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"The most reasonable translation of Fal'Zhardum Din I have managed to decipher is 'Blackest Kingdom Reaches', but I cannot imagine what that means."

-- Thelwe Ghelein, Scholar



DWARVEN GEARS rattled and spun away from Irowe as she stood panting in the middle of the cathedral. The last Dwarven centurion groaned and toppled over, its middle shorn in two. Irowe swallowed and stood up, taking a long swig from her current magicka potion, ears listening for any movement. She replaced the potion’s cap and burped, pushing her hair out of her face and back into a messy ponytail.


The cathedral was eerily quiet. She wasn’t used to being on her own like this, not having Fallon or Amuril with her. Irowe shoved the potion back in her pack and stomped up the stairs to what looked like something important. It was Amuril’s fault, his stupid infatuation with that stupid college and not knowing when to leave well enough alone - or say no for once in his damned life. Stupid husband...


Irowe reached the top of the stairs, walking around another battered centurion and the smashed remains of two unfortunate delvers. The only thing of note here was a pillar in the middle, with two malachite discs in its middle, with a rounded hollow on the far side. Irowe tilted her head and frowned, walking over to it. A hollow that looked suspiciously like that ball the crazy Elder Scrolls ‘expert’ had given her. Irowe dug it out of her pack and placed it in the hollow.


She lurched forward with a cry as the floor dropped out from under her, her right leg falling a half foot farther than her left. Irowe clutched the pillar and looked down, blinking when she saw the floor had settled into stairs, leading down around the pillar to... something. Irowe stared; she pulled the ball out of its hollow and the floor rose. She put it back in and walked down the stairs, palms ready with a shock spell in case there were more Dwarven surprises down below.


The stairs led to a bronzen door so tall she was surprised it fit underneath the floor above. There were square and angled symbols - Dwarven letters perhaps - layered across its middle but she had neither the time, skill nor inclination to read it. Amuril would: Amuril would insist on taking rubbings or sketches of the damn thing. Irowe harrumphed and opened the door, walking into the long banner-filled hallway beyond. At least in that regard, it was a good thing he wasn’t here: time was of the essence. Alduin was on the move.


Wuld!


The banners shuddered and the statues of centurions and pondering dead Dwarves shook as she raced past them. She leapt off the ground at the end of the hall, kicking open the far door. It slammed into the sides of the wall with the force of a Shout, the echo of one ringing out into the enormous cavern beyond. Irowe stopped and stared. There were blue lights spread like dew on spiderwebs in the ceiling - they almost looked like stars - and the winding ancient streets were lit with the light of glowing mushrooms the size of castle towers. Irowe swallowed and climbed up on the wall, looking around. There was too much mist of all things to see clearly where she needed to go.


Lok Vah Koor!


The thicket of fog rushed away before the summoned breeze of summer, tucked away in some nook or cranny and out of sight. When she stopped and listened with all her senses, she could feel a faint tremble in time jittering in her blood. Like the Time-Wound. The Elder Scroll was nearby at least, that was a stroke of good luck.


Irowe stuck her nose in the air and stepped off the entrance’s landing to the streets below. Easily taken care of. She didn’t even need Amuril.


Wuld!


She raced down the ancient streets, stopping when the Shout’s speed gave out and re-honing in on the warble in her blood. She Shouted again, running and stopping and running and stopping until her throat was raw again and the potion didn’t quite take the pain away. Now and then she could hear the barks and howls of the pale creatures - Falmer - and she made sure to run a long ways away, far from any Dwarven structures, before stopping again. Irowe had had to deal with a small army of those things in the ruins above, even using the Ethereal Shout, and she was frankly sick of them. Creepy little things...


The quivering in her blood had spread to her stomach, legs and arms when she came to a bridge over several waterfalls. Across the bridge was a tower made of stone and metal, stretching from the depths of the pools far below to the ceiling. Irowe frowned. Septimus had said something about ‘Tower Miss-arc’: she wondered if this was it. She threw the doors open: it was a small octagonal room, empty save for a lever in the floor’s center.


Irowe closed the door carefully and cast Detect Life, then Detect Dead. She’d learned the hard way that Dwarven machines didn’t show up with either spell, never having been alive in the first place, but the Falmer did. Seeing nothing above or below, Irowe threw the lever. The floor shot upwards, the grinding of gears muffling her heavy breathing.


The lift slowed to a crawl and hissed as it locked into place. The door opened on a room dimly lit by crystal sconces in the ceiling. There were books scattered here and there, a cooking pot and firepit with comparatively recent yet still ancient firewood, as well as shriveled moldy food littering the desks and benches. Irowe relaxed. It didn’t look like anyone had been here in several years, and it looked like they were human at least.


She could feel the Elder Scroll nearby, and doing a quick turn with her arm outstretched confirmed it lay somewhere beyond the far wall’s doors. Irowe stalked over to them and opened them, pushing the doors aside and craning her head up to get a full view. Inside, similar to the other Dwarven ruin they recently slogged through, was an enormous sphere, with a ramp on the left. Irowe rolled her eyes and walked up it, not wanting to chance rushing up and falling off with the Shout.


“You’d think the Dwarves would be smart enough to put another lift in here but noooo...”


The silence that followed, that was entirely absent of anecdotal remarks and honestly, that was bliss.


At the top of the sphere the ramp kept going to a platform with controls overlooking the sphere. Irowe was drawn by the metallic taste on her teeth to the strange device directly above the sphere. A series of curving struts with malachite discs at their ends sat in ceiling guiderails, for what purpose she couldn’t say. She knew the Elder Scroll was up there... somewhere, likely in that malachite... egg... thing, in the middle. She just couldn’t think of how to get it down...


Amuril would know.


Irowe growled and clenched her fists, padding up the ramp to the controls. She put the cube in an obviously cube shaped slot and watched a blue button reveal itself in one of the control pillars. A thin ray of light shone down from the ceiling, diffusing softly into the various lenses surrounding the sphere and egg above. Irowe pressed the blue button, holding it down as the rings crawled to life and rotated.


The button on the second pillar popped open, then shut again just as quickly.


Irowe frowned, looking at it, and scratched at the lid covering the button. When it didn’t open she shrugged and held down the first. It would open again eventually - this was the only button she could use, so obviously it had to do something until the other button opened up again.


A few minutes later, one of the other buttons opened. Irowe switched to that one, holding it down and watching the struts and lenses turn around. She started to tap her foot. Alduin was on the move, she couldn’t afford to waste time down here pushing buttons. It didn’t help that the Elder Scroll being so close was making her stomach tie in knots, but the buttons only made the contraption move so godsdamned slow. Irowe huffed.


The first button snapped shut. Irowe stared over at it, then to the button she was holding down. She held it down for what felt like an hour, watching the struts spin their lazy waltz until she was sure it had done a full rotation at least twice. Irowe walked over to the cube and took it out of the slot: the one unlocked button shut. She placed the cube back in again, and it opened, but it was the only one. Irowe went back to the button, holding it down for one to two seconds at most, pausing and watching the others, until it did another full rotation.


Nothing happened. Stars, had she- she’d broken it, hadn’t she? She’d broken it and it still hadn’t given her the Elder Scroll-

ss
The third button snapped open and she slammed her fist down on it, only to hear the one she had been using click shut.


Irowe screamed.


Work, damn you!” She cried, pounding her fist on the only open button.


She stared up at the stupid curving struts and the stupid malachite discs, up at the damnable egg holding the Elder Scroll, then down again at the damned buttons. She knotted her hands in her hair and screamed, tears coming to her eyes. She couldn’t even tell what each button did - she didn’t have time.


Irowe disentangled her fingers from her hair, growling obscenities under her breath. Damn Amuril. Damn him for not being here and damn her for thinking she could do this all on her own. She looked behind her, grabbing a wiry bookshelf and bench off the walls. Amuril was not here. She’d have to make due: make a tower of junk and climb up to the egg. She just prayed the Fire Shout could melt whatever was housing the scroll, and another two prayers that Elder Scrolls were made of sterner stuff-


A burst of light blinded her. Irowe stumbled back-


The struts were moving.


She dropped down into a defensive stance and threw up a ward, readying a shock spell in the other. The lights dimmed and she could see the struts and lenses dancing around each other, far faster than they had crawled earlier. The other control pillars snapped open one by one, then closed in sequence. The struts slowed, and finally the last control pillar on the right shut. The cube Septimus gave her expanded into tiny pieces, the light from the ceiling focusing in on it from the dozen lenses. Then the struts suddenly curled up into the ceiling, and the egg descended in a ray of sunlight.


She stared. “What, were you waiting for me to leave to actually start working?!


Irowe shook her head and looked around, waiting for whatever it was that had been toying with her to show itself. Nothing did, and Alduin was waiting. Irowe swallowed and called back the ward, stalking down the ramp toward the opened egg and the Elder Scroll. She peeked inside both halves of the egg before snatching the Elder Scroll from its stand.


Touching the Elder Scroll just by itself pitched her stomach as her blood and her dragons recoiled from the time, un-time, and whatever else-time of the scroll. She didn’t question why the struts started moving - maybe she’d luckily struck on the correct combination, or the Dwarves had a way of telling how angry the operator was and when they started throwing things it would do what they wanted. She wasn’t going to look a very generous gift horse in the mouth.


She turned, seeing a short corridor underneath the controls, with a lever in the middle middle. Irowe grinned and strapped the Elder Scroll to her pack, running down it. Hopefully the lift went up, not down. Irowe pulled the lever back and steadied herself on it as the lift lurched to life. It did indeed go up. Finally, things were starting to work in her favor-


A dragon roared. Beneath her.


Irowe’s eyes widened and she looked around. Dragons hated being underground - they hated not being able to see the sky. Even if one of them didn’t, Alduin had called all dragons to Skuldafn earlier - to not be present was unthinkable. She had to be hearing things, it must be above her-


Feim Zii Gron!


Irowe swallowed. That was definitely below her. An ethereal wing clipped through the lift’s walls, keeping pace with it and gaining every other wingbeat. Irowe’s heart leapt into her throat. The dragon veered left and the wings disappeared, a black-mottled red head rising out of the floor. The dragon and Irowe locked eyes. It roared and soared past her, still ethereal and its long body filling the lift’s chamber. Irowe watched it fly above and disappear beyond what had to be the roof, grateful the lift could barely fit ten people. Of course, that just meant the dragon would wait for her at the surface...


An iris shot open in the ceiling and the lift clanged into the roof, clasps locking into the edges and holding it in place. Irowe shot up in the air and cried out, landing back down on her side with a groan. She climbed to her feet: she was inside what looked like a metal bird cage. It wouldn’t shield her from any Shouts and hampered her mobility. Irowe spun around; she found and threw a lever on the wall and ran outside.


Outside was the remains of a camp - maybe the person who had used the tower before - but that was really all she could tell. The lift had taken her to the middle of a mountain range, somewhere, and what she could see through the peaks didn’t look like anything familiar. She couldn’t even see the Throat-


A roar drew her attention to the western sky. The dragon darted among the mountaintops and barreled down at her, its claws outstretched-


Fus!


The Shout batted its claws away. The dragon snarled, wheeling around to land trapping her between it and the lift. Irowe steadied herself for its landing but still tumbled to the ground as the mountains shook.


The dragon was red and black, not entirely black, and it was much smaller than Alduin, but the memory of being trapped underneath the World-Eater at Helgen made her chest tighten. The dragon stared down at her, curving black horns glistening in the dawning sun.


It spoke. Irowe threw her hand up with a ward and grimaced. The dragon went silent, speaking again in a more hushed tone. Irowe blinked. It wasn’t speaking Tamrielic, or the Dragon Tongue but... some form of Aldmeris? Either the dialect was ancient or the dragon’s growling accent was muddling the words together. ‘Want’... something. That was all she understood.


"Krosis. Vomindoraan."


Behind the ward, the dragon raised its head back then leaned in, staring her down with one eye. Smoke seeped from its mouth.


"Daal dii Kel, Joor." It rumbled. “"Oblaaniil fen maltiid."


Irowe cast Ironflesh and crackled a lightning bolt in her free hand, gripping the Elder Scroll in her right. If it wanted the Elder Scroll it was free to try prying it from her cold, dead hands.


No.


It roared, splaying its wings. “Yol-


Yol Toor Shul!


“-Toor Shul!


The two Shouts collided and the camp around them melted or shattered into pieces from the fire. Irowe rolled forward, underneath the dragon and scrambled to her feet, running out behind its wings- The dragon snarled and leapt into the air, roaring at her on the wing. Irowe spun around, her ears and the prickle of hairs raising on her nape keeping track of the dragon. There had to be an exit somewhere, some pass down to civilization. The dwarves wouldn’t just build a tower in the middle of nowhere-


Gaan Lah Haas!


Feim!


A wave of crackling purple magicka crashed into the snow around her, clumping into a writhing mass of tentacles with a red ‘heart’ beating at its core. Irowe stared at it, safely ethereal, for the moment. That was an old Shout, capable of draining a man’s life essence in minutes. Any dragon could learn it, but only the most ancient and powerful ones made use of it. It was the only Shout they needed to, to deal with intruders, mortal or dovah, and a terrible way to die.


Run. Qonahmir hissed just below her ear, and the other dragons agreed in chorus. Run.


Irowe wheeled away and started running, despite the burning in her chest to fight. She wasn’t curious enough what an ancient, powerful dragon was doing hiding in underground Dwarven cities to try and talk to it, and she had Alduin to deal with already. It wasn’t that she couldn’t kill it, or that she didn’t want to, but she would be fighting Alduin soon enough, and she only had so many potions. She wasn’t retreating, she was... ignoring it. Yes, that was it.


It didn’t look like there were cliffs up to her left, and there was a dip in the mountains where she could maybe climb her way up.


Wuld!


Snow buckled under her feet and she leapt forward, into the sparse groves ringing the mountain’s higher slopes. The dragon roared behind her, wheeling around in the small valley to pursue. Irowe pushed herself off boulders, up the slope, Shouting again when she started losing speed. Small stones then larger ones slid down the mountain toward the lift’s tower.


Irowe leapt up onto a boulder, running along its top then jumping to another. A gust blew in her face and she pulled her facemask up, squinting into the sunlight. Her eyes widened. Whiterun. The lone hill with buildings huddled up and down it was unmistakable, as was the towering mountain behind it, nearly blocking the sun. The Throat of the World, and the place she needed to get to so she could learn how to defeat Alduin. After months of what felt like endless ‘favors’ and running in circles, finally, she was getting close to finishing this ‘Dragonborn’ business.


She frowned, realizing there was only one - relatively small - mountain range west of Whiterun.


The Stonehills? Irowe frowned. The Stonehills? Amuril’s stupid ruin was nearby-


Another gust - behind her - knocked her to her knees as the dragon swooped down, snapping its jaws where her torso used to be. Irowe rolled forward, down the mountain; she had meant to do that, but she’d also meant to stop. She stumbled to her feet and lost her footing again, tumbling down the slope. A long rock ledge gave her enough time to scrape at its face before she rolled off it-


Feim!


Her descent slowed immediately, and she made sure she landed on her feet before running forward. Irowe tapped a hand to her back - the Elder Scroll was still on her pack - and she ran forward again.


Wuld!


She had run on water before, in the ice floes above Winterhold. Staying just ahead of a rockslide she started wasn’t much different. Irowe ran off another ledge, putting more distance between her and the falling stones. The dragon roared, diving just behind her and slamming its tail into the rocks. Irowe threw her hands over the back of her head-


Feim!


A boulder the size of a cottage bounded through her, and Irowe ran off to the side, where the slide was weaker, dropping to her knees on a ledge far enough out to escape the flow. She panted and reached back for her magicka potion with shaking hands.


“Asshole...”


Irowe gasped and corked the bottle, putting it back in her pack. She pushed backwards off the ledge, walking back to its base. Her feet twisted into a running stance.


Wuld!


The rock was only underneath her a moment and then she was flying - well, falling - in the open air. Irowe glanced over her shoulder. The dragon was coming back for another shot at her. She Shouted herself ethereal, grinning when the dragon roared at her, robbed of an easy chance to attack. The ground came up at her fast enough, and she started another (smaller) rockslide when she landed, despite the Shout. Irowe was fast running out of mountain to run down, and the dragon was racing up to the peak.


Boulders and snow gave way to rocks and sparse grass, with a thin evergreen forest ahead. She could lose the dragon in there, if it didn’t have an inclination to burning down the countryside. Maybe it would even give up and leave-


A rumble of pebbles shot past her - that was the only warning she had. The dragon’s jaws snapped toward her from behind. Irowe ducked and opened her mouth to Shout-


Its teeth snagged on her backpack and the sudden pressure holding her back knocked the air from her throat. The dragon shook its head and kicked its feet down, leaping off the mountain into the air, dangling Irowe from the backpack’s straps tucked around its teeth. Irowe cried out and struggled, the straps digging into her underarms.


"Daal Kel!" The dragon roared.


Irowe growled and tucked her arms around her chest. She couldn’t slip out of the straps, no matter how painful it was. If she left the Elder Scroll with the dragon, or tried to Shout herself Ethereal without the Scroll, the dragon would fly away with it. At worst it would go back underground to the Dwarven city and take the Scroll with it. She’d never find it again.


Irowe swallowed and reached a hand back, keeping her wrist against the back of her head. She fumbled around, grasping blindly- Her hands touched metal. She latched onto it.


Feim!


The pain in her arms vanished immediately and her hair and robes flew up in her face as she plummeted. Irowe squeezed the Elder Scroll’s handle - she did have it - and brought it around to her chest. She held it tight and tucked her legs and arms in. She had to go faster, before the dragon realized she’d taken it again-


Irowe’s breath hitched and her heart stopped. The potions. Oh Oblivion, she’d lost the potions and everything else-


The dragon roared above her and dove, jaws stretched wide. It was gaining on her, dropping like a stone to her pebble. Irowe winced and glanced down. She was nowhere near the ground, she wasn’t going nearly fast enough-


Mal lir!” Its wings beat faster. Daal Kel wah zu'u!


“Oh, go- Dir ko yol!” Irowe yelled back.


She wished it would go bury its head in the mountain, or under the mountain, and go back to where it came from. This was taking far too long and she had to get to the Throat before Alduin launched the attack-


Ruz dir!


The dragon opened its mouth and fire rolled out before she had a chance to speak.

Chapter Text

But then came the Tongues on that terrible day
Steadfast as winter, they entered the fray
And all heard the music of Alduin's doom
The sweet song of Skyrim, sky-shattering Thu'um



AIR rushed past her face as she fell, hot and noxious with smoke.


Feim!


She had been ethereal before, but she didn’t want to risk the Shout wearing off while under the dragon’s flames. The dragon’s breath pitched into an ear-scraping whine as it passed through her, spewing fire and a cloud of smoke ahead of its dive. Irowe looked off to her left. She was near level with High Hrothgar, but dropping quickly. There was a storm brewing in the Velothi Mountains. Irowe’s eyes narrowed. It didn’t look natural-


The dragon slammed into the ground chest first, snapping off the trunks of ancient pines and tearing some out by the roots. Irowe followed it a few seconds later, but her rolls left no mark on the landscape. The dragon roared and twisted over, felling trees as it twisted in the forest ahead of her and charged.


Irowe clenched her fists around the Elder Scroll. She did not have time for this.


“You want this?!” She yelled, hoisting it above her head. The dragon roared. Irowe took the Scroll in both hands, holding it like a greatsword.


“If you want this back then take it from me!


She whipped it around as the dragon opened its mouth, smashing it against its lower jaw and cracking teeth. The dragon snarled and shot its wing out to throw her but she ducked underneath it. Qonahmir and the others were screaming inside her-


Don’t kill it! Stop, mortal-


Irowe grabbed onto its wing and let its momentum toss her onto its lower back. She ran along its bony scales up toward its neck, leaping up-


Fus Ro Dah!


Its neck bent. The dragon lowed as its head twisted unnaturally, and Irowe landed just at the base of its skull and tumbled off it. She rolled to her feet, lightning crackling and narrowed her eyes at it. The dragon tried to roll its head back so its mouth faced her-


Irowe unleashed twin lightning bolts down its throat and something ignited in its chest. The rumble of a Thu’um died and gurgle out its mouth as its head fell to the ground.


Qonahmir was seething. You idiot.


The dragon’s body burned, golden flakes floating in the morning light. Irowe backed away. She just wanted it dead - it was annoying - but she didn’t need to absorb all those-


One soul snapped into her body and she stumbled. Another followed its tendrils and a voice bubbled up in her chest. Another whisper. Irowe’s feet gave out and she retched as the rest followed, pouring into her with all the force of a waterfall. She barely noticed the light fading around her body. She could barely hear herself think- but one voice rose above the cacophony.


I told you, Qonahmir fumed. I told you and you didn’t listen you foolish mortal-


Irowe held her head and knelt down, pressing her forehead to the ground. Dragons grew in size as they grew in power, and after a certain point the mere size and power of a dragon were enough to warn off even its peers from fighting with it. Absorbing so much power at once could leave even a Red Dragon paralyzed for days.


She didn’t have days to deal with all the new voices in her head, or to wait around for them to figure out the pecking order inside her, she had to deal with-


A roar sang out, booming against the mountaintops and she heard stones crack near the peaks. The dragon souls inside her still, barely a flutter over her own heartbeat as they all listened with her.


Alduin had gathered all its forces. They were on the move.


Irowe seized advantage of the calm, jumping to her feet. “I don’t have time to wait for all of you so just shut up!” She yelled.


She picked up the Elder Scroll, wincing at the thought of carrying it all the way to the Throat. She would have to run, with the Whirlwind Sprint Shout, without potions. Irowe swallowed and the dragons fluttered in her chest, Qonahmir ascending to its rightful perch just below her earlobes. She shook her head; there was nothing for it. She didn’t have time to find Amuril, and she doubted he would be much help anyway, and there was no way in Oblivion he would be able to keep up. She had to do this, and she would have to do it alone.


And if she died, well, that was Amuril’s fault, not hers.


Wuld!


She flew through the tundra forest down to the cobblestones leading toward Whiterun. She could follow the road to the Throat; hopefully she would be going too fast for anyone to identify her or even realize what was happening. Irowe cast Grand Healing on the run, feeling the ache in her muscles evaporate. Her legs still slowed near an old farmhouse; the Shout was wearing off-


Irowe threw up her arms and yelled as she clipped a wagon around the bend. Wood cracked and the driver screamed like a girl as he fell to the ground. She confirmed the oddly dressed man was uninjured even as he hollered at her about ‘mother’ and took off again. She leapt to the tundra and away from the road. Perhaps it was best to keep to the wilds...


The tundra blurred underneath her feet but the Throat didn’t feel any closer. Irowe growled and Shouted again. It took days to walk to Rorikstead, and a horse wouldn’t be much faster. It would be so much easier if she could just fly to the peak, but the only access point was the 7000 Steps on the other side.


There are Words for speed... Qonahmir whispered.


Irowe kept running. She focused on the dragons inside her, the knowledge they had to share even as the memories blurred together. She called on memories of furious bursts of speed, enough to break a hurricane’s headwind. She remembered out-flying a tempest off Skyrim’s shores and reaching Felsaad Coast before the clouds even appeared on the horizon. She remembered marking the Words into stone with her claws.


Wuld Nah Kest!


The air cracked around her and tried to push her back but her legs carried her through. She could see the White River’s bend up ahead, where she knew it dropped into a steep waterfall under the Throat. Following it east would be easier than crossing it, but she didn’t need to go down, she needed to go up.


Several memories bubbled up of days on the wing. In her mind’s eye there was a snaking line in the mountain’s northern face, where the trees were thinner and the rocks passable. Irowe frowned. A hunting trail. A shortcut.


She turned south toward the gentler slopes where the cliffs were more rounded than jagged, running across the water and casting Grand Healing on the far side. There was a small part where she followed the empty road before cutting into the mountain-


Irowe collided with something - thankfully at the tail end of a Shout - and tumbled to the ground. Irowe shook leaves and dirty snow from her head and froze as she recognized the uniform: Stormcloak. Her eyes snapped down to the Elder Scroll by his feet- The white-haired Nord grabbed the Elder Scroll and hot jealousy boiled inside her. Her Kel.


“Hold-!”


Irowe lunged for his stomach and drove him to the ground. The Elder Scroll popped out of his hands and she seized it, jumping to her feet and continuing her sprint.


“Commander! We’re under attack!”


Irowe raced behind a rock, panting heavily. She heard a ram’s horn echo off the mountain walls and the sound of steel. The last thing she needed was a horde of angry Stormcloaks on her heels-


Wuld Nah Kest!


The small clearing shot past her and she had to turn hard to follow the sloping game trail up the mountain. With the Stormcloaks out of sight and out of mind, she hurried on.


The snowy switchbacks were murder on her legs and lungs but she pushed through. The cold began to seep into her skin when she dropped into the Fall Forest. Long-dead leaves kicked up behind her and she thought she heard the whisper of an ice wraith, but it was behind her now.


Irowe sped up the path and gouged the dirt road before the Steps, racing over the bridge. There was no game on the path, no hindrances. Perhaps the animals sensed the tension in the air. The air grew thinner and she had to cast healing spells more and more often. It wasn’t long before snow covered the Steps and her limbs and gut shivered from the cold; she could feel the heat leaving her body as she ran. She didn’t have her heavy coat with her, she hadn’t even thought to bring it really, and everything had been in her pack...


Irowe slowed to a stop and collapsed against a plaque, dropping the Elder Scroll at her feet. She squinted at the peak. Maybe she could rummage through the Greybeards’ things. Borri seemed nice, maybe he’d let her borrow a robe since it was an emergency-


A roar startled her into action, though her body couldn’t quite decide what that was. She scanned the horizon; the storm was growing. Irowe frowned and stepped away from the Elder Scroll, keeping her ears open. The lone voice was silent, but she could hear others. Echoes of Thu’um in the distance.


Another Voice - Alduin - rang out across the skies. The storm rippled and dispersed, almost like... Her eyes widened. Dragons. Those were dragons.


“Auri-El save us...” They were moving, they were moving at last-


The first Voice sang out again. Irowe spun and looked up.


“Paarthurnax!? What are you doing, you crazy old-”


“There is no time, Dovahkiin!” Paarthurnax landed hard on the edge and nearly sending her to her knees. “Alduin is on the wing, and it will be coming here first, to devour you. Alduin cannot miss the signs, and you have made your presence known in all of Skyrim.”


Irowe put her hands on her hips. “I don’t exactly have wings like some people.”


“No. But perhaps you can use mine.”


Irowe eyed Paarthurnax warily. Dragons could not be trusted, even by other dragons. However, she reasoned, if she could work with a Blade (temporarily) to try and stop the world from ending, there was no reason two dragons couldn’t work together.


Temporarily.


“This doesn’t mean I trust you.” Irowe muttered, but she did walk to its neck and Paarthurnax bent down. She climbed on and held the Elder Scroll as far away from the both of them as she could. It wasn’t much but it was the thought that counted.


Paarthurnax leapt into the air then dove off the mountain. Irowe’s heart leapt into her throat then dove into her stomach. Paarthurnax spread its wings and began climbing to regain the lost altitude. Irowe focused on breathing, using spells when her chest grew too tight. She was climbing a lot faster than any human was used to, and the air was thin above the clouds.


They crested the peak and the sun was shining over the encroaching storm. Thu’um drawn clouds, to hide the dragons’ movements. Her dragons remembered countless battles during the Dragon War, waiting in the clouds to strike villages and towns from above. The dark clouds were lapping at the shoulders of the Throat and the peak looked like an island-


Something hit them. Hard. Irowe held onto the Elder Scroll and grabbed an upturned scale on Paarthurnax’s back. Red teeth and black eyes lunged out of the clouds and raked the grey dragon’s throat. Paarthurnax roared and spun, dropping Irowe off its back to the mountain below.


Feim!


Powder flew up under her feet and her legs ached but were unbroken. Irowe scrambled up and raced to the shimmer in the wind. A dragon flew by, dwarfing her. Another. And another. Ancient ones, Elder ones, even the little Blood dragons with their ridged sails.


She shook out the paper of the Scroll, eyes darting around as the dov gathered on every open rock and ledge. Paarthurnax suggested she use the Scroll to learn Dragonrend from its makers, the ancient Tongues. The old dragon had never shared how she could do that, and with every landing dragon Irowe grew more concerned.


They can’t touch you. Qonahmir hissed reassuringly. They can’t harm you while you’re faded. Read the Scroll.


How?” Irowe snapped.


The star chart on the page began to waver and glow, the paper grew dark and transparent. She could see the dragons and the storm through it, like ash-covered glass. A man in carved armor raced up the path to the peak. Irowe frowned and pulled the Scroll down. He wasn’t there. She blinked and held it up again-


He ran through her and turned around. “Gormlaith, hurry-!


A great bronze dragon shot over the ledge and landed on the Throat, knocking him to the ground. He snatched his fallen battleaxe up and waited.


"Daar sul thur se Alduin vokrii!"” The dragon crowed. “But I honor your courage, mortals. Krif voth ahkrin. Die now, in vain-!”


“For Skyrim!”


The two clashed, dancing back and forth. The man dodged a Fire Shout and ran toward the Word Wall. Irowe frowned. He was cornered but unafraid.


A woman charged up the slope and jumped on the dragon’s back. It roared and twisted to bite her but she raced up its spine. She hitched her legs around the dragon’s horns and held her sword aloft.


“Know that it was Gormlaith who sent you down to death!”


She plunged the sword in up to its hilt, only drawing it out again when the dragon lay dead on the ground. She kicked her feet out around its head and climbed off, wiping her sword on the snow.


Irowe glanced around at the dragons in the present as thunder rolled. “Feim.” It didn’t hurt to be cautious.


“Hakon!” The woman yelled. “The skalds will sing of this day for ages! Would you have them sing of your scowl too?” She slapped his shoulder and laughed.


Hakon batted her hand away. “If Alduin doesn’t rise to our challenge there will be nothing to sing about. We will lose everything!”


Her face faltered. “He’ll come, brother. He has to.”


“Then why is he hanging back?! We staked everything on this scheme-!”


“He will come.” An elderly voice called out. “Why should he fear us mortals?”


Irowe turned. An elderly mage finally crested the summit. She felt something... off about him. As he passed Irowe noted a familiar Scroll-shaped bulge under his cloak.


Gormlaith laughed darkly. “I know a few Words that would give him pause, Feldir.”


“The Thu’um did not save Sorri. Or Birkir...” Feldir mused, holding his hand near his mouth as if he could touch the names leaving his lips.


They didn’t have Dragonrend. I swear to you, I will kill him myself and avenge our dead.”


“He cannot be killed!” Feldir yelled in exasperation. “He is beyond our strength.”


“-Feldir!” Hakon bellowed. He stormed back from his perch to accost the odd bundle on the mage’s back. “The Scroll- We agreed we wouldn’t use it!”


Feldir held his hand out to stop Hakon. “I never agreed. And if you are right, Hakon, we won’t have to-”


“Quiet!” Gormlaith held up a fist, watching the eastern sky. “Alduin approaches...”


As if summoned, a great shadow raced just above the clouds. The lightning and hailing brimstone lit up the sky, showing glimpses of the black dragon. Irowe held the Scroll down, just to check that it was only in the past. She Shouted again to be safe.


Alduin plummeted, shooting its wings out at the last second to clutch the Word Wall; the stone crumbled beneath the sudden weight. The Throat trembled and even in the Time-Wound Irowe felt her legs shake. Perhaps the Scroll was playing tricks on her eyes, but the black dragon was even larger than she remembered.


“Meyye! Tahrodiis aanne! Him hinde pah liiv! Zu'u hin daan!” Alduin roared.


The three Nords readied themselves with spells or swords. Gormlaith and Hakon moved to shield Feldir, who backed away to the Time-Wound. A shiver ran through her blood as she felt the Scroll's echo warp through the broken weft.


“Let those in Sovngarde envy us this day!” Gormlaith shouted.


Alduin leapt off the Word Wall the short distance to land right on top of all of them-


Joor Zah Frul!” The Tongues Shouted around her.


Alduin crashed limply to the snow. It howled in terror and scrambled away from them, its red eyes wide. The Tongues' faces were grim as the Words sunk into their own minds as well. Mortal. Finite. Temporary.


What an... interesting concept, using mortality as a weapon. Irowe grinned. So... the thur could be brought low after all.


Nivahriin joorre... What have you done?!” Alduin roared. “What twisted Words have you created?! Tahrodiis Paarthurnax!” Alduin turned its attention to the three Nords, red eyes glowering. “You will die in terror! I will feast upon you in Sovngarde!”


“If I die today, Worm, it will not be in terror!” Gormlaith shouted.


She ran at the World-Eater and - surprisingly enough - Alduin backed away. Emboldened, she ran between its claws and hacked at the ebony scales. Alduin snapped at her, but half-heartedly, focusing more on the demons in its own mind. Hakon came forward as well and swung at its legs.


“You feel fear, don’t you, Worm?” Gormlaith taunted. “I can see it in your eyes. Skyrim will be free!”


Alduin snarled and turned away from their swords. Gormlaith closed in, swinging for its armored neck-


Alduin reared back on it legs and slammed its wings on the ground, knocking the three Nords to the snow. Irowe held her hands out but stayed standing. Alduin roared and snatched Gormlaith off the ground with its teeth, tossing back and forth-


Gormlaith!” Hakon screamed. Alduin tossed her body across the mountaintop and turned its attention to Hakon.


Yol Toor Shul!


Feim!” Hakon Shouted just in time. “Feldir! Use the Scroll! Use it now!”


Feldir backed away, throwing a pleading look to the skies before beginning his spell. “Sister Hawk, grant us your sacred breath to make this contract heard! Begone, World-Eater! By words with older bones than your own, we break your perch on this age and send you out!”


Alduin stopped, its great head rising slowly and its eyes wide. “Faal Kel...?


“We Shout you out from all our endings unto the last!” Feldir yelled, his voice shaking with emotion. Irowe’s ears rang with the Thu’um of dragons approaching, no doubt to their thur’s aid.


Nikriinne!” Alduin roared and lunged for the man, trampling the snow around Irowe but it was too late. Time itself reached out and swallowed it, deaf to its roars and Shouts of dominion.


“You are banished!


The Mountain quaked. Irowe fell on her face; the Elder Scroll went flying and she couldn’t see where it went. She had the Shout though, she knew the words.


The mountain, the sky, the horizon were black. A black so deep she could see even the smallest imperfection in her burned face reflected perfectly.


Then the darkness moved.


Irowe’s eyes widened as she followed the scales up to a thick neck, horns like lances and eyes that burned with fire. Her mind and the dragons realized that her reflection was no longer faded; the Shout had worn off. The Ethereal Shout had worn off and Alduin was standing over her like it had at Helgen- All the memories and nightmares flooded back. Alduin reared back-


Feim!” Irowe screamed.


Alduin planted its wing in her chest and for a terrifying half-second she thought it was reaching her despite the Shout. It was just the fear. She scrambled to her feet and stood panting just out of reach of its jaws, taking in the size of it.


In her dreams, the Dragon was a nightmare black as the inner sanctums of Quagmire and wreathed in flame and smoke. Its body was a twisting menagerie of spikes and horns and jagged edges like shattered ebony. Its red eyes, and the fire in its belly, haunted her since that day, only becoming worse with each passing dream.


Her nightmares fell utterly short of reality. Alduin was twice as large as she remembered from Helgen, stretching from the Word Wall on the edge to the Time Wound to where she stood, with several lengths of jagged tail to spare. Those bottomless red eyes were as big as her head and unblinking, just staring. Every horn, every spike, was as long as she was and almost as wide. Its teeth were long and its breath rotting; she could see bits of crushed bone stuck in its mouth, some mail or a helmet against its tongue.


Irowe was in thin mages robes, a frightened child compared to this monster. She swallowed. How exactly was she supposed to defeat this...?


Alduin passed over her, resting its eyes on a prone and barely breathing form in the snow.


Daar hin laat tahrovin, Paarthurnax.


Irowe turned. She had forgotten about Paarthurnax since her landing at the peak. That damn Elder Scroll, blocking her senses...


She still didn’t trust the aged dragon, and knew that this punishment was for its past sins, but... If Paarthurnax hadn’t been carrying her, or near the Elder Scroll, perhaps it could have had a chance against the Red Dragon towering over it. The Red Dragon’s back claws were poised to rip into Paarthurnax’s exposed belly if it so much as growled. Paarthurnax wisely kept its mouth shut, but its faded eyes glanced from Irowe to Alduin, and back.


The Throat was covered in dragons, with more circling on the wing, snapping at the others if there was space for even a foot to land on. The dragons fluttered their wings to keep the snow clear and nipped at each other, almost muffling the howling wind. Irowe could hear the rumble of Alduin’s breathing and her sharp short breaths.


The two regarded each other once again. This time Alduin acknowledged her.


Meyz mul, Dovahkiin...voth sille do sahlo!


Irowe scowled and clenched her fists, a retort on her lips-


Qonahmir!” Alduin called to the skies.


Dukaan!” The other dragons answered in return.


How dare it insult her like that? Insult her first soul-?


“Vuljotnaak!”


Funt!


Murder boiled in her blood-


Volshulviing!


Lir!


Lir!


She would claw out its throat with her fingernails. She would crawl into its belly and eat it inside out-


“Vulthuryol!”


Nivahriin!


She would rip it scale from bone until the broken pieces of its body littered the mountainside.


If Alduin’s face was even capable of smirking through all the horns and scales, it was smirking down at her as she seethed. Alduin curled it tail along the word wall, black spikes gouging the ancient rock.


Til los nid qostiid, nid Kel, wah saav hi nu, joor-


Joor!


The single Word caught Alduin off guard and it stumbled backward in the snow. A hush fell over the dragons and even the wind. Irowe cast Ironflesh and conjured dual axes. Now she had scales, now she had claws and teeth and she would show them she could bite.


Alduin snarled, drawing itself up to its full height to tower over her and the others present. Its red eyes were wide.


Hi los joor.” Irowe pointed her axe at the sliver of its pupil. “Koraav faas ko miiniil!


Alduin roared and lunged for her. The dragons scattered into the air, leaving only the two combatants and the Red Dragon on Paarthurnax at the mount.


Irowe ducked underneath Alduin’s belly, digging her axes into its scales trying to find an edge. Alduin dropped to the ground - nearly crushing her - and pushed the mountain down as it launched into the air.


Strun Bah Gol!


The sky erupted with fire and flames rippled through the clouds. Smoking chunks of rock hurtled down; clouds of steam erupted where they impacted the snow. Irowe rolled and watched the skies. Alduin was on the wing, somewhere in the cloud of dragons. The lesser dragons circled the tempest, keeping their distance from the falling stones.


A sixth sense made her turn. Alduin crested the peak and was coming straight for her-


Joor Zah Frul!


Its eyes widened and its wings faltered. Irowe dove out of the way as the black dragon collided with the mountaintop. It roared, a hint of terror in its Voice, but mostly rage.


Irowe called an axe and jumped. She ducked under its wings to the scythe-like scales on its belly, and struck. Alduin howled and spun, but she darted between its legs. Alduin snarled and jumped up, stretching its back claws wide. Irowe swung the axe up, a little early but just connecting with the dragon shook her arms. She swung again-


Alduin leapt and spread its wings; unsteady in the winds but out of her reach for the moment. Irowe growled.


Lok Vah Koor!


Strun Bah Gol!” Alduin Shouted just as the sky began to clear.


The falling stones renewed with vigor and Irowe had to seek shelter from the worst of it. Her heart was racing and her body trembled with fear and excitement and rage. A glimmer of gold by a brazier caught her eye. So that was where the Elder Scroll wound up.


Irowe darted out to the snow. She turned to face the east and wasn’t disappointed. Alduin dug its talons into the Word Wall, malice in its eyes.


Yol Toor Shul!


Yol Toor Shul!


Their fire collided and a wall of flames spread from the collision of their Thu’um, blasting away the snow and charring the stone. Alduin advanced, crawling over the stone to the earth, mouth pouring flames until it was nearly on top of her. Their Thu’um receded and Alduin growled. It lunged down to bite-


Irowe held the axe up and let Alduin’s jaws clamp down on the summoned metal.


Fus Ro!


The axe burrowed into its mouth and Alduin howled, jerking away and only clenching harder in pain. Irowe summoned a sword and snapped off a lightning bolt, then another. She closed the distance, firing another.


Joor Zah Frul!


She could have reached out and touched Alduin’s snout, had it not recoiled in fear. Alduin shrank away from her - which would be comical, as it took up most of the mountain’s peak, were it not for the circumstances. Irowe charged, slashing here and there, anywhere she saw a break in the scales. She remembered her words to Fallon a few days ago. The joints; the underbelly; elbows; eyes; mouth; nose. Irowe turned her sword to Alduin’s wing and sliced through bone-


Alduin shot out its wing, throwing her into the mountain. Irowe cried out and crumpled to the snow. It burned to breathe; a cracked rib or two, maybe a few other bones broken. She chewed her lip, tasting blood; her lips were cracked and bleeding from the cold. Suddenly the sky’s chill made itself known and she realized she was shaking.


Zu’u lost du lot sille! Hi los nid!


Irowe pushed herself back up and recast her armor. “Joor Zah Frul!


Alduin crashed back to the mountain. It snarled and shook snow and ice from its snout, baring teeth to her.


They danced again. Irowe was quicker but Alduin was larger, slamming its tail on the ground and rocking boulders loose to ruin any unfortunate souls far below. It didn’t like turning she noticed, not on that left wing.


Irowe rolled and sliced off a claw on its right wing. She wheezed and tried numbing her pain with a spell; there was a dull ache barely palpable over the stiffness from the cold. That was livable for now.


She slammed the sword against Alduin’s leg, hewing through a scale’s tip before dodging the counterattack. The sword twirled overhead, and she hacked at the other leg as it came toward her. She continued slashing at any scale that came near, shuffling her feet to stay underfoot.


Alduin’s wings scraped the stones as it dropped to the ground. Irowe shrieked and held the sword up, keeping its center away from her body-


The sword plunged into Alduin’s chest and it roared in pain. Irowe crawled behind scales and spikes to a larger hollow between the dragon and the mountain. Her arms and legs were bleeding but she was alive. Alduin leapt into the air, nearly crashing down again, and circled the mountain with a roar.


The other dragons scattered to the winds like crows, fleeing before the thur. Irowe lay panting in the snow, watching the skies. She could barely make out the sword still in Alduin’s chest, and she could feel the battleaxe hadn’t dispelled yet. It might be better to dispel the sword and let it bleed out, but her concentration was waning. She couldn’t be sure she could recall the sword and leave the axe in place, and the axe was a good deterrent against Shouting-


Alduin rounded the mountain and spread its wings to land.


Feim!


The mountain shook as Alduin loomed over her, blood raining from its mouth. Irowe frowned. It looked... smaller. She thought back to the Elder Scroll’s vision, and Alduin’s size in the Merethic Era. Alduin was not like other dragons, but maybe its power was still linked to its size. If that was true, maybe she could hack it down into something manageable.


Irowe rolled and scrambled underneath it, forcing it to turn around. She cast a healing spell, knowing it would bring her back to reality. Hot breath poured down her back and her skin crawled in fear.


Wuld Nah Kest!


She remembered her attempts to fly down at High Hrothgar all those months ago. Leaping off pillars and plinths and Shouting the poor monks deaf. The Mountain loomed up at her and she knew Alduin was at her heels despite the Shout.


Fus!


Irowe kicked off the rockface, feeling the wind whip around her, seeing Alduin below her. She collided with its scales, sliding down and thanking Auri-El she hadn’t landed on a spine twice her size. Even its scales were armored with tiny spines. The only thing keeping her skin intact was Ironflesh: in just her robes its scales alone would rip her to shreds.


She held her hand out and conjured an axe. As she’d feared, she felt the sword and other axe snap back to Oblivion. She’d have to move quickly-


Alduin roared and took to the skies. Irowe locked the axe’s shaft around a spine and held on, struggling to plant her feet. Alduin climbed, nearly vertical; the clouds passed them, her hair grew damp and the air was deathly cold.


No matter what, she had to keep going. Irowe pulled herself up and stood on the spine, dug the axe into Alduin’s back and hauled herself up to the next one, heading for its neck. Alduin twisted and spun, but she held onto the axe buried in its scales and prayed her arms lasted a few minutes longer.


She just needed a few minutes, a few swings, and then she could kill it. It would all be over. She could recover at High Hrothgar, or the College, and take her life back to the way it used to be. No more dragons, no more Blades; just a quiet retirement and spending the rest of the era traveling Tamriel with Amuril and Melucar.


Irowe strained and pulled herself up to the next spine, now at its shoulder. It was getting hard to breathe, the air was moving so fast-


She swung the axe, ripped it out and swung again, cross-marking a hole in its scales and conjuring a sword. She buried it in the exposed flesh and Alduin roared; every quiver of its Voice in pain and echoing across the sky. Irowe unsheathed it and stabbed again. Her vision was starting to blur from the wind but she had to keep going-


Her hand trembled and slipped.


The black dragon tumbled away from view. Behind it she could see the Magne-Ge’s vestiges and Mundus. Clouds whipped around her and obscured everything. She could hear the dragons roaring, the rumble of thunder, but she couldn’t keep her eyes open.


“... Feim...


The next thing she remembered was hitting the snow. Powder flew up and even with the Shout she felt the weight of the mountain pressing against every bone in her body. Her breath hitched and she blinked up at the sky and falling snow. She couldn’t feel anything; she was moving her arms and legs but everything was numb from the cold and all she could feel was pain.


Alduin roared, still alive. Irowe closed her eyes and started to cry.


The Dragon dropped slowly onto the Word Wall in front of her. “Zu'u Alduin, zok sahrot do naan ko Lein.” It snarled and clutched the stones tighter, snapping part of it off onto the snow. “Zu’u nis kos kriaan naal hi, uv naan ko daar lein!


A cough raked her body like coals. “Nu hi sosaal...” Irowe said.


Alduin glowered at her; neither of them looked to the growing black pool at the base of the wall, or the river flowing down it.


Fen rel lingran mindin dinokiil, Joor.” Alduin rumbled, even as blood dripped from its jaws. Irowe’s stomach fluttered as she started to believe its boasts.


Alduin lifted into the air, slowly, blood draining visibly despite the distance. It hovered, wings dipping and fighting to keep control and maintain its show of absolute power.


Maar saraan ko Sovngarde... Dovahkiin.” The last word left its mouth like a bad taste. Alduin pitched and soared off to the east.


It wasn’t dead. She’d given everything she had and even used Dragonrend, and the damn thing wasn’t dead.


What exactly did she have to do to kill that dragon?


A ripped wing covered the sun. Irowe’s chest seized and she tried to roll over, to stand but she didn’t have the strength.


“Praal, Dovahkiin.” Paarthurnax rumbled. “Neither of us have the wings to go after Alduin.”


“I ca-can’t... stay...” Irowe inhaled and winced at the pain in her ribs. “I’ll freeze up h-here...”


Paarthurnax lifted its head and gazed at the shimmering flurries in the Time Wound, then the snowflakes drifting in the winds. Irowe pushed her arms against the snow but her legs were so heavy; too heavy. All she wanted to do was sleep...


Lok Vah Koor!


The breeze actually grew warm and she smiled, coughing out a chuckle and Paarthurnax tucked her against its body. She only wanted to sleep..

Chapter Text

It is well known that Vaermina is the Prince of Nightmares, with power over dreams, but what are dreams? Are they only distorted memories... or visions of days to come?


 

STONE ceilings bled into focus as the pain dragged Irowe back to consciousness. She lay there blinking up at the vaulted ceilings as her head spun. The tattered banners with meditation phrases hung frozen in the sunlight high above her. High Hrothgar, as it was during her training, was deafening in its silence.


Irowe grimaced and tested moving her feet. There was a dull ache everywhere, only worsened as her chest rose when she breathed, but her reactions felt sluggish. Blurred. She wanted to rip her ribs out just so it wouldn’t hurt anymore, so she could think. She thought her toes didn’t hurt, but maybe they did and every inch of her body was simply screaming louder than her toes were.


The soft brushing of tassels against the floor drew her attention to the door. A twinge of pain ran down her neck and back as her head turned. One of the Greybeards approached with a tray of potions and strips of rag. Irowe blinked up at him as he knelt over her, trying to remember which one of them had a slim silver beard and ice blue eyes. Not Arngeir, not Borri, but...


He laid a heated rag with something wet and cooling on it across her throat, pressing just hard enough to conform it to her skin. Irowe moaned, pushing her heels against the bed. It soothed but that only made the rest of her pain more potent. A potion bottle’s lip was pressed to hers and only tipped back once she looked at the silent monk. A tingle of warmth trickled down, settling in her ribs, her ankles and her wrists. Irowe closed her eyes, grateful that the pain was dulled a little more, even if it wasn’t forgotten completely.


Alduin flew past in her mind’s eye, roaring its challenge, even larger than she remembered. In her mind, she flew after the thur, racing along the clouds, wings beating against the hot eastern wind from Red Mountain. Alduin wheeled and dove, disappearing behind three broken peaks and at their base were Dwarven towers. Starlight shone down into the towers, and were reflected back lackluster to the heavens by broken mirrors inside, the echo of a Fire Shout rising out with the reflections.


Irowe hurried after Alduin, diving down through the clouds into a mighty fortress. The dragon host from the Throat rose up and thrummed around her, buffeting her with their wings. Alduin’s roar came again, now far away, from a portal of starlight in the ground. Irowe tucked her wings in and dove, dropping faster and faster despite the dragons around her. She reached the edge of the portal and everything was white...


She coughed, spitting up the potion, not remembering that she was drinking it. The Greybeard returned the potion bottle to his tray, turning back to the compress and replacing a now dry rag with a fresh one. Irowe coughed, squinting at the monk. His beard was bushier now, but maybe that was just him leaning over her. He laid his hand on her shoulder, patting the furs covering her like powder-fresh snow he was afraid to pack down. Irowe coughed and closed her eyes again, letting the relief from her throat take her back to the portal.


Everything inside was white, a warm but distant light that obscured as much as it illuminated. Irowe frowned, looking around.


“Irowe.”


She turned. Amuril was standing behind her, smiling with quiet pride. She felt the corners of her lips perking up even as she fought it, but the longer he smiled the less reason she had not to. Irowe chuckled and hugged him, pressing his head down against her shoulder as she tucked her face into his neck. She blinked slowly, enjoying the moment, letting her mind go blank as she focused on the odd multi-hued detailing of his white robes.


Amuril stiffened and gasped, ripped out of her arms and out of sight as the light faded with him leaving her in darkness. Irowe screamed and reached out for him, lunging at the air and catching nothing. She ran forward, after the glimpse of purple and stale gold surrounding the white of Amuril’s robes. Irowe pushed harder against the ground as it turned to leaves in a black forest.


A woman screamed. Irowe stopped, chill seeping out from her spine as tears crept in her eyes. The scream dissolved to crying, wailing. Irowe stepped off the path she’d made and hurried through the underbrush. Vylie was holding the arm that pressed a knife to her throat, dark curls splayed across her face and shoulders as she sobbed. Blood dripped down her throat and from two dozen wounds in her white dress. The leaves around her were slick and red.


Irowe’s tongue grew thick in her throat. She couldn’t tear her eyes from Vylie, and didn’t dare look at the face of the mer holding her.


“Where’s Amuril?” Irowe’s voice felt small and choked. Her arms started shaking from lack of air but she couldn’t breathe. “Vylie, tell me where he is!


“Why didn’t you save me...?” Vylie sobbed. “Why didn’t you save Broldan...?”


Lightning flashed on Vylie’s face from behind Irowe as a boy’s scream was cut short. Vylie choked on a cry of her own as the knife flicked across her throat and she fell forward, the light gone from her eyes-


Irowe screamed and covered her face, clenching her eyes so hard she saw the white light again. She ran toward it, pushing off the smooth wood of a tree’s trunk as it creaked on its hinges-


The sound of thrumming torchbugs and a warm breeze billowing deep plum curtains froze her. A deep shudder seized her limbs and she didn’t dare move for fear of falling. Her lips parted as her breath shook, hyper aware of the red-purple light from the garden varla stones behind her. The blood staining the otherwise immaculate floor. Qorwenar standing shackled with the ever-present red scar circling his neck.


“Hello, Irri.” He smiled and the clotted blood of his split lip oozed out. “It’s been some time.”


Irowe couldn’t move. She didn’t dare avert her gaze from the corner of the lounge chair she had locked onto to orient herself.


“Irowe.”


The High Kinlord’s gruff voice made the chill shoot up into her skull and she spun, stumbling back into the lounge. High Kinlord Asuroth stood next to his desk, as this was his study, the house guard gathered around him. Irowe’s breath stopped. The High Kinlord had pulled down the Blades sword from above his desk. Amuril was kneeling on the ground before him, hands bound behind his back so he couldn’t cast.


Qorwenar grabbed hold of her arms with a grip too strong for the living as she lunged forward.


Ata!


“This is how the Dominion deals with traitors.” Asuroth said, staring her down as he raised the sword over his head and took the hilt in both hands.


Irowe screamed.


The potion ricocheted out of Borri’s hand and shattered on the ceiling above. Zun echoed through the quiet halls of High Hrothgar.


Irowe tossed the furs off her and threw herself out of the stone bed, her legs collapsing underneath her weight and she fell onto the bed next to her. Irowe grabbed the furs and shoved them into her mouth, biting hard to muffle a scream as she reached back and clawed at her hair.


She hadn’t dreamed of Ata’s study in years. She hadn’t thought about Vylie’s murder in months. She had never walked with all three of her lovers in one dream. Amuril and Qorwenar yes, when she feared for her husband. Qorwenar and Vylie when her mind decided she had gone too long without bad memories. Amuril and Vylie sometimes she dreamed of together, wistful for what she’d lost and grateful for what she’d found. But never all three together in the same dream: that was an ill omen.


Her nose caught the scent of old blood and a mer’s face flashed before her eyes; she couldn’t tell in the dark if it was Amuril or Qorwen, but there was a buzz in her ears like torchbugs-


Irowe spat the furs out before vomiting on the floor. There was nothing of substance in the bile, only the water her stomach left behind when it absorbed the potion’s properties. She heard the shuffling of furs as the other Greybeards shifted out of bed, the muffled pad of slippers and the pouring of water into a basin. In the quiet, she heard Arngeir speaking with someone - Borri - but what he said exactly was drowned out by the blood pounding in her ears. One of them walked - slowly, carefully - around the bed she had laid in for stars only knew how long, holding the basin of water and wet rag out as an offering. Irowe knelt down, rocking back and forth on her elbows and knees as she spat up however many potions the Greybeards had given her to recover.


Arngeir rounded the bed, the toes of his slippers pointed toward Einarth for a silent conversation before turning down to Irowe.


“Dragonborn.”


Irowe vomited up the last of the potion, having never felt more removed from that title. She spat, disgusted that her arms and knees were slick from watered-down bile. She was even more disgusted at the tremor in her limbs.


“I was unaware you had learned that Shout.”


Irowe shuddered, thinking back to the Blades sword and how all she could think of was ripping it out of the High Kinlord’s hands. Zun: Sword. The first Word of the Disarm Shout.


“So was I.”


Einarth knelt down and held out the damp rag. Irowe was careful to grab the corner of it and spare his sleeves from being stained. The leather looked like it would be a pain to clean, and that was without the threaded tassels around the wrist. She took the offered wooden cup as well, drinking a mouthful and pouring the rest on her arms and the floor, cleaning up as best she could. The room quieted down again as Borri and Wulfgar returned to bed; she spat the water back out into the cup.


Irowe shook her head slowly, refusing to swallow and trying to quite the tremors. “How long have I been asleep?”


“It has been three days, Dragonborn, since you ascended the Mountain and fought Alduin at the summit. Your body and Voice are recovering, but you are not healed yet.”


“Has anyone come up the Steps?”


She looked up. Arngeir blinked, looking to Einarth for answers. Einarth shook his head.


“No. We received the tithe of supplies last week, but if you require more potions-”


“Amuril hasn’t come?” Her voice gave out before she could hide it. The nausea fluttered in her stomach again.


Arngeir’s eyes softened as he half-understood her concern. “No. No one has come since you ran up the Steps.”


Irowe looked down to her hand, panicking more than a little as she saw her wedding ring was missing. She pulled herself to her feet, smearing her sleeves on the bed’s furs, and stumbled backwards to her own bed. The two Greybeards held their hands out to steady her, although Arngeir’s seemed more intent with guiding her to the bed. Irowe let them help her, crawling onto the bed and casting about for her things. Her outer robes were missing. So was the Elder Scroll, if anyone had thought to grab it from the Throat’s peak or even noticed it among the upturned snow.


She gasped and froze, spying the band of Dwemer metal on the side table beside a stack of books. Irowe scooted across the bed and grabbed it, her heart skipping and blood running cold at the black teardrop gemstone. She knew it was only black because it wasn’t on her finger - Amuril told her constantly she had to be wearing it for the enchantments to work - but the doubt refused to leave her. Amuril had every intention of delving into an ancient Nordic city in the Stonehills when she left him, and there was that Advisor and the mages’ magic ball to deal with after that.


Irowe rolled her eyes and sighed, forcing herself to take slow breaths. Fallon was with him, and she couldn’t imagine Ancano would manage to kill all the other mages, no matter how useless they were. Amuril was fine.


She looked down. The stone was still black.


“No.”


She took the ring off again and slid it back on her finger. Maybe she’d put it on wrong. The gemstone was still black. Her fingers started shaking and she pulled it off; it took her five tries to get the ring back on her finger.


“No.”


Maybe it needed to charge up a bit since she hadn’t been wearing it. Irowe inhaled, her body only now realizing she hadn’t been breathing.


“Dragonborn?”


“No. No. No...”


Arngeir walked around, putting his hand on her shoulder. All she could see in the candlelight was her mottled skin and the black gem against the dark stone floor. The other Greybeards stayed where they stood as she started sobbing, uncertain how or even if they could help her.


“Dragonborn, it has only been three days. It can take time to walk the Steps.” Arngeir grunted as he sat down on the bed next to her. Irowe shook her head. “I’m sure your friends are fine-”


She shook her head, only breathing because her lungs burned and the pain made her inhale. Her body was shaking of its own accord until her ribs hurt, her mind running in the same circles with no conclusion. The ring was black. It’d be red if Amuril was alive. It’d only be black if he’d taken it off his finger, or if he was... Irowe buried her face in her hands. If he was...


The other Greybeards shuffled off to their beds as quietly as they could. Arngeir continued sitting on the end of the bed.


“Your husband?” Irowe bit her lip, curling her arms around her head. Arngeir sighed. “I am sorry.”


She curled her fingers into her hair, pulling until her scalp burned. Amuril had enchanted their rings with their blood, to show how healthy the other was, but there was a second stone inside the ring: a second enchantment. The first one he’d made for her in fact. Irowe wiped her nose and held the ring to her face, pushing wet hair away to see better.


There was a light through the darkness, but it was faint. When he’d made it for her in Alinor they hadn’t expected to be more than a district away at any time. She could Sprint around Skyrim with the Shout, playing hot and cold until the ring told her it was close to its mate, but she knew the only reason she was moving at all was the deluge of potions the Greybeards had given her.


But she wasn’t going to get any better until she saw Amuril and saw he was alright. Amuril had just... taken off the ring. He’d just for some reason decided to take off the wedding ring and hadn’t put it back on yet. That was the only explanation. He wouldn’t just... he couldn’t. She refused to believe it.


Irowe pushed herself up and stood, wavering, before reaching for her outer coat.


“Dragonborn, you are in no condition to go anywhere but back to sleep-”


“I have to go.” Her voice felt raw, and she wasn’t sure if that was the potions wearing off or the worry gripping her throat. Irowe shook her head and put on her outer coat, slotting the three potions on the side table into a satchel. She didn’t have her bag, but she had a feeling she would need the potions.


The hall to the main sanctuary was lit only by still candles in the moonless hour of the night. Irowe shivered and tucked her hands into her armpits. Dragons she could handle, and the World-Eater was just a larger, ego-fueled dragon. She couldn’t handle losing Amuril. She just needed to touch him, to see that he was alright.


“Wait.”


Irowe leaned on the frame of the hall’s entryway and turned her feet around slowly. Her neck felt too stiff to attempt looking over her shoulder. Arngeir was hurrying up the corridor, carrying something in his arms. Irowe raised an eyebrow.


“If you must go then take this.” Arngeir lifted his hands, letting the grey leather cloak unfold down to the floor.


Irowe blinked.


“Akatosh has given you the Voice as a gift, but I ask that while you wear the robes of our order you will follow the Way.” Arngeir said quietly.


Irowe ran her hands over the grey leather, letting her fingers fall into grooves embroidered by thick sinewy lace. Her throat closed but she nodded. He held it out and Irowe took it, rubbing it between her thumbs with reverence. They didn’t exactly have thicker cloaks here, and it was night and cold outside, but she still couldn’t believe Arngeir was giving her Greybeard robes to wear outside High Hrothgar. They had allowed her to wear spare robes before, when she first came to them, but more because she needed to wear something while cleaning her own clothes.


She smothered a smile at the thought that Arngeir might be doing it so any passing Nord knew where to deliver her if she passed out like a sot on the side of a road. That was probably one of the reasons he was doing it.


“Thank you. I will do as you’ve asked.”


Arngeir sighed and nodded his head. Irowe placed the potion satchel down and Arngeir helped her into the robes, tying the belts and ties loosely so she had room to move. Irowe pulled the hood up and adjusted her headscarf so it protected her nose. Arngeir’s shoulders lowered a bit as he looked her over, double checking that he had fastened everything correctly. In the candlelight his gaze looked far away, listening to a memory that echoed this one.


“Wind guide you.”


He bowed and began the long walk back to the dormitory. Irowe watched him go, tilting her head slightly, but turned down the stairs and to the left. The door to the inner courtyard was freezing when she touched it even through her gloves, and she pulled her hands away as soon as the door was swinging shut. The inner courtyard of High Hrothgar was one of the few or perhaps the only pocket of calm in the otherwise swirling sea of winds. The air was not dead or still, but churning just slow enough in little eddies that the snow never quite settled but never traveled far either. That made the inner courtyard freezing, but not deadly like the other parts of the mountain on a late winter night.


Irowe passed the pillars and makeshift gate she and the Greybeards had constructed in the autumn, for practicing her Whirlwind Sprint. She stopped and stared at a long golden rod, leaning up against a brazier’s pillar. For a moment she just stood there, wondering if the Elder Scroll had really tumbled off the mountain and landed there, or if one of the Greybeards had carried it down with her but left it to the elements a few paces from High Hrothgar’s doors.


Irowe dithered between picking it up and leaving it in the snow. On the one hand, she didn’t want to run with it when she was already barely standing thanks to the potions. On the other, she knew the Greybeards and Paarthurnax were not particularly happy that it was here, especially if they knew the things it did to Paarthurnax. She doubted it was seriously affecting the elder dragon being so far below the peak, but she knew Paarthurnax could certainly feel it even at this distance.


Irowe sighed and bent over, shivering as the cold of the metal casing bit through her gloves. She had no means of carrying it other than her hands, the same way she had brought it up the mountain. She could give it to Amuril when she found him, after she slapped him senseless for taking off his ring, and had a long nap. Irowe sighed, relishing the fleeting warmth inside her headscarf as she exhaled. She did like the idea of everything becoming Amuril’s problem once she found him.


Wuld!


She shot off the mountain with a flurry of snow trailing behind her. The mountain’s face loomed up at her a few moments later.


Feim!


Irowe hit the packed snow and slid, keeping her knees bent and trying to stay upright as best she could. Holding the Elder Scroll out like the bar of a chariot helped, but the effect it had on her gut did not. Her momentum from the single word of the Sprint Shout kept her moving even as the Ethereal Shout kept the Mountain from breaking her body. She knelt down until she was almost sitting, keeping her arms out and turning the Scroll to guide herself toward the gentlest slopes and away from any ledges. After a minute of snow and rocks, trees began to rush past, here and there, and her skin bristled as she had to weave between them now and then.


The snow shot out from under her as the mountain dropped away, and she was falling. Her heart skipped a beat as the wind stole her breath, and the moment seemed to freeze as she looked out over the horizon. Whiterun’s tundra stretched out before her, the Brittleshins to her left nestling Falkreath behind them and Skyrim’s other mountains looming black in the distance.


Is this what flying feels like? She wondered, blinking back tears at the nostalgia of memories on the wing welling up from her souls.


Feim!


Another ledge overlooking a series of falls in the White River was her last jumping point off the Throat. She landed and sprung off the rocks, leaping across the falls and river to the other side where the road wound down toward Whiterun. Irowe stumbled and rolled, sliding down the old cobblestones until she came to a stop. The Greybeards robes didn’t seem damaged at all from the road, which... she shook her head and pulled off her glove. Leave that for Amuril to think about and pick apart, once she found him.


She picked her way back up to her feet with the help of a boulder and held the ring to her face. It did seem brighter, but the only way she’d be able to tell at this distance was to run a little more and check how the light changed. Irowe sighed and adjusted the hood, double checking the satchel of potions survived the jump. It was going to be a long night...



The ring led her south, eventually, to the canyon roads of the Reach. Irowe stopped and rested under a juniper tree to catch her breath, fighting with the satchel’s strap to free the second potion bottle. She uncorked it and drained the last of it, red dribbling down her chin. She wiped it with the back of her hand before it dripped on the Greybeard robes, careful to keep the tassels away from the potion. The robes would be fine, she was sure - she was positive it had seen far worse - but she wanted to try keeping it clean.


Irowe pulled the hood down and pinched off her glove, staring at the light-grey gemstone as her breathing steadied. A minute passed; she felt rested enough to continue but watched the faint shadows cast by the ring grow smaller. Dimmer, as the light from the stone’s enchantment faded. The other ring was moving away from her, but more importantly moving. Irowe climbed to her feet, feeling lighter on them with the worry lifting from her shoulders.


Wuld!


The granite walls of the canyon flew past her as she followed the road’s cobblestones east. Something shrill echoed up the canyon toward her and she slid to a stop. It was the dead of night, and freezing. There shouldn’t be anyone or anything out this late, except perhaps...


“Amuril.” Irowe whispered.


The sound came again, this time clearly a horse’s scream. She Shouted again and rounded a bend in the canyon, only knowing she had shot past the horse and rider by the sound whipping by her on the right. Irowe planted her feet, laying herself down along the stones to slow the Shout down. Loose gravel and pebbles skittered around her when she finally stopped several lengths away, but the Elder Scroll continued rolling until it smacked into a boulder.


Irowe sighed and laid her head down on the road, enjoying how refreshing its cold stones felt on her cheeks after the run. The Elder Scroll could stay there for now: she was tired of carrying it.


A cold sweat shot down her spine. Irowe cursed and stood up, casting a magelight and patting down the robes. “Oh please, please don’t tell me-”


“Irowe?” She looked up briefly at Fallon’s voice but went back to fussing over the grey leather. It didn’t look damaged, at least not terribly, but it was hard to tell in the colorless light- “Irowe?!”


The horse bickered with him as Fallon dismounted, running over to her and tugging the reins behind him.


“I hope I didn’t ruin this-”


Irowe cried out and bent over double as Fallon attempted to hug her. She held a hand to her mouth and knelt down, her ribs reminding her how little they cared for being slammed into the Throat’s peak three days ago.


“I’m sorry! Are you hurt?”


“I’ll be...” she winced, “fine...”


Fallon walked away and started digging through his horse’s packs. Irowe lowered herself to a sitting position away from the horse, holding her ribs and looking around to find something to focus on besides throwing up. She raised an eyebrow at the dirty gold chevrons on the horse’s tack. The Thalmor’s ‘eagle’ sigil, though she’d personally never seen it in the two triangles. She didn’t recall any of their three horses from the Embassy being bay dun, and they weren’t stupid enough to slap Thalmor insignias all over the tack when traveling through Stormcloak territory.


Irowe’s skin prickled underneath the Greybeard robes. Fallon was riding alone.


“Where’s Amuril?”


“At the College. Or he was- he’s probably on his way to the mountain now. I think I got a little lost, I’m sorry.”


Fallon walked back over and knelt down, holding out an uncorked phial that made the Greybeards’ tithe potions smell like watered-down manure. Irowe took it gratefully and swallowed. She wasn’t sure who made the Greybeards’ potions, but she had little doubt Fallon’s were better made. Irowe wiped her mouth; the white gleam from her wedding ring caught her eye.


“Without his ring?”


“Oh. That-”Even in the pale magelight Fallon’s face colored. He reached under his cloak and cuirass, pulling up a chain around his neck, and a matching glowing ring on the chain. “He- he gave it to me so you could find me. I broke my arm, but I think it’s better now. It was ugly when he left for the College.”


Irowe stopped and swallowed the mouthful she had, sitting down before the wavering between her ears made her fall down. Amuril could wait, for now. The idiot. She hooked her fingers into Fallon’s belt and forced him to sit down as well.


“Which arm?” She asked, already peeling off her gloves and pushing back the Greybeard robe’s long sleeves.


Fallon cleared his throat quietly but reached out to unbutton his left sleeve. Irowe reached up and grabbed the wandering magelight to anchor it closer. She pushed up his sleeve and looked at his arm, taking his wrist with her left hand, as her right was always better at Restoration.


Irowe frowned and ran her hand down his arm, then up it again, casting a low level healing spell, then just using her fingers.


“Fallon, I can’t tell that your arm’s ever been broken.”


His arm squirmed in her hands, and his shoulders rolled just slightly in the light; she could see his knees and shins fidgeting as well.


“Really?” There was a waver in his voice. Could be excited relief; could be panic. “I thought it was fixed but- Irowe, I don’t know what’s going on anymore. That crazy Advisor with the evil magic balls, evil dead Nords, healing lights - I think I’d take dragons over this. The living kind, not the undead ones.”


“Fallon, there’s no such thing as undead dragons.”


“There is in that ruin.”


Irowe blinked, but continued staring at him. That wasn’t how undeath worked, not with dragons. Dragons were strange creatures: they weren’t so much ‘killed’ as... overpowered by another being’s willpower, in a sense. Although when the dragon’s slayer was a mortal it was not so much ‘ceding defeat’ as ‘admitting that a physical body was inconvenient at the moment’. Even then, the dragon’s spirit would never truly leave its body, lingering in the hopes that Alduin would show mercy or have need of them and restore them to corporeality. A dragon’s soul would only truly leave its body with another dragon with stronger willpower.


In a sense, all the dragons she had killed were only voices in her head because she was (and continued to be) more arrogant than they were.


So it was with deep skepticism that she continued listening to the young Bosmer’s tale.


“It was like a raised skeleton, but a dragon - a big one. And there were dead Nord ghosts and wisp things and a- a horrible dead Nord with a mask.”


Irowe’s ears twitched.


“What?”


Fallon paused, nodded, and continued. “Mm. There was a dead Nord at the end that had the Staff Amuril needed. It had a mask and-” Fallon frowned. “It could Shout.”


“Is it dead?”


He nodded again, bobbing his head up and down. “Amuril killed it. It-” Irowe glanced down. He was rubbing his arm. “Amuril killed it. It’s ashes now.”


Irowe flicked her gaze back up to him, raising his arm up enough to hold it straight while trying to ignore an angry quiver in her gut. Qonahmir and the others knew there were dragon priests - undoubtedly a high priest as well - under the ruined Labyrinthian, in the ancient Bromjunaar, but she hadn’t thought... No one had gone that far down into the mountains since the dragon cult was snuffed out a few centuries after the Dragon War: no younger generations looking to resettle the ideal trading pass; no foolhardy adventurers looking for valuable relics.


She’d actually thought Amuril and Fallon would be safer without her Thu’um attracting their attention and waking the priests from their slumber. It hadn’t occurred to her or her dragons that the priests - a high priest, from Fallon’s insistence on a mask - might already be awake.


Irowe exhaled and examined Fallon’s arm once again, feeling with the spell deep into his bones and through them. The magelight winked out but the spell cast a golden pallor on Fallon’s skin. She was looking for even the slightest fracture, even smaller than a hair. Draugr were deceptively strong: something about the enchantments or magical process of that path to undeath made them stronger than the mountain tombs they resided in. Strong enough to lift boulders taller than themselves as easily as a child lifted a fallen twig.


“Is that what broke your arm?” Irowe asked quietly. She watched Fallon’s throat bob as he swallowed; she felt the tremor creep under his skin.


“I-it... it grabbed my arm, and...” He swallowed again and wet his bottom lip. She couldn’t ignore the gentle tug he gave on instinct to curl his forearm back to his chest. “It looked really bad, but it feels fine now.” He said.


Irowe ran her eye down his arm again. It was straight as an arrow. “Well, I can’t see that it was ever broken, so whatever Amuril did, it worked.”


“Amuril didn’t do anything. I-” Fallon coughed. “He gave me potions! He gave me all the potions we had left and- and his ring so you could find me. But then there were the- the lights I told you about. They fixed my arm. I don’t know how, or why. I’m- I’m not going to question it, if you’re sure it’s healed.”


Irowe nodded and released his wrist. “I’m sure.”


Fallon nodded back, a nervous smile growing on his face. His knees started bouncing, only the movement registering in the dark. An aching hollow grew in her chest and she reached out to his shoulder, leaning over and pulling steadily until Fallon moved closer to her. Irowe wrapped her arms and legs around him and started rocking back and forth, stroking his hair. She focused on finding a rhythm that didn’t make her chest ache so much, then on trying not to blink so the tears didn’t fall.


She could have lost him. She wasn’t even aware he had been injured, hadn’t even thought that he and Amuril would have such trouble in Labyrinthian. Irowe’s breath shook and she squeezed his shoulders. Fallon was not Broldan, the little four year old Bosmer boy she and his sister would take turns calming during the Occupation. He wasn’t Vylie either, or Vylie’s son or some other ghost of her. They were both gone. But she wasn’t going to lose Fallon, or Amuril, the way she’d lost them.


So it would probably be best if they got out of the Reach road in the late hours of the night.


Irowe sniffled and patted his shoulders, letting him stand up and accepting his hand to help her up as well. Fallon whistled and beckoned the horse over, chiding it under his breath when it only came on the third call.

She wasn’t sure he understood why she would infrequently hold him quietly. She wasn’t sure he truly tolerated it either, but while they’d coaxed him to speak up on things he didn’t like, he never talked about that particular habit. She wasn’t even sure she could fully explain - to him or Amuril - why she needed to hold him at times. Irowe ran her fingers through her hair and sighed. Even if she didn’t feel her family was going to be a problem much longer, she didn’t see the point explaining Vylie to anyone this long after her death.


Fallon took the horse’s reins and turned it sideways, smiling up at Irowe. Irowe eyed him, then the horse’s saddle and stirrups, her stomach knotting all the while.


“Where are we going?” Irowe asked, stalling for time. “The College is nowhere near here, and neither is High Hrothgar.”


“Oh-” Fallon let go of the reins and dug around in his cuirass, withdrawing a folded paper from a breast-pocket. “Amuril said he had friends here. He said he’d meet us at that island when he’d dropped off the Staff.”


Irowe took the paper and unfolded it, running a faint healing spell over her wrists to see by. The parchment was from Amuril’s journal, judging from the coffee stains dotting the edges. The ‘map’ was terribly drawn with squiggly charcoal, enough that she suspected Amuril had made it in a hurry using the horse’s saddle as a table. A large bold ‘X’ marked an island in the middle of the ‘rivec~’ (going off his sprawled legend), with a dotted line for the ‘rodd’ leading straight past it.


Irowe’s eyes narrowed and she snorted. “‘Friends’ my ass.” She said, folding the paper back up and rolling her eyes.


“You know them?”


“I don’t like them. But if Amuril’s coming I’ll put up with them, as long as they let me sleep.”


Fallon took the folded up map and returned it to his pocket. Irowe huffed and lunged forward, putting a foot in the stirrup and swinging herself over before her body could fully realize what she was doing and complain. The jolt and wave of revulsion that followed when she connected with the saddle should have been expected. Irowe bit back a groan and poured a healing spell into her abdomen. At least she was on the horse.


Fallon took the reins, and she could see by his face he noticed the watering in her eyes and how green she looked. He bit his lip and held up a small potion. Irowe shook her head. At the moment anything but air inside her mouth was just going to come right back out. He nodded and placed it back in a satchel on the saddle.


“Fallon. I don’t know how I’m getting off the horse.” She admitted.


“We’ll think of something. Amuril’s friends will help.”


Irowe closed her eyes and chuckled. Fallon patted her leg, then the horse’s flank, and started walking. He bent over next to a boulder, picking up the Elder Scroll’s long frame from where it had fallen minutes ago, and tucked it into the saddlebags. Irowe shivered, pulling her hair back out of the way in case she threw up again. She would try to aim for the empty road on the left, and hopefully would have the luck to miss the Greybeard robe. The last thing she wanted was to smell like vomit all the way to the Blades sanctuary.

Chapter Text

The home of the famous Bards' College, Haafingar is also one of Skyrim's chief ports: Solitude. Ships from up and down the coast can be found at her crowded quays, loading timber and salted cod for the markets of Wayrest, West Anvil, and Senchal.


WIND gusted up the cliffs of the Bay of Solitude and the long road switchbacking down the cliffs to the docks. Delphine blew hair out of her face, trying to tuck the loose strands back under her cloak’s hood. She was wearing a gray dress, grayer corset and dark cloak, along with enough makeup pancaked on her face to hide 30 years of paranoid worrying.


Gray wasn’t a color young women tended to wear, but everything Esbern had looked like mourning clothes, and they’d draw attention if they didn’t match. The story she used in her head was he was her grandfather and they were in Skyrim for her parents’ funeral. Or something.


There was only so much she could do with black and gray.


They walked close enough that their shoulders brushed every fourth step, down the last flight of steps to the docks proper. The walkways were lined with the night’s catch, with previous catches drying or fermenting in shacks and stalls near the ships. On the outer docks - really the rocky shore past the larger ships, she saw Argonians setting out mats and showcasing the pearls they’d retrieved from the river’s mouth, as well as the dubiously legal treasures they’d looted from wrecks only they could reach.


The path to the East Empire Trading Company’s dockside office however, was easy to find: it was just a matter of following the foreign wares and spices.


Malborn’s schedule was always hectic at the start of the winter - the Thalmor Embassy tended to stock up on the food and drink they required to brave out being so far from ‘civilization’. The trouble was the elves tended to go through their stores faster in the winter: no doubt because the Isles were warm and mild, and Haafingar was anything but. But the equinox was a few weeks away, and any winter holiday that could excuse feasting was long behind them, so Malborn’s schedule was calming down as well.


Delphine squinted out from under her cloak, keeping an eye out for any Altmer. She glanced back at Esbern, tugging his hood down a little more.


Esbern huffed and adjusted his hood. “If it’s like that I can’t see.”


“You can’t be seen either.” Delphine pointed out. “And it was your brilliant idea to tag along. I told you: I don’t need help. I’m just meeting Malborn, trying to find out when our friends are moving-”


Further discussion was silenced by a group of dock workers carrying crates past. Delphine and Esbern stepped out of their way and behind a shack, waiting for them to pass, then continued toward the office. Delphine wrinkled her nose and peered around. This close to the East Empire Company’s part of the docks, the fishermen was starting to thin out, replaced with sailors moving goods from northern High Rock and the Gold Coast. Most of the local fishing men were men, though she saw a few Khajiit and Orcs scattered among the common sailors.


The more ‘cultured’ the goods became however, the more Dunmer and Altmer she saw in the crowds. There were still only a handful, but any of the High Elves could be Thalmor, working for them, or overseeing men and women all too willing to sell their kin out for gold. The High Elves they could avoid, but doing so without doing so obviously would be difficult on the crowded docks. The spies and agents she had no real guard against, other than good old paranoia and being quicker with a knife.


Esbern covered his face and sneezed, shaking his hands with disgust and wiping them on his tunic. “This wouldn’t be necessary if they had gone up the mountain when I told them to-”


“They’re not climbing the Throat in the middle of winter, you maniac.” Delphine said, reaching over and backhanding his shoulder. “We need them alive, remember?”


“Alduin doesn’t care about the weather.” Esbern grumbled, rubbing his shoulder.


Delphine rolled her eyes. She’d spent what felt like all winter cooped up with Esbern at Sky Haven, listening to him do little else but carp and moan. The Dragonborn’s reluctance to travel until the Mountain was safe was his common complaint. The archives were too far from the dormitories for his liking, despite having their own (spacious) separate quarters for the loremasters. The food was too burnt, but they were both to blame for that as they shared cooking duties. The halls were too cold, which was especially rich considering they shared a bed by the fire to keep warm and he was a Nord.


Delphine took his wrist and pushed ahead in the crowd, swinging their arms to act the age she looked. “Come along, grandfather.” The disgruntled glance to the heavens Esbern gave only credence to the illusion.


She was beginning to worry about Malborn though. She hadn’t seen him at all. Asking around (under the pretense of being a wide-eyed country girl) if the ‘elves in robes’ had come through, a few locals said they were down at the docks and warned her to stay clear of them. One woman nearly her age took her aside and told her they might slip a Talos amulet in her pocket to ‘arrest’ her for other reasons. Esbern muttered something about ‘none of that’ and steered her away before the conversation got much further.


Delphine frowned. High Elves - especially the reigning emissary - refused to live like common men, even if Skyrim was far from the most prestigious post the Thalmor sent Justiciars to. She’d expected to see at least one of the purple-robed bastards looming around a doorway. The only suspicious or at least ‘not a merchant’ looking Altmer she’d seen on the docks was a wizard in a nobleman’s entourage.


But the Thalmor were in Solitude. Everyone was acting like they were, all high-strung and glancing over their shoulders, words picked too carefully to be casual conversation. Everyone was on edge. Delphine frowned and tugged Esbern with her into the causeway once the carts were clear. Where-


Delphine hit something - someone, judging from the relative soft landing her face had - and cried out. Her left hand went for her nose as she stumbled back, her right hand for her hip-


Esbern grabbed her wrist, digging his fingers into tendons as her fingers reached for her knife unconsciously. She blinked away the daze and stared as cold seeped down her back. A justiciar.


The Altmer straightened his robes, fingers shaking and slipping on the damp leather. “Watch where you’re going, girl.” He snapped.


“I’m so sorry sir.” Esbern blurted out before Delphine could say anything, hands still wrapped around her wrist. She cleared her throat, feeling that her voice was still too deep from the scare to pass as a young girl. Gods, but she hadn’t expected to just walk into one of them. “Please forgive my granddaughter- Eirid, apologize.”


“Yes yes- I’m sure you’re very sorry. Be more careful next time, now shoo.”


The mer made dismissive motions with his hands and ran a quick eye over both of them, then hurried down the causeway. In his haste to push through the crowd he nearly walked into a market stall; Delphine allowed herself a thin smile knowing it hadn’t been her fault she’d bumped into him. The smile faded as she thought harder on what could possibly make a justiciar so... jumpy.


“I would have expected something more biting than that.” Esbern muttered.


Delphine hummed her throat in agreement, watching the mer make his way down to a warehouse. “Did you see how scared he looked, or was that just me?”


“Something seemed amiss, yes.”


Delphine smoothed her dress, crinkling her nose as she thought. “... Are we at war?”


As soon as she’d said it she thought better of it. Even if Solitude was the most Imperial of cities in Skyrim, it was still a Nordic city. If the Empire had declared war on the Dominion the Thalmor’s embassy and headquarters would be the first in all Tamriel to burn. And if the Dominion had declared war on the Empire, their rank and file justiciars wouldn’t be wandering the docks by themselves acting suspiciously.


Esbern hemmed and stroked his beard. Delphine shook her head and made a note of the warehouse the mer had disappeared into. 119. There was something going on however, and now that she’d noted the Thalmor acting strangely she had an idea of who had caused it. She just prayed that whatever it was that they’d done to cause the tension, it didn’t affect the Malciors. Or Malborn.


The slow trip they made to the warehouse was almost unbearable. Delphine would tug Esbern into stalls to look at pretty little things - necklaces, amulets, dresses, ornate daggers - and he would pull out his pocket watch or glance up at the sun and usher her out of them. They wandered left down the causeway following tiny carved bears from Wrothgar, nixad carvings from Anvil, and guarskin handicrafts from Dagon Fel. Until they reached the alley between warehouse 118 and 119. They stepped into the alley as a cart drove past and melded with the late morning’s shadows. If she didn’t know that Esbern owned nothing but gray clothes, she might have suspected he dressed this way on purpose.


Delphine rolled up her dress and cloak, tucking both into a deceptively small pack. Underneath were her Thieves Guild leathers, and she strapped the bandolier across her chest before setting the pack down behind some crates. Esbern looked around, keeping as low as his back would allow, peering into shuttered windows. Delphine tucked her hair into her cap and crept up behind him, pointing to a ramp that led to a higher level.


At the top of the ramp Delphine withdrew a lockpick from the bandolier and crouched next to the door. A minute of unbearable quiet clicking later, the door was unlocked and they slipped inside. The warehouse was well stocked with wares, but nearly empty in its busiest corner. Barked orders in Altmeris confirmed they were in the right place, and the tones used were even more emotionally charged than the mer she’d bumped into on the causeway.


Delphine held a hand to Esbern’s chest and patted the door. He stared at her a moment before rolling his eyes with a small sigh, and stayed to guard the door. She crept along the top walkway, picking her way past cranes and levers for hoisting the larger crates. She had been a Blades Agent, working out in the field and undercover after she’d enlisted from the Thieves Guild. Esbern was a loremaster, and while he could go to ground for decades without being found, stealth was not his strong suit.


She rounded the corner and was finally able to see the mer scurrying about like insects down below, instead of watching their magelight shadows on the crates and walls. The company looked to be evenly Bosmer and Altmer, though the Altmer were clad in glass armor, not the usual gilded elven suits. Delphine stopped and held still in mid-crouch. Glass armor: they’d broken out the glass armor for a trip into Solitude.


Those suits cost more than the mer wearing them were paid in a year, and the longer she watched them, the more she got the feeling those fifteen suits were the only ones they had up at the Embassy. Altmer were superstitious about numbers, especially numbers that were one less than a Sacred Number. ‘Ill omens’ followed ‘fallen numbers’ she’d been told, so for the Embassy to send the mer out in the suits regardless was an ill omen by itself.


Her shoulders lightened from a worry she hadn’t realized she was carrying. Malborn was here, she’d recognize that frizzy beehive hair anywhere. He did look exceptionally busy however, and there were guards everywhere. Delphine chewed her lip. The Bosmer were loading a cart under the hawkish watch of their masters. Malborn didn’t look like he was any different from the others, which was... odd. Elenwen preferred him above the other servants, even other Altmer, at least where his palate was concerned. It never equated to much, but he and Delphine had grown accustomed to his better-than-deplorable treatment and the opportunities to share a table and talk out the sides of their mouths.


Delphine kept watch on the guards, noting their patrol patterns, where they liked to stand out of the way of the moving crates, and which corners they looked at more than others. She exhaled and walked back along the far edge of the top walkway, out of sight of the floor. She knew one way that was sure to get Malborn’s attention. Delphine grimaced and lowered herself to a ramp a few feet from the floor. She checked the guards again, only moving once she saw she hadn’t drawn their attention.


She cast Muffle on herself, in addition to the enchantments of the leather armor, and took a mouthful of potion from a white phial. She didn’t swallow as she jumped down from the ramp to a shadowed part of the floor. Some of the invisibility potion dribbled out down her chin when she landed, but Delphine kept moving. Invisibility potions were the shortest lived of any potion, but keeping some of it in the mouth, especially on the tongue, made them last longer. She had enough to keep her hidden until the cart.


Her heart was beating in her neck as she walked along the cart’s wooden frame. She ducked behind one of the guards and reached up to grab the top of the cart. The invisibility potion broke when she touched the wood. As expected. Delphine hoisted herself up with one arm, snatched up an ornate bottle larger than her head, and dropped back down to the ground. The invisibility phial was on her lips before she’d taken a full stride.


Delphine tried to still her heartbeat as the cart disappeared behind a stack of crates. That was hardly the most dangerous thing she’d done in the last month, but any interaction with the Thalmor was a brush with death. She held up the bottle once the invisibility potion wore off, pulling the gold-threaded cord away from the label. Abecean Brandy from Stros M’Kai. Delphine raised an eyebrow and tilted her head. Elenwen had some expensive taste.


The bottle was laid reverently on the ground (she didn’t want to get Malborn in trouble for it being damaged) and she sat behind a crate to watch it. He would come eventually.


She had just pulled down her facemask to breathe easier when she heard the shuffle of feet coming down the maze of crates. Delphine kept her eye on the far corner of the crate and reseated her mask. A quick gasp and exasperated sigh proceeded whoever it was coming closer.


“Lady’s horns, what is this doing back here?” Malborn said under his breath. He picked the bottle up and turned it over, looking for cracks or frayed cord. “Who’s the idiot-”


Delphine tapped her knuckles on the dusty stones of the warehouse floor. Malborn stiffened and turned, eyes only growing wider when he saw her. His gaze darted toward the cart, his mouth hanging open while he debated calling the guards.


That was when Delphine remembered she was dressed all in Thieves Guild leathers and had just ‘stolen’ a very expensive brandy. She swore under her breath-


“Malborn, it’s me. It’s Delphine- calm down.” She said, holding her hands up.


“Calm down? Calm down?!” Malborn hissed, clutching the bottle like a childhood doll. His mouth hung agape and he stepped back as she approached, now glancing at the cart with apprehension. “What are you doing here?!”


“Trying to reach our mutual friends. Can we meet you at the Skeever this evening-”


Malborn stepped into her, hair brushing against the underside of her hood. “As soon as these are all loaded we’re leaving. They’re going to shore up the Embassy again. I might not be out until summer.”


Delphine blinked at him, as that was all the response she could muster. Spring was Elenwen’s favorite time to throw parties as it was one of the few seasons when the north coast of Haafingar was somewhat bearable. She couldn’t imagine what would turn the Ambassador into a shut-in.


Malborn sighed and stepped back, rubbing his forehead, still holding the bottle in the crook of his arm. “Look, our days of chatting over mudcrab legs are over. Herself’s been ousted, there’s a new mer from Markarth in charge - Ondolemar. Right bastard. No fun at all, and no cutting corners. They’ll notice now if I have a sweetroll to myself, let alone a few ales while the carts are loaded.”


“What happened?


“What happened?” Malborn replied mockingly. “Winterhold?”


Delphine frowned. Winterhold? That was where the Mages College was, at least she thought so. There wasn’t much to Winterhold, besides the only bastion of lawful magic in Skyrim outside of the Court Wizard chambers in the palaces of a few holds. Farengar had gone there, and she seemed to remember that the only way up to Winterhold (reliably) was through a mountain pass right above Windhelm.


Her frown deepened. What could the Thalmor possibly have to do with a place like that? Had they lost their minds?


Malborn’s face fell. “Oh. Shit. You were here about them, weren’t you?”


“What happened in Winterhold?”


“I don’t have time- ask around. But the Council wants a few heads. Your friend was involved. His wife’s dead and the servant’s missing, and everyone’s terrified the locals have gotten smart and will burn down the Embassy. They’ve probably started a war-”


Delphine grabbed his shoulders. “The wife’s dead?”


Malborn glared down at her hands and tried to shrug her off. “I just said that-”


“She can’t be dead.”


His eyes went cold. “Well I’m sorry. I don’t have better news. His wife’s dead, the servant’s missing, and he’s been carted back to Alinor to stand trial. And I’ve got to make sure the masters have all the provisions they need to last a siege because the Council would rather let them die than help them-”


Raised voices back at the cart made both of their hair stand on end: Malborn’s more so. Delphine crouched down and back into the shadows, leaning heavy against the shelf’s post. The Dragonborn couldn’t be dead. Malborn had to have heard them wrong. She didn’t have a high opinion of the woman, no - she was short-tempered and more than a little short-sighted at times - but Delphine hadn’t actually thought she was in danger of being killed. She had watched that elf trade Shouts with a freshly-raised frost dragon, more exhausted at the end from shouting curses at it than the little effort it took for her to kill it.


She couldn’t be dead.


“I’m sorry. I have to go.” Malborn’s voice quivered but he kept his eyes glued on the shadows bouncing in the magelights. “Get out before they see you.”


Delphine kept still as he left. She hadn’t felt like this since seeing the smoke of Cloud Ruler rise over the Jeralls. She couldn’t be dead. There was a prophecy to be fulfilled, she couldn’t...


She walked around the floor of the warehouse until she found a ladder. It was a long walk back up the ramps and across causeways to the upper door where Esbern waited. She tapped his shoulder and continued walking outside, not speaking until they were in a different alley, just out of sight of warehouse 119.


Esbern was silent when she told him. He was silent as she clad herself in the dress again, only making herself look presentable out of rote finger memory. She clasped the cloak around her neck again and ran her hands over her face. Part of her wanted to walk back inside and grab Malborn, Thalmor be damned. If the Dragonborn was dead, the rest of the world would follow. That was the one thing Esbern had drilled into her head all winter, but it was waking up and having dinner most nights under Alduin’s Wall that made her believe it. And she didn’t want Malborn to die alone, not among the Thalmor. He deserved better than that.


Delphine froze and stood up straighter against the wall. No. Master Malcior was not, technically, the last Dragonborn. She had a son, somewhere in the Summerset Isles, for all the good it would do them here in Skyrim. Her stomach rolled and she hugged it. Gods above, how were they going to get to Summerset and find the one Dragonborn left in all Nirn with his mother dead, his father imprisoned, and the servant probably dead as well?


Delphine pinched her nose between her fingers. She should have insisted on having a way to reach the boy when she had his parents at Sky Haven Temple. She godsdamned knew better but didn’t think either of them would be so boneheaded as to make her need their son to fight dragons.


“Winterhold then.” Esbern said.


The sudden words cleared the thoughts circling in her mind. There was still a chance the Dragonborn was not dead, merely misplaced somewhere. Or they could find the servant. She doubted they would have given him something to reach all the way back to Summerset with, but Master Malcior had given the impression they could travel back any time they wanted to. Maybe she’d get lucky and their Bosmer would have their gear with him, whatever it was they used to travel quickly. If they couldn’t find him, someone at the Mages College might be able to help if she dropped Farengar’s name in the right places.


“I need a drink.” She said at last. “And we’ll need heavy winter gear to make it through the pass.”


The two Blades walked out into a quiet spell of the crowd, their faces matching the grim color of their clothes. Esbern was muttering under his breath, counting something, looking up at the sky now and then. Delphine didn’t have the energy to do more than the casual glance around to check that they weren’t being followed.


“I may be mistaken, but we should have most of what we need at the sanctuary.” Esbern said as they reached the crossroads. A well-worn stone path led to the stables; a broader but equally worn road led up the mountainside to Solitude’s gates.


“We still need to know what we’re up against.” Delphine said, striking out on the road leading up and north. “And I told you: I need a drink.”


Esbern lingered in the crossroad. Delphine didn’t look back. She could hear him sigh in exasperation and hurry up the slope after her. There were more legionnaires on the road, and the guards didn’t stay in one place for long unless there was an Altmer nearby. Delphine shook her head. Something else she should have noticed. She hadn’t really been wrong on her assumption, if Malborn wasn’t exaggerating, just a little premature.


“Think you can get us into that College?”


Esbern hemmed and looked at her as they walked. He scratched his beard and moved his head back and forth: not a yes, but not a no either. “If you can use enough spells to pass yourself as my apprentice, I think I could bluster my way in.” He muttered. “If tensions are high around Windhelm, we might even get away with not having robes.”


Delphine nodded. That was the plan then. She could cook up some story about knowing Farengar - maybe Esbern was fetching something for him - if Esbern’s ‘diplomacy’ went the way she expected. Then again, they were mages. Mages tended to all be like Esbern and Farengar.


The lines to get in the city were longer than usual, and the line for the Skeever longer still, but Corpulus had made damned sure his was the only inn near the gates and she didn’t care to head further in. All the travelers would be gathered at the Skeever, so that was where the most recent news would be. She needed to know how things were out on the roads, especially in Stormcloak territory, and that wasn’t something the inner city tended to gossip about.


Delphine didn’t have to try too hard to make her eyes misty or look distant as they thanked a band of merchants for sharing their table. The men didn’t pry too much into the Blades’ somber mood, except attempting to cheer ‘the young lass’ up a bit. She let a half-smile grace her face as she focused on the ale, letting her ears pick up on the conversations around her. It’d be better to rest here for the night and head for Dragon’s Bridge in the morning, to give the horse some rest. She sighed. It was going to be a long, mopey evening in the bar.



It had rained all the way from Dragon’s Bridge, but once they reached the south side of the Karthspire the rains stopped. Delphine wasn’t going to argue with the odd, inconsistent weather of the Reach, not this late at night. Esbern groaned and smacked his lips, leaning back in the saddle and trying to stretch his legs. They’d been riding most of the day and most of the night, only stopping for meals, to switch riders, and a quick nap before dusk. It wasn’t wise to stay in one place for long - or to get too comfortable - in the Reach.


The horse nickered and put a little more power into its step, nagging Delphine to keep up. She yawned and smiled, reaching up to pat the horse’s neck. Old girl recognized the bridge under the Karthspire’s shadow; she knew they were almost home.


Her heart fluttered at that. Home, a Blades temple to call her own. True, it was empty save herself and Esbern, but just being surrounded by chandeliers decked with ancient katana or seeing a First Era mural as she ate her breakfast was (in some ways) more uplifting than knowing there was a Dragonborn in Skyrim. She yawned again and the smile was gone. They would be heading out again to search for the Dragonborn, as soon as the mare was rested, and this time with more kit. It’d probably be better to use her as a pack horse and have both of them walk beside her instead of switching off as they’d done to and from Solitude.


The mare slowed as they entered the Karthspire’s mouth and ascended the winding wooden ramps the Forsworn had left. Esbern had found a lur months back for mimicking dragon calls, and he made a habit of using it every few days to keep the canyon valley ‘haunted’. There’d still been no sign of any Forsworn in the area since, not even a scout. She wasn’t really surprised by that, just dumbfounded.


Delphine rubbed her face, silently hoping that Esbern would hold off on blowing it until they left for Winterhold. She hated that thing and the sounds it made, even if it did scare people away from the Karthspire.


They lowered and crossed the stone bridges with the puzzle pillars, and Delphine disarmed the poisoned pressure plates, walking out the safe path with tired eyes so Esbern could bring the mare across. She sighed and rubbed her shoulders; she knew it was more defensible to keep the stables past all the traps and next to the temple, but it was godsdamned inconvenient this late at night.


Esbern dismounted, groaning and stretching his back, then taking the reins and leading the horse to the stable door hidden in the rock. Delphine opened the door, and a stall, then took a blanket off the rack.


“How long do you think you’ll need to pack in the morning?”


Esbern rested his elbows on the stable door and his head in his hands, stretching again as his back popped. “We should let the horse rest at least a day-”


A horse whinnied and stumbled to its feet in a far stall. Their mare snorted and moved closer to it. Delphine threw her back against the wall and drew her katana, hearing the crinkle of frost coating Esbern’s hands. Esbern shot a magelight down the aisle and walked to the far side of the aisle, both Blades advancing toward the strange horse. In the pale light the strange horse was cream colored and bare; she thought she saw its tack on the wall beside its stall.


As they drew closer her heart beat pounded. Thalmor emblems decorated the tack.


Despite their careful approach, they learned in a minute that the stable’s only other occupant was the strange horse. Delphine stared at the horse craning its neck over the stall to reach theirs, then lost focus on the tack hanging on the wall.


The Thalmor had found them. It didn’t make sense, but they’d found them. She snapped her hand out and pulled the bridle down, running her hands over it to convince herself this was real. She hoped she was just tired from the day’s journey, but no. The leather felt real under her gloves. The metal felt cool on her skin. And there was no mistaking the smell of manure in the stall, even a few hours old.


Her hands started to shake. It didn’t make sense. The Thalmor wouldn’t send a lone agent to Sky Haven, even if they were trying to start a war with the Empire. They’d send more than one. They’d broken out the glass armor for a food run, of course they would send more than one agent to investigate a Blades stronghold.


“Delphine.” Esbern murmured, laying a hand on her forearm. “We might not need to go to Winterhold after all.”


She stared at him. It took her a minute - she was tired - before she realized he was talking about the Dragonborn. That... honestly made more sense than a lone Thalmor scout, given the political climate. But she couldn’t deny that it could be an elaborate Thalmor trap. They knew she’d evaded them multiple times, through more intricate snares than this one, and Esbern was a mastermind at picking apart stratagems. They’d have to do something more than this.


Unless they’d finally decided to try something simple for a change, hoping the Blades would fall for it. She couldn’t be too careful where the Thalmor were concerned, not if she wanted to continue breathing.


Delphine looked around the floor. There were places on the saddle where bags could be stowed, but she didn’t see any here. Nothing that marked the horse as belonging to the Malciors specifically, but even then she wouldn’t put that past a crafty Thalmor operative. They might know who the Dragonborn was, or that the Malciors were involved with them.


“I don’t like it.” Delphine muttered.


There was nothing else for it though, but to head into the temple itself and pray Esbern was right. That said, there was no reason she couldn’t be cautious about it. Delphine stripped down to her leathers again, leaving the outer dress and cloak in the stable before slipping out, Esbern not far behind. The walk up to the head of Reman Cyrodiil and the stairs to the temple proper wasn’t long, but all her hair stood on end regardless.


The head was recessed into the ceiling of the curving stairs, as expected. Even with stored vials of the Dragonborn’s blood, neither one of them wanted to risk sealing the Temple and being stranded outside it. There were pulleys and cranes on the river that led up to a sky-dock - Esbern would go on about how it was used to bring supplies in during the sanctuary’s golden days - but that was a long climb through open air on ropes she had no reason to trust.


Delphine looked around, moving vines and hanging moss with her katana. Maybe they’d hidden other mounts somewhere outside the Karthspire and brought an entire infiltration unit. Esbern sighed and walked out into the middle of the open cave, standing in the moonlight. Delphine kept watch on him but continued circling the cave, her face burning as her poking around turned up nothing.


“Delphine, they wouldn’t leave the horse here for us to find. They’re not that careless.”


“Unless that’s what they want us to think.”


Esbern’s head lolled back, a wordless plea to the gods. “It is far more likely that we are about to, as they say, ‘wake a dragon’. We might not want to do so by skulking about in the shadows, unless you feel spry enough to dodge one of her Shouts.”


“I don’t think it’s wise to go in there making a racket just because you’re optimistic.” Delphine snapped.


The words came out angrier than she meant them to, but he understood. Caution was only paranoia if no one was after them, and they had far fewer allies than either of them liked. It could be the Thalmor, and that was the thought her mind kept returning to despite herself. It could be a trap.


But Esbern was right. Startling the Dragonborn, especially if she was on edge, alone, or being hunted, was not the wisest of ideas either.


Delphine lowered her sword but stayed in the shadows. “Both then. You make the racket, and I’ll cover you if you’re wrong.”


Esbern cast a magelight into his skullcap and gathered the fabric around it, dulling the light until it was barely enough to see by. He ascended the stairs to the temple’s great hall, the dull grey light casting shadows on the relief carvings. Delphine waited until she couldn’t see the light’s edge, then another second, and followed him up the steps.


It wasn’t really that she was afraid of any Thalmor inside the temple - she was, especially since she and Esbern were exhausted from the road. But what worried her more was what that meant, given how the Thalmor operated. The Thalmor never moved alone, or without orders, or extensive preliminary reports. If there were Thalmor here, that meant they’d been spied on for weeks. It meant the Embassy up in Haafingar knew they were here. And it likely meant someone back in the Dominion had or was getting a report about a Blades stronghold in the Reach.


Everything they’d worked for would have to be thrown away. Sky Haven would have to be sealed again, to prevent the Thalmor from getting their hands on it. She would have to leave Esbern and strike out on her own again, per Grandmaster Jerauld’s last instructions, and she didn’t know if she could bear that. As much as the old Nord drove her up the wall, he was the only family she had left.


They reached the great hall and it was empty. Quiet, save for the steady streams and drips of rainwater flowing down from the skylights into grooves in the rock. Dark, save for old embers in the left stair’s braziers that had burned brightly sometime earlier in the day.


Delphine and Esbern both scanned the hall with detection spells and found nothing. Sky Haven’s stairs were a maze in and of themselves, winding up and down and up and down - the central stairs even led straight to an oubliette. But the two left staircases led to the dormitory, and that was the path their visitor had lit hours ago.


The question she had was: how had their visitor known that? The Dragonborn and her husband hadn’t stayed long in Sky Haven, leaving for the Embassy again once they’d learned they needed the Greybeards to go further.


Esbern climbed the left stairs that hugged the wall - that led to the larger, general dormitory - following the formerly lit braziers. Delphine hung back and followed, following the right side of the steps until the thick inner wall divided the stair. The wall blocked Esbern from view, instead showing her reliefs that spanned to the cavern’s ceiling high above. The frequent statues of ancient Dragonguard casting shadows in the moonlight did nothing to help her nerves. Delphine swallowed and forced herself to walk faster; Esbern’s staircase was shorter than hers, and he wasn’t walking as slow as she was.


She reached the smaller dormitory and paused just before the entrance, checking the room with a Detect Life spell. A faint glimmer of red shone through the walls. Delphine crept forward and cast it again. Their visitor was in the larger dorm, but at least they were alone. She sighed and straightened her back, the exhaustion seeping into her muscles as the panic dissipated into relief. Even her tired, nervous mind recognized the only person their visitor could be was the Dragonborn.


Delphine stepped into the hall, joining Esbern in the magelight, making eye contact with him as she sheathed her sword. He’d been right. She wasn’t going to say it out loud, but he was right.


“Thank you for being cautious.” Esbern said with a nod. Delphine’s mouth twitched and she rubbed her chin.


“Yeah, well, you’re welcome.”


They entered the larger dormitory. The fireplace was still going but the log nearly spent, and the bed nearest the fire was bundled high with blankets and furs. Delphine’s shoulders slumped. She and Esbern shared the bed, yes, but that was her bed.


Something rapped on metal behind them, over the sound of water draining from the skylights. Delphine spun, her katana slid from its sheath and held outstretched toward the noise. A Wood Elf stood against the wall, shielded from the doorway by a pillar, an arrow nocked and tapping against his moonstone bow, three other arrows in his hand. The nocked arrow shook as it pressed against the arrow rest and sat still.


“You’re Master Amuril’s friends?”


“Yes. I’m Delphine, this is Esbern.”


The bowstring relaxed and the arrows were returned to a quiver on his hip. He looked more relieved than she felt. ‘Friends’ though? She would have said associates, but apparently the Dragonborn’s husband had a higher opinion of them than she thought.


The Bosmer tapped the bow against his thigh, worrying his lip. Delphine ran a glance over him. His clothes were all wrinkled and barely laced up, sleeves puffy against his finger glove and armguard. He must have heard Esbern coming up the stairs and thrown his gear on quickly. “Fallon.” He said with a nod.


“Is the Dragonborn here?” Esbern asked.


“-She’s sleeping. Don’t bother trying to wake her: she’s been passed out since we got here.”


He nodded to the bundle of blankets behind them before pulling at the straps of his armguard. They were too far away to notice any rise or fall under the furs, but she trusted that the Dragonborn was underneath.


“Well, we can talk in the morning.” She blinked and wiped tired tears away. “I don’t suppose Amuril is with you?”


Fallon shook his head. “No. He had to do something at the College, but he’ll be on his way when he’s done.”


Delphine opened her mouth but had trouble thinking of words to say. Esbern gave her a knowing look. Fallon had taken his gear off and had a leg through the bow to unstring it before she finally found her tongue.


“I don’t think he’s on his way.”


“Of course he is. He said he’d come as soon as he given the mages the staff.”


She closed her eyes and shook her head. “Fallon, there...” He slowed, catching her melancholy undertone. “There was an incident, at the College. The Thalmor were involved.”


Fallon frowned and nodded, taking the string off the bow’s tip. “Yes, and Amuril was fixing it. That’s why he had to give them the staff.” He held it up and pried the other loop off the bow, coiling it smooth and securing it in a bag.


“I don’t know if he did or not, but we heard Amuril was captured, by the Thalmor. They took him back to Alinor, to stand trial.”


The lazy crackle of the fire and sluggish dripping of water from above were the only sounds in the silence. Fallon stood still, fingers tightening around the bow’s limb. Esbern’s magelight winked out.


“I’m sorry. I wish I had better news.” Delphine offered.


“Don’t tell her.” He said through a tight throat. “Please let her sleep. Tell her in the morning, but please let her sleep.”

Chapter Text

"High Hrothgar is a very peaceful place. Very... disconnected from the troubles of this world. I wonder that the Greybeards even notice what's going on down here. They haven't seemed to care before."

-- Jarl Balgruuf the Greater



GREY filled the skies around Whiterun’s tundra plains. Fallon’s eyes watered and he crinkled his nose, pulling up his scarf to mask the smell. Their cart passed into shadow and the haze hanging above the ground like pre-dawn mist. Patches of red and bright yellow flame-curled grass dotted the otherwise blackened grass, burning slowly and mixing with the stench of charred, rotting flesh.


Fleshflies flew up against his ear and Fallon waved his hands around, covering his head. The cart’s left half (his side) creaked as it tilted in the air-


Fallon shot a hand out and gripped the cart’s side in case he started sliding right. The cart groaned and slammed down on the road again. A fresh swarm of fleshflies buzzed up from underneath, and through the smoke Fallon saw the outline of a burned man against the charred stones. Fallon covered his face and swatted at the fleshflies, forcing himself to swallow the breakfast that had come up his throat.


The others, if they noticed the body, said nothing. From the smell of it the western watchtower was littered with bodies. There was nothing to be done about the one in the road.


Fallon pressed a hand against his nose to try and keep the fleshflies out and closed his eyes when the smoke made them burn. He hadn’t really wanted to come with Irowe and the Blades to Whiterun, but he didn’t want to stay in Sky Haven Temple all by himself either. The ancient fortress was chilling and creepy when empty, prone to echoes and odd settlings of the rock. They did need more alchemy supplies, for Irowe, since he’d used most of his, and the stock Delphine kept on hand was more for poisons than for potions.


He still wasn’t sure exactly what the plan was, but the others sounded like they did so he kept quiet. He didn’t need to worry about how Irowe was supposed to get to this Sovaffin place to kill the black dragon from Helgen - the one in the mural that was three times his height. He just had to worry about making sure she was healthy enough to fight it when she got there. And staying out of the way. And doing what he was told. He could do that, he was good at that.


The smoke faded away along with the fleshflies, but the smell lingered. Fallon swallowed, tucking his knee under his chin and looking hard at every cloud for dragon-shaped shadows. Irowe could probably kill whatever dragon it was that had done this, but she was just as likely to hurt herself more doing so. He looked over his shoulder, toward the front of the cart. Esbern was standing in the corner, staring glumly out at the tundra with his chin in his hand. Irowe was splayed out on the sacks of straw that counted as bedding, dead to the world with her mouth open and an arm over her eyes. Delphine was driving the cart.


Fallon’s eyes softened as a cold breeze blew in from the north, driving the smoke from his eyes. Whiterun loomed ahead, the lone hill on the tundra surrounded by mountains on every horizon. The city itself ran down every spare inch of hill, only hemmed in by the farms crowding the outer walls. Whiterun’s tundra - the part around the River White anyways - was excellent farmland in Skyrim, and Whiterun made use of every plot. And what wasn’t farmland was river, and what wasn’t river was a trading road.


It was, in his opinion, the trading capital of Skyrim. Solitude and Windhelm had the East Empire Trading Company, yes, and Morthal had its own native alchemy-rich marshland. But Whiterun was in the middle of Skyrim, and had a little bit of every other hold and city tucked away somewhere in its markets. It was just the matter of holding onto your coin until you found the right trader.


Fallon sat up straighter as something caught his eye, getting to his feet gingerly so not to wake Irowe. Other carts: carts loaded with goods. He broke out into a grin. It must be market day.


As they reached the end of the line, a pit started to gnaw at his stomach. Wagons farmers and merchants took to market were usually covered, somewhat tidy, and functioned as their own stalls and storefronts in case the city was full. The carts ahead were packed to burst, but hastily covered with furs or canvas and excessively-tied with rope. And it looked like most had children, families with them. Nobody looked like they’d bathed properly in days, which for Nords was saying something.


His heart fell into the pit in his stomach as it dawned on him these people weren’t looking to trade, but seeking shelter. From the rebellion fighting or the dragons, he couldn’t say. Maybe even both. Fallon sunk back down to the cart, staring down at the cobblestones passing under his feet. Irowe could stop the dragons, but she had no control over the rebellion. He honestly thought no one did, though the rebels and the Legion both claimed to have the upper hand in their own friendly territory.


He didn’t honestly keep track of which side held what towns, as it tended to change week to week along the fighting’s edges. East of the Throat was (almost) always Stormcloak territory, and west of it was (almost) always Legion. Except for Whiterun. He knew Whiterun had stayed out of the fighting so far, which was impressive given the first skirmishes were over a year ago. He’d heard several thoughts on way in taverns all over Skyrim: Jarl Balgruuf was not-so-secretly a Talos worshipper; the Empire hadn’t offered Whiterun enough coin to join their side; Jarl Balgruuf was Ulfric Stormcloak’s cousin and didn’t want to side against family; Jarl Balgruuf was trying to make his own bid for the seat of High King. Everyone he heard did agree on one thing though: when Whiterun did finally choose a side (or have one chosen for her) the fighting would only get worse.


Fallon sighed and went over the list they needed for alchemy ingredients in his head. Once they reached the city gates and were let inside, he would go to the market and buy what they needed. Irowe and the Blades would go speak to some elf wizard in the palace about making a trap for dragons. He just needed to do his part and be ready to leave when they were done. He looked back at the ruins of the western watchtower and the plumes of smoke rising from the tundra. The sooner they dealt with the dragons, the better it would be for everyone.



Delphine swore under her breath, cursing whichever Nordic architect it was who decided all the stairs leading up to Dragonsreach were a good idea. Esbern could probably give her a name, three trivial facts about their life and family, as well as a detailed account of how they’d made the steps, and she honestly could not care less. Jorrvaskr at least had the excuse of having been carried there by the Five-Hundred Companions. Dragonsreach was just at the top of the hill because some Jarl wanted to be higher up than everyone else.


She glanced over at the Dragonborn, already noticing the labor in the woman’s breath. This was the Cloud District, and Irowe was still recovering from her fight with Alduin and fool’s run down from the Throat. The last thing she wanted was for the woman to pass out climbing the stairs and hurt herself more. Especially when they were heading there to ask the Jarl’s permission to trap a dragon in his palace, so Irowe could ‘convince’ that dragon to fly her to Alduin’s stronghold.


Delphine winced. It was not one of Esbern’s better ideas, not that he tended to have good, sensible, un-complicated ideas. Well they were fairly simple, it’s just the execution of them was so difficult they were nearly impossible without some Divine’s intervention. Like the incident in Falinesti. Delphine flinched and focused on helping Irowe up the stairs. The less she dwelt on that, the better.


“Hold there! What’s your business in Cloud District?”


Delphine looked over at the guard’s faceless helmet, composed. “I’m here to see the Court Wizard Farengar. He’s expecting me.”


The guard pulled back, only a little, as he debated what she’d said. Delphine blinked and adjusted her grip on Irowe’s arm, walking out across the bridge leading to the jarl’s palace. She heard the shifting of chainmail behind them, and her shoulders only relaxed when she heard the following quiet muttering about ‘mages’ and ‘wizards’.


The guards on the other side, guarding the main door to the great hall, took their comrade’s non-action as permission and opened the doors for them. The three stopped at the bottom of the inner stairs to catch their breath before continuing upwards again. Delphine shook her head and bit her bottom lip. There was no reason for this many stairs, absolutely none.


The stairs finally ended and the Jarl’s long firepit stretched out before them, flanked by equal length dining tables and wooden pillars supporting the second level’s balconies. Banners, for Whiterun, her Thanes and her Jarl hung from the bannisters, but the spot that had always held the Empire’s Red Diamond was glaringly vacant. The hall was also noticeably not silent, punctuated by loud talking and finally a fist slamming on the throne’s arm.


“Enough! I hate the Thalmor as much as any man, but it has been two weeks! Two weeks of the Stormcloaks swarming the northern border like flies! Enough I say! Irileth, send two patrols to reinforce Ingvar’s men.”


Jarl Balgruuf the Younger stood from his throne, blond hair and diadem reflecting the fire’s light, and stormed up the steps to the upper levels. A short balding man - the Steward, she knew from previous visits - gripped his journal and quill and hurried after him.


“My Jarl, Jarl Skald will view that as provocation-”


"Grow a spine, Imperial!” One of the thanes shouted.


The Jarl’s court - his Housecarl, his brother, his steward, his thanes and their following - also ascended the steps. Delphine watched them but slowed her steps as another pale shape caught the fire’s light. A dragon’s skull, mounted over the Jarl’s throne.


She shivered but couldn’t take her eyes from it. Dragonsreach had been built to house a captured dragon on its Great Porch, so the legend went. All the other times she came to see Farengar, she thought it only legend - cobbled together from deformed mammoth skulls or an exaggerated trophy of some Argonian monster. This time however, she had seen dragons in the flesh, and seen their bones after Irowe devoured them. Delphine forced herself to look away, to the right, and the bleaching light of magicka emanating from the Court Wizard’s laboratory.

There were no guards outside the wizard’s laboratory; the young Nord’s reclusive behavior, strange projects and caustic words were enough to ward off all but those who had to do business with him. He had always been stand-offish as a boy - more interested in spell books and runes than other people - and only encouraged others to see and treat him as the ‘wizard’ type of common myth. He was only somewhat close with Delphine because he kept ‘accidentally’ freezing her garden when she lived next to his family in Ivarstead, and his mother was the sort to make him apologize the next day.


A smile crossed her lips as she approached the doorway. She missed days like that.


“-If you’re looking for the Jarl or the steward, you’ve passed both of them.” Farengar announced, his voice booming off the far wall.


Her smile grew to a smirk. She walked up to the large table between them, looking over the various maps, magical minutia and stacked books strewn about every open space wherever Farengar had left them. She remembered teaching him how to speak at a wall so that it amplified his voice - an important intimidation tactic for an old Breton woman and a young Nord mage to know in Skyrim. She chuckled and tucked her thumbs in her belt.


“Oh, I thought you were the one around here interested in dragons. But if you insist-”


“What-?” Farengar wheeled around, his gaping mouth turning to a grin as he saw his visitor. “Delphine! By the Eight, it’s good to see a friendly face for once.”


He laughed and hugged her. Delphine clapped him on the back; she’d needed that, just a little friendly encouragement. Farengar stepped back and tugged on his patchy sideburns, rubbing his chin while he put his words together.


“I suspect you have the same answer as everyone else, but- well have you heard any news from Winterhold? My entire salary cannot persuade a courier to go up there and all I’ve heard is ‘something-something Thalmor something College something-something damn mages’.”


Delphine felt her eyes glaze over. Of course he would ask about that.


“I haven’t heard from them since the incident, but I imagine they’re doing well, considering.”


“What incident?”


Her gut churned. Surely since Whiterun was closer they had better news than Solitude’s taverns? What she had been able to gather after visiting Malborn wasn’t even a tenth of what Irowe and Fallon provided, but she didn’t want to give details no one else had. Accurate details had a way of finding feet that led to a certain embassy north of Solitude, but...


Delphine’s shoulders slumped. Farengar was a friend as well as an asset, and with him being a mage he could pass off anything he’d learned as coming from another mage. He had studied at the College after all; it wasn’t unusual for him to have friends from there pass by or write him now and then.


“You didn’t hear this from me, but they found something, in Saarthal. An artifact the Thalmor wanted. Whatever they did to try and get it, it was terrible, even by the Thalmor’s standards.” Her gaze dipped down to the feet of the alchemy table behind Farengar. “I’m sorry. I wish I had better news.”


Farengar was silent. He didn’t even tug on his sideburns.


“The College has weathered far more troubling times, although for the life of me I can’t think of any.” He flashed a sad smile. If she looked hard enough she could see damp under his eyes. “But you didn’t come here to listen to me complain about things beyond my control.”


“Oh, I’d kill for something I could control,” Delphine muttered, “but- I know you don’t pay much attention to the ‘great warriors’ in the main hall, but my friends and I were hoping-”


“What friends?” Farengar scowled, peering behind her.


Delphine turned and her heart leapt into her throat then dropped into her boots. There was no one behind her.


“Oh gods, where did they-?”


The porch. Gods damn Esbern, of course they went up to the porch.


“I need your help upstairs. Now.”


Delphine pushed off the table and hurried to the main hall, only stopping when she didn’t hear Farengar behind her.


Now?” Farengar asked.


She skipped back around the table and grabbed his wrist. “Now.


He was a full head and shoulder taller than her, but only a stone or two heavier so it didn’t take much leverage to pull him off his feet and to the hall. Once he was following on his own accord she let go, skirting around a guard and to the stairs. The Dragonborn was many things but diplomatic was not one of them - and Esbern had been thrown out of Cloud Ruler for not knowing when to shut up. She had to prevent them from talking to the Jarl and ruining the one chance they had to get his blessing for the dragon trap.


Farengar huffed, taking the steps to the upper quarters one by one as Delphine climbed them two at a time. “Are you going to stop being cryptic when we get there?”


Delphine reached the top of the stairs and looked around: no one but guards. She exhaled; not encouraging. “Believe me: the less you know, the safer you’ll be.”


She ran to the porch, praying under her breath that the Jarl had gone further into the palace and not outside. She pushed the great door open and her shoulders dropped with relief, her lungs begging to breathe after running up the stairs.


Esbern and Irowe were alone, though being watched by the guards who ignorantly assumed they had the right to be out here. The porch was tall and wide, opened on the far end to the expanse of Whiterun’s tundra and the snowline, where her border blurred with the Pale Hold. Esbern and Irowe were craning their necks up to the ceiling, and an enormous yoke swaying in the chilly breeze, chains clinking softly over the wind. Delphine glanced at it, but the archers patrolling the porch’s second and third decks drew her attention more than the ancient dragon trap.


“Astounding. Just think of the size of it. To need all this to house it. Remarkable.”


“The one you two dropped on our porch was bigger. I thought from the skull Numinex was more impressive. This will hardly suit our purposes-”


Esbern-”


“What are you doing here?”


Delphine froze. Esbern sputtered and looked back to the palace. Irowe turned, her eyes narrowing under her hood. A Dunmer in richly detailed leather armor stood just before the western door to the porch, her longsword out and aimed at the pair. She noticed Delphine and pointed the sword’s tip at her, waving it dismissively at all of them.


“Clear off the porch before I throw you in the dungeon.”


“Oh shoo. I’m busy.” Irowe said, shaking her hand in a dismissive gesture of her own before turning back to stare at the ceiling.


Guards!” The Dunmer called before Delphine could butt in.


Delphine’s mouth went dry as another sword was drawn from its hilt, and she heard running on the decks above. The door opened and a hint of relief crept into Delphine’s shoulders. Farengar could explain, or at least use his position as Court Wizard to excuse it - she would pay him back for the favor of course-


Delphine’s face paled. It was the western door that had opened, and Jarl Balgruuf and his advisors stepped out onto the porch. The Dunmer - the Jarl’s housecarl, Delphine realized - stepped between the three of them and the Jarl even as Delphine heard the archers above drawing their bows back.


Jarl Balgruuf crinkled his nose, annoyed but otherwise unbothered by the strangers inspecting his palace. “What is the meaning of this?”


Delphine stared at him, at Irowe - who looked even more annoyed than the Jarl - and turned her eyes to the tail of the Jarl’s followers, to Farengar, to beg for help. The Jarl noticed her gaze and turned.


“Farengar. Are these... friends of yours?”


The Court Wizard was given a wide and sudden berth by the other members of the court. Farengar’s face burned red and he stared back at Delphine, then the Jarl. “Aaah...”


Delphine pressed her hands together in a prayer.


“...Yes?”


Delphine allowed herself a moment to catch her breath before stepping forward slowly, keeping her hands low and visible. The housecarl’s eyes snapped to her, but Delphine kept walking, moving sideways between her two companions and the Jarl’s following.


“I apologize, my jarl, we thought you would be attending business in the great hall for some time.” She exhaled, trying to rid her arms of the shakes. This could still be salvaged. “We will see the steward, but we would speak with you on a manner of some urgency-”


“He’s here now, as am I. Why wait?” Jarl Balgruuf asked, crossing his arms.


She tried to answer him, but the words, if she even had any, stuck in her throat. They weren’t ready. She hadn’t even been able to talk to Farengar about their plan. They hadn’t talked about what to say, or even decided who would speak for them. Delphine had figured on her being the one doing the talking - she was the most socially adept of the group. She didn’t know what to say though - she had a rough idea but nothing worth saying in front of a jarl. She didn’t know what they needed to get that trap working, if it was even capable of working after the centuries of disuse.


“Irileth. Put your swords away.” The Jarl’s housecarl did so, and a terse nod from her and a hand wave from the Jarl called off the archers above. Delphine felt her tongue clinging to her teeth. They weren’t ready. “I have two minutes now. Speak, and be gone.”


Lok Vah Koor!


The court’s robes flapped in the burst of spring wind come early, and the stones of Dragonsreach’s porch had never been scoured clean so quickly. The sky outside grew a little brighter as the clouds hidden by the ceiling were whisked away. Delphine pulled her hands down from her face, blinking as her nose twitched. She could smell the aroma of primrose, pine and lavender of northern Cyrodiil, and she could taste the bergamot on her tongue.


The Shout silenced the room, leaving her ears ringing, and the ears of the closer members of the court judging from the shaking heads and hands rubbing ears. The porch was not silent for long.


“By the gods-”


“Can it be-”


“Talos, it’s-”


Alduin has returned.


Irowe’s voice, still deep from the Shout, silenced the room again. Jarl Balgruuf stared at her, eyes wide as he at last recognized the grey robes obscuring her features. The whispers returned in the ebb of her words as the courtiers and guards gathered themselves. More than a few of the whispers carried the name ‘Alduin’, in the intonations of a question to their fellows.


“The World-Eater.” Irowe clarified. “I fought it at the Throat some days ago, but it fled to Sovngarde to lick its wounds.”


Jarl Balgruuf hadn’t taken his eyes off her but stepped forward in a daze. Delphine could see in his eyes he still didn’t believe this was real, but it was starting to settle in. She couldn’t believe it either. Irowe was actually being diplomatic and making an effort to not offend people, which was... more than she usually attempted. Delphine wasn’t sure which Divine to thank - Akatosh or Zenithar or Julianos - but she didn’t want to thank them yet. There was still time for this to go horribly wrong but she put that thought out of her mind. This was not the time to jinx their sudden good luck.


“This palace was constructed to cage a dragon in the days of old. I need it to do so again so I can capture a dragon, and follow Alduin to Sovngarde and put an end to it.”


The steward scurried forward and pressed a hand to the Jarl’s arm, breaking his daze. “My jarl, dragons breathe fire.”


Irowe glared at him. “This part of the palace is stone.”


“The city is not.” The man snapped back. His chin quivered, at first in fear realizing he was chastising someone the rest of the porch revered, but the fear faded into determination. He tore his eyes away from Irowe and demanded the Jarl’s attention. “The majority of Whiterun - the Plains and Wind Districts, not to mention our lifeblood, the farms - were constructed after the days of King Olaf One-Eye. It would only take one unfortunate fire blast to raze the city like the western watchtower-!”


Jarl Balgruuf held up a hand and his steward stopped. Irowe kept silent as he considered each argument, merely watching as he stroked his beard and flicked wind-swept locks back over his shoulder. He wasn’t a young man - maybe a decade younger than she was - but he was a father, a widower, and a leader. It all showed; his blond hair and beard were fading grey, and his eyes while still bright were weary.


The warriors of the Jarl’s court stepped forward, to give counsel if asked it. The general nobles crept forward after them, regarding what they could see of Irowe with awe. Delphine stepped back slowly, so Irowe was at the front flanked by her and Esbern, and looked at her through their eyes.


All that was visible under the ornate grey robes were her hands and face, and a few loose strands of auburn hair that clung to her cheeks. Her face however, was visibly scarred - no illusion spell to hide the burns - and her hands were marked as well. It made her race indeterminate, which was a blessing: Delphine didn’t want to think of how the more traditional members of the court would react to an Altmer Dragonborn. The only thing that might give her away was the gold in her eyes, that much more yellow against the dark red of her skin, but they would have to stand close to her to notice the color.


Jarl Balgruuf sighed, running his fingers through his hair as his diadem would allow. “My steward, as much as it pains me to admit it, has a point. But Whiterun will pledge men to helping you subdue the beast, as many as we can spare-”


“No one fights the dragon but me.” Jarl Balgruuf blinked, unused to being interrupted. “And I need to capture it, not kill it, or I would not ask this of you.” Irowe added, her voice softer than it had been.


“There must be some other way for you to do this?” The Jarl’s brother asked, stepping forward to stand beside Jarl Balgruuf opposite the steward.


Irowe’s eyes didn’t leave the Jarl. “This is the only option that has a chance.”


Delphine kept her eyes on the Dragonborn and the Jarl, but bowed her head and prayed to each of the Divines starting with Akatosh. Irowe - even when she was fully healed - could not be risked in a rescue attempt to save Amuril. But she was the only one they had who could sneak into the Dominion and free Amuril. It wasn’t that Delphine doubted Irowe could make it all the way south, even all the way to Amuril. She doubted either of them would be able to return, and if they were revealing that Irowe was the Dragonborn, their son Melucar would have to be rescued as well.


She furrowed her brow and prayed harder.


“Jarl Balgruuf, the city...” The steward said.


It was a long moment before Jarl Balgruuf replied. “If we empty the city...?”


Delphine had lived in Riverwood, the nearest town to Whiterun, for years. Of all the places in Skyrim she had called him, it was her favorite - it reminded her of the forests outside Cloud Ruler, and sometimes the woods of her childhood in the Niben River Valley. Whiterun had been her nearest city for years, and she was fond of it. The thought of the market burning, or the hull-roof of Jorrvaskr in flames...


The steward was crestfallen, fighting with a lump in his throat, but though his voice was quiet, he answered. “The buildings could be rebuilt, my jarl.” He stared out over the porch, his gaze barely lifting from the tiled floor. “I would find the supplies, somewhere.”


“We have nowhere to send the people to.” The warrior on the Jarl’s left said. “That beast destroyed the western watchtower.”


Irileth stepped forward. “The watchtower would never have held all of Whiterun. No one fort could.” She looked over at Irowe, glancing once at Delphine before focusing on the Jarl. “We don’t have the guard to escort the people anywhere. And the Stormcloaks or the Legion could use this as an opportunity to seize Whiterun, or her people.”


“What if the Dragonborn could get the Stormcloaks and the Legion to stop fighting?”


The Jarl, his advisors, and the courtiers turned, looking back to Farengar. Farengar wiped his palms on his blue robes and cleared his throat.


“Just long enough to get the people to safety. -And secure their word that they won’t attack the city since we are helping the Dragonborn in this request, for the common good of Skyrim?”


“A truce, you mean.” Jarl Balgruuf murmured. Irowe cocked her head.


“We can’t bring the two sides here, Farengar. Have the fumes in your laboratory made you mad?” Irileth hissed.


“The Throat then.” Irowe said. Delphine blinked and looked up at her. Irowe shrugged. “It’s neutral territory and in the middle of Skyrim.”


Jarl Balgruuf exhaled, letting his hands fall to his side. “If you think the Greybeards would host us, Dragonborn, I think that would be the best place to discuss terms.”


“I will stress to them the importance of this meeting. The fate of Skyrim hangs in the balance.”


Delphine kept her thoughts about the Greybeards to herself. In all her years living in the Throat’s shadow, she’d never known the monks to care about the world under their feet. They never seemed particularly grateful for Klimmek’s supplies the few times he’d seen them. They were as unchanging and unmovable as the Throat itself, and she didn’t know that they’d listen even if it was Irowe asking.


Still. The meeting with Jarl Balgruuf was going better than she’d hoped, so maybe luck was on their side for once.


“If we send a runner to Windhelm, the Legion will think we’re joining up with him no matter what their courier says,” said one of the Thanes.


“Send them both a copy of the other’s letter then...”


“Ulfric is a Tongue, is he not?”


Irowe’s question hung in the air, and she did not answer it until Balgruuf met her gaze. “He would not refuse a summons from the Dragonborn.”


“No, he would not.” Balgruuf held his arms across his chest and stroked his beard. “But General Tullius might. He’s an Imperial, and not versed in our customs.”


“I think we could make him see the benefit of an un-devoured Skyrim and a few days of truce.”


Jarl Balgruuf continued stroking his beard, nodding slowly. Delphine shot a stare behind Irowe’s back to Esbern, whose face was similarly grim. Irowe was still mending. Delphine wasn’t sure if the Dragonborn would be well enough to travel from one side of Skyrim to the other. Eastmarch was probably doable, since it was on the way if they took the long route to Ivarstead. Solitude was in the opposite direction, and still Thalmor territory.


The Jarl shook his head, holding a hand over his mouth while he stared out at the tundra beyond the porch. “If you can get both sides to attend, Whiterun will come. I’m sure Farengar can tell me all we’ll need to have this... dragon trap of yours ready.”


“That is all I ask.”


Irowe nodded, letting it naturally deepen into a bow of courtesy. Delphine kept her lips straight and thin, and tried to make it look like she wasn’t grinding her teeth. The trip to Solitude - and Windhelm - would give Irowe more time to heal, if she could rest properly in the back of the wagon. But they’d have to stop off at Sky Haven first- and which side did they go to first? Who would take the perceived slight of being the last informed better, the Legion or the Stormcloaks-


The room went still and silent as a roar echoed through the porch’s open hall. Irowe paused and turned around while the guards hissed orders to each other above. Three more guards appeared on the outer porch, looking out over the tundra. A shadow fell over them and they flinched, aiming their arrows above, but the shadow was gone. The wind shifted with a gusting downburst as the dragon’s shadow flew out over the tundra.


“Gods save us...” someone muttered from behind the Jarl.


Delphine shivered as it shrank into the distance, flying straight away from them. The dragon was moving fast, its shadow whipping past hills and outcrops and overgrown watchtowers between Whiterun and the Pale border.


“Shearpoint.”


Delphine looked back at Irowe. She said it with such certainty Delphine wondered if the dragons had a word for the mountain. It wouldn’t surprise her.


Irowe shrugged, turning around. “That one won’t keep it long.”


“You’re so sure about that?”


Irowe paused and squared her shoulders, searching the crowd for Farengar’s voice. The Jarl and his housecarl were watching her.


“It’s the tallest mountain in that area. And that dragon is too small. A bigger one will oust it before long.”


“I think Jarl Skald will understand now if we position more guards along the border...” the Steward said.


“Three patrols.” Jarl Balgruuf muttered, his eyes not leaving the tundra. “Four, if we can spare them.”


Irowe looked back to Delphine and Esbern, turning back to watch the dragon fade into the mountains. The Jarl’s court slipped away, a few torn between following the Jarl back inside and staying to revere the Dragonborn a few more moments. The dragon’s roars on the wind echoed through the spacious oak pillars and against the stone wall shielding the rest of the palace.


“Farengar.” The young mage jumped at the Jarl’s voice, nearly jostling his hood off his head. “I want a full report on how that thing works and what repairs are needed.”


Try not to empty the coffers.” The steward added drily.


Farengar made a face but nodded. He squinted up at the great yoke and chains swaying in the breeze, stepping back to get a better look at it. He cleared his throat multiple times as Irowe approached, and Delphine knew he was trying not to stare. She just wasn’t sure if he was staring because the Dragonborn was one of the few people taller than him, or at the Dragonborn’s scarred face.


“Right. Well, I...” Irowe folded her arms over her chest and Farengar suddenly found the ceiling more interesting to look at. “I don’t think this thing’s been used since the First Era. Honestly, I’m surprised it hasn’t fallen and killed anyone, but I- well, we can see what we can do.”


“If possible, make it larger.”


Larger?” Farengar asked, jutting out his chin in disbelief. He squinted up at the yoke - which spanned the breadth of the inner walls - and back to Irowe. “That’s more than big enough, isn’t it?”


“Numinex was a small dragon. Dragons grow in size as they grow in power, and I intend to summon Alduin’s right wing- Alduin’s second-in-command.”


Farengar’s eyes went wide. “Fascinating. This growth, is it as they age or based on diet or-?”


“All dragons are the same age and ageless, and they don’t need to eat. Their size is determined by their power - how strong they are, how many souls they’ve devoured, their conquests, and so on.”


“Farengar, no rabbit trails.” He made an indignant sound and flapped his mouth in shock but Delphine turned to Irowe. “Couldn’t you pick a smaller dragon that would actually fit in here?”


Irowe raised an eyebrow. “Do you want this ‘smaller dragon’ to be Shouted out of the sky by its fellows before I get over the Velothis?”


Delphine’s cheek twitched. Somehow sneaking into the Dominion to rescue Master Malcior was starting to sound like a better idea.


“Right, we’ll do it your way...” she sighed.


Irowe nodded and turned back to face Farengar. “You’ll like Odahviing.”


“Well, I- I hope I get to live long enough to study him. It’s been a dream of mine to make personal observations-”


It.”


Delphine rubbed her temples, dreading the long ‘discussion’ the Dragonborn was going to start with Farengar. At least they’d gotten permission from the Jarl to use the trap, so long as they... her shoulders slumped and she tuned out the babbling of the two scholars and the Dragonborn. They had to convince the Stormcloaks and the Legion to come to a peace council. At High Hrothgar. Delphine massaged her temples, pressing her fingers into her brow. The world had better be grateful for this...

Chapter Text

"Reman is one of the first documented, and widely accepted, of the mythic Dragonborn; those anointed by Akatosh and Alessia themselves. "Born with the soul of a dragon" is what his followers would say.



HORSESHOES clipped against the cobblestone road leading to Solitude, a repeating rhythm of twelve hooves keeping nearly the same beat. Irowe had insisted on purchasing another horse in Whiterun (the stablemaster directed them to several families who needed coin more than an expensive animal) bringing their total count to three. One for each rider, since they left Fallon back at Sky Haven - again, at Irowe’s insistence. Delphine focused on the sound of the horses to steady herself, ground herself, but every hair on her body was standing on end all the same.


Riding to Solitude - to Castle Dour - in full Blades regalia was perhaps the stupidest idea their combined idiocy had devised yet. Yes, she and Esbern were wearing cloaks, but still. This topped the failed assassination of the Silvenar at Falinesti, and even topped going to Dragonsreach and requesting the Jarl trap a dragon in his palace. This was a death wish.


Esbern insisted few people would even recognize the modern Fourth Era style of Blades armor, let alone sets of a style forgotten since Reman’s days. That didn’t make her feel any better.


The pauldron looked the same. The helmets looked the same. The cuirass was mostly the same. The gambesons they’d made from modern materials so that definitely looked the same. And anyone would recognize a Blades katana. The only thing she didn’t think most people would recognize was Irowe’s Greybeard robes.


Delphine swallowed the bile in her mouth and watched the road, listening to the horses and any sound of trouble. She’d survived all these years by following Grandmaster Jerauld’s last order, going into hiding and keeping away from any other Blades agents she discovered. At least Esbern was also in armor, but that made her feel worse, not better. She should have thrown up when they’d changed into the armor at the stables, just to make sure there was nothing but water in her stomach...


The only thing that helped, a little, was Talara’s katana tapping her hip with every step the horse took.


They passed under the city’s gate, drawing confused stares from the guards but thankfully they at least did not recognize the armor under their cloaks. Delphine swallowed and rested her hand against her late wife’s sword hilt, keenly aware of the rings under her gambeson imprinting into her collarbone. Talara was probably laughing at her right now, if she could see her from Aetherius.


Their horses slowed as they navigated the market’s traffic heading deeper into the city. Delphine and Esbern tried to keep abreast with Irowe’s dun mare as much as the crowds allowed, but in places they had to go single file. Delphine sat rod straight in her saddle and kept an eye on the crowd, Talara’s katana tapping her hip. She heard a few whispers in the crowd, caught a few eyes staring too long at their procession. She tightened her grip on the reins but kept moving.


They made it to the ramp leading up to Castle Dour and picked up the pace, with Esbern in front of Irowe and Delphine guarding their rear. The three soldiers and guards they passed on their way up to the inner bailey stepped aside for them. If they recognized the armor or the robes, Delphine couldn’t tell. Esbern paused inside the gate, and she wondered why for a moment before cursing under her breath. His first visit to Solitude was when they came to see Malborn: he had no idea where anything was here.


Delphine urged her horse forward but it was Irowe who took the lead, heading left across the grounds. Irowe went straight to a door emblazoned with the Legion’s Red Diamond and dismounted, the unspoken cue for the Blades to do the same.


Delphine exhaled and paused, twitching her fingers as she stood beside the horse. There was no point coming here in Blades armor and trying to hide it under a cloak. The Dragonguard of old - which she supposed she and Esbern were the modern iterations of - wouldn’t have been ashamed of their armor, their office. They trusted their Dragonborn.


She ripped off the cloak hiding her armor, folded it into thirds, and threw it over the horse’s saddle. Esbern did the same, though not as quickly or gracefully. Her stomach wouldn’t stop cramping. The guards at the door reached for their swords but looked more confused than hostile. The left one had to be a Nord, the right an Imperial or Breton. Both looked half her age. Delphine relaxed - a little. They were still on edge, but like the rest of the city, perhaps they hadn’t recognized the armor. Yet.


Had the Blades been forgotten so easily?


“I am here to speak with General Tullius.” Irowe announced. “I have a message from the Dragonborn.”


The guards’ eyes widened and they looked from each other to Irowe, to Delphine and Esbern, and back to each other.


“Marius-”


“I- I’ll go.”


The Imperial opened the door just enough to slip inside-


Irowe’s hand shot out and gripped the door’s edge, holding it open. Marius tugged on the handle but Irowe dug her fingers in. The Greybeard robe slipped down her forearm, revealing the scars of dragonsfire that covered her arms like a second sleeve, the color of old blood.


The Nord guard stared in shock for a moment, then took the outer handle and pulled it toward herself, holding the door open. Irowe let go, the grey leather sleeves and tassels sliding back down past her mottled knuckles. She turned her head to the Nord, then followed the Imperial guard into the dark of Castle Dour’s keep, and Esbern and Delphine followed her.


Delphine had never actually been inside Castle Dour before: she was foolhardy enough to meet Malborn at the inn right under the Thalmor’s nose, but strolling around the Legion’s headquarters was asking for a short trip to Aetherius. She realized she was clenching her teeth and stopped.


The castle really lived up to its name. The stones it was made of were as dark as Sky Haven’s, but Castle Dour had narrow arrow-slits for windows instead of gaping natural skylights. The braziers and torches and occasional stained-glass window did little to lift the gloom.


The off-tempo beat of Esbern’s boots made her clench her teeth again. Yes he was an archivist shut-in but she’d told him to match pace with her - they’d practiced marching at the Temple. She wasn’t sure why she’d expected him to remember. Delphine exhaled and extended her stride, keeping pace with him instead. As she focused on her steps, she noticed her and Esbern’s metal boots drowned out the soft pad of Irowe’s shoes. She hadn’t told him to match Irowe’s pace, but she wasn’t going to fault him for it.


Delphine noted the red-on-yellow banner opposite the corridor they turned down, adding it to the list of landmarks for getting back out. Maybe the General would listen to the Dragonborn, maybe he wouldn’t. Either way, she didn’t trust the Legion. They’d turned on too many other Blades, or simply looked away while the Thalmor hunted them down after the war. She trusted that being with Irowe was enough to at least give them pause, but she didn’t expect anything more than that.


“... why won’t Balgruuf listen to Cipius? The man’s got to know Ulfric won’t tiptoe around Whiterun forever, not when his men have seen those defenses.”


“General, you can’t force a Nord to accept help he hasn’t asked for.”


Delphine raised an eyebrow. If she had been the guard escorting them, the last place she would have taken strange visitors was the place they wanted to go. Her preference would have been ‘escorting’ them to the dungeon, but, well, sometimes it was a good thing other people weren’t as cynical as she was.


The corridor leading up to the war room was a bottleneck, but the war room itself was spacious and boasted one of the larger stained-glass skylights in the castle. The mosaic pattern of Solitude’s Wolf Queen bathed the main table’s map of flags and fort pieces in white, blue and red, casting diffused colors on the two legates standing around it. On the edge of the shadows she could see the General in his gold-inlaid steel armor and red cape, pacing with a hand over his mouth.


“General?”


General Tullius paused and looked up to the door, lowering his hand to his chin. Marius swallowed. “They have a message from the Dragonborn.”


Irowe stepped out from behind the guard, the Greybeard robes and her scarred face melding into the shadows. The Legates shared a look and a few gasps eked out from the guards posted around the doors. To Nords, the Dragonborn was a cultural hero, a dragonslayer. To the Imperials, ‘Dragonborn’ was always associated with Emperors. She’d even heard rumors at the Skeever that the Dragonborn was a long-lost Septim which - knowing Irowe - was a bit nonsense.


Still, there had to be at least a drop of mannish blood in her from somewhere. The gift was hereditary. Delphine glanced over her shoulder to confirm they weren’t being followed, rubbing her nose. She wasn’t exactly going to bring that up with an Altmer who could breathe fire; they tended to be touchy about bloodlines.


“I don’t recall that being on my schedule...” General Tullius said, his eyes tracking Irowe through the shadows.


Delphine took stock of the room when the guard moved forward enough for her and Esbern to enter. Two guards to every door, and all the other doors were shut: locked she assumed. The General and the two legates were the only others in the war room, besides the guards. Which was a little odd: she thought legates always had a retinue of junior officers, but perhaps they weren’t invited to this meeting.


One of the legates - a Nord judging from her height despite her Cyrod complexion - stepped in front of the map table, while the Imperial dragged his arm over the flags, scooping them into a satchel. The General stayed silent, not refusing their presence or demanding they wait outside, but not engaging them either.


The Nord legate frowned, her eyes narrowing in thought as she looked down at Delphine. Delphine stared back, only taking her eyes off to watch Irowe circling the table. It took years to make legate so it was more likely than not that this woman - and the Imperial man - fought in the war. Knew who the Blades were better than a legionnaire whose highest honor was guarding the war room’s door.


Irowe circled the table, her steps silent, and it looked more like she was gliding across the floor than walking. Glimpses of her grey leather robes dipping through the colored light above as she moved, before melding back with the shadow. General Tullius stroked his chin. He recognized the armor, Delphine could see that in the arch of his brow, but he watched them anyway, keeping track of Irowe at the edge of his vision.


The Nord Legate’s eyes flared with recognition and she reached for her sword hilt. “Sir-”


“Stand down, Rikke.”


The Nord Legate froze, arms tense and fingers tight on the hilt as the steel underneath gleamed red under the the stained glass. The steel slid back into the sheath as she turned her head (but not her stance, Delphine noted) toward her superior. “General-”


“Legate, anyone with the stones to walk into my war room in that armor gets a minute to explain themselves at least.” General Tullius shrugged, “before an escort to the dungeon.”


Irowe chuckled somewhere behind the Imperial Legate. From the flinch on his face and sudden grip on the satchel’s drawstring, Delphine wondered if he’d forgotten Irowe was still walking in the shadows.


Legate Rikke took her right hand off her hilt, keeping her left around the sheath as she watched the Blades, eyes daring them to make a move. The Imperial Legate leaned over the map, also watching them though his attention was on listening to Irowe.


General Tullius crossed his arms and turned, facing Irowe. “Well? I’m waiting.”


Irowe glanced over her shoulder. Her hand rested on a chair in the corner and she positioned it to face the General before sitting down. She waved a dismissive hand - at Delphine and Esbern.


“You can ignore them, General. The armor sends a message, but it’s not meant for you.” Irowe drummed her fingers on the chair’s arm. “This one is. The Dragonborn and Whiterun are calling a peace council on the equinox to arrange a temporary truce, between the Stormcloak rebels and the Legion. Will the Empire attend?”


The Imperial Legate set the satchel down again, sharing a look with his fellow legate before looking between the General and Irowe. General Tullius stared at her for a long minute then snorted.


“You speak for Whiterun and the Dragonborn?” He asked raising an eyebrow, leaning back against the map table.


“I am the Dragonborn.”


“You are the Dragonborn?” General Tullius asked, his eyebrows rising further up his brow.


Irowe smiled. “Who else would have the stones to walk into your war room and demand an audience with you?”


Delphine looked around the room. The guards - and even the Legate - stood up straighter at Irowe’s admission. A few of the younger-looking guards started whispering in tones they thought were too low to be heard.


General Tullius laughed.


“Plenty of people demand my attention; just most of them don’t have that armor,” he said, nodding to Delphine and Esbern.


The General rubbed his nose and shared a glance with Rikke. They locked eyes for a moment and Delphine tensed. This was how it started-


“Men. Out.”


Delphine blinked as the Legate ordered the guards to leave. One of them looked from Rikke to Irowe and didn’t move until Rikke did. The Imperial Legate turned and made a shooing motion to the door nearest him. The guards did as they were told, some peering back in reluctantly as the doors pulled shut, for one last look at the General’s shadow visitor.


Delphine moved deeper into the room, taking care not to move too suddenly, letting Esbern follow her lead while the Legates sealed them in. She heard voices on the stairs and the shake of metal as the guards dissipated into the castle’s corridors.


That wasn’t the best of ideas, letting the guards out to go gossip with everyone about how the General had dismissed them to talk with the Dragonborn privately. Gossip had feet and those feet tended to run toward pointed ears. The last thing they needed was an armed farewell when they left the castle, or assassins following them to Windhelm.


General Tullius looked around at the doors, nodding to his legates, before taking a seat of his own at the map table, facing Irowe. He stroked his growing stubble of a beard and stared down at the map of Skyrim.


“You speak for Whiterun, so tell me: why a truce?” He flicked a sealed letter laying on the table. “This is the third correspondence I’ve sent Jarl Balgruuf this month to garrison a legion inside his city to protect its people. He didn’t even look at it.”


“I don’t know: maybe he can’t read.” Irowe shrugged. “And the truce is to stop this little game of ‘capture the keep’ long enough for me to trap a dragon in Jarl Balgruuf’s palace. For some reason, no one in Whiterun is keen on being there while I fight it. I can’t really blame them: dragonsfire hurts.”


“But no one is keen to leave either, with all the fighting going on. So: I want to put a stop to it for a few days, a week, a fortnight - whatever the Jarl’s men says he needs - for the people to leave so I can continue my business.” Irowe folded her hands in her lap. “Then you can go back to killing each other wherever you wish. I really don’t care.”


The candles in the room flickered as a door slammed somewhere upstairs. Delphine mentally berated herself for flinching at the sound. She couldn’t be jumping at every little possible threat, she knew better. General Tullius leaned back in his chair, studying the map, now and then looking up to Irowe half in the shadows. Irowe, to her credit, stayed silent, giving him time to think.


Delphine wasn’t sure what was responsible for this unusual period of diplomatic shrewdness. Yes, they’d practiced this conversation before on the road, but they weren’t fighting for their lives yet, so it was going better than she expected. Was it the dragons? Irowe had mentioned she’d devoured more since they unlocked Sky Haven. But then the few dragons she’d fought and what she’d read in legends never painted dragons as shrewd. Cunning, yes: in battle, not in politics.


Was it because Master Malcior was gone?


Delphine chewed her lip, taking her eyes off the legates and the General for a moment to watch Irowe. From what little she’d seen of the couple, they tended to squabble and critique each other constantly. They were loyal to each other, yes, but the few things Irowe had said of the mer the last couple days were not flattering. A few of them should probably have been kept private; yes Fallon was probably already aware of their bedroom habits, and Esbern didn’t understand Altmeris, but that was no reason to say those things that loudly. Delphine rolled her shoulders, keeping her eyes on Irowe despite the feeling of Rikke’s eyes on her. Maybe Irowe only acted as incompetent as she did to get a rise out of her husband, or something like that. An act, for whatever reason.


General Tullius scratched his chin, fighting a smile as he puzzled over something. His fingers tapped on the map but from her position Delphine couldn’t see where.


Why do you need to trap a dragon in Jarl Balgruuf’s palace? Why in Oblivion would he agree to that?”


“Oh, I’m very persuasive.” Irowe smiled back at him, though she showed more teeth. “And I’m the Dragonborn: I need the dragon for dragon things. Like intimidating the rest of the dragons into shutting up and not razing the countryside every morning.”


The General hemmed, his finger tapping again as he mulled it over. He turned his attention to the map, head turning ever so slightly as he judged distances and traced his hand around mountains. “And this peace council is in Whiterun?”


“High Hrothgar. It’s most of the way up the Throat of the World.”


General Tullius scowled. “That’s not a lot of time to travel with diplomats across half of Skyrim.”


“No, it’s not, is it?” Irowe replied in a mocking tone. “I’m sure some of them will have to stay behind, won’t they? No time to travel all the way up the mountain and beg permission from their superiors to come with you.”


The General’s scowl deepened, until he realized which diplomats the Dragonborn was referring to. He didn’t smile, but there was a glint in his eyes that couldn’t be explained by the stained glass or the candles.


“Well, that’d be a shame.” The Imperial Legate coughed into his hand and General Tullius glanced up at him before continuing. “Jarl Balgruuf will be there?”


“Of course,” Irowe nodded.


The General drummed his fingers on the table, an air of finality to his final tap. “Well, since the letters aren’t working, I think I should try the personal approach.”


A chill swept over Delphine. Had they... actually... gotten the Empire to attend this peace council...?


“I’ll remind him to bring his reading glasses.” Irowe nodded, rising from her chair.


Delphine heard Irowe bite back a groan and stopped herself from reaching a hand out to support her. The spells and potions must be wearing off. Maybe the constant potions and healing spells were the cause of Irowe’s diplomatic streak, and she was just irritable all the time before from chronic pain. What sort of pain she wasn’t sure, but having burns all over her body couldn’t be comfortable.


Irowe took a stride toward the table, into the light, and bowed her head to the General. “A pleasure talking with you. I’m sure speaking with Jarl Stormcloak will not be as pleasant.”


“Well, Nordic hospitality and all that.” General Tullius said, the edge of his lip curling up.


Irowe nodded, walking on the table’s left and toward the door. Delphine’s mouth twitched as she and Esbern followed. The door they’d come in was behind them-


“I wouldn’t go up there if I were you.”


Irowe paused and turned her head toward the General, the door’s handle in hand and her foot on the first step. “You’re not me.”


Irowe continued up the stairs and didn’t look back. Delphine let Esbern go next - he could conjure something in front of Irowe if someone attacked from above. When she closed the door behind them the two legates were staring back at her and the General was shaking his head. Delphine pulled the door to, holding a moment and looking down at the handle. She moved her hand to Talara’s hilt and gripped it like an anchor as she hurried after Esbern and Irowe.


“Trust me.”


Irowe’s voice echoed in the winding staircase as she leaned against the wall, a hand on her stomach. Delphine stared up at her, then out the arrow slit to the grounds below.


“Thalmor?”


“Mm.” Irowe closed her eyes and faced the stairwell’s pillar. The glow of a healing spell blanched her grey robes, the dark stones and Blades armor. Irowe sighed. “Just stand there and look intimidating. Watch for archers, I don’t expect they have mages but you never know.”


She pushed herself off the wall and continued up, exiting out onto the outer walls of Castle Dour. The walls weren’t guarded beyond one sentry at the door, likely because this section was built into the mountain. Being built into the mountain, the walkways were built for speed and moving soldiers quickly. Delphine’s stomach pitched as they entered the shadow of a tower flying the Thalmor’s banner sooner than she had prepared herself for.


Delphine made a conscious effort to relax - she couldn’t move as well as she’d need to if she had boards for limbs - but her body resisted. These people killed Talara, killed Grandmaster Jerauld, and were only too eager to kill herself and Esbern, when they didn’t think she was the Dragonborn. She barely registered that the guards in Elven armor didn’t seem to react to their armor, just the potential threat of three strangers with purpose.


One guard stepped forward. “If you have business,” Delphine’s hand went to her hilt. The second guard mirrored her- “you’ll have to disarm first-”


IIZ!


The guard’s outstretched arm expanded, covered in ice. He took a step back - his fellow took a step forward - but the ice enveloped them both. Ice raced up the tower’s stones, filling in the cracks and growing jagged icicles as it spread on the ground. The nearest guard screamed as the ice encased her completely. The second couldn’t breathe properly enough to scream as he was frozen to the wall. The door shook and the ice cracked, but more of it grew over the cracks.


Irowe inhaled, running a finger over her lips. Delphine craned her head back, squinting up at the tower-turned-glacier as the ice grew all the way to the roof. She chuckled under her breath: even if they had pyromancers, they’d be cleaning that off for the next three days straight.


Bex!


The door slammed inwards, snapping shards of ice from its frame. A sheet of thick ice and jagged spikes remained, though it was thinner up near Delphine’s shoulder-height - she could actually see in through the top part. One of the Thalmor ran up to the ice, pressing his forearms against it until he saw it wouldn’t budge.


Delphine flinched. The elf was wearing their wizard robes. She raised Talara’s katana half-out of the scabbard. The crackle of frost magic from Irowe’s right told her Esbern was ready to act too, just in case. Delphine glanced up the tower and at the other walls around them. Irowe had warned about archers...


“Is the Ambassador in? I have a message for her.” Irowe asked. Casually.


“What is this-? What is the meaning of this?” The mer yelled over the ice.


“Oh it’s you. I suppose you’ll do.” Irowe flicked her finger away, placing her hands on her hips. “Tell the Council I want the mer from Winterhold. They have until I kill Alduin to deliver them back to the College: alive, in one piece - all the obvious requirements.” Irowe waved her hand.


Other mer had joined the first; some in armor, some in robes. A few words were exchanged in Altmeris that she couldn’t catch before the first mer held his hand up to silence them.


“And why would I do that?”


Irowe cocked her head. “Because, Emissary, if you don’t, I’ll make your embassy look like Helgen.”


Delphine glanced over at Irowe before focusing back on the Thalmor. Emissary? The commander Malborn had mentioned was in charge - from Markarth? Or one of the others? They had more than one but she’d only heard from Malborn that Elenwen was demoted.


Irowe smiled, even gave a small bow. “But please: do whatever you like. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. Iiz!


Another blast of ice coated the door and she saw the Thalmor scurry away back to the depths of the tower before the doorway was sealed in ice. Delphine stepped back as the frost magic reached out to the frozen guards, merging the two to the building with a solid wall of ice.


“We’re done here,” Irowe said, turning on her heel and walking away down the steps, ice crunching under her feet as she walked.


Delphine backed away more as the ice reached for her feet, looking around the castle for anyone moving against them. All the guards she could see had stopped to watch, staring at the pillar of ice and the frost still stretching for anything else to snare. She paused, noticing the General and his two Legates at the door they had exited out of. The Legates were talking, something about pyromancers; the General just stood there, a hand over his mouth like he was trying not to laugh. The Imperial Legate shook his head then nodded, walking away, only for the General to stop him and add his own opinion.


She couldn’t hear what was said, but the Imperial Legate looked more pleased by the General’s orders before he left, walking comically slower than he had before. General Tullius turned back to Delphine, tapping two fingers to his temple in a quick salute, before heading back inside.


Delphine frowned and sheathed her katana, following Esbern down the steps. She guessed they would have time enough to get on the road to Eastmarch before assassins or spies came after them.


She still didn’t trust the Legion. Just because the General thought it was funny to have the Thalmor frozen into their tower didn’t mean he was on Irowe’s side. Oblivion, the Legate was going to find men to help the Thalmor escape - more to cover the Legion’s ass and say they didn’t just stand by and do nothing while it happened, but still.


Delphine climbed into her saddle, forgoing the cloak for now. There was no point hiding the armor when they’d been recognized in it already. Irowe turned her horse around and kicked her heels, setting a quick pace down the ramps to the main streets below. The guards stepped aside for her, one still squinting up at the now white tower of the Thalmor’s castle headquarters.


It wasn’t until they were past the main gates and really riding down the road toward Dragon Bridge that Delphine started to... not relax, but allowed relief to creep into her shoulders. She knew to fight the positive feelings bubbling up. The Thalmor weren’t expecting her to just show up at their door and freeze the entire tower. They would from now on. They’d been surprised, which was rare and rightfully so. It wouldn’t happen again, so she had no right to be hopeful.


But they had a Dragonborn. A Dragonborn who - unlike most of her predecessors - could Shout, and fight monsters that decimated entire towns on her own. And win. Yes, those monsters were dragons, not the Thalmor or a Dominion army, but... Delphine bit her lip, bottling the hope up inside and telling herself she’d save it for a rainy day. Maybe... just maybe... things weren’t so bleak after all.