The trip to Kynesgrove took days, and Delphine kept her lips sealed through it all. Indrele tried speaking to Lydia about what she had told her—loudly, and in front of Delphine, in hopes of dragging her into the conversation, but to no avail.
"Undead dragons. The idea's preposterous, isn't it?"
"Yes, my Thane."
She scowled. Her assent meant nothing; Lydia always pretended to agree with her. It was a thin façade of politeness that had worn even thinner over the past month, as her bitterness shone through in every word she spoke. It drove Indrele mad, and she was starting to suspect the woman wasn't very devoted to her job. Surely a housecarl wasn't supposed to loathe their charge?
It was probably the fact that she was a mage and an elf, who also just happened to be the Dragonborn of legend (or so she was told) that drove Lydia over the edge. Like all the other Nords, she couldn't handle the thought of their prophesized savior being a spell-slinging Dunmeri foreigner rather than the statuesque Nordic archetype they'd been taught to expect. There wasn't much Indrele could do about it. The people of Skyrim were chauvinistic and small-minded, and it would take time and patience to herd them in her favor.
But as for the matter at hand: undead dragons. Not the most ridiculous thing she'd ever heard, but it was close. She held on to the hope that they would find nothing at Kynesgrove, and then she could return this gods-forsaken horn to the Greybeards and finally be done with all of this. Her hopes deflated, however, as the sky gradually grew overcast and a chill wind began to blow. Indrele considered herself above base superstition, but if there ever was perfect weather for a dragon to rise from its grave, this would be it. Her fears were confirmed as they approached the knoll where the inn stood and a Nord woman ran from the door, shouting in terror. "Get away! A dragon! It's coming!"
She gave a sigh as Delphine picked up her pace. That was what they were here for. They ran to the clearing beyond the building, where the ancient burial ground sat, and were met with more than just a dragon. A column of dark energy shot from the grave to the sky, fouling the air with a profane and unnatural pressure. She'd known enough necromancers to recognize the presence of dark magic, but this was far stronger than anything she'd ever sensed before; it had to stem from an unfathomly terrible source.
Above their heads, a dark silhouette stood in stark contrast against the grey clouds. A single glance at it stopped her cold in her tracks. That was it, the great dragon from Helgen, the one that had saved her from the executioner's axe and then tried to kill her all over again. Mirmulnir's soul inside her trembled as she observed the beast. It was absolutely immense, even more so now that she could see its full form. Its wings sent down gales of wind strong enough to flatten the grass at their feet, its scales were black as death and twisted into ebony spines, and its eyes… Its eyes glowed red with a piercing gaze that looked straight through her. The air itself shivered as it threw back its head and roared a Thu'um.
"Slen tiid vo."
The mound erupted, throwing the hard-packed earth skyward and showering them with dirt that carried the too-familiar scent of decay and rot. When the dust settled, she saw it, the skeletal form of a dragon crawling from its tomb like so many undead. It moved unnaturally, digging the claws of its wings into the ground to gain purchase and pull itself free, then shuffling towards the black dragon until it lay prostrate before it. Glowing wisps streamed from master to servant, becoming brighter and brighter until the entire skeleton seemed aflame. She saw muscle and ligaments reforming on the bones, followed by scales and leathery skin. It was like a cremation in reverse.
When the light faded, the dragon was whole once more. It growled deeply in its ancient tongue, and the black dragon roared back. The dragon mind inside her caught bits and pieces of the conversation, but came to a halt at one word. Alduin. She recalled the prophecy from the book that damned court wizard had shown her:
…The World-Eater wakes, and the Wheel turns upon the Last Dragonborn…
Alduin, he'd said; the World-Eater was a great dragon known as Alduin. That beast in the sky was the harbinger of the end times. She stood in the presence of a god.
The World-Eater turned to her, molten eyes fixing straight on hers. Mirmulnir roared in recognition of its master, but her own lips were frozen, her breath caught in her chest. More foreign words echoed from its maw, followed by a draconic mockery of malicious laughter. "You do not even know our tongue, do you? Such arrogance, to dare take for yourself the name of Dovah."
No. Dragonborn or no, she was a mortal, weak and small, and she could never stand against something as mighty as this. She fell to her knees as frantic Dunmeri prayers spilled from her lips, pleas to the three gods of her people. Azura, the Queen of Dawn and Dusk; Boethiah, Prince of Plots; Mephala, the Webspinner. They have guided the Dunmer since their cursed birth on Red Mountain, and she needed them now to guide her, protect her, get her away from this…
But Delphine was having none of it. She grabbed Indrele by the arm and dragged her back to her feet. "What are you doing? Stand and fight!" Behind her, Lydia's eyes were rolling at the sight of her cowardly Thane praying to her heathen gods. She didn't understand. Why weren't they praying as well? Surely they knew about Alduin—how could they expect to fight against a monster with the power to destroy not just them, but their entire realm?
Finally, whether as a result of her prayers or not, Alduin at last lifted his horrible gaze and took wing, soaring away into the sky. With him went the horrible pressure that had pervaded the area, but the resurrected dragon was still there. It stretched its newly-reformed wings and roared a challenge.
"Stay focused. Kill the damn dragon," Delphine admonished, drawing her bow. As the dragon beat its wings, churning the dirt as it lifted into the air, she nocked an arrow and let it fly. It lodged stubbornly into the scales on the dragon's head, and the sight reminded her of the battle of the Western Watchtower. She could kill this one, she thought slowly; she'd done it before. Granted, there had been a whole troupe of guards to help then, but the three of them were better-armored and far more prepared, and this time she had her full reserve of magicka to call upon.
She inhaled deeply and turned her mind to the comforting pool of energy inside her. As long as she could reach it, she would not despair. She molded it first into a disintegration spell to soften the dragon's armored body. It was similar to the one she'd used for Mirmulnir, but considerably more powerful, and its effects were immediately apparent as the beast's scales began to warp and pull apart. It would still take time to reach its full effect. The dragon was undeterred, flying around in a lazy, clumsy circle, as though testing its wings after such a long period underground. As it passed over them, it spoke, and familiar flames began to bloom from behind its teeth. She crouched behind a rock with Delphine as the area was shot through with roaring fire, and winced involuntarily at the memory of what had happened in the last battle. She touched her hand to her chest and drew out the energy for her most potent antifire spell. She would not be afraid. Flame was her only family, her constant companion in the cold lands of Skyrim, and it would not harm her unless she so willed it.
Emboldened by her new protection, she stepped out from cover and faced her target. First, she primed its body with a hex that rendered it vulnerable to electricity, and then she charged a thunderbolt between both hands. The air crackled with static that set her newly-grown hair on end, and when she fired, the lightning tore through the clearing with a deafening crack and the pungent scent of ozone. The dragon shrieked as its weakened flesh was ravaged by electricity. Another bolt, and it came crashing to the ground.
She was pleased with the damage she'd done, but without her usual spellcasting aids, her magicka wouldn't last much longer. It might not matter; already, the dragon's hide was badly damaged, and each new arrow from Delphine and Lydia tore open its skin to form a new river of blood. One confident shot from Delphine sank into its left eye, earning a roar from the dragon as it was made half-blind.
But it still fought. It spoke words of power that shook the earth with their fury, and flames spewed from its mouth again. Everything around her burned in a hellish inferno, but this time, like the flame trap in Ustengrav, the fire brushed past her skin as a soft breeze. When the dragon finally stopped to inhale again, the ground was charred black and smoldering, but she was unharmed. She caught Lydia's eye and afforded her a small smirk. When she'd told her earlier to let her handle a dragon's fire breath, Lydia clearly hadn't believed her, but she'd still obeyed. Like an obedient servant—
Her smile vanished. The dragon, incensed that its fire hadn't burned her mortal form to ash, was charging towards her, ready to finish this with fangs and claws. She turned to run, but it swung its head like a flail and slammed the small of her back. The blow lifted her off her feet and sent her sailing through the air until one of the sacred trees of Kynesgrove stopped her with a crack. Her head snapped back and hit the bark hard enough that everything turned black. When the world filtered back, she saw the dragon lumbering her way, only a few steps from her prone form. Her vision was mostly blurry, but she spotted with odd clarity the smoke trailing from between its teeth and the transparent humours streaming from its ruined eye. Her mind screamed to run, but her body was paralyzed. This was the end, she thought numbly. She would die here, her execution only postponed by a few months. She shielded her face uselessly with her gauntlets and waited to feel its teeth cut through her.
A battle-cry rose above the rumbling of the dragon, followed by the wet smacking sound of steel against flesh. She glanced between her fingers to see Lydia driving her shield into the blind side of the beast's snout, trying to turn its bulk with her arm alone. The dragon pulled away, leaving her housecarl stumbling to rebalance herself, and twisted its head until it could see her with its good eye.
Then it lunged. The shield did no good as the dragon wrapped its toothed maw around her entire torso, teeth piercing steel and skin alike. Lydia struggled valiantly against it for a few moments, but then the dragon bore down and she went deathly still.
Before she realized what her body was doing, Indrele was on her feet once more, forming the incantation for another spell. With her last bit of energy, she conjured a spear of ice and skewered the dragon in its other eye. It shrieked and dropped Lydia as it was rendered totally blind. Two more arrows from Delphine landed in its neck. Indrele finally drew her sword and ran up to the dragon, slicing at its underbelly with the dull blade until its weakened skin and veins split and dark blood rushed over her hands. It gave one final cry that was cut short as its throat became choked with blood, and then slumped to the ground, dead at last.
She rushed to Lydia's side, but before she could reach her, the world around her erupted with light and color. In an instant, everything about this dragon, Sahloknir—its thoughts, emotions, ambitions, and all of its memories—flowed through her mind and displayed themselves in rapid succession before retreating to that distant corner of her head where all the foreign knowledge stayed. She came back to herself lying face-down in the dirt, tasting blood and soil in her mouth, feeling the bruises and cracks in her ribs, and seeing Delphine standing at her side. She addressed her with the term she'd come to dread.
Lydia was dead. Indrele tried every healing spell she knew in an attempt to stitch ligaments and muscle and skin back together, but her body wouldn't so much as twitch in response—and frankly, it was a mess. The dragon's teeth had mashed flesh and steel together into an amorphous wreck; even if she was still alive, there was nothing much that could done. Her magicka ran dry, and she supplemented it with her life-force; when even that wasn't enough, she had to stop, lest death take her as well. Delphine pulled her away from her sad display and forced her into the inn to have her own wounds treated.
As her body mended, Delphine told her everything: the history of the Blades, the lost lore surrounding the Dragonborn, and her theories surrounding the Thalmor. It was no comfort to hear that she had no idea how to proceed—perhaps they should infiltrate the Thalmor Embassy, but how? Delphine stayed for less than a day, and once it was clear that Indrele would live, she returned to her hideout in Riverwood and left her alone with her thoughts.
Of course she'd seen people die before. During her time exploring the tombs and ruins of Morrowind, plenty of ill-fated sellswords had met their end right in front of her, whether by a sword or a trap or the occasional steep cliff. But this felt worse. Lydia hadn't done this for money or fame or even of her own accord, but for the oath she'd sworn to her Jarl to protect her charges with her life. Even when she hated them. Even when they were a dirty, ungrateful felon who perverted everything true Nords stood for.
Lydia would have to be buried. Did she have a family tomb somewhere? Did she even have a family? Gods, she knew nothing about her. She sent a passing courier to deliver a message to Jarl Balgruuf, but it would take days to reach him, and she couldn't stay here. Not with the guilt eating away at her and Lydia's dead eyes accusing her in her dreams. She returned to the spot where she had fallen and drove Lydia's sword into the ground near the trees, placing her helmet on the hilt and leaning her battered, twisted shield against it.
Kynesgrove. On the trip to High Hrothgar, between fighting frost trolls and ice wraiths, Lydia had recounted the Nord people's creation myth: that man was born when Kyne breathed onto the Throat of the World. It was peaceful, certainly more so than the origin of the Dunmer, wreathed as it was in fire and treachery. Lydia had been born from the sacred sky and met her end on this sacred earth, and her violent death ensured that her soul would rest in Sovngarde. At least hers was a fitting end for a true child of Skyrim.