And the prologue! Thanks for sticking with me, I know the updates haven't been particularly frequent/long/regular delete as applicable, I appreciate any feedback you can give me now the story's over!
Talos/Tiber Septim is the God of War and Governance
Mara is the Mother Goddess and Goddess of Love
"Not yet," Iona whispered, her eyes closed. "Not yet, I'm not ready."
"You would refuse your place upon the pantheon?" Akatosh's voice was not angry. It was loud, and all encompassing. It sound like a wise man, a young girl, a crying baby, and a screaming warrior all at the same time, the voices overlapping to produce the voice of a God.
"Not refuse, postpone." Now she opened her eyes, only to see nothing but blinding light surrounding her. "My previous lives were full, and for the most part they were happy. They lived, they laughed, they loved and they died. I ask only the chance to do the same once more. I would live as Iona, as I lived as them, without the influence they have wielded over me this past year."
"Why do you ask this? Did you not accept them as a part of you?"
"That I did, Lord Akatosh, however, Iona is a part of me too. Right now, she is the main part of me, the one that still lives and draws breath. I would allow this life it's completion before I join you, here in the pantheon."
"Let it be so, Lord Akatosh," a gentle voice murmured. Iona could still see nothing but the light, but instinctively she found she knew who was talking: Mara, Goddess of Love. "Allow this life to finish its cycle, so that Talos can be complete. Balance must be achieved in all things. In life, in our work… and in love. This woman has much yet to give to the world."
There was silence, and Iona was forced to wait, knowing that the father of the Gods was deciding her fate.
"Very well then, Mage Iona. You shall return to Nirn and live your life. The essence of Talos, the memories of your previous lives, shall remain here, to reconnect with you upon your death."
"Thank you," Iona began, but the light was receding, and she was falling.
"FEIM ZII GRON!" Iona shouted as the ground rushed up to meet her. She felt the landing, but the sudden presence of the ground didn't hurt. Standing, she glanced around to try and orientate herself, to work out where she'd landed.
It didn't take her too long to spot Dragonsreach upon the horizon. Perfect.
The walk was short, no more than an hour or so, and she met no one on the road. By the time she entered the city, it was dark, the streets almost empty.
Still, the guards stared at her with wide eyes, and Iona had to wonder just how long she'd been gone – did time work differently in the realms she'd visited? The hearth was warm when she entered Breezehome, the embers of a dying fire telling her that someone was in. She moved up the stairs as quietly as she could, and checked the master bedroom – it was empty, everything exactly where she had left it on her last visit.
When she opened the door to Lydia's room a crack, the housecarl looked up from her book and smiled. "You've got to stop doing this disappearing thing," Lydia said. "It's getting really repetitive." And then she burst into tears.
Iona took care of the dragons outside of Whiterun the following morning, but she very deliberately avoided Jorvaskr. It was shameful, she knew, but that was a conversation she wanted to put off just a little while longer.
Instead she headed to Riften, and dealt with their dagons before heading south to Nightingale Hall, where Karliah lived, and Brynjolf was waiting as per her request.
"You're resigning?" Brynjolf said when she explained her plans, his tone flat. "Can you even do that?"
"Honestly, I'd like to see you stop me," she replaid with a grin.
"And you're not a Nightingale anymore?" Karliah marvelled aloud. "Are you sure?"
"Quite. I've got enough to be getting along with once I die without adding guarding the Midnight Sepulchre to the list."
"Are we going to get an explanation for that part, lass?"
"Unlikely," she replied, grinning. "I leave the guild in your most capable hands."
"Aye, you do that. Make sure to drop into the Flagon some time though. I'll even buy you a drink."
"I'll hold you to that."
The cave was in ruins, just as she remembered. The burnt coffin in which the Night Mother's corpse had rested was broken, and it was just an empty box. It held no power, and the memory of what Iona had done in her name rang untrue in her mind. She could not remember those months she had been convinced she was the assassin, but she remembered the times of uncertainty, when her original self pushed her way to the surface.
It had been enough in the end. This place held no power over her any more.
The soul enveloped her, and it was calming. The power swelled within her chest, warm and familiar. "That was fun," Lydia said drily from the other side of the skeleton, picking her way around to stand next to Iona.
"Yep. I just love unexpected Dragon battles first thing in the morning."
"I don't think it counts as morning if the sun's still below the horizon," Lydia muttered. Voices made them turn, and Iona's blood ran cold. They weren't far from Whiterun, for they had been on their way back from Falkreath when the dragon attacked, so they were in Companion's territory.
And the Companion's, naturally, had responded. Iona couldn't see them yet, but she could hear their voices as they hurried up the hill, beyond which lay the dragon's bones. "We could run?" Iona suggested half-heartedly.
"The bones would give you away," Lydia replied, wiping her sword on the grass, "And you owe them an explanation." Without another word, she moved away, leaving Iona standing alone by the bones of the dead dragon.
Anxiously, she tugged at the sleeves of her robes, those that designated her arch-mage of the College of Winterhold. She pushed the hood back and ran a hand through her hair, taking a deep breath and waiting for them to see her, keeping her eyes downcast.
When they crested the hill, their voices tailed off. She waited, bracing herself for the coming recriminations.
Instead, there was a cheer, and the sound of running feet. Iona looked up just in time to see the oncoming companions, a large group of them, as they barrelled into her. The air was knocked from her lungs as she was pushed down onto the ground, and Iona found that she was crying, but also laughing at the same time.
"Let the woman breath," Aela's voice shouted above the hubbub, but there was a smile in her words, and she extended a hand to raise Iona to her feet. "We thought you'd gone and died all over again," she said, "Until we got word of your return a week ago."
"Yeah, I was gone a while I know."
"Things have moved on while you were gone."
"Not all things," she replied, smiling. "Winterhold was waiting, and others as well."
"Ahh yes, Arch-Mage. We heard about that one while you were gallivanting off goodness knows where." Aela paused and looked Iona up and down. "You got all that stuff sorted then?"
Snorting slightly, Iona nodded. "I'm here to stay this time. Or at least, that's the plan."
"Good. Come on you lot, dragon's dead, we've got other work to do." She turned, rounding up the other Companions as she moved away.
All except one, naturally.
Vilkas had hung back, and his eyes were apprehensive. Iona opened her mouth to speak, realised she didn't have the words, and then closed it again. She had wanted to put of this moment for as long as possible, for she had worried that everything to do with him had been something out her past, something she would forget.
Yet still her heart thumped painfully in her chest, and the words would not come. "You still carry a sword," Vilkas said at last, breaking the silence. It was true. Dragonsbane sat in its sheath at Iona's waist, although she had not used it during this fight.
"What? Oh yeah. I've been getting training as I travel. I lost all the memories of my past lives, so the Nerevar's expertise is gone."
"And the assassin?"
"Yeah, she's gone too. All of them, for good this life?"
"My last one, but I'll see them all again when I die. They're waiting for me, in the place I go next."
"And where is that, exactly?"
"Somewhere warm, and light." She smiled slightly at the recollection. She knew that, when the time came, the pantheon would be a good place to spend eternity.
"I know Kodlak saw me as Harbinger," she said eventually. "But I don't want to be. That's not who I am, it's something out of a past life. I'm the Arch-Mage. I think that's enough for now."
"Aela and I have been sharing the position," Vilkas said after a moment's silence. "I think it's surprised us both how well that's worked out."
"I'm not all that surprised." Silence fell between them again.
"I have to head back," Vilkas said at last, "Aela was being quite serious when she said there was work to be done."
"Yeah. I've got a lot of catching up to do as well," Iona agreed, nodding slightly. He turned and began to walk away, up the hill.
"Oh by the blood of Akatosh," Lydia grumbled, storming over to stand next to Iona. "You're useless you know that?"
"What do you mean?" she asked taken aback.
"You know how things work in Skyrim, right?"
"Still not getting you."
"Take this," Lydia said, shoving something into Iona's hands. "Put it on, and go have a chat with the man who looked for you almost the entire time you were gone."
Iona looked down at what Lydia had given to her, and saw that it was a necklace – an amulet of Mara. The words of the mother goddess hung in her mind, and she smiled, realising now what they meant.
She looped the amulet around her neck, and ran up the hill.
Iona, Dragonborn and Arch-mage of the College of Winterhold, and member of the Companions, had finally put the past behind her. At last she could look forward to the future.