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Fiction The Khajiit Murders

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 17

The Necromancer and the Dragon Priest

Lydia, down on one knee, pushed back against the crush of draugr with what little strength she had left. Then someone was helping her up by the arm, while also pushing the shield back into place next to Svari’s.

Pic of many draugr and a deathlord
Draugr Army (by Jackal326 on NexusMods – edited)

“This one can hold Lydia’s shield. Lydia should go inside.” She turned to gape at J’zargo; he looked back at her calmly as if this really were just another day’s work.

“But…”

“J’zargo will slash draugr with his claws if they get too close.” He opened the shield a gap and clawed at the closest draugr to demonstrate.

“But Garrold…”

“Already inside the passage. Now go.”

“J’zargo’s right, Lydia,” said Ralof. “We’ve got this.”

She turned toward the doorway to find that it was only two steps away. Would her legs carry her even that far? But now Deirdre was emerging from within. “I’ve healed Garrold as best…” she began. Then she saw Lydia, and a look of shock and concern came over her face that Lydia hoped never to see directed at herself again, not during battle.

“My love, what is it?” Deirdre said, putting an arm around her.

“Get her inside!” Ralof shouted.

Deirdre put a hand under her elbow to support her and half-dragged her into the passage. Lydia staggered a few steps beyond the doorway and fell to her hands and knees.

“Where are you hurt? I don’t see any blood.”

The sounds of the battle out in the dining hall intensified. Both J’zargo and Kharjo were hissing loudly now. The sound of claws on rock-like flesh grated on her ears. Brelyna’s lightning and fire spells lit up the chamber. “Damn these draugr, is there no end to them?”

Where was her axe? She must have dropped it, though she couldn’t imagine having done such a thing.

“I’m fine,” she told Deirdre, struggling to get up. She had to get back out there.

“I can see you’re not fine. Stay here, I’ll be right back.”

“But I must…”

“No, you mustn’t. Promise me you’ll stay here.”

Then Deirdre was gone. Lydia tried to rise, but couldn’t. She was sworn to protect Deirdre, but now she couldn’t move a limb. So much for dying at her side! She was a milk-drinker and a weakling. She felt bitter tears of shame and fear running down her cheeks and into her mouth, their salty taste an unfamiliar one.

The last ignominy came when Garrold limped over to her, recovered somewhat from his wound. “Captain Ravenwood,” he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Are you well? What can I do for you?” A true Nord would never cry in front of her troops, but the tears just flowed all the faster.

From the dining hall she heard Deirdre shout. “Hun-Kaal-Zoor!” She didn’t know that one. A moment later, other voices echoed from the hall. A man’s voice: “You will feel the thunder of my Thu’um!” A woman’s: “My sword will taste your blood.” And another man’s: “It’s glorious to battle once again in Tamriel!” Whoever they were, they all possessed the Thu’um. Soon Shouts were echoing around the dining hall, and even shaking the floor of the passage where she cowered.

Deirdre and her companions returned to join her in the passageway. “Ralof, Kharjo, Svari, don’t let anything through that door,” Deirdre ordered. “J’zargo, get spells off when you can.”

All her friends had retreated, yet the battle still raged. Lydia couldn’t understand it.

“Who are those ancient warriors?” Brelyna asked Deirdre. “The draugr can’t stand against them.”

“Friends from Sovngarde. But there’s no time to explain.” Deirdre knelt beside her. “Can you sit up?” Together, Deirdre and Brelyna helped Lydia over to sit with her back against the wall of the passage. “Now, what is it? I still don’t see any blood. And nothing looks broken. Here, let’s get your helmet off at least.”

Lydia kept her head down as Deirdre removed the helm.

“If I’m not mistaken,” Brelyna said, “these aren’t physical wounds.”

Lydia could only shake her head.

“What then?” said Deirdre.

Brelyna was silent for a moment, but Lydia knew she knew. “Lydia, I heard you shout about the elves, and the women and children. You were back at the Retreat from Whiterun, weren’t you?”

Lydia nodded, and gave a sob, her shoulders shaking. She’d never cried like this in her life.

“I relive that awful day every night in my dreams,” Brelyna said, shivering.

“Yet I never do,” Lydia managed to say.

“Oh, my love,” Deirdre said, placing a hand under her chin, forcing Lydia to meet her eye. She had no strength to resist. “And you never talk about that day, though I’ve asked you time and again. All you would say after you recovered was that you should have died defending Balgruuf. Oh, if only I had been there that day, and hadn’t been stuck at the top of the Throat of the World!”

Seeing Deirdre’s worried look only made her sobs come more quickly. Deirdre stroked her cheek, then gathered her in her arms, where she wept as she never had, not even as a baby.

They were right, of course. She’d taken all the fear, horror, and grief of that day and stuffed it down somewhere deep, covered it with a mask of Nord bravado. And not just Whiterun, but the suffering she’d endured in the Thalmor torture chamber. Yet all these months, fear had gripped her heart like a claw. She’d put it off as fear for Deirdre’s life, but it was her own fear she was running from, she could see that now. And how much had she lost in keeping it at bay! She hadn’t truly enjoyed any pleasure these last months, she was so constantly on edge. She couldn’t even properly make love to her wife for fear of what might happen while they were so distracted. It was no way to live.

Her weeping abated, and Deirdre looked at her once more, stroking her helmet-mashed hair. “Promise me that when we return home, we’ll talk of these things. You won’t keep them bottled up inside you.”

Lydia nodded, wiping at her eyes.

“Good. But right now, I need you to be strong.”

“We need help over here!” Ralof called from the doorway. “Your friends are saying their farewells.” He sounded stunned by the sight before him. “Felldir the Old, Gormlaith Golden-Hilt, Hakon-One-Eye, all returning to fight for us! By the Nine, I thought never to meet them unless I earned my place in Sovngarde.”

Pic of The heroes of Sovngarde, summoned by the Call of Valor
The heroes of Sovngarde, summoned by the Call of Valor

Deirdre turned back to Lydia. “You see, we can’t do without you. I can cast a spell on you, but only if you want me to. Or you can stay here with Garrold.”

“Over my dead body.” She tried to grin, but her mouth wouldn’t move that way just now.

“That’s my lass,” Deirdre said, and leaned over to kiss her. That nearly revived her by itself, but the Call to Arms spell did wonders.

She stood up, feeling renewed strength in her limbs, and renewed courage for battle. What was all that crying about, anyway? Lydia Ravenwood never cried. “This magical bravery really works,” she said, “even if it is fake.”

“No more of a fake than the usual Nord bluster,” Brelyna said rather severely. Then she clapped her on the back. “Still, it’s good to have the old Lydia Ravenwood back.”

Ralof turned as they approached the doorway. “Good to see you’re yourself again, Captain.” He bent and retrieved her axe and shield from where they were leaning against the wall. “You might be needing these.”

She took them, feeling sheepish. “It doesn’t sound so bad out there.”

“No, and we have Deirdre to thank. That Shout!” He gave a low whistle. “The ancient heroes made quick work of the ghost cultists. And even before that, those Mayhem and Hysteria spells took the pressure off while we retreated. Our lass is a wonder, but I expect you knew that.”

“I did. But I didn’t even know any of that was happening. Some hero I am.”

“Forget it. It happens to everyone, even the mightiest. I bet even Hakon and Gormlaith had their moments. You should have seen me after Falkreath.”

“Really?” she said

“Really?” Deirdre echoed.

He gave them both a wry grin. “I’ll tell you about it someday. But right now we have a murderer to catch.”

“We do. Would you mind taking the lead, General Ralof?”

“Don’t mind if I do, Captain Ravenwood, your Grace. Turns out these draugr aren’t so tough.”

J’zargo hissed to get their attention. “Enough chit-chat! This one’s magicka is running low.”

They entered the dining hall to see just a dozen or so draugr of the common variety huddling in a corner where they’d been driven first by the ancient heroes, and then by J’zargo’s flame spells, not to mention fear of Ralof’s axe, Svari’s sword, and Kharjo’s mace. Lydia was almost disappointed when the last undead warrior fell.

“Svari,” Ralof ordered, “bring Garrold along the best you can. He should be able to walk, but slowly. We’ll give chase to the mage.”

Svari looked at Lydia for confirmation, and she gave her a nod. Ralof led the way into the next passage, followed closely by Kharjo, then Brelyna and J’zargo, and finally Deirdre and Lydia. It felt strange to be bringing up the rear, but it was a day of many strange new experiences. And it gave her a chance to watch her friends as Brelyna gave J’zargo a playful punch on the arm.

“What?” said J’zargo.

Brelyna said nothing, but Lydia thought she heard her give a sniff. Was she crying? There’d already been too much crying, considering they were chasing a dangerous murderer through a Nord crypt.

Brelyna cuffed J’zargo again.

“What? Was this one not brave enough?”

“Foolish, more like,” said Brelyna, still sniffling. “But no, I was going to say, what you did for Lydia was very selfless.”

J’zargo didn’t reply with a boast. He didn’t reply at all. He was walking in front of Lydia, but to the right, so she had a good look at his face as he looked over at Brelyna. He wasn’t even gloating, just gazing at her with love and contentment. Lydia raised an eyebrow at Deirdre, who returned a wink.

“Damnit, J’zargo,” Brelyna said, “you’re going to make me love you after all.” She gave him another punch, and he put an arm around her shoulders. She settled her head on J’zargo’s shoulder and they walked that way for a while. It was a lovely moment, Lydia thought.

But then again, teasing J’zargo was just too tempting. “Ah, a Khajiit in love. It warms this one’s heart.”

“Pffft!” he hissed.

Feeling a bit remorseful, she caught up to him and put an arm around his shoulders. “But kidding aside, that was brave of you. I owe you my life.” She dipped her head. “Thank you. And Brelyna is lucky to have you.” J’zargo gave a little purr. “Now, don’t go getting a big head. You’re clearly the one trading up in this scenario.” She winked at Brelyna.

J’zargo just gave her a pointy-toothed grin and slipped an arm around her waist. “Yes, this is what J’zargo likes, to walk with a female on either side.” He gave a lascivious purr. Both of the females in question laughed, and neither smacked him.

“By the Nine,” said Deirdre from behind them, “that’s a sight I thought never to see.”

Up ahead, Kharjo turned to Ralof. “Tell me, general, are all Nord expeditions like this one?”

Ralof pondered for a moment. “To tell you the truth, Kharjo, I fear we may have fallen into the Realm of Sheogorath. Otherwise, I can’t explain any of this.”

“Ah, that is what Kharjo suspected.”

Ralof halted, listening. “But we’d better come back to Nirn. I think that’s the mage we’re hearing.”

Over the cleared throats, nervous tittering, and exclamations of “Yes, general!” that followed Ralof’s request, they could hear the mage swearing. “Damn this door, and damn these foolish Nordic engravings! What is that anyway? A dog? A wolf? A squirrel? Ah, yes, a fox. And now an owl and a snake.”

They heard the sound of stone grating over stone. “He’s opening the door to Rahgot’s tomb!” Deirdre yelled, dashing past her friends and around the corner.

“Hey, wait for us!” Lydia called, running after her, the rest following behind.

Pic of the puzzle door in Forelhost
The puzzle door in Forelhost

Turning the corner, she saw they were nearly too late. The door, a set of three overlapping stone disks, had already sunk halfway into the floor. The mage still had four draugr with him, and these he sent charging straight at Deirdre. Then he turned and leapt over the half-open door and disappeared beyond.

“Wuld-Nah-Kest!” Deirdre shouted, shooting past the surprised draugr, who barely managed to sidestep her in their surprise, and all the way through the door, where she was lost from sight.

Damn her recklessness! “After her!” Lydia shouted.

“Leave the draugr to J’zargo and me,” said Brelyna, summoning a flame atronach. “You three follow Deirdre.”

Lydia didn’t need to be told twice. She dashed at the draugr, shoving two aside with her axe, as Ralof did the same with the others. Kharjo passed them both, despite his steel armor. They reached the end of the hall at last and plunged through the doorway. Beyond, they found Deirdre alone at the bottom of a staircase, panting hard, standing over a pile of ash. “He… summoned… a dremora.”

“My queen,” Lydia said, stamping her foot. “You could have been killed.”

Deirdre grinned. “Feh, only a lesser daedra.”

“Now, where’s this murderer?” Kharjo demanded, dashing up the steps. The rest followed, but Kharjo pulled farther ahead. Before they were halfway up, Lydia heard the distinctive thunk of a tomb cracking open. Reaching the top of the stairs, they saw Damien preparing to cast a spell, standing next to a large sarcophagus with its lid thrown back. A dragon priest was rising before him, floating in the air, its grinning skull made yet grimmer by a heavy verdigris mask.

Pic of the Dragon Priest Rahgot

Damien cast his spell, but gasped when it had no effect. He took a step backward, but too late. Rahgot slashed at his belly with the hooked end of his staff just as Kharjo reached the altar and leapt at the Breton. There was a flash and the two rolled together in a crumpled ball surrounded by blue light, coming to rest against the far wall.

Reaching the altar, Deirdre shouted Marked for Death at Rahgot, and Lydia came in behind with a blow from her axe. The Shout should have weakened him, but the dragon priest hardly seemed to feel the blow. He veered away, hovering on one side of the sanctuary. That was the worst thing about these dragon priests. If they would only hold still!

“Hold him off while I check on Kharjo and Damien,” Deirdre said. “We can’t let him poison himself like the cultists!”

“Aye, my Queen.” Lydia stepped back from the wall of lightning Rahgot was spreading on the floor with his staff. Ralof got him from the other side with his axe, but again with little effect. The dragon priest’s thick metal breast plate offered sure protection.

Four more cracking sounds came from all around them and four deathlords stepped out of their upright sarcophagi. “Is this all you’ve got?” Lydia laughed grimly, turning to face the nearest deathlord. Rahgot replied with his own dry cackle. Where was Deirdre? How was Kharjo? Lydia just knew she and Ralof could use some help.

Then Deirdre was at their side. “Kharjo’s all right. He’ll try to keep Damien alive.”

“We could use some help with these deathlords, not to mention the damned dragon priest.” She blocked a blow from the deathlord.

“I’ll take care of these two.” Deirdre cast a spell of frenzy at the two deathlords opposite, and they fell to fighting one another.

Now Brelyna and J’zargo came running up the steps and engaged the fourth deathlord, Brelyna casting another flame atronach. Ralof went to help them.

Now this was fighting! Slicing, spinning, blocking, slashing again, standing aside just in time to let Deirdre’s spell find its target, then going in for the kill. There, one deathlord down. Much better than cowering behind a shield wall. She looked over at Deirdre and saw that she felt it too, her eyes alight with concentration, something like a smile on her lips. This is what they were made for, to roam Skyrim together, not to live pent up in a castle drilling soldiers or going over ledgers. It was easy to see that Deirdre felt more alive than at any time during these past months in Castle Dour. And Lydia felt nearly the same, save for the shadow of what had happened back in the dining hall, and the strange feeling of Deirdre’s magic still working on her.

Then a hiss came from behind them, and the smell of singed fur filled the chamber.

“Damnit,” said Brelyna, “the dragon priest turned my atronach.”

“Let’s get him!” Deirdre said, and Lydia turned toward the dragon priest. “Fus-Ro-Dah!” Deirdre shouted, smashing Rahgot into the back wall of the crypt. Lydia followed up with a blow from her axe. Deirdre hit him with an ice spike. That ought to slow him down. Lydia hit him again.

Now Rahgot was up, and zooming to the other side of the chamber. He summoned his own flame atronach, which aimed fireballs at them. Deirdre cast a ward with one hand and gave Lydia a potion of fire resistance with the other.

“Two can play that game,” Brelyna shouted. She cast a spell at the atronach, and now it was turning on Rahgot, enveloping him in flame. “But we could use some help over here!”

“Go,” said Deirdre.

“But my Queen…”

“I’ve got this.” Deirdre cast a spell of incinerate at Rahgot.

Lydia raced over to help her three friends, who were now battling two deathlords at once. She took a swing at the one who looked the weakest, and he went to one knee. Ralof finished him with a mighty blow of his own axe. Together the four of them made quick work of the last deathlord. He tried Shouting “Fus!” at them, but he was so weak that it had little effect. He fell to the floor with a final groan and the four turned to help Deirdre.

But she needed little help. A final Shout drove Rahgot to his knees, and Deirdre went in with her sword for the killing blow. As did all Dragon Priests, he dissolved into a pile of ash.

Deirdre didn’t stop to loot the ash pile for gems or Rahgot’s magical mask. “Let’s see to Damien.”

It was as bad as Lydia had feared. Rahgot’s staff had opened Damien’s belly, and now the poor fellow was trying to keep his insides on the inside, but failing terribly. Kharjo had caught part of the blow on his arm, or it might have been worse. The stench was awful, but one to which Lydia had become accustomed, along with the desperate look on the mage’s face, common to all those who felt the life leaking out of them, with no way of keeping it in. It was a good thing Kharjo had smashed all the Breton’s vials of poison, now lying in shards nearby.

Still the mage had hope. “Heal me, and I’ll tell you everything,” he said to Deirdre.

“Alas, my most powerful healing spell will do no good with such a wound. I can do something for the pain, however.” She reached in her cloak for a potion, but Lydia restrained her with a hand on her arm.

She knelt next to the Breton, showing him the sharp blade of her axe. “Soldiers moan for days on the battlefield with wounds such as yours. It’s not long before they’re begging for someone, anyone, to give them a quick death. I can give you that, if you talk. Or, we’ll leave you here, just as you are, and you can hope the draugr wake up again and finish you off.”

“Lydia,” Deirdre said, but Lydia gave her a sharp look.

“Sometimes you’re too kind-hearted, my love.”

They waited a moment longer while Damien pondered his fate. Deirdre took the opportunity to heal Kharjo’s wounded arm. Svari and Garrold came up just as she was finishing. “I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “You’ll be the most impartial witness to the Breton’s confession.”

Lydia turned to the necromancer. “Well?”

“All right, I’ll talk,” he said through clenched teeth. “You were right, of course. The Thalmor hired me. Murder a few citizens, mostly Nords, put the blame on the Khajiits. Stir up trouble, set the Nords against the minority.” He paused to wince. “Then of course kind-hearted Deirdre Morningsong would have to step in… defy the will of the people… trample the rights and duties of the jarls… all to protect the poor, oppressed Khajiits.” He tried to laugh, but only groaned. “A right little rebellion you’ve got on your hands now, I’ll wager. My work here is done. Too bad I couldn’t make it back home.”

“And the Khajiits you enthralled?” Deirdre asked. “Where did you find them? What are their names?”

“None of your concern. They came from outside Skyrim. I nabbed them in Jehanna just before crossing the border. Wanted them to be nice and fresh. As to names, I didn’t ask.”

“What do the Thalmor intend now? Do they mean to attack us while we’re at each other’s throats?”

“You think they tell me such things? No, I’m just a lowly assassin. But it stands to reason, a divided Skyrim works in their favor. If they can get you out of the picture, half their work will be done. Now, I’ve told you all. You must fulfill your end of the bargain.”

“No, one more thing. It’s been nettling me for weeks now. Why the poison? Why not just let your thralls commit the murders?”

Damien smiled, though it clearly pained him. “You detected my poisons, but you couldn’t figure out why I used them? I’m surprised.” He grimaced, and went on. “Sometimes I didn’t want the neighbors hearing any screams. And in Dragon Bridge… didn’t want to waste a good thrall. Attacking a whole family? Too much could go wrong. I knew Amaund Jurard always wore a knife. Needed to slow him down. But then the children died… before my Khajiit could get to them.”

Lydia had heard enough of this. He sounded so nonchalant about it, as if talking about livestock he’d slaughtered. “And then you had him rend their bodies anyway. What kind of monster are you?”

“One with a mission to carry out. The Khajiit had to be blamed for all of it.”

“I’m regretting my promise of a quick death.”

Deirdre placed a hand on her arm. “Lydia, we can’t make monsters of ourselves. He’s kept his promise and told us everything we need to know.” She looked to the two guards. “You heard all? You must be our witnesses.” The guards both nodded. She turned back to Lydia. “You know what you must do.”

Lydia nodded, though she knew it was more than this monster deserved.

She stood up and gestured for the others to turn away if they wished. The Breton stretched out his neck to give her a better target.

It was over quickly. She did not look away.

Lydia Ravenwood never looked away.

Categories
The Khajiit Murders Fiction

The Khajiit Murders – Chapter 16

Forelhost

“Would you look at that,” Lydia said, gazing up at the soaring buttresses of Forelhost. These Nord tombs always filled her with admiration for the ancients who’d created them, and a grim anticipation to see what was inside.

Pic of Forelhost

Only this one might be different. Rahgot was the last and most powerful of the Dragon Priests, and he’d gathered the last of the Dragon Cultists in this monastery after the Dragon War thousands of years before. Who knew how many draugr and death lords they might encounter? And on top of that, a powerful necromancer and his minion. It could be tough going.

They’d ridden hard for two days to get here, crossing the pass south of the Throat of the World, then following the shores of Lake Honrich to reach Riften. There, the captain of the hold guards told how two of his men had confronted the lone mage near the village of Shor’s Stone, but failed to capture him.

After that, they’d enlisted help from Fort Greenwall and given chase with a squad of soldiers on horseback. They kept their distance, wary of his fury spells, as the mage fled into the rocky country east of Riften, abandoning his wagon. Here the guards related a grim story. The mage pried the lid off one of the crates in the back of his wagon and cast a spell. Then a Khajiit had risen from the crate and the two had fled south on foot. The guards and soldiers tracked them up the winding road to the level porch in front of Forelhost where Deirdre and her party now stood.

Now, gazing up at the tomb, Ralof gave a shudder. “Yeah, look at that. How do we know he’s even in there?”

Lydia looked around at the steep cliffs on all sides. “He’d have to be able to levitate to get off this mountain without taking the road, and the guards have kept constant watch.”

Deirdre looked grimly at the doors to the tomb. “It’s time to prepare ourselves.” She dismounted and the party did likewise.

Lydia could already feel the keen anticipation of battle coming on. It was going to be a tough fight, but she was more than ready for it, it had been so long. Every sense seemed heightened. She relished the creaking sound the leather straps of her armor made as she dismounted, the smell of sharpening oil that rose from her axe as she drew it from its scabbard. The sky was a piercing blue at this elevation, with just a few clouds here and there. She breathed in, and the air was sharp and sweet in her lungs. Every sensation felt exquisitely precious on a day that might be her last. Overhead, a hawk shrieked, and it was like the battle cry of her own soul.

She looked over at Deirdre, and could tell that she felt it too. This is what they were made for, to face whatever dangers together, head-on, not shrinking from them behind castle walls; to fight together as one, as the well-practiced fighting duo they’d become while battling dragons and draugr.

But then a bit of the fear she’d been feeling these past months crept in. There’d been no time to return to Whiterun for Deirdre’s arch-mage’s robes or the countless other items she usually brought with her on such a foray. She remained clad in the fine trousers and embroidered blouse she’d worn to Helgen, with a cloak borrowed from Brelyna thrown over it, the varied pockets of which she was now stuffing with potions from her saddlebags. She’d have no armor, as usual, but now she’d be without her cloak’s magical protection as well.

Lydia pushed these worries aside. Deirdre, the Dragonborn, was favored by Akatosh. With such protection, nothing could happen to her that Akatosh did not intend; and if Akatosh intended Deirdre’s death, Lydia could do nothing about it, save dying at her side. She had always clung to this thought, even at their darkest moments. Protected by Akatosh’s favor, and by Lydia’s love, Deirdre could not die. And if death did take them, it could not truly separate them; they would simply walk the death road together, hand in hand, until they reached the hallowed halls of Sovngarde. And then let Tsun fear Lydia’s axe and Deirdre’s Voice, and let Shor hope his mead barrels were well-filled!

Her own gear ready, she surveyed the rest of the party. Half of the Royal Guard had accompanied them, eight in all, standing at the ready next to their mounts. Brelyna and J’zargo looked set as well, talking in low tones off to one side. It seemed their relationship had only deepened on the ride here. J’zargo seemed more considerate and less boastful, and Brelyna was responding to the change. Perhaps it was the quietly confident Kharjo rubbing off on his fellow Khajiit.

Inviting Kharjo along had been a last-minute brainstorm of Deirdre’s. He’d gladly said yes when she asked if he’d like to have revenge on the mage who tried to poison and enthrall him. Now he sat nearby, sharpening his claws on a stone.

Ralof looked ready as well, though not eager. He stood before the great doors of Forelhost muttering to himself, his skin a bit more pale than usual. Lydia went over to him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know how you feel. I felt much the same the first time I entered a tomb of the ancients. But it’s not so bad, I promise. They’re only our ancestors, after all.”

“Our ancestors, yes, but their eyes blaze with a savage blue light! I’ve heard the stories!” He shivered.

“The trick is, never look in their eyes. Aim for their necks. They can’t get back up if we lop off their heads.”

Deirdre came over, shouldering her bow. She seemed as ready as she could be. “I’m more worried about the mage and his thrall.”

“All in a day’s work, my Queen,” Lydia said.

“And are you ready, my friend?” Deirdre said, putting a hand on Ralof’s arm. At least she’d left off with the teasing. This was not the time.

Ralof drew himself to his full height and set his face. “I’ll show these draugr Ralof of Riverwood is no coward.”

“And deathlords, don’t forget,” said Lydia before she could catch herself. So much for no teasing. But black humor was always her way.

“Yes, and deathlords and dragon priests and whatever else this place has in store.”

“Then it looks like we’re ready,” Deirdre said. The rest of the party gathered around. “Friends, it’s time to do the job we came for — catch this murderer and take him alive.”

After some discussion, the party was reduced to eight. Too large a party could be a detriment in a cramped crypt. In addition to the four companions, there were Kharjo and Ralof, and two of the Royal Guards, Svari and Garrold.

“Lydia will lead us,” said Deirdre. Lydia looked over to Ralof, checking how he took this. When Deirdre had promoted him to the rank of general, she’d insisted the two of them would have equal authority. She’d even wanted to make Lydia a general as well, but Lydia had refused; commanders of guards always had the rank of captain. And now a captain would lead a general. It felt strange.

It didn’t seem to bother Ralof, however. “Aye, it only makes sense,” he said. “You two have all the experience in these crypts.”

The guards opened the massive doors, and Lydia led the way inside. The entrance hall was empty, as was the large hall beyond. Like the other ancient Nord strongholds she’d visited, this one had been built into the mountain itself, its walls rough-hewn stone bearing crude depictions of dragons and other markings left by the dragon cult. A mass of rocks and other rubble blocked the wide steps leading from the hall, but a narrow doorway off to one side promised access to deeper levels.

“Come, this way,” Lydia said, stepping into just the type of narrow passage they’d feared. “Svari, Garrold, you two bring up the rear. And everyone, watch out for pressure plates or other traps.”

Traps of all types were common in a Nord ruin, with here and there an urn or chest containing remains and valuables. Only one thing was different about this one: the complete lack of undead. At first this didn’t seem so strange as they traversed what had been the common areas of the stronghold, a worship chamber and sleeping quarters. But then they entered the crypts and found all the sarcophagi and other resting places of the dead abandoned.

“So this is a Nord crypt, eh?” said Ralof. “Not so scary after all.”

“I’ve never seen one without draugr,” said Deirdre. “It’s as if they all got up and went somewhere.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said Lydia. Draugr scourges and deathlords she could handle, but only a few at a time; what if they were gathering their forces? She didn’t like the odds. But in all their delving, they’d never known the undead to work together in a coordinated fashion. Her fingers itched to sink her axe into rock-hard draugr flesh, but all this waiting to encounter the enemy was frustrating.

They continued on, bypassing traps of fire, spikes, and swinging blades, and also many urns and chests.

“Ancient Nords left treasure for us, no?” said J’zargo. “This one thinks we should not leave it lying around.”

“We’re here to catch a murderer, J’zargo,” said Brelyna, “not make ourselves rich. And it’s not lying around; it was buried with the dead to honor them, and likely carries with it a curse on anyone so foolish as to steal it.”

“But the dead have all departed. Draugr should not be so careless with their treasure.”

“We don’t have time for treasure, but we’d better take this,” Lydia said, removing a large brass key from a shelf. A short time later, she was proved right when they reached a circular staircase blocked by a locked gate. Lydia tried the key, and it opened.

At the bottom of the stairs they found another obstacle — a descending tunnel nearly filled with water.

“I wonder how deep that is?” said Brelyna.

“There’s only one way to find out,” Lydia replied. “J’zargo, it looks like you’re getting your wish for a swim.”

“Lydia misunderstands J’zargo. This one hates swimming; he only likes to watch.”

“You’ll have to swim whether you like it or not.”

J’zargo sniffed. “And will there be skin-dipping?”

“What, and leave our armor behind? That would be foolish. Come, in you go.”

J’zargo wrinkled his nose as he waded into the chest-deep water and the rest followed. “It will take long for J’zargo’s fur to dry.”

Lydia gave a snort. “Try swimming in steel armor sometime.” She just hoped the water wouldn’t go over their heads.

“It’s true,” said Kharjo from behind, “Khajiit don’t like to go in water. But if it’s what we must do to catch this Breton, then Kharjo will do it.”

Unfortunately for Lydia and the others wearing armor, they did come to a section where the water completely filled the passage.

“I’ll explore it and see how far it goes,” Deirdre said. “I’m the better dressed for it.”

Lydia ignored her and began wading in.

“Lydia, no,” Brelyna said. “What if the mage is waiting on the other side? Why don’t I go?”

“And you in those heavy mage’s robes, and everyone else in heavy armor?” Deirdre said. “I’m better dressed for it today.”

More delay! Had it just been the two of them, there was no question that Lydia would have gone first.

“I’ll go,” said Ralof, putting a hand on Lydia’s arm. “My armor’s lighter, and nor do I have clinging cloaks or mage’s robes.”

“But what if you find draugr on the other side?” Lydia asked. “Or the mage?”

“Then they’ll feel my axe.”

Ralof disappeared into the water and returned in a few moments. “Come, it’s not too far before the passage opens up and we can wade again.”

He plunged back in and Lydia followed. In a short time they were all through the passage, the mages swimming and the warriors walking on the floor while pushing and pulling themselves along with their hands.

The small chamber they now entered contained a small table and shelves filled with potion bottles. Deirdre opened one and sniffed at it. “Poison.”

“Do you think the mage left them here?” Brelyna asked.

“No, these vials seem ancient, they’re so covered in dust. My guess is they belonged to the cultists.”

“But the mage must have taken a few, judging by these clean spots amid all the dust,” Ralof said.

Now that they had regrouped, Lydia took the lead again. Through another door, they came to a narrow passage where Lydia called for a halt. Strange noises came from a chamber up ahead. It sounded like many people groaning, and the shuffling of many feet.

“I know those sounds,” Lydia said.

Beside her, Deirdre nodded. “The mage has enthralled the draugr and gathered them here.”

Lydia turned to look at the others. Ralof seemed a bit wan, but had his axe at the ready. Brelyna was quaffing some sort of potion, probably a magicka booster. Kharjo and the guards looked as ready as they could be. But where was J’zargo?

A yelp came from an alcove back along the passage, and J’zargo leapt back, holding his arm where an arrow protruded from his sleeve.

Brelyna rushed to him. “J’zargo, are you all right?”

“Just a nick,” he said sheepishly. He pulled the arrow free from where it had been dangling from the cloth.

“What happened?” Lydia asked, going back to investigate. Then she saw the treasure chest sitting in the alcove and the murder holes in the wall next to it. Brelyna saw it at the same time and smacked J’zargo in his wounded arm. “Silly Khajiit! We told you to leave the treasure alone! We can only hope that arrow wasn’t poisoned.”

“You said we had no time for treasure. But everyone had stopped to prepare for whatever is in the next room. J’zargo only thought to prepare himself with potions or magical rings that might be in the chest.”

“And you had no hope of finding gold as well? I’ll believe that when the draugr lay down their arms and make us tea.”

“It’s a wonder they haven’t attacked already, with the racket we’re making,” Deirdre said. “Now, are we ready to face them?”

“Aye,” said Lydia in concert with Ralof and the others. “I’ll take the lead.”

“And I’ll join you,” said Ralof.

“And this one as well,” said Kharjo.

“We can’t all fit through the door at once. No, I want Svari and Garrold up front with me. We’ll form a shield wall as best we can with three. Ralof, Kharjo, you dash in for a blow when we create an opening. Mages, stay back and use whatever destruction spells seem best. And everyone, for Talos’s sake, make sure not to step in front of Deirdre when she’s getting ready to Shout.”

With the plan set, Lydia led the way to a short passage on the right, which led to an open doorway. The chamber beyond looked to be a large dining hall. It was as bad as Lydia had expected, and worse. Dozens of draugr, several scourges, and a deathlord stood around the hall and on top of the long dining tables stretching the length of the chamber. But here and there among them stood ghostly apparitions of warriors and mages.

“Who are they?” Lydia asked no one in particular. Their presence had no effect on the undead, who made no move to attack, but milled about as if awaiting orders.

“Those are the ghosts of the Dragon Cultists who made a last stand here thousands of years ago. I’ll wager you never expected them, Dragonborn.”

The voice came from on high, and to their right. The Breton mage had taken a position on a gallery overlooking the dining hall, flanked by two draugr archers, one of the ghosts, and his Khajiit thrall.

“This place is famous among practitioners of silent death, such as myself,” the Breton went on. “The cultists blockaded themselves in the depths of the monastery and took poison rather than surrender to High King Harald’s forces knocking at their doorstep. Fitting, isn’t it, that I should also make my last stand here?”

“Thank you for that history lesson,” said Deirdre. “But we have more immediate concerns. Namely, to arrest you for the murders of eight citizens of Skyrim, and attempted murder on Kharjo of Elsweyr. Now, will you give yourself up, or do we have to come get you?”

“Give up? Why, certainly! I assembled this undead army for no other purpose. But tell me, who do you think I’ve killed? Everyone knows the Khajiits were the culprits. I’m surprised you’ve brought two of the beasts with you instead of keeping them locked in cages where they belong.”

Pic of a Breton necromancer
A Breton necromancer

In a flash, Kharjo nocked an arrow to his bow and had it aimed at the Breton’s heart. “By the two moons, the Breton will not slander Khajiit in this way.”

The archers on the gallery aimed their weapons, and a rattling of swords came from all around.

Lydia put a hand on Kharjo’s arm. “Let Deirdre handle this.”

“Tell me, Breton,” Deirdre went on, “what is your name? If you’re going to force us to kill you, I’d rather know it.”

“In ordinary circumstances, I’d never reveal my identity while on a mission. But seeing how only one of us is likely to leave here alive, I might as well tell you. I am Damien of Wayrest.”

“Well, Damien of Wayrest, you should know that you’re not the only alchemist in Skyrim. Your use of poison to kill or weaken your victims was plain to me from the start. It really was quite careless. We know you are the true murderer, and the Khajiits your innocent thralls.”

“Well done, Dragonborn. But tell me, do the mass of Skyrim’s people believe your little theory? Or do they trust the evidence right before them, that the Khajiits are vicious animals who can’t be trusted? When I left Whiterun, they were already locking them up.”

Deirdre said nothing.

“You bastard!” Lydia yelled. “You’ll feel my axe when we catch up to you.” All this talking, what good did it do? She was ready to fight.

“Ah yes, that’s what I like to hear, the wit and subtlety for which you Nords are famous. But something is missing. No ‘Skyrim is for the Nords!’? You disappoint me.”

During his speech, Lydia had drawn her own bow. “Kharjo!” she yelled, and they let loose at the same instant.

Unfortunately, the Khajiit thrall had time to step in front of his master. The arrows pierced him square in the chest. “Thank you,” he murmured as he toppled over the balcony onto the floor below.

The Breton gave a bitter laugh. “See? You’re like children, so easy to manipulate. The jarls of Skyrim locking up all the Khajiits at the first sign of trouble was a simple thing to predict. As was your queen’s response in coming to the defense of the helpless and downtrodden outlanders. The province must be coming apart at the seams by now.”

“Who sent you, Damien?” Deirdre demanded.

“I never betray my employers. Goes against my professional code. But your Breton mother must have passed on some of her smarts. You can figure it out.”

“The damned Thalmor,” Lydia growled, nocking another arrow. “That’s as good as a confession!”

Deirdre pushed her bow aside. “No, he needs to confess it himself. Now, will you come peacefully?”

“You really are quite full of yourself, aren’t you, even when facing an army of undead. More than a hundred are waiting for you in the halls leading to this gallery.”

“Deirdre,” said Brelyna, “we don’t have to fight through all these draugr. He can’t have many provisions. We could retreat and starve him out.”

The Breton laughed again. “Did I neglect to tell you that the leader of these cultists was a dragon priest known as Rahgot? Very powerful, by all accounts. I was about to resurrect and enthrall him when you interrupted. So, by all means, go and wait for us on the porch. With him and his minions, we’ll sweep through you like the wind through dry leaves on a fall day. Then I can escape across the border with Cyrodiil, as I intended all along.”

Enough of this talk, Lydia thought. “What are we waiting for, let’s get him!”

“Very well, since your lovely wife seems so eager for battle…” The Breton launched a spell in their direction, then turned and disappeared from the gallery. Brelyna easily fended off the spell with her own ward, but instantly the undead army was upon them.

Lydia barely had time to drop her bow and get her shield in position, standing shoulder-to-shoulder between Svari and Garrold. The onslaught of draugr crashed into them, lashing with sword and axe, but the shieldwall held and the line did not break. On either side, Ralof and Kharjo traded blows with enemies who slipped around the edges. Brelyna and J’zargo sprayed lightning and flame spells around the room.

“What did I tell you, Ralof?” Lydia shouted. “Just like regular soldiers, am I right?” Already a good pile of draugr had fallen before him.

“Aye, but their flesh is like rock!”

“We’ll both need new weapons after this!” She gave the signal and her shield-mates opened gaps in the wall just long enough to lash out with sword and axe. At last, her axe tasted draugr flesh once more! How long had it been since she’d swung it in anger? She truly could not remember.

Pic of a battle with draugr in a Nord crypt

An arrow clattered off the top of Lydia’s shield. “Deirdre, those archers on the gallery!”

Deirdre had been concentrating on the archers and mages standing atop the tables, using her own bow quite effectively. Now she turned a spell of mayhem on the gallery archers. She was the only mage among them whose Illusion magic was strong enough to work on the undead. Lydia did wonder whether her magic would also have the strength to overcome the Breton’s resurrection spells. When the archers turned on each other and on the mage next to them, she regretted doubting her.

The onslaught against their shields abated. Peeking over, Lydia saw the common draugr giving way for a draugr scourge. “Brace yourselves!” she shouted and ducked back behind the shield.

Fus!” shouted the scourge. The shield wall held, though the partial Unrelenting Force shout pushed them back into their companions.

“Deirdre!”

Draugr Deathlord

“I have him!” Deirdre ran in front of their shield wall. Lydia felt no fear for her safety; they’d done this dance a thousand times. “Fus-Ro!” Deirdre shouted. Nearby draugr went flying, and the scourge was forced to one knee, his head bent low. The only surprise came when Ralof advanced hard on Deirdre’s Shout as if they’d planned it, taking off the scourge’s head with one swift blow.

Ralof and Deirdre fell back, but before they could get behind the shield wall, a low, dry cackle came from the end of the hall beneath the gallery. The deathlord stepped out from among the countless draugr surrounding him, his eyes blazing an unearthly blue from the slits in his tall, horned helm. He carried a gigantic double-bladed axe, but did not raise it. Instead, he pointed at Deirdre and laughed.

Now Lydia felt the first touches of dread. Not for what the deathlord might do to Deirdre, but for what other trickery might be afoot. Would these draugr even honor the ancient protocols of a duel by the Power of the Voice?

“Get back, my love,” she called. “Your Thu’um hasn’t had time to restore itself.”

“I’ll be fine! All of you, stay back, or he’ll Shout you to smithereens. And be on the lookout for any treachery from the sides.”

Everyone did as they were told, save Ralof, who stood resolutely by Deirdre’s side. “I said I’d show these draugr Ralof of Riverwood is no coward.”

“And you’ve shown that a dozen times over. But this is no ordinary draugr. His Thu’um is far more powerful even than Ulfric’s. Stand behind me, at least.”

Ralof hesitated, but Deirdre stepped in front of him just as the deathlord was gathering his breath. She anchored herself firmly to the floor, her feet spread wide in a low fighter’s stance.

Fus-Ro!” shouted the deathlord, the shockwave rippling toward them, sounding like a hundred summer thunder storms rolled into one.

But Deirdre was already drawing her own breath. Rather than radiating outward, the waves of the deathlord’s shout twisted on themselves, swirling into a single point on the Dragonborn. She took it all in, and for one long moment, absolute silence filled the chamber. Then, without Deirdre even shouting, the force was rippling back toward the deathlord and his companions, magnified ten-fold. A dozen draugr and their leader smashed into the wall beneath the gallery and fell in a crumpled heap. Many never got up again. The deathlord stirred, and Deirdre hit the others around him with a mayhem spell. They fell to fighting one another and their leader.

As if released from a spell, the enemies to the left and directly opposite returned to the fray. Deirdre and Ralof ducked behind the shield wall just in time. Lydia was about to breathe a sigh of relief, but now more draugr were pouring from the entrance to the room on their left.

“This one thinks these undead will never stop coming,” J’zargo growled.

“We’ll handle ’em!” said Ralof.

Now the ghosts of the dragon cultists were joining the battle. Whether this was a planned tactic, or the ghosts had simply wanted to observe how their corporeal allies would fare, Lydia knew not. What she did know was that arrows were clanking off her shield, which was growing cold from all the frost spells hitting it. The ghosts might have been ethereal, but their weapons were very real. A frost spike hit her steel boot and her foot went instantly numb.

Pic of two dragon cultists in Forelhost

Brelyna cast a ward to shield them while J’zargo cast a flame atronach to distract their opponents. Kharjo and Ralof darted out now and then to attack, but they had to be wary.

“Deirdre, do your frenzy spells work on wraiths?” Lydia asked.

“A moment, I need to drink this magicka potion.” So the lack of her arch-mage’s robes was taking its toll. Still, all things considered, they were holding their own.

Just then, Svari, standing on Lydia’s right where she could see the gallery, gestured upwards with her axe. “Look out! More archers above!”

But it was too late. Garrold fell with a scream. Without a thought or command, Lydia moved to her left and forward to cover him, Svari following her in lockstep, never letting a gap open between their shields. Ralof stepped up on her left, blocking and slashing with his axe, and Kharjo did the same on the right.

“Fall back!” Lydia shouted. “Get Garrold back to the passage!”

Then the world seemed to tilt beneath her feet. Suddenly she was back on the road to the White River Bridge during the flight from the Siege of Whiterun, reforming the shield wall out of the last dozen warriors. How many friends had fallen already? Idolaf Battle-Born. Adrianne and Ulfberth. Thorald Gray-Mane. Farkas of the Companions.

“Drag them back behind the lines!” she yelled, but there was no time. Behind them the women and children were screaming, clustering around the bridge that was a thousand times too narrow. On and on the High Elves came, their golden armor streaked red with blood — the blood of her friends.

Now she was raising her axe over the body of the great elf she’d just slain, rallying her diminishing troops to one last stand. The arrow pierced the gap between her pauldron and cuirass. A flesh wound, she thought, not deep, then the green fog settled over her eyes. Now Aela and Vilkas were standing over her, the last warriors left, preparing to defend her against the charging elves. But Onmund was rushing past them, shouting, “For Lydia!” and “For Skyrim!”, his lightning and flame spells brightening the dawning day. She closed her eyes for what she thought would be the last time.

Now she remembered. That was the last time she’d raised her axe in anger. She tried to remember where she was, hoping for that same battle-rage to come over her. Nothing save that cursed poison arrow had been able to stop her that day. But her limbs were turning to water instead. Her knees felt weak and she couldn’t keep her shield up much longer. “Fall back!” she called again, only it came out as a high-pitched wail. The sight of her dead friends’ bodies, horribly mutilated, kept passing before her eyes. That, and Jarl Balgruuf ordering her from his side to lead the retreat. She should have died that day!

“Lydia, are you all right?” Ralof was still next to her, giving her a sidelong glance as he continued to parry and slash.

“I can’t! The women and children! I cannot save them! Damn these elves! They’re only little children!”

Her knees buckled. The shield wall was giving way.

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