A/N: "Comparative Theology 101" or "More Than One Way To Skin A Snake." — and by "skin" I mean coat or color or disguise. Doing anything else would make the Rainbow Serpent sad.

Chapter 18

Five of the senior whelps and fifteen Companions were present, drinks in hand, and ready to listen.

"A dragon has settled at Shearpoint," said Vilkas, getting right to the point. "It's already leveled three farms, thirty people are dead, three times that in a loss of animals by fire or panic-scattered and unrecoverable. 2000 to take it down and deliver whatever remains to the court mage. 2500 if we make sure the World-Eater can't resurrect it." Half of them looked at Tariq, and the other half had more self-discipline.

"Can it be resurrected if it's in pieces?" someone asked Tariq.

He shrugged, answering, "How in Oblivion should I know?"

… … …

Most of the Companions in the area came without pay for the thrill of the kill. In addition to the dragon on the wall was a dragon priest erupting from a half-buried crypt. Neither had a chance. Aela and other sharpshooters quickly took out the dragon's wings before it could give serious thought to fleeing. Once it was on the ground, it died quickly. They whistled and cheered as it immolated with its power and essence visibly flowed into Tariq. The dragon priest was simply hacked to pieces when the Companions closed in on it with shields held high and spears and longswords poking out from the shield wall.

There was some treasure in the priest's sarcophagus. Its bronze mask and fire staff were saved for the court mage to inspect.

The words on the dragon's wall gave Tariq a sense of deception. He didn't feel any strong draw. He chose, instead, to use the soul to power a previously gathered word, one that added speed to his weapon strike. However, what he found in the practice yard was the weapon had to be unenchanted, and all his current weapons had enchantments against the dead. He would just have to forge a new weapon, and he looked forward to using the Skyforge to make something new.

The court mage Farengar found markings on the mask. The priest mask had been labeled "Sorrow." The translation of the dragon wall was three-part. One was about the Greybeard, who raised the wall for a fallen brother with a weak voice. The other was the fatal misadventure of the dragon priest, whose original name was "Omluth" with the added dubbing, "the Fool." And the last celebrated a "lizard man," presumably an Argonian, far from his home, who died in service to the Companions.

This last set off some searching by the Companions through old records, but, sadly, no reference could be found. It was thousands of years ago, after all. But then, the Companions were never one for record minutia, preferring the oral tradition. Any documents of Companion history that Kodlak and Vilkas had gathered were all written by non-Companion scholars. Tariq suggested hiring a scholar/historian to gather tales and verify, if possible, some of the histories. He found them strangely reluctant. Shyness was not a trait either of them had, nor were they overly modest about their skills and accomplishments.

Farengar found that the mask had some powers fabricated into its creation. If one wore it, one gained impressive skills in lock-picking, archery, and alchemy — skills of dexterity and precision. Tariq and the Companions had the first claim on the mask, but they were fine with letting Farengar keep it. They had no use for its magic, and the court mage had been commanded by the jarl to research the dragons.

After they'd delivered the mask, staff, and bones to Farengar, he and the senior Companions were invited by jarl to a semi-private lunch. The Companions accepting, besides Tariq, were Kodlak and Vilkas. Members of the court allowed to be present were Farengar, Irileth, Commander Caius of the Whiterun Guards, and Rodina of the Pale, court bard and historian.

They let Vilkas give a dry accounting of the battle. Then there was a period of general questions and answers that everyone participated in. The jarl asked Tariq specific questions about what he now thought of dragons; and how he, as a Redguard sword-singer, viewed the dragons and the Nord legends in light of his own religious beliefs.

Tariq explained the origins of Alduin were still unclear to him. What he'd heard from worshipers of traditional Atmoran beliefs is that Alduin, the Dragon God, was the firestorm that ended the last world and made way for the present one. He was the god of time, beginning and end. But would that not make him Akatosh, by the currently conventional belief of the Imperial Cult? Akatosh, who they say is the other name for the mer god Auri-El? He'd heard from other Nord traditionalists that the two had no relation since Alduin came from Aldmora, not whatever lost land the Aldmer came from. Auri-El, whose symbol was changed from the sun to the dragon of the empire.

The only other dragon in the Imperial Cult pantheon was Peryite the Pestilence, who portrayed himself as a dragon to his followers. This was, no doubt, his claim that pestilence will be the fire that will cleanse the world.

The Et'Ada Auri-El, whom the mer say defeated Lorkhan, became the god of time, perhaps inferring that it is Auri-El who, ultimately, decides the end of the world? The two became associated, and their relationship was interpreted as one from the other. So who to believe — the Imperial Cult that promoted the religion of the Eight-and-One Divines or the traditional Atmoran beliefs?

The Ra Gada, when introduced to the pantheons of the Cyrodiil empire with its heavy elf influence and imped-in Nord gods, the Ra Gada associated Alduin, by function, with Satakal, The Worldskin. It destroys itself in fire to be reborn.

And Lorkhan or Shor, that was Sep the Second Snake. He was the helper Tall Papa created from the detritus of the skin shedding of the Worldskin.

The First Serpent. It was everything. Growing bigger and bigger until it could grow no more. It ate all the space around it, all the formless energies. And when there was nothing more, its hunger, Akel, caused it to eat itself. When Satak reached its own heart, all that it ate was released. Things began. New beings were born. The cycle was born. Satakal (Satak + Akel) repeated this countless times. The lives that spawned each time, many died. They were new; they didn't know much of anything.

But some survived. Whether by accident or learning, some found how to sidestep the coiling of Satakal. This was the Walkabout. They eventually found a safe place outside of the deep of Satakal's domain and called it the Far Shores. Those that survived coiling and uncoiling developed wisdom and awareness. The strongest was Tall Papa because each cycle, he sired lives. And as he walked about, he set the stars so new spirits could find their way to the Far Shores.

Each time Satakal ate itself out of its skin, it left the skin. Eventually, enough dead skin and other detritus accumulated from past creations to clutter the void. So Tall Papa found a piece of the original Akel and created Sep, the Second Snake, to clean up. But the Second Snake often got confused in its hunger, eating the ones it was supposed to help. Eventually, it tricked ignorant and lazy spirits into helping collect the shed skins to create this stone, this Mundus, trapping the spirits and keeping them from the Far Shores. It's said Tall Papa got tired of rescuing souls from Sep's indiscriminate appetite, and he crushed the Second Snake, leaving it a mere shadow that wandered fruitlessly among the stars, still trying in vain trying to sate its hunger. As for the trapped spirits, he wasn't going to pull them out of the mire of their own making. "I've set signs to the Far Shores," he told them. "You ignored them. I will not carry you. No one can walk your journey for you."

It was a hard lesson. But some felt sorry and tried to help. So what if the trapped spirits were a little stupid? They were young and didn't know any better. And maybe not so much lazy as naive. New souls could be like that. And Sep is still a little crazy but very single-minded, and a desperate hunter will set many traps. HoonDing was among those who felt sorry for the poor young fools. He won't carry either, but maybe a little help every once in a while — clear a few obstacles, cut down unfairly overpowered predators — that sort of thing. He was the Make-Way god of Yokuda, protecting the Yokudan people from infidels. Tariq followed this god. So why should it be his job to protect the Nords from their god?

But was Alduin truly a small part of Satakal? If so, then nothing could stop him, and the world would go up in flames for the next world to be born. Or, if a dragonborn could, indeed, stop him, then perhaps this was a momentary little hunger pang, a sudden craving, a personification of Satakal's ever-constant hunger. An impulsive binge-eating moment. A laughable concept, but at their mortal level, a non-laughable danger.

And, if he was this "Dragonborn," if it was his role to crush this aberrant period of hunger even as Tall Papa took a stick and crushed Sep, then maybe this was the challenge of his walkabout. If he was reading the signs correctly, this was something he had to do. Something he was becoming strong enough to do, and, for the sake of the shehai mastery he was striving for, this must be the path he had to walk.

Jarl Balgruuf tapped another keg and refilled his tankard. Tariq waved a hand over his own, signaling he'd had enough. "So that's Redguard, er, Ra Gada belief. Interesting, interesting," the Jarl mused aloud. "Still not a flattering version to us Nords as we believe we were created by Shor. Which, by your religion, means we were created by Sep. And it almost sounds as if you equate Alduin to, to Sithis? The emptiness, the void from which all things come? But Sithis has not a good reputation. Sithis is seen as an angry, vengeful thing if one reads the writings of the Dark Brotherhood. It wants the death of everything." He shook his head. "The edges don't align perfectly. Or perhaps it is just my poor perception as a man whose primary concern is within the borders of his home."

"Not a good match," agreed Tariq. "Satakal is not this Sithis, whatever that is. The Worldskin has no concern about what Tall Papa and the free spirits do. It cannot help that it continually grows; it cannot help that it hungers and must eat. It is what it is. Does the Worldskin dream? Who knows? It is everything, and everything lives within it. And by that, it is neither good nor evil because, by its nature, it is everything."

"So," asked Rodina, the bard, "Do you see any relation between Tall Papa and Akatosh?"

Tariq laughed at the very idea. "Tall Papa, an elf god? No! That is blasphemy. Tall Papa, or Ruptga — so that you know the other name we call him by — never approved the creation of Nirn. He sees Nirn as the stone in the Worldskin's body that will not pass. Nirn will be scoured of life when the Worldskin immolates, yet this world will survive that immolation, as it was designed to do, and the seed spirits that are entrapped within this artificially-created haven, will start over again."

"Trapped within? What is this?" asked Farengar.

"According to mer legends, Lorkhan didn't tell the deceived spirits that some of them would have to die to set the world's bones. So, many died, and Auri-El was chief among the survivors. And, as can be expected, the survivors came back stronger and took their vengeance on Lorkhan," answered Tariq.

Jarl Balgruuf laughed at this and said, "And so did Ysgramor survive to return in vengeance upon the snow elves. So, the elves revile Shor as the Trickster God Lorkhan. And they gloat that Akatosh killed our god and flung his heart to what eventually became Morrowind. The 'Doom Drum,' as the dark elves call it. So, your Sep would seem to be our Shor. The cult of Sithis — do you know that one? No? I'll see if Farengar has a copy somewhere — the cult of Sithis calls Lorkhan the 'mad mutant,' whose purpose was to trick the rebel spirits who defied Sithis and dared be independent to create this world so that they could be destroyed. But Lorkhan found he liked this creation. He refused to let the project fail when Magnus realized the mistake being made and fled Nirn. He completed the trap. And so the Altmer now believe that they are the trapped descendants of Divinity, and the rest of us are garbage to be burned.

"But then, that view would not fit your religion because Sep was not created by Satakal if Sep is Lorkhan and Satakal is Alduin. The pieces don't fit as neatly as the Imperial Cult would like," Balgruuf concluded.

Rodina plucked a quick piece of dance music to lighten the mood. When she finished her play, she asked, "But what is the 'Far Shores?' How is there a place outside of this Worldskin, outside of time? What makes it so special?"

"Ah, you wish to go deeper into the depths of theology? I cannot answer. I have not studied that far into the mysteries," Tariq confessed, shrugging. "Maybe I shall when I am older, when I am too feeble to walk the world and see all its wonders. By then, maybe I shall have acquired enough experience, enough perspectives, to ask the questions and comprehend the answers."

"So the world still holds wonders for you. As it does for me," observed Balgruuf. "Tall Papa must be disappointed in us."

"My family likes to think not. We think the souls that were attracted to Sep's ideas were probably ones not ready for the long walk. And maybe Tall Papa has done it so long, so many times, he has forgotten how frightening it is to younger ones. And the journey is a long and a solitary one, and not many are suited for such a life. But we have other spirits who are more understanding."

"Your HoonDing, by the sound of it," said Balgruuf.

"Yes. And there are others."

"Off the subject of gods, there is something else I am curious about," said Rodina, "sword-singers and their spirit swords. I am unclear about that definition. There isn't much in the library of the Bard's College about it except to say that adventurers or, perhaps, journeymen like you seek experiences, culminating in a rank called "shehai" — what is that?

"Loosely put, I seek to become a spirit-warrior. I seek experiences that force me to draw deeper on all that I am, that teach me to recognize and know my strengths and weaknesses. The power I seek cannot be dependent on either Oblivion or Divine."

"There's a lot of loose ground in that statement," Rodina said. "How about one question?" She held her hand out and stared at it, frowning. Then there was a ghostly dagger there. "There, a bound weapon of the Conjuration's school. Calling on this magic has helped me immensely in many situations on my journeyman travel. What is the difference between this spell conjured weapon from your spirit sword?"

Tariq nodded. "Ah, that is a frequent question from even my own people. What you have is a weapon drawn from Oblivion. I would not use such a spell, for it is a disgusting reliance upon Oblivion and can enslave one to the whims of a Daedra, anathemas to everything Yokudan. What you have is an Oblivion animal spirit stripped of its body, its soul and spirit forcefully re-shaped into an alien form and sent to your hand. It is powerful as long as it is cohesive, but it soon dies. That knife is as if I could take a petty or lesser soulgem in hand and use its power to directly. A true shehai sword is drawn from my own spirit, from my life's energy. I am the living soulgem from which it is shaped."

"How does that not kill you?" asked Rodina. "Just calling this knife exhausts my magic."

"The energy it takes from you is what you have to surrender to Oblivion to obtain the weapon. It's like paying your enemy a usurious fee to borrow his weapon. The energy for the shehai blade is my life, yes, but once I draw it, am I not committing my all to the battle?"

"I can see that, yes, but you say you're on your walkabout, your journeyman travel. Am I correct in thinking that you are not yet able to summon your spirit sword? You're still gathering your in-the-field experiences and resources?"

"Quite true. You are perceptive."

"I wasn't the best of my class in school, but I got better once I started traveling and getting reactions from my audience," admitted Rodina. "Enough that Whiterun thought I was worth keeping around." She nodded respectfully at the jarl.

"That is the purpose of the Walkabout," said Tariq. "One is introduced to the practice and concepts by teachers and any books or scrolls one can find to read. The rest is putting into practice and learning by experience. And surviving. But back to my spirit sword, as of now, I can call some of it, and I use it to overlay my weapons when I need extra power against unnatural foes. A plain iron sword, so enhanced, will match ebony, and against demons and vampires and weres, it can bite like the purest silver. I could even take a wooden child's sword into battle if I were so arrogant."

Rodina idly plucked chords as she mulled the answer. "Redguards, Yokudans, are known for their remarkable stamina. Yes, I can see how you might channel that to sustain a spirit sword. Interesting. Your sword is your life, and your life is the sword, and so Satakal coils. That would make an interesting riddle song. Of course, I would need to study more of Yokuda's ansei legends." She glanced at Tariq, who barked a laugh as he grinned back.

"Hah, my friend, you'd do better to correspond with ones of greater experience. If you are truly interested, I could write letters of introduction to my own teachers who don't mind talking to outsiders who are properly respectful of our ways."

"I'll probably take you up on that, then." The bard plucked a few more chords. "It occurs to me, O sword-singer, that if you are Dragonborn, you are the biggest, walking soulgem in this world. The soul of a dragon gives power to shouts of great devastation. What kind of sword could you draw from your spirit, provided you can master your soul?"

... ... ...

Damn bard. The thought haunted Tariq for days afterward. He experimented with funneling the dragon's power to his shehai. As the last of the targets fell, Vilkas, who was sitting in the shadow of the porch and drinking ale, called out to him, saying, "We're going to start charging you for the replacements. This is the tenth time in as many days, Tariq."

"Fair enough," grunted Tariq.

"We're also trying our best to find paying jobs where you can try your spirit sword, but it isn't easy to find non-political jobs. I hear the Dawnguard is recruiting. They target vampires primarily. There's an Orc in town who's recruiting. He's staying at the Huntsman. Nothing said about payment, so I think they're looking for volunteers with grudges."

"Are there truly so few jobs?"

"Plenty for you, if you want them. Do you realize how many idiots are out there who would like to boast they hired the Dragonborn to take care of a few bandits, a few thieves, fetch some missing cattle back for them — are those jobs you want? So far, all of them are jobs fit for the whelps and junior members. Some of them I would've given you if you weren't the Dragonborn. But if you want them ..."

Tariq grimaced.

"I tell 'em I'm not sending the Dragonborn, and most of the jobs disappear. It's not fair to the others. Also, many suddenly realize their farms, estates, or towns are built near ancient mounds they think may hold dragon bones. And suddenly, everyone is remembering great-grandmother's tales of dragons and seeing the shadow of a black dragon in the sky. You need to make up your mind if you're the Dragonborn or not. I know you don't want to define yourself in that word," said Vilkas in a tone surprisingly tired and bleak. "You want 'sword-singer' and 'ansei,' but others have already collared you with that; how you wear it will have to be on your own terms.

"Now get out of here so I can see to replacing equipment. As usual, you've forgotten than others, especially the other whelps, need to practice their skills."

So he found things to do. Non-paying mostly, lending his assistance to Companions and whelps. He helped Athis with a small tomb on the Pale side of the border with Whiterun. Athis had tracked them there and taken care of them. Most of the fools had stirred up tough draugrs. Athis handled most of them but retreated from the final burial chamber. He hadn't needed to go that far because none of the robbers had made it to that final chamber as none of them had figured out how to open it. He had and had gone in out of pure curiosity. He'd gone in far enough to spot a dragon wall. And according to the notes he'd found on a dead scholar slain by the bandits, this was the tomb of an "accursed" Tongue. "Accursed" was the word Athis grudgingly apologized for since Farkas was also listening to the report, and Tongues were heroes to the Nords, though not to Dunmer.

Tariq had returned to the tomb with him. Tongue Chieftain Kvenel, the entombed owner, was dangerous with his ice magic, which neither of them had much tolerance for, but they eventually triumphed. The word he learned there was invaluable. A whispered shout, one that showed him auras. He spotted four that they hunted and found two draugrs and two robbers who had crept back to loot their fallen compatriots.

Rodina was happy to receive the dead scholar's notes on the tomb but saddened at the circumstance. She had one old song celebrating Tongue Chieftain Kvenel's battles during the Dragon Wars; he had been a hero of the Pale. His soul should have been in Sovngarde, not there.

He, Lydia, and Argis helped Ria and Lillibeth with the Halted Stream Mine under legal dispute. While the co-owners argued in Balgruuf's court, the one losing his claim had moved in a mercenary group to mine as much ore as they could while using deadly force against the other owner's people. Idiot. He was losing his claim, but his earlier arguments had convinced Balgruuf that he had a right to salvage most of his initial investment. But by bringing in a mercenary force, he lost his investment — and his life.

Another dragon came after him as he explored the lands around Kvenel's tomb. He had escorted Rodina and an Arkay acolyte there. She had wanted to see the tomb for himself and, out of some bardic whim, had wanted to play the song celebrating Kvenel's deeds before the tomb was resealed. Tariq found he could respect that. And it did feel "lighter" afterward as if the ancient chieftain had accepted the explanation and apology.

"It's a pretty blue-green color," Rodina commented, sighing wistfully.

"My mother had a dress that color. Most beautiful I'd ever seen," said Argis. "Breton silk. She wanted to wear it to Sovngarde. We buried her in her armor, but we included the dress, a good pair of dancing boots, and matching jewelry so she can fight and party afterward."

"So thoughtful! I'm sure she was happy," said Rodina.

The dragon eventually gave up and flew away.

"Ah. A dragon in flight is so awe-inspiring to see. And they talk, therefore, they reason, and it's no wonder we once thought they were gods."

"They were evil and we overthrew them," said Argis.

"There had to be exceptions. No race can be totally evil," argued Rodina. "But I will concede if there were good ones, they were likely the minority and told to shut up. Our ancestors, in their fear, wouldn't care who was good or who was evil and would have killed both. And when your whole race is facing death, and being good and compassionate doesn't matter to your killers, even the good ones will finally take up arms. And if the black dragon of Helgen is Alduin, it's only logical that if he's bringing back dragons, he is likely only bringing back the ones loyal to him."

"Why do you care so much?" asked Argis.

"Well, the head of the Bards College is a high elf. He's been good for the college for the past two centuries. You have to concede there are good elves just as there are evil men. Look at it this way, even Jarl Balgruuf would fight alongside Jarl Ulfric if all the Dominion armies ever showed up at Skyrim's borders because it's no longer a matter of right or wrong. It's survival."

Tariq mulled over that idea. He thought of Calcelmo and the Oblivion Gates. Yes, back then, a hero was a hero no matter the race. Mer and Man fought tirelessly together to shut the gates.

But that was then, he remembered, and put the notion aside. In the decades since then, the Dominion remade itself into the egotistical monster it was now. They considered themselves the master race. They may not be at Skyrim's borders, but they were always at Hammerfell's. He had the scars to prove it. Sep could take them all, bad and good, for all he cared. Them and every Daedra worshiper.

... ... ...

"So the western route around the Throat-of-the-World. Back through Falkreath and Helgen, eh?" Aela nodded. "There'll be some decent hunting this time of year, so it's a good route to take. I guess I'll see how my cousin is doing as the new thane of Falkreath." She laughed. "We've been losing business because of him. Well, not that Falkreath has been hiring us anyway, the cheapskate."

"Aye, and take a knife from some hagravens that the priestess of Kynareth needs to revive the Gildergreen, and check out those reports of vampire activity in one of the caves along the way," said Tariq.