She remembered when she had woken in the middle of the night to Ralof sitting beside her. He didn't know she was awake, only feigning sleep. She felt him take her hand in his, and her heart leaped at the contact. His hands were rough and calloused, but his grip so gentle, so caring.
And he seemed to soak in every moment she granted to spend with him and not at her Thane's side. It was a strange thing to think, that if it weren't for Revak they would never have met. She would still be a sham of a city guard, and he would be fighting in the Stormcloak rebellion. He mentioned to her about returning to the cause, but not until after they'd helped the Dragonborn. He had said that there was no point in fighting a war for land if there was a chance that that land would be no more.
He told her stories of his family, of Hod, his sister, and his little nephew. He talked of childhood adventures. She told him her story, growing up a ward of the Jarl, working for the city guard, meeting Revak. He told her of how he had met Revak and how they had escaped Helgen by using underground tunnels beneath the keep.
She laughed easily with him, and most importantly he understood her dedication to Revak, that was obvious the night he took her post at his door, the night she noticed his Amulet of Mara. She felt the weight of her own weighing on her chest. He didn't know, of course, that she wore one of her own.
"Lydia?" a voice said, breaking her from her thoughts.
"Sorry," she apologized as Malik looked at her curiously, but the smirk on his face spoke volumes.
"Ah, in deep thoughts?" Malik snickered as he made his way to her. Lydia smirked back at him. She knew that Malik was trying to push her and Ralof closer together.
"Something like that," she said with a smile. The Khajiit laughed as he knelt beside her. He drew the knife slowly and expertly over the bandages on Lydia's leg. Lydia stood as still as a statue, not that she didn't trust her friend's steady hand of course. Within seconds the bandages were off. Malik smiled as he reached for his water skin. "Well?" she asked.
He opened the skin and began pouring cool water over her wound, gently wiping away any leftover salve. "It looks much better," he said as he closed the skin again and hid it away on his belt. "You will not need wrappings any longer. But," he said holding up a finger, "you will need to take care." She looked at him and he explained further, "The wound is healed, yes, but there was damage to your muscles."
Lydia scowled. "What does that mean?"
Malik frowned. "It means it will never heal," he said softly, "at least, not completely." She looked at him, confused, he continued, "It will always hurt." He reached into the small pouch at his waist and pulled out a small vial, with pink liquid inside. Lydia recognized it as a health potion. "Taking regular health potions will help," he explained, handing Lydia the vial, "once a day or whenever the pain is too much."
Lydia looked at the small glass vial in her hand. If this was what she needed to do in order to remain at the Revak's side, then she'd do it, though she did not like having to be dependent on potions in order to do her duty. She downed the vial in a quick toss. It smelled strongly of rose petals, yet tasted like something else that she couldn't place a finger on. Whatever it was, it was disgusting and oversweet. Soon the constant ache in her leg dulled. She handed Malik back the vial with a small smile of thanks. "That should be it for tonight," he said, replacing the vial in the pouch. "I will have more tomorrow, and…" he paused as Ralof appeared at the tent entrance, his smile soft.
"And I think," he said with obvious amusement, "that is my queue to take my leave."
Ralof beamed. "Hello Malik," he said brightly.
Malik smiled back at him as he passed the Nord. Lydia smiled as Ralof walked towards her, sitting beside her and taking and kissing her hand. Lydia saw as Malik looked back with a devilish smile.
"And remember," he called back, "you should be fine for any strenuous activities." Ralof looked back at the Khajiit with a raised brow, but the cat's grin only grew larger. Lydia blushed. "Oh,"
Malik added, "if you need any contraceptive tea made, I-"
"MALIK!" they both shouted at him at once.
Jorund paced impatiently in the holding room, which was a feat all its own considering its small size. The guard stood by the door, watching him with eyes hidden beneath a helmet. Jorund was becoming increasingly less tolerant of the sound of his own worried footsteps. He stopped and crossed his arms, eyeing the guard. "Are you people at least going to tell me why I've been taken into custody?" The guard didn't move or even make a sound. Jorund groaned. "I've been blessed with a mute then?"
The guard shifted slightly. "Irileth instructed we were not to talk with you."
"But you're talking to me now!"
The oaf shook his head. "Only to tell you I can't talk to you."
Jorund sighed and threw up his hands. "You're worse than a woman!"
The guard straightened. "Says the Stormcloak," he said simply.
Jorund scowled. Damn inbreeds, he thought, turning his back on the guard. He hoped, no he prayed, that the Jarl would not accept Ulfric's offering, if only to weed out these pathetic wastes of Nord blood. It was almost a waste of time, him going to Whiterun to give Balgruuf a last chance. Everyone knew he was in bed with the Empire. Damn Ulfric and his damned love affair of "ancient traditions". As it was, Skyrim needed to be cleansed of these milk drinkers. It was known that the Jarl of Whiterun drank deep from the teat of the Empire, only he was too cowardly to admit it lest the might of Ulfric Stormcloak come crashing down upon him.
He glanced at the guard again. The guard was not a large man, a common sized Nord, but Jorund was easily a larger one. That and he'd bet this man was unblooded, most of these sods were. They had never seen a battle in their lives, only petty thievery and drunken brawls. They were not true Nords, these Southerners. He was sure he could easily handle this sad excuse for a warrior. After all, he was Stormblade. It was he that survived the botched prison break. It was he who defeated the drauger lord and retrieved the Jagged Crown. In the end it was he who had Ulfric's favor. He'd earned his place by the blood of the Imperials.
And it would be he who stormed Whiterun's gates and cleanse this cesspool with fire and blood.
A pound at the door tore him away from his thoughts. With a glance at the captive the guard opened the door.
Jorund had to fight the urge to spit in distaste.
He had heard of it before, it was a well-known fact, but perhaps a part of him hoped that it
would prove false. There, in the doorway, stood the housecarl Irileth, a dark elf! Dunmer! Houscarl to the Jarl no less! Irileth stood two heads shorter than the Nord triple at her back. Her skin was the shade of nightshade. Her scowl did not make her countenance any less revolting. They say she was the Jarl's mistress, secretly of course. Anyone willing to bed that filthy thing must have courage, at least Jorund could grant the man that. "Hadvir, return to your post," the dark elf ***** ordered the guard, who offered a salute before leaving the room.
It was just unnatural, a Nord taking orders from a blasted Dunmer. Did that sod have no honor at all? This thing should be put in its place. Jorund met her scowl for scowl. "Finished searching my belongings yet?" he said with more than a hint of malice.
If possible her scowl grew longer. "Yes," she droned, "you claim to be a messenger, yet we found no papers among your things."
Of course she would be blind sighted by one of the oldest Nord traditions. "Some messages," he said, taking a step forward and towering over her, "are not meant for paper."
"Is that so?"
"Return me my things and take me to your Jarl!" he all but growled.
"I think it would be better if you were to leave."
Jorund shook his head. "Do what I ask and I shall on my own time, elf."
She thought for a moment. "Very well," she sneered, "but be aware you will be under constant guard."
"Fine," he huffed. The dark elf turned and started down the hall. Jorund followed with the triple following at his heels, a streak of blue lost in a sea of yellow. She led him to the main entrance. Jorund collected his things, careful to keep Ulfric's package in its wrappings. It felt good to have his sword at his hip again. "To Dragonsreach then," he said, tucking the package under his arm.
It was mid-morning, and already the small town was busy. It seemed a decent place, save for the people. Oh, there were Stormcloak agents here, some more secretive than others. The Gray-Mane family was rather well known for their support of the rebellion. But there were others, more secluded, friends sleeping until the need arises.
Dragonsreach towered over the town, bold and ancient. If one believed the tales it once held a captive dragon. What a sight that must have been! There were rumors of a new Dragonborn. An old Stormcloak brother claimed to have witnessed the man kill a dragon and take its soul. That man Jorund wanted to meet. A true Nord, the Dragonborn!
If it were possible the palace looked much bigger up close. Heavy wood doors opened upon their arrival. Next time I come through these doors, he thought, will be on the cusps of victory.
The warmth of the great hall greeted him. A mighty hearth fire protected against the cold of the new winter's chill. At the very end sat the Jarl himself, dressed in leather and fine furs. A gemmed golden circlet rested on his blonde hair. His beard was braided and full. Jorund chuckled to himself, If it weren't for the circumstances, I might have respected this man. As it was that was never likely to happen. Jorund noticed Irileth take immediately to the Jarl's side, her hand ever on her weapon.
"So," Balgruuf said, seeing the Stormcloak, "Ulfric Stormcloak once again sends one of his lackeys instead of giving me the chance to deny him to his face?"
Jorund bowed, only slightly. "You must understand, Jarl, that Ulfric Stormcloak is a very busy man."
"Aye," Balgruff agreed, "it must be quite taxing, tearing Skyrim apart with his petty civil war."
"As you wish, Jarl."
"What is it then, Stormcloak?"
Without a word, Jorund unwrapped Ulfric's war axe. It was a plain but fine weapon made of fine steel and superb craftsmanship. Upon seeing the axe the dark elf's hand gripped her weapon tightly. But the Jarl ignored her, for he knew its meaning. He stood and made his way to the Jorund, who offered him the axe with a slight bow. Balgruuf took it, weighing it in his hands. "So," he said, his voice soft, "it has come to this…"
"You belong to me…"
No, Cato tried to deny, but the words wouldn't form on his lips. He opened his eyes, but was still only able to see an impenetrable darkness. Chills ran through him, making him shiver in the dark. The voice came from all around him, familiar, yet strange. Terror consumed him.
"You feel this…"
Pain racked his body. His very bones felt like they were aflame, his skin melting away from his flesh as a fire consumed him from within. He screamed a soundless thing that only seemed to make the pain more unbearable.
"Your soul is mine to take, mortal."
Cato was unable to answer. He thrashed against binds that he could not see, trying to escape unseen flames that surrounded him. Mercifully the pain dulled, still there beneath his skin, but he was no longer thoughtlessly consumed by it. Help me. Those were the only words he could think as the fire began to rise again.
Then there was light, a dim torchlight that made flickering shadows dance around the walls that surrounded him. He stood at the end of a long hallway. Sensing freedom he started forward, hoping, and praying that some god might take mercy on him. He came to a door, a broken, beaten thing. Tangible darkness crept from beneath the crack below the door, slowly devouring any light that came in contact with it.
The chill returned, and Cato cringed, fearing the pain would come with it. Instead, Cato felt a chilly hand on his shoulder. He turned stiffly, and then fell to his knees as he saw the face of the person behind him; a woman, a beautiful Imperial woman, his love, his wife. Her arms held a small bundle.
He moved to embrace them, tears of joy welling in his eyes. She smiled, but then her mouth opened in a soundless scream as he touched her. He looked down, only to see his blade sunk deep into her belly. The baby fell, head hurtling towards the ground and hitting it with a sickening crunch. The woman fell from the sword to join the child, dark sticky blood pooling as her life began ebbing away. Cato fell to his knees, his hands trying to staunch the flow, his hands now covered in her black blood. Her eyes stared at him with glazed wonder, blaming him, pleading why, why would he do this?
Sobs wracked his body as her heart stopped.
"In the end, you will always be mine."
Cato looked at what were his wife and son, and he could not deny it. The image of his love's blood on his hands was burned into his mind as once again the world was consumed in darkness, as once again he was consumed in darkness.
The darkness took over, consuming the room slowly. The familiar terror at the edge of his consciousness…
It would always be there, he knew. He took his head in his hands, but there was no one there to hear his screams.
There was only the darkness, the Void…
He jolted awake. He was drenched with a cold sweat, and his heart was in his throat, pounding. He sat up suddenly. He was in his tent, the Dragonborn stood in the entry, the flap behind him keeping the cold of Skyrim at bay. The Nord looked at him curiously, his hand on his sword lazily. "Expecting a dragon?" he said.
Cato stared in shock to find his dagger in his hand. When had he drawn his weapon? "I-uh," he stumbled, "not exactly." He sheathed the weapon. "Just dreaming about an old love."
The Dragonborn chuckled at that and glanced at the blade in Cato's hand. "I take it ended badly?"
Cato nodded grimly. "To a point."
The Dragonborn shook his head, grunting in understanding. "We leave in an hour for the ruin."
Cato nodded. With a dip of his head, the Dragonborn left. As soon as the Nord was out of his sight Cato sighed. The dream was still fresh in his mind. The pain lingered even though he was almost positive that it had never been there in the first place. The vision of his wife and son… what was that dream? Never in his life had his dreams felt so real. He shivered. What truly bothered him was the sheer presence in the dream. He wasn't alone, something was there, creating these images and forcing them on him.
Worst part was whatever was with him in the dream, whatever that feeling was…
He still felt it now, and he was sure that he was no longer dreaming.
With a resigned sigh, Cato strapped on his armor, because, if he remembered right, today was the day they reached Alftand.
Cato knew the dangers of dwarven ruins first hand. It was but a few years ago that he and his fellow Nightingales tracked Mercer Frey to the ruins at Irkngthand. The dwarves might be extinct, but their machines lived on. Each ruin was teeming with traps that waited to crush, burn, or disembowel any who dared venture into them. And Cato knew that Alftand wouldn't be any different.
Cato pulled his cloak closer around him. It had finally stopped snowing, but they were still in the mountains and the chill of the wind bit deeper than the snow that had gathered at his boots. The climb was dreadful, but the Dragonborn led them without stopping.
It was early in the afternoon when they finally reached the top of the mountain cliffs that housed the dwarven ruin. The group paused when they found a sort of base camp there. Tents lay scattered around what at one time must have been campfire. Small wooden huts surrounded the camp as well, including many worktables. The camp felt unnaturally cold. Cato had to fight back the urge to whisper. "A bandit camp?" he said, breaking the silence.
Ralof stepped forward. "Or maybe treasure hunters?" He placed his hand on his ax as he made his way toward one of the buildings, stepping inside when the door swung open on its hinges.
Malik leaned near the remains of the fire. "This is old," he said, lifting a half burnt log and examining beneath it, "weeks old perhaps."
The camp was old, that much was obvious. The ground was covered with a thick blanket of snow, and there were no footprints or impressions other than their own. The Dragonborn made his way to one of the snow coated tables. Cato followed beside him. The Nord brushed away the snow, revealing numerous papers and books, all frozen and crisp. Cato took one of the books. It was worn and old, but the cover was still legible. "Antecedents of Dwemer Law," he read.
The Nord picked up another. "Dwemer History and Culture," he read. "Not exactly light reading," he said, putting the book down.
Cato nodded. "Indeed." Researchers were Cato's best bet, maybe even those from the Mage's College in Winterhold. He had heard that there were those there who had a special interest in the technologies of the Dwemer. "Maybe a research team?"
Revak grunted. "Whoever was here," he said, fingering through a stack of stiff papers, "they left in a hurry. Books are expensive, and an expedition like this must have cost a good amount of gold."
Ralof joined them. "The shelters are bare, nothing but empty cots and rags."
Malik came to the workbench and picked up Dwemer History and Culture and began paging through it. "Where is this ruin by chance?" he said. "I see ruins, but I don't see a main entrance."
"I think I do," said Lydia's voice from near the cliff face. Cato looked at Revak with a curious brow and the group joined her. Lydia was looking down, the color was drained from her face, and Cato could see why. There, on the face of the cliff made of ice and snow, sat what some would call a sad excuse for a staircase winding down. It did not look stable at all; in fact Cato was sure he saw it swaying in the breeze ever so slightly. It creaked from the weight of the snow that covered it. Cato looked at the others, and saw all of them had the same impression of the staircase, a general consensus on their faces that it was not safe.
"So," Malik began, leaning ever so slightly to look over the edge, "who's going first?"
For a second Cato thought they were looking at him for an answer, and then he realized that they were suggesting that he go first. His eyes pleading, he gazed at each of them in turn. "You have got to be kidding me," he groaned.
He looked at the Dragonborn for help, his eyes pleading the Nord to see sense. Nervously, the Nord rubbed his neck, obviously unsure of what to say. He made a quick glance at the entire group and sighed. "Well," he started slowly, "you are the lightest of the group."
"You have got to be kidding me," Cato repeated.
"What?" Lydia mocked, crossing her arms with a wicked smile on her face. "Is the king of the sneak thieves afraid of a stair?"
"No," Cato answered, his malice at the thought of being scapegoat obvious. "I'm not afraid of going down some steps. I'm nervous at the thought of falling down a cliff. Completely different." It's not that he was scared of heights, more that he was scared about heights where he couldn't see the bottom.
Cato felt the Dragonborn's gauntleted hand on his shoulder. "You'll be fine."
Cato scowled. "If I die…" he started with a hint of a growl. With a resigned sigh he made his way to the beginning of the stair. He felt their eyes piercing his back. Gingerly, he made the first step, holding his breath as his foot crunched through the layer of fresh snow to the wood beneath.
And then he felt himself falling as his foot broke through the board. He yelped and tried to jump backwards, landing hard on his back, his foot still partially through the hole. Nocturnal, he cursed, staring at the sky, you *****.
"Watch that first step," he said calmly, ignoring the sound of sjirachiing behind him as he stood. He took the next step, and soon he found his way to the edge, where a rickety railing separated him from the world below. He'd been worse places, this much he knew. He turned to find the others following him, the Dragonborn leading followed by Lydia at his heels and Ralof and Malik in tow, careful to avoid the newly made hole.
They reached the entrance, a deep cave built into the cliff. They gathered together, gaping into the abyss that awaited them. The Dragonborn stepped forward, adjusting the shield on his arm. "We go in together," he said, turning to them. "Cato I want you on my left, Lydia on his left. Lydia, keep your shield up and stay by my side, if anything happens we make a shield wall. Cato, we run into trouble you fall back behind me and Lydia. Malik and Ralof, you have the rear, keep whatever may be in there from flanking us." He paused. "Divines guide us," he said a little softer.
Ralof reached beneath his mail and pulled out a chain. Cato recognized the amulet as an Amulet of Talos. "Talos guard us." Cato couldn't help but see the look on the Dragonborn's face as he gazed at the amulet. Our Dragonborn is a Talos worshipper then. Makes sense.
In formation, three in front, two behind, they entered. Cato held up his hand and muttered a spell under his breath. A soft green glow appeared in front of his hand and floated above them.
"Mage light," he muttered. The Dragonborn nodded.
The walls seemed to be made of ice, drilled deep into the ground. Their breaths were white on their lips. The mage light danced along the walls, leaving the tunnel with an eerie green glow. As they descended there were more and more remnants of habitation; a crate here, an old lantern there. Cato gazed with slight curiosity at a sweet roll on a plate that was placed on a stool, almost as if the person had merely stepped away and was coming back for it. Ignoring the pastry, they continued.
"Hold on," Ralof said, halting the group. He was pointing down at a dark smear on the ground.
The Dragonborn looked at it more closely. "It's old."
Ralof nodded. "But something happened here."
The Dragonborn stepped away from the blood. "Let's keep moving."
So they continued. Cato kept his eyes peeled for any sign of traps. At this point it was obvious that there had been people working here. And that something had happened to them. Cato hoped whatever befell these workers wouldn't happen to them.
As they descended the ice covered tunnel soon turned to stone, the air became hot and humid, and there was were sounds echoing off the stones, deep and thrumming. The very walls seemed to hum, and the clanks and bangs of machines could be heard in the distance. "Gods," Lydia cursed after a particularly loud bang, "what was that?"
"The dwarven machines," Cato answered quickly. He stopped with a wry smile as he glanced at Lydia. "What? Don't tell me the mighty, ever loyal housecarl of the great Dragonborn is afraid of a few bits of scrap metal?"
Lydia glared at him, and opened her mouth to say something, but was interrupted by the Dragonborn. "Enough," he ordered.
The Khajiit huffed. "If I have any say, it is perfectly normal to fear these 'bits of scrap metal'. If the stories I have heard are true, then it is wise to be wary of these machines."
The Dragonborn shook his head. "We need to move. I-"
The group closed around each other, their hands on their weapons in anticipation. There were more bangs and clicks… then the unmistakable sound of many metal prongs skidding over stone.
"Spiders!" Cato called, spotting the metal bug as it rounded a corner, and there were more coming. He drew his sword, knowing that arrows would do no good against the metal hide of the spider. He'd learned that in the pursuit of Mercer.
"Stay together!" the Dragonborn ordered. He stood shield to shield, an imposing wall.
The first of the spiders reached them. Lydia cut at it with her sword, but the mechanical beast only slowed a little in its pursuit. Frustrated, she bashed at it with her shield, knocking it back further.
More machines came at the group, surrounding them. Nightingale Blade in hand, Cato slashed at the nearest one, but it still came closer. With a curse Cato realized he would need to outsmart them. They were only machines, what would they know of magic? Cato willed himself into the shadows, blending in and disappearing from where he stood. The machine paused for only a brief moment before starting towards Malik, who was already dealing with two other spiders, an axe in each hand. The creature was distracted, which meant Cato snuck behind it easily, piercing through the dwarven metal to the soul gem at its center. The machine froze and started to smoke before falling to the ground and moving no more, as Cato once again melted into the shadows.
Cato took the chance to take in the situation. Ralof, wielding his two handed axe, had no trouble in smashing them to bits, the resounding crash of metal hitting metal resounded even in the noise of the ruins. While Lydia was bashing them with her shield, then stepped aside as the Dragonborn Shouted them, flame being summoned on command and melting them and frying their machinery.
The Khajiit, it seemed, had his own manner of defeating the mechanical beasts. While one axe was buried in the metallic remains of one spider he had grabbed the other and lifted it then, one handedly, threw it into the wall, effectively smashing it and breaking off most of its limbs. The poor creature still tried to attack, only managing to spin in place as the legs on one side were missing, but soon it began to rebuild itself. Malik growled as he closed the distance and finished it off with his remaining axe. Oil was leaking like blood onto the stone.
Cato was almost in shock as he watched the Khajiit throw the metal spider with ease. The spiders were of decent size, and made of metal, and yet the digitigrade cat threw them like they weighed nothing at all. Thing was, this strength was not unheard of among the cat people. There were stories of cats born in rare times of the year, born under moons that made the offspring more bestial. These cats were larger and stronger than the others. Cato had seen one before while stationed in Elsweyr, a young one that had been just as strong. That was a long time ago though, and that young Khajiit would be older now.
He paused for a brief second. It couldn't be?
The Dragonborn kicked one of the spiders with a growl, tearing Cato away from his thoughts.
"Why," he said with a groan, "why are there always spiders?"
Cato had to admit, while their group seemed to be a rag tag one, they got the job done. The Dragonborn's Shouts and the Khajiit alone were an army themselves. The Dragonborn turned. "Is everyone okay?" He paused. "Where's Cato?"
Right, invisible. "Here," he said, reappearing.
Ralof stared at him. "You hid?"
Cato shook his head. "More like using my abilities to my advantage."
The Stormcloak raised a brow. "You mean hiding."
"You say 'hiding', I say making it so I can attack without getting attacked."
"Imperials," Ralof huffed.
"You know, Nords," Cato said, sneering, "there are other ways of defeating an enemy other than charging into them head first and meeting them in open combat."
Ralof was about to respond but the Dragonborn stepped in between them, the glare on his face enough to silence their argument. Seeing he was successful in making them be silent he stepped leaned down in front of one of the downed spiders. "There are probably more of these." He glanced at Cato. "You know something about them? You said something about soul gems?"
Cato nodded. "I've been in Dwemer ruins before." He pointed at the spider. "I think that the soul gems make them move… makes them alive."
The Dragonborn stood. "So, destroy them…"
Cato smiled. "Exactly."
"Well," the Dragonborn said with a sigh, "at least one of us knows something about this place."
"We should keep an eye out for traps as well," Cato explained. "And I'm not saying things like trip wires. There are stones that when you step on them they sink down and activate a trap. They're hard to spot though." Cato thought back to Irkngthand and how Bryn had the nasty habit of setting off traps.
The Khajiit rolled his eyes. "Great." He looked at Cato. "You do realize this means you're going first again?"
And so it went as they delved further and further into Alftand. Along the way there were hints and clues that hinted at the fate of the research team that was stationed here. There had been a blizzard, they learned, and the research team had taken to the ruin for shelter from the storm, for it was warmer and less likely to fall on top of them. But as for what happened after there were no clues save for a few cryptic messages about people that were disappearing.
There were more spiders, and they dispatched them in similar fashion to before. They stayed in formation, working much as a team. There were other creatures too, guardians that Cato remembered Karliah called Spheres. These Spheres were much larger and formidable than the spiders, and they seemingly appeared out of nowhere, unlike the spiders who could be heard by their metal legs scratching against the floor.
Cato held up his hand. "Hold on," he said. The others stopped behind him, curious as to what he'd found. Cato knelt down, examining the stone in the floor in front of him. It was perfectly rectangular, with a green gem in the middle, and placed right before a small set of stairs going up onto the next floor, effectively blocking the stair. It felt a bit out of place in the bronze and stone room. "I think I found one of the pressure plates."
The Dragonborn sighed. "I was wondering when we'd run into one. Can you do anything about it?"
Cato honestly had no idea. When they'd been after Mercer they simply avoided the traps. He could see no way to avoid this one. "Maybe I can dislodge it somehow," he said, digging into the pouch where he kept his lock picks. Gently, Cato slipped his pick beneath the stone, attempting to find any sort of gears or machinery that he could block. There had to be at least a gear or something he could block to prevent whatever trap this stone activated from befalling the party.
At last he felt the tip brush against something hard and smooth. He heard a faint tink as he tapped it ever so slightly. It was metal, most likely the gear he was searching for. Working quickly he jammed his pick into the gear, hard. It was now stuck in the gear. Cato prayed silently to Nocturnal, Let this work, and work with me for once!
He nodded. "Should be safe."
Ralof crossed his arms. "'Should be' safe?"
Cato nodded again. "Yeah, but step lightly." For show, Cato went first. As his boot stepped on the stone it sunk, but only barely. Nothing activated as Cato stepped over it and onto the stairs. "See?"
The Dragonborn started, but Lydia stepped in front of him. Going first, she stepped on the stone, and then half jumped to the staircase. Shaking his head at his housecarl's diligence the Dragonborn followed. Malik was next, stepping lightly on the stone, but as his paw left the stone there was a resounding click.
Cato dived for the top of the stairs, rolling safely out of the way as a pole appeared in the middle of the stairs. It extended, revealing dual blades that began to spin as they descended the stairway. The Dragonborn's eyes were wide as he Shouted something. Time seemed to slow, or maybe the Dragonborn was moving faster, for Cato could not tell. One moment the Dragonborn and his housecarl were there, the next they were at the top of the stair with Cato. They landed hard, and a soft cry echoed from Lydia she collided with the stone knee first. Malik flew backwards back to the floor. The blades and pole retracted and disappeared once again.
All of them let out a sigh of relief. The Dragonborn stood, dusting himself off. Cato remained on the ground, his heart pounding in his chest. "You two all right?" the Dragonborn asked.
"I'm fine," Cato grunted indignantly.
"You call that safe?" Lydia growled lowly from the stone beside him.
"I got three of us up here didn't I?" Cato mumbled.
The Dragonborn shook his head and gazed down the stairs. "What about you two?" he called down the stairs. "Ralof? Malik?" There was a grumble of annoyance from Ralof, but not a sound from Malik. "Malik?" the Dragonborn called again, starting down the stairs and stopping half way. Grunting as he stood, Cato followed.
Malik was sitting, a look of terror on his face. He was holding his tail in front of him, staring at it like it was a foreign object. Ralof moved next to him and knelt down as he placed a hand on the Khajiit's shoulder. "Malik?" the Nord asked. "What's wrong?"
The Khajiit just continued to stare at his tail. "My tail," he gasped.
Cato looked at Revak and caught him raising a brow. Cato squinted as he tried to see what the Khajiit was on about. He felt the Dragonborn's hand tap him on the shoulder and then he drew Cato's attention to something on the floor. There on the ground was a tuft of black and orange fur.
The blades had cut the furred tip of the Khajiit's tail off.
Ralof shook Malik's shoulder. "Come on, friend," he said warmly, "it'll grow back right?" The Khajiit mumbled something about how much this was going to itch later, but nodded solemnly. The Nord and Khajiit stood together, and with Cato and Revak's help, made it up the stairs where Lydia was resting against a wall, rubbing her leg.
Malik ignored his tail (which he had been still holding), and knelt beside her. "It's nothing," she argued.
"Oh, really?" the big cat mused.
"Yes, Malik, really."
The Khajiit smiled devilishly. "Oh," he mocked, "so this doesn't hurt at all?"
Lydia looked confused. "What doesn't hurt-"she started, but ended in a yelp as Malik flicked her leg sharply.
"Thought so," he said concluded. Cato chuckled quietly.
Ralof knelt on her other side and placed a hand on her arm sweetly. He looked at the Dragonborn. "We should rest, if just for a little while."
Now that Ralof had said it, Cato realized how tired he was. They'd had a long day, the trek to the campsite, fighting the dwarven machines, and dodging traps had taken its toll. Cato looked around. He didn't like the idea of staying put for any length of time. But the Stormcloak was right. They needed rest. We have no idea what we'll face further in, spiders, spheres, centurions, Falmer… There could be anything.
He spotted a door. Leaving the rest, he made his way to it. Inside was a medium sized room, it was filled with scrap metal, but none of it was moving, a good thing in a Dwemer ruin. "Revak," he called back. With a last glance at his friends the Dragonborn joined Cato near the room.
"Might be a good place to hold up for a time."
The Dragonborn nodded. "Time is running, but I think we need a rest." With that he called the others, and soon the group took to their places. The Dragonborn called the first watch, much to his housecarl's dismay. Instead, she and Ralof took to one corner by themselves, sitting very closely and sharing whatever rations they had with each other. Malik leaned in the doorway and began to take inventory of his alchemists pouch.
Cato sighed and found a place along the opposite wall. He pulled his hood over his head, yet kept his mask down. There was no need to hide his identity here. He sat with his arms on his knees, watching the others casually.
Malik now finished searching his pouch made his way over to the Nords, a small pink vial in hand. He sat as Lydia took the vial, he muttered something to her to which she nodded and downed the concoction. A health potion then, Cato decided as Lydia's face eased somewhat after taking it. She nodded at the Khajiit and returned the now empty vial. The cat had a wide grin as he returned the glass to his pouch at his side.
The big cat was sitting cross legged in front of the two Nords, though rather awkwardly with his digitigrade legs. An interesting thing, that Khajiit. Cato had spent months in the Khajiit homeland, and only once had he ever met one of the more beastlike breeds. Of course, that was a different time, and, he grimaced at the thought, with the events of that night, that poor boy was probably dead. Or worse.
Cato shook the thoughts away and instead tried to rest. But his mind was a rush. Immediately he thought of the dream he had had before he last woke. Surely it was merely a dream. But it was so extreme, and so lifelike, to the point that he had awoken with a weapon drawn. And the feeling after! He cringed slightly. It was like he'd awoken from death itself.
He rubbed the back of his neck. No, he would not fall asleep, at least not just yet. Yet, even as he decided this he was growing more weary. His eyes felt heavy. He tried to shake sleep away, but it still lingered, growing heavier and heavier by the passing second. No, he told himself. I do not need to sleep. His head nodded even as he thought it. What was this? His heart began to beat faster, yet his eyes still became like lead. And soon they were closed, and his will became a distant memory…
Cato was once again surrounded by darkness, as nude as the day he was born… No, not again, he pleaded with himself.
"Listener, you belong to me…"
He was exposed, helpless, and he knew it was true. The voice was cold, so cold. He cringed, waiting for the pain.
"You will never escape my grasp, mortal. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. I am in everything around you; the unseen, the waiting darkness, the nothing, the Void."
Then another voice, "No, he is mine!"
Then… the room changed.
He looked up, this darkness was different. There was no monster waiting in the dark, no shadows moving around him, unseen. No, this time he welcomed the blackness. Once again he was able to see the faint outline of a door, a purple fog penetrating below it. Hesitant, he stepped towards it. As he began to move the new voice spoke again, a woman's, strong and melodic, "No, he is mine," it repeated.
Cato cringed, fearing for a brief moment that it was the Night Mother. But that was not the voice he served as Listener. This was a different entity. The fog began to rise, a purple cloud that began to change shape, forming into a woman. Her skin was bathed in a purple haze. He was clothed once more in his familiar armor made of shadows.
There before him stood Nocturnal. She reached out and offered her hand. Cato reached out to her. "You have been busy, Nightingale."
Cato could not find the words to respond. "The shadow of the Void threatens to close around you," she said, almost matter-of-factly. "But," she said, taking his hand, "we already have a deal, a contract." A shiver went down his spine at the last word. She let go of his hand, and Cato was shocked to find a familiar artifact in his palm.
There in his hands was the Skeleton Key that he had sworn to protect, the one he returned and brought back the luck that the Thieves Guild so sorely needed. He knew that the daedric artifact was not to be in the world. Its power was too great. He looked at Nocturnal questioningly. He moved to return it to her, but she shook her head. "No, use it well." Seeing that Cato did not understand she continued, "The world is in danger." She scowled. "The Beast will try to devour the world," she explained, as the growling behind the door grew louder. "This must not happen. Follow the Dragon of the North."
She disappeared, leaving Cato alone in the dark.
For a second time, Cato awoke with a start. His heart still beating wildly, he reached for his belt where he kept his lock picks.
He stared at the Skeleton Key wildly as he drew it from the pouch. How? He knew for a fact that he had returned it to the Twilight Sepulcher. He knew that there were only two others in the world who truly knew of its location, and neither Brynyolf nor Karliah would ever remove it from its chamber.
Nocturnal had given it to him. There was no other explanation. A familiar chill crept up his spine. He knew two things for certain, and he wasn't sure of which he thought more terrifying. One, that Nocturnal thought that the situation was dire enough to separate with her most cherished artifact. And two, the fact that he had the Skeleton Key in hand and that Nocturnal truly visited him meant that whatever the other thing that was in the dream had actually been there too.
Who was this Dragon of the North? He knew that that was a reference to Talos. Or was it? Maybe it meant the Dragonborn? They were in Skyrim after all, and didn't they say the Dragonborn possessed the souls of the dragons themselves? These were questions for another time.
He returned the Key to his pouch, making sure it was safely tucked within. Losing it would be a very bad thing, he knew. He stood, making sure not to make too much noise. Lydia and Ralof were still in their corner, Lydia resting her head on Ralof's shoulder, while Malik, the big oaf, was sprawled wide in the middle of the room, his tail twitching in some dream. The Dragonborn, he concluded, was still outside. Cato stepped gingerly over the Khajiit as he made his way out the door.
Cato found the Dragonborn across the hall, leaning against the stone wall and absent mindedly twirling something that was around his neck. Upon closer inspection Cato realized it was a simple iron key. The Nord's shield lay propped up against the stone beside him. The steel shield had taken a considerable amount of damage from the day's fighting. It had a few deep dents, as well as quite a few scorch marks. The Dragonborn gave Cato a slight nod as the Imperial leaned on the wall opposite. "The others still resting?" the Dragonborn asked quietly. Cato nodded. The Nord sighed. "We should begin moving again soon. I don't want to stay in one place for too long," he said, his voice weary.
Cato nodded in agreement. "Good idea. Should we wake them?"
The Dragonborn shook his head. "Not just yet, let them have their rest for as long as they can," he paused, "or at least as long as we can afford." They sat in silence for a moment.
"I can take over the watch, if you wish," Cato offered.
The Dragonborn offered a small smile as he tucked the key beneath his armor. "Thank you, but no." He breathed. "I wouldn't be able to sleep anyways." He glanced at Cato's expression and sighed. "Old ghosts," he said simply.
Cato nodded solemnly. He knew that feeling all too well recently. He wondered what might have caused such a young man to have 'old ghosts' already. It was surely something to ponder. Who was this Dragonborn? Where had he come from? He spoke of things that seemed like they were out of a book of legends. Cato was broken from his thoughts when he noticed the Dragonborn's gaze directed at him. "What's wrong?"
He continued to stare at Cato. "Something," he paused, "I feel like there's something nearby… something powerful."
Cato tried to ignore the impulse to put his hand over the pouch where he knew the Skeleton Key was hidden. Did this Nord have some sort of supernatural sense? "An enemy?"
"No," he admitted, "at least, I don't think so." He shrugged, and then was silent for a moment.
"So, what is your story? Thieves Guild, Dark Brotherhood, it must be some tale."
Cato chuckled lightly. "You don't know the half of it."
The Nord smiled. "Then tell me."
Cato eyed the Dragonborn. There was something about this man. Cato wasn't sure what, but he felt he could trust him. Besides, what would the Dragonborn do? Turn him in to the Empire? He was a hunted man, but he had a feeling that the Dragonborn was too. "I was a Legionnaire, for quite a few years," Cato started, "a Legate, in fact. I am also currently wanted by the Empire for high treason."
The Dragonborn raised a brow. "Seriously?"
Cato smirked as with his left hand he removed his right gauntlet, revealing the Legion's mark on his arm. "My father was the Commander. True, I am a bastard, but even the Commander's bastard had a reputation to uphold, you see."
"Ah," the Dragonborn said, crossing his arms, "so it was Legate…?"
"Just Cato, I haven't used my first name in years," Cato answered. "I had a pretty good life," he said, thinking back. "I had a beautiful wife, newborn son, a good title, and land outside the Imperial City." Elaina's silken hair and how it shined in the sun and Darius' pink cheeks. He still remembered the first time he saw his son smile, toothless and perfect.
"How did you go from that life to the life of a thief and assassin?" the Dragonborn scoffed. "Seems like a pretty far turn."
Cato blew out a breath. "That's a way to put it." The Dragonborn gave him a look requesting more. "I was stationed in Elsweyr. We were supposed to 'maintain a presence' in case that the rumored rebellion there ever gained footing."
"A rebellion in Elsweyr?"
"It never got far. We arrested the leader before it got out of hand. Except the Thalmor agent assigned to us had his own meaning of justice and killed the poor sod without a court's decision." It was more than that, he knew. The Thalmor knew that Cato wouldn't stand for it. The Elf wanted to prove a point to Cato, so Cato shared the point of his sword.
The Nord shook his head. "So how did you end up a traitor?"
"I killed the Thalmor agent and fled the Empire. I went north to Skyrim and never looked back. I found a home with the Guild, who kept me away from the Thalmor's grip."
"What about your family?"
Cato was silent, and apparently that was all the answer that the Dragonborn needed. He would let the Dragonborn fill in the blanks. In truth his family had been burned alive inside their family home by the Dominion. Cato could still smell the smoke. He could still see the image of his wife's burnt corpse clinging to the small black bundle that was once his son protectively.
"I'm sorry," the Dragonborn said softly.
Cato nodded as he replaced his gauntlet. "So am I."
Ralof remembered how Revak had stopped time earlier in the day. He had moved unseen and appeared a good distance away from where he was just a second ago. Ralof wondered how long it felt for Revak. Did seconds turn to minutes? As Ralof brushed a stray strand of hair behind Lydia's ear, he couldn't help but wish he could slow time, even if just for a few minutes. True they were deep in the belly of a dwarven ruin full of mechanical monstrosities and deadly traps, but for right now they were safe, warm, and together. If only to be the Dragonborn for just a day…
Instead, he was greeted by Revak at the door, giving a low whistle to wake the sleeping group. Lydia's eyes popped open beside him. She gave him a quick glance and a soft smile before nudging the Khajiit in front of them with her boot. The Stormcloak chuckled as the big cat groaned and rolled over onto his side, his tail wrapping around him like a rope. Ralof glanced at the side wall, noticing the Imperial was no longer there. Revak rolled his eyes and made his way toward the slumbering Malik. Ralof heard a few hushed words, and then a strange voice seemed to insult the Khajiit, calling him a 'skeever brain'. Ralof raised his brow at Revak's smirk; a Shout then, and a peculiar one at that. Nonetheless, the behemoth Khajiit jumped up, muttering under his breath. "Who said that?" he grumbled, glaring at the Dragonborn, who merely shrugged.
Deciding it was time, Ralof stood as well. He offered a hand to Lydia, who took it with a slight blush as he kissed her hand lightly. He caught Revak's eye and just smiled. They followed Revak into the hall were the former Listener was already waiting. The Imperial gave Ralof a respectful nod, but said nothing. Revak glanced at each of them like he was making a roll call. "Same formation as before," he ordered.
The place had a different feel to it now. Before where they felt they were alone, save for the spiders and spheres, now it felt like they were being watched as they moved through the ancient stone halls.
"How could anyone live underground like this?" Malik said beside him. "It can't shake the fear that this will all fall down on top of us."
"Don't say it," Ralof said with a laugh, "with the luck of our Imperial leader it very well might happen."
Malik chuckled. "I give him credit where it is due. But perhaps you are correct. I-" Malik stopped. "Wait."
The party stopped. Ralof watched as Malik actually began sniffing the air. "I smell something."
Malik scrunched his nose in revulsion. "It smells like troll piss fermented in an Orc's sweaty wool sock."
The group stared at the Khajiit in confusion.
"It is a very distinct smell," he explained.
The thief shook his head. "Falmer," he cursed.
Sure enough just in the next room there was a group of the creatures. Malik's description of the smell was apt enough. They stank, outright. They were decent fighters as well. Smell and fighting skill aside they died like any other creature. The only one that gave them any difficulty was the spell caster, but the thief slipped into the shadows and surprised the monster from behind. They held their breaths once the fight was over. The beasts didn't smell any better dead than they had alive.
The Falmer had built a rugged little village. Ralof was impressed. How could creatures such as these have skills like these? They were blind! The found bodies there too, researches abducted by the Falmer for unknown malicious reasons. At the far end was a heavy stone door, green stonework.
Having seen enough, Revak sighed. "Let's move."
The room on the other side was breathtaking. They entered high on a balcony, with a staircase winding down on each side. The stone was white as snow. Below there was a sort of altar, glowing with brass and green gems. Green crystals were embedded in the cave ceiling and along the walls, lighting the way. There was a handful of Falmer, but they were dispatched easily in such small numbers. With light feet they ascended the white marble stairs. "What is this place?" Lydia said in awe.
Revak shook his head. "Some sort of cathedral I think."
Ralof's attention was drawn to three figures lying on the marble, in pools of blood mixed with metallic oil. "Revak!" he called. The Dragonborn joined him and let out a breath. The bodies were massacred. Their limbs were crushed, their flesh burned, and their heads smashed. "What could have done this?" But Ralof already knew the answer. Beside the bodies sat a pile of dwarven machinery in the shape of a giant man.
The thief whistled when he saw it. "A centurion!"
Revak knelt beside one of the bodies, a man in heavy Legion armor, and began patting the poor man down. "Nothing," he murmured. He knelt back, staring at the gruesome sight before him.
"What happened here?" he thought out loud.
"What do you mean?" Lydia asked, obviously not wanting to be in the presence of the corpses.
Revak shook his head. "What killed them?" He paused. "Actually, take that back," he glanced at the ruined machine, "what killed that?"
Malik kneeled beside Revak, inspecting the bodies. "Other than the obvious… there are burn marks."
"Perhaps steam from the machine?" the Imperial said, kicking the machine for emphasis.
Malik shook his head. "I've seen marks like this, made by destruction magic."
Ralof gave Malik a look. "Neither of these poor souls looks like they were skilled with magic."
Revak nodded. "Maybe there was a third person?" He stood and made his way to what must have been the altar. Ralof and Lydia followed their fellow Nord, leaving the Imperial and Khajiit to search the rest of the cathedral.
Revak stared at the strange pedestal that was the altar. He sighed as he removed his helmet and ran a gauntleted hand through his short hair. Ralof looked around him, and saw no other doors, no other entrances. It was a dead end, and there was no sign of an Elder Scroll in sight. We can't have made it all this way for nothing, Ralof thought hopefully.
"There has to be more," Revak said softly.
"Maybe there is another part of the ruin?" Lydia thought aloud.
Revak shook his head. "If it were to be anywhere in this ruin, this would be it."
Malik and the thief joined them, their search finding nothing. The Imperial lowered his black hood. "There has to be something of value here," he offered. "Why would there be a centurion otherwise? It was guarding something."
"Whatever it was," Lydia argued, "it's gone now."
"Maybe it has something to do with this, then?" Ralof said, staring at the altar that Revak was leaning on. Ralof found it hard to believe that a huge place like this had no secrets besides rotten smelling Falmer and ancient machines. Revak pounded the altar with frustration, throwing their group into silence. At least until the Imperial jumped like he'd been branded. Everyone stared at him curiously.
Ignoring their glares the Imperial reached into a pouch at his side, his smile wide as he removed what looked like a worn lock pick. Immediately Revak stood straight, his brow furrowed. "By the Divines!" he cursed. "Where did you get that from?"
Ralof was confused. The look on his friends face was that of shock, but the Imperial actually looked cocky holding his little trinket. He looked closer. It looked like a normal lock pick, maybe a bit fancy, but old and worn.
"It was a gift," the thief explained, closing his hand around the pick.
Revak scowled. "That's the Skeleton Key!" he yelled. "That's what I felt earlier! When did you get that? Because by Oblivion you didn't have it when we got here!"
Lydia stepped forward. "The Skeleton Key? What is that?"
"The Skeleton Key," he explained with a hint of malice, "is a daedric artifact; Nocturnal's in fact." He glared at the thief. "You're a Nightingale," he said simply.
"Yes?" the thief said slowly. "You already knew that, Dragonborn."
Revak walked around the pedestal and stood directly in front of the Nightingale. "Serving a daedra…" he trailed. "That thing," he nearly spat, "isn't supposed to in the world!"
The Imperial shook his head. "How do you know? It can help us!" he argued. "If there is another passage to get to the Elder Scroll this," he displayed the pick, "can get us to it! I have to have been given it for a reason." He gestured at the room in general. "And this has to be it!"
Malik couldn't keep his eyes off the daedric artifact. "What does it do, exactly?"
Cato sighed. "It opens doorways."
Revak scowled. "Make it sound as innocent as you like." He turned to Malik. "It opens any doorway. Even ways without locks or even doors. Limited only by your own will."
The Khajiit's eyes went wide. "Any lock?" Cato nodded. "I wish I had that at that brothel in Rimmen," he murmured. "So that is how you are the Thieve's Guildmaster?
Cato gave Malik a curious look, but shook free of it. "No, not at all." He glared at Revak. "I've used it before, Dragonborn, and I returned it then."
"How did you get it anyway if you supposedly returned it?"
"Wait," Ralof interjected, his hands up, "what are you talking about?"
Revak sighed. "Do you know how the daedric artifacts get into the mortal world?"
"No," Ralof admitted, "I have never had much experience with them."
"You need to do them a service. You need to do something to gain their favor, and then they award you with their foul trinkets."
Cato huffed. "You know quite a bit about them for someone who seems to hate them." He sighed.
"I returned it once, for the Guild. Nocturnal isn't evil. Just a good business woman," he smirked, "if anything."
"You sold your soul for luck," the Nord said, it wasn't a question.
"I signed a contract with it," Cato admitted, "yes."
Ralof stared at the Imperial. How could someone sell their soul to a daedra for something as fickle as luck? "Why?" he asked.
Cato turned to him. "Because some things are bigger than just one soul."
Lydia laughed darkly. "'A thief with honor'."
Ignoring her, Cato turned back to the Dragonborn. "I'm a Nightingale, it's my job to see the Key returned to her, but, in the meantime, why not put it to use helping something bigger than any one of us? Do we really have the time to argue this?" He paused, letting his point sink in.
The Dragonborn stared at him for a moment, and then sighed. "Use it," he said softly. "We need the Elder Scroll, if it's here."
The thief smirked. "We do have luck on our side, you know," he said, twirling the Key in his
The Dragonborn huffed and shook his head. "I'd rather have an Elder Scroll."
So you know that thing where I post stuff and you read it?
Yeah, forgot about that.
I've been working more than ever, and then writer's block, failing NaNo like a boss.
I've got good stuff still, and if you're still reading, good on you.
I've broken this chapter into three now, not just two. Once this chapter broke the 10,000 word mark, I realized I still had another 10,000 to go. So three it shall be.