak, garlic bread, and snowberry crostata, for each of us. And two each of those special drinks you mentioned.”

The Argonian nodded and said their order would be ready shortly, then headed off to the counter. He was stopped along the way by a finely-dressed man, who said, “So, Talen. Have you reconsidered my offer?”

“Sorry, Hemming, I’ve no interest in becoming your valet,” Talen said with equal measures of frustration and boredom.

“What’s the matter? I thought your people were used to indentured servitude.”

Talen’s expression changed to something Harry interpreted as a scowl. “Xhuth! Black-Briar or not, say that again and so help me you’re going to need more than your mother to protect you from me.” He stalked off and made it to the counter, conversing quietly with the Argonian female there, then rummaged around in the storage off to the side in the cooking area.

When he returned he had the drinks and set them down carefully. “The total is fifty-four septims.”

Tom handed over the requisite amount and said quietly, “Is that man usually so offensive?”

Talen glanced over his shoulder. “Yes,” he said flatly.

“We’ve heard some interesting things about the Black-Briar name.”

“I wouldn’t get involved with them,” Talen said quietly.

“The Thieves Guild?” Harry said.

“Among other things,” Talen said. “The Thieves Guild—they’re vermin, garbage. They’re exactly what makes this city such a horrible place to live. How appropriate they should live in the Ratway with the rest of the trash.”

Harry’s brow went up. “What’s the Ratway?”

“Disgusting is what it is. Ruined sewers filled with goodness knows what. There’s an entrance down by the canal, but I’d highly advise you stay out of there. I’ll be back shortly with your food,” he said, obviously unwilling to speak more on the topic.

And he was, nearly sliding plates onto their table, giving them a nod, then wandering off again. As they ate Harry could hear him conversing with the female—after he shot a discreet listening charm over that way.

“Keerava we’re running low on Black-Briar Mead.”

Keerava sighed. “If only Maven would stop raising the price on it, maybe I could afford to stock more cases.”

“We could always look for another brand,” Talen suggested.

“That isn’t an option. Maven sees me serve a competitor’s brand here and we may as well dig our own graves. Don’t worry, the time will come when we can walk away from here.”

“I hope so,” Talen replied. “I can’t stand this city anymore.”

“Damn it, Talen. We still don’t have enough this year to get out of Riften.”

‘Eh, this Maven sounds like a piece of work.’

‘The whole family,’ Tom said.

‘I wonder how much of a power vacuum would open up if she and her family should meet with freakishly bizarre accidents.’

Tom smirked. ‘I would say redistribute her wealth to the less fortunate, but if someone like these two here were to suddenly become flush with wealth, people would talk, make accusations. . . .’

Harry shrugged and had a sip of some of Talen’s Velvet Lechance before slicing into his venison again. ‘This stuff is really good. We’ll have to stock up before we return home. Or figure out how to make it.’

‘Oh, please. We both know you’ll just steal the information from his mind.’

Harry grinned. ‘And a whole lot of flora possibly.’

‘So long as Derek says it’s safe to do so.’

He nodded. ‘Excellent point. We can check out Grelod after this.’

‘Do you even want to check on the Aretino boy?’ Tom asked, biting into his bread.

‘I suppose there’s no harm in it,’ he sent after a moment. ‘It’s not like we’re on a schedule or anything. And I suppose I am a little bit curious about this Black Sacrament thing.’ He handed the map over so Tom could look at it, and finished up his venison. He took a bite of the crostata and hummed happily. “Oh, I like this.”

‘Well, let’s finish checking out Riften before we do anything else,’ Tom suggested. ‘We can spend the night here, then head off for Windhelm.’

‘And when we’re ready, we can take care of business and have that holiday,’ Harry agreed.

They ran across Maven in the market; she was eyeing people and wares with equal disdain. Harry took the opportunity to rifle through her mind, and did not particularly like what he saw. ‘Eh, she’s pretty damn bad, actually. And her son Hemming, grandson Sibbi. Only the granddaughter Ingun seems halfway decent.’

Tom looked away from her and pretended to investigate some of the merchandise a Brand-Shei had on offer.

“Make love like a sabre cat or crush your enemies to dust like a giant! Only a mere twenty gold coins and all this could be yours!”

‘Do you want to arrange some accidents, then?’ Tom asked.

“Jewelry with legendary Argonian craftsmanship!”

‘I think I’ll have to check the others before I make that decision. See anything interesting?’ he asked, eyeing the jeweler’s work.

‘No, not really. What about yours?’

“Buy some armor and live to tell about it!”

‘Yes, actually. This fellow seems to know what he’s doing.’ “Excuse me,” he said to the merchant.

“Greetings, honored friend. I am Madesi. Could I interest you in some fine jewelry?”

“Eh, do you take commissions?” he asked, as Tom ghosted on over to his side.

“Learn a library’s worth of knowledge in moments or grow back that missing limb with my Genuine Falmer Blood Elixir!”

Harry glanced back over his shoulder to see who was making such outrageous claims and spotted a red-haired Nord dressed in finery, which was a somewhat odd thing to see on a person hawking goods in a market stall.

“That Brynjolf,” the merchant said with a sigh, drawing Harry’s attention back. “He keeps draining the people’s pockets with his ridiculous miracle cures. A few months ago it was troll fat salve and now he’s got something new. Not that there’s anything that can be done about it. He’s in good with the Thieves Guild.”

He nodded, tucking that information away. ‘Can you go rifle through Brynjolf’s mind and see if there’s anything of interest?’

‘Of course,’ Tom replied, and ghosted off again.

“Commissions?” he repeated.

“Ah, yes. If you can tell me what you’re interested in, I would be happy to create something for you.”

Harry pulled some parchment from his robes and his fountain pen, though he disguised it with illusion to look like a stick of charcoal, and sketched out some rough designs, one for a ring (for Ciel) and one for a necklace (for Luna). He flipped the parchment around and pushed it toward the Madesi.

“Oh my, these are exquisite,” Madesi said admiringly. “What materials?”

“Eh, for the ring, silver with sapphire and moonstone. The necklace, silver, quicksilver, moonstone, and sapphire. If necessary I can bargain for the materials personally to get the best price possible.”

“That would probably lower the actual cost,” Madesi said agreeably. “These would take a couple of weeks to make from the time I had the materials. The cost—”

“Cost isn’t an issue,” he interrupted. “I just care about the craftsmanship. Would you prefer to be paid in septims or ingots?”

Madesi adopted a sort of thoughtful look, then nodded slightly. “Ingots, I think. Actually, if you would just bring twice the required material that would more than suffice, because then I could make other items to sell.”

“Deal. I’ll get back to you as quickly as possible with that,” he said, intending to be very generous, then pocketed the sketches for the time being. The merchant Tom had been investigating had some stuff, but not the quality he was after, despite one of the lines the merchant trotted out to entice customers, so he wandered on over to the blacksmith to see what metals he had for sale.

Tom ghosted on over while he was haggling and sent, ‘He’s one of the higher-ups in the Thieves Guild, but not the top. Still has a fair amount of responsibility. He’s up here keeping an eye out for possible recruits, and to keep an eye on things for Maven.’

He completed the deal and got information about possible gemstone sources, and turned to Tom. ‘Interesting. I can work with that. Balimund here has told me there’s a Khajiit caravan outside town right now. It must have come in while we were eating.’

Shortly thereafter they were back at Madesi’s stall and he was handing over a chest with all the materials and the sketches inside. That it was protected against thievery was a given. “I’ll check back in two weeks.”

“Excellent!”

Visits were made to see Ingun, who was practicing her alchemy down in a shop off the lower level of the canal, Sibbi, which required a visit to the jail, and Hemming, that evening at the Bee and Barb. Harry made up his mind.

They rented a room for the night there and, on a table next to one of the beds, was a book about the Daedric Lords. Harry amused himself with reading it and wondered if he could use the information to his advantage. If he killed Maven he did not particularly want to repeat an earlier “accident”, and the book was giving him ideas as to how he could proceed. Hemming and Sibbi would not be an issue, it was Maven who required effort.

Pinning the blame on Stormcloaks or Imperials or Thalmor was problematical. Perhaps Daedric intervention was just the thing. ‘Derek?’

‘Sheogorath is your best bet, though I expect you’d have to do him some kind of favor as an exchange.’

‘Mm, he’s bugnuts. Sounds fun. How would we get in touch with him?’

‘Through me, of course.’

‘And that would entail. . . ?’

‘Well, at the present time Sheogorath is holidaying in the mind of the deceased Emperor Pelagius III. That would be the best point of contact.’

Harry’s eyed widened. You could do that? Was this Pelagius person haunting his old stomping grounds or was he in Sheogorath’s realm?

‘Haunting,’ Derek said. ‘Only one of you could go in, though.’

He frowned and looked at Tom, who was reading a copy of A Kiss, Sweet Mother.

‘If it’s just one of us, so be it,’ Tom commented, without looking up. ‘Against all reason, you happen to be crazier than I am, so it should be you.’

‘Are you sure? I’m still upset at having to leave you behind the last time.’

‘It’s fine. It’s just a short visit, presumably, and you can share the memory with me after the fact. Then we can continue on our holiday, causing mayhem, together.’

‘. . .Okay.’

‘Would you like to visit Sheogorath now?’ Derek asked.

‘Eh, sure.’

The next thing he knew he was standing in a misty clearing. There were three square, free-standing archways equidistant from each other around the perimeter, and at the center was a dining table laden with food. On one side was an older man, but then so was the man on the other side.

The one dressed in dual colours looked over and frowned. “Excuse me, Pelly my dear,” he said, then, “Who might you be?”

Harry smirked. “I go by many names, but for you—Yuki.” He morphed to that persona’s appearance.

Sheogorath eyed him curiously. “A thrill to meet you!” he said gaily. “Now how did you get in here?”

“I have my ways. Death is a close and personal friend of mine, and he suggested you would be the one to talk to for an idea I have. He also pointed out that I would probably have to manage an exchange of favors in order to get what I want.”

Sheogorath waved a casual hand at Pelagius, who immediately became disinterested, and replied, “An exchange, you say? How delightful. What is it you have in mind?”

“Well. . . .”

Some time later he was back in their room at the Bee and Barb. Tom had already fallen asleep, secure in the wards they had emplaced, so he resolved to share the memory later. With that he laid down and went to sleep himself.

The next morning they left Riften and headed north, enjoying the walk, fighting off the hostile wildlife that did not have enough sense to be scared into leaving them alone. Along the way they collected innumerable samples of flora, and even dug up a number of whole plants to store away after Derek assured them it would not have any negative effects on the ecology of Ophiuchus.

Some time was spent dallying at the hot springs along the way, and they reached Windhelm by evening. ‘Oh, look, I think I see some victims,’ Harry sent.

Two men were trash-talking a Dunmer woman. A check revealed that the ragged one was a former Stormcloak, having taken a sword thrust during his time as a soldier during the ongoing civil war, and had been reduced to begging by the injury. The other man was brother to the local jarl’s housecarl and second. Sheogorath’s deal involved driving at least two people crazy.

‘I think they’d work just fine,’ Tom sent. ‘Anyone who can waste his time drinking and threatening others sounds like a good candidate. And his friend there—he’d be an embarrassment to his brother.’

‘Right. Let’s go get a room at that inn over there and plan.’

In the morning they visited the marketplace and browsed the available wares, some shops, and spent some time in the Gray Quarter, mostly to familiarize themselves with the layout of the almost warren-like section of the city. They were alerted to the Aretino residence by local gossips and once they were satisfied they had seen most of what there was to see, they Cloaked and slipped inside. The entry was cramped and merely a staircase leading up. The interior was nice enough, he supposed, and as they climbed up he could hear the boy speaking.

“Sweet Mother, sweet Mother, send your child unto me, for the sins of the unworthy must be baptized in blood and fear.” The child’s voice was strained and gritty. “Please. . . . How long must I do this? I keep praying, Night Mother. Why won’t you answer me?”

Tom advanced into the room the Aventus was in and stared intently at him, ignoring the requisite effigy of the victim. Harry had to wonder where and how the boy had gotten his hands on actual body parts to enact the ritual with.

“Die, Grelod! Die!” the boy said, repeatedly stabbing he effigy with a dagger.

‘Grelod regularly abuses the children in her care,’ Tom sent. ‘She complains incessantly that no one will adopt any of the orphans, yet refuses to let them be adopted.’

‘So she keeps them around to vent her anger and bitterness on,’ he hazarded.

‘Yes. The child has good reason to want her dead. Even though here he has to scavenge for food to survive, it’s better than being back at Honorhall.’

‘All right. Stay Cloaked. I don’t want him seeing both of us.’ Harry faded into view and walked just loudly enough for the child to register it.

Aventus jerked around and saw him, his eyes going wide. Then he smiled gleefully. “It worked! I knew you’d come, I just knew it! I did the Black Sacrament, over and over. With the body and the—the things. And then you came! An assassin from the Dark Brotherhood.”

Harry arched a brow and said nothing yet.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Aventus assured him. “There’s no need. You’re here, so I know you’ll accept my contact.”

‘Well, he is desperate,’ Tom commented. ‘And exhausted. Damn persistent, too.’

“My mother, she—she died. I—I’m all alone now. So they sent me to that terrible orphanage in Riften. Honorhall. The headmistress is an evil, cruel woman. They call her Grelod the Kind. But she’s not kind. She’s terrible. To all of us. So I ran away, and came home. And performed the Black Sacrament. Now you’re here! And you can kill Grelod the Kind!”

Harry nodded slightly. He might not be an assassin, but he had every intention of killing the woman.

Aventus beamed wearily with joy and relief. “I have a family heirloom you can have. Supposed to be sort of valuable. I hope that’s all right.”

‘Like I would take anything from the boy,’ Harry thought. He moved in closer and gently removed the dagger from the child’s hand and set it aside, then ushered Aventus over to a bed and pushed him into it. To ensure that he slept, Harry cast a sleeping spell on him, then tucked him in under the sleeping furs.

Tom dropped his Cloak after they were back outside and a short distance away. ‘Tonight?’

‘Yeah. That’s when they go make the rounds in the Gray Quarter.’

They amused themselves until it was time for dinner, had a meal, and retired to their room, at which point they Cloaked and shifted out, to watch from one of the rooftops. He and Tom each took a target and started casting spells to disorient, heighten paranoia, and muddle their vision with illusions, plus sent in a few choice whispers of thought.

Several minutes of “treatment” later the two Nords began screaming at each other and it devolved into a brutal fight. Residents of the Gray Quarter fled the scene, not wanting to be caught anywhere in the vicinity. The fight kept edging closer and closer to the entrance to the town, Rolff driving Angrenor back up the steps and then past the Aretino house, and in the end, both men died near Calixto’s House of Curiosities. By the time the guards got there, alerted by the yelling, there was nothing any of them could do but question witnesses to the tragedy.

After they shifted back to their room and de-Cloaked, a translucent avatar of Sheogorath joined them. “It’s not quite what I had in mind, but you did succeed in making them temporarily insane with paranoia, so—right! In appreciation for your efforts I am gifting you a duplicate of an artifact of mine: the Wabbajack!”

A staff materialized in Harry’s peripheral vision, on his bed. “Glorious,” he chirped with a grin.

“It’s a favorite of mine,” Sheogorath said gleefully. “Now, I’ll act when I get the signal. Ta ta!” He faded out, leaving the two of them with just each other again.

They made it back to Riften by the next evening and rented a room at the Bee and Barb. ‘I’ll go in tomorrow briefly and get a look at the woman’s mind. I don’t honestly expect to find anything that would change my mind, but it never hurts to double-check.’

He did so the next morning and was close to appalled to see how the woman treated the children, and decided that Constance would make a fine “headmistress” in Grelod’s place. He rejoined Tom outside, jotting down a quick death for the woman—she would die of a heart attack during one of her rants shortly after they left—then wandered into the Jarl’s keep to “convince” her steward to sell him the property called Honeyside, despite him being a virtual unknown.

That taken care of, they investigated the property and found it to be decent enough, certainly for what he had in mind. He was speaking with Balimund when it happened. A loud crack sounded and he whipped around in time to see eye-searing, pink-tinged arcs of lightning reach down from the sky and incinerate Maven Black-Briar, who had been standing near Brynjolf’s stand. Balimund’s forge hammer fell out of his hand and bounced off his foot, causing the man to let out a choked cry of pain.

Brynjolf gaped at what had been the patron of the Thieves Guild; all that remained was a mess of bloody, burnt body parts and ash.

“Eh, perhaps we should continue our talk at a later time,” Harry said, and walked away when Balimund nodded. Right about then children came running out of Honorhall screaming in delight about Grelod’s death. That night before they went to bed Tom carved a Thieves Guild shadowmark at each door of Honeyside, having learned them from Brynjolf’s mind, to designate the place as being protected. On top of that the two of them set up anchored wards.

The next day the gossip had grown to include the death of Hemming Black-Briar. He had been “mourning” the death of his mother by drinking heavily at their meadery in town, but had unfortunately fallen into one of the large boiling vats in the lower level and simultaneously drowned and cooked. Sibbi Black-Briar choked on a honey-nut treat when he heard the news; the guards panicked in the face of his frantic gestures for help, and were unable to get the cell open quickly enough to save his life.

He and Tom exchanged a smile, then hastened off on their holiday, making sure before they left that a courier making the run to Windhelm would spread the news so that the Aretino boy would know it was “safe” to return to Honorhall and his friends. They ended up in Whiterun, having taken out any number of bandits along the way, not to mention hostile forms of wildlife, and settled in to explore a new city.

Along the way they had amassed quite a lot of raw metal due to ore veins and Harry planned to leave it at Honeyside when they returned there. Madesi was too good of a jewelry-smith to be left to live in that horrid place called Beggar’s Row. With a little patronage the man could really make something of himself.

That night he was woken from a sound sleep by Derek, who said, ‘Stay in bed for now. We have a situation.’

‘What’s going on?’

‘Apparently, the Dark Brotherhood has heard that someone killed Grelod, and they assume it’s you.’

‘On what basis?’ Tom demanded, showing that he had been woken, too.

‘So far as their leader is concerned, my master did the deed. He was spotted by one of her informants leaving the Aretino house, and she died shortly after he left the orphanage; poison is suspected, amongst other methods. Astrid, the present leader of the Falkreath Dark Brotherhood Sanctuary, is coming here to kidnap you, master. She plans to take you to a remote location and offer you a deal.’

‘What are the options?’

‘You have two, as presented by her. One is to let her kill you in retaliation for posing as one of them. Two is to kill one of the three people she’ll have waiting in the cabin, or all of them, at which point you’ll be extended an invitation to join their organization. The unvoiced third option is to blow her off and kill her.’

Tom scoffed very quietly. ‘If she’s that sort, even if you did kill one of them she would likely kill the remaining two for knowing too much.’

‘Yes,’ Derek confirmed.

‘Well, I don’t have any particular problems with the concept of assassins, not in general. But to get all pissy because someone would help that poor child when they wouldn’t? Because he had next to nothing to offer as payment? They obviously knew Aretino was trying to make a contract and ignored him.’

‘Astrid’s sanctuary does not follow the Five Tenants of the Dark Brotherhood, so she is technically a heretic under those terms. It is true that they do not have access to the Night Mother, or have a Listener, but she more or less disdains all tradition and is less than respectful.’

‘All right. So either we kill her as soon as she gets here, or I let her “kidnap” me and deal with it then.’

‘How about you freeze time when she enters the room so we can plunder her mind?’ Tom suggested.

‘I can do that.’

So they waited. The door opened soundlessly, a figure slipped inside, and the door was closed again. There was no noise coming from downstairs, so the residents of the inn had to be asleep. With no windows in any of the rooms she was going to have a time of it getting a body spirited away. But, as soon as the door was secured and the room was again dark, Derek acted to freeze the scene.

The two of them got up and pulled out fire-marbles to provide some illumination, then delved into her mind. ‘Oh, she’s a real piece of work,’ he commented. ‘She’s so arrogant it makes us look like ickle students of the art.’

‘What about the other assassins?’ Tom asked.

‘Eh, I think we’d have to go there in person and see what they’re made of. This one wants to take me clear across the country to an abandoned shack up north? Derek, are there others waiting outside?’

‘Her husband, Arnbjorn, werewolf. He will help her with the burden and ensure you all arrive safely, should you allow it to happen. They will, of course, drug you to keep you quiescent.’

He snorted. ‘Say, you know that prison we passed on the way here from Riften?’ he asked Tom.

‘Yes. Good idea. Derek, I think you can unfreeze things now,’ he sent as he produced his wand. The moment Astrid became aware again—and was startled due to there suddenly being light and two awake men—Tom nailed her with a sleep spell. She tumbled to the ground, which alerted her husband, and the door eased open again a second later.

Harry used his wand to haul the man inside and put him under. “Okay. Grab him, I’ll get her, and then we can shift.”

They floated their captives into the abandoned prison and inside, and down to an area with cells. Astrid was hit with a paralyzation spell before being woken, but Arnbjorn was tossed in a cell before being given the same treatment.

“So, cupcake,” Harry said. “You decided to come kidnap me based on the flimsiest of evidence? Without doing any research? Not knowing a thing about my abilities? Not very smart.”

Her eyes said what her mouth could not.

“You made a huge mistake, cupcake, coming after me, intending to force me into a decision of some kind. And for that? You die.”

Arnbjorn was struggling against the paralyzation and actually starting to win, so Tom nailed him with another spell.

“I think,” he said, “I will kill you with your own blade. That would be amusing. I hope for your sake that Sithis still welcomes you when you get there and he sees just how far you’ve strayed from the tenants.” He searched her roughly, coming away with an interesting looking dagger, and paused. “No, no, I have a better idea,” he said and turned to Tom. “You remember how Ciel told us all about his pet demon?”

“Yes, why?” Tom asked warily.

Harry stowed the dagger away as a souvenir and clapped excitedly. “I have the best idea! I shall be known as—” He paused to conjure up an ordinary-looking set of forks, tossed on a chef’s hat, then said dramatically, “The Forksassin!” Before Tom could do much more than blink Harry used the forks to shred Astrid’s throat and cause her to bleed out rapidly. “Mwua ha ha!”

Tom thunked his head against the nearest wall a few times.

Harry looked over at Arnbjorn. “You know, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever used an actual weapon to kill a person. Now, as for you. . . .”

Tom stood up properly and nodded. “He’s the same.”

“Well,” Harry chirped. “I guess it’s time for you to die!” After Tom threw another spell to be on the safe side, he opened the cell and shredded Arnbjorn’s throat as well. The forks went into a pocket, and they returned to their room in Whiterun to sleep.

Over breakfast he said, “So, aside from checking out that minor detail, we are officially on holiday now.”

Tom raised a flagon of Velvet Lechance and nodded.