A/N: Well, hi. To anyone who may be reading this. I've written about three chapters of this story so far and I wanted some opinions on whether it was any good before I wrote anymore, so, as you can see, I've posted the first chapter.
The story will focus on the Main Quest, whilst dipping into various guild questlines. However, I'm not promising the questlines will remained completely unaltered.
Also, if you've come looking for a LucienxOC story, I'll save you the disappointment of reading on, since it's not happening in my story. I did consider it actually, but came to the conclusion that it's far too difficult to write a believable romance, while still keeping Lucien in-character. Well, far outside my writing abilities anyway. However, he will feature heavily in the story, hence the tag *pokes description bar*.
Hmm. I think that's about it. I've probably chased everyone off now.
Anyway, enjoy – hopefully – and if you make it to the bottom, please leave a review. Constructive criticism is welcomed; flames are not.
Disclaimer: Oblivion isn't mine. I own nothing. *sigh*
Steel Over Shadow
Chapter One: Alchemy and Assassins
S'drassa glanced up as an echoing bang resounded around the Leyawiin Mages Guild Hall. The room was dim, the dark wood and yellow clay walls lit only by weak, grey light filtering in through the tall windows.
That'll be her again, he thought resignedly. He hastily cleared his desk as footsteps echoed loudly in the entrance hall. Everything breakable was quickly placed inside chests. S'drassa had learned from previous sessions. In fact, after the first time, he had been disinclined to ever teach her again. She clearly had no talent for Alchemy whatsoever. But he did owe her.
The Khajiit glanced at a nearby display case with pride, where five beautiful blue crystals glowed with a soft light. She had asked for Alchemy lessons as payment for retrieving the crystals instead of gold and S'drassa had been so grateful that he'd accepted without a second thought.
S'drassa turned around to see the young Bosmer woman standing in the doorway. Her red hair was slick and plastered to her scalp, tangled and wet. Her face – like most elves – was all sharp angles and planes; rivulets of water rolled down it, from her temple to her jaw. Her expression suggested the entire world had done her a personal insult. S'drassa thought her mood had been steadily worsening over the past three days and privately wondered what had caused her foul temper.
She wore a dark green cloak; water dripped off the saturated material and pooled on the wooden floorboards. S'drassa caught flashes of the gold-coloured armour underneath as she strode forward to stand next to his workbench.
"Hello, Elsynia," he said politely, through under the desk his tail curled in dread at the thought of spending another afternoon trying install the basics of Alchemy in the mer.
She nodded at him, her green eyes full of the same restless tension as her face. The Khajiit had discovered that the mer spoke little and, when she did, she was blunt to the point of rudeness.
Elsynia shifted and S'drassa saw the hilt of a longsword poking over her shoulder. She had an air of languid confidence in herself, underneath the tension, that spoke of her skill and experience with the blade.
"No, not that one –!"
Elsynia glowered at S'drassa, biting back a hiss of pain as she nursed her burnt fingers. The Khajiit shook his head in exasperation and transferred his attention back to the workbench, cluttered with various apparatuses and bits of ingredients. "Let's try again…"
Two hours later, Elsynia left the Leyawiin Mages Guildhall, drawing her hood up against the endless rain that seemed to plague the city. She waded through the puddles, splashing and cursing her way across the dismal streets of Leyawiin.
Stupid, fetching Alchemy, she thought irately. I should just stick to swords and fighting; that's what I'm good at.
It was hard to believe that only three weeks ago the extent of her problems consisted of deciding on how to spend her payment for the successful completion of her latest contract for the Fighters' Guild.
I wonder how things would have turned out if Parwen, Ah-Malz and I, hadn't decided to go to the Imperial City for a few days.
It had been a joint celebration of Elsynia's twentieth birthday and Ah-Malz's promotion from Defender to Warder within the Guild. However, after getting caught up in a drunken brawl in one of the city's many taverns, the luckless trio – along with most of the other inhabitants of the bar – had ended up spending the night in the Imperial City Prison, cooling their heels in the cells.
However, instead of spending the night in the cell and getting released in the morning, Elsynia had played host to several unexpected visitors. She didn't think she could have been any more surprised when the Emperor himself had shown up outside her cell, accompanied by three of his Blades.
And that was when her life had been abruptly been diverted from its normal course. Now, three weeks later, Elsynia had had privilege of holding the Amulet of Kings in her hands; witnessed the burning of Kvatch; ventured into the realm of Oblivion and closed a Gate; retrieved the last heir to the Septim bloodline from the destroyed city; and was now running all over Cyrodiil, hunting up a Daedric artifact for the Emperor-to-be.
And the pressure was slowly grinding her into the ground.
Elsynia hesitated at a street intersection, and then picked the one leading to the Fighters Guild. She could always return to the Three Sisters' Inn later and right now she could do with taking out her feelings on one of the practise dummies that were always kicking about the Guild Halls.
Elsynia had arrived in county Leyawiin eight days ago; already anxious about her discovery of spies sniffing around Bruma and frustrated by her failure to recover the Amulet before Mankar Camoranescaped through a Gate into his so-called 'Paradise'. At that point she had been doubting his sanity; Oblivion was the furthest thing from paradise she had ever experienced.
Then her bad mood had been further compounded by the weather. Elsynia was sick of never being able to get properly dry. The persistent dampness that clung to her clothes and skin made her uncomfortable and miserable; as a result Elsynia's temper had been getting progressively shorter ever since she had arrived here.
That, and her utter inability to grasp alchemy.
The Guild Hall loomed up out of the swirling curtains of the rain, its timber and honey-coloured clay – characteristic of Leyawiin's houses – looking dull in the miserable weather. Elsynia pushed open the door and stepped inside, shutting out the howling wind and rain with relief.
The interior was dim but spacious, lit by flickering candlelight. She acknowledged the Porter's greeting with a nod and headed instantly for the training room.
A Khajiit – S'kasha – was already there, firing smoothly at a red-and-white target painted on a circular bale of straw. Elsynia loosened the ties securing her dark green cloak at the neck and the sodden material landed on the floor at her feet with a squelch.
I wonder if I can get a mage to enchant that for me to repel rain, she thought longingly. The cloak had concealed her Dwarven armour and now the gold metal gleamed wetly in the candlelight.
And my armour too, while he's at it.
"Warm day to you, friend," greeted S'kasha, without looking away from her bow or breaking concentration.
Elsynia snorted as she unsheathed her Elven longsword with a metallic rasp. "I wish it was a warm day. I hate the rain."
The Khajiit chuckled hoarsely. "Perhaps you should not linger in Leyawiin, then? The weather rarely breaks for long."
"I'm not here by choice, S'kasha; I'm running an errand," Elsynia said bluntly, taking up a stance in front of a practice dummy.
S'kasha was undeterred by her irritated tone. "I sympathise. You would like my home, I think. The deserts of Elsweyr are hot and dry."
Elsynia was unable to stop a sigh of longing. "It sounds wonderful. I would like to visit it one day."
S'kasha chuckled once more, then fell silent, focused once more on her target.
Elsynia followed her example and as the first strike of her sword bit deep into the wood, she fell gladly into the familiar rhythm of combat.
When her frustration and pent-up anger was spent, she leant against the wall, breathing more heavily with the exertion. The sweat was running off her in streams and her muscles ached with the long bout of exercise. She felt exhausted but it was a good kind of exhaustion.
S'kasha had stopped a while ago and was currently sitting in the corner of the room with a female Redguard and a male Bosmer, eating their dinner together. As Elsynia straightened up and sheathed her longsword, the Khajiit beckoned her over. "That was some impressive blade work," she said. The Redguard nodded in agreement, a glint of admiration in her eyes. "You hungry?"
An hour later, the door to the Fighters Guild banged closed behind Elsynia. She breathed in a deep lungful of cool air. Night had fallen and the streets were dark, with the occasional pool of golden lantern light illuminating the road and the nearby houses. And the accursed rain had finally stopped!
Elsynia set off for the Three Sisters' Inn, in a much better mood than before; a culmination of her exercise, the friendly banter over dinner and the lack of wet stuff falling from the sky.
The mer arrived at the inn and stepped inside, then exchanged a nod of greeting with the innkeeper, Shamada. Turning, Elsynia climbed the stairs and entered the room she had been staying in. It was a good room; spacious and panelled in dark wood, with decent furnishings, and above all, a very comfortable bed. At the moment the room was filled with shadows – only the faintest starlight came in through the window, making the furniture into a group of vague, shadowy outlines in the dark.
Closing the door behind her, Elsynia lit every available candle she could find and only once the walls were washed in soft candlelight, did she shed her cloak. The mer then struggled out of her suit of Dwarven armour.
Elsynia had taken to wearing it everywhere she went outdoors, even for something as simple as a trip to the Mages Guildhall, which wasn't all that far from the inn.
Maybe her multiple encounters with the Mythic Dawn were making her paranoid; but being jumped by two seemingly ordinary Dunmer women when she had passed through Cheydinhal hadn't been good for her peace of mind. It was probably one of the nastiest surprises Elsynia had ever received, when they had confronted her down an alley – her being armour-less and carrying only a shortsword – and had then summoned themselves a set of bound armour and a mace each, vowing to kill her in the name of Lord Dagon.
Elsynia had barely survived that encounter; indeed, she had likely only escaped serious injury due to the timely intervention of the city guards. So now, no matter how uncomfortable it was to wear it all the time in the cities – especially when the water crept in underneath it – she wore her Dwarven armour everywhere outside and always had her Elven longsword strapped firmly on her back.
After almost half an hour of struggling, Elsynia managed to remove all the pieces of armour. With a sigh of relief, she placed her gauntlets on the bedside table. She felt incredibly light now; it gave her the oddest impulse to jump or run, just to see how much faster she was now without the armour weighing her down.
Elsynia moved towards her pack but caught sight of herself in the mirror and frowned in dismay.
A Bosmer frowned back at her; the only clue to her half Altmer heritage was the slight golden tint to her skin. Other than that she could pass for a pure Bosmer. She had none of the High Elves' height or haughty good looks. Instead she was short – 'petite' according to her mother and sister – and averagely pretty.
However, it was the reflection of her mane of fire-red hair that had given her pause; it was matted and clumped into a huge untameable snarl by the water.
It's getting too long again, she mused, tugging fruitlessly at the damp, knotted mess.
With a sigh of annoyance, Elsynia retrieved her map of Cyrodiil and a set of spare linens from her pack. After thoroughly drying herself all over with the folded cloth that had been sitting on the end of the bed, she slipped on the set of comfortable burgundy linens and banked up the fireplace.
Elsynia then sat on the rug in front of the roaring fire, attempting to both completely dry out her hair and chase the damp, lingering chill from her bones as she studied the map.
According to Martin, there were fifteen Daedric shrines. She had managed to obtain the locations of three so far; Azura's, Malacath's and Nocturnal's shrines were all now marked on her map.
She stared at the paper thoughtfully. Elsynia then drew the Skeleton Key from her pocket and turned it over in her fingers, admiring the way the firelight flickered over the Daedric artifact, giving its rich orange and royal blue colouring a luminescent glow.
She was reluctant to give it up, as selfish as that sounded. The elf couldn't count the number of times she had been thwarted by a locked chest during a dungeon crawl. Knowing that a piece of metal was all that stood between her and valuable loot was immensely frustrating – if she kept it, the Skeleton Key would compensate for her non-existent lock-picking ability.
And it wasn't like Elsynia hadn't earned it. Nocturnal had sent her to Leyawiin, where she had tracked down two Argonian thieves who had stolen Nocturnal's 'Eye'. After discovering where they had hidden the Eye of Nocturnal, she had then rode off to the back of beyond, fought her way through a cave full of trolls and other aggressive wildlife and almost drowned attempting to retrieve the Eye from an underwater niche.
So, understandably, Elsynia felt as if she had earned the right to keep such a useful reward. The only problem with this was that it meant she'd have to track down another Daedric shrine and do something to earn another Daedric Lord's favour and subsequently, another artifact.
She sighed as she began to work on untangling the knots in her hair with her fingers.
Azura's and Malacath's shrines were about as far apart as it was possible for them to be; near Bruma and near Anvil, respectively. Unfortunately, they were also both about as far away it was possible to be from Leyawiin. Either way, the elf was in for a long trek, no matter which shrine she chose.
I'll decide tomorrow, Elsynia thought wearily. I'm so tired I can barely think straight.
After she had approached Nocturnal – whose shrine had been the nearest to her of the three at that point – she had decided there was time to stay in Leyawiin for a few more days and receive some Alchemy training from S'drassa at the local Guildhall. It was an undeniably useful talent, one which she had little skill in.
However Elsynia had already come to the decision that, no matter which shrine she visited next, she was most definitely leaving Leyawiin tomorrow. She had told S'drassa as much earlier that afternoon and had gotten the feeling that the Khajiit would be glad to see the back of her. Not that she could complain about his blatant relief. She was probably the most cranky student he'd ever had the misfortune to teach.
Elsynia shook out her now dry and mostly tangle-free hair, packed away her map and climbed to her feet. She then crossed the room and slid gratefully into bed. The warm cocoon of blankets and the softness of the mattress that she sank into felt heavenly to her tired body.
The mer lay curled up, reading Modern Heretics in the hope of gleaning more information on shrine locations, until her eyes grew heavy. Setting the book aside, she rolled over and closed her eyes. She was just starting to doze, on the verge of sleep, when she realised she had forgotten to blow out the candles on the windowsill.
With a quiet groan, Elsynia rolled back over and up onto her feet… and came face-to-face with a hooded figure clad in close-fitting armour as black as the void.
It was hard to say who was more startled. Elsynia certainly hadn't been expecting it and the assassin – the dagger that they held unsheathed in one hand left no doubt as to their purpose here – had obviously thought her deeply asleep.
Elsynia recovered faster by a split second and it saved her life. She was already moving when the assassin threw the dagger and so it buried itself up to the hilt in her shoulder instead of her throat.
The searing pain splintered through her shoulder and upper left arm; she gritted her teeth to fight back the agonised scream threatening to tear from her throat.
Instead Elsynia threw herself behind the chest of drawers, a second dagger clatteringly harmlessly off the wall behind her, where her head had been only a moment before. Her hand reached for where she had left her Elven longsword, only to find it no longer there. While she had been dodging the second dagger, the assassin had kicked it under the bed.
Elsynia was swearing under her breath in the foulest language she knew, when she heard a chuckle. "Come out, come out, little elf. I promise I'll make it quick."
The patronising tone ignited her temper; white-hot fury eclipsed her rising fear. With one swift movement Elsynia rose and hurtled herself out from behind the chest of drawers. She collided with the assassin in a tackle, sending them both crashing to the floor. Before he – his voice had been undeniably male – could bring his dagger to bear, Elsynia sprang to her feet and dashed for her pack.
There was no time to retrieve the longsword from under the bed; instead she snatched her secondary blade, Chillrend, which had been poking out from the top of the pack. Quickly, Elsynia swung around to face the assassin, who had already regained his feet and was swiftly closing in on her.
He no doubt wanted to finish this quickly; they were making rather a lot of noise and it wouldn't be long before they were interrupted.
Elsynia brought Chillrend up in a block and the assassin's glass dagger skittered uselessly off her sword. She went on the offensive, the longer reach of her blade suddenly giving her the advantage. Fighting in such close quarters with a sword was difficult – especially with her injured left shoulder hampering her and sending jolts of pain through her with every swing – but blades were what Elsynia knew best. She had been training with them ever since she had been big enough to hold one and she only needed to keep him at bay, to prevent him getting close enough to use the dagger.
A slash of her shortsword tore the armour on his shoulder and bit into the flesh. Elsynia heard him hiss and stagger slightly as the enchantment on the blade took its toll, frost magicka leaping from sword to skin.
The small moment when he was knocked off balance was all the opening that Elsynia needed. Ducking under his outstretched arm, she spun and then slashed savagely across the back of the assassin's legs, severing his hamstring tendons.
Unable to support his weight anymore, he crashed to the ground, legs rendered useless by her crippling blow. In a flash Elsynia was on him, knees pinning his arms to the floor and Chillrend at his throat.
"I'll make it quick. Who hired you?" she demanded, incensed. With one swift movement, the elf yanked back his concealing hood. The dim light revealed a young Imperial male – not much older than her – with surprisingly handsome features, bright blond hair and cold steel-grey eyes.
He merely sneered at her, and despite her anger Elsynia couldn't help but reluctantly admire his lack of fear.
"Who?" she demanded again, her green eyes flashing in fury as she pressed Chillrend harder under his chin.
He gave a barely perceptible flinch as the blade dug in hard enough to draw blood and the frost enchantment flashed along Chillrend's length in a blaze of white light.
"Nobody hired me," he rasped, every word causing the sword to cut a little more into his throat and making a little more blood trickle down his neck. His cold eyes still laughed mockingly at her. "They hired the Dark Brotherhood."
"That wasn't my question," Elsynia snapped, suppressing the instinctive surge of fear that the Brotherhood's name inspired. She already guessed as much about who he owed allegiance to. There weren't many freelance assassins in Cyrodiil.
However, despite her distinct advantage here, there was something unnerving about this man. Perhaps it was the way he hadn't lost composure at all. He was somehow still as coolly unruffled and frightening, pinned to the floor and injured, as he had been when he was attacking her.
The man laughed mirthlessly. "The client's name is Else God-Hater."
For a moment, Elsynia was just surprised he had answered her. Then his reply sank in. "What?"
Else God-Hater? Else? The Nord swordswoman who stayed at the West Weald Inn in her home city of Skingrad? Whom she chatted with on occasion about the finer points of blade-work? That Else?
Elsynia was stunned, frozen in place for an instant with an odd sense of betrayal. Why?
Her moment of distraction was all the assassin needed. Smirking, he replied, "Too bad you won't live long enough to do anything about her."
With a powerful jerk, he freed one arm out from under her knee and knocked Chillrend away from his throat, tearing it right out of her slackened grip.
Elsynia instantly snapped back to herself, furious at herself for losing focus for even a second, let alone allowing him to disarm her. The next moment, pain erupted in her shoulder. The Imperial had torn out the dagger still embedded in her left shoulder and blood poured from the wound, drenching her shirt.
The elf leapt to her feet, barely avoiding a second wound from the dagger and frantically grabbed for Chillrend, which had slid away across the floor. A hand closed around her ankle, yanking off her feet and Elsynia was brought crashing back to the ground. She squirmed forward, her straining fingertips closing over the edge of the enchanted shortsword just as a blade sliced across her ankle, burning a line of new pain into her flesh.
Almost immediately, Elsynia felt her strength draining away with frightening rapidity as a cold sensation stabbed up through her leg; like shards of ice were flowing in her veins instead of blood. Poison.
Dread clawed at her stomach and Elsynia twisted in an attempt to free herself from the assassin's iron grip on her ankle. Slewing around brought her close enough to him to wield Chillrend and she brought the shortsword down to cut off the hand fastened around her ankle just as the Imperial drove his poisoned dagger deep into her right wrist.
Their loud yells of pain came simultaneously; Elsynia had finally broken his indifferent composure and his face was twisted into a mask of pain and cold rage as he clutched at the stump of his left hand. The elf herself was panting, cradling her mangled right hand, barely able to think past the pain of the shattered bones and severed tendons.
Swearing, the Imperial assassin attempted to crawl towards her, despite what must have been blinding agony from his crippled legs and missing hand.
Elsynia, maddened by pain and fury, didn't give him the chance to strike again. Lifting Chillrend despite the intense pain in her left shoulder, she drove the sword through his chest and the man died with a spray of blood and a last rasping breath.
The poison was spreading even faster now; she could feel the ice flowing up her arm from her butchered wrist. Crawling on hands and knees, she somehow reached her pack, the room blurry and swaying wildly around her.
Elsynia searched desperately through her potions, her hands now shaking uncontrollably as her nerves began to spasm. A potion of fire shield fell from her fingers to smash on the floor next to her, shimmering violet liquid pooling on the floorboards amongst the darker-hued blood.
Finally, with wildly trembling hands, the elf located a cure poison potion and hastily gulped down it, spilling half of it over herself in her haste. Almost immediately, Elsynia felt the ice receding, chased away by the warmth of the potion but as the pain of the poison fled, she felt the agony of her shoulder wound and mangled wrist return full force.
For the next few minutes all she could think about was gulping down as many of her healing potions as she could. Eventually, Elsynia reached a point where she could think past the pain and set about healing the rest of her injuries with Restoration magicka.
It was when she was in the middle of this that the door to her room slammed open and five city guards spilled in, swords drawn, led by Caelia Draconis, captain of the Leyawiin Guard. The woman's sharp eyes scanned the wrecked room, taking in the scene at a glance; the bloodstained and clearly exhausted elf wreathed in the white glow of Restoration magicka and the black armour-clad Imperial lying dead on the floor.
Draconis met the mer's wary but fatigued eyes and raised an eyebrow. "Well. I'm sure this will be an interesting story."
Elsynia mounted her horse at dawn. The bay mare snorted bad-temperedly and she patted her absentmindedly, "I know, Snowflake. Don't worry, girl; we're leaving this damp place right now."
Elsynia had been escorted to the Leyawiin City Watch Barracks, accompanied by Draconis and two other guards who had lugged the assassin's body between them.
A session of intense questioning had then ensued on what exactly had transpired in the inn room; she'd hardly been able to deny killing him – her sword impaling his body like meat on a spit was pretty damning evidence. However when Adamus Phillida, retired Imperial Legion Commander, had appeared from another part of the barracks he instantly had identified the armour the assassin wore as that of a member of the Dark Brotherhood.
"I should know," he had said, grinning happily at the sight of the corpse. "Those bastards have tried on kill me on more than one occasion."
Draconis had then graciously offered Elsynia the use of a bodyguard for the rest of the duration of her stay in Leyawiin. She had declined. Her original intention had been to leave the next day anyway and an assassination attempt was hardly likely to convince her to stay longer.
Elsynia was brought back to the present as Snowflake nudged her leg. "Okay, we're leaving," she muttered, turning the horse to face the main road leading up the coast to Bravil, and then onto Skingrad.
The shock and fear of the attack had faded and left behind only anger. Elsynia hadn't been able to get out of the barracks fast enough; white-hot fury sang through her veins, demanding vengeance for the attempt on her life.
Sorry, Martin, she thought, smiling grimly as she spurred Snowflake forward. That Daedric artifact will just have to wait. I have an appointment to keep with Else God-Hater.
A/N: So yeah. There you go. I know there was quite a lot of information but stuff needed explaining. Anyway, if you've got this far, please leave a review. You know you want to. ;D