"And then the sixth spirit appeared, the Black Hands Mephala, who taught the Velothi at the beginning of days all the arts of sex and murder. Its burning heart melted the eyes of the netchiman's wife and took the egg from her belly with six cutting strokes."
- The 36 Lessons of Vivec, Sermon 2
There's a fire within her that churns and roils like the magma under Dagoth-Ur. With each passing day it grows stronger, struggling to burst free in her every waking moment. Slowly, slowly, she can feel it consuming her, changing her. She fights back through iron will and stubborn denial. She's no different than she was yesterday, or the day before. But yesterday, would she have slain a cowering bandit quite so readily? Before taking the dragons' souls, was she ever so aroused by the sight and smell of burning flesh?
The frightful thing is that with each slip of control, she seems to grow a little stronger. Fire and lightning erupt from her fingertips with blazing fury. Her sword strokes gain the uncanny strength of a madman. Her Thu'um grows loud enough to tear foes to pieces and echo off the mountainside. And it feels wonderful.
Through sleepless nights she sits beside the campfire and watches the flames eat the logs down to nothing but embers and ash.
Almost immediately after she sets foot in Whiterun, she receives a letter from Jarl Balgruuf that invites her to dine with him at Dragonsreach. She knows that he's probably eager to hear about her training with the Greybeards. After all, she hasn't seen him since she first left for High Hrothgar, and for good reason: though Balgruuf seems to like her, the rest of his court doesn't share that view. Proventus considers her uncultured swine. Hrongar sees her as a mockery of his people's traditions. Irileth has never quite forgiven her for accidentally Fus-ing Balgruuf into a wall, and Farengar knows her opinion of court mages. Their company is uncomfortable at best.
But she can't afford to alienate the one jarl who tolerates her. And so she spends her evening among royalty.
She doesn't belong here. Granted, she hasn't belonged anywhere since she stepped out of Cyrodiil and became an "outlander," "grey-skin," "barbarian"—and now "Dragonborn." But sitting among the pure-bred sons and daughters of Skyrim, it's painfully obvious. Every one of her features marks her as an outsider, from her pockmarked grey skin and motley accent to her spiraling crimson tattoos and single stripe of hair. Even next to Irileth, she appears as something wild and foreign. However, the customs of elite politics dictate that they ignore this mammoth in the room, cap their simmering distaste for one another, and make polite small talk until the night is through.
"I made the journey to High Hrothgar once, in the days of my youth," Balgruuf is saying. "The Greybeards trained me in the Way of the Voice. Though I was unable to learn to Shout, my time there was enlightening. Perhaps they spoke of me?"
"Yes, of course." Had they? The jarl had been the farthest thing from her mind while she meditated on that summit. Leave it to nobility to inject themselves into every conversation, as though they hold any importance outside their ragged city walls.
"The court would be interested in seeing how your Thu'um has progressed," he continues. "Perhaps later tonight you could demonstrate what you've learned."
She smiles falsely and bites her tongue. It's such a silly little request that it's almost insulting. What does he expect her to do, Fus a pile of silverware off a table? Walk through walls with Feim? Or maybe he wants to time how quickly she can Wuld from one end of the hall to the other. This is the Voice, a legendary power that can cripple dragons and kings, and Balgruuf wants it used to perform cheap parlor tricks.
This is what you are to them. The thought slithers unbidden into her mind. They see you as a curiosity, something to be studied and held at arm's length, but whose full power is never to be trusted. Like a sabre cat in a cage.
"Ulfric Stormcloak trained there as well, you know. Did they say anything about him?" Proventus has that look all Imperials seem to get when they scheme: a forcibly relaxed smile and casual posture, given away by the knotted brow above his beady eyes.
"Proventus, I'll have no talk of Stormcloaks at this table."
"Apologies, Jarl, but if they told her anything, it could be quite useful. What about the dragons, did they know the reason for their return?"
"Only that it's prophecy, and that I have some role to play in what's to come." Proventus' expression slackens and he returns to his food. She knows he has no interest in anything else she might say because this is all he thinks you're good for—gathering intelligence that might advance his political career. Observe and report, run his errands and kill his monsters. You can be his courier, mercenary, or spy, but never anything more than his tool.
"I would very much like to know what you've learned from these dragons," Farengar says. "When you absorb your souls, you gain their memories, yes? If only a learned mind could access such a thing."
The veiled insult doesn't go unnoticed. "You're welcome to the contents of my head, Farengar. Why not cast a memory recording charm now, so that you can sort through them later at your leisure?" She sees his lips tighten ever so slightly. Of course he doesn't know a lick of mysticism; he's a poorly-trained, pitiful excuse for a wizard. Her mind is safe from him.
But wouldn't it be fun if he could look inside? Let the man see your memories and nightmares. Let him share in the chaos and sadness and pain. Watch them tear his mind apart, and then, perhaps, just for one night, he'll feel the same things you do.
The conversation continues into meaningless banter, sentences fading in and out like waves beating against a shore. For all their flaws, the court is remarkably adept at small talk. Sanitized anecdotes taper seamlessly into false sentiments and niceties, gingerly stepping around anything upsetting or real. The topic of Lydia's death doesn't come up once, though it hangs over her like a headsman's axe. But no matter how pleasant they act, she knows that Proventus is still calculating what he might pull from her later this evening, Farengar is still thinking of more quips to deride her, and Irileth is still waiting for her to snap and try to kill the jarl with a dinner fork. She swallows and tries to push aside the whispers that encourage her to tell them, tell them the truth of what you've seen, about the sense of sheer draconic cruelty that's settled ever so softly in your mind, what it feels like to be tortured, or burned alive. And just for a moment they'll drop their masks and show something real—
She shoots upright with a gasp, her chair clattering to the ground behind her. Around her the faces of the court leer at her, warped and surreal. Directly across from her, one of the jarl's sons is spearing his venison with violent strokes and staring at her in-between with odd, dark eyes.
"Is there a problem, Dragonborn?" Balgruuf's voice reaches her distorted and distant, as though she's hearing it from underneath a lake. She shakes her head once, then again, more forcefully.
"No, I… I… Excuse me." With that, she steps back from the table and hurries away in a random direction.
She doesn't stop until she finds herself in a room that's free of servants and nobles. It's dimly lit and cluttered with brooms and buckets; probably some storage area underground. She leans her forehead against the cool masonry of the wall and takes a deep, shuddering breath.
"You hear her too, don't you?"
She spins around to see the dark-eyed child from before standing a few paces behind her. "Boy, what are you doing here?"
"She told me to find you—the Whispering Lady did." He rocks back on his heels, clasping and unclasping his hands at his sides. She looks him up and down once more and finally places his face.
"Aren't you the one who accused me of 'licking your father's boots'?" She struggles to remember his name; something with an 'N,' maybe. The boy scowls as soon as she mentions his father; she keeps talking. "Who was it that sent you after me? Irileth?"
"No. I told you, it was the Whispering Lady."
She pinches the bridge of her nose and sighs. The child is seeing specters and now she has to deal with it. "And who, pray tell, is the Whispering Lady?"
"I don't know her name. She speaks to me through a door in the basement. She tells me secrets…"
"I've no time for your games," she begins, but he interrupts.
"It's not a game!" For a brief second his eyes dilate and his lips curl to reveal teeth like some predator, but then she blinks and he's a normal child once more. "She's real, and I know you've heard her."
She ponders his words: the 'Whispering Lady.' She's heard whispers ever since the events of the Western Watchtower, ancient dragons trying to get through, but they've never sounded anything like what ran through her head tonight. No—it doesn't mean anything, other than that she's going mad, and now this poor child is as well. "Tell your lady that I won't be speaking to any ghosts tonight. I've had quite enough of this castle's inhabitants already." And she still has the rest of the dinner service to get through.
As she leaves the room, the boy calls after her. "If you change your mind, you can hear her from behind a door in the basement. She wants to see you. Don't keep her waiting."
Back in the main hall, she takes her seat once again, though she wants nothing more than to leave. The court graciously refrains from commenting on her disappearance, though she knows they'll be gossiping after hours. Balgruuf does apologize for anything inappropriate his son (Nelkir) might have said after chasing her; evidently, he's been "troubled" for some time now, and Balgruuf would very much appreciate knowing why, if she happened to find anything out. She only nods and remain silent.
The boy remains absent for the rest of the service, as do the odd animated thoughts that had been flitting through her mind. Nelkir's words stay with her, though. What if there truly is another presence in this castle, one that has the power to affect her mind? Is she being stalked by some demon? It would be irresponsible to let this go unchecked. It doesn't mean she believes the story about a lady behind a door; she's only preserving her own safety.
When the dinner service finally ends, she slips away from the table, declining Balgruuf's repeated requests for a demonstration as politely as she can, and heads down the stairs to the basement. As she wanders through the maze of corridors, she wonders how she's expected to find one door out of every cupboard, cabinet, and storage closet here. She resigns herself to shuffling around the entire floor, putting her ear to various things and earning suspicious glances from the servants. Finally, she ends up in an abandoned, dusty alcove with an ancient wood door, one that's possibly as old as the castle itself. As soon as she lays her eyes on it, she knows somehow that this must be the door Nelkir spoke of. She draws her fingers down the smooth wood of the door, shuts her eyes, and listens.
And the voice comes.
"At last. I've been waiting for you, my child." The words are soft, tickling the very edge of her hearing, but they ring clearly in her mind. It reminds her of the word walls, the way it passes by her ears to speak directly to her head. But it's gentler—there's no push, no struggle for control. She's still herself, there's just another self inside her.
"Who are you? Why did you wish to speak with me?" She murmurs the words out loud, though this thing is probably already inside her head and reading her every thought.
There's a soft hiss like an intake of air. "The boy did not know my name, but I expected more from you. Surely you do not need me to tell you who I am."
"I'm sorry, but I don't—"
"Shh." Indrele's lips tingle as though a finger has pressed against them. "Think deeply. You may find that you already know."
She does as she's commanded, and thinks. The hooks remain in her mind, guiding her thoughts. At first she sees only darkness, but then images begin to take form.
…the violet petals of a nightshade plant against brown, shriveled grass… two bare bodies entwined, moans of pleasure cut off by the rasp of a blade and a gurgle of blood… a dead scrib bound in silk and hanging from a huge, intricate web. Death that comes on eight dark, spindly legs…
She draws back from the contact with a sharp inhale. "My lady. Forgive me, I did not expect to find you… Here, of all places."
"No matter. There is something you must do for me."
"What would you ask of me?" Her voice has dropped to match Mephala's.
"I have been using the boy for some time, but there are some things he cannot do. You will be the new instrument of my will. Behind this door, a piece of my power has been locked away. Even my eyes cannot see past the seals. Release it, and it will be yours to wield."
"So I must get past this door?" She spreads her fingers and probes the enchantments on the door, only to reel back in shock when she feels a potent magical ward.
"Yes. The jarl trusts few, and they will be his undoing. The dark child knows of whom I speak." The voice is fading away now, but just before it vanishes, it leaves her with one final command. "Do not disappoint me."
"That door is special. Only two people have keys to it, Farengar and my father," Nelkir tells her. There's a brief pause before he adds, "Nobody will notice if Farengar went missing, I promise you."
And Indrele would miss Farengar least of all. More than bandits, merchants, and politicians, she hates court mages. They're a shame to her profession, pitiful excuses for scholars content to sit in the lap of a jarl and deal with agriculture and skeever infestations until they drop dead of boredom and old age. But annoying as Farengar may be, she doesn't want to kill him; Skyrim needs as many minds on the dragon problem as they can muster. Indrele says this much to Nelkir, and he pouts.
"But you're the Dragonborn. You must kill people all the time."
"Only when they try to kill me first." Although if she were a little bit better at stealth, she can think of a few people that would have their throats slit in their sleep.
"Father," Nelkir spits the word, "used to kill people. Not anymore. Now he needs his servants to do it for him."
"There's no shame in ordering an execution." Oh, if only the Morag Tong could extend its reach to Skyrim, how much easier her life would be. But she doesn't imagine that Balgruuf even reads the names of the people he sentences to death. These Nords and their delusive sense of honor—although this boy has the heart of a Dunmer or an Orc. He could make a great councilor in Morrowind someday.
The thought of the assassins' guild leaves her questioning her choice. There's an entire organization dedicated to murder so that Mephala might revel in its glory. Now if Indrele is acting on her behalf, shouldn't she take this opportunity for bloodshed? She can't quite talk herself into it, however. She rationalizes that Mephala's love of treachery runs deeper than petty violence. Farengar is nobody, and his death would go unnoticed. Whether or not he lives is irrelevant to her task. But getting his key will leaving him alive will require secrecy, finesse, and deft fingers, none of which she has. Fortunately, magic can substitute for almost all of them.
Unfortunately, that means going to the cat for assistance.
"Oh? J'zargo thought the elf was too smart to barter with Daedra." He quirks an eyebrow, a smile playing on the corners of his muzzle.
"Don't start with that. You know this is different, you know—" She cuts herself off as one of the caravan guards' ears flicks in her direction, and lowers her voice. "There are some Daedra that are to be worshipped, and others that are to be avoided, and just because you don't care about the difference doesn't mean we're all fools."
"Yes, the 'good Daedra' and the 'bad Daedra.' This one knows of them. But how can one know for certain which Prince belongs to which category?"
"Are you questioning my people's faith?" She feels her fingers tracing the outline of Azura's Star in a leather pouch at her waist, though she doesn't know how she might use it to support her argument. Bludgeon him with it, maybe?
"Not at all. J'zargo believes that when one is called by a god, one should always answer, no matter which god it may be. But it is as you said before. One must be ready to face the consequences."
She watches a guard with striped fur stir a pot on the fire. She can smell it from here, something pungent and sickly sweet. She's not naïve enough to think that there will be no consequences from this. Swearing one's service to a god isn't to be done lightly. But she's worshipped the Reclamations since she was a babe. In her childhood there had been yearly pilgrimages with other Dunmer families to each of the three shrines, offerings made of glow dust, Daedra hearts, and nightshade, always with the hope to gain their favor—and now she had another chance. To turn away now would be worse than blasphemy.
"I am prepared."
A scroll of silencing, three invisibility potions, soft-soled shoes, and a new, thinner cloak made of black cloth that seems to fade into the shadows. These are her tools for infiltrating Dragonsreach; with her funds, they're all she can afford. She'd commissioned J'zargo to scribe the scroll, and the rest of the equipment came from the Khajiit merchant, who had just happened to have a small arsenal of thieves' tools in his wagon. All for legitimate purposes, he'd assured her.
She reviews the layout of Dragonsreach in her mind. The path from Farengar's study to the basement door is simple enough; most of the guards are stationed closer to the royal family. But there are infinitely many things that could go wrong.
That night, when the moons hang high above Whiterun, she leaves her room at the Bannered Mare, supplies in hand. She stays in the shadows, running between alleys until she reaches the great stone steps. Guards patrol here, but as always, they are unprepared for magic. The only illusion spell she knows, a weak personal muffling spell, hides her footfalls, her scarf traps the mist from her breath, and the first invisibility potion makes her disappear completely from view. She's absolutely undetectable as she falls into stride a few steps behind the first guard. When she reaches the top of the stairs and the large wooden door, she waits for the guard to turn and walk back down the steps. Once his head disappears from view, she activates the scroll of silence, targeting the ancient creaking hinges. Now she only needs to open the door and pray no guards inside see her doing it. She swallows the second potion and pushes.
Incredibly, no guards are even looking her way when she slips inside. She can't believe her luck. Surely they can't always be this lax? Or maybe they are, and Riften's Thieves' Guild could get back on its feet if its members would only learn a few spells.
She shuffles along the walls like a mudcrab, being sure to keep her breathing steady and avoid bumping against any furniture. The invisibility wears off just as she slips inside Farengar's laboratory. This will be the hardest part; while court mages are weak excuses for real wizards, they generally know enough to use wards. She reaches out towards his bedroom door to probe for magical auras, but pulls back in surprise when she finds none. There's not even a simple alarm spell or a trace of an elemental rune—and when she tries the handle, it turns easily in her hands. Is Farengar that complacent? Or is this a trap, and he's waiting for her inside so he can have her arrested for trespassing?
Whatever the reason, she's come too far to turn back. Indrele steels her nerves and pushes the door open. The room is dark, but the dim light leaking in from the main hall shows Farengar on his bed, asleep. She gives a quiet sigh of relief and creeps closer to his prone form. In the silence, her pulse beats in her ears, and her hands shake with anticipation. She wonders what excuse she'll give if he wakes up and calls for the guards—no , she has to stay focused. She scans his body a few times over until she catches sight of a thin cord around his neck. Fishing it out slowly reveals a key hidden under his nightshift. She draws her dagger, the muffling spell suppressing the whisper of steel, and cuts it loose. There's a twitch from Farengar, and she freezes in place, but he makes no further movement. She's gotten away with it.
The difficult part is over. She feels the tension leave her body as she swallows the final, most potent invisibility potion. It should give her just enough time to get to and from the basement and escape through the front door. She slips along the walls again and into the kitchen, moving more quickly now. It's almost laughably easy to pass through the flickering shadows and down the stairs into the basement, but once she shuts the door behind her, things grow more difficult. It's almost pitch-black, and when she tries to retrace her steps, she trips over brooms and clutter. It takes several minutes to arrive at the correct door and feel for the lock, precious minutes that go against her strict schedule. She slips the key into the lock, praying that it's the right one, and turns. There's a click, and the ward dissipates.
She enters the room, but in the total darkness, she can't even see what she came here for. In frustration, she decides to risk calling up a candlelight spell. The time it took to get here means that the invisibility spell has nearly worn off anyway, and she's sure she can outrun a few inattentive guards to the exit. The brightness of the spell burns like a flash of lightning, but when she blinks away the spots swimming in front of her eyes, she sees the artifact lying on a table in front of her. It's a long and graceful Akaviri-style blade, the same style as the one she'd carried until the Thalmor had stolen it. But her old sword could never have matched the beauty of this one. It's carved from a single piece of black ebony and inlaid with intricate gold designs, and its flawless surface shimmers with a visible magical aura.
She's only heard of this in legends. Mephala's famed Ebony Blade, a sword of unimaginable power, granted only to champions of the Webspinner herself. And now it will be in her possession. She reaches out to grasp the hilt, hands trembling, but stops when she sees a thin leather folio on the table before it. She frowns. It's irrelevant to her mission, she should take the blade and be gone from here—but she's never been able to deny her curiosity. She picks up the folio and opens it to reveal a yellowing page of parchment stamped with the Jarl of Whiterun's official seal.
To anyone reading this: BEWARE THIS BLADE
It is hoped that the only people having access to this room should be the Jarl of Whiterun and his trusted wizard. If anyone else is reading this, please understand the magnitude of your folly, turn around, and never even speak of this room or this blade to anyone.
It has corrupted and perverted the desires of great men and women. Yet its power is without equal—to kill while your victim smiles at you. Only a daedra most foul could have concocted such a malevolent and twisted weapon. But it appears that all who wield it end up with the crazed eyes of those wild men who roam the hills chattering with rabbits.
It is not to be trifled with. Not even the hottest fires of the Skyforge could melt it; indeed the coals themselves seemed to cool when it was placed within. We cannot destroy it, and we would not have it fall into the hands of our enemies. So we keep it, hidden, dark and deep within Dragonsreach, never to be used.
Woe be to any who choose to take it.
Of course the Nords would fear this blade. They're frightened by anything that cannot be dealt with through brute force, from mathematics and literature to magic and Daedra. She's better than that. Her people are born of the Daedra, and to fear them is to turn away from their own heritage. With that thought, she wraps her hand around the sword.
The ancient enchantment flows against her palm, thrumming hungrily. It's diminished, she can feel, perhaps from being kept here for so long, but as long as a single spark remains, she can bring it back to life. She must. Mephala has entrusted this blade to her, and it is her duty to restore it to full power.
She turns towards the door, but stops abruptly with a short gasp. Somebody else is standing there, with his own orb of candlelight illuminating his face.
"You aren't as stealthy as you think, little elf." Dammit, she'd done everything right; how had he noticed her? Was there a ward hidden somewhere else in his workshop, or had she just been too clumsy when cutting the key? "I suggest you put that sword back and come with me."
"This blade does no good here," she retorts, trying to throw together a convincing argument. "It corrupts the jarl's children while it wastes away in this basement. Let me take it from you; I can put its power to better use."
"No. It cannot be trusted with anyone. It must remain here."
"And what are you going to do to ensure that, hedge wizard?" she spits. "If I can kill a dragon, what chance might you possibly stand to stop me?"
She takes his ensuing silence for assent and takes a step towards the door. Just an instant too late, she spots his palms dancing with electricity, and before she can react, he lifts his hands and fires a bolt of lightning into the center of her chest. The jolt throws her against the wall, but the sparks make her muscles seize and she retains hold of the sword. For several seconds her body convulses painfully, but her birthsign absorbs the worst of it, as it always has. She expects this to go on for some time, but abruptly, it ends. Farengar, she realizes, was too soft to throw another attack while she was down.
Indrele stands upright and sees him start to ready another spell. "Is that it?" she grunts, shaking the last of the twitches from her body. "I've seen bandits who made better mages than you. Step aside."
"You're dealing with forces beyond your control. That blade has driven many men to commit dark acts."
"Good, strong men. Do you think we would have locked it away if we thought any of Whiterun's warriors could control it? It corrupts any man from the moment they first wield it."
"Any human!" she practically shrieks. There's no time for this; what if guards are coming down as they speak? "Your kind doesn't understand how to work with Daedra. Not all of us are so simple or small-minded."
Another moment of tense silence passes between them, and then Farengar lifts his hands again. He's not convinced. He'll fight her to the end for the chance to lock this sword back into a dark closet away from the mortal web of secrets and betrayal, where it may sow the seeds of acrimony and envy and feed on their harvest of chaos and death. He would take this from us, but we will not be stopped by one arrogant mortal.
She dodges to the side just as the bolt leaves his hand, and then charges. She's upon him in a second, thrusting the Ebony Blade forward. The keen edge slips between his ribs as softly and smoothly as a whisper, sinking in all the way to the hilt with hardly a push. His eyes go wide with shock as his body begins to feel the injury—but they don't lose focus like some dying men's do. They remain on hers, transfixed. As she holds the blade there she can feel some sort of power seeping out, the very essence of life, spiraling up the sword and hilt and into her own soul. Startled, she yanks the blade back to her. The energy dissipates and Farengar slumps onto the ground. Blood pools rapidly around the body and seeps into the leather of her shoes. She takes a step back, her heart and head pounding.
"Well done." The smooth voice of Mephala reaches her again, far clearer than before. "Already you steep my blade in the blood of deception and murder. Can you feel it? It's finally waking, after being forced to sleep for so long."
Indrele doesn't answer her goddess, nor does she linger to confirm that Farengar is dead. She only grips the sword tighter in her hands and runs. Through the basement, up the steps, past the baffled guards in the main hall who are almost too stunned to give chase. She sprints down the stairways of Dragonsreach and across the plazas of the Cloud and Wind Districts, not stopping even when her chest burns and she has to force the air into her lungs. Finally, when the windows of the castle are only dim lights on the horizon, she trips over a loose stone and her legs give out. Sapped of energy and breath, she can't find the strength to stand again. So she lies there on the cobbled road of some slum in Whiterun, hugging the blade to her chest and drifting in and out of consciousness until the sun starts to rise and some farmer kicks her awake.
As she staggers towards the gate, she drops her old broadsword into the river that connects to the sewers, letting it be carried away with the rest of the waste.
Thanks to Lady of Dov for helping me work through a few things in this chapter.