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Songs of the Dead

Discussion in 'Skyrim Fan Fiction' started by Khasrin, Jun 1, 2013.

  1. Khasrin

    Khasrin Fusozayiit

    Feb 12, 2013
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    [​IMG]ut ever shall Darkness contest the Light
    And great were the Powers that breathed the void
    And laid waste upon one another
    And no oath might bind them, so deep were they in envy and perfidy.
    - The Waters of Oblivion -
    [​IMG]e simply do what we do, and let the world be damned.
    - Ahzirr Traajijazeri -
    "I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Onmund muttered, pulling off his rain-soaked hood. It landed on the carriage seat with a wet slap. He picked up an empty sack from the pile, plucked away a stray piece of straw, and draped it over his head.
    "What a fuss you make! It's only water, you know." Nikhaya shifted the reins to one hand and rummaged through her satchel with the other until she found an apple. She tossed it to Onmund, snorting back laughter as she caught a glimpse of his makeshift rain hat. "Here. Eat breakfast. Breakfast always cheers this one up." She squinted at the horizon, partly looking for the next road sign but mostly lost in thought.
    Onmund rubbed the apple over his sodden robes and took a huge bite. "You sure got quiet in a hurry," he said through a mouthful of fruit. "Something on your mind?"
    "Mm, yes. I never imagined you had so much hair under that hood."
    "Huh. You're a fine one to talk."
    The old carriage creaked and groaned over the wet cobblestones. If anyone else had taken the road from Whiterun to the Pale that morning, they would have arrived at their destination with an amusing tale to tell - the contents of this particular carriage were a memorable sight indeed.
    For one thing, it was driven by a Khajiit. She was clad in leather armor and a mage hood, her pale green eyes alive with the glow of health and naturally high spirits. Occasionally she produced a bottle of mead and took a swig or two to supplement those spirits.
    The real spectacle was in the back seat, for the former owner of said carriage was slumped in the corner, partially buried under burlap sacks and straw. He was bound and unconscious, and a large bump had recently appeared on his head. A thoroughly damp and unhappy College mage sat beside him with a half-eaten apple in one hand and an empty wine bottle in the other, ready to give the poor man another mysterious bump on the head if the need arose.
    A great wooden box, long and narrow, took up most of the carriage. A strange odor like ancient moss and mildewed parchment permeated the wood, but neither of them had remarked upon it. After a few months of sleeping and studying in the Hall of Attainment, it practically smelled like home.
    "I know. We'll sing one of your Nord songs. That will pass the time in the carriage, yes? Khajiit will sing the first part, and you can do the next bit." Nikhaya cleared her throat. "Ohhhhhh...there once was a hero named Ragnar the Red..."
    Onmund was silent.
    Nikhaya shrugged. She felt around under the seat for her bottle of mead. "Ah well. At least it's a fine day."
    "It's raining. A lot."
    "Of course, but the world smells so....delicious when it rains. Don't you think? Besides, a day without snow is as fine a day as you can ask for in Skyrim."
    They rode on in silence. The sky had lightened considerably since they'd set out for Winterhold at dawn, but the day was still gray and chilly and, in Onmund's opinion, far too wet to be going anywhere in a carriage. Nikhaya hummed the bards' song to herself - a local favorite, so they claimed - and patted her pockets in search of a snack. Ah! Salted gourd seeds.
    "Why won't you tell me what's in the box?"
    Nikhaya chuckled. "Aha, so that is what is bothering you. What you have a...what is it...a bee under your hat for."
    "A bee in your bonnet. And no, I'm bothered by all of this! 'Follow me, I need your help', you said, and being the good friend that I am, I did everything you asked. I hired the carriage, I rode all the way out to the Barrow to meet you. But you never said anything about beating an innocent man to death and stealing the carriage from him!"
    "Pfft. He's not dead." Nikhaya popped a seed into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. "Is he?"
    "What? No! I mean..." Onmund leaned over the pitiful figure and frowned. "I don't know. He hasn't moved in a long time."
    "Hm." Nikhaya spat the seed husk into the road. "Kick him and see what he does."
    "You're horrible!"
    She shrugged. Onmund stretched out his foot and gently prodded the erstwhile carriage driver with his boot. The bound man groaned and fell over behind the box.

    "Good. Give him another thump with the bottle if he starts coming around before we get to Dawnstar. And take that silly sack off your head. You look like this one's mad old grandmother."
    Onmund sighed, exasperated. "The box, Nikhaya. You didn't answer my question."
    Nikhaya turned and favored him with what was meant to be a charming smile, which necessarily meant favoring him with a view of her gleaming white fangs as well. Onmund closed his mouth and sat back, as far from her unsettling grin as he could get without actually moving.
    "You should have more faith, friend. Khajiit is your friend, no?"
    "This one faced many dangers to recover your family treasure from Enthir."
    "I know, I know you did, and I'm grateful. I am. It's just..."
    "Well, it's just what you said. You do dangerous things for people. Crazy things! There could be anything in this box, knowing you." He started ticking off possibilities one by one on his fingers. "Dangerous weapons...skooma...it better not be skooma...stolen goods..."
    Nikhaya nodded sagely. "Stormcloaks, horkers, beehives, two hundred wooden ladles..."
    "I'm not talking to you anymore if you're going to make fun of me."
    She tried not to smile, but she couldn't help herself. "Ah, Onmund. My brave Nord companion. I offer you a humble apology for my bad joke. As for what is in the box, it is for Enthir."
    Onmund snorted. "Enthir. I should have known he would be mixed up in this. What is it?"
    Nikhaya was quiet for a moment. "He needed a specimen," she replied hesitantly. "For his research. He asked me to fetch it for him."
    "A specimen." Onmund's face was utterly blank.
    "Yes. He needed a fresh one. A live one, that is. Well, somewhat live..."
    "Right. That's it. I am getting out of the carriage this instant and walking back to Whiterun if you don't tell me what's in here!" He gave it a vicious kick for emphasis and immediately winced. "Ouch."
    A guttural growl of fury issued from the box. Onmund cried out and leapt to his feet, nearly catapulting himself out of the carriage. The box's inhabitant scratched frantically at the inside of its prison, croaking in anger at its captors through the wood. Nikhaya didn't speak a word of ancient Nord, but she fancied she knew a stream of profanity when she heard one.
    She groaned. "Onmund, why? You've woken it up!"
    Onmund was trembling...was it fear? Rage? Nikhaya thought she smelled both, and something dangerous besides, like living fire. He swayed rigidly where he stood as Nikhaya drew the horse to a stop. Lightning crackled over his clenched fists.
    "A Draugr? You brought one of those...those monsters...out of the Barrow? For what?! What have you done, Nikhaya?" His voice cut into her like a shard of ice.
    She turned to face him. Her eyes had lost all of their sparkle; she was now somber, subdued.
    "Enthir made this one swear to keep quiet," Nikhaya murmured, "but really, what is the point? If the elf can't find a cure, all of Skyrim will know before long."
    "What are you talking about? A cure for what?"
    "Please sit down," she pleaded. "Khajiit will tell you everything, this very moment, but you must calm yourself first. Can you do this?"
    Slowly, Onmund sat. He leveled a razor sharp gaze at Nikhaya. "Well then. Talk." His face was still flushed with anger, but the shock spell had vanished from his hands. "This had better be good."
    Nikhaya nodded. She took a deep breath, trying to find her next words.
    "Something terrible is happening," she said.

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  2. Khasrin

    Khasrin Fusozayiit

    Feb 12, 2013
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    "Hold on. Before I begin..." Nikhaya fished through the clinking contents of her satchel and emerged with a bottle of ale. She held it out to him.

    "By the Nine! Not another one!" Onmund rolled his eyes. "You're such a drunk. How much of that stuff are you hiding in there?"

    "This one is for you."

    Onmund took it from her and tossed it into the straw pile. "I don't drink alcohol. And you've had enough. Now start explaining."

    "What, not at all?" Nikhaya stared at him, open-mouthed, as though he'd just told her skeevers have wings. "You are a strange one. You might change your mind after you hear this."

    "Nikhaya, please! What's going on?!"

    "Fine, fine." She climbed into the back of the carriage and sat down beside him. "You know Kraldar, that kind Nord fellow that lives just outside the College? Friends with the Archmage, so he says. His housecarl was found dead last Middas, just outside of town."

    "I heard about that. Attacked by wolves, the guards thought. All bitten and chewed up, arms almost torn off." Onmund shook his head. "Poor man. That's a terrible way to go."

    "Yes, well..." Nikhaya glanced around them. There wasn't another soul on the road except for an inquisitive red fox and a pair of thoroughly disinterested deer. "The same guard who found Thonjolf dead last week found him shambling around down by Saarthal, three days ago."

    "That's impossible. The man was dead and buried! ....wasn't he?"

    Nikhaya nodded. "He was. Kraldar buried Thonjolf himself, up on the cliff by the sea. But naturally they went to inspect Thonjolf's grave after he was found, and it was empty. Dug out from the inside, by the looks of it. And there he was, limping around with one arm just hanging there and half his face chewed off. Seems he'd caught himself an ice wolf. Tore out its throat and belly and was eating its...well, that part doesn't matter," she continued hastily as Onmund's face turned pale. "Thing is, he was dead the whole time. And the guard swears Thonjolf's eyes were as black as night! Khajiit only met the man once, but a Nord with black eyes...this one would have remembered!"

    "Are you sure about this, Nikhaya?" He raised a skeptical eyebrow. "I mean, what about necromancy? That could explain it. Suppose some necromancer dug him up and made a thrall out of him? I know it's unlikely, but at least it's plausible."

    "He was no thrall," she said quietly. "The elf already checked, and so did Phinis, the conjuration master. No signs of any reanimation magic. Phinis said that such magic always leave a detectable trace of the spell behind."

    "But he's actually dead now, right? For good this time?"

    She nodded. "When he spotted the guard, Thonjolf attacked. The guard put a sword through his head and he collapsed, and he hasn't gotten up again. As far as I know."

    "That doesn't make any sense," Onmund murmured, biting anxiously at his thumbnail. "What would make a dead man climb out of his own grave to eat the living?"

    "That's what Enthir is trying to find out." She took Onmund gently by the wrist and drew his hand away from his mouth, smiling as he blushed at the unexpected touch. So shy, some of these Nord men! "He has Thonjolf's body at the College, and he wants this draugr so he can compare the two. Search for similarities. Maybe find out what's happening to these people."

    "What do you mean, people?" Horror spread over Onmund's face. "You mean there's been more than one?"

    "Unfortunately, yes. There was a second attack to the south of Winterhold, at the Nightgate Inn. Two men in miner's clothes, chewed apart like Thonjolf...they attacked Hadring the inkeeper while he was bringing in firewood. He was not hurt, but a guest at the inn was bitten. An Orc. Khajiit cannot recall that one's name. The Orc ran off and one of the dead men chased after him. Nobody has seen them since. Hadring bludgeoned the other one's head in, then set fire to him, just to be sure."

    "Huh. Sounds like a Nord."

    Nikhaya shrugged noncommitally. "No other confirmed reports, not yet. But this one overheard the Winterhold guards talking about an attack last night, at the stables outside of Windhelm. Something about a horse's leg being chewed off below the knee."

    "Divines save us," Onmund murmured. He folded his arms over his chest, shivering. "We should hurry. I'm freezing."

    "So am I. Let's get this old thing back to the College. And hope and pray to all of the gods that we are not too late to stop this, whatever it is."

    "Everything you're telling me...gods, Nikhaya, I don't even know what to say." Onmund stared at the box. To Nikhaya he looked younger than his years just then, troubled and afraid. How old is he, anyway? I never asked him... She laid a hand on his sleeve.

    "We will be fine, friend," she said softly. "Onmund and Khajiit. We are a pair to be reckoned with! Here." Nikhaya picked up the discarded bottle of ale. She uncorked it expertly with her claws and held it out to him. "Trust me."

    Onmund took a small sip and screwed up his face in disgust. "Ugh. How can you drink this? It tastes like bad mushrooms!" He sniffed it, brought it reluctantly to his lips again. "Well...I don't know. Maybe a person gets used to it."

    Nikhaya patted his arm and climbed back into the driver's seat. The rain had stopped, but to the north the snow was falling thick and fast, obscuring the mountains ahead. A feeling of dread settled in Nikhaya's heart. Somewhere up there, she thought, the threads of the world are coming unravelled.


    The snow had intensified into a furious storm by the time the dark silhouette of the College came into view. Bitter, icy winds whipped over the hills from the west, burying all the world under a blanket of white crystals.

    Onmund and Nikhaya huddled together under a blanket of furs on the driver's seat, shivering in their wet clothes. Nikhaya kept one hand on the reins and the other arm firmly around Onmund's waist. He'd followed his first taste of ale with another bottle and a half of Black Briar mead; each time the carriage struck a bump, he swayed alarmingly to one side.

    "Hm. Khajiit wonders now if that was the best place to leave the driver," she mused.

    "Nah. To Oblivion with the driver." Onmund emptied the bottle and chucked it out into the snow. "That fool of a...what was he?"

    "He was a Nord."

    "Figures. Damned Nords."

    Nikhaya refrained from commenting.

    "B'sides, there were people back there. They can help him. Those...erm..." Onmund waved his hand in the air, trying to summon the word he was searching for.



    She nodded. "They will see to him, I have no doubt of that. Ah, look! How glad I am to see the College again! We are nearly home, and you've had a bit too much to drink."

    "N'i'm fine. Nikhaya?"


    He blinked, trying to get hold of his thoughts again. "I like traveling with you," he said finally.

    Nikhaya laughed, shaking her head. "This one is glad to know you, Onmund. You are delightful company. Even when you're sober."

    "Why, thank you." He tried to affect a mock bow and almost tumbled headfirst out of the carriage. Nikhaya grabbed him by his robes and pulled him back.


    A Winterhold guard stepped up to the carriage, torch in hand. "You had better be here on official business, cat. Winterhold is closed to travelers until further notice."

    "We are with the College," Nikhaya replied. Her tail flicked with annoyance at the word 'cat'. "I am afraid we must get back immediately. May we pass, please?"

    "Huh." The guard regarded them for a moment, then walked around to the back of the carriage, shining her torch over the contents. By all the gods and daedra, Nikhaya prayed, don't let her trifle with that box.

    "Go on," the guard said at last. "They're waiting for you at the bottom of the bridge. And you'd better get that one indoors." She pointed to Onmund. "He looks three sheets to the wind to me."

    "This one thanks you for your wise advice, madame guard." Nikhaya smiled at her, one of those particular Khajiit smiles that outdo even the most sincere verbal threat. The guard was right; a group of cold and disgruntled mages with an empty cart stood at the end of town near the College bridge, stamping their feet and holding flame spells in their hands.

    "Here they come! They're back!" Tolfdir's voice was nearly lost in the roar of the wind as he hurried out to meet them. He offered his hand to Nikhaya. "Thank goodness. We were beginning to worry about you. Mirabelle was considering forming a search party, but here you are. Safe and sound, yes?"

    "More or less." Nikhaya inclined her head toward Onmund. She made a bottle-tipping motion with her hand, crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue for emphasis.

    "Ah, I see. Not all sound, but perfectly safe. Well, that's the important part. Colette, Drevis, bring the cart over here, will you?"

    "But how are we going to get it over the bridge?" Colette lamented. "There's that broken part at the top, you know...and then all the way up the stairs to the Arcaneum!" She cast a suspicious eye over the carriage. "And where in Oblivion did you get a carriage, anyway?"

    Nikhaya opened her mouth to speak, but Tolfdir held up his hand. "We won't get into that right now. Let's get inside. It's absolutely frigid out here...Onmund, do you need a hand?"

    He shook his head. "Not yet...not feeling so well..."

    Nikhaya rolled her eyes. "Khajiit told you to take it easy! Perhaps next time you will listen. Speaking of which..." She spotted Ranmir heading across the street to The Frozen Hearth and began waving her arms in the air. "Ranmir!" she shouted. "Over here!"

    Ranmir stopped and stared, holding his hand above his eyes to shield them from the blowing snow. "Oh...it's you people. What d'ya want?"

    "This one has a proposal for you, friend. Whiterun Hold needs a new carriage driver. Do you want the job? Khajiit has done it for nearly a day and can assure you, you will not need to be sober."

    He shrugged. "Pff...sure. If it gets me out of this shi-"

    "Perfect. This carriage is now yours, on one condition."

    "And that is..?"

    "Help me get Onmund out of it first."

    Two hours and a great deal of shouting and cursing passed before the now-paralyzed draugr was laid across a table in the center of the Arcaneum. Books, scrolls, and nameless instruments were spread haphazardly over a second table, and a third held the remains of poor Thonjolf, draped in a bloodied cloth. The sickening odor of human decay hung in the air.

    Drevis and Colette had departed, but the others stayed behind in Enthir's makeshift laboratory. Urag stewed in silence behind his desk, glaring daggers at everyone assembled, living or otherwise.

    "Well. If it isn't my old friend Onmund." Enthir didn't look up from the tome he was reading. "All this fetching of things by carriage seems to have taken its toll on you."

    "I noticed you weaseled out of getting it yourself, elf," Onmund snapped, slurring half his words, "so you can take that smirk off your face!"

    Enthir ignored him. "Nikhaya, I'm very grateful to you. To both of you," he said pointedly. He pulled the cloth from Thonjolf's corpse.

    Nikhaya's stomach turned over as she saw what was left of the Nord's mangled body. "Can this one do anything further to assist?" she asked. She secretly hoped the answer was no.

    "Oh, by the Eight - someone give Onmund something to be sick in!"

    "What? Oh, blast!" Nikhaya scrambled to grab hold of a spare bucket and thrust it into Onmund's lap. It was not a moment too soon. "Tolfdir? This one has a question, if she may."

    "Of course, my dear. What is it?"

    "That paralysis spell, on the draugr...how are you sustaining it? Khajiit saw you cast it, but it has been several minutes now. You told us that a paralysis spell only last for ten seconds. Fifteen, if you've mastered it."

    "How very perceptive. And a sharp memory besides!" Tolfdir's eyes twinkled. "Tell me, how do you think I might be maintaining such a spell?"

    "Hm." Nikhaya absentmindedly stroked Onmund's dark hair as she mulled it over. He leaned against her, too ill to protest. "Well, to keep it up for that long, you must be using some source outside of yourself. Something powerful..." Nikhaya grinned. "Ah...you're using the Eye of Magnus, aren't you? Siphoning its power to sustain the spell and leave your magicka free for other things."

    "Exactly! Good for you! We know so little yet about the Eye and its capabilities, so in the interest of furthering our knowledge, I feel we should be taking every opportunity to-"

    "Much as I hate to intrude upon this valuable lesson," Enthir interrupted, "I'm ready for your Detect Dead spell over here, and this one isn't getting any fresher." He prodded at Thonjolf's body with a quill.

    "Of course, my apologies." A purple mist swirled around Tolfdir's hands, and the draugr was surrounded in a golden orange glow. Thonjolf's corpse was unresponsive.

    "Huh. I guess we knew that was going to happen." Enthir put on a pair of gloves and prodded gently at the draugr, then at Thonjolf. "Eyes look normal to me. Maybe the guard was mistaken." He sighed. "Damn it. We're going about this all wrong!"

    "What do you mean?"

    "Well, it's obvious. Everything we know about the draugr rules out any connection. Draugr are ancient, whereas these men and women are newly dead. The draugr don't leave the Nordic ruins in which they were interred, but these things wander all over the place and attack indiscriminately."

    "The draugr are embalmed, too," Nikhaya added. "Nordic ruins are always lousy with embalming tools. Besides, I've been attacked by draugr plenty of times, but none of them have ever tried to eat me. They are guardians, servitors. Not hungry beasts. Though I did find a whole table full of cheese in Ustengrav once-"

    "Stop there. Please." Enthir rubbed his forehead as if it pained him. "You knew this all along, but you didn't say anything?"

    Nikhaya shrugged. "You asked for a live draugr, and this one brought you a live draugr. I thought you had some brilliant plan under your robe."

    Onmund snorted. He elbowed Nikhaya in the side. "Up your sleeve," he muttered.

    "Wait a moment, let's think about this." Tolfdir paced back and forth. "If no magic is involved, and this 'disease of undeath' is transmitted through being bitten by the infected, much like rockjoint or ataxia...then perhaps we can cure it like any other disease if the victim is still alive."

    "If they're not torn limb from limb and eaten first, like our friend here. This is no ordinary sickness. What kind of disease only takes hold after you die? If I didn't know any better, I'd swear this was a curse of some kind." Enthir gave Tolfdir a meaningful look. "What do you say, friend?"

    Tolfdir grew quiet.

    "I have no idea," he said at last. "This is certainly within the Vigil's sphere of interest, but in all my years with them, nobody ever mentioned such a thing. It could be some rare form of vampirism, but that just doesn't ring true."

    "The Vigil." Nikhaya looked puzzled. "Of Stendarr? Daedra hunters, yes?"

    "Yes indeed." Tolfdir carefully recovered Thonjolf's remains. "Few people know this, my dear, but I was a Vigilant myself...many years ago, before I came to the College. Stendarr being the Divine of Mercy, the Vigilants seek to protect mortalkind from daedric influence in his name. By tearing it up at the roots, so to speak. Forgive me, I have no idea if your people worship a similar deity..?"

    Nikhaya nodded. "S'rendarr, The Runt. Also a god of mercy. Though most Khajiit will tell you ours are the only true gods." She smiled faintly. "This one, she has little use for religion."

    The air suddenly felt heavy, electrified. With a crackling sound, the green glow of the paralysis spell vanished.

    The draugr was free.

    "Someone kill it!" The mages scattered as the draugr rose from the table, a fire in its eyes. A guttural scream rattled in its throat. It lunged toward Nikhaya with surprising swiftness. She unsheathed her claws and hissed.

    Purple-white bolts of lightning split the air and struck it down. Its ancient bones snapped as it collapsed on the floor in a puff of dust.

    "Well, that's that, then. Thank you, Onmund...by the way, that was a very impressive use of Lightning Bolt! Especially in your current state." Tolfdir helped Enthir lift the crumpled draugr back onto the table. "Listen, I know you two have had a long journey. You deserve some rest. But we need to find out how far this has spread, and soon. Any thoughts?"

    "Leave that to me," Nikhaya said. "I have a friend at the Black Briar Meadery in Riften. Dunmer, keeps to himself most of the time, but if anything is happening in this part of Skyrim, he'll have news of it." She grinned. "I doubt the Thieves' Guild picks up half as much dirt as he does."

    "Excellent. If you would be so kind as to head down there tomorrow and see if you can learn anything, we'll continue our work here. And please be careful, Nikhaya. If the stories we're hearing are true, you may well encounter some of these things along the way."

    "Khajiit will leave at dawn, then. Goodnight, gentlemen. And you, Onmund, you are going straight to bed."

    "I'm coming with you," he insisted, clutching her hand, "to Riften. Don't you dare leave without me."

    Nikhaya smiled. An unaccustomed feeling of warmth rose in her chest as his hand lingered over hers. She squeezed it affectionately. "I wouldn't dream of it."

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  3. Khasrin

    Khasrin Fusozayiit

    Feb 12, 2013
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    Dawn had barely crept over the horizon when Nikhaya got out of bed. The chill of night still hung in the air. She hurried into her clothes, shivering as her bare feet touched the cold floor. Ugh...how nice it would be to share this bed! For warmth, if nothing else.
    There was little to do. She had packed nearly everything the night before, after seeing Onmund into his bed. Ah, yes. Onmund.
    Nikhaya slipped her boots on and padded quietly through the Hall of Attainment to her friend's room. By his own admission, he was a heavy sleeper at the best of times (a fact he would never be allowed to live down, not after J'zargo's ill-fated Heat Lightning scrolls detonated themselves in the small hours of the morning and woke every soul in the Hall, save one.) How to rouse him, then, without waking the others?
    She climbed gingerly onto the end of his bed and perched herself on his feet. "Onmund?" she murmured. He didn't stir. She leaned over him until they nearly touched and prodded him in the chest. "Onmund!"
    Onmund shot bolt upright in bed. He shrank back against the wall, chest heaving, and stared at Nikhaya in bleary-eyed shock.
    "What in Oblivion," he hissed, "are you doing in my bed?"
    "Time to get up." She crossed her arms over her chest, feigning impatience. "Riften awaits. How do you feel, friend?"
    "How do you think I feel?" Onmund groaned, rubbing his temples. "Is this how you wake people up? By climbing into bed with them?"
    "Only people I like."
    He was trying hard not to smile, but his eyes gave him away. "You're the strangest woman I've ever met. You know that?" He buried his face in his hands. "Oh gods, my head..."
    "Good. Khajiit hopes to always keep you wondering. As for your head, this one has something for you." Nikhaya tossed a small purple bottle into his lap. "Drink that. You will feel better in no time."
    Onmund looked doubtful. "Do I even want to know what's in this?"
    "Probably not."
    He shrugged resignedly, uncorked the bottle and tipped the contents into his mouth. "Huh. Not bad. Kind of sweet."
    Nikhaya nodded. She was about to divulge a few alchemical secrets, but thought better of it. "We should leave soon," she whispered. "Get what you can't live without and meet me in my room. I've got some old guard's armor that should fit you. Might want to choose a weapon as well. I've got quite a few."
    "Why am I not surprised?" He yawned. "Do you think I'm going to need one? I can defend myself, you know."
    "Khajiit means no offense, friend. This one has nothing but confidence in your skills as a mage, but the only thing we know for certain will kill those creatures is a blade to the head. We need to be prepared. A blade and a bow, and some sturdy armor."
    "I suppose you're right. Nikhaya?"
    "Yes, Onmund?"
    "I can't get out of bed with you sitting on my legs."
    The road heading south from Winterhold is always a snowy, treacherous mess, slippery underfoot and haunted by hungry wolves on the prowl for their next taste of flesh. Keeping a vigilant eye out for dead men with the very same motives while trying to muffle your footsteps, nurse a lingering hangover, and humor a chatty Khajiit does nothing to shorten the journey. Still, Onmund was coping. By afternoon the white landscape of the mountains gave way to browns and coniferous greens, and the road was considerably gentler.
    "So what you're telling me is that to a Khajiit, everyone has a different...scent?"
    "Mm, yes. Parents and children, siblings, they smell very much alike, but there are always differences. Race makes a difference too...men smell different than elves, who smell different than Khajiit or Argonians." Nikhaya wrinkled her nose. "Argonians, they stink."
    "That's nice."
    "No, but it's true. They all smell faintly of swamp."
    Onmund shook his head. "And men? Do I dare ask what I smell like to you?"
    "Let me see." She stood on tip-toe and leaned close to him, breathing deeply near his neck. "Hm...you smell of the earth. Green shoots nourished by sun and rain, growing out of dark, moist soil. You also smell a little like milk, for some reason. But good, fresh milk."
    "I smell like milk and dirt? Wonderful."
    Nikhaya started to giggle and quickly covered her mouth. She cast an anxious glance around them. Nothing stirred on either side of the road. "Forgive me," she said quietly. "This one forgot herself. I will try to talk less."
    "Ha. Good luck." He squirmed, trying to adjust the straps of the satchel Nikhaya had given him. A steel battle axe was strapped to his back beneath it. For someone unused to carrying two-handed weapons, it made for uncomfortable traveling. "You talk more than anyone I've ever met."
    "Khajiit has much to say. And anyway, yours is not a bad smell. I like it. You also smell like a spice. Nutmeg, perhaps. It's not unusual to smell spicy. My father once told me that I smell like cinnamon and ferns that haven't uncurled yet."
    "Huh. Well, you smell like a cat to me." Onmund ducked as Nikhaya took a playful swing at him with her fist. He grinned. "You know I'm joking. You smell fine. I guess...I mean, it's not like I've been sniffing you....gods, why are we even having this conversation?"
    "Better than walking to Riften in silence. Besides, I- wait!" Nikhaya froze, her tail rigid as a broomstick. She laid a hand on Onmund's chest. "Don't move," she whispered. "I hear something."
    They stood in the road, silent and still. Each movement of wind through grass, every distant birdcall seemed amplified. Even the silence felt heavy, a warning. A faint irregular rustling could be heard in the distance, growing louder. Closer.
    Something was moving through the trees.
    "Be ready," she whispered. A Blades sword, charged and glinting silvery blue with a deadly frost spell, hung from her hip. She laid her hand upon the hilt. Blood pounded in her veins as she crouched low, ready to spring.
    An orc stumbled down the embankment, moving as though his limbs were held up by strings. His once fine clothes were now torn and dirty, crusted with blood. One badly chewed arm hung limp below the elbow. A young woman in miner's clothes staggered out of the woods behind him. Her nose was torn away, one eye chewed down to the socket. Her bottom jaw hung low, far too low. Both their eyes were black as night.
    Oh no... Nikhaya's heart sank. She knew who the woman had once been.
    The orc caught sight of them and let loose an ear-splitting scream. The woman echoed him, wolflike, raising a chilling howl into the air. Nikhaya shuddered. Hairs all over her body stood on end.
    The dead ones charged toward them.
    "Oh no you don't!" Onmund unleashed a surge of lightning at the pair of them, strong enough to strike down any living man and hurl him through the air as well. Nothing happened. They kept coming.
    "Blast...it's not working! Try to aim for his head!"
    Another barrage of lightning shot from Onmund's hands and struck the orc full in the face. He staggered, blinking uncomprehendingly, but he lumbered forward.
    "You have got to be kidding me!" Onmund wrenched the battleaxe free from its scabbard and took a wild swing. The blade sliced deeply into the orc's shoulder. He gave another unearthly bellow and stumbled back.
    "The head! Aim for the- eeh!" Nikhaya dove out of the way as he swung the axe backwards. This blow struck the orc squarely on the skull, splitting his head open with a sickening crunch.
    The woman lunged toward Nikhaya, clutching at her with pale, ragged arms. Nikhaya leapt upon her and speared her through the empty eye socket. A final shrill scream rattled in her throat before she collapsed to the ground. Thick, blackish blood seeped from her nose and mouth.
    Nikhaya and Onmund leaned against each other's backs, stunned and breathless. Several minutes passed before either of them found the nerve to speak.
    "Are you alright?" Nikhaya ventured at last.
    "By alright," he muttered, "I assume you mean alive? Unbitten?" He laughed. It was a hollow, mirthless sound. Nikhaya didn't like it. "If that's all you want from me, then yes, I'm alright. Are you?"
    "I am fine." She crouched beside the fallen woman. With one fingertip she reached out and closed her remaining eye. It was no longer black and clouded, but a warm, deep shade of brown. "Poor Sylgja," she murmured. "What happened to you, dear one?"
    "Wait...oh no. Nikhaya, did you know her?" Onmund knelt down next to his friend.
    She nodded. "She lived in Shor's Stone. I met her not long after I came to Skyrim. I delivered some letters to her parents for her when she was recovering from a fall in the mine. Lovely girl...very kind to me."
    "By the gods...I'm so sorry." Onmund laid his hand gently on her shoulder. "Look...I know this doesn't help much, but at least she's not one of them anymore. She's at peace. Thanks to you."
    "This is true." She tilted her head toward his hand and rested her cheek against his fingers. To her surprise, he didn't pull away.
    "We should build a fire," he said. "I don't know how you tend to your dead in Elsweyr, but it's not unusual here in Skyrim. And then...maybe we'd better get going. In case the fire draws more of them."
    An hour's work yielded enough wood and kindling to sustain the blaze. They broke apart an abandoned cart they found nearby, laid the pieces on a large flat boulder, and carefully draped Sylgja and the orc over the top. Nikhaya cast Fire Bolt onto the pyre until the flames took hold.
    "To strangers," she said quietly, "and to friends." She threw a handful of blue mountain flower into the flames. Onmund grasped her hand.
    They watched together in silence as the blossoms crackled and withered away, leaving nothing but ash.
    The hills turned from green to fiery gold as they approached Riften. Crisp birch leaves fell from the trees, fluttering in the air and swirling around their feet. The cobbled road meandered into a worn dirt path. It was good to know the first stretch of their journey was almost at an end; their muscles ached, and their feet were sore and tender inside their boots from days of walking. They'd taken refuge in an empty cave the night before, taking turns trying to sleep while the other sat up and kept guard, but neither had gotten much rest.
    Nikhaya had been strangely quiet since they left the pyre. The last two days had taken a toll on them both, but prolonged silence was not her way, even in grief. Onmund had let her alone to mourn, but the longer she wandered alone in her thoughts, the more morose she seemed. It was starting to worry him.
    He cleared his throat. "You know, with all this going on, I can't help but wonder if everyone is alright back home." He spied a cluster of wildflowers at the side of the road and bent down to pick them.
    She raised her eyes at last. "Where is home, friend? This one has been curious."
    "Promise you won't laugh?"
    "Khajiit swears to you, she will not laugh." She pressed her hand emphatically over her heart.
    "Ivarstead." He twisted the white puffs off a stem of tundra cotton as he spoke. "To the west of here. My family has a farm there, Fellstar Farm. You know it?"
    "Ah, perhaps." Nikhaya thought it over. "I may have passed it on the way to the Seven Thousand Steps."
    Onmund laughed. "You and the rest of the world. It's nothing grand. We managed to feed ourselves and had a little left over to sell. My parents were furious when I told them I intended to study magic instead of take over the farm. Said if I left Ivarstead for the College, I wasn't their son anymore."
    Nikhaya stopped in her tracks, eyes wide. She looked stricken. "That's terrible!"
    He shrugged and flung the beheaded stalk into the grass. "I was never the son they'd hoped for. Kept to myself instead of playing with the other boys. More interested in books than fighting or hunting. I'm used to being a disappointment. I was more shocked than anyone the day I left for Winterhold and my father handed me the amulet."
    "Ah yes, your amulet...is there anything special about it? Magical, I mean. Or just a family treasure? Khajiit could not tell."
    "Don't know. It's been in my family longer than anyone can remember, though, and that's saying something. We Nords tend to keep score when it comes to heritage."
    "Hm. Tell me something, Onmund."
    "Sure. Anything."
    "Do you intend to keep wasting perfectly good alchemy ingredients?" Nikhaya elbowed him in the side. "You've torn up all that tundra cotton, and now you're about to start on that red mountain flower. If you're going to pull it to pieces, give it here. Khajiit can use those."
    "I wasn't, actually." Onmund held them out to her. "I picked these for you. I was waiting for the right moment to give them to you, but I guess now is fine."
    Nikhaya took them from him. Her heart, damn it all, would have to start racing every time he touched her hand. I'm a fool, she told herself. Onmund, of all people...but stranger things have happened, yes? It could be wonderful.
    She smiled. "They are lovely," she said. "Thank you."
    "I'm glad you like them. But I should really be the one thanking you."
    "Oh? What for?"
    "For everything. For trusting me enough to ask for my help. For giving me another chance today, even though I did nothing yesterday but complain and curse at you. And drink myself stupid."
    "And vomit."
    He rolled his eyes. "That too. Look, what I'm trying to say is that before I met you, I didn't have friends. Nobody cared what I thought, how I felt. You do. I'm not very good at showing it, but the fact that you like being with me...if you think that doesn't mean a lot to me, you're wrong."
    Nikhaya held the flowers to her nose. "I do like being with you, Onmund." More than is good for me, I suspect. "It can be a lonely place, Skyrim. I am glad you and I have spared each other that fate."
    Onmund's smile faded as he peered into the distance. "Nikhaya? I haven't been to Riften since I was a boy, but...does that look normal to you?" He pointed up the hill toward the wooden doors of the city gate.
    Nikhaya squinted in the bold afternoon light, trying to make out what he was seeing. "I hate the sun," she muttered. She shielded her eyes with her hand. A half-moon of spiky barricades had been erected around the Riften gate. Three guards in steel armor milled around behind it like anxious horses, swords drawn.
    "Oh, blast!" She frowned. "They've barred the doors! If Riften is locked down..."
    "This plague is already here, then? Gods, how bad is this?"
    "It's worse than we suspected. Let me think for a moment, I hadn't planned on this." Nikhaya paced from one side of the road to the other. "It would be foolish to turn back now."
    "But if they won't let us in, how do we find this friend of yours?"
    Nikhaya winked at him. "You give up too easily! This is Riften, friend. Home of the Thieves' Guild. City of Sin. And fish. You think the only way in and out is through the front door?"
    "Sin and fish?" Onmund repeated. His blue eyes lit up. "You're such a cat sometimes."
    "Very funny." Nikhaya stuck her tongue out at him. "What I mean is there are plenty of ways to sneak into a fishing town. Sometimes you have to think like the fish, is all. Do you know what I mean?"
    "I'm afraid I do. We're going for a swim, aren't we?"
    "We certainly are. But we'll have to hide somewhere until dusk. Too likely we'll be spotted right now." Nikhaya pointed to one of the abandoned guard towers. "There. We can climb to the top of that tower and eat our supper while we wait. I doubt they can hear us out here, but we'd better be quiet all the same."
    They crept in, keeping out of the guards' sight, and climbed the stairs. Nikhaya winced as the steps creaked loudly under Onmund's boots. "When we get home, this one has an Illusion spell to share with you," she told him. "It is called Muffle. Gods know you could use it."
    He shot her a dirty look. "I'm a mage, not a thief. I'm not used to sneaking around everywhere like you do."
    Nikhaya merely smiled and sat cross-legged upon the floor. She unwrapped a hide bundle and spread it out in front of her. "Come down here and eat. Khajiit brought a good supper. Salmon steaks and grilled leeks."
    "What, no mead this time? No ale?" Onmund helped himself to a leek. "I'm shocked, Nika."
    She pointed to his satchel. "What do you think you've been carrying on your back since we left Winterhold?"
    "You said it was full of potions. I thought that's what all the rattling was."
    "It is full of potions. And poisons. And mead."
    He threw his hands up in exasperation. "Really? Poisons and mead in the same satchel? That seemed like a good idea to you?"
    "While you're in there, get one for me too. Mead, that is." He called me Nika. She paused, weighing the sound of it. "Nika," she echoed. "You made a new name for me?"
    Onmund shrugged. "I thought it suited you. If you don't like it, I won't use it again."
    "I love it. Please, call me Nika."
    They looked at each other. A hundred questions suddenly seemed to hang in the air between them, but neither felt brave enough to supply an answer.
    Onmund reached for the satchel. "I think we need a drink," he said.
    The peach glow of sunset still warmed the sky as they snuck down to the shores of Lake Honrich. A faint breeze whispered through the trees, dark water lapped at the docks; otherwise all was silent. Nikhaya couldn't see any guards, but that meant nothing. She crouched by the water's edge and pointed to a building jutting out over the lake.
    "See that building?" she whispered. "The Black-Briar Meadery. We are going to swim to it, but do not go up the stairs. We'll swim under the dock. There's a trap door down there that leads into the brewery."
    "That's your plan? Breaking into the Black-Briar Meadery?" Onmund grimaced. "Are you mad?"
    "Shh." Nikhaya laid a finger over Onmund's lips, watching with great interest as his face flushed red as a tomato. It was fascinating, this Nordic tendency to change color when something flustered them! "Hush now. Get in slowly, try not to make waves. And stick with me."
    The lake was chilly; Nikhaya gasped as cold water seeped under her armor. The two of them struck out for the meadery. In the distance a lone salmon leapt out of the lake and disappeared with a tidy splash.
    They slipped under the dock. Nikhaya began pawing at the stone wall, tapping on it and sliding her fingers into the cracks. "Aha...yes." She pulled on one of the stones with both hands, bracing her feet against the wall. A small section of masonry popped forward. It was a hatch, leading into a narrow tunnel. "You stay here. Khajiit will look and make sure it is safe."
    She hauled herself up onto the hatch and crawled inside. There came a loud scraping sound, then the warm glow of fire. Nikhaya let loose a string of obscenities as a piece of firewood tumbled out and plunked into the water.
    "Are you alright?" Onmund struggled to pull himself in. Nikhaya's boots and tail disappeared through the top of the tunnel. She reached a snowy white arm through the opening and motioned for him to follow.
    The tunnel emerged in the corner of the brewery, under a pile of firewood. "Good, we are alone here," Nikhaya said. "For now."
    "That's the part that worries me." Onmund brushed bits of straw and wood chips from his wet armor. "This friend of yours, you said he works here?"
    "Yes. Well...in a manner of speaking."
    The warmth radiating from the brewery fires felt delightful after the frigid waters of the lake. Nikhaya stretched her limbs and yawned. "No one here should give us any trouble, so long as we don't run into Indaryn," she continued. "Big Dunmer fellow who runs the place. Sharp dresser. Ugly as a horker, though." She grinned wickedly. "I could tell you a story or two about that one. This woman, Hael-"
    "You! Who's down there?" A harsh voice rang out from the balcony. "I can hear you! If you came here to steal something, it's the last mistake you'll ever make!"
    Footsteps creaked on the planks above their heads. Onmund stiffened, one hand reaching for the axe. Nikhaya patted him on the arm. She shook her head.
    She sauntered out of the shadows and onto the brewery floor, arms folded over her chest. She looked up at the balcony with an expression of mock disapproval. "Listen to you, telling people not to steal!"
    "By the gods! Is that you, Nikki?" A thin-faced dark elf with a mane of white hair descended the ladder.
    "Romlyn Dreth." She grinned. "You old troublemaker."
    "What're you doing here? It's dangerous to be traveling. Riften's been under lock and key for three days now."
    "We noticed." Nikhaya inclined her head toward the trap door. "How fortunate for us that your little smuggling apparatus is fully functional now."
    "We?" Romlyn turned and saw Onmund. "Ah, hello there."
    "Pleased to meet you."

    Onmund looked anything but pleased, but Romlyn either didn't notice or didn't care. "Don't take that wrong, now. It's good to see you, kitten. It's been far too long." He stroked her chin with one slender finger. "So what brings you to Riften this time? Business or pleasure?"
    "Both. Khajiit came to see you, after all."
    "Is that so?" He plucked a stray and possibly imaginary hair from her chestplate. "And which one did you want me to see to first?"
    Nikhaya gave him a coy smile. "Business, I'm afraid. Onmund and I came here to find out what you might have heard about this...undead plague. If that's what it is. The College is looking for answers, but we're isolated up there. You hear things from so many different people...this one thought you might know something we don't."
    "Ah, the screamers. That's what we've been calling them 'round here anyway. I wish I could tell you it's not as bad as it seems, kitten." Romlyn's face was grim. "None of us believed it at first. Travelers came into town telling wild stories, claiming they were chased by screaming draugr with black eyes. We thought they'd seen spriggans, or wolves perhaps. Then people just stopped coming. Wasn't until last Fredas that we started hearing those godsdamned screams." He produced a bottle of mead from the pocket of his dingy green tunic. "The songs of the dead, you might say."
    "Have you lost anyone?" Nikhaya asked quietly.
    Romlyn nodded. "Shadr. Redguard chap, worked at the stables. The screamers didn't kill him outright, but they bit into him before the guards could bring them down. Poor kid threw himself from the top of the old guard tower two nights ago and smashed his head on the ground before anyone could stop him. One of the guards was killed just yesterday...damn thing was on him before anyone knew it was there. His comrades made sure he wouldn't be getting back up again."
    Nikhaya plunked herself down on an empty mead barrel. "I can hardly believe this is happening, friend. I wish I didn't have to." She felt a hesitant touch; Onmund stood behind her, one hand resting between her shoulder blades.
    "Any idea how far this has spread?" Onmund asked. "We thought it might have started in Winterhold or Eastmarch, but the first attacks up our way only happened a few days ago. From what you're saying, the plague was already in the Rift by then."
    "Huh. That'll be news to a few ears 'round here, sera. Everyone thinks your lot up at the College had something to do with this, but I suppose you wouldn't be down here talking to me if that was the case, now, would you?"
    Romlyn and Onmund exchanged a weighted glance above Nikhaya's head. Nikhaya had seen that look before; a silent, primal exchange between two males who think they have something to lose. Wild or civilized, men or beasts...some things never change, do they?
    She looked from one to the other. "Hey. No hostility. There's no time for that."
    "It's alright, kitten. No one's starting anything." Romlyn winked at her. "And to answer your question, no - nobody knows where these things came from or how many there are. Only sure thing is there's more of 'em every day. I can tell you this much, though...last visitors to Riften besides you two came from Solitude and Falkreath, and neither of them had any idea this was happening."
    "It must have started out here, then."
    "Sure does look like it. Listen, Nikki, I've got to get out of here, but what d'you two plan to do? I hate to see you set out for home in the dark, but it's not safe for you to be seen in town now. People will know you weren't here when the doors were locked."
    "We'd better go, then. We'll try the inns in Kynesgrove or Windhelm, or take the carriage back from there. If the carriage is still running. If not..." Nikhaya tried to smile. "My friend and I are quite resourceful."
    "I know you are, kitten."
    Nikhaya caught Romlyn in a hug. "This one thanks you, friend. I doubt we'll see each other for a while, but if there's anything you need and you can get a message to Winterhold..."
    "Will do, m'dear." He kissed her cheek. "Don't you worry about me. And you...Onmund, is it?" Romlyn gave him a meaningful look. "You take good care of my Nikki, you hear? She's nothing but trouble, but believe me, there's not a better woman in all the world."
    They watched him climb the stairs and walk out of the brewery. Nikhaya cast a sideways glance at Onmund. "What was all that about?"
    He shrugged. "You tell me. He's your friend." He sounded moody, petulant. "Look, can we get back on the road, Nika? I'm starting to remember how much I hate this city."
    Interesting...a Khajiit's nose never lies, friend. Either this one has lost her mind, or you smell...jealous. Oh, Onmund. Nikhaya smiled faintly. You can't even see that you've won already.
    She reached up and smoothed a lock of damp hair away from his forehead. "Come on, then," she said. "Let's go."
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  4. Khasrin

    Khasrin Fusozayiit

    Feb 12, 2013
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    "We need to talk."

    It was the first thing Onmund had said in two hours. He followed her to the great stone effigy of the first Arch-Mage which overlooked the courtyard, but no farther. Now he stood beside the fountain, his hands curled into anxious fists.

    A vague sense of dread coiled around Nikhaya's heart as she retraced her steps to him. She searched his eyes for some token of what might follow; they yielded nothing but fragments, shards of confusion, so great was the tumult of feeling beneath them.

    "You have the look of a condemned man about you." She laid a hand on his arm. "What is troubling you so?"

    Onmund lifted her hand away, squeezing it gently before he let go. "Not here. Somewhere private. I don't want anyone to bother us."

    "I know of a good place. Come with me." Nikhaya crossed the deserted courtyard to the Hall of Attainment. She paused at the door until he caught up with her. "Trust me."

    The Hall was dark, apart from the shaft of blue light that shimmered at its core. Even the earliest risers had not left their beds yet. Soft snores and the occasional cough penetrated the stillness as they crept up one flight of stairs, then another. Nikhaya startled as she glimpsed the figure seated on the bench, motionless in the shadows. She gripped Onmund by the wrist and dragged him forward before he could flee.

    "Onmund and I need to be alone," she whispered. "Just for a while. Please don't tell anyone where we've gone."

    Tolfdir merely smiled. He inclined his head toward the stairs.

    The far edge of the horizon was gray with dawn, but night and a handful of bright stars still ruled the sky. Nikhaya led Onmund across the roof of the College to an alcove with benches. Wide round openings in the stone walls overlooked Winterhold and offered an unrivaled view of the snowy peaks. "I feel as though I might see all of Skyrim from here." Nikhaya's feline eyes drank in the subtle shades of wintry darkness. "If only the snow would stop."

    Onmund sat on one of the benches. "I'm not ready. I need a minute to think of...how to say this." He looked at Nikhaya apologetically. "I'm sorry."

    "There is no hurry. Khajiit will be here when you are ready to speak." It cannot be...no one gets this worked up declaring their affection for someone, do they? Yet this is Onmund, after all. He gets worked up about everything. Nikhaya crouched on the ground, opened her satchel, and dug out her last bottle of ale. "Here. Maybe this will help. It certainly loosened your tongue on the way back from the Barrow."

    He drained half of it in one draught. "I can't remember much of anything after Dawnstar, to be honest. Just Enthir, and throwing up. And you pushing me into bed."

    "Khajiit did not push you. You fell." She grinned. "You were in rare form on the journey home. Such a chatty drunk!"

    "Oh gods...what did I say? Do I even want to know?"

    "Mostly nonsense. You said elves can't be trusted. Told me a story about someone losing their boots in the river. Oh, and apparently you are twenty-eight years old. But you seemed uncertain about that. You tried to count on your fingers a couple of times." You also told me that you've never made love and that seeing dead rabbits makes you want to cry. Khajiit will endeavor to forget these things.

    Onmund looked sheepish. "Anything else I should know about?"

    "No, that was it, really."

    The ale was beginning to soothe his nerves. Nikhaya sat down beside him. It was time to take a gamble.

    "You have not been yourself since Riften," she said. "Not since the Meadery. Something happened there. This one can't help but think it has something to do with her. With us, yes?"

    Onmund's hand trembled as he lifted the bottle to his lips for another drink. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.

    "Oh, Mara's mercy! You're not going to make this easy, are you? Fine! We shall do this my way!" Nikhaya cupped her hands over Onmund's cheeks and pressed her mouth to his lips. He panicked, but she refused to let go. Slowly he began to yield. Strong Nord arms encircled her shoulders and drew her close.

    It was an earnest if somewhat artless kiss, and it delighted her. No flinch of hesitation at the shape of her mouth or fang tips grazing his lower lip - only the shy passion of one tasting shared pleasure for the first time. Her first touch had frozen him; now he was melting beneath her hands, burning faster than she could contain the blaze. If we don't stop now, she thought, this will consume us both. She reluctantly parted from him.

    They stared at each other, spellbound. The cold wind helped to restore their senses, slowed their blood and breath.

    "Now you see. You have nothing to lose." Nikhaya bit her lip. She could still taste his kiss, the liquor on his tongue. It was a heady combination.

    "Nika." His hand lingered on his cheek where hers had just been. "I didn't...I sure wasn't expecting that."

    "Khajiit thought if you knew your heart was safe, it might open up for her." Nikhaya shivered; once they'd stopped walking, the cold air had found its way under her armor with icy precision. "This one would be so much more than your friend, Onmund," she ventured timidly. "If you wish it."

    "Are you mad?" Onmund stared at her, wide-eyed. "You know I do! At least, I thought you knew...or could smell it, or something..." He frowned. "Didn't you tell me on the way to Riften that you could smell things like that?"

    "I suspected it," she conceded. "Khajiit's nose is her best friend when she needs to measure a person's intent, but when the heart wants something very much..." Nikhaya shrugged. "Sometimes even the senses will betray it. I was afraid to believe what I had not heard from your own lips."

    A faint incredulous smile spread over his face. "I can hardly believe this is happening...I used to lie awake for hours some nights, you know, imagining what you would say if I just walked across the Hall to your room and told you how I felt." He shyly tucked his arm around her waist. "Then I'd think of a dozen reasons why you wouldn't have me, and I lost the courage to tell you anything."

    Nikhaya leaned gratefully into his warmth. "Khajiit could have saved you many sleepless nights, if she had known," she told him. "You should have started drinking long ago."

    Onmund chuckled. "Maybe I should have. Oh, Nika...look, I know you could probably do better than me. Someone like you could have anybody she wants. But all this time we've been friends, even when we've only been drinking or arguing, I couldn't help thinking, 'Nika and I, we could be happy'...you know? That's what I wanted to tell you, but...ah, I don't know. It's hard to know what to say to a woman like you."

    "Khajiit noticed your difficulty. How lucky for you that only one of us is shy." Nikhaya tucked her icy fingers under his hand. His skin was warm, almost hot in spite of the chilly morning air. These Nords are ridiculous...does the cold really breed such impenetrable creatures? Her hands were half the size of his. Her fingers were strong and nimble from the bow, from years of crafting potions and poisons.

    An idea struck her. She turned his hand over so that his palm faced up and began tracing the lines with her fingertip. "Hm...interesting, how it all makes such perfect sense."

    "Huh?" Onmund stared at his palm, confused. "What makes sense?"

    "Be still. Khajiit is reading your hand."

    "Palm reading?" He raised a skeptical eyebrow. "That's just nonsense, isn't it?"

    Nikhaya ignored him. She pulled his hand close to her face and peered at it. "Air hands," she declared.


    "You have Air hands. The hands of a scholar...curious and thoughtful, a man with extraordinary ideas, but you worry too much. Ah! See this?" She traced a bold line that curved around his thumb. "You are full of energy! Not easily persuaded by others." She cocked her head to the side, puzzling over the unknown map of his hand. "Hm. Your Heart line is complicated."

    "Dare I ask? That tickles, by the way."

    "It touches your Life line and your Fate line...they all meet, like three roads. That is most unusual. You are one who wears his feelings - how you say - on his sleeve? But all these little lines cross over it, like scars...you have been hurt by those you've trusted." She frowned. Hazy images formed at the edge of her mind, fragments of memory that didn't belong to her. "You have been lonely. So much pain in your past."

    Bitter recollection darkened his face. "More than you know."

    "I am sorry." Nikhaya raised his hand to her lips and pressed a warm kiss into his palm. "But there is good here. See how your Heart line strengthens before it meets with the others! You will leave the pain behind, and you will love deeply...love will make you strong, stronger than you ever imagined. You also have the deepest Fate line Khajiit has ever seen. Love and destiny, Onmund." She cradled his hand between hers. "These are the winds that will carry you."

    Nikhaya closed her eyes and willed the visions to sharpen...a small dark-haired child with a rabbit in his lap, his little hands stroking the soft fur....the same rabbit, now limp and lifeless, a streak of blood in its matted fur as it hung from a kitchen rack. 'It's for his own good,' a gruff Nord voice said. 'The boy is too soft. He's not going to learn to be a man if we keep coddling him!'....an older boy in farm clothes, now recognizably a young Onmund, hiding just inside the entrance to Shroud Hearth Barrow with a candle in his hand. His left eye was badly bruised, his bloodied lips trembled with rage. In his lap was an old, tattered spellbook. Tears spilled down his cheeks and dripped onto the pages as he read. He absorbed the magical words with astonishing ease.

    "Are we...is it settled? The two of us, I mean."

    His words startled Nikhaya from her Seeing. The visions dissolved. Onmund touched her chin and tilted her face toward his. "Together?"

    Nikhaya's heart was heavy, disturbed by the pitiful visions, but she hid it behind a warm smile.

    "Yes," she replied. "Together."
    "Nika." Onmund clutched her hand and held it to his lips, then his cheek. "I'll be a good husband to you," he whispered urgently. "You'll see! I'll make you happy."
    Husband? Nikhaya tried the word out in her head. Of course, these Nords don't do anything by halves. When he said 'together'...how quickly these things happen in Skyrim! Ah well, is it so bad to be married when I was going to keep him anyway? She nodded, more for her own benefit than his. "This is how it should be, no? Khajiit could hardly regret such a choice. There is not another man in the world like you, and I am so very fond of you...if you wish to marry me, this one would be honored to call herself your wife."

    He didn't answer. Nikhaya glanced up and was startled to see his blue eyes glistening with tears. His lips trembled slightly as he covered her hand with reverent kisses. It warmed her tired heart to see how deeply she had touched him. "And when we are married, will you still argue with your Khajiiti wife over silly things?"

    He laughed and rubbed his eyes, his anxiety swept away. A grin of pure pleasure brightened his normally somber face. "You'd better believe I will."
    "Good." She grinned. "Nord and Khajiit...we are in for quite an adventure, no?"
    "We sure are. I can't wait." Onmund slipped a finger under her necklace and tugged on it. He drew her closer until their lips touched; it was a slow, soft kiss that sent shivers down her spine. He may be untried as a lover, she thought, but how quickly he learns!
    Exhaustion was finally starting to claim her. She laid her head on his shoulder and pointed into the lightening eastern sky. "It is nearly dawn now, though. We won't be able to hide up here for much longer."

    "They'll want to hear what we learned in Riften." Onmund sighed. "I don't even feel like talking right now. I just want to eat something, wash up, change my clothes, and sleep for days." He paused. "I wonder...do you think anyone would care if we happen to fall asleep in the same bed?"

    Nikhaya snorted. "This one is not in the habit of caring what others think. We shall share a bed if we feel like it, and they may say what they like." She rubbed her numb arms briskly. "It is freezing out here. Is there anything else you wish to say to me alone? Because I really must go inside."

    "Just one thing, and I'll come with you."

    "And what is that?"

    Onmund brushed a wayward strand of hair from Nikhaya's cheek. "One more kiss."
    The Hall of the Elements was still empty when they slipped inside. The Eye of Magnus hummed and spun lazily above the font of blue light, like some great arcane bumblebee caught in a breeze.
    "Just let me have a look at it, will you?"
    "It's fine. See? It's mostly healed up already." Onmund rolled up his left sleeve, revealing a fresh crescent-shaped scar that ran the length of his forearm.
    "That dragon really gave you one." Nikhaya made a clicking noise of disapproval with her tongue. "I just want you to remember - this one tried to cast Healing Hands on you, and you would have none of it."
    "Right, because I wasn't that bad off. I can always heal myself. All I meant was that you didn't need to waste your magic on me when we had a giant frost-breathing lizard trying to kill us...oh, and speaking of which?" Onmund folded his arms over his chest and tried to look cross with her. "When were you planning to tell me that you're Dragonborn? You gave me the fright of my life!"
    She rolled her eyes at him. "When is it ever a good time to tell someone such a thing? It doesn't make this one popular, you know. Sure, everyone likes the idea of the Dragonborn, they like to get drunk and sing about her, but then they see her in action and it terrifies them. No one truly wants to see a mortal wielding such power. Being a mage, you know this, yes? And the people of Skyrim are never pleased to learn that their legendary Nordic hero is, in fact, a cat!"
    Onmund opened his mouth to protest, but wisely closed it again.
    She sighed. "Forgive me, Onmund. I did not mean to yell. Anyway, now you know, so you had better watch your step. Or Khajiit shall really shout at you."
    "You wouldn't dare."
    Nikhaya grabbed Onmund by the belt and pulled him against her. Fus Ro Dah, she mouthed at him.
    He pulled her hood down over her eyes.
    "Hey!" She shoved him, but he grabbed hold of her wrists. They collapsed in a laughing heap on the floor. Nikhaya pinned Onmund to the ground and grinned at him. "Bad," she scolded. They never heard the doors open behind them.
    "Oh my, you two! And how long has this been going on?" Brelyna Maryon stood over them, a twinkle of amusement in her eyes. She gave Nikhaya a conspiratorial wink. "So Onmund finally got up the courage to ask you, did he?"
    Nikhaya looked down at him. "Everyone knew about this but me?"
    "No, just Brelyna. I needed her advice." Onmund struggled to sit up. "I'm just glad it was you coming in the door and not Ancano."
    "Funny you should say that. Ancano is on his way right now, and he looks madder than a wet sabre cat." Brelyna shifted her books to one arm and helped Nikhaya to her feet. "He's been furious since he found out you left...he's been threatening everyone, even Arch-Mage Aren, demanding they send someone to bring you back immediately. Nobody got any work done the past few days, on this undead problem or anything else. He practically drove us out of the Hall."
    "Pfft. Ancano." Nikhaya made a face. "Why should that pompous skeever care where we go?"
    The doors split violently open. Ancano swept into the Hall of the Elements as only a member of the Thalmor can sweep. Enthir and Tolfdir followed close at his heels.
    "You two. You're coming with us. We're going to the Arch-Mage's quarters to have a chat about your little trip to Riften. And you," he looked pointedly at Brelyna, "kindly be about your business. This doesn't concern you."
    Brelyna made a face at Ancano's back as he turned away. She marched curtly through the bronze gate and disappeared into the Arcaneum.
    Ancano sighed. "As my first order appears to have fallen on deaf ears, I am forced to repeat it; upstairs, now." He pointed to the door.
    Onmund shot a glare of contempt at Ancano as he led the way up the stairs and into the Arch-Mage's spacious quarters. The alchemical garden illuminated by floating orbs of light attracted Nikhaya's eye. "That is simply amazing," she murmured. She knelt down beside it and ran her finger lovingly over a bloom of dragon's tongue.
    "You've been here before, remember?" Onmund crouched down beside her.
    "Yes, and it was amazing then, too."
    "If you say so. What's this one, then?" He prodded at a brown mushroom with a crackly surface.
    "Namira's Rot."
    Onmund drew his hand back. "Huh. Sounds delicious."
    Savos Aren was seated at one of the tables, an open book in his lap and a half-eaten meal laid out before him. He glanced at each of them. "When five people storm into my quarters unannounced during breakfast," he said, "I can only assume one of them is prepared to explain why."
    Ancano cleared his throat. "Of course. My apologies, Arch-Mage, but as you can see, our two missing apprentices have turned up, apparently unharmed. You did ask to be informed when they returned, yes?" He cast a withering glance at Tolfdir. "I felt it prudent to learn whether anything useful was discovered while they were out on this fool's errand-"
    "Which is exactly what Tolfdir asked of them," Enthir interjected. "They left to see what they could learn, nothing more. Of course, you wouldn't have known this, Ancano, since you were conspicuously absent that night."
    Ancano scowled at him. "I hardly thought your little draugr experiment was worth observing. Do remind me, what were the results again? Ah yes, you learned nothing and the draugr assaulted one of your students!"
    "Enough!" Savos held up his hand, cutting Enthir off in mid-retort. " I want to hear what they have to say." He laid his book aside. "We don't have the luxury of fighting amongst ourselves right now. Naturally these unfortunate deaths have raised a cry of alarm, and I fear the blame is falling upon our heads once again, so tell me - is this...plague, as it were, really as bad as we've heard?"
    "It certainly looks that way." Nikhaya forced herself to meet his probing gaze. "Worse than any of us realized, I think. Riften has barred its doors, and so has Windhelm. Kynesgrove has been abandoned. We do know this was happening in the Rift at least a week before we noticed it here, but that's as close as we can reckon. We found four of the dead on the road ourselves...screamers, people call them, because when they spot you they let out this awful shriek. To alert any others that might be nearby, most likely."
    "By the Eight," Enthir murmured. "The Winterhold guard mentioned that, you know...that Thonjolf howled when he first noticed him. Like an animal, he said, but not like any animal in Skyrim. Not like anything living. I didn't think much of it at the time. I thought the man was out of his head."
    "Ah, he spoke the truth! It is the most eerie sound this one has ever heard, makes all the hairs stand up. One of the screamers...I knew her, when she was alive." Nikhaya shut her eyes, trying to push away the recollection of Sylgja's shattered face.
    Tolfdir sunk heavily into a chair. "Divines help us...I am terribly sorry, my dear. Ancano was right. I was a fool to send you out there. I put you both in great danger." His face was penitent. "Please forgive me."
    "What? You can't be serious...there's nothing to forgive!" Onmund rose to his feet. Nikhaya detected a chill in her lover's voice; there would be no stopping him this time. She held her tongue.
    "I mean, what would Ancano have us do, anyway? Just sit around, reading books and practicing spells while Skyrim falls apart?!" Onmund laughed bitterly. "You know what? I wonder if that's not exactly what you're hoping for. I think you're here to make sure the College of Winterhold never rises from its own ashes!"
    Ancano snorted. "Perhaps you should leave the thinking to others, then. I can assure you that your College, such as it is, poses no threat to the interests of the Thalmor."
    "Exactly. We're weakened. Despised. Just a bunch of reclusive deviants meddling with the fabric of the universe, and we have precious little to show for it." A fire burned in his eyes as he stared Ancano down, defiant; Nikhaya found it strangely arousing. "I wonder what the Thalmor would stand to lose if all that changed."
    A tense silence lingered between them. The color drained from Ancano's sallow face.
    "I've had enough of this," he hissed. "Listen to me! All of you!"
    Savos sighed. "We're listening, Ancano. What is it you want to say?"
    "Due to the unknown nature of this threat we're facing, a certain measure of official control has become necessary." Ancano looked at Savos as though inviting an argument. The Arch-Mage remained silent. "Therefore, anyone wishing to leave College grounds from this point forward - student or otherwise - must seek my approval first. Have I made myself clear?" He narrowed his eyes at Nikhaya.
    She treated him to a venomous smile. "Perfectly clear." Oblivion open its jaws and swallow you up, you bastard.
    "Good. I have pressing business to attend to, but I expect a full report of anything you learn about this...plague, as you call it. Pray excuse me, Arch-Mage." Ancano turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.
    Savos stared after him. "Tedious man," he muttered.
    "Indeed." Enthir eyed Onmund with grudging respect. "Quite a risk you just took, you know, running your mouth to the Thalmor. I didn't think you had it in you."
    "Neither did I," Onmund muttered under his breath. He looked to Nikhaya for some hint of reassurance. She could only shrug.
    "Hm. In any case, everyone here has abandoned their own work for the time being to help search for answers...some historical precedent, some bit of prophecy, anything at all that can help us understand. As much as I hate to own it, Ancano has a point. For your own safety I must ask you to refrain from leaving the College for the time being. Go, rest a while, and then I want you to join the others in the Arcaneum and assist with the research there." Savos returned to his neglected breakfast. "Thank you. You may go."
    Nikhaya stood up. "Arch-Mage?"
    He waved his hand in the air dismissively. "Yes, of course, Nikhaya...take whatever you need from the garden. Within reason."
    "This one thanks you, but she has something more to say. Something important."
    "Very well. I'm listening."
    She sat down at his table. "As I said earlier...when we arrived in Kynesgrove, it was empty. A village of ghosts. We can only hope that those poor souls are safe in Windhelm, but who can say? Windhelm is protected by strong walls and a mighty bridge. Kynesgrove was not."
    The Arch-Mage nodded slowly. "Go on."
    Nikhaya took a deep breath. "I think the College should open its doors to the people of Winterhold. Grant sanctuary to any citizens who are willing to accept it."
    Another pendulous silence hung in the air, this one ripe with possibility instead of aggression. Tolfdir and Enthir exchanged a puzzled glance.
    Savos leaned back in his chair and folded his hands in his lap. He looked at Nikhaya appraisingly. "Do you think that would be wise? Winterhold has very little affection for us, you know. The Jarl would sooner part our heads from our shoulders than accept our hospitality."
    "I realize that. But here, at least, we can provide the only safety that matters right now - sturdy stone walls, a long and easily defended bridge. Dagur and Haran, at The Frozen Hearth...they have a little girl, you know...and your friend, Kraldar...he is your friend, yes?"
    "He is." His crimson eyes betrayed no feeling, but Nikhaya knew her words had struck home.
    "So many have been lost already. We may not know what this disease is yet, or how to stop it...or even if we can stop it...but if we can spare even a few lives in the meantime..." She trailed off. The faces of the dead came unbidden to her mind, silently urging her on. "We have room. Or we can make room, anyway. Not everyone will look kindly on our offer, we know that much already. But the offer must be made, and Ancano be damned."
    The Arch-Mage smiled faintly.
    "Think about it this way," Onmund added. "When all of this is over, what are people going to remember? That the College shut its doors and left Winterhold to its fate? Or are they going to remember this - that in spite of how badly we've been treated, we did the right thing?"
    "This is...remarkable," Tolfdir murmured. He gazed at the two of them in wonder. "This could truly change everything. So many years of bad blood between the College and Winterhold...this dreadful plague could actually be a chance to heal the breach."
    "That is our hope." Nikhaya smiled at the old mage. "One of them, at least. It can hardly make things worse, can it?"
    "That's quite true." Tolfdir gripped Onmund and Nikhaya by the hand. "Thank you, both of you. For everything! I must urge you to carefully consider all that's been said here today, Arch-Mage."
    Savos was silent, deep in thought. Haunted, perhaps? Or is this one is imagining things?
    "I will," the Arch-Mage said at last. "Most carefully."
    Scrubbed clean of blood and dirt and clad in fresh robes, Nikhaya affected an air of nonchalance as she stole away from her own quarters and disappeared into Onmund's. He hadn't returned from the Hall of the Elements yet; Tolfdir had taken him aside for some thing or another.
    She nestled into the blankets, breathing in his familiar scent. I am home, and I know it, she thought. So many years of wandering with no place to go, and here at this man's side, I am home. How can this be? Nikhaya shut her weary eyes.
    "Wow...this is a sight I could get used to."
    The voice startled her awake. Onmund stood at the foot of the bed, wearing his usual clothes and a tired, contented smile. "Waiting for someone?"
    "Ah, you are back." Nikhaya yawned. "I must have dozed off. Yes, waiting for you to come keep me warm. Your quarters are so cold. These rooms could use fireplaces."
    "I think I can handle that. You know what these rooms could really use, though?" Onmund sank onto the bed beside her and tucked an arm around her waist.
    "What's that?"
    "I should say so." Nikhaya giggled. "What a terrible thought...making love to you, only to find that J'zargo has been sitting in the chair, eating bread and watching for the last ten minutes."
    Onmund laughed. "That's enough to put anyone's fire out."
    "Agreed. But you know, there must be some place here that we could hide away for a while." She grinned, entertaining a few thoughts. "For now it is pleasant simply to be here next to you."
    "This is already more than I ever hoped for." Onmund hugged her tightly, nearly taking her breath away. "I'm half-afraid that I'm dreaming, and soon I'm going to wake up alone. I only came to Winterhold to be left in peace, to study with my fellow mages. That's all. Maybe to teach someday, if I was good enough. But then you walked in, and everything I thought I wanted...you just turned it on its head."
    "Oh I did, did I? And what is it that you want?"
    "Studying magic here has been all I ever dreamed of. I think I was born to be a mage. But I've felt so alive since I followed you to Whiterun...and we'll be married soon, whenever Riften can open its doors again...that's all I want, to be with you. Seeing the world with you, whatever you do. Being Dragonborn, I guess you don't always get to choose, do you?" Onmund sighed. "I wish I was a bard. I'm not very good at this."
    She lifted his hand to her lips and planted a kiss on his palm. "You are honest, and your honest words are beautiful to me. Bards are highly overrated."
    They lay together in comfortable silence, exchanging drowsy caresses. Nikhaya felt sleep returning, settling over her like a shroud. "Onmund?" she whispered.
    "Yes...my love?"
    "Do you think the Arch-Mage will agree to let them in?"
    Onmund hesitated. "I don't know...I sure hope so. If what you said wasn't enough to convince him, then he's a damned fool. You were amazing in there, you know. I was proud to be with you."
    "You were most impressive yourself. This one thought Ancano had swallowed his own tongue for a moment."
    He grinned. "Someone had to confront that son of a bitch. I won't lie, that felt great...I just hope I don't live to regret it. He seems awfully insistent on keeping us here, don't you think? The two of us in particular. And it's not because he gives a damn what happens to us."
    "Perhaps he wants to avoid giving the impression that he's lost control here. It wouldn't look good if we all started disappearing, or dying, would it?"
    "Maybe, but I think there's more to it than that. I think he's up to something."
    "That much is a given," she mumbled. "He is Thalmor, after all. They are always up to something."
    "That's the damned truth." Onmund yawned. "Should be sleeping, shouldn't we? Something tells me we won't have much time to rest soon."
    "I suspect not." Nikhaya laid her hand over his. She waited until his breathing grew slow and steady before shutting her eyes. The darkness closed in and swallowed her whole; she surrendered gratefully.
    In the dream Nikhaya ran, wild and barefoot over the plains through the darkest night on Nirn.
    She wore almost nothing; her loins barely covered, her breasts unfettered, she ran, on and on. In the south the ruins of the Western Watchtower still smouldered. A dragon slept upon the burning tower, the sound of its breath lost in the wind. There came the howling of wolves; unseen, one with the darkness, and with it rose the screams of the afflicted ones. The songs of the restless dead.
    Three roads met in the distance, luminescent in the roiling dark, and she hastened to them. A charred signpost...one wooden finger pointed to Winterhold, a second toward Solitude, another to Oblivion. Something stood in the center of the crossroads; a scarecrow, now a woman, impaled upon a spike and left to die. Black blood ran from the wound, pooling on the cobblestones. The woman turned her neck and looked at Nikhaya. Her eyes were hollow, full of shadows.
    It was Brelyna.
    Brelyna opened her mouth, revealing a yawning black pit. A dim pinpoint of light shone in the back of her throat before her lips closed again. Nikhaya's dream-heart began to pound.
    She stared at her friend, unsure of what to say. "The night is very dark indeed," she murmured at last.
    "Oh, but can't you see?" Brelyna stared straight up into the starless heavens. She raised her arm and pointed a bony finger at the sky. "The sun shines, even as the darkness closes in. It is not night; it is the very peak of day. Such is the monster's way."
    Nikhaya looked up. A corona of white fire shone around a black orb, the dead sun. The world was growing cold. "What can we do?"
    Brelyna was gone. A tall, slender figure in Khajiiti garb had taken her place upon the spike. The dying creature turned her head and grinned at Nikhaya with a mouthful of fangs.
    "Fear not the dark, little one. For the Dawn, he is with you."
    "Ayabhi!" Nikhaya reached out to touch her long-dead sister, but her hands felt nothing. Tears streamed down her face, making wet furrows in her fur. "What do you mean?"
    "The one whose heart you have claimed, child...do not forsake the Dawn Mage, or you shall forsake all the world!" Ayabhi hissed. "The Dawn and the Dragon, time without end. To Oblivion and back! You must try to understand, little one!"
    "But I dont..."
    Ayabhi was gone. The road and the tower were gone. The blackness closed in, thick and suffocating, as the sickly sun fell from the sky for the last time. Nikhaya screamed.
    A sudden rush and she fell awake, senses reeling. A cold room, an azure glow...warm hands on her shoulders, her waist, rocking her gently. A murmur in her ear, unintelligible. Frightened...Onmund's voice. She tried to speak, but it became a moan on her lips.
    "Wake up, Nika. Please!" A note of panic crept into his voice. "You're dreaming, wake up!"
    "I am awake," she mumbled. She blinked, trying to bring the world into focus.
    "What happened? You were lashing out, crying...sounded like you were choking." Onmund tried to smooth the wet fur on her cheeks. "You worried me, I wasn't sure what was happening to you."
    "It was only a nightmare, my love. I am sorry to have frightened you." Only a nightmare, yes? Nothing more...I don't want it to be anything more.
    A figure appeared the doorway; it was the Arch-Mage. He observed the pair of them with mild interest.
    "I suspected you two were more than friends." A thin smile passed over his lips and vanished. "Well, I certainly hope you're prepared to do this. I'm as ready as I'll ever be, and that isn't saying much."
    "Prepared?" Nikhaya sat on the edge of the bed. Hope stirred inside her as his words sank in. "You've decided, then?"
    "As you said, the offer must be made, whether they choose to accept our protection or not, and so we shall extend this invitation to the citizens of Winterhold immediately. However, as this was your idea, you two will stand with me...if they decide to come after us with torches blazing, they'll have to set fire to the lot of us. Figuratively speaking, of course, or so I am desperately hoping."
    "What...right now?"
    "I did say immediately." In spite of his stoic words, Nikhaya thought she detected a slight tremor in his limbs. "I expect every last one of you to come, apprentices and masters alike. Ancano may do as he pleases. Kraldar is gathering them all at the other end of the bridge as we speak, so we shall meet in the courtyard in five minutes."
    Nikhaya's eyes shone like stars. "We can do this," she insisted.
    "I pray your confidence is justified, Nikhaya. Azura guide us, all of us. Five minutes, remember." He turned and disappeared.
    "Wow." Onmund stared after him. "You actually did it. Tolfdir's right, you know...if this goes well, or even if it doesn't, it could change everything."
    "It truly could." The enormity of it began to wash over her. She hid her face against Onmund's chest and let the steady rhythm of his heartbeat calm her frayed neves. "And I did not do it, we did it. Don't think for one moment that I could have done any of this without you. Khajiit is not that brave."
    "Yes you are, Nika." He kissed her forehead. "You just can't see it yet. But I can."
    The skies had cleared as evening drew near, but the frigid gusts of wind blowing in from the Sea of Ghosts refused to die away. A dozen mages were gathered around the statue in the courtyard, shivering and talking anxiously amongst themselves. Every eye fixed upon Onmund and Nikhaya as they stepped from the Hall.
    A slender hand reached out and gripped Nikhaya's wrist. "Is it true, what everyone's saying?" Brelyna whispered. "That the Arch-Mage is going to let all of Winterhold into the College?"
    "It's true, dear one." Nikhaya's smile faltered. "This one's wild idea, I'm afraid."
    Brelyna shook her head. "It's not a wild idea, Nikhaya. It's a wonderful, kind thing to do." She beamed at her friend. "I wouldn't expect anything else from you."
    A hush spread over the courtyard as Savos Aren emerged from the Hall of the Elements and marched purposefully toward the bridge, his ornate robes fluttering in the icy wind. His eyes met Nikhaya's.
    She nodded. Her mouth had dried up; her heart beat wildly inside her ribcage like a trapped bird.
    "Are you with me?" she murmured. As if I needed to ask.
    Onmund smiled. "To Oblivion and back."
    His words shot through Nikhaya like a bolt of lightning. The nightmare rushed furiously back into her thoughts, heavy with significance. The Dawn Mage. She tried to thrust the idea away, but it refused to let go.
    Fear not the dark...for the Dawn, he is with you.
    "To Oblivion and back," Nikhaya echoed. "What are we waiting for, then? Let the pieces fall where they may."
    They fell into step behind the Arch-Mage, a thin layer of new snow crunching under their boots. Brelyna's footfalls echoed their own. One by one, every last mage joined the winding procession as it spilled onto the bridge and descended, silent and wary, upon the waiting crowd.
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  5. Khasrin

    Khasrin Fusozayiit

    Feb 12, 2013
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    The faces of Winterhold were few in number. Pride and poverty had hardened them; the cold and the endless harsh winds had nearly scoured them raw.

    Two shivering elves and a handful of Nords in shabby clothes huddled together at the end of the bridge. They spoke little, apart from the threadbare pleasantries of neighbors who depend on each other for survival and must remain cordial whether it suits them or not. The Jarl and his wife Thaena stood apart from the rest, their arms folded in contempt, muttering abuses against the College and mages in general. The few remaining Winterhold guards ambled idly up the main road, hoping for a good view of the scene about to unfold.

    "Finally," someone muttered. One by one the members of the College appeared over the crest of the bridge and began a cautious descent down the icy slope. A slight-figured Dunmer in grand robes led the way, his mouth set in a line of grim determination. A Nord mage with a steel battleaxe followed close behind. He moved with the air of a faithful watchdog, yet his piercing blue eyes bespoke a quick mind, a bold spirit.

    In front of him walked a Khajiit in black hooded robes, a willowy creature with pale fur and a curiously human face. An abundant mane of silvery blond hair spilled out over one shoulder. Around her neck hung a strange pendant, a silver crescent moon that gleamed as it caught the late winter sunlight. Tenurr-fado, her enchanted ebony bow, was strapped to her back. Dovahkiin. Nikhaya was known to all of them.

    "You know what you are going to say, yes?" Nikhaya said to the Arch-Mage. "It would be-"

    Savos turned and gave her a look that stopped her in her tracks. She noted the twitch in his right eye and decided to keep quiet.

    "I've been deliberating over this for the past ten hours, Nikhaya, trying to decide what to say and how best to say it. In the end, I decided to bring you with me. You have a way with people. I, unfortunately, do not. I may need your help." He nodded toward Onmund. "He lacks your subtlety and tact, but he's not afraid to make a forceful argument when he needs to."

    "You brought me here to yell at people?" Onmund muttered. "Thanks. Wait...subtlety and tact? Are you sure it's Nika you're thinking of?"

    Nikhaya reached around behind her and swatted him.

    Try as she might, Nikhaya couldn't smell hostility in the air; only uncertainty, tension. She smiled encouragingly at Birna. The shopkeeper tried to produce a smile of her own, but it was dull and weary. Anxious silence lay between the mages and the people of Winterhold as they regarded one another, eyes on both sides burning with questions.

    The Arch-Mage coughed nervously. "I thank you all for coming," he began. "I realize it is neither safe nor warm out here, so I'll be brief. It's no secret that a number of tragic deaths have occurred lately, due to this...disease affecting the dead." Poor Savos, Nikhaya thought. No wonder he wanted help. He's not very good at talking to non-mages, is he?

    "As if we didn't all know who caused it!" Thaena spat. Nikhaya was sorely tempted to hiss at her, but she kept silent.

    Savos looked pained. "I can assure you, madam, that we most certainly did not cause this unfortunate event, accidentally or by design. We've undertaken vigorous research to find the cause of this plague, but so far we're as much in the dark as anyone."

    "Oh, of course!" she snarled. "It's never your fault, is it? Just as the Great Collapse wasn't your doing, even though all of Skyrim knows better!"

    Her husband laid a hand on her arm. She glared furiously at the Arch-Mage, but she fell silent.

    "Please!" Kraldar parted from the crowd. He climbed onto the end of the bridge and stood next to Savos. "They haven't come here looking for a fight! These good people have come to say something that might save our lives, in fact. I'd ask you to at least hear them out!"

    "Then by all means, say what you've come here to say, Arch-Mage." Dagur laid an arm over his wife's shivering shoulders. "You'd better believe we're all afraid here. Dead people coming back, eating the living, infecting them to make more of their own? Not like any disease I've ever heard of. I tell you what, though...I heard one of those things with my own ears, last night. It wasn't here in town, but it wasn't far away either. This bone-chilling scream."

    "I heard it too," Birna said quietly. "Nothing should ever make that kind of noise. I locked up the store and stayed upstairs the rest of the night. Kept a warhammer beside me, just in case."

    "This is precisely why we've asked you here," Savos said. He hesitated. Nikhaya nudged him with her shoulder.

    "Go on," she urged him.

    He took a deep breath. "The College is as good as a fortress, and far easier to defend than Winterhold itself. That being said, we'd like to ask you all to join us inside the College until such time as this...crisis has ended."

    For a few moments the only sound was the wind rushing in from the sea. Dagur and Haran exchanged a puzzled glance with Nelacar, the Altmer mage who resided at their inn. Nelacar shrugged.

    "Live there, you mean?" Haran frowned. "We have a daughter to look after, you know. All that spellcasting you do...that doesn't sound very safe to me."

    "We've made room for you in the living quarters," Nikhaya heard herself saying. "It is perfectly safe. No spells are cast there, no experiments of any kind." As of this moment, she added silently. She looked to the Arch-Mage for encouragement. Surprise was evident on Savos' face, but he gestured for her to continue. "Guards, you are also welcome. We can set up a sort of barracks in the courtyard, yes? You can patrol the bridge and keep an eye on the town without venturing too far from the College."

    Nikhaya felt Brelyna's hands grip her arm. Brelyna's eyes were far away, fixed on a figure in the crowd. She followed her friend's gaze; it rested on Nelacar.

    Nelacar...really? Ah well, who is this one to judge?

    Nelacar was watching Brelyna with equal interest. He smiled hesitantly. Brelyna's face turned a deep reddish-purple, but she smiled back.

    "Wait just a minute," the Jarl growled. "This all sounds highly suspicious to me!"

    "Suspicious?" Savos blinked. "I'm afraid I don't understand."

    "No? Then let me enlighten you, Arch-Mage. Before the dead got up and started walking around, your lot couldn't care less if we rotted away to dust down here. Look around you, we very nearly have! Suddenly people are dying in droves - unnatural deaths, to say the least - and now you're inviting us in with open arms? Why are you so keen to have us there at your College? Why now? None of this adds up...seems to me like you're up to something!"

    Savos opened his mouth to speak, but Onmund beat him to it.

    "Up to something? Are you out of your mind?!" Onmund marched past the Arch-Mage and into the crowd. They stepped back uneasily.

    "With respect, Jarl Korir, have you even been out there? Because I have, and I'm telling you, people are dying all over Eastmarch and the Rift...and not just dying, but turning - turning into more of those monsters! It's too dangerous to stay here anymore. Places like this have already been abandoned. Overrun, for all we know. Do you think we would just leave you all here to die when we can keep you safe?" Onmund looked each one of them in the eye, the Jarl last of all. Korir stared at the ground.

    Savos glanced over his shoulder at Nikhaya. "He's not afraid of anyone, is he?" She smiled and shook her head.

    "Look...whether we've always been on good terms or not, that doesn't matter now," Onmund said in a gentler voice. "We're as much a part of Winterhold as the rest of you, and whatever happens to you, happens to us. We're neighbors. Kinsmen, most of us. And this is what neighbors do, isn't it? They help one another."

    Nikhaya's heart swelled with pride. Well done, my love.

    "Some Nord you are," the Jarl muttered. Onmund glared daggers at him, but he held his tongue.

    Birna nodded slowly. "Alright, then," she said. "There isn't much left to lose, is there? I'll come."

    "You're a madwoman!" Thaena cried. Her face turned crimson with fury. "These people, these...mages, they cannot be trusted!"

    "Maybe that's true! Maybe it isn't." Birna turned on her, impervious to her anger. "We'll find out in the end, won't we? But unlike you, Thaena, I am alone in the world. Even my good-for-nothing brother is gone. My chances aren't any worse at the College than they are here, so I'm going. Excuse me." She tried to sidestep the Jarl and his wife, but Thaena blocked her path.

    Birna's face was livid. "Don't make me do anything I'll regret, Thaena. Get out of my way."

    "Don't you threaten me, girl-"

    "Wait!" Nikhaya waved her hands frantically, startling them into silence. A familiar fragment of sound, perhaps only the illusion of it, whispered in her ear and was gone. "Did you hear that?"

    Onmund paused to listen. He shook his head. "No, but I don't have your ears. What is it?"

    "Khajiit is certain she heard...there! That." It came again, a distant cry and a suggestion of something moving through snow, moving on four legs. No, two creatures on two legs...there is no unity between the footfalls. And a third...oh, no.

    Nikhaya's hands reached instinctively for Tenurr-fado. She gripped the bow and drew an arrow from the quiver in a single fluid motion. "Everyone onto the bridge," she ordered as loudly as she dared. "Now."

    Thaena broke away and made a mad dash toward the Jarl's longhouse. Her husband hesitated briefly, casting a last resentful glance at the College before he turned and sprinted after her. They disappeared indoors and slammed the door behind them. The sound reverberated through the empty street.

    An unearthly scream echoed from the foot of the mountains, and another howl rose in reply, much closer than the first.

    "Oh, great," Onmund groaned. He reached for the axe. "Just ring the dinner bell, why don't you?"

    "Eirid!" Haran cried out. "Eirid, my daughter, she's still in the inn! Let me go!"

    She tried to bolt from the bridge, but Dagur and Nelacar caught her firmly by the arms. "No, dear," Dagur murmured. "She's safest where she's at right now...please." His eyes beseeched Nikhaya as Haran struggled vainly in his grasp, cursing him while tears slid down her cheeks. We're trusting you, Dragonborn.

    Nikhaya grabbed one of the Winterhold guards by the arm. "Go, run to the inn," she told him. "There is a child in there. Find her, and for Mara's sake keep her in there until I come to get you both!" He hesitated; she gripped him by the collar and presented him with a persuasive mouthful of fangs.

    "Now!" she hissed. The guard took a faltering step back. He turned and sprinted to The Frozen Hearth.

    The remaining guards flanked Nikhaya and Onmund on either side. "Aim for the head," Onmund said in a hushed voice. "It's the only way to bring them down." The four of them stood in the deserted street, weapons drawn. Moments, minutes passed. Nothing appeared.

    "This is ridiculous," one of the guards grunted. "Why are we standing here like fools when we could be out there killing them?" His boots crunched in the snow as he ventured away from the bridge and out into the road.

    Nikhaya frowned. "Something is wrong...the footsteps have stopped. This one cannot hear anything."

    "Perhaps they've gone away." The female guard who stopped their carriage on the way back from Bleak Falls Barrow now stood at her side. "Maybe they gave up, or found something else to eat...like a wolf, or..." she trailed off. The guard's sword hand trembled.

    Perhaps. But I did not hear them leave...I only heard them stop. They were coming, and then they stopped.

    The awful truth began to dawn on her. She opened her mouth to cry out to the guard, to call him back.

    It was too late.

    A volley of shrieks shattered the silence. Three screamers sprung from the shadows between the buildings and leapt upon the lone guard. Nikhaya's arrow found its mark in one rotten skull, but not before the others dragged their quarry to the ground. The guard's screams of agony rended the air as the creatures' teeth found his flesh, tearing it away in bloody mouthfuls. His sword dropped from his hand; his shield fell away and lay still, the crest of Winterhold stained by a swath of dark red.

    Putrefied jaws closed over the man's throat and ripped it open. His howls became a rattling gurgle, and he was silent.

    Onmund rushed forward, uttering a Nord battle cry that struck Nikhaya to her very bones. The creatures staggered under the force of it. He swung the battleaxe above one monstrous head and struck, splitting it wide open. Nikhaya's stomach lurched as she glimpsed the grayish pink mass of tissue inside it.

    The last of the screamers opened its broken mouth and let loose a deafening screech. Black eyes followed Onmund's movements as he doubled back. Watching, waiting for an opportunity...how long have they been hunting like this? By the gods, they're changing before our eyes!

    The pair circled each other, their feet sliding precariously in blood and ice. Onmund raised his axe as the creature crouched to spring.

    Nikhaya released her arrow. It penetrated the dead elf's head with an audible thunk. He fell to the ground.

    Tenurr-fado slipped from her hand and clattered against the cobblestones. The College, the broken remains of Winterhold, the voices of the others...they faded away, out of reach of her senses. There was only Onmund, and the pungent metallic smell of blood. She walked toward him. It felt surreal, dream-like, as though she were wading against a current of water.

    The two of them faced each other. Nikhaya swallowed dryly. Her throat felt as though it were full of sand.

    "They are hunting," she managed. "Like a pack of wolves...did you see? Like they were bound together..."

    Onmund said nothing; he simply abandoned his bloodied weapon on the ground and reached for her. His mage robes were ruined, damp and stained with the blood of the dead and the undead, but Nikhaya rushed to embrace him. He was shaking from head to foot.

    "Nika." A wretched note of despair crept into Onmund's voice. "What are we going to do?"

    Nikhaya searched for something, anything, to say, some word of hope or comfort she might offer him. In the end, she only hugged him tighter.

    "I don't know, my love," she whispered.


    There was little else to be said. Winterhold was abandoned, save for the Jarl's household. Only Malur Seloth, their Dunmer steward, was determined to leave, and he did so to the tune of violent threats and admonishments that he was never under any circumstances to return.

    For a few days the College of Winterhold was plunged into utter chaos. Beds and tables were moved, quarters were rearranged to accomodate two mages instead of one. Bundles of food and supplies were cautiously collected from town and hefted up the bridge to be stored away. Sturdy Khajiiti-style tents were cobbled together in the courtyard to create a makeshift guard barracks. The courtyard fountain was extinguished, surrounded by a hide-and-timber shelter to keep out the worst of the cold, and converted by Kraldar and Dagur into a functional hearth. Soups bubbled in cast iron pots, loaves of bread rose and baked on the hearthstones. Any notion of peace was unthinkable, but a sense of necessity and routine began to settle over the inhabitants of the College, now nearly doubled in number.

    While the Hall of Attainment and the courtyard became the hub of daily life for Winterhold, the Arcaneum was the heart of the College itself. Extra tables appeared, piled high with old tomes and sheafs of parchment as an endless tide of research continued, day after day. The silence of the Arcaneum became a steady hum of turning pages, murmured conversations. The rooms filled with the odors of burning candle wax and books that hadn't been opened in a hundred years.

    A pleasing smell, Nikhaya thought as she stepped through the doors of the Arcaneum and took a cursory sniff. Onmund followed her to an empty table. He held the straps of Nikhaya's satchel with one hand and fumbled around inside of it with the other.

    "I don't think it's in here, Nika. Are you sure you didn't put it in the other one?"

    "It is in that one. Keep looking."

    He sighed. "I'm terrified of this bag of yours. Who knows what you've buried in here...what in Oblivion is this?" Onmund held up a star-shaped object by one of its eight segmented arms. Dark purples and gem-like blues caught the light, giving the impression that something living was trapped inside. "That's...nice. I guess."

    "Ah, the Black Star! A rechargeable soul gem, but it only holds black souls now." She smiled sweetly. "Human souls, elven souls, that sort of thing. You should ask Nelacar about it someday - it is quite a tale!"

    "I bet." Onmund laid the Black Star on the table with infinite care, as though it might explode. "I love you, but I sure hope your insanity isn't contagious." He made a face as he reached into the satchel and withdrew a fragile green bundle wrapped in leaves. "Moth wings? This is starting to get disgusting, Nika."

    "Alchemy is often disgusting, my love. You shall get used to it."

    "If you say so. Gods, what is all this? How do you find anything in here, ever?" Onmund began piling things on the table - two flawless garnets, a long taffy treat, a crumpled deed for a steading in Falkreath Hold, an amulet of Dibella, a bit of Dwemer scrap metal, four keys, a red apple, an orcish dagger, a spigot, and a wooden plate. "What the- why do you have a spigot?"

    Nikhaya shrugged. "One can never tell ahead of time what is useful and what is not. Best to have a little of everything, yes?"

    "Yeah, but..." Onmund wore the pained expression of someone who knows they've lost the argument before it's begun. "Why are you carrying all this crap when you could pack things you already know are useful?"

    "Put it back. Suppose we need it someday and you threw it away?"

    "In the highly unlikely event that we're desperate for a spigot? Trust me, Nika, if that happens, I'll accept full responsibility." Onmund tossed it aside. "Ah...found it. I just needed a map and a pickaxe to get to it, is all." He pulled out a spell tome, Bound Battleaxe. "You're sure you don't mind?"

    "Khajiit has no need of that spell. You are welcome to it." Nikhaya spread out several curling pieces of parchment on the tabletop, lining them up in the proper order to form a sprawling chart. "Now, let's see what we have so far."

    She traced the dried ink with her fingertip, Onmund's chaotic handwriting interwoven with her own lilting script. Lines and arrows tied one scribbled idea to the next...some were circled emphatically in bold swirls, a few were crossed out. Constellations of thought, a cryptic map with no marked destination; it was all they had so far. At some point Onmund had drawn an amusing caricature of Ancano beneath where she'd written 'No Soul?'

    "You two argue like you're married already, you know that?" Brelyna slid into an empty chair and placed a platter of boiled creme treats on the table. "Here, help yourselves to breakfast. I found them on the table in my quarters this morning...fair warning, though, I have no idea how they got there."

    "Perhaps you have an admirer, dear." Nikhaya winked at her friend. "Could be some Altmer mage has taken a fancy to you."

    "And sneaks into her room while she's asleep to leave her baked goods." Onmund reached around Nikhaya and took a creme treat. "That's not weird at all."

    Brelyna's cheeks turned purple as she contemplated the platter of pastries. "You think Nelacar left them, then? I guess that would be nice...wait, do men do that?"

    "Oh, yes." Nikhaya nodded enthusiastically. "Men do all sorts of ridiculous things when they admire a woman. Sweet food is very romantic, you know. It would certainly win this one's heart."

    Onmund snorted. "I'll have a word with the priests of Mara. See if they can't decorate the Temple with sweet rolls on our wedding day."

    "Khajiit will hold you to that promise." She snatched up a creme treat and seated herself in Onmund's lap as she pored over their charts. "Mm...whoever made these," she murmured rapturously through a mouthful of pastry and creme, "is nothing short of an artist."

    Brelyna stifled a yawn. "I'm surprised Urag isn't here yet. Usually he just nods off in his chair instead of going to....oh no, here he comes." Her eyes widened in panic.


    "No, Nelacar!" she hissed. She picked up a random book from the table and pretended to read in earnest. "I think he's coming over here!"

    Nikhaya cocked her head to the side, confused. "But I thought you were fond of him."

    "She is." Onmund grinned. "Why do you think she's reading A Gentleman's Guide to Whiterun upside down right now?"

    Brelyna shot him a menacing look and threw the book aside. "Don't you start," she muttered. "You and Nikhaya might be betrothed now, but two weeks ago you were still mooning around here like a lost sheep, staring after her every time she left the room...you're a fine one to talk!"

    "Ah...you are just shy, Brelyna dear! You are like Onmund here." Nikhaya reluctantly left the warmth of his lap and returned to her chair. "This one understands now...good morning, Nelacar."

    "Good morning, Nikhaya, Onmund...Brelyna. I trust you're well." Nelacar's gaze lingered on the young Dunmer mage. She flashed him a brief pained smile and began flipping aimlessly through a copy of Children of the Sky. The Black Star on the table caught Nelacar's eye. "Ah, the Star! How has it been working for you after...well, you know?"

    "Beautifully." Nikhaya gestured to an empty chair. "Please have a seat, Nelacar. Sit down next to Brelyna, and don't be fooled by her silence. She likes you."

    Brelyna buried her face in her hands. "Thank you, Nikhaya."

    Onmund hid a smirk of amusement behind Bound Battleaxe. "Subtlety and tact," he said, echoing Savos Aren's words from several days past. "If the Arch-Mage could only see you now."

    Nikhaya waved a hand dismissively in the air. "Playing hard to get, it makes no sense to Khajiit...why be aloof when you could be enjoying each other's company instead? Two people who are attracted to one another should not waste a single moment apart." She touched her fingers to Onmund's lips and was rewarded with a kiss. "You know I am right."

    An awkward silence lingered at the table as the two elves tried not to look at one another.

    "Well, it's very interesting, what you've done here so far," Nelacar said at last, gesturing to the chart. "Erm...what am I looking at, exactly?"

    Nikhaya tapped the parchment with her quill. "Everything we know about these undead is on this paper." Nikhaya pointed to the far left. "That is a timeline, from the first sighting up until now. Next to it is a map of the Rift, Eastmarch, and Winterhold with all known sightings marked down. We left a blank space here for any historical discoveries. The rest of this is just things we have observed...we thought perhaps if we wrote it all down, we might see a connection. Make a discovery or two."

    "Excellent work." Nelacar nodded approvingly. "You're certainly organized. Do let me know if I can assist you in any way."

    "You can, actually," Onmund said. "Nika mentioned you know a lot about soul gems, so maybe you can help us understand something...when we were attacked in town, she shot an arrow at two of the screamers and brought them down in one hit. Her bow has a Soul Trap enchantment, but no souls were captured."

    Nikhaya nodded. "He is right. Khajiit had several empty soul gems, including the Black Star, but none of them captured a soul. This one is puzzled, Nelacar...what could it mean?"

    Nelacar's brow furrowed.

    "That's very odd," he said. "Are you absolutely certain that your bow was charged and your gems were empty?" He glanced up from the chart and shrank back from the expression on Nikhaya's face. "My apologies...of course you were certain. I'm simply trying to understand, that's all. Let me think on this for a moment."

    A figure slipped silently through the doors of the Arcaneum and vanished behind a stone archway. Nikhaya caught a brief glimpse of white tail before the visitor disappeared from view. She groaned inwardly.

    "Oh, wonderful," Brelyna mumbled through clenched teeth. "Here comes J'zargo."

    Onmund rolled his eyes. "By the Nine, that's all we need. I say we all cast Invisibility at the same time and see if he keeps on walking."

    Nikhaya felt her fur prickling as the Khajiit mage approached the table and paused behind her chair. He wouldn't dare...ah, yes, he would. J'zargo's slender hand trailed lightly over the small of her back. The touch repulsed her. Hateful creature.

    "J'zargo wishes you all a pleasant morning," he declared. To Nikhaya's Khajiiti ears, his greeting conveyed little in the way of goodwill.

    "Does he?" Onmund muttered. Nikhaya elbowed him in the ribs.

    She forced herself to meet J'zargo's eye. A feeling of revulsion crept under her skin as his gaze lingered on her, measuring, like a greedy merchant appraising so much fine fur. A knowing smile formed on his lips. Nikhaya clenched her hands in her lap and smothered the urge to strike it from his face. "J'zargo."

    "Nikhaya. J'zargo will not keep you from your friends, as he sees you are...busy." He cast a disparaging eye over their charts, then at Urag's empty desk. His tail flicked back and forth in irritation. "The orc managed to locate a few rare books that J'zargo requires, but it seems he is not in yet...that is too bad. J'zargo does not like to be kept waiting."

    "Ah, that's a shame." Onmund kept his eyes on the spell book. "Don't let us hold you up, then."

    J'zargo made a mock bow, a glint of loathing in his eye as he fixed it upon Onmund. "Until next time. Friends." He favored Nikhaya with a last glance as he walked away.

    Onmund sighed. "I don't really want to kill him, but if he keeps eyeing you up like that..."

    "Do what you must, by all means. Khajiit will gladly help you bury him afterwards." J'zargo indeed...foolish, presumptious bastard. I would sooner bed Ancano!

    Nelacar looked from one to the other, assessing the situation. "I take it you two are...together?"

    "They are," Brelyna replied. Nikhaya smiled, pleased to see her friend's shyness slipping away. "They're going to be married soon, in fact. But J'zargo is delusional. He lives in a world of his own...at some point he decided that Nikhaya belongs to him. He's been trying to bed her since she arrived here. When he finds out that Onmund succeeded where he failed, and then some...I'm not so sure I want to be around when it happens."

    "Yeah, well, J'zargo might not come out of that as well as he expects." Onmund held his hands out in front of him as though they wielded a weapon. An ethereal glowing battleaxe materialized in his grip. "Hey...nice. This'll make traveling easier."

    Nelacar reached for an ink pot. "The more I think about your soul gems, the less sense it makes. If I might make a few notations on your chart..." He bent over the paper and began to write, his quill scratching furiously on the parchment. The others stared in bewildered fascination as Nelacar rapidly sketched out various arcane symbols and what appeared to be mathematical calculations. He writes like one possessed, Nikhaya mused. There are equal parts genius and madness in those eyes.

    His feverish stream of writing abated, then ceased. Nelacar frowned at his handiwork. "No, that wouldn't work. You would need-" He crossed out one calculation and wrote another beside it, then scribbled it out as well.

    "Damn," he muttered. "I'm sorry, Nikhaya. Remarkable as they may be, soul gems are highly predictable. I simply can't understand why your Soul Trap failed you. Unless...no, that's ridiculous."

    Nikhaya's ears perked up. "Unless what? Logic has been tried already, Nelacar, and it has failed us. So let us hear the ridiculous."

    "Unless their souls are simply too large to be contained," he finished lamely. "But surely that's impossible. They're zombies now, and they were human before that." Nelacar shook his head. "This is maddening. I feel the answer is right here before us and we simply can't see it."

    "Zombies?" Nikhaya tried the word out on her tongue. "Yes, I suppose that is what they are, aren't they?"

    The four of them stared at the parchment in silence, willing it to yield a clue. Nikhaya reached furtively into her pocket for the bottle of mead she'd hidden away. She took a gulp, then passed it to Onmund. To her surprise he took it without comment. He had it halfway to his lips when he froze.

    "Wait a minute." Onmund rose slowly from his chair, eyes fixed on the chart. Comprehension dawned on his face. "Wait just a damned minute...Nika?"

    "Yes, my love?"

    "Do you remember what you said in Winterhold the other day, after the attack? You said that they've started hunting as a pack, like they were bound together." Onmund abandoned the mead bottle and snatched the quill from its ink pot, spilling black droplets over the parchment. He drew an arrow to where Nikhaya had written 'Soul gems cannot capture screamer souls'.

    Nikhaya nodded. "Y-es...this one remembers. Is that important, do you think?"

    "Important? Nika, I think you had the answer then and you just didn't know it!" Onmund tapped his finger emphatically on the chart. "I think Nelacar is right. Their soul is just too large. You said they move like one being...suppose they actually are one being?"

    She chewed her lip thoughtfully. "One being...all of them sharing a single soul? That is what you meant, yes?"

    "Exactly." Onmund pushed his chair back and left the table. He paced up and down in the center of the Arcaneum. "If that's true, then this plague isn't just a disease. It's more of a...gods, what is it..."

    "A possession," Brelyna supplied. "One soul possessing many bodies at once. But how is that possible?"

    "That's...good gods, can you imagine such an entity? Able to split itself into so many pieces and yet remain intact...Divines help us. What are we dealing with here?" Nelacar leaned heavily on the tabletop and rubbed his eyes. He cast a sidelong glance at the bottle of mead. "Mind if I have a bit of that?"

    "Help yourself." Nikhaya stood up and held out her hands to Onmund. "Are you alright, my love?"

    "I'm fine." His face was impassive, but the troubled look in his eyes betrayed him. My poor Onmund...you hide nothing with those eyes of yours. What an unfortunate affliction!

    "There is hope, you know," she said. "We are beginning to see the true face of the thing. There has to be a way to stop it. Onmund and Khajiit...we will search until we find it, yes?"

    The silence of the Arcaneum was broken as the doors swung open again. Dagur stood in the entryway, staring in awe at the vast expanse of bookshelves that stretched away from him on all sides. He caught Nikhaya's eye and motioned for her to come.

    "I don't mean to bother you," he said as she approached, "but there's someone asking for you outside. Dunmer, claims to be a friend of yours. Says he has an urgent message for you from Riften."

    Nikhaya's heart leapt. "Romlyn?" No, that cannot possibly be! If he is here, though....what happened in the Rift since we left?

    Dagur hesitated. "I can tell him to leave, if you like-"

    But Nikhaya had already pushed past him. She bounded down the stairs and through the doors of the College, out into the blinding snow.

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  6. Khasrin

    Khasrin Fusozayiit

    Feb 12, 2013
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    A fierce blizzard had whipped over the northeastern lands of Skyrim since the early morning hours, and it showed no signs of abating. Thick snows fell over the College grounds and buried everything faster than it could be shoveled aside. After a futile attempt to clear the courtyard, Kraldar and his newly appointed housecarl, Malur Seloth, settled for unearthing a path between the hearth and the Halls.

    Snowstorms are just a way of life around here, aren't they? Nikhaya stopped and squinted through the disorienting curtain of falling flakes. "I don't see- ah!" Someone slammed into her from behind, nearly pitching her forward into the snowbank.

    "Sorry!" Onmund grabbed her by the shoulders to steady her. "Sorry...I couldn't stop myself. Mind telling me what's going on?"

    "Dagur said Romlyn is here. A Dunmer from Riften, he said, but who else could that be?" Nikhaya peered into the enclosure surrounding the hearth. Only the female guard was inside, stirring a pot of cabbage soup and humming to herself. Kraldar and Malur stood just inside the guards' tent, wrapped in furs and leaning on their shovels. They passed a bottle of liquor back and forth and argued over exactly how much snow constitutes a blizzard. No one else was around.

    "Romlyn?" Onmund cast a doubtful glance over the courtyard. "That's not very likely. Why would he come here?"

    "This one is almost afraid to hear. Something must have happened-"

    "Nikhaya!" Dagur's voice was nearly carried away by the wind. He was out of breath by the time he reached them. "The Dunmer fellow said he'd wait for you further down the bridge, near town. Seemed a funny place to wait, but he insisted. Just mind how you go, the bridge hasn't been cleared yet..."

    But Nikhaya had already waded through the snowdrifts and onto the bridge. She approached the broken section with cautious footsteps. An icy blast of wind pressed on her, catching at her robes and whipping strands of hair into her face. As she put her boot down, a chunk of stone dislodged itself from the bridge and plummeted toward the sea. A dreadfully long time passed before she heard it splash. Her stomach knotted up.

    She pointed at the bridge. "Whatever you do," she called to her fiancé, "be careful on this bit!"

    "I don't see why he couldn't stay in the damned courtyard!" Onmund yelled over the wind. Nikhaya was relieved to see how sure-footed he was in the snow. "What in Oblivion does he want us down there for? It's not safe!"

    "He must have his reasons! Romlyn is no fool!"

    "I'm not so sure about that!"

    A slender figure in a hooded cloak watched from the alcove as they approached. Much to Onmund's consternation, Nikhaya crouched low and slid the rest of the way down the bridge, tail held aloft for balance. A few of her favorite words rended the air as she collided with a snow pile. Ugh! Not such a good idea after all. Terrible stuff, this snow.

    Nikhaya kept a wary eye on her visitor as she stood up and shook herself off. She sniffed deeply, trying to catch a scent.

    "Damn this wind, I cannot even smell you! Romlyn?" She leaned closer and tried to peer under the hood, her claws instinctively unsheathing. "It is you, isn't it?"

    "Stay back, Nikki!" It was Romyln's voice, but it was hoarse and weary. He held up a hand to ward her off. "Please."

    Nikhaya gave him a disapproving look. "This is no time for games, Romlyn. What are you- ohh..."

    The sight of his face stunned her into silence as he removed his hood. The past week had wrought a terrible change. Apart from two feverish blotches his cheeks were pale and withered, and his ruby eyes were sunk deep into his skull. Romlyn's long white hair, his only claim to vanity, hung in limp tangles around his face. A queasy feeling stirred in the pit of her stomach.

    "Romlyn, what happened to you?" Nikhaya touched a hand to his forehead before he could duck out of the way. It was burning with fever. "You are very sick!"

    "No, I'm fine, just give me a...need a moment...to..." His hand slid along the stone wall as he fought for balance.

    Something else is wrong. I smell blood. "Are you injured?"

    The dark elf muttered something incomprehensible. Romlyn's eyes rolled back in his head. His knees buckled and he collapsed onto the bridge.

    "Romlyn!" Nikhaya scrambled to catch him, but she could do little more than cushion his skull with her hand as they fell. She shook him frantically, but he didn't stir. Panic welled up in her chest and squeezed the breath out of her. "Mara help me...Onmund...what do we do?"

    Onmund crouched in the snow beside the fallen elf. He touched his hand to Romlyn's neck, then his forehead. "By the Nine," he muttered, "it's a wonder he even made it this far! Not only is he sick, but he's half frozen to death besides. Idiot." With a grunt of pain, he hefted the unconscious Dunmer up over his shoulder and struggled to his feet. "We've got to bring him in and get him warm, or he's not going to make it."

    Nikhaya trailed behind and watched helplessly as Onmund fought his way up the steepest part of the bridge, staggering under the weight of the dark elf's body. The smell of blood was more pungent than ever. It trickled down Romlyn's hand in a tiny dark stream and dripped like red ink upon the snow.


    In his first waking moments after the delirium of fever, Romlyn Dreth became aware of two things: he was incredibly thirsty, and underneath the blanket someone had bound his arms and legs with leather straps.


    He tried briefly to worm his way out of them and was rewarded by an excruciating pain in his left forearm. Romlyn cursed bitterly and collapsed back onto the bed, defeated. He focused his eyes on the three animal heads mounted on the wall above him and waited for the agony to subside. During the worst of his fever the heads had come alive, writhing on their wooden plaques as if their bodies were trapped in the wall. Their eyes were black, like the screamers' eyes.

    "Welcome back."

    He turned his aching head toward the sound of the voice. The Nord mage, the one Nikki was so oddly enamored with, sat in a nearby chair with a book in his lap. Ogmund, was that his name? Or was it Onmund? One of those ugly Nordic names. Romlyn groaned and shut his eyes. Of course he would have to be here, and not her.

    Even so, Romlyn was too thirsty to stay silent. "Water?" he croaked.

    "Sure." There came the sound of footsteps, then water, glorious water! being poured into a goblet. "You seem alright for now. I guess we can take those off."

    He forced his eyes open. The Nord (he was almost sure Nikki had called the man Onmund) was standing over him, loosening the straps. Romlyn sighed with relief as his binds were released. He raised himself up on one elbow, and Onmund handed him the goblet. He drank it down greedily. Never had the taste of water been such a pleasure!

    Romlyn stole a glance around the room; he would never admit it, least of all to Onmund, but he was impressed. The ancient stone walls were decorated in fine furs and flanked by ornate wooden furniture, and silver candelabras illuminated the room in a warm glow. Polished tables held soul gems, bowls of salts, and piles of books, most of them with arcane-sounding titles like The Aetherium Wars and Power of the Elements. Nikki had tied up bundles of herbs and hung them to dry in the corners. Her warm, pleasant smell lingered on the green and gold-embroidered blanket, and with it an unfamilar masculine scent. This is their bed, then. Romlyn pushed the blanket away.

    "So...the infamous College of Winterhold. I didn't think outsiders were allowed in here." He sniffed. "Must be nice living in a place like this, having all your needs seen to while you study all day. Comfortable."

    If Onmund detected the cynicism in his voice, he chose to ignore it. "We like it. And you weren't exactly 'allowed' in. More like you were carried in before anyone could ask questions."

    "Where's Nikki?"

    "Brewing potions for you." Onmund stood at the foot of the bed, arms folded over his chest. His expression was vacant, but Romlyn detected an accusation in the man's eyes. "She'll be back soon."

    A sensation of falling from some great height swept over Romlyn as he laid his head on the pillow again. "How long have I been here?"

    "Three days."

    "S'pose you've worked out what happened to me, then."

    Onmund drew aside the blanket nailed up over the doorway and peered out. Romlyn couldn't see what lay beyond the small chamber, but judging by the sickly blue glow that lit Onmund's face, he wasn't sure he wanted to. "Of course we did," he muttered. "Any fool can see that you've been...you know. I won't say it out loud."

    "Bitten?" Romlyn supplied. "Infected?"

    "Shh!" Onmund scowled at him. "Are you crazy? Do you want to make it out of here alive or not? Gods, it was hard enough keeping your secret when you were out cold!" He popped open the chest beside the bed and began sifting through the contents. Now and then he took something out - an apple, a milky white bottle of potion - and stuffed it into a burlap sack.

    Romlyn laughed at the absurd notion of his life being in further danger. "What difference does it make? I'm already a dead man walking, aren't I?"

    "And so are we, if you don't shut up! Look, all of Winterhold knows you're here. Somehow Nika managed to convince them you're recovering from bone break fever, but they're starting to get suspicious...we had to let one person in on it already. Fortunately we can trust her. But we've got to get you out of here."

    "Hmph." Romlyn rallied all the strength he presently possessed and pushed himself out of the bed. His legs trembled underneath him, and the world swung wildly. He grappled blindly for something to hang onto.

    "Hey!" Onmund caught hold of him before he toppled and steered him into a chair. "Take it easy. You haven't eaten for days. You're not going anywhere yet anyway, not til Nika gets back." He picked up a plate of bread and eidar cheese and handed it to Romlyn. "Isn't that why you're here? To talk to my wife?"

    Romlyn tried to hide his smirk. Jealous fool...you couldn't resist, could you? "Your wife, sera?"

    "She will be soon enough. Nikki, as you call her, has agreed to marry me." Onmund sat in the chair opposite him and picked up his book with a studied air of nonchalance. Romlyn tilted his head to read the title. Words of Clan Mother Ahnissi.

    "Well. Congratulations." Romlyn tried a bite of cheese, but his queasy stomach protested. He reached for the bread instead. "Funny, that. I didn't think Nikki was the marrying type. She's a free spirit. Gets bored, and off she goes. I can't see her settling down to the quiet life."

    "Who said anything about settling down?" Onmund snapped. He flipped idly through the pages without reading a word. "We're getting married, is all. I didn't come all the way to the College so I could live like every other Nord in Skyrim. If I wanted that I could have stayed at my family's farm."

    "Alright, don't get worked up." Romlyn spied a bottle of ale on the table and casually picked it up. "Like I told you in Riften, she's a good woman. You won't be bored, that's for sure. She won't have it."

    "You're telling me." A fond smile tugged at Onmund's lips.

    Damn this kid. Smitten beyond all reason...Nikki seems to have that effect. Romlyn took a swig of the ale. It burned in his stomach, but it brought him a measure of comfort. He nodded at the book in Onmund's lap. "I see you're taking the studious approach to Khajiiti life."

    "What? Oh...right. It's about their beliefs, mostly. The story of how they think everything came to be. Strange interpretation of the gods, if you ask me, but it's fascinating."

    "I'm sure it is." Romlyn took the tome from his hands and leafed through it. "Would you mind a bit of friendly advice? You won't find any of this in your school books."

    Onmund leaned back in his chair, arms over his chest as though braced for an argument. "I suppose not."

    "Two things. No, three. Three things. First thing is the Khajiit. You'll never understand them by reading books...I imagine you could live among them all your life, in fact, and their ways would still seem strange to you. But I respect the fact that you're trying. And you love Nikki, I can tell...just make sure you hold onto that. If the differences between you ever seem too hard to live with, remember that you loved her so much in this moment that none of it mattered. Got it?"

    "Yes, but-"

    "Right. The second thing, don't waste words on her. Songs and sonnets will fall on deaf ears...I know you Nords are big on those. Far better to touch her, hold her, kiss her. Anything like that. Make love to her in every way you can think of, and she'll adore you for it. Your hands will get you farther with a Khajiit woman than words ever could. Mind you, you seem to be doing well enough already." A hazy memory came to him, of soft, slender white limbs in the firelight, clutching him as they rocked back and forth upon the bed. Romlyn swallowed the rest of the ale in two gulps.

    Onmund frowned. "I'm not sure you should be getting drunk right now. What's the last thing?"

    Romlyn contemplated the empty bottle in his hand. "Well...ah, forget the third one. Just be good to her, alright? Make her happy. The poor girl's had enough misery for one lifetime."

    "What do you mean?" A shadow of concern darkened Onmund's face. "What happened?"

    He shook his head. "That's her story to tell, sera. Not mine. But I suggest you ask her one day." A sudden thought struck him. "Oh, and bring her flowers when you can find them. She really likes that."

    "She grinds them up and puts them into things!"

    "Well, yeah. But she appreciates the thought."

    An uncomfortable silence settled over them. Romlyn sensed a tangle of questions was about to spill from Onmund's mouth, but an eruption of girlish laughter from outside in the Hall saved him from having to think up any answers.

    The makeshift curtain lifted and Nikhaya and Brelyna Maryon ducked underneath. They were thoroughly out of breath, their eyes and faces brightened by exertion. Damp clumps of melting snow clung to their fur wraps and dripped onto the floor.

    Onmund raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Brewing potions," he muttered. "It's snowing in the Arch-Mage's quarters, is it?"

    Brelyna had the grace to look slightly ashamed. Nikhaya merely grinned at him and winked. "It's snowing outside," she reminded him.

    "Not that much."

    Romlyn cast an appreciative eye over the young dark elf. "Well now. This a pleasant surprise. Pleased to meet you, m'dear." He took Brelyna's hand and squeezed it warmly. "Romlyn Dreth, at your service."

    "Oh, don't you start pawing at her. She's spoken for." Onmund left his chair and helped to extract Nikhaya from her snowy furs. "And you!" He grabbed hold of her by the tail and gave it a gentle tug. "No more fibbing, understand?"

    Nikhaya looked stricken. "What, none at all?"

    "Well, no. You can lie all you want to other people. Just not to your husband, alright?"

    "Oh." She tried her best to seem contrite, but it was not a natural expression for any Khajiit. She merely looked puzzled. "That is fair. No more fibbing."

    "Thank you." Onmund planted a kiss on her cold pink nose. "So if you weren't making potions, what were you doing?"

    Nikhaya hesitated. "It will sound silly," she warned.

    "Humor me. Where were you?"

    "Trying to get the horse off the roof."

    Onmund took a deep breath and pressed a hand to his forehead as though it hurt. "Talos help me...you were what?"

    "Getting the horse down from the roof." She licked a finger and wiped a dark smudge off Onmund's cheek. "It was a quite a chore. We had to cast Calm on her and bribe her with carrots to get her down the stairs, and she left a few...presents in the Hall of Countenance. She's outside with the guards now." Nikhaya patted Romlyn's hand. "Khajiit is certain she'll get you to Whiterun in one piece."

    Romlyn's eyes widened. "Whiterun?"

    "Mm, yes. The Arch-Mage has written a letter to Jarl Balgruuf in Whiterun, and he hopes you will be kind enough to deliver it to Dragonsreach. Which reminds me." Nikhaya rifled through a stack of papers on the desk until she unearthed a quill and inkpot. "This one has her own letter to write."

    "Wait just a minute." Onmund held up his hands. "I think we skipped a few pages here. How did a horse get up there in the first place?"

    "Oh. That was my fault, actually." Brelyna's cheeks flushed purple. "One of my spells went a little...wrong. It may be a horse now, but it started life as a salmon, and I was only trying to make it invisible. And for some reason the spell hasn't worn off, so it's been living up there since last Morndas. Nelacar showed me what my mistake was, though." She smiled optimistically. "I'm certain it will work next time."

    Romlyn stared at each of them with the expression of a man who has awakened in a lunatic asylum and can't recall what act he committed to end up there. "I beg your pardon, but...you turned a salmon into a horse, and now you want me to ride it to Whiterun to give a message to the Jarl?"

    Nikhaya nodded enthusiastically. "She's a fine, strong animal. Eyes are a bit funny-looking, though."

    "I see." Romlyn looked helplessly at Onmund, who shrugged and offered him a smile of commiseration.

    He sighed. "Well...I suppose I could do it, if you need me to. Not like I can go back to Riften now anyway. But Nikki, listen...there's something I need to tell you."

    "Of course." Nikhaya signed her letter with a flourish and left it to dry. "I am sorry, friend...this one has been so busy that she has ignored you. How do you feel?"

    "As good as can be expected, kitten." In all the years she'd known Romlyn, she had never such a serious expression on his face. "I'm grateful to you, both of you. By all accounts you should have left me out in the snow to die, or put a sword through my head right then and there, but you didn't. You brought me here and risked your own lives to try and save mine." He paused, momentarily overwhelmed with feeling. "I don't even know how to begin thanking you."

    "Oh, Romlyn. There is no need, you know that. After everything you once did for this one..." Buried memories from two years ago stirred to life again, of warm nights in Riften, ripe with the odors of fish and burning wood, and Romlyn's tender whispers as he seized her and forced her down onto the hard kitchen floor. She'd struggled and howled curses at him as the frenzied hunger for skooma raged inside her, threatening to split her mind into a hundred pieces. 'I promised I'd help you get better, kitten,' he murmured in her ear. 'I wish there was another way.' So many days and nights he fought the monster in her and soothed Nikhaya's weary body with strong mead and and other pleasures, until the maddening want began to subside. It was bittersweet, thinking of all he had done.

    She caught Romlyn's eye and saw he shared her recollection. He looked away.

    Brelyna gestured toward the door. "I think I'll just slip outside and make sure nobody's being nosy. Besides, I'm dying to change. I smell like a wolf." She laid a gentle hand on the dark elf's shoulder. "I wish you a safe journey, Romlyn Dreth. Azura watch over you."

    "And you, dear. Thank you." Romlyn managed a smile. "Take care."

    She lifted the curtain and slipped away.

    Nikhaya felt Onmund's warm touch on her arm. She ventured a glance at his face; there was no anger, only a wistful sadness. Somehow that was even worse. He was acutely aware of the lingering tenderness between her and Romlyn, and there was nothing to be said. So much he doesn't know about this one's life before Winterhold, she realized. Mara preserve us. He isn't going to like most of it.

    "You should probably leave soon," Onmund told him quietly. "You'll never make it to Dawnstar before nightfall if you don't get on the road. But you said you came here to tell Nika something, and obviously you wouldn't have come unless it was important, so what is it?"

    Romlyn hesitated. "It's not good news," he began, "but I suppose you knew that already. Something happened just after the two of you left Riften. No courier would brave the roads in these parts right now, not for a Jarl's ransom in gold, so I had to come tell you myself."

    This was all for my sake, then. "No message could be worth your life!" she cried. "You were safe in Riften, and now look at you...oh, Romlyn, why did you leave? What happened?"

    A silent apology was written on his face. "The Thalmor are looking for you," he said quietly.

    Nikhaya sighed. "Again?"

    "They're not looking very hard, then," Onmund muttered. "She's been in the same place for over a week now."

    This was clearly not the reaction Romlyn anticipated, but he pressed on. "Two of them turned up at the meadery...must have been about a week ago, now. Bold as you please in their black robes. I suppose they thought they were alone, out there on the docks. If I hadn't been hiding in the water, right underneath their feet, I wouldn't have heard a thing...I'm not sure what you've been up to, kitten, but as bad as things are in the Rift right now, they must have wanted very badly to find you."

    Nikhaya made an odd sort of huffing noise. Onmund and Romlyn watched with great interest as her normally sleek fur fluffed up and her tail flicked back and forth like a whip.

    "That bitch," she hissed. "This is still about the party, isn't it?"

    Romlyn looked confused. "I'm sorry?"

    "Elenwen's party, at the Embassy! Khajiit thought they'd found better things to do with their time, after she did away with their last assassin. Really, what incompetence! And no style at all! Assassinations," she continued, wagging a finger in the air for emphasis, "should be clean, quick, and quiet."

    "It's not you they're after, kitten-"

    "How is it fair, this hunting me down like a wolf? That awful Delphine woman! Forces you to attend a boring party with insufferable people, dull food, and bards that couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, and you just happen to sneak away and free a prisoner and kill a few guards, and you never hear the end-" Nikhaya paused as his words caught up to her. "Wait...what do you mean, they aren't after me? You said-"

    "What I meant to say is there's more to it than that...they are after you, of course, but mostly so they can use you to get at someone else." Romlyn nodded at Onmund. "He's the one they really want."

    Nikhaya's mouth hung open. She stared at the Dunmer, incredulous. "Romlyn...are you quite sure about that?"

    "I'm certain."

    "That doesn't even make sense. What could they want with me, unless..." Onmund's hand drifted to his neck. An anxious look spread over his face as he fingered something underneath his collar. "No, that can't be it. There's no way they could....damn it, I hate this! They don't even belong here!"

    "Did they say what they want with him?" Nikhaya asked, hoping to steer the conversation away from Onmund's colorful opinions of elves. And you, my dear, you are hiding something under those robes. Her fingers itched to find out what, but she shoved her hands into her pockets.

    The Dunmer shook his head. "Not exactly. Most of what they said didn't make much sense. Something about a scroll, and a prophecy they found in an elf's hand. Or some such thing."

    The Dawn Mage. Nikhaya felt a cold sensation in the pit of her stomach as the dream and all its black sickness washed over her. She fought away a sudden urge to be ill. "A prophecy in an elf's hand...and a scroll? Like an Elder Scroll? What does any of that have to do with Onmund?" She looked at her fiancé. He shrugged.

    "No idea, but that's what they said. I should tell you, though," Romlyn lowered his voice to a whisper, "they've had help from someone at your College. Someone they called...ah, damn." His brow furrowed as he struggled to recall the name. "Enthir? That sound like anyone you know?"

    "Oh, it does," Onmund muttered through clenched teeth. "And what exactly did they say about our good friend Enthir?"

    "Not much, just that they owed Enthir their thanks for giving them so much useful information. The Thalmor think you know something, Onmund, or you have something they need. Or there's something they intend to make you do. And if you won't..." He faltered. "That's what they want Nikki for. To force your hand."

    "Bastards!" Onmund cried. "Oh, believe me, if they so much as try to hurt Nika..." He started to pace back and forth, but their small, crowded quarters didn't allow for much pacing. "They'd just better pray the zombies get to them before I do! And Enthir? That two-faced wood elf is in on this?! Gods, I could rip him apart right now!"

    Nikhaya caught a handful of Onmund's robes in her hand and forced him to be still. "That is enough," she declared. "Getting upset does not help. That is how mistakes are made, and we cannot afford any of those."


    "No, my love. On this matter, at least, you must trust me. And don't you go trying to split Enthir's head open just yet, because none of this Thalmor business is adding up!" Nikhaya sank down upon the bed and buried her face in her hands. She felt utterly wretched; her heart ached, and her head wasn't faring any better. "This is all too much," she moaned. Nikhaya barely registered Onmund's presence beside her, or the weight of his head resting on her shoulder. He said nothing. Romlyn observed the two of them in silence.

    "I'm sorry, kitten," he said at last. "I wish I had more to tell you. More than that, I wish there was nothing to tell."

    "There is nothing for you to be sorry for, Romlyn," she said wearily. "You have paid too dearly already...for what you have done, we could not even begin to repay you."

    "That's where you're wrong. You can repay me by staying alive, and keeping out of the Thalmor's grasp." Romlyn got to his feet. The meal had given him some measure of strength back. "Both of you, you hear? We're about to part ways, sera. I'd like very much for us to part as friends." He held out his hand to Onmund.

    Onmund raised his eyes to meet Romlyn's inquiring gaze. A long, tense moment passed...and at last, to Nikhaya's startled relief, he smiled.

    He grasped the Dunmer's hand and shook it. "Friends."

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  7. Khasrin

    Khasrin Fusozayiit

    Feb 12, 2013
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    Nikhaya grumbled under her breath and tried to burrow into her robes as they stepped out into the chilly air. Onmund stretched his limbs and declared it to be a crisp morning, which earned him a dirty look from his Khajiit betrothed. That, she decided, was as close as Nords ever got to admitting it was cold out.

    She was pleased to see that the snow had given Winterhold a chance to breathe, though heavy dark clouds were gathering at the edge of the sky for another onslaught. For now the sun rose peach and pink over the Sea of Ghosts and bathed the dark stone towers of the College in a golden glow. Shallow ice-studded snowdrifts glittered like diamonds in the dawn light. Even Nikhaya had to admit it was beautiful. Skyrim, a thoroughly drunken bard in Cheydinhal once told her, is a shy Nordic maiden whose beauty is only revealed when you catch her unawares...in brief stolen glimpses, in certain slants of light, deep in her forests or high atop her snowy peaks. Seek her in the early hours of morning while she dreams, or at twilight as she disrobes...such loveliness! Then he'd fallen off his barstool. One had to wonder exactly what the old man got up to when he wasn't playing his lute, but he'd been right about this strange winter-bound land.

    A distant scream shattered the stillness. Romlyn froze in his tracks, eyes darting in all directions as he tried to place where the dreadful sound had come from. He nearly leapt out of his skin when Nikhaya touched him.

    "Try not to fret over that one," she murmured. "It is far away to the south yet. You should head away from the main roads, to the northwest. This one marked it out on your map...go past the Saarthal excavation site, and when you reach the sea, keep to the water's edge. Head west until you reach Dawnstar. Then take the road south to Whiterun if you can. Much safer that way."

    Romlyn nodded his assent, shifting uncomfortably in his new armor. He wasn't used to anything heavier than a tunic, and while the set of elven light armor Nikhaya scrounged up for him was a near-perfect fit, he was plainly ill at ease in it. This time he was prepared to defend himself, at least - a crossbow and a hodge-podge of scavenged bolts were slung across his back, and a steel mace hung from his hip. The Dunmer's face betrayed no emotion, so Nikhaya leaned close for a surreptitious sniff. Afraid. A bundle of nerves, as they say. And no wonder about that...poor Romlyn. He has more reason to fear them than any of us now.

    They stepped into the courtyard. A fine red mare with a gray face and white belly stood beside the hearth, shuffling her feet in the snow and snorting steamy puffs of air from her nostrils. Someone had managed to find old horse tack somewhere, but so far the guards' attempts to outfit her with it had been in vain. The former salmon yanked her head away and whinnied her displeasure.

    "Hold on." Onmund left them and waded through the snow. "You're putting it on wrong. She's just going to slip it off again if you do it like that. Here, give it to me." He held out his hands. The guard gratefully surrendered the bridle to him.

    He draped it over one arm and rubbed the horse's muzzle affectionately. "That's a good girl," he murmured to her. "I hear you've had quite an adventure." The mare replied by thrusting her nose against his pocket. Onmund chuckled.

    "You don't miss anything, do you? Fine, you win." He produced a red apple from his robes and held it out to her. As she closed her fuzzy prehensile lips over it and crunched it to pieces, Onmund lifted the bridle and began slipping it onto her head with expert fingers. Nikhaya watched in astonished admiration as the mare grudgingly allowed him to fit her for the journey. "Salmon or not, she's beautiful," he exclaimed as he worked. "Lean and strong, and healthy. She looks like she could really fly."

    "Mm. Must be all that swimming upstream," Nikhaya agreed.

    Onmund shook his head, convulsed with silent laughter. "Who knows, this is a new one on me. All the other horses I've known became horses the old-fashioned way." He patted the mare's neck. "We should think of a name, though. A fine animal like her deserves one."

    Nikhaya's eyes glittered with mischief. She grinned. "That is easy. We should call her Roe."

    "Roe. Wait, like fish eggs?" A smirk tugged at Onmund's lips. "That's terrible. Alright, if you insist. Roe it is."

    Romlyn was not so amused. He cast a doubtful eye over Roe, who was sniffing hopefully at Onmund's pockets as he adjusted her saddle. "I'm not much of a rider," the dark elf said. "And this...horse, is she safe, d'you think?"

    "Safest horse in Winterhold."

    "Very funny, Onmund...I mean, salmon aren't exactly used to being ridden, are they? And what if she turns back into a fish on the way there? Then what?"

    Nikhaya was secretly fretting over the same worries, but she refused to let it show. "This one understands, Romlyn dear, but Onmund is right. You can take Roe to Whiterun, or as close to Whiterun as she can get you, or you can make the journey on foot." A frown of displeasure turned her lips. "If Khajiit had her way you would stay here with us, but if someone suspects...you know..." She bared her teeth. "I fear some of them have already guessed at it."

    "No need to be sorry, Nikki. To tell you the truth, this old College of yours gives me the creeps." With a look of grim determination, Romlyn gripped the saddle and with surprising grace swung himself up onto Roe's back. For a breathless moment both horse and rider hung in a limbo of panic, but they soon found their bearings again.

    Romlyn reached down and patted his new companion with a shaking hand. "Good girl. Maybe this won't be so hard after all. Best to not waste any more time...you got that letter for the Jarl, kitten?"

    "Here." Nikhaya reached into the folds of her robes and produced a piece of parchment, neatly folded and sealed with the Arch-Mage's official stamp in blue wax. "And another letter...Khajiit wrote this one herself. And you will also need these." She handed him a second folded paper, and two keys with it.

    "What's all this, then?"

    Nikhaya lowered her voice. "Find my housecarl in Dragonsreach. Her name is Lydia. Give her my letter and these keys, and Lydia will see to it that you have food and a place to stay. Don't worry, she will know from the letter that it is genuine. This large key is for Breezehome, my house in Whiterun. Now if you can't get into Whiterun, or Whiterun becomes unsafe, that is the key to Winstad Manor in Hjaalmarch, to the north of Morthal. Any of the locals can tell you how to get there. Go there with or without Lydia...plant a garden, buy some livestock in town, and get to work building a tall, sturdy fence around the place. Like the Orc strongholds do. Understand?"

    Romlyn's mouth hung open. "But...you? You have a housecarl? And two houses?" He let out a low whistle. "My word, you've been busy since we parted ways."

    Nikhaya ignored this. "At the manor house there is a skeever in the cellar. She is not to be harmed, and you make sure Lydia knows this too. She is friendly. Let her see you leaving a bit of meat and cheese out for her, and she'll take a shine to you. The skeever, that is, not Lydia. Oh, and you'll need these." She handed Romlyn a packed satchel. "Potions and food. In Roe's saddle bag you'll find spell scrolls and invisibility potions...use the scrolls to create a distraction so you can ride away, or if you and Roe find yourselves under attack and there's no hope for her, there are enough invisibility potions there for you to run away unseen for a good mile or so. With any luck that will be enough." She nudged Onmund with her elbow.

    "Oh, right. Don't forget this." Onmund passed a steel plate helmet up to the Dunmer. "It's enchanted with a waterbreathing spell. You can stay under water indefinitely without drowning as long as you're wearing it. Might help you if things get really bad and you can get to a river or lake."

    "Look at this. You two thought of everything, didn't you?" Romlyn suspended the helmet from one finger, as though he might disturb the enchantment if he handled it too roughly. "I don't know what to say, except thank you. With everything you've done for me it'll be my own damned fault if I don't make it to Whiterun."

    "You'll make it, friend." Onmund grasped Roe's reins. "Let's get going. I'll help you get her down. It'll be easier to show you the way to Dawnstar from town."

    He led a solemn procession onto the bridge with Nikhaya and the guards in tow. Roe blanched as she set her hooves upon the broken masonry, but Onmund's firm guidance eased her forward. Romlyn paled and squeezed his eyes shut. "Never could stand heights," he muttered. "Let me know when we're almost to the ground, kitten."

    "Very soon now, dear. Just hang on." Nikhaya grasped her bow. She felt better with Tenurr-fado's grip beneath her fingers. Eight days had come and gone since anyone had spotted undead in Winterhold, but only a fool would dare take comfort in it. The wretched things were still nearby, that was certain, yet there was no divining exactly where. The winds and the endless snows of this place, they blind the senses. And once you hear the screams... She shivered from a deeper chill than the cold.

    "So the guards here keep to the College, and that other woman out there, the one cooking pheasants over the fire...she's not a mage, is she? Is everyone in Winterhold staying up there with your people, then?"

    "Mm, all but the Jarl and his dreadful wife, and their boy. And some Stormcloak general with a silly name."

    "Kai Wet-Pommel," one of the guards supplied.

    "That one, yes."

    Romlyn nodded. "Suppose there were bound to be a few who'd refuse, eh? All the same it's a fine thing, what you've done. After what happened in the Rift...Shor's Stone, and Ivarstead...gods, think of those poor people. At least Winterhold was spared in time."

    Ivarstead. A cold feeling of dread coiled itself around her heart like a serpent. Oh please, no...

    "What?" Onmund froze. The color drained from his cheeks as he turned to face the Dunmer. "What happened in Ivarstead?"

    "What...you mean you've not heard yet?" Romlyn stared at him in astonishment. "I know you've all been cut off from the world up here, but I was sure you'd have heard something. Travelers, or-"

    Nikhaya cut him off. "Romlyn, please, this is very important!"

    The dark elf hesitated. His eyes shifted uncertainly between the two mages as he tried to weigh the situation. "I can't believe you didn't know," he said. "Ivarstead was overrun by screamers...destroyed, in fact. There's no one left."

    "Overrun!" the guard cried. She cringed as the wind carried her voice. "What, the whole town? Just gone?"

    Time seemed to stretch out and slow down, distorted beyond reckoning. The reins slipped from Onmund's hands. He stood motionless on the bridge, eyes fixed on Romlyn in stunned disbelief. "Overrun," he repeated, as though the word was incomprehensible.

    "That's what they told us, the Bosmer fellow and his young lady. Nord, by the look of her. Those two made it out and somehow got to Riften in one piece, but they were the only ones. Pleaded with the gate guards to be let into the city...lucky for them they had a bit of gold in their pockets. That, and the poor girl's expecting. Couldn't exactly leave her out there in that state. They got a thorough going-over first, though, to make sure they hadn't been bitten. You see now why I can't go back."

    "Gwilin is his name," Onmund muttered, "and Temba Wide-Arm. The Nord girl...that couldn't possibly be my sister. She despised Gwilin."

    Romlyn looked pained. "You had family there, sera?"

    "Ivarstead is my home," Onmund managed. His voice cracked softly, like ice before a spring flood. Nikhaya grasped him by the arm to steady him, but for the first time he seemed utterly unaware of her presence.

    "Your home!" Romlyn bowed his head. "Gods...Onmund...I can't tell you how terribly sorry I am. Forgive me, I would've found a better way to say this to you if I'd only...I was so sure you would've heard it already. " He paused, but neither of the others uttered a word. "I suppose you'll be wanting to know the rest, then."

    Onmund's expression was grim, mask-like. Only Nikhaya noticed the slight twitch in his lips, the rapid rise and fall of his chest as he struggled to keep his countenance. The effort was consuming every bit of strength he possessed.

    "Tell me," he pleaded.

    "There were six of the damned things at least, Gwilin said. Probably more. They swarmed Ivarstead, just leaped on people out of nowhere and..." Romlyn glanced apologetically at Onmund, "tore them apart, right there in the street. Of course they tried to fight, but how were they supposed to know what it takes to kill them? They probably didn't know these monsters even existed until it was too late."

    They never stood a chance. "But the elf and the Nord, what happened to them?"

    "Gwilin, and the girl...Temba, you said? They hid in the barrow until the things had their fill and wandered off. By then the Vilemyr Inn was burning to the ground and there was no one left alive, only bodies. The entire town, they said, and I expect they could account for their own people. So they packed what they could carry and set out for Riften. It's just a shame they didn't know any better than to leave the dead where they fell. I'll wager most of them'll be getting back up again."

    Silence fell. Romlyn stared uncomfortably at his own hands, at the ruins of Winterhold, anywhere but his friends' stricken faces. "I'm sorry. Seems I brought nothing but bad news with me. Not that there's any other sort to be had these days. But I thought you should know all the same."

    Onmund nodded, his face ashen. Without another word he grasped Roe's reins and led the horse and her rider onto the ice-encrusted road. They had barely set foot on the ground when Onmund stumbled. Clutching at the bridge for support, he sank to his knees and retched violently into a cluster of snowberries.

    Nikhaya crouched patiently beside him and waited for the sickness to pass. As his breath came back in jagged gasps, she gathered the hem of her sleeve to dry his eyes and wipe away the strings of spittle that clung to his chin.

    He recoiled from her touch. "Don't," he croaked. "Let me go!"


    But he was already struggling to his feet, away from her reaching hands. He pushed past the guards and fled back to the College.

    "Let him go, Nikki." Strong arms captured her and held her back before she could chase him. "Give him a moment to himself."

    “But...” Hot tears blurred her vision. Her heart sank, and she would have sunk to the ground herself if Romlyn hadn't held her up. He grunted under the strain; the fever had taken much from him, and he was far from glowing with health. For his sake Nikhaya endeavored to stand on her own.

    She buried her face against his neck and inhaled the sweet, slightly musky smell of dark elf. His scent always stirred up memories. In better days those remembrances would have brought a smile to her lips, but now they only heaped regret on top of her grief.

    "It'll be alright." Romlyn stroked her hair. “Don't let that hurt you. He's had a terrible shock, is all. That, and there's something about being sick in front of another man that we males can't stand...seems like a weak thing to do, you know?"

    She sniffled and nodded. "Like a milk-drinker."

    "Something like that." His armor made for an awkward embrace, but he squeezed her tightly all the same. "All we can do is look out for each other, same as we always have. Even the worst times can't take that away from us. It's what makes us...well, it makes us greater than all our troubles, doesn't it?"

    Another scream echoed over the hills from the south, closer than before. It wasn't the scream of any living creature.

    Nikhaya parted from him reluctantly and brushed a few clinging teardrops from her cheeks. “You must go now,” she urged him. “Fast as you can, and don't stop for anything if you don't have to."

    He nodded. “And you should be back inside, where it's safe. Onmund will be needing you. More than ever, I expect.” Romlyn hesitated. “You've already done so much for me, Nikki, but if I can...I'd ask for one more thing before I go.”

    "Of course. What can this one do?"

    Romlyn hesitated only a moment before grasping her by the shoulders and capturing her mouth in a kiss.

    His lips lingered on hers far longer than was proper, but in spite of her mumbled protests she couldn't bring herself to push him away, not just yet. Not yet...oh Romlyn, why? The vision of Onmund's stricken face came back to her mind and threw a bucket of cold water over her senses. She ducked her head away from the dark elf's and feigned a scowl.

    “For shame, Romlyn!”

    “I know, I know. I shouldn't have. But Onmund has you for the rest of his life, and I can only have you for another moment.” He tried to look penitent, but the mischievous glint in his ruby eyes told another story. “A kiss for luck, then?” he suggested.

    Luck indeed...Khajiit is no fool. That was a farewell kiss. For we both know you may never make it to Whiterun alive.

    “Yes,” she agreed. A faint smile appeared on her lips. “The very best of luck, and...Azura's wisdom, and such.”

    Romlyn grinned as he climbed into the saddle and grasped Roe's reins. "Go on, dear. Don't you worry about me. I'm sure your fine Winterhold guards can see me out of town well enough."

    One of the guards uttered a grunt of annoyance at this, but he and his partner came to stand at the Dunmer's side all the same. With weapons drawn they ventured cautiously into the abandoned street. Nikhaya stood at the end of the bridge and watched until her friend reached the path to Saarthal and vanished from her sight.

    Only then did she realize she'd been holding her breath and anxiously twisting the hem of her robes into knots.

    She was grateful to find the Hall of Attainment empty and quiet when she returned. The thought of facing any of them just now was too much to bear. A soft shifting of weight upon the bed in Onmund's quarters told her where her lover had gone.

    Nikhaya slipped underneath the curtain. The room was dark except for a single burning candle. Onmund lay motionless on the bed, his face to the wall. She hesitated, suddenly unsure of what to say or do next. She longed to touch him, to pet and comfort, but was that what he wanted? Oh, I don't know! These Nords, they have such strange notions about grieving.

    A glint of silver caught Nikhaya's eye as she slipped out of her boots. It was Onmund's amulet, discarded in the rumpled bedclothes.

    She picked it up. It was ancient, far older than she'd first realized, but then it had only traveled in her pocket briefly as she'd searched the College for Onmund months before. The amulet's round silver face had once borne a complex engraving, but centuries of time and touch had worn it away. It felt strangely heavy for silver. It seemed to be growing heavier by the moment, in fact, the longer she held it in her hand. And there was something...an energy, a force emanating from the metal disc, as if the amulet itself was somehow seeping under her skin and into her blood like venom. Like the cold of the grave.

    Onmund's ancestors treasured this horrid thing for hundreds of years? What in Oblivion coerced them into that? With a shiver of disgust she discarded it in a bowl of soul gem fragments.

    Nikhaya climbed gingerly onto the bed. With a huff of breath she blew out the candle and curled up beside him, as close to his warmth as she could get.

    My love,” she whispered. She laid her cheek against back of his neck. “I am so very sorry.”

    This was too much. A strangled cry escaped him, a wretched sound that stung at her heart. When Onmund reached for her, he found his beloved's arms already held open to him, waiting to take him in. There was nothing left to do but surrender.

    He clung to her in the darkness and wept.

    Nikhaya stirred reluctantly from sleep. She blinked in the disorienting half-darkness until her feline eyes adjusted. What time was it? Afternoon or evening, surely. Only an occasional shuffle of footsteps or closing drawer disturbed the silence outside their door.

    Onmund slept on quietly beneath her, contentedly tangled up in her arms and legs. She pulled the blanket closer around their naked bodies and silently prayed to Mara for a few more undisturbed moments.

    Impatient as she'd been to bed him, Nikhaya hadn't anticipated any lovemaking in the wake of such devastating news. It wasn't proper, Onmund had insisted, making love in a room where others could hear you going about it...and the roof was too snowy, and the Midden too dangerous, and sneaking out to The Frozen Hearth to avail themselves of an empty bed was a foolish notion (although much intriguing discussion passed between them before the idea was discarded). His urgent plea for it as she lay beside him and dried his tears had taken her by surprise.

    Ah, but what a pleasing surprise it was. She idly fingered the amulet of Talos that hung from his neck. And to think, we were strangers half a year ago.

    A warm hand caressed Nikhaya's cheek. She glanced up. "Ah, so you are awake.”

    I've been awake for a while. Just resting, waiting for you to wake up.” A brief smile diffused the sadness in his eyes. “You purr in your sleep, you know.”

    I do no such thing!”

    Nika, I swear to you, you were purring.” He kissed her on the forehead. “It was cute, if that makes you feel any better. To tell you the truth it was a comfort to me.”

    Hmph. I must endeavor to be glad of it, then.” She reached over him to light the candle. “It is the very oldest Khajiit medicine, you know. The medicine of healing sounds. A bit like restoration magic, when you think about it.”

    I guess it is.”

    They lay together in silence. His large hands massaged her shoulders, but it was an absentminded caress. Onmund was turning something over in his head. Forming a plan. Nikhaya could almost hear his thoughts clunking into place like so much Dwemer machinery.

    “I wish you would tell me what you are plotting."

    He sighed. “How is it you always know when I'm planning something? And I mean always.”

    “Because you are a noisy thinker, and Khajiit has quick ears. But mostly because this one knows you, Onmund.” Nikhaya sat up, heedless that the blanket had fallen down and left her exposed. “We must talk, but you needn't look so fearful. I know what you are going to say.”

    “You do?” He endeavored to keep his eyes fixed on her face, but it was a lost cause. Without the benefit of candlelight, it was the first good glimpse he'd ever had of her feminine charms. Nikhaya waited patiently for the moment to pass.

    “You want to go to Ivarstead,” she said quietly. “To look for your family.”

    “I have to, Nika.” Onmund climbed out of bed and stood before her, affording her a similarly pleasing view. She willed herself to be silent on the subject. “I can't just accept that my family, everything I ever knew, is just...gone. Not when I haven't seen it with my own eyes. And if everything Romlyn said is true, then I have to find them. It's my last chance to do what they would have wanted. To be the son they wanted, even if they'll never know it.” Tears threatened to overwhelm him, but he forced them back. He gave her a pleading look. “However badly they may have treated me, they're still my family. They deserve to be at peace. You know what I'm trying to say, don't you?"

    “I do. And of course you must go, and...” She fumbled for an appropriate Nordic sentiment. “...bring honor to your family. But you will not go alone.”

    Onmund looked pained. “If I told you no, and refused to let you come with me..." He trailed off. "Shor's blood, what am I thinking? You wouldn't hear a damned word of it, would you?”

    “As you say, not a damned word. This one is coming with you, and you may not argue about it.”

    “I should have known you'd say that. You're as stubborn as a goat, you know that?” Onmund fixed her with a look of displeasure, but it was only an act. Any resolve he'd had to refuse her had crumbled long ago. “And it's very hard to argue with you when you're naked.”

    “Khajiit will keep this in mind. It may come in useful once we are married.”

    He tried not to smile. “I'm serious, Nika,” he insisted. “We can't just sit here anymore, speculating about what this thing might be. The answers aren't here. They're out there somewhere, and that's where we should be! Out there, fighting! Not sitting here making charts and shrugging our shoulders."

    "You are right, my love, but be reasonable. Whatever is taking hold of these people, you cannot expect to fight it alone."

    Onmund sat down beside her, his spirit subdued. "I can't. You wouldn't let me, even if I could, but the thought of something happening to you..." He shook his head violently, as if some awful vision had seized him and had to be flung away. “There's no life for me without you. What kind of husband would I be if I didn't try to keep you safe?”

    She simply reached over and touched his hand, an invitation. Come to me, she urged. Just once more, before we leave here and everything changes. He took it without hesitating.

    Nikhaya closed her eyes and savored the feel of his warm weight crushing her into the bed. On a curious impulse she bared her fangs and closed them over his throat, gently at first, then harder, deeper. The fierce shudder of pleasure this provoked delighted her. She leaned close and whispered to him.

    “My love." It had to be said now, before he could render her breathless. “What kind of wife would I be if I let you?”

    With a grunt of irritation, Ancano crumpled the missive in his fist and threw it into the empty iron kettle beside him.

    Elenwen, indeed. A sudden peevish notion struck him. Spreading out a fresh piece of paper, he dipped his quill in the inkpot and began to write.


    "Insufferable bitch." He drew a flourish under the name, Ancano. After years of use it was almost starting to feel like his own.

    He contemplated it for a moment, and this too he crumpled into a ball and threw into the kettle. A handful of straw and a brief elementary fire spell, and the letters were no more.

    Ancano shifted uncomfortably and bent over the makeshift desk he'd fashioned from two end tables. The cold of this godsforsaken land made his bones ache. Of course there were warmer and more suitable places for writing than his quarters, but none of them quiet enough for his liking. The constant disruption from the senior mages, the incessant chatter of apprentices, and now these idiot peasants from Winterhold, wandering about the Halls like lost sheep...it was more than a person of sense could be expected to tolerate. At night he dreamed of peace and silence, but nothing so much as of Alinor and her green beauty. The gentle sunlight of home, warming his miserable limbs. Nothing like this wasteland of ice and stone.

    But now, with the discovery of the Eye...if even a handful of his conjectures were true, things would change very soon. This wretched body of his would cease to matter.

    He rubbed halfheartedly at one stiff shoulder and returned to his work.


    "Excuse me, but...may we speak?"

    Ancano groaned inwardly. He didn't bother to look up; that particular grating voice and lilting Elsweyrian tongue could belong to only one of them. "Yes, J'zargo? What is it?"

    The Khajiit glanced over his shoulder. His tail flicked back and forth in agitation. "Not here," he said. "We must speak privately."

    Ancano sighed. He reached for a cloth and began wiping the tip of his quill. "J'zargo, I have many important things to attend to here. Are you quite sure none of the other mages can assist you?"

    "No, they cannot." He ventured further into Ancano's quarters. "J'zargo has no questions for you, only information. About the Nord mage, and his..." J'zargo's lips curled as he formed the last word, "cat."

    The high elf paused at this declaration, weighing the possibilities. There was a fire in the creature's eyes, a fierce determination to be heard. Petty hatred, begging to be shaped into a dagger and thrown from the shadows. Thrust into a certain cat's heart, perhaps? A sneer formed on his lips and vanished just as quickly. Fools.

    Still, even fools had their uses.

    He gathered a handful of papers from the table and stood up, gritting his teeth against the agony as every joint wrenched in protest. Ancano leveled a pointed glare at J'zargo, daring him to remark upon it. Either the Khajiit hadn't noticed, or he was wise enough to remain silent.

    "Very well," he said quietly. "Follow me."

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  8. Azir L'Stros

    Azir L'Stros "So much treasure, so little time..."

    Mar 24, 2013
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    Nice story so far :)
    • Like Like x 1
  9. Khasrin

    Khasrin Fusozayiit

    Feb 12, 2013
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    Thank you! :D
  10. Chirurgeon

    Chirurgeon Active Member

    Jan 30, 2013
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    wow I like this :) I like the interplay of the characters. The bantering adds to the atmosphere :)
    • Like Like x 1
  11. ultimatedovahkiin

    ultimatedovahkiin Now's not the time for fear. That comes later.

    Dec 7, 2012
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    this is really good! it's suspenseful and very interesting.
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  12. Renny

    Renny The Cole Train, Baby.

    May 25, 2013
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    I really enjoyed the read of the prologue. Very creative, fantastic telling of the environment, and a good set of dialogue for the two characters. Spectacular job! :)
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  13. Khasrin

    Khasrin Fusozayiit

    Feb 12, 2013
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    Thanks for reading, guys, and for your kind comments! :D Just finished Part I and put it up here as well.
  14. Azir L'Stros

    Azir L'Stros "So much treasure, so little time..."

    Mar 24, 2013
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    That's great! Loving the story so far :D
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    • Agree Agree x 1
  15. ultimatedovahkiin

    ultimatedovahkiin Now's not the time for fear. That comes later.

    Dec 7, 2012
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    Amazing first part. Can't wait for the second!
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  16. Chirurgeon

    Chirurgeon Active Member

    Jan 30, 2013
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    Awesome tale. Keep it up :) I to wonder why all the draugr are walking around when they should be slumbering
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  17. Renny

    Renny The Cole Train, Baby.

    May 25, 2013
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    Finally got to read the other part. And I must say, a once again fantastic effort! Thank you for taking the time to kill my time. :D
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  18. Chirurgeon

    Chirurgeon Active Member

    Jan 30, 2013
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    must...have....more....songs of the dead...
    And your kitty sig is pure awesomeness
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  19. Khasrin

    Khasrin Fusozayiit

    Feb 12, 2013
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    Thank you so much! That comment seriously made my day :D

    Finally got Part II posted here...I gave up a lot of sleep this week to work on this, so sad :rolleyes: lol
  20. Chirurgeon

    Chirurgeon Active Member

    Jan 30, 2013
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    I know the feeling. Its four am and I have posted another chapter in my fanfic
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