“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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.