A/N: Here we go, Chapter 17. I took a bit longer than usual to write this one up because I had to think things over a bit. There are still some parts of the story that I'm trying to work out, but I think that things will come together well. At the time of writing, this chapter got three reviews, which is just shy of the average of five reviews per chapter I usually get. Hopefully some of you guys will bother to write a review, even if it's just a few words of praise or criticism.

"Alright, we should be near the cave our contract's supposed to be at. Orotheim, I think is the name," Balamus told Solona, looking at his map from atop Chestnut. Farkas, who'd given him the assignment, had had the courtesy of marking it on his map of Skyrim, but the Dunmer knew that a map could only be so precise. The two of them stood at the western edge of a small mountain range northwest of Whiterun, in the middle of a hilly plain, with the mountain range to their right.

"Where did Farkas say it was again?" Solona asked beside him, mounted on her white horse. She held her halberd in her spare hand, while the other one handled her horse's reins. Her helmet was hooked at her hip.

"Map says it should be right next to this mountain range, here," Balamus said, showing her the map. Solona took the map in her hand and perused it carefully.

"Do you think maybe we overshot the cave a little?" Solona asked. She looked towards the mountains at their right, where the cavern's entrance should be.

"Hm, maybe," Balamus replied. "Come on, let's take a closer look."

The two of them rode back up to the side of the mountains and eventually found a path that hugged the mountainside. The two carefully traversed the path on horseback for about five minutes before they found themselves standing in front of the yawning entrance to a cave. The floor around the entrance was littered with all sorts of bones, including a few large ones that only could have come from a mammoth. The smell made the horses a bit nervous, but they held their ground; the flesh was long since stripped from the bones.

"Good call, Solona. This should be it," Balamus told her, getting off his horse. "The bandits'll be in here."

"Seems that bandits are a bigger problem here than I remember in Cyrodiil," Solona remarked, dismounting from her horse.

"It's Skyrim; what can you say?" Balamus replied indifferently, shrugging. "The Law can't be everywhere at one time; that's what the Companions are for. Come on, let's go take care of these bandits."

The two of them left their horses at the entrance to the cavern before going in. The cavern was completely soundless as they entered, with Solona's mail armor offering only the slightest clinking sounds as she crept forward.

"I don't reckon you're much of a stealth fighter, are you?" Balamus asked lowly, shooting a sidelong glance at her mix of chain mail and steel-plate armor on her body.

"Not really," she admitted quietly, her voice being distorted slightly by the helm she'd just put on. "But if we come across anyone without them noticing us first, I've got my crossbow for a quieter kill."

"Good enough," Balamus grunted.

The two of them entered the first chamber in the cavern. It was a small chamber; from where they stood they could see the end of the room, where two bandits were readying their weapons — they'd heard their approach.

At the far end of the room a Bosmer archer took aim from higher ground while the second one, sporting a shield and sword, charged at them. Balamus charged towards the bandit at the ground level, casting an armor spell on himself, while Solona dropped her halberd to draw her crossbow. The Bosmer launched an arrow at Solona, but the arrow bounced off her steel plate pauldron. The Imperial fired back at him with her crossbow, but the Bosmer ducked just in time to avoid the attack. Meanwhile, Balamus was still dueling with the first bandit, swinging his longsword overhead to try and strike over the Redguard's shield. The man easily blocked the strike and tried to go for a thrust, but Balamus managed to knock the weapon aside. The Dunmer swung his weapon again, this time in a low strike that cut deep into the Redguard's ankle, sending him to the floor, allowing Balamus to sink Hellsting into the bandit's stomach.

A moment later, the Bosmer popped back out of his cover behind a wine barrel and, seeing an opportunity to shoot, loosed his arrow at Balamus. The arrow bounced off of Balamus' armor spell, causing the Dunmer to stagger back a step.

"Bugger off, you slimy bastard," Balamus growled, powering up a fireball spell to obliterate the offending archer, but before he could fire the spell Solona's crossbow bolt took the bandit down. The battlemage turned his head to nod appreciatively at the good shot. Solona smiled under her helmet, loading her crossbow and picking her halberd back up before rejoining Balamus.

The two of them made their way up a wooden ramp to the upper level, where the archer now lay dead, and turned into another section of the cave. This chamber was lit only by a campfire, but they saw no bandits. "Shouldn't there be some more of them?" Balamus asked as they stepped through the doorway.

Solona gave him a shrug. "Maybe they're—"

The Imperial was cut off as she was slammed by a Nord bandit's shield from behind, knocking her to the ground. Solona rolled onto her back and quickly thrust her halberd towards her opponent's midsection, causing him to raise his shield to block it. She quickly got to her feet and struck again, forcing the bandit backwards and offering her some room to fight. Balamus readied his weapon to help her, but the moment he did so another bandit, an Orc clad in Orcish steel plate, swung a large steel greatsword into his chest. The huge weapon slammed into Balamus and sent him flying backwards a few feet, but thankfully his armor spell prevented the blow from outright killing him.

Balamus grunted as he landed painfully on his back after having just been struck by the greatsword. He saw the Orc readying another cleave with his weapon, so the Dunmer raised his longsword at an angle to deflect the strike. The Orc's blade was successfully deflected, causing the blow to bounce off Hellsting and sink into the damp cave floor to his side. Balamus quickly followed up with a firebolt to the Orc's chest. The firebolt struck the Orsimer's chest plate and forced him back a step, giving Balamus just enough time to get to his feet and lock blades with the mer.

Meanwhile, Solona's halberd thrust was once again blocked by the bandit's ever-present shield. The Nord went for a slash, which Solona hopped back to avoid before quickly countering with her own slash. The Nord rushed forward, blocking the attack with his shield and swinging his own sword at her neck. The Imperial grabbed the man's hand in mid-swing before she smashed her helmeted forehead against his unarmored one. As the man staggered backward a few steps she regained her footing and swung her halberd at his head, cleanly cutting his skull open.

Balamus and the Orc continuously traded blows and parried each other's attacks. The Orc was skilled with his greatsword, enough to force Balamus to keep himself alert. The Dunmer swung Hellsting overhead as the Orc raised his own sword to meet the blade, blocking the attack. Balamus tried going for a low swing to his leg, but the Orc simply put his blade in the way, blocking it once again, before forcing Balamus's own blade away. The Orc swung his blade now, but Balamus knocked the weapon aside. He feinted an overhead strike, causing the mer to raise his sword in anticipation of a high block, before quickly swinging low at the bandit's leg. His enchanted blade left a long scar on the bandit's steel plate, but it did not cut deeply enough to do damage.

Solona came in from behind and attempted to stab the back of his leg, but her thrust missed by mere inches, the halberd's spike glancing off his leg's plate armor. The Orc spun around, swinging his greatsword at Solona. Unable to avoid the strike, the Imperial raised her poleaxe to block the sword with her weapon's steel shaft, causing the weapon to fly out of her hands when the sword made contact. The Orc charged forward immediately afterwards, ramming her with his shoulder like a bull. The Imperial was sent to the floor. Grunting in pain, she quickly raised her hand and summoned a Bound Sword, immediately shooting back up to her feet as the Orc backed off, staring down the two warriors now in front of him. The Orc growled, gripping his weapon tightly.

Solona charged at him first, swinging her blade overhead. The mer raised his weapon, blocked the attack, and kicked her stomach, sending her backwards. Then he turned and blocked Balamus' own swing, having anticipated the attack, and shoved the Dunmer back. He quickly followed with an overhead which the Dunmer parried and followed up with a counter, but the Orc blocked the counter. Again, the Imperial woman slashed at the Orsimer, but her conjured blade glanced off the thick steel plate on his shoulder, having missed his neck. The bandit spun and struck Solona across the helmet with his gauntleted fist with enough force to send the Imperial reeling.

The Orc roared in pain as Hellsting's pommel smashed into the side of his steel helmet, causing him to drop his weapon and stagger to one side. Looking back up at the Dunmer, only half-conscious, he had only enough time to see Balamus holding his weapon inverted, gripping his longsword's blade with two hands, before the Dunmer swung Hellsting at his head again like a war-hammer. The longsword's ebony pommel once again bludgeoned into the Orc's head, and despite the helmet he wore, the bandit was knocked unconscious by the devastating attack. Balamus quickly went up to the vulnerable Orc and sent an ice spike through his exposed face, instantly killing him.

Balamus panted heavily for a moment, regaining his breath, before looking towards Solona. The Imperial woman was regaining her footing, using the wall of the cavern for support. Balamus walked over to her.

"Are you okay? Anything broken?" he asked, looking her over. She was completely covered in armor, but he knew that even with the most stout plate armor a powerful enough strike could break bones and rupture organs through the steel.

"I'm fine; though I think I'll have a bruise to remember that Orc by," she replied, pulling off her helmet. The Imperial did, in fact, have a new purple blotch on her forehead, but she seemed completely unaware about it. She brushed some wayward strands of hair off her face, murmuring something about cutting her hair soon.

"Aren't you glad he didn't nail your pretty face too badly?" Balamus asked with a smile.

"Careful what you say about me, Balamus; Aela might get a bit jealous if she finds out," Solona replied with a sly grin.

"What? Can't a man say nice things about a lady?" Balamus replied lightheartedly.

Solona snorted indelicately, though with a smile on her face. "Yeah, some lady I am."

Balamus looked around. "Well, we might as well see what sort of loot these guys've got on them. It's not like they have any more use for it. Why don't you take a look in that chest over there?" he told Solona, pointing at a large chest at the end of the room.

As the Imperial went over to the chest, Balamus sheathed his blade, knelt down and began looting things off the bandit corpses. The sword-and-shield bandit had a few lockpicks on him and a silver ring, and the Orc had a small pouch of gold and a journal. Curious, Balamus took the journal and opened it up. There were only a few entries written, but it was enough for Balamus to learn that these bandits were poaching before they'd been killed.

"What in the world..." Balamus heard Solona whisper in wonder.

The Dunmer turned around and saw the Imperial gazing into the chest. Balamus tossed the journal aside without a second thought and made his way towards her.

"What is it?" he asked as he came in beside her. Peering into the chest, Balamus' crimson eyes flew wide open as he beheld the giant crystal gem inside.

"By the gods..." Balamus breathed in awe as Solona gingerly reached into the chest and grabbed the crystal. She removed it from the chest and held it out for Balamus to see better. It was simply immense, about the size of a head of cabbage, if any comparison were to be made, and it had a slightly purple hue to it.

"Where in the world would they have gotten something like this?" Solona whispered in awe.

They stole it off a traveling Vigilant of Stendarr, a feminine voice suddenly said.

Solona and Balamus both cried out in surprise, and the Imperial flung the crystal aside, watching it roll a few feet before coming to a stop.

I'd very much appreciate it if you didn't handle my artifact so brutishly, the feminine voice spoke again, sounding slightly irritated.

"Hey! Who the hell is that?!" Balamus shouted, looking at the crystal as if it were a squirming mass of serpents.

You mortals are so easily frightened... there is no need to fear me. I am Meridia. Daedric Prince of Life and Energy.

"Daedric... Prince?" Balamus asked, astonished. He looked to Solona, who seemed to be just as shocked as he, though she didn't seem as afraid as he felt.

Yes, it is I, said the Daedra. Now listen to me closely: the item you have just found, that crystal ball on the floor there, is the beacon to my Shrine. It has been pilfered from its rightful place, and now I want you two to return it to me.

"What? Why would we want to help a Daedra?" Balamus challenged, crossing his arms as he glared at the crystal ball.

Why would you want to anger a Daedra? Meridia countered.

"Balamus, maybe we should just listen," Solona told him. Balamus gave her a shocked look.

"What? Why? What reason do you have to—"

"Come on, just hear her out," Solona told him. "What have we got to lose from listening?"

Balamus sighed, putting his fingers to his temples. "Alright. Fine. Hear her out."

A wise decision, mortal, the voice purred. Now heed my words. A foul darkness has desecrated my shrine, and now the undead walk freely inside of it. My shrine must be purged of this darkness... and I want you two to do it.

"And that's it? Just like that? Really?" Balamus asked with an obviously disbelieving tone. "There's no way in hell there aren't any strings attached when dealing with a Daedra," Balamus remarked.

"Balamus, maybe we should just do it," Solona told him. "We're not expected back for a while anyways. Another trip shouldn't—"

"Solona, this is a Daedric Prince we're dealing with here," Balamus told her. "You listen to me when I say that dealing with Daedra is never good. We should just leave that thing where it is and go back to Whiterun."

"Well, I may... or may not... have dealt with Daedra in the past," Solona admitted, prompting Balamus to cock a brow at her. "Yes, they can be a bit... fickle, at times," she continued. "But I know that Meridia isn't the same as the other Princes. We're not dealing with Molag Bal, or Mehrunes Dagon, or Boethiah, who are known for their treachery. Maybe... we can trust her?"

Thank you for putting in the voice of reason, Solona, the Daedra remarked. It puts me at ease to know that those who follow me would so easily come to my defense.

Solona's eyes widened at the remark, out of surprise. Balamus' eyes also widened at the crystal ball, but his shock was from sudden realization dawning upon him. The Dunmer whipped his head towards Solona. Solona, who'd just regained her composure, looked back at him defiantly.

"Wait a minute," he murmured. "Are you a..."

"Follower of Meridia? I am," Solona replied, nodding.

Balamus remained silent as he stared uncertainly at the Imperial. He knew she was trustworthy in battle — he'd heard an account of her assisting Archer and Lydia in clearing out Shimmermist Cave after he'd failed, even managing to take out a Dwarven Centurion with them — but he had issues in trusting people who worshipped Daedra ever since his father had been sacrificed by a cult of Boethiah worshippers. One thing his father did tell him, though, was to not judge people for the god they worshipped. Balamus respected his father's advice, but when faced with this situation, where his father's teaching came into conflict with his death at the hands of Daedra cultists, Balamus wasn't sure what to believe.

"Balamus, please accompany me in doing this. Meridia isn't evil like the other Daedric Princes," Solona told him. "She's reasonable. All she wants is that her Shrine be purged of the undead. What's the harm in that?"

Listen to her, Balamus, the voice spoke. I do not mean either of you any harm; the only harm I wish done is to the defiler of my Shrine, the necromancer named Malkoran, as well as the undead that he is raising. I absolutely despise the undead; the deceased should not walk amongst the living. Wouldn't you agree, Dunmer?

Balamus shifted his weight to his other foot as he thought to himself. He didn't know much about any Daedra, but he knew exactly how he felt about the necromancers: he didn't like them. The worst magic-related crime he could think of was forcing a soul to serve you for eternity as a mindless slave, which was exactly what Necromancers did.

"Alright," Balamus finally conceded, sighing heavily. "So where exactly is your Shrine, Meridia?"

You will find my Shrine at Mount Kilkreath, to the West of the City named Solitude, further to the North, the Daedra told him.

"Alright," Balamus said, going over some calculations in his head. He had the mental image of Skyrim's map in his head. "If we can stop by that city and buy some supplies before heading back to Whiterun, we'll be alright," he said. "Barring any big delays, we should be back home in maybe around a week. Maybe less, if we ride hard enough."

Excellent, said the voice once again. The sooner you come to my Shrine, the faster you can get rid of the Necromancer. If you succeed, I shall be more than happy to reward the two of you generously.

"We shall make haste, Lady Meridia," Solona respectfully replied.

Good. And one more thing: please pick up my Beacon Crystal. I don't want it to be too dirty when you put it back in its place, Meridia said. Then, the voice vanished, and neither of them could hear her again. The Imperial obediently picked up the crystal, gave it a short wipe with her hand, and walked back over to the Dunmer, who simply watched as she neared.

"I'm glad you're going along with me, Balamus," she told him earnestly. "Thank you."

"Yeah, sure," Balamus replied, crossing his arms as he stared at her. "I still don't like Daedra. But for your sake, I'll tolerate this one."

Solona gave him a sad look, holding Meridia's crystal beacon in her hands. "You don't trust me anymore, do you?" she asked quietly.

Balamus gave her a long look, but he shook his head. "No, it's not that. I know by now that you're a trustworthy Companion. You did help my friends, after all. I don't care that you worship a Daedra; but I don't like being pulled into an affair involving them, either."

"It'll only be this once," Solona promised. "If Meridia does end up requiring something more... gruesome... though I doubt that will happen... I'll make sure I'm the one that takes the heat, and not you."

"I just hope that nothing of the sort will happen," Balamus replied, though feeling slightly more at ease because of Solona's words. The Dunmer thought to himself for a moment. "Now, we should probably get going right now, if we want to make it to Solitude before too long. Grab all the food from this den that you can, and make sure none of it is spoiled — we've got a long trip ahead of us."

Varan allowed himself a sigh of relief once the door to the Falkreath Sanctuary closed behind him. He'd been on the road for days, traveling East all the way back to Falkreath Hold from that isolated road in The Reach. His horse was thankfully fleet-footed, as most Cyrodilic horses generally were, but the tough terrain was hard on the animal, and on its horseshoes; he'd need to get some new ones for it, he thought.

Varan walked down the steps through the Sanctuary's main corridor until he finally came upon Astrid's "office," as he called it; it was a small room on the way to the main chamber where the sanctuary's Mistress was likely to be found working. Seeing her busily poring over a map of Skyrim, Varan paused for a moment, steeling himself to speak; but then he remembered that he'd taken this contract from the Night Mother, and that he'd already been paid. He didn't need to talk to her this time. Thankful for an excuse not to need to speak with the Nord, Varan prepared to make his way directly into the main chamber.

"It took you long enough to return," Astrid remarked without her eyes leaving the map on the table, bringing Varan to a dead stop. "What's your excuse?" she asked.

Varan, a bit unsettled, respectfully replied, "The contract in Markarth hold took me many leagues to the West, Mistress. My horse isn't used to the terrain, and this land is still a bit new to me; but the deed has been done, and I received payment from the contractor. He was pleased with the work."

"You should consider dumping that frail thing you call a horse," Astrid replied, still refusing to give Varan the benefit of eye contact. "A good Skyrim horse would get you through the province faster."

Truth be told, Varan had once briefly thought about buying himself a Skyrim-bred horse, but he'd quickly disregarded the idea, though not entirely because of his attachment to his current horse; he didn't have a very tight bond with the animal at all, because he didn't want to feel attached to something that could very well die during one of his jobs — but that still didn't prevent him from feeling some fondness for the thing. Mostly, though, he just didn't feel like a new horse was something he needed. He preferred quick horses over strong ones.

"I've given that some thought, but I think that I'm fine with my horse," Varan told her. "I think I just need a while longer to become familiar with Skyrim. The cold is harsh on me, and was probably more of a reason for my delay than the land itself. I trust you understand...?"

Astrid didn't respond immediately, and Varan quietly turned to finally leave the room. However, she stopped him with her voice once again: "For your sake, you'd best adapt yourself to life here, quick. We might take you to be a slacker; and nobody in this sanctuary tolerates indolence. Least of all me."

Varan stared at her for a moment, but not much longer than that. "Yes, Mistress," he murmured under his breath, easily biting back his tongue against anything that could resemble dissidence. He quickly turned and walked out before she could take another jab at him.

The sound of wooden weapons clacking against each other reached his ears before he'd even entered the main chamber of the Sanctuary, which also doubled as a training ground. Upon entering the room he was greeted with the scene of Arnbjorn and Kuriyu sparring, with Ghamul and Nazir watching them from the sidelines with interest. The large Nord was using his typical weapon, a polehammer, while Kuriyu, out of danger of lethally injuring his sparring partner or breaking his opponent's weapon, was using a wooden practice longsword. Varan stood to watch the fight, knowing very well that the Daedra would win out in the end. After several more clashes between the two, Kuriyu managed to knock the Nord's hammer aside and quickly raise his wooden blade against the man's throat, signaling the end of the match.

"Good fight," Ghamul grunted as the Daedra backed off. "You're pretty good with that hammer of yers, Nord."

"But your parry was a bit late on that last strike, Arnbjorn," Varan pointed out as he approached.

The Nord scowled at the two of them. "Don't criticize me. I know where I messed up," he growled stubbornly, before stalking off to another part of the Sanctuary. The other assassins in the room looked at his retreating figure with amusement.

"The human is too quick to anger," Kuriyu observed with a smirk. "You would see no such thing among any respectable, cool-headed Dremora. Typical mortal behavior..."

Ghamul snorted in amusement, while Nazir stepped up to speak. "Don't let him catch you saying that. He's a Werewolf, too, you know. Let him transform, then he'd give you a run for your money."

"I've no fear for an angry, flea-ridden mutt," Kuriyu derisively snorted, surprising the Redguard. "Lycans fail to impress me, and he is no different. Then again... when you've been alongside an armored Daedroth, few things impress as easily."

Ghamul gave a short laugh, then turned to Varan. "So how'd yer last contract go, Brother?"

"It was alright," Varan replied indifferently. After a moment, he added, "Though I had a little problem with a Dragon along the way."

Ghamul's brows furrowed. Nazir's expression registered surprise. Kuriyu looked at Varan with new interest.

"You mean you fought a dragon?" Nazir asked, astonished.

"No, not really," Varan replied with a shake of his head. With a smirk, he said, "It ended up stealing my contract kill, though. Damn thing. I could have slain the man, but the Dragon came right up from behind at the last moment and made a snack out of him."

Ghamul barked out a laugh. "Well, it looks like the Dragon beat you to the punch, then. Did you end up fighting it afterward?" he asked.

"By Sithis, of course not. The minute I saw him getting chewed in half I got the hell out of there," Varan replied with an uneasy laugh. "The target was one of the many sellswords guarding a trade caravan. The whole caravan's guard was trying to shoot the thing down. I've had my fair share of slaying monsters and animals back in Cyrodiil, but Dragons are too big for me."

"Interesting... I wonder how hard a dragon's hide is," Kuriyu mused, thoughtfully passing his gauntleted hand over the blade of his Daedric longsword, sheathed at his hip.

"You could probably ask the Dragonborn about that; he'd be one to know," Nazir remarked casually. The Daedra paused for a moment, and turned to face the Redguard.

"Dragonborn?" the Dremora asked, confused.

"Yeah, the Dragonborn, I've heard of 'em," Ghamul put in. "He's some bloke runnin' around here in Skyrim, slaying dragons with some powerful ancient magic. I've heard some pretty wild stories about him. Apparently he's part of some Nordic prophesy, or some nonsense..."

"I've heard he's one of the Companions," Varan added, nodding in agreement; he'd heard of the Dragonborn before, though only scattered rumors. "He's the alleged Thane of Whiterun Hold. I haven't heard much more than that, but I've gotten the impression that he's an able warrior as well."

"You know what I last heard about our Dragon-slaying hero?" Nazir asked with a smile, facing Varan. "I heard that the Dragonborn is an Argonian."

Varan's and Ghamul's faces expressed utter confusion. "Argonian? That can't be right," Varan remarked in disbelief. "He's the hero of Nordic prophesy. He can't be an Argonian."

Nazir simply shrugged, and said, "I can't be sure about it, either. That's what I've heard, but you know how easily people make this rubbish up. He could be a Nord. Maybe not. One thing's for certain, though, that people have all agreed on: the Dragonborn's not one to be trifled with."

"I've heard stories of his power," Ghamul remarked. "Uses some magic called 'The Voice' to do things like Dragons can. Breathe fire, and stuff like that."

Varan had a mental picture of a man breathing a gigantic gout of flame, just like the Dragon he'd seen do to the caravan. "That's definitely a fearsome power. I would not want to have to fight someone like him."

"Agreed," Ghamul replied, nodding.

"It would be a difficult battle," Kuriyu added thoughtfully. "I do not know if Dragon-fire is hot enough to melt Daedric armor... but I do not wish to risk the pain of rebirth in Oblivion if such is the case."

"Then for your sakes, and probably for the sake of every other assassin here, I hope we don't get a contract for the Dragonborn's head any time soon," Nazir said lowly. The Redguard was usually so confident in his abilities. It was strange to see him acting even slightly uneasy when talking about a possible contract.

"I know I wouldn't want to go fight the Dragonborn," Varan remarked.

Nazir raised a brow at Varan. "You're afraid of him?" the man asked, not caring to hide his surprise; it was the first time he'd heard Varan sound unsure of himself.

The Argonian shook his head. "I'm not afraid of him, but I know that challenging him to a fight would be nigh suicide." Varan could imagine himself trying to fight the man, but every time he did he could only imagine himself being reduced to ash under the might of the legendary warrior's Dragon-fire. "If it comes down to that, though... I'll guarantee him my best fight."

"Okay, let's not worry about havin' to deal with some shady bloke we don't know nothin' about," Ghamul advised, looking around the room at the faces present. "If we've got ta deal with 'im, then we'll deal with 'im. Whatever he is, he's just a man. All men bleed — and if he bleeds, we can kill him."

"A wise remark," Kuriyu said, nodding approvingly. "Unless of course, he's a Daedra, in which case he would simply be reborn in Oblivion and return to Nirn with a vengeance..."

"Alright, I think it's time for you to go back," the Orc told him. Kuriyu nodded his head and set down his wooden weapon. Ghamul raised his hand and dispelled Kuriyu, returning the Dremora to Oblivion. The Orc picked up Kuriyu's wooden longsword from where he'd left it.

"I should get some sleep," Varan remarked lowly. "I'll see you later."

Varan turned and left Ghamul, making his way to his room in the Sanctuary. It was the middle of the day, but the Argonian had grown used to getting some sleep whenever he had spare time, no matter what time of day. The room that he and Ghamul shared was nothing more than a shabby back room fitted with two beds and some chests to hold their items. It wasn't very large — it might've been considerably bigger, had most of the floor space not been taken up by a huge mound of stone that had evidently collapsed from the Nordic ruin — but Varan never cared much for luxury anyways; his room back in Cyrodiil didn't have much in it either.

Reaching his chamber the Argonian stripped his shirt off and took off his boots, not bothering to put on a nightshirt, as was usual for him. As always, he also kept his katana near his reach, and a dagger under his pillow. Keeping some blades near him was no new ritual to Varan: even back at the Kvatch sanctuary he'd done the same thing, but that had been only out of habit that he'd learned when living as a Shadowscale. However, he felt more compelled to keep weapons near him ever since he'd started living in this new Sanctuary.

He knew that his new Brothers and Sisters probably would not try to do anything to him, for they were still forbidden by Astrid's law system against the murder of Dark Brotherhood members. He wasn't worried about them. Who he was worried about was the only voice of law in the Sanctuary: Astrid herself. If she wanted to kick him out, she could do so easily; nobody in the Sanctuary challenged her rule. She could probably have him killed on a whim, too, maybe by another Brotherhood member — perhaps she'd even be the one to do it herself if she felt like it, Varan thought.

The Argonian shook his head; this was not the way he should be thinking. This was his new family now, he should trust them... But there was no shaking the sense of near-constant anxiety that he felt when he was in the Sanctuary with Astrid around. He always kept the feeling under check and managed to ignore it most of the time, but that didn't change the fact that he could be vulnerable. Climbing into bed and trying to fall asleep, Astrid's final words to him echoed in Varan's mind, like a warning. For your sake, you'd best adapt yourself to life here, quick. We might take you to be a slacker; and nobody in this sanctuary tolerates indolence. Least of all me.

That sounded eerily close to what he'd used to hear all the time as a Shadowscale-in-training, Varan thought dimly. Then, he fell asleep.

Archer and Lydia were squaring off in the Jorrvaskr training yard. Archer was teaching his housecarl some basic hand-to-hand maneuvers that she could use in combat. Both of them were garbed in common clothes instead of their armor to prevent injury. The Argonian once again held his shortsword in his right hand while Lydia held herself in a combat stance, as they'd done for at least the last hour. Archer charged towards Lydia, swinging his blade overhead. The Nord reacted by rushing towards him in turn, raising her left forearm to stop his arm's movement while miming a throat-punch with her right hand at the same time. As Archer halted his movement, Lydia finished the maneuver by hooking a leg behind one of Archer's, then pulling Archer's leg out from under him and pushing on his chest at the same time, throwing him off-balance and flat onto a straw mat that he'd placed there for the occasion.

"Good; you're getting better at this," Archer praised, dusting himself off and standing back up. "Okay, we've done that one enough times. Let's try the rear-choke counter again, see if you can keep your balance this time," he suggested.

Lydia nodded, and she turned so that Archer was behind her, keeping her hands at her side to simulate a surprise attack. When she felt Archer's arm wrap around her neck like a python trying to choke her, she sent a weak blow with her elbow into Archer's solar plexus, causing him to lighten his grip on her enough so she could turn and grab his arm at the upper arm and wrist. She yanked forward on his arm and rolled her torso forward slightly, lifting Archer a couple of inches off the ground with little effort.

Archer nodded appreciatively as Lydia set him down again. "Had this been a real attack, you would've knocked the wind out of me with that first blow, and you could've easily thrown me over your shoulder if you managed to keep your balance. Of course, with a bit of practice you shouldn't have much trouble with that at all."

"Archer, these maneuvers are just fine for combat, but they're rather simple, aren't they?" Lydia asked. "When can I learn the more complex techniques?"

Archer looked at her with amusement. "All in good time, I assure you. I can't teach you to throw someone over your hip, for instance, until I know that you can do the simpler things without hurting yourself."

"Alright," Lydia replied, though she was still waiting for the day when he'd show her to do something more complicated than simple grapples or flips.

"Well, I guess that's enough practice for one day," he said, stretching his arm. "Go on ahead and rest. I'll stick around here for a bit longer."

"Okay, Archer," she replied, turning to leave the courtyard.

She barely cleared three steps when she heard Archer say, "Hey Lydia."

The Nord turned around just in time to see Archer throwing his fist towards her head in a right hook. Lydia instinctively dodged the punch and charged into Archer, punching him in the stomach once before tackling him to the ground, driving her elbow into his stomach again as she did so. Archer grunted in pain as he crashed to the ground.

"Agh, alright, I yield," he conceded, grimacing in pain while at the same time feeling impressed by her reaction time. Lydia huffed out a sigh, lowering her upraised fist. She got off of Archer and helped him to his feet.

"Good reaction; I thought you would've fallen for that," he remarked, casting a spell and healing the bruises that she'd undoubtedly given him with her attack. He rubbed the spot for a moment before looking back at Lydia. "You weren't pulling your strikes back there, were you?"

"Nope," she replied, smiling smugly.

"Good; I didn't want you to," Archer replied with a smile in turn. "Alright, this time you can go ahead and relax. I'll leave you alone."

"For real this time, right?" Lydia asked, cocking a brow.

"Yes, for real," he responded, looking up at the Skyforge where Eorlund was hard at work. "I'll stay here, I've promised to help Eorlund with a few tasks at the forge. Come back in a bit so we can take on an assignment."

"Alright, then. See you, Archer," she replied. Archer went to walk up the stone steps to the Skyforge while Lydia turned and left Jorrvaskr, intent on taking a stroll through the city.

Lydia absently wandered about the streets of Whiterun, enjoying the atmosphere. There were no clouds in the sky, promising a day of good weather. Even from where she was, walking through the Market district, she could hear Whiterun's local Talos preacher, Heimskr, shouting out his praises to the illegal God. Well, she couldn't hear his exact words, but they certainly rang with the powerful cadence of the fire-and-brimstone sermons that she'd heard from him before.

She took in a deep, refreshing breath. The air was crisp and cool, reminding her of the wide, open plains outside of Whiterun's walls, the ones she'd so eagerly explored with her brother when they were younger, when their father wasn't home. She knew that winter was fast approaching, for the days were becoming cooler, even down as far south as Whiterun, which wasn't very far south at all. Up in Skyrim, it was not too unusual to have the first snowfall halfway through Autumn. She smiled to herself, recalling fond memories of herself as a little girl, experiencing the first snowfall of each year, running about with the rest of the children as she tried to catch snowflakes with her tongue.

A voice behind her spoke out as she passed by. "Hello, Lydia."

The Housecarl was pulled out of her reverie by the voice that had just called her name. Recognizing the voice, Lydia turned to greet her caller.

"Hello, Hrogar," Lydia greeted, a small smile on her face at the sight of her old guard friend once again; normally, she would have sought him out for conversation on her own, but since she became a Companion she'd had much less time to roam around Whiterun and speak with her friend.

Hrogar was equipped in his Whiterun guard armor, as all guards usually were, but he wore an open steel helmet that allowed her to see his face. Beside him stood another guard, whom Lydia could not recognize, for he wore a full-head helmet.

"Don't tell me you've forgotten Aengus, have you?" Hrogar asked, seeing Lydia's uncertain expression as she beheld the other guard. Aengus reached up and pulled off his helmet, revealing a black-bearded face that Lydia now recognized.

"Well, you can't blame me for it; I can't exactly see past the helmet," she joked, smiling now at her comrade, whom she now easily recognized.

"It's better than not being protected," Aengus remarked with a lopsided smile, pointing to a scar that ran down the side of his face; it was a reason he no longer liked wearing open-faced helmets.

"How have you two been?" she decided to ask, absently crossing her arms.

"Eh, same old same old," Hrogar replied, shrugging. "Not much trouble around Whiterun recently; not enough to have the town guards pulled out, anyways."

"You can imagine that we've become a bit more well-acquainted with the training hall as of late," Aengus added. He shook his head. "Bah, I'm not gonna go about wishing for a bandit raid to spice things up; especially not after what I heard happened to that little logging town, Riverwood."

"Oh, yeah. That," Lydia murmured, remembering the misfortune of the town to have been attacked by a bandit raiding party.

"It wasn't exactly the town guard's proudest moment..." Hrogar remarked a bit sullenly.

"But they repaid those bandits in kind," Lydia put in, coming quick to the defense of those guards from Riverwood. "The townspeople that were taken for ransom were rescued, and all the bandits were slain. Riverwood got its revenge."

Aengus looked at Lydia with sudden wonder. "By Ysmir, I forgot that you were part of those who rescued Riverwood," the guard suddenly realized.

"I heard that you and a few others were amongst those who held off the bandits in a bottleneck and beat them back, when outnumbered three to one," Hrogar remarked. "I don't know if that's true or not, but some of the guards think you're heroes."

"Is it true? Did you help save Riverwood from the bandits?" Aengus asked eagerly.

Lydia smiled with mirth. "While I'm fairly certain that we were not so nearly outnumbered as you claim, I did help my Thane and his comrade, both of them Companions. Even a few townspeople joined in the rescue mission; I think our presence in the midst of such hardship was encouraging. The townspeople are doing well now."

"Good to hear," Aengus said, relieved.

"And how have you been, Lydia?" Hrogar asked in turn. "You must've been busy; I haven't seen you around Whiterun, even though I heard that you returned with the Thane a few days ago."

"I've been busy, that's right," Lydia affirmed, nodding. "I've been made into a Companion, so now I don't stick around Whiterun as much as before." Hrogar and Aengus stared at her.

"You're a Companion? And a Housecarl?" asked Hrogar, confused.

"I had to become a Companion in order to come along with my Thane on his contracts, because of a Companions rule which didn't allow non-Companions to engage on contracts," Lydia explained.

"Really? And how's the life of a Companion been for you?" Aengus asked curiously.

"Well, I'll tell you this: it is certainly a rigorous job," Lydia answered, "especially since we sometimes get called to take on a contract without really knowing what we might find. On one of my first contracts — well, it was actually my Thane's contract, not mine — we were sent to clear a cavern loaded with these wicked cave creatures called Falmer... but we were never told that there would be a Dwarven Centurion waiting for us at the end."

Both of the guards dropped their jaws in awe. Aengus was quicker to recover than his comrade beside him. "A Dwarven Centurion?" he asked, eyes wide. "You fought one of those things and lived? By the gods, that's... that's incredible! You're probably the only one in the Guard to have done something like that... You and your Thane killed it together?"

"We had another Companion along, who knew good magic and landed the killing blow," Lydia conceded, "but yes, me and my Thane did help take it down. He used the Thu'um to knock it off its feet. It was like a mammoth charged into it."

Aengus nodded appreciatively. "Interesting. The Thane sounds like an... adequate warrior," he remarked. "Good to know the lizard can punch above his weight, at least."

Lydia bristled slightly, and sent an admonishing look towards the guard. "I'd very much appreciate it if you didn't refer to our Thane as a lizard, Aengus," she said.

"Why? Isn't that what he is?" Aengus replied, shrugging indifferently. Somehow he managed to not notice the pointed look that Hrogar also sent his way.

"Because it's disrespectful!" Lydia snapped. "I'd prefer you to not use such a derogatory term when speaking about your superior. Have you forgotten basic respect? Or does it not matter what title he bears because he is an Argonian?"

Both Aengus and Hrogar were startled at the sudden outburst from the Housecarl. "Alright, alright. I'll stop, okay?" Aengus said, putting his hands up for her to calm down. Lydia backed down unflinchingly, though she recognized her outburst. Hrogar sent her a cocked brow.

"You sure do seem more defensive about the Thane than I remembered," he observed, also confused about Lydia's reaction. Both of the guards stared at her expectantly, waiting for her response.

"Well, what else would you have expected?" Lydia replied, crossing her arms. "Yes, I've gotten friendly with the Thane. I'm his Housecarl, after all. I find that getting along with the person you're working for makes things much... smoother. Nothing wrong with that, is there?"

Hrogar looked at her strangely, then snorted. "Best not to be getting too friendly with the Thane, if you know what I mean," he said, with a sly look on his face. "Don't want people to be getting the wrong idea."

"Heh, that's a funny thought," Aengus chuckled mirthfully. "I couldn't even imagine such a thing... Poor old Garrett would be turning in his grave, if he knew you were running around with an Argonian, Lydia."

Lydia bristled at the mention of Garrett's name, before her shoulders sagged despondently. "Garrett...?" she whispered.

"Aengus!" Hrogar hissed, turning towards his fellow guard, who just seemed to realize the tactless blunder he'd just made by mentioning Lydia's dead lover.

"Oh, gods..." Aengus murmured, looking upon Lydia with sorrow now. "Lydia, I'm sorry, I-I forgot. I didn't mean to mention him..."

"Why'd you go and do that, huh? What was that for?" Hrogar asked him, crossing his arms while glaring at Aengus.

"It was a mistake! It was just my tongue wagging again, I swear!"

"Maybe you should keep your big mouth shut next time."

"I didn't mean nothin' by it, honest. I just—"

"It's okay, Aengus," Lydia assured him, cutting Aengus's response short. A sad smile came across her features for a moment as she regarded her friend. "I'm fine. You don't have to worry about me." Aengus and Hrogar looked at her with sorrow.

"You sure?" Aengus asked.

"It's been too long since he went. It doesn't bother me anymore," she assured him. It was mostly true, too; except that she couldn't help but feel a little sad when she recalled memories of Garrett. That wasn't to say that she didn't enjoy recalling fond memories of the tender moments they'd shared. Garrett had been her first true love, after all.

"Perhaps you should go take your patrol now, Aengus," Hrogar growled lowly, leveling a warning glare at the sheepish guard. Aengus gave him a grim look, but he obliged. Shooting Lydia one last sorry glance, the tactless Nord turned and left them. Hrogar turned back to Lydia.

"Lydia, please forget what he said," Hrogar told her. "You know what an ice-brain Aengus is. I've kept telling him that he shouldn't let his mouth run without thinking but my words don't seem to penetrate that thick skull of his. Maybe I should beat them into him with a cudgel..."

"With a skull as thick as his? You might sooner break the cudgel," Lydia remarked lightly. Hrogar smirked at her response, feeling a bit impressed at how quickly she'd bounced back.

Apparently hoping to further divert her attention from the topic, Hrogar spoke up: "There's this rumor goin' about that the Jarl's been thinking about ordering ballistas to be brought in and set up in some of the watchtowers."

"Oh really?" Lydia asked, going with the flow of the conversation.

"Yeah. It's to keep the city safe in case another Dragon attacks," Hrogar said. "They're also saying that the guards might be getting some new weapons too. More pikes or spears, and some new warbows too."

"That's good," Lydia replied. "Dragons are tough. Polearms should do well against them, and a warbow is sure to punch through their carapace, too."

"Well, that's what the others are saying, anyways," Hrogar said, shrugging. He thought for a moment, then smiled.

"You know what I also heard?" he asked her. When Lydia waited for him to go on, he said, "I heard that there's a trading caravan coming to visit Whiterun sometime this week. You know what that means: Caravan Day's coming up."

Lydia's eyes widened, and a bright smile appeared on her face. "Really? There's one coming?" she asked excitedly. Caravan day in Whiterun was always a big event which often brought in travelers from afar; this was likely to be the reason why there had recently been a sudden influx of travelers from afar who were staying in Whiterun. Ever since the Civil War had started almost no caravans passed through Skyrim anymore; it was too dangerous.

Everybody always looked forward to the day when a Caravan arrived, bearing exotic goods and news from afar. Lydia had always attended them as a child, and she'd always loved everything: seeing the huge tents erected in the large space in front of the city, just before the gates and walls of the city itself, tasting new foods and candies, and being able to experience the new sights, colors and sounds that the Caravan brought with it. For Lydia, it was her way of being able to catch a glimpse of what the world outside of Skyrim looked like.

"Yup," Hrogar replied, nodding. "It's bound from Markarth, so we'll probably be seeing imports from Hammerfell, perhaps even Elsweyr."

"Hammerfell!" Lydia exclaimed brightly, sounding almost like a child talking about a new toy. "Oh, I hope so. I've always loved the scent of Redguard spices, especially saffron..."

Hrogar gently laughed at her display, though not unkindly. "Well, don't get too excited, now; it's not here yet. I just hope your Thane allows you some leave."

"Oh, I'm not worried about that," Lydia responded, shaking her head. "Knowing Archer, he'll probably be curious about the caravan, too."

"Maybe," Hrogar replied. He stretched his arms, then sighed. "Well, I think that I'm due for patrol duty in a bit, so I guess I'll be seeing you later."

"Bye, then," Lydia replied, the smile not having gone from her face. As her friend turned away from her, Lydia turned from him to continue her stroll, her mind now abuzz with fond memories of Caravan day in the past. The memories always made her smile. Her father had bought both her and her brother their first wooden swords; both had gotten miniature wooden scimitars, and the two had spent the rest of the day dueling each other, pretending to be heroes like the Nords of yore. As she continued strolling down the street, she began to wonder what new things this Caravan would bring.

Archer's jaw was set as he focused on the task that Eorlund had for him to work on, sharpening Torvar's steel sword on a grindstone. Working the Skyforge's grindstone was something that he'd had some practice at, but he was still just getting better at learning to sharpen a weapon with it. It wasn't the same thing as using a whetstone; it was simply more effective, but grindstones were trickier to handle as well.

"How're you handling the grinder, Archer?" Eorlund asked beside him as he placed an ingot of steel inside the Skyrforge's embers, to soften the metal and have it become malleable.

"Just fine," the Argonian replied absently, not wanting to accidentally run his finger along the grindstone; Eorlund had once told him about the one time that had happened to him, and Archer didn't want to make the same painful mistake. He didn't want to mess up the blade he'd spent the last few minutes sharpening, especially since it wasn't even his own. The blacksmith kept his silence for a while, working on making sure that the forge was hot enough to soften the ingot before checking that the bellows were ready at hand for use.

"So Archer, I hear you've got some dragon materials with you," Eorlund casually commented.

"Yeah, I do," Archer replied, not prying his eyes away from the sword but wondering at the sudden question. Some time ago Archer had tried to sell the dragon bones and scales to Belethor, Whiterun's local merchant, but he'd only managed to sell a few bones to the Breton because the man was adamant about buying any more dragon-materials from Archer until he found out where he could make reliable money from selling them first.

After a few more moments Archer stopped working the grindstone and pulled the sword off, inspecting it for a moment before finally refocusing his attention to Eorlund. "What about them?" he asked the Nord.

"Well, I was hoping that, if you didn't have any use in mind for them... perhaps maybe I could have some?" Eorlund asked. Archer looked at him curiously.

"You want dragon bones and scales?" the Argonian asked.

Eorlund nodded. "I figured that, maybe if I were given enough time, perhaps I could make something useful out of them. Weapons or armor," he clarified.

"Well, I've never heard of anybody crafting anything from the bones or hide of a dragon," Archer remarked. "In the best case, you'd be re-inventing a lost art."

"I think I can do it," Eorlund said determinedly. "I can make anything in this forge here," he added, gesturing to the Skyforge. "Skyforge steel ain't easy to make itself — and neither was making your glass armor, if you remember — but I think that I'm up to take the challenge."

"Alright, then," Archer conceded. "I'll give you what I have. Be careful with it, though. I won't be able to get any more until I slay another dragon."

Eorlund nodded. "Yes, that's fine. I'll make do with what you give me. Thank you." The Nord smiled, and added, "If I do end up finding a way to make something useful out of them, I'll make sure you're the first to benefit."

Archer smiled in return. "My thanks, Eorlund." He looked down at the newly-sharpened weapon in his hands. "Well, I think I should be delivering this to Torvar now," he said, making for the steps. As he reached them, he saw another Companion in front of him, walking up the steps to the Skyforge. Recognizing his face, Archer froze on the spot. The Companion, noticing Archer, looked up at him as well.

"Hello, Archer," Skjor said, looking up at Archer in recognition.

"H-hello, Skjor," Archer replied uneasily. He hadn't seen anything of Skjor since he'd arrived back in Whiterun almost a week ago. Seeing him again for the first time, Archer cringed at the sight of him.

Skjor's face was nothing like it'd been before he'd been captured at Gallows Rock by the Silver Hand. The scar that ran over his blind eye was no longer the only one marring his face: now it was accompanied by numerous other, more noticeable ones. Jagged, pink scars ran down his cheek, across his forehead, over his nose, and along his jaw. Archer could only imagine what horrible marks lay on the rest of his body, the ones covered by his armor. He still had the gruesome image of Skjor lying on the ground, hanging onto life by a few threads, stained with dirt, sweat, and his own blood.

"Excuse me," the Nord murmured humbly, making his way past Archer. The Argonian somberly stepped aside, in awe. He noticed grimly how Skjor seemed to slightly favor one leg over the other as he walked towards Eorlund, giving him his sword to sharpen before engaging in a conversation with the blacksmith. Skjor seemed to have lost that air of confidence that Archer had remembered from every time he'd spoke to him prior — there used to be a feeling of poise about the hardened Companion whenever Archer had spoken with him before. Now... it was just gone. It hurt Archer to see Skjor changed so, but he forced himself to turn and make his way back down the stairs, before Skjor noticed him staring.

"Archer," Skjor's voice called to him. Archer went rigid, and turned to face him. He saw the lame Nord making his way towards him at an easy pace. Skjor stopped just a few feet away, carefully scrutinizing Archer's face. The two of them stood for a moment watching each other.

"Yes, Skjor?" Archer asked nervously. "Was there something you wanted to tell me?"

Skjor stared at Archer for a moment longer, making the Argonian feel slightly uncomfortable. "Yes, actually," the Nord finally replied, with a voice softer than Archer had ever heard him use. "Could we speak in the courtyard? It's easier on my leg when I sit." Archer nodded.

Skjor walked down the steps, and Archer walked down after him. He followed the veteran Companion to a nearby table. Skjor pulled one chair out and carefully rested his weight upon it. Archer did the same with another chair, and faced Skjor, swallowing hard as he set Torvar's sword on the table.

Skjor began with an unassuming question: "How've you been faring since you've last left us?" he asked, crossing his arms.

"Good. I've been well," Archer replied, trying to seem at ease. "The Greybeards simply wanted me to fetch an artifact from the tomb of their order's founder, inside a Nordic ruin near Morthal, to test my abilities as Dragonborn. Things became a bit more... complicated after that. Eventually I returned the artifact to the Greybeards before coming back here."

"So you've completed your duties to the Greybeards; that's good," Skjor remarked. "Did you encounter any trouble on the way?" he asked.

Archer shook his head. "No, not much," he murmured, though he still held the memory of his werewolf episode fresh in his mind. He decided not to tell Skjor about it, though; he probably had enough on his mind without having to give him further cause to worry.

Deciding that he might as well ask, Archer anxiously asked, "How have you been, Skjor?"

The Nord's eyes flitted away for a moment, his gaze downcast. He looked back at him, giving the Argonian a grim look. "Not so well, Archer."

Skjor's voice wasn't especially hard or cold. Instead, he sounded grim. Archer felt guilt rising within him as he regarded the scarred Companion once again. "Any permanent damage?" he ventured, fearing what he would hear.

"Not as bad as I'd thought," Skjor replied flatly. "Just a weak leg, where their leader hamstrung me. My left shoulder isn't what it used to be either, after the Silver Hand smashed it. The healers told me I shouldn't put too much strain on myself. They were dubious about telling me to continue being a Companion, but they told me those injuries were the only things I should really worry about..."

Skjor sighed despondently, his entire frame sagging slightly. "But they didn't know all of it. I get tired much quicker. I can't run too hard or walk very long before my knees, which had also gotten smashed, start to pain me. My back gets sore more easily than I remember..."

"Skjor... I'm so sorry," Archer replied, pained to see just how scarred his comrade truly was. "If only I'd have known you were in trouble, I could've come a bit sooner. If I'd been able to heal you better, maybe..."

"Archer, don't be like this," Skjor told him forcefully, surprising the Argonian with his sudden change of tone. "The fault wasn't yours. It was... it was mine. I was as foolhardy as a new-blooded whelp, and it nearly cost me my life. I shouldn't have gone in alone without backup, and I paid the price for my rashness... I shouldn't have needed saving in the first place."

Archer gave Skjor a morose look. "Have I angered you? Do you regret me having healed you back there, Skjor?" he asked.

Skjor gave Archer a long, scrutinizing look, before finally shaking his head. "No, Archer. I don't regret it. I'm not mad at you." Archer wanted to sigh in relief, but Skjor spoke again. "I'm not mad at you... but I can't say that this wasn't bound to happen eventually."

Archer gave Skjor a curious look. "What do you mean?" Archer asked.

Skjor sighed. "Just look at me," he said, gesturing to himself. "I'm not exactly a young man anymore. My only other eye's getting far-sighted. My hands shake, and my bones sometime begin to ache. My hair, at least what's still atop my head, isn't the same brown it used to be." Skjor subconsciously stroked the iron-grey hair on the back of his head with one hand as he stared down at the flagstones.

"The fact of the matter, Archer... is that I'm getting old anyways. My hair's greying. I'm not as spry and strong as I remember — though make no mistake, I'm still more than capable of holding on my own in battle. My new injuries do little to help, though. Now, my only true respite from this weakening body is when I shift into my Beast form, when Hircine hides my imperfections so I may hunt in his name. Before too long, though, I think that I might be finding myself in Hircine's hunting grounds. But I will guarantee that if I do finally surrender my soul, it will be in the middle of a melee, as is the Companion's way."

Archer regarded Skjor with sorrow and admiration. He was impressed by this Nord's unyielding sense of perseverance, but had the roles been reversed, Archer wasn't sure if he'd be as resolute as Skjor in his situation. "Your tenacity is admirable," Archer murmured.

"No, it's not tenacity; it's stubbornness," Skjor replied with a small smile. Archer smiled back at him.

"You're a strong man, Skjor," Archer told him. "You can endure this. No matter what happens to you you're still a model Nord warrior. At least to me."

Skjor bowed his head slightly. "Thank you, Archer. Your words are kind."

Archer returned the head bow. "And what of Kodlak? What did he say when he heard you were at the healer?" the Argonian asked.

Skjor shrugged. "The old man didn't suspect a thing about what we were doing, or about what we did to you. Or at least, he didn't seem to. He just wished for me to get better, after scolding me for being so reckless, having gotten as beat up as I did."

"Sounds like Kodlak, alright," Archer replied. The Harbringer was very much like a father figure for many of the Companions, somebody who would scold you for being hard-headed, but who also taught and supported them all. Skjor and Archer sat together silently, not speaking. Eventually Skjor broke the silence.

"I think I'll go inside and get some mead," Skjor said. "I'll see you around."

"Take care," Archer told him. The Argonian watched Skjor leave. Once the doors to the mead hall had closed behind the Companion, Archer heaved a heavy breath. He was so relieved that Skjor wasn't angry at him. He'd almost thought that Skjor would have preferred to die in Gallows Rock instead of continuing his life, injured as he was. The Companion seemed to be determined to not let his injuries slow him down, but Archer knew that he'd be living with that guilt for a long time.

"Hey, Archer."

The Argonian recognized the voice as Torvar's, and he turned his head towards the Nord. "Ya have my sword done sharpened yet? I was thinkin' about going on a contract," he said.

Archer realized what he was talking about. He nodded. "Yeah, I've got it here." Archer grabbed the sword off the table and held it out to Torvar, who accepted the weapon gratefully.

"Thanks," the man replied, inspecting the sword. "Nice and sharp, just like I need. Now I can take on a contract." He looked to Archer. "Say, I could use another hand. Just gotta take care of a wild animal that got into somebody's house. Care to join?"

"No thanks," Archer replied. "I was hoping to go on a contract with Lydia when she returned, actually. But thanks for the offer."

"Oh, alright," Torvar replied. "What about Balamus?" he asked.

Archer shrugged. "Balamus went out on his own contract with Solona a couple of days ago. Off to clear out some cave. I wonder where he is now..."

Torvar shrugged. "Well, thanks for the sharpening," the Nord thanked before walking off. Thinking about going now to get his own assignment, Archer went inside Jorrvaskr, changed into his armor, and sought out one of the Companion leaders. He found Vilkas inside Jorrvaskr eating an apple, and made his way towards him.

"Hey Vilkas, got any assignments for me?" Archer asked as he approached. The Nord turned his head to look at Archer, still chewing his food.

"Sure I do," Vilkas replied, after swallowing the apple in his mouth. "I've got one that's fit for two people." Handing Archer a contract, he said, "You are to deal with a fortress that's gotten some new residents: mages. Shouldn't be too hard for you and Lydia."

"No, it won't," Archer replied, reading the contract for specific information. Apparently the name of the fort was Fort Amol, to the East.

"I thought you'd say that," Vilkas told him with a grin. "That fort is more or less a day's travel to the East, so I wouldn't dally too long."

"Of course," Archer told him, nodding. "As soon as Lydia comes back we'll get right to it."

"Good. May your armor hold fast, and your aim true," Vilkas told him. The Nord returned to eating his apple, while Archer went to wait outside for Lydia to return.

"Damn it... this sucks," Balamus muttered as he cast a heating spell on himself for the umpteenth time, it seemed. "I can't believe how bloody cold it is up here. Gods!"

It was the third day since they'd left Orotheim with Meridia's crystal beacon in tow. They'd stopped by the large city of Solitude earlier that afternoon to grab a few supplies before riding West to Meridia's Shrine. The weather had been clear the whole day, but now snow was falling all about them. While it wasn't as bad as a snowstorm, it was still very cold, more so than either of them were comfortable with.

"I remember staying at Bruma once overnight," Solona replied, shivering in her armor; the cold cut through the steel easier than a sword could. "Even that wasn't as bad as this." The Imperial, luckily, also knew a good heating spell, which she promptly cast on herself.

"So where is this Shrine now?" Balamus asked, looking around at the white landscape that surrounded them. Solona gave him a helpless shrug; she'd never been to Skyrim in her life. He couldn't see anything that would resemble a Shrine from here, so he supposed he'd just have to keep on looking.

If my beacon was in my Shrine where it should be, you'd be able to see it for miles around, Meridia boasted, her voice seeming to resound from around them. It was quite creepy, having a voice following you around without a body to accompany it.

"You know, maybe instead of bragging about your Shrine, you could bother to... oh I don't know, actually help us find our way there?" Balamus asked, becoming frustrated at the lack of a face to speak to.

Now that's no way to speak to a lady, the Daedric Lord teased. Balamus gave a slightly irritated grunt, looking to Solona for help.

"Lady Meridia, if it does not bother you, could you please direct us to your Shrine?" Solona asked, a bit more demurely.

Meridia was silent for a moment. Just up ahead here, there'll be a split in the road that goes to the left. Take that road.

Up ahead, the road did indeed split just as Meridia had said it would, and the two of them led their horses down the road that diverged to the left. Now, just keep going up the Mountain. My Shrine will be on the right side of the trail, she instructed.

Balamus and Solona followed Her instructions. In a few minutes they'd finally reached the Shrine. The two of them dismounted their horses and tied them to a tree at the base of the Shrine before walking up the stone steps. At the top of the large platform stood a tall stone statue of a robed woman, a depiction of Meridia, holding her hands up above her head. Two smaller stone figures stood at her feet, facing each other and holding hands.

There you go. This is my Shrine, the Daedra declared with pride in Her voice. Quickly now, please put the beacon in its place, at the feet of my statue.

Balamus looked to Solona. The Imperial reached into her pack, withdrew the large crystal, and walked over to the statue with the reverent gait of a priest. The woman reached the Statue, briefly looked up at the face of Meridia, and then placed the crystal beacon between the hands of the small stone figures at Her feet.

Solona yelped uncharacteristically as she was suddenly hoisted from her feet by an unknown force and whisked away into the clouds.

"Solona!" Balamus shouted in alarm. He glared angrily at the statue, where Meridia's crystal beacon now hung suspended in midair, floating between the hands of the statue itself.

"What did you do to Solona?" Balamus snarled, scowling at the Statue.

My dear Dunmer, I simply took her into a quieter place where we can chat, is all, the Daedra answered. I wasn't sure if you would be okay with me bringing you along, but if you insist...

"Wait, no that's not wha—oh gods!" Balamus cried out as he felt himself being similarly pulled from the ground and into the sky. The air rushed by him, and he panicked as he saw the ground quickly becoming distant under him. Finally, Meridia let him go, and he felt his feet hit the... air?

Balamus regained his footing, looking around in a startled manner. He was standing in midair as if it were solid ground, which unnerved him greatly. Solona stood a few feet away, to his side, regarding a very bright ball of light, being Meridia Herself.

There you are. Now we can speak, mortal to Daedra, Meridia said.

Balamus looked around once more, before turning his attention to the glowing orb. "Alright... g-go ahead," he stammered, forcing himself to stare into the light instead of looking at the distant ground.

Now, this is the problem: the undead walk freely within the shadows of my sacred Shrine. They are being brought back to life by a Necromancer by the name of Malkoran, Meridia told them.

"Yes, you've told us that already," Solona asserted. "We can cleanse the Shrine of the skeletons for you."

Oh, but you assume incorrectly, for it is not skeletons that violate my Shrine, Meridia said.

Balamus rolled his eyes, having regained his composure after ignoring the fact that he was standing on thin air. "Fine. Draugr, zombies, it doesn't matter," Balamus said. "We'll take care of the problem. They're all the same anyways."

Oh, not these undead. These are no mere undead corpses; Malkoran is too powerful to raise such lowly creatures, Meridia warned. The creatures that Malkoran is resurrecting are known as Corrupted Shades.

Balamus' eyes widened in recognition of the name, and in fear. "Corrupted Shades... by the gods, how did he raise them?" he asked.

"Corrupted Shades? What are those?" Solona asked him, unaware of the threat.

"They're powerful Skeletal undead. They're quite dangerous," Balamus replied. "But I'd only read about them in theory books. I've never been able to conjure one up myself. How did this s'wit of a necromancer manage to do it?"

Malkoran is anything but a slack-wit, Balamus. He is a powerful mage, and he has been using the energy of a powerful artifact of mine to raise them, Meridia said. He plans to raise an entire army of Corrupted Shades with which to wage war on the living world.

Balamus and Solona gaped at the ball of light. "Wage war on the world? That's horrible!" Solona gasped.

"This Malkoran seems like an ambitious fellow," Balamus remarked a tad bit sarcastically, hiding the true fear he felt. To think that a single mage could have enough powerful to summon an army of Corrupted Shades struck fear into him. Corrupted Shades were supposed to be more difficult to kill than regular skeletons because more powerful magic was needed to make them. Perhaps he's even made some of them into spell-casters… Balamus shuddered at that thought.

You two must go now and stop him, Meridia commanded. To get to Malkoran you must pass my hallowed light through the Shrine. There are other beacons similar to that which you have returned to me within; raise them from their pedestals and they shall reflect my light.

"It shall be done, Solar Daughter," Solona replied, bowing her head.

Good, Meridia said. Go now. I release you.

Balamus' eyes widened, but before he could say a word, the magic holding Balamus and Solona was dispelled. Balamus shut his eyes, expecting to be literally released from the height. However, wondering about the lack of free-falling sensation, Balamus opened his eyes anew, and saw that Meridia had actually teleported them back to ground level. The Dunmer looked to Solona, who turned her head to look back at him.

"Well, that was better than I'd hoped," he said.

"You didn't think she'd literally drop us, did you?" Solona asked, shaking her head.

"Heh... yeah," Balamus replied with a nervous smile.

The two Companions walked down the steps and made their way to the entrance to Meridia's shrine. They found themselves standing in front of the two iron doors, but before they went any further, Solona turned towards Balamus.

"Are you sure you want to accompany me?" the Imperial asked dubiously. "If you'd rather stay behind while I finish this task for Her, then I'll understand. You don't have to do this."

Balamus gave her a cocked brow, then shook his head. "You obviously don't know Dunmer, least of all me," Balamus commented. "I've fought powerful foes before, magical and otherwise. Daedric quest or not, if one of my comrades is delving into a dungeon full of powerful undead, there's no way in Oblivion I'm just going to let them go alone. A Dunmer doesn't abandon a friend in need."

Solona regarded the battlemage with some awe, greatly heartened by his loyalty. She'd never thought that Balamus would be such a steadfast companion, especially since Daedra were involved — in fact, she didn't think anybody in the Companions would accept her worship of a Daedric Prince. She looked at Balamus for another moment, before smiling. "Thank you. Let's go."

"That's the fort right up there," Archer told Lydia, pointing at a run-down, dilapidated stone fortress in the distance. He looked back to Lydia, sitting behind him on Glaive's back.

"Remember that these are supposed to be rampant mages we're dealing with here," Archer reminded her.

"I've fought mages aplenty before," she replied. "I won't be daunted by a few magic-flinging pricks. I'll give 'em a good taste of Nordic steel." She hefted her heavy steel shield for emphasis.

"If you can get close enough, anyways. These magic-flinging pricks might just deem you a fit target for fireballs and lightning, you know," Archer warned as they neared the fort on horseback. "We'll do things quietly this time round. I'll take my shots, and if we're spotted, then we can jump into melee."

Lydia nodded her assent. She no longer had any disdain of Archer's fighting style; it suited him well, and if it worked, then she supposed she shouldn't complain.

The two of them dismounted from their horse, and Archer kept Glaive tied to a tree, out of sight. The two quietly approached the crumbling ruin, making sure to use the nearby foliage to their advantage. Unfortunately the tree line ended quite far from the walls, meaning that there was a large clearing that surrounded the place.

"Just keep back here, and I'll take out any sentries outside," Archer told his housecarl. The Argonian pulled his bow out and darted out from the bushes, dashing to the side of the wall before pressing himself flat against the stones. He took a moment to listen closely for any signs of life, and surely enough, he heard a few voices speaking. They sounded to be at the ground level, so he snuck his way around the fort towards the front entrance. The mages' conversation became audible.

"I can't believe that they would sell themselves out like that to that newcomer," said one mage. "I would never allow myself to be tainted like that. I don't need any gift to make myself more powerful in the Arcane Arts."

"And they say that they do it to better worship Julianos. Hmph!" replied the other mage. "They'll never get me to turn with them. I'd be dead before that happened."

Archer wasn't exactly sure what they were speaking about, but he really could not care less for their conversation — it was just pretentious mage's talk anyways. He finally poked his head around the corner to see the two mages standing in the courtyard, one a Dunmer and the other a human, and he quickly loaded an arrow. One of the mages began to speak again:

"You think that maybe the others will also force us to turn with them into—"

Archer launched his arrow into the back of the mage closest to him, cutting the Dunmer off mid-sentence. The second mage stood there for a moment in shock at his comrade's sudden death before casting a detect life spell to locate the threat, readying a powerful Destruction spell in the other. Just as he found Archer's life signature, the Argonian's second arrow flew into his neck.

Archer looked around for any more mages, but the courtyard was silent. He looked over his shoulder and beckoned Lydia towards him. The housecarl left her hiding spot and followed her Thane past the fort walls.

"Alright. Front door's way too obvious to enter," Archer said, thinking. He looked around and spotted another door on the second level with some stone steps leading up to it. "Let's enter from there."

The two of them walked up the stone steps to the second level of the fort and quietly entered the fort from there. Archer gently pushed the door open with one hand, letting the door open itself the rest of the way as he raised his loaded bow in anticipation, but there was nobody immediately in front of the door. As Archer and Lydia entered the room, they both became aware that there was nobody in the large room at all. There was a large side area full of beds, but there were no mages in them at all. It all seemed a bit strange.

"Maybe they're downstairs," Lydia suggested.

"If that's the case then they're all probably downstairs, then," Archer remarked lowly. "Things might get definitely messy and loud. Let's hope that we catch them off-guard."

The Argonian and Nord snuck their way through the room and towards the steps to the lower level. It quickly became obvious that all the mages had, in fact, gathered in the main chamber, around a couple of their members for some reason. Archer clenched his jaws; things just couldn't be easy for them this time, could they? He loaded an arrow into his bow and pulled the bowstring back, preparing himself for the melee to come.

"Be ready to move when I say so," he hissed lowly to Lydia over his shoulder. The Nord nodded, holding her broadsword in hand. Archer turned back to the mages, focused on shooting the one closest to him, and fired the arrow.

The arrow buried itself into the back of one of the mages. The man staggered forward a few steps from the force of the blow, but otherwise did not fall. Archer's jaw dropped. The man, as well as all the other mages in the room, immediately whirled their heads towards the two Companions, vicious looks on their faces.

"What's this now? A pair of lost morsels?" asked a mocking voice. The pair of mages who had been the center of attention stepped forth. Both of them had deathly pale complexions and blood-red eyes. One of the mages, however, had two large, blood-stained fangs protruding from his upper lip; the other mage didn't have them, but he had two bloody holes in the side of his neck. Archer quickly realized with horror that the rest of the mages also looked the same, pale as ghosts and with two bloody puncture wounds in their necks.

"It's a good thing you two came by; we were just starting to get hungry," said the fanged mage, smiling ravenously. The rest of the mages smiled as well, revealing smaller but no less pointed fangs, white like ivory. The vampire that Archer had shot earlier smiled smugly, before reaching behind him and pressing the Argonian's arrow deeper into his body, allowing the tip of the arrow to come out his front so he could pull it out completely, before tossing it aside with only but a few winces to indicate any form of pain. Archer and Lydia both paled.


"Yes, Archer?"

"These are Vampires."

"I noticed."

"...Weren't we supposed to be killing mages?"

She nodded. "Yeah..."

"Clearly this is more than you bargained for," the lead Vampire said, smirking with amusement at their fear. He turned to his posse of mage-turned-vampires. "Now is your chance. Show me what you can do with the power I've given you. Get them!" he snarled.

The other vampire mages drew their daggers and readied Destruction spells in their free hands. Archer, seeing the danger, quickly Shouted: "FUS RO DAH!"

The Unrelenting Force smashed into the undead with all the force of an ox, sending them flying into the walls and rolling against the ground. Archer put away his bow and pulled out Frostbite, before charging towards the downed Vampires alongside Lydia. He approached one Vampire still trying to stand up before bringing his axe down on the mer's head three times, splitting his skull open with the enchanted weapon. Lydia used her broadsword to sever another vampire's head in a single stroke, instantly slaying it — for someone without an enchanted weapon or magic, the safest way she knew to kill vampires was to decapitate them.

The two Companions turned to finish off the lead Vampire, but before they could approach him the remaining two mage-turned-vampires managed to stand up to fight back. The lead Vampire stood with his arms crossed as he watched his minions fight in his stead.

One Vampire mage charged towards Archer, sending a lightning bolt at the Argonian. Archer put up a ward to block the projectile with his free hand while he charged at the Vampire in turn. Archer swung his weapon overhead to gain the initiative, forcing the Vampire to block the attack. The other vampire sent a biting flurry of ice shards towards Lydia, but the Nord charged right into the vampire with her shield raised, blocking most of the ice. She bashed the Vampire with her shield and thrust her sword into his gut. She twisted her blade inside the vampire's torso and ripped the weapon out, but the Vampire simply snarled in pain as he put a hand to the giant bleeding hole in his stomach. Lydia gaped with astonishment before she raised her shield to block the mage's retaliatory ice spike.

Archer twisted his body one side to force the Vampire's dagger to bounce off his angled armor. He did his best to maintain the offensive, because war axes weren't very good as defensive weapons, but the mage's enhanced reflexes and speed made such a thing difficult, even if he was just a fledgling vampire. The Argonian went for another swing with his axe, this one lateral, but the Vampire parried the strike with enough force to jar Archer's arm. The Vampire, evidently surprised at even his own newfound strength, thrust his steel dagger at Archer's stomach, staggering the Argonian under the powerful jab. As the Vampire advanced with his dagger in anticipation of a throat-stab, Archer shouted again: "YOL!"

The small gout of flame washed over the Vampire, causing him to scream in agony as his papery flesh was burnt to a crisp. Archer swung his axe at the mage's skull, knocking him to the floor as blood-freezing ice crystallized over the wound. He swung his axe into the mage's head one more time to ensure his death, reducing the head to a mass of blood and ice. He turned around to see Lydia fighting her vampire, and he ran up from behind and sent Frostbite into the mage's spine. The Vampire buckled under the blow, and Lydia finished it off with a thrust to the heart, twisting the blade before wrenching it out again. The two of them turned to face the true Vampire, who was now snarling in irritation.

"Those blasted fools couldn't defeat a few bloodsacks even with all the power I gave them," the Vampire spat, raising his hand and casting a shield spell on himself, while also summoning a Bound Sword to fight with. "What a useless lot, bloody useless. Seems like I have to finish you two off myself, then."

Archer and Lydia both charged towards the Vampire, swinging their weapons. With surprising deftness the Vampire dodged the strikes and stepped away from them, raising a hand to quickly cast a chain lightning at them. Lydia just managed to raise her shield and block the lightning, leaving a gigantic scorch mark on the steel, and Archer managed to cast a ward in time to block the attack; but the magic was too powerful, and he was knocked backward onto the ground as his ward was shattered. As the Argonian painfully hit the ground, Lydia charged at the Vampire, raising her steel shield to block a torrent of lightning. The Nord, once in range, tried bashing the Vampire with her shield, but the Vampire dodged the strike and cast another lightning bolt.

This one struck her armored chest and forced her to stagger backward while Archer charged in ahead of her and slashed at the Vampire with his enchanted axe. The Vampire skillfully ducked under the blow and sent his sword towards Archer's head, but the Argonian blocked the sword before it made contact. The Vampire knocked Archer's weapon aside, but before he could attack Archer sent a Fire Breath Shout at him. The flames pushed the Vampire backwards, and Archer took the moment to send an overhead cleave into the Vampire's head, but the undead mer's armor spell protected him from both strikes. The undead quickly shot his hand towards the Argonian and sent a torrent of lightning into Archer's body at close range, causing the Argonian to go rigid, before sending a powerful kick into his stomach, knocking him backwards.

The Vampire barely had time to react before Lydia came in swinging her broadsword overhead, making him stagger to one side. She viciously sent her shield's rim into the side of his head in a follow-up. The mer's armor spell flashed brightly as it absorbed the impacts. Snarling like a wolf, Lydia swung her sword overhead again, but the Vampire leaned to one side and easily dodged the strike. He quickly darted forward and tried to sink his fangs into her neck, but the maneuver was thwarted by a shield bash to the face. The Vampire, snarling angrily, lashed out with a kick, sending his foot into her shield with enough force to stagger the Nord. With two hands he raised his sword above his head and brought it down with Vampiric strength upon Lydia's upraised shield, bringing Lydia to one knee under the force of the blow. The housecarl tried a thrust at the Vampire's stomach, but he simply batted the weapon aside and slashed at her chest while she was vulnerable.

The conjured weapon bit through the steel, leaving a long scar on the breastplate that nearly penetrated enough to hit flesh. The blow hit Lydia with enough force to knock her aside, to the floor. The undead raised his weapon to finish her off.


Archer used his Whirlwind Sprint Shout to slam into the Vampire from behind in a full-body tackle. A bright flash of light signaled that the armor spell had absorbed the heavy impact as both the Vampire and Argonian were sent rolling off to one side. Both grunted in pain at the reckless maneuver, before coming to a stop. Archer immediately threw himself at the Vampire the moment he regained his footing, intending to slash the creature's throat open with a steel dagger he drew from his hip. The vampire barely caught his right hand in time to stop him. Archer raised his left hand to punch the mage and hopefully stun him, but the Vampire caught that fist too. Now desperate to hurt the Vampire, Archer's head darted forward, clamping his jaws around the undead mer's neck. The Vampire snarled angrily, letting go of Archer's arms to grab his head and forcibly push it away. Then, the Vampire quickly balled his hand up into a fist and punched Archer's jaw, smashing the bone and dislocating the jaw, before roughly throwing the Argonian aside.

The Vampire tried to get up in time to finish him off, but Lydia once again came barreling towards him, swinging her broadsword at the undead mer, slashing at his chest before sending the rim of her shield into the mer's temple. This time, the force was enough to nearly knock the mer to the ground again, but he retained enough balance to keep his stance and block Lydia's follow-up attack. As the two of them dueled, Archer was using all his willpower to not howl in pain, and to stay conscious in spite of the blinding pain, as he grabbed his mangled jaw, put it back in place, and healed himself. His magic worked quickly, the result of his repeated practice in Restoration.

Archer pulled himself to his feet and grabbed his shortsword from his hip. He saw Lydia and the Vampire dueling ferociously, and he ran towards them to help. The Vampire sent a thrust towards Lydia's neck, but the Nord parried the blow before lashing out with her shield. The mer barely dodged the attack and only just managed to block her follow-up strike. Before he could lash out with his own weapon, Archer ran up to him, Shouting "FUS RO DAH!"

The Shout was more than enough to completely shatter the mage's armor spell and fling the Vampire into the nearest wall with bone-shattering force. As the Vampire fell back to the floor, he was too stunned to stop Lydia from running up to it, heaving her broadsword, and decapitating it in one final swing. The undead mer's head was separated from the rest of its body, rolling off to one side. Finally victorious, the two of them let out a heavy breath of relief. The two of them stood in the chamber, panting tiredly, regaining their breath. Archer quietly went and picked up his dropped axe and dagger before they made their way out of the fort's front door.

"Vampires... Gods, I hate those things," Archer muttered as he ambled tiredly out of the fort he and Lydia had just cleared. He looked down at himself, noticing the new scratches and stains on his armor, courtesy of the undead he'd just slain a few minutes ago. His armor looked almost as battered as he felt. His housecarl came in close behind, looking similarly fatigued and bloody.

"Are you hurt, Archer? I think I saw that Vampire break your jaw," she remarked worriedly.

"Yeah, and it hurt a lot, too... but I healed myself right after," he assured her, rubbing his jaw, the memory of the pain fresh in his mind. "How're you holding up?"

"Just fine... The wretch nearly sunk his fangs into me," Lydia recalled, trying to wipe away a splotch of vampire's blood staining her breastplate. Her broadsword and the rim of her shield were covered in blood.

"Did you get bitten?" he asked, wondering if he had a spare cure-disease potion he'd bought from Arcadia, Whiterun's local apothecary.

"Of course not. 'Almost' isn't close enough," Lydia responded, still trying to rub the stain out of existence.

"That's not gonna come off without a good cleaning, and maybe not even then," Archer told her. "Come on, let's sit. I'm exhausted," he said, sheathing his sword and sitting on the floor, heaving a relieved sigh.

Lydia did the same, after finally giving up on the stain and settling down on the floor across from Archer. She sighed as she let her head fall back against the cool stone wall of the fort, though the steel armor she wore was less than ideal for comfort.

"That fighting was intense... there's no way I'm not gonna feel like crap later," Archer groaned, trying to stretch his sore muscles.

"Tell me about it; I can't remember the last time I fought someone that hard," Lydia agreed, now taking the time to wipe her blade clean against some grass.

"Why were we fighting vampires instead of regular mages?" Archer asked, turning his head to Lydia.

The Nord gave him a tired shrug. "I guess they let that last vampire in to turn them," she replied. She looked down at her armor, her face grim as she ran her finger along the large scars in the breastplate. "Gonna have to get this armor repaired when we return to Whiterun."

"I can have Eorlund fix that for you when we get back; I could even have him reinforce it with Skyforge Steel if you'd like," Archer assured her.

"Sounds good; thanks, Archer," she replied.

"Don't mention it," he sighed, resting his head against the wall of the fort as well. He began to finger a few new scars that his Glass armor had as well; while the malachite was powerful, it was certainly not impenetrable.

"Well, in a single afternoon we both nearly died multiple times... and we're not getting paid any more for the extra work, either. Whoop-dee-do," he remarked sarcastically.

"Don't remind me," Lydia responded tiredly. A gust of cold wind suddenly blew by them, and Archer shivered.

"Winter is coming," Lydia commented, watching Archer shiver. "Best break out the cloaks. Soon enough it'll be snowing in Whiterun."

"Gah, this cold'll be the end of me, if not the Vampires," Archer muttered. He raised his head and squinted at the sun, trying to gauge the time.

"Alright, maybe we should get going now," Archer said, standing up. Lydia nodded, standing up as well. Lydia made her way to their horse, but she suddenly noticed that her Thane wasn't following her. She turned around to see him staring out into the distance.

"Lydia, what's that over there?" Archer asked, pointing afar, where Lydia could barely see pillars of steam billowing in the distance.

"I'm not quite sure I remember, my Thane," Lydia replied honestly.

"Hm... Come on, I wanna go check it out," Archer said, jogging over to Glaive and swiftly mounting the horse. Lydia, knowing better than to try and tell him otherwise, followed Archer onto his horse.

The two of them made their way towards the steam gouts. The land became more sandy, with dirt giving way to stone and the brush becoming more scarce. Hissing steam spewed out from fissures in the crags, causing billowing white pillars to shoot up towards the heavens. Off in the distance a geyser sent a jet of water and steam into the air, before dissipating. The air smelt slightly sulfurous, but it was not an oppressive scent. Archer stared in wonder as they passed by several pools with steam rising from their waters.

"Are these what I think they are?" Archer asked. The Argonian walked Glaive near a lone tree standing beside a steaming pool and dismounted, tying the horse to the tree. Archer made his way to the edge of the pool and stared into the waters.

"If you think that these are hot springs, then yes," Lydia replied, coming to stand next to Archer. The Argonian pulled off one of his gauntlets and reached towards the water, tentatively dipping his hand in it. By the smile on his lips, he must've enjoyed the warmth.

"I've never seen something like this back in Cyrodiil," he murmured, pulling his hand out of the water. He knelt at the edge of the water for a moment, seeming to think. Smiling, he stood up and took off his helmet.

"Hold this for me," Archer told Lydia, handing her the Glass helmet. The Housecarl accepted the helmet with an inquisitive look.

"My Thane? What are you doing?" she asked, seeing him taking off his other glove and setting it down on the floor beside the pool.

"I want to bathe," he replied simply, fiddling around with the strap on his pauldron before undoing the strap and pulling the pauldron off.

Lydia's eyes widened. "My Thane, you can't be serious," she replied.

"I'm completely serious," Archer retorted, taking off his other pauldron now, letting it rest beside its companion on the floor. "I'm tired, cold, and in need of a bath... Now that I think of it, you don't smell too good, either," he added wryly, now fiddling with another buckle in his armor.

"My Thane, this isn't the best time," Lydia vainly protested, but Archer did not listen to her. The Argonian went ahead and undressed right in front of her, apparently not caring for modesty; he must've really wanted this bath.

Lydia herself wasn't one for much modesty either, but she felt the blood rising to her cheeks in embarrassment as she watched him remove his armor. Soon, he'd managed to take his breastplate off and throw aside his chainmail, revealing his bare back to her.

She didn't look away, as she probably should have. She watched as Archer removed the rest of his armor, until he'd finally stripped down to nothing but his undergarments. She'd nearly expected him to take that off, too, but he stopped there. The Argonian sat at the edge of the pool, sticking his feet in the water for a moment, before sliding in entirely.

Archer sunk into the water up to his neck, his eyes widening as he adjusted to the sudden heat, before sighing contentedly. "Gods, this is amazing," he murmured, cupping his hand to grab some water and rubbed his arms and chest with it, cleaning himself in the decadently-warm pool for a minute, before shutting his eyes and allowing his head to rest against the edge of the pool, fully unwinding.

"Lydia, you have got to try this," he remarked, opening his eyes and turning his head to look up at his housecarl.

Lydia, startled at the question, found herself shaking her head. "No thank you, my Thane. I'll keep a watch out," she replied, placing his helmet alongside the rest of his armor. To be truthful, though, the idea of just taking off all her armor and submerging herself in the hot springs, letting the warmth of the waters seep into her battered and tired body, allowing her muscles to unwind after such fierce melee, and not to mention being able to take a hot bath... the idea was very tempting.

"Oh, come on, learn to relax for once," Archer told her, now fully facing her with an inviting expression. "Nothing's gonna come here and bother us. If anything does, I'll smell them coming; I'm part werewolf, remember?"

"You go ahead and relax, my Thane, you deserve it," she muttered, turning away from him.

"Suit yourself," Archer replied, shrugging. He swam backwards slightly to rest against the side of the pool again, sighing in utter relief, his eyes fluttering shut.

After a few seconds of staring out into the wilderness, Lydia felt compelled to glance over her shoulder at Archer. He was still lying back against the rock wall of the pool, enjoying himself. She found herself taking in the sight of her Thane while it seemed like his eyes were closed.

She could admit that she was curious about what his body looked like. Lydia had seen her Thane bare-chested before only a few times, but in each of those occasions she hadn't bothered to actually look at him. Now she did look at him.

Despite the scales, Archer seemed lean and fit, and his shoulders were nicely broad, as archers usually were. No, he didn't have a ripped build like some Nords she'd seen, but while his body didn't reveal it, she knew that he had appreciably strong muscles underneath those unrevealing green scales. The water that came up to his lower chest hid any more of his body from her sight, and she found herself wondering if she would see any defined abdominal muscles were he to stand...

She froze when she noticed his golden eyes returning her gaze as he gave her a playful look. "You've been staring at me for a while now. Weren't you going to keep watch?" he teased with a grin.

Lydia flinched, startled, before her cheeks began to burn. Finally recovering, she wordlessly turned away so he wouldn't see her face. She hadn't blushed like this since she was a teenager.

"Come on, Lydia, I know you're just as tired as I am, so why not come join me?" he asked, looking at her turned back. The Nord didn't respond, keeping her gaze on their surroundings. After a moment, a sly grin crossed his features. "What's the matter? Are you really so careful as you say? Or are you just shy?"

Lydia cocked a brow and turned back towards him. "I've been part of Whiterun's Guard for years before I was your Housecarl. Do you really think I'm any more modest than you?" she asked.

"If you're not shy, then come on in; the water's fine," Archer responded with a challenging smile. He then closed his eyes again and went back to resting against the side of the pool.

Lydia stared at her Thane for a while. She looked around for any signs of life. It was in vain; they were completely alone in this place. The pool was surrounded by a large area of flat, featureless terrain that would not allow anything to come close without them knowing. The only other form of life she could see nearby was Glaive, who was idly chewing on some cud. She then looked at the sun, which was still long from setting — not that it mattered, since they would still be taking about another day or so to get back to Whiterun.

"Fine," she sighed under her breath, reaching to her armor pauldron and undoing the strap.

After a minute of silence, Archer heard footsteps approaching. The Argonian opened his eyes and looked up, starting suddenly when he saw Lydia in her undergarments. Well, this isn't exactly an unpleasant surprise…

"Glad you decided to join me," he remarked with a smile as Lydia placed her sword at the edge of the pool, masking his sudden nervousness as best as he could.

"Just want to be close by in case there's trouble," she replied indifferently, sliding into the pool. Her eyes widened as she took in the heat of the waters, before she relaxed slightly, settling her back against the side of the pool.

"Aw... and here I was, thinking you actually wanted to join me," he replied, feigning hurt. "You're just here to be pragmatic."

"Well, that's what guards are like," she replied with a smile.

Archer briefly looked over her form. Her body was fit and nicely toned. She had nice curves to her, he noticed. She was fair to look at, but she also had a number of small, pink scars on her body. Still, they complimented her warrior personality quite well, so they didn't seem out of place.

"My Thane, you're staring at me," Lydia observed, with a cocked brow and a smile.

Archer blinked once, and refocused on her face. "You were staring at me, earlier," he countered. "It only seems fair that I should get my turn as well, right?" he asked with a sly grin.

Lydia stared at Archer for a few moments, the amused smile never having left her face. "I never expected you to have a thing for Nords, Archer."

"Maybe I'm just a bit curious," he replied with a toothy grin. He thought he could see Lydia's face flush slightly in response, but she said nothing.

The two of them sat in the pool, rubbing off the dirt and sweat from their bodies as they relaxed. Archer cleaned his arms, chest, and shoulders, avoiding a few bruises that his magic hadn't gotten to, but he had a hard time reaching his back to clean it. He thought for a moment, then decided to ask: "Lydia, could you please... clean my back? I can't reach."

Lydia looked over to him for a moment. "As you wish," she said at length, before wading over towards him.

"Thanks," he said, turning around to bare her his back. Lydia stopped a few feet away for a moment, hesitating. She was probably nervous about touching him, he suddenly realized — she'd never really had this much contact with him before, so it made sense if she felt a bit uneasy about suddenly doing this.

Just when he was going to tell her that she didn't have to do this, he felt her hands on him as she gently began to clean his back. Archer couldn't help but smile as he allowed his Housecarl to clean him. He admitted that he liked the way her hands felt against his skin; the contrasting feel was certainly… stimulating, he supposed was the word for it.

"Talos, you're tense," he heard Lydia murmur from behind.

"What, is it that bad?" he asked jokingly.

"Think of a stone wrapped in thick, soft leather. That's what it feels like right now," she responded, eliciting a bigger smile from him.

"I guess I still do better when the enemy doesn't know I'm there," he replied. A few moments passed, before he said, "Alright, I think that's enough. Thank you, Lydia."

"No problem," she replied, as she withdrew her hands and went to wade back to her side of the pool. Archer looked at her for a moment, a risky question bouncing around in his mind.

"Would you like me to... do the same for you?" Archer asked tentatively.

The question must've caught Lydia off-guard, making her stop suddenly. Clearly, she had not expected to have her Thane to reciprocate such a treatment to her.

"Sure," she replied, to his surprise.

"Alright... turn around so I can reach your back," he told her. Lydia complied, turning around so that her back was facing him.

"Here we go," Archer told himself nervously, cupping some water in his hands before gingerly putting them upon her back.

Archer ran his hands up and down her back with the water, cleaning away the dirt and sweat, running his hands over a few pink scars she had as she left her skin clean and gleaming. He found that her skin was quite smooth and fair, pleasant to the touch. However, after about a minute of this he realized just how taut her muscles felt under her skin. Archer decided to do something about that.

Summoning up his courage, Archer tried to massage her back. He lightly dug his thumbs into her back and ran his hands along her spine, relieving the tension as best as he could, doing his best to spare her his claws. He rubbed his hands up her shoulder blades, trying to unwind the tension there, too. There was no way she wouldn't be feeling sore in the morning like this, he thought, as his hands worked to try and relax her tired muscles.

"...Archer? Are you trying to massage me?" Lydia asked, turning her head towards him with a cocked brow. The sound of her voice made him go rigid — half from embarrassment, half from fear.

"Kinda," he admitted with a sheepish smile, feeling some blood rushing to his face. "Do you want me to stop?" he asked, quickly pulling his hands away.

"Actually… I like it," Lydia replied with a small smile. Archer stared at her with astonishment, before smiling in return and resuming to his ministrations.

Archer massaged her carefully, slowly pressing his thumb deeper into her skin. Her muscles were as tense as a drawn bowstring after the battle they'd been a part of. He gently pressed his thumb into a muscle in her shoulder, marveling at just how tense she felt. Eventually, the Housecarl began to unwind in earnest. Her shoulders began to droop slightly, and she eventually settled for pillowing her head with her arms.

"How am I doing?" he asked, slowly rubbing up and down her back.

"You're doing fine," she replied, smiling. "I think I'm starting to feel a bit better now."

"Good to hear," he responded, a bit heartened by the compliment. He continued rubbing her carefully, trying to reach every muscle on her bare back even though he knew he probably wouldn't reach them all. He knew he wasn't doing a particularly amazing job — he'd never massaged anybody in his life except for himself — but at least it was enough to get Lydia to loosen up a bit. Archer suddenly had an idea, and he pulled his hands away for a moment to cast a healing spell.

Placing his hands upon her back again, he allowed his healing magic to flow into her body. Whereas his first ministrations had gotten into only some of her sore spots, now his magic reached deeper into her, finding all her sore spots. Lydia let out a small moan, her eyes fluttering shut as she rested her head on her arms again. After a few more minutes, Archer finally removed his hands from her back.

"Gods, Archer, that was... something else," Lydia remarked appreciatively as he finished, turning to her Thane with a now completely relaxed smile. "I didn't know you could massage so well."

The Argonian gave her an abashed smile, scratching the back of his head with one hand. "Yeah, well... I kinda cheated at the end there," he admitted, lifting his left hand and allowing some golden Restoration magic to weave through his fingertips.

He'd expected Lydia to have scolded him for using his magic for something as trivial as a massage, but instead she simply smiled at him. "Thank you, Archer," she said, bowing her head gratefully.

"Ah, it was no problem," he replied nonchalantly. "You felt like you needed it."

"How about I give you the same treatment?" Lydia asked him.

Archer gave her a slightly surprised look. He hadn't expected to have the same done to him.

"I… would appreciate it," he replied with a pleasant smile.

Archer turned around to let Lydia reach his back. Once again, she was hesitant to touch him, but unlike earlier she quickly overcame her hesitance and approached.

She gathered some water in her hands, wetting them so that her hands could easily slide over his skin, and put her hands on his back, which was pleasantly warm from having absorbed the heat of the pool. Her wet hands passed over his back, neck, and shoulders, briefly warming up his muscles, feeling the smooth scales on his back.

When she was ready to commence in earnest, she began by gently pressing her fingers down on his taut neck muscles and slowly working her way down his spine, relieving the tension wherever she found it. Her hands seemed to work of their own accord, gracefully gliding over his back, seeking out and relaxing the knots in his muscles; and Archer reveled in every sensation.

Her attentions had cast a spell of pleasure over the Argonian as she kneaded his skin, leaving him like dough under her touch. He let out a short groan as she pressed down on a particularly tight muscle, which easily gave way under her expert touch.

"Gods, Lydia, this is... exquisite," he sighed, very clearly enjoying himself.

"I'm glad that you like it, Archer," she responded, smiling, as she ran her hands over towards his upper back, gently using her fingers to massage the nape of his neck. He smiled pleasurably.

"Where in the world did you learn to massage like this?" she heard him wonder aloud.

Lydia suddenly froze. She and Garret used to do this sort of thing whenever they had some private time together. The memory that resurfaced gave her pause, long enough for Archer to sense that something was amiss.

"Lydia? You alright?" she heard him ask, concerned.

"I used to do this with Garrett all the time," she murmured in response. She shook her head and continued massaging Archer's back.

"Garrett... who's that?" Archer asked in confusion.

"My ex-lover... my dead lover," she replied, with a hint of sadness in her voice. "But don't worry about me. The memories don't bother me anymore; it's been too long since then."

"You remember him well," Archer remarked, evidently unable to fall back into comfort just yet.

"Yes, I do," she replied, watching his back as she worked. She remained silent after that.

"What... what was he like?" Archer ventured. She supposed he had a right to be curious; she'd never mentioned having any lovers before; this was the first time he'd ever heard mention of Garrett.

"Garret was... well, he was my first true love," she said, her hands on his back slowing down as she recalled memories of Garrett. "He was a Whiterun Guard, just like me. We met while we were on duty, dispatching a nearby bandit chief... in fact, he was the one who cut the chief down, who was ready to smash me with a warhammer."

Lydia smirked. "I know, it's not exactly a romantic way to first meet a man, but he sure did leave a lasting impression. I sought him out afterwards, and we began talking. Eventually, we became friends, and then... well, the rest is more intimate matters."

A wistful smile gained purchase on her face as she remembered what Garrett looked like: his thick, black hair, his bearded face, and his beautiful steel-grey eyes. "Garrett was a great man, but he wasn't like the other Nords I'd gotten to know. He didn't get his pleasure from bloodshed, like so many other guards who were thirsty for glory; Garrett was a noble, honorable man in his own right. He was kind and considerate, always friendly to those he met, ready to help the weak... You would've liked him. Maybe you two could've even become friends; he was always a lighthearted man, and he was always more tolerant of foreigners than I." By this time, Lydia's hands on Archer's back had stopped moving completely, but she was too lost in thought to remove them.

"Garrett sounds like a great man," Archer remarked, as he looked over his shoulder at her.

"He was... he definitely was," Lydia replied. "That was why I loved him. I was certain that we were a match blessed by Mara; we probably would've gotten married, too..."

A sad look then crossed her features. "But it wasn't meant to be. He went out one day to take care of a disturbance involving some undead... and he never came back."

Seeing her frown, Archer himself furrowed his brows in sorrow. "I'm sorry that I made you remember," he apologized awkwardly.

"Don't be," Lydia told him, shaking her head. "I don't get bothered much by memories of him. In fact, I hold them close to me." She smiled softly in remembrance. "My memories of him, of those tender moments we shared together in the barracks, when nobody was watching... they make me happy. You don't have to apologize for making me remember."

"Okay Lydia, I understand," Archer finally said, turning around to face her completely. "But still, I just feel like apologizing because... I don't know, I guess... I just care about you too much to say nothing, is all," he replied honestly. "I don't like seeing you unhappy."

The admission surprised Lydia. It was a simple admission, but his words were strangely warming in a way that she'd not felt for a long time. She'd known that Archer cared about her well-being, which was how a Thane was supposed to care for his Housecarl; but knowing that he genuinely cared about her feelings, and not just if she was alive or not, truly warmed her heart. She smiled at him again, this time in a warmer manner.

"Thanks, Archer... I like you too," she said. Without any forethought, she wrapped her arms about his torso and rested her chin on his shoulder, pulling him close in an embrace.

The gesture caught Archer completely off-guard, and for a moment he simply stood there, seemingly unable to react. After another moment of bewildered inaction, he managed to recover and respond to the gesture after another moment, wrapping his arms around her in kind — while appearing thoroughly embarrassed all the while.

To her surprise, the feeling of her skin against his was not an uncomfortable feeling. His scales were smooth and, admittedly, nice to the touch; they weren't rough or rigid. He was also quite warm from having absorbed the heat of the waters, and she found herself enjoying the warmth of his awkward embrace.

"Your heart's beating quite fast, Archer," she remarked with a mirthful smirk, feeling his pulse from the place their bodies met. "What's the matter? Never been this close to a woman before?"

"I've had my fair share," he retorted.

"Really, now?"

"…No," he admitted, only serving to increase her mirth.

"I think that maybe now would be a good time to start heading home," Lydia said, pulling away as she looked up at the sun.

"Alright," Archer replied, clearly reluctant to leave this beautiful pool.

Archer went to the edge of the pool and hopped out, and he turned to help pull Lydia out as well, both of them soaking wet. Archer didn't bother to dry himself off, but Lydia briefly attempted to wipe the water off, lacking any type of towel to do so. Thankfully, the Argonian's warmth spell quickly evaporated the water off her body.

Archer went to his pile of clothes and armor to change back, while Lydia did the same with hers. Her steel armor was easier to put on and take off than Archer's, so she finished first. When she finished she went over to Archer and began to help him put his armor on again, fitting in straps and tightening buckles.

Lydia smiled at Archer as she worked, remembering the feel of his body pressed close to hers, as well as the utterly surprised look on his face when she'd hugged him — his expression was priceless. While they were embracing, she remembered feeling an almost familiar warmth in her chest, one that she'd not felt for a long time. It was a feeling that she had not felt again since the day Garrett died...

An unexpected thought suddenly hit Lydia with almost enough force to make her physically recoil in shock. Luckily for her she maintained her composure, but were Archer to suddenly turn around now, there would be no way he could miss the astonishment in her face.

No, she couldn't have felt about Archer what she thought she'd just felt... There was no way. To feel such a thing — for an Argonian, of all things! — to feel such a thing for him was... it shouldn't happen. It couldn't happen. It was impossible. There was no way she'd feel such a thing for him. Right?

Lydia could deny it all she could, but she knew she'd remembered that feeling from somewhere, that pleasant warmth that she'd felt as the two of them had embraced. Remembering back to when she and Archer had their drunken episode in Jorrvaskr, she decided that this feeling had been nothing like that — what she'd felt back there was the alcohol in her. No, it was not at all like what she felt this time, she knew this feeling too well; she'd felt it so strongly for Garrett that, faced with the feeling again, it felt familiar to her now. With Archer, it was a much weaker feeling, just barely even a ghost of what her feelings for Garrett had been... but the fact that the feeling existed at all was cause for alarm.

After a while, she finally relented. Yes, she had some feelings for Archer. Not nearly enough to be of concern, though, but she could not deny that she felt... fond of the Argonian. But could their relationship really be anything more than just Housecarl and Thane?

Lydia shook her head; she was thinking nonsense now. There was no way that she was going to fall for an Argonian... even if it was Archer. While she did like him... did she really like him that much?

Of course not, she finally told herself as she finished helping Archer suit up. This will just be a passing moment anyways. Then everything will be fine... I hope.

With Archer finally completely armored, the two of them walked over to Glaive, unhitched the horse from the tree Archer had tied him to, and mounted him, beginning their trek back towards Whiterun. All the while, Lydia was tormented by the troubling uncertainties in her mind.

End A/N: I hope you all enjoyed this chapter. I also hope you guys will bother to just write a short review, if anything; it takes a lot less effort for you guys to write a few words in than it takes for me to write the whole chapter, so I'd appreciate it if you all told me what you thought. Take care!