A/n: 2020 blows, y'all. I really hope you are all safe and healthy; I've had conversations with many of you, and you're all very good, kind people.
Please, let's all do our best in whatever ways we can to make the world a peaceful, compassionate, and safer place.
As a note about this chapter: Let's all be honest with ourselves. Mehra is so powerful at this point that it makes no sense for her to follow the exact path you do in game. She can levitate, for starters.
There will be one chapter after this, then a short epilogue. I plan to write a sequel called "May My Tongue Speak", and I will also write Erich's story, called "Heartfire".
We do not die. We do not fear death.
Destroy the Body, and the Animus is cast into The Darkness. But the Animus returns.
But we are not all brave.
We feel pain, and fear it. We feel shame, and fear it. We feel loss, and fear it. We hate the Darkness, and fear it.
-Spirit of the Daedra
It was still raining. Neloth didn't have to glance out the window to know that; he heard it pounding against the top of the mushroom above. Usually, the cap was so thick that one couldn't hear rain through it, but this storm was one of the worst he heard in a long time.
Mehra slept through it until morning. She slept through nearly anything. Still, she was more nervous than he'd ever seen her, but Neloth expected it. She had a lot to do that day.
Neloth glanced up from his cup of tea to watch her pick at her breakfast. The yellow robe Varona helped him acquire was absolutely stunning on her. He never would have guessed that it would be ideal for Skyrim, of all places, but between the thunderstorm and the summer heat, the atmosphere within the tower was swamp-like.
He couldn't be bothered to put his robes on until he had to. Pants were plenty of clothing with how hot it was, and he was loathed to admit that he'd gotten used to the weather on Solstheim.
Neloth took a sip of his tea, placed the cup down, and sighed.
"Alright," he said. "There is something more bothering you, since capturing this dragon is a guarantee."
Mehra nodded and put her fork down. She looked utterly hopeless.
"Aela says that people are worried about the dragon capture plan," she said. "Well, worried is an understatement. She said that she smells fear off of nearly everyone."
"I suppose the warning was meant with good intentions," Neloth replied.
Sighing, she shook her head. "Well, she disagrees as well. She said there must be another way – that what we're going to do is a very bad decision."
Neloth nodded. That was understandable, but it was far too late to raise objections. He ran a city for thousands of years. Even though he knew more than most about these sorts of decisions, this was such an exceptional circumstance that it was difficult to say. Regardless, decisions rarely had a clear path. Shaking his head, he looked over to Mehra.
"Nobody can say for certain," he said. "Your points both have merits. They also both have consequences. You will never know entirely which decision was correct, since you cannot experience both."
She abandoned her breakfast, picked up her chair, and set it down next to his before sitting once again.
"I feel bad," she said. "I don't want to frighten people anymore."
Neloth supposed it was a bitter feeling for her, since she put in a large amount of effort to become more personable. She even went so far as to go out of her way to become a public servant in every sense of the word.
Peering into her eyes revealed that the entire affair pained her beyond measure.
"I suppose it makes sense," Neloth said. "They do not know the extent of our abilities, nor do they know the power of magic backing them."
She ran her hand though her hair, pulled her knees to her chest, and hugged her legs. Closing her eyes, she sighed and shook her head.
"What Paarthurnax said about Odahviing makes me hope that he won't try to harm the city," she said. "If he is as annoyed with Alduin as Paarthurnax assumes, perhaps, he will want to test me, and me only. I don't see why he'd go after the city."
Neloth nodded in agreement, but he wasn't too sure. After all, the dragon could get the idea to burn the city in an attempt to make her fight even harder. It was a villainous cliché, but from what she said of the dragons, they were rather simple in nature for eternal beings.
"Thinking about that shout I learned makes me think more about the future," she admitted. "Things that could happen. Permanent things. We're both tough, but we're both mortal."
Fair enough. Neloth didn't plan on letting anything happen to himself, but plans were always susceptible to ruin.
"And what would you do, then, if I died?" he asked.
It was odd, seeing her curled up in a dining chair like a child.
"Keep on as best I could, and meet you up later in Moonshadow," Mehra said. "And you?"
He'd try to live as he was, and forget about her. It would likely take centuries, just as it did with his last wife. That was, if he could forget.
Mehra's death could be the final thing to break him, especially if she ended up trapped in Sovngarde.
Neloth didn't know what look he was giving her, but it made Mehra bite her lip and look away.
"Let's not think about it, then," she said.
"I don't know how," he murmured, "but you've managed to really trap me."
Mehra leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek. "Is it the L-word?"
"Yes," Neloth grumbled, "I 'L-word' you."
The girlish giggle she let out was well worth his momentary discomfort. She unfolded her legs and leaned over to kiss him again.
"Well, I 'L-word' you, too," Mehra replied.
"We are too old for this," Neloth grumbled.
She snickered and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. "Well, I happen to like the look of an older man."
"I really like your gray beard," Mehra purred. "Very sexy."
"I shall keep that in mind."
He was pleasantly surprised to hear that. Neloth figured that she had a preference for younger, human men. She grew up in Daggerfall, after all.
In many regards, they worked well together. They had a mutual interest in magic of all kinds and shared a hunger for knowledge. And he hadn't had someone decent to talk to about research in some time who wasn't set on using him.
"I've been thinking about something," he admitted. "Do not feel obligated in any manner, but –"
Neloth second-guessed himself almost immediately. This was a very intimate thing to ask.
Mehra looked up at him and smiled. "But?"
He wasn't a coward. The time was never right for these things.
"The traveling," he said. "It is costly, and while the captain of the ship who ferries you to Solstheim is tolerable, it does bring you through some rather intolerable places."
Mehra chuckled. "Windhelm, or the Redoran?"
Neloth pursed his lips. "Yes."
"Alright," she laughed. "I don't see how we could get around while avoiding those, though."
"Oh, it's a simple matter," he replied. "Just need to set up a waypoint."
She gasped and put her hand over her mouth.
"We will put it in the library so nobody will have to know," Neloth explained. "You may come and go as you wish and read whatever you desire."
Mehra nodded. "I – I'd love that. Has anyone done something like this before?"
Neloth shook his head. If they did, it was secret. None of the Masters wanted to see each other, let alone share.
"So, we're basically moving in together," Mehra said.
Neloth blinked. "Oh. I suppose that is what it is."
It certainly was the Telvanni Master equivalent, at least. When he thought of it in those terms, he liked it all the more.
She nodded in agreement. "I like that idea. We can see each other more. Nobody talks magic to me like you do."
"As do I," he said. "You sharpen my mind."
Mehra leaned over to wrap her arms around his shoulders and kiss him.
"Where should we put it?" she asked.
Neloth blinked. What did she mean by that?
"I'm considerably less adventurous nowadays –"
"No, the portal!" she laughed.
Oh. Yes. That.
Neloth shrugged. "Perhaps, in the library as well."
He didn't find her bedroom to be the appropriate answer. If things continued as they were with Sheogorath, the last thing he wanted to do was intrude. Perhaps, others wouldn't understand, but their arrangement was their private business. It was common enough in the old days.
"After you leave with the dragon, I will start," he said. "I believe it will be complete by the time you return."
Mehra nodded. "That sounds great. Hopefully I can use it to let you know how it went as soon as possible."
If anything, it would let him know if she ended up stuck in in Sovngarde. If she didn't appear in a reasonable amount of time, then –
A knock sounded at the door.
"My Thane, I'm so sorry, but there's a problem."
Mehra looked terrified. "What is it, Lydia?"
"Erich's out under the Gildergreen," Lydia said. "Aela says he's been there all night. She couldn't get him to come in. He won't move and he's soaked to the skin."
Mehra nodded. Likely, she knew as well as Neloth that Sheogorath summoned the thunderstorm.
She padded across the room toward the bedroom to gather her clothes.
"People are breaking the curfew to try to get him up," Lydia continued. "I know he's unwell and he was here to help you out, but maybe we should get him inside and wrapped up."
"Get your armor on," Neloth sighed. "I'll go."
He was grateful that the help didn't open the door. Dressed as he was, he looked like a scarred up, retired spearman.
Neloth didn't want anyone to know about that.
"I will handle this," he called. "Just a moment."
An undershirt, robe, boots, and stole were all he needed. Neloth crossed the room, entered the bedroom, and collected his discarded clothing from the top of the changing screen. As he pulled the robe over his head and wrapped the enchanted stole around his shoulders, he couldn't help but chuckle.
The clothing finally made it to someplace other than the floor.
"You know," Mehra said, "we quit pawing at each other long enough to hang the clothes up properly. Does this mean we're real adults, now?"
Neloth laughed. "I was thinking the same thing."
He tugged his boots on, tied the laces, and headed toward the door.
"Go on ahead to Dragonsreach with Erich," Mehra said. "I'll be ready soon. I want to pray to Azura first, too."
He nodded. "Alright. I will see you there."
With that, he turned, headed out of the room, crossed the living space, and opened the door. Lydia waited across the landing in a full set of steel armor, minus the helm.
"How does she seem?" she asked.
Neloth glanced back at the bedroom door and shook his head.
"Oh," she murmured. "I'll help her with her armor."
"Probably wise," Neloth admitted. "I will see you later at the keep."
He held the door for her and closed it as she called out to Mehra. Good help was hard to come by; help with a personal touch, even more so.
Neloth shook his head as he drifted down to the main floor. Varona was alright, considering that she never studied stewardship. He couldn't be too picky on Solstheim. A bodyguard like Lydia likely had training, perhaps even a competitive apprenticeship or some equivalent.
He made his way down through the tower and the home below. Opening the front door, he frowned as a blast of hot, misty air hit him. While he appreciated the fact that the city wouldn't burn, this was a bit much.
Thankfully, Neloth had a spell for nearly any occasion, and this was no exception. He quickly cast a special reflection spell within a short radius surrounding his body, stepped outside, and closed the door behind him.
There. Completely dry.
Satisfied, he walked through the empty city up toward the defiled landmark further up the street. It was strange to see the city so empty, but with the storm, he figured that even if there weren't a curfew, people would have stayed inside unless they were desperate.
Neloth ascended the stairs that led up to the tree in the center of the plaza. Just as Lydia said, half a dozen or so soaked citizens crowded around the tree. At the center of them was an elderly woman. She furrowed her brow and motioned toward a home to the side of the plaza.
As he drew closer, he made out some of what they were saying over the pounding rain.
"Come inside, honey," the woman said. "It's going to be very dangerous outside, soon. We'll get you some warm cider and a blanket."
An unmistakable figure sat with his back against the tree with his legs crossed and his eyes closed. If he didn't know better, Neloth might have wondered if he was asleep or the like.
Neloth stopped a short distance away and pursed his lips. Sheogorath seemed meditative, in a way. These mortals were likely pestering him, if anything. He had to get them away.
From the corner of the plaza, a priest of the Nine hurried toward the center and began to shoo the crowd away. A pair of them left, but still, the older woman and a few others remained.
"Go on," the priest said. "Go on. I'll take care of this. Do not gawk at those in need."
Sheogorath opened his eyes, and the rain stopped in an instant. As the crowd dispersed, Sheogorath stared at Neloth from across the plaza. There was something slightly off about his gaze, and even though he was disguised as a mortal, it was still somewhat unnerving.
It was fascinating to see one of them in person.
The crowd eventually disappeared inside their homes, leaving the lone priest outside. Sheogorath looked up at him with a bored expression.
"Heimskr," he said. "Priest of Talos. Interim of Kynareth."
The priest narrowed his eyes. "I don't know what you are, but you did this to the sacred Gildergreen."
Though amused, Neloth felt he ought to intervene.
"Quite a fortuitous storm, hm?" he said.
Sheogorath smiled and stretched his legs out in front of him. "It is as if the unseen hand of God soaked the city so it couldn't burn."
"The Goddess of the Heavens loves her city," the priest said.
"Certainly," Sheogorath chuckled. "The thunderstorm must have been of her; nobody else. She made those, right?"
The priest nodded slowly. "She could. I do not know what you are, but if you are associated with the Dragonborn – descendant of Mighty Talos and messenger of the Gods – then I ought to trust your presence, no matter what you are. I simply ask that you think of the citizens before you do anything rash."
"I think about them all the time."
Neloth fought the urge to cringe. He didn't want to get in the middle of this.
As if sensing his thoughts, Sheogorath shot him a wry grin and turned to the priest.
"I'm part of the help, today," he said. "Go on inside. We'll sort this out. That poor dragon is going to be so confused when we trap him."
Neloth nodded. Given who was involved in the plan, that was very likely.
The priest seemed to consider this for a moment before sighing.
"Very well, then," he said. "Be you man or strange vestige, I wish you luck all the same."
He gave them a quick nod, turned, and made his way back through the plaza. As soon as he was gone, Sheogorath nodded.
"Vestige," he repeated. "That's the closest guess I've heard, yet."
Neloth nodded in agreement. "Would be a good lie as a cover story, if you needed to do so. Then again, I suppose you can simply erase the memory from peoples' minds."
"I can," he said. "But it is a lot to do to someone. I do it only if I feel I have no choice."
Unnecessary though the gesture was, Neloth knew manners. He offered his hand to the disguised daedra in front of him.
"Thank you kindly," Sheogorath said, taking his hand.
He slowly stood to his towering height. Even though Neloth knew it was exactly as Sheogorath did, he marveled at the fact that he was so mortal-passing. There was the slight, nagging feeling that something was a little 'off' but there wasn't much to go off of, other than how he looked at the moment.
As Lydia reported, he was indeed soaked to the skin; his clothes, cape, and hair lay plastered against his body. He could easily pass as the local eccentric.
"You thinking about something?" Sheogorath asked.
Neloth shrugged. "You pass very well. Not surprising, of course, but fascinating nonetheless."
Sheogorath seemed to consider this for a moment.
"Perhaps, I'll drop the full disguise for you sometime," he said. "Not today, though. I think it would be distracting."
"Probably," Neloth admitted. "I would want to take notes, regardless."
Sheogorath chuckled. "It stands to reason that you might notice something others may not."
He wasn't necessarily sure of that, but he might be able to understand a little bit more than the average mortal. Though it was reasonable to assume that Sheogorath acted in any manner he needed in order to ensnare mortals, he nonetheless seemed amicable with Neloth. He presumed it was their connection through Mehra.
Maybe – maybe he could get some of that blood, after all. Just to study it. He'd approach the subject with Mehra in private at a later time. It was rather inopportune, at the moment.
"If you didn't move, I was going to get Farkas and Vilkas to carry you off," a woman called.
Sheogorath chuckled. "I might have liked that one."
Neloth glanced up the stairs toward the Companions' mead hall and saw a woman at the top of the stairs. Even from a distance, her height was rather noticeable, as was her bright, copper hair.
The woman descended the stairs with a pair of linens in her hands, and as she drew closer, Neloth got the feeling that perhaps, he saw her somewhere before.
The woman stopped in front of them and handed the dry linens to Sheogorath. She wore the plain clothes of a commoner, but there was something different about her.
"I've been out in some storms before," she said, "but not one that bad. Can't say if it was a blessing or an omen, given what's happening today."
Sheogorath smiled and used the linen on his ponderously long hair.
"I'm sure it's a blessing," he said. "Thunderstorms are always good."
The woman shrugged, handed another linen to Sheogorath, then turned to Neloth.
"You must be Neloth," she said. "I'm Aela, Harbinger of the Companions."
Ah. This was one of the werewolves. A pretty, young thing with a fiery look about her – and it wasn't the hair that gave him that impression. She had an intense gaze. He had the feeling that she wouldn't be too much different without the lycanthropy.
As she shook his hand, he noticed the callouses on her hands immediately. Even without the bow strapped to her back, her hands gave her away as an archer.
Come to think of it, he did see her before at a distance. But her face paint was missing and in its place lay patches of freckles. Her armor was also conspicuously absent.
"I told you that you didn't have to stay with me," Sheogorath said. "Though you were nice company all the same."
She narrowed her eyes and crossed her arms. "I know you're different, but you're not a werewolf or a vampire, and you're especially not like her."
Aela pointed in the direction of the tower, likely in a reference to Mehra.
"If you catch a cold or worse from staying out last night," she grumbled, "I will take it very personally against my honor as Harbinger."
Neloth glanced between them and fought the urge to sigh. Again, he did not want to get in the middle of this.
"Oh, I can't get sick," Sheogorath said. "Not like that, anyway."
Aela sighed. "Good. We like you. Whiterun seems to like you, too."
"I like Whiterun a lot."
Neloth nodded slowly. It was a city full of worried, superstitious mortals. What wasn't there for Sheogorath to like?
"So, you're going to help with the dragon?" Aela asked. "People are worried."
People were worried, yes. But, despite her best efforts, Aela was also apparently worried to some degree. Neloth lived long enough to see through people's half truths. The Nords weren't as stoic as they thought – not compared to wizards and their company, at least.
"Yes," Neloth said. "And we shall succeed."
She nodded and furrowed her brow. "At any cost?"
Ah. There was that, yes. He understood her perspective. But, even without his presence or the presence of Sheogorath, he wagered that Mehra had this handled all on her own.
"I won't let the dragon harm your city," Sheogorath said. "I swear it on my blood."
Neloth nodded. That was a very serious oath from a Daedric Prince – likely the most serious one they could make.
"We appreciate whatever powers you can use to get this done safely," she said. "I just wish it hadn't come to this. Maybe I'm a hypocrite, though, with how my scheme against the Silver Hand led a bunch of them into the city. Same potential result: innocent bystanders and guards harmed."
Sheogorath shrugged. "I can't say one way or another. But, just some advice from an old guy; overthinking on the unchangeable drives people to distraction."
"I suppose you're right," she sighed. "I'm going to keep an eye out, though. If you need the Companions for backup, you know where to find us."
Sheogorath smiled. "Well, we appreciate that. I'm sure the Jarl will send word to the city as soon as it's safe."
"Alright. Be safe. And, thank you."
Sheogorath handed the soaked linens back to Aela. Together, they turned and made their way across the plaza as Aela ascended the stairs behind them. With each step, the soggy daedra next to him squeaked and squelched and dripped.
"I could dry off in a second," Sheogorath sighed. "But I guess that would be suspicious."
"Unfortunately so," Neloth shrugged.
He didn't speak this time in ancient Dunmeris, but Neloth figured that was to the benefit of others who could overhear them. Still, he had to admit that speaking in his native language with someone at a non-academic level was –
Well, it felt nice, in its own way.
As they made their way back over to the tree, Sheogorath glanced over at him.
"She's got this handled, you know," he said.
Neloth sighed and nodded. The more he heard about what Mehra was capable of, the more he realized that he wasn't necessary.
"I am aware."
"We don't have to be here."
"I am very aware. Why are you here, then?" Neloth asked.
Sheogorath shrugged. "I'm either all in, or nothing. I don't treat people halfway. And what am I supposed to say? 'No, I won't support the important thing you're doing, goodbye?' That wouldn't be nice."
He couldn't help but chuckle. "Seems we have something in common, then."
Neloth was loathed to admit that he was 'nice' in any capacity, but Mehra was worthy of an exception.
"The only thing I'm worried about is if she can return from Sovngarde after killing that thing," Sheogorath sighed.
"It seems we have two things in common."
Sheogorath looked sad as he stared up at the tree. "I think sometimes, people don't want to feel like they're doing everything alone. That's a lot to deal with. Especially when the people supporting you keep dying."
He turned to Neloth – definitely sad.
"We're not going to do that to her," Sheogorath said. "I don't want her to feel that."
Neloth didn't, either.
"Just curious," Neloth said. "What would your plan be if this somehow doesn't work?"
He shrugged. "Turn myself into my predecessor's likeness, step out of the shadows, then turn the thing into a chicken and hold it over a boiling pot until it agrees to help us. Child's play, really. But she'll succeed with this, so it'll have to be just a lovely fantasy."
That would work. It would confuse everyone, of course, but it was as Sheogorath was known to do.
Neloth frowned. "Before we head up there, I have a question: Do you have a plan to rescue her, in case she cannot leave Sovngarde?"
Sheogorath sobered and glanced around for anyone eavesdropping. After ensuring they were alone, he turned to Neloth.
"Somewhat," he murmured. "Anyone who says Aedra don't steal souls are full of shit. They'll steal her from Azura if they can without causing a problem."
Neloth nodded. He figured so.
"I vaguely remember something," Sheogorath said. "My predecessor was up there at some point. Well, not Sovngarde. The Mantellan Crux. That plane is self-contained, but it's a start. The notes have to be somewhere in my archive."
As a Master Enchanter, Neloth studied the properties of the soul, mysticism, and the various planes of existence. But, this particular type of thing was tinkering left up to the foolish or to the immortals.
Mehra was neither, and she was headed straight into the heart of a place from which no mortal ever returned.
"I am out of my element on such things," Neloth admitted.
Sheogorath sighed. "If the worst happens, I'll figure something out. I'm always failing forward into the right direction, somehow."
Divine though he was, his words had an air of youthful uncertainty and lack of confidence.
"Failing forward often indicates some type of correct line of thinking," Neloth said.
Sheogorath nodded and motioned toward the castle behind them. Together, they turned and made their way over to the staircase.
"Half right is better than all wrong, I suppose," he said. "By the way, do you ever do an enchantment on something because it's silly?"
The abrupt change of subject brought him pause. Was there something more behind this question?
Eventually, Neloth shook his head. "No, that's wasteful."
Sheogorath chuckled and motioned toward his pants.
"Alright," he said, "but these? I had the originals enchanted with Detect Life."
He snickered. "Because Detect Life pants are hilarious."
Neloth wondered if, perhaps, he was insane before he went entirely insane.
"Also," he added, "when I got accepted into the Arcane University, I asked for a Staff of Telekinesis."
Neloth nearly tripped up the stairs at the absurd notion. "Why?"
"Because it was ridiculous and I knew it would piss people off – the people who were snobs about how bad I was at magic. But I got in and they didn't."
He considered this for a moment before shrugging. "That's fair enough. And sounds like the typical Mages Guild. You must have gotten in on some merit, however."
Sheogorath squinted at the horizon and pursed his lips in thought. Eventually, he sighed and shook his head.
"I have trouble remembering some of it," he replied. "I vividly remember extorting someone, and created a private scandal with another. Did a few chores involving some dangerous ruins and the like. They had necromancy problems back then. Mannimarco – I uh – I punched him real hard. Ah, that was marvelous."
"Right in his smug face," he sighed. "A stab was too good for him, truthfully, so I chose differently."
"You killed him, then."
"Yep," he chuckled. "He had all this stuff set up to block magic, reflect magic, absorb magic. And as much as I adore it, a plain fist isn't magic. Not in a literal sense, at least."
Neloth was loathed to admit that he admired a nice punch every now and then. Sometimes, people didn't deserve the honor of one of his spells.
Considering the amount of hassle the Mages Guild seemed to give him, the choice of staff made sense. Truthfully, it was an admirable act of spite.
"They say you use necromancy to extend your lives," Sheogorath said. "That's not entirely true though?"
Neloth snorted. "Necromancy involves a dead body. It's not necromancy if you use a live specimen."
"Semantics are the best kind of technicality." He dissolved into a fit of laughter.
The more Neloth spoke with him, the more he realized that had they known each other two centuries ago, it would have been disastrous. It would have been even more of a disaster with Mehra as she was back then, as well.
They would have mutually indulged the darker side of their natures. Gods only knew what kind of destruction and chaos they would have left in their wake.
Neloth crossed his arms and frowned. Perhaps, he ought to tell someone with more information about what happened while Mehra was away from home. He stopped before the bridge to the keep, just out of earshot of the guards. Sheogorath stopped and turned to him.
"One more thing," Neloth said. "While the meeting took place, there were snoops outside the tower – not the average snoops, either."
Sheogorath nodded slowly. "What did they look like?"
"Middle-aged Breton woman with blonde and gray hair. Elderly Nord male- bald, bearded. She wore plain, leather armor, and he wore common clothes. But they were all around the tower. Noticed the trapdoor."
"Oh. Them. Yeah."
Neloth waited for him to continue, but he said nothing.
"Would you elaborate?" he asked.
Sheogorath blinked and shook his head. "Yeah. Them. The, uh – last Blades. Grandmaster and Lore Keeper. They wanted Mehra to kill Paarthurnax but she said no and threatened them with death should they show up again."
"They didn't seem particularly threatening," Neloth admitted.
"They've got nothing on the Greybeards," he said. "Mehra was their only chance at Paarthurnax. I guess they were trying to figure her out by coming around here. She's too complicated for that."
Neloth chuckled and nodded. "That she is. I am certain this will not be an issue, then. Shall we keep this between ourselves?"
"Yes. She's got too much to think about, right now."
He debated whether or not he ought to say something and decided to just go for it. This was Sheogorath, yes. But they got on well enough – alarmingly so.
"You appear to be distracted," Neloth said.
Sheogorath sighed and stared down at the ground.
"It's um," he mumbled, "it's personal drama. The stories written about the lot of us fighting among ourselves are just a fraction of the messes we pull on each other. Seems like they're picking on me, now. It's not a friendly welcome."
"Do you think Azura would have something to do with it?" Neloth asked.
He visibly wilted. "I hope not. I've been very good."
After a long pause, Sheogorath turned to give him an odd look.
"Would you two like to have a– well I guess it depends on if you like–uh. Actually, never mind. This probably isn't the right time to ask about that, since I haven't been able to– I'm going to stop, now."
Neloth nodded slowly. He had no idea what he was on about and figured that he was better off not asking.
After casting a glance down toward the city, Sheogorath shrugged and motioned toward the keep.
"She should be along soon," he said. "Let's get a good look at that trap, in the meantime."
"Agreed. On the off chance that you need to transform, it will be necessary to find an optimum location to hide."
As they crossed the bridge over the castle moat, the drenched guards at the front opened the doors. They walked in across the threshold and into the castle. There was no escaping the hot, swamp-like air; the wooden keep in particular seemed to absorb it.
The Jarl's steward paced the foyer and wrung his hands. He perked up at the sight of them.
"Welcome, esteemed wizards," he said. "We're so fortunate to have your expertise for today. Jarl Balgruuf is upstairs. Is there anything I can get for you?"
He gave the soggy Sheogorath an odd look.
"Nah," Sheogorath said. "Everything's fine."
Neloth shrugged. "I would like to inspect the trap."
The steward nodded. "Of course, Master. It is upstairs."
He motioned toward a set of stairs at the far end of the hall, beyond the Jarl's throne. As they crossed the foyer, the steward made small talk with them about the fortuitous storm; thankfully, Sheogorath answered the chatter on his own. Whatever issues he had with making pleasantries when he visited Neloth's tower appeared to be long gone.
The steward led them toward the stairs, then gave them a nod.
"The Jarl is upstairs here," he said. "I do have some matters to attend to, but it is nothing immediately pressing, so, please, send word if you need anything."
Sheogorath thanked him, and Neloth found himself grateful that he was with someone who didn't mind doing the talking. This sort of thing was far beyond him, at this point.
Voices echoed into the hall below as they ascended the stairs.
"My Jarl, I wish you wouldn't."
"Irileth. You know I have to."
Neloth crested the top of the stairs to see Jarl Balgruuf's exasperated guard holding a sword. She sighed and handed the sword and buckle to the fully-armored Jarl.
"This is just in case, Irileth," Balgruuf said. "I know we would get in the way. But, just in case, we should be ready."
Jarl Balgruuf bucked the sword to his side and turned to them with a smile.
"Ah! Wonderful to see you both," he said. "Erich, you didn't stay out in the storm, did you?"
Sheogor– Erich– Sheogorich– this was awful to keep straight – shrugged.
"Everything's fine," he said. "It's not a lot, anyway."
The rainwater dripping off of him said otherwise, but Jarl Balgruuf seemed to take it well enough.
Then again, judging by the sizable puddle of water beneath the large, double doors at the center of the back wall, he supposed that a little bit of extra water was of no concern. A large, damp, yellow area rug lay off to the side, draped over a set of chairs to dry. Piles of books lay on a table to the left, perhaps as a hasty effort to avoid the elements. This was a poor place for a study.
Rather than wait for questions, Neloth supposed he'd volunteer some information. He knew they'd ask him, anyway.
"Mehra will be along momentarily," Neloth said. "They are making final preparations at the tower. In the meantime, we would like to look at the trap."
Jarl Balgruuf nodded. "Of course. It's over here, actually."
The Jarl shook his head and motioned toward the doors, and the wet floor.
"The wind blew so hard that it rained sideways," he said. "I've lived here my whole life and can't remember water coming in through the Great Porch, of all places. Perhaps, it's a good omen."
Sheogorath smiled. "I'm certain of it. A God must have looked favorably on today."
Neloth glanced over at Sheogorath. He seemed to delight in mentioning that the storm was a blessing. Daedra were proud like that, but he supposed it was appropriate in this instance.
"I am sorry to be a terrible host, but I do need to do a few things before Mehra arrives," Jarl Balgruuf said. "The trap is on the porch through these doors."
Neloth shrugged. "I understand. Cities do not organize themselves, especially in times of peril."
"Yes, exactly," the Jarl sighed. "I am glad for your presence for multiple reasons. Thank you; I'll return shortly."
With that, Jarl Balgruuf turned and left. Neloth found it odd that a Nord leader valued the presence of a Telvanni Councilor in his keep. Still, given the strange, Redoran-like woman he employed as a personal guard, perhaps, times were changing more than he thought.
He understood what kind of pressure Jarl Balgruuf dealt with. Sadrith Mora was the headquarters for House Telvanni's counter-Oblivion efforts, after all. And, at least he had somewhat competent colleagues; he couldn't say the same for the leadership of Skyrim.
Neloth followed Sheogorath to the door and stepped over the puddle to stop outside. As the door closed behind them, he stared on in surprise.
To call this place a "porch" was an understatement. Though he hadn't seen a dragon before, this looked more than adequate to hold one captive. It was large enough that one could hold a small market lining the perimeter and center of the awning, while holding a large banquet at the edge beyond the roofline.
Neloth glanced back at the puddle in front of the doorway and shook his head. It quite literally rained sideways.
"I just waved my hands some," Sheogorath said. "It looked like they were able to save the books and maps. Must have been the Steward who moved them; he looks like the anxious type."
Neloth turned back and nodded. This seemed a bit excessive, but admittedly, he didn't know what the dragons could do. Perhaps, soaking the entire porch was warranted.
Sheogorath glanced around and shrugged. "Not a guard in sight. I'm sure she ordered the place cleared out."
"Makes sense," Neloth said. "An average fighter may get in the way. It sounds as if the Jarl understands this and shares the concern."
They made their way down the center of the porch, and Sheogorath gestured upward.
"This is where they kept Numinex," he said. "He went insane."
Neloth couldn't help but notice the awed inflection on the word 'insane'.
He looked up at the huge awning above them. In the center of the roof, supported by a large, stone arch, hung what appeared to be a massive, wooden yoke. While some of the yoke's furnishings appeared to be made of old, rusted iron, the majority looked like steel. The metal collar mechanism in the center of the yoke was certainly of carved Nord steel – strong enough to hold a dragon still.
A set of large chains suspended the yoke high above the floor. They connected on each side to a pullchain and spool on the second floor. On the ends of the yoke were another, thicker set of chains that led downward to a large spool of chain on the ground. Stonework flanked the spools of chain on both sides, and beyond that lay stacks of hay bales.
Smart. If the chain snapped somehow, it would be safer to have the stone and hay absorb the impact.
Neloth nodded toward the pulleys on the second floor. "Someone will have to pull one of those while she baits it. Someone less flammable than an average person."
"That's definitely one of us," Sheogorath said. "We can let her decide what she thinks is best."
Neloth glanced up and crossed his arms. There was a metal chandelier in between the yoke of the trap and the door.
"I don't like that there," he grumbled.
Sheogorath pursed his lips and frowned. "Me neither. That could fall on her."
He reached up in the air and made a fist. An invisible force clamped around the chain supporting the chandelier. Sheogorath gave a sharp tug, snapping the chandelier's support. With a quick motion of his hand, he pulled it to the side and placed it on the floor in front of a few of the hay bales.
That would have been a nuisance to handle on his own. If nothing else, that was useful in and of itself.
Together, they walked down the long expanse of the porch and looked up at the trap.
"Obviously, this one isn't the original," Sheogorath said.
Neloth nodded. "Certainly not. Especially not with wood."
"Exactly," he replied. "It's a few centuries old; long enough for people to forget what happened to Numinex and make something up. I can feel the truth here. He existed here since the First Era and went mad from loneliness."
Even Neloth admitted that his help and his apprentice – needy though they were – added variety to life. All the dragon had to look at for a few thousand years were the wooden keep doors in front of him, and the mortals who came and went as they pleased.
"Paarthurnax tried to visit sometimes," Sheogorath continued. "But, how much visiting can a dragon do in a place like this? Not much. Numinex never saw the sky or his visitor, except out of the corner of his eye. A few centuries ago, the mortals executed him out of pity."
Neloth didn't know how Mehra survived those two centuries without books, company, or so much as a look to the outside world.
As they walked down the porch together, Sheogorath motioned up toward the balcony above.
"That's a good spot as any for the emergency plan," he said. "Probably the stairwell."
Neloth nodded. "Agreed."
They stopped just past the edge of the porch's awning and peered out at the land below. The gold and gray expanse of Whiterun stretched on for a long distance, ending in foothills covered in pines. To their right, the Throat of the World stood tall, even at a distance.
There wasn't much more to do other than wait in support. Even then, Mehra had this handled.
He found himself somewhat relieved that Sheogorath agreed on this matter. In fact, they seemed to agree on multiple matters.
They seemed to get on well, and Neloth wasn't sure how he ought to take that.
He glanced over to the daedra next to him. Though he looked unique, he still appeared very much mortal. The hair was somewhat confusing, but perhaps, this was something daedric. Or, this was early aging as a human. Neloth never spent enough time with humans to know that many details about them.
He found himself wondering how much of the being before him was Sheogorath, and how much of the original remained. Mantling was an odd thing, however; if the process as theorized was completely accurate – becoming so much like a deity that one became said deity – then he was fully Sheogorath, and fully Erich.
"You look lost in thought, Neloth."
Neloth shook his head. "I am, yes."
"It's a good place to be, most of the time," Sheogorath chuckled.
"It can be, yes. I hadn't thought of it in that way."
Mehra and this man were of the same generation. Perhaps, Neloth ought to have paid more attention to young people around the turn of the Era.
He thought back to the retainers and others he met around Sadrith Mora at the time and quickly changed his mind. Nearly everyone was foolish, but Neloth supposed that every generation had an occasional notable exception.
"She's coming up," Sheogorath announced. "There's a group of them talking in the main hall. Shouldn't be long."
Neloth nodded and turned to make his way back toward the doors at the porch entrance.
"I suppose it's time," he said.
He didn't want Mehra to go to Sovngarde, but it was unavoidable at this point.
Sheogorath sighed and followed along next to him.
"Neloth," he said. "I'm a grown-ass man who single-handedly walked into dozens of gates to the Deadlands, talked to the Night Mother herself, punched Mannimarco in the face, and cast a spell at Mehrunes Dagon's stupid face – all while mortal – and let me tell you: I really, really want to be a giant baby about this and not let her go."
Neloth looked over to see Sheogorath shaking his head and clenching his jaw.
"I was thinking the same thing," Neloth confessed. "But this is her decision alone."
Sheogorath stopped in the middle of the walkway. Frowning, Neloth stopped and crossed his arms. He hoped this wasn't going to become a problem. If anything, he knew even more than Neloth about how important this was.
Sheogorath gasped and clutched his heart. "Oh, shit!"
He disappeared in a flash of purple light.
Alarmed, Neloth cast a quick spell to detect magic and stepped into the place that Sheogorath once occupied. There was nothing there: no spell, no trace of life, no magical waves of any kind. Like a summons, he vanished into thin air.
Did he just witness banishment firsthand?
He needed to converse with Talvas on this, given he was a Master Conjurer. It was shocking in how much it looked like how a summoned daedra disappeared.
This boded ill for their plans. While Neloth was certain that Mehra would succeed in capturing the dragon, as well as defeating Alduin, the issue of her leaving Sovngarde was concerning.
If this was banishment, then that meant that something severed Sheogorath's tether to the mortal plane.
The doors at the entrance to the porch creaked open. Mehra stepped forward with her helm in hand and her guard following close behind. Frowning, Neloth motioned for Mehra to come closer. She furrowed her brow and jogged over.
"We need a private word," Neloth said.
Without a word, Lydia turned and stepped away to give them a moment. As she walked away, the Jarl and his personal guard stepped onto the porch.
Neloth didn't have a lot of time to explain this. Shaking his head, he motioned toward the empty space around them.
Mehra nearly dropped her helm. "Gone? Erich?"
"Disappeared," Neloth said. "Banished, maybe. Something happened."
Her chin quivered. "I – left the fork at home. I need–"
"You have this all on your own," Neloth snapped.
He sighed and stuffed his frustration into the corner of his mind. It was startling, regardless of the circumstances.
"You will succeed," he said. "We both know you can do this all on your own."
"Listen," he said, "I am the foremost Enchanter in the world. Talvas is one of the top Conjurers. If anyone can figure out what happened to a particular daedric soul – especially such a massive one – it is the two of us. He's not dead; they never die. You take care of Alduin. I shall find out what happened. You have enough to deal with."
He didn't to admit that seeing such a powerful soul moved in such a way brought him unease. That meant that none of Sheogorath's artifacts were on the mortal plane. It meant that the fork he gave Mehra was gone.
As Mehra turned her gaze toward the trap, Neloth took stock of what she carried. In addition to the pieces they enchanted, she had the Ebony Blade, Keening, and Staff of Magnus. Her bag looked conspicuously lighter; likely, it contained only a few potions.
He hoped that Azura's Star was safe back in the tower. If it ended up getting stolen as well, he'd never forgive it. Anything else could be replaced. While Neloth didn't want to make assumptions, he also felt it was reasonable to keep his suspicions to himself.
After all, whomever Sheogorath's enemies sent to steal the fork from the Nerevarine herself couldn't possibly be someone they wanted to mess with at the moment. They knew that what they were doing was important and chose this exact time for a reason. They were able to sneak in within a few minutes with the entire city on lockdown.
Neloth wagered they weren't just anyone. They probably weren't even mortal. They were not somebody they wanted to tangle with right now.
"When you are done," he murmured, "I shall check the tower for daedra."
Mehra frowned. "Be careful."
"I'll detect and prepare to recall if necessary."
He glanced over at Lydia and sighed.
"I'll send your guard to the alchemist to stall her," he said.
"Thank you. I don't want her getting mixed up in my trouble."
Neloth wasn't sure if it was necessarily Mehra's trouble or not. Given what Sheogorath mentioned earlier, she was probably what they used as a proxy to get back at him.
Mehra sighed and motioned toward the trap. "Well, we had a plan today. We've got to do this."
They made their way back toward the door and met Lydia, Jarl Balgruuf, and his guard in the middle.
"Looks like it's time," Jarl Balgruuf said. "Where should everyone go? And, where's Erich?"
Banished. Likely having a fit of rage the likes of which his realm had never before seen. He almost felt sorry for the hapless loons living in the Asylum.
Neloth was too old for this. He sucked in a breath and rubbed his eyes.
"There's an old spell called 'recall'," Mehra lied. "It will transport the caster to a set point. He went home. I am sure that you noticed that he is unwell. He seemed more unwell than usual."
Banishment was one of the worst, if not the absolute worst, thing that could happen to a Daedric Prince. Neloth figured that what she said was truthful enough.
He motioned toward Mehra. "You have the best of the best right there."
"That we do," the Jarl said. "Shame about Erich, but maybe it's for the best. Poor fellow was glassy-eyed and soaked to the skin. What's the plan, Thane?"
She turned her gaze toward the trap, then to the sky beyond the awning of the porch.
"Where's the mechanism to close the trap?" she asked.
"Upstairs," the Jarl said. "It's a pull chain."
Mehra nodded slowly and glanced around.
"You're not going to like this," she said, "but I feel that only those who can resist powerful magic ought to be outside. This isn't a normal dragon."
It was exactly as Neloth and Sheogorath predicted.
Jarl Balgruuf nodded and glanced back at his guard.
"It looks like we were right, Irileth," he chuckled. "Well, Mehra, we will do that. My brother is pacing the hall like a caged wolf. I suppose we will as well."
Lydia glanced between them. "Who is going to pull the lever?"
"I shall," Neloth shrugged. "I figured it was a foregone conclusion. When the dragon is secure, I will call you with telepathy."
"Its the best plan we've got," Jarl Balgruuf said. "Master Neloth, I know you've been retreated from the public eye for some time. I appreciate very much that you're aiding in this at the expense of your privacy."
Neloth nodded. That was rather astute.
"I do what I must," he said.
Mehra sighed, put her helm on, and fastened the strap.
"Well," she said, "I guess it's time."
Jarl Balgruuf nodded. "We will see you soon, and hopefully, this dragon as well."
With that, he turned and headed toward the door. His guard sent Mehra a hasty salute.
"Good luck, Dragonborn," she said. "Talos guide you."
Despite her attempts, Lydia appeared distraught. She attempted the same salute and Mehra shook her head.
"It's alright, Lydia," she said, before pulling her bodyguard in for a tight embrace.
As they shared a few words of support, Neloth couldn't help but stare. It was such an odd thing to see her do; Mehra was a scourge as much as she was a hero, so long ago. As Lydia departed, he couldn't help but feel he was also strange now in his own right; he hadn't seen a dragon fighting for its life before and this could very well be the death of him.
As soon as the door closed behind them, Mehra quickly stashed her bag in the stairwell leading to the top. As she returned, she shook her head and frowned.
"You know the spell 'Fire Storm'?" she asked.
Neloth shrugged. "I don't choose fire often, but I do know of it. Why?"
"A dragon's shout is like that," she explained. "It burns that hot, but it has a point of origin just like a simple flames spell."
He nodded slowly. "I can block that."
Most of it, at least. Some of his enchanted clothes could help, if it came to that. Still, he hated the idea of fire, especially after the eruption of Red Mountain.
Neloth was a lot of things, but he wasn't a coward. Shaking his head, he stepped forward, craned his neck at an odd angle to avoid her helm, and gave her a quick kiss.
Mehra smiled and motioned toward the stairs to their left.
"Well, let's get it done," she said.
Neloth turned and made his way over to the stairs. "That is what House Telvanni does, Hortator."
An uncomfortable thought came to him – that House Telvanni did indeed capture creatures and force them into servitude – but he squashed it quickly. They had work to do.
He made his way up the stairs and stopped next to the pillar which housed the pull chain. Leaning over, he gave her a signal.
Mehra gave him a nod, drew her sword, and trudged down the center of the porch. Had he not seen her worrying mere minutes ago, Neloth would have assumed total confidence on her part.
Perhaps, she was confident – at least, cautiously so.
She quickened her pace as she drew closer toward the edge of the porch. Drawing her sword, Mehra cast her gaze toward the sky.
"Od ah viing!"
Her voice sounded like thunder, and the force of her shout blew a gust of light blue magic forward. Within seconds, a roar echoed across the sky. A speck appeared on the horizon and grew in size until the unmistakable shape of a dragon took form. So quick was its approach, that Neloth wondered if the dragon expected the challenge.
The dragon roared again, and the keep shook.
It swooped in and blasted fire directly at Mehra. At the last possible second, she cast a ward with her left hand, and the flames curled around her, leaving her unscathed.
As the dragon dove away, Mehra took the opportunity to cast a speed fortification spell. Neloth frowned and gripped the pullchain. If it was flying, then she needed it to land.
The dragon swooped in again like a hawk, with its claws out. Mehra jumped backward and shouted once again.
"Joor zah frul!"
A blast of swirling blue air hit Odahviing, and he collapsed on the edge of the porch. Neloth didn't know any of dragon tongue, but the words Mehra just uttered–
There was something frightening about them. He was old; he shouldn't be here. He was dust; she was dust. They were all mortal dust. But they were there for a reason. This dragon needed the same fear put into him.
Steeling himself, he watched as Mehra darted down the length of the porch with her enhanced speed. The incensed dragon stumbled after her, his claws scraping into the stone porch beneath them.
Just a little more–
Neloth cursed under his breath as the dragon stretched his neck out and bellowed fire directly at Mehra. He yanked the chain on the trap. The yoke dropped down on top of the dragon, cutting his shout short and pinning him in place.
That was a horrible spell to cast within such a short amount of time. Very few mages could survive that at all, let alone unscathed.
Swallowing, he waited for the fire to die down. Thanks to the soaked porch, it disappeared within seconds.
Mehra stood strong at the end of the porch, with a slightly-cracked ward glowing at the tips of her fingers. Still, she looked completely unfazed by the fire leveled at her. There wasn't so much as a hint of worry or anger on her face.
She was far more magnificent than she let on. Perhaps, she was even more magnificent than she realized. He knew this would go well, but for it to go so well was very impressive.
Yet again, Neloth found himself fortunate to have her. He was torn between wishing that others bore witness to her prowess, and glad that this moment was between them alone.
The foolish, sentimental side that she inadvertently fed thought that perhaps, if she ended up stranded in Sovngarde, that she could find a way to rend the invisible fabric between worlds and escape all on her own. Perhaps, it was possible with Keening in her possession. She was capable beyond anyone he'd ever seen.
Neloth shook the thought from his mind and took in the dragon below.
He couldn't help but feel kinship with the sad, brooding thing. Still, he knew she'd win the dragon over.
Mehra won him over, after all, and he considered his stubbornness on par with that of a dragon.
The poor thing didn't know what was coming for it. Whether or not the dragon wanted it was out of the question:
It would end up liking her, the same as everyone else.
It all started with a prayer. She couldn't sit still after she watched Neloth and Erich go up to Dragonsreach. If she saw Lydia walk by with Mehra, she wasn't sure what she'd do, other than make an emotional fool of herself. So, she went to the Underforge and prayed at the basin inside, offering a pristine white rabbit pelt.
She prayed for stillness in her heart. She prayed for wisdom. She prayed for a victorious capture of the dragon. She prayed for a continuation of the cycle of life beyond Alduin in however Lord Hircine desired to help.
Hircine spoke to her, and it was over something simple. Aela didn't know why the request was for a fork, of all things, but Lord Hircine wanted it. So she made her way over to Mehra's tower just to do something – anything – to keep her mind off of things.
When she saw that the tower was vacant, she figured she could just borrow the fork, since it was stowed away in a small bag along with her other camping gear. Other than the fact that it smelled strongly of roast beef, she couldn't sense or smell anything noteworthy off of it. The only thing she could figure was that Hircine wanted to test her loyalty by asking her to take something strange off of a friend. If it was something important – like Azura's Star in the enchanting room or that weird, eternal rose on the nearby shelf – then she would have bargained for it to try to stay loyal to both sides.
From the very moment she touched the fork, Aela had chills. Hircine honored her not only with conversation, but with a simple request. The fork was gone, now; when she placed it in the basin inside the Underforge, it disappeared.
Aela stared down at the empty basin and pursed her lips. This whole thing was a bit strange. Hircine wasn't known for asking followers to do things like this, but it really was just a plain fork.
"I do not question you, Lord Hircine," she murmured, "but that was an odd request. I am glad that you didn't ask for something important. Mehra is my dear friend."
The disembodied voice of Hircine chuckled. "I know, pet. Tell me: Do you know who she is?"
His voice wasn't any louder than a typical conversation, but the sound came from all directions within the small Underforge. Accompanying it was the sound of wind rustling through the trees – strange, in an enclosed cavern lit by a single torch.
"Azura's chosen," she replied. "Nerevar reborn."
"Indeed," he said. "And she participated in my Great Hunt at the turn of the era. Though she isn't one of mine, I am fond of her nonetheless. I stand in protection of her interests, and Azura, by extension."
That was a strange way of putting it, but it sounded right by her. After all, Mehra was very special to Azura. To harm her would very likely cause a war between Daedric realms if another Prince dared to do such a thing.
Aela cast her gaze down to the ground. "Please forgive me for Kodlak–"
"No need," Hircine said. "Someday, we will have a game of our own when Sovngarde attempts to take my wolves away. With immortal souls in the afterlife, this game could go on for as long as we wish. Imagine it, pet: Ysgramor joins us in a game. Your cunning gave you the title of Harbinger. It is no wonder that the one who wears my blessing proudly was chosen."
His voice made her long for fall – the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, cool, frosty mornings accompanied by smoke on the air.
She couldn't help but smile. "Maybe, Mehra can join one day, as well as her friend, Erich. Put them on opposite sides. Nerevarine versus Champion of Cyrodiil. Could he become a werewolf?"
"Ah, no," Hircine chuckled. "A werewolf sick in the mind isn't a good sport, and is put down as a mercy. Shame that he is so weak of spirit, now. He would turn on his own. Truthfully, he could at any moment as he is now."
Aela sighed. "That's a shame to hear. I'm glad that Mehra has him handled, at least."
"Speaking of sad matters," he said. "Though it was personal on your part, I nonetheless appreciate your work against the Silver hand. You hunted them down to extinction."
She couldn't help but give a sigh of relief. Still, the fact that he changed the subject so abruptly was odd. Did Mehra not have Erich handled? Or, was the topic simply not of interest?
"I'm glad they're gone," she said. "They did some sick things to our kind."
"That they did," Hircine replied. "By the way, in the brief time we have spoken, Azura's chosen has captured her dragon."
Aela turned toward the sealed door to the Underforge and shook her head. She didn't know that the door was so soundproof. Whiterun was her territory, and she intended to protect it from danger.
Hircine must have known that it would be safe. Aela couldn't imagine that he'd intentionally keep her preoccupied. And if Mehra could capture a dragon that well without hurting it, she certainly had Erich handled.
"I was worried," she admitted. "Not about her skills, of course. But I thought the dragon would try to hurt the city first to try to get her angry."
"This dragon is rather unique," Hircine said. "I can see why they chose him. Still, it is a testament to her that she caught him so quickly. She works well when she isn't distracted."
Aela nodded. "I can't blame her for being distracted. But she's so sharp that even then, she has a handle on things. I want to learn more from her."
"And that is why you're at the top," Hircine said. "Always learning. Now, which virtue do you believe most effective for hunting: strength, speed, or guile?"
She paused for a moment and considered that this was a riddle or some form of lesson. Regardless, she figured she ought to answer truthfully.
"Guile," she said. "Strength and speed are important, but without the wits to use them, they aren't as effective."
"Azura's champion said the same," he chuckled. "A blessing for you, then; next time you find yourself in combat, you will find yourself all the more observant."
Aela looked down at her hands. She didn't feel any different, but it probably didn't work like that. Most likely, she had to hunt or fight to find out. Since Mehra captured that dragon, she supposed she could spar with someone; she had a lot of pent up nerves.
She knelt before the basin and cast her gaze toward the floor.
"Thank you, Lord Hircine," she said. "Your blessing means so much to me – more than I could put into words. I am so honored that you spoke to me. I will cherish it for the rest of my life."
"Of course, pup. Keep praying; I may have more tasks for you to complete."
With that, the sound of the wind faded to nothing. Aela couldn't help but sigh as she took in the dim, quiet cave around her. She wasn't sure who she could talk to about this, if anyone.
Mehra might understand, but Aela did steal her one of her camping utensils. Sighing, she turned toward the door and took the torch from its holder against the wall.
When Mehra noticed it was missing, she'd get her something nice made out of ivory.
Still, she couldn't help but feel odd about taking that fork out of Mehra's tower.
The crazy scheme actually worked. Still, Mehra kept her guard up; Odahviing was likely furious with her for capturing him. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Neloth cast an invisibility spell on the balcony above. With the way dragons' heads were shaped, Odahviing definitely saw a field of view on par with that of a coursing hound. The spell was the only way Neloth could cover her without being seen.
Mehra sheathed her sword but kept her hands ready. She wanted to at least give him the pretense of looking non-threatening.
Now that she didn't have to worry about him burning down the city, she could get a better look at him. Other than Paarthurnax, she hadn't seen a dragon up close, much less one that wasn't smoldering and dead.
He was the loveliest dragon she'd ever seen.
Odahviing was a shimmering, ruby-colored dragon. Silvery-gray scales lay across his underside, wings, belly, and throat. Throughout his body, and in particular, under his wings, were deep amethyst scales. His horns, talons, and guard scales all reminded her of jasper. He was magnificent and splendid in every conceivable way, and she couldn't help but wonder if Paarthurnax looked so beautiful at one time.
Odahviing glanced around at the yoke – purple, near-black eyes – and frowned.
"Horvutah med kodaav," he grumbled. "Zok frini grind ko grah drun, viiki, Dovahkiin."
Mehra winced. Did he know modern common tongue? It was possible that if he was revived recently, that he might only speak an ancient language.
"Ah, I forget," Odahviing said. "You do not have the dovah speech. My eagerness to meet you in battle was my undoing. I salute your low cunning in devising this scheme."
That was a backhanded compliment if she ever heard one, but he was correct nonetheless.
"I didn't want to kill you," she admitted. "I would like tinvaak."
He chuckled. "You went to a great deal of trouble to put me in this humiliating position. You do not need to keep your spells ready; my honor holds my rage at bay."
"Likewise," she shrugged.
"Of course," Odahviing laughed. "No doubt you wish to know where to find Alduin."
"Yes," she said. "Where exactly is he hiding?"
Odahviing turned to look behind him – not a very good view, given the yoke – and sighed.
"Hiding," he mused. "An apt phrase. Alduin bovul. One reason I came to your call was to test your Thu'um myself. Alduin is many things, but he is not a skilled liar. He said he was concerned about a pair of Deyra Kulaan who watched him fight you at Monahven."
Mehra nodded. "What do you make of that?"
"Folaas," he frowned. "Wrong. False. Lies. A falsehood invented to hide the truth: Alduin fears the Dovahkiin, whose Thu'um is stronger. And now that I tested it, I know for certain."
She couldn't help but shake her head. Though it wasn't complete, it was still the truth. It seemed that the faith in Alduin's leadership dissolved so much that the other dragons didn't believe a word he said.
Neloth's invisibility spell wore off with him safely out of Odahviing's view. He looked serious – almost frighteningly so – and she found herself sharply reminded of the soldier Neloth claimed he once was.
"I am associated with the Daedra," she shrugged. "I personally know the two who watched."
Odahviing nodded slowly.
"Med Miraak," he mumbled. "Paarthurnax advises you, yes?"
Odahviing seemed to consider this for a moment then sighed.
"Alduin plans to devour the dead in Sovngarde," he explained. "He said would become powerful enough to devour the Deyra Kulaan. Mey! Devour the Deyra!"
Neloth let his demeanor slip every so slightly to scoff. Alduin was very desperate.
"If he theoretically devoured most of Aetherius, then maybe," Mehra said. "But I will get to him first."
Odahviing gave her a thoughtful look. "Without the wings of a dov, you cannot reach him. The entrance to Sovngarde is at Skuldafn, high in the mountains."
Well, they had something to potentially offer each other.
"I think we can come to an agreement," Mehra said. "Though I'm sure it's an indignity for a mortal to sit on your back, I would be honored if you would kindly escort me there."
"Honored," he repeated. "You are a fool, Dovahkiin. A powerful fool, but a fool nonetheless. You befriend danger. Perhaps, you are dangerous as well."
She shrugged. "I am. But Paarthurnax named me Pahleinkaal."
"Mey," Odahviing snorted. "But we do follow the strongest. And it seems that Paarthurnax does as well. What a ridiculous name. Vulahin is better."
"What does that mean?" she asked.
He narrowed his eyes. "Dark Magic Master. You consort with Daedra. It is simple enough; you consort with those long enough, and you will destroy plenty."
It appeared that Odahviing was surly, blunt, and had no time for ignorance, just as Paarthurnax said. And while Mehra didn't think for a moment that she could handle absolutely everything, she felt fairly confident that she wouldn't fall into the dark arts, nor was she about to start worshiping Erich.
Azura was her God. She loved Mehra from the time before she was even born, and guided her steps. To have an honored place in Moonshadow as her eternal resting place was a blessing unimaginable.
Mehra shrugged. Perhaps, she'd have time to get to know Odahviing, the same as she did with Paarthurnax. They were both very different, and she felt as if she could learn from them.
Now that she was sure that Odahviing wouldn't hurt anyone, she figured she needed to let Jarl Balgruuf know how everything went. Sighing, she glanced at the door behind her.
"Would you mind speaking with the Jarl of this Hold?" she asked. "I am his Thane and I work for him, technically."
Odahviing huffed. "He wouldn't understand the Dov."
"No," she agreed. "But he doesn't have to in order to respect us. And he respects me; he allowed me to use his wooden keep for this."
He seemed to consider this for a moment before sighing. "Fine."
Off to her left, Neloth pursed his lips. He raised his hands from his sides, cast a bright green spell, and stood in a trance as the green magic illuminated him.
Mehra needed to study this spell; it appeared to be some sort of hybrid of telepathy and divination. Whatever it was, it must have taken a fair bit of study to master.
When the bright light of the spell vanished, Mehra nodded.
"You can probably come out now, Neloth," she said.
Neloth slipped out from the covered stairwell, and Odahviing turned to look at him.
"You pulled the lever," he scowled.
Neloth shrugged. "And?"
Odahviing seemed to consider this for a moment before huffing. "You are a powerful wizard. All you did is pull a lever. Zofaas. Strange."
"The Dragonborn here is my colleague," Neloth explained. "I also appointed her as protector of our House centuries ago. I know talent and wisdom when I see it."
Mehra smirked. He did, but at the same time, he didn't care back then. Of course, he did now. She figured that Neloth even surprised himself with that fact.
The door creaked behind them. Mehra glanced back to see Irileth peering out at the porch, and the captured dragon. Swearing under her breath, the doors rattled as she ducked back in.
Mehra didn't have to hear it to know that Irileth was trying to convince Jarl Balgruuf to not come outside. She also didn't have to hear Jarl Balgruuf's reply to know that he insisted that it was fine.
For a bodyguard and a Lord, they sure argued a fair bit. If she didn't know better, they would have sounded like an old married couple to her.
Eventually, the door creaked open to reveal Irileth and Hrongar with their weapons drawn.
Odahviing scowled at the sight of them. "Rahgron. If I attacked, it would be my death. Your threats are underhanded, joor."
"It is just in case, dragon," Hrongar replied.
Jarl Balgruuf walked out onto the porch with Farengar beside him and frowned.
"He did nothing to harm our city," Balgruuf said. "Put your weapons away. We are not like the Stormcloaks."
They silently did as they were told, but still kept a wary eye on Odahviing. Still, they couldn't hide their disapproval and horror as Jarl Balgruuf approached Odahviing and stopped next to Mehra.
"I am Jarl Balgruuf the Greater," he said, "Jarl of Whiterun. It is an honor that you would converse with us, Odahviing. I hope I pronounced your name correctly."
"As correctly as one without dragon's blood could," he replied.
Mehra watched as Farengar stepped closer in awe.
"While I'm sure that you do not care for the opinions of mortals," Jarl Balgruuf said, "I nevertheless must thank you for not harming our city as you answered the Dragonborn's call. You have the honor of a true warrior."
"I fight worthy opponents," Odahviing said. "A farmer, washmaid, or a child are not a worthy opponent."
Jarl Balgruuf nodded in agreement. "And, while you are here, I wanted to say that I am sorry that my ancestors imprisoned Numinex here for so long. I will not make the same mistake."
Odahviing frowned. "Numinex was a fool."
"I didn't know him," he shrugged. "Regardless, we kept him for far too long."
Jarl Balgruuf turned to Mehra and nodded.
"So, do we have a plan?" he asked.
"We do," she said. "Odahviing has agreed to take me to the place where Alduin crossed into Sovngarde. It can only be accessed by dragons, so it's fortunate that he agreed to this."
"Orin brit ro," Odahviing said.
Farengar gasped. "Oh, to hear a dragon speak his own tongue! Sir! It is such an honor to see you in person. And I humbly agree; there is such a balance to your plan."
Mehra nodded in agreement. There was a balance to the plan, yes.
Hrongar frowned. "And you know what he said, how?"
"Well, I translated that Dragonstone," he huffed. "Het nok un mahlaan drogge erei suleyk se Alduin vokrii. A very serious prophecy!"
Odahviing leaned into the yoke to rest his chin and sighed. "Mey nikriin Alduin."
Farengar frowned. "I do not know those words, Sir, but the Dragonborn here will set right whatever Alduin has wronged. Now, would you mind a quick little test or two? Maybe three? Five. I need ten tests."
Mehra blinked. What, what?
"And maybe some scales?" he continued. "And oh! Some blood, naturally. And some of yours too, Dragonborn. I can compare the two."
Mehra pursed her lips. Her blood was potentially hazardous to handle if one didn't know what they were doing with it.
She glanced over to see Odahviing getting increasingly annoyed.
"How about another time?" she suggested. "Actually, Eorlund Gray-Mane probably has some leftover scales, teeth, and bones from my armor project. They're from a dragon named Mirmulnir."
Odahviing snorted. "Mirmulnir. Yes, test on that one. Mey."
"Uh, well," Farengar mumbled, "regrettably, he is deceased. Permanently."
Odahviing closed his eyes and sighed. "Couldn't have happened to a better idiot."
Mehra bit her lip and fought the urge to laugh. He reminded her of Neloth.
Jarl Balgruuf cleared his throat. "Well, as much as our visit has been pleasant, we should probably get this plan going. The yoke here looks uncomfortable anyway."
"It is, Bronjun," Odahviing grumbled.
Hrongar frowned and shook his head. "Are we sure about this? We spent a lot of effort to get him here."
"Yes, brother," Balgruuf said. "In fact, I will set him free myself."
As Jarl Balgruuf made his way over toward the stairs, Mehra turned to Lydia. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Farengar crept closer to Odahviing. One of his hands was deep in the pocket of his robe.
"Lydia, would you take Farengar to Eorlund?" she asked. "If there's any price on the scales, then I'll pay for it. And, Farengar?"
Farengar stepped back from Odahviing quickly. "Yes?"
"I'd like to see whatever dragon research you have," she said. "Maybe I can fill in the gaps with things I've learned. Could be a breakthrough. Or, if you want to learn levitation, well – it might theoretically be still used by some people in some places."
Farengar nodded. "That would be excellent. And maybe, I won't need these."
From his pocket, he withdrew a pair of what appeared to be a pair of nippers used for trimming the hooves of livestock.
"You'd break those trying," she frowned. "And probably get incinerated for your efforts. Trust me, Eorlund has samples."
Neloth crossed his arms. "She's correct. The dragon's fire is very powerful. It is near the power of a Master-level destruction spell."
"I'd love to see it sometime," Farengar sighed. "You must understand; the dragons and everything about them has been my most special interest, even since I was a boy. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I'd see a dragon alive, let alone in front of me. For what it's worth, Great Dragon Odahviing, I apologize for my lack of propriety. Krosis."
Odahviing looked bored. "Zu'u los viir ko."
Farengar snorted and hid his face behind his sleeve as he failed miserably at holding in his laughter.
"Oh, alright!" He laughed. "We need to get him out of here before he keels over of boredom."
Mehra didn't have the slightest clue what Odahviing said. Instead of pretending to be in on the joke, she kept her business face on and removed the Staff of Magnus. She handed the sling over to Neloth.
"It's probably unwise to take this to Sovngarde," she said.
He nodded, took the staff, and strapped it to his back next to the dragonbone staff she gifted him. They both knew the issue wasn't Sovngarde; if a powerful daedra – or worse, a group of them – broke into her tower, then the Staff of Magnus would help him.
Neloth was very powerful, but it was foolish to underestimate whatever could be in the tower. Mehra hoped desperately that they were gone.
Jarl Balgruuf peered out from the upper floor of the porch.
"Ready?" he called.
Mehra sighed and looked over to Neloth.
"I shall see you when you return," he said.
Mehra couldn't help but smile. "Just another day doing my job."
She strapped on her helm, dashed behind the stairwell to grab her bag, and made her way closer to Odahviing.
"Ready!" She called.
The yoke swung up with a whoosh and a clatter of chains. Odahviing stretched his neck and spread his wings. He turned to face the edge of the porch and looked back at her.
"Vosaraan. Quickly," he said. "Let's go."
He lowered his head to the ground and Mehra jogged over to him. She swung her leg over the side of his neck. Unsure of what else to do, she grabbed his horns and held on.
Without asking if she was ready, Odahviing took to the air. Still, there was something so natural about how she traveled atop him that Mehra didn't feel unsafe in the least.
Odahviing turned from the city and quickly headed east. Wincing at the morning sun in her eyes, Mehra reached back into her pack, grabbed her ash-covering, and wrapped it around her face before securing it with a tie at the back of her neck. While it wasn't ideal, a single layer of linen cut down on the bright light drastically. She wondered how dragons handled it, but glanced down to see the thin film of a special eyelid covering his eyes.
Oh. They were like birds, she supposed. That was handy.
They followed the river east out of Whiterun hold and into Eastmarch, missing the Throat of the World by a fair margin toward the south. Mehra wasn't sure if Odahviing was flying efficiently, or to purposefully avoid Paarthurnax. She hoped it was the former.
They traveled for at least an hour in silence, but as they passed over the warm, swampy areas of Eastmarch, Odahviing sighed. Another minute or so passed until he finally chose to speak.
"If I am to follow you," Odahviing said, "then I must know: you are a wizard, but what else? Your blood has an – aroma, so to say."
"An aroma?" she repeated.
Odahviing frowned and she felt him tense beneath her in what she supposed was a barely-repressed cringe.
"Don't tell me that I'm the first to notify you of your infection," he grumbled. "It is a rancid thing that you have."
"Oh!" she gasped. "Yes, that's the Corprus. It's a long story."
Odahviing sucked in a breath. "We have a long journey, Dovahkiin."
Mehra stared out at the horizon. They headed east, toward the border with Morrowind. There were no mountains between here and the border; it was possible that they'd unknowingly cross over.
"It's strange how our path leads us to the east, now," she admitted. "It's probably a coincidence, of course. But, still, it reminds me of the place my soul was born."
"If you don't want to answer, then you can say so. Don't dodge the question by changing the subject. Liivrah."
Mehra sighed. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to make it sound that way. Actually, it's probably important that you know. Have you heard of the Nerevarine?"
That was refreshing, actually. She could explain it in her own way.
"To put it very shortly," she said, "I am the reincarnated soul of Lord Nerevar Indoril, an ancient King of Resdayn. I was prophesied to cast down the false Gods of Morrowind – the Tribunal – and end Dagoth Ur's terror against the people. All four of them fed off of the divine power of the Heart of Lorkhan."
He narrowed his eyes and stared off into the distance. After a while, Odahviing grunted.
"The reason why the yuvon fahliil were turned sadon," he said. "Deyra Kulaan Azura punished the blasphemous act."
Yuvon – gold. And in context with Azura's name, she knew exactly what he was talking about
Mehra nodded. "Exactly. And the disease I have was Dagoth Ur's curse; it was a his attempt to steal me from Azura. A powerful wizard named Divayth Fyr was able to cure the bad parts of the disease and leave only the benefits."
"Can you not ask the Deyra you know for help?" he grumbled. "Alduin is one thing, but these four seem dangerous. To slay all of them? Difficult. If Alduin discovered that heart, even: zok vol."
Mehra shrugged. "It's fine; I took care of that two hundred years ago."
Odahviing faltered in his flight and plummeted. As her stomach dropped and her vision blackened, she gripped on to him with all of her might. Within a second, he righted himself and gently flapped his wings to regain the lost altitude.
"Pogaan Krosis," he said. "Krosis. I did not expect – any of that."
Mehra blinked as she caught her breath. That was a little frightening. The drop was so sudden that she wasn't sure if she'd stay conscious long enough to cast levitation.
"It wasn't what I thought my life would turn out to be," she admitted. "I spent my entire childhood in an orphanage and the beginning years of my adult life as a cutthroat in Daggerfall."
Odahviing grew silent, and Mehra resisted the urge to fill the silence with further talking. After a while, he sighed.
"Zok thu'um," he said. "Hi los aan balaan kinbok. I follow the strongest. You killed false Gods."
"I did, yes. But technically I only killed two of them," she admitted. "I killed Dagoth Ur, who had been feeding off of the Heart for quite some time. Then, when the Heart vanished, the remaining three had their divinity permanently severed. One of them went insane from the loss and killed another; she attempted to kill me and I had to end her suffering."
Even at the time, a part of her felt that Almalexia's death was a mercy killing of some sort.
He gave a dark chuckle. "It doesn't matter. Alduin fen faal faaz. Zu'u hind fah aan lot yol."
Mehra didn't understand much of what he said there, save for the word for fire. If he liked fire, she had quite a spell to show him. Maybe, it could cement his allegiance. Still, she had to make sure it was safe to cast the damn thing.
She looked down at Odahviing and his shimmering, ruby scales. Out of all the dragons she saw, he truly was the finest. Mehra wondered if dragons even cared about such things.
"You know," she said, "I think you might look the most like Akatosh from any dragon I've seen yet."
"What? Really? Nii."
She nodded. "I think so, yeah. The Avatar of Akatosh who banished Mehrunes Dagon was a bright, glowing orange. I know you're red, of course. But your color is the most vivid of anyone I've seen."
"Oh. I am known for my scales."
Something was a bit off in how he said that.
"Is that a bad thing?" she asked. "People um – notice my dark skin. I get compared to a daedra often. It gave me a lot of disadvantages to look so different, but I've become proud of my skin."
"I will not discuss this," he grumbled.
Mehra nodded. She understood not wanting to talk about something so personal after they had just met. Still, it was strange to her that his scales, of all things, were considered different, and possibly a bad sort of different.
Even though she hadn't known Odahviing very long, she found it uncomfortable that the subject made him quiet – almost timid. It seemed unlike him.
Mehra laughed. "Alright, how about this: I called Alduin a coward, and Paarthurnax told me that was a foul word in dragon. He wouldn't tell me the word for it!"
Odahviing rumbled beneath her as he chuckled. "So, you wish to learn words of another power. Good. They are useful. Paarthurnax is too soft; you are not so goraan to not learn these words."
"Alright, so how do I say, 'coward'?" she asked.
"Nikriin," he said. "To say cowardly, you may sometimes say Nivahriin. If you want to call them a fool, you say Mey."
"I've heard you use that word quite a bit," Mehra chuckled.
Odahviing huffed. "Unfortunately, no matter the bok, there is no shortage of fools."
Mehra thought of all of her negative experiences in Windhelm and sighed.
"That's definitely true," she sighed. "Alright, what else?"
They spent hours sharing mundane and dirty words with each other. It amazed her that a dragon reputed to be so grouchy seemed so chatty with her, but at the same time, Mehra figured that she probably discovered one of his favorite subjects. It took a lot to resist the urge to ask for him to share words of power with her. She knew Dragonrend, after all, and that was what she needed to defeat Alduin.
That and a massive fireball would do nicely.
While she wanted to learn as much as she could about her dragonborn heritage, she also didn't want to act as if she deserved to be handed all the words of power, nor did she feel it appropriate to ask Odahviing for them. She captured and chained him up like a beast, after all. The fact that he was willing to take her on a journey so far, and the fact that he was more than willing to share mundane dragon words with her was fortunate enough.
She wasn't sure if he hated Alduin that much, or if, perhaps, he actually liked her. Mehra would be shocked if it was the latter.
Hours later, the white peaks of the Velothi Mountains dotted the horizon. Within a few minutes, they drew closer until their immense size and steepness were apparent. The mid-day sun made their snow-capped peaks glow. As they drew closer, Mehra removed her left hand from Odahviing's horn and shielded her eyes from the harsh reflection. Even with her face covered, it was still so bright. Whether he sensed her discomfort or not, Odahviing began to descend, until they were below the mountains' snow line.
As her eyes adjusted to the lower light, Mehra glanced around and took stock of her surroundings. Each passing mountain became shorter, sharper, and much more steep.
Odahviing descended toward the base of the mountains and Mehra pursed her lips. As he angled his wings to slow his descent, she peered around.
It wasn't so much that the mountains around them were very tall, though they were tall enough, she supposed. Rather, all sides of the peak were so sheer – nearly vertical in places – that the only way to the top was flight. For a long distance in any direction lay similar mountains. Levitating all the way up and down one was questionable at best.
Odahviing landed softly, folded his wings, and lowered his head. As Mehra removed the scarf from her face, she peered around.
They were in a basin between a cluster of mountains, and there was no pathway in or out. Immediately next to them was a stone pathway complete with stone arches that led toward a large, crumbling temple.
"It's at the top of this temple," Odahviing murmured. "The remainder of his force is marshaled there."
That meant it was crawling with draugr, both inside and out. This was a bit more than she wanted to deal with. These ruins were always bigger on the inside than they appeared on the outside. And honestly, she could levitate up to the top of the temple. Knowing she could be spotted at any moment, Mehra quickly dismounted and stood on Odahviing's left side.
Mehra sighed and stuffed her scarf into her bag. "I know we've just met, but do you trust me?"
"I don't like that word," he grumbled.
Mehra nodded slowly. That was understandable, she supposed. She might as well tell him her plan.
"It's going to take a long time to get to the top without just levitating up," she said. "I have a spell. One of the Daedra told me it is very, very powerful. Now would be as good a time as any to test it, yes?"
Odahviing frowned and glanced around, as if the mountains around them had ears. He quickly shifted his body to block her from the view of the temple.
He hunched down and huffed. "I am not a war mount, Dovahkiin."
Mehra sighed and closed her eyes. "Odahviing, I'm so sorry. You're a person, not a beast. Let's just–"
"I follow the strongest," he grumbled. "If you can cast your spell from a distance, then I can judge whether it is safe to land at the top. This plan is dangerous."
She summoned fire to her hand and held her palm up for him to examine the spell. Leaning in, Odahviing narrowed his eyes.
"You'll destroy the portal and all with that," he hissed.
Mehra shrugged. "So, I can cast a speed spell and melt the doors shut. No way in, no way out. Or, cast a weaker one. I'll know more when I'm above it."
"You should be aware that this temple is very ancient, wizard," he said. "You will seal off knowledge."
Mehra glanced at the temple and sighed. "If I don't go quickly and defeat him, then there will be no knowledge left."
He seemed to consider this for a moment then nodded.
"Possibly. The fool certainly doesn't have a plan aside from attempting to destroy everything."
Mehra allowed the spell to die in her hand and turned to Odahviing.
"Where is the portal up there?" she asked.
"It's at the top, between two pillars," Odahviing said. "They will have a priest up there. I do not know if your joor eyes can see, but there are a pair of dov perched on the pillars. I know them. Odd that they are in charge, here; they never got on with the Sonaak."
Mehra nodded. "Well, I can either levitate and come up with a solution, or you can fly me above so I can just drop a spell from above. What do you think? If you don't want to get caught up in it, I understand."
"I can distract the ones at the top," he said. "The doors to the temple itself are in the front and center of the building. You'll want to do something with those, as well as the north and south towers."
"Sounds simple enough," she said. "So, do we agree on our plan?"
"Yes. Let's go before they figure out that I'm not alone."
Mehra cast levitation, just as Odahviing took off. As he flew toward the top of the temple, she cast to fortify her speed, then cast invisibility, and climbed through the air. A quick glance down revealed that the temple layout was exactly as Odahviing described; now was the time he could betray her, but he chose not to.
Still, the pair of dragons and priest at the top could pose a challenge. Frowning, Mehra took stock of the area and pursed her lips. She remembered very well the ancient sacrifice and torture on display at Labyrinthian. And while Labyrinthian was a major site for the Dragon Cult, this place was its seat.
There was a great evil here – as great as the evil deep within Red Mountain. Fire was a great purifier; it could cleanse and renew this ground.
If she dropped her spell just right, it could do just that.
Mehra climbed higher in the air, until she was far above the temple. Exhaling, she gathered the element of fire to her hands. This was for the best.
"Azura, I purify this place in your name!"
Mehra threw the fireball just to the left of the old, crumbled watchtower in the center of the temple's front courtyard. Bright yellow, nearly white flames ripped across the grounds of Skuldafn, incinerating the flammable draugr on contact. Without waiting to see how effective it was, Mehra dashed through the air toward the last set of heavy, metal doors closer to the top of the stairs and cast the most powerful flames she could at them.
The doors turned red hot, and the dragon motif on them began to slowly melt.
A dragon roared and she swore under her breath. Casting a quick detect undead spell – all gone, except the priest up top – Mehra levitated over the door to find a grand staircase leading up to where the remaining draugr waited.
Her levitation spell died a few steps above the ground. Without wasting time, Mehra cast another speed fortification spell and dashed up the stairs.
That was a draugr yelling. Odahviing could be in danger.
Mehra crested the top of the stairs and drew the Ebony Blade. There, in the center of the top of the temple, stood a dragon priest, and behind him lay a glowing portal with a column of white light reaching toward the sky.
Odahviing appeared to have joined the other dragons in perching on the pillars overlooking the portal, taking the pillar to the back and left. Was this a trap?
The Priest roared in rage, yanked his staff from the stand in front of the portal, and turned to the dragons surrounding him.
"Zu'u fen du hin sil ahrk kod niin wah meyz nahlaas!"
Oh. She wondered what 'meyz' was. Was he calling them fools?
The two dragons – a copper one on the left, and a silver-white one on the right – exchanged a look.
"Kod!" The priest shouted.
He clenched his fist, charged a shock spell, and levitated down the stairs toward her.
Mehra charged toward him with her sword and ward hands ready.
"Your time is long over!" she yelled.
Odahviing chuckled. "Geh."
Without warning, the two guardian dragons swooped down from their perches to grab the priest's arms. They yanked and ripped him apart, even as he screamed and cursed them. The Priest's staff sailed through the air, along with his gray, withered arm.
Finally, the silver dragon got a hold of the priest's head and yanked it off as his partner held on to the torso. The draugr turned to ash under their teeth, and the pair of dragons hissed and spat to rid their mouths of the ancient dust.
The priest's mask clattered to the ground as Mehra stared wide-eyed at the dragons. For a while, they stared back until Odahviing broke the silence.
"Well, you did it," he said. "Dreh hi aam fin Dovhakiin nu?"
The dragons snapped out of their stupor.
"Geh," the silver one said.
The copper one nodded. "Geh, indeed."
They flapped their wings and returned to their perches on the tops of the pillars. Mehra wished that she knew what Odahviing was saying; she figured that he knew that she was ignorant of most of their language, so he spoke his true thoughts in dragon to avoid letting her know what he was thinking.
If she came back from Sovngarde, she hoped to somehow gain his trust and confidence. He seemed like excellent company.
The silver dragon peered down at her. "Odahviing tells us you consort with Deyra Kulaan."
Ah. She knew those words, at least.
"I do," she admitted. "I was created directly by Azura's hand. I am also consort and companion to Sheogorath."
All three of them cringed.
"You killed false gods as well," the silver one continued.
"Absolutely, yes," she said. "Actually, I'm on my way to kill another one."
The copper dragon peered down at her. "You need the staff to open the portal."
Mehra sheathed her blade, turned, and made her way over to the discarded staff lay. The second her fingers brushed against the handle, she realized that she was very fortunate to not get hit with its power. The shock spell enchanted into it was extremely powerful – at least expert level, at a glance.
It was beautifully made, as well; it appeared to be made out of highly polished ebony, but it was designed similarly to the ancient, carved styles that the Nords made out of steel. The head of the staff was the long, curved neck of a dragon, whose open mouth made the apex branches of the spell's focus.
"Will you give that to your Wizard?" Odahviing asked.
That was a great idea, actually. Mehra regarded the staff for a moment then nodded.
"I will, yes," she said. "He is the best and most knowledgeable enchanter in the world, as far as I know."
Mehra looked up from the staff and sighed. It was time to go. She made her way across the courtyard, then trudged up the short set of stairs to the pedestal in the center. In the middle, there was a circular tile with a hole in the center. Mehra placed the staff in the hole, then pushed down.
The floor in front of the pedestal shifted. Light poured out from behind the tiles as they rotated and moved. The portal Mehra saw earlier activated, creating a column glowing yellow-white light that stretched toward the heavens.
Mehra turned to the dragons to see if any of them had objections before she left.
Odahviing scowled, glanced around at the destroyed temple, then turned to stare her in the eyes.
"Dovahkiin, I hope you melt that coward."
"That's the plan," she admitted. "Thank you for getting me this far."
She shifted her pack on her back, stepped forward, and took one last look at the dragons.
"Everything will be fine. I promise."
Mehra stepped into the light of the portal. Weightlessness took over, and she had to close her eyes against the disorienting feeling.
When her feet touched ground, she was somewhere warmer and calmer. Still, she couldn't help but feel uneasy.
Mehra opened her eyes to a starry, purple sky above her and a plateau beneath her feet. Surrounding her were statues of Nords in hooded robes. A set of stone stairs led down into a misty grove below, but she couldn't make out anything beyond it.
She took a step down and the mist grew stronger.
Another step down, and it swirled about her ankles.
A third step down – the sky was hazy overhead.
A few steps more, and she was lost.
The mist was despair, and her soul felt empty.