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Anirne Direnni

"If my life has taught me anything, it is this: take happiness as you find it, for it could vanish tomorrow."

0 · 1,627 views · located in Skyrim

a character in “Skyrim: The Mentor & The Sellswords”, as played by The Valkyrie

Description

Anirne Direnni

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Basic Info

Name: Anirne Direnni, sometimes called simply “Greycloak,” though this is a nickname for her entire Order, not just she herself. While an apprentice, she earned the nickname ‘Anirne the Golden,’ (for both her physical appearance and her general manner) and as such, it serves as her more “official” title. Ani is what she’s called by friends.
Race: Altmer
Age: 36
Gender: Female

Personality
Anirne is a sharp-witted soul, possessed of a sort of ageless wisdom that seems to compliment her uncanny grace seamlessly. There’s something about her that gives off an impression of serenity, though unfortunately, this can be quickly shattered under the right circumstances. While she never allows her emotions to control her, she is quick to speak out against perceived foolishness, or any kind of prejudice. The Psijics may be a monastic order, but nothing in their code prevents her from attempting to right wrongs.

She instinctively dislikes anyone who attempts to put other people down, and her sense of justice is strong. She is reserved with details of her personal life, but not shy in the conventional sense. Her scoldings, such as they are, are often carried out in the same calm tones as everything else she says, though in all fairness, there’s often a perceptible edge that separates her true anger from her more harmless admonishments. She is a healer at heart, and her skills in restoration mean she’s had plenty of time to practice her bedside manner. Kind to her patients, she is nevertheless stern enough to make people heed her.

The air of calm that seems to surround her leads sometimes to the impression that she is somehow distant, but not much could be further from the truth. Yes, she was educated in a rare way that few have the opportunity to understand, but the level to which she cares for others is apparently unaffected by this. Indeed, at her core, she seems to be of a fundamentally good sort hard to find. There’s something else there, but it only appears in unguarded moments, when she thinks nobody else is watching. Many a Sellsword might recognize the look, for it’s guilt.

All of this is not to say that she is humorless. Quite the opposite, but her humor is stealthy and her laughter rare. All in all, she’s rather complex and difficult to pin down, but she doesn’t seem to be consciously aware of her inscrutability, which often leads to her own confusion when people confess to being confused by her, as she thinks herself a rather simple soul.

Equipment
Anirne wears the traditional grey robes and cloak of the Psijic order, a midnight-blue sash tied around her waist evidence of her rank as a full sister in the Order. The robes themselves have the approximate properties of Adept-level restoration robes, so mana regeneration and reduced cost for restoration spells. They’re cut to preserve mobility, and so end at the knee, with slits about halfway up the thigh, under which she wears leggings and boots. The sleeves are open and flowing, but again, a tighter second sleeve is worn underneath, in a darker shade of grey. The trademark piece is the hooded cloak, which carries the crest of the order embroidered in blue on its face.

She doesn’t carry much in terms of weaponry, opting for a singular staff. It’s magic (electrically-charged, in fact), but Anirne is trained to use it just as well as a melee weapon with good reach. Aside from this, she carries a stock of soul gems, both filled and empty, and basic supplies.

Abilities
A Psijic monk is a force of magic, first of all, and to that end, Anirne has some ability in all the schools, though Restoration is her specialty, followed closely by destruction (there’s a lesson in there about inner balance, she assures you). Other than that, she can enchant quite well, and curiously, her two-handed weapon skill is rather good. Her slender stature prevents her from lifting most of the conventional weaponry in this class, but she uses a specially-designed stave as a quarterstaff, mixing her magic with her physical blows in a way unique to her order. She possesses a moderate degree of enchanting and speechcraft skills, though nothing incredible.

History
Anirne Direnni was the first child of Morwen and Jalila Direnni, an Altmer couple who fled Summerset and migrated to Skyrim after their family (lower level nobility with no real power) was disgraced in a dispute with a much more powerful clan. They set up their home and livelihood in Solitude under the protection of the Empire, though it was highly doubtful that anyone would pursue them so far.

By the time Anirne was born, her parents were both accustomed to and satisfied with their lives. For a long while, it was assumed that she would be their only child, but eight years later, her little brother was born, with their mother’s lovely eyes, a rare familial trait of hers. Anirne, quite used to being the only focus of her parents’ attention, was bitter towards the boy Sinderion, and it was an attitude that persisted throughout their childhoods. It seemed that they were only just starting to get used to each other when she received a very rare summons: at the age of sixteen, the Psijics sent for her.

It is not a call that one takes lightly; to even be considered for membership in the Order is a great distinction, and one not often made. She packed her things, said goodbye to her parents and her brother (now about eight) and repatriated herself to the Summerset Isles. There, she lived in a world entirely unlike Skyrim, soon embroiling herself in the native politics and arguing publicly and passionately against the Thalmor. It did her very few favors, but the Psijics were practically untouchable, their island home inaccessible to any who did not pass their initiation.

There, she became familiar with the family history that nobody had ever taught her, and learned that her parents’ enemies had fallen from favor, that there might be a home for them in the Isles if they wanted it. Having had much time to reflect, she had come to the conclusion that her brother at least should have the opportunity to learn his native culture, and excitedly wrote home to her parents of her discovery.

The letter she received in return was her father’s suicide note. He explained that her mother had taken ill and died, and that Sinderion had run off into the woods, eluding whether by intention or otherwise all efforts to find him. Morwen was sure that his son and wife were both dead, and presumably his daughter was too far away, too foreign to him to keep him around any longer.

The twenty-three-year-old woman was entirely crushed, and the memory of that moment never quite left her. Which was why she was so surprised, some months later, to receive a missive from a man who called himself the Mentor, informing her that her brother yet lived, but not as she remembered him. The Mentor reassured her that Sinderion would be all right, that he personally would ensure it, and somehow she believed him. She studied hard, earned herself a full Sisterhood, and asked a boon from the elders: let her travel to Skyrim to seek her only remaining family. In light of her exceptional service, it was granted to her.

So begins...

Anirne Direnni's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni

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The Bee and Barb, as this particular inn was named, was a clean, homey establishment run, she had discovered, by a female Argonian named Keerava. This particular day marked Anirne's fifth consecutive in Riften, and why she lingered, she could not say. Perhaps the road was at last beginning to weary her, or perhaps she was finally despairing of the potential failure of her search. Either way, Theives' Guild or not, the city seemed just as fine as any other to dwell in, perhaps only for the sole fact that nowhere felt right at all. The Altmer woman sighed quietly, staring off into the hearth-fire for a moment bafore shaking her head and lifting her tankard -- just blackberry cider, thank you-- to her lips and taking a modest swallow.

She was drawing attention, she knew, as out-of-place as she looked. It wasn't anyone's fault, in particular, but the reigning suspicion was that she was one of the Thalmor, here on some undesirable errand, perhaps for the Blackbriars, who controlled everything else in these parts, so why not the local Aldmeri representaives as well? Whatever the case, it was clear that most wanted her to leave, not that this was in itself unusual. She would have felt more or less the same about an actual Thalmor. Somewhere in the background, a bard started up a song, and Anirne pulled her cloak tighter around her shoulders. Maybe it was time to leave. There were precious few places left to try, but she had not yet ventured to Solitude.

Perhaps she would find him there, among the ruins of what once had been theirs. It would have a certain justice to it, she supposed.

The bard was a solo act, a jovial looking man in his thirties, with curly hair of a bright red hue, a white shirt unbuttoned halfway down his bare chest under a loose, and slightly tattered, crimson vest. He wore a pleasant smile on his face as he strummed the first note of his song, not introducing it first, or providing a name whatsoever.

“The world was blind, unable to find
The cause of chaos, the shadow within
Even when two, despised by you
Worked their way into damp Riften.”


Shortly before the group had arrived in Riften, Sinder had pulled Van to the side and requested a personal favor. The rumors he'd heard a few days ago were still bothering him, and he wanted to confirm them. The best place for gossip in any town was an inn, but he had to confess he didn't much like the idea of going by himself. Maybe it was cowardice and maybe it was simply caution, but the idea of confronting the truth of what he'd heard-- confronting her-- in his present state was not appealing in the slightest. It might also be good for both of them to be away from the rest for a while, given recent happenings. Apparently, Van wasn't any more in control than he was, perhaps even less. Sinder had more years to undo before he lost it again, perhaps.

The inn was one of the first buildings one encountered in Riften proper that was not purely residential, and they split off from the others without much in the way of words or ceremony, Sinder pushing the door open with more certainty than he felt. Surely, the words of the stranger had been nothing but rumor. Even if there was a psijic to be found here, there was no reason it should be her. He was definitely not certain he wanted it to be. What would she think, if she knew what the intervening years had made of him? His sibling most perfect, always flawless. Did she even have the right to judge? To know at all? Should he be angry at her for leaving them? Was he, even?

His life had never before forced him to confront these questions, and perhaps more would have threatened, had all thought not ground to an abrupt halt upon his entrance into the place. There was an abundance of the usual tavern-noise, people speaking while a bard sang and a fire crackled in the hearth, but for once, he heard absolutely nothing. Smelled nothing. He truthfully didn't see much, either, but it was enough.

Seated at a table, shrouded in grey, was a slim woman of willowy Altmerian height. That part wasnt terribly important, because of all things, Sinder was fixated on her hair.

Strands of perfect aureate brightness played in front of his eyes, and imperfect, pudgy hands, the fingers too stubby yet for proper use, reached towards them. The sunlight steamed in through a window, lighting up the threads with some inner, glorious fire, and they moved with the passage of a gentle breeze, completely enrapturing the tiny child. Copper and wheat and amber played over his eyes, and somehow he knew without looking that everything about her was golden. She didn't speak, but he sensed her vaguely-exasperated frown. That wasn't unusual, either, was it?

He'd been so certain that memory was one of his mother, but now he knew the instinct for the falsity it was. It was much clearer now, staring dead at the neat, tidy braid that fell to his sister's waist. "Anirne..." he managed in a hoarse whisper, taking a halting, incomplete step forward, the clumsiness entirely unlike the fluid grace which normally characterized even the simplest of his motions. It was like he was a child, again.

"While miles away, on this very day
Fire burned stone, skimmed horizon’s dome
And four men snuck, with hammers and luck
To smash the lies in their home."


Vanryth wasn't in the best of moods, even now. He had kept a cold silence (as opposed to writing notes) during the whole trip and had kept a distance from rest of the party. The damn Shade's calm spell may have shut down his rage, but he still heard. It didn't make it any less infuriating... More so actually. What else could he do but stew though? It's not like he had a tongue for an outlet. He found himself in a predictament much like the one he was in before the Mentor found him. So much pent up anger and rage, yet nothing to do about. He'd been down this road before. The anger would stew and ferment, he'd become reckless, he'd develop a death wish, and then he'd lose... The last time he lost, it was only by luck it was to the Mentor and not somebody who would have finished him off.

He had split from the group with Sinder, perhaps the only other man who possibly understood his frustration. Too bad neither of them were the sharing type. They entered the inn, Sinder first with Van trailing behind, to the sound of a bardsong and the low din of what patrons the the inn was serving. Their progress to the propeirter was halted by Sinder, who suddenly just stopped. Van had taken a step to his side and looked over to his companion, just as the glaze of memory settled over his eyes. His brows furrowed in irration at his friend's sudden hesitance. He moved to jostle him out of it, but his single word stopped him.

Anirne.

It sounded like a name. The irritation morphed into confusion, as his own clouded mind tried to unravel that riddle. Who was this Anirne? Why would he say he her name? Here? Van surveyed the inn's floor with his one good eye, trying to find this sudden trigger of Sinder's. Alas, he didn't have all the tools necessary to decipher it, and he'd have to wait to understand the weight of the name. He watch as a ragged step pushed Sinder forward.

"Strange things about, it’s cause to shout
For a man and his strings in Skyrim
The dark one prowls, his face in scowls
While his prey decides to stalk him."


She'd not even noticed the door open again, not really, and sat still with her pointed chin resting on one hand, a portrait of resigned repose, always in sepia-toned thoughtfulness. That was, until she caught the sound of her own name, little more than a whisper. It was soft, nearly reverential, but her first instinct was to stand abruptly and grasp her staff in both hands. She had told nobody here her name. If they needed to address her, Greycloak was fine, as was 'Altmer' if they really wished it. Anirne had enemies in this part of the world, and unless the impossible were at last laid at her feet...

The psijic whipped around abruptly, pivoting on a foot with practiced control, but nearly tripped anyway, the motion halting with enforced abruptness, the staff clattering to the floor with a harsh echo. She was deaf to it. The pristine white of sclera rimmed both aurelian irises as she stared dead into two of the prettiest tiffany blue. In all the time she'd spent on Summerset, she'd never encountered another person with their eyes. Her mother's, and then his, in turn. "S-Sinderion?" the returning question came out choked, and much to her own trepidation, the prickling heat in the back of her eyes blurred her vision. For she knew, just as surely as he did, that the person before her could be no other.

He might have hesitated, but she had no such reservations, crossing the distance between them in hurried strides, sliding her arms underneath his and hugging him around the upper torso. Anirne was not a short woman, but the top of her head failed to even brush his chin. He'd grown so tall, her brother, and broader than his childhood aspect would have suggested. He wore his hair longer, and not sticking up all over the place in unruly tufts. He wasn't a soft child still, and in a way, that at once startled and saddened her. But it was easy enough to remember that she had changed as well, and suddenly she wasn't so sure she hadn't overstepped some line she had no right to cross in embracing him so.

"I have missed you," she murmured softly, knowing that this didn't make it okay. She still hadn't been there when he needed her, and that was still her fault. But this... seeing him again even after all this time was a balm to wounds she hadn't even known she suffered, or suffered still.

For a darkly-tilting moment, he'd thought he must have been mistaken, somehow misidentified the refined woman at the table, falsely judged there to be a presence there that he'd only wanted to imagine. And he did want it to be her, he realized, but he wasn't really sure why. He knew nothing of who she was now, and remembered almost as little of who she'd been before. Maybe that was why; the past was preserved as moments frozen in amber, golden through the lens of nostalgia, as golden as she was. What was left was pristine, untouched, not made less by what he'd become. So then what now? He'd seen, but he was tarnished now, and he didn't want to rust over her shine too.

Before he could decide, before he could so much as answer, she was there, and immediately before him, and it was too late. Everything was too late, but somehow it almost didn't matter. He had no idea what to with himself; Sinderion was seldom touched, mostly by his own preference and the careful understanding of friends, but he was never embraced. He didn't deserve it. The man stiffened under the contact, his muscles contracting into stony rigidity that he could not help. He was iron, and the world was glass. She was less even than that, gossamer threads of imagination only gaining solidity slowly, so slowly, as if moving still through that tinted, hardening sap that preserved her in his mind.

He broke things. It was in his nature now, and however much he might wish otherwise, he couldn't change that. The Mentor had taught him to handle blown glass and spun sugar with too-delicate movements, and he'd worked endlessly to infuse control into his every movement, even the accidental ones, but even this did not change his relative composition. At the drop of a hat, with little more than a thought, he could break everything. He had before, and he might again. It was too much, and he swallowed thickly, the sound loud in his ears. Her words, such as they were, made things at once better and so much worse, but he did manage (gently, oh so gently) to place his lanky arms awkwardly about her shoulders. He didn't squeeze, he just let them rest there, as much as he felt himself able to do.

He didn't know what to say, or what to do, and it wasn't helping his anxiety. Gradually, though, the rest of the world opened back up to his perception, and he spotted his Dunmer friend from the corner of his eye. He could have laughed, his relief was so great. There was one thing he could do, and a relatively normal thing at that. Drawing back slightly, he turned them both to face the other man, not even wanting to guess at the expression on his own face, which was probably caught somewhere between flabbergasted and somewhat fearful. He took a half-step sideways, putting some much-needed space between himself and Anirne, hoping that she would understand, or at least not mind. One hand reached up to rub at the back of his neck, an old gesture that tended to appear when he was socially overwhelmed or uncertain of something. "Er..." he started, then shook himself a bit, as if the motion would kickstart his mind or his tongue (possibly both), "Van, this is Anirne... my older sister. Ani, this is Vanryth Galero, my friend and comrade."

His hesitance was obvious, but he didn't seem to be averse to her presence, which was more than she'd had any right to hope for, really. It made Anirne smile, a small, secret flash of teeth quickly chased away by a more sensitive kind of decorum, and she stepped back obligingly when she sensed he wished her to do so. It was still just so good to be here that she'd hardly have minded if he'd just stood there, completely unmoving. When a feather-light pressure on her shoulder bid her turn, she did, spotting the other standing party in the bar. Ah, perhaps this was one of those Sellswords the letter had mentioned; she was interested to meet the people who'd been keeping her brother's company over the years.

While Sinderion made the necessary introductions, Anirne studied the man, making no secret of the fact that she was doing so. A Dunmer, heavily-scarred over what looked to be an unusuable eye, with an obvious wariness about him. Older then Sinder by a fair margin, likely some half-decade older than she, in fact. There was something about him, as though an old sorrow clung to him, wet and heavy like dew after sleeping outside, or maybe more like brambles and thorns, harsh and scratching. She was soon to realize that most of the others were a little like that, but his would always strike her a bit differently. Straightening, she dipped her head and offered her own greetings. "A pleasure, Sir Vanryth, truly. A friend of Sinderion's is a friend of mine." Though probably not for the same reasons.

A jet of air shot out of his nose at the note of being called Sir Vanryth. A bit of humor in that title, he was no more a sir than he was a wood elf. At least he had the same tapered ears as a bosmer. Still, he made no move to correct her (not that he could) and instead returned the bow out of politeness. If this was Sinderion's sister, then he'd show her the respect she deserved. The new acquaintance and witness to familial ties managed to blow off some of the steam of his anger, though the rest he tucked away behind an placid facade. No need to draw this girl into their grievances. If one were to do that, then it'd be Sinder, not himself.

The feeling of being in the middle of a reunion of sort was poignant, so Vanryth tapped Sinder on the elbow, pointed to him and Anirne, and then pointed to a table. He paused in his motions to serve as some sort of period to his sentence then pointed to himself and to the proprietor. He indicated that Sinder should have a seat with his sister while he want to the bar and procured a couple of drinks. Of course, who'd know if he dragged his feet and allowed the two to catch up?

Sinder nodded to show his understanding, managing a half-smile from his gratefulness. It was all a little more than he truthfully understood how to deal with, and perhaps the best way to go about this was slowly. Of course, he knew they had limited time; the Shade would not wait forever, after all, and he doubted his companions wanted to spend more than a night in Riften, if that. Still, he thought it'd be best to do most of the talking before they showed up to retrieve him. Much as he might have liked to simply be able to spend some weeks with Anirne, catching up, getting a feel for the kind of person she was, and perhaps visiting the family home in Solitude (still hers by right, he was certain), there was simply no way that was going to be feasible. He wouldn't abandon his friends, and that meant either leaving her here or taking her with them.

He didn't particularly savor either thought, but he'd need to know which before the end of the evening. "Perhaps... we should sit," he enunciated; just the fact that she was family didn't make him any less awkward and clumsy with words. Once they were settled, he asked the first question on his mind, seeing no reason not to. "What brought you back to Skyrim? I kind of thought... they'd be keeping you, you know?" He wondered if she, too, was in some kind of trouble, not that he knew what he'd do about it if she was.

Sliding into the same chair she'd occupied earlier, Anirne retrieved her staff and leaned it up against the table. Her brother was armed, too, she noted, as was his friend. That made sense, if they were mercenaries, but they also seemed somehow... weary. As though they had been long for a proper amount of sleep. Mayhap they had concluded a long job recently, or were yet in the middle of one. She was not blind to the fact that the nation was in the middle of a civil war, after all; surely, there was much employment for soldiers of fortune at such times. His question pushed her musing gently to the side, and she smiled, traces of melancholy touching the edges of it.

"They are," she said, "but people of my station in the Order are given some amount of leeway. Most of them choose to remain on the island and pursue research or a project. I... chose differently. I was here to find you, and to keep an eye on the Thalmor." The thought of them was enough to erase even the slight tilt to her lips, and she compressed them into a thin line. This was the first time she'd ever been allowed to leave the monastic isle, and even as a full sister, she'd had to justify her trip away. Worldly attachment, especially to one's previous life, was discouraged among the psijics, but she had never quite been able to give those things up. Her parents were gone, and the only thing she had left to be attached to at all was Sinderion. She'd clung to that, for many years now. Some days, when the training was especially hard, the only thought that kept her moving forward was the thought that if she failed, she'd never attain the rank necessary to find him, to see him again.

Looking at him now, feeling that long-forgotten familial warmth filling her chest from her heart to her lungs, was enough to justify everything she'd ever suffered for it: every sleepless night spent training, every injury sustained from pushing herself too far, every collapse brought about by sheer magicka drain. It paled next to this, and she wasn't even sure how long 'this' would last. He had a life, and responsibilities, she knew that. She was actually a little surprised she hadn't found him surrounded by a more conventional family, perhaps some children with his lovely eyes. But it didn't matter, not really.

"And what are you up to these days, Sinderion? I recieved a letter from your Mentor, once, a long time ago, telling me that you were safe and a mercenary, but he wasn't very forthcoming with the details."

Sinder was silent for several long moments, each of them seemingly stretched out like cold molasses. How, exactly, was he supposed to explain everything relevant that had happened between her departure and now? There was just too much information, and the task of putting it all to words was daunting to say the least. He wasn't exactly sure what he was going to say even as his mouth opened to say it, and so perhaps the words were almost entirely involuntary. "The Mentor... the man you heard from, he..." He shook his head as if to do so would reorganize the jumbled thoughts inside of it.

"I... it..." Why could he not ever simply speak? Had he spent so much time as a beast that he had truly forgotten how to use his tongue as a mer did? The spike of self-loathing was nearly-palpable, and he grit his teeth together, curling the hand he'd placed on the table into a painfully-tight fist, nails digging into his palm. The sharp pinpricks of sensation were inconsequential to him; he didn't even feel pain the same way men and mer did. What in the name of all the unholy Daedra was he, anyway? "We're being strung along. They... he... the Mentor was taken. But he is not what we thought him to be. Now, we are as pawns in a Daedric game of assassination. I'm..." His mouth clicked shut, smothering a frustrated noise that was almost a growl.

By this point, he was staring hard at the table in front of him, not daring to look up at his sister. It would only have made things worse. Slowly, in halting, uncertain tones, he laid the story out as best he could, skirting around his rather uniqe condition while hinting at it all the same. It wasn't something he could say directly, not to anyone, really. Van had figured it out on his own, and he wasn't sure if Adrienne or Drayk even knew, beyond the mere fact that something bad happened when he got angry. Maya had proven an exception to this rule, though perhaps more by her choice than his. Anirne would probably not be. By the time he got to the end, he was visibly tired; he probably hadn't ever strung that many words together before, and though he got a bit more fluid as he went, he was still hardly smooth or articulate. He refused to look at her even still.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni

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On the other side of the inn sat Vanryth, having already finished his tankard and working on his second. He figured that when the time came to leave, Sinder would come and collect him, hopefully by then he could still stand. Up to that point, every time that Vanryth was close to the drink, one of the others were there to help him moderate. With the others now occupied with their chores, that left him alone, at the bar, with as many tankards he could down before it was time to leave. He managed to find a seat at the corner of the bar, away from the other patrons so that he may try to drown himself in peace. Maybe, just maybe, if he drank enough, he'd forget all about the Mentor and the Shade, and the bloody game they were thrown into. Probably not, but it didn't keep him from trying anyway.

The plan was moving along smoothly, and he had almost drowned out the bard's singing when the stool his left recieved a visitor. He knew not who the visitor was or even the race of him or her, as they'd took a seat on his blind side. The left eye of his was all but useless and only remained to occupy space in his skull now. He didn't mind though, as long as the patron wasn't expecting someone to chat with. Alas, apparently that was exactly what the man wanted. Van picked out his accent as a sterotypical Nordic brogue, a low baritone harshness honed by the cold land.

"Not from around here are you elf?" He said. Vanryth decided to not dignify the question with a response. He was not in a chatty mood, and he didn't much care for the tone the man used. If only for Sinder and his sister's sake, he'd try not to be confrontational. Had he been in his youth, that tone would have been replied with a crack to the jaw. Lucky day for the man. "Not a talkative one, are you? Figure you're too good to talk to me? Fine. Just listen then. Don't cause any trouble if you know what's good for you," The man's voice was beginning to wear on Van's nerve, but he hid it well enough under a vaneer of nonchalance. Perhaps if he played deaf too the man would go away and leave him to his drink.

"Maven Blackbriar has this city under her thumb. It'd be smart not to anger her. It'd be easy on me, you see. If you make her mad, she'd send me to fix it. I really don't want to fix anything, elf," Van brought his tankard to his lips and downed a sizable amount of the liquid within, trying his best to drown his voice out. Maybe he could ignore words, if he tried hard enough, but he could never ignore the rough hand grabbing his shoulder. The nord spun the dunmer so that they could talk face to face. "Do you understand elf, or are you stupid?" Vanryth tilted his head and downed the rest of his drink. He never was the understanding kind, after all. Didn't listen too well either. The empty tankard then found itself embedded in the man's jaw and again in the top of his head.

Memories of youth came flooding back to him as the man picked him up roughly by the collar and bared a fist to return the favor. A kick to the chest sent the nord across the bar and into the table of a couple of unsavory looking people. Needless to say, they weren't pleased. That much was clear as they stood up to indulge the dunmer in a good old fashioned brawl.

Sinder was saved from a somewhat-awkward silence by perhaps the least-desireable thing to be saved by: the sounds of his best friend getting into a fight. When they were supposed to be laying low and not making a nuisance of themselves. In a town where one of them was already disguised just to walk around safely. Damn. Rising to his feet with haste, Sinderion knew his options were limited, and frankly, there was no way he wasn't going to do anything. The question was, what? He was more worried about the safety of the civilians and the thugs than he was about Van; the Dunmer was well-accustomed to handling himself, and right now, he might very well be lethal. The last thing they needed was a fatality and yet another bounty on one of their number.

Unfortunately, even as he moved to restrain Vanryth, one of the strangers blocked his progress, already mostly lost to the idea of making a full-on fight out of this incident. The man swung a clumsy fist for his stomach, which Sinder would have simply moved past were it not for the fact that he was trying to prevent escalation. Instead, he took it, twisting his body to minimize the damage he sustained. For all its inelegance, the hit was hard, but largely inconsequential to someone sadly too used to being stabbed. Wrapping both hands around the extended arm, he twisted it, quickly and brutally, desirous mostly of a swift end to this, before he, too, forgot that they were supposed to be moving beneath notice.

Anirne had been slowly processing the information Sinderion had provided her, and she had been about to speak when a dull crash caught her attention as surely as her brother's. She turned in time to see a large Nordic man fall into an occupied table, and followed his trajectory back to Vanryth, who looked... well, perhaps hostile was the best word. She shook her head somewhat, unsure of what exactly had caused this whole thing, but well-aware of what she was going to do about it. She hadn't been lying when she said that anyone who befriended her brother had her loyalties as well, and the psijic did not hesitate in taking up her staff, moving almost as quickly as Sinderion had to place herself in the middle of things.

Throughout his tale, her brother had alluded to the fact that something unnatural happened to him when he was provoked too much. It had sounded like such an occurrence had been a long time from its last manifestation, but was not quite so far from happening again. From his tones when speaking and the way he would not look at her, it clearly caused him much anguish, and that was something she wished to prevent if at all possible. The length of wood and steel in hand, Anirne cracked it resolutely against the nearest instigating head, and the man dropped like a pile of stones, collapsing in a messy heap on the floor. He was of course far from dead, merely knocked out for the moment, and she repeated the process with the next, taking the numbers down to three total, including the one Vanryth had originally kicked into the table (now recovering and ready to rejoin the conflict) as well as the other held in Sinderion's grip.

He had forgotten how fast these things escalated. In only moments, the whole bar had erupted into chaos as bodies churned across the inn floor. He was vaguely aware of the innkeeper yelling something at them, though it was far too along for harsh words to have any effect. With his collar now free, Vanryth dropped back to the floor and took a couple of steps toward the man. He asked for this, and he would receive. He was not in any mood to put up with anyone's bullshit, though he tried to avoid it for their sake. Truly he did. However, he was pushed too far, and he was far too broken to know what else to do but to push back. Tempers had flared, alcohol was involved, and now he found himself in a heart of another fight. The first bar fight since the Mentor had taken him in...

No time for him to reminisce though, as the man lept from the table and speared Vanryth into the bar, crushing a number of chairs in their wake. Pain shot through his spine, multiplied by every hard day he lived. If he wasn't pissed before, he certainly was now. His one good eye flared up into a vicious fury and a snarl formed at his lips. His hands rained heavy blows down onto the man's back. He'd only managed about three blows before he felt himself being lifted up into the air and into a bear hug. Now his ribs as well as his spine was in danger of snapping. Though his arms were free to retaliate, he didn't have the time, as he was spun around and slammed into the nearest table, splitting it under the combined weight of the brawlers.

The force slammed all of the air out of his lungs, leaving him gasping for air and a bit dazed. This was not his first fight though, and he had experience over the man. As they wrestled in the wreckage of the table, Vanryth had managed to find himself in the position to deliver a headbutt to the man. The blow set his own head a ringing, as he had forgotten the stone-headediness of the nordic people. Still, a little headache wasn't going to slow him down, and the timely headbutt had stunned the man long enough for Van slip him into a headlock. They spent a few moments rolling around in the splinters of the table, a couple of which were still digging deep into Van's back and adding further fuel to the fire. Eventaully, the two brawlers found themselves rising to their feet, a poor position for Van to find himself in. The man was stronger than he was, younger too. He'd easily put Vanryth down if given the chance.

Van just had to make sure he didn't get that chance. He cocked back a fist and sent a flurry of three punches into the man's head, and knocking him out of the hold. Though free, the punches dazed him long enough for Van to capitalize. As the man staggered trying to regain his footing, Van took his chance to grab a nearby chair and shatter it across the man's chest. Still he stood though, for all of about a second before his stuggling feet gave out from under him and put him to the floor.

Careful to measure his force, Sinder slammed the side of his free hand against the man's neck, dropping him beside one of Anirne's victims. That she had jumped so quickly into the fray honestly surprised him; he knew little of monks, but he'd thought they'd most likely be pacifistic. Apparently, this was not true of the psijics, or at least not true of her. Either way, he found himself glad of the unexpected assistance, especially when it became clear that the aggressors in this conflict were not going to be backing off just because their allies fell like sacks of grain. Unfortunately for him at least, he was fighting a much harder battle inside himself than the one going on externally. This was apparently how it was going to be from now on: the smell of sweat and fear in his nose, the sounds of shouts and thudding limbs, all of it was to feed the starved beast in its cage, letting it rattle the rusting bars of its confines, threatening to break them at any point between now and who knew when. He was coming to understand that this was only a matter of time.

The next man to hit him caught him in a moment of distraction. He'd felt his teeth rearranging themselves and had hitched in his step, willing them to return to normal, and failed to notice the attack from his flank. A thick piece of wood-- what had once been a table leg, it seemed-- smacked into the side of his head, sending Sinderion staggering sideways, bleeding from a cut on his temple. The sneak attack raipped a snarl from his throat, and the retaliation was nearly-instantaneous: with uncommon quickness, the Altmer man whipped himself around, reversing his direction and springing upon the burly Nord, landing in a crouch on the brawler's chest. For a sickly-spinning moment, he was sorely tempted to sink his teeth into the juncture between the man's neck and shoulder, taste his flesh, but that he quickly shoved aside, instead drawing back a (clawed) fist and driving it up under his opponent's jaw.

It was enough to render him unconscious, but Sinder didn't move too much immediately afterward, instead focusing on his breathing, trying to draw it back to a normal level rather than the harsh, ragged pants he was exhaling now. It wasn't even the exertion that was doing it, it was... the hunger. Gritting his teeth, he swallowed thickly and backed off slowly, not taking his eyes from the still form before him. Was he truly so close to the precipice? Was this all that remained of this distance between himself and that thing? It was a disturbing thought, to say the least.

Upon the swift defeat of his fellows, a third man had wisely chosen to approach her more cautiously, and he unlike they was actually quite skilled in unarmed combat. Currently, they circled each other in a somewhat-open space in the center of the bar, but she was much more patient than her foe, and it showed in the bruises blossoming over his limbs and her unscathed figure. Somewhere in her peripheral vision, she caught sight of Sinder dead-jumping onto a man, while Vanryth headbutted another, but she knew better than to lose focus. They were professionals, certainly well capable of taking care of themselves without her.

Still, her flicking glance had drawn her opponent, a mid-sized Imperial fellow with white-blond hair, forward, lashing for her side with a first. Anirne twisted, snaking out of the way of the blow, and planted her staff upon the floor, using it to leverage herself up and strike out with both feet in a rotating motion around the axis of the wooden pole. The maneuver caught him unawares, and her left heel hit his chin, snapping his head to the side. Landing lightly, Anirne lifted the staff and took advantage of his disorientation, driving it into his stomach, and then into the back of his head when he doubled over. This one, too, fell, and she looked up to see that everyone who'd attacked was out cold, due to the collective effort of the three of them.

The bar was in shambles. They'd managed to break a table, several chairs, and scatter food and drink all over the floors. Grimacing, Anirne straightened and reached to her side, untying a satchel of coins there and approaching the bar, where Keerava was looking slightly at a loss for what to do. "Please, take this for the damages, and for those men's... care. We'll not impose upon you any longer." The amount should be more than enough to cover it, and the Argonian woman seemed to think so, too, as she nodded with relative equanimity and yelled for her help to take care of the mess.

Approaching the other two, she looked worriedly at Sinder's temple and the way Vanryth was standing and pursed her lips. "I know a fair amount of healing, but I think we should get out of here first, perhaps."

Van stood at the bar, leaning on it heavily and using it to keep himself from keeling over. His back hurt worse than he could ever remember, splinters were steadily digging into his flesh, and air just would not go back into his lungs. He stood there for a few moments, trying to get his lungs to work properly again. Had he not shattered every chair in the immediate vicinity, he'd be sitting in it. During the fight, he had felt young again, but after it... not so much. He couldn't bounce back like he used to. Still, he still had it, by the way he still stood and the nord didn't. In time perhaps, he'd realize that it wasn't something to be entirely proud of. Things could have been worse though, things could always be worse.

Anirne approached with a mention of leaving and healing, causing him to look around at the destruction he had caused. It all fell squarely on his shoulders after all. How long had it been since his last fight? Last bar fight? He couldn't remember. Perhaps he didn't want to remember. He felt very sober at that moment, like all of the alcohol in his blood evaporated in an instant. The last time he was in a bar fight... Someone died. Despite all of the Mentor's teachings, he anger still got the better of him. With a bit of regret and embarrasment in his face, and a curt nod later he began to limp out of the inn. If he was able to walk straight, he'd had left a step behind a run.

Sinderion simply grimaced and nodded. "Perhaps that is for the best." He couldn't exactly say that he wouldn't act the same way if given a second chance, but that didn't mean that he was particularly proud of it. Jumping into the fight beside his friend had been necessary, but perhaps regrettable all the same, especially given the extenuating circumstances plaguing the both of them. Anirne's easy acceptance of the events left him a bit perplexed, truthfully, but that didn't mean he wasn't grateful. Once the lot of them were outside, he led the way around the back of the building, into the alley it shared with a sundried shop. They didn't want to be too plainly visible, but neither did he fancy the idea of making Van walk too far with such a pronounced limp.

He stopped walking, then, sitting himself on a shipping crate instead, looking perhaps more like a repentant child than he had in years. This wasn't how he'd wanted this whole thing to go, those few times when he'd let himself consider the possibility. "I'm... sorry," he managed eventually. "In a couple of hours, you've seen an unfavorable side of us, and I've... you didn't need to be burdened with my problems." He wasn't sure what he was expecting her to do, but he wouldn't have been surprised if she simply chose to leave. There was no way this could have been what she'd expected when she took leave of her haven to journey back to Skyrim. Vanryth nodded his agreement, the woman seeing him in one of his weaker moments.

Anirne smiled at the both of them, shaking her head slightly. "Nonsense." Taking her brother's chin in hand, she turned his head so as to examine the wound on it, then clicked her tongue rapidly in something like sympathy. Her hands lit with an aureate light, and this, she directed to stem the bleeding and close the shallow wound over. "I came to Skyrim to find you. I never had any expectations about what state I'd find you in, and we all have our demons." She shrugged, and turned to Vanryth. His injuries seemed more general, so she didn't bother trying to locate them, deciding to let the magic do that for her. Instead, she touched her thumbs and index fingers to each other in something like a triangle, and brought her arms down in a slow, controlled motion. It seemed to be effective, anyway, because what wounds he had sustained disappeared.

"Besides. You are my brother, and you are his friend. I'd not soon let you deal with that by yourselves if I was capable of helping. Now. When do I get to meet the rest of the Sellswords? Seems you could use a little help." She released the magic and brushed her palms over the sides of her dark grey tunic, looking at both men expectantly.

Sinderion knew enough to sit still while she worked her magics, but as soon as she was done, he was exchanging a glance with Van. Truthfully, his sister was very little like he remembered; only some element of pragmatism seemed to remain. The rest was... unexpected, and he wasn't really sure how to feel about it. On one hand, it made his life much easier. On the other... she wanted to come with them. Even knowing as much as he did about what they were in for. Did that even make sense? He wasn't sure it did. The Altmer blinked once, slowly, almost surprised when she was still standing there when his eyes opened. Probably not some kind of dream then, and she had a smell, which excluded the usual types of illusion.

"Um." He replied, oh-so-articulately, then glanced over at his friend, as though seeking an opinion. Vanryth shrugged as if to say, "Why not?" "Well, if you're sure, I suppose... the others are in the market. They, er... they might not agree, but... I think they will." There was no mistaking the fact that they were in desperate need of as much help as they could get, and undoubtedly, she had formidable talent in magic to match the easy mastery of staff forms she'd displayed in the tavern. She was, after all, a psijic monk. Even Aldmeri battlemages knew better than to underestimate such folk. Rising to his feet, Sinder led the way around the building and back out into the open market-area. It seemed that Adrienne and the Nord woman, Lynly, were just finishing up with something, and he could see Drayk and Maya some distance beyond. The archer was actually the closest, speaking in low tones with a redheaded man under an awning of some sort.

Sinderion chose to bypass that possibility and instead flagged down the other four, raising an arm above his head in a silent signal for them to gather. Better that than drawing all kinds of attention to themselves by shouting across the way, at any rate.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Soren's home lay a little ways outside Riften proper, the grounds behind it opening up into the forest. The house itself was of solid construction, two stories mostly of grey stone and some wood where that alone would not do. The grounds were a bit on the overgrown side, perhaps an indication of the amount of time the resident actually spent on the property, but the interior was quite nearly immaculate. Upon arriving, the Nord seemed to abandon his usual incredibly lazy demeanor and did most of the work himself, though whether this was from benevolence or the desire that the others not touch his things was unclear. Before long, a fire was crackling in the hearth, and a huge cast-iron pot hung on a hook above it, simmering something that smelled delicious. Why a singular person owned such a large implement was another small mystery, for it was obvious just from looking at him that he didn't eat nearly that much on his own.

The wood floors were covered with furs, useful items gleaned from hunts, on the occasion that he turned to that occupation to make his living, which wasn't often. Still, the pelts were well-maintained, and the decorations in surprisingly good taste. Several rooms occupied the lower floor, and among these lay equipment necessary for both enchantment and more advanced alchemy, in addition to a few extra bedrooms. A couple more of these were upstairs, as well as a separate chamber apparently designated only for bathing. All in all, it was a house built for at least five people, if not more.

Presently, its owner was crouched in front of the stew-pot, stirring occasionally but mostly staring off listlessly into space, with the occasional yawn serving to remind everyone present that he was in fact alive and not some eerie statue or something. He appeared not to have much care for what the rest did with themselves for the moment.

Though the idea of a bath was almost irresistably tempting, Adrienne had a few things she needed to accomplish first. Surprised to discover that the house had a full range of enchanting equipment, she collected Lynly's armor as well as the pieces she'd bought earlier in the day and her collection of soul gems and vanished into the workroom, intent on completing the enhancements before the night was out and she could sleep. Then maybe she could start working on that new set of robes, or at least finish the mends in her old ones. Presently, she was stooped over the table, palms set gently into the marked places on either side of the stone slab, murmuring low words to aid in the fixing of the magic to the steel of Lynly's armor. The soul gem in the carved bowl at the noon position on the disc pulsed gently, and some distance away, a substance bubbled merrily in the alchemic glassware Soren owned, all of which she'd cleaned thoroughly, helped a long by a little flame in the center.

The soul gem flared, and this was the most delicate part of the process. Adrienne's chanting grew almost feverish as she guided the wisp of light- the souls of vanquished foes, in this particular case mostly draugr from an old job- to the plate and sank it slowly into the smooth surface, made so by the smith's skilled work earlier in the afternoon. What she did had to go deeper than that, though- it would be no good if the enchantment could be ruptured with a simple blow. She felt a twinge in the back of her mind when the spell caught, like a sharp bramble on fabric, and from there it was a simpler process of something like unravelling and weaving again. When it was done, she pushed off her hands and sighed, running both hands through her hair, but her smile gave away her satisfaction. It was a good enchantment, really, and she was glad of that. Armor could not be replaced so easily as a trinket, which was why she'd chosen to do it first, while she was fresh and able to focus as much as possible.

Setting the chestplate, gauntlets, and greaves aside carefully, she moved on to the next item, setting the materials down on the table before she moved to check on the potions. They were moving along quite nicely, but that was a process she could complete while asleep, so accustomed to it was she. That would probably be a useful skill, tonight- she had no intention of letting any of them walk a step further without options, ways of healing if Drayk was occupied, and she didn't trust her own hands to administer that kind of care anymore, not after what she'd almost done to him. It occurred to her that she might have been trying to replace herself with the things she was doing now, but... surely, that couldn't be a bad thing? She wasn't exactly indispensible, and she'd proven to herself if not any of the others that she was entirely fallible when it counted the most. Yes, even if that was in fact what this was, it was for the best.

Anirne sat crosslegged on a rug draped over the floor, close to the fire. Her staff rested over her knees, and she appeared almost to be asleep sitting up, except nobody slept with such straight posture. She'd already taken the opportunity to cleanse herself, and presently her hair was darkened by water, curling slightly at the ends, which were long enough to pool behind her on the rug. The band it was usually braided with rested about her wrist, and she was without her cloak, but otherwise she was arrayed in the same manner as she had been that afternoon. Normally, this would be an opportunity that she would utilize for proper meditation and rest, but at present she chose to filter slowly through her thoughts instead.

And indeed, they were many. This was not so unusual; she thought often about a variety of things, after all, but today they were mostly centered around her brother and his friends. They'd accepted her presence with a minimum of fanfare, and essentially no questions whatsoever. It was actually curious, and she wasn't sure she liked it. The gesture smacked of desperation, and a concern with matters too far into the future for the present to matter much. Perhaps she would eventually be questioned (she was actually rather hoping for it), but that would not alleviate the underlying problem.

She had gathered that only four of them were actually Sellswords-- Sinderion, the striking young man the others called Drayk, Vanryth, and the gentler-looking of the Breton women, Adrienne. The other three-- the personable Maya, apparently closed-off Lynly, and their present host, Soren, were in fact all outsiders who had attached to the group for one reason or another. Sinderion's recounting of the events had necessarily mentioned at least part of Maya's role in the whole thing, but the presence of the other two was a mystery. Were they, like her, strangers who had been brought on with little thought to the consequences? It was certainly possible, but she didn't know enough to determine whether that should worry her or not. Well, the whole situation was problematic, but there were things she could control and things she couldn't. Anirne had long ago learned to tell the difference, and concern herself only with the former.

A small sigh escaped her, and she cracked open both eyes, looking around the room with passive interest.

Maya had just entered the room with Sinderion's sister, having just finished cleaning off herself. It was actually a rather remarkable transformation she'd undergone, to those that had accompanied her so far. Her hair tumbled about her shoulders and back in a practically dripping mess of black, but at this point, it was really the only thing that appeared wild about her. Her skin was cleared entirely of any dust of the road or dirt of the forest, and she wore a second dress, a clean and simple garment of light grey, with not a feather on her person. It seemed to make her eyes brighter, dark blue orbs now a lighter color, reflecting that her mood was no longer remotely sour.

She slid to one side of the fire, dropping slowly to the floor on the same rug as Anirne, laying upon her side and propping her head up upon a hand, the elbow perched against the floor, allowing her hair to fall off her back and towards the rug. She kept her eyes on Anirne for a few long moments, as though studying her, or searching for something, all the while a little half-smile made its way onto her face. She'd only introduced herself by name, and while she suspected Sinder may have already revealed what she was, she made no effort to do so during their official introduction. It was always interesting to see how differently people treated her once they knew.

"The poor fire mage," she began wistfully, "he stumbled upon me just after I'd finished with my bath. Face turned as scarlet as blood, and he tried to run. I told him there was plenty of room for him to join me, but alas, he feigns disinterest. In any case, he's washing up now, and I do believe he barred the door. As if that would stop me." Soren snickered from his place beside the fire, shaking his head slightly, but otherwise did not comment, though the content of his thoughts was anyone's guess. She sighed at the thought, imagining something that probably no one wanted to hear about. After another long moment she returned her eyes to Anirne.

"So, Anirne. I do hope you know what you're getting into. How much did Sinderion tell you? Surely not everything." She had heard about the little scuffle that had broken out at the Bee and Barb, finding herself amused and slightly disappointed that she'd missed it. Not that she would have taken part. She wasn't one to enjoy swinging her fists when so many more elegant weapons were at her disposal.

There were a lot worse places to be than the mercenary's den. The inn for example. Vanryth was glad that his actions didn't keep them from sleeping outside the city walls on the cold ground. Although, the generousity of this total stranger did strike him as odd. Not that he wasn't grateful, far from it actually. That didn't keep him from being his wary, paranoid self though, and he'd sleep with one eye open in any case. That being said, Vanryth did notice the size of the house-- or rather mansion. The house was equipped with more facilities than should be necessary for one man. He found himself wondering just who exactly this Soren was. Everyone had something to hide, and this man looked no different than any other.

Still, Vanryth had better things to do than ponder the mysterious of the man. He sat draped over a high backed armchair near both Soren and Anirne. He had washed earlier and had managed to trim his beard into something respectable. His legs dangled off to the side of one arm, while the corner of it provided the support for his back. An inkwell lay on the floor nearby and with a quill and book in his hand, writing. He had learned (or rather the Mentor taught) that writing helped with his anger issues. Every moment spent writing in his journal was a moment not spent within the prison of his own mind, stewing with all of his thoughts. All of his mistakes, his regrets, his sins. Writing was a valve to release the steam. At it were, the quill was busily scratching away. He needed something to take his mind off of... everything.

Lynly on the other hand found herself at a loss as to what to do. Normally, she'd spend her time buffing and polishing her armor, but since the pieces were otherwise occupied, she found herself a bored. Reserved or not, the woman lived for excitement and adventure. She had to admit though, that a break from the road was a nice thing. The idea of exploring the Soren estate did linger in her mind for a bit, but a memory of a certain daedra lord and the life of organized debauchery managed to snuff that idea. She'd rather not wander into something she'd rather not, and then have the archer explain it. In fact, she'd rather keep the acts of debauchery firmly in his past and not in her present.

"Daedra lords and their games. What's not to get?" Lynly spoke up, her boredom drawing her words out. She too had heard about the scuffle the elves had managed to get themselves into. Otherwise though, she had no opinion on the matter. It wasn't her in the fight after all, and she was nobody's nanny. She may have thought that the idea of them getting into a fight mere minutes after arriving was something queer, and then there was the fact of them bringing another elf along the way. The other knife-ear's sister from what she had gather. She was wary of the girl, as she was the scholarly type. Unlike her brother, who had something more feral about him. She'd made note to hide the symbol of Talos when around the girl. For all she knew, she was a Thalmor spy, and she'd rather not find that out the hard way.

Anirne's glance flicked to the Nord for a moment before she brought them back to rest on Maya, lifting one shoulder in a half-shrug. "Perhaps it was not everything. I cannot say. It was enough. I know of the game you play, and how the Sellswords came to be involved. He did not say it directly, but I think he is troubled. Partially for you, it seems, though I know not why. You seem the sort who can take care of herself quite well." Anirne clasped her arms together in a simple gesture, resting her wrists on the staff crossing her knees. "Still, I can see the reason for his puzzlement. You travel with a group whose success depends on your eventual death." The small smile on the woman's face betrayed that it was perhaps not the strangest thing she'd ever heard, and also her confidence that there was more to the situation than Sinderion knew. He might not understand, but she thought she might be able to guess at the underlying thought, if pressed.

"I will admit, I have little concern for the Daedra. For gods in general, really. What others do is their business, but my kind follow the old ways, and if I could be said to venerate anything, it would be the spirit of my ancestors-- the enterprise to move ever forward, the tenderness to remain attached to others, the strength to withstand what those gods seek to thwart us with, that sort of thing. But if I have to play this game to help him, I will. I owe him that much, at least." She spread her arms, a gesture of resignation and also placidity. She seemed unconcerned with the situation, to say the least, or perhaps just filled with an easy equanimity that made accepting it a simple matter.

Sinderion, on the other hand, found himself with very little desire to be in the large, elegant house, as even Nordically-styled as it was, it still managed to make him feel like a bear in a room full of fine ceramicware. Instead, he prowled the grounds, as had become his wont. He'd always had more affinity for the outdoors than was perhaps to be expected, even as a child. Back then, it had simply been a fascination with the wild, sprawling landscapes of Skyrim, but now it was more a need than anything else. He needed to be out-of-doors, else the restlessness in his blood would fill his limbs to tingling, and he'd begin to feel as though he would burst.

Presently, he carried nothing more cumbersome than a single knife, expecting that he'd have no need for anything else. He wasn't out here for confrontation. Quite the opposite actually-- for the same reasons Vanryth wrote, Sinder ran, hopping over obstacles as though they weren't even present, siling through the air for exhilarating seconds before his feet alighted again on the ground, making next to no sound on the dead leaves that carpeted the forest. As always, information found its way to him through his nose and ears before he had any reason to see much at all, and he was acutely aware of the position of his limbs and the way they moved in tandem. It was easy; the easiest thing there was. He did not need to speak, nor even to think in the conventional sense. All he had to do was be as he was, and if the lines between himself and the other blurred here, well, there was nobody around to suffer for it.

The smell of fresh water ahead alterted him to the presence of a stream, and he slowed before reaching the banks, coming to stop in a crouch beside the water. Peering into the depths, he was able to spot several shadows flitting about below the surface-- fish. Sinderion spent a moment longer in consideration and shrugged, standing and unbuckling his leather armor, shrugging out of the rest of his clothing and wading in. The water was cold-- perhaps nearly frozen, but he had never worried about it. Among the alterations the beast made even to this body was a tolerance of such things, and it concerned him not. When the water was waist-deep, he stopped and grew still, entirely unmoving, rooted in the smooth stones of the streambed like an impossible tree at the edge of a cliff. Patience was key here, and he didn't move for minutes, until such time as the fish forgot that he'd ever moved at all. That was the fatal mistake, and with a few quick lashes of movement, he'd plucked three from the stream and opened their bellies with his knife, spilling the entrails out onto the bank.

Returning to the water, he scrubbed himself with coarse sand from the bank until he was free of dirt and no longer smelled of much in particular, then caught a few more fish and returned to the shore. Shaking himself more or less dry, he gave his linens much the same abrasive cleaning, then built a small fire, roasting the fish and drying everything out simultaneously. By the time all was said and done, the sun was low in the sky, and he figured it would be best to return to the house. He might have preferred to remain here, but he was not unaware that some people might have concern for his presence. Donning his dry (and quite warm) garments, he gathered up his armor and the fish he hadn't consumed and ran back to the residence, entering the main room in just enough time to hear the end of Anirne's last sentence. He looked between all the people in the room, eyes half-masted with something approaching unease, but then shook his head, depositing his armor in an unoccupied corner for later maintenance.

"Nobody owes me anything, least of all you," he replied simply, handing the fish off to Soren, who looked surprised for all of two seconds before shrugging and adding them to the bubbling pot. No skin off his teeth, anyway.

"I disagree," Anirne returned, but she did not press the point. Sinder said nothing, settling himself in a corner of the room and studiously avoiding sending so much as a glance in the direction of the others, though why it was so was not precisely clear. Sighing, his sister returned her attention to the younger women.

"Why do you ask? Is there something else you would have me know?" She inquired politely.

Maya wanted to know if Sinderion had informed her of his lycanthropy. Considering her current demeanor, she was either very good at hiding her emotions, she simply wasn't troubled by the knowledge, or most likely, she didn't know. The witch found herself momentarily frowning at that, but that was all the subject would receive in her mind. It certainly wouldn't be her to tell Anirne, as family matters were not hers to intrude upon, no matter how much enjoyment she would have gotten out of delivering the news. Come to think of it, it probably wouldn't have been much. And maybe she was being a bit hypocritical. After all, she was still concealing her own status as a Glenmoril witch, though that was more for her own amusement than forced by shame or fear. Perhaps she would have a talk with Sinderion about it later.

"The Shade isn't the only one capable of making plans," Maya said to Anirne, "for now, let's just say I'm growing more confident that my new friends wouldn't simply kill me because he demanded it. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe it would defeat the purpose of finding their Mentor if they were willing to stoop to any lows to do so." She left the point at that. Truly, she did not think the Sellswords would butcher her without hesitation, especially at the Shade's command. He had not made friends with them, and while Maya was not exactly bonded with them yet, the fact that none of them had struck her in any way yet was promising to say the least. Anirne simply smiled. It had seemed likely that the reasoning was something like that. Sinder, on the other hand, frowned and shook his head, apparently dissatisfied, though he said nothing.

"I'm wondering how much you know of our current goal," she continued, "Talmoro Vasuderon, the Inquisitor of the Thalmor here in Skyrim, is to die next. Are you familiar in any way with the man?" To be honest, Maya knew less about the Psijic Order than she liked. She'd actually thought they didn't exist, and was still quite skeptical that this Anirne was really what she said. However, if she was a member of an order such as theirs, and being an Altmer as she was, it seemed a decent chance she would know something of the most skilled torturer and interrogator in Skyrim.

The monk's smile dropped into something resembling a grimace, and something in her glance hardened. "I know of him, yes, but we are not personally acquainted. Whether he knows my face, I cannot say. Among the Thalmor, I am often known and never liked." That turned her lips back up at one corner, and she shook her head. "He is a singularly despicable sort, or at least my information leads me to that conclusion, but he is also not one to be trifled with. Killing him will be a challenge, and likely require subtlety and force in equal measure." She looked thoughtful at this, raising her clasped hands to her chin and spending a few moments in thought. This answer managed to win some respect from Lynly, though she said nothing. At least she didn't have to worry about her Talos worship around her-- not that she still wasn't going to be careful.

"Is your method of closing in on him yet set, or would you care for some advice?" Anirne raised a delicately-arched brow, but truthfully, nothing of consequence to her hinged on the answer. She would work with what she was given; it was, as ever, a matter of distinguishing the changeable from the steadfast, and striving only at one of them.

"What's to set?" Soren asked from beside the fire, shooting a look over his shoulder at the others assembled. "Sneak past the guards, or kill them and hide the bodies if you have to, then pick the lock on one of the side doors and slip in. I doubt killing the guy will be easy, but that's the same no matter how you go about the rest. Unless you plan on just waltzing right up to the door and hoping he doesn't recognize you, of course." He'd done that a few times, too, actually, and while it could be just as fun as skulking about, weren't all these people supposed to know each other or something? It seemed like Maya, Tarquin, and possibly Anirne would be easily-recognizeable, so unless they planned to send in a bunch of people who had no idea what the hell they were doing (plus him, of course), they were going to have to be a bit cloak-and-dagger about it.

"I could get in, though I do not like how," Lynly said, digging out her hidden Talos amulet and flashing it. Obviously that would mean she would enter the estate as a prisoner, and not an idea she was too overly fond of. It was a suggestion all the same though, a morsel of information for the group to do what they will with it. Though she did find herself hoping one of the others would come up with a better plan. Even Soren's quiet solution sounded better, despite the bad taste it left in her mouth. Vanryth looked up from his book and shrugged. He wasn't much of a planning man and allowed those of more stable minds to work out their plan of attack.

"To be honest, I think a well crafted disguise on me would fool him easily enough. He would recognize a Glenmoril witch, not an elegant lady from High Rock. And while stealth would probably be necessary on the part of Tarquin and yourself," she said to Anirne, "I doubt he would know any of the Sellswords by face alone. So while the idea of sending in some bait is awfully tempting," she flashed a smile at Lynly, "it shouldn't be necessary. Of course, the final plan will no doubt be whatever Tarquin wants, as this is his kill after all, not mine. That said, I very much like the idea of dressing up and finding a way into one of his horrid social functions. A lovely change of pace, even if the majority of you would be an absolute disaster." She thought of Vanryth, Sinderion, and Drayk. It would no doubt be funny, though, at least for a while.

The fact that Anirne was imgining this very scenario was immediately obvious from the fact that her facial expression shifted from thoughtfulness to vague horror to unadulterated amusement quite quickly, and she actually laughed. It wasn't an ostentatious sound, nor particularly loud, but it did seem genuine. "Well, 'disaster' might be stretching it, but if you could all stand it, I see no reason some of you can't go as guards or attendants. If the former aren't permitted, surely footmen would be? I imagine any guests of sufficient importance would protest were they not, after all." The thought of her brother dressed as some noble lady's footman managed to produce another chuckle, but this one passed quickly. "They also wouldn't likely be expected to say or do much, which could be a benefit. A guest goes missing, that's one thing, but nobody pays much mind to the help." An unfortunate truth that they might well be able to play to their advantage here.

"But if as you say this Tarquin gets to choose, speculation is perhaps without merit." She might have spoken further, but at that point, a slightly haggard-looking Adrienne emerged from the workroom, arms full of newly-enchanted items. She handed Lynly her armor first, smiling softly and giving the Nord woman a nod. It was well-protected against fire, now. When she'd realized they had another permanent addition, she'd had to adjust a few things, and as a result, what she handed Vanryth was in fact not a piece of metal, but a tightly-knit red scarf.

"Health restoration," she promised, aware that his joints and muscles tended to trouble him easily and having decided to try and mitigate that as much as possible. From the others, she'd taken suggestions, and worked the magicks into simple but reasonably-nice pieces of jewelry, which she handed to their recipients, at least the ones that were in the room. Anirne's provided a bit of a boost to her strength, to make wielding her two-handed staff easier over long periods of time, for instance. Drayk hadn't been around when she'd inquired, so she'd worked a magicka-restoring property into his, on faith that he'd use it well. She had to believe it, anyway.

"Is anyone in the baths? I could really use one..."

Maya jumped right on that, running a hand through still damp hair. "Drayk should still be in there. He was when I left, anyway. I'm sure he'd love it if you joined him." Her tone was mostly playful, the mischievous glint back in her eye. Adrienne met the other woman's eyes for a moment, then smiled, equally foxlike. "Perhaps, perhaps not. He'd have to work a little harder, though, maybe even ask." She shrugged lightly, making it rather hard to tell if she was serious, then picked herself a spot on a chair, gathering up her new needle and some of the fabric. She could still use new robes, at any rate.

The witch shrugged back. "Suit yourself." It didn't much matter one way or the other, she just thought they needed to have a little fun now and then to avoid going insane, and perhaps sadly this was one of the first things that came to mind.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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They were three days into the ride by the time Anirne had convinced herself that it would not be egregiously out-of-line to ask. Granted, she hadn't actually discovered that Van wasn't mute by choice until the first time she saw him writing and showing the script to somebody in response to a question. The other Sellswords seemed to accept this as a matter of course, which meant it was something he did regularly, hence her deduction. The others seemed disinclined to speak with him at all. She had to admit, she was curious. There was certainly a story there, but it was probably unpleasant, and besides, there were much better ones she could ask, especially considering the situation they were all about to find themselves in.

Like most of the rest, the Altmer woman owned a horse, and so presently she steered hers just a bit so as to be alongside his and leveled the best question she could think of. Admittedly, the phrasing was a bit inelegant, but hopefully he wouldn't mind. "Sir Vanryth? If I may, are you not familiar with any sign-language systems? Or is it just that none of the others know them?" She pursed her lips for a second, then followed up with a bit of context, that the inquiry might make sense, perhaps. "There are several silent brothers and sisters where I'm from, you see, and I'd thought Skyrim might have some such method."

There it was again, Sir Vanryth. The first time she had said it was a novelty, something that held an ironic tone for Van. That novelty was slowy beginning to wear thin, but the stubborn Dunmer was loath to correct her. It didn't matter what she decided to call him after all, and he'd heard worse in his lifetime. Still, he lent an ear and listened to what she had to say. Sign language, it wasn't something that he didn't entertain thoughts about, but none of the Sellswords to the best of his knowledge didn't know it, and had the Mentor, Van was positive the man would have taught him. While a quill and paper was one option in order to get around that handicap, he often didn't find himself with the luxury of time, nor space to write when he needed most to.

Fortunately, this was not one of those times. He had managed to position his blank journal on a knee and was able to write satisfactory enough to convey his thoughts. He licked the end of the quill in his hand to loosen up the ink and put quill to paper. First though, he had to flip the end of his newly mint scarf of the side of his shoulder. The thing may not have been him but it did make waking up without rocks for joints a lot easier.

Vanryth Galero wrote:A bit of both, I'm afraid. I have heard of some being able to speak with their hands, but unfortunately such an ability is rare in these lands. Or perhaps it is not rare and I am just looking in the wrong places. My travels don't tend to lead me to the intelligent sort who would know of such systems and none of my friends here know any sign language, as far as I believe. Alas, as far as I know Skyrim doesn't employ any such language, unless you count the grunts and chest beating of some of her inhabitants,"


He stopped his writing, ripped the page from the journal, and handed it to the girl. A chuckle was in his throat and a wry grin played at his hard face. The fight at the bar must have let some that steam building vent. At least, until they had to meet the Shade again, but Van didn't try to think of that. No point in ruining a perfectly decent mood after all.

For a moment, Anirne was left to wonder if it was something she said, but a quick scan of the paper yielded the source of his amusement, and her own eyes crinkled at the corners, the shallow lines there sure evidence that she, at least, had spent a good portion of her life smiling. "I see. I think I might have borne witness to some of that, now that I get to thinking on the matter." The smile itself followed the words, a brief flash of teeth receding into a more subtle slant to her lips. She thought on the matter a moment, a slight crease in her brow perhaps indicative that she also spent much time contemplating, and nodded. "Would you like to learn? I know how to use signs myself, and if nothing else it will give us something to do. I enjoy the landscape here as much as the next person, but one can only gaze upon so much snow before one grows weary of the color white."

She flipped the paper over and handed it back so that he could use it a second time. No sense in wasting it, though with luck, by the time they reached Solitude, she personally wouldn't be causing him to use any more.

Van accepted the paper and slid it back into the journal, for use at another time. He contemplated her words for a couple of moments, thinking it over. Really, there wasn't any reason not to, as he didn't have anything else to do for the long ride. But he asked himself how useful would it be, really? If he was taught, then the only ones who could be able to communicate like that would be Anirne and himself. It was still better than using ink and paper for one's tongue. He looked around, at his friends surrounding them. Perhaps... Perhaps they could learn to listen to him. Maybe he put a bit too much faith in his friends, but as he had thought earlier, it was better than nothing. Another option if nothing else. Why not?

He shrugged his shoulder and nodded his assent. There was nothing to lose and more to gain. There was no reason to deny the idea. If anything it'd burn the time that have until they reach Solitude, and maybe take his mind off of what was to come.

"Sorry to intrude, but could you teach me, too?" Adrienne asked from her own horse, not more than a few paces behind the two of them. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but it's sort of hard not to when we're traveling all bunched up like this. I think it's a wonderful idea, and it would only be more useful if more of us learned, right?" She looked hopefully to Anirne, who nodded with simple acceptance.

"Of course. The idea is to expand communication, not limit it. I'd be glad to teach anyone who wishes to learn." She pursed her lips momentarily. "Actually, I could use everyone's help. It seems most important to cover certain words and phrases first, but the way we teach it, those words usually have much to do with magic and technical minutae that probably aren't of much use to you. With what things would you all recommend I start instead?" She suspected that they would have reason to know commands, and warnings for the same purpose, but as she knew little of their habits outsie of their occupation as mercenaries, she was interested to know what they considered most pertinent.

Adrienne hummed somewhere deep in her throat, glancing up at the sky as if it were an aid to the considerations. "Well, aside from the obvious, I guess words about locations would be good. Hills, mountains, streams and so on. Directions, I guess. An alphabet to spell things we don't know otherwise? Can we do that? What else do you think, Van?"

Van tapped on his journal for a minute, thinking it over for a moment before he opened the book and went to the blank side of the paper he had just recieved. A couple of scratches from the quill and he offered both ladies the paper.

Vanryth Galero wrote:How, what, why, when, and where are simple things that would help to glean information. And what Adrienne said, locations and directions seem useful. Maybe an alphabet. Practical things like that. If I need to be eloquent with my words, I can always go to these books. We'll see where we'll go from there, see if your teaching jars anything else loose that would end up being useful.


"Teach them to proposition somebody. Not a one of them doesn't need to get laid," Soren advised with dripping sarcasm from the sidelines. Actually, he was a little curious about the whole endeavor, and about the woman offering her lessons up to the lot of them. Like all of the women in his present company, she was obviously fetching, but for once, that wasn't what he meant. He'd been quieter than usual for the past few days, choosing mostly to observe rather than comment, and in that time, he'd noted a number of things, none of which puzzled him quite like the psijic did, if indeed that was what she was. Not everyday you met someone who could walk up to this mad band and not judge the hell out of them.

He was certainly judging them, or he would be if he thought he had any right. But he didn't, so he pretended instead. Her though? She practically radiated that spun-sugar goodness that usually made him sick, but somehow managed to not be overbearing about it. In a party of sinners, she looked like a saint, and what the hell was with that? It made him incredibly suspicious. Moody Blue's sister or not, her presence didn't make sense, so naturally he didn't like it. Besides, he might actually have some use for that sign-language business.

The "moody" individual currently in question shot the archer a halfhearted glare, but at this point, he knew well enough that nothing would stop the man from being the way he was, and trying was only a wasted effort, something that he couldn't really afford anymore. Additionally, he was expending it fighting the pink tint to his cheeks, which he dearly hoped nobody noticed. "That list seems a fair place to start. I... will learn as well." His words were failing him more often than not of late; whether that was something about his tongue or in his head, he really didn't want to know. Hopefully, something like this would at least help keep him from dwelling too much. It'd be nice to be able to talk silently with the others, anyway, especially Van, who had few other means of saying anything.

Drayk was doing his best to ignore the archer as well, though that didn't mean he hadn't been thinking about him. He'd mainly been trying to decide whether he or the witch was more annoying to have around. It was clearly a debate that would take some time to resolve, and as such he set it aside for later. He shifted the shield on his back and turned around as best he could to look at the others from his position near the head of their little caravan. "Count me in. At the very least, it gives us something to think about and work on. Couldn't hurt."

Maya flashed Anirne a smile. "You'll have to teach us some rude signs as well. I'm just imagining the look on Tarquin's face if we all said something absolutely dreadful to him at the same time in some language he didn't understand." Perhaps opposite of how she should have seemed, the witch appeared to be growing steadily more pleased with how things were going. Impending doom obviously was having a negligible effect upon her mood. She had, however, not spoken a word of anything that occurred between her and Sinder the night previous, no doubt to the Altmer's relief.

Vanryth didn't nearly take the Archer's quip as well as his companions, and as soon as he shut his mouth, Vanryth flung his book in his direction, aiming for head heigth. Decent mood or not, Soren's big mouth could manage irritate the dunmer to no end. Hit or miss, Van leveled an intense glare on the Archer, daring him to say something else. As far as appearances go, played the part of the irate elf very well, but internally as soon as the book left his hands, he knew he made a mistake. He was slipping back into his old ways, and he knew it. He was coming undone. But he wouldn't let the archer see that weakness, he wouldn't let any of them see it. He'd rather die first. He'd play the part of the angry man in order to hide the broken one underneath.

Anirne sighed softly through her nose, but if she was genuinely frutrated by any of the events or the facetious suggestion she made no actual sign of it. It would, truly, take a great deal more than some immature antics and a few issues with tempers to upset her; she'd been spying on Thalmor for a good portion of her life. If pretending to kowtow to them did not teach one saintly patience, then nothing would. She did manage a half-smile for Maya though. "And what makes you think that I would know any such gestures?" she asked lightly, in a way that very clearly suggested that she did. She watched with passive interest as the journal sailed towards the archer, supposing that the man would probably catch it and disinclined to help, really.

"Well, I suppose we'll start with basic question words, then the alphabet. I hope you're good at riding without hands."

Quietly, Lynly made her way closer to the group on her own horse. While she said nothing, nor even agreed to be taught, the idea wasn't too outlandish. It wouldn't hurt to see what this lot was learning, if only to see if they were talking about her without her knowledge. Besides, the psijic knife-ear did have a point, snow did get old to look at after a while.

A deft limb shot out, plucking the book from the air before it could reach his face. Raising a brow mildly, Soren shrugged and tucked the thing into his cloak. Much as the fellow had been scribbling away a few nights ago, there was bound to be something to read in there. Not that he probably would, it was the threat of it that could prove interesting. Or not. Maybe he would snoop around; information was still his stock-and-trade anyway, and if the Dunmer was stupid enough to just throw the thing at him, he figured he could do whatever the hell he wanted with it.

"Heh, I don't know. I'm willing to bet there's quite a bit you know that you shouldn't," he replied to Anirne, eyes narrowing half from humor and half from actual suspicion. The point was fair; none of them knew much about her at all. Not that they were all exactly well-informed on each other anyway, but it wasn't every day you met someone from a supposedly disappeared and clandestine group of monks. Plus, if he was being honest with himself, she was damn good-looking for someone he suspected to have hit thirty-and-five, so the fact that his tone was bordering on lacivious was perfectly excusable.

Van began his lessons by showing the archer a particularly... rude gesture. Soren simply smiled.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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They continued west, making good time as they went. The witch had no doubt the Shade was ahead of them, perhaps a day or more, but she did not seemed concerned that they would miss him. Just as the Sellswords needed to help him, the Shade needed their help. He was powerful, but so was the competition, and so one needed something to tip the scales in their favor. The Sellswords were that something.

They arrived before Whiterun near midday, but chose to press on, trading for what supplies they needed with the Khajiit caravan that happened to be camped outside the walls. Continuing west, the group passed the remains of what had been Whiterun's western watchtower, now a mostly collapsed ruin. A short inquiry to the guards there led to the information that a dragon had attacked it. Though they had apparently managed to slay the beast, its description did not match that of the dragon that had ambushed the Sellswords in the Reach, this one's scales being bronze rather than a stony gray. They moved on once the guards would tell them no more.

The road cut southwest for a time before rounding north at the intersection between Falkreath Hold, The Reach, and Whiterun Hold, and the group managed to arrive in Rorikstead just as the sun set on the third day, spending the night in the Frostfruit Inn. Hoping to arrive at the manor while light still hung in the sky, the group left early the next morning, heading into Hjaalmarch and then into Haafingar, passing over the Dragon Bridge in the afternoon. The sun was setting before them by the time Solitude's magnificent natural rock arch over the mouth of the Karth river, and the Mentor's manor came into sight...





Drayk's smile was tinged with sadness. He used to complain about this little climb, the steep hill and the winding steps the led to the Mentor's manor. Compared to the climb he had already made, this little walk should be nothing. That was what the old man had said to him, more than once. Or something like that. He was having trouble remembering a lot of the things the Mentor had told him, and it left him feeling empty. The sun was hitting the building just right so that the wooden walls seemed to glow with light. It was almost like he would be stepping into a house of the Divines, so beautiful and shining it was set upon the hill like that, overlooking the river, the city up on the rock, the Blue Palace shimmering in the sunset. He felt as though each step he took back was a transgression. Somehow, he now felt so unworthy to even look upon it.

He hadn't expected it to be this hard to come back. So much had happened since they left, so much that had changed him already. He'd left the manor having not conjured fire in years, but now he was returning amidst a storm of his own flames, so to speak, his mind secretly reveling in being reunited with his power while his heart was calling out for him to stop, to grab on to something and keep himself from falling any further. Of course, it was too late for that now. Only one force on Tamriel could halt his plummet into darkness now.

Sighing, he hefted his shield up higher on his back and took the last step. The witch let out a low whistle. "Nice place," she murmured, though even she seemed to realize that this wasn't easiest moment for any of the Sellswords. This wasn't how they imagined themselves coming home. Drayk avoided looking at the door as he pushed it open, afraid it would glare at him or something. The main hall appeared... more or less as they left it, though he noted that the great table was currently set with plates and dinner. The source of the changes sat comfortably at the end of the table, boots propped up on the edge, his elbows on the arm rests, fingers lighting touching together. He beckoned Drayk and the others upon seeing them.

"You made good time," the Shade said in a pleased manner. "Welcome home, Sellswords, and welcome to my father's manor, honored guests. Please, be seated, and eat. You must have had a hard day's travel. We can discuss preparations for the morrow over dinner. It gives us something more useful to do with our hands while we speak, no?" The last part was said while eye contact was quite clearly made with Vanryth, and the Shade wore a pleased smile as he said it.

Vanryth returned with a hard, furrowed stare.

The smell of home was tainted with the increasingly-familiar collection of odors belonging to the Shade, and Sinderion was clearly not happy about it. The entire trip onto the grounds and up the stairs, his mouth was compressed into a line, and he made eye contact with nobody. The whole endeavor was poignant enough that they should have had the opportunity to wade through its complexities before the new was melded so jarringly with the old. Symbolism was not lost upon him, and he knew what it would mean, to find that man in this house. It meant that the one place which could possibly offer them sanctuary any longer was gone, and they were fully immersed in this world they had so unwittingly been thrown into, drowning with no more shore to be found.

Soren, on the other hand, was hardly bothered. "Hm. Don't mind if I do," he replied easily, settling himself into a chair closer to the Shade than any of the Sellswords would probably want to. The thought crossed his mind that the stuff could be poisoned-- paranoia taught one lots of useful things like that. But the guy needed them, for whatever reason some other bunch of mercenaries wouldn't do, and he was unlikley to waste his considerable effort thus far in procuring their services. Honestly, the Shade seemed like a pretty reasonable guy. Give me what I want, and I'll return the favor. The language of trade was a simple one, really, so why so many of these kids seemed to balk at the very idea was a little beyond him. Either they cared enough about this Mentor fellow to do what they were being asked to in order to retrieve him, or they didn't.

Not in the least bothered by the awkward and perhaps somewhat hostile atmosphere in the room, he was at his dinner afterwards, though to be fair, his table manners were quite appropriate otherwise. He wasn't a complete barbarian, despite some insistence to the contrary at times.

The archer's ease only made the werewolf tenser, but he recognized the futility of arguing directly, at least for now, so he settled himself at the opposite end of the table from the Shade, for the moment refusing to touch anything. It smelled fine, as far as he could tell, but that didn't mean he was happy taking his blackmailer's charity.

For a place so close in distance to the one in which she had last resided in Skyrim, this manor house could not have been much different. Upon their flight from the Isles, Anirne's parents had been of relatively little means, despite their famed ancestors and former nobility. Such was the trial of the exile, perhaps, and she had been raised on nothing like this. To be sure, the Mentor's abode did not shock her in the same way the grand architecture of Summerset had done, but that was simply because she was long used to the grand by now. She tried for a moment to imagine Sinderion's first days here, so far removed from the little set of rooms above the enchantment shop, where dinner was often as not placed on the table by the skill of his own hands. It must have been jarring, even leaving whatever else had been happening aside.

She glanced to her left, where he was walking, and observed without comment the tense set of his movement, the way he was looking at nobody. It didn't appear much like a homecoming, though she supposed she could understand. It really wasn't, not now. Anirne maintained a passively-relaxed demeanor as they crossed the threshold into the house itself, and therein, she laid eyes upon the man called the Shade for the first time. Aside from being fair of feature, as humans went, there was nothing about him to immediately suggest that he was at all extraordinary, and that was a much more pressing, subtle kind of danger than that displayed by those who went around bristling with weapons and violence. It was something that she was at once aware of, and she would not forget it.

Anirne sat across from Sinderion, the better to keep an eye on him as things progressed, though neither she nor Adrienne beside her ate at once, perhaps more inclined than Soren to observe the typical etiquette of such situations: eat only when the host has begun doing so. The breton woman hadn't spoken for a lengthy interval, and she didn't seem inclined to do so now, either, eyes fixed ahead of her on the space just over her plate and otherwise nearly entirely still. If Anirne had to guess, she'd suppose that the woman was contemplating something, most likely reaching an unfavorable conclusion, but even as the Altmer watched, she seemed to emerge from it, looking over at the Shade and smiling a bit, not entirely mirthfully. "How very thoughtful. My thanks." To Anirne, it was as though she were looking at a completely separate second person, one unwearied by the road and with absolutely no resentment towards her position at all, and the older woman blinked once before shaking her head minutely and deciding that it didn't matter.

Vanryth obviously wasn't going to stand sitting near the Shade, but he was beaten to the seat furthest away from the damn man by Sinderion. So instead he took second place, taking a seat beside the Altmer and in front of Adrienne. Though the food spread out in front of him smelled delicious, Van had decided he wasn't going to touch any of it. Hunger was no match for his pride, and he'd eat nothing that came from this man's hands or hospitality. Oblivion take him. He'd rather starve. He was bloody lucky Van didn't decide to lunge across the table and choke him.

Lynly however was somewhat more courteous, if not just as reserved. She had taken a seat closer to the Shade than the elves at the end of the table, unfortunately, that brought her nearer to the Archer than she would have prefered. Also closer to the archer and the elf, she had partaken in the food. Warm food was rare in the wild, and she was glad to eat something that hadn't decided to eat her first. Still, she ate quietly, though not with the manners Soren displayed, and her arms tucked in close to her. She didn't do very well at banquets...

The Shade removed his feet from the table, sliding his chair a little closer so that he could begin eating, deftly stabbing a slice of chicken on his plate, followed by a small sip from his goblet. His eyes fell to Anirne, and once his cup was once again on the table he spoke. "Forgive me, we've yet to be properly introduced. I am Tarquin Aurelius, though my fellow competitors call me the Shade." He awaited her reply, eyes taking in the similarities between her and the other Altmer at the table. If he was at all surprised at the Sellswords arriving with one more than he had encountered previously, he did not show it. The table had even been prepared with the correct number of plates.

Anirne dipped her head in acknowledgement, a small, polite smile crossing her features before they receded once more to neutrality. "Anirne Direnni," she replied, and then a light touch of amusement entered her tone, "but as many of us seem inclined to titles instead, some do call me Greycloak." She took the opportunity to begin eating, As did Adrienne close to her, who looked at Van with something resembling a request. Indeed, she also awkwardly signed over the table. Please? Need strength. The psijic smiled to herself.

The Shade clapped his hands together softly, leaning back in his seat at the head of the table. "To business, then? I have already had the opportunity to scout the Inquisitor's fortifications, as well as gather information on him within Solitude. I must say, I'm rather excited to see how this all plays out." Another short drink separated his words, and he wiped his mouth delicately before continuing. Discussing murder had put something of a glint in his eyes, moreso than the one that was always there. "He houses himself within an embassy of the Thalmor here, perhaps the most secure location the Aldmeri Dominion possesses within Skyrim. The compound is walled and patrolled day and night by Thalmor soldiers and war wizards, the entire force of which is somewhere between fifty and seventy-five, housed in a barracks on the north side of the grounds. The manor itself is in the center of the compound, two stories, with guards posted in pairs on each of the ground floor doors."

He propped his elbows up on the table, threading his fingers through each other. "The man himself is the reclusive sort. He follows the commands of one Elenwen, though I understand that she has traveled south to Markarth to make contact with Thalmor agents there, and to investigate dragon attacks in the area. This leaves Talmoro in command at the embassy. Apparently he spends his time either locked away in his study in the manor proper, or otherwise making his way below the barracks to the interrogation chambers, to practice his craft." Anirne frowned. That much, at least, didn't seem to be news to her.

"The area is not without weaknesses, however, nor are we without opportunities. Apart from the front gate, there is one other way in: a cave at the bottom of a short cliff behind the embassy, below the barracks and torture chambers. A frost troll took up residence there, and so the Thalmor dispose of bodies from interrogation in that way. It is unguarded, and would be a simple path in, at least until we reached the barracks. The other option is through the front door. The Thalmor have a reception planned tomorrow, with invitations extended to prominent and affluent citizens of Skyrim, something that apparently happens perhaps once a month. I am aware of several men and women that will not be attending, and some of us should be able to pose as them to gain entrance, should they think themselves up to the task. Talmoro will have to make an appearance at such an event in Elenwen's absence."

How the Shade had managed to come across such information was not readily apparent, nor did he seem about to explain.

The elder Altmer looked pensive for a moment, lips pursed slightly as she chewed something over. Swallowing, she took a sip of water and spoke. "I... should perhaps enter as clandestinely as possible. Without an attempt to sound self-important, there are not a few Thalmor who know my face, and none of them have reason to like me. I'd not like to take the chance that one of them will be in attendance. Barring that, though... having an Altmer in the reception party would not be a bad idea, particularly if things go south and such a one could pretend to be Thalmor proper, perhaps by procuring some of their armor?" She glanced at Sinderion, unsure of how he'd take that but having the inkling that it might not be to his taste. Nevertheless, it was a safety measure that would surely help, and perhaps that alone would be enough to sway him.

"So we try both, then?" Adrienne queried, then nodded as if in answer to her own question. "That makes sense. I'm much better with talking than fighting, so I think it's obvious where I'd be best-put." She paused, then, and glanced over at Tarquin. "What you've said so far is a fairly good indication, I suppose, but what kind of man is this Inquisitor? What sort of thing would be most likely to convince him to abandon his guard and be caught alone? I doubt a few flattering words and some fluttering eyelashes would do the trick, after all." The less work she had to do assessing his demeanor at the event, the better.

That got an amused smile out of Tarquin. "As lovely as you are, I'm afraid no amount of fluttering eyelashes will have an effect on our Inquisitor. He doesn't care for such things, and if we're drawing from the spheres of Mehrunes Dagon here, I'd say he most highly values destruction and ambition. The most tempting thing to present to him would be an opportunity to advance his own position, lure him with the promise of some way to surpass his superiors, to do something important while his commander is away."

"Someone interested in allying with the Thalmor presenting him with a prisoner he would be most interested in would likely get his attention, and perhaps draw him away from the festivities and to an interrogation. I think while a simple Talos worshipper may not suffice," he said, eyes darting towards Lynly for a moment, before settling on Anirne, "perhaps if the Thalmor dislike you enough, they would desire to take you as a prisoner?"

Soren didn't try to hide his amusement at the very thought. "Why not go the full distance? Dress Moody-Blue here-" he jerked a thumb in Sinderion's direction, "in some of that Thalmor armor, tie up the psijic lass," he paused for a moment, cocking his head to one side as though contemplating the image, "and bring her in as a tribute from the Inquisitor's new favorite allies. That ought to get his attention. Shouldn't be too hard for the gifters to feign some curiosity on the matter of their prisoner's fate and get down to the right chambers; it's not like no Thalmor ally's ever had a thing for torture before," he spoke casually, diffidently, and perhaps with a little too much knowledge, though exactly what kind it was wasn't immediately obvious. "Or maybe the good little Thalmor soldier just doesn't want to remand custody until she's properly in a cage, whatever works."

Sinderion immediately hated the idea, mostly because it called for hobbling his sister and putting her at great risk. "Absolutely not," he said, shaking his head. "There has to be another way." There was also the matter of whether he'd even be able to pass himself off as Thalmor, though honestly he probably could. It was more about the amount of danger Anirne would have to deal with, for something that wasn't even her problem.

"There might be," Anirne acknowledged, "but not one so efficient, I should think. I believe it will work, and as for the danger of it, well, it's not as though there's a way to do this that's any less hazardous." She smiled somewhat, as though she might actually enjoy the idea, and honestly, why not? She'd never liked the Thalmor, and if her status as a rather public opponent of their policies could be of some use to them, there was no reason not to use it. It had been a little too long since she'd last staked her life on something, perhaps, but she'd never forgotten the unique sensation. Anirne did not play games, but whatever anyone else thought of it, this was no game to her. It was clear that the lives of her brother and his companions hung in the balance at every moment, and for that reason alone, she'd throw her own in to tip the scales as well.

Adrienne sighed. The problem was, it was too obviously the best plan they had. Nodding slowly, she glanced over the others. "If it's advancement the Inquisitor wants, we're best off playing him that way. I don't expect it will be too hard to convince him that we are as he is, or perhaps interested in his methods." That was the thing, really; no matter who you were, validation didn't go wrong, and you tended to switch off your suspicion of the people who validated you.

"Then it's settled!" the Shade exclaimed, leaning back in his seat with a smile that did not fit the gravity of the situation. "the mages among us enter through the front with our psijic here as a prisoner, with Sinderion in the guise of a Thalmor guard. The others will follow me through the cave entrance to the interrogation chambers, and prepare an ambush. Unless there are objections?" Maya looked rather pleased with the plan. "None here, though I'll need a change of clothes. Perhaps we should wear matching robes? Unless they expect us to look the part of nobility, that is." Drayk didn't look pleased, but at this point, he was beginning to believe there was no arrangement that would suit his abilities. He knew he'd only ruin the stealth group's chances somehow, and as it was... well, hopefully he would be able to be the quiet member of the group, playing the part of Adrienne's subordinate or something.

The Shade waved a hand in dismissal. "There's a store of gold in the basement. I'm sure it will be sufficient to purchase suitable disguises. The reception begins tomorrow evening, so we have until then to prepare. I'll be in my father's study, should you need me for anything." He took his leave of the table, making his way up the stairs behind him into the Mentor's study, closing the door behind him. Maya leaned across the table towards Adrienne. "Well? Shall we do some shopping?"

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni

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Sinderion was up with the dawn, threading his way back towards the manor, the deep purple circles developing under his eyes perhaps evidence that he might not have slept much in the first place. It wasn't pride that kept him from taking his usual place in the house, withdrawing into his quarters and falling into slumber. Indeed, he often thought he had no pride left to prevent him doing anything at all. It was, rather, that selfsame restlessness beneath his skin and bones, now pitched to an intensity he hadn't needed to contend with in years. The memories were coming back now, though-- he could disitinctly remember what it felt like to be almost constantly on the move, stopping only to eat after a kill or else occasionally rest a few hours beneath the arbors of Skyrim's wilderness. It was that edge of wariness that kept him from complacency, attuned always to his surroundings.

Even, as he was discovering, when he had no wish to be.

Still, there was no point in dwelling on it for long. He had other things to accomplish today, and that in and of itself was something of a mixed blessing. Obviously, the more time he spent being productive, the less time he had to linger over things, both unpleasant and... otherwise, that he didn't want to think about. Unfortunately, today's task involved accompanying his sister to their parents' former abode, not something he would have relished on the best of occasions. He had never been able to bring himself to visit the place before, not even considering how close the Mentor dwelt to Solitude. It was where everything had begun, and in his present state, he wasn't sure he wanted the same triggers to be presented to him.

But Anirne had seemed insistent that he accompany her, at least as insistent as someone so gentle could be, and he hadn't found it in himself to refuse. He supposed that, all other things considered, he owed her soemthing of an explanation. He had been there when their mother died; she'd heard about it through a letter, one which likely also contained word of his disappearance and their father's last testament. He couldn't really imagine how unpleasant that would have been. He'd lost his mother, and then himself. When he'd come back to, the news of what had become of his father was simply more bad news when he was already numb and maybe even healing. She'd been hit with all of it at once, too far away to stop anything.

He paused at the bottom of the manor steps, expecting that she would meet him there as they had arranged. He was a bit early, yet, but then he knew almost nothing of her habits anymore. She'd been disinclined to mornings, when she was a child, but then he was not so foolish as to believe that anything from that time still necessarily applied.

Anirne had woken early, in fact, as much a habit now as convalescing for the better part of the morning had ever been. The Order tolerated a great deal; laziness did not make the list, and from her early adolescence onwards, she'd been up before dawn every day, moving through a stretching and balance ritual that kept her as limber now, in her mid-thirties, as she'd ever been. She'd bathed, then donned her robes and her cloak, descending the steps with her staff in hand. She was not ashamed of what she was, and not afraid of the Thalmor, and if someone around here happened to recognize her, well, all the better for later, when she showed up not too far from here as a prisoner in the custody of the man she was going to meet. Let anyone who thought anything about it at all assume that she was currently in the process of falling into some careful trap that he set, though the idea of Sinderion attempting so subtly to decieve anyone was a bit odd, admittedly.

That seemed more the stock and trade of Maya and Adrienne, really. Clever they both were, and Anirne could appreciate that. More than anything, though, she just hoped that they all managed to survive this game they played. She was not a betting woman, herself, and did not prefer to spend her time staking anything, least of all lives. And yet, here she was.

Trotting easily down the stone staircase, she spotted her brother already waiting and smiled, though the expression dimmed considerably when she noted the wisteria bruising beneath his eyes. So, he probably had not spent much of last night sleeping, then. It would be one thing if the reason for that had been anything but torment, but she was fairly sure that carried the balance of the day, with him. She had to admit, she didn't really understand it. From what she'd gathered, he was no longer fully... mer, but she was unsure beyond that. There was a vampire in the order who swore his condition made his destruction affinities better, and he generally got along just fine with the others, given that arrangements had been made to secure him the proper nutrition. Granted, it was probably different in the world at large, and he didn't seem to slow down or sicken in the sunlight, so it might be something else.

"Sinder," she greeted warmly, though she refrained from embracing him this time. She'd gathered that contact wasn't incredibly comfortable for him. She did, however, thread her arm through his, just gently placing her palm on his forearm, above his wrist. "Shall we?" She was aware that the trip was unlikely to be pleasant, but she saw no reason to make things grim and ugly before they needed to be. Misery would hunt you down and find you in its own time; one hardly needed to go looking for it. Happiness, on the other hand, was a much more elusive thing.

The pair crossed the distance between the manor and Solitude quickly, and Anirne wasn't averse to the silence, either. Sinderion made almost no noise in the simple act of walking, and this was something she marveled at. How long had he lived in a forest, to have learned such a thing? It was not the strightforward stealth of a thief, like Soren had, but something different, closer to what Maya did: moving with the environment, and letting it conceal you as though you weren't there at all. It was perhaps a little less natural in the city, once they made that transition, and here she stepped away from him just a little, letting her feet carry her instinctively towards the place that had once been her home.

It was still there, tucked away into the residential section, though the sign had been taken down. The building appeared unoccupied, even after all these years, and a push on the door found it yielding to her touch. For a long moment, Anirne simply stood on the threshold, not quite in and not quite out of the space, either unwilling or unable to go further. "Tell me," she whispered, knowing he'd hear it anyway. "Please tell me what transpired here."

Sinderion was not known in Solitude; the Mentor had always felt it best that he stay away from the most populated areas whenever possible, wisdom that he'd seen as best until this journey, when he'd been forced into many of them without much time to prepare himself psychologically for the ordeal of encountering so many people at once. So many odors, so much possibility of unwanted contact... despite himself, he was seeing truth in the Shade's words. What if it was true that the Mentor's control over their lives had inhibited them as much as it had helped them? At the time, he had taken it for granted that keeping him away from people was the only way to ensure that he did not hurt them, but... he was beginning to wonder, because her words were sticking with him as well.

He slipped around and between people, weaving a path behind his sister as they wended their way to what had once been all they knew. So many years had passed; the feeling he had walking these streets again was uncanny. It felt unnatural, in a way it never had when he yet belonged here. Would he have returned without her insistence? Probably not; he doubted that anything good would come of this. Sinderion lingered behind as Anirne made her way to the threshold, and something in his chest tightened at the tone of her words. They were strained, as if it took a conscious effort of her will to linger there, though whether she was trying not to retreat or forcing herself not to enter, he could not say. He wasn't sure which urge pulled at him, either.

The words wouldn't come, not at first. They were still difficult-- no, they were more so, with each day that passed, as he slowly spiralled back around to a time when he'd needed no words at all. One of his lowest points had been discovering that he'd actually forgotten how to read, and the Mentor had taught him again, slowly, painstakingly, as he struggled to remember and keep his temper in line when the memories were not fast enough in returning. He didn't want to lose them again; they were perhaps the thing that most separated him from what he despised of himself. Closing his eyes, the Altmer swallowed thickly, and found the images first. When at last they surfaced, his words were slow, trancelike, but steady enough.

"Mother... fell ill about a year after your departure. It was a slow thing, and she described it as a burning in her belly, or something acidic eating away at her insides. It wasted away at her, slowly, and she grew very thin. Most days, she was otherwise as she'd always been." All smiles, gentle words, and crystalline eyes the color of the sky. She'd always been the center of their family, their mother, and her husband and children alike had been devoted to her, for there was something about her that made them all feel worthy and loved and safe, even when they had almost nothing to their name and slept on the floor of their home, huddled together for warmth against the unforgiving winters of Skyrim.

"Some days... she wouldn't be able to rise at all, and it was as though some demon had come in the night and stolen her strength." That had been how their father described it, anyway. "It was difficult to get her to eat, and it seemed to cause her pain when she did. The apothecary was as mystified as anyone else, and father even sent for a healer, but by the time he could afford it... there was naught to be done. I... I'd even learned a little of the magic, myself, but I was never any good, really. I doubt it would have helped, even had I been skilled." The Jarl's court wizard had even deigned to send his apprentice, and the woman had been able to tell them nothing they didn't already know, and do even less. That had been a few months where all they ate was what Sinder could find, given the fees incurred for just that.

"The day she died, I had been out. I came back just before it... happened." Sinderion's hands both found their way to his head; he raked them through his loose hair with what might have been a sigh, were it audible to anyone but himself. What exactly she had said to him, then, he would keep to himself. There was something intensely personal about it, something he couldn't even share with Anirne. Maybe, one day, he'd be able to tell somebody, but not today, and not her-- at least, not yet. Part of it would be fine, though. "She said... that she loved us, and she wanted us to be happy. As though we hadn't been." He shook his head, which only served to further dishevel him, throwing several strands of hair in front of his eyes. He didn't pay it any mind.

"I... father came home, then, and I... I couldn't stand being there, with him in his grief. I was... a coward. Scared. And I just... ran. I know what happened to him, afterwards, but... I wasn't there. I can't help but wonder, if I had been, if things might have been different. If maybe you could have come back to the both of us and a life, instead of this... mess." If Sinder hadn't wept away everything he had in bitterness and loathing years ago, he might have been weeping then, and certainly his voice had a distinctly-rough edge to it. He almost hoped she wouldn't ask for the rest, for what had become of him, then, but he knew she was too concerned not to. He wondered how much of the tale he'd be able to muster, for her sake.

Anirne faced no such shortage of tears, but hers were silent, streaking down her face and dripping, slowly, to the threshold beneath her feet. She didn't weep for her mother, not anymore. Though she'd loved the woman with as much fierce devotion as all her family, she had ever been the most independent spirit among them, and so much time had passed that she had, largely, put her grief behind her. This place, and her brother's words, brought it to the fore once again, but it was with the air of an old wound finally being allowed to close its last lesion. She knew, now, what had really happened, and that was all she needed. No, she wept not for her mother, nor even, in truth, for her father, torn apart as he had been by the whole thing, driven to a despair so consuming it took his life. That, too, was old pain.

It was for him that she cried, because he'd been there and seen it and borne the weight of guilt for so long, with nobody to help him overcome it as she had been helped by her friends and fellow Psijics. What network of bodies to lean on, of shoulders to sob into, was a forest? Was years of loneliness? Was a man who collected the damaged like trinkets and kept them hoarded away from the outside world? Anirne knew much of suffering and recovery, and while she could understand how what the Mentor had done made sense, at first, she did not understand why it persisted.

Turning from the door, she shook her head. And she was not helping. This was not where they needed to be, not right now. But... maybe it could help them, just a little. Approaching her brother, she took him gently by the elbow and tugged him over so that he was standing on the threshold with her. "I think," she started quietly, "That you need to go in there, find what you left behind here, and then let go of it." Her lips pursed, and she blinked away the last of the saline fluid in her eyes. Sinder was silent, but the wisdom in the words was obvious. He just wasn't sure he wanted to acknowledge that.

Lacing her fingers with Sinderion's, Anirne took a deep breath, then nudged the door open, stepping over the threshold and into the lower level of the building, what had once been their shop. The counter still stood, but all the soul gems and enchanted objects that would have filled the shelves behind it were long gone, either to settle debt or to thieves, she knew not which. She honestly didn't much care, either. A layer of dust covered everything, and it was a far cry from the small, worn, but spotlessly clean and warm place it had once been. She could almost see her mother's figure behind the counter, smiling at each new entrant, while their father bent over his craft at the table behind it, intent on nothing but his work until his wife gently touched his shoulder.

Everything that had ever mattered about this place was absent.

Sinder took a deep breath, but mercifully the only scents that reached him were those of dust, mothballs, rotting wood, the occasional rodent, and his sister: fresh water, lightning, and damp stone, like the world after a rainstorm. He was quite certain that he wouldn't be here if she wasn't, though whether this merited his thanks or his resentment, he could not yet say. Regardless, she was right, and he found himself wandering from her, releasing her hand to prowl the room from corner to corner, pausing at the spot where their father's workbench had been, and then again at the place by the counter their mother had usually occupied. As children, that corner had been Anirne's, where she was usually propped on a stool with some book or another, leaning her back against the wall and occasionally caling him over when she found something interesting.

They had not always gotten along as children; oftentimes, he found her too pushy or she him too taciturn, and it was no secret that their parents had favored Sinderion somewhat, unable to really understand the daughter whose intellect and vibrancy surpassed their ability to contend with relatively early in life. They had been proud of Anirne, and indeed she was the child to whom they referred when they boasted of their good fortune to the neighbors, but it had been Sinderion that they loved more, in the way that parents had of trying to protect and shelter and lavish attention on their children. It was he whose interests, always more practical, they had encouraged, and he they'd smiled upon more often. He'd come to realize only after all was said and done that these little things, unintentional and seemingly insignificant as they were, had probably hurt his sister a great deal. His mother's last words had been for him alone, not his father or his sister. Maybe that was just because he'd been there and they had not, but... it was difficult to think so, considering.

Sinder glanced over at his sister, eyes a bare flicker beneath his brow in the rising light, and then he spoke, quietly. "I'm.. going upstairs."

True to his word, he ascended the worn stone steps leading up to the living portion of the building, landing in one corner of the single space. Unlike the shop, this was not sectioned off into rooms. A rusted iron cookpot was overturned in one corner, but other than that, the place was nearly completely empty. There was no fireplace; they'd always cooked by grace of his father's slight talent in magic, and later by Anirne's prodigious one. The wooden floors were run smooth by the passage of feet over long years; even before the Dirennis had taken up residence, it had been so. A few moldy furs were piled in the space they'd used for sleeping, once upon a time. Faint traces of the smell of people lingered here, but there was nothing of Anirne, who had left years before he, and the others, he did not recognize, really, having not had the nose for it when he did dwell in this place. The single window let in the morning light, illuminating the dust motes floating lazily in the air.

Find what you left behind here, and let go of it.

But there was nothing here at all. Just an empty house, and ghosts before his eyes, playing out scenes from long ago. His parents and his child-sister, sitting crosslegged around the pot and eating from chipped ceramicware, his mother and father seated together, her head on his shoulder, murmuring softly to one another, doubtless lost in memories from a happier time, when they'd known no hunger or sorrow, back on the Isles they'd fled for this mountainous region that had been his only home. He wondered if maybe that was it, the difference between Anirne and he: she reminded them of Summerset, but he was Skyrim down to his marrow. It seemed a strange thought; for so long they had been invincible and infallible to him, and he'd spent little time trying to think of them otherwise since their deaths, but truly they were mortal (so very mortal) and flawed, just as he was. Well, not the same way, perhaps, but flawed still.

And in the corner, on the furs, his flawed, lovely mother, stricken and unable to rise for the day's work, looking up at him as she had at the last, and smiling. Sinderion. My Sinderion. You are everything I'd ever hoped you'd be, but you can be so much more than that. I'm afraid I've kept you too close, hidden you from the world outside. I wanted to keep that light in your heart, the one that shines out of you when you tell me about what you've seen in the forest or how you feel under the sky and the mountains. But I've been wrong. There is so much more for you to see, to do, to become. I hope that I've not hurt you for good, my Sinderion. Please, for me. Promise me... that you'll grow. That you'll change, that you'll flourish like I know you can. I love you, and I want you to be happy, as whomever you wish to be. Tell your father and your sister... that I love them, too. Be happy. It's selfish, but I find that it's all I want, now. Flourish for me, Sinderion.

Looking down at his hands, he steadied his breathing and tried to keep the tremor from his shoulders. Let go of it. A thing so much easier said than done. What was he supposed to do? Pretend as though he hadn't failed her already the moment she closed her eyes? As though he wasn't failing her now? How was a soul as withered and blackened as his ever supposed to grow, much less flourish?

Let go of it.

Gritting his teeth, Sinder exhaled. Maybe he should. Maybe trying to hold himself to the standard of some imagined possible self that had never had a chance to be wasn't the right way to go about this. His mother never could have imagined what he'd face in the wake of her passing, that he'd constantly be at war with his own nature. Blood-soaked ground bore no fruit, and he'd sown his soul with salt, besides. Maybe it was time to burn it all down and try again, let the ashes of what he could have been-- what he had been-- at least fertilize the soil in hopes that something else might blossom there. What, he knew not, but anything-- almost anything-- that he could be would be better than continuing to be what he was. Perhaps Anirne was telling him the same thing Maya had, only without being aware of it. Perhaps his mother's words were the same, even. There was only one way to find out.

Steeling himself, he descended the staircase again and came to stand in front of his sister. Meeting her eyes with some difficulty, he gave voice to the iconoclastic thought, the one that had destroyed everything and left him to try and prop up some skeleton structure against its repeated blows.

"I'm a werewolf," he said flatly. "I've killed people. Eaten them. And sometimes, I'm not even sure I was wolf-shaped when I did it. That's what happened to me when she died. I ran away, and some witches found me. When they did, I begged to live, and so I do, but on their terms." He swallowed, waiting keenly for her reaction. He half-expected rejection or pity or something equally crushing, but he also thought that maybe, if forgiveness was something he needed, she could give it to him. If she could, Anirne, good, kind, reasonable Anirne, then he might just be able to get there himself, eventually.

Anirne had waited patiently while her brother visited the second floor of the building. This was just a place to her now, she was sure of it, and furthermore, she was of the opinion that this part was something he had to do by himself. When he returned, he seemed... a little different. Lost, directionless, that much was the same, perhaps. But also... more resolved, somehow, as though he'd at least discovered something worth doing. She had to tilt her head up to look him in the eye; though Anirne was a reasonably tall woman, her brother towered, in his unobtrusive way.

His proclamation was met, initially, with a long silence. Anirne digested the words, matched them up with what she knew of lycanthropy, and turned them over in her mind, drawing what she thought were his implications from them. Much of what he'd said or implied in the time since she'd found him (or had he found her?) made more sense, and she nodded nearly imperceptibly as everything seemed to click into place. "I see," she said simply, scrutinizing his face. He seemed to want something from her, but she wasn't sure it was something she had the power to give. Gently, Anirne placed a hand on either side of his face, rising to her toes and brushing her lips over his temple. Dropping her arms to loop loosely around his neck, she sighed quietly.

"I'm sorry" she said at last. "If I'd been there, maybe things would have been different. But Sinder, there are things in life we can control and things that are beyond us, however much we strive. You were a child, facing situations that even adults don't often handle very well. Look at what happened to father. I don't think anyone could ever blame you for not being able to handle what happened to you. Running away might not have been the best thing to do, but it's not a sin. And what happened after that... I don't know everything there is to know about lycanthropy, brother, but having it forced on you in such a state... I would not wish it upon anyone. I can't forgive you, it's not my right. Some of the people you hurt proably never will, but you don't know them and they don't know you, so that's out of your control and mine both. The only choice you really have is whether or not to let it rule you for the rest of your life, and I at least would really rather you didn't."

She pulled back, hands sliding to rest at his elbows. "But that's not my choice either. It's yours, and no matter what you choose, there are people who love you, and will love you still. Now, I think we've been here too long already, don't you?" She smiled, and inclined her head in the direction of the door. The message was clear enough: let's leave it behind, now and forever.

Sinder read it loud and clear, and nodded, still not quite trusting himself to speak. The words were not the absolution he'd been seeking, but he'd known better than to expect that it would be so easily won, truly. What she had said was more than he'd had any right to expect, and for his sister, he'd mirror the smile and leave this place once and for all with it upon his face. Not just for her, either. For their parents, for his friends who still, he thought, might need him, and also... for himself. Because he needed it. He knew not where this unfortunate road would take him, but perhaps walking it without fear, without clinging to things yet behind him, would allow him to survive long enough to discover its destination.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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The rest of the day was spent in preparation for the night's strike at the Thalmor embassy, the disguises prepared for the mages of the group. The Shade delivered a set of elven armor to Sinderion just before they departed, rather pleased when he informed him that he'd cleaned the blood from it personally. Once all were in disguise, and Drayk reiterated once more how he was going to let the others do the talking, they departed. The news had been spread by Drayk about the meeting with the Horizon the previous night, and the Shade had seemed none too pleased to learn of the Feral's presence in the area. The witch, too, seemed somewhat disturbed by the news.

The plan was run over again: the mages were to infiltrate the embassy with a Psijic prisoner, to get the Inquisitor's attention and hopfully intrigue him into abandoning festivities in favor of an interrogation, retreating to the questioning chambers below the barracks where he would be more vulnerable. There, the team of Tarquin, Lynly, Vanryth and Soren would already be lying in wait, having gained access through a frost troll's cave in the rear of the compound and together with the others they would bring him down. If all went well, another would fall tonight, and the representatives would number eleven...





Most of the procession of important guests had already passed through the front gates, and Drayk noted how fashionably late they were. This was sure to get some kind of attention, and he could only hope it was the good kind. The kind that didn't involve arrows and lightning bolts flying at them. He felt ridiculous in this get-up, even if it admittedly made him look a little more presentable. He was without his shield for the night, the dull wood and steel contraption clashing terribly with the rest of the look. He would have to rely on his wards alone for defense if it came to that. Just one more thing to be nervous about. He added it to the list.

Maya was excited, however, barely staying behind Adrienne to allow her her role as the leader, or at least the spokesperson, of the group. The one thing that did have her on edge was the rumored presence of the werewolf in their midst, and not the one she trusted to have her back. She had absolutely no desire to have an encounter with the Feral, certainly not while they were trying to pull off an operation as complex as this. Fortunately, her own weapons could not be separated from her, and her bow could be in her hands at a moment's notice. Apart from that, her best defense was her disguise, the crimson robes leaving her looking nothing like the wild woman she normally was, her hair done up in an elegant bun, curls falling down to brush lightly at the base of her neck. She would have to compliment Adrienne on a job well done after all this.

The front gates were open to them, but they were soon met by a Thalmor war wizard, flanked by two personal guards, as well as two more standing watch over the front door. More were patrolling the length of the wall, armored in shining elven plate. At their approach, the war wizard pushed back his hood to get a better look at the nearing group. He raised a hand to command them to stop. "Halt! What is the meaning of this? Guardsman, who are these people?" He spoke to Sinderion, expecting that such a group would be met by a patrol if they did not appear as though they were one of the guests.

Adrienne had to admit, she'd done rather well for a budget and a time crunch. They certainly matched, and the visual effect was actually quite arresting, helped along by the fact that nobody in the party was at all a strain on the eyes. Her hair was fashioned similarly to Maya's, though half of it hung in neat, soft curls down her back. The dress left her shoulders bare, though, and she'd had to mix something up to hide the faint redness of a particular burn scar on her left one. She'd also darkened the area around her lashed and painted her lips a bright red, something that she now used to considerable effect, smiling wickedly at the guard with his hand held in the air. It wasn't enough to look the part, however, and she knew that as well as anyone.

"Well, aren't you just precious," she purred, apparently quite amused by the Thalmor's actions. "Such a shame you're all so serious, though." she shot a glance at Sinder, as though he were the confirming case of her point, and lifted one shoulder in an elegant shrug. "My companions and I represent the Burning Circle, a particular group of individuals with an... interest in the continued growth of the Aldmeri Dominion." She stepped aside, revealing more clearly to his sight the enchained Anirne, shackled at the wrists, her iron bindings resting firmly in Sinderion's hands. "We're here to speak with a very important someone who may have a very specific interest in our tribute here. A Psijic monk, if you were curious."

Anirne straightened at this, standing at her full height and affecting every inch the haughty, proud demeanor a prisoner of her stature would likely take on. Adrienne raised a brow as if bored with it, and the conversation already. "I assure you, it's an opportunity you don't want to leave standing at the gate." She made a point of examining her nails, the lines of her posture conveying a sort of contained impatience that wasn't at all uncommon on the highborn and those with far too much self-importance but an unfortunate amount of ability to back it. Essentially the posture of every major noblewoman she'd grown up around, really.

Given the incredible shift from her usual demeanor, it was fair to say Adrienne was purposefully attempting to take over most of the talking, and for that, Sinderion would have had difficulty being more grateful. It was already hard enough to stand there in this armor that still smelled of old blood, holding a cold chain to which his sister was attached, still in her Psijic greys and an obvious target if things went wrong. Given his actual frustration, it wasn't hard to fake it, and he channelled the feeling into a skyward roll of his eyes, meeting the eyes of the guard and nodding curtly. "She speaks truly. They caught the monk, I'm just here for... security." That sounded plausible, right? The Thalmor would surely wish to keep track of a prisoner this important.

The wizard looked a little flabbergasted at it all. He looked confused at the guardsman's response, but really too taken aback by Adrienne's act to respond to it. "A... Psijic? Caught by... who did you say you were again?" Maya took this one, appearing none too pleased with him. "The Burning Circle. Open your ears, elf. I expect much more of Skyrim will have heard of us soon." He looked torn, as though he should be reprimanding them for the severe lack of conventional boot-licking he'd become accustomed to from the other nobles, all full of air and empty promises. These ones did not merely state their intended allegiances, they were showing it.

He sighed, giving in. "Guards. Escort them into the lobby and summon Lord Talmoro. I believe he'll want to handle this himself." He returned his hood to his head once a slight breeze blew a small puff of snow about the air around them. "The Thalmor appreciate this, I assure you. Please, enter, and enjoy the party."

A pair of guards came forth to join Sinderion in escorting them in, and they made their way up the few steps, the double front doors swinging open for them to reveal the interior of the embassy manor, and the small mass of clustered nobles speaking to various members of the Thalmor, among each other. Drayk shifted about nervously, doing his best to keep his face straight. Adrienne and Maya were doing an excellent job of playing the parts needed. He felt bad for Sinder. His role placed a lot more pressure on him, as the armor almost invited questions to be directed his way.

"Wait here," a guard said firmly, departing up the nearby set of stairs to the second floor. An awkward minute or so passed in which Drayk attempted to catch the eye of one of his friends, but he knew they needed to stay in character, and reassuring him however they would wasn't part of that. He hated this already. Perhaps his only consolation was that it wasn't one of his loved ones currently in chains. He'd do whatever it took to make sure everyone else came out of this fine, though.

"My eyes must betray me," were the first words their target spoke as he came down the stairs, the words elegantly falling from the tongue. Talmoro Vasuderon was garbed in an immaculate set of Thalmor mage robes, black as night and trimmed with gold. He was no youngling, his hair graying and combed back, a slight arch to one eybrow accompanying the smirk upon his lips. He came to a halt before them, the eyes of more than a few guards and war wizards upon him. Drayk was sorely tempted. He was here, right in front of them? But no, he would see it coming from the front, and there were far too many of them to handle on their own. Patience was key here.

"You bring me a monk of the Psijic Order? An excellent choice of gift, indeed. I don't think I could stand another moonstone circlet." He stepped forward, stopping before Anirne, raising one long-fingered hand to grasp her by the chin, as if inspecting her for some abnormalities or some such. "How did they get their hands on you, I wonder?"

Anirne smiled tightly, eyes narrow and displeasure radiating from her stature. "I'm not hiding what I am," she said, voice low and full of simmering heat. "So few recognize what they see anymore. The doing of people like you, in no small part." To her credit, she did not flinch in the slightest from him, standing her ground and looking as regal as one could, imprisoned as she was.

To be completely honest, Adrienne wasn't sure how much was an act and how much represented genuine sentiment on the woman's part, which was actually a good thing. It was that much more believable, even to someone who knew there was a ruse involved. She'd not let it go to waste, either. "And those who do don't always have to act like it," she finished blandly, shooting the woman a disdainful glance, which was returned with pride, as though they'd been through this song and dance several times already. Which was quite likely, if indeed they'd had to journey to bring her here. "We found her in Riften, actually. I suppose that's to be expected; who in a city of thieves would know anything of magic?"

She returned her attention to Talmoro, though, because he would be expecting an explanation, a pitch of some kind, and the kind of person she portrayed would not hesitate to give it. "We," she said, gesturing to encompass herself, Drayk, and Maya, "are the Burning Circle, and we offer up this little... gift to you because we know enough to understand that she might be of some value for a man in your rather... unique position." The smile was close-lipped and conspiratorial this time, though she left it at that, for the moment. Of course, there was the matter of what they wished in return, but it would be much more in keeping with the proper order of things if they waited for him to inquire-- his was the superior bargaining position, after all.

Drayk was reasonably certain that Talmoro was impressed. He released Anirne's chin and stepped back to speak with the three of them. "Well, you're obviously no fools, and even the Thalmor have had extreme difficulty capturing any of the Psijic Order, so you must possess a good deal of skill to match your boldness." He thought for a moment, before a small smile formed upon his face. "Yes... perhaps a partnership could be formed from this. Such a gift to the Thalmor shall not go unrewarded, I assure you."

Rather abruptly, he turned to look at Sinderion. "Escort the captive to the interrogation chambers, guardsman, then return to your post. I'll be along momentarily to speak with our guest in a more private setting." He took in all three of the Burning Circle, such as they were, his eyes lingering momentarily longer upon Maya, but not so long to warrant worry. "If you'll follow me, perhaps we can discuss the terms of an arrangement in my personal quarters."

Sinder was momentarily paralyzed, because he was quite sure he had no idea where the interrogation chambers were, but he knew he had to act, and now. "Yes, my Lord," he replied, hoping quite fervently that it was the proper form of address. It was what he'd heard the other guards use, so it was the safest bet he had. Gripping Anirne's chain tightly, Sinder exited the room, attempting to keep his breathing steady. A wave of unfamiliar smells assaulted him, including odious perfumes and old books, but oddly, the smell of blood and unwashed bodies lay under the rest like a sickly undertone.

Oh, wait. He could definitely use that. The dirty people were more likely to be soldiers, and they were likely to be near the prison, which was probably the blood. Chances were, if he got close enough, he'd be able to pick out Van or the Shade to get to the actual chamber. This was... possible, and strange as it was, he had only the bestial part of his nature to thank for that. He almost hated to admit that, but... if everyone he'd spoken to on the subject (sans the Mentor, but he was trying very hard not to remember that) was right, then it might be the case that he could come to terms with it after all. Just... not right now, while he was trying to get unobtrusively as possible from one end of this gods-forsaken place to the other.

He almost wanted to say something to Anirne, seek some kind of assurance that his plan was the right one, but he couldn't risk it being seen or heard. In everything but the physical fact of her proximity, he was alone on this one.

Back in the original recieving room, Adrienne wasn't much more sure of how they'd fare than Sinder, but she hid it well, trusting as well as she could that her friend would figure things out. He was resourceful, the Altmer, even if it wasn't usually something he used in situations like this one. They'll be okay. She watched them leave with feigned disinterest, but immediately refocused on their target. "Well, of course I'm sure our capabilites are modest when compared to the might of the Dominion, but we have our moments," she demurred politely, though of course things like that were formalities at best. On one level, obvious, due to the numbers involved. On another, irrelevant, as they'd clearly been able to "accomplish" something that would have given three Thalmor more than considerable difficulty.

"I think we'd find that most ageeable, your lordship," she said, glancing at both Maya and Drayk as if to confirm it. It, of course, hardly needed confirmation, though they were going to have to find a way to get him down into the interrogation area. Patience would be important, though; they couldn't appear to be pushing it.




It was an excellent night for a hunt, Tarquin mused to himself. Clear skies, a general lack of wind, the stars and moon bright above them. His eyes shone with excitement. The plan was certainly not foolproof, but at the very least it would serve to be interesting to watch, and the Shade had every confidence in his ability to escape if things turned south. He certainly could have hired another group of mercenaries, but certainly none more interested in seeing the job done, none that wouldn't flee at the first sign of their deaths. On top of that... he was curious. His father had cared about them a great deal, that much was obvious. Perhaps a small part of him wondered at the effectiveness of his new appoach.

He crouched down in the snow to the rear of the compound, watchfully peering towards the cave, his hand lightly gripping an ebony dagger beneath his cloak. He expected to be able to hear it by now, they were close enough. No guards patrolled back here for risk of angering the troll out of its cave. There was a chance it was inside, feasting on some poor soul's flesh, but trolls did nothing quietly. He could certainly smell it, when a slight breeze carried the stench in his direction. He frowned.

"Something's not right," he voiced quietly to the others, Van, Lynly, and Soren. "I could use the werewolf's nose right about now. It smells... wrong." He shifted to look at his help, taking a moment to refresh himself on their abilities. "I'll be needing a volunteer. It's possible they've somehow learned of this, and have a trap planned. If the frost troll is dead, then something is amiss. Someone must scout the cave and send a signal."

Soren's answer was a low, trilling whistle, that sounded something like a mockingbird. "Dank cave, possible trolls, possible half-mad khajit? Sounds like my kind of fun. That'll be your signal, Tarquin, if you'll listen for it. If you hear a lot of shouting and growling, let's go ahead and say that means you should leave." He grinned, catlike in his own right, and unslung his bow from its place on his back, nocking an arrow to the string, but not pulling it too far back, yet. Lynly's own answer wasn't anything near so verbose as Soren's, just the whispered scrape of steel on steel as her sword left her sheath and her shield found it's way into her hand. "I'd rather you not leave, but come and help. I'll make sure he doesn't kill himself," She added.

"Ah, so I face death not alone? I didn't know you cared, lovely. Well then, we're off." He spared the woman a lacivious wink, (which Lynly scoffed at) but didn't dwell over it when there was work to be done. The smell of the cave was even worse the further in they went, and the whole thing gave off an aura of a bloody swamp, thick and cloying like chokedamp or some kind of insidious fungus. Soren made a face, though it was really more for effect than anything. He was actually remarkably serious for once, though it was apparent perhaps only in the fact that he kept a quick clip and passed soundlessly. Not that stealth would do him much good here-- he was walking beside a woman in plate armor, of all things.

True, Lynly was making a lot more noise than the prowling archer, though not for lack of trying. Still, this was a creature's lair they were entering, if it hadn't smelled nor heard them by now, then perhaps they still had the element of surprise. They covered a decent bit of ground in the cave without incident, until they came to a bend. The warrior nudged the archer's arm and pointed at the corner, while she planned to step past it and deeper into the cavern. As she rounded the corner, she came to find something that was wholly unexpected. They had found the troll, but that wasn't the unexpected part. The unexpected part was that it was strewn across its den in pieces. Entrails lay smeared across the ground and a massive amount of blood painted the walls. Lynly dropped her guard for a single moment in surprise before she raised it doubly so. Lynly scanned the immediate area, searching for the culprit, and after not finding it, called back to Soren, "This doesn't bode well..."Lynly lowered her guard for a moment before raising her shield, doubly on the defensive.

The sniper, who'd come up behind warrior woman, arched a red brow. "Yes, but for whom, I wonder?" Sharp eyes scanned the room, and though he did not loose the tension in his bowstring, he did straighten to his full height, picking his way over the worst of the scattered organs and bodily fluids to the remains of the troll, which had tufts of black fur caught in its claws. "Hm," he murmured, almost reflectively. "Snowball here had a tussle with another furry somebody, by the looks of it. Not many khajit come in colors that dark. I think we may have found sign of our Feral friend." Shrugging, he whistled, the mockingbird's call unnecessarily flippant, but the piercing sound would carry well enough back through the cave and to the men behind them. Lynly sighed to herself, allowing her shield to drop a couple of inches as she stood beside the archer. "Talos save us... I'm beginning to think this lot is cursed..." Though she wouldn't admit it, she was having quite the adventure.

"I know, isn't it wonderful?" For his part, the assassin had no qualms about admitting that he was enjoying himself.

The Shade made his way to them with the tongueless Dunmer in tow, stepping soundlessly through the powdery snow until he reached their position. He frowned at the grisly scene present in the cave. It wasn't hard to figure who had done this, but who the Feral was here for was still not apparent. "I would have thought Ja'karo would have simply attacked us if he was hunting me. He doesn't seem to be here any longer. I would say we should warn the witch, but frankly I don't think that would be in my best interest. If she's alert, she may survive." He really didn't care one way or another. The Blackfeather needed to die at some point, that much was clear. That he'd actually recruited her to help was almost laughable. She'd grown rather attached to this group already, he could tell. If she insisted on making his job easier, he wouldn't complain.

"This way," he said, leading them through the cave to its end, a wooden ladder leading up to a hatch in the roof. "Archer," he spoke, turning to Soren. "You know how to work around a lock?"

"Does a fish know how to swim?" Soren asked rhetorically, aware that he was probably being asked to do this because it carried some form of risk, not difficulty. It suited him just fine, really, and he was already pulling a specialized lockpick from his belt and ascending the ladder within heartbeats of the initial question. The immaculately-polished steel demonstrated the same level of care as he showed his weapons and his home, and slid smoothly into the surprisingly well-maintained locking mechanism. The man kept an ear cocked, listening for the tumblers to click properly into place, and he was awarded for his skill in mere seconds, as the lock came apart in his hands.

For all that he wasn't really mindful of his life, he wasn't a moron, and so when he opened the hatch, he did so slowly and silently, cracking it just enough to see through. The back of a pair of boots was some distance off, and from the pained groaning and the occasional dull scrape of something metal, it was clear that there was an interrogation in process. Chained to a wall and in a cage on the right side was a man, in a general state of undress and looking quite ill. He apparently saw what was going on, forcing Soren to lift the door just enough to put a finger to his lips, then draw it across his throat. The man looked away immediately, apparently compliant. Carefully lowering the hatch again, Soren tuned to the three other people behind him. Speaking was probably a bad idea, given how close they were to the torture chamber, so he signed instead.

Three fingers first, for the total number of people in the room, then two, and he curled his hands into fists, touching his wrists together. Prisoners. His index finger alone, and then he hesitated for a moment before spelling out 'Thalmor' in Anirne's alphabet. Then his face broke into a grin, and he repeated the second motion he'd shown the caged man, a fairly universally-recognized sign for a rather grisly death. Tarquin might not get most of it, but that was half the fun, now wasn't it? The bow returned to his hands, and this time when he nocked, he drew it back all the way, setting his feet on the highest rung of the ladder he could, intending to open the hatch with his back. When he moved, it was quickly, rising as quietly as he could and firing, letting out a satisfied 'hm' when the projectile buried itself cleanly into the back of the wizard's neck, dropping him without so much as a scream.

With his now free hand, he beckoned the others up and climbed into the room more properly. "Nothing like a nice assassination to get the adrenaline going, eh gentlemen?" he asked of the two prisoners, not really caring for the answer one way or another.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Four guards in shining gold elven plate accompanied the Inquisitor as he led the Burning Circle members up the stairs and away from the party. Drayk felt reassured, and significantly more uncomfortable at the same time. On the one hand, they had gotten away from the party and the threat of people all around, expecting him to act a certain way. Well, save for Talmoro, of course. On the other hand, things were about to get significantly more intimate with him. They were going to be speaking with him, alone, in private. No doubt he would want to get to know the people he was working with. Ugh, he'd probably have to speak for himself at some point. No matter. He could handle this, he knew he could.

Again he was tempted to strike. The man's back was even turned, and yeah there were guards around, but only a few. Surely they could take them, and fight their way out. He found his fist clenched, and forced it open, forced himself to relax. No, he had to think clearly here. He had promised to follow Adrienne's lead, to trust in her far more extensive experience in these matters. He had to trust that they would do this right, as they had planned. There was no need for being a hero.

Maya, of course, couldn't attack Talmoro even if she wished. The Inquisitor was not her target and thus it was forbidden. This game was a mildly enjoyable one, but the sooner it was over the better. She smelled something foul on the air just before they came in, and her thoughts lingered on the Feral. Every corner held the potential terror of a beast leaping forth to claw her open. She couldn't possibly be prepared for that and still be able to trick this Thalmor at the same time. It was a difficult position.

"In here," Talmoro said, gently ushering the three of them through a large door into the Inquisitor's private quarters, a rather expansive room with an amount of wasted floor space that seemed wholly unnecessary. Two of the guards remained outside the door, while the other two accompanied him in, shutting the oak behind them. The Inquisitor guided them to his desk, a massive contraption of sparkling clean wood, taking a seat behind the desk. The two guards hauled over three identical chairs for them to sit in, before taking up flanking positions on each side of their Lord.

"I believe we missed introductions in all the excitement. Though you probably already know, I am Talmoro Vasuderon, High Inquisitor, and in command of this embassy while the Lady Elenwen is away. You have introduced yourself as the Burning Circle. I'm afraid I've never heard of it. How many do you number?"

"Not many," Adrienne replied as though confiding a weary secret. "Not yet, anyway. About twenty, all told, and these scattered over Skyrim. We usually work in threes, though there's currently one pair, as numbers demand." She sank gracefully into the chair presented, folding her hands in her lap. "I am Celene Madec, and when they need to be led, I lead them." It was obviously unwise to give her real name to a Thalmor, especially since the organization would long survive him, and they'd have only a name, not likely a face, with which to try and track this mysterious group. She left it to the others to devise names for themselves, as they'd be much more likely to remember them, that way. Her own selection had been the only warning she could give.

Maya's posture was much like Adrienne's, one leg draped elegantly over the other, hands folded before her. As much as she hated to do it, she met the Inquisitor's gaze when he looked to her for her own name. "Marjolaine Bellasaris, my Lord. A pleasure." He smiled and nodded in return, which Maya thought to be the best of signs. Then it was Drayk's turn. He tried to model his own introduction after Maya's. Just a name and a greeting. "Liam Jerrik, Lord. I look forward to working with you." Though his posture was somewhat relaxed, confident even, he felt anything but, and merely speaking at all to Talmoro had turned him a bit red. All in all, that had gone well. If the Inquisitor assumed him to simply be muscle of the magical sort, as he intended, then perhaps he needn't do any more talking here.

"And I look forward to exploring this opportunity," Talmoro said graciously, before launching into the heart of the matter. "Now, to business. As you know, Skyrim is rife with heresy that threatens to tear the land apart, and has already done so with a civil war. The Thalmor seek to restore order to the region, that further cooperation with the Empire might be maintained. Unfortunately many of the people of this land will not give up their false idol willingly, nor do they trust those of the Dominion to hold their best interest at heart. An alliance with a local organization such as yours could prove most useful. Tell me, what would you ask in exchange for your services?"




The main floor of the Embassy had led out into an open courtyard, and nobody had stopped him yet, so he assumed he was traveling in the proper direction. Unfortunately, rather than the brief respite of fresh air he was expecting, the smell of blood grew thicker, accompanied by one like a damp hound would give off. But... it wasn't exactly a hound, was it? The other odors floating around made it hard to tell for certain, but the scent raised he hairs on the back of his neck all the same, and unbeknownst to him, a low, nearly inaudible rumble began in his chest, until he finally heard it and forced it to silence. That was... not good, to say the least. If the Beast was that wary, he should be, too. Closing his eyes for a moment, he forced his feet to continue, one in front of the other, though part of him railed against the very notion, informing him in no uncertain terms that he needed to free his sister now and run back to regroup with the others, to protect the pack, and that in and of itself was alarming.

Sucking in a breath, he ignored his instincts and kept going, reaching the barracks (and the two guards in front of them) shortly thereafter. The both of them looked over he and Anirne both, eyes lingering somewhere between disbelief and confusion. Still, they were good enough at their jobs not to abandon protocol, apparently. "Prisoner?" one asked, and Sinder couldn't help but think the answer to that was obvious.

"Psijic," he replied curtly. "For interrogation. Brought in by some human lot, call themselves the Burning Circle or something." He figured it couldn't hurt to spread the word, in case these two guards happened to encounter his friends somewhere. At least it might give them pause before they drew steel. The guard's eyebrows ascended his forehead, and he exchanged a speculative glance with his parter before he shrugged and waved Sinderion through. That placed him in the barracks proper, and though he could smell several more Thalmor, a dozen and then a few, he bypassed most of them without comment, having caught steel, blood, faint traces of alcohol, and moon sugar-- Soren and Lynly, at the very least.

Following that, he eventually found the door he was looking for. Well... that and the screaming, though he detected the clang of metal underneath that. A hatch led to a staricase, which would doubtless take them down into the chamber they wanted. Hopefully, he wouldn't get shot or stabbed for his trouble, but he trusted them to be cautious enough not to do that. Exhaling in a huff, he lifted the door and started down, Anirne behind him still.




"Nice shot," Lynly complemented as she emerged from the trap door. She took a cautious glance around the room before she lowered he own weapons. Her first order of business was the prisoners' safety and freedom. Both were Nords, and Lynly had an idea of how they ended up in this predictament. Chances were, they were Stormcloaks, and though she didn't agree with their idealogy, they were her kinsmen. She slipped past the archer, looking to free the one on the table first. His wrists and ankles were bound in iron cuffs at the four corners of the table. She sheathed her sword and grabbed at the first lock trying to get it to come loose, but her bare hands couldn't prevail against the cold iron. Option two involved searching the body of the Thalmor for keys, but too proved fruitless. She sighed and leveled her eyes on the locks. She had hopped it wouldn't come to this.

"Can you help him?" Lynly asked Soren, indicating the man in the cage. She then began to test her shield arm and adjusted her grip, lining up her aim on the cuffs. She didn't want to miss and break the man's wrist. However, before she began though she leaned down and instructed the prisoner to scream. It'd help cover the racket she would cause. She raised her shield and hammered the cuff with her shield. It took a set of two bashes in order for the cuff to relinquish it's grasp of the Nord's wrist. She repeated the process for the other three before the man found himself free. As she sat on the table, Lynly said, "Leave. Fast. Don't look back," she said, pointing at the trap door. The man didn't need much more than that, and after a volley of rapid thanks and praise Talos's the man was escaping through their entrance.

"I normally charge by the lock, but for you lovely? I think I can manage," the mercenary replied, half sarcastically. Honestly, he didn't really care whether or not these prisoners escaped; the whole 'Aldmeri Dominion versus Empire versus Stormcloaks' thing wasn't really of interest. Empires rose and fell, and dynasties with even greater frequency. He wasn't arrogant enough to assume that anything he did would matter in the long run, ironically enough. Still, there wasn't really any harm in it, and a pretty lady had asked, so...

"You, my friend, are one lucky bastard," he told the prisoner, who shot him a weak glare. "What? It's true. You could be dead. I could have left you here. Sure, you've been tortured, but life's like that sometimes. At least you're going to survive it, hm?" He made quick work of the lock, and then of the chains binding the man to the wall. "Well, there you go. Now run along, little Stormcloak, and do try to find some trousers. It's cold outside." Lynly had overheard and shot him the dullest glare she could manage. He simply shrugged, as if to ask where his culpability lay.

Vanryth opted to do some janitorial duty. After Lynly had inspected the body for keys, and both she and Soren had freed the prisoners, he lifted the corpse up and began to drag it toward the trapdoor. No use in cluttering up the space with the dead, and if they needed to hide, a body laying in the middle of the floor was the most conspicious thing he could think of. With little ceremony he kicked up the door, and threw the body into the hole, watching as it crashing into a couple of rungs before the ground stopped i's descent. Vanryth shook his head at the sight, but otherwise seemed to not care about the whole ordeal. They had more pressing matters to attend to. He felt glad that he could finally be of some use, instead of silently waiting at the Shade's side. He hated the man, and every word that came out of his mouth only intensified that hatred, but he kept himself together. He had to, for the sake of the others, and for the sake of the Mentor. And now with evidence of the Feral on the loose, there was no time for rift between their rag-tag little team.

"It's your head when they get caught and half a hundred guards storm in here," the Shade said off handedly towards Lynly as the Stormcloak prisoners escaped. He was certainly capable of disappearing if he needed to, although he had no illusions as to how difficult it would be to be free of this place entirely if everything came down on top of them. "They're lucky indeed. I'd have cut out their tongues and put them back in their cells, or just killed them. Simpler that way."

He had just been beginning the process of examining their surroundings for a good way to ambush his prey when a telltale click informed him that the door was opening above them. A small flight of stairs down was now the only thing that separated them from a legion of Altmer soldiers. He hissed at the others to hide, before a wave of his hand and the briefest flash of light accompanied him turning entirely invisible. Soren sank into a shadowed corner, another arrow at his string already, but this probably wasn't their man quite yet, not unless the others worked awfully quickly. Meanwhile, Lynly darted forward, sliding into the recess between the stairway and the floor, shield at the ready. She didn't dare try to draw her sword lest the sound give away her position. Luckily she was just as proficient with her shield as her sword. Vanryth opted to hideway in the cell that was just opened by Soren, itching to call forth a lightning spell if things went sour.

The sound of soft footfalls descending the stairs filled the silence, which Sinder found too complete. It was obvious from the very muted breathing he could hear that conscious concealment was happening, and the scents were all familiar. "It's me," he called into the relative gloom, and his eyes weren't quite as good as his ears or his nose, so that was still relatively difficult. "And Anirne." He finished the descent, withdrawing the key from his pocket at last and using it to free his sister's wrists. Anirne sighed, bringing her left hand up to rub slightly at her right one, the soft glow of magic illuminating her face from below. That cuff was rusted, as things turned out, and it had been bothering her since they put it on, slowly wearing the skin raw. But it was much better now, and she glanced around, seeking a familar face, perhaps.

"What news? The others are still with Talmoro." His expression darkened. "The courtyard smells like death and dog." That was about all he had to relay, though-- he knew not how the rest fared now, in the viper's nest as they were.

At the sound of the familiar voice Van stepped out of the cell he was in, looking extremely relieved. He gave both of the Altmer a thumbs up, telling them that things went along decently enough. Though the mention of scents of death and dog caused his brows to furrow. He then took the time to spell out the word 'Troll' and pointed at the hatch, and made the same motion Soren did for death earlier. If the pair didn't understand, he'd figure one of his companions would elaborate for him. Still, it was good to see that Sinder and Anirne faired well. He patted his friend on the shoulder, a gesture that meant he was glad to see him. Lynly took her time to emerge from under the steps as it came to light that they were theirs. She stepped past the golden knife-ears and stood a distance in front of them, arms crossed. "The troll is dead, and not by our hands. I do not believe we are the only one prowling these grounds..." the let the implication hang in the air.

"The Feral killed the frost troll, that much was clear," the Shade, appearing out of thin air to state the obvious. He sheathed his dagger upon seeing allies appear rather than enemies. "Ja'karo could have attacked us if he wished, we were a smaller group in the open. I am left to assume the wolf seeks our dear huntress instead. He may... complicate things. Perhaps the matter must be forced. If the Feral were to strike before we do, the entire compound will be up in arms before we get into a bow's range of Talmoro. We need him down here, and soon."

Sinder's jaw clenched uncomfortably tightly, and he had to double down on himself again to prevent the idiotic dash up the stairs and into the courtyard. He could catch the scent, follow it, hunt down the wolf-cat that threatened the pack. It was nearly unbearable to sit here in relative security when three of his friends were still so clearly exposed to danger from not one, but two obvious sources, neither the kind of thing one should ever trifle with. On one count, he knew personally, and as for the other... he was sure Anirne could infrom him if he really wished to know.




This was the delicate part. Adrienne knew what the endgame was, but the important bit was getting there and sounding reasonable about it, in a way that would produce results today while aiming (or appearing to aim), distinctly for the future. She'd given this matter some thought, and as a result, her phrasing was delicate as she could make it while still cutting to the chase, so to speak. "We are a small organization, my Lord, and while this is itself a disadvantage, it is not one that cannot be overcome. We forsee growth in our future, after all, but in order to be successful, there are certain... gaps in our knowledge that need be filled. As you have witnessed in some measure, we are not without the subtlety required to accomplish certain tasks, but we do lack a certain... resourcefulness in the obtaining of more delicate information." Here, she paused, allowing her implications to sink in. If this worked properly, they'd have him hook, line and sinker, convinced that they wanted an alliance not only with the Thamor, but with him, and that would leave them, proven effective as they were, manipulable by him, an excellent opportunity for his own advancement.

"One thing we do not lack is information, Lord Talmoro, and when it comes to the artful methods required to obtain testimony from... witnesses, let's say, the learned wisdom is that you are without peer. When we came upon the opportunity to present suitable tribute to the Thalmor with whom our goals align, then, the choice was an obvious one. I hope you'll not think us too forward for making such an observation, but I'm a practical woman, and I've always found that I like the best considerably more than the simply passable. I'm sure you understand."

The Inquisitor looked most intrigued, leaning on one of the armrests of his chair, fingers idly stroking his beard. He smiled wickedly when she was finished. "I do believe I'm starting to like you," he said, thinking it over. "Yes, I think I can help you with this. Perhaps a demonstration is in order? You have, after all, brought me a specimen I have very much been desiring to--"

Sadly, that was as far as he would get. The door to his private quarters burst open, a pair of Thalmor soldiers rushing in, hands still wet with blood. "My Lord!" the first of them blurted, bowing quickly. "There's been a disturbance. We found one of the patrolling guards dead. Something cut clean through his armor!" They were huffing for breath, clearly frightened out of their minds.

Drayk was confused. The Shade had killed one of them, he had to assume, since Sinder was wearing the elf's armor, but they hadn't found that guard. So someone else had died? For a moment he worried for Sinder, but then realized that if they had found him dead, they would have been reporting the battle occurring around him, as his sister would never have abandoned him, nor any of the others. No, something else was afoot here.

Talmoro was none too pleased by the announcement, and unfortunately for the Burning Circle, he directed his anger straight at them. "What is this? You... thought to slip in here and sabotage the work I have done? Was this the Psijic's plan all along?" Apparently he didn't really care, as turned to his guards. "Seize them! They wished for a demonstration, after all." A ring of metal accompanied swords coming loose, and one in the back readied a bow.

Drayk didn't know what happened, but he reacted. The ringing of steel brought fire to his hand, and he was on his feet. The words seize them rang in his mind like a bell in utter silence, and suddenly there was no plan, there was no following Adrienne's lead, there was no subtlety, there was only fight or flight, and he had run all his life. They could end this here. Talmoro was powerful, but so was Drayk. He knew he was. His arm drew back, and he hurled a fireball into the group of elves.

It sent two flying, a third staggering back, trying futilely to push the flames off of him. The one in the back, the archer, had drawn an arrow and taken aim. Maya groaned. So close. There was nothing left to do now but fight it out, wasn't there? She hoped the others could reach them in time, as they certainly couldn't handle Talmoro on their own. Well, in her opinion. She conjured a glowing purple bow into her hands in an instant, drawing the string back and conjuring an arrow in place, loosing before the archer could get off his shot. The daedric arrow struck him in the throat, and he stumbled about, clutching at it.

In a flash of understanding, Talmoro looked at Maya, and saw her. What went into his eyes then was a mix of confusion, amusement, and pure aggression. "Blackfeather." Was all he hissed, and then he did what she really hadn't been expecting: his arm cocked back and threw a thunderbolt directly into her chest, sending her flying back away from the desk and sliding across the floor, smoking and motionless when she came to a stop.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Even from within the interrogation chambers they could hear quite clearly that the entire compound has just entered a state of chaos. Boots that were previously resting upon the edges of tables or idly bobbing off the edge of a bed were now stomping in the direction of the courtyard, clear ringing echoing in the night as elven steel was drawn and readied, shouts from the war wizards directing their troops into organization. The Shade' upper lip curled into a disgusted sneer, and he cursed.

"The damn dog's gone and ruined their cover, no doubt. We need to move, before they're organized." He was already on his way up the stairs, ebony dagger gleaming maliciously in one hand, a glowing red spell lit in the other. "The Inquisitor is the priority. We sow chaos among his troops, and then we cut through to him. Perhaps your friends will still be alive by the time we reach them." He didn't wait around for their reaction, or even to see if they were going to follow his orders. No doubt they would, though. Sinderion would not leave his friends to die, nor would Vanryth, and the Psijic apparently would follow her brother into any danger. The archer and the warrior woman strangely seemed to seek it out, something Tarquin had no qualms with.

He pulled the door to the barracks open and stepped on through. The second of the door guards was just beginning to leave his post, but he was cut short when the Shade grabbed the top of his helmet and pulled back, exposing his throat for the dagger to slice open. A second saw this done, raising steel and charging him, but the Shade was gone when he swung, appearing a moment later to stab into his belly, and then up under the chin, dropping him. Through the window, he could see a number of Thalmor troops watching the second story of the embassy building, which was currently flaming out of a window, no doubt the work of their level-headed fire mage, while more led by a few war wizards were heading inside to neutralize the threat. The sound of screams from the guests could be heard on the far side of the compound as they fled the building. If there was one thing to be thankful for, it was that a majority of the soldiers had their backs turned to the barracks, and an opportunity to carve through them was available.

Lynly hesistated for a moment, looking up at the door above her and wondering just what was happening beyond it. If the Feral was truly involved, then Maya, along with the other Sellswords, would be in danger. Not only from some otherworldly mix of cat and dog, but from the Inquistor as well. She sighed, and not from the lack of adventure. She looked over to Soren and shrugged, freeing her blade from it's sheath. Maybe this time it'll see some use. "Cursed," She repeated before taking to the stairs. Her pace was slower than the others, and notedly slower than Vanryth's who had pushed past the Nord warrior and followed the Shade out. He crossed the door just in time to witness the Shade rip his blade from the Altmer's chin.

He paused for a second so that he wouldn't be sprayed by blood before he approached the window beside the Shade. His eyes were immediately drawn to the fire in the second story building. The first name in his mind was Drayk, followed by a number of curses not worth repeating. Without wasting any precious moments, Van pushed himself away from the windowsill and drew his orcish sword while igniting a lightning spell into his hands. He was tired of the cloak and dagger anyway. As she passed the window, Lynly offered a look outside, and Drayk was the first person in her mind too, though for different reasons. "Damn firebomb..." She muttered as she followed the mute knife-ear.

"Heh," Soren half-chuckled, drawing an arrow from his quiver. "You're not fooling me, lovely. You'd not have it any other way." He flowed up the stairs behind the rest, not really inclined to make a prominent target of himself until he knew what he was up against, but he needn't have bothered. Most of the guards were facing towards the embassy building itself, probably warranted considering the jet of flames issuing from the second floor. Someone's unhappy, the mercenary thought dispassionately, but he refocused his attention on the ground in short order. It was, for the moment, so easy it was almost painful. "Like fish in a damn barrel," He muttered, drawing the string back to his cheekbone. The elf-made bow, rather similar to what a few of the Thalmor were carrying, loosed the arrow when his fingers slackened, the string humming faintly for a few seconds after its departure. Though he'd hardly wasted time lining up the shot, it still thudded reliably slightly left-of-center in on guard's back, where his heart would be.

There was a joke in there about the likelihood of any of them having hearts, actually, but it was a little tired for his tastes, and not raunchy enough to tell anyway.

Sinder was barely able to ascend the staircase without bowling over the Shade and anyone else in his way, drawing the sword that had come with his armor with a rasp of sound. The weight was off, but he could hardly be bothered to notice. As soon as he was clear of the stairs and the others, though, he was off much like Soren's arrow: swift, silent, and pointedly aiming for a certain spot, in this case the door into the Embassy. As he was dressed identially to the majority of the Thalmor here, he wasn't anticipating too much resistance, and frankly he had a feeling the group down here was more prepared than the one up there. He assumed the Shade wouldn't care, since Talmoro was supposed to be the target anyway, but frankly, the Altmer couldn't have cared less about Tarquin's opinion right now if he'd tried.

Long, loping strides carried him forward, the smell of burnt wood and blood flooding just about anything else, the sound of his own heart thundering in his ears nearly all he could hear. It was close, so close, but he couldn't tip over that edge just yet.

It was... not the best moment to be without her staff, perhaps, but Psijics were mages first, anything else second. Granted, killing was not her favorite pasttime, but she was mature enough to admit to herself that the fact that these were Thalmor was making it considerably easier to stomach. She'd never liked the organization, as monks tended to disaprove of the concept of mass subjugation and also being called infidels and heretics, that sort of thing. Tossing her braid over her shoulder, Anirne set about clearing as much of a path for her little brother as she could, knowing that time was of the essence. To both hands, she called power of storms, cloaking herself in crackling lightning and then letting another version of the same leap to her palms.

The bolt struck with almost as much accuracy as one of the sniper's arrows, but it didn't quite need to, as the jolt to the system of the warmage that it hit from behind was enough to slay him, stopping his heart. Bringing both hands in front of her, Anirne advanced, a constant stream of electricity arcing from all four fingertips towards a gathered cluster of soldiers. If that didn't get her some attention, she didn't know what would.

The pawns had taken the lead, as he'd wished, and Tarquin was somewhat pleased to remember that they had an elf on their side in Thalmor elven armor. Perhaps he'd be able to reach the others quick enough to do some good. Then again, perhaps he'd simply get himself killed and put yet more work on the Shade's back. Either way, this had quickly become a rather irksome situation, one that required careful but powerful uses of force. The first step being the chaos he had previously mentioned.

The Shade stepped out into the moonlight, his dagger temporarily sheathed so as to better cast the spell, a glowing red orb of light hovering in between his hands. The others had drawn more attention, as was their purpose, and so the Shade was free to cast his spell as he saw fit. He aimed for the tightest cluster of Thalmor soldiers that he could identify, loosing the magic, sending it flying hungry and furious towards them. The frenzy spell exploded on one of the elves, the effects spreading outward like wildfire, and within moments they were turning on each other, possessed of an incomprehensible rage. The war wizard tried to shout them back into order, to no avail. There was little any of them could do but defend themselves, and thus the courtyard turned into a bloodbath, Thalmor killing Thalmor, and the Shade and his pawns killing them all.

He'd just been about to cast invisibility over himself when he caught a glimpse of the beast, eyes gleaming like a dark blue ice on the rooftop of the embassy, black fur bristled and blowing in the breeze that had picked up. Claws were dug into the roof, powerful legs coiled for a leap. Ja'karo, the Feral, was at least ten feet large at his full height, and he very quickly put that on display, legs pushing with incredible force away from the roof, sending him soaring down into the courtyard. And here the Shade had thought Ja'karo had come for Maya.

He landed lightly on the group not five feet from Tarquin and took another bound in one smooth motion, barreling into the Shade's chest, jaws snapping and claws closing around the Imperial's shoulders, the pair of them hurtling backwards to crash through a window of the barracks, rolling through tables and chair, a ball of murderous fur and flesh. They tumbled back through the beds and out of sight.

Insane as the sentiment might have been, Soren was half-tempted to stick his head through the broken window and see what happened. Instead, he shot a glance at Lynly, who, though occupied, was certainly close enough to hear, especially considering the few seconds of silence that had followed the most unusual intrusion. It was surprising enough to strike the Thalmor in the immediate proximity dumb, but it took a lot more than this to shut him up. "Somebody fed kitty-cat a little too much, methinks." he observed dryly, though he actually was wondering just how one went about becoming a ten-foot-tall man-beast. It definitely wasn't the skooma. Whatever it was, he rather wished to avoid it. Lynly groaned and shook her head, "Really? Is now the best time?"

Their foes were starting to regain their senses, however, and a quick succession of three arrows later, things were back to normal, though he did keep glancing back at the window. If a shot presented itself, he'd take it, but other than that, he surmised that it was probably best to let Tarquin handle himself.

Somewhere in the heart of the free-fall-all against everyone, Van was ankle deep in the blood of his foes. His mind was only focused on the next enemies and his next kill, thanks to the Shade and his wanton disregard for friendly fire. That meant that Van was running off of both his natural anger, and the magical effects of frenzy. After the frenzy spell hit, Vanryth dropped all semblence of a magical offense and drew the second, imperial longsword on his back and threw himself into the fray with a sounding wordless warcry. No longer was he fighting for his friends, he was fighting to sate his anger. The Orcish blade caught the first Thalmor in his exposed side, as he fought his ally. Then he brought his other sword from the opposite side, lopping the elf's head off with little effort. Without minding the blood that was stained him, the fallen elf's opponent then became his own.

He took a step forward to close the distance, planting a foot on the back of the headless elf as he beat the elfish longsword away with a savage parry, cutting across with his other blade. This elf had enough sense to dodge the slash by leaning back and followed it up with a gout of frost. Heat or cold, it didn't matter, Vanryth felt nothing in his state. He surged through the frost and cut the offending limb off. The Thalmor wouldn't have time to lament the missing limb though, as Van lodged the imperial sword into his throat, silencing whatever yell he was shouting in his throat. The victorious Van almost didn't feel the dagger enter in his back, but the force told his feral mind something was right. He spun on his heel, digging it in deeper into the body of the first elf, and brought both swords across. A flimsy dagger had no chance against the ferocity of two blades. Both pushed past the Thalmor's defense and lodged themselves inside the Atlmer's frame, stopping only because of his spine.

Van ripped free his weapons and went to his next opponent, not realizing that he had been struck.

Anirne had noticed much, though unlike Soren, she hadn't quite been able to find the words for most of it. A roundhouse kick snapped the neck of her most recent assailant, leaving her free to survey the battlefield. Adrienne's enchantment was quite good, and it kept her magicka restoring at a decent clip (plus the augments that her robes already carried), fast enough that the low-level lightning she'd been using for most of the engagement thus far was almost nothing. That said, she had a feeling she'd need to save it, and she wasn't far wrong. Van might not have noticed the dagger slip between his ribs, but she did, and Anirne frowned, aware that she was needed in more than one place. But first things first: she concentrated, bringing years of training and mental discipline to bear in what was actually a relatively simple task. The healing spell worked quickly, forcing the blade from the Dunmer's back and healing the wound it left behind, flesh closing seamlessly and without scar. There was a certain merit to battle-scars, perhaps, but not one earned from a sneaky Thalmor when you had your back turned.

That done, she turned, running back behind the lines created by Lynly and Soren respectively, to the broken window, presumably wherin lay Tarquin. She disapproved quite fiercely of what he did to the Sellswords, but that did not mean she would leave him to die, and a person like this Ja'karo would not likely leave anyone unscathed, not even the Shade.

It was hard to tell what was going on inside, and as such, she lacked the resources to properly diagnose and spot-heal any wounds he might have, so instead she simply flooded his system with her benevolent magicka, laying a broad-spectrum curative spell upon him. It would drain her, but not quickly, and she had several magicka potions stored in the loose sleeves of her robes. They were more useful than health draughts, to one such as herself.

Lynly found herself faring better than the berserking dunmer, as she was well out of range of the Shade's frenzy spell. It did make things difficult for her when she had to fight the wild knife-ears of course, but savagery brought about sloppiness. She just had to mind their swords and she'd live the day-- Maybe. There was still the matter of Inquisitor and the Feral, but she'll deal with those if she comes across that bridge. The first contest was against the Thalmor gaurd who's golden eyes were flashing red. He was predictable as she imagined he would be, coming in with a swipe from his sword. It was child's play for her to knock it away with her shield. What she didn't account for was the ferocity of the blow, and it twisted her wrist a little bit. Something to keep in mind if the fights dragged on for too long.

Not wishing to be caught trapped by a flurry of savage blows, Lynly took the opportunity to advance, bashing him once with her shield and then thrusting forward with her sword, skewering the knife-ear. She planted a boot on his chest and pulled it free, collapsing the Thalmor into a pile on the ground. The action managed to slip her Talos amulet free so that it dangled freely in the open. She quickly dropped back, letting her foes come to her, and not the other way around. And so they did. A group of three including a war wizard, who somewhere deep in the subconscious psyche decided that they hated a Talos worshipping Nord more than themselves. One on one, their savagery was to her advantage... Three on one, not so much. She was not looking forward to this.

He was losing arrows at an alarming rate. Just how many Thalmor did this place contain, anyway? Soren sighed, mostly to himself, and decided to abandon the shooting for now, at least until he could procure some more arrows from a corpse. Of course, there was the matter of the half-dozen black ones still firmly tucked in his quiver, but he wasn't using those. Not even for this. Not even to save his own skin. Instead, he slung his bow upon his back and drew the sword at his hip, the Imperial steel glinting in the light of the sun. It didn't stay that way for long, as a quick thrust drove it home into the belly of a Thalmor who'd thought to out-sneak the thief, and that would have been laughable if it wasn't so pathetic.

A spell sparked to life in his hand, causing him to waver and disappear, and he was off then, murdering his way through the distance that had grown between himself and the closest ally-- which excluding Tarquin and the psijic who'd quite readily taken over the role of "Tarquin's probably superfluous assistant," happened to be Lynly. Who was presently staring down three enraged Thalmor, including a warmage. Oh, what fun!

Disguising the noise his feet made was hardly necessary, and so he didn't waste the time sneaing or even throwing a muffle into his current magical repertiore. Instead, he circled round the group at a swift strafe, approaching the wizard from behind and enclosing the unfortunate's forehead in his left arm, holding him still while he made good on an old suggestion and drew the blade across the fellow's throat, flaying it open neatly. Of course, to the already-less-intelligent-than-usual guards, it looked like he'd simply been cut by nothing, save perhaps the stare of the woman before them. The one on the left's eyes bugged, something breaking through the haze of his rage. "Witch! Talos-worshipping witch! Kill her!" The other one nodded hastily, and Soren chuckled to himself. He'd never been attibuted to heathen witchcraft before.

Unseen, he advanced until he was shoring up a position at Lynly's back. "Ever had an imaginary friend, lovely? It's like that, only I kill people for you."

"A witch?" She asked, disregarding Soren's comment. She had never been called a witch before, and the only thought that sprung to her mind was Maya. A wayward glance to the tower took her eyes off of the fight for a moment, long enough for the first of the Thalmor to attack, blades to bear. It was trained discipline that brought her shield edge up in time to intercept the blade. There was a moment where Lynly pushed up against the blade, and the Thalmor pushed down each trying to when a battle of strength. It wasn't to last long, however, for the opportunistic assassin slid in and impaled the altmer contender from behind, a nasty twist of the blade earning him a labored shout, then silence and slackening as the body went still.




Damn it to Oblivion! She'd had him, right there, wrapped around her little finger, and then what? Some plebian had to go and interrupt, because clearly an idiot had killed a guard without bothering to so much as hide the body properly! She was halfway thought through her next sentence, which was probably going to be equal parts false offense and very real confusion and outrage, when everything rolled right off the cliff it had been sailing towards and hit the ground with an emphatic splat.

He recognized Maya. And he attacked her, which obviously meant that she was his target. Which also meant that even if they did kill him, she'd be next on the Shade's list, too. Well. May the crows feast on your entrails, too, Fate.. This was too many things to deal with at once. First priority... well, that was caught somewhere between "don't die" and "don't let friends die," but they required the same things anyway, so it would do for now. Adrienne dropped low to the ground to try and avoid becoming collateral damage in the maelstorm of fire and lightning that was being hurled around, but she was willing to bet that the Inquisitor wouldn't miss if he were really aiming for her. From the sheath secreted on the inside of her calf, she pulled a knife, a far cry from the sword she usually bore but more than she would have had otherwise.

...Not that it was going to be much help here. It was pretty clear that their best option was to run away, but that wasn't happening with Maya prone on the floor. Adrienne was pretty certain she had two choices: try and get to the woman and force her to swallow a potion of some kind, using Drayk as a very bright distraction, or... try to bring him down from whatever fire-fuelled state he was in and get him to heal while she played bait to a far superior mage and tried not to die. Oh, excellent. So both of her plans were suicidal. That was always a good sign.

Trying to stave off the symptoms of what was probably a combination conniption fit and incoming panic attack, she ducked as low as she could, scrambling behind furniture where she could and sort-of hoping that Drayk could keep Talmoro busy long enough for her to do... something to assist the witch. She could only pray to whatever gods had not yet forsaken them that help got to them, and quickly.

The four nearest guards were dealt with, and they had a small window of opportunity before legions more arrived to defend their master. In the time that Talmoro had spent sending Maya across the room, Drayk had summoned up as much fire as he could muster in both hands, free of the typical restrictions he placed on his output potential. Like the dragon exhaling the inferno that had reawakend his own fire he unleashed his energy at Talmoro, enveloping the Inquisitor in walls of flame that wrapped entirely around him, to the point where no part of his body was visible any longer, his desk in front of him and the bookshelf behind him long since having gone up in flames.

He pushed closer, expending magicka at a dangerous rate, the fire spreading around them. There was seemingly no movement from within the inferno he'd created, at least not until the center of his destruction was smothered like a waterfall on a campfire. Everything was instantly cold as a swirling blizzard tore through the flames and reduced them to nothing, shards of razor sharp ice slicing through the air. The spell passed right through him, and at least a dozen stabs of pain accompanied the little blades slicing through him. Drayk staggered backward as the Inquisitor emerged from behind his ward, another ice spell prepared. Drayk's ward went up just in time to shatter into pieces the bolt of ice that slammed against it, but the force blew his concentration to pieces. The second ice bolt came right through, slamming into his gut, and it was Talmoro's turn to advance, closing to melee range, a flash of otherwordly light accompanying the daedric sword that appeared in his hands, and with a swift diaognally upwards slice he cut across Drayk's chest, sending him spinning to the ground on his side.

Spending no more time than was necessary on the fire mage, the Inquisitor turned to find the witch, who was coming to, shaking her head and trying to push onto her hands and knees.

Trying to ignore the obvious chill in the air (a sure sign that things were not going well for Drayk), Adrienne crawled with all the speed she could muster to Maya's side, yanking a potion from yet another artcile of storage hidden by her voluminous skirts. She hadn't been able to bring her entire bandoleer, though, and she was low on supply as a result. Still, she had a few, all of them incredibly potent, and even as the witch was just starting to open her eyes, Adrienne was holding the glass rim of one such concotion's container to her lips. "Drink, quickly," she implored in a hissed whisper. "We have to run; there's no way we'll survive if we don't." She tipped the contents of the vial back as quickly as she dared, and was just about to stand when a dread silence fell over the room, a sure sign that either Drayk or the Inquisitor had fallen.

Whatever her fickle heart wished to believe, her intellect knew exactly which one it was, and something sank like a lead weight into her stomach. Oh gods. She should have helped him. Maya would have woken on her own, with enough time. She should have helped him! Aborting her effort to stand, exactly, Adrienne placed distance between herself and Maya, trying at least to create two separate targets, if nothing else. Where, oh where were the others?

Drink was something Maya understood, and she obeyed, lights and sounds and smell of burning returning to her in a rush. She looked around in time to see the situation: Drayk was down, impaled by ice and bleeding from his chest, probably dead. Adrienne was moving away from her, trying to buy time or something. There was no time, not with him here, not in this empty space, not with his power. They couldn't wait. The witch cast aside the glass and pushed up quickly, sprinting to the side and towards Adrienne, but more importantly, the window behind her.

The Inquisitor was kind enough to cast a brutal chain lightning spell, which forked into Maya's side and no doubt struck Adrienne after that, but her momentum couldn't be stopped. She spread her arms and lowered her shoulder, tackling the other Breton woman and taking her with her right out the window, the pair falling among shattered glass and drifting snow, down a full story until they landed harshly in the shallow snow. Her field of vision was swaying slightly before her, but Maya forced herself to stand, and get her bearings. Where were they? She could hear fighting, a great amount of it, coming from her... right.

"We have to go, into the fight," she insisted to Adrienne. "Nothing we can do for him now," she added, referring to Drayk. It was true. Staying there would have ended in both their deaths. Staying here apparently would, too, as Maya spied Talmoro in the window they'd fallen out of, preparing a fiery explosion in both hands. "Run!"

It must have been something in her subconscious, some basic human instinct to live, that moved her limbs, because Adrienne herself wasn't really feeling up to it. All she knew was pain, and it was unlike anything she'd ever had the misfortune to experience. The chain lightning was awful, her muscles still tense and spasming after the impact of it, her entire body rattled like a bone-dry old tree in a tempest. She felt that she'd crack and splinter to pieces any moment. Her mind was moving sluggishly, bereft of its usual sharp acuteness, as though she were watching her own life, and quite possibly the last moments of it, unfold through some soup-thick fog, settled low over the ground and weighing heavy in her belabored lungs.

That was nothing, though, nothing at all compared to the lead she could almost feel on her shoulders, the result of a tremendous amount of guilt and misery. Her first instinct, was, honestly, to pull her knees to her chest in the snow, curl up on her side, and weep until she was numb or dead. But someone was speaking insistently in her ear, and her heart still thudded away in her chest, her lungs still pulled the breath of life into her body, and some annoying part of her that refused to be silenced knew she should be paying attention, because viscerally, instinctively if not presently cerebrally, she wanted to live. So, much as it cost her, the young woman pulled herself to her feet and ran, the heat of the fire searing the skin left exposed by her garments as the spell exploded behind them, though not quite close enough to burn.




From within the barracks, sounds of a savage struggle floated into the cacophony that was the rest of the battle. Claw swipes, growls, a lower rumbling growl, and then what was akin to an explosion of flesh, as if the walls had been spattered with blood and entrails. There was a single whimper, and then the Feral came flying out of the same window he'd barreled through, bouncing once across the snow before his back slammed into the statue in the center of the courtyard. Ja'karo rose quickly, his bloodlust tempting him into placing both claws on the nearest Thalmor and biting into the neck, severing the elf's head in a single bite, reveling in the blood and flesh before turning to search for his target once more.

The Shade presented himself, though not in any recognizeable state. Taloned feet hovered perhaps a foot off the ground as his floated through the window and out into the courtyard, his previously pale skin now a blue-gray. His dark clothes had been mostly torn off above the chest, his form now intensely muscled and toned, hands ending in wicked claws. Wing bones had sprouted from his back and hung poised at each shoulder, sharp, fanged teeth bared as black voids of eyes glared down at the werewolf. The form of a vampire lord was magnificent and terrible all at once.

When the Feral lunged for him again, the Shade caught the beast in the grip of powerful vampiric magic, holding him struggling in mid-air for several moments before he cast him violently aside, the ten-foot werewolf sent flying over the outer wall and out of sight. He turned to look down upon the nearest of his pawns, which happened to be the Psijic. He gestured lightly with his hand towards where the Feral had passed from his sight, his voice deeper than it had been before, but still unmistakably his.

"Do not let that filth interrupt me again. I will be finishing this momentarily."

Anirne sighed, more than accustomed to dealing with attitudes like that, though admittedly they usually did not issue from vampires. The only one she knew was a rather mild-mannered fellow. Immediately cutting off her ill-advised attempt at healing, she nodded politely and trotted off to where the Feral had fallen. There was no mistaking that he was still quite possibly a fearsome foe, but that did not seem to deter her any.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Sinderion rounded the last corner, bounding up the remaining flight of stairs three at a time, and bursting into what he could only suppose had once been the Inquisitor's study. The place was in complete shambles, most of the furniture burned or blasted into splinters. The walls bore scorch marks and frost alike, some of the impact radii clearly belonging to more concentrated lightning blasts rather than the raw flame Drayk would have summoned. It was also completely still, any occupants either dead or gone. Wait... no. Not quite. He could still hear the sound of ragged breathing, and following it, Sinderion came upon the fire mage, prone on the ground and impaled with a massive ice shard, doubtless courtesy of Talmoro. Despite knowing that, being so easily-able to guess the cause, it was still a shock to see his friend like that, and Sinder's eyes opened wide, his stride hitching badly enough that the normally-graceful Altmer nearly tripped in his haste to reach the youth, hands moving automatically to check his pulse, as if for confirmation.

It was there. Weak, certainly, but present. If Sinder had his guess, the ice had probably slowed the bleeding by blocking the wound, but it would melt, if he'd even last that long. For a few moments, the elf hovered indecisively, unsure how to best handle the situation. It was clear that he needed to get Drayk to Anirne, as quickly as possible, but moving him in this condition was not a good idea. His breath left him in a frustrated huff, but he knew that he had to do. He just wasn't sure he could do it. Shifting his weight in his crouch, Sinderion gripped the ice bolt and ripped it cleanly from the wound, activating the simplest healing spell there was in an attempt to slow the continual bleed enough to at least stabilize the mage. Gradually, a bit of strength returned to the heartbeat, but he knew it wouldn't last long. There was no other choice: they had to move, now.

With a bit of effort, the Altmer managed to get the Imperial situated somewhat securely on his back, probably the most stable position he could occupy for what was certain to be a bumpy few minutes. "Drayk, if you can hear me, hold on." He wasn't sure of whether it would make any difference, but it bore saying anyway. With a steadying breath, Sinder ran for the window, following unknowingly the selfsame path forged by Maya and Adrienne a few minutes prior. There was a moment of vertigo as the solidity dropeed out from underneath him when his feet left the windowsill, and then he was dropping. His feet hit the ground hard, borne down by the extra weight of another person, but his knees absorbed the impact in a maneuver so practiced it was second nature by now.

He skirted the edge of the battlefield, catching Anirne's scent also moving away. Why that was, he couldn't say, but he hoped she wasn't hurt.

Maya had known from the get-go that her only shot at survival was to get the Inquisitor to the battle, and thus the Shade. Of course, that also got her to the Shade, and she'd long since connected the dots. She had no idea how the next few minutes were going to go, but there was no time to think on that. For the moment, it was certain death now, or almost certain death later. She'd buy herself a few more minutes of life.

She vaulted a low stone wall into the courtyard just as a forked thunderbolt exploded it under her. The witch went rolling into a small storm of snow and rock, roll over once, and then went back to her feet, raising the nearest corpse she saw and booking it, raven hair whipping behind her. It wasn't as though there were no corpses to choose from. She caught sight of the others, fighting the steadily dwindling elves, but she'd lost track of Adrienne. If the Breton was smart, she'd split from Maya, as the lightning bolts were aimed at the witch, not the Sellsword. And there was the Shade, in the form of a vampire lord. She'd been wondering when he was going to pull out that little trick. It certainly didn't make her feel any better about her chances.

"Inquisitor behind me!" she shouted out to anyone who cared, coming to a stop towards the rear of the group, trying to stay low, simply hoping she might have escaped the Inquisitor's sight. The Shade smiled wickedly upon seeing the witch, honestly rather impressed that she actually managed to drag Talmoro out here. The wizard himself was just appearing in the courtyard, looking on at the scene in no small amount of horror, watching his men fall around him, the floating Shade waiting in the back. The vampire began raising his own corpses, one, two, three, four, the dead of the elves joined his side and marched on their former comrades. Talmoro called out to his remaining soldiers. "To me! Into the embassy, fall back!"

And the Feral, ever persistent, bounded back over the wall with a growl, to find the Psijic in his way. He crouched low in a predatory stance and lunged forward, attempting to simply swipe her aside with a powerful and deadly claw, in order to move on to his true prey.

The nimble monk ducked and twisted out of the way of the blow, but she had nothing on strength of this magnitude, and so it was into the Feral's back that she fired the lightning bolt, still covered in her cloak of the same, for all the good it would do her. She rather wished she had some kind of weapon in her hands, as there was nothing her bare flesh could so that would even leave a mark on Ja'karo, she was sure, and her robes would be precious little protection against such a set of claws. It was entirely possible that he'd ignore her and keep going, but if so, she'd have little choice but to chase him down.

Soren’s outline shimmered, and he appeared in full view gradually, as the invisibility spell wore off. This managed to give the final Thalmor soldier pause for all of a second, before he thrust his sword at the new foe, too far gone to the battle-lust to remember the old one on his other side. While the assassin usually preferred to let other people be the distraction that he then utilized, he supposed turnabout was fair play, and Lynly had so kindly handed him the last one on the battlefield equivalent of a silver platter, sometimes also called a shield. Returning the favor seemed agreeable, at the very least.

Bringing his sword up with both hands, Soren blocked the incoming swing, using the locked blades to kick out with his right foot, catching the elf in the kneecaps, and he staggered to recover his balance. Raising a brow, the mercenary clocked him on the back of the head hard enough with the pommel of his sword to dizzy him, then kicked him again, sending him sprawling to the ground at the warrior-woman’s feet. “Oh, it appears I’ve dropped something. Mind taking care of that one, lovely?” The elf was currently trying to struggle to his feet, taking a potshot swipe at Lynly’s legs. The last ditch effort was quickly stopped by plunging her blade into the ground to catch it before it lopped off her legs. Without retrieving her blade, she lifted her shield and drove the edge straight down into the throat of the elf. A single death gurgle was her answer as the elf choked on his own blood. With that out of the way, she retrieved her sword, and hefted her shield up back into it's defensive position. "Careful where you drop your trash, you almost got it on my boot," she said before nodding her thanks. Soren's brand of humor might have been getting to her... Realizing what she had just said, she furrowed her brows and looked back into the fray. Things were much more interesting there anyway.

Soren, however, caught it easily and laughed, quite satsified with the results of his constant forays into the exchange of barbed words with the woman. He was also rather thrilled to discover that he’d happened upon a near-full quiver of elvish arrows, a fact which made him very happy indeed. Tossing these into his own quiver, he sheathed his blade and drew his bow once again, quite happy to be doing what he did best once again.

The Thalmor with an arrow in his eye was probably less joyous, but there was just no pleasing everyone, really. Some people were simply impossible.

Adrienne straightened, kicking the body off the length of her stolen sword. Gone was any feature that belonged to Celene, or the ever-courteous young woman who managed to smile even at her bitter foes. Gone, too, was the taunting combatant, the one that teased orcs dangerously close to her own death. Belladonna the poisoner was vanished with the sweet junior member of the Sellswords. All of her porcelain and silk and stone had cracked and fallen away, and as she feared, what lay beneath was... nothing. Just hollow acceptance of the situation and mechanical movement of her body in time to the pulse-point of the battle. It felt almost like everything were moving through water, even she, the slow-motion shadowplay of life that at once amplified and diminished the goings-on to a very loud but mostly indecipherable hum somewhere in the back of her head, where her thoughts used to be.

An errant elvish axe caught her mostly unawares, slicing though the red satin of her gown and biting viciously into her arm. She paid it no mind, though, simply switching her blade to the other hand. Magic had fallen by the wayside, at least for the moment; it wasn't as though it had done her much good recently, anyway. She looked up (always up) at her assailant with lifeless eyes and sighed, darting in whip-quick under his guard and shoving the elvish sword up and into his throat. She should have been angrier, would have been angrier, but vengeful Adrienne had perished with the rest, and this was all that remained. It might have been some consolation that she was technically doing what that version of herself would ahve wanted to, if she'd even been in the frame of mind to consider it.

The fight was shifting vastly in their favor, Maya noted. The elves that the Shade had raised were falling to ash, having served their purpose, their uses as tools no longer worthwhile. The Sellswords and their allies were hacking their way to the Inquisitor, who seemed more concerned with firing spells at the Shade than stopping the encroaching attackers. Tarquin nimbly manuevered around them, however, waiting for the right moment to strike. The witch spotted Sinder emerge with Drayk on his back, skirting the battle. She stood up only enough for him to see her. The Inquisitor was more interested in staying alive than taking his mark at this point, anyway. "Sinder, here! Quick!"

The Altmer's sensitive hearing would have picked up on the shout even if he hadn't seen Maya, and he made a beeline for the witch, Drayk still not stirring behind him. He dropped into a smooth crouch beside her, lowering his friend carefully to the ground. "I've stabilized him, but there's no telling how long it will last. Do you have any draughts with you?" The mage's wound was already starting to ooze again, and with Anirne far enough away that he couldn't see her, he had to hope that Maya would have a solution. There was worry evident in both his tone and his body language, but it was also clear from the looks he was sending the fray that at least part of him desired to be in it, not on the sidelines, so to speak.

As of yet, he was unaware of the nature of Talmoro's target, else he might have been quick to stifle that instinct and remain precisely where he was.

The Feral growled and little else when the lightning bolt struck him in the back, sprinting on all fours past her and towards the Shade. Tarquin saw the beast coming entirely, of course. At the same moment, the Inquisitor launched another swirling mass of razor sharp ice out away from the battle, towards the vampire lord. Just as Ja'karo reached the Shade he seemingly exploded in wisps of dark smoke, which snaked through the ice and across the length of the courtyard, twisting through the air and into the embassy building itself, halting behind the Inquisitor, where Tarquin reformed and landed upon clawed feet.

The Feral was struck wholly by the Inquisitor's spell, vicious slices cut across dark fur. He surveyed the battlefield, the odds arrayed against him, the distance and the number of foes between him and the Shade. Ja'karo growled in anger, before pounding a clawed fist into the snow and letting loose a screeching howl that echoed into the night. Then, before any further attack against him could be made he scambled off and up over the wall, sprinting away into the night.

Maya watched the Feral go only long enough to know they weren't in danger. Not that he was allowed to kill or even attack her, but still, a ten foot werewolf was worth watching at least until it was out of sight. She looked down towards the fire mage. "No, I've none. Hey! Psijic! Help here!" It was the best she could do on short notice. Despite how much she knew the young mage meant to them, she had more important news to relay. "Sinder, listen, Talmoro attacked me, I was his target. The Shade will know once he kills him. I need to know... do I need to leave?" He would know what she meant by that. Very shortly, the Shade would likely be ordering them to slay her, if not attacking her himself. Sinder knew the others better than she did. If there was truly no hope of them standing by her, then she needed to start running. Now.

As predicted, the Feral ran right by her without so much as pausing, and Anirne took off after him, though this, too, was clearly without point, as the three men in the middle of the field were a battlefield unto themselves. Which was why she didn't feel all that frustrated diverting to heed Maya's terse request. Jogging over to where the young Glenmoril was behind some cover with her brother, she soon detected the reason for the distress: Drayk lay prone on the ground, looking quite worse for wear. It appeared that some rudimentary healing had already been worked upon him; Sinderion's, if she had her guess. It was clumsy, but it had worked in the interim, and she knelt, setting to work immediately and trusting the two of them to watch for any incoming enemies.

"What in the name of the ancestors...?" she murmured softly, though of course she expected none to answer. It was more an expression of sympathy than anything else, and her hands lit with the necessary light a second later, the psijic leaning over the boy to do what good she was able. Anirne was fairly confident she'd be able to save his life, but it wasn't going to be a short or simple matter. Though she tried not to listen, she did hear Maya's urgent question to Sinderion, and found herself somewhat curious as to just what he would say. Her own opinion was rather sure, but she did not enter this arrangement under the same conditions as they, and that was bound to have an impact.

The news had the impact of rendering Sinder speechless, though admittedly, this was not the hardest thing to do. Still, he had to take a moment to absorb what he was being told. Of all the gods-cursed luck... but then, he'd known something like this would happen eventually. It was just much sooner than he'd thought it would be. At first, he cursed the fact, but in thinking about it, it might not be as bad as all that. His own primary worry had always been that by the time Tarquin tried to turn them on Maya, they'd be too far gone to care. Now, though... he gave the question as much serious thought as he could, and finally, he shook his head. This was a turning point, for all of them, he could feel it, and the morning he'd spent in he shell of his former home had given him some much-needed perspective on it. "You have nothing to fear from me," he said firmly, glancing down briefly at where his sister labored to keep his friend from the precipice of death.

Had he known what this would put them through? Could he have known, and still claim to care at all for them? These were questions Sinder didn't have the answer to, but he found that in the end, the answers weren't the important thing. Not right now. But he knew not if they'd all see it so. "The others... I can't speak for them. I do not think they would harm you, but... it isn't us that present the real danger, Maya." He looked up at where the Shade was currently locked in conflict with the Inquisitor. "We're barely alive. We don't stand a chance against him, and I hope you'll forgive me, but neither do you." He didn't want to tell her to leave, but it might well be the safest thing she could do. And, he realized with a degree of chagrin that he chose to ignore, he did want that.

"Do what you think best. If you run, I'll do whatever I can to slow his progress. If you stay..." he shrugged. "The same, really."

This felt... wrong. She hadn't felt indecision in the forest that night, she'd known her plan then. Where had it gone? It fell apart as the Sellswords did. They were still here, in a sense, but of them, only Sinder was still capable. The others were spent, damaged, useless in a futile resistance against a man who might as well have been a god to her. Maybe she should have left, that night after she'd kissed Sinderion. At this point, it wasn't the character of the Sellswords she needed to question, but the character of the Shade. There was one thing she could still bank her hopes on, one small, tiny hope, placed in her by the looks shared between this god, and the god he always had and always would answer to, no matter what words he spouted about him. She'd seen different when they came to her, in those few days before she even met the Sellswords, before she followed a dragon on a wild chase through the cliffs of the Reach.

The bonds of a family were more powerful than any devotion to any Daedra, and family was not given up so easily. Not when you lived as long with a family as he had.

"I trust you," she said, staring into his eyes. "I need you to trust me. Stand in his way. He chose you and your friends to serve him for a reason. Put it to the test." It wasn't much and she knew it, but her hunches had served her well in the past. "If he attacks us all, well..." she leaned forward and kissed him for a long moment, before pulling away. "Then we'll all go down right here. I'd rather die here and now than alone in the woods in two weeks time. I'm not leaving." The last words were almost more for herself than him. They felt good to say.

To his credit, while Sinder hadn't been precisely expecting that, he was much less confused about it than the last time, and tentatively placed a hand on Maya's cheek when she drew back, nodding solemnly. "I will." It was a simple answer, but it served well enough for every implied question. He'd trust her, he'd stand with his family, blood and bonded, against a man who could probably kill them without breaking a sweat, all to test a hypothesis he didn't quite understand. Maybe it was because, in the end, he was done running, and done calling himself a coward and knowing it was true. Whatever the case, it would be done, for once with no reservations. That was, surprisingly, enough.

Anirne smiled to herself, though she continued to repair Drayk's wounds, quite content to pretend as though she hadn't seen anything at all.

Enough time had lapsed for the Frenzy spell to dispel, and most of Van's rage along with it. What was left was a tired husk of a man trying to get his bearings on what exactly in Oblivion's name was going on. What was left of the Thalmor was dropping back with whom he could only figure was the Inquisitor, a piercing howl off to his side somewhere was apparently the farewell of some wild pitch-black were-creature assumedly the Feral, and amidst all of that, a grotesque vampire monster hovered just feet above the ground. Whatever went on, it was readily apparent that it spelled poorly for the Sellswords. At first, he didn't know where to go. In the distance, he saw Lynly and Soren holding there own, and elsewhere Maya and Sinder was hovering over someone. He didn't see either Drayk or Anirne, and could only hope for their safety.

And to top it all off, he saw Adrienne stalking the battlefield all alone. While he had faith in the girl, he knew her martial skills put her at a disadvantage in a melee. Figuring that she would need his help over the rest, he began to trudge his way over to her. As he moved, he realized that his legs felt leadened and jolts of pain shot all across his body. Apparently, in his rage he had taken a number of hits, unbeknownst to him. While Adrienne's scarf managed to take the edge off of some of the pain, they still hurt like hell. Still, he didn't have time for pain, and he pushed past it, trying to make his way to Adrienne. He approached her from an angle, from behind and with his tongue there was no way he could call to her.

As he approached his eyes met a wet red spot growing ever larger on the sleeve of her robe. Now he was worried, and urged his legs to quicken his pace. Along the way, he had discarded both of his blades in attempt to drop weight and give him a bit more speed. He'd need it too, as out of the corner of his eye he saw a mage readying a spell intended for Adrienne. He didn't think, he didn't have time to. He threw himself behind Adrienne just as the spell was fired. His back was met with the entire wrath of a vicious Thunderbolt. The shock wracked his entire system, and he could think of nothing but the white hot searing pain in his back. The bolt had his limbs in their grasp and when the spell finally dissipated, it was all he could to keep from crumpling into a pile of flesh. Instead, he drooped forward across Adrienne's shoulder as smoke rose from his back.

In his last act of consciousness, he tossed a ice spike in the direction of the Thalmor hoping to save Adrienne.

Even through her foggy haze, Adrienne heard the telltale strike of a thunderbolt, its proximity to her alarming enough to temporarily shake away her apathy. Moments later, a weight draped over her shoulders, dragging her to the ground, and the faint scent of smoking fabric alterted her to the fact that whomever was behind her had taken the hit. For her. That significantly narrowed the options, and even as she was borne to her knees and Van's ice spike, unbeknownst to her, ripped through the mage's chest, she regained with startling clarity an awareness of what was going on around her that she'd lost. The flutter of red fabric in the corner of her vision made the sensations that much more real, and her eyes filled with the tears she'd been too numb to let fall before.

"Gods, Van," she muttered in broken syllables, and all at once, the pain she should have accumulated over the last ten minutes or so was back in a rush, and Adrienne lost all strength, tasting dirt as she buckled under his weight. He half-pinned her to the ground, but she was not quite so numb, now, and she squirmed, trying to work her way out from under her friend's limp form. With a great deal of struggle and fresh tears from the sheer pain of moving that much, she managed, at last working her fot free from underneath his abdomen. With shaking hands, she fumbled at her skirts, pulling them to her knees to rummage in the leather pouch affixed to a leg. "One more, just one more.." she muttered indistinctly, her mind fogging for a completely different reason this time.

With a small sigh where a triumphant cry should have been, Adrienne produced two vials. Ripping the cork out of one with her teeth, she knocked it back in one swallow. The other was for him, and if there was any justice left in the world, it would be enough. Slowly, painstakingly, she crawled to his side, unstoppering the cork in this one and holding his chin in the other hand. "Sorry for this," she slurred. "Tastes awful. No poison. Made sure." The thought of who she'd almost poisoned caused her vision to blur again, but the blinked furiously until she could sort of see, guiding the alchemic concoction down his throat as well as she could. When the vial was emptied, she slumped, falling backwards into the snow, but nothing so blissful as unconsciousness awaited her, just exhaustion without respite.

Vanryth laid still for a while, even with the potion snaking it's way through his system. His breathing was shallow and didn't seem to gain strength, up until the point a raking cough escaped his lungs. He felt horrible, like he was on death's door stop. There was only one other time he had felt like this in his entire life, and they had also made the mistake of leaving him for dead. He surprised then too. He tried to get up, but the fatigue and pain wouldn't allow him the luxory of movement quite yet. He lay in the snow for moment, unaware that Adrienne was nearby. He tried to work out what had happened to him to leave him in such a state. There was the Frenzy spell, he was running, and then... Adrienne! He forced himself into a sitting position, fighting the pain and aches the entire way. Pain be damned, he needed to see Adrienne okay.

What Gods that still watched them allowed him that bit of respite, Adrienne was nearby, and from the looks of it still alive. Relief washed over him as he uttered the longest sigh that his injuries would allow him. He stayed as he was for a moment, silently watching over Adrienne, until he decided that he had worked up enough strength. He dragged his old carcass closer to Adrienne, and then lifted her up, placing her head in his lap. And so he held her, keeping a watchful vigil against anyone who would dare approach them. A memory came floating back in his ravaged mind, one from what seemed like years ago. When he once held her in a similiar manner, in very dissimiliar circumstances. But they'd be alright. They would all be alright. They had to be.

His men dead and gone, the Inquisitor was left alone to battle against the Shade, the vampire lord having appeared directly behind him. Tarquin's first slash of claws cut into the Altmer's chest and spilled his blood onto the stone floor, but the Inquisitor hardly reacted, swinging a daedric sword to try and open the Shade's throat. Tarquin nimbly ducked, but the Inquisitor followed with a gout of flame from his off hand, catching the Shade full in the face, staggering him for the briefest of moments, in which Talmoro sought to swing again, a swift cut again aimed for the throat.

Tarquin caught him by the wrist, stopping the cut short, reaching out with his other clawed, long-fingered hand and snatching the Inquisitor's spell hand, following up with a powerful headbutt to stun him. With a snarl, the vampire lord's teeth sank down and into Talmoro's neck, sending a fountain of blood spewing forth, spraying in several directions. The Inquisitor struggled briefly, a struggle which was then reduced to twitches, before Tarquin unceremoniously released him, allowing the elf to fall in a heap at his feet, his formerly golden skin reduced to a pale grey, drained of blood.

The Shade stood triumphantly over the kill for a moment, swallowing the elven blood while more dripped down his chin and onto the floor. A few short moments passed before his rapid, excited breathing slowed quite quickly, and he tensed again, eyes darting up towards the aftermath of the battle. A smile slowly worked its way onto his face, and he moved forward at a gradual pace, one foot carefully placed in front of the other, stepping over the masses of dead left behind by the fight. He stopped in the doorway of the embassy, gazing out upon the battered state of his pawns. His voice was still arrogant as ever, even if it was deeper than normal, and blood dripped from his mouth with every word.

"Bring forth our dear witch. We have business to attend to."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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The battlefield had at last grown quiet, the corpses strewn about the courtyard and the vampire lord still hovering in the air the only visual cues as to what had happened, excluding the battered state of several of those still alive. What to most would have been silence was nearly deafening to Sinderion: he was hyperaware of the rasp of breathing from Drayk’s healing lungs, the quiet shifting of Anirne as she moved to another wound, perhaps, the rustle of Maya’s clothing, the sound of his own heartbeat, vital and strong.

He could see what looked to be Vanryth and Adrienne some distance away, both looking considerably worse for wear. Soren and Lynly were in the opposite direction, the three groups forming a rough triangle in the courtyard. The Shade’s voice thundered over to them, then, and the Altmer clenched his teeth at the man’s haughty tone. It was obvious what he thought they were worth, to say the least.

Rising from his crouch, Sinder stepped a few paces forward, removing himself from the immediate proximity of the wounded fire mage and the witch that was the vampire’s next target. He was actually a bit upset with himself for not sniffing out the man’s nature sooner—he could certainly scent all the blood now, and the faint odor of rot that must have signified the sanguinarus disease. He wasn’t inclined to dwell on it right now, however.

Meeting the Shade’s eyes from across the field, he shook his head. “No. You shan’t have her so easily.” Truthfully, he did not know what the man’s intentions were, whether he planned to simply kill her now or delay for some strategic reason. He supposed there might be such a possibility, but he was not the strategist Adrienne was, and now wasn’t the time to try figuring out what it might be. Not when the possibility of being attacked was so live and immediate. It was actually rather electrifying, and though he appeared to be making his denial with relative equanimity, there was a small tension-tremor in his limbs, not the shaking of fear or fatigue, but one of the conscious repression of a fight-or-flight instinct.

He would not flee. But attacking was not a resort he wished to have to take, either.

The sounds of battle of faded out into the snow, leaving Lynly casting her glance around. All of the Thalmor knife-ears lie dead or dying in their wake, but the Sellswords weren't without their own losses. Of their number, three lay on the ground and out of the fight. Sinder was the only one of the original group who stands, and along with him, Maya, Anirne, Soren, and herself were also relatively uninjured. Still, those numbers meant little when they stood against a Vampire Lord.

The appearance of the ancient monster took her aback, leaving her in gaping awe for a few precious moments. The monster was undeniably still the Shade, he still looked like that man once did, only more grotesque now. She had heard stories about the ancient race, though scant few. Of all times, this was the least expected to which she would find herself face to face with the creature. She glanced back to Soren once more, cursed on her lips for the third time that night, but then decided to swallow it. It was no time to be tossing ribs back and forth with the Archer, not when one of their number was threatened by the Shade. Instead of speaking to the man, she merely shrugged and walked forward.

Her shield hung heavily from her side and she carried her sword over her shoulder. For all of the urgency present in their situation, Lynly painted a portrait of absolute calm. Not even a hint of her earlier social disfuction remained. Such as she was, more comfortable in the heat of a fight than she had ever been in her own skin. The only time she felt truly alive was in a fight, and while the fighting had sense died down, danger still lingered on the air. She had chosen the subject of her story, and she was going to see it to it's conclusion, even if that meant her death. As she walked past Maya, she nodded acknowledgement. She was unsure whether she was considered her friend, but it didn't matter to her. She had a debt to repay.

She stopped beside the knife-ear and settled into the snow, lifting her shield while her sword hung at the ready at her shoulder. "No. He won't," She said, agreeing with the elf. While she may not have understood what was going on, she knew enough about the Shade to know she didn't like it. If he wanted to see Maya, then it was probably not for the best of reasons. She might not had been part of the sellswords, or even the Game, but still. She owed the girl that much. She had killed her family once upon a time, the least she could do was to see that the witch lived through the night.

She was not so conceited as to believe this would be simple if he did decide to attack. Far from it. Two fighters against a Vampire Lord were sorry odds, and not for the Vampire either. Even if all of the Sellswords were willing and able, it would have still been a difficult fight. And yet, it was not the first time she stood between a strong opponent and his target, the memory of Stonehammer and the Imperial Captain coming to mind. Though Stonehammer was a man, and not a monster. Hidden by her shield, a smile crossed her face and she muttered "Cursed."

She'd have it no other way.

Soren didn't seem so inclined to immediately leap to the defense of someone he didn't really know, and indeed it was debatable whether knowing any of them any better would have made a difference anyway. It wasn't that he was a coward (he was many unsavory things, but that had never been one of them), just that he was predominantly self-interested, and frankly, he doubted the Shade would even spare a thought to him if he chose not to interfere. He was, essentially, free to come and go as he liked, and taking any sort of stand here would doubtless diminish that ability to some extent by making him a rather defiant ink-spot on the fellow's mental map.

If it didn't make him dead, first.

That was a thought, though, wasn't it? If was one to go to the gates of Oblivion at last (as all must eventually do, functionally immortal or no), there wasn't a much grander way to go about it than to be escorted there by a nasty set of vampire-claws impaling your chest, perhaps. But there was still something he wanted to do, and in the end, it was a poignant mental image that held him back, of folk who had met much more inglorious ends than that. The world would have plenty of people to be concerned over it, and the Daedra and their Representatives many more peons. But nobody else was going to care enough about a few mercenaries and a little boy with a sweet face to bring justice for them.

So Soren remained where he was, watching with apparent disinterest as Lynly moved to stand by the Altmer fellow, who acknowledged her with a nod but did not remove his eyes from the vampire. Smart, not that it was likely to save any of them. A quick glance behind himself revealed that there were several ways off the premises, though if the creature Tarquin had become was of a mind to kill them all, he wouldn't find much escape there. In fact, those two might have just doomed him to his fate anyway. Sighing through his nose and rolling his eyes, the sniper drew an arrow from his fresh stack of them and took to turning it between his fingers, the same absentminded gesture he'd used many times before. This time, though, his bow was still in his left, and it would remain there.

Anirne finished the last of Drayk's wounds, then, and sat back on her heels for a moment, regaining her equilibrium. Her magicka was fairly drained, but her enchantments would take care of that in short order, and the important thing was that the young man would live. At least for now. Bracing her hands on her knees, she glanced over at Maya and smiled. She had not missed the exchange between the witch and Sinderion, but if she had an opinion on the matter, now was not the time to offer it, anyway.

"Well, it won't be the most foolish thing I've ever done," she said lightly, though there was gravity to the proclamation all the same, and she used her hands to push herself into a graceful stand, shaking a few stray hairs from her face before taking long strides to Sinder's other side. She said nothing, as truly she didn't think there was anything to be said. So much of this journey could kill them; Talmoro would have been capable of it, and the Feral as well. She did not doubt that the other Representatives were just as mighty, in their way, else the Shade would not have thought to use them at all but wiped out his opponents by himself.

In a world where anything and everything could prove fatal, it made sense to risk yourself for the right reasons. And reasons did not get much more 'right' than protecting a friend or family member. She was inclined to take her brother's hand, but she did not, knowing well enough that he might need to move at a moment's notice, perhaps more quickly than she could react. She suspected his reflexes were quite superior to hers, even given her training.

So instead, she laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed briefly before letting it drop. Reassurance, affirmation, support. If that was all she could give, she would give it freely, without a moment's hesitation.

A distance away, Adrienne was aware of being moved, but found for the moment that the task of opening her eyes was simply too great for her capacities to handle. She would live; she had that much faith in her alchemy. But what did it matter, anyway? Drayk was dead, and that was her fault. Vanryth probably hadn't survived either, and that was her fault, too. People had died because she was too weak to do what needed to be done, so caught up in her plans and her hopes that she'd forgotten what was really at stake, how vulnerable they really were. She'd had faith, when what they'd needed was help. And the worst part of all was that, where another might have been able to save them, she could not. For the same reasons she'd always been inadequate. She couldn't give life, couldn't coax someone back from the precipice of death or heal so much as the smallest parchment-cut, not without plants and patience and time the universe had not seen fit to give her when she needed it most.

What did anything else matter, next to that?

Somewhere beneath the grief and abject misery, though, her mind was still working. Sluggishly, it was true, but working all the same. She hated it, almost, and tried to make it stop, to think of nothing but all the things she'd done to deserve her agony, but something was nagging at her. Frustration tightened her fingers in Vanryth's sleeve, though she wouldn't realize that's what she was doing until her eyes snapped open seconds later, havign finally tracked down the thought and discovered what had bothered her so.

"Maya," she whispered, her voice unable to gather the strength for anything else. Her vision came into focus, and she registered Van's face above hers with a relief so great it brought tears to her eyes. Her voice did fail her then, and she weakly brought one hand up and signed two words: Van. Alive. Smiling hollowly, Adrienne rolled to the side, gathering herself on her hands and knees.

"Maya," she repeated. "Talmoro attacked... Maya. She's... Tarquin's next... target." Her words were punctuated with small gasps as she forced her aching, trembling body to its feet. "Can't... no more dying." But Oblivion take her, she needed to move! She had something, nothing more than a vain little string of words that fancied itself strong enough to save a life. A plan, a tiny piece of strategy that might sway the mind of a being without much mercy to him. Whether or not it worked, she could not allow it to remain in her mind only. Nobody else could die because of something she'd failed to do. She wouldn't, couldn't, bear it.

Sinder, Lynly, and Anirne couldn't be more than fifty feet from where she now stood. So why, why did that seem like such an impossible distance?

Van couldn't stop her-- or could stop her in his state. It wasn't the wisest to challenge the shade in condition they were in... Though no one had ever accused Van of being wise. He tried to rise to his feet as well, only to stumble back to his knees. He grunted in frustration, why should he have to stay while Adrienne tried her hardest to protect Maya. He snarled through the pain, through the fatigue and finally found his legs.

They were shakey, and unreliable, but they were there. He wavered but righted himself. Once positive that he wouldn't keel over he slipped his neck under Adrienne's arm, and placed her own hand on his collar. If they were going to do this, then it was going to be together. If they were going to do this then they all should be together.

It wasn't that he thought of Maya as a friend, the witch and him hadn't hardly spoken since she joined them. But that didn't matter, that wasn't factored in the decision. His decision was focused squarely on the Shade and denying him everything. The asshole Vampire Lord had nearly cost him everything. He had almost cost him all of his friends and family. That was the line, it was because of that he would deny him everything. The Mentor was not worth any one of their lives. Not Sinder, not Drayk, not Adrienne, none of them. And if they were to die denying him Maya, then they would all die together.

It was with confusion at first that the Shade watched as first Sinderion, then Lynly, then Anirne stand in front of Maya, blocking his path to the witch. Maya found herself unable to watch as the battered Adrienne and Vanryth struggled to make their way to the rest of them. Back in the Rift, in Malacath's shrine, had been a... similar feeling, when the Sellswords had learned just what they'd nearly died to do. When they learned that she had effectively used their life's blood to further her own goals in a Game they wanted no part of. But that had been guilt. This wasn't guilt, it was... humbling. She hadn't thought the Sellswords would simply try to kill her, but to see them seemingly willing to die in this moment was... powerful. Almost more than she could bear.

Regardless of how this ended, her decision to stay had been the right one. The Shade would track her down, and a head start on him would make little difference in the end. If the Sellswords truly meant to oppose him, better that she help them than leave them to their fate for a few days of life. Sinderion was right; she stood no chance against him alone. And though it pained her to use them in this way, having the Sellswords between her and Tarquin gave her a chance at life, if her theory proved correct.

The Shade wiped remnants of the Inquisitor's lifeblood from his chin, taking a few steps forward into the courtyard. "Perhaps I was misunderstood," he said, maintaining his composure, "you will allow me to kill the witch, or I will ensure that you never see my father again. Those are the terms." Maya knew she had no right to be excited at the moment, but as those words were spoken she knew she had been right. She could not help but whisper to those in front of her. "He won't attack you, any of you, I'm certain. Just oppose him, and we leave this alive."

"Has Maya wrapped you so easily around her finger? That she has you doing her bidding now, to your own detriment? I offer to return whatever security the Mentor brought you. She leads you only towards madness and death, pain and suffering. Choose what you will, Sellswords."

Sinder remained unmoving, Maya's words loud enough in his ears to register, though he was not quite yet able to share her certainty. It was possible, just possible, that the Mentor had gone with the Shade only on a condition of that nature, but in the end it didn't really matter. There was something, something that he saw, that he was almost sure the Shade did not see. It had nothing to do with Maya, or what she had convinced any of them to do, though he would readily admit that he stood here for her sake.

"And what would it be worth," he asked, "to stand before him again, having forsaken everything he taught us? To need him again as we did then, because we failed him utterly in our pursuit of him? I should think he would rather we never saw him at all, as long as we were able to live as he had given us opportunity to." Suffering? Madness? What did the Shade know of these things, that he was not already intimately acquainted with? More pain was hardly sufficient deterrent, as they were going to face it anyway.

Though he was inclined to, he did not draw blade or bow in service of his words, feeling perhaps that it would undermine the point. He would fight if he had to; it was always emphasized that sometimes, there were things worth fighting for, killing for, even, but that to make it the first course of action was the error of a man with poor judgement and little wit. That said, if he did have to fight the Shade, it would be with neither blade nor bow, that much he could feel.

Adrienne could not hide her relief at Van's support, and slowly, painstakingly, the two managed to hobble their way over to the others. The Shade did not seem pleased, to say the least, and all Adrienne was able to think was that, much as she agreed with Sinder, she couldn't take it if any more of them died. They had to live, didn't they see that? Their lives were worth so much, to her and surely to each other, and damn what the Shade or the rest of the world had to say about that.

"Perhaps," she ground out, leaning heavily on the arm wrapped awkwardly about Vanryth's shoulders. Her voice was raspy with fatigue, absent of its usual music, but that seemed appropriate somehow. "There is a third option." She agreed wholeheartedly with Sinderion; she always had. But living as the Mentor had given them an opportunity to required living period, and being wholly unaware of the plan he and Maya played at, she had only her own observations to go by, and though the vampire lord before them seemed relatively collected, she at least wasn't buying it.

Gathering her breath to her, she continued. "As it stands, your position is superior to basically any of your opponents'," she told the Shade, straightening as much as she could to look him in the eye. She was without the resources for flourish and dramatics, and he wouldn't have fallen for it besides. "Two people in this Game have permission to kill you, and you know who both of them are. You might as well exploit this fact for as long as possible. Let Maya take down her targets, and use us to guard you from those that target you simultaneously. You eliminate foes without them ever being able to touch you at all, through us, through her. And then, at then end when only the two of you remain, we have this... discussion again. At no time, except perhaps after the Feral is dead, will you ever have to wonder about where other people stand, and that will allow you much leeway in choosing your battles to most suit yourself. As for when that time comes, well..." she trailed off, coughing several times and wincing when she pulled away her free hand bloodier than it had been, "I hardly think you're worried about being able to defeat us." She held up the hand, palm open, as if to let it prove her point.

This battle had beaten them, killed one of them, and certainly come close to killing a few more. He was relatively unscathed. She was content to let those facts speak for themselves.

"A temporary solution to let the witch live longer," the Shade pointed out. "In the end, if you want the Mentor, she must die. If you've all become attached already, then better to do it now, or never do it at all. I do not need a puppet to slay targets for me, nor bodyguards to defend me from a beast. You will help me, or I will leave. Again, those are the terms. Make your choice." Perhaps it was not the right word, but something beyond the Sellswords' simple lack of cooperation was irritating the Shade here. It was of course fact that if he desired, they would be able to do little to stop him, wounded and weary as they were, and yet he showed no signs of hostility. If anything, there was a hint, just a small hint, of sadness in his tone.

Adrienne caught it, but she knew not what it meant, only what must be said next. Shaking her head slowly, she gave up the attempt to make it otherwise. "Then farewell, Tarquin, because I will not do that." The others were of course free to speak for themselves, but she couldn't offer up another sacrifice for this man's ambition. Not even if she'd wanted to.

When none of the others spoke, Tarquin nodded. "Very well. Hunt your Omen. There's someone I must speak again with. If you have not changed your minds by the time I return, I suggest you sleep a little lighter. Farewell, Sellswords." He lifted lightly into the air through the force of some kind of vampire magic, taking off into the night, heading south and east.

A long moment passed in silence before a loud cough came from the ground near them, followed by a rather agonized groan as Drayk stirred again for the first time, returning to consciousness.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Well, that certainly sounded ominous, didn't it? Anirne watched the Shade leave with a contemplative expression on her face. Knowing that such a man would be after them with only a small time delay was not the most reassuring piece of information she'd ever recieved, to say the least, but the monk tore her eyes from where he'd vanished into the horizon, marking the direction but otherwise content to let it be.

Taking stock of the immediate situation, however, she realized that there was work to be done yet. The conversation's duration had allowed her ample opportunity to regain her magicka, and two of their number were in dire need of it. At once, Anirne approached Adrienne and Vanryth, hands already aglow. She might have asked what had happened to put both of them in such a sorry state, but honestly, she knew all she really needed to. It was difficult to tell which one of them was worse off, and she'd just decided to start with Van, who seemed to be leaning a tad more heavily on Adrienne than the girl was on him, when her other patient finally decided to come to.

"Oh good, he's--" her remark was cut short by the abrupt, slightly lurching passage of Adrienne, whose expression of disbelief was so exaggerated as to be almost comincal in any other situation: eyes wide, mouth slightly ajar until it clicked shut, and she was out from under Vanryth in almost no time at all, leaving the healer to steady the Dunmer in the wake of her passing. Well, that made her choice for her, she supposed.

Vanryth stumbled as his only stablizing force skittered away and towards the sound of a racking cough. The only reason he didn't end up face first into the snow was that Anirne had luckily been close enough for him to throw his arms around. At first, he wasn't aware that he had the woman locked into a hug, only curious as to what would cause Adrienne to act the way she did. He looked past Anirne and found his answer. Drayk was on the ground, and he was stirring. During the confrontation with the Shade, he had his eyes locked solely on him. He wasn't even aware that Drayk was in danger until just that moment.

At least he wasn't in much danger now. They all were safe for the night. And with that knowledge, the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders. He inhaled the deepest breath of the sweetest air and exhaled, smiling all the while. They were all still alive and safe now. That was a damn good day if there was one. Now that he was sure that everyone was okay, the realization that he had Anirne in a tight hug finally occured. He was hesitant at first, confused, and had his face had any blood in it he would have blushed. Still, the best he could do was point to the ground so that she could sit him down.

Anirne, slightly thrown off by the weight of an incoming Vanryth, nevertheless bore the ensuing situation with an easy friendliness, chuckling lightly at their predicament and nodding sagely, sinking the both of them to the ground as gently as she was able. Once safely detached from the Dunmer, she crossed her legs in front of her and made the hand-sign for 'healing.' This was, of course, followed up with precisely that, though she suspected that what he needed most of all right now was rest. That was probably true of all of them, actually, herself included. Still, she'd do what she could for now, and see where it got them. He laid back throwing her a thumbs up, happy for anything she could do. Happy for the moment of rest. Happy that everyone was alright. He was just... Happy.

Adrienne hadn't believed it; not until she'd turned to see from whence the sputtering had issued. He hadn't been there before, had he? No, she'd certainly left him upstairs, to die. He'd certainly been dead, Talmoro's ice lanced through his chest like some kind of grotesque elemental spear. But... "Oh merciful Mara," she whispered, paying actual homage to the deity of her parents for the first time in more years than she cared to think about. "Drayk!" Heedless of her wounds (though still undoubtedly slowed by them), Adrienne crossed the intervening distance, pinpricks of pain needling up her legs with every step.

It didn't matter. Just then, nothing mattered except the fact that he still lived. A few feet short of her intended destination, they gave out anyway, and she had to more or less drag herself to his side, wrapping her arms around his torso and holding on for what seemed dear life indeed. "Gods above, Drayk. I thought you were dead! I thought I..." she couldn't finish the sentence for the choking sob, but she didn't care. As tears went, she'd never been happier to cry.

Drayk really had no idea how he'd gotten here. He remembered Talmoro, trying to hold him off for Adrienne, really just trying to incinerate the bastard, and then nothing but ice and agony and cold, a lot of cold. He shuddered slightly at the cold, though it probably wasn't the only reason he was shaking. He was able to look around enough to see the others, Sinderion, Vanryth, Anirne. Lynly and Soren were still there. The witch was as well, but he couldn't think about anything other than the fact that they were going to be okay. He wrapped his own arms around Adrienne, content to simply lay there for a moment. It wasn't likely he could get up on his own, anyway.

"I'll admit," he said hoarsely, threading a few fingers into her hair, "walking around in this outfit nearly killed me... but I think I'll be alright. It's okay. It's okay." He said it a few more times for good measure, taking the moment to enjoy the feeling of breathing deeply, even if it was sending twinges of pain through his chest.

Adrienne's reply was to grasp him all the tighter. He didn't realize, maybe, that she'd nearly been responsibe for his death, and could have been twice. It wasn't something she wanted to tell him, now or ever, but she knew she'd have to. She wouldn't feel right until she did. Still, for now at least, she could wait, and just rejoice in the fact that she wasn't. The joke, a little on the weak side as it was, drew a small laugh from her amidst the more general sobbing, and she was quite conscious that she was probably getting the front of his robes quite wet.

Releasing him, she braced her palms on his chest, using them to leverage herself upwards as quickly as she could, Chances were, he still hurt there. She managed a watery smile. "I'm sorry," she said sheepishly. "That was probably unwise. We're both a little beaten up here, aren't we?"

Drayk had indeed winced at the movement, but in all honesty, pretty much every movement was causing him pain. He was happy enough in the moment to dull the pain. She was wounded as well, he noticed, but he could not bring himself to try and heal her. Not now. The Psijic could handle it... Drayk didn't want to risk anything happening to her, not when he'd come so close to losing her and the others entirely. "Please, have Anirne heal you, I... I shouldn't. I'll be fine, I just... might need to have Sinder help me stand up."

"All right," she replied, noting that the healer was indeed just finishing with Vanryth, or appeared to be. "I understand." She wasn't sure she did, exactly, but she knew that if he was saying this much, he'd have his reasons, and that was enough for her.

Soren tracked Tarquin's movement as he disappeared into the sky, shaking his head minutel when the fellow disappeared. Still twirling his arrow between his digits, he approached the rest of the group from the side, surveying the disaster that was currently the Sellswords with something caught between amusement and genuine respect. Still, he was never one to convey that directly. "Well, that was a bit anticlimactic," he pointed out blandly. "Still, I suppose there's a story to be had from it, eh lovely? 'The time you stood with a bunch of crazy people and faced down a vampire lord, ready to die if that's what it took?' I know quite a few men who'd make that the subject of a nice tune, certainly." Hell, he could do it, if he wanted. The embellishment wouldn't even have to be that extreme, and it shouldn't be too hard to procure a lute or lyre from someone in a tavern.

He wasn't quite sure he wanted to admit that this was within his talents, however, as it really kind of clashed with his image. The Bard's College had been a misadventure of his youth, really. "Stick around," Lynly said, "I doubt this lot's story is over yet." Upon leave of the Shade, Lynly's shoulders sagged in relief. While it would have made for a good story, she would need to be alive in order to tell it. If she had to fight against a vampire lord, being alive to tell the story was only wishful thinking. Still. She had to agree with Soren, there was a story to be had here. She couldn't say that she was disappointed.

Sinderion relaxed at last several moments after everyone else seemed to have done so, his posture visibly slumping as he let out a relieved sigh. There was no mistaking that that wouldn't have gone well, had it turned out differently. He was almost tempted to follow, sure that the person the Shade needed to speak to was the Mentor, but even for one with skills such as his, tracking a flying thing would have been nigh impossible. Besides, the point of this whole encounter was that he was needed here. They all were.

He turned in enough time to see Adrienne and Drayk reunite, and he thought he could understand why she was so overcome. The fact was, the fire mage had been nearly dead when Sinder came upon him, and if not for Anirne, he surely would be now. He didn't think that was necessarily something either he or she needed to know, though. His gaze moved further to the left, alighting upon Maya, and for the first time in a very long time indeed, the Altmer smiled. It wasn't overwhelming or particularly noticeable, just a small quirk of the lips, but unlike the sardonic thing he'd worn once before, this one was quite honest.

"Thank you," he told her simply, though why exactly he was doing so may not have been immediately clear, all things considered.

"We can still find the Mentor," Maya said, doing her best to at least look like she believed that. "We'll find another way. Skyrim's not all that big. Seen the whole thing, more or less." Far more likely would be them finding the Shade, or rather the Shade finding them, in a state where he no longer cared whether they lived or died. When that day came, Maya could only hope they were better prepared. She supposed, however, that if she had to die, this was not the worst company to go out with. She found herself smiling genuinely at the scene of Drayk and Adrienne embracing. Maya hadn't wanted any of them to die standing between her and the Shade. She was immensely relieved that, at least for now, it had been avoided.

"Back to the Manor, then?" Maya suggested softly. "I believe we could use some rest."

Sinder nodded easily, and, having caught Drayk's point about needing assistance to stand, moved the short distance to the young man and offered his arm for leverage. "Let's... go eat and sleep," he suggested to the group at large. "If we need to make more plans, we can do that, too."

Drayk took the hand, carefully pulling himself up, grimacing the whole way. "Plan... tomorrow. Eat and sleep is about all I can take right now."

Anirne, cutting off the flow of her magic, stood fluidly, grasping Van's arm and pulling him up with her. "Can you walk without aid?" she asked kindly, "Or do you require assistance?" she would, of course, if it was necessary, but otherwise she was going to attempt to support Adrienne and heal her on the move. The others were right; the sooner they were away from this place, the better. Vanryth shook his head no, and pointed at Adrienne. He signed the words for help her before straightening his back. He might not be able to bounce back like he could once upon a time, but he'd be alright. He'd walk. He might stumble, but he'd be damned if he didn't make it home on his own power... Home. He glanced around himself and offered everyone a smile, signing the words for the phrase let's go home.

Anirne nodded her understanding, patting his shoulder just briefly before she turned and padded over to Adrienne, helping the younger woman to stand, promising to tend to her wounds as they walked. It was a bit of an awkward arrangement, given their relative heights, but it was manageable.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni

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Anirne was up an hour or so before the sun, perhaps driven to shake herself from slumber a little earlier than usual due to a persisting feeling of worry carried over from the previous day's events. The Sellswords were not in the worst position; the advantage Adrienne had offered to the Shade now belonged to them. That said, knowing such a one was coming for them would not do much to save them once they were found. They would need every last modicum of strength they could sieze if they were to have even a chance at surviving, and she for one was not content to resign herself to death when there was still a chance that they might live.

Distinguish between what was in your control and what was out of it, then strive to align the former the best way you could. All right, she allowed herself to consider as she rose from the borrowed mattress, what could she control? Her own readiness, of course, that much was obvious. She'd not neglect her training, nor lapse in her awareness of the things going on around her. That was simple enough. But perhaps there was something else she could do.

The others all had their methods, and while she suspected that the fire mage could use a few lessons in control, she was not sure if he would be amenable to them, nor indeed if that kind of tempered knowledge was in her capacity to impart in a timely manner. Dressing herself mechanically, Anirne chewed the thought over. She knew little of swords and knives and bows, and doubted she would be of assistance as more than a target for any of those individuals who specialized in such things. A possibility perhaps worth exploring, if someone needed practice against magic, but surely there was something her unique talents could muster for them.

The idea came to her halfway through the motions of braiding her thick hair, and her eyes flickered to life in the mirror. Now, there was a suggestion she could work with. Working quickly, she finished the twisting and tied the strands off with a leather band, nodding resolutely to her reflection. That could work.

Rearranging the blankets to neatness and making sure she had left no permanent trace of her presence in the room, Anirne grabbed her staff from where it was leaning against the wall by the door, the faint prickle of the surface against her skin a reminder of the magic contained therein. She'd made a point to learn who stayed where in the house, and she counted the doors until she reached the one she wanted, rapping smartly on the smooth wooden surface. Of course, it was extremely early in the morning, and she hardly expected him to be awake, but that would be changing quite soon, if she had anything to say about it.

And awake he was not. Van was still deep in the throes of slumber when a violent knocking came from his door. He groaned throwing a half open eye at the door before burying his head deeper into his pillows trying his best to ignore the tapping. It wasn't even fully light out, and after the day that he had, was it so wrong that he wanted to sleep for however long he possibly could? He tried his best to ignore it and drift back off to sleep. It wouldn't be that hard, all he needed was just a few more moments...

Too bad he wasn't going to get those few moments. He tried his best to ignore it, he truly did, but after a point he just couldn't take it any more. He rose up in his bed with frightening aclarity and chucked his pillow at the door, demanding the foul beast cease its incessant knocking. He was trying to sleep dammit! With his attempt to slay the door out of the way, he collapsed back into his bed and stared at his ceiling for a bit. Why was it so hard to sleep? All he wanted was to sleep. Was it really so bad? At least until the sun rose up in the sky. He placed his hands in front of his eyes and try to force them back into slumber. It almost worked too.

Her insistence was met with rebellion, in the form of something hitting the door with a soft thunk. She supposed it was probably a pillow, and bit her lip, shoulders shaking with silent laughter. That was perhaps to be expected. "Vanryth," (she'd finally been convinced to drop the 'Sir' from his name sometime on the way to Solitude), "It's Anirne. I'm coming in there." Though her tone was not particularly loud, it brooked no argument whatsoever, and she followed through on the intention with only a few seconds' pause, more for the sake of politneness than anything. Not that Vanryth didn't try to argue. Her words were replied with a series of groans that obviously meant no.

Politeness had its limits, of course, and she was not planning on simply leaving. Turning the handle on the door, she was relieved to find it unlocked (as she would prefer not to break anything), and slipped into the room, casting a light spell on several of the objects lying about the room and effectively shedding light on the situation.

The room's sole occupant was obviously displeased with the intrusion, but Anirne simply smiled at him and shook her head. She was not going away, and she was going to continue making the place as bright as she pleased until she had secured his cooperation. "Well, do hurry. It's time to get up. We haven't all day to waste, and if we are to defeat the Shade, everyone shall need to be at their best, the two of us included." She dropped the reference casually, wondering if the notion would be enough to stir him or if she'd have to illuminate something closer to his face.

And suddenly, there was light. Everywhere. With the one thing that he could cover his eye with thrown in a fit of anger at the door, he was subject to the full brunt of the light. A sound that could only be described as a yelp issued forth from his throat as his hands danced in front of his face trying to prevent his one good ocular from frying to a crisp. The light obviously wasn't going away any time soon, so he spent much of the next moments trying to get used to the light (certainly not voluntarily) and finally he managed to spy the face that went along with the name.

In between the gaps in his fingers he glared at her with the hardest look he could possible conjure up at that ungodly hour. Still, as sleepy as it was, the only effect he managed to produced was one of lazy-eyed irritation. The room was now bright as a bloody sun, and there was nothing else he could do but listen to the reasoning behind his wake-up call. The casual mention the Shade managed to suck what irritation he had in his eye and replaced it with something more akin to thoughfulness.

The Shade. Their reprieve from the unsufferable bastard was temporary, and they would meet with him again. And if their last showing was anything to go by, they weren't ready to face him again. Anirne was right of course, they needed to be at their best in order to even stand a chance. They needed the fiery man that was a Van many years younger, not the old rickety husk that lay in the bed. Their other option of course was merely giving the Shade the witch but... Van wasn't in the giving mood when it came to the Shade. The only thing he'd give the Shade was a taste of his own foul blood.

Fine. Fine. If rising before the sun gave him the chance to do exactly that? Fine. He'd do it. He wouldn't like it, but he didn't like many things they had to do. He laid in bed for a scant few moments, savoring the warmth and comfort offered by the bed he was about to leave, before he sat up, his face twisted in the foulest look he had worn for a while. He swung his legs out from under his cover and on to the cold floor where he paused again. He did not look forward to standing again, but here he was. It couldn't be helped. The look that Anirne had told him that he'd relent before she ever did.

Fine. He threw himself back to his feet, where he dangerously wavered for a moment before righting himself. From where Anirne stood, she could have easily seen the gift that he recieved the night before written across his back. His skin was discolored in a jagged pattern from where the thunderbolt meant for Adrienne had struck him, though he paid it no mind. It was just another tally in his long list of scars. He reached down and picked up the first shirt he spied, a black, long sleeved tunic, and threw it on, followed closely by Adrienne's scarf. With this piece, he was much gentler, much softer as he tied it around his neck. With it on, the aches in his joints began to bleed away, but they were still there. Only bearable.

He then turned toward Anirne and sighed What? with all the ferocity he could manage in his fingers.

Her answer was much milder: smile still in place, she raised one upturned palm to the level of her chest and crooked her index finger. That one was universal-- follow me. Turning, she strode out of the room, confident that he would choose to do as she had asked rather than simply try to crawl back into bed. If she turned out to be wrong, well... she was deceptively strong, and rather unscrupulous when someone else's benefit was involved. She'd drag him if need be.

Following the hallways out into the main foyer and then through the kitchen to the back door, she opened this and led him out onto the grounds. Se'd taken the opportunity to utilize them the last time she'd been here, and there was a spot quite suited to her purpose just a little way back, a flat space cleared of snow and debris, leavign relatively soft grass and earth beneath.

Standing at was approximately midday in the rough circle the patch formed, Anirne spread her feet shouler-width apartand stood with her hands clasped behind her back, the stance lending her perfect posture with what seemed to be no extra effort. "I've noticed that you're sometimes stiffer than one would like, and if I guess rightly, you ache after a day's ride, don't you?" She paused, allowing space for disagreement if he had any. All time he roughly signed. He wasn't so adept as to know all of the words to make a functional sentence, but the meaning was there. Riding, walking, waking, breathing, it didn't matter. The aches always hounded him.

Anirne nodded. She'd thought as much. "It doesn't have to be that way," she told him firmly. "I can help you. Part of it will involve regular treatment via my magic, which should help repair some of the underlying damage in your old wounds. It should reduce if not eliminate deep scar tissue, which is one of the primary causes of your aches. What can't be fixed that way can be compensated for." She paused a moment, tilting her head and regarding him kindly.

"It won't be easy at first, but by restoring some flexibility to your muscles, you'll be able to keep them limber, and they'll be able to take much more bending and damage before they pose you any problems. That's why I dragged you out here at this hour: because it's when I do the same thing, and given the schedule our little band has, it's probably the only time we can fit it in."

Undoing the clasp of her cloak, Anirne shed it behind her and took a step forward, towards the center of the circle. "You're free to refuse, despite any impression I gave you to the contrary, but I promise this will help."

Vanryth listened with skeptical ears. He had become accustomed to these aches, had began to accept them as the price of his hard life, and yet here she was telling him that she could all change that. Perhaps it was with less skepticism, and more jealousy that he listened. He'd seen the way she moved, it was graceful and light. He couldn't have done what she did even when he was younger and here she was floating around like Adrienne or Drayk. It was hard to believe that she was around his age...

He would be lying if he said that it wasn't a promising idea. But getting up at this hour every day? He'd rather stroll into the jaws of Oblivion. The process sounded like a hard, and sometimes painful one-- even with Adrienne's scarf helping out with his joints. Repairing and reviving muscle sounded painful, and erasing scar tissue even more so. But...

But if there was a chance he could get stronger for it. If he could regain some of that strength to fight the Shade-- no, not fight. Protect. If he could regain that strength he had in his youth and use it to protect his family, then it was no choice at all. He'd get up before the sun every morning, stretch until his muscles snapped, and take all of the painful healing he could get. He'd find the strength to protect his family and friends. He'd kill anyone who would threaten them. He'd die for them.

He scoffed at the last thing she said. As if he had a choice. He was already up, and once up and he wasn't going back to bed. Not after all of the stuff she had just told him. Fine he told himself. Fine. With that, he pulled the sleeves up on his shirt and strolled forward behind Anirne.

"Very well," Anirne said, correctly interpreting his actions. "We'll start with the basics, and once you're stretched out, I'll work on the healing."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson

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After breakfast (which she had to admit tasted much better than anything she'd have been able to manage for all its plainness), Anirne found herself with a little bit of downtime, and decided to spend it exploring the manor. She had to admit, she was curious about the place this Mentor lived, in which he housed his mentees and apparently spent his days teaching them to overcome the darker parts of themselves. She might have a few words to say to him about methodology, once this was all said and done, but the sentiment was certainly one she could appreciate.

The majority of the band seemed to have something to do with the rest of the morning, and she wasn't going to intrude, but she did note that the sardonic archer was not among those that left with any celerity. "Soren?" she inquired politely. "I think I'm going to wander the house for a bit. If you lack anything else to do, perhaps you might join me?" She was under the impression that he neither liked nor trusted her much, which was well enough and certainly his business, but if they were all to survive this, it seemed most prudent to at least offer an opportunity for them to get to know each other somewhat. Perhaps a little bit of knowledge about her would be enough to set his mind at ease; he would not be the first person she'd met who disbelieved anything involving the word 'Psijic,' and he seemed quite inclined to knowing things, besides.

Soren, currently half-tipped back in his chair with both feet on the table, had spent the majority of the meal dwelling. He hated dwelling; it was unproductive and tended to introduce doubt, something he could very much do without, thank you very much. Nevertheless, he heard the woman's words, and sharp green eyes snapped to focus on the Altmer woman, a brow deftly ascending his forehead, as though he'd been his usual sarcastc self the whole time and hadn't once paused to mope like the other Altmer seemed inclined to do with any spare moment.

The front legs of his chair hit the stone floor with a solid thump, and he took his feet down from the table in an easy motion. "Snooping, sweet? I wouldn't have figured you for the type." Nevertheless, he stood up, recognizing an opportunity when he saw one. Chances were good that she had something to say, or at least something that she was willing to say, and he rarely passed up the opportunity for a free advantage over someone else, especially if that possibly entailed rare information, as anything about the Psijics (if indeed she was one) would be. A few errant words on her part could make him a very rich man, indeed.

"Not that it's a bad thing, of course. I can hardly judge." His tone was flippant, diffident, and back to it's usual oily level of smarm in no time at all, and he followed the woman out into the hall. He wondered if she was going to stick to the common areas, or actually go snooping, and was somewhat intrigued when he admitted to himself that he wasn't able to guess the answer immediately.

"Mm... perhaps," Anirne admitted easily, smiling just a little. "I prefer to think of it as exercising my natural curiosity for the world around me." She took a random hallway she'd never entered before, one that she knew for a fact contained none of the personal residences of the Sellswords. It looked like there might once have been more of them, though, or perhaps the Mentor had been expecting to continue his work, because the first three doors she opened were sparsely-furnished, utilitarian living chambers, much like the ones she (and presumably Lynly and Soren) currently occupied. There was nothing really extraordinary about any of them; they were moderately-sized, with stone floors, a fireplace, a bed, and a cabinet for clothing.

Presumably, personal touches were saved for such times as the spaces were actually occupied. "You know, I must admit I had the Mentor pegged for someone who would indulge in more luxury. The Shade certainly gives that impression. While the house itself is clearly the home of a wealthy man, the accoutrements are... sparing. Almost as much so as my own quarters were, and I'm a monk, after all." Since they both knew this sort of information was the reason he was accompanying her at all, she let the obvious conversational thread dangle there, an open invitation for him to ask her anything he wished. She, like anyone else, had things to hide, but most of that was arcane lore that likely wouldn't interest him anyway. Her personal life, or lack thereof, was as much an open book as anyone's could be.

Huh. Well, that was odd. He'd never really known anyone to fish for an inquiry before, though he knew plenty of people who went angling for answers. Still, who was he to say no to free knowledge? Not the boring scholarly kind, either-- it sounded like she was rather willing to give him actual dirt. He trailed after her for a while (the rooms were of moderate interest, but they weren't why he enjoyed the view, so to speak), giving the implicit offer some consideration. He wondered if there was a time limit on this generosity. There always was when it was him giving things away, if he ever did, but then if there was one impression he could steadfastly maintain about Anirne, it was that she was nothing like him whatsoever.

Good for her, he supposed. "Sounds rather dull," he observed dryly, frowning when the door he opened appeared to belong to nothing more interesting than a small closet space for cleaning supplies. Honestly, you'd think a former vampire lord who had the stones to stand up to Molag Bol would have a more interesting house. Not that he was expecting shrivelled heads or weird looking talismans or whatever (if anyone had those, it had to be Maya), but you'd think he'd have left something interesting laying around. Apparently, the man was as bland as he found the majority of the protegees. "No sex, no drugs, no murder, no wild parties or drunken shenanigans... however did you stand it?" Admittedly, he'd gotten along surprisingly well without any of those things for a few years... well, okay, without the drugs and wild parties. The shenanigans, murder, and sex were kept out of his house, though. That had to count for something.

Still, it wasn't like she needed to know that. He wasn't the one giving out free information, after all.

"Admittedly, there aren't many drugs," Anirne agreed, though certainly not completely. "Unless of course it's one's turn for the Trance, but I suppose that doesn't really count." She smiled back over her shoulder, indicating quite clearly that her silence on the remainder of his assertions meant exactly what he thought it meant.

Well, that was certainly unexpected. A slow grin spread over Soren's face. There was more to this woman than the austere vestments and annoyingly-patient manner would suggest, it seemed.

"I suppose if I had my choice, my life would be considerably more boring than yours," she admitted freely. "I've always been fond of things like nice afternoons in the library, research, and the occasional risky field test. Once, I loved the intrigue and the danger as much as anyone, but after a certain number of your friends disappear on intelligence-gathering stints or accidentally incinerate themselves trying to summon fire from Oblivion, I suppose you develop a taste for the quiet life." She turned down the end of the hallway and ascended a flight of stone stairs, bringing them back up onto the main level, but then kept going up the rest. She had no idea what was up here, but it might be interesting.

Apparently, one did not lose her curiosity quite so easily.

The funny thing was, he couldn't help but understand perfectly. Of course, his version of the "quiet life" was a little more vigorous than most, but that didn't mean he hadn't given it an honest try. Working with a bunch of honest mercs, steering clear of theft or assassination, sharing a homestead with his closest friends and family... life had been good. Who knew, maybe someone like her could even make it work in the long term. He, it seemed, was abound for other things, whether he liked it or not. In the end, he might not have been suited for the kind of livelihood he was trying to make for himself, and attempting to be what he was not had come back to bite him. He knew he could very well not comment, and she'd never know the difference, but all the same he couldn't, or didn't resist. "Yeah, good luck with that," he drawled, sincerity hidden somewhere in the dripping and bitter sarcasm.

He wasn't so small a person that he couldn't wish someone else success where he'd failed, after all, and the fact surprised him a little.

And he'd be damned, but she'd achieved what he was pretty sure she'd set out to do. Though he rarely trusted anyone as far as he could throw them, he was no longer so suspicious of her as he had been. Whether she was actually a Psijic or not was beside the point, really. He'd acquired a modicum of respect for her, and that was enough. She could be the Queen of all Summerset for all he cared, or a pathological liar or a madwoman. He'd been friends with crazy people and liars before; there was nothing wrong with them if you knew what to expect. Whatever she was, it was fine by him, though he chose to make no outward indication of his judgement shift, following her up the stairs at a lackadaisical pace.

"Why thank you," Anirne replied simply, and this was for both the well-wishes, sarcastic as they may have been, and also what seemed to be a tacit acceptance, or at least a temporary truce. It was always worthwhile to know that the people at your side weren't going to be the ones stabbing you in the back, so to speak.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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The Blackfeather and the Horizon had a much more civil greeting now that they both knew not to immediately fear each other. Drayk had led the painted Dunmer into the main hall, where Sinderion had quickly rounded up the group around the long table for a discussion. Invorin had allowed Drayk to seat him near the center of the table, where he was more or less surrounded now by the Sellswords and their allies, with Drayk leaning up against the wall almost directly behind him, and Maya seated across from him, leaning back in her chair with one leg draped over the other.

"I'm leaving the city today," the Horizon began, his tone soft and calm as ever, "but word of the havoc at the embassy prompted me to stop here. I understand Talmoro is slain? I had thought to find the Shade here, but it seems he too is gone." He did not seem at all surprised by that, though, and he had not asked of Tarquin's whereabouts before this point.

Adrienne, seated next to Maya, had folded her hands primly in her lap, understanding that the positioning of people in this room was quite indicative and not particularly feeling the need to add to the atmosphere. Indeed, when she spoke, it was cautiously, but politely. "Your information is good," she replied. "Tarquin slew Talmoro, and Ja'Karo made an appearance as well, which accounts for the pandemonium," this last was inflected with traces of displeasure; though in the end they'd all survived, the Feral had very nearly ruined that. Without his interference, she was almost positive they would have succeeded in their aim without needing to destroy an entire Embassy full of people who were just doing their jobs. Then again, who knew what would have occurred between Tarquin and Maya then? She felt... conflicted about the entire situation, and it was not a feeling she enjoyed.

"Is there new word of any of the others?" Anirne inquired from the other side of the table. Admittedly, she wasn't sure how much would matter-- the Shade was the greatest danger to them right now, and Rialta after that, but he was supposedly off the coast to the north.

"Ja'karo hunts the Shade, then?" Invorin asked rhetorically, seeming somewhat satisfied with the news. "That should keep him busy for a year or two. As for the others... if the Stonehammer continues north as I believe he will, he should be close by the end of the day. You are hunting the Omen, are you not, Maya?" The witch nodded across the table from him. "Well, the actual hunting hasn't really started yet, but he is my next target."

"Perhaps we might assist each other, then. Indirectly, of course." Maya sat up a little. "Oh? Do tell." The Horizon ran a hand over his shaved head before continuing. "I can tell you for a fact that Silas' ship is docked in Dawnstar as we speak. He has been off the coast near Morthal for some time, sending raiding parties to try and root out the Pact and her warriors in the swamp, but she is elusive. He fears stopping too long in Morthal, and he is not welcome in Solitude, so he rests in Dawnstar. He will not stay long, however. Only long enough to replenish his numbers."

Maya considered this for a moment. "It's probably our best shot, unless any of you own a warship and haven't told me about it." Drayk didn't seem quite as pleased, however. "Why would you help us?" Invorin did not turn around, only twisting his head slightly. "Kill the Omen, and I will help you find and kill the Pact. The Shade isn't the only one capable of skirting the boundaries of the rules."

"You have some reason to want her dead?" The Dunmer snorted slightly in displeasure. "I will not go into it, but we have history, and it would please me if that Bosmer made it no further in the game than she already has."

Soren, who was presently tipped back onto the hind legs of his chair, feet propped on the table with ankles crossed, hummed a pensive note. Dawnstar. It was almost too good, the timing. He'd been needing to head up that way for a while now, and if he made it before the next month turned, he'd be in good shape. There was someone he needed to see, and a few other people he needed to kill, and the last information he'd managed to obtain before leaving the Guild had put them up there. Old news, by now, but still worth looking into. "You know, we're still missing a few," he said offhandedly, glancing back and forth between Maya and Invorin. "If you expect us to kill someone for your vendetta and you expect us to keep you alive, it might be a good idea if we knew who to be watching for, at any given time." They knew not who hunted the Horizon, after all, and if they were to find themselves in his company for any length of time, it was best to at least have names and defining characteristics on anyone it could be. Ideas on skill and relative danger would be nice, too, but he didn't want to overtax their generous natures.

"Let's see," Invorin began, going over the information they knew. "You already know of the Blackfeather and the Omen, the Stonehammer, the Feral and the Shade, the Pact and myself. Have you heard of the Drunk?"

Maya nodded. "Tarquin told them when they first met." The Horizon nodded back. "Then you know as much as we do. The Bloody Curse, the Light, the Spymaster, and the Inquisitor are all dead, and the Master is gone, which leaves... just the Librarian and the Webspinner. Representatives of Hermaeus Mora and Mephala, repsectively. I cannot say what their locations are. I know nothing of the Librarian's target or his hunter, nor were the Argonian's strengths made readily apparent. As for the Webspinner... the Pact hunts her, but she has been far too busy evading Rialta's attacks to make any progress. I will say no more about her."

He seemed uncomfortable at the subject, and indeed, Maya as well seemed rather closed off to the idea of discussing that particular representative. No doubt there was a reason for it, but neither seemed particularly willing to dive into it.

"I should warn you," Horizon said, changing the subject, "The Omen possesses powerful Illusion magic, and is rather uniquely gifted in the art. Killing him will not be easy. No doubt he will make every effort to confront you in dreams, where he has power and control, rather than in the flesh. I would advise caution; dreams often seem very real until the dreamer passes through them. Do not allow him to turn your own minds against you."

"You speak as if everything we've done to this point has been easy," Lynly leveled tonelessly. Perhaps, a bit colder than usual, but then again, she didn't like the way the knife-ear insinuated their journey so far had been a cakewalk. Half of the sellswords about died during the last night, the only way it could be harder was if they did die. She locked her jaw and turned away from the conversation at hand, instead taking in the view she had from her window view. Vanryth was much of the same mind, though he wasn't confrontational about it. He appreciated the fact that the Horizon had come and told them the score, though he didn't approve of the Game. He'd follow along, he'd take the bait, but only because the others were so adamant about continuing. That being said, he had to keep a mind not to get to know this Horizon too well, as he may as well be at the end of his sword before the Game was over.

There was something going on with the Webspinner. It didn't make sense that they would both be reluctant to talk about her unless there was good reason. But did the reason have to do with Invorin and Maya, or with their audience? He recalled that Tarquin had told the others that the Mentor's family, his whole family, had been participants in the Game, or at least trained for it. He supposed that even a man like Tarquin had to have a mother, and wondered if perhaps this was she. It was nothing certain, but the inkiling of the idea refused to leave him, at least for now. If true, it was at least more confirming evidence that they'd done the right thing, choosing to alter the nature of their participation in this Game. He doubted that what the Mentor intended for them would have anything to do with killing the woman he'd once called his wife.

Yet there were so many factors at play, and there was no telling if his guess was even remotely possible. Sinderion was not a man without intelligence, but neither did he consider himself particularly adroit in such matters as these. In the end, it probably wouldn't matter anyway. "Thank you," he told Invorin quietly. The knowledge that the Omen may attempt to interfere with their dreams was valuable. "But if we linger much longer, Tarquin will not need to struggle to find us." Even so, he did not immediately make a move to leave, instead offering the opinion and relinquishing it, for them to do with as they liked. He was no more a leader than he was a scholar; indeed, that role was one he didn't think any of them would be too comfortable occupying.

The Horizon appeared to either not hear or not care for Lynly's words. The Altmer had spoken much more amicably, and as was natural it was to him the Dunmer replied. "I will not be lingering either. Once the deed is done, return west to Morthal. I will stay in the tavern there." He pushed his chair back, slowly taking his feet. "Good hunting, Maya." The witch smiled warmly in response, though it could certainly have been false warmness. "You as well. The deadliest prey brings the greatest reward."

He nodded assent, then turned and quietly made his way from the room. When he was gone, Maya smiled at Sinder. "Not sure Tarquin will have much trouble, regardless. We don't exactly have a history of keeping a low profile." Drayk pushed away from the wall, uncrossing his arms. "Never too late to start. We shouldn't have any insane Khajiit ruining our plans this time... with any luck."

The fire mage took a few cautious steps forward, placing both hands palms down on the tabletop. No one seemed eager to give out orders, and he certainly wasn't eager himself, but he did feel a kind of drive inside him. Perhaps it was just a powerful desire for this to be over with, the sooner the better. If making stronger suggestions to the group did that, then he was fine with it. "Let's get this over with, then. One step at a time, and the next step is in Dawnstar."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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A single day of rest was woefully inadequate considering what the Sellswords had recently endured, but they had little choice in the matter. The Shade did not seem one to waste time, and the threat of his return loomed over the group as they slept that night. The frequently appearing Horizon departed immediately, heading east towards the swamps of Hjaalmarch hold. The Sellswords grudgingly followed the next morning, their supplies restocked as best they could be, their physical wounds healing whilst other wounds continued to open.

The witch took the lead as the mounted caravan of eight set out once more. They wouldn't get very far, however, as another organization had plans for one of their newer members...




Chapter V
Waking Nightmares




The group had been riding into the wind for the past half day, something that slowed their progress somewhat and also provided more than a little discomfort, the icy-- as if there was any other kind in Skyrim-- breeze tearing at their clothes and hair and lashing at any bare skin it had the fortune to find. The change of seasons may be nearing, but as they drew closer to the north, each was reminded that these hinterlands rarely knew anything but winter regardless. Frost coated everything not yet touched by snow, and the entire atmosphere seemed brittle, ready to crack.

For the most part, they stuck to cover, as Tarquin could fly, and it would behoove them not to be spotted from above too soon before they had chance of detecting him. In the end, it might not matter, but it was something Sinder insisted upon anyway. Foliage was not so dense here that doing so further impeded them, and in fact, the trunks of trees helped break up the brutal wind that would have slammed into them unimpeded otherwise. Late that morning, snow had begun to fall, the flakes dense and fat, driven towards them by the moving air. The lycanthrope was handling his better than most, as his body temperature was naturally quite high, and he relied less on his vision than most of the others, since his nose and ears were better anyway, but even he had to admit that it was far from comfortable. Snow clung to just about everywhere, even getting stuck in his eyelashes, which only got worse when his body heat melted them and the wind sent frigid water into his eyes.

He was reaching up to wipe ineffectually at them when the wind shifted slightly, bringing a fresh set of smells to his olfactory receptors. With a sharp motion, his head snapped to the left. It wasn't the Shade, but-- "Ambush!" he shouted, loud enough to be heard over the driving gale. Reaching beneath his cloak, the altmer withdrew his sword, which he'd kept from the pieces of Thalmor equipment he'd been given, and swung his leg over the back of his horse, dropping to the snow beneath in just enough time to block a downward blow aimed at the creature's flank.

The assassins, for indeed they all wore the dark red and black armor of the Brotherhood beneath their ebon cloaks, all leapt out of cover immediately, their element of surprise ruined. Their best option now was to overwhelm the party before those in it had a chance to react properly.

As soon as Soren spotted the armor, his bow was drawn, though he scanned the faces of those present carefully. Tarquin wouldn't use such low-class fools to do his dirty work, and he suspected that the Brotherhood was here for him. Scoffing low in his throat, he thought to himself that their informational networks needed a bit of work. No competent force of less than thirty would attack him while he was with this lot, and these numbered around thirteen at best. Still, there might be some use to be found from-- ah. Perfect.

Ilyessa.

She was there, in the back, lightning lit in each hand, creeping low to the ground and using the cover of her comrades' attacks to fire off the powerful bolts of destruction magic at the group. The wind and driven snow was making it hard to aim, though, so they should be mostly safe until she got in closer. For now, there were peons to deal with.

Drayk was throwing himself off his horse the moment Sinder's call of an ambush cut through the wind and reached his ears. If he'd had more time to think, the fire mage probably would have been quite annoyed at the fact that they were being attacked by people who didn't have anything to do with the twisted game they were caught up in, but there was no time. He was focused on making sure they made it through in one piece.

The biting wind and thick snow clouds would make any kind of ranged attack difficult to pull off. Drayk had been sure to ride next to Adrienne, and knew she was beside him now, even if he didn't turn to see her through the snow. "I'll draw their attention," he said, taking his shield into his left hand. "I'll make sure they don't see you coming." He'd learned the hard way that he hadn't been capable of withstanding the Inquisitor's attacks, but these assassins were not the Inquisitor, and this time, he had his shield. He could do this. The Mentor had taught him how to do this, how to function as part of a team, without the use of fire. Not so long ago that was the way he'd fought.

The snow was sticking to the ground, but not thick enough to slow his movement overmuch, and with the knowledge that ranged attacks would be unreliable, Drayk pushed forward quickly, the fireball he threw only hastily aimed, and meant more to draw attention than kill. The first of the assassins came to meet him with dual short swords, and Drayk planted his feet, letting the first of the strikes clang harmlessly off his shield. He would not wrap himself in fire, not if Adrienne would be working closely beside him. If there was anything that could force him to control himself, it was her.

Adrienne was cold now, had been cold all day, and was about to get a whole lot colder. It was probably fortunate that she'd been working with ice so long that she probably wouldn't run too much risk of hypothermia. Tugging at the clasp that held it together she shed her sable cloak, too easily visible against the vibrant white of the snow, and drew the blade at her hip. Given that her newly-tailored robes were cream and light blue in color, she'd have much more luck staying hidden this way.

Stepping in behind Drayk, she kept herself low so as to avoid easy detection. She couldn't sneak worth much, but she was a small person and the wind in their ears was making it hard to hear anything anyway, so it probably didn't matter at the moment. The first assassin strode forward to meet them, and the ringing sound of blade on shield was her cue. While the dark-armored fellow was recovering from the rebound, she slipped in between the combatants, scoring a deep cut to his relatively unprotected inner thigh. Lynly, it turned out, was a pragmatist about where to hit people and had impressed upon her that in this as well as in other matters, the other person's dignity wasn't worth much.

His natural reflex was to counter, and it was a good one. Whipping both blades around, he slashed vertically. With a quick jump sideways, she avoided all but a nick on the shoulder from the first. The second, she blocked with her sword, though the force of it threatened to drive her to her knees. She went willingly, as this left significant space over her head for Drayk to utilize and only one weapon-hand to contend with.

The hit that Adrienne had scored gave Drayk the time and space to draw back a step and prepare a physical strike of his own. When she dropped to a knee, he pushed himself forward with the force in his legs, his shield leveled sideways such that when he punched, the steel rim collided with the hooded assailant's jaw. The assassin had managed to get his blade up, but it wasn't a match for the weight behind his blow, and with a solid crack he was thrown from his feet, landing with a softened thud in the shallow snow, both of his weapons landing in the ground beside him.

In the time that took, Adrienne had charged an ice spear in her free hand, and with the weight of the assassin removed from her, she rose to her feet and lowered the sword, sending the chilly projectile flying for the one on the ground. It was heavy enough not to be knocked off course by the wind, and impaled the fallen man through the chest, halting his efforts to reach for one or both of his weapons.

Two more followed closely behind the first, though not quick enough to save him. They split to try and attack Drayk and Adrienne from both sides, one of them a rather hefty Nord wielding a two handed sword. Drayk supposed not all assassins had to fight with daggers. The other was wielding a spell of some kind in one hand, though Drayk didn't get a good look, as his attention was mainly on the Nord fellow, who was half a head taller than he, and more muscled, too. Drayk found himself back to back with Adrienne as the assassin moved in, cutting down at him with his great steel sword.

He'd been taught not to take blows like that full on, as he risked shattering his shield, or his arm, and so Drayk sidestepped slightly, angling his shield as well such that the blade was deflected rather than stopped fully, the steel point carrying on to stick into the snowy ground. He took advantage by closing the distance entirely, ramming him in the upper body with his shield, trying to keep the distance so small that his sword would become useless. Reacting to this, the Nord decided to ditch the sword entirely, wrapping an arm around Drayk's upper body and wrestling him down, the pair of them going to the ground in a cloud of snow.

That was bad. Drayk's arm was still stuck in his shield, which wasn't ideal for a lethal wrestling match, and apart from that, this guy was bigger and stronger, too. He struggled against him, doing what he could to keep the assassin's hands away from his throat and face, shifting his weight around, trying to roll the man over, anything to keep himself from being pinned beneath him.

The mage that came at Adrienne was a dunmer woman cowled in black, the deep purple of a conjuration spell lit in one hand, a dull green orcish mace in the other. Adrienne was two steps into a bull rush when she was forced to pull up short as the spell released, triggering the appearance of a massive ice atronach. Not the sort of thing she was really equipped to deal with. Treading backwards, she shored up her position behind Drayk and reached into one of her pouches, fishing out a bright, carnelian-colored potion. Well, when you weren't enough by yourself, that was what friends were for, wasn't it?

An ice atronach would already have trouble against fire, but with this brew, it would light up like dried brush in summer, assuming she could give her friend a good shot at it. That said, it was huge, and even in this weather, missing it would be kind of like missing the broad side of a barn. Smiling, she gave the thing a toss, the glass cracking open against the hardened front side of the atronach, staining the crystalline blue of its chilly carapace a brilliant red, as though something neither blood nor fire but in between had spattered all over it. The creature was cold enough that the liquid froze where it landed, for the most part, which was a good sign.

Not so good was the fact that she felt a chill at her back where Drayk was, apparenty, no longer standing. Turning to glance out of the corner of her eye, she spotted him grappling with a very large man, and he looked to be at about the disadvantage one would expect. Well, she wouldn't be any help there, but the young woman knew something that might. She'd have to be careful with the shot, though... maybe closer was a good idea. Spell in hand, Adrienne kept half her attention on the advancing atronach and dashed forward, skittering over the top of the snow and vaulting the person-stack that had her friend on the bottom. Her hand left behind the circle characteristic of a frost rune across the Nord's broad back, and she ducked on the landing just in time to miss whatever the dunmer sorceress had been aiming at her head.

Now, to detonate. Anything should do, but... ha! Snatching up the fallen stick, she doubled back towards the wrestling foes. "Brace yourself!" she warned Drayk, then with a deft tap, hit the runed combatant on the back with the former branch. The result was instantaneous and somewhat explosive, though naturally Drayk was shielded from the effects by the body of his foe, who collapsed. That left the mage and her summon, and Adrienne offered her arm as leverage for her ally to get himself out from under the nord and back onto his feet. "The snowman there's really, really weak to flames right now," she pointed out.

Drayk got to his feet with Adrienne's help, shoving the limp form of the Nord assassin off of him. His robes were heavily dusted with snow, but there was no time to shake it off, as Adrienne was calling out an opportunity to make himself useful. "Can do. Stand back," he said, giving his own warning. He didn't expect to explode in flames, but it wouldn't hurt to be safe. His method of firecasting tended to be a little more violent than most. Adrienne nodded and took a few steps back, prepping another spell in her empty left hand. Even once the atronach was down, there was still going to be a mage to deal with, after all, and her dunmer blood would probably be sufficient to survive the heat.

When she was clear, Drayk took a step forward, to close the distance slightly between the target and himself. The wind wouldn't affect his throw very much, given the speeds he could hurl fireballs, but the visibility was a problem, and he wanted to be able to see the target clearly. Once satisfied, he lit a flame in his right palm, and quickly intensified it, the fire spreading up his arm past his elbow, ending around his bicep. With one swift hurling motion the flame left his arm and took flight, licking at the air as it flew headlong into the atronach's body. Ice and fire exploded alongside each other as the atronach crumbled, leaving only the Dunmer mage in its wake. She was preparing destruction spells for them now that her cover was gone. Drayk banished the flames in his hand, ignoring their protests, and replaced them with a ward spell. "Let's get closer," he suggested to Adrienne, lifting his shield and preparing a ward to block any incoming spells. "I'll be your cover."

"Sounds like a plan," she replied, and the two advanced, Drayk's wards surviving a few shots of ice and one lightning spell that sizzled at it departed from existence. As they drew in close enough, Adrienne ducked out sideways from the cover provided by Drayk's ward and shield, sighting down her own arm and letting fly the ice spike, which veered slightly off-course in the wind and hit the sorceress in the shoulder rather than the center of the chest, which was where it had been aimed. Still, it should serve the intended purpose.

"Would you like to introduce the nail to a hammer?" she asked with some mirth, making a motion similar to one she'd seen Lynly use when she was readying a shield bash. Driving the spike further in would likely distract the mage for long enough that Adrienne herself could maneuver behind her with a sword and finish the match.

For a moment Drayk tried to think of some clever way to respond, but the nail and hammer imagery was clogging his thoughts, and now he was just wishing he'd come up with that himself, and in the end he decided to just smile and nod, letting Adrienne be the one that was good with words. He charged forward, and the mage had just finished reeling from receving the icy projectile when the face of a shield slammed into her, causing a yelp from the further trauma and interrupting whatever spell she had in the works.

Which was, naturally, when Adrienne flashed out from behind cover, drawing the sharpened blade of her sword over the woman's ribcage on her way to the space behind, whereupon she wasted little movement planting the tip of the weapon in the space between her shoulderblades and thrusting, sheathing the slender ribbon of steel in the dunmer's torso. Planting a foot beside it, the breton pulled the blade free and plunged it into the snow to clear it of as much blood as she could for the moment. The battle was winding down around them, from the sounds of things, and it had been a much fairer fight than they got nowadays. It was nice to know they were actually getting better at this, not worse.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Ilyessa was a hellion; certainly, his information gathering had prepared him for that. The Nord woman was garbed nearly entirely in white, perhaps the only one of her troop who had remembered that black did not blend with everything, and the fact that her hair also was very close to snow-colored and her skin as pale as any nord’s meant that she was not the easiest to keep track of. They called her the Ice Wraith—clearly, it was a name she’d earned for cosmetic as well as more substantive reasons.

But she was a member of the Dark Brotherhood nonetheless, and as Soren hacked at the ice spell keeping his left leg in place with his newly-drawn sword, he supposed there might have been a time when this fact made him wary. Now was no longer that time, and he had little care for who or what she thought herself. She was a target, and he’d always thrived on hitting the ‘impossible’ mark.

Doubtless, she knew who he was by now as well. The Brotherhood boasted an extensive network of contacts and information, and he in the early days of his pursuit had not been the most subtle, the angry red of his vengeance clouding his eyes. Now, he was much more collected about it, and more vicious for that. The first two he’d killed had died quickly, too quickly, leaving him dissatisfied. His friends had suffered, his son had suffered, and every one of them deserved to suffer, too. So suffer they had. He no longer cared what he had to become to see that end achieved.

The others were doing an admirable job of dealing with the small fry, and he advanced, sword drawn, on the white-cloaked lady, sharp eyes narrowed to dangerous green slivers. He could pick out the minute details of the brush of hair against her cheek, even in this driving shroud of frost. Her pale lips were drawn back from her teeth, her own vision clearly faltering; her next shot went wide, the frost barely grazing his leg. He paid it no mind, advancing through the snow with a single-minded focus. She staggered backwards, trying to maintain distance to use her magic properly, and the next one did not go quite so awry, coating his sword-arm in a thick layer of ice. Heedless, he swapped hands, and she at last abandoned the effort and drew forth an elvish dagger, the burnished copper-gold of the blade a splash of color against the nearly all-white backdrop.

Steadying her stance, Ilyessa snarled, darting forth with the quickness one would expect of a person in her profession. Soren was quick, too, though, and the strike meant for his heart found his sword instead. He batted it away with his superior strength and slammed his frosted gauntlet into her jaw, which she clearly wasn’t expecting from him. All the information they had spoke of his preferences for stealth and subtlety, after all, but maybe a certain lovely friend of his was exerting an influence, of sorts.

Backpedaling quickly, Ilyessa only just managed to keep her footing on the slick ground, and her next strike hit, scoring a thin line into his side. His was not the first blood to coat the snow, though, as he’d willingly stepped into it so as to leave a deep gash from her right shoulder down across her collarbones. He’d avoided the throbbing, vital artery in her neck on purpose, and they both knew it. This was not going to be quick.

Some undetermined number of minutes later, Ilyessa was at last put out of her misery by an arrow between her eyes, the sable shaft with its pearlescent etching the only grave marker she’d be receiving, unless her foul order decided to retrieve her corpse before the carrion birds did. Ribbons of crimson stained the snow in wide arcs, evidence of the sheer ruthlessness of the mercenary’s quiet rage. He hadn’t yet uttered a syllable.

Plunging his sword into the snow, he cleaned it of most of the blood before sheathing it and returning to the group as quietly as he’d left. The last man fell just as he drew within audible range, and he glanced around at the other bodies, satisfied that none of them yet lived. Still without saying anything, he advanced to his horse, a dark blood bay, and pulled her out of the line of them. “You’ve got enough problems without shouldering mine,” he said simply. “Try not to die. And lovely, if they aren’t singing about you in taverns soon, I’ll be sorely disappointed.” Of course, he probably wasn’t going to be around to know in the first place, but… well, nobody had to know that. He was actually being genuine about the ‘shouldering his burdens’ bit.

The last man to fall, did so courtesy of Lynly. She pulled her sword free and whipped the blood from the iron in a wide arc. A quick survey of the battlefield affirmed what Soren already knew, the battle over and victory was theirs. "You say that as if your problems aren't worth shouldering in the first place," Considering her hands were full of steel and iron, she couldn't put her hands on her hips to show her disapproval. A simple tilt of the head would have to do instead, as a flicker of disapproval danced across her face. Still, she couldn't dissuade him from anything he wanted to do or felt he needed to do.

She slipped her sword back into it's sheath and put her shield on her back. "Ilyessa?" She asked, mostly rhetorically. Lynly already knew the answer. Instead, she merely smiled and shook her head. "I need to do something worthy of song first," she answered. "But if you return and we meet again, I expect to hear the story," She said, crossing her arms and wearing a wisp of a smile.

"I'd tell nobody else first," the mercenary replied with a wink. Of Ilyessa, he said nothing. Nothing needed to be said, and she didn't deserve the breath. Not from him, and certainly not from anyone else.

Anirne, bleeding from a small cut above her eyebrow but otherwise quite undamaged, cocked her head at the man, giving him a long, considering look before saying anything. "Go with swiftness and silence, then, and keep your wits about you." She didn't really know what the context was behind this attack, but he seemed to be willing to remove himself from them to spare them the additional danger, something she found noble, though she was almost certain he would vehemently deny posessing any such quality. That was part of having, it, though. Either way, her benediction was a good one, as in truth just about anything she could imagine him getting himself into that involved assassins would probably benefit from that kind of thing. She was unsure if he would return, or indeed if he intended to do anything in particular, but there was a certain reslouteness and finality to the mood here that she suspected that he at least saw something terminal in it.

Adrienne added nothing but a nod, uncharacteristically without anything much to say. Drayk didn't even give the man that much, standing silently at Adrienne's side. His gut was telling him to be glad for the man's leaving, given that he'd just brought a Dark Brotherhood ambush upon them, but another part of him was arguing that he was being noble by refusing to allow them to suffer for him, and that they needed people like that on their side, even if he was a little troublesome to be around.

Maya banished the dagger she'd used to finish the last of her opponents. "You're welcome to come back to our merry band, if you like," she ventured pleasantly, "after you take care of whatever personal problems, of course. We shouldn't be too hard to find. Just follow the news of dragon and giant attacks and blown up embassies."

"Embassies? I'd hope you'd at least manage a small town next time. Don't want everyone to think you've lost your touch, after all." There was a pause, and his face grew solemn, as though he were seriously considering it, but he shook his head. No promises, not when he was as good as dead already. Besides, if he somehow did manage to survive the scrap of a plan that was already forming in the back of his mind, he wasn't sure he'd want to go back to certain death so soon afterwards. This was not his war, not his game, and as much as he enjoyed the sensation of a near brush with death, what they were in for wasn't just long odds-- it was almost certain failure. Shame; he hadn't actually found any among them that he particularly desired dead. Coming from him, that was something of a compliment.

"Good hunting, Sellswords." With a salute that might have been mocking but wasn't, he swung astride his horse and wheeled her, pointing her nose due north, peeling off a bit from their former trajectory. It was time to end his search, no matter what that meant.




The Sellswords carried on, now without one of their archers, pushing through the driving snowstorm as quickly as they could. As the Dark Brotherhood had just proven, it was fine weather for an ambush, and had they come more prepared, or encounter a group less deadly, they no doubt would have been successful. Maya found herself somewhat regretful of Soren's departure. She had not really gotten to know him very well, nor had he allowed himself to be known very well, but he was very skilled, and carried a head that stayed somewhat cooler than most of her other companions. He was a valuable asset, but simply not worth the risk of confronting yet more assassins in order to earn his services. They had enough deadly obstacles in their path already.

Speaking of obstacles, the group came upon another in the afternoon, shortly after passing a crossroads, a southern road leading down towards Whiterun, the group continuing east. It was a rather large tree tipped over the side of a small ridgeline on the group's right, the trunk thick enough to block their path entirely. The numerous branches sticking up and down along its length would make getting the horses over or under it quite impossible, and thus they would have to go around. It was no great inconvenience, as it would take all of fifteen seconds for the group to be on the other side, but it was the mere placement that put Maya on edge. The tree had clearly been felled by an axe rather than age, judging by the relatively clean slice at the base.

Just as they arrived before it a figure along the side of the road made their presence known, appearing from behind a large rock and moving to stand in front of the mounted Sellswords. She was a relatively small figure, not tall enough to match Maya but perhaps larger than Adrienne, her body hidden under layers of worn leather armor and cloth for warmth, all of which were heavily dusted with snow to the point where she nearly blended in with the tree behind if she stood still. A hood was drawn up over her head, but Maya was able to judge her as Bosmer from the skin tone visible upon her face. She was armed with a drawn bow, an arrow nocked, although the weapon was not raised at them, the arrow not drawn back.

"You're rather well armed for travelers," the elf noted, uneasy. "You with the Companions?"

Maya had to laugh at that, her voice cutting lightly through the slight wind. She drew her hood back. "Oh, but our lives would be so much simpler if we were. No, we are just what we appear to be: well armed travelers." She leaned to Sinderion beside her, speaking low enough for only him and perhaps those riding behind her to hear. "There must be others nearby. Any idea how many?"

The driving snow was making it difficult to sense things properly, but Sinder inhaled deeply anyway, eyes flickering once to the right and once to the left of the visible woman. A hand shifted to rest behind his back, subtly so as not to draw attention, and with it, he held up two fingers, indicating to those riding behind that there were an additional couple of people here at minimum. It was information he repeated verbally, though in tones just as quiet. "At least a pair, one to each side." His eyes remained fixed on nothing in particular, so as to better percieve any movement as it was occurring.

"Seems a little weak for highwaymen," Maya muttered, not pleased with Sinder's estimation. If there were only three of them, they could have simply let a group as dangerous-looking as the Sellswords be on their way, but they'd chosen to stop them instead. It put her on edge. Some of the others, too, she could tell, as Drayk fidgeted in his saddle behind her, trying to work his shield such that it would be easier to grab.

"Let's say I'm curious," the elf continued. "Care to give us a name?" Maya frowned at that, though she didn't really see the harm in it. Few people knew her by name, and those that did would be interested to know... in fact, they would need to know, so as to know not to attack her. "Why not? Some people call me Blackfeather, but I like Maya better." It had the desired effect; the elf before them relaxed visibly, and a second female Bosmer appeared along the ridge to the group's right, seemingly coming out of the rocks themselves, dropping the three feet or so to the ground, her boots kicking up a small puff of snow.

This one was taller than the other, but only slightly; she was still average height for a Bosmer woman. Her armor was leather and some scale, but the craftsmanship looked elven rather than Nordic. Her bow was nearly as tall as she was, also of elven make. Under the hood she wore her skin was pale rather than the typical bronze of Bosmer, but her eyes were alight. "Almost didn't recognize the witch under all that snow," she said, her tone carrying equal parts pleasantry and condescension. "Chasing a rabbit up in the north, are we?"

"You could say that," Maya responded, slightly less pleasantly. She turned to her companions. "This is Ilanna Falodin, the Pact, representative of Clavicus Vile. You're out a little early, aren't you?" The Pact shrugged in response. "Perhaps, but it's been quiet lately, and I never walk alone. You can come out now. The witch and I are no threat to each other... just yet."

From all around the Sellswords, perhaps twenty armed figures stirred, some rising from where they had been almost entirely submerged in the snow, others moving into plainer view from positions in the tree branches, and more still along the tops of the ridgeline. Drayk went ahead and grabbed his shield, sliding it into place on his left. The warriors were a wide variety of races, though a great number of them were either elves of beast races; few of them were Imperial, Breton or Nord. They were filthy, garbed in armor covered with the earth they'd passed over, many of them hiding their faces under masks.

"Two huh? You may have miscalcuated there, elf," Lynly deadpanned as ten times that number rose up from around them. What was once a prospectively easy battle, turned sourly against their favor in an instant. The nord was not amused, to say the least. Vanryth offered nothing in return, only a violent snort from his nostrils. Two, twenty, it didn't matter. If they wanted a fight, then they had better strike first and fast-- else the sellswords would put up a fight. Though considering the witch's and the bosmer's words, that fight didn't seem to be in their immediate future. Just as well, it was too damn cold for a fight anyway. He tightened Adrienne's scarf around his neck, allowing the warm magic to seep into his bones. Sinder did not answer Lynly, but his eyes narrowed as reply enough. There must have been concealment magic at work, though there was no mistaking the fact that his senses were hindered in such conditions as this. It displeased him immensely, but he was never an expressive man, and did not become one now.

"Now you've met my friends," the Pact said. "Might I know who yours are?"

Adrienne, aware of her role as the spokesperson of the Sellswords (minus the others, who spoke for themselves often as not), straightened in her saddle, as much a subtle bid for attention as anything else. Being such a small person, and as well-cloaked as any of the rest at present, she likely would have not garnered much otherwise. "We are the Sellswords," she said simply. She wasn't sure why this woman would have any interest in them; was it not clear that they were Maya's acquired help? Unless there was some whisper of a rumor circulating about them, in which case, they would have to be much more careful. In a way, her abbreviated answer was almost probing for a reaction, some sign that this short introduction might have meant something to the Bosmeri woman. If it didn't... all the better, really.

The Pact seated herself lightly on the snow dusted tree, seemingly quite relaxed. The introduction seemed to pique her interest, and also to come as a bit of a surprise. "The Mentor's little proteges, then? How interesting. I won't ask how they came to work with you, Maya. If it's as long a story as mine, then I don't really want to hear it. I'll bet you wouldn't want to tell it, either, standing here in the cold as we are. Be on your way. Good hunting."

The way she spoke the final two words implied that she knew, or suspected, whom Maya was currently targeting, which she supposed wasn't that great of a stretch, if the Pact knew where the Omen had fled to recover. He was east, and they were headed east. All of the other Representatives she knew of were south or southeast of their position, though there were other possibilities. There was little point worrying about it now, however. They had a mark to bring down, and she was not currently it. Still, as the witch watched the warband slip away into the marsh once more, she couldn't help but feel that bringing her down would be much more difficult if she knew they were coming.

Lynly raised her eyebrows and relaxed in her seat, sitting fairly at ease now that the Bosmer was on her way with her band. "That was... Uneventful," she stated, actually surprised. It seemed for once that they managed to bypass a fight. Vanryth grunted in agreement. Lately they seemed like a magnet for such wanton acts of violence.

"Oh, I'm sure we'll have to kill them all eventually," Maya mused darkly, gently nudging her horse forward and around the roadblock. "... Fair enough," Lynly amended.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni

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The magelights in the catacombs had all winked out at once, forcing the small party to light more mundane torches. It was as the report had specified: the cavern completely nulled all magic. She’d tried healing: nothing. The result had been the same when the abbot attempted to light a flame, the simplest of all spells. Though he’d poured his power into it until sweat was dripping from his brow, there was nothing at all. The seal was beyond their ken, and it was not arrogance to say that this meant it was beyond the ken of any mage. They were not who they were for nothing, after all, and they had been selected for this for their skills. The abbot had more raw power than any mage she’d ever encountered, and her control was finer than anyone she knew, her magic subtle and fine even where it could have been coarse and rough. The argonian next to her was skilled in the ancient schools and knew a great deal more than most about such constructions, and he fared no better.

The enchanter wasn’t having any luck either, not even with a full set of field equipment, though the alchemist was unaffected.

It frightened her a little, to be without her spells in a ruin such as this, and he knew she wasn’t alone in that. The place was far too old to be Dwemer, running beneath the sands of Elswyr. The passageways were mostly carved of sandstone, though some sand had crept in over time, and many of the halls had stone troughs cut into them, through which ran clear water, channeled towards regularly-located pools. All alchemical testing indicated that it was perfectly clear and pristine, and it tasted as much, if slightly earthy. It wasn’t the water that drained their magic, however; in fact, all of them still felt full of magicka. It was nothing about them at all. It was as though the very atmosphere here simply rejected their magic.

”It’s probably a seal,” the abbot postulated, ”and likely one carved into the very foundations of this place. If we find it, we may be able to discover how it works.” Tests had revealed that it worked on the surface above as well, and the Khajit in this part of the desert tended to stay away from it, though very few of them were terribly magical. There was a rumor that the women with child specifically should not go near the place, lest the infant turn out to be without the gift entirely. It certainly bore the Order’s investigation, though there was no mean risk to themselves. Anirne, at least, was in no danger of worrying about such a thing specifically.

She brushed off the tinge of melancholy and refocused on the task at hand, following the abbot down a winding series of passages, notable for the elegant script engraved into their walls. The language was one unknown, though similar enough to some of the oldest she knew that it could be somewhat understood. In a few months, when the findings of this group were properly processed, it would be called the language of the Aedra, though none knew for sure if the beings so called had made it. It was nothing more than a hypothesis, but it was a relatively good one, since it had been used in a seal specifically designed for use against Daedra.

After longer than she cared to remember, they came to a stop in a grand central chamber. There was script all over the walls here, too, but more important was the enormous sigil in the floor, inlaid in massive slabs of precious stone. A downward-pointing triangle of emerald edged in gold sat within a ruby circle with a silver outline. The square outside this was brilliant sapphire, the perimeter a delicate lapis lazuli. The triangle was raised, as a dais, and upon it rested a piece of glorious amethyst, carved in the three-dimensional shape of a lotus flower. Upon every petal were inscribed delicate runes in the same language, aglow with power of some kind.

"Beautiful,” Anirne breathed, unconsciously taking a step toward it. The abbot stopped her with an arm to her elbow, shaking his head gently. She knew what he meant—they’d already agreed. If there was a risk to be taken, he would be the first to take it. Those were the terms of her presence here, as well as everyone else’s.

Slowly, the old man walked towards the stone, and with each soft tread of his boots, Anirne’s hands tightened on her staff, until they were white-knuckled with tension. After what seemed an eternity, he stood before the grand lotus, and reached for it with a cautious hand. His fingertip made contact with the stone and a bright light flared, a counterpoint to his scream. The sound was pure terror, and coming from a man so reserved, so fearless, it was like a nightmare. A wave of power issued from the lotus, and it hit the others with unexpected force, slamming all of them back against a wall. Anirne felt her ribs crack into several pieces, and Oblivion took her.



She woke as though from a long period of unconsciousness, to find herself surrounded by a lightning cloak, the electricity crackling around her body. It seemed she’d reacted to the dream with her magic in this world, and she killed the spell with a troubled frown. They were fortunate it had been this one, and not another, more destructive one. Pushing herself upright, she sensed that there would be no more sleep for her that evening, and sighed softly, standing and wandering towards the fire. The altmer settled herself there, crosslegged and content to stare into the flames until her watch started.

Sinderion, who happened to be on watch (he took half the night for himself, unable to sleep any more than that anyway), had heard the crackle of electricity and smelled the lightning and bolted back towards camp, approaching warily, though straightening from his crouch once he saw what was going on. If Anirne was anything like him, she was having nightmares, though he knew not what hers would be about, anymore. Did she dream of their parents? It seemed unlikely. But he knew so little of how her life had been-- what it had been-- since they parted. Less even than she knew of him. At least his secret was in her custody. But if she was keeping secrets, and he was almost certain she must be, she had not divulged them to him. He wasn't sure he minded... in all likelihood, her secrets were burdensome, too, and he wasn't sure how much more he could carry.

But he approached her anyway, threading lightly around the sleeping bodies of their friends to sit beside her. The watch was fine; he did more listening than watching, anyway, and more scenting than either of those things. "You as well?" he inquired lowly, a bit surprised. She seemed unshakable, especially when compared to the rest of them. He was too afraid to sleep, in all honesty. He'd have to eventually, but he was hoping that by the time he succumbed, he'd be so exhausted that he couldn't dream.

"I as well," she replied tiredly. Truthfully, her dream was of concern to her for more than just the fact that she'd woken in the state she had. The memory wasn't exactly accurate, but the important parts had been all there, and she hoped that she was still too distant for the Omen to pay much attention to the actual content of her dreams. There were things she knew that she was not allowed to divulge, and for very good reason. The Psijics worked in the ancient, the rare, and the ruinous in equal measure. Giving someone with as much power and as little conscience as the Omen seemed to possess even a fragment of her forbidden knowledge would be giving him too great a tool, and may wreak greater destruction than she cared to imagine. There was a chance he could stumble upon something like that just by sheer conincidence. There were things she knew that she could never do, and others that she would if she had to, but few of her secrets were harmless.

"Sinder... I'm not sure I can follow where you are going this time. Perhaps... I need to talk it over with someone who knows magic like this, but..." she trailed off. Not all of the Sellswords used it, but she could possibly start there. Perhaps Maya or Adrienne or Van would have something helpful.

That seemed a peculiar thing for her to say. He knew it wouldn't have anything to do with simple fear: she seemed to be facing their circumstances with equanimity, to the degree that he was actually a little surprised by it. Everyone had their nervous tics, exposed their anxiety in subtle kinds of ways; some of them weren't even subtle about it. If nothing else, he could smell it. But... perhaps he was simply imagining it, but Ani seemed not to even do that much. She just went with events as they moved, and remained largely undisturbed. So any evidence of discomfiture on her part was most irregular, and caused him a degree of alarm he would not have expected.

It couldn't hurt to ask. "I don't know much of magic," he said cautiously, shifting unconsciously as the topic approached one that had the potential to make him rather uncomfortable, "but I can listen if you need to think through something." One of the benefits of not talking much was that you became a pretty decent listener. He couldn't help but wonder what his sister had seen that made her so wary of continuing.

Not that Van was feeling particularly helpful. While nightmares were standard fare for him, they were beginning to become an annoyance. Waking in the middle of the night with the phantom pain of his tongue being cut out and his eye getting slashed. He had just awoken from one of these dreams, and was beginning to contemplate strangling the Omen when they met. Sure, he's never had a good night's sleep since his youth, but it this was ridiculous. He was laying in his bedroll when the cave lit up in a sparkle of lightning. He pushed himself upright and watched the cloak vanish just as quick as it appeared, leaving Anirne in its wake. Seems the nightmares were getting to everybody.

It also seemed that Sinder was awake. Their troubled souls already had a hard time sleeping, but now with the Omen projecting his power on them, it was quickly becoming apparent that the man needed to die-- quickly. Figuring that sleep would be slim for either of them, he picked himself up and made his way over to the them, abruptly taking a seat and signed me too. He dabbled in magick, but not of the magnitude as a psijic. Just enough to use in a fight. Still, what he couldn't offer in magick, he could in an ear.

A smile tilted the monk's mouth at the twin offers, and she supposed there was no harm in saying what she was allowed to say. If she was to be leaving them to this, they certainly deserved some kind of explanation on that, at the very least. It didn't make the actual talking bit any easier. Reaching down behind her spot, Anirne pulled up a loose blanket (whose it was, she couldn't say, but nobody was using it now, and she seemed to be constantly forgetting how cold it was here), and wrapped it about her shoulders, pulling it closed in front of her and tugging her braid out of the cocoon to drape down her back. It was more for the time to properly formulate her words than anything, but she had a feeling that neither of these men would hold it against her.

Settling her elbows onto her knees, she stared into the fire and spoke. "My experience with dream magic is very limited. There was another woman researching it on the island, but her work was only in its early stages. Beyond that, all I know is the standard information: it's in the Illusion school, and greater levels of direct control require more power, especially as proximity increases. At this point, he's probably not doing much more than just giving our minds a push, bringing the darkest things hidden there to the fore." But then, with a group constituted of former criminals and people with enough reason to participate in murder games without batting an eyelash, even that could be potentially devastating. She wasn't without her own sins, but those weren't what had her worried.

"It's also probably true that he's not precisely aware of what he's causing us to dream." At least, she sincerely hoped so. "That will change as we go deeper into his circle of influence, I expect." She drew the blanket tighter around herself. "I was hoping that one of you would be experienced with blocking such techniques; the only mental invasions I know how to withstand are the ones that happen when I'm conscious. Sleeping, I'm as defenseless as anyone else." It was bad enough that way, but perhaps something she would have been able to deal with, save for the fact that she knew things nobody should.

Reaching up, she rubbed her cheeks with both hands, half-lacing her hands in front of her mouth. "I'm not... really allowed to speak of it, but... my order are not simply religious devotees of the old ways, nor even a society of mages. First and foremost, I think most of us would claim to be scholars, historians, archaeologists of magic. We follow absurd rumors and little ripples in the fabric of things, and bury far more deeply than most to discover what lies at their source. Sometimes, I even think we dig too deeply, that dead magicks must have died for a reason, and that there are things people aren't meant to know." Old things, sinister things, things that placed far too much power in the hands of people willing to pay the most egregious prices. Exactly the kind of people who shouldn't have it.

"Today, he showed me the death of my mentor, one of many instances in which I almost died as well. Tomorrow, I am concerned that he might take more of an interest not in my trauma, but in what I learned from it." And it wouldn't be the worst thing he could learn either. How much magic could be wrought if enough people were killed in the right way? Of what kind? She knew, little as she tried to think about it. It was scarcely a wonder that the Order had so much difficulty letting any of its members leave for truth. The mind of any among them was a toybox for people like these. One whose locks the Omen was apparently able to bypass entirely.

Though honestly Sinder had no idea what magicks she could possibly be talking about, he didn't have to work too hard to let his imagination fill in the blanks. As someone with very little knowledge of the stuff, he'd always thought that the worst he'd have to deal with would be someone like Drayk-- with a penchant for something straightforwardly destructive and a tenuous control of it. Ironically, perhaps, it had been the Shade that first gave him the hint otherwise, when he'd blanked Van's mind. Though honestly, he might have asked for that, sometimes. A few minutes to be without any of the thoughts or worries that so constantly troubled him? If he wasn't so inherently suspicious and concerned about long term effects, he might have asked Anirne if she knew how to do that.

But the fact remained that it had introduced to him a dimension of the phenomenon that he just didn't understand and honestly didn't really want to. He supposed that if he told his sister about the incident, she would be the furthest thing from shocked-- she'd probably have an explanation as to how exactly it worked, maybe even a method to block such interference at some level. She'd know that, and things much worse. What 'much worse' constituted was anyone's guess, but he doubted she was sensationalizing something small. The way she refused to meet their eyes, he way she sat so as to make herself as small as possible-- he'd seen those things before, and it was costing her something to speak of this. What, and why, he simply didn't know.

"Then you don't come," he said resolutely. "If you know things he can't, and know that he could find them out if you get closer, you don't get closer." To him, it was just that simple. He sensed that she might need something else, some kind of reassurance, but he couldn't for the life of him figure out what it was. "What you've done for us so far is more than any of us had the right to ask. You've saved our lives, and... I mean that literally." Definitely Drayk's, and she was the only one among them who could have done that. Possibly Adrienne's and Van's, too, though maybe they could have pulled through on their own. Not without considerably more time and difficulty though. She'd surrendered herself as a Thalmor prisoner for a plan she had no reason to believe in, for people she had no reason to believe in, and the more he thought about it, the more he realized how truly absurd that was. How many of all the people on the great green earth would even consider following them into this for nothing?

It was only logical, she knew, but all the same she couldn't help but feel some measure of hesitation. She'd promised to help him, help them, and she was in the unfortunate position of being unable to keep her word. Worse, the reasons were ones she already had reason to regret. She felt a little weaker, a little more dangerous, and a little less good just for possessing this information, used or not. But of all things, it was now keeping her from doing what she felt she needed to, which was infinitely worse.

She sighed, at last glancing up at the both of them. "When you put it that way, it seems there's no choice at all. I want to go with you, but it seems that doing so would only put you in more danger." Underneath the blanket, her hands curled into fists. She knew they'd lasted quite far without her, but she was worried all the same. Things only seemed to grow more difficult as they continued, and she supposed her absence might count as a substantial loss, for the healing if nothing else. Anirne was modest enough, perhaps, but she wasn't stupid, and she knew that her skills in that area far outmatched anything the others could do. She'd devoted her life to that, and the results had not been unimpressive. What if something happened like the last battle? Who would be there to patch their wounds then?

But no small cluster of lives, no matter how dear to her, was worth giving such a powerful, apparently ruthless mage such dangerous knowledge. That, too, was logical, and she hated it just as much. Ironic, maybe, that she would have been more help to them if she wasn't a Psijic, wasn't who she'd worked so hard and so long to become. It wasn't hard, now, to regret everything she'd sacrificed to be this person, when it might well see the people she cared about killed. Guilt was an old, old companion of hers, and it looked to be resurfacing as though it had never been submerged at all.

He's going to die, Van signed, Or we do. There was a hint in his brutal honesty. I do not blame you if you were not to come, he added. Everyone had their secrets, and everyone wanted to hide their past. She was more fortunate than he was in that her past wasn't written on her face as his was. He really wouldn't, he wouldn't judge her for her choice. She'd done more than enough, more than any other stranger would for them. She had no obligations to them, and it took courage traveling with them. He wasn't oblivious, he knew that everything they touched turned sour sooner or later. That wasn't going to change either.

However, the words he signed. The Omen was going to die, or they were. If he did learn their secrets, there was only two options for them. He would take those secrets to the grave with Van's blade in his neck, or they would all die and nothing mattered anymore. When he thought about it like that, death seemed preferable. To not have to worry anymore, to not feel anything. He was not so foolish as to wish it upon any of them, but weighing their options, it seemed the prefable one. He wasn't going to go quietly, none of them were. He would fight with as much zeal as he always did, but the release seemed nice. He had wards though, and he wasn't going to abandon them. His own freedom be damned, he'd wouldn't see any of his friends die before him.

Secrets or no, the Omen will fall. Or we will. We'll bury them with him or we need not worry. It's your call, he signed, signalling the end of his thoughts.

Appreciative as she was of the sentiment, Anirne couldn't stop the furrow forming between her brows. It was a rather defeatist kind of attitude, maybe a little too final, and it sat ill with her. "Well," she said, regaining some of her firmness, "If I do leave, it won't be for good. I intend to see this through to the end, with each and every one of you." Her emphasis on the 'every' was quite intentional. She supposed it might not be hard, to devalue your own life after living such a hard one as each of these Sellswords had endured, but that didn't mean she had to like it.

Her expression shifted, her posture relaxing a bit, and she once again withdrew her hands, this time to sign. You're not allowed to slack off without me, you know. As soon as I'm back, I'm going to test and see if you've been stretching properly. It'll hurt much more if you haven't. She flashed a smile, perhaps a smidge more sadistic than she would have been thought to produce, but it was in jest. Mostly. Glancing back at the fire, she nodded, mostly to herself, and stood, shedding the blanket, since she'd be heading back to her own bedroll anyway now. Van's brow furrowed, but he chuckled. Fair enough. Someone had to keep him in line.

"Thank you both. In the morning, I shall determine if any of our other resident mages know of anything that might provide a solution. Until then, I shall make every effort not to provide our Omen with earthshattering secrets, but I do believe we all need a bit more sleep."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Whatever else she may have been, Anirne was a woman of her word, and she did manage to snatch a few more hours of fitful rest from the jaws of a certain precarious insomnia, though she knew not if either of her friends had achieved the same. The morning dawned cold, but clear, and she was as usual awake before first light. Slightly more irregular was the fact that the rest of the group was the same, though given their troubled slumbers of late, it was probably something of a relief to drag oneself out of a bedroll and in doing so, reclaim one's mind. They moved with a shuffling, weary efficiency, and by the time the sun saw fit to present himself to Skyrim, they were mounted and once again upon the road to Dawnstar.

Today, rather than riding beside her brother or Van, Anirne steered herself alongside Maya. She'd decided that the witch was most likely to know the information she sought, though truly, she didn't hold out much hope that any of them would. When she inquired, her words were direct-- there was little sense in dancing around the issue, especially as time-sensitive as it was. Each day, they drew deeper into the Omen's circle of influence, a sure sign that things would go south very quickly if she did not divine a solution. "Maya?" she asked, though she doubted her presence had gone unnoticed by the younger woman anyway. "In your training and your travels, have you ever come upon a way to induce dreamless sleep?"

"Hm," Maya said, giving the question some thought. If there had been an easy way to do it, she most certainly would have performed it for herself and the party the previous night, but... come to think of it, there was one way she could help, though the Psijic woman would probably not like it. Neither would Sinderion, for that matter.

"There might be a way, although for this exact purpose, it's a little... untested. Glenmoril often perform sacrifices, and sometimes it is preferable to have the offering completely immobilized, without damaging any of the internal organs." Perhaps it was something of a morbid subject for an outsider to her culture, but Anirne had asked, and this was how Maya thought she could help. "I can prepare a potion that will render you largely inert. Cease all forms of thought, all impulses. I believe it would prevent you from having dreams, and thus prevent the Omen from invading your mind. The issue lies in the dosage. I've never been required to wake someone put under by it, considering that they've all been sacrifices, but with some time I could prepare a suitable counteragent. Yes, I think that could be done." She gave the Psijic a slightly quizzical look.

"Worried about confidentiality, are we? I understand. The idea of any man rooting around in my mind is quite unsettling."

Anirne snorted. "Were it simply my secrets, I could tolerate the intrusion. As it is, I would rather not invalidate your efforts to keep yourselves and each other alive by handing a man like that more tools he could use to kill you." Chewing her lip, the altmer woman thought it over. There were so many risks it was almost absurd. Maya wouldn't know the long-term effects of ingesting such a substance, since nobody that would have taken it would have lived much longer anyway. Dosage was an issue, and the counteragent carried all those risks and the trouble of being as yet uninvented. The benefit was that she could be exactly where she needed to when they were done and ready to flee the scene. But...

"What about stimulants? If I needed to remain awake for an extended period? As long as I am conscious, I am not concerned by the possibility of my mind being invaded." She wasn't sure how long this whole thing was going to take, but surely the plan would keep it within a day or two. She'd done her share of stimulants and hallucinogens (for research, of course), but she didn't fancy the idea of being delusional on a skooma trip when it was time to vacate Dawnstar.

"Stimulants would present their own set of risks and benefits," Maya speculated. "On the one hand, you would be awake. The downsides would be the state you would be in, especially after a day or two. I don't know how willing the Omen will be to let people on his ship, or if there will be relatively simple ways to get aboard. We may need to spend a day alone planning. You'll be a wreck physically and mentally at some point." And really, getting to use that catatonic potion again would be much more interesting, but the witch would leave that bit out.

"The potion would do nothing to hurt you, I'm sure of that. You'd feel as rested as ever upon awakening, it's simply a matter of providing the right jolt to get you back up again." She shrugged. "The choice is yours. Whatever you feel more comfortable with."

Anirne was silent for a while, considering. She'd endured worse than a few sleepless nights, but being well-rested at the end of it all, when perhaps the others would not be, was a tactical advantage she was having trouble passing up. It might be exactly then that they needed her to be at her best, because if this encounter with a Representative ended anything like the last one had, they would be in shambles. "...May I watch you make it?" she asked quietly. "The depressant? It is not that I believe you would do other than you say in this, but I suppose that I am ever the sort most reassured by knowledge. If I knew what it was I was introducing to my system, I would feel considerably more comfortable about it."

Maya actually laughed rather pleasantly at that. "Of course. It's quite unwise to allow others to mix drinks for you, of course. And then you may take your knowledge of we wicked witches back to your esteemed colleagues."

"An additional benefit, yes," Anirne agreed without shame. "But as I'm the test subject here, perhaps not an undeserved one." She smiled easily and nodded serenely. "My thanks, Maya."




The town of Dawnstar was about three hours further down the road, so the Sellswords first saw smoke rising from the chimneys at about noon. The group came to a halt at the top of a hill overlooking the town, and the unusual visitor was immediately visible in the harbor. The Omen's flagship was absolutely enormous, a three-tiered warship that was so wide it wouldn't even fit into the little bay that Dawnstar had built its docks on. The sails were drawn up where the ship had dropped anchor, perhaps a hundred feet off shore. Notably, there were several identical rowboats tied to the docks beside each other.

"His crew are throughout the town," Maya assumed, "though I doubt any of them would know me by sight; they know not to look for me specifically." That, and she didn't quite look as she had when the Representatives had met. She had been less... weathered, then. Before any more words could be said, one of the town guard came riding to meet them on horseback. No doubt the arrival of an armed group on horseback had caught his attention.

"You'll be moving on from Dawnstar if you're wise," he warned, reining his horse in and coming to a halt before them, "town's been plagued by unnatural nightmares for weeks now." He gestured up towards a tower on a nearby hill. "A priest of Mara identified Nightcaller Temple up there as the source, though he's not been able to do anything to stop it."

"The tower's the source of the nightmares?" Drayk asked, skeptical. The guard nodded. "That's what the priest says, anyway. Our resident pirate king off shore showed up and started offering sanctuary from the nightmares, says he knows how to prevent them. A load of crap if you ask me, but that doesn't stop people from rowing out there and seeing for themselves. Some of the guard, too. A few have gone off and joined the bastard's crew! Anyway, like I said, Dawnstar won't be the most welcoming place at the moment. Fair warning."

"Disguising the poison as the antidote, it seems," Adrienne murmured beneath the hearing of the guard. It was clever, if not precisely subtle. Still, something to be wary of-- the Omen was not without the ability to decieve. Turning her eyes up to the guard, she posed a question. "Those that leave... do any of them return? With or without their nightmares?" She wondered what kind of game he was playing. It didn't seem necessary to do this, which meant there was surely some benefit he gained from it. Tribute? Enjoyment? The occasional new crew member? And that was an idea, now wasn't it? There was no way someone playing the Daedric Game would let random strangers so close to himself unless he was sure they wouldn't be able to hurt him. And if his main power was manipulating dreams, something done from afar, it seemed a curious kind of confidence to have.

"Aye," the guard responded, "some of the townsfolk have returned and claim to be free of the nightmares entirely, but others don't return at all. None of my guardsmen that have left have returned. He's a bloody pirate, but I don't think he's killed any of them. They seem to have actually joined his crew. Never knew the life of a criminal was so attractive to so many. But... the town's falling apart the longer this goes on, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised when desperate people turn to something they don't understand."

He turned his horse back around. "I should be getting back to my duties. I'd advise taking care of your business here and then leaving." Maya huffed a short laugh. "That's an idea I can agree with."

"If the Omen's offering sanctuary," Drayk pointed out, "that sounds like it could be an easy way aboard, though we'd have no idea what to expect." Maya nodded.

"Not yet. But if he's been communicating with the town, perhaps we can find and speak with a representative of the representative? In the meantime, I can head to the inn with Anirne and begin preparations on this potion." It would be best for her to lay low as well, if they were going to be trying a stealthy approach. The crew wouldn't recognize her, but the Omen most certainly would. Especially if he were able to reach in her mind.

"Coward," Lynly inserted as the guard left. "A known pirate sits in his bay, and he just watches as the Omen conscripts his guards." she said beneath half-lidded eyes. The contempt on her face was palpable. "Looks like we're doing his bloody job for him," she complained. "What are happening to these Nords? Where are their pride and honor? Is this all that the Jarl could truly muster?" She continued as they went into town.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: The Representatives

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The group split, with Maya and Anirne departing for the inn to begin work on the ritual potion, while the Sellswords and Lynly made their way slowly into the town itself, in search of one of the Omen's crew. Dawnstar was a small town, but even for a small town it felt unnaturally quiet. Two separate things so obviously hung over it: Nightcaller Temple upon the nearby hill stood seemingly abandoned, lording over the people below and almost challenging them to approach, and the great pirate ship offshore. Rialta's vessel looked much less harmful to the untrained eye, and indeed, it was meant to appear as a potential salvation, but to the mind of someone who needed to board it and kill its captain, it was no doubt a slightly daunting prospect.

Still, this was the group that had vanquished an embassy of Thalmor warriors and lived to tell the tale, so perhaps it was not unthinkable that they could survive this, too.

Finding a pirate among the townsfolk wasn't all that hard, as some of them stood out quite plainly as outsiders. Apart from a few miserably tired looking guards, they were the only other people outside. The local blacksmith hammered away on her anvil a few houses down, but other than that, the people of Dawnstar were either hiding in their homes, or gone altogether. The pirate they came in contact with was a Redguard like his captain, a powerfully built man with a great deal of hair on his face, and none whatsoever on his head. His weapons were displayed quite plainly, a Hammerfell scimitar at his hip, along with a hatchet that looked quite capable of cutting more than wood, and several smaller knives. He stood leaned up against the wall of a nondescript villager's house, but noticed the group of armed individuals approaching him, and moved slowly to greet them, speaking in almost overly level tones, to the point where he almost sounded bored.

"Outsiders," he pointed out, "interesting. What brings you to Dawnstar?"

Adrienne, walking somewhere in the midst of the group, subtly shifted herself so as to be at the fore of the cluster when they stopped. At the inevitable question, she glanced around, as though surveying the settlement (it scarcely deserved to be called a city) for the first time. Her hands went to her hips, face cracking in a wide grin. "Well, I'd say we're here for the weather and charming scenery, but I'd be lying." She let her eyes focus over his shoulder, where the topsail of the massive ship was visible over the nearby buildings, then slid them smoothly back to his face. "We, m' good sir, are here on business. Rumors's far away as the capital say there's a beauty of a ship hereabouts, and well, that the gentleman in charge don't mind much if his crew come with... less-than-legal inclinations."

In a town this small, there was no point pretending they were actually local, and why on earth anyone would come here save for something to do with the new pirates was a mystery, especially considering all the nasty warnings about dreams and suchlike that one could hear further inland. At this point, she was making it up on the spot, but if this crew was really taking new volunteers, it probably wasn't much of a stretch, and at least it might be a way on.

The redguard's face was as hard as stone in response to Adrienne's grin and introduction, indicating that he either wasn't aware of the concept of humor, or he was in an extremely poor mood. "You are interested in piracy," he said evenly, translating Adrienne's words into as blunt a manner as possible. "Captain Rialta will wish to speak with you. You will meet us on the edge of the docks at high noon tomorrow, and board the Dreamwalker with the other recruits. Bring your weapons and whatever personal provisions you need. Is that understood?"

Seriously? Nothing? Now that was quite unnatural. Adrienne wasn't one to fluff up her talents to be more substantial than they were, but she never got nothing from a person she was talking to. Suspicious didn't even begin to cover it. Still, she didn't let herself falter, and quirked a brow, snapping off a mock salute. "Aye, aye, sir. You've got yourself a deal." Turning over her shoulder to glance at the others, she shrugged, as if to say they might as well find someplace else to be. It was highly unlikely they'd be getting anything else out of Stonewall here. Aye, aye sir? Vanryth couldn't help but hide eyes with a calloused hand.

Drayk was glad that had finished as quickly as it did. He didn't really look the pirate type, and would have miserably failed if asked a question, no doubt. Well, maybe not with this guy. His standards didn't seem all that high if he just let them through without even the slightest background check. Maybe it just didn't matter for pirates? Drayk didn't know, so he just shook his head in confusion, and lead the way back up the hill towards the inn.

Back at the inn, the group arrived to find that Maya had already procured a room for herself and Anirne. It was quickly agreed that the others would sleep outside again, so as to hopefully not be associated with the two outsiders who weren't taking up piracy. The details of their meeting were summarized to the witch and the Psijic while they continued to work over the potion. In all, it wasn't a difficult summary.

"Just like that?" Maya asked, skeptical. "You'd think he'd at least be a little suspicious who he lets on board his ship, if he knows there's someone out to kill him. I don't like it."

"They're cocky," Lynly stated plainly. She shrugged and then explained, "We're boarding their ship where they think they're untouchable. If someone causes trouble, then they have an entire crew to deal with it. Why should they be suspicious? We're entering their domain." she finished. It'd be like the witch hunting someone down in her own forest. Her tone, and general attitude about the pirates shown that she held no love for the band of cutthroats. She'd be doing Skyrim a favor by offing these pirates. "That's their mistake."

"Mm... I think it's more than that," Adrienne replied, looking somewhat troubled. "Normally, I can look at a person and at least get something, but that man... it was like staring at a blank wall." Something about it was downright eerie, actually, carried beyond what she would have considered stoic and straight into uncanny. Even so, it wasn't like they had much of a choice. She shook her head, but said nothing further on the subject.

"Then we'll be careful. That was the plan anyway, was it not?" He couldn't say that they'd gone into any of these endeavors with all the information they would have wanted, and so in a sense, this was to be expected. At least this plan seemed straightforward enough: infiltrate the ship, kill the Omen when they got the chance. Don't fall asleep. Compared to the last plan, it was simple, really.

"I guess we'll just... wait here, then," Maya said, sounding a little frustrated. "But if anything goes wrong, I'm running down there to shoot all of them myself."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Maya's heart sank when the Dreamwalker's sails unfurled, and the anchor was pulled up from the water. She would have known if they'd been able to kill Omen, she would have known the instant it happened, and known to hunt the Pact instead. But it never happened. She was able to watch the ship from the entrance of the inn, and that was exactly what she'd done. She trusted Anirne to be able to get up on her own if needed. She wanted to watch it for any sign of change. And now that the great warship was beginning to leave altogether, she was done waiting. Maybe it was suicide, but it was suicide to just let them leave as well.

She shoved the door open and walked with urgency to the room she'd rented out for Anirne and herself, to find the altmer woman still sound asleep. She'd underestimated the strength of the sedative. Hastily she drew out more of her counteragent, worried for a moment that it was somehow dysfunctional. But whether it was or wasn't, it didn't matter now. She was going to use more of it. All of it, in fact. It would be a bit of a rude awakening for her, no doubt, like being drawn up from the bottom of a lake, but she was a strong woman, and there wasn't any time to be gentle.

"Get up, damn it," the witch hissed.

A dreamless sleep it had been, but the witch’s brew was doing its job, snatching Anirne from the jaws of the most restful slumber she’d had in years and yanking her with little ceremony to the world of wakefulness once more. The altmer woman’s golden eyes snapped open, and she inhaled deeply, rising to sit up with the motion. She focused quickly on the other female’s expression, reading something there that had her moving immediately, ignoring the protests of her still-sluggish limbs, though she reached the edge of the bed with far less grace than she was accustomed to.

“What happened?” she asked simply, if not without urgency.

"The ship's leaving," Maya said, standing and opening the door to their room quickly, expecting Anirne to follow. "The Omen still lives. We... have to get to the ship somehow, we have to do something." When she made her way back outside, the ship was already halfway across the bay; a few more minutes and it would be it would out of sight entirely. She exhaled in frustration. There was no way to catch it and board it, but maybe they would be able to follow it from the shoreline.

"The horses. We need to at least follow it." They couldn't afford to speculate about what had happened to the others, not now.

The news hit Anirne a lot harder than she would have expected it to, perhaps because she had not been expecting it at all. The mortality of her brother and his friends had seemed all too obvious to her, but at the same time, the fact that they yet lived, despite crossing so many paths belonging to beings that should have been able to destroy them utterly, had perhaps somehow caused her to forget that fact. She felt terrible, a surging of guilt rising from the pit of her stomach to her throat. She had sat this one out, rested in the repose of supernatural slumber, for what? To protect some old secrets? They could have used her, perhaps even used one or two of those very secrets, to—

No. She couldn’t think that way. There was a good reason the forbidden was forbidden, and she had been trained to set her personal feelings aside and think always of the greater good. Even if the casualties included the person she loved most in this world, as she expected they very well might.

Either way, it was something to stew in later, not now. Not before anything was certain. “Of course,” she confirmed, taking up her staff and slinging her pack of few worldly possessions over her back. They’d have to string the animals together, and then make haste.




The Omen's eyes snapped open as he ended his dream. Adrienne's return would not be so gentle considering that she still had her mind, but such was the nature of the magic, and the Omen did not care enough for the well-being of others to bother tampering with it. He had more important things to do now, like utilizing the new tools he'd been granted to slaughter his way through this Game.

The crew was getting the warship in motion before the captain had even risen from his chair, the mindless members of the Sellswords included, all of them heading off without a word, moving more like a swarm of bees than a crew of men and mer. They controlled the ship with one mind, and operated with unmatched efficiency and timing. The Omen himself rose from his chair and beckoned for Adrienne to follow him, all former playfulness gone from his demeanor. Apparently, he was capable of being as serious and business-minded as he was of being demented and twisted.

The Omen followed a large number of his crew below deck. There were three levels to the warship, the second of which was loaded with as many large weapons as the first. Ballistas lined each side of the hull, all of them loaded and prepared to fire massive spears at deadly velocities. The upper most level of the ship contained three catapults, two smaller ones angled off the sides of the ship, and one massive one located on the bow. A single wide, twisting staircase led from the top to the bottom, it was down this that much of the crew went. Drayk continued on past the second level and down to the bottom, passing out of sight. The Omen broke off from his thralls and proceeded directly below the helm of the ship, passing through a windowed door into what appeared to be his private quarters. The redguard that had greeted the Sellswords at the docks took up a guard position at the door, though if this was always his job was unclear. Either the Omen liked to maintain some sense of normalcy on his ship, or he hadn't let his guard down just yet.

The interior of the captain's chamber was spacious, certainly more than was necessary for one man, but it was understandable why the Omen would take more for himself, and leave so much less for his thralls. Everything was somewhat mismatched, but all of it elegant and refined, as though he'd pilfered each piece of furniture from places he'd raided, all over the world. A wide window decorated the rear wall, currently looking out over the town of Dawnstar, but the view was already shifting as the warship turned west. A massive, velvety bed was propped up on the right side of the room, and several cabinets lined the left. A writing desk was covered in various papers below the window, and a trophy case filled with various wordly treasures decorated the near wall. The center piece of the room was a large table currently occupied by a detailed map of Skyrim, with heavy notes taken all over it. If Adrienne cared to look, she'd be able to see that the Omen's notes pertained to the locations, movements, and strengths of many of the representatives, though a large amount of them were focused on Hjaalmarch. It was on the window side of this map that the Omen stopped, leaning over it and studying what he'd learned once more.

Adrienne, a bit disoriented from her reemergence into the world of the waking, shook it off and followed in the Omen’s wake, taking an independent trajectory only once they were in the cabin area. Here, she perused the various trophies and evidence of raids with some interest, parts of it genuine. It was clear he’d sailed much of the world, and she expected there was a story behind every piece of furniture, every artifact in this room. In another time, another life, really, she would have been content to listen to any and all of them with rapt attention.

But that life was gone, and in this one, she was here to kill the man, to wipe him from this plane of existence like a stain on the fabric of the world. Perhaps he’d be meeting his Lady soon enough; she didn’t care to know. Some things should remain mysteries, after all.

Tearing herself away from the cabinet of curiosities, she trailed one languid hand along the wooden back of an intricately carved chair, inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl in fantastical patterns, peering down at the map with what seemed careless interest. In reality, she was already decided that she was going to steal it when he was dead. It looked to contain a great deal of information, and that, as she well knew, made it quite valuable, indeed. Outwardly, she simply crossed to the opposite side of the table, pulling herself a chair and sinking into it gracefully. “Well, well. What have we here? Seems you’ve been busy of late…” her eyes flickered over the map, and the morphed her expression into a thoughtful one, as though she were trying to figure out just what connected all of these notes and locations.

"Targets," the Omen answered simply, "men and women and monsters that are to die, one by one. Some already have. I will explain in full later. For now, I hunt a bosmer bitch who has, up to this point, eluded me in the swamps of Hjaalmarch." He gestured to the markings on the hold. Red markings indicated ambush points, places his thralls had been hit by the Pact's warriors, and they were numerous, each of the Omen's four apparent strikes into the region turned aside by the hit and run tactics of his enemy.

"Her forces have all fallen back around this area," he said, drawing a dagger and touching the point to a circled area near the center of the swamp. "There must be a cave, or a network of them, that she operates from, in this area. But with the new additions, we should be able to push through. A strong front to draw them out, with the fire mage to draw their eyes, and the warriors to hold their attention, while the wolf slips through under cover. I have always had the advantage in numbers, but now I have the advantage in weapons as well." He looked up at Adrienne, a dark smile spreading. "Any advice, strategist?"

It was a solid plan, considering the circumstances, since he had the numbers for it. There wasn’t really much to be had in the way of additions, though she did give it some thought all the same. “How many mages do you have?” she asked, eyes fixed on the map before her. “If the resources are there, I’d dispatch your healers behind the front line to make sure it stays upright, and the more… destructive ones can flank, and use the environment. I’m guessing if she’s lasted any amount of time already, she knows it well, but it’s a swamp. It begs to be used to trap and entangle, its water to freeze, or entire pools of it to conduct.” She shrugged—the advice wasn’t terribly specific because she simply didn’t know the resources at his disposal, and doubtless he would understand that.

"Sadly, the healers are few," he admitted, "but I should think it is offset by the fact that my thralls are capable of ignoring physical pain in ways normal men could never hope to. These guerillas fight like Argonian shadowscales in their bloody swamp. Perhaps it would be wise to freeze what can be frozen, and burn the rest..."

She glanced back down at the map, allowing an amused smile to grace her features. “Blackfeather? Webspinner? Horizon? It sounds as if you are out to kill crows and spiders and the sun itself, dear captain. I think perhaps there is a story I need to hear in this somewhere. After all, a strategist without knowledge is a bow without arrows. You could hit things with it, I suppose, but it would be rather… crude.”

"They are monikers, all, representations of the Daedric Lord they serve. I was chosen to serve in a game in which offense and defense must be managed in equal measure. We must kill an assigned one while defending against an unknown other. And what better place to strike, than from this fortress on the sea?" He pushed back from the map, turning to the window. "It seems a strange thing for a pirate to do, but I've already plundered the world over. This is an opportunity to do something even gods would be impressed by."

He pointed back to the map with his dagger. "The Pact is simply next on the list, but I believe I know what follows. She's been busy defending against me, but she has not remained entirely idle. I've had her scouts followed southeast, past Whiterun, and down... deep into the earth. The spider you speak of is next. I expect that will be a similar challenge."

Adrienne looked suitably impressed when he revealed his part in the game, sliding a layer of keen ambition over it, as though the idea enticed her immeasurably. “My, my, but I have stumbled upon quite the endeavor.” She stood as well, pacing the room in a counterclockwise circle, hands clasped loosely behind her back, for all the world relaxed as a satiated cat, eyes half-lidded and darkly-glimmering. She lingered over a few more of his possessions, trying to find something she could use. The vial of poison currently secreted into a small pocket she’d sewn into the sleeve of this robe when she’d made it would work well in food or drink, tasteless and odorless as it was, but that would require something to put it in, and she had yet to see anything of that nature. The sword at her waist of the dagger in her boot would be more expedient, but she’d need to be close to guarantee a hit, and that would take a bit more work of an entirely different kind.

She wasn’t above seducing him, not by any stretch. To save her friends, she’d sink quite a bit lower than that, too. Sinder’s point to the Shade had been accurate enough for what it was, but she wasn’t so noble as he. It might have taken a situation like this to remind her of it, but it was true all the same. That stark realization, that she cared for them more than her own anything, was at once frightening, for Adrienne had ever been looking out for herself, but also reassuring in its solidity.

“And so, when the world holds nothing else for you, you seek it from another plane. How very… poetic, for one who walks also in dream.” She picked up a ceremonial dagger, the gems encrusted on its hilt marking it to her to be of the make of her own homeland, and tested the point with the end of her index digit, as if idly. It was still sharp, and a single bead of her blood welled to the surface. Setting the weapon back down carefully, she raised the finger to her mouth and swiped her tongue across it briefly, rubbing her thumb over the spot thereafter. The blood disappeared, and no more broke to the surface. She shot the Omen a sideways glance.

“What do they call you? The Scourge? The Weaver? The Nightmare, perhaps?”

"The Omen," he answered. "It is within Vaermina's sphere of influence to bring omens of demise to those she chooses, and as her representative, I share in these duties, though my power is not quite so absolute."

After dropping the dagger upon the map, he slowly removed his black headwrap, unwinding it until it fell away from his bald head to reveal a wicked scar running through his right eye from the center of his forehead to his cheekbone. The iris had turned a milky white color, clearly no longer capable of sight. "And what are dreams but extensions of our realities? In my dreams I can see with both eyes only because I remember what it was like. I can create magnificent warriors of Dwemer make only because I have witnessed their like before. A dream is simply a canvas, and without wordly experiences, there is no paint. Even the imagination is anchored in reality."

Dawnstar was nearly gone from view at this point, although the Dreamwalker was sailing somewhat close to the shoreline. It was not a very long voyage they were undertaking. "It's strange," he mused, "how so few individuals mean anything to me now. It's so utterly freeing to be rid of attachments. They all turn against you in the end, one way or another." He gestured slightly towards the similar-looking redguard that stood outside his door, standing guard. "Even family. Greed makes even brothers into enemies. His poor luck for being my brother, however. I have learned that only when alone is man allowed to explore the pleasures of the world in peace."

“Mm,” Adrienne hummed pleasantly, tracing gently the lines in thread of what must have been an Imperial tapestry. “Sentiment is for artists and bards, it’s true. But I have not found every attachment to be without merit, as long as it remains free of such things as those. Perhaps that is only because I cannot rob a man of his mind. Well, not forever, at any rate.” She grinned, Cheshire and bright, the simple expression wrought with implication.

Clasping her hands behind her back once more, she allowed her circuitry of the room to carry her behind him, and she glanced out his window at the ocean for just a moment, but evidently dismissed it as less interesting than what was inside the chamber. “I would perhaps agree wholeheartedly, save one thing,” she held up a single digit, tilting her head slightly to one side and appearing to study his expression carefully as she tightened the circle, positioning herself between he and the table. It was a little too close to be strictly polite, but then that was the intent of it. “Not every pleasure in the world can be explored alone.” She took a single step back, removing herself from his personal space, but not so much that it would be perceived as a retreat. The heels of her hands hit the desk, and she leaned back against it with utmost ease.

She was quite conscious of the weights of the sword at her hip—bad idea, too obvious and not quick enough—and the dagger in her boot, which was still probably not ideal. What was an excellent choice was the knife he’d used to point out locations on the map, no more than a foot from her right arm, at present, but she resisted the temptation to look at it. She knew where it was, and that would have to be enough. It would be a very unfortunate thing indeed to draw his attention to it.

"How right you are," he said, his smile growing wicked at her implication. "And so rarely are the treasures brought to my feet. The others never parted with it freely, and they were sadly not such prizes as you are." He didn't seem to be in the mood for waiting, probably due to the battle that would arrive for him by nightfall at the latest. He maneuvered himself in front of her, pausing for the briefest of moments to make sure she did not plan on resisting, before he took her throat in one hand, not tightly enough to choke, and pushed her back onto the table, using his other hand to roughly shove the headwrap aside as he descended on her, his fingers brushing the hilt of his knife and spinning it such that the blade faced them. The table itself was sturdy enough for both of their weights.

It was only a natural reaction for her arms to spread as if to stabilize her spot on the table, but at this stage in the game, Adrienne could not afford to succumb to natural reaction unless it also served some purpose, which in this case, it did. Her right hand brushed the dagger, unfortunately not the hilt she’d been expecting, and it sliced into her palm, something which she refused to react to, instead inching the hand up and closing it around the handle of the weapon even as the prey fell wholeheartedly into the trap she’d set. That part of it had actually been simpler than she was accustomed to… usually there was a bit more coyness to get through first. But Rialta was direct in this, and his end would be, too. His descent was met with the brutal upward thrust of his own knife, and she buried it under his chin, shoving up to the guard at an angle for his brain. “Sweet dreams, captain,” she ground out, unable or unwilling to stop the incensed hiss at the end of the phrase.

Her face lost all hint of expression as she wrenched the blade to the side, tearing it out and gritting her teeth as a hot torrent of blood spilled onto her, soaking her from jaw to chest and seeping insidiously into her clothing. It was a singularly-horrifying sensation, and she had to swallow repeatedly to avoid losing whatever she’d eaten last.

Unfortunately, she had failed to account for the fact that one’s muscles ceased to function when one died, and worming her way out from under his corpse proved to be a grim but unavoidable task, one that incited a certain degree of panic from her as the assumed character fell away and the stark reality of what had taken place here set in, setting her atremble and sputtering, wiping the blood away from her mouth with a sleeve. She’d never actually had to kill someone like this before—she’d not taken her first life until she was in the Mentor’s service, actually. None of those had been this close, this personal. The people who came after mercenaries were armed and dangerous in their own right, and while Rialta was certainly no defenseless lamb, she had rendered him as close as he could get, and slain him then. It sit ill with her, but there was no time for regret.

At last able to regain her feet, Adrienne looked down at the table. With her acting as sponge, the map was mostly safe, and she slid it from the table, folding it with as much care as her shaking hands could muster. She rummaged though his cabinets for a few seconds, long enough to find an oilskin satchel, which she shoved the paper into in hopes that getting wet wouldn’t hurt it that way, then attached it to her belt and drew her sword.

It was time to find her friends, and get the hell out of here.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Maya had informed Anirne the moment she knew that the Omen was dead, the moment she knew that there was hope. Still they spurred their horses along the coastline, trying to keep the Redguard's ship in sight. It turned abruptly, and from the sounds, the witch knew that the situation on board had turned to chaos. It swerved several times on a doomed path to a large rock jutting out of the water a ways offshore, where it smashed to a violent halt.

She dismounted, conjuring her bow into her hands, and running as far into the icy water as she dared. She was almost in range, and if there was anyone she could kill to protect them, she'd do it in a heartbeat. She thought she saw Sinderion on the deck, but refused to allow her hopes to rise until she knew for sure. There were sounds of the living, but no one as of yet had departed from the soon to be doomed vessel.

The news that the Omen was dead was in a sense a relief, but it did little to settle matters, as the boat was still getting further away from them. At least… until it turned. The movement was erratic, but the overall direction suggested that either the chaos aboard was too great for them to keep steering, or someone was intentionally running it aground. If their friends yet lived as well, the latter seemed more likely. She couldn’t say for sure, though, and dismounted even as Maya splashed forth into the water. Anirne remained ashore, the familiar thrum of healing magic called to just beneath the surface. Chances were poor that all of them would have escaped unscathed.

”I’d worry less about them and more about yourself,” a voice put in from behind. Soren had drawn his horse to a stop and leaned casually against its neck, glancing at the wreckage with the faintest glimmer of amusement. “Tarquin’s gone in after them, and we all know what that means. He did send me to tell you, though, that he doesn't plan on attacking you. Whatever stock you want to put in that is entirely up to you, of course, so if you'd rather head for the hills, I won't stop you.” He was looking a little worse for the wear, a new scar etching itself in a jagged white line from the bridge of his nose across his left cheekbone, ending an inch or so before his ear. Despite that, and despite the fact that there were dark circles under his eyes signifying a lack of sleep, he appeared rather well, all things considered, a certain vitality to his tone and his limbs that had not been present before.

His eyes, sharp naturally, scanned the deck, and the tight smirk on his face broke into a wide grin. “I can see moody blue and lovely, at least. Looks like at least one of the others is below, because that’s where your Shade is.” He shrugged. Something told him they’d be fine.

"He's here now?" Maya asked, horrified but not at all surprised. If he'd been following them or stalking them, of course he would choose now to strike, when they were at their weakest, when he'd be able to slice through them all without any effort and tear her to pieces. She scanned the area around the ship for him, not believing Soren for a second. Why choose now to return? Why did he come back at all? Was he somehow connected with the Shade? Had he been all along? The questions frantically darted through her mind like rabbits through her forest, and they were each too fast to strike with a lightning bolt.

With that in mind, she backed out of the water cautiously, not wanting to be anywhere where her feet would be bogged down like that. There were no bodies nearby, save for those under the sea, and those she couldn't reach. No, there was nothing to protect her here, nothing but her bow and Anirne. They were going to die, certainly.

"Sinder, Lynly, hurry!" she called, hoping they'd hear. She needed them on the shore immediately. The others would need to work themselves out, too. Haste was the key here. They needed to run, to hide.

And there he was, swooping low across the water, heading for the ship. The ship? He pounded his wings down hard, floating up and over the wreck, sinking down until he was out of sight. And something hit Maya. The sun was high in the sky over their heads. It was daytime still, which meant Tarquin was at a far greater disadvantage than he would be in the night, under cover of darkness. A sound of lurching wood and groaning metal emanated from the bowels of the ship, and moments later he returned to the sky, a robed male's body in his arms. Drayk, if she was correct. The Shade came in fast towards the shoreline, landing some twenty feet away from Maya, amidst the tracks of the horses she and Anirne had left behind.

Her bow was up and an arrow drawn back, aimed for his head, but the Shade ignored her utterly, instead laying the fire mage upon his back on the icy shoreline, listening for a moment for breathing, or a heartbeat. He then began to push hard on Drayk's chest several times over, before placing his mouth over the mage's. Maya frowned at the sight, but did not lower her weapon.

He’d no sooner picked himself up off the ground, it seemed, than he heard a distressed yell, barely carried to him on the wind. It was a voice he knew, though, and the urgency in it moved him to haste. “Quickly,” he told Lynly, ”we must swim to the shore.” The statement was punctuated with a much larger sound, powerful wingbeats, and Sinderion caught a glimpse of the Shade as he descended. That couldn’t be good news.

With no need for further thought on the matter, he launched himself into a run, leaping at the last available second into a swanlike dive off the boat. It minimized the impact of his entry into the water, as he was still a good three stories above the surface, but there was no way to minimize the cold. Powerful strokes carried him to the shoreline, and he regained his feet, soaked to the bone and saved from clumsy shivering perhaps only by the greater adaptation and natural body heat of the beast, which was unusually quiet otherwise at the moment. It wasn’t something he devoted any time to thinking about, though, sparing no time to shake himself off before he appeared at Maya’s side, glancing at she, Anirne, and the oddly-reappeared Soren before he beheld the Shade and Drayk’s limp form.

He knew what was going on, he just didn’t understand it.

Lynly picked herself off of the deck with the help of the stuck wheel and leaned on it as the knife-ear ran to the edge of the railing and dove in. Of course they'd have to swim, nothing could be handed to them. She sighed and made her way to the railing herself, and watched as the elven form swam toward the shore before cursing. "Bloody pirates were right,"' she muttered, fiddling with the straps that kept her armor in check. Had anyone else been on board with her, she'd never admit that statement out loud. Not only that, but the Shade had made an appearance as well, because why wouldn't he? She mouthed a steady stream of curses as her iron and fur plate came off and thudded onto the wood beside her.

She then sheathed her sword, and tightened the straps that held both it and her shield to her back. If the Shade was here, she'd need them both very soon. Satisfied (as far as she could be, the situation was far from great) she hoisted herself onto the railing and dove in behind the elf. Shock of the ice water struck first, and when she reached the surface she couldn't keep her voice to herself. She yelped, but then gritted her teeth, pulling herself along the surface of the water with wide breast-strokes. Nord heritage saw to it she wouldn't freeze to death immediately, but it was still damn cold.

She pulled herself out of the water with heavy strides, sopping wet. Lynly looked worse for wear, but she was intact. The tan tunic she wore under her armor was darkened with moisture, the braids in her hair frayed to no end, and a bruise was beginning to form on her cheek where she smashed into the wheel. But she was alive... For now. The Shade was still there-- but then again so was Soren. She glanced at the man and then shrugged, "Welcome back." The tone was completely deadpan, like she didn't just run a ship into a rock.

"Why thank you, lovely. It's actually quite nice to be back. You lot make raiding the Brotherhood headquarters look like a lark, what with all the dripping and the panicking and such. I would have made my entrance more dramatic, but I'm afraid there's little competing with him on that front," the assassin replied, tilting his head in Tarquin's direction and smiling. "I actually think he rather plans it that way." If he was at all concerned with being overheard by the vampire in question, he made no indication of it.

At least she didn’t have to endure the pain of it for long. Adrienne felt herself enveloped in some kind of restorative magic, knitting together the bones and restoring the vitality to her flesh, and when her eyes cleared, they centered almost at once on Tarquin. He was, after all, rather hard to ignore. The words he spoke, she heard, but didn’t process as quickly as she might have liked. In the end, though, she did understand, and nodded. They had no other choice, and something… something seemed different about him. She sorely hoped she was not imagining that.

”Thank you,” she said, unable or unwilling to hide the sheer relief and gratitude in it. Whatever his motives, they had little option but to trust him, and so she would, at least for now. This marked one more of many occasions on which he could have killed them if he wished, but the newly-whole state of her arm spoke to different intent. She may not have him figured out yet, but she felt that she wasn’t going to die today, and neither were her friends.

She waited until she knew Van was conscious and ready to swim before she struck out of the hole in the hull. Magic or no magic, she was exhausted, and swimming, though familiar to someone who’d grown up near the ocean, was not exactly what she’d most like to be doing right now. Vanryth managed to roll himself off of the bench thanks to what spell the Shade weaved-- though he despised that fact. It was little consolation that this spell wasn't a rage spell. He slowly waded through the flooded deck toward's Adrienne and placed an arm over her neck, jerking his head toward the hole. He'd rather not stay longer then necessary. Choppy as the waves were, they made it, pulling themselves ashore sometime after Sinder and Lynly had done so. Adrienne was shaking with the cold, and probably incapable of moving much, but she was there all the same, and took a few lurching steps towards Tarquin and Drayk before she forced herself to stop. There was nothing additional she could do, anyway, and she settled for wrapping herself in her own arms, trying to stay warm in the impossibly chill air.

Once on the shore, Vanryth didn't move much. He waded out until the land was dry enough and then collapsed to his back. He was still alive, though just barely. He was more exhausted than anything, and his back was still in pain. He tried not to think of the Shade just feet away.

Drayk returned to them with a fit of coughing and a small tide of seawater coming out of him. As soon as he was revived the Shade turned him over such that he would not choke on the water again. When Drayk was capable of turning his head enough to see his savior, he shouted in alarm. He had not yet seen the Shade in this state, and it was obviously quite alarming. He tried to push himself up, but his body was still so cold he could hardly move. To assist, the Shade backed up a few paces from him. "Use your flame cloak," he commanded.

"What?" Drayk practically croaked, and the Shade nodded. "Just do it. You'll see." He paused for a second, before slowly igniting the spell in his right hand, and casting it over himself. The flames swirled around him for the briefest of moments before he howled in agony, writhing on the ground for a few seconds before putting the spell out. Still, once it was done he was able to roll over onto his front and start crawling towards Adrienne and the others.

"He'll live," the Shade announced, as if he were an authority on these matters. He was breathing heavily himself, his chest rising and falling in motions that seemed almost exaggerated, but it could clearly be seen in his eyes just how tired he was. He sighed, seemingly glad to finally stop moving, and took a knee, shifting back into his human form, where he immediately lifted the hood of his dark cloak over his head. He exhaled with what could only have been relief.

"Put the bow down, Maya," he said gently. She looked at him as though he were insane. "Not a chance, Tarquin. You can't possibly think a show of mercy will get us to lower our guards. We're no fools."

"I'm aware," he said tiredly. "I mean to to take these ones back to their Mentor. The situation has changed. Now... can we speak in peace? There's been enough death here, I think."

Adrienne was back in motion the second Drayk coughed, dropping to his side as the Shade backed off, though she kept her distance until the flame cloak had extinguished. ”Oh, thank…” she trailed off. There was no thanking the nine for this, nor Mara, nor any of the Daedra certainly. This was something that Tarquin had done of his own free will, and her gratitude was his. She glanced up at him, then over at Maya, who still had her conjured bow pointed at him. ”Come on, Drayk… let’s get you off the ice…” she murmured quietly, helping him up with what little strength remained to her. She almost felt bad that it was her, since she was utterly frozen, but as usual, his comparative warmth was welcome.

The revelation about the Mentor put a hitch in her step, and her eyes went wide. What about the situation had changed so much in such a short time? ”Please, Maya, let’s hear him out. He didn’t have to come here, in the middle of the day, and drag us out of there, but he did. We owe him this much, at least.” He’d appeared when he was weakest, and though most of them were more battered than he was, he would not have known it would be so when he set out for this place. It was exposing as much vulnerability as someone like Tarquin could have.

Anirne, meanwhile, had crouched near Vanryth, the most worn-looking of those who remained. The light rustling chime and soft light of healing magic encased her hands as she tried to ease the aches. The surface injuries themselves were gone, and what he mostly needed was rest, but she was trying to stave off any long-term effects of the wounds he’d sustained. She said nothing, though she did mark the change in the Shade’s demeanor with calm interest.

Maya knew that she didn't want to. He was so weak now, and although they were heavily battered themselves, they would be able to beat him, and she knew it. He'd made a mistake, he'd allowed himself to present a weakness, and they needed to take advantage of it while they could. If they didn't, he'd only come back later, in the night, at the height of his power, and then they wouldn't be able to stop him even at their best.

"I don't owe him anything," she murmured, but she lowered the bow all the same, snapping her hand shut and banishing it with a hiss. "Say what you will, Tarquin."

"Thank you," he said, taking a few slow steps towards them so as to not have to shout. "I went to seek out my father after leaving you at the embassy. I... wanted to speak with him. To understand why he abandoned us, for a start. And perhaps to understand why he valued you all so highly."

"When I originally took him from you, I delivered him to my mother, the one called the Webspinner in this game. She was... more agreeable then. She took him, held him, questioned him, I assume. I don't know. But something changed from that time to the time I returned. She was... inconsolable. She turned me away entirely. I was unable to reach your Mentor."

He lowered his gaze somewhat, speaking more softly now. "Either he is dead, or something has happened that my mother strongly disagrees with, I know not. She has lived... a very long time. Her mind is not what it once was, and being forced into this game has done nothing to help that. It is time she know peace. You will help me end her life, and we will find my father together."

"No," Maya said at once. "I'm not going anywhere with you. I don't care if you're as docile as a rabbit. We'll get to your mother when we do, but we'll do it without you." To that, the Shade nodded, understanding. "I would not attempt to force myself upon your group again. I will respect that. Who is your target?"

"The Pact. She's nearby. We saw her on our way here." It piqued the Shade's interest. "My mother captured one of her warriors. She should be next in line. Deal with her. I will travel to Ivarstead in the Rift, and you will meet me there when you are done. Is that agreeable?" Maya looked uncertain at best, clearly not eager to enter into any kind of arrangement with a man who was capable of, and supposed to, kill her on sight.

It was quite a lot of news to process, and frankly, Adrienne wasn’t sure how to feel about most of it. What they were being asked to do wasn’t really outside the parameters of the Game at all, but the nature of the request was puzzling all the same. Still with Drayk leaning somewhat heavily on her person, she met the Shade’s eyes over the intervening distance and tilted her head to one side. ”Are you sure?” she asked softly. ”When first we spoke, it seemed that much of the disdain you carried for your father was gained because he left you and your family behind. Are you certain that the only solution to this is to assist us in slaying your mother?”

She wished to find the Mentor, oh how she did. And she knew also that the death of the Webspinner would eventually be demanded of them, in one form or another. They couldn’t have all prepared for this game expecting otherwise. But as she had learned, there was a vast difference between knowing that harm would come to someone you loved by your actions, and actually seeing it. Perhaps Tarquin had intellectually accepted that his mother, however far gone she was, was going to die. But… that was different indeed from causing it, or witnessing it. She was unable to prevent her curiosity at the change in his demeanor, and however foolish it might be, she was feeling sympathy for him, something she would have expected him to disdain. But now… things seemed different. And despite what he’d explained, they didn’t quite know why.

"I am sure," the Shade responded. It seemed for a moment that he might leave it at that, but he decided to clarify somewhat. "She has held only fragments of her mind for many years now. I believe even these are gone now. It... would be a mercy. And it is where I took your Mentor, so it is there that any of us will find answers."

He paused for a moment. "You... have not seen what she has become."

Sinderion was pretty accustomed to being confused. He didn’t always understand people very well, having missed out on a number of very important developmental years and spending them as an animal instead. So naturally, he wasn’t all that surprised when he didn’t understand what in the name of Oblivion the Shade was getting at. Adrienne’s question seemed misdirected to him, but then she knew much more about people than he did, so it was probably his error rather than hers. The answer was just another layer of the situation that he didn’t quite get, but he supposed it was easy enough to imagine what someone with so little sanity was like. Actually, it was painfully simple, given personal experience. Yes, he at least could see the decision to end her as a good one, if even those closest to her believed her beyond saving.

He felt… torn. Part of him wanted to rush there right away, recover the Mentor (or his corpse, which he wasn’t sure any of them would be able to deal with), and get out of this twisted game. The other… the other was siding with Maya even against his better judgement, urging him to see it (and her) through to the end. More exposure to the Shade was making that less likely, but it didn’t seem that there was much of a choice. He’d found them so easily, he could do it again. Probably better not to cross him without need.

He sighed, the sound heavy. ”Then we should begin hunting the Pact as soon as we can,” he said, glancing at his prone best friend and Drayk and Adrienne, the younger siblings of his patchwork family, leaning on one another to remain upright. It was a grim thought, that they would once again be forced to fight so soon, but it was becoming the reality of their lives. “I doubt it will be long before she realizes she has new hunters, and we are the logical conclusion.” Especially considering their meeting days ago.

There was no working around it for Maya. They needed to hunt the Pact, and soon, either way. It... could actually prove beneficial. If the Shade was telling the truth (which she so strongly wanted to believe he wasn't), then she would know the exact location of her hunter, be able to hit her next target freely, without looking over her shoulder for pursuit. If he was lying, than she was only lowering her defenses. But if he still truly wanted her dead, and the Sellswords with her, surely he would have done it by now...

"Fine," Maya said, relenting. "We'll handle the Pact, and then meet you in the Rift to deal with the Webspinner. Maybe some of the others will deal with each other while we're at it."

"We can hope," the Shade said, nodding. "Good hunting, Maya."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Chapter VI
The Darkest Places




They split up as soon as they reached Dawnstar, the Shade leaving in a typically hasty fashion. The Sellswords were understandably slower to move themselves, still exhausted from their escape of the Dreamwalker, most of them also still plagued by wounds of varying degrees. There was little time to wait around, however, and so their healer had to do her work while in motion. In all, it was not the ideal setting to depart in search of a target who, as far as they knew, could be just as dangerous as the last one.

Drayk was in a sort of stupor when they reached Dawnstar and began to gather what little they had unpacked, preparing their horses for another departure. He had wreathed himself in flames several more times over the course of the walk back to town, and only on the first attempt did he fall to his knees in pain. After that, the feeling truly began to come back to his limbs, and what followed of course was the overwhelming sensation that his entire body was being stabbed in every conceivable place from the inside out. He'd had to stop for a few minutes, until he was capable of controlling his legs without falling down. After that, only slight assistance from Adrienne had been necessary. Even that was really just because he wanted to stay close to her.

He didn't know what had happened aboard the Omen's ship, and he wasn't sure he wanted to know. He remembered dying in a nightmare and having it feel like reality, like the time the Inquisitor had ran him through, or the frost atronach had smashed him against a wall. In all, he was tired of dying. What he knew was that someone had broken through, someone had killed the Omen, and freed him again. After that, he'd lived the shortest of all his lives, dying under freezing water and crushing weight, weight that was far greater than a simple ballista.

His friends had saved him from the Omen, but it had been the Shade that saved him from the water. It was perhaps the strangest conclusion there could have been to the situation. He'd been able to listen to the conversation afterwards, but it left him feeling only more confused. They were now working with two different representatives, one of which was supposed to be trying to kill the other. The Shade's change in demeanor only muddied the waters further. His feelings that they should abandon the witch and go with the side of strength were only reinforced, but he knew it still wouldn't go over well. But wasn't it the only way this could end? When there were two? Why would they take the losing side, after surviving so much together. They could make nice all they wanted, claim to be in an alliance, a truce, but it had to end eventually. There were no pacts between representatives. None that would last, anyway.

With the horses ready, the Sellswords heaved themselves up, and rode out of Dawnstar. The day had gone well into the afternoon by this point, but time was of the essence, if they were to catch the Pact unawares. It would likely be vital to their survival, considering how effectively she'd been able to sneak up on them earlier. Maya took the lead, one of the few among them not so physically and emotionally drained, though she was certainly not without issues plaguing her. Now wasn't the time for it, though. The others weren't ready to listen, and she wasn't ready to speak. First she would need to decide how she actually felt, and that was far easier said than done.

But it seemed they wouldn't even have time to think about their troubles, as pounding hooves ahead of them signaled a rider approaching. They were not yet fifteen minutes outside of Dawnstar, but the man riding towards them was clearly a cloaked Dunmer. The Horizon pulled his horse to a halt at the head of their column, taking in their battered appearance.

"We've caught a break, Sellswords," he announced. "The Pact moved to reposition as soon as her scouts relayed news of the Omen's ship departing. I followed them. They've taken up a position in a Dwemer ruin not far from here, expecting a full frontal assault from the Omen's improved forces. I know this ruin. There is a rear entrance we can use to slip around behind them, and avoid the traps they've planted. But we must hurry. She may move again when she learns of what happened to Rialta."

"Of course it's a Dwemer ruin," Lynly sighed as she pulled her own horse alongside Maya's. She of all people would understand her reluctance. The nord then spared the woman a tired look, but shrugged. Diving headfirst into a dwemer ruin after leaving her armor behind, and after the whole ordeal on the boat, left a bad taste in her mouth. Caught a break, the ashskin said, they'd caught nothing. The Sellswords never catch a break. Still, she relented and dropped her eyes before looking back, "I'm behind you," she told the witch. She could only hope that they could take out a lone scout first so she could don what pittance armor he had.

Sinderion made the distinct choice not to occupy himself thinking overmuch about anything that had happened recently. If there was one skill that constantly fighting off an internal monster had given him, it was the ability to compartmentalize. His mind, on good days, worked rather like a large house, with rooms and labeled doors into which he could shove those thoughts he didn't really want to deal with at the moment. Everything was properly sorted, arranged, and kept together. What he'd faced in that room with Rialta was hurriedly placed on the 'later' room, for unsorted material that could not be dealt with in the present moment.

Of course, few days were good days for him recently, and so for now he was simply glad that the doors weren't being thrown open, their contents spilling out into his consciousness like a flood of water. That a few stray ones occasionally had to be ignored was something he could deal with easily enough.

He was in much better physical condition than most of his comrades, again, and it was beginning to wear on him psychologically. Seeing them in such a state while he still had full, fine control of all his movements was taxing in an entirely different way than dealing with such fatigue would have been, and it was hard to know which was worse. He was, after all, accustomed to pain. In his observations, he had not missed the massive bloodstain on Adrienne, nor had he failed to identify the smell, even diluted by water as it was. He knew which of them had killed the Omen, which of them had saved them all. He just wasn't sure how to feel about it, and that question, too, was banished to the uncertain relam of 'later.'

Of more present concern, and more immediate remedy, was the lack of equipment some of them were dealing with. Lynly was the most noticeable, without any kind of armor, and he couldn't do anything about that. Van appeared to be weaponless, and Sinder could only presume he'd lost both his blades somewhere on the ship. This led the altmer to an easy conclusion. Sure fingers untied the leather cord that held his scabbard at his belt, and he withdrew the long elvish blade, sheath and all, from its place at his side, holding it out to his dunmer friend wordlessly. The situation hardly required words, after all. He'd be fine with the shorter of his blades, and his bow.

Well, well, this just got more interesting as things moved along, didn't it? Their little melodrama was endlessly amusing, at least to him, though he was somewhat disappointed that this would be the second time in less than a week that he was pulling the 'infiltrate fortifications from a hidden entrance' schtick. Well, it had worked pretty well the first time, leaving him with only a few grievous injuries, a new scar on his face, and an empty quiver. So hell, why not? He was a little curious about lovely's reaction to discovering that their target was in a Dwemer ruin, but for now, he refrained from asking about it. It was really too bad they couldn't avoid ruining the ship: keeping it going in the right direction would have given their deception a much longer shelf-life.

"Ambushes are so much more fun than sieges, anyway."

”You would think that, wouldn’t you?” Anirne replied neutrally, drawing an arm across her brow. Healing on the move was not the simplest of maneuvers, but she’d managed to acquit herself well. The Sellswords were entirely free of broken bones, open wounds, and potential infections, though she could do nothing for their fatigue. That was something that had to recover on its own. In an emergency, she could transfer vitality directly, but the fact was, she had not enough to go around, especially not after all the work she’d just done. Rolling her shoulders, she adjusted her seat on her horse and glanced around.

She was worried about all of them, but for some reason, something drew her eye about Adrienne. The girl had been quiet, very quiet, having said nothing at all since asking her question of the Shade. From the amount of blood on her, she’d clearly been very up-close to some measure of death, and though the Psijic had no idea what had occurred on that ship, it must have been bad, from the mood hanging over them all. Adrienne, though, observed her surroundings with dull eyes, and moved little, classic signs of shock. It seemed that now that they had been given even a few moments in which their lives were not in the balance, whatever had been keeping her sharp was gone.

If Anirne had her guess, Drayk’s proximity was helping, but not much. There wasn’t anything she could do for that, though, and she’d just have to keep an eye on things, and hope that the youngest of them could snap herself out of her daze when the time came once more to fight. If she couldn’t, they would all suffer for it.

"We'll get this over with quickly, then," Maya said, half to Lynly and half to Invorin. She wasn't happy trusting the plan of another representative, but the Horizon was either a very good liar, or he was actually intent on seeing the Pact dead before her time, even if it meant he wouldn't be the one to kill her. But she did have one question for him, before she threw herself back into the fire at his suggestion. "How did you know what happened to the Omen and follow the Pact and her warriors?"

He smiled, eyes gleaming. "Azura grants sight that isn't possible with mere eyes, my lady. Now, we should be off. There's little time to lose." Maya shook her head as she put her heels into her horse. That wasn't something she was called often.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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It was a very little door.

That was Maya's tactical analysis of the situation thus far. Even so far as doors went, this one was small. Not so much short as it was thin, a dull bronze wall with a golden handle, only wide enough for one person to stand in at a time. Even then, someone wider than Maya might have had to turn sideways. For a back door, it had a very fitting appearance.

They were currently crouched down behind a low, foliage covered hill, the largely barren bushes obscuring them somewhat from view in the event that the Pact had sentries over here. If she did, it meant this way was covered as well, so Maya strongly hoped there were none about. She doubted her ability to see them if they were, given that even Sinder hadn't been able to sense them when last they crossed paths with the Bosmer who was now her target. The huntress in her told her it was a very good thing there were no tracks here, as it was an obvious sign that no one had been here recently, but the suspicious side of her expected the Pact's followers to know how to cover their trails very well.

"So where's the front door?" Maya asked the Horizon, who lay in the snow next to her. He pointed to their left. "About a mile that way. It's a large network of tunnels under there, some that go very deep. This entrance should be beyond the reach of twenty some warriors, but caution never hurts." Maya seconded that. She felt no better about entering a Dwemer ruin than the majority of the party did, no doubt. It wasn't only the living beings inside that had the potential to ambush them, after all. The constructs defended themselves, with deadly traps and automatons. It was all metal on stone, and worst of all, it was loud. Sneaking up on her wouldn't be easy.

"Well, there's no point in waiting," Maya said, pushing up off the snow and making her way towards the door first. The rest of the group followed one by one, with the Horizon taking up the rear. Maya was tempted to conjure a weapon, but her daedric creations gave off more light than she was willing to create in a dark interior, so she held off. Weapons were situational as well. She'd be just as likely to need a dagger as a bow when inside these ruins.

The handle was actually warm to the touch, and Maya pulled it down, the latch releasing with a heavy snap. She grimaced. Sounds like that would get them killed. Damn Dwemer and their love of metal and stone. The door itself was quite heavy for being so thin, and it swung open gracefully, allowing Maya to pass inside. The others would need to enter one by one behind her. When Invorin passed through the door, he slowly pulled it shut behind them, and they moved into darkness entirely.

It took her eyes a moment to adjust, but even before they did, she noticed something different. Dwemer ruins were supposed to be loud, weren't they? Their steamworks were famous for still being functional, for continuing to run long after their makers had disappeared from the world, but this place was utterly silent, save for the breathing of her companions, the creaking of armor, boots on the hard stone. Visually, it looked much like other Dwemer ruins at first, bronze pipes extending along the stone walls, vents traveling through spaces the Sellswords couldn't see. But none of it was moving.

"I hate it here already," Maya murmured darkly, starting forward. "Let's find this bitch and get the hell out of here."

"It took you this long?" Lynly muttered. Distaste was readily apparent in everything about the woman. Her speech, the hitch in her shoulders, her plodding footsteps, the naked sword and bare shield in her hands. She had pulled both off of her back as soon as the door was in sight, and would not put them back until it was far behind them. In a stark contrast on how she was on the Omen's boat, she looked unsure, almost skittish once again. Fortunately, there were no ambient sounds of the ruins-- else she would be fidgetting even harder at every odd whistle or strange whine.

Thanks to the sword and shield she was loath to replace, Lynly had to traverse the passage sideways, though a little price to pay for what small peace of mind it brought her. Not only was she back in a Dwemer ruin, something she hasn't returned to in some odd years, but she was missing a vital piece of herself-- her armor. She was walking these wretched halls naked, not armored to the teeth as she envisioned. Her teeth were clenched, and her knuckles were white as she kept her eyes pointed toward the darkness and on the back of Maya's head.

"I agree," Nothing would please her more than doing their job and getting out.

Sinderion followed immediately after Lynly, his larger frame requiring him to angle his body a bit to fit inside the door, but he was able to right himself again thereafter, sliding his single remaining sword from its scabbard noiselessly. As the other was in Vanryth’s possession, he had only this one remaining to him. It would do. He inhaled deeply, but the only things of note that had been in this passage for a long time would seem to be his friends and the Horizon. Everything else smelled like stale air, rust, and metal, as though the passage had been disused for a very long time.

It was also utterly silent, and that seemed wrong somehow. Given how easily his nose had been fooled before, he half-expected the Pact and her guerrillas to appear at any moment, and his every line was pulled taut or coiled as he moved, ready to snap this way or that at a moment’s notice. He was also utterly silent.

Soren snorted quietly, unslinging his bow as he followed the moody one into the passage. Someone the size of a Nord wasn’t going to fit through there without a bit of adjustment, but he’d crammed into smaller spaces before, for lesser reasons, actually. He wasn’t sure what the big deal was—mostly you ran into giant clanking machines in ruins like these, and those at least you’d be able to hear coming. As for the Pact’s soldiers, well, he did like ambushes.

Anirne was next to file in, figuring that keeping herself centrally-located would be useful, as everyone was currently in range of her magic. Not that she was sure anything was going to happen, of course, but the possibility was enough.

These were not, perhaps, the oldest ruins she'd been in recently, but they did seem quite ancient. She had a deep respect for Dwemer ingenuity, but some of the measures they'd taken to produce it... well, the Falmer immediately came to mind, those poor, twisted beings that were all that remained of a once-noble snow elf people. A shame indeed, for the height of their civilization had been a glorious one in its own right, steeped in magic and ascetic tradition. There were theories among her compatriots that it might even have been similar to the way of life the Psijics practiced now, though she knew not nearly enough of the relevant information to have an opinion on the matter.

She stepped as quietly as she could, but neither she nor the still dead-eyed Adrienne behind her were trained for stealth, and the minute scuffs of their feet on the stone ground seemed far too loud in this blanketing silence.

Vanryth was posted not far behind Anirne, and though he was whole once again, he certainly didn't feel like it. His limbs were leadened and his mind clouded with fatigue. Not to mention the mental affects on what had just transpired on the Omen's ship. Then, he didn't have time to let it get to him, and it all happened so fast that it didn't start to register. How close they had come to losing everything again. Drayk once again almost met his end. Adrienne was a ghost of what she once was, and he was as mechanical as any one of these dwemer's constructs. He was so very tired of this game they played, and it was beginning to cost them more than their lives.

Drayk knew the heavy silence and ancient corridors should have made him tense, especially with the possiblity of ambush lurking around every corner, but it really just made him feel more tired. Element of surprise or no, this felt like a very bad idea, wandering into a fight with a fresh opponent while they were so drained. But did they really have a choice? If they waited until the Pact was prepared, it may not matter how well rested they were.

He'd noticed the bloodstains on Adrienne by this point, but there had been death everywhere on that ship, and they'd killed men before, so it had not yet occurred to him that the look in her eyes was something more than simple exhaustion. He stayed as close to her as he was able, not knowing if there was anything more he could do to help right now. They couldn't afford to keep speaking as they got further in, for risk of being detected before they were ready. Not that he would have known what to say, anyway.

They passed a small side room, the first branching of paths they'd seen since entering the ruin, but it appeared to be a dead end, a mess of more Dwemer technology that had stopped functioning. As for the environment itself, Drayk had little opinion. The lack of sound and functioning equipment meant all the defense systems would be non-functioning as well, right? That meant they didn't have to worry about enemies, or--

A loud click rang around the hall as Drayk felt the floor under him give slightly. He looked down to see a square plate at his feet, depressed by his weight. A pressure plate. He looked around for what it was supposed to trigger, soon locating the three holes on the wall that were connected to the trap. Nothing came out of them, confirming his theory that they had little to fear from the ruins themselves. He exhaled to release the tension in him, his adrenaline temporarily pulling him out of his stupor.

"Good thing this place isn't active, I suppose," he murmured ahead of him. The witch nodded her agreement from the head of the group. "Still, try to avoid those if you can, for the noise more than anything. Why do you think this place is like this, Inv-- wait, where'd he go?" She took a few angry paces back, eyes urgently searching for the Dunmer that had been bringing up the rear. No sooner had she done that then a very loud snap echoed down the corridor, followed by several smaller ones. The pipes on the walls began to hiss and vibrate as the ruin came back to life.

Drayk had yet to move, and a trio of bronze spears shot out of the wall at him. He cried out in surprise and barely got his shield up in time, the weapons smashing into the wood hard enough to push him backwards into Adrienne, his lack of balance taking him to the other wall. They retracted as quickly as they'd come, the pressure plate on the floor raising once more. Behind them about twenty feet, thick metal bars sprang up from the floor and barred their way back, the action following one last snap, this one coming from the room they'd just passed.

"No," Maya hissed in frustration, running back until she reached the bars, to find the Horizon standing on the other side. Maya conjured her bow and drew an arrow back, aimed right at his forehead. Despite their different positions in the order, the Horizon took up a more ready stance, lighting a ward spell in his left hand, his right hand now wielding... a bladed staff, something he certainly hadn't been carrying around with him prior to this point.

"You can't kill me, Maya," he reminded her calmly. She spat back at him. "No more than you're trying to kill us?" He shook his head. "I certainly don't intend for you to die, not yet. The rules are the rules. Still, that doesn't mean you and your companions can't enjoy an extended stay down here, while stronger alliances cleave through the field without fear of their hunters."

"Stronger alliances... oh, you can't be serious!" she called. He was already backing away into the darkness, headed back towards the entrance. "What do you get out of this? Are you just wrapped around her little finger, is that it?" He laughed genuinely at that. "That sounds like something you'd try, Maya. But no. I have played my part, now Ilanna will play hers." He passed beyond their sight entirely, turning a corner and disappearing.

"Damn it!" Maya said, smacking the metal bars with her bow in frustration. They responded by sending a powerful electrical shock up her arm, causing her to yelp in pain and jump back. She then banished the weapon, turning to the others and shaking out her arm. "Looks like we might be down here for a while..."

Adrienne seemed to bring herself around a little as she was bodily hit, the domino-impact with Drayk sending her skittering off to one side. She stumbled, regaining her feet, and alarm registered dimly on her facial features, but she didn’t react nearly quickly enough to do anything, and in the end, her face visibly blanked again somewhere in the middle of the argument between Maya and the Horizon. She should have seen this coming. Were not plots and scheming precisely her forte? She was hardly in the state of mind to really think much about any of this, though, and in the end she found it difficult to care.

So they were being locked down here with no immediately visible means of escape? Well, at least he couldn’t kill them. It was no worse than anything that had happened to them over the past weeks, and it was quite a lot better than some of it. They could get some rest, at least…

Anirne frowned at the new set of bars. That was… inconvenient. Glancing over at the others, she took in their exhausted faces, and figured about the same thing: perhaps being down here would give them a chance to sleep. And she doubted very much either Invorin or his ally would be expecting them to make it out of here anytime soon, which meant that when they did—and they would, these places always had exits—they would be able to surprise them. The Psijic was not one for vengeful thoughts or hatred, but she did not take well to being attacked from behind, and something violent flashed behind her eyes for a second before disappearing.

“Well…” Anirne replied to Maya, “Maybe. But maybe not. No dwemer was fool enough to build himself a home with one exit and a set of bars on with a trigger on the outside. There’s another way out; it’s just a matter of finding it. At least this way, you can get some rest. And depending on where this place goes, there may be some equipment in it for those of us missing certain crucial pieces.” she smiled at Lynly and Van. They could look at this as a horrible mistake, or as an opportunity. Both were equally true, but Anirne chose to look on the bright side.

There wasn’t much choice, after all.

Treachery from a Representative? Who would have guessed? Soren watched the metal bars erupt from the floor with detached interest, humming a note to himself as Maya approached them to yell at their dear Horizon, who was now spouting off some nonsense about stronger alliances. Stronger alliances? Just who did this man think he was? To the mercenary’s knowledge, neither the Horizon nor the Pact had yet managed a single kill, and the Sellswords and their darling Blackfeather had been well on their way to three before this minor hiccup. And that was if you didn’t count the Inquisitor, which was perhaps being a little unfair to them, considering.

“Have I mentioned that you all have the best luck with people?” he asked sardonically, though he could quite easily perceive that none of them were in the mood. It wasn’t like he cared what mood they were in, and he at least was perfectly at ease for the moment. This Game, it provided him with no sense of urgency, no grim specter of doom. It never had, but now he was free of such things entirely. He was, after all, a dead man. Any living he did after this point was entirely extra, a bonus, if one would.

“So it seems.” Sinder replied in a monotone, choosing not to react overmuch to what had occurred. Anirne was right—there had to be a way out of here. It was just a matter of finding it. And, well… it meant he wouldn’t have to watch them go into a fight with yet another Representative so soon after the last. That was a bit of a relief, even he had to admit. What had occurred on that ship… well, he might be able to compartmentalize, but it would have to be dealt with eventually, and he doubted he had endured the worst of it. Drayk had almost died, and Adrienne… he wasn’t really sure what had happened to her, but he didn’t like that glassy look to her eyes.

That sounds like something you would try, Maya. Sinder shifted uncomfortably, not pleased with the direction of the thought, and flicked a brief glance at the woman in question. Was it really such an outlandish possibility, that she was playing them, playing him like a harp? His brows furrowed. She certainly had been, at the beginning, telling them nothing of who the Bloody Curse was and what they were about to step into. She was fully capable of continuing the ruse, of changing it as she needed to, but... he didn't want to think she would. He should, though. He was naturally suspicious, and it had served him well before. Clenching his jaw, she shook his head slightly and banished that thought, too, to the mounting stack of things he would have to ponder later. First and before all else, they had to get out of this ruin.

While Maya went back toward the bastard fetcher behind them, Vanryth traded places with the witch and surged forward, Sinder's elven blade flashing in his hand. There were plenty of bodies to handle the Horizon, and what else come from behind, but only the warrior between them and anything that decided to assualt their front. Lynly's shield came up and pointed toward the open end of the tunnel, blade lightly resting on the edge. Vanryth took up a position beside and behind her, a lightning spell crackling in his hand and the sword raised. If anything chose that moment to attack, then they would have to get through both of them. Van couldn't help but not be surprised at their sudden change in sitiuations.

Soren was right, though he believed it was more luck in general, but this certainly wasn't a new thought. They'd have no luck if not for bad luck, and this certain reversal of roles only managed to further prove it. Moments passed, and nothing attacked, letting both the warrior and the dunmer ease up on their weapons, though not entirely lowered. Both had been in enough of like situations to understand that it was that single moment where you lowered your defenses that everything went to Oblivion. "Hah! Rest. You say that like I'll be able to sleep in this blasted ruin," Lynly bit harder than was entirely intended.

The comment about finding equipment though did raise an interesting thought. If they could find an old dwemer armory, maybe she could find an intact set of armor. While dwemer metal was heavier than what she normally liked, she wouldn't complain if they had found any. Lynly wasn't the one to look a gift horse in the mouth after all. It'd do for temporary armor. Vanryth agreed with a grunt, he didn't like the idea of sitting in a cage resting while another Representive could come finish them off at their leisure. He was nobody's rat. "Let's at least get out of this tunnel first," Lynly spoke. She was quickly becoming claustrophobic.

"Right with you," Maya said, taking the lead again. She feared the Sellswords were all so drained they'd simply sit down and fall into comas if she let them rest. And they couldn't rest yet.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: The Representatives

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The waterfall had temporarily drowned out the sound of sobs, but when Maya started heading back towards the towers where they'd dropped their packs, she paused. It was... harder to handle than she thought it would be. How had everything become so complicated? It had been... well, not simple, but simpler, back when she'd been hunting her first target. Deceiving the Sellswords. They'd been tools then, but she'd gone and taken an interest in them, and a few turns of the moon later and she was feeling pain when they did. Certainly not to the same extent; she was not their family and probably never would be, but she couldn't deny that she wanted something better for them.

She pulled a comfortable dark blue tunic over her still dripping mess of hair, leaving her robe tied off around her waist, her legs largely bared now that she had foregone her high moccasins. She spied the Psijic meditating atop one of the towers, the one furthest away from where the Sellswords were consoling Adrienne. Or at least, most of them; she spotted Drayk storming away as far as he could get, idly flicking sparks into the stream.

Maya made her way up the circling ramp to where Anirne sat. The witch sank against one of the walls with not nearly so good of posture as the altmer, considering going back to the waterfall, if only because it was much quieter here, and there was no way to block out the sobbing. She turned to look, and saw that it was Sinder doing his best to comfort her. He was a whole other issue entirely, one she was even less sure about.

"I've had to remind myself lately that we're fighting for two different things," she said softly, gazing back down at the waterfall. "They fight so they can find their Mentor, and I do it because I was chosen for it, and never really had a choice in the matter. This... shouldn't be her burden, should it? I suffered nothing today, and they were broken..." Maya thought many things of herself, but she'd never thought herself particularly wise. Anirne struck her as a woman who was significantly better in that regard. Perhaps she was looking for some other insight she couldn't see.

Most of the conversation between the four Sellswords had been at too low a volume for Anirne to decipher. She did not, after all, possess her brother’s ears, for all the similarity in appearance. This had been her intention: to give them as much privacy as such a setting would allow, whilst not straying so far that she could not be found if she were needed. She was not far enough, however, to be spared the distinct sound of someone crying who’d just had her heart torn in half. It stirred Anirne’s own sorrow, and this, she accepted. She felt deeply, and this was no exception, but even the tugging in her heart paled in comparison to what that child (for indeed, the youngest among them were scarcely more than children) endured right now.

It was making meditation impossible, but that, too, she accepted. None should be entirely at ease when someone was in that much pain.

She opened her eyes at the sound of Maya’s approach, tilting her golden head slightly to one side as the woman spoke, casting her eyes down to the water below. Anirne focused on the sight of the mourning Sellswords, etching the details of their faces into her mind. Adrienne was wrapped around Sinderion, he folded down to meet her crown with his chin, and Van beside them, either unable or disinclined to look. Anirne swallowed, taking in the witch’s words with melancholy clearly etched over her face.

“Would it be so terrible?” she asked quietly. “To forget?” Turning, she met Maya’s eyes with her own. “Your obligations need not be your reasons. It is true that you would be forced to participate regardless of your will. But why let your reasons be chosen for you, as well?” She glanced back down at the three visible Sellswords, and sighed, draping her arms over her knees. “Tell me: do those look like people who fight only for the sake of finding someone? If all they fought for was their Mentor, then why would they share their pain so? Why would they be so intent on one another? They are not so cold as to use each other like simple tools to get what they truly desire.” She paused, her expression growing soft.

“No, they fight just as much for each other as they do for him. I suspect they see themselves as having no more choice than you do, but their reasons are their own.” She smiled, just slightly, not a truly happy thing, but more like a sympathetic gesture. “The burdens that have been thrust upon all of you are unfair. But I think it would be also unfair to say they’d been broken just yet. Her tears will end, and then they will stand, and move forward.” There was still hope for them, Anirne truly believed that. The escape from under that crushing weight could not and would not come from outside the eight troubled souls in this room. It would come from within, if it came at all. She supposed she could only hope it did.

"I hope so," Maya said, before falling silent for a time. For a moment, she envied what the Omen had done for himself. He had people who were nothing to him, mere vessels, as his only allies. It didn't wound him as well when they fell in battle. They felt no pain themselves, no emotional torment at what they were forced to do. In all, it must have been a very emotionless experience. It was undoubtedly the easier way to go through something like this.

But perhaps not the better way, coming from the viewpoint of someone who actually wanted to enjoy her life. Company was... important, to Maya. Perhaps not the most important thing, but it was... invigorating, to struggle alongside people she was slowly coming to care about. Perhaps that was why it had pained her so much to escape from it altogether for once, and let others suffer on her behalf. They had their own reasons, of course, but it didn't change the fact that they were in this alongside Maya. It had become something more than an alliance of convenience.

"I don't think I could ever be a part of the family they have, though," Maya said with a degree of certainty. She hadn't been through what they had, hadn't been united under the good will of a man who hadn't displayed any of it to her. "I don't know who this Mentor was to them. He was different when I knew him. I certainly never loved him. If there's some way for me to get out of this and for them to get what they need, I'll do it in a heartbeat, I just worry that there isn't..." She didn't know what the end of this game would have in store for them, if they should even reach it alive, but Molag Bal had a way of removing happy endings.

"I... care for Sinder. I'm sure you've noticed," she said, changing the subject slightly. She didn't need Anirne's approval or anything, but she didn't enjoy the way things just sort of... hung in the air, with these Sellswords. Unresolved issues, because no one here knew how to resolve them. "I want to help him," she said simply. Help him what seemed to be the obvious question, but Maya wasn't certain Anirne would like the answer to that.

Anirne smiled, a touch of melancholy in it. “I couldn’t be part of it, either, and I’m blood-related to one of them.” That was just a fact about their lives. “But that’s not to say I can’t be something else, perhaps even something important.” The Sellswords would always have each other, she was sure, but she was also certain that even that, great and mighty bond though it may have been, would not on its own be enough to carry them through this.

For some things, there were no easy answers, and Anirne could only nod when Maya confessed that she was unsure that their goals would align forever. There was a real possibility that they would not, that circumstance would force the Sellswords to make a choice—a real, impossibly-difficult, insidious choice. Or, perhaps worse in its way, they may have no choice at all. It was not a day she wished to see, and yet, surely something of this nature was coming. There was little point in denying that according to the rules as they knew them, either the Shade or the Blackfeather, two Representatives who had both hurt and helped the Sellswords and who were both bound so tightly to this Game that they could not escape, would be dead by the end of it. Their Mentor’s role only complicated things further, and muddied the waters until they were opaque even to her.

“It seems to me that the future could hold many things,” she said at last. “And it is true that many of them do not bear contemplating for long. But one does not get from Solitude to Summerset any other way than one step at a time.” Well, unless one used a gate, but she wasn’t going to say that—it would rather undermine the point of the metaphor.

The mention of Sinderion provoked a tiny huff of frustration from his sister. “I expect you are not finding that easy, are you?” If ever there was a difficult person to help with anything, it was he. Entirely set in his belief that he was irredeemably wicked and holding on by the thinnest and most tenuous of threads from showing them all just how wicked that was. She’d make no attempt to deny that some of what he’d told her of himself appalled her, but Anirne knew better than most the difference between which feelings were worth keeping and which ones to let go of. “I would that I were the kind of sister who could tell you what the right answer was, there, but I am not. We are not strangers, he and I, but we are not as we once were, either. I can guess, though, that making him understand those things will be a matter of time, and patience.” If only they were anyone else, in any other situation, all of this would be so simple. But they were nobody else but themselves, all of them, and each had much to overcome. The circumstances only made things worse.

What had their Mentor been thinking, bringing them to this?

"I had meant to speak with him when we found a place to rest," Maya said, before turning to glance towards Sinderion, still comforting Adrienne, "but now is obviously not the time." She sighed, and pushed herself to her feet again. "One thing I do know is that I won't be letting them fight battles without me again." Granted, it hadn't really been a choice. The Omen would have recognized her quite quickly upon her approach, and they'd have been doomed. But maybe that just meant in the future that those kinds of plans would no longer fly with her. They fought together, whatever that brought.

"Ugh, let's talk about something else," Maya said, somewhat berating herself for allowing the mood to stay as it was. They needed a change of pace, that much was clear. "Do you know Alteration techniques, well enough to teach them? I figure I should probably start expanding my repertoire." Considering that her opponents included vampire lords, dragon commanders, werewolf beasts, and other monstrosities that were not fit to speak of, it made sense that she try to improve her skills a little.

“A worthy thought,” Anirne mused, accepting the change in topic with equanimity. It wasn’t as though she hadn’t dealt with worse in more scholarly discussions—the trains of thought of some of the people she knew were well-nigh incomprehensible. She liked to say that she knew four languages: the common one, ancient Ayelid, sign, and scattershot intellectual. This was nothing as bad as that, and she wasn’t one to linger on the unpleasant unless she felt she really needed to. “As a matter of fact, I do. I suspect you would like to begin with the spells for augmenting one’s defenses? Stoneflesh, and the like? Detect Life and Detect Dead would also serve well.” Since they couldn’t count on all of their foes being strictly… alive.

"That sounds like a good place to start," Maya said. Since it seemed she would be staying a while longer, she took a seat again, closer to Anirne this time, though her posture was a poor imitation of the Psijic's at best. "I've never had any talent at healing, figure having some ways to avoid injuries in the first place could save me some trouble."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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When the Sellswords were at last ready to depart their temporary sanctuary, there was one thing that yet remained: the map that Adrienne had recovered from the Omen's chambers aboard his ship. Drayk had nearly forgotten it amidst all the other events that had occurred in the meantime. When he had remembered it, however, he had been significantly more excited to look at it than he had expected, his higher spirits today no doubt a result of what had happened by the river that morning. The Sellswords gathered atop the tower most had slept upon, packed and ready to set out, where Drayk pulled out the map and spread it open across the smooth floor.

Adirenne, seated comfortably close enough to Drayk that their shoulders and knees were in frequent contact, took a closer look than she’d had time to before. The red ‘Xs’ seemed like the obvious place to start. “Nothing too new with these, I think,” she said, pointing at the one nearest her, which happened to belong to the Inquisitor. From what she could see underneath the large crosses, nothing he’d known about the deceased players was of any relevance now, either, though some of the things connected to the Spymaster’s death led into what must be Stonehammer’s route, and… “The dragon,” she said, pointing to all the places on the map where Vodrin and it had both been sighted. “He must be able to command it directly.” It had shown up to wreak havoc in Markarth, after all, but with all the seemingly-random dragon attacks recently, she hadn’t seen any reason to think it might be the same one. The sightings indicated differently.

Anirne’s eyebrows ascended her forehead. She currently sat on the opposite end of the map, examining it with curiosity evident in her features. She was tracing the Horizon’s route, noting all the coincidences with the Bard. Perhaps the latter was trying to off his hunter first? Perhaps he simply enjoyed being chased. One note, however, immediately intrigued her. “What is this Staff of Souls?” she asked, unsure if it was a nordic cultural reference she did not know, or something to do with the Game, or something else altogether.

"An ancient relic," Lynly answered, coming to a crouch to better examine the map. Vodrin's path didn't escape her notice, neither did the path of the dragon. If the man and the dragon were truly together, then it explained why Vodrin showed no haste when it attack the Imperial caravan. Her respect of the nord diminished somewhat with that realization, as she him using the dragon as a tool instead of grabbing what he wanted by hand. The idea that Maya was doing to same thing with the Sellswords and her necromantic constructs was lost on her, but the man was a nord, and she was not.

She tilted her head in thought, trying to remember where she heard the story of the Staff of Souls before she nodded and continued. "My father told me about it once. He was in some treasure seeking band and they searched for it, but never found it. Supposedly it's dwemer in nature. Very old, very powerful. He spent the better part of a year scouring these ruins to find it," she then tapped the Horizon's name on the map and added, "Looks like he beat my father to it. We'll find out what it does eventually, then." Lynly's voice dropped into something of irratition, as the thought of the weapon being used on them was anything but a pleasant one.

Vanryth grunted in agreement, but at this point in the Game, he expected no less. Instead of brooding over it, he instead tapped at the throat of the world, specifically at the words "Spider's Lair." It seemed to be the perfect name for the Webspinner's hide out, and explained why the Shade wanted to meet them at Ivarstead.

The idea of discovering firsthand what something called the “Staff of Souls” did was not at all appealing to Sinderion, but he brushed aside the displeasure. There wasn’t anything they could do about it now, and they had so many problems that contemplating any of the non-immediate ones for any significant length of time was stupid. Van called attention to the Webspinner’s lair, or what might have been it, and Soren replied by tracing the path of the Pact’s scout, followed, doubtlessly, by one of the Omen’s thralls. “Lost around Ivarstead. I’m guessing the Pact has an idea where she’s headed. She’ll probably beat us there, though maybe we’ll get lucky and she’ll die in the attempt.” ‘Lucky’ being, of course, a relative term. Here it just meant they wouldn’t have to deal with a three- or four-way disaster like the one at the Embassy.

“Nothing on the Mentor, the Drunk or the Feral anywhere.” he noted, which made the pending search for any of them more difficult. “But I’m guessing Tarquin was honest about where he was keeping the Mentor,” he continued, indicating the spot with the most frequent comings and goings of the Shade, which matched what he’d told them of his father’s hiding place. He noted the scribbles regarding Maya—it would seem they’d been watched. He didn’t think they’d been followed after the manner of the Stonehammer, though; the notes were too intermittent for that.

Good. If he’d failed to detect a constant shadow, he would have been incredibly displeased with himself and inclined to start running larger circles around their encampments every night. He might do it anyway, seeing how good some of this information was. For all that the Omen knew, he bet someone like the Bard knew more. It wasn’t explicitly attached to Maya, but there was another spot on the map that caught his attention. “Friends of yours?” he asked her, placing an index digit on the aptly-labeled ‘Witch Coven’. Whomever they were, they might be in danger, if someone thought they were sheltering the Blackfeather.

"Home," Maya replied with a tinge of sadness. It frustrated her that someone like the Omen knew where they were. The Glenmoril had never been most traditionally warm of families to grow up in, but to say they hadn't protected her, and helped become as strong as she was now, would be an outright lie. She'd certainly kill anyone who threatened them merely because they might be harboring her.

"I think they'll be fine. Tarquin's the one hunting me, and he knows right where I am. That, and if he's true to his word about putting this aside for a while, they should have nothing to fear. They're tough women, besides." Tough, but certainly not invincible. Lynly knew that well enough. Maya had to keep reminding herself not to hold it over the woman's head. They'd brought it on themselves then, grown too bold, too reckless. Her true family, that Falkreath coven that was circled on the Omen's map, they knew how to take care of themselves. They'd move if they thought they were in any real danger, which Maya had already warned them of before she left.

Maya was more interested about the spot in the northeast corner of the map. She pointed at the spot labeled as "The Library" from where she stood beside Sinder. "That must be the Argonian's hideout," she speculated. "I was always curious where he went. Probably the least talkative of them all, that one, save the Drunk of course, but I figured that just meant he knew what he was doing." More than that, he'd had that look in his eye, like he'd known so much more than anyone else there. She wouldn't doubt it, between the man's name and the Lord he represented.

If that name was anything to go by, there had to be something on that island that would of use to her...




Packed and armed and equipped with all the knowledge they felt they could get from the Omen's map, the Sellswords departed from what was possibly the only sanctuary they'd see for some time, taking the bridge opposite the one they'd come in on, Drayk pushing his way through the great double doors that were their path onward. He then immediately fell back more towards the middle of the group, letting the more sharp eyed take the lead as before. They hadn't run into any traps for a while, but there was no sense risking it.

The corridor the far doors led into were much like the last: long, straight, and not going up. These ones at least weren't going down though. Pipes steamed and hissed along the lengths of the walls, the occasional dwarven spider worker scurried along without paying them any mind, and no traps barred their way. Maya scratched her head in frustration as they neared a corner.

"You think these damn people would make it a little easier just to get--oh, well that's great." She had turned the corner, and thrown up her hands at what she'd seen, which was a spiraling staircase, twisting tightly around in a narrow radius... and only going down from here. "Do you think maybe we should turn around? See if the way back isn't blocked anymore?"

"Doubt it," Drayk said. "Unless someone came along and unblocked it, which I doubt would happen. No one but the Horizon and probably the Pact knows we're here." Maya sighed in return. "So it's further into the depths, then? Lovely."

And down they went. The width of the stairs forced them to go in single file, the lack of light in the staircase forcing a mage to keep a light conjured at all times just so they could see their own feet. About five minutes in Drayk started to get a little dizzy, spinning around and around in the same direction all the time, and nowhere, not once, was there someplace to get out. The ruins just seemed to be going down, and down, with seemingly no end point, until...

"There we go! No more blasted stairs," the witch said, gratefully passing under a doorway that led into a much larger space. It was no natural cavern; the dwemer had walled this place in entirely, with pipes and whirring gadgets covering almost every square foot of surface area. The staircase had kicked them out into a massive, square room, but opposite them, on the far wall, or rather built into the far wall, was a massive, perhaps thirty foot tall set of doors, completely blank in design, but strangely white compared to the darkened shades of the construction around it.

In front of this door was also something that was thirty feet tall. Dwemer centurions could reach impressive heights, but none of them came close to this one. It was a small colossus of gears and dwemer plating, with a big enough body to carry a small army of smaller dwemer automatons, especially in their condensed form. Its arms were almost entirely hidden under gear-connected plating, some of which looked quite sharp. If Drayk had to guess, he would've speculated this thing had multiple weapons at its disposal. At its top was a head that seemed disproportionately small for its body, styled in the fashion of a common Dwarven helmet, staring blankly ahead.

But for all that it looked imposing, it didn't seem active. It was just standing there in front of the door, completely motionless. A spider worker or two was crawling in and out of pipes on the walls, but apart from that, the Sellswords were the only ones moving in the room. And perhaps more promisingly, there was a second, smaller door to the colossus' left, in the corner. It too was closed, but looked significantly more moveable than the great doors behind it.

"Right, so... we should probably talk about this before we try anything," Maya suggested. "I... completely agree," Lynly quickly added, taking a conspicous step backward. At least it wasn't moving... Yet.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance it will just behave like the rest of the things around here and let us not-aggressively walk past it, is there?” Adrienne asked, tilting her head to look up at the top of the gigantic construct with a faint smile. Granted, the expression wasn’t one of happiness or amusement, more like the kind of thing that came from a no-other-choice appreciation of gallows humor. “Otherwise… if it attacks, I can ice the floor under it. Bigger they are, the harder they fall, or something like that?” Of course, where and how something like that fell would likely be important, lest they find themselves crushed under tons of dwemer metal. Lynly grumbled behind the girl, and added her two bits, "Yes, let's joke about this. It's hilarious. Maybe it'll die from laughter." She said coldy.

“Well, if you can’t joke about your impending death, there’s not a lot left to laugh about around here,” Soren pointed out pragmatically, though he did assume a serious expression afterwards. “You know, that might be the first good option we have, though. Nothing else around here has bothered us. It would be unfortunate to provoke it if we don’t have to… or very fortunate, depending on how you look at it.” Truthfully, though… that thing was made of armor. He didn’t have a lot he could throw at that.

“The joints would be the weakest points,” Sinderion added, sweeping a glance down the construct. "I don’t know how well any equipment we tried to use on it would survive, though, and I believe such things are quite resistant to magic as well.” The archer snorted.

“Oh good, it’s made of armor and resistant to magic. What are we supposed to do, talk it down for tea and biscuits?” He rolled his eyes to the ceiling, but it wasn’t really anyone’s fault in particular. “It’s probably slow. If that door opens, we could outrun it if we must.”

Lynly had been rubbing her brow, flying back and forth between anxious and outright anger. Why did the damn thing have to be here of all places? Why in Oblivion's name was it so big? She wished the Dwemer were still alive, just so she could hurt them. Damn them and their machines. Picking herself up enough to actually contribute to the conversation instead of just snipping at the other's suggestions, she began. "Look it's legs. It's gait would be massive. Damn things are faster than you'd think," Lynly pointed out from first hand experience. "Maybe a couple of us would get through that door if we ran, though certainly not all of us." A rather pessimistic tone had seeped into her voice, and her tone was just a couple of decibels above a growl.

"Sinder's right," She continued, "The joints are the weakest points, though that's not saying much. That's like saying a cave is the weakest point in a mountain," she said frowning. "If we are to fight it-- which I don't intend unless absolutely forced then the sure kill would be the core inside of it. Good luck getting to it without getting powdered though," She replied, pointing at the tiny gaps in it's armor. If the Omen's dream taught her anything, it's how to kill one. The armor she now wore meant nothing at all against the sight of the mechanical behemoth, and what comfort she had derived from it had all but melted away. "Talos save us all, why in Oblivion's name can we not get a breath!" She snarled, perhaps the first time the Sellswords ever seen her Nordic Temper in full display.

"Well..." Drayk said, his eyes still a little wide when he was looking at the colossus, "I don't think we can go back. That door's gotta be our best shot, right? Maybe we can just... get there quietly? Slip on out without pissing it off?" Lynly laughed out loud and followed up with a stern statement, "Because that always works."

“Be wary even passing it at a distance,” Anirne advised. ”The advanced models like this are usually equipped with at least a steam cannon, though they prefer to engage up close.” She paused. ”You should know that I’ve never heard of any this big, except… there are stories about Centurions with flame cannons. Please, whatever you do, be very careful…”

"Lynly," Maya said evenly, "Not helping. Come on... just think about the glory if you brought something like this down. This guy's nothing. And that's only if he decides to mess with you. If he doesn't, we can just sneak on out of here. Easy, right? Just... don't panic. Panic will get us killed." Lynly grunted in reply, "I'm not panicking, I'm just being a realist." When had anything ever gone right for them?

"We really can't afford to be realists right now," Drayk said rather gently. "It's a little too depressing." He huffed a breath out, adjusting his grip on his shield. "Let's get this over with, before we lose the nerve." Ever the vanguard, Drayk went out first, the others falling in behind, giving the colossus as wide a birth as possible while still inching closer and closer to that door in the back corner.

But no one really ever thought that would work. It was as though they passed over an invisible line that spread across the length of the room, and suddenly every valve on the colossus hissed with releasing steam, and gears started grinding against one another. The legs kicked into action one at a time, each rising and then pounding the ground beneath them, shaking the entire room when they did. The body twisted at the waist to face the group, the right arm sliding outwards in the form of a massive blade, the other rearranging itself into a large cannon, both of which leveled themselves at the group. The little head on top of the massive body angled down to look at them, and it spoke. Its voice was deep, a very guttural, grinding sound, and it was loud, only amplified by the fact that it echoed around the entire chamber.

"PERFORMING ANALYSIS. REMAIN STILL. MOTION WILL RESULT IN TERMINATION."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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It was of course Lynly who was the first to stop dead in her tracks. Not only was the giant machine deadly-- it spoke too! It told them to stop, else face termination, but something told Lynly that it was going to terminate them either way. Her mind was a flurry of reactions. Half of her wanted to bolt for the stairs, the other half wanted to stand her ground. Both halves were cursing their luck, the dwemer, the Gods, Daedra Lords, the Horizon, the Pact and whomever else she could think to blame. However, the only words that found their way to her lips were, "Shit, shit, shit!"

So much for the quiet approach. They had seconds before the thing turned on them and they were terminated.

“I think I had a warmer reception at the Brotherhood hideout,” Soren agreed, and despite the gravity of the situation, there was mirth in the words. To be fair, it should probably be expected of him by now. He had snuck into said fortress, and he was here entirely of his own free will. Clearly his relationship with immanent death was much more cordial than that of the average man. They were practically friends, even. Though… “And lovely? As much as I greatly enjoy and take partial credit for the extraordinary amount of snark-and-panic whiplash just oozing from you right now, I would like you to remember that you are not here by yourself, and you are not going to die today, all right? I just decided to start a new chapter in my life, and I hate premature endings.”

If this thing wanted him to remain still, Drayk could do that. He could certainly do that. In fact, he wasn't sure he was capable of running at the moment. The only movement he made was to first check to see that Adrienne was somewhere in the vicinity of behind him, and then crouch down behind his shield, and brace himself. Not that his shield would be any use against that sword, but it felt a tiny bit reassuring all the same.

Maya had her bow conjured, trying to pick out a weak point, any weak point, but it really seemed entirely pointless. Arrows weren't going to do anything to this behemoth. Probably very little that they had would. She doubted they'd even be able to make it slip on anything like they'd brought up. Those legs looked incredibly sturdy, how they'd pounded into the ground. It just... held still, though, looking at them with its puny little head, weapons bared and mere seconds away from obliterating them. And she could have sworn it was looking at her specifically.

"ANALYSIS COMPLETE. REPRESENTATIVE DETECTED."

The torso rotated and re-arranged itself to look straight ahead once more, the sword retracting back up its arm, the cannon covering itself back up with metal plating.

"I don't..." Maya began, not yet ready to banish her bow.

"... What?"

"Does that mean..." Drayk ventured, wanting someone else to finish the sentence. He felt like he'd jinx it or something.

Even Vanryth provided a sound, which could only be interpretted as pure confusion.

“Now, I’m not an expert or anything,” Adrienne started slowly, watching the construct rearrange itself, “But I’m pretty sure it just decided to spare us because Maya’s a representative. Do you think it would answer if you asked it something?” The question was directed at the representative in question. “Like… maybe why it’s here, or how it knows who you are?” "... Or we can leave," Lynly suggested.

"Gonna have to go with Lynly's suggestion," Maya said, before finally banishing the bow. She took no more than two careful steps towards it, as though each one had the potential to destroy them all, which for all she knew, probably did. "May... we pass?" she ventured carefully.

"NO," it bellowed, causing Maya to wince. There was a terrible silence for a moment, and then it continued. "THE CONDITIONS HAVE NOT BEEN MET. RETURN TO THE SURFACE THROUGH THE SIDE PASSAGE." It held out its left arm then, and a single Dwemer spider worker crawled along its length, having crawled out of the construct's body. It clambered all the way to the end of the thing's finger, and then dropped lightly to the floor, before scurrying across the floor to the smaller door in the back corner of the chamber.

A vent on the wall opened, and the spider worker disappeared inside. Moments later, the door swung open. It took a second for Maya to connect the dots, but when she did, she gasped and covered her mouth. "Oh! You thought I meant the big doors behind you! I definitely meant the surface, that's where we want to go. Thank you, we'll... go now." She turned to the others and shrugged, shaking a little. "What conditions?" Lynly asked, though she looked like she wasn't going to stick around for answers. As soon the doors opened, long strides pushed her past Maya and toward the doors, hopefully into somewhere with less dwemer and more open air. The resulting booming voice caused a stagger in her step, and then quickened it.

"THIS SENTINEL DETECTS ADDITIONAL REPRESENTATIVES. THE CONDITIONS HAVE NOT BEEN MET."

Through the side door Lynly would be able to see down at the end of a short corridor, a large circular platform with a single lever situated at its center. While curiosity may have compelled some of them to stick around and ask the colossus additional questions, the desire not to be crushed into paste was too overpowering to ignore, and the Sellswords found themselves filing through the side door and down the corridor.

"I'd just like to say that I knew no more about that than you all did," Maya said as they all piled onto the circular platform at the end. The witch pushed the lever, and was pleased to discover that it was indeed a lift. Grinding gears accompanied the rising of the platform, and slowly but steadily the group was returned to the surface level. After a ride long enough for Drayk to grow tired of standing and take a seat, the lift lurched to a stop to let them out into a tiny passageway in the rock, too dark to see in without magical lighting. They followed it to a rock wall, and a lever on the side of the passage. Pulling it down moved the rock wall down in front of them, spitting the group out right on the outside of where the Horizon had trapped them in.

"So there wasn't a front door," Maya said when she pushed open the thin door that they'd all squeezed in on their way inside, stepping back out onto the snow. The group had barely made it outside, however, when Maya sighed, and gestured to the top of a small hill near.

"Oh look, more visitors." A red headed Breton man stood on top of the hill, lightly clothed for how sharp and cold the wind was. He stood there as if waiting for them, which was likely, considering that he'd gone and taken the liberty of rounding up all their horses and letting them follow him around. Perhaps they enjoyed the sounds of the music he was playing on his lute. When he spotted the Sellswords, the Bard gave an exaggerated wave and a jovial looking smile, before quite simply skipping down the hill to meet them, the group's horses meandering along in his wake.

"Hellooooo!" he greeted with a low bow. "Would you be interested in a story? It's called 'The Handsomest of Bards and his..." he visibly counted them with a waggling finger, "... Eight Deadly Friends!' It's a marvelous work, and only just beginning!"

Sinderion raised a brow. Evidently, this was the Bard. Of course, now that the man was in front of him again, it was not hard to recognize him as the one that had been inside the bar in Riften, where they’d found Anirne and gotten themselves into a fight. Unless he was remembering improperly, he’d never stopped performing, though admittedly, Sinder hadn’t been paying much attention to what he was actually singing about. Probably a mistake, considering. In the end, however, it was Soren who took the obvious bait first, figuring that there was no reason he shouldn’t. “Sure. Does it end with the grisly double murder of the Pact and the Horizon? Because that sounds like a story we’d be really interested in hearing.”

"End?" he asked, seemingly affronted. "With a murder? What kind of terrible story would that be? A terribly terrible one, I say. No! This story has the grisly murders put somewhere in the beginning to middle areas. And while I can't speak for the currently-dead and future-dead lady, I can say that this spoon-eared dark elf you speak of will be the first to go, yes."

He strummed a non-sensical chord on his lute. "This is chapter one, this part with me standing here and you all standing there. The epilogue saw our handsome bard following the poor elf across half o' Skyrim. For all his sight, the man's really quite blind. ANYWAY! The backstory to the frontstory is that this man, the handsome one before you, was given a task, and given rules by which to go about it."

The next chord he played was quite terrible, but it fit well enough, honestly. "RULES! You'd think they were mad, trying to give a man like me rules. So I decided the hell with it. I'm going to play their game backwards. A bit of asking around, and our mohawked friend is first up. Quite convenient that he just tried to screw the hell out of you people, I'd say. You can help me be rid of him!"

The altmer’s brow furrowed, and he stared blankly at the Bard for a second. Most of that made sense, but… “Currently-dead? Future-dead? Who is currently dead?” He looked at Maya, as though she might have some answer that eluded him. Who knew—maybe a week had given her some kind of mastery over Bard-speak. If anything could give one a mastery over Bard-speak. His patron deity was the god of madness, after all. The only thing one could reasonably expect of him was that he’d defy your expectations… and that threw one for a logical loop no matter how it was looked at. For all Sinder knew, he was using a completely different syntax now than he had last time the two had seen each other.

Maya shrugged. "Must be the Pact, but I don't know why." The words gave her a few suspicions, ones she figured she was foolish not to have earlier, but perhaps she'd air them later.

He also certainly wasn’t in any position to take any kind of deal. While yes, the Horizon had betrayed them and left them to rot, it wasn’t any worse than they’d endured from some of the other Representatives, and counted as downright mild compared to parts of it. If he hated with the same vicious abandon every last one of those players who meant him some form of harm, he’d have no room left for anything else, simple as that. He knew they needed to meet up with Tarquin in Ivarstead, but there was no point in doing so if the Pact was still alive, and Maya would know if the Webspinner had killed her. As nothing of the kind had been announced, he chose to assume that she was alive. But if she was… she may well be in proximity of Invorin, so there was a chance that they’d encounter both at once… in which case, they’d need all the help they could get.

Even if that help was wholly unpredictable enough to want to play the damn game backwards.

Adrienne was fairly sure she was delighted. Maybe it was just the fact that, despite the part where they’d been betrayed by the Horizon and locked in a ruin where they were almost killed by a giant Centurion, she was still in a pretty good mood. Maybe it was because she liked riddles and word games. Maybe it was just because the Bard’s sense of humor was clearly, while more than a little daft, much more lighthearted than the Omen’s. Sure, they’d have to kill him eventually, maybe, unless someone else did so first, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t be courteous to him now. Smiling, she tried to think of how best to put her question in his terms. “And where is the tale of the Handsomest Bard and his Eight Deadly Friends to be set?” she asked, assuming he had more current information on the Horizon’s location than they did.

"And now we get to the kidney of the matter," he said, growing suddenly dramatic and trilling a pair of low notes. "Our villain follows the Pact he has made, and he goes south, towards the very lungs of the world. If he should make the entire trip, I cannot know, but this is not the important itty bit. What is important is that he go to Windhelm. I know not how he should get there, but I am thinking that he will not be leaving."

He stopped playing suddenly and smiled broadly at them. "I have a contact in the old city, a most beautiful fair maiden. She is most cold, and has cruelly spurned my advances thus far, but she will still help us, for she has a most beautifully pure heart, and knows a noble cause when she sees one. Bring the Horizon to Windhelm, and seek her out. She will know what to do. Or perhaps she won't. I've spoken for her heart and her fair face, but I can't yet speak for her brains. Lass won't even talk to me! But she's got the important bits at least, so for this story... she is the beautiful fair maiden."

"May the Eight Deadly Friends know the fair maiden's name? Or should we expect her to find us?" There were probably too many good-looking women in Windhelm for that to be of any use as a criterion, though... was he trying to imply that she was also mute? If divining the plan took this much effort, she didn't really want to know how troublesome executing it would be. It sounded like he wanted them to (without him) go after the Horizon, probably kill the Pact on the way if they could, then bring the unconscious or at least subdued Invorin all the way to Windhelm. That was going to be a pain.

"I played all my songs for her, even the good ones, and she wouldn't give it to me," the Bard said sadly. "As cold as she is beautiful, that one." But at this point, Maya was willing to make her way to the fore, as she was beginning to suspect something.

"Wait a minute..." she said, putting her hands on her hips and giving the Bard a half-smile. "Are you talking about that servant girl at the Gathering?"

He nodded pleasantly. "Aye, that'd be the one. Works in Windhelm, she does, under that nasty drunkard of a father she's got. Someday I'll rescue her from that place. It'd make a fine prologue to this story, I should think."

"This is quite a way off our trajectory," Anirne pointed out. It was hard to say how long the Shade was willing to wait, but she was going to suppose that he didn't have infinite patience. "Unless we can use on Invorin what you used on me, Maya, we should not risk holding him captive for too long." It all seemed awfully convoluted, truth be told. Then again... what about this whole thing wasn't incredibly complicated? Trying at least for some useful information, she ventured a question. "If everyone was playing the game backwards," she tried, "who would be after you?" Whoever they were, they were probably safer than most at present.

"Lady, if everyone were playing the game backwards, I'd be playing the game forwards, and the Horizon would be after me. Come now... you look like a smart lady. What school did you go to? Certainly not the Bard's College, I should think. You should try sometime! Really, they let just about anyone in these days." With that, he turned ninety degrees and began walking, idly playing his lute. The horses remained behind. Anirne was pretty sure that answer wasn't correct, but maybe to him, it was. At any rate, she chose to let it drop, a small shake of her head the only sign she gave by way of reaction to what was surely a veiled insult.

"Until we meet again! Say hello to the fair maiden for me!"

"It's not like we have to do what he asks," Maya reminded, "though the idea of giving the Horizon what he deserves is awfully tempting. In any case, he said Invorin went south with the Pact, so we might be able to find him easier than we think. If we can get a hold on him, we might as well go to Windhelm. It doesn't really matter what order the other Representatives die in, I suppose."

Confident that would be the last of the day's unexpected events, the Sellswords mounted their Bard-brought horses and started off again, finding the road quickly and heading off for Ivarstead, hoping to make up some lost ground.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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In slightly higher spirits than was perhaps normal, the Sellswords took off for the south, making good time through the Pale. It was late afternoon by the time they had gotten moving, however, so for the first night the group was forced to make camp just past the crossroads between Whiterun and Windhelm. The road to Ivarstead was long, and the possibility of catching the Pact low. She had already gained a day's advantage and more, and was presumably unburdened by the lingering fatigue that plagued some of the Sellswords.

They continued south the next morning, arriving under the shadow of the hill upon which the city of Whiterun stood by midday, and turning east at the crossing over the White River. After a brief rest at the Ritual standing stone, at the request of Maya, they continued on, following the course of the river east, bending south as it did, passing into the southern reaches of Eastmarch until the road split again, and the group followed the Darkwater River south instead.

The day ended with the Sellswords camping under the mountains separating them from Shor's Stone and Riften, just after crossing the Darkwater. They pushed through to the final part of the journey the following morning, turning southwest and climbing until they reached the crossing over the Treva River and Lake Geir. Ivarstead was just a short ways further along, a small town sitting under the shadow of the massive mountain peak known as the Throat of the World.





There was no sign of the Pact, the Horizon, or any of the train of warriors that were following them, along the entire route to Ivarstead, but that was not unexpected. They could have even taken another route, as there were several methods of reaching the Throat of the World from that far away. Maya had thought to take the group through Riverwood and down through Falkreath Hold before bending around, but decided the temptation to visit home again would have been too great, and they couldn't afford the delay. They'd lost a great deal of time already. The Pact had surely already reached this place, though she was not yet dead, that much Maya knew. If she had already attacked the Webspinner, and succeeded, she could not know.

"Suppose we should try the inn first," Maya suggested, and the eight of them pulled their horses to a stop before the rest stop, the Vilemyr Inn, as the sign pointed out.

The Shade was found sitting at the bar when they entered, but upon seeing the Sellswords arrive, he immediately rose and headed towards them. "Took you long enough," he muttered, though he seemed to be at least trying to contain his disdain for their tardiness. "The Pact and the Horizon passed through yesterday, and will have found the entrance to my mother's lair by now. No more waiting. We'll plan on the way." He made his way through them before all of them had even entered the bar, and led the way back out into the street.

He scowled at the sunlight, but ignored it, raising his hood and carrying on. "The Pact arrived, and yet you seem unhurt. How did she slip past you?"

Soren personally could really have used a drink, but when it became readily apparent that they were not going to be stopping for one at the inn, he shrugged and unhooked the flask from his belt, taking a nip of the strong liquid inside before offering it to Lynly with a raised brow, largely expecting her to decline. She didn't, taking a quick draught before handing it back to him. Tucking it away again, he kept walking, for all intents and purposes undisturbed by the hurried nature of their departure. “How else? Deception. The Horizon had led this lot to believe that he wanted the Pact just as dead as they did. Sadly, he locked us in a ruin instead. As if we were just going to sit there and wait until it was convenient for them to kill us.” Realistically, it was probably just a delay tactic, but even that was only just effective, and it was about to come back to bite them—hard, if the more vengeance-inclined in the group had their way.

“I’m guessing the matriarch is not up the mountain,” he hazarded, “Which means we’re going in?” More caves, probably, though he supposed the entrance to a lair could also indicate a building somewhere on the mountain. It seemed unlikely, however, given who they were dealing with…

"Yes," the Shade responded. "The entrance is around the base of the mountain, perhaps an hour from here if we move quickly. From there we'll enter the caves, and follow them down." He made no comment about the deception. It was possible that he had already guessed as much, considering the Horizon's arrival alongside the Bosmer. It was also possible that it didn't matter anymore, and they had more pressing issues to worry about, like how to move ahead.

The Shade led them to the edge of Ivarstead, taking the dirt road down the hill rather than the bridge that would lead them to the seven thousand steps up to High Hrothgar. It was a steep decent, but he moved quickly. "The Pact will have reached her by now. She still lives, Maya?" The witch answered in the affirmative. "Then we do not know what to expect. She could have been captured. A captive hunter is better than a dead one in this game, my mother would know as much. She could also be waiting for a better moment to strike. Assaulting the Webspinner in her own lair, surrounded by her servants, is not wise."

"It sounds like there's a particular reason for that," Anirne ventured mildly, following the steep slope with a little more caution than the Shade took, though she was no old woman yet, and kept her balance quite well. "Perhaps there is something we should know?" She recalled that the Pact had been reluctant to speak overmuch of the Webspinner, and she was guessing there was more to that than a simple desire to keep potential foes from information. In fact, nobody had said much of her, save that she was mad. Perhaps Maya had said more to someone else, but she knew the group at large was not well-informed about what they were dealing with. Stealthy guerillas were one thing-- if the altmer had her guess, this Representative and her servants were quite another.

"Are you familiar with Spider Daedra?" the Shade asked. "Priestesses of Mephala warped into her image. In this cave they will be at their deadliest. The spiders can move quickly through their holes, dropping down behind you for an attack before retreating just as quickly. They aren't physically overpowering, but in their own environment they will outmaneuver us. They'll fight from range with debilitating poisons and lightning, only risking close quarters after their opponent has been weakened. My mother has hundreds of them at her disposal in her caverns."

He glanced back towards the Psijic woman and the rest of the party. "Aside from that, it will be extremely dark, almost impossible to see without magical means. They will try to separate us if we fight them in there. Anyone who becomes cut off from the others will not last long. As for my mother herself..." He turned back to the path in front of them, taking the group into a rocky region, vaulting over low boulders and using the trees to steady himself. "She is faster than all of her brethren, and significantly more powerful. To engage her on her own ground would be to seek death. She must be drawn out."

"And how do we do that?" Drayk asked. The Shade glanced back at him, giving him a knowing look.

"Burning her out would be one way."

Drayk frowned, and shook his head. "I couldn't burn out an entire network of tunnels, not without... no, I'm not doing that." A few days ago he would have willingly offered to let himself go and scorch the spider from her hole, but now, with what he had to protect, and the risks to the happiness he had only so recently found... he wouldn't do it. There would be another way.

"And besides," Maya offered, "We can't kill the Webspinner until we kill the Pact, and we can't kill her until we find her." The Shade nodded.

"That's true. And I have a feeling that we'll find her once we draw my mother out. In the meantime, the priority must be the Mentor. This is where I took him, so this is where we'll have the best chance of finding him. We don't need to go in there with the intention of killing everything we see."

“Seems a fair notion,” Adrienne replied neutrally. She was in fact immensely relieved—something had constricted uncomfortably in her insides as soon as burning was mentioned, and had not relented until Dom’s firm denial. Good, that was good. There were bound to be alternative ways of getting what they wanted, and though she did not know what a spider Daedra looked like, the troubled frown that creased Anirne’s face was more than enough reassurance that she really didn’t want to encounter one, much less all hundreds of them. She had the distinct feeling that this was going to be just as much a nightmare as what Rialta had put them through… only this time, there would be no waking up when it was over.

She noted the part about staying together with some unease. She didn’t doubt the truth of what Tarquin said, not even a bit, but that was the worrisome part. It sounded like they were dealing with a warren of tunnels entirely unknown to them—the chance of someone getting cut off by accident or canny foe was great, especially if they were ambushed. They would need light, but… “Unfortunate, that being able to see will also make us that much more easily seen.” It was an advantage she did not think they could forgo, however. The creatures within would have adapted to the dark, and with the exception of Tarquin and Sinder, the rest of them would probably be twice as vulnerable without their eyes.

It was clear that only one who knew of this place would be able to find its location, as the Shade led the Sellswords seemingly at random around the side of the mountain, sometimes down, over streams running down its side, over boulder-strewn hillsides and along sheer cliffs. After around an hour of trekking through the wilderness, they came upon it.

It didn't look hardly any different from any other cave, seemingly just a hole in the side of the mountain face, slapped onto a steep hillside dotted with large rocks, thick trees and dense foliage. Behind them some ways was a cliff of some thirty feet, a small stream running over it and falling into a small pool that had gathered at the bottom. This ran eventually to join with the Darkwater some ways to the northeast. They weren't quite high enough to be standing in snow, but the sky had become overcast at this point, darkening their surroundings somewhat, and threatening snow.

The scenery was utterly still, the mouth of the cave seeming to beckon them in. "This is the place," the Shade said, pointing out the obvious.

Sinderion sniffed at the air, and his eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “The Pact’s warriors are definitely around,” he said quietly. “But the smell is faint.” It could be a day or two old, by now, and there was nothing precise in the odor to tell him the locations of any of them, so as a warning it was likely just telling everyone what they already expected.

Soren, absently tracing his new scar, raised a red eyebrow. “Four, possibly five representatives. And that’s assuming your wild wolf-cat doesn’t show up. Sounds fun. Is there a plan for this death-revel, or are we just going to improvise?” He sounded rather like he’d be completely fine with improvising, but then that was probably expected by this point. He doubted there would be much to plan—they simply didn’t know much about what they were in for, or in what order. They had to kill the Pact before they killed the Webspinner, but minions were fair game for anyone, including the Shade, who was probably the only person guaranteed not to die in this mess. Assuming Ja’karo hadn’t tracked him here, of course. It was all so deliciously possible.

“What could we possibly plan for?” Adrienne asked, half-rhetorically. “We know nothing about how the tunnels and caves are laid out, nor where inside anyone might be.” It was a bit hopeless as far as plans went, and maybe that was for the best. If they weren’t committed to any course of action, they would be more adaptable to the situation as it changed. “We’ll need your ears and nose, Sinder.” She managed a half-smile for her altmer friend, but then she suspected he already knew that. Anirne remained silent, staring into the entrance as though contemplating something. She offered no verbal contributions, though.

In the end, they had no choice but to blindly march forth, with the intention of first, finding the Mentor, and second, driving the Webspinner from her hole somehow, so that the Pact might be driven from hers, and both of them might be slain. The Shade led the way up the hill and into the mouth of the cave, the Sellswords at his back.

The immediate interior did not open up, as some of Skyrim's caves did, but instead remained narrow and low, as though they were indeed passing through some kind of throat, being swallowed by the world itself, and immediately it became very dark, such that magical light was required to see much of anything. The walls were still stone and rock, but as they progressed their boots began to stick ever so slightly on each step.

"It will branch off in several directions soon," the Shade warned. "Follow my lead. Do not attack what you see unless attacked first." Drayk shifted his shield slightly higher up his arm, face locked in a constant frown as his eyes darted about, convinced they were about to be set upon from all sides. But they were still together, and together they were a powerful force.

Several paths opened up to them, as the Shade predicted, but Tarquin ignored them, staying to the center. Some of them were wide enough to fit all of the Sellswords, others little more than holes in the wall that they'd need to crawl to pass through. The webbings covering the walls and floor were becoming thicker here, their steps sticking more effectively. The light occasionally caught a spider as large as a hand along the sides of the walls, but they darted along the webs and into a hole as soon as the light touched them.

Holes began appearing overhead as well, large enough for bodies to pass easily through. The Shade seemed to have an idea of where he was going, but even he had slowed, either due to trying to remember the way, or from the stickiness of the walls and the floors and everything around them. Drayk's scowl deepened. This would make movement difficult. Yet another disadvantage. As if a lack of sight wasn't enough.

At last Tarquin held up his hand, indicating for the Sellswords to halt. "Something comes." They could hear it now, clearly, the scuttling, a tapping on the wall, clicks against the hard rock of the wall in between the increasingly frequent webs. "She wants to be heard," the Shade informed them, indicating that the Webspinner's priestesses were quite capable of approaching without sound if they chose to.

She drew into the light slowly, uncomfortable with it at first. Two spined, hairy legs pushed themselves forward, testing it. Six others followed, and a creature that was an even split between woman and spider came into the eerie glow of the magelight. She was no greater in height than Tarquin was. The human part of her ended at the waist, and shifted to spider, spindly, muscled legs carrying the light body. She did not look physically imposing in a powerful sense, but there was a strength in the legs, at least, that implied a great amount of agility, especially in these warrens they called home.

Her body from the waist up was entirely naked, her hair disgustingly greasy and falling in ragged clumps about her skin, which was pale as a corpse. Her fingernails were several inches long on both hands, and looked as deadly as knives. Her face was largely hidden by her mess of hair, only cracked lips and brown teeth visible. Her hands clutched, of all things, a shortbow, made of some kind of black, gnarled wood, the string unsurprisingly wound of spider's silk. A small quiver of arrows was belted around her waist. She looked at none of the Sellswords, not that they could see her eyes, but her head was angled downwards all the same.

"The mother sends me to welcome the children," she rasped. "She knows why you come, and she will speak, if you will hear."

Not a particularly inviting welcome, is it? Soren thought, just stifling the snicker that threatened. It was probably wisest to keep his mouth shut, and though honestly he rarely gave thought to what was wisest, he wasn’t exactly here for himself, so he wouldn’t snipe at the creature and ruin the Sellswords’ chances at finding the man they so desperately needed to see. He could see through the cast of the light that Blue was actually looking a little green about the gills, and it wasn’t that hard to guess why. The air was stale, and that creature looked filthy. He didn’t really want to think about how it smelled to someone with a wolf’s nose.

Unfortunately, Sinder didn’t get that luxury, and the stench was almost enough to put him on his back, as though it had slammed into him like a wall. Not that the sight of her was nay better. He’d not encountered a spider Daedra before, and he was now absolutely certain that if this was the last one he saw, he’d still have seen one too many. He also had the distinct feeling that he wasn’t going to like the Webspinner much, if her servants looked like this one did. He attempted to take a breath through his mouth, but abruptly clicked his jaw shut again when he discovered that the stench was thick enough to taste. This was worse than the entire village full of dead orcs—at least that had been outside, not in a cramped warren of caves with scarcely any circulation. He wasn’t so sure at all that the others would be able to rely on him to sniff out the Pact and her minions; not if everything down here was this bad.

Adrienne was torn between shock and disgust, but thankfully, she was able to not look like it. A quick glance at Sinderion revealed that he might be ill, but he seemed to be keeping himself in check all right. Soren didn’t appear to have changed much, but he wasn’t talking, which was admittedly a bit abnormal for him. Anirne was placid as ever, as though she’d been expecting something of this nature. Maybe she’d seen a spider Daedra before, who knew? Adrienne glanced at the Shade, almost as though for confirmation, but this is what they’d come for, after all: to talk to the Webspinner and find out where the Mentor was, what had happened to him.

If they were lucky, they would trip over the Pact and Horizon’s bodies on the way. If not… well, that was a problem they’d deal with when it showed itself. “We will,” she said, inclining her head politely, though she was unsure if the creature could even see it. The magelight bobbing about above her head cast the room into an odd relief, and distorted the shadows in the room a bit. If anything, it gave the Priestess an even more menacing aspect, one that the Breton tried gamely to ignore. “But where are we to go?”

Neither Vanryth nor Lynly made any move toward their weapons, both just crossing their arms and waiting to be led around like puppies. Though quite different, both had come to expect the worst out of every situation. And though one welcomed the worst with open arms and a naked blade, the other wondered how it would try to tear his little family apart that day. Neither were the optmistic sort. Lynly added nothing but a sigh, the thought of heading deeper into the spider's nest not a pleasing one. She believed that the allegory of a fly trapped in a web was an apt one, but one that they couldn't avoid. So she resigned herself.

"Down," she answered definitively, as if it provided adequate directions in this place, "into the hollow, where the mother awaits. She has but two conditions..." from down the tunnel, and from behind the Sellswords, other spider sisters made their approaches known, until there were a dozen at least, on each side, the majority of them remaining out of reach of the light.

"First," the envoy rasped, "the blood of the mother is to remove himself from this place." At that, the Shade quite literally growled his displeasure. "Why? Why won't she let me see her?" But the spider sister recoiled and shook her head. "We are to inform you only of the mother's intentions and her conditions. She will speak to those she wishes, and no more. The blood of the mother is to leave now."

Tarquin ran a hand through his hair, looking like he might try pulling it out. He turned to the others. "I guess I don't have a choice. You'll have to go in without me. I will await your return outside." With that, he made his way through to the back of the group and vanished into the darkness behind them, the spider sisters stepping out of his way as he went. Drayk took a deep breath to steady himself. There went their guide out if this went south.

"And the other condition?" he asked. At that, the spider sister raised herself up high enough on her legs so that she could angle her abdomen towards the group, the end of which presented the mucus-like substance that would form webbing. "The mother will not have you walk to her. You shall be delivered, or you shall not see her at all. That is the condition." At that, Maya groaned rather loudly.

"You want to wrap us like some meal to be taken to your lady?" The spider sister's silence answered in the affirmative.

“Oh, Oblivion no,” Soren deadpanned, staring at the priestess with a look that rather demanded to know if she thought she was serious. Making themselves vulnerable like that was insane. “Bad idea, people. I for one do not want to get eaten, thank you.” He also didn’t want to be useless in a cave full of representatives and their flunkies, and he definitely didn’t want to have to rely on Sparky to potentially burn them out, considering the wary looks he’d occasionally seen the others throwing his fire. This was a shitty idea, and he was going to make sure they knew he thought so.

Sinderion was quieter about it, but he couldn’t help agreeing. “Surely she must understand our position.” he said. If the Pact got killed while they were being transported, well, that meant Maya was about to be delivered, largely helpless, incapacitated, to the very heart of her next target’s lair, where the Webspinner would be completely free to kill her. Even that estimation of the situation somehow assumed that the woman’s intent was honest, and that she wouldn’t kill the Sellswords just for being there. Still… “There may be no other choice.” The words tasted like ash and dust on his tongue.

“If she does understand our position, then she knows we’re not in one where we get to make demands,” Anirne replied to her brother. She eyed the sticky substance with obvious trepidation. There was absolutely nothing about this situation that she liked. She’d been attempting to keep track of exactly which passages Tarquin used on the way in, and she may have a decent guess as to how to get back out again, she really didn’t want to count on it, but with the Shade forced to leave them, they hardly had a choice. Though honestly her visceral reaction was not so different from Soren’s, she didn’t express it as such.

Adrienne nodded her agreement. She wanted to ask why this was necessary, but the way they’d responded to Tarquin, she knew she had precious little chance of trying to fish the information out of them. “What do the rest of you think?” she asked. It was not lost on her that Maya was probably in more danger than the rest of them, but she also knew that the woman would refuse to leave with the Shade… which honestly may be just as safe as being alone with him, really.

"I think this sucks," Drayk said honestly. As far as the Sellswords went, they were effectively placing their lives in the hands of someone whose own son claimed to be insane. The witch was the only one who had any measure of protection, and the witch was the one Drayk was probably least concerned about in this group. He'd be able to burn his way out of a web wrapped around him quickly enough, but he wouldn't do that for the others. He wouldn't risk that. They'd be counting on the mercy of a woman who led a sisterhood of spiders, of all things. And if the Pact somehow died, they would hardly even be able to count on that much. But the Mentor could possibly be in here.

The speaker had called them the children. Surely the Webspinner took an interest in them because the Mentor had found them and trained them. The Shade had taken an interest in them for the same reason. They wanted to see something from them, was that it? It wasn't much of a hope, but wasn't it worth going on? For the chance of finding what they'd been seeking all this time? "If this is what it takes to reach the Mentor, though, we have to do it."

"Do not resist," the spider sister warned, moving closer to them. "We will deliver you to the mother unharmed, as is her wish."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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They moved onto the Sellswords with alarming speed, hands and legs grabbing for them. It took every ounce of Drayk's self control not to struggle against such a disgusting creature taking hold of him. His arms were forcefully moved to his sides, two of the spider's legs putting pressure behind his knees, and before he knew it the priestess had tilted him over sideways, the legs possessing a surprising amount of strength and dexterity. She hovered over him, raising herself up with the rear legs while the front ones began to turn him about.

It was warm, and for once Drayk didn't really like that. He quickly began to grow dizzy as the spider spread her webbing from the abdomen and around his torso, immediately binding his arms into place at his sides. The substance was thick and gooey when it came into contact with him, but almost immediately began to condense and solidify. Around and around and around he was spun, the spider priestess shifting him from side to side so that the webbing might cover a larger area of him, until the webbing had nearly reached his shoulders, and went all the way down below his knees.

At last she stopped, and Drayk felt quite sick. The interior of the tunnels were spinning around him, but he was vaguely aware that all of his companions were as he was: wrapped in webbing, and in the clutches of a servant of the Webspinner. Without warning, they began to move, vanishing into the darkness. Some went forward, others ducked into side passageways. Drayk had the pleasure of being pulled straight up first, the spider servant pulling herself up through a hole in the ceiling. Everything was plunged into darkness, and Drayk felt a powerful urge to light up his flame cloak, burn his way out of the web, and kill this horrific thing carrying him along. He resisted, but only barely.

Without any kind of sight available to him, it was impossible to know where he was going, and the spider sisters had made a point of separating them, carrying them to their destination along different routes. Drayk could not even hear any of the others, only the shuffling sound of spider legs running over webbed walls and floors. The priestess carried him through tight tunnels at varying angles, once even carrying him along the ceiling of something, if the force of gravity was to be believed. She dropped down through holes in the floor to land lightly below, and indeed, much of their time was spent going down, deeper into the earth. The trip itself, however, only took a few minutes. The spider sisters were very efficient in their movements.

One of the spider sisters had mercifully cast a magelight spell to rest against the ceiling in this larger chamber they now entered, so Drayk was actually able to see most of his surroundings, albeit quite dimly. The floor was a wide and open area, absolutely covered in spiderwebs save for circular holes in the ground, some larger than others, all of them seemingly tunnels that led elsewhere in the caverns. Several other tunnels presented themselves behind where Drayk had entered, and he saw some of the others being hauled in through these currently. A single, massive spider hole was situated against the far wall. Drayk swallowed.

The spider that had been carrying him roughly dropped him on the ground on his face, though Drayk was aware of a trailing thread of webbing extending from his upper back. Craning his neck around, he was able to watch his spider sister crawling up the side of the wall, the trailing webbing behind her eventually becoming taut, and pulling Drayk into the air. The spider came to rest above one of the holes, on the ceiling directly above Drayk, dangling him from a thread extending from her abdomen. The others followed suit, until all eight of the group hung over holes into deeper tunnels, arranged in a sort of half-circle across from the largest spider's hole in the wall.

Her legs emerged first, as her servant's had, but these were much greater. First two, and then two more, and then four more. And then about twelve more. The spider that emerged, if it could still be called that, was massive, filling up the entirely of the gaping hole in the wall, thick black hair covering the majority of the body as well as a kind of hardened dark carapace. But where the spider sisters had been the upper body of a woman and the legs and rear parts of a spider, the Webspinner was more of the upper half of a woman perched on top of an entire spider. With the location she was situated on top of it, she almost could have been riding it, but if one looked closer, the woman had no legs. Her body melted into the spider's, and they were entirely one being.

And the spider was the most horrific thing Drayk had ever laid eyes upon. It had eyes, so many eyes, there must have been a hundred of them, dark red in color, peering every which way, a dozen of them locked onto each of the eight unwilling guests in her hall. And below them all were razor sharp teeth, dripping saliva into her webs, clicking together at random intervals. The abdomen itself remained somewhat hidden in the blackness of the hole behind her, but it was easy to guess at its size. This creature would not have been able to fit in the main hall at the Mentor's manor.

The woman herself, if one was able to ignore the monstrosity beneath her, possessed a kind of ghostly beauty, one that her servants entirely lacked. She too had her body uncovered, her skin a pearly white, her hair silky and seemingly clean where the others had been matted and tangled. It sank down below shoulder level, and did not cover her face as the others had. Her eyes were closed and unseeing, but her features were undeniably noble, and strikingly beautiful. But Drayk couldn't manage to see any of this as beautiful, no matter how he looked at it. This was a nightmare, plain and simple, but it was one they could not wake from.

"You have arrived," the Webspinner said, in a voice that sounded like a whisper, and yet one that echoed throughout the chamber, "at the center of the web. I am what once was Phaedra Aurelius. I am now simply a Webspinner, and I see the threads that bind you. You have come far, and suffered much, to reach this place. But it is not I you seek..." her voice trailed off, to allow one of them to address her, if they were bold enough.

Sinderion was not in much condition to answer the sort-of inquiry at present, as he was rather pointedly concentrating on steadying the breaths coming and leaving him through his nose. There was a faint tremulousness to them that signaled either a great amount of fear, or something quite a bit worse. If only he was merely afraid. Alas, fear wasn’t even on his mental map at the moment, as the red blotches of rage were beginning to obscure everything else. He was confined, trapped, and the strength in his altmer limbs was not going to be enough to free him. He would know—he’d spent much of the trip to this place attempting to thrash in his bindings, an instinctual struggle more than a rational one. The beast did not approve of allowing himself to be bound so. It would much rather have killed its way through these tunnels, until it found what it wanted or died.

Actually, the fact that the smell was still retch-worthy was helping him at this moment, as the feeling of illness was at least fighting for dominance with the feeling that he must get out. Outwardly, it would be difficult to tell, but a tremor had picked up in his body, echoed in the sound of his breathing. He swallowed several times in quick succession, and tried to focus on anything but the feeling of being trapped. The Webspinner was a mighty distraction, perhaps, though it was a cold comfort at best.

Soren, on the other hand, had sighed heavily when the Sellswords acquiesced to being so transported, and muttered something about having nobody to blame but themselves when they died here. Presently, he was testing the tensile strength of this spider silk a bit, having slipped a small knife from his belt as he was being wrapped up. Thus far, he was having absolutely no success freeing himself from the silk prison, if one could call it that. Seeing as he had come here for the Webspinner, more or less, he wasn’t really interested in answering the implied question. He’d leave that to one of the talkative Sellwords, or better yet, the mute one. That would be interesting to watch. He wondered idly if the massive horrific spider-woman could read lips.

Lynly never thought herself the clausterphobic type, but now encased in layers of webbing and strung up from the ceiling, she was beginning to second guess herself. She fidgetted against the sticky silk, unconsciously hoping it'd give way, but of course it did not. She was not in a good mood, and it was because of that she plunged herself in silence. She would not speak unless spoken to, and even then tersely. To her, they had played right into the Webspinner's trap, and had no one to blame for it but themselves. The Webspinner herself was horror of what was maybe once a person, and Lynly couldn't help but wonder at the kind of insanity would make someone turn into a spider.

She was agitated at their certain turn of fate. Something held in common with the dunmer of the party. Vanryth on the other hand was not defiant, but rather resigned. He was doing this for the rest of the Sellswords, and for the Mentor, so whether or not he wanted to do it was moot. The fact remained that he had to, there was no other choice. When the Webspinner was revealed to him, his eyes widened from the shock and then returned to their normal size, perhaps with a bit of reluctance as well. If they ended up fighting the creature, how would they fare? They had survived the Stonehammer's dragon assault, the attack on the Embassy, and even the Omen's trail, but all times just barely.

He wondered if now was when their luck ran out.

Anirne was perhaps less bothered than she should have been by the fact that she was currently cocooned in a mass of gooey spider silk. In fact, her worst thought about the whole endeavor was that it was somewhat disgusting, and would be rather hard to force out of hair that was, with time on the road, looking to descend past her hips quite shortly. Hygiene had never been a particularly speedy process for her, but it had seldom been unpleasant, either. She supposed she should simply be glad that magically extricating herself from this mess would not be much of a problem.

That… the Webspinner only somewhat resembled the spider Daedra she’d seen before, and frankly, the Psijic did not much relish the thought of attempting to slay her. Granted, she rarely relished in slaying anything, but she did not often prior to her return to Skyrim believe she would have quite this much difficulty even making an attempt. With that many eyes, and that many legs…

Adrienne was internally quite a bit more sickened and horrified than the stoic monk, but as usual, she clamped down on the feeling, trying to arrange her features into something pleasant. Perhaps fortunately, she had the kind of face predisposed to that kind of thing, whereas she would have had to expend great effort to seem intimidating at all. The Webspinner seemed to be… prompting them, to say something, ask after the Mentor, but Adrienne sensed that this was a conversation that was only minimally in need of participation from anyone else. It was also probably going to be like trying to walk on thin ice: one misstep (and it was going to be hard to tell what qualified) was going to plunge them all into something quite horrific. Perhaps the hole beneath her was that something.

Licking her lips to try and make speaking a bit more natural, even if her diaphragm did feel corset-crushed by this webbing, she tried to pay as little mind as possible to the obvious struggle Sinderion was undergoing on her left and do what she did best: talk. Her friend would not benefit from anything she could do for him at the moment, after all. “We seek Lucius Aurelius, known to us as the Mentor,” she offered. The name tasted strange on her tongue, as she’d never even known it in her time with him, but it would probably be how the Webspinner knew him. Using familiar terminology seemed a small courtesy that might mean nothing. But it also might mean a lot—it was hard to say.

The Webspinner's sudden wail of agony was couple with a ear splitting shriek from the great spider, its maw opened and teeth displayed in each and every direction. The legs stompted about her immediate area, and the entire cavernous room shook slightly. She breathed heavily when the wail had passed.

"MENTOR!" she cried, burying her face in her hands. "He who took my Lucius, my dear Lucius, away from me. Years ago he left, despite my cries, despite me falling on my knees and begging him not to go. My dutiful son brought me a man that looked like him, felt like him, but it was... not... him." She fell silent for a moment, before she took slow steps towards the immobile Sellswords hanging before her, her voice returning to a whisper.

"I do not know if he even knew me, this man who looked like my Lucius. The grief, it has done so much to me. I sought to end it. Spoke to my Lady." And then she screamed again. "TAKE MY MIND, I said... Let me feel not the pain of this world any longer! Make me into an instrument of your power, but please, PLEASE! Remove the thoughts from my head." She was clearly weeping, tears streaking down her pale face.

"I was made into this... the one who would listen to the whispers, and see the threads that bind mortals to one another, all of us connected in the greatest web of all... but she did not take my mind. She did not take my grief. Only when I remove the others, when I bring her the glory she seeks, will she release me. And I must do this, I must be the last. I will be born anew..."

She turned around entirely, moving back towards her hole. She gestured mournfully to the side wall, and one of her spider sisters fired off a magelight spell to hit it, revealing a large web separate from the rest, the center of it broken and hanging limp, the web useless and destroyed.

"But you came not for me. You came for him," she whispered, turning to face them. "I cannot deliver him to you, for he is mine no longer. He was taken from me again, taken by those he has always answered to, even if he thought to ignore the call. They have taken him to a place where few mortals are capable of following, and fewer still are brave enough to do so." She sighed, her voice heavy with her grief.

"They have taken him to Coldharbor."

Apparently, Mentor had been the wrong word to choose. Anirne found herself wondering just how sudden this change had been on the part of their teacher, and what exactly had made it come about. It certainly hadn’t been at his wife’s behest, nor that of his oldest son. Perhaps the younger one had something to do with it? Perhaps he believed he was protecting them all from their fates as pawns in the Game of Shadow? Well, that had clearly backfired, whatever the case. This woman, whatever she might have been before, was nearly mad with grief and loss, the younger of the children was dead, and the Shade, well… she wouldn’t call him unmoved, but he was hardly forgiving. Perhaps what he’d done for the Sellswords was the only good thing to emerge from the entire mess, and they… they might not last. It was a grim reality to confront, and she desired deeply to believe in them, but this kind of news was bound to strike them with devastation.

Coldharbor… Adrienne had learned her lore well enough growing up that she knew what that meant, and she stared at the broken web, not bothering to disguise the mounting sense of horror she was feeling. It welled, thick and hot, in the back of her throat, almost choking off her ability to speak. Sweet, merciful Mara… the Mentor had been taken to the domain of Molag Bol, the Daedra lord he’d defied to become the man who’d saved them all. She swallowed past that rising bile, forcing her eyes to move from the broken web to the spiderlike lady, and though she didn’t really want to, she pitied the woman. She’d lost a husband, and a son, and her other one wanted to kill her. It was a mercy, probably, but that didn’t really take the sting out of it. She’d lost most of what she was, transformed into this creature, and the one thing she’d wanted to lose, she still seemed to keep, at least a little.

It was… she found herself struggling to imagine misery on that scale. But she was trying to envision it anyway, because even that was better than thinking about what the Mentor must be enduring right now, at the hands of the Lord of Domination. A shudder ran down her spine, largely absorbed by whatever she was coated in. “Who took him from you?” she asked softly, though her mind screamed us. “Daedra, or something else? When were they here?” Why didn’t you save him? Why couldn’t we save him? Ugly thoughts, and thoughts she knew well enough to reject, lest they gain insidious purchase in her mind.

"Had I stopped them, child, I would have suffered the same fate as he," the Webspinner said, more answering the woman's thoughts than her words. "Daedra have no more power here than elsewhere in this plane. But while this Mentor of yours was given to me, he was never mine to keep. He was not my Lucius. He suffers justly now, for his betrayal."

"So how do we get there?" Drayk asked, not caring for the woman's opinion on what was just or not. "To Coldharbor. How do we reach the Mentor?" He didn't quite know what this Coldharbor place was, but from the way she had described it, it was no earthly realm, no place mortals could walk unhindered. So there would undoubtedly be difficulties in reaching it at all. But they would not let it stop them. He couldn't let the man he owed everything to suffer at Molag Bal's hands. Any happiness he now had, any chance at a future, was because of him, and regardless of what he'd done before he turned away from sin, he deserved better than what he was getting. He had to believe that.

"You would lay down your lives for him, search for him to the ends of the world and beyond. You are truly the false children, if that is true. The way to Coldharbor is not known to me, if there is one for those who dwell in this world."

Drayk exhaled in disappointment, but the Webspinner carried on. "If such a way exists in this plane, and in this land, it would be found at the Library. It is a place of forbidden and forgotten knowledge, far to the north. There you may find the way. The means, however, I suspect will only be available behind the great doors, and past the Sentinel. You know of the place I speak of."

So there was a way. Now they just had to have the will, right?

Lynly sighed, her answer about what would drive a woman to do their to herself rather forthwith. Insanity caused by grief. But it was still insanity, and they had their lives in the hands of someone who was no longer in touch with this world. And the Sellsword's Mentor had left as well. Things were becoming better the longer they stayed strung up. Vanryth's head drooped at the news. The Mentor was no longer here, taken to Coldharbor of all places. The despair was tangible on his face, though hidden by the shadows. If he knew his friends, then they would certainly wish to travel there. A thought confirmed by Drayk. And why not? They were so close now, following right behind him. They had always been right behind him. Would they still be behind him even in death? The thought was a grim one, but one he couldn't help but have.

“Oh, good,” Soren drawled. “So they only get the prize after they’ve killed everyone standing in the way. No worries, then.” He was quite sure that ‘Sentinel’ was not going to let them through while other Representatives were still detected, so to speak. It also meant they’d need either Maya or Tarquin in order to access the thing in the first place. At least, if he had his guess. He usually did, but not always. At least he was making some progress on the webs now, sawing through the first few layers of the stuff and giving his arm more room to move. Getting out would be easier, with that small favor.

It figured that nobody did him favors besides himself. Then again, wasn’t that exactly the way he wanted it to be?

Sinderion, still much less than pleased to be in this place, was at least distracted enough by the news to think about something other than how much he wanted out of his confinement. “The Library,” he murmured, glancing at Maya. That had been marked on the Omen’s map, and she’d told him of a representative called the Librarian. Hermaeus Mora, if he remembered properly. That was where they needed to go, then. But… before they could go there, they needed to get out of here, and it was not immediately clear how they were going to do that. What were the chances they would just be allowed to walk out? And what of the Pact, and the Horizon? The Shade had brought them here to kill this woman, his mother, and it was unlikely he’d much appreciate them walking out again having failed to do that. But how he was supposed to handle this half-addled himself was not immediately coming to him.

"Of course," the Webspinner continued, "there is no guarantee you will reach any of these things at all. There is no guarantee you will ever leave my halls, in fact. If you are to do so, it would be together, but I see that the web that binds you has weaknessess..."

She strode forward on dozens of legs, two of which reached out, one snaking around Drayk's midsection, the other around Adrienne. "These two share a bond as vital as their own heartbeats, these false children. Their joy is the greatest thing they have known, and yet their fear is just as powerful. If one falls, the other will follow. He wonders what he would become if he lost her. He would be nothing but the insidious nature within him. He would give in to it, and become as I am, a ruined vessel, of grief and power in equal measure. He fears this."

Drayk glared as well as he could at the Webspinner, but she spoke truly. It wasn't so hard to fathom. Any of the Sellswords would be racked by despair if one of them fell, but he knew he could not bear to lose Adrienne specifically. He would give up if that happened, allow himself to be lost to his power, forget all of this that had happened to him. That was the reason why he couldn't let it happen.

Adrienne swallowed thickly. She wasn’t sure she had anything to say to that. If Dom died, well… it was a possibility she didn’t care to contemplate. She would die, too. That was simply the end of it, and the rest was tormenting herself with hypotheticals, with might-bes and wherefores. It wasn’t going to achieve anything. Even knowing that didn’t help the lurching feeling of an irregular heartbeat and a choking uncertainty. Was she strong enough, to survive all of this, when her loss would be his as well? It placed a value on her life that she’d never expected there to be. She’d always just been… a tool. For her own ambitions, or someone else’s, channeled through her, taught her from the cradle. Tools were disposable. Valuable, sometimes, but disposable. They all broke with time, and she’d known that, always. She’d known it when she’d chosen to be one. But she couldn’t break him. She wouldn’t.

The Webspinner released the pair of Sellswords, moving then to Anirne, dozens of eyes looking up at where she hung before the spider. "You are among those that are not the false children. You... you would seek to mother them. You need these threads, you feel. To replace the bonds that were cut, that were split upon your ruin. And you wonder how you will have to leave, not if you will have to leave. Can you watch the children fall? Perhaps it would be best never to have them at all..."

Anirne, for once bereft of her stoic silence, gave the Webspinner a stricken look, as though she’d suddenly grown an extra head, perhaps one that resembled somebody dear. How could she possibly know…? But that was the wrong question, wasn’t it? The real question was why she still couldn’t get over it, the fact that she could not have something she’d never really even wanted. Why did it seem like such a keen loss, still? Was she ruined? Perhaps by this woman’s standard, she was, and considering what the Webspinner was, that was a rather grim pronouncement on her condition indeed. Her arm sought reflexively to move to shield herself, or that vital part of herself that would never work again, but the webbing prevented it, and the altmer woman made a small, almost unconscious noise of frustration.

It was true. What in her life hadn’t she left? What hadn’t she ruined, somehow? When and how would she leave this, too? Would it be to naught but smoking embers, as she’d left everything else? She could say nothing to defend herself, only shake her head, as if trying to clear it of the traitorous thoughts.

She moved back and away, sliding sideways over spider holes to stop before Sinderion, sighing as if weary upon reaching him. "The doubt in you is almost overwhelming, child. You find certainty in defending those you love, but at what cost to yourself, you wonder? And this false child wonders about his parent. Where the younger one sees only the life that was saved, that happiness that was brought as a result of action, you see the inaction, the omissions that spanned years of your life, and you wonder, if ever so slightly, that the one you go so far to save is not worth saving at all." A dozen eyes narrowed at Sinder, as if drinking more of it in.

"And there is yet more. The webs between you and the witch have changed greatly over a short period of time, and you begin to wonder about this. Suspicion where you wish there was trust, a fear that you are being pushed into something that is not truly of your will, that she desires the beast, and not the man who fights against it. You wish to know, this I can see, but do you wish me to tell you?"

The accuracy of the words might have been painful enough on its own, but Sinderion was an intensely private person, and to have all the little tendrils of doubt that he harbored somewhere close to his heart so exposed absolutely lanced him, as though impaled with one of Adrienne’s ice spikes. He swallowed several times, trying to force down the bile that rose in the back of his throat. He hadn’t wanted the others to know that he doubted the Mentor, even a little, and certainly did not wish Maya to discover in this way that he doubted her. Even if he did. He’d only just accepted it himself, growing weary with the constant efforts of keeping his doubts at bay. In this, they were even stronger than his violence, his all-consuming need to hunt, and for all that less useful.

He stared straight ahead, unwilling or unable to meet anyone’s eyes. “You may know it,” he replied, “but it is not for you to say. Truth or lies, I don’t want to hear it from you.” Part of him desperately, frantically wanted to know, and would have taken her up on the offer, just to put his reservations to rest once and for all, either way, but that part was thankfully comparatively silent in him. Must he always be in parts and pieces? Would he never just be free to feel something wholly? Without reserve? He couldn’t remember the last time he had.

"If she has not given it truly by now, will she ever give it truly at all?" the Webspinner wondered. "If the truth was not harmful, there would be no reason for it to hide." She lowered her head and moved away. Sinderion scowled, but did not reply.

"And you," she said, shifting over to stand before Soren, "you confound some of the others as to why you remain. You have come to a place few mortals dare to tread, and you have done so with little thought of personal reward. The false children care nothing for gold and glory, and you will find none of this traveling with them, but you find this acceptable. You find yourself returning simply because... you have been through something with them now. You have stepped into something so far beyond you, and you find your skills to be a great asset to them."

She leaned in slightly closer, as if to examine his face better, but her human eyes remained closed all the same. "But you cut apart the threads even as you attempt to spin them. It is the severing you fear, and so you seek to never allow yourself to be bound to them in the first place. Perhaps you do not realize that this has already occurred, whether you wish it or not..."

A brief scowl flickered over Soren’s face, but it morphed into a too-wide grin, flashing a straight row of teeth. “Never was too big a fan of spoiling the tale, lady, but go ahead if you want to. Maybe they’ll believe it coming from you. Maybe I will, even. But don’t count on it.” The severing, was it? Oh yes, he hated the severing. Hated it with black arrows and years of his life dedicated to vengeance, because that was better, easier, cleaner than growing attached to something else. If there was one thing his fuck-up of a father had ever taught him, it was that love and regard were weaknesses, to be avoided at all costs. He was right, but everyone slipped up sometimes, Soren more often than he might have liked. It was… nice, feeling useful and part of something more than just himself. But he could only give himself a facsimile of that, because the severing was too much for a second effort. To say nothing of what came after.

"Your very body is a monument to your disregard for your own life," the Webspinner said once she'd moved in front of Vanryth. "You have already thrown it away in defense of this family you have earned, but you feel such pain now. You lose parts of yourself with every battle, every wound taken on behalf of an ally. What happens when your body is not enough? When one of them falls solely because you are too weak, too slow, to spare them the pain, that you might take it unto yourself? Will you still carry on when one of them is dead and you, by some cruel miracle, are still alive?"

Vanryth merely stared at her with tired eyes. Who was she to tell him something he already knew. The battles, the game, they were taking their toll not only on him, but all of them. He had taken in their pain for himself, to save them from, as he would do time and time again until he was nothing. That was it wasn't it? He'd wear his own body out so that theirs may be in one piece. They were still young, they still had a chance at a facsimile of happiness. It was simple. He wouldn't have to carry on, because he would die before any of the others. It wasn't even a question in his mind, he would trade his life away for one of theirs if it ever came to that, without hesitation, without regrets.

The Webspinner came before Lynly next. "You came to join this group with greed in your heart, and this you regret, but you no longer feel you carry it. You sought personal glory, a great story you might write about yourself someday, but you've seen their plight, and become a part of it. There are so few threads that bind you to them, and yet you remain, to test the waters they insist on wading into. They are a family you can never be a part of, so tight are their bonds. You ask yourself what it is truly that you seek now, if not your own glory?"

Lynly stuck her jaw out in defiance, but said nothing for a time. While whatever drivel dripped out of her mouth may have been true, that did not mean the words were fit for her tongue. She was talking about what Lynly felt inside, and she had no right to put them to words. True, she began this journey for glory. It was also true that nothing kept her tied to them, not like they were tied to each other. She was just there like a leech, claiming their travels for her own. Questions of her own would bubble to the surface in time, but now, she would not give this spider the satisfaction of her own self-doubt. "I stay because I must," She said steadily, evenly.

Last of all she stopped before Maya, who glared unblinkingly at her. "To respect the wishes of your greatest bond here, I will refrain from speaking of all of your thoughts, that you might deliver them yourself. There are others I might choose from."

"Like the other, you fear the ties being formed, even though you know you need them to stay among the living. You doubt them, each and every one, and the uncertainty that comes with the end of this Game. You fear that something will turn them against you, and so you inevitably prepare for that day, the day in which it will be clear what their eventual choice will be. You seek power with a ravenous hunger, that you might become strong enough to survive on your own, that you need not fear the pain of betrayal or the sting and grief of loss."

She reached out and touched Maya's cheek with the palm of her hand, looking away with her eyes still closed. "You know where to look for what you seek, child. Now you simply wonder if you have the will to use what you will learn, and the doubt that any of it will truly be worth it. But I will keep you from the pain of these futures if I can. In death, you will know no suffering."

She moved back, turning to the group at large. "The bonds among you are strong, but between individuals they are but threads, or not yet built entirely. What happens when you are faced with building these webs, or perishing? When tested, will you bond, or break?" The spiders holding them from the ceiling shifted at the Webspinner's gesture, holding the group in pairs over separate holes below them.

"Into the tunnels you will go. If you falter, you will die. Subdue the witch only." And their threads were cut. Drayk and Anirne fell into one, Soren and Adrienne into a second, Sinderion and Lynly into another, and Vanryth and Maya into the last.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni

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The sudden feeling of the fall momentarily overwhelmed Drayk's senses, so abrupt was it, and he found himself closing his eyes, his body tensing as he plummeted into the complete darkness below. But the fall was not nearly so long as it seemed. His back slid against hard stone, the web wrapped around his body gripped against others that it passed, slowing him very quickly. The tunnel curved upwards until it was level to the ground, and Drayk lurched to a stop, the high elf woman somewhere very close beside him. It was not a very wide passage they'd been thrown into, as could feel one of the walls at his back, and Anirne on his other side. The scuttling of spider legs further down the tunnel indicated that enemies were near, and Drayk could feel one about the size of his hand beginning to craw steadily up his leg.

He began to thrash violently to get it off, and suceeded in doing so, but it was a rather futile endeavor. There were thousands of spiders down here, and hundreds of them had weapons in their hands. He felt cut off, separated, alone, regardless of the fact that he could feel the body heat of another person right beside him. They had learned what they needed to down here, now Drayk just wanted out, perhaps even more than he wanted that woman above them dead.

"We have to get out of this, we have to get out of here, we need to find the others," he said, continuing to struggle. He had no means of cutting the webs, and the thought of the others trapped down here like he was let panic seep into him. He was about five seconds from burning his way out, actually, regardless of anyone's proximity to him.

Anirne landed on what might have been her feet, but the slope tipped her forward, and she was forced to tuck into a roll, which continued much longer than she was properly comfortable with, and she felt the uncomfortable sensation of losing several long hairs along the way, either to sticky webbing, catching stone, or some combination of the two. Fortunately, it wasn’t as much as it could have been, and there were no bleeding lesions on her scalp, which was about as close to a truly optimistic thought as she was going to allow for the moment. Drayk came down behind her, and she could hear him struggling against his bonds. Deciding that the best method for freeing themselves from this was probably magic, she rocked herself back and forth until her web cocoon came free of the ground, and used the momentum to roll a good ten feet from the fire mage. “I’m far enough away, if you need to burn your way out,” she told him calmly. In fact, she wreathed herself in flames as well, figuring it would work a little better than her more customary cloak of lightning.

There was a faint popping sound, and the smell of singing as the webbing blackened and shriveled. Anirne regained her feet, brushing the rest off her robes and using her other hand to conjure a number of magelights, casting an interrupted illumination over the space. It was only that which saved her, for she was able to see the arrow coming from the darkness and move aside, so that it struck her shoulder rather than her heart. “Watch out!” she called, as a twanging bowstring informed her that another was on its way, this one aimed for her counterpart.

Anirne shot a bolt of lightning in the direction her arrow had come from, but from the sound of stonework coming loose and falling, she had missed anything alive. Removing the arrow from her shoulder, she lit a quick healing spell and felt the wound close over, then took up her staff in both hands. It was impossible to tell where the enemies were, as every time she redirected her lights, there was nothing there anymore.

As soon as he heard Anirne give him permission, he loosened his failing grip on himself, and flames violently burst from him in an angry swirl, probably double the size of Anirne's, and even this required him to continue containing himself. The webs withered into nothing and fell away from him, and Drayk was on his feet in seconds, eyes searching for any sign of threat entering what light they had in front of them. The flames were swirling around him fiercely, and he didn't hear Anirne's warning, instead feeling the rush of air as an arrowhead sliced past his ear, drawing blood but doing no more. They'd played this game of inches for so long, surely it was only a matter of time before one of them ended up on the wrong side of it.

Unless Drayk could be there to stop it. The thought drove him forward a few steps, and he hurled a heavy fireball directly down the passage, lighting their way as it went, at least until it exploded in a blast when the tunnel finally changed course. Mindful of the arrows, he drew his shield from his back. Noticing that his flame cloak was easily taking up the entire width of the hall, he forced himself to choke it down, and pull them back in, until there was nothing left around him but smoke. The effort made him sag a little, but he soon crouched down and raised his shield, moving slightly past Anirne.

"Let's just keep moving forward. We're not going to be able to kill them all ourselves, and the others might need our help." They were, of course, the only two with any reasonable amount of healing ability in the group.

She had heard it mentioned in passing that this Drayk was a fire-specialized mage, and it had not been hard to surmise that his particular hangup involved some lack of control. Fire was like that—it called to even the most experienced of wizards with the seductive voice of utter destruction, whispering promises of untold destruction into their ears. Some preferred the chilly, beautiful precision of ice at their fingertips, and Anirne personally favored the barely-contained bite of lightning, which tended to rob targets of their ability to retaliate magically. But she had known many for whom fire was the be-all and end-all of destruction.

None of them had seemed to possess quite the same affinity that this boy did. It must have claimed him young, impressionable, and in a way, she suspected it might have molded him just as surely as he now molded it. The flames were in his nature, but he hadn’t mastered himself, lest he would have mastered them as well. The power of them would be greater thus, but how difficult it would be to convince him of that, when fire always promised freedom and eschewed control. She was not sure she dare try—this was certainly neither the time nor the place, and she could claim no kinship with him. Perhaps she should leave him to his business, as she would eventually leave them all; in such a way, he would feel no pain at her going. At least one, perhaps more, would be spared the very same agony she still felt more acutely than she had thought.

With a flick of her fingers, Anirne summoned her greatest ward to hand, though whether it was for use against the spiders or the youth behind his shield before her was not a question she bothered to ask herself. She might not like the answer. An anarchy of the soul is more dangerous than a field of foes. Her staff gripped solidly in her other hand, she nodded. “As you say,” she replied simply, falling into step behind him. They were almost of a height, which meant that if he crouched, it would be best for her to move lower to the ground as well, the hand with the ward spell shimmering in the palm held out sideways for quick activation if necessary.

Drayk pushed forward quickly, thankful for Anirne's interspersed magelights that lit the hallway. It made it next to impossible for the spiders to hide in front of them, and though they could try moving through the shadowed areas, their dark silhouettes would still give them away. In fact, they seemed to have withdrawn altogether, though Drayk was certain they were simply biding their time, waiting for them to look away, or lower their guards.

A passage came up on Drayk's left that had a slight incline, and Drayk was inclined to take it. Any road that went up was the one he wanted to be on. Surely the others would think the same, and with any luck, they'd be able to run into each other. "I'm turning here," he informed Anirne behind him. "Watch my back."

It wasn't his back he needed to worry about, however, as he'd no sooner turned to enter the passage than a javelin thrummed heavily into his shield, the point splitting through the wood and stabbing into his forearm. He recoiled heavily from the force of the projectile, but more alarming was the fact that his entire left arm went mostly numb upon receiving the shot, and his shield dropped pointlessly down against his will. Cursing, he stepped forward and thrust his right hand out, unleashing a cone of fire that extended far in front of him, filling up the passage. Judging by the shrieks, he'd caught one in the flame.

"They've got some kind of poison," he shouted over the roaring fire. Poison or no, at this point Drayk was thinking about just constantly filling the area around him with fire, to keep these things away.

The ball of light in Anirne’s palm extended to form an impressive ward wall, akin to a tower shield in its size. Beyond that, it was also great in strength, though she did cloak herself in stoneflesh to be sure. Anirne was about to suggest that they simply run up the next passage as quickly as possible, her ward in front of them, as she did not like extending the time they spent away from the others, but that plan was quickly nixed when the twang of a bowstring sounded behind her. Whirling, the Psijic brought the glimmering wall of magic around in just enough time to deflect a pair of arrows, both of which clattered harmlessly to the ground. A pair of spider-shapes were just visible, moving at the edges of the magelights, and she split the bright orbs, leaving half to illuminate the path ahead of Drayk and sending half behind, to the foes she now faced.

There were two, to say nothing of whatever number lay ahead. That more arrows followed indicated these were intending to do more than simply disappear—the two mages were cornered and outnumbered. More than that, she simply didn’t trust the young man at her back. How could she? She knew nothing of him. It hadn’t been much of an issue before, trusting or not trusting the Sellswords. Some of them, she did, and others, she could rely on to be self-interested or at least moderately cooperative. But this one… flames did not differentiate between friend and foe, and she knew not how well he would, if it came to that. He knew no more of her than she did of him, after all, and had no reason to trust her.

But they both had this reason: there was no other choice. Rising to the balls of her feet, Anirne replaced her staff at her back for the moment and conjured a glistening bolt of lightning in her free palm instead. “Two behind,” she said tranquilly. “I can hold them off, if you clear what is ahead.” Left unsaid was just how a person with no weapon and no shield arm was going to do that. She knew, he knew, and she was going to have to trust him this far, at least. Just as he must trust her to keep the arrows from his back.

The one thing that really got through to Drayk then was clear what is ahead. That he could do. He hefted his shield arm in front of him so that he could smash the javelin stuck in it. He stomped down hard on it with his boot, the numbness in his arm a temporary blessing, as he didn't feel the shooting pains it no doubt would have caused him otherwise. When the projectile jutting from his shield had been reduced to a less awkward size, he pushed forward at a quick pace, filling the hall with fire and feeling the remaining warmth of it as he passed, letting it envelop him for once.

One tried to get in his way, but her face had been filled with fire before she even got off the first shot from her bow, the smell of burning hair and flesh filling Drayk's nose, pushing him on. Their deaths brough him one step closer to his friends, one step closer to the surface, and the end of this nightmare. Another wisely waited until he was closer, looking to stab him with daggers, but this one he bodily slammed into, putting his palm directly over her hair-covered face, muffling her screams as she flailed away from him, running away down her own passage like an eight-legged bonfire.

The wisest of the bunch came down on top of him, from where she'd been hanging by a thread of her web in a tunnel that passed vertically down to their level. Her weight came down on top of him, legs stabbing into his upper back and dangerously close to vital organs, and Drayk went down face first with an angry growl of frustration. He tried to roll over, angle his flames up and into her, but she stabbed down on his arms. The numbing sensation had passed through much of his torso by now.

He let go, flames exploding outward from his body and wrapping around the pair of them. She wailed hideously, reeling back and trying to get away, but he pushed more out, expanding the strength of his flame cloak, and she didn't make it far, collapsing in a heap in front of him by the time he'd gotten back to his knees. It was so much easier to kill them when he just let go. If he willed it, he could burn out these entire caverns, he knew he could. They were so tight, and the flames longed for air, air that they'd seek out and consume, before looking for more. But the cost... he would have to make sure everyone else got clear first.

While the fire mage contended with those in front, Anirne hurled the first bolt of electricity at the bow-wielding spider behind. It struck center mass, the electricity coursing through the daedra’s body, sapping her of her magicka (not that these seemed to use it), and rendering her temporarily helpless. The other, however, charged forward to cover her sister, drawing twin daggers in the process. The first lanced for Anirne’s side, but she deflected with the ward, throwing the spider’s guard open. Unfortunately, it was not something she could take advantage of, for the second arm was immediately to follow, this one raking for her own. Time was of the essence, and Anirne did not bother to form the resulting blast of magic into anything more complex than a steady stream of lightning.

An arrow came for her, but her ward was occupied blocking the leg of the closer spider. She saw the backmost creature release, and knew that she could avoid the arrow if she wanted. She also knew that to do so would expose Drayk to it. Moving aside, Anirne took this one between the shoulder and the collarbone, and the numbing sensation was instantaneous. The Psijic was forced to drop her ward to fend off the closer one again, this time casting a wide paralysis spell, enough to encompass both. Like her arm, they went still, and she used her precious seconds to rip out the arrow and heal the wound, purging herself of its poison and drawing her staff.

With deft skill, she took a few running steps and vaulted, twisting in midair so that the side of her booted foot connected with the head of the closest spider, snapping it forcefully to the side. Landing lightly, she shoved the end of her staff up the woman’s chin, and that, and the resulting crackle of electricity, dropped her, just in time for the other to regain her senses.

The ward reappeared to fend off another few arrows, and this time, Anirne pressed her advance. Judging from the wave of heat that erupted behind her, she had little choice anyway. The spider snaked one of her legs around, successfully outmaneuvering the monk’s ward and flaying open one of her sides, tearing through skin and stopping on the bone of her ribs. Doubling over from the pain of it, Anirne blinked back the tears in her eyes and dropped the staff, gathering the primal magics in both hands at the same time.

When she straightened, it was to doublecast a lightning bolt, point-blank into the preistess’s face. There was no way she was going to survive something like that, and indeed she did not. Staggering a bit, the altmer retrived her staff, and cast two spells again, this time different ones, though: one healing spell, she aimed at herself, the other for Drayk, to repair the damage to his arm and anything else he might have sustained. She didn’t like the volume of that fire, to say the least, and she stayed well back, expending the extra magicka for unfocused healing because it would be better than having to repair burns.

The healing spell reminded Drayk of the plight of the woman behind him, but when he turned, she seemed to have taken care of it. The javelin head had fallen out of his arm, and his shield, though there was still a rather unacceptable hole in the middle of it. He'd either need to get it fixed, or find a new one. This one was getting rather old.

Pulling the flames back inside took more effort than before, but he was able to do it, though it left him breathing quite heavily afterward. He could've chalked it up to the fighting, but he knew better. This wasn't the time, though; he needed to save some energy if he was going to let loose in full later on. For now he gestured with his head for them to get moving again.

"It keeps leading up this way. Come on." He rose to his feet, but turned back again before setting off. "Oh, and thanks for that. Having my back and all."

Anirne smiled-- it wasn't particularly joyous, but there was kindness in it all the same. "You are quite welcome. For as long as I am hale and whole down here, I shall have it still." A rather polite way of expressing her gratitude for not being a pile of ash right now, perhaps.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni

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Anirne and Drayk treaded for some time in silence, following winding passageways that made little sense, mostly just climbing upwards as quickly as they were able. It was a bit arduous at points, as some of the tunnels had clearly been designed or just formed in ways that spiders could maneuver with much more ease than those with humanoid forms. In several places, it was akin to scaling a cliff-face, but they endured it as well as they could. Nothing else harassed them for the most part, though Anirne did not banish the ward spell in one of her hands, not even to climb a rock wall. Whether they were actually getting any closer or not, it felt like progress, and that was something.

She’d almost forgotten what it felt like, to be somewhere completely foreign and hostile to her. It was akin to many an adventure she’d had in ruins, with magicks unknown even to her working their strange effects and the constant threat of cave-ins or Falmer ambushes or any number of other things. She’d always been filled with an easy confidence in such situations—until one in particular. Now, she felt a measure of unease, but it was not enough to deter her. Sometimes, the only way to go was forward, and now was certainly looking like one of those times.

Pulling herself up another wall, she crested the climb and tried to find her feet, only to disturb some loose stone and lose her footing with a short yelp, gripping the ledge with her fingertips. Drayk was below her still, which gave her one more reason not to fall, but she was having trouble finding purchase for her feet in the low-light conditions.

Sinder and Lynly had managed to maneuver their way upwards with only a minimum of climbing, though there had been one instance in which they were turned aside by what had apparently been a cave-in at some point in the past, a wall of rubble now blocking their progress forward. Having to backtrack was frustrating, but at least they were gaining altitude, so to speak. Neither being very talkative, the journey was conducted in silence, and by the time they stumbled upon anyone else, she’d even stopped accidentally stepping on him. It was progress, of a sort, but he welcomed it.

The stillness of the silence was broken by a scuff and a cry, and Sinderion recognized the voice. The smell was more delayed in coming, given that he was presently covered in ichor from one of the priestesses, but that much only confirmed what he already knew. “Anirne, Drayk,” he muttered, taking off in the direction he’d heard the noises.

Thankfully, one of the two had cast a magelight at some point, and it was not impossible to see their predicament. Lynly would doubtless be pleased, but he was too preoccupied by his sister’s situation to dwell on it for more than half a second. Dropping to his knees in front of the precipice, he wrapped both hands around her wrists, using the strength in his legs to stand, pulling her straight up as far as he could, then backing up so that she might safely alight on solid ground. “You’re alive,” it was more an exhalation of relief than a statement meant to inform. He could tell that none of the others were with them, though, and worry flashed briefly over his face before he smoothed it over, offering an arm to the still-climbing Drayk for additional support.

Drayk had to sling his shield across his back in order to climb, and as such he hadn't been able to effectively block any of the loose stones Anirne had sent his way. One of them struck him just above the eye, making a nice cut, but he healed it quickly enough, pulling himself up higher. The sound of familiar voices was more than enough to drive him on. He gratefully took Sinder's offered arm and hauled himself up to the top, quickly pulling his shield back into a guarded position.

The other four members of the group weren't with them, and Drayk couldn't help but worry for Adrienne and Vanryth. If they found their way to the surface and the others weren't there yet, they'd certainly be going back down for them. Though, at this point Drayk was beginning to consider an alternate plan, but he needed to know the others were out of the caves before he tried anything. They still had a long way to go on that front.

A distant, shrieking wail echoed throughout the tunnels, and Drayk looked around quickly for any source of threat. There wasn't any, but when he focused, he thought he could feel the webs beneath his feet shifting ever so slightly. "I think they're going to hit us harder soon," he said, grimacing. "No way she'd let us out without a royal fight." At this point, Drayk was almost welcoming it. Burning this place would be doing Skyrim a favor.

Light, thank Talos there was finally some light. It didn't matter that it was purely magical, what matter was that she could finally see. The little she had done made her realize how much she hated fighting in the dark, how not seeing your opponent was so discouraging. Her eyes settled on the magelight as they approached. So both the boy and Sinderion's sister were still alive. That was good. But that still left them four shy of the entire group. Hopefully they'd find them as well, and soon.

"Let them," Lynly said, confidence boosted by the light. "It wouldn't be the same if we got off easy," She said with a wisp of a smirk. She'd be surprised if they did.

They moved out, picking a direction and going up whenever they could, using Anirne's light to see the way. They made some significant progress before they ran into a major block. The tunnel had been leading up quite well, but there had been no side tunnels the entire way, and eventually they came upon a blockage of webbing, thick enough that swords alone would take a very long time to cut through it. It wasn't clear how far it went on like this, or what was on the other side. And then, to make things worse, a second shriek came from behind them, and the scuttling of spider legs along webbing that indicated a small horde of them were on their way to meet them.

"Trapped," Drayk said angrily. "I can burn my way through, if you can hold them off. Or we can try and go back, but we'll be running right into them, and we didn't see any other ways up, only down."

“No point going back now,” Anirne pointed out, shaking her head and extending her ward once more. The shield looked deceptively like glass, but it would not shatter so easily as that. “Do what you must, Drayk—we have your back yet.” Stepping forward, Anirne looked to Lynly, then around at the passage. It was relatively narrow, and she felt that the two of them could hold it fairly effectively with their shields and a defensive frame of mind. “Shall we be a wall of our own?” she asked the nord woman, smiling faintly and leveling her ward outwards, bending at the knees to crouch slightly behind it and readying a spell in her other hand.

They would endure this. They must.

Lynly drew her sword and shield once more and turned back down the hall. "There's no point in going back now," She said. They'd have to fight their way through anyway, and personally she'd rather the fighting to have a point than just because they got stuck. She then nodded at Anirne and turned her own shield outward, side-by-side her own ward. "Let's see them try to get past it," Lynly agreed. She then lifted her blade up and over her shield, having it come to rest on the edge of the rim, primed to strike like a viper. There was a reason she called herself a defender after all. She bent her legs and set one steadily behind her, and awaited the crashing waves.

Sinderion could sense… too many of the daedra. Thankfully, Anirne’s observation had been quite correct: the passage was narrow, and he doubted more than three would be able to fit abreast in it. Drawing his bow again, he backed up a few steps, still giving Drayk his space, but also allowing plenty of room for Anirne and Lynly to maneuver as the situation required. Nocking an arrow to the string, he released upon sight of the very first of the spider sister, the shot catching her flawlessly in the throat. She dropped, and the two of her kin that came next ran up onto the walls to maintain their momentum, dropping back to the floor only once they were clear of her corpse. Both, unlike the previous specimens they’d encountered, were dual-wielding full-fledged shortswords rather than smaller knives, and the scent of poison, sickly-sweet, hit him like a stone wall.

Sinder fired again, aiming between them for another that pressed in behind. He would try to keep his sister and Lynly from needing to deal with more than one at a time each, but they would have to be cautious so as not to break formation and allow themselves to be surrounded. He didn’t enjoy the idea of having to fight his way out of a mire of them. The more clean and clinical they could keep this battle, the better.

Drayk started in on the webs behind him, wrapping himself in fire and quite literally throwing himself at the mess of webs, slowly wading through them as they blackened and cooked around him. It was going to be a slow process, but he was worried about getting over-zealous in his use of flames here. If he got carried away he could easily hit his allies behind him, and they need to worry about the spiders attacking them, not their ally behind them.

Anirne, for one, had no intention of making this a straightforward fight. Regardless of their strength, the numbers would quickly prove daunting. So rather than her customary bolt of lightning in her free hand, she lit a fear-inducing spell, sending it off down the corridor to affect as many of the spiders as she could at once. The two immediately making for herself and Lynly were clearly feeling it, and the one on the right clearly faltered, causing one of those behind her to slam bodily into her, sending the front one stumbling awkwardly towards the nord defender.

The one on the left was a little more resilient, but she did hesitate for just a moment in her strike, and that was plenty of time for Anirne to read her intentions and counter, giving herself some ebonyflesh even as she raised the ward to deflect the first of the blades. The second hit her side successfully, but the alteration spell was in full effect by then, and she didn’t even flinch as the steel scraped dully against her altered skin. Stepping forward just a bit, Anirne raised a hand, hooking her fingers over the priestess’s forehead, her palm pressed to the spot the woman’s eyes would be.

The force of the electricity would doubtless have been agonizing, had the creature remained conscious to endure it. As it was, her brain shut down almost immediately, her vital systems not long behind, and she slumped to the ground, dead. The next foe climbed up and over her even as Anirne stepped back, and this one did not look quite so afraid. Bracing herself behind her ward, the Psijic dug her heels in for the long haul, hoping that Drayk was having some success burning through the webbing at their backs.

Lynly thrust forward quickly and precisely, impaling the sister where her heart would be, dropping her into a slump. The first one was simple, though she didn't envy the chances of that happening again. She didn't have the repertoire of spells Anirne did, and her skillset was purely martial by comparision. That did little to dissuade Lynly from her given occupation. The sister behind the one she had just killed lunged for her, grabbing ahold of her shield. They fought over the iron ward for a moment or two before Lynly decided to give it to her. She surged forward, bashing the sister's face with the shield and retrieved. She followed with a quick horizontal slash from her sword, beheading the daedra.

She quickly returned her shield to it's original position, leveling the sword atop of it as she did, and awaited the next contender. It wasn't long before she showed herself, climbing over the bodies of her two sisters, intent on her revenge. "There'll be another wall soon enough if they keep coming like this," Lynly boasted as she rolled her shoulders. She wondered how Drayk was doing behind them. They way that their skin was still on their bones told her nothing drastic had happened yet, and that was a good thing.

He was not the shot that the sniper was, perhaps, but Sinder’s arrows managed to find throats, hearts and foreheads all the same. Once, he even managed to skewer one of the sisters in the eye, but he was quite conscious of his dwindling supply of arrows, and for this reason, his hits were conservative. He acted only to take the heat off Anirne and Lynly when it looked like they might be overwhelmed. Part of him was very dissatisfied with this, would rather have been in the thick of the melee, but his actions were logically the best ones to take, and so he did. With luck, they could soon start backing their way down the tunnel as they fought, and he might come upon another quiver as he went.

Of course, that was expecting a fair bit too much luck for the likes of them, and so when he spotted a quiver on the ground not too far in front of his sister, he went for it, darting under her offensive hand and pulling it back behind their lines in a whip-quick movement. Satisfied that he’d be able to keep up his tactics a bit longer, he took aim for one just raising an arm to strike Lynly, and released with an exhale, satisfied when the barbed head of the arrow bit deep into the center of the creature’s chest, burying itself in the flesh of her heart, and she slumped, adding one more to the increasingly- choking pile of corpses. There would be a wall of them, soon enough.

When it became evident just how effective Sinderion was in keeping them from being overwhelmed, Anirne saw no particular need to continue draining her considerable magicka reserves at the rate she was. Dropping the ward, she allowed her ebonyflesh to be sufficient deterrent and took up her charged staff, meeting the next foe in line with an impressively-quick array of shocking jabs, ended with a particularly-brutal one to the throat, collapsing the daedra’s esophagus. The next one forced Anirne back a step with the ferocity of her answering assault, but her alteration magic held strong as any armor, and though she had to bend backward to avoid losing an eye, she was able to snap back up and deliver a full charge to this one’s face.

And so it was that Anirne held her half of the corridor: with fluid movement interspersed with magic. There were many foes, but one at a time was something she could handle given careful management of her resources. Her magicka wasn’t going to run out, considering the powerful regeneration enchantments on her robes, and she was generous with her healing whenever it seemed that Lynly had sustained an injury, rejecting poison and closing wounds of the flesh alike. Even what few blows managed to get under her elastic armor were soon nothing other than trivialities, and it seemed that they would be able to manage this after all… assuming that her physical body didn’t just give out before they were gone.

Rather than stupidly charge forward into the wall that was presented to them, the spider-sisters shifted their focus to ranged attacks, knowing they were capable of sending far more projectiles at them than Sinder and Anirne were capable of returning. The fallen bodies they snatched up in their front legs, holding them in front of themselves so as to provide them with fleshy cover, only their upper bodies and their bows visible over them. Behind a few of them a hooded one could be seen, clad in tattered black robes, a lightning spell lit in one hand, a ward in the other. She never ventured to the front of the group, nor did she lower her ward, firing off lightning bolts at her enemies as she darted around the shifting forms of the other sisters.

Drayk had shifted his shield to his back and continued tearing down the webs with flaming arms. They were so thick here, it was enough to take up almost the entire volume of the tunnel, but he was making clear progress. At least, he was until a tunnel opened up above him, and a spider sister swooped down on him. He fell back and flared his flame cloak, wrapping her in it with him, but she was able to get off several stabs, one in the gut, and another on each of his arms as he worked to block her. In the end, it left him mostly numb when the weight of the spider sister came down on top of him, heavier than he'd expected. Though, perhaps that was just because he could hardly lift his arms themselves right now, let alone the spider sister.

Sinderion, aware of the scuffle behind him, turned and fired once at the spider sister, just to make sure she was actually dead. For Drayk, there was very little he could do, as his fellow Sellsword was still on fire, preventing the altmer from attempting to help him leverage the creature off of him.

Or it would have, if Sinder had chosen to exercise reasonable caution. There was very little in this situation that was reasonable, though, and he didn’t even hesitate, moving to the side of his brother-in-arms, letting the leather of his boots and armor provide whatever protection it would in the meantime. “Drayk,” he warned, “Smother it.” there was no room for lengthy explanations—every moment he spent away from his task was another in which Lynly and Anirne might be overwhelmed, struck fatally by an arrow he could have prevented, but he could not be everywhere at once, and their only hope at surviving this for the long-term was to get through this webbing.

Regardless of the degree to which his friend was able to rein in the flames, Sinder stepped cautiously forward, crouching and putting his shoulder under the spider-half of the sister that had landed on the mage, pushing up with his legs and essentially rolling her off. The smell of burnt flesh was pungent in his nose, but in all honestly, he was presently too flooded with adrenaline to know if it belonged to her corpse or him.

The change in tactics from the spiders sisters was unfortunate, but not precisely unexpected. Like the three before them, they made themselves the smallest targets they could be, and pressed the attack from afar. The mage was a greater concern than the rest: while arrows would for the most part just clatter off Anirne’s altered skin or Lynly’s shield and armor, the same could not be said of lightning, and indeed, the Psijic found herself struck with a bolt of it, the electricity ricocheting throughout her limbs. She’d been hit by such attacks before, but that made them no less painful. The force of it took her to a knee, and worse, disrupted the steady flow of magicka in her body.

It was enough to temporarily drop her ebonyflesh spell, and when a stray arrow struck her in center mass, she was taken off her feet entirely, sprawled out on the ground, the breath knocked from her lungs, one of which she could feel filling with liquid even as the numbing sensation spread outwards over her abdomen. A few inches higher, and it would have struck her heart.

A pained grunt was the only sound she could manage at the moment, bereft of wind as she was, but she managed to force her arm up gripping the shaft of the arrow and tearing it from herself, throwing it behind her with the half-formed thought that Sinderion might need more of them eventually. Trying to pull the air back into her lungs was a process measured in ragged pants and tiny gasps, one that felt like it took a lifetime. It could not have been more than half a minute, though, and as the last of the electricity emptied from her body, Anirne set to work healing the damage, forcing herself to clamber with a lack of her accustomed grace to her feet—

Only to be nearly trampled by one of the sisters, who’d seen the opening and made a charge for it, perhaps wisely hoping to coup-de-grace the prone mage. She almost succeeded, and a sword clanged off the stone floor where Anirne’s head had been seconds before, slicing through a few loose hairs on its way. With a shout, as much frustration and the desperate desire to be standing again, the Psijic blasted the priestess with raw lightning from both hands, tucking her knees to her chest to avoid being pinned under the remaining corpse. This time, she did make it to a stand, though not before an arrow whizzed by, close enough to nick her cheekbone. Gritting her teeth, Anirne re-summoned her ebonyflesh and focused her attacks on the mage among the Daedra. She was not going to be caught unprepared by another bolt of lightning, and neither was Lynly or Sinderion or Drayk. If that meant she had to overpower that ward with pure force, then so be it.

Lynly hunkered down behind her shield, exposing even less of herself as the spider sisters changed their tactics on them. They seemed to realize that throwing themselves upon them was suicide, which Lynly took as a compliment. However, that made her job harder. An arrow could thump harmlessly into her shield, by electricity would strike and branch out from her arm. She took one such spell in the center of her shield, as the most she could do was crouch low, grip tighter, gnash her teeth and wait out the spell with raw determination. That left her open for offense, as the elf next to her was taken off of her feet and leaving her flank exposed.

A sword came in low, looking to hook under Lynly's ribs and into the vital organs therein. She managed to whip her shield around fast enough to catch the arm before it penetrated her armor, and the sound of bones breaking echoed through the tunnels once more. Still the sister had another blade which was coming in from above. That strike managed to find it's mark into the top of Lynly's shoulder, though the ancient armor reduced much of the damage. Still, it was enough to put the numbing poison into her blood stream and take feeling out of her upper right half. Lynly whipped back around with her shield, still aiming low and crushed a number of the sister's arachnid legs, tumbling her over to the side. With a mind for her surroundings, Lynly danced around to the other side of the sister, dodging an arrow in the process and bringing the rim of her shield down heavily upon the sister's neck.

She looked up just in time to see a bolt of lightning streak her way. She threw herself against the wall and let the streak pass harmlessly by before she turned back down the hall, now thoroughly enraged. Swords and daggers she could handle, magic and arrows got annoying. That annoyance was painted clearly on her brow. She nocked another arrow out of the air with her shield and took a step forward, issuing a challenging roar down the tunnel. In such a confined cavern, her battle cry was amplified tenfold. Fear ran through the bodies of the sister who beheld her roar, and Lynly took the time to turn to Anirne and nod. "It's our turn to push back," Lynly said, menacingly twirling her sword over and landing it on the edge of her shield once more.

Drayk had honestly tried to smother his flame cloak, but the smell of it was so thick in his nose, and he couldn't even feel his own body at this point. By the time Sinder rolled the spider sister off of him he'd only begun to reel in the licking tongues of the flames. He was undoubtedly putting his friend in severe pain for his inability to control himself, but he couldn't think about that now. How easy it was to push aside frightened him. When he could breathe again he found it was a little easier to pull them back in, even though his instinct screamed at him that they were needed, they needed them to escape. But he also needed to get up again to escape, and that required healing.

At last he was able to pull the flames back into himself, and he immediately lit a healing spell in his hands instead, letting it wash over him and slowly rid him of the poison. Not looking back, he rose again, and reignited his flame cloak when he was away from the others again, continuing with the delicate balance of control and release. He loosened up a little on that front to throw a powerful gout of flame up through the vertical hole the last spider had come from, and though he didn't hear the shrieks he wanted to, it was good and cooked. With that, he went back to the webs. Only a little more to go...

Ah, so that smell was him. As soon as Drayk was up and moving, Sinderion remembered that he had a body which was just as capable of feeling pain as any other, though perhaps also more prepared to deal with that. The burns were concentrated on his legs, which, while protected fairly well by his thick boots and the leather guards tied about them, were certainly far from impervious to heat. He gritted his teeth against the sensation of raw flesh chafing against the fabric of his linen trousers, half-expecting Drayk to take care of it when he healed his own wounds. He did not.

Sinder made the valiant attempt not to blame him for it, and stepped back out of the way of the reignited flame cloak. The situation in the front wasn’t ideal, either, but at least he knew they’d eventually be out of it. With unaccustomed tenderness, Sinderion picked his way back to a decent position between Drayk and the two women on the front lines. Lynly was just suggesting that they push forward, and, scooping up his extra quiver as well as a bloodied, but perfectly serviceable loose arrow, he nodded. “I’m behind you,” he confirmed, though any charging would likely not be his to conduct. Still, there was more than one way to press an attack forward, something proven when he fired the dirtied arrow, catching the ward-wielder on her less-defended side, in the flesh of her arm.

“An excellent plan,” Anirne replied, unaware of her brother’s injuries. She did not have the sense of smell he possessed, and while his clothing was a bit singed, it was hard to notice in the dark and the press of battle, especially because he made no outward sign of being in pain. To each hand, she summoned the crackling energy of lightning. “The sorceress goes first. I’m bringing down that ward.” Advancing forward, she shot one of the spells off into the face of an ordinary archer, to clear the path, face set into grim lines largely devoid of expression. Anirne was not an angry person—to draw her temper was a feat in and of itself, and not one that any of these priestesses had achieved.

This was not to say, however, that she was anything less than perfectly relentless when she wanted to be, and she was certainly as good as her word. Rolling her shoulders, she ignored the volley of arrows that clattered off her magic-made armor and brought both hands up, releasing first one bolt, and the other no more than half a second later. The streaking light they produced was reflected in eerie patterns from the metal of Lynly’s armor, the knives some of the sisters carried, and the half-narrowed expanse of her own eyes. The barrage was unceasing, and one bolt flew after another, each one heralding another forward step by the monk, until the ward burst under the pressure. Moving to the side, Anirne cleared the way for Lynly to advance, to press the close-quarters advantage that was her specialty. By now, the sorceress was reeling.

And advance she did. She rocked on her heels for a moment, hesitating to allow the mage time to fire off her spells before Lynly rushed forward, and once there was an opening, she took off. Hidden behind her shield she took long leaping strides to close the gap, slashing at the sisters to her sides as she approached. She needed to be quick, efficient, and deadly, else get caught in the middle of it all. Before long she pulled up to the reeling sorceress, though she wasn't going to make it easy for the warrior. She lashed out with a tongue of electricity, one which Lynly ducked under with a roll.

As she rose back to her feet, Lynly's shield came up first, slamming into the chin of the spider sorceress in a uppercut of sorts. The effect was immediate and exactly the one Lynly was looking for. Her head jerked backward from the force, perfectly exposing her neck. The next blow came immediately after, like viper's strike, impaling the spider through the trachea and out the other side. She then ripped the blade free, slinging the creature's foul blood everywhere. With her goal accomplished, Lynly then began her hasty retreat. It tasted like victory to her.

With one last push Drayk burned through the end of the web, falling out into a steep tunnel and nearly rolling down it, getting his feet at the last second. With the rate it led up, surely this was the right way to the surface. He successfully smothered his flame cloak this time, turning and calling back to the others. "I'm through! This looks like a way out!" There was still the matter of going back in if the others weren't there when they arrived at the surface, but they'd get to that when they did. Drayk was probably going back in anyway, if they were going to get this Webspinner out of her hole.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Drayk had thought to feel relieved upon seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, but all they found at the end was the Shade.

He was immediately put on guard by the fact that Tarquin had shifted into the true form of a vampire lord since the time they last saw him, and they found him sitting upon a rock just inside the mouth of the cave, eyes watchfully scanning their surroundings. He turned his head to take note of the approaching foursome, before looking back out into the wild. "Just the four of you?" he asked, masking any emotions. Drayk frowned worriedly. "You haven't seen the others?" Tarquin shook his head, at which point Drayk immediately turned back towards the tunnel and began making his way in. He certainly wasn't leaving them inside, not any of them. He couldn't do what he had to if he had doubts, and not knowing the whereabouts of those he felt closest to was the best way to put doubt in him now.

He'd no sooner gone ten steps, however, than a rather foul stench, and not one that pervaded the rest of the tunnels, filled his nostrils, and he looked up to see Adrienne, Vanryth, Soren and the witch coming up to greet them, all of them spattered or covered in a mix of unidentifiable fluids, entrails, and muck. Disgusted as he probably should have been, all he could feel was relief, that all of them had made it. He quickened to a jog until he reached them, stopping to give Adrienne a brief hug before he quickly checked her over for injuries, doing the same for the others afterwards. He himself was dusted at this point by ash, the remains of what charred webbings had remained on him, but they were all so filthy at this point it didn't really matter. What mattered was their health, but they all seemed to still have it, so Drayk breathed slightly easier. He clapped Vanryth briefly on the shoulder before accompanying them back to the mouth of the cave.

Maya did not hide her relief at seeing Sinder and the others in one piece, but words for them would have to wait. As much as she wanted to leave, their job here was not yet done. They'd learned the Mentor's location for the Sellswords, but they'd also learned that finding him was now tied up in ending this Game, which meant they had just as much reason to want all but one of the Representatives dead as she did. At least two of them could die here and now, if things worked out for them. She approached Tarquin, still making a conscious effort to ignore her filthy state, as well as trying to stay calm despite the man's current vampiric state. "Anything happened out here?"

"Nothing moves within sight," Tarquin replied softly, "but our enemies are still here. She's patient, this one. She will not strike until she knows she has the upper hand, and she's attempting to force us to give it to her. You all spoke with the Webspinner, I'm assuming? Did you learn my father's location?"

“You could say that,” Soren replied, shaking his head. His hair was plastered uncomfortably to the back of his neck with an unknown quantity of that viscous gunk, and he peeled the tail away from his person with a vaguely-disgusted look. It was all somewhat rank, but nowhere was worse than where it touched bare skin. Still, it could be worse. At least he wasn’t sticky with his own blood. “Though honestly I’m not sure if Coldharbor’s more a place or a state of mind, if you take my meaning.” For this Mentor of theirs, it was probably both, honestly.

His eyes certainly took their time adjusting to the light, even though it was dimmer out than it had been when they went in. Had it been so many hours? Time was a slippery thing, definitely moreso in caverns where one could not see the sun. He glanced around, noting that everyone seemed to be present and accounted for, if a little worse for the wear. “Would you look at that? We’re not even dead yet…” Contrary to his usual sarcasm and dripping disregard, he actually sounded faintly surprised, and there might have even been a note of genuine pleasure in it, if only a very small one. He’d rather expected some casualties from an endeavor like that. Then again… they weren’t done yet.

Upon emerging from the cave, Sinder took stock of everyone else, noting with relief that the other four had made it through, despite lacking a healer between them. He’d been worried about that, when he and Lynly found Anirne and Drayk together. Not that having them both had done him a whole lot of good; it was obvious in the lighting that his boots were badly scorched, and his trousers had evident smoke-stains on them, though of course, this was but a hint of the now-blistering burns on his legs. Satisfied that nobody else needed help any more than he did, he shot a silent look at his sister, and nodded subtly down at his feet. She’d get the hint—at least, he hoped she would. He did not desire to spell it out in the hearing of everyone. He had made his own choice, and he’d make the same one again. Nobody else needed to worry about that.

He inhaled deeply, and his brows abruptly drew together. He glanced over at Maya, but found himself unable to look at her for long, and his eyes slid to Tarquin. He could maintain his silence if he wished, and that might be for the better, in the long run, but… he found it was not in him to do it. The man had saved his friends, and that deserved something in return. “The Feral is near,” he said quietly, scanning the area outside of the cave opening.

"Wouldn't seem right to exclude him from the day's events," Lynly deadpanned, running a hand through her sweatstained hair. What little remained of her braids framing her face were broken with the hand, giving her a more battleworn visage. Though if she was tired, she didn't show it. Adrenaline was still pumping through her veins, and she'd need every last drop before the day was done. The Pact, the Horizon, the Shade, the Feral, and the Webspinner, and certainly not least of all-- the Sellswords-- all in one place. It was a powderkeg, waiting to explode. She'd be lying to herself if she didn't admit she was curious to how it would all play out. Bloodily, if she had her guess.

The Shade frowned upon hearing of Coldharbor, though if he was surprised, he did very well to hide it. Nodding, he stood. "I suspected he might come to this place. Another vulture, it seems. We've only one way to flush them out." His eyes flickered towards Drayk, who didn't seem surprised the attention was turned on him.

Adrienne had leaned heavily against Drayk for a moment, more from relief than any need to support her balance, but drew back when she realized she was still covered in muck and had no desire to plaster him with it. He smelled like ash, which wasn’t really surprising, considering. That might be somewhere on her, too, considering the recent bout with the giant spider. She was pretty sure she’d never appreciated fresh air quite this much before, and there was no mistake that she dreaded going down there again, but she would have to.

“What advantage is she waiting for that she could possibly hold over her target?” she asked of Tarquin. “Those tunnels are… unmistakably the Webspinner's, and she doesn’t lack for servants. She has plenty of advantages over us...” The girl spread her arms out to either side, indicating their collective state. It didn’t get much more haggard-looking than the Sellswords were at the moment. In fact, away from the source of the Webspinner’s strength, if Adrienne were the Pact, she would have attacked now, save for the presence of the fully-transformed Shade. Killing Maya now would put her in his direct line of fire. But did she know that?

But in the end she sighed. They really didn’t have much choice but to deal with the problems as they arose—planning in a situation this volatile just wasn’t going to work. It made her feel worse than useless; her mind really was her best quality, and she couldn’t put it to that much good use with so many variables floating around in the situation. She almost wanted to laugh when Sinder told them that the Feral was also around, except that there was nothing even remotely funny about it. It was just so fitting, that they’d never find even the smallest of mercies, and have to fight for every inch they took. And now it seemed they would be relying on Dom to burn everyone out of the tunnel network. She did not make an effort to hide her apprehension at that.

Anirne almost managed a smile at the reappearance of the rest of the group, but the Webspinner’s words were still bothering her. She’d been right, of course—the Psijic had always felt that she would have to leave them eventually, but it had been something she could dismiss, a thought she could lock away and allow to fester beneath her notice for as long as possible. Now it was free, and wreaking havoc on the organized neatness and tranquility of her thoughts. She noted Sinder’s glance, and though she raised a brow in slight confusion, she complied with the unspoken request and lit a healing spell, directing it at his legs and feet. “Your mother is… astute, even in her madness,” she pointed out. “It is possible that the Pact is just as harangued by her forces as we were, if they’re underground already.” Done, she cut off the spell and straightened from her crouch beside her brother. It was perhaps too optimistic a thought for the situation, but still, it wasn’t at all without warrant.

"I don't expect that they are," the Shade speculated, glancing around at the trees, the ridgelines, the foliage, the likely hiding places. "I expect that they're out here somewhere, waiting for us to bring their prey out where she is more vulnerable." Drayk grimaced at the thought. They'd only had to face them in small numbers in the tunnel, but if he flushed them out they'd be up against the full strength of whatever remained, plus the Webspinner herself. They would have the Pact's guerillas to contend with, and to top it all off, the Horizon and the Feral seemed to be in attendance as well. Quite the battle.

"I intend to see my father again regardless of where he is, but that can't be our concern right now," the Shade said, before nodding slightly to Drayk. He hesitated for a moment. Back in the tunnels all he'd wanted to do was kill every spider inside, but now he was free of them and surrounded by friends again. The prospect of going back in wasn't the simplest one to face.

"I'm going back in," he said, as if that weren't clear by now. "I'll come back out with the Webspinner." The look in his eyes was pained when he glanced at Adrienne, knowing what they'd discussed, how he couldn't let himself do this anymore, but if there was a better option, it wasn't apparent. "No one should follow me in, no matter how long I'm gone for."

Adrienne swallowed tightly. She didn’t like this, not in the slightest, and she allowed that to play clearly over her features, refusing to hide it like she hid everything else. There was anguish of a special kind in the look she shared with Dom, but she wasn’t able to just let him go like that. Instead, she caught his arm as he moved, placing herself in front of him and standing on her toes to touch her lips to his, just briefly. “Ten minutes,” she countered, voice solemn and eyes serious. Her words were meant only for him, but she had a feeling Sinder at least would be able to hear. “We promised we’d do this together, and I meant it. If you don’t come back to me in ten minutes, then I’m going to you.” She half smiled, touching his cheek and then backing away and to the side to let him go forward again.

No, she didn’t like it at all, but she believed in him, and she wasn’t going to leave him behind.

"Pull me up again when I stumble," he said softly to her before letting her go. She only made this more difficult for him, but that was good. He didn't want this to be easy, to be painless. The pain meant that he still knew this was wrong. Leaving her behind to shamble back down in the darkness was one of the more difficult things he would do in his life, but he would still do it. He trusted them to not let him hurt anyone, to somehow bring him back to his senses when he allowed himself to lose control utterly. Only when he had first reconnected with fire had he let control go this far, that day they fought against a dragon. And he was planning to go much further, as far as he could possibly go, as it would be necessary to drive the spiders out of this hole.

Vanryth approved even less, and he didn't even try to keep it out of his face. His crossed his arms and painted a disappointed look on his face. He tolerated the fact that Drayk used fire based magic on a daily basis, for the sole reason that they needed all the help they could get. It was a necessary evil in his eyes, though what Drayk was suggesting was like prodding a sleeping giant. He had faith in the boy, more than he had in himself. He believed that one day he could gain complete control over himself. But it had to be a process, easing slowly into it. Not throwing himself headfirst in a cave ignited in a wreath of flame. Van was worried that he might lose himself in the heart of the flames. He wanted to believe that he wouldn't, that he'd come out on the other side no worse for wear. But he was a realist, the cards they were dealt was never that good.

Turning away from his friends and facing the cave, he lit a fire in his heart and a blaze in his hand, and walked in. The Shade quietly observed the entire exchange with what appeared to be an air of solemnity, but once Drayk was out of sight, he began to move slowly down the hill.

"I expect we'll want to stand back from the entrance."

After perhaps a minute, Maya conjured her bow as quietly as she could, so as not to startle anyone. It was uncomfortably quiet, the sensation of not being alone out here quite palpable. She wondered where they were hiding. They could only kill her in an act of self defense, but the rules the Princes had put forth for the Game did little to calm her nerves. A stray arrow would kill her just as dead, and she doubted how great a consolation prize someone's eternal damnation for breaking a code of conduct would be.

And the Feral was here as well. The witch noted that the sun still hung in the sky, and would for several hours yet. She wondered if the Khajiit would fare better against Tarquin this second time around, in the light of day. It certainly couldn't hurt his odds. That she found herself conflicted on desiring his death seemed strange to her. If the Feral killed him, would it not remove all doubt as to who to support from the minds of the Sellswords? Would it not ease her path to the end of this? The witch wondered why her feelings seemed to be getting the better of her lately. Recent events had made her more emotional than she thought she was capable of. She wondered how Tarquin hid it so well. Practice, no doubt. He'd certainly had enough time in his life.

The minutes passed. Five, then six, then seven. Tarquin avoided standing under the shade of any of the trees, but the sun was clearly bothering him. He'd removed the clothes from his upper body so as not to ruin them upon the transformation to this form, and the sun's rays glowed upon his mottled grey skin, and there was even the faintest hints of a black smoke rising from him, as if he were very slowly burning. She'd begun to wonder what it would feel like when the ground began to shake ever so slightly beneath their feet, barely noticeable at first, but enough to make Tarquin and Maya's eyes shoot to the mouth of the cave. "Ready yourselves," Tarquin advised, as though they hadn't had time already.

Soren backed off with the rest, shaking his head faintly at Adrienne and Drayk, though not with derision. They were pretty good kids, really… wait. Where the fuck had that come from? He must be getting sentimental this close to thirty. He wasn’t sure he was ready to be such an old man yet. Somehow, even with that utterly horrifying thought in mind, he couldn’t quite bring himself to reject the initial one. He knew his Rolf was the only reason he was even capable of having such inclinations, and he’d never blame his son for any of what he left behind. Muttering something vaguely irritable under his breath, he drew his bow again, running a hand absently along the curve of the elfin construction. Funny, that he’d actually received it from a bunch of orcs. He shrugged one shoulder to adjust his quiver over it, filled with some arrows he’d managed to scavenge, but there weren’t a lot.

He was somewhat surprised then to feel the quiver get heavier, and he glanced over his shoulder, noting with interest that the moody one had added what arrows remained to him to Soren’s stock. At the mercenary’s arched eyebrow, Sinderion shook his head. “You’re a better shot,” he said simply. Well, there was no disagreeing with him on that, but he didn’t quite have a thanks in him either, So Soren just nodded. It seemed to be enough for the elf, who drew his shortsword, now armed only with it and a bow he couldn’t use without ammunition. If it bothered him, he made no sign of it, however, settling into something of a ready stance beside the witch, who had a conjured bow of her own in one hand. It was only a matter of waiting, now.

Beside Van and Adrienne, Anirne flicked a concerned glance at Tarquin, given the smoke that was exuding subtly from him, but he seemed less concerned about it than she was, which meant that she probably shouldn’t worry about it either. Indeed, there was plenty of worrying to do without that matter on her mind as well, and she reached into her pockets, pulling free a couple vials of magicka restorative. She suspected most of them must be low on such things at the moment, but she found that she actually rarely needed them. A happy coincidence of heritage, talent, and enchanting skills saw to it that her regeneration speed was enough to see her through most anything without running dry. Vanryth was not so fortunate, and downed the potion eagerly in thanks.

Pressing one into Adrienne’s hand, she gave the other to Van, closing his fingers over it wordlessly. They were the only ones she had left, else she would perhaps have checked if Maya needed one as well. As it was, she had nothing more to give than that, and transmuted her skin to ebonyflesh, lighting a spell on one hand. In the light, it was evident that her version of the alteration spell was more literal than the average, and indeed the majority of her honey-colored skin turned a shiny black, as though ink had been spread over it. Had this situation been less… dire, there might have been a dunmer joke for Van in there somewhere, but she pushed the thought aside, trying to calm herself and attain the meditative state she preferred to enter battle in. It was not proving easy.

Next to her, Adrienne, who’d pocketed the potion, was faintly atremble, and it was not difficult for Anirne to guess that she was counting the minutes with a focus usually reserved for alchemical reactions or enchantment. It was actually vaguely disconcerting to watch, but she certainly could not blame the girl for her anxiety. It was a situation that was almost impossible for an outsider to grasp, but… she knew something of anguish. Adrienne’s sword was drawn, a white spell letting off a cold steam in her right hand. It was Vanryth who placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, and squeezed, giving her an encouraging smile. Drayk would do fine, they all would. Despite their circumstances, they were all still alive, and together. That counted for something, considering what they had seen.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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A few moments later, the Webspinner herself burst from the mouth of the cave just as the flames did. She was slightly too large to fit cleanly through the doorway, but she hit it hard enough such that chunks of rock were sent flying through the air a hundred feet away. She was airborn for a brief moment as her momentum carried her down the hill, but she soon hit the ground heavy on all her legs, shaking the ground with the force. The carapace covering her body had now extended up to envelop the womanly portion of her, hiding her from sight and from weapons, but her wail, and the screams of her spider lower half could be heard clearly.

A massive, swirling tornado of fire whipped through the air around her, with the Webspinner directly at its center. It reached out with a radius of perhaps twenty five feet, and climbed upwards into the sky above any of the trees in the area. It would be difficult to see among all the sudden chaos, but the Webspinner was the source of the flame because Drayk had somehow managed to grab onto her. He currently held a death grip where one of her rear legs met her abdomen. The Webspinner hurtled towards the stream directly ahead of her out of the cave, but in her current blindness from fire she smashed her right half into a tree. The force was enough to nearly pull the trunk out of the ground, and it was enough to dislocate Drayk from the Webspinner. They split from each other and rolled the rest of the way down the hill to the stream and the small waterfall at its end. The fire and the spider were due to blow through the line, or at least some of it, of the Sellswords waiting below.

Both Drayk and the great spider fell over the edge of the short cliff. The Webspinner splashed down into the pool at the bottom, dousing most of the immediate flames that afflicted her, but Drayk landed on the nearby shore, where he immediately rose to his feet and hurled a massive fireball into the center mass of the Webspinner, keeping the tornado twisting around him all the while. Even his eyes themselves were on fire, bright orange glowing masses replacing his former gaze. Back at the mouth of the cave a veritable horde of spider priestesses had followed the Webspinner out, some trying desperately to roll about and smother flames, others luckily unafflicted, and charging down into the light to support their lady.

Maya was forced to sprint and dive to the side to avoid the massive, flaming, rolling form of the Webspinner, else she be smothered under her weight. She scrambled quickly back to her feet and watched with no small amount of awe at both the incredible size of the creature, and the incredible power that the fire mage was displaying. The horde of spider sisters charged out behind her, and she put her first arrow through the chest of one, but there were probably a hundred of them, maybe more. And then... nothing met them. Maya snarled, shifting her position to the sides of what would soon become the battlefield, conjuring back another arrow. First, she shouted out, trying to get her voice to reach over the din. "We brought you your present, bitch! Now come out and take it!"

But nothing yet made its presence known, and so the burden of fighting the small army of spider sisters fell to the Sellswords for the moment. That would be complicated, considering that the Webspinner had just performed a impressive and intimidating leap back up to the top of the small cliff, so as to avoid any more of Drayk's fire. She moved with startling speed for something of her size and strength, stabbing out with four, five spear-tipped legs at a time, the hundred eyed spider attempting to feast on anyone who came within range. Tarquin went to work on the sisters rather than the Webspinner, cleaving through the first few of them with brutal efficiency. Maya resurrected one in his wake. They'd sorely need the help, after all.

Anirne, seeing Tarquin and Maya heading for the sisters as they both must, bit down on her lower lip and made a decision. Someone had to engage the Webspinner, and the options were somewhat limited with the Pact still out of the game, likely waiting for the Sellswords to tire so she could swoop in and clean up the remainders. It was solid strategy, which of course meant they had no way of turning it to their advantage. They would simply have to outlast… everyone else. Glancing around, she tried to pick out her most likely allies against the massive spider-woman. Maya and Tarquin could not risk killing her on accident, Soren was armed for range, and Adrienne… seemed to have temporarily disappeared.

There was no time to ascertain what had happened, and she called to the rest. “Sinder, Van, Lynly!” She jerked her head at the Webspinner. Hopefully, that was all that needed to be said on the subject, otherwise this plan would be short-lived indeed. Loping towards her, Anirne, launched the bolt of lightning in her hand, taking her staff from her back and swinging for one of the load-bearing legs at the woman’s side. Her stance was primarily defensive, though—there was simply no way this was going to be easy or quick, and she needed to keep herself and the other three in working order while they fought.

Anirne only told Lynly what she already knew. She was going after her. The Webspinner was the largest challenge presently available, and her pride wouldn't allow her to take the easy route by culling the priestesses. Besides that point, the Webspinner was the Pact's target, and since the coward bitch refused to show her face, Lynly was going to do the next best thing. She would steal her target, and when she'd managed to find enough backbone to show herself, she'd steal Maya's. The Pact would pay for locking them up with a Centurion. Sword clanged upon shield in response, stating that Lynly understood. When Anirne went for one leg, Lynly mirrored the action on the other side, swinging her shield at one of the Webspinner's many jointed legs. Meanwhile, Vanryth went between the two women, firing off a gout of flame aimed for her center. He'd see to it that he finished the job Drayk started.

Sinderion was with his sister and the others at once, and took a beeline behind Vanryth, using the cover of the fireball, and the Webspinner’s subsequent effort to, well… probably eat his friend, honestly, as an opportunity to get underneath her, ramming his shortsword into the softer underside of her abdomen and allowing the force of his dive and the extra torque from rotating his body to slice a line into her more vulnerable areas.

Her reaction was immediate, and no sooner had he landed hard on his back then a pair of her extra limbs were flying towards him, no doubt attempting to skewer him to the ground. Sinder tucked into a backwards roll, flipping his lower half up and over his head and shoulders and landing on the balls of his feet. It was enough to avoid the worst of the damage, but not all of it, and one of the legs caught him in the shoulder, puncturing cleanly through his leathers and stabbing at least a few inches deep into the flesh of his bicep. His breath hissed out from between his teeth, but there was no time to stop—more limbs were already incoming at the failure of the first pair. Thankfully, she was blind down here and he could see, and he tried a few more stabs, aware of the risk involved.

He was sadly correct, and on about the third gash, she managed to spear him right between his collarbone and the muscle that ran from his neck to his arm, pinning him to the ground. He was in serious need of a distraction, or she could take her time finding something more vital.

Anirne, seeing the Webspinner attempting to shuttle Vanryth into her jaws, dodged the spearing foot aimed for her, deciding that the limbs were not a likely avenue of attack—they were simply too well-armored. She needed to draw the woman’s ire, at least long enough for her friend to fight himself free of her grip. Pulling another attack spell from her arsenal, she flung the ice spike hard for the spider-half’s head, dancing in closer than strictly necessary to make herself a more appealing target.

It worked, and though Van was still uncomfortably close to her jaws, her attention was now riveted on the Psijic, and two legs shot straight forward for where Anirne was standing. One, she batted away with her staff, and the other skittered over her modified skin without puncturing anything.

The thought of getting eaten by an oversized and quite frankly insane spider woman was not a pleasant one by any means. Vanryth's fireball only seemed to piss her off and direct that anger directly at him. Something shiny caught the sun at one moment and then slammed into the woman's head the next, wrenching her gaping maw away from him, and instead turning its ire toward Anirne instead. Vanryth stepped backward quitely and quickly to get out of the heat and looped around toward Sinder, careful with any stray legs that might attempt to pin him down in much of the same way.

He just managed to reach his friend when a leg darted toward him out of the corner of his eye. Instead of impaling him as well though, the nordic warrior intervened, throwing her shield up and having the sharpened leg bury into the shield. Lynly then ripped upward with her sword, but instead of cutting the leg like she planned, she only swatted it out of thr iron. She grunted her displeasure and demaned that the elf, "Get him and go," swatting away another leg with her sword. She hoped that Anirne could deal with the head full of razors while she swatted at legs-- at least until Vanryth got Sinder up.

Vanryth nodded his understanding and gripped the Webspinner's leg with both hands, wrenching as hard as he possibly could, hoping to free Sinder before they all ended up dead underneath her.

Adrienne had to stumble back and out of the way also, almost knocking into Van as she did, but thankfully, the flaming Webspinner avoided contact with any of her friends, though she nearly choked on her breath when Dom went over the cliff with her. Unthinking, she ran to the edge, looking over with dismay and noting that he’d landed on the hard surface of the shore. The Webspinner looked to have displaced most of the water in the pool, but before she could reflect any further on that, the spider was making an enormous leap, and Adrienne had to roll out of the way so as not to be landed on.

Unfortunately, she was closest to the woman, and when the first of too many chitinous limbs came at her, she made a very fast, very foolish decision, and rolled herself off the cliff to escape.

The fall was perhaps fifteen or twenty feet, something that she might have been able to simply conclude in a roll if she’d accurately gauged it first. She’d had no time to do any such thing, and had simply pushed herself off on guts and against most well-meaning rationality. There were just times when you had to be brave and couldn’t think too hard about what you were doing, lest you snap out of it and convince yourself, rightly, that your actions were absurd and should not be undertaken. Now was one of those times, and she wasn’t going to let things happen that way. She couldn’t.

The water broke her fall, but it was shallow enough that her back still hit stone pretty hard. It was actually mostly a blessing that she’d fallen horizontally, else she might have broken her legs. Submerged for several seconds, Adrienne fought her way to the surface of the water and then her feet, sputtering a little, flinging her hair out of her face. There was no time to catch her breath, though: she had a fire mage to catch. Stepping out of the water and onto solid ground, Adrienne went with the most slapdash plan she’d ever come up with, and hoped it would be enough. Pulling from deep in her magicka reserves, she called the ice to her, forming it around her in a shroud. Given the water currently soaking her clothes, hair and skin, she was soon covered in sheets of it, the frost crawling up and down her clothing and skin alike, until she was pale as death and her lips were turning faintly blue.

She wasn’t as powerful as him, but hopefully, she wouldn’t have to be. She did not need to defeat him or smother the flames herself, she only needed to reach him, make him see that he needed to do it. Don’t think about it too hard, just do it. Pull him up, like you promised. Adrienne took a deep breath, then ran, heading for Drayk, who by now was trying to climb a nearby path to get up and presumably in range of the Webspinner.

“Dom!” she shouted, but her voice was lost over the roar of the fire and the din of the battle. There was just too much going on, and standing here at the fringe of his tempest was only starting to melt her cloak at the edges. That settled it: there was just no more time to think about it. Sucking as much air as she could into her lungs, Adrienne held her breath and plunged headlong into the fire, running as fast as her legs would take her.

When Drayk reached the top again his blazing eyes found the rear of the Webspinner facing him, and he unloaded another brutally powerful fireball, closing the gap such that the tornado began to hit the edges of the great spider again. He was clearly not thinking about, or even seeing, the people already engaged with the creature, and was seemingly intent only on ensuring the Webspinner's death. He didn't have the slightest idea that Adrienne was desperately trying to close the distance behind him.

Tarquin was already covered in the blood of the spider priestesses, and he was doing excellent work keeping the majority of them off the others who were trying to combat their leader. The near constant stream of arrows coming in from Maya and Soren were no doubt helping, and they hardly had to aim, so many were their targets. He rended most of them apart with his bare hands, lifting off with powerful wings to drop down where they were not so concentrated, before shredding a few more of them. The effort was clearly taxing him in the sunlight, but it was not wasted effort, as the bodies of their enemies were already strewn across the side of the mountain.

At first opportunity, Soren had deftly swung himself into one of the nearby trees, perching himself on a low branch so as to have a view of everything going on around him and a better pick of targets. Those four had their hands full with the Webspinner, but there wasn’t much he could do unless they presented him with a particularly-devastating shot, so instead, he focused on taking down the spider sisters that sought either to interfere with the battle raging there, or the ones attempting to blindside either Maya or Tarquin. He could put a sister down with a single shot, but he only had a finite amount of ammunition. Hopefully at some point he’d be able to jump down and pirate a quiver or two from the dead ones. Until then, he was content to do what he did best: snipe.

Fire was too gentle a word for what she’d stepped into. It was honestly more like something someone would call an inferno, and had it not been for the fact that her ice was magical rather than mundane, it would have all melted immediately. Maybe it did anyway—it was kind of hard to tell, as numb as it had made her. She counted this a blessing even if it made her feel awkward and clumsy, though, because it meant the pain of her endeavors registered on a lower level than it would have otherwise. She was dimly aware of the ends of her hair catching fire, but there was simply no time to think about that.

So Adrienne kept moving, even as the last of her frost cloak sizzled away into nothing, leaving her with what natural water had frozen to her body and her willpower. And her will to get out of this whirling torrent of flames was quite high indeed; the only trick was getting it to drive her forwards rather than back. She couldn’t see where they were, but she was gaining ground on him, numbed limbs or no. One of her sleeves was being eaten by flames, so she yanked tearing it off and tossing it away just as she thudded blindly into something—someone.

“Dom!” she shouted again over the roar of the firestorm, but it was impossible to tell if she was heard or not, so she lunged instead, wrapping her arms tightly around his middle and inadvertently bringing them both to the ground when her legs failed to support her efforts anymore. “Dom, stop! Stop, you promised. Come back.” She couldn’t even tell if she was frozen or burning anymore. It wouldn’t matter, if she couldn’t reach him. Struggling with her positioning a bit, she took hold of his face with both hands and made him look at her. Merciful Mara, his eyes were… this was bad. She didn’t have a name for the fear that seized her then, but she didn’t really have the time for it either, the tiniest of blessings in a situation that would have otherwise overwhelmed her.

“Gods above, please don’t do this. Come back. I’m here, but we have to meet in the middle, remember? Please…” It was as true as it had been on the days she’d said it: if he fell, she’d have no choice but to fall with him—and she’d burn for it. But she really did love him just the same.

As much pain as everyone else was in, Drayk felt nothing but bliss. The fall out of the cave and down the cliff felt like nothing to him, and he relentlessly pursued the target he had locked himself on, unaware that anything else even existed, unaware that anything else even mattered to him. The Webspinner hastened to move away from his tornado, allowing Vanryth to remove the leg from Sinder easily enough. She surged forward, halted by the tree that Soren was perched in with enough force to pull up some of the roots, shaking it violently enough to knock the archer out of it if he wasn't prepared. That would, of course, cause him to fall down on the Webspinner.

Drayk was about to give pursuit when something thudded into him from behind. It was a minor inconvenience at first, but then the arms wrapped around his middle. He knew that touch, he knew the way she felt against him, but his mind smothered the thought, because it brought as much pain as it did joy, and the flames gave him only pleasure now. But she wouldn't let go, and together they fell to the ground. Her voice was a muffled banging through a thick wall inside his mind, but it was enough to make the tornado lurch and sway wildly, momentarily struggling to remain together. He needed to get away from this, he needed to be alone with the fire, and destroy this foul creature...

But she turned him to look at her, and he couldn't look away, though he wanted to, so badly. She couldn't see these eyes, these eyes that were full of nothing but a consuming fire, eating him, and now eating her as well. Her voice was pleading, and it was like daggers into his belly, but somehow he remembered that the pain felt good. The tornado spun out wildly, no longer being pulled towards the center of his body, and then burnt out altogether, leaving the ground around them charred and blackened. His eyes returned to their normal light brown hue, and he ended up on his knees, facing her with a drooping head and sagging eyelids. Thick, black smoke wafted heavily from his chest, shoulders, and back, and his faces and robes were spotted with ash. He'd returned to himself, but the effort had cost him just about everything he had left.

"You pulled..." he said, his words trailing off, but he tried again. "Meet you in the..." There was no succeeding this time. His eyes closed softly shut, and he tilted over to the side, thudding heavily into the dirt and beginning to roll and slide back down the hill he'd just come up from.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Thank the gods. Granted, the amount of pain she was slowly realizing she was in, coupled with Dom’s lack of consciousness and slow tumble down the hill, seemed like scant things to be thankful for, but at the moment, she could not help but be grateful all the same. She was far too weak to stop his descent. In fact, she was realizing, she was far too weak to do much of anything at the moment. A quick inventory of her condition yielded almost no good news. The arm she’d had to tear the sleeve away from was a uniform angry red, blisters already starting to form along its length. The rest of her wasn’t much better, though her wet clothes and ice magic had provided some protection, enough that perhaps the burns hadn’t breached more than first layer or two of her skin.

Unfortunately, that meant they had not burned away her nerve endings or destroyed her ability to feel pain, and now that the adrenaline of her idiocy was ebbing, she was acutely aware that, while this meant she would survive, and probably with only minimal scarring, she was in more pain than she had been since the Embassy. The flames had abated, but her body was still on fire, and not the good kind. She could feel a dull throb underneath the more expected burning, in tandem with her heartbeat. It was too much, and she was no Van or Sinder or Lynly, made and trained to endure pain like it didn’t matter. She screamed, harsh and ragged and only when she realized that the inside of her throat must also be burned did she trail off into a pained whimper instead. Everything hurt, and she couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t anything for the agony of it.

The sound had one good consequence, perhaps; it caught the attention of Anirne, currently in the process of firing off a healing spell at the newly-freed Sinder. The disorientation of the Webspinner would not last forever, though, and the altmer woman was forced to make a choice: go tend Adrienne, or continue to provide support for that confrontation. Hoping that the others would manage a few minutes without her, she broke into a sprint, covering the intervening ground in long strides and ducking past a few spider sisters in the process.

Sinderion grunted when the limb came out of his muscle, and the relief of a healing spell was almost immediate. The shadow over his head receded as the Webspinner did, but not before he raised his good arm and planted a rune on her underside, to the left. His sister’s magic was as good as ever, and he rose more or less intact, just as a hoarse scream ripped through the air. Adrienne! It rebounded around in his skull, and he almost flinched, more from the thought of her in that much pain than the actual volume. But Anirne was moving faster than he reacted, for once, and she would actually be able to do something about it.

Grinding his teeth and trying not to think too much about what had happened, he noted the absence of heat as Drayk’s spell had guttered out, and suspected that this meant they might be one or two members down for now. They had to keep at the Webspinner—there was no other choice. He did not enjoy the thought of both her and the Pact on the field at the same time, to say nothing of the Horizon and the Feral as well. Grasping Van briefly on the shoulder in thanks, Sinder turned and bounded off after the spider, shortsword reversed in his hand.

Soren, on the other hand, was becoming intimately acquainted with the giant spider. She was inadvertently taking down his tree, and the situation was less than pleasant as a result. When he guessed her trajectory, he slung his bow over his shoulder and braced himself, taking the impact to the tree without falling out. He could feel it creaking underneath him, though, and knew it would likely fall regardless. Gauging his jump, the mercenary sprang from the branches, landing in a more or less steady crouch on the creature’s abdomen and drawing his sword.

“Great,” he muttered to himself, “Now what am I supposed to do?” There didn’t seem to be any immediate vulnerable spots for him to attack, and he was willing to bet staying on wasn’t going to be the easiest task in the world either. He needed to think fast.

Vanryth stood motionlessly beside Sinder for the moment the scream echoed through the hills. Every muscle in his body willed him to turn and run to help her, but the rational part of his mind was still in control. It told him that there was nothing he could do, he did not possess Anirne's healing magic. He'd just take a pair of hands away that were better suited to deal with the Webspinner than mending any injuries. The best way he could help both Adrienne and Drayk was to focus on the monster in front of them. He could help by making sure she wouldn't reach them.

So it was in Sinder's shadow that Vanryth raced off to meet the spider, his own sword flashing in his hands and a flame spell in his hands. Not to be outdone by a bunch of elves, Lynly was already ahead of them both, crouching behind her shield. Presently she was considering what would be the best course of action to assist Soren, who in his infinite luck had managed to land on top of the Webspinner. "Look for some place soft!" she called, getting a spiderleg in return for her aid. As the only part of her body that was visible behind her shield was her forehead, that's exactly where the leg went, opening a thin line from one end to the other. She cursed as she took a step backward, swatting another attempt as she did.

"And for Talos' sake, find it quick!" She demanded.

Higher on the hill, the spider priestesses were beginning to try running from the Shade, realizing the futility of their fight against him, but he was far swifter than they were out of their tunnels, and he pounced on as many as he could, snapping necks and opening throats, doing his best to remain efficient in his kills, as he was clearly heaving for breath at the moment, slick with blood, not all of which was the spider sisters'. Maya had found herself no longer shooting at all, but instead crouched down and scanning the trees and the rocklines like a hawk, wanting just a simple glimpse of her true enemy here, anything to go on, but the Bosmer bitch still refused to show her face. It seemed they would have to wear down the Webspinner even more.

Anirne reached Adrienne not long after, forcing herself for the moment to ignore what was going on behind her in favor of setting to work on the girl immediately. She was badly burned, what seemed like just about everywhere, and it wasn’t too hard to guess what she’d done to earn them. The healer would have had a lot of sympathy for that, had she the time, as it was, she didn’t and set to work immediately. The worst burns were on her bare right arm and one side of her neck and face, and so she started there, willing the pain to subside and new skin to replace that which had been reddened and blistered. She noted in passing that more than half the length of Adrienne’s hair had been burned away entirely, and the ends were ragged and singed despite still being damp from her fall into the water.

That and the ice might have been the only things that saved her, really. Once the worst burns were treated as well as she could in the moment, the skin was still angry and red in their wake, but it wouldn’t scar much if at all, which was the most important of Anirne’s secondary concerns, the primary one being getting her up and moving again. The rest of the burns didn’t need immediate attention, so she dulled the pain they produced only, knowing that time was short.

“Adrienne,” she said, voice insistent, “Can you stand?”

The young woman groaned, but she wasn’t in nearly so much pain anymore, and she thanked Mara for Anirne’s presence. Her skin felt funny, like it was stretched too tightly over her body, but it was bearable, and she managed to get her feet underneath her and leverage herself upwards. Immediately, she looked down the hill. “Dom, he… we can’t leave him exposed like that.” It was possible that someone would kill him as they passed, just to make sure he didn’t interfere, and that was too horrible to contemplate.

Anirne chewed her lip, thinking it over. “All right,” she said after a couple of seconds. “You go help Tarquin; he could use the support. I’ll take care of Drayk.” She wasn’t sure how much she’d be able to do, but at the very least, she could drag him off the path and out of the way of the crossfire.

“You don’t say, lovely. Really, I thought the idea was to strike at the strong bits and hope it did something that way. I don’t suppose I’m also to ‘not get hit,’ perchance?” Soren would have rolled his eyes if he wasn’t presently using them to attempt what she’d suggested, less because she’d suggested it and more because it was obvious. His best bet was probably the juncture between front and abdomen, actually, and so it was for that he went, springing up the back of the spider and plunging his sword into the joint in the carapace there.

The Webspinner’s reaction was immediate, and she once again moved hastily, this time in an obvious effort to dislodge him, which, considering how erratic she was being, had a very good chance of succeeding. Soren held onto his sword for dear life, but he could feel it loosening in the stab wound, and knew it wouldn’t hold forever. It was time to jump off this runaway carriage under his own steam, before his trajectory was decided for him. Quickly assessing his surroundings, he threw himself left, dragging his sword down her side for as long as his momentum would allow, then pulling the blade free before he could get stuck dangling halfway down.

He hit the ground with a grunt, his knees absorbing most of the impact, but did not count on being knocked forward into a sprawl by a leg. It wasn’t long before a strong pair of arms was dragging him to his feet, though, and he straightened in time for Sinderion to speak to him. “Rune on the abdomen. Shoot it.” And then he was off again, to engage that spider with nothing more than an overblown dagger. If Soren wasn’t just as crazy, he might have judged him a little for that.

As it was, though, he sheathed his sword, drew his bow, and aimed for the rune, glowing in a tell-tale fashion. “Get clear” he shouted to the other two, and then he let fly. The explosion was pretty impressive, but there was no time to watch. The next arrow thudded into the forehead of an incoming spider sister, and he rolled his shoulders. This was almost getting manageable again, which with their luck meant that something horrendous was going to happen soon.

Soren had inflicted a decent wound upon her, and a steady stream of dark blood was falling from her side, but judging from the size of her, she had a lot of blood. The rune's explosion caused her to stagger sideways for a moment, and some of the carapace in the area looking somewhat weaker now. It also had the effect of renewing the Webspinner's rage, and she returned to the offensive, leaping forward on top of anyone she could, stabbing down with her legs and attempting to drag anyone she caught into the maw of her lower spider half, which chomped hungrily for something to consume. To make matters worse, spider sisters were coming down the hill to hit them from the other side, though they had mercifully stopped emerging from the tunnel. Tarquin was unable to hold the tide entirely now, though he continued on, shredding to bits those he could get his hands on.

While not exactly bright to begin with, things certainly dimmed even moreso. There was still a lot of fight to go on, and Vanryth felt that their limits were steadily approaching. Not only had they to contend with an even angrier Webspinner, but some of the priestesses were getting through, one of which Van pelted in the face with a fireball. They might have been quick in the caves, but outside he could see, and they weren't nearly so dodgey. Not counting that, but the Pact was out there somewhere, and so was the Feral. The odds were stacked against them, and it wouldn't be long before it would all topple with them most likely underneath it all. Dammit, he hated their luck.

Meanwhile, Lynly was hating her own. The "anyone she could" just so happened to be Lynly through a fault of her own. She had strayed too close to the Webspinner trying to find an angle to attack. That of course left her to being staggered by the explosion triggered by Soren. By the time the ringing left her ears, the Webspinner was baring down on her. The sheer weight of the monster forced her back to the ground, and it was only due to her shield she was saved from being digested. Instead of flesh, the Webspinner's jaws enclosed around the the rim of her shield, while smaller legs was desprately trying to shovel Lynly into her mouth.

She could feel the tips of the sharp legs pierce into the dwemer armor and poke at her shoulders and thighs. It was all she could do to push back against her shield, much less swing her sword or do anything useful besides not getting eaten. "Dammit!" She cried, wishing that she could at least try to fight back.

A vial of acid cracked into the face of the spider sister making an attempt to get past Tarquin, and Adrienne didn’t waste the opportunity, ducking in under the woman’s guard and drawing her sword across her throat, deliberately not thinking about how it kind of reminded her of what she’d done to the Omen. That was a place she did not need to go right now. Unfortunately, her desire to not get caught under the spurting of blood from the vital artery she’d severed carried her back out without enough attentiveness, and right into the axe of the next sister, who caught her on the ribcage of her already more burned side. Adrienne choked on her breath, but whirled in an arc, her momentum parting the sister’s head from her shoulders.

Her shoulders burned with the effort, but she didn’t stop trying, even bleeding from her side as she was. She was almost as low on poison and acid as she was on potions, and she decided to save what else was left. Her wound pulled wider as she took off after a runner, swinging astride the sister as one would a horse of comparable size and plunging the slender blade into the back of the human half, causing it to erupt, coated in red, from her chest. The priestess went down, and Adrienne with her, and she was longer in getting to her feet than she would have liked, having to work her way out from underneath the corpse. The numbing agent meant she wasn’t sure if she was breathing deeply enough, so she’d have to be careful until it wore off. Her body could process most nonlethal poisons faster than other people, as Madame Madec had been adamant that she sample the goods, so to speak. She certainly owed the woman her thanks now, perhaps.

Turning to face back up the hill, she conjured a dagger for her off-hand, deciding to take a leaf out of Sinder's book for the moment and save what of her magic she could. It was not far from her mind that things were going to get worse before they got better—if she survived that long. But for now, she simply had to fight her way back towards Tarquin, and do what little she could to stem the tide of sisters trying to get past him and at her friends.

Meanwhile, Anirne had jogged down the hill to Drayk’s unconscious form, and frowned upon realizing what she already suspected: he was unconscious from exhaustion and severe magicka drain, not any injury she could fix. Looking around, she decided the best she could do was get him well away from the body of the confrontation. Huffing with the exertion, she managed to get him over her shoulders in a rescue carry, but she wouldn’t be able to take him far. Spotting a small cluster of trees with some undergrowth, she decided that it would have to do and shuffled towards it, laying him amidst the brush. She rearranged the branches as well as she could to cover him and sent a quick prayer to the ancestors, for all the good it would do, then hurried back out onto the field.

It was looking considerably worse than when she left it. Anirne sent a lightning bolt cracking into the weakened part of the Webspinner’s carapace, but it was evident that if Tarquin and Adrienne didn’t get more help, they’d have more than one oversized spider to deal with, and they couldn’t handle that right now. The Psijic drew her staff from her back and braced it against the ground, attempting to pike a charging sister. It worked after a fashion, and the woman was impaled through the chest, but the staff snapped under the pressure, and the electricity stored within discharged into the nearest target—Anirne, knocking her prone on the ground, body convulsing with the voltage of it. Even when it came to a stop, she didn’t move, and it was hard to tell whether or not she was even conscious—or alive.

Soren wasn’t doing too badly at culling the sisters that managed to pass the front line consisting of Tarquin and now Adrienne as well, putting them down with arrows to the head, mostly, but when Anirne collapsed, he tsked low in his throat and had to reposition, taking up a spot in front of the downed woman. “You owe me for this, sweetheart,” he muttered, more to himself than her, since he honestly had no idea if she could hear him or not. Unfortunately, the spill Adrienne had taken and the time it took him to move meant that there were now more bearing down on them than he could properly kill.

So he once again shouldered his bow and drew his sword, clotheslining the first sister that tried to dart past him with it and almost dislocating his own shoulder in the process. The next ones came in a trio, though, and despite the fact that he managed to avoid the first swipe, the two afterwards scissored him, biting into his waist on the left side and the elbow-joint of his leather armor on his right. The arm went numb immediately, and he switched his grip to his off-hand, glad that it was almost as dexterous as the dominant one. His injuries, however, were both slowing and weakening him, and had it not been for the massive distraction that was a body flying overhead, he might not have survived it.

As things went, however, he downed two of the three in their distraction with efficient swipes in the throat region, and the third almost matched the style, had he not moved a few inches to the side. Instead, she severed the muscle connecting his right arm to his shoulder, almost all the way through. The arm would be entirely useless until healed, and the two people capable of that were not currently in a position to do it.

Sinderion, upon ascertaining Lynly’s condition, essentially went in after her, winding both strong arms around her waist in an attempt to pull her out of its jaws. He could feel himself gaining some ground, feet planted firmly in the dirt and body bowed with the effort of the tugging, but he did not account for the fact that the Webspinner could reach her front with more legs than she was presently using. His grip slackened considerably when one of the others impaled him in the middle of his back, emerging on the other side by a good few inches.

The man’s breath left him in a painful gust, and the arm pulled, taking him with it until he lost his grip on his ally altogether and found himself lifted off the ground and hurled through the air, his new wound trailing blood after him like a macabre crimson ribbon in the wind. He landed hard and gasping for breath, and he was further hampered by the fact that his state was making it much easier for the beast to fight him. It could save his life, and if he was pushed much closer to the edge of death, it would, just as it had three times before.

Lynly yelled in pain as the elf yanked from behind. It felt like he'd rip her skeleton out before the Webspinner decided to relent. The spidery legs had dug in deep into the four points, two in her shoulder and two into her thighs. She could swear that she could feel the appendage tickling her to the bones, and there was naught she could do about it until someone else had a bright idea. She prayed that it would be better thought out than simply pulling at her. That meant Van would have to come up with something with a little more finesse. Dammit.

On the other side of the coin, Vanryth did stop himself from repeating Sinder's mistake, if only just barely. He had been in midstride when the Webspinner ripped the man from the warrior and threw him. It'd been enough to stop him and reevaulate his tactics. He came up with another, though it was perhaps even less favorable than the initial one, if that was possible. Instead of rushing forward, Van branched off to the side and began to pelt the weakened side of the Webspinner with whatever Fire magic he had left in reserve. The result was the desired, if not the optimum one. At the licking tongues of flame, the Webspinner dropped Lynly into a heap and turned, narrowing all eyes at the offending Dunmer.

It was about as subtle a tactic he was capable of, and his just reward was a number of legs attempting to skewering him. Thanks to Anirne's constant hounding of him to train, he managed to get a couple of good dodges in before the Webspinner caught up to him. A leg swept backward toward an unsuspecting Van, smashing him across the side of the face and sending him into a downward pirotte, face first in the ground. Then she decided to further the assault, and impaled him through the shoulder blade, picking him up, and throwing him in the same direction she did Sinder. After that, everything became a blur, and the sounds were becoming a garbled mess.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: The Representatives

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With a twang of her bowstring another spider sister fell to the dirt, but Maya looked over the battlefield with worry. The Webspinner was tearing them up, and the fire mage looked to be entirely out of commission. If only Adrienne hadn't seen fit to bring him out of it so soon, the damage he could have done... there was no point thinking about now, though. She was well aware of the fact that she hadn't suffered a wound yet in the battle, staying on the edges as she was, but there was certainly a reason for this. She had to be at the top of her game to be able to bring down the Pact, she knew this, and as much as it pained her to watch the others take these wounds, they'd only be set back further if she failed. That, or she'd be dead, and she didn't much want that.

But as much punishment as the Sellswords were taking, the Webspinner was struggling as well now. The minor wounds were beginning to add up. She had hardly slowed, but the keen-eyed witch was able to spot something different about her. The sort of shell containing what had been Phaedra Aurelius had cracked slightly at the top. She didn't know how, as most of their weapons had negligible effect, but if someone could get back on top of the spider again, perhaps it could be pulled open. Maybe then the Pact would show herself, and claim the prize she'd done so little to work for. "The shell containing her!" Maya called, hoping they would still be aware enough to hear her, at least someone. "Pull it open, it will make her vulnerable!"

Anirne’s muscles, forcibly contracted by the backlash from the breaking of her staff, finally relaxed enough that she was able to regain control of them, and she came back to awareness quite suddenly, the pain abating long enough that she could make out Soren standing in front of her, downing the last of what looked like three spider sisters with one hand, the other useless by his side. Pulling herself to her feet, Anirne soothed the remaining pain with a small wave of healing energy, then pressed another of the same directly into the archer’s mangled shoulder. “It will be very tender,” she warned, “but it will work.” His other wounds, she left for the moment. There was no telling how much longer this battle would go, and they seemed to be impeding him less.

Maya’s shout reached them both, and Anirne exchanged a glance with the archer, than darted hers to a cluster of trees near the Webspinner. A small smile graced her lips, and she shook out her arms and legs. “Time to try and turn this around,” she murmured. Without a weapon, she wouldn’t be weighed down in her ascent, and they needed to be quick about things. Judging the angles as best she could, she prayed her training would be enough and decided to try channeling her brother’s absurd agility, just for a little while.

With a hop and a bound, the Psijic launched herself into a sprint, fast approaching the tree she wanted. A few feet from it, she jumped, catching hold of a low branch and using her momentum to swing herself atop it in a smooth movement. The rough bark tore at her hands, but she had much more important things to worry about, like making the next leap. Backing up so that her back pressed against the trunk of the tree, Anirne tested the surety of her balance and then made another running start, springing off the branch just before she thought it wouldn’t be able to hold her weight anymore. It cracked under the pressure, but it did give her a moderate amount of lift, and she went sailing through the air towards the Webspinner’s back, landing in a sprawl, which soon became a scrabble to stay on, her hands struggling to find purchase on the smooth carapace.

But she managed it, and moved forward in a crouch, lowering her center of gravity to try and remain upright. The shell Maya had mentioned was right in front of her, and indeed appeared to be cracking. Anirne fitted all eight of her fingers under one such crack, wrenching upwards with all the strength she could muster. If this didn’t work, she was going to shatter it with electricity.

The shell gradually pulled apart as Anirne applied all the effort she could, and when it became clear that it was going to fail, the Webspinner herself burst forth from it in full force, swiping viciously at Anirne with claws for fingers, screaming her displeasure. She'd only managed to get a few attacks off, however, when there was a twang of a bowstring, and not from Soren, Sinder, or Maya. It came from the treeline to the north, on the opposite end of the clearing from where Maya was crouched. The arrow whistled through the air, and with a resounding crack it punched through the Webspinner's skull. Immediately her body went limp, and she tipped over to lay against the body of her spider half... which was still quite functional, if severely wounded.

Maya traced the path of the arrow backwards, and saw a glimpse of the Bosmer woman she was looking for. The Pact turned and took off into the forest, and Maya bolted out across the battlefield, taking down one of the remaining spider sisters with her bow as she went. She spotted Sinder injured, and pulled a healing potion as she ran. She ran such that he would be in her path, stooping to place the potion in his hand. It happened to be her last one. "Sinder, I need your help with this." He was probably the only one who could keep up with her right now, and chase down the Pact, to defeat her and whoever she was with. She didn't look back after handing him the potion, sprinting off after the Pact, expecting that he would follow now that the battle was largely in hand.

But the battle was not largely in hand, for as the Webspinner fell the bounding black form of a werewolf emerged from the treeline and made off quickly towards the now kneeling form of the Shade. He looked quite simply exhausted from the battle in the light, and only managed to put up a slight defense when the Feral blasted into him full speed, carrying him across the width of the battlefield and into the woods on the other side that Maya had taken off into. The sounds of a vicious struggle ensued, and considering Tarquin's current state, it likely wouldn't end as well for him here as it had at the Embassy. Sinder was likely the only one who could reach the fight in time to really help. If he left to assist Maya, the fight against the Feral would likely fall to another.

Later, when he reflected on this decision, it would occur to Sinderion that there were reasons for it. He knew they were there—even then, in the very heat of the moment, when he saw the two paths he could take, he knew there were solid, decent reasons for doing what he did, reasons accounting for his allies and his enemies and any number of possibilities. Reasons assuring him of what he did know, and forgiving him for what he couldn’t hope to guess. But they weren’t why he did it. Not in the least. His reasons, the logic of the situation, those possibilities stretched out in front of him, the paths that his feet could tread—these barely even registered in his mind. He simply acted, a creature of his instinct at the very edge of his understanding.

Hurriedly uncorking the potion, he downed its contents in a single swallow and threw the vial to the side. His wound closed, the torn places inside him becoming whole once again, but no concoction could lift the doubt that lay heavy in his chest. He doubted so much, and he hadn’t stopped doubting since he’d recovered enough of his mind to understand what he’d done, what he’d become.

But it went even further back than that, didn’t it? He’d doubted himself as a child, too, growing up next to a sibling who seemed incapable of doing anything less than perfectly, much less wrong. It wasn’t only himself he doubted anymore, either. He questioned the honesty of both the Representatives he’d had cause to ally with, he questioned just how much longer his friends would be able to keep hold over themselves. He wondered how much longer any of them would be alive, and if any of them would die with regrets that weighed even heavier than his. He didn’t doubt that she was keeping things from him, that they both were, but it pressed harder into his sternum when it was her. It hurt more. Put plainly, she hurt him more than he thought Tarquin was even capable.

It would be easy, to let her forge ahead by herself and find her own fate. All he’d have to do was choose differently, act for other reasons, throw his lot in with the stronger and let it see them through to the end they all sought. Nothing in Sinderion’s life had ever been easy, though, and he saw no reason to take that road now. In fact, he saw no reasons at all.

“Forgive me,” he murmured, though he knew not to whom, and dashed into the woods behind Maya.

The rustling of leaves behind her told her that Sinder was following, but Maya had expected no different, after all. Whether she had meant to or not, she'd done her job well. Even at these speeds she could track the Pact. The Bosmer had made little effort to cover her trail, seemingly in a great hurry to be gone from this place, which immediately made Maya suspect a trap. With Sinder here, she'd be willing to spring it. She was a natural at moving through the wild, and her hair whipped behind her as she vaulted over rocks and ducked under low branches, bow still in hand. A snap of warning was all she had before the first guerilla showed his hooded head and aimed an arrow at her.

A timely duck sent it sailing over her shoulder, and the conjured arrow she fired back found its mark between his eyes. He was resurrected before he touched the ground. "My team," she said, a strong desire to kill more flowing through her. The hunt was on, the chase was in full swing. Her prey would not elude her this time. Another popped up, but she was put down by arrows from both Maya and her minion, who was keeping pace nicely behind her. Soon enough they came upon a clearing in front of a steep downhill, the entire area spotted by large rocks. Surprisingly, Maya only saw four of the Pact's warriors remaining here, in addition to the Pact herself, and the Horizon. The Dunmer was garbed in robes as ever, but in his hands he held a magnificent looking swordstaff of Dwemer construction, a long, shining golden blade at the end of a solidly made straight staff.

Had they actually tried pushing into the Webspinner's lair, and been rebuffed after all? There were so few of them left, and the Pact did not seem unburdened by wounds, though she certainly still looked capable. An arrow hissed over her shoulder and struck the brain of her minion, turning him to ash behind her. Maya ducked down behind a boulder, waiting for Sinder to do the same nearby. "Can you handle Invorin for me? The Pact is mine." She reached quickly into her bag and pulled out what remaining poison she had, the substance she'd used on Anirne, to put her into a comatose state. "Just hit him with this."

Sinder found Maya’s side within moments of pursuing her, his longer legs matching her stride with a simplicity effortless enough they might have practiced it. Without arrows, however, he was content to duck around the attacks from the archers and allow Maya and her undead minion to deal with those. When they reached their destination, he dove behind another stone, though at this point he would have just as gladly kept on running.

The spoken request was enough to jar him a little, and his brows drew together. “As you wish.” He could feel the adrenaline in his system, the Beast rattling eagerly at the bars of its cage at the prospect of a good fight. A fight with a mighty Representative, and a traitor as well—its bloodlust was so thick in his gut that he almost shared in it. He had to remember not to slay Invorin, else his choice to come here be rendered entirely moot. All he had to do was use the vial. “Remember that there may be others I cannot sense, and be careful.” Tipping the contents of the vial down the blade of his shortsword, Sinder noted that there was still some of it left, and very carefully dipped the tips of his fingers as well. He felt there was something else he should say, but then his chest constricted again, and Sinderion was silent, expression stern and grim. He was ready to move on her signal.

Just before darting out, Maya cast an oakflesh spell on herself. Something she'd learned from Anirne not long ago. She certainly couldn't get the level of protection the Psijic could with her ebonyflesh, but it was better than nothing. Had there been time for more words, she might have mentioned how being careful wasn't a habit of hers, but she decided to just prove the point by charging out and sending a lighting storm at the three enemies on the right, trying to get them down into some cover so she wouldn't be pelted by arrows as soon as she showed her face.

It worked well enough, and the first arrow flew through the space between her arm and torso, the second skimming off the oakflesh of her right shoulder. The Pact's arrow deviated the least, hitting her just under the ribs on the right side and quickly knocking wind from her, but the adrenaline was more than enough to keep her charging ahead. Her own first shot landed true, punching through the throat of the fur-garbed warrior on Ilanna's left, but the bastard didn't die immediately, and Maya could not resurrect him just yet. She ducked down behind a second rock to dodge the Pact's second arrow, and by that time the pawn had passed, so she raised him from the dead, feeling the wear it had on her magicka reserves. Not empty yet. There was a reason she'd saved herself for this.

The sudden rising of their ally provided the distraction she needed, and when the two of them turned to put him down again Maya charged out, blasting a lightning bolt into the last ally on Ilanna's right, the shot powerful enough to blow right through his chest, and send him stumbling down to the dirt. With an angry growl Maya discarded her bow into oblivion and conjured a dagger instead, diving into the Pact in a full on tackle, and the pair of them tipped back over the edge, going down the steep incline in a violent ball of murderous intent.

The archers on Invorin’s side of the fight were not so hampered, and as Sinderion charged to bring the fight in close, both were able to fire. The first went a bit wide of his left ear for no other reason than that he’d moved, but the second was unerring in its trajectory, and he was forced to swat it out of the air, his blade snapping the shaft in two and sending them spiraling off in different directions. He didn’t break his stride, though, and as a result, the first attack sent his way by the Horizon—a full-blown blizzard—was impossible to avoid, even if he’d been of a mind to do so.

He couldn’t go around, so he’d simply have to go through. Angling his upper body forward slightly, Sinder plunged into the area affected by the spell, feeling at once the tearing lash of thousands of ice particles, stinging his skin and impeding his forward progress, seeming almost to sap his momentum from him as he went. It was much more tiring than simple running, and hampered his senses besides, but he dug in and kept pushing forward.

His trajectory, however, was thrown off by the white-out conditions inside the spell, and he emerged not right in front of Invorin as he’d intended, but rather beside one of the archers, who seemed equally-surprised to see him. For all that it was difficult for him to see in the area of the spell, it was equally challenging for them to shoot, if not moreso, and his exit therefore left his foe considerably flatfooted. Wasting no time, Sinderion slashed with the shortsword, dropping the man, and jumped into a roll, coming up on the right side of the other, into whose chin he slammed the pommel of the blade with enough force to crack the jawbone.

That one down, too, all that was left was the Horizon himself… but he was not immediately in sight. Sinder whirled, following his nose, only to be hit full in the chest with the origination point of yet another blizzard. Mouth twisting into a snarl, the altmer made to slog through this one, as well, but not before he caught the glint of something golden from the corner of his eye. Bending backwards, he missed decapitation by mere inches, rebounding to his feet and reversing his grip on his blade. This was not going to be easy… and he honestly doubted that he’d be able to manage it. But by this point, he was long past backing out of the attempt.

The Horizon’s follow-up was just as swift and unrelenting as his initial thrust, a brutal jab for Sinderion’s stomach, one that the altmer avoided by jumping back on light feet, resetting his balance in the process and making him much more ready for the next attack, which turned out to be a roundhouse kick, aimed high for the side of his head. Sinder caught Invorin’s foot in his free hand, but even as he thought to twist and drag the man to the ground for a grapple, the dunmer planted his staff in the ground and used the extra leverage to catch him in the chin with the remaining foot, a hit that dazed Sinder and sent him stumbling backwards.

It was with nearly-supernatural agility that his foe recovered, spinning his staff in several figure-eights to build momentum and lashing the blunt end for Sinder’s kneecap, catching the side of the joint rather than the center when Sinderion moved, pivoting to the side and taking up the offensive, aiming for the dunmer’s ribcage with his shortsword. As though that were part of the plan, Invorin’s staff was there to catch it, and there were more than a few sparks as metal clanged loudly against metal. Sinder hissed and backflipped away from the horizontal sweep that followed, but Invorin pressed, catching him in the chest with the blunt end of the spearstaff.

Seeing a chance, Sinder moved to duck in under his guard and strike using the shorter range of his blade, but the diagonal slice up the Horizon’s torso was blocked, not by the long staff, but by a hand-spear of no more than two feet in length. The staff itself seemed to have disappeared. Disoriented, Sinderion attempted to backpedal, but not before the triangular spearhead caught him in the bicep, slicing through his armor and flesh alike. Shifting his sword to his other side, the altmer lunged, a swift, brutal flurry of blows aimed for various and random places on his foe, but each and every one was turned aside, not with speed he couldn’t match, but with what seemed to be an uncanny perception regarding his choices, almost as though Invorin knew what he was going to do as soon as Sinder himself had decided.

Already feeling the stamina drain from earlier, Sinderion was soon breathing heavily through his nose, but Invorin seemed entirely undamaged, much less ragged than the Pact had appeared when he’d laid eyes on her. His answering cascade of hits was not nearly so easily-avoided, and Sinder came away with a half-dozen new bleeding wounds, including one cut to his brow, uncomfortably close to his right eye and now dripping blood into it, the red liquid diluting by mixing with the thin sheen of sweat that had formed over his body.

Sinder swiped at the blood, clearing most of it out of the way, but Invorin took the opportunity to attack, as the altmer expected him to. He couldn’t predict much beyond that though—the man kept switching the form of his weapon, so that it was a matter of fractions of seconds for his tiring opponent to adjust for range and shape, something which was clearly making matters much worse. Blood streaked his dark leathers, dripping lazily onto the snow underneath his feet. To make matters even more dire, he could feel the physiological changes beginning in him—a mixed blessing if ever there was one. Though it undeniably made him more than he was: stronger, faster, more durable and more brutal, it also carried a certain kind of animal violence that he was keen to contain, a violence that urged him for more risk and greater reward.

When he lunged, the beast demanded he bite as well, but Sinderion was not enamoured of the idea, and with only the slightest hesitation, he struck low, instead. This time, Invorin’s block was only fast, not preternaturally so, though Sinder’s own reluctance cost him, and the end of the spearstaff punctured his side, likely at least nicking a lung, if the wet sound of his breathing was anything to go by. Another leg up for the monster, and he could feel its malicious nature leaking through into his own thinking. His pearly claws dark with Maya’s poison, Sinderion slashed first with them, and then with the blade—both attacks blocked, but only just barely this time. Invorin was beginning to sweat as well, just small beads of liquid on his forehead and over his nose, but they were present.

Still, this could not become a contest of endurance: Sinderion just didn’t have enough time left before he bled out. Coughing, he dislodged a thick globule of blood from his own lungs, spitting it out to the side. Even a momentary distraction was a disadvantage, and Sinderion knew it well, but the beast could be cunning as well as clever, and it urged him to pour the last of his strength into his shaking legs and lunge, to drive his foe to the ground and see just how fast he was, just how much it mattered that he could read his thoughts, when teeth were buried in the soft flesh of his throat. Let him speak his traitorous lies without a windpipe!

Invorin tensed, defending himself against that possibility, no doubt, but Sinderion shoved the thoughts aside and did something else instead—he lunged, but brought himself up short, slashing with the sword. For a moment, it looked like this would be just as useless as the rest of his attacks, that his mind hadn’t changed fast enough, but then the monster reached out with his free arm, raking its claws down the left side of the Horizon’s face. Sinderion slackened, shoulders slumping with the effort of even remaining conscious, but the dunmer fell first, rendered unconscious and nearly comatose by Maya’s poison.

It was too much, though, and Sinderion fell after, sprawled onto the snow and still bleeding steadily, and the world went dark around him.

Maya's knife hadn't made it to the Pact's heart, her wrist caught by the elf's hand as they first began tumbling down the hill. A powerful swipe knocked it from Maya's grip, and it dissipated into the air. Each used one hand to firmly secure themselves to the other woman as they rolled and rolled, and for Maya the only constant in her world had become the pretty elf in front of her who she had come to so desire to murder. The Pact pulled a knife of her own, but Maya threw a quick headbutt and smashed the woman's hand against a rock they passed, leaving both women utterly unarmed, though Maya was still quite capable of conjuring weapons.

Eventually the incline leveled out, and the pair came to a splashing stop at the edge of a treeline, in a small stream flowing into the Darkwater. Maya had been unfortunate enough to have her fall ended by slamming her back into a rock, and a crack accompanied the failing of one of her ribs. With a brutal punch to her jaw Maya's world was sent spinning again, and she felt herself pushed sideways and onto her back on the damp banks of the stream. The branches of the trees spun in circles above her, but she could see a humanoid shape, and so she blasted at it with lightning. Judging from the reactionary scream, she hit it, and she heard Ilanna hit the ground beside her. With much effort she threw herself over and on top of the elven woman, conjuring a dagger in mid fall and aiming to plunge it right down into her throat.

The strike was caught just as the tip pricked skin, and Maya pushed down with all she had to try and open the archer's throat, and she was making progress for a short moment before the Pact had the idea to reach down and grab the shaft of the arrow sticking out of Maya's midsection. She twisted first, and the pain shot through her body, and then she pushed, and Maya groaned softly, the pressure of her attack relenting. Again the knife was twisted out of her fingers and tossed away into oblivion. The Pact surged to her feet and brought Maya with her, pushing her back until she slammed up against a tree, before she smashed her knee twice into Maya's side, crunching already broken ribs. The witch doubled over and sagged heavily into her opponent, gasping in a futile effort to get her breath back.

The Pact pushed her over to the side, and Maya fell to her knees, bracing herself against the ground to stop herself from falling any further. Rage and desire to kill had dulled pain somewhat, but the Pact was making a ruin of her torso, and she wasn't built as powerful as someone like Lynly was. Still, she'd never been one to play fair, so her next move was to ignore the pain and pull the arrow entirely from her side, stabbing directly down into the Pact's foot. She yelped out in pain as Maya rose to her feet, launching a dual casted lightning bolt into her chest, the best she could muster. Not enough to kill her, but it blasted her across the shallow stream to the opposite shore. The witch blinked the tears from her eyes and conjured her bow, pulling back the string and loosing, but she wasn't as fast as she should have been, and the Pact darted to the side, still surprisingly agile. Two more shots left the bow, and two more hissed into fallen leaves and grass, before the Pact made her way off into the woods.

Cursing, Maya gave chase, cradling her side slightly and high-stepping through the stream, slowing and trying to listen for her as she pushed through the bushes, following her trail with a slightly wobbly field of vision. She wouldn't go far, she had an arrow in her foot, and she was injured. The ranges were close in here, though, and Maya was unsure whether to keep the bow or switch to a dagger, or just go with her spells. Not that she had much energy left for spells, though. Even reconjuring the bow would be difficult.

A small rock, of all things, was what ruined the fight for her. It cracked off the bark of a tree, and Maya turned her aim on the sound, pulling back the string and preparing to fire, just before she realized her foolishness. With a tree branch of all things the Pact emerged from behind her, smacking the witch viciously across the forehead with it and sending her spinning, all sense of where her opponent was gone. The next blow whipped into her stomach, and she doubled over, choking on a cough, the taste of blood flooding up into her mouth. She felt herself pushed up, and the last blow came in the form of a drop kick to the center of her chest, sending her through the air and landing hard on her back, rolling over several times before she ended up face down on the edge of the water, the first ragged breath she took bringing up no small amount blood, which she coughed out. She tried to move herself, but both her arms and legs only wobbled slightly without lifting her any.

The elf stooped down, snatching a handful of her hair, whispering into her ear in her own ragged tones. "Better luck next time, witch. I'd rather have you than a vampire lord or a werewolf. Try not to die here, dear." A smack with a rock to the back of the head put Maya out cold, her head falling back into the muddy shoreline, and the Pact went limping off into the woods.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Lynly had slowly worked her way back onto her feet, but all it would take was a stiff breeze to knock her back down again. She leaned heavily on her sword as her shield hung limp from her arm. She had been pierced in all four limbs, not to mention the blood dripping from her forehead and into her eyes and making her way back to her feet was a difficult task. Finally, her shield fell from her arm and a ball of shining light replaced it. She disliked healing in the middle of a battle like this, but the alternative was wading into battle heavily wounded and perhaps even dying. She'd rather risk it and win instead. The spell igniting and energy was sucked out of the air and into her hand, flowing throughout her body and healing some of the damage.

A psijic mage she was not, and she didn't have the massive reservoir of magicka Anirne had-- only enough to deal with minor or moderate wounds at best. She'd still be bleeding, but maybe it wouldn't hurt so much. Right after she ignited the spell, she felt Soren shore up beside her, against the spider monster in front of them. For that's all it was now, with the Webspinner dead. That was one less problem to deal with, but added another to the mix. She'd now have to clean up the Pact's mess, and that pissed her off. Not only did she steal their kill, but she didn't even have the good graciousness to finish it and left it to them. If the woman wasn't dead by the time Lynly finished here, she would be soon.

With more energy than she had moments ago, she released the sword that was stuck into the ground, and gripped Soren's shoulder rather harshly. Whatever pain he may have felt was gone in less than a moment, replaced by the warmth of a healing spell. It wasn't to last long however, as two combined spells sapped her magicka reserves quickly, leaving the both in less than optimal shape, but it would do. It'd have to. She didn't think she'd have another chance for a healing session. She picked up her weapons and once more leveled the shield in front of her, noting the ragged and torn edges of the disk-- teeth marks. She'd make both the spider and the Pact pay yet.

"Ready?" Lynly asked, the Spider turning its many eyes and all of its rage on them.

With Anirne on her feet and headed off in Tarquin’s direction, Soren noted that he’d have to head there too, eventually, but for now, only Lynly was left with the Webspinner, and, stalwart Nordic defender or no, that wasn’t something she should be allowed to attempt on her own, not in the state they were all in. Drawing his sword again, Soren shored up a position beside her, refusing to wince when she gripped his inured shoulder too tightly. Her magic finished what Anirne’s had started, and the muscle was back in working order, the other two wounds he’d sustained closing up enough that he could safely ignore them for the moment.

The mercenary cracked his neck to both sides, rolling his shoulders to regain some of the feeling in them lost to the spider sisters’ poison, and nodded. “Lovely, I’m always ready.” As he said it, he flickered and disappeared from sight, but when next she heard his voice, it was from the same spot. “I’ll be right beside you.” It would help, however, to do some damage to the spider without it being able to pinpoint his location. He had no shield, and wore only light armor, after all.

She raised a solitary eyebrow and deadpanned only a couple of words, "Well then. Charge," before dashing forward to meet the beast. While Lynly had been slowed considerably by her own injuries, it was much of the same story for the spider. It was far more sluggish than it had been when the Webspinner still lived. Good to know that everything they had done had not been in vain, and they had bled along with the monster. All they had to do now was to drain the last bit without losing the rest of theirs. It sounded simple in her head, but would prove to be difficult in practice.

The warrioress began her assault not in full, but instead opting to angle around the creature, but stopping abruptly as a leg pierced the ground in front of her. She jerked and and adjusted her angle just as another fell to where she had been. Once again her angle shifted and she found herself running straight ahead toward the face of the spider. Wary of what happened last time, Lynly raised up her shield and blocked two legs in quick succession before loosening the shield around her arm. She stopped on a dime and spun as another leg sailed past her, and at the zenith of her spin, she let go. The shield twisted end over end until it slammed into the spider's mouth, occupying that hazard for the moment.

Whatever Soren was doing, she hoped he was making good use of her distraction to position himself.

A chuckle escaped into the air at Lynly’s left, and indeed, Soren charged, not bothering to quiet his footsteps, since hers were loud enough to cover the sound of his own passage naturally. Lynly was pulled up short by a leg, and he had to duck another, this one sailing over his head in an attempt to get at her from the side. He trusted her to handle it, and he was going to do his best to make it easier.

Veering sharply, he wove between another pair of legs, daring to pass the head close enough to generate a breeze the spider would feel once her shield stopped its mouth for the moment. Ducking under the creature, he plunged his sword up and into the softer underside, drawing a line parallel to the one Sinderion had left earlier, this one longer, and with a great tearing sound, some of the carapace gave way, spilling arachnoid guts and ichor onto the snow behind him. The spider, clearly in a great amount of pain, flinched noticeably, stabling weakly at him with a pair of legs that he managed to avoid.

“Now, Lynly! Finish it!” Whether he’d used her proper name on purpose or not was unclear, but it was certainly evident that this was the best chance they had to finish this ordeal.

He didn't even need to finish the sentence. She was about to parry an oncoming leg before a jolt of pain yanked the leg wide over her shoulder. All of its eyes turned and twisted in their sockets, as whatever Soren did managed to get all of its attention. Now with the path clear, Lynly followed the path her shield paved moments before. She ran toward it largely unaccosted, and it only tried to defend itself when it was clear that it was too late. Lynly reversed her grip on her sword, taking it with both hands and shoving it into the spider's face.

It cut through a number of its numerous eyes running through the face parts. It reared back in pain, nearly pulling Lynly's arms out of their sockets, but she held fast and pulled herself on top of her shield still sticking out of the creature's mouth. All the while she pushed the blade in deeper, as resistance was building the further she went. The twisted the blade, ripped it from side to side, stirring it, anything to cause the maximum amount of damage. She could feel the thing try to screech, but its mouth was still full of her shield.

So it was in silence the thing died, falling back to the ground and throwing Lynly from its face. She landed with a hard thump on her back, but she didn't stay down for long, quickly rising to her knee and angling the blade downward at the slain monster, just in case. After moments passed without movement, she was finally satisfied the damn thing was dead and stood, walking forward to retrieve her shield from its mouth.

Well, that was that. The spider fell, and Lynly with it, though thankfully not underneath it. Soren shook some of the gore off his sword, then used it to point at a specific spot in the treeline. “Moody and beautiful went that way,” he informed his companion. He may not participate overmuch in camp talk, but he did a lot of watching, and he knew Lynly would care about that, to some extent. For his own part, he was going to see what he could do about Tarquin and the two other women in the group.

“This was fun, lovely. We’ll have to do it again sometime.” Lynly tilted her head toward the treeline and groaned. Couldn't she just enjoy a hard won battle anymore? "That would mean surviving this first. Try not to get eaten and I'll try not to get shot in the face," She said, hefting her shield and making her way toward where Soren pointed. He only grinned in reply.




Adrienne’s eyes went wide when the Feral seemed to fly by overhead, taking Tarquin into the treeline in a full-body tackle that was bound to hurt. She had no idea what kind of help she could possibly be in a situation like this, but she had to do something. She couldn’t just let him die, and that seemed the likely outcome if nobody intervened. At least she could be another target for a little while, and she’d just have to hope that she didn’t get mauled to death in the process. Burned, axed, then mauled… it would have a certain bizarre poetry to it. She must be a fraction harder to kill than she’d always thought, if she wasn’t dead yet.

It wasn’t going to be enough to make a difference, probably, but it did make her feel a little less useless for trying. Now wasn’t the time to hesitate. Cutting down the spider sister that remained to her, she took off after the pair of Representatives as fast as her tired legs could carry her, lulling another flask of acid from her belt. Distraction—she could do distraction. Maybe. She burst through the line of trees, arm at her side to toss the vial, sword in her other hand.

Anirne, seeing that the arrow had done its job, moved to be as clear of the spider as possible, jumping the twelve or so feet to the ground, only to watch a dark figure sail by overhead. “Tarquin!” she shouted, but the warning was much too late. The Psijic watched Adrienne dispatch her last foe and run after them, but she knew the girl would just be in danger on her own. Deciding quickly that she had to help, Anirne ran, scooping up a spear one of the spider sisters had been using on her way. It wasn’t much, but it was something.

The struggle Adrienne stumbled upon wasn't going well for Tarquin, who had been placed firmly upon his back and was desperately attempting to stop the raking claw strikes of the vicious Feral. Eventually Ja'karo decided a different method, feigning a claw strike before lunging down with his teeth, jaws clamping down around Tarquin's right bicep and sinking in deep. He yelled out in pain, trying to force the creature off of him, but the werewolf planted both hands firmly upon Tarquin's chest, and with the raw power only a werewolf could possess, he pulled, and ripped.

There were several loud pops, followed by a horrendous sound of tearing flesh, and Tarquin's right arm was torn completely off, the limb caught in the snarling teeth of the Representative seeking to murder him. Spitting out the limb off to the side, Ja'karo returned to work, but surprisingly was met with both of the Shade's feet kicking up into his jaw. He staggered back only momentarily at the moment Adrienne arrived, giving her time for one good shot before the Feral's attention would undoubtedly turn to her.

Adrienne took the shot for what it was worth, throwing the acid vial into the Feral’s snarling face, hoping that at least she’d be able to blind him and thereby stand a slightly greater chance of not enduring what Tarquin just had. She almost couldn’t believe it—he’d just torn through the Shade’s entire arm, like it was nothing. And here she was thinking she was going to survive this. Bile and dread rose up in her throat in equal measure, making it hard for her to breathe, but Adrienne steadied herself, rising to the balls of her feet and taking a two-handed grip on her sword, just as Lynly had taught her to do. Her advantage was only that she was a small target, and she had to make the most of it.

The acid resulted in a howl of pain from the Feral, and indeed he was temporarily blinded by the attack, but as with any werewolf, he had other senses to rely upon, and he used these to locate the new attacker. Specifically, the scent of her blood, and sweat. It was quite different from that of a vampire lord's, and in it he caught her location, turning sharply. He launched two raking strikes of his claws, though the first actually came in away from the scent of the blood, coming in on Adrienne's right, meant to occupy her guard and draw it away from the already wounded area, which was the target of his second strike, with the opposite claw.

The first attack was parried, her sword sliding into the juncture between his second and third fingers. Even the force of the feinting blow was enough to have her trembling just trying to hold it off. Her limbs were weak and her reactions slower than they should be, a product of the injuries she’d accumulated over time. Perhaps she should have been clever enough to see the second strike coming, but even had she been, she would not have been quick enough to react, and his claws raked viciously into her side, tearing at the wound already present and creating four new rents in her flesh, causing her to stagger backwards.

She almost ran right into Anirne, who leveled her newly-acquired spear over the girl’s shoulder and for the Feral’s nose, more or less. She was considerably taller than Adrienne, and her weapon had a much longer reach, so she was able to hold steady as she struck, seeking to drive the werewolf back and force him to recalculate before attacking again. Even a couple of seconds could make all the difference. She’d need to spend a few trying to stem the bleeding of both her allies, as well, but that would simply need to wait.

It was undoubtedly the poison the spear was coated in that warned the Feral to shift his head away from it, given that she was going directly for his nose. It struck him in the right bicep instead, and Ja'karo paused for the briefest of moments when much of that arm went slack, though his fingers were still immediately able to move, implying that either the poison on that particular spear was weakened, or he had a natural resistance to it from his wolf form. The other arm snatched and grabbed at the spear, first ripping it from his limb, and then yanking it sharply forward, lunging as he did so, giving a mighty swing of his arm, and attempting to at the very least knock back these new attackers, or preferably send them flying.

He then turned back to Tarquin, who had risen to his feet, stump of a right arm dripping blood, but there was a determined strength in his eyes, and he flew forward, ramming his good shoulder powerfully into Ja'karo's chest and bashing him back into the trunk of a tree, where Tarquin landed several brutal knife strikes into his torso before Ja'karo regained control, stabbing claws into the vampire lord's chest and heaving him at least ten feet down the hill.

Anirne did not attempt to wrestle Ja’Karo for control of the spear, instead letting go when he wrenched it from her control. She couldn’t afford to be pulled forward, standing just behind Adrienne as she was, and when she saw him lunging, she reacted immediately, wrapping her arms around the smaller woman and reversing their positions with a quick step—meaning that the Feral’s claws dug into the flesh of her back and sent them both sprawling to the ground, but did not injure Adrienne any further.

From her spot on the ground, she dredged up more healing and tried to use it to dull the pain of their wounds and stop the bleeding. Her back receded to a painful throb, but it wouldn’t kill her, and the tears in Adrienne’s side seemed to clot enough that at the very least she would remain alive and conscious, but at this point, the Psijic could promise nothing else.

Leveraging herself to her feet, she assisted the small Sellsword in righting herself as well, launching a quick lightning bolt for the Feral and encouraging Adrienne to precede her down the hill after Tarquin. Anirne took a brief look back at the Shade’s severed limb… but the break was far too jagged for her to have a hope of properly reattaching it. There was nothing she could do save try to help heal the stump when they managed to kill or drive away the werewolf khajiit.

The lightning spell made the Feral lurch forward slightly, growling angrily. Then, considering the Shade's condition, he turned to face the two mages pestering him in full, with the clear intent of being rid of them entirely rather than simply shoving them aside. The one-armed vampire could wait.

Dark green eyes alighted on the women’s predicament, and Soren sighed to himself, plucking the last of Sinderion’s arrows from his quiver. Hm. Not as well-balanced as his; he’d noticed that earlier, actually, but it was better than shooting nothing, he supposed. Likely, the altmer didn’t even make his own, but that wasn’t a mistake the sniper would ever make. Knowing your arrow was just as important as knowing your bow. But he could make do—this was what he did best, after all.

“Someone really needs to put the mutt down,” he muttered to himself, drawing back until the fletching of his arrow brushed his cheek. Hard to find a better feeling in the world than that, really—like the touch of a lover to a man like him. Hell, wanton destruction was much more his lover than any woman ever had been. Sighting down the shaft, Soren released... and knew immediately that it was going to hit too low. “Godsdamn inferior arrows, I swear to Sanguine…” Sighing through his nose, he started up the hill, sword in-hand, unsurprised when the arrowhead buried itself above Ja’Karo’s sternum, just below his neck, rather than in his eye, as it had been aimed.

Anirne knew an opportunity when she saw one, and didn’t waste it, and for the sake of variety, she sent a massive ice spike at the Feral, one that she saw was matched by the small woman beside her, Adrienne remaining standing just long enough to see it hit before collapsing to her knees, her magicka utterly spent. She still had the vial Anirne had gifted her, but she wasn’t sure her body could take anymore artificial recovery just now.

The Feral was knocked back by the three attacks in short succession, and though he quickly removed the projectiles with his claws, the damage was done, and growling in frustration, he realized that his moment had passed, and that it was time for him to leave, else he risk an untimely end at the hands of Tarquin's allies. He crouched low, turned, and darted off into the woods, disappearing under the setting sun. Behind him, Tarquin Aurelius had returned to his normal form, incredibly remaining on one knee. He looked surprisingly smaller without his strong arm.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Apparently, what they’d mustered was enough to convince the Feral to leave, and Anirne for one felt absolutely no inclination to follow him. It was enough for now that they were still alive, though in all honesty, she couldn’t say that was true of all of them. She hoped so, and now that the actual fighting was over, she had to push down the coil of anxiety that settled in her stomach. She’d lost track of so many of them…

Something pressed against her hand, and she glanced down to see that Adrienne was attempting to return the vial of magicka restorative she’d given to her at the beginning of the battle. “Please…” the girl murmured, “Help them.” It was all she was able to say before she lost what balance remained to her and collapsed onto the forest floor. From her breathing, she was probably still conscious, but too exhausted to move. It meant that she would be okay for now, at any rate.

Tipping the vial back, Anirne swallowed its contents, sighing in relief when she felt much of her magicka return to her. Her robes and natural regeneration would take care of the rest in time. It was time to make the most of it. Glancing down the hill, she spotted both Tarquin and Soren, but judging from the fact that the archer still had all his limbs, the Shade was in greater need of help. Refraining from asking uselessly if he required any assistance, Anirne simply started to heal him. It was a shame about the arm, truly, but she supposed any words to this effect would be pointless, and she remained close-lipped on the matter, focusing on stemming the considerable bleeding issuing from the stump and closing the rest of his Feral-induced wounds.

"Do either of you know where the others went?” She inquired softly, stepping back when she’d concluded her work. She had no nose nor ears for that sort of thing, nor did she possess the sniper’s sharp eyes. Sinder, Van, Maya, and Lynly were still out there somewhere, though, and there was a chance that one or more of them could be in a condition just as serious as Tarquin had been. She dared not contemplate anything worse.

"I saw Maya headed for the woods on the other side of the clearing," Tarquin answered, very much short of breath. He was a mess, but for all that, he seemed to be taking the loss of his arm rather well. His gaze drifted somewhat blankly to the massive and lifeless form of what had once been his mother, before he looked down, and away. "I know not where the others are. I... should sit." He did so, moving slowly over to the nearest tree and sitting down beneath, grateful for something to put his back against. He took a few slow, steady breaths. "Thank you for battling Ja'karo on my behalf. I... have done little to deserve it."

Anirne glanced in the direction Tarquin had indicated, nodding slowly. “You are welcome,” she said simply, then jogged off in the direction of the trees.

Soren only shrugged, taking his own seat where he stood, aware of acute pain in his sides and a dull ache in his shoulder. Since there was pretty much nothing else he could do for anyone, he freed his bow and empty quiver from his back and lay on a relatively clean patch of grass. “Yeah, well… I didn’t do a lot to merit a rescue from the Brotherhood, so whatever. It’s not always about what we deserve.” Folding his hands behind his head, he decided to stay like that and wait for the others to return. It shouldn’t be long, if Anirne was at work.

Across the field, Drayk was half-stumbling, half-crawling out to see what he had done, and what he had missed. The evidence of his fiery rampage was immediately apparent, the large trail of charred and blackened ground stemming from the mouth of the cave down to the cliff edge, and burned bodies of the spider sisters, and the Webspinner herself. Physically he was mostly unhurt, though there would be some nasty bruises, but the fact that he had only suffered that much left him wondering with no small amount of dread what the others had endured on his behalf.

"Adri..." It didn't take long for him to spot her collapsed, and for the moment he was ignoring anyone around her, aware of only the fact that she was on the ground and completely motionless as far as he could tell. The effort of moving as quickly as he could denied him any chance of using his voice, but he was able to shamble relatively quickly over to her location, collapsing haphazardly to his knees, taking both of her shoulders in his hands and pulling her to him. Tears flooded to his eyes when he realized she was alive, though they certainly would have either way.

"I'm... here," he huffed, sliding his arms around her and wishing he had some magicka left to heal her more completely. He had wasted it all in his madness. "You're okay. We're okay. I'm okay. You're okay." He said the words with as much force as he could muster, trying to make them true. But there was no hiding the burns she had, even if they had already received healing magic, so the tears leaked freely down his face, into her hair when he pulled her to him. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, I didn't want to hurt you, never wanted to hurt you, I just couldn't stop it on my own. I'm so sorry, Adrienne..." He was a weak man, and she had paid the price for it.

Adrienne’s dark eyes cracked open when she was moved, and a wan smile crossed her face when she realized just who held her. Her grip tightened weakly around him, and she rested her head against his shoulder. “’S… okay…” she murmured, and her eyes fell shut again. This time she really did pass out, simply from the weight of her exhaustion.




Lynly ran as fast as she dared to the treeline, which was somewhere between a hobble and a sprint. The pain in all four corners of her body was becoming more pronounced as the last bit of adrenaline drained out of her system. What replaced it was a massive amount of soreness, that would only multiply in the morning. Her vision was also blurred, and with the din of battle no longer to blame realized some blood had ran into her eyelashes. Her breathing was deep and heavy as she went, so she paced herself. She'd never find Maya or Sinder if she just ran through the trees. She needed to be smart about it. She had neither Maya's tracking ability nor Sinder's nose, but she had a warrior's intuition and that was the best she could do.

She strode into the trees with her shield raised and eyes darting to every tree. Unsure if the pair had missed any of the Pact's men, she was unwilling to just make a perfect target for some lucky archer. She made her way further into the forest as quick as she cautiously could. She was no tracker by any means, but by the way the pair seemingly charged through the forest with reckless abandon, it made it a simpler task for the far more levelheaded Lynly. Crushed grass, broken limbs, and the odd footprint impressed in a small patch of snow led her deeper into the woods.

If she had any doubts on her course of action, the abrupt appearence of a body washed all of that away. It was obviously none of her team, and Lynly bet that the Pact and Horizon had their hands full with the fight they were giving them. Still, her gait quicked and she pushed ahead just in time to come out into the clearing at the end of the battle. And what a battle it must have been, bodies were spread out everywhere, including those of the Horizon and Sinder. If she had spent the time, she'd notice the abscence of Maya and the Pact, but instead she simply reacted. She sprinted toward the Altmer, sheathing her equipment as she did and slid beside him.

Blood was still flowing freely from... Well, from nearly everywhere, but Lynly noted the heaviest flow came from the side of his stomach. So that was where she began. Her hands hovered slightly above the wound as they light up in a warm light. She reached back into her reserves of magicka, replenished from the last time she had used it, and to the best of her ability to stem the blood enough to stabilize him, but if he really wanted to survive, then they needed to get back to Anirne soon. "Where's Maya?" She asked looking at the Horizon's motionless body. She was unsure if he was dead or alive, but it hardly mattered at the moment. He wasn't going anywhere fast.

Unfortunately for Sinderion’s fatigue, unconsciousness was not going to be able to hold him for very much longer. The sensation of warm magic was prodding him to wakefulness even as his wounds slowly began to stitch themselves together, flesh closing over gaping holes in his person, blood reducing to an insidious, sticky trickle from the abdominal wound. His others were still bleeding freely, but it was not enough to hold him at the edge of death—lucky, else something else would have intervened. One blue eye cracked open before the other followed, his vision blurry for several seconds before he managed to blink enough to clear it. Blonde hair resolved into view, lighter than Anirne’s but darker than Adrienne’s, and his brain sluggishly supplied a name. Lynly.

Her voice provided another, and Sinder stiffened, wincing when the tightening of his muscles produced more pain. He could endure a lot, and the fight with the Horizon had proven that in the testing, but he was not in good shape. Still, the question seemed to hold importance, and the necessary memories rushed back—charging into the forest with Maya, splitting off to handle Invorin while she dove for Ilanna. Sinderion took in a breath, filtering through the scents with more effort than it should have taken. Lifting his head from the ground, she struggled to prop himself on his elbows and forearms, a laceration he’d been dealt pressing into the remnants of the frost from the blizzard spells he’d been hit with.

“Help me… stand.” he asked, spitting more blood to the side. She’s… further than I thought.” He would have perhaps phrased the request more politely, but he wasn’t sure he had the breath to waste on anything but sheer necessity.

It took an additional few minutes for Anirne to reach the scene, tracking the others mostly by the disturbed underbrush. By the time she arrived, Lynly was hard at work, and Sinderion was speaking, his condition so bad that it hurt her heart to watch. Something on the ground caught her attention, and she trotted just a little past them to the copper-colored rod laying on the ground. She could almost feel the magic exuding from it, and with a thoughtful frown, she slid it into a loop at her belt and retreated to the two others.

“I’ll help, too,” she informed the both of them, grasping one of her brother’s arms and adding another trickle of healing magic to what Lynly had done. Without any way of knowing what Maya’s condition was, though, she didn’t want to use everything she’d regained quite yet, and she had a feeling Sinder wouldn’t want her to, either. So she crouched beside him, placing his arm over her shoulder, and once Lynly was situated as well, she stood slowly, to give him an opportunity to get his legs underneath him.

Once they managed to rise to their feet, the trio followed the weak guidance of Sinder in an attempt to locate the witch. The first leg of the journey led them the to a sharp incline, and with no small measure of difficulty made their way down it with Sinder in tow. It was slow going despite the unknown state of the witch laying the balance, it'd do no good to drop the injured elf and finish him off then and there. Once they reached the bottom, Sinder's trail led them across the stream and back into treeline. Maya and the Pact must have had a drawn out war if it led this far off the battlefield.

Then they found the object of their search nearby another stream, face down in the muck. She glanced at Anirne and slowly left Sinder in the full care of his sister, taking the task of collecting Maya upon herself. She reached the witch and knelt down, closing the arrow wound she had substained in her belly before gently sliding her hands under her. As softly as she could, the Nord hefted the woman over her shoulder and returned to the Altmer, quietly nodding and adding, "Let's get out of here, I'll drag the Dark Elf by his collar," mentioning Invorin.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: The Representatives

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The Sellswords were perhaps more dead than alive when they finally departed the scene of the battle against the Webspinner, their new and unconscious prisoner along for the ride. With Maya's failure to defeat the Pact, and her current whereabouts unknown, the group was left with one option for how to proceed: follow the advice of the Bard, and deliver Invorin to Windhelm. Though it was not a kill for Maya or the Shade, one less Representative meant one step closer to the end of the Game, and one step closer to the end of their torment. Of course, two of the party members weren't quite so sure what to think about the encroaching end.

Where the fading light likely sapped the strength of the other party members and encouraged them to sleep, the falling of night actually helped Tarquin Aurelius keep his senses, quite the feat when one considered that he currently lacked his strong arm. The stump, or what little there was of one, twitched incessantly, the phantom movements of his right arm maddening to no end, and it burned, a hot burning pain, like the fire mage was pressing his palm to the still dripping flesh. Anirne had done what she could to stem the blood loss in the moment, but it would need much more attention to ensure he didn't die by the next day.

First they needed to find somewhere to stop. The Feral and the Pact were somewhere around, that was likely, but with any luck both were off licking their wounds, as the Sellswords were. The idea of returning to Ivarstead and trying to secure rooms at the inn was cast aside as well. The number and the extent of their injuries would draw too much attention, not to mention the unconscious prisoner they carried around with them. So it was along the banks of the Darkwater River they made their stop, too exhausted to do much but collapse into bedrolls and sleep off the wounds of the day. Once the bare necessities of the camp had been established, Tarquin volunteered for the first watch, considering his adeptness in the dark and the fact that he actually felt more tired during the day. It was also a natural opportunity for the healer among them to see to his injury.

He sat shirtless along the banks of the river, staring rather blankly towards the ground as she worked. The loss of his arm was honestly not the greatest concern on his mind. "She was dead long before the Pact delivered the finishing strike today," he said, though he did not really know why he cared for the Psijic to hear. "She existed now only to examine and meddle with mortals and the threads that binded them to one another. It was a mercy, truly." Perhaps he was trying to convince himself, after all.

Anirne’s body was sore, aching and pulling in places she’d long known about but hadn’t felt so keenly since the earliest days of her training, when they’d had her stretching in ways that most people never had the misfortune to consider. Somewhat similar to what she put Vanryth through in the mornings, actually. But though her physical form felt rather run-down and debilitated, her magic was back up to form already, and so when they set camp by the river, she followed Tarquin without needing to be asked. He sat, and while she would have perhaps preferred to crouch, she simply didn’t have the stamina to remain in that position for long, so instead she sat sideways, facing the stump of a limb and his profile.

Though the immediate bleeding had been stemmed earlier, what was required now was deeper work, to go in and repair tissues, accelerate the process of skin regeneration, chase out possible infection, and dull some of the pain, if she could. Lacing a painkilling thread into the spell, she let her hands, lit with white-gold magic, hover a few inches from his arm, moving now and then so that the process was as even as possible. It took a fair deal of concentration, but not so much that she was unable to properly register what he was saying. The words drew her brows together, and she chanced a thought on the matter.

“That something is inevitable makes it no less difficult, sometimes,” she said carefully. “A mercy it may have been, but that does not make it wrong to mourn. She was, at some point, your mother, and now what remained of her is gone. Something like that should not be easy for anyone.” If it was, then there was a problem, something that ran deeper and more darkly than grief would. She was actually relieved, in a very small way, that this other thing was not present in Tarquin. It would have made her even more wary of him than she was, and him even more dangerous. There was a weight to her tone that suggested she knew what she was talking about more intimately than she wanted to, but she didn’t press the point.

"My father... I don't know if he loved her still, at the end. He told me that they found each other as any pair did, but... I am unsure if he would have approved of what we just did. The Mentor, that is. I've spent years trying to understand what my father changed into recently, and I have thus far failed." He fell silent, thinking quietly on the point. His reward for attempting to bring his mother peace, for attempting to do what he thought his father would want for him, had rewarded him with a lost arm, nearly a death sentence if he were to be forced on his own again and pushed into a fight. His skills in stealth would become of the utmost importance now.

"Coldharbor is a long way away," he commented. Physically, there was no quantity that could describe the distance, but in terms of time, there was still a great deal to go before they would be able to reach his father. "I should not remain with the group for long. Maya would not approve. I just..." It was obvious that this course he had placed himself on was not likely to end well for him. They would not agree to the death of Maya, and he hardly felt desirous of it anymore. If only there was another way. "If I should not see my father again, I would like him to know that I tried to follow him in his choices."

Anirne considered this a moment, tilting her head to the side and allowing the words to flit through her consciousness. Her hands moved slightly to the left, but her eyes were on his profile, as though looking for something. Whether she found it was hard to tell, and there was pensive silence on her end for a few minutes. She knew what she wanted to say, what felt right to say, but she was unsure the others would appreciate her saying it. In the end, though, she could only act in the way that she thought was best. “I have never met your father,” she said, “but I think I see pieces of him, in them. Perhaps, if you desire to know him, you should know them. Mayhap you should stay.”

Another pause, and she let the healing spell in her hands die out, dropping them back into her lap but otherwise remaining where she was. “They will find a way into Coldharbor at the Library, perhaps. It seems a place of answers. Will you not try to find some of your own?” She certainly held nothing about this Game sacrosanct. If there was a way out of it, shouldn’t that be something they all looked for?

"I... had not thought of it that way," Tarquin said, seeming genuinely intrigued by her words. "Perhaps staying would not be unwise. I will speak with Maya about it first. The group cannot afford a lack of unity, and I will not be the one to deliver that." As for finding the way to Coldharbor... Tarquin had lived long enough, and had enough contact with Daedric Princes, to know that if they wanted to deny a happy end, there would be little they could do to stop it. Perhaps the Library would offer a way out, a way to escape from the horror the Game placed upon them and allow them to travel directly to Coldharbor. More likely it would only confirm their fears, or worse, face them with an altogether more difficult choice.

Tarquin would not voice these doubts, however. These people lacked for hope as it was, and he wouldn't be the one to dash what little they had. "My mother would have analyzed all of you," he said, knowing how she worked. They were a particularly interesting group of people, too, and so Phaedra would have leapt at the opportunity to pull at the strings that connected them, to see what ripples in the pool she could make. "Whatever she said was meant to sow discord among you, nothing more."

Anirne smiled, a small, close-lipped, melancholy thing, and nodded. That was reasonable, of course, and rather noble of him. Interesting. He had changed much, in a short time. She wondered that his father had said to him, if indeed it had been something he said. Perhaps it was only that fact that he was gone that made his son see differently. On the matter of his mother’s words, she was a little less certain. Absently, her fingertips traced the engravings in the foot-long magical rod she now wore at her hip. She felt… vaguely uneasy, now, as though the center that had been so easy to find for so long was somehow eluding her.

Was it what the Webspinner had said that did it? Anirne had no clear answer, no immediate source for her perturbation. “I am not sure whether she succeeded in this, but that her words were meant to disturb does not render them wholly untrue.” A line appeared between her brows, but she shook her head and stood. It was not something to trouble him with, after all. Dusting herself off, Anirne sighed and eyed the bedroll she’d laid out earlier. “I think perhaps I ought to sleep now. If there’s any more pain or discomfort, please let me know.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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It was not a long voyage from the north face of the Throat of the World to Windhelm, but at this point all of the voyages the Sellswords took felt like long ones. The battle would leave them weakened for several days at least, but they could not know if they would have that much time before the next confrontation. Every moment could be one in which the Feral was stalking them. The topic of what to do about the Horizon came up about halfway to Windhelm, with Vanryth actually suggesting they remove the dunmer's legs. Tarquin agreed with him at first, until several members of the party, most notably Adrienne, Anirne, and Sinderion, opposed the idea. In the end, it was decided that maiming their prisoner was not the wise course of action, and they pressed on.

The White River led them northeast until the oldest city in Skyrim was in sight. Windhelm was gently frosted with snow this time of year, with clumps of it floating along the river and underneath the massive bridge that led through the city's main gates. No sooner had they reached the crossroads leading to and away the city than they heard a low bark of a greeting from off in the distance to the west. Even at a distance the Stonehammer was unmistakable, particularly since he was no prisoner this time around. A full company of Stormcloak soldiers followed at his heel, marching proudly back into the sight of their capital city. Vodrin bore his namesake hammer propped upon his shoulder, his shield slung across his back, and an amused smile graced his rough features as he neared. A brief order was given to his men, to carry on to the city without him.

"Isn't this a sight!" he bellowed, taking in the group, and all the peculiarities to them, most notably the Shade's lack of an arm, and the unconscious dunmer carried along behind them. "The hell happened to you, Tarquin? Who are you hunting, anyway?" He must have figured it couldn't be him, if Tarquin was willing to risk just running into him on the road like this. The Shade gestured lightly towards Maya, who stood near the front of the column, looking significantly more uneasy at seeing Vodrin than she had upon their previous meeting.

"I hunt the Blackfeather," Tarquin answered simply, at which point the Stonehammer blinked a few times in surprise, looking between the two of them, but then he laughed. "And you, Stonehammer?" Vodrin raised his eyebrows, not giving away his own target quite so easily.

"Me and my men hunt Imperial dogs for the moment, but I'm sure my true target will come along soon enough." He shifted his gaze to the unconscious form of Invorin. "What are you doing with the likes of him? Taking him back to his people? I can't imagine he's lovely Maya's target, else he'd be quite dead already."

Well, that was a clear evasion of the question. Adrienne might have been more direct, but she wasn’t in a very charitable mood at the moment, considering the awkward tension that still hung in the air from that morning’s confrontation. So instead, she smiled inscrutably and cast a nonchalant glance back at their prisoner. She had no care for the bound man, but she hadn’t been willing to mutilate him for peace of mind. “Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, hm?” Let him think that they were doing that if he wanted, or that they were playing the Game out of order for some strange reason—she didn’t much mind either way. “Suffice to say that we’re… resourceful.”

Still, the comment about “his people” struck her oddly. Was he implying that the Horizon was originally from Windhelm? That seemed like it could be a problem to them, if they weren’t careful. Someone might recognize him, or he might have a family… the thought of the Representatives’ families was not a welcome one, and she tried to banish it with little success. Were they about to deliver someone’s father to his death? Someone’s husband or brother? He was surely somebody’s son…

"You'd be dead if you weren't," Vodrin speculated. "You'd be wise to know that the Gray Quarter won't take kindly to seeing him bound and dragged through their city. Might want to throw a blanket over him or something. Just some advice." His eyes wandered to Lynly, and his smile seemed genuine, at least. It was entirely possible that he was a warrior willing to at least respect his future enemies, should their paths put them into conflict.

"It's good to see you still kicking. Never too late to join the Stormcloaks, you know. Big things on the horizon." He realized what he'd said, glancing down at the captive and rolling his eyes at himself.

Lynly closed her eyes and shook her head, deciding to not linger on the terrible pun and spoke. "You know where my loyalties lie, and you of all people should how important loyality is for a Nord," She said, reverting back to a stilted and even tone not used with the Sellswords in some time. It struck her as odd, how comfortable she'd managed to become with the lot. "It's not perfect, but the Empire is Talos's," She said, tilting her head and examining the man. "And it could be great again, if men like you fought for her."

Interesting thing to note about lovely, really. The Talos amulet had made it obvious which of the nine she favored, but the reasoning was relatively new. He’d never really heard anyone say they supported the Empire because of Talos before. Not that he cared of course—bar a mild kindhip with Sanguine born of years of substance use and general debauchery, gods and Daedric Princes were no concern of his. Well… not until their little minions started trying to kill him, at any rate. Seeing the opportunity for some information quite close to the source, he eyes the regiment of Stormcloaks impassively. “This is not the kind of unit you take for a bit of scouting or a little skirmish with the Empire,” he noted with some interest. “Action picking up a bit, is it?”

"Aye, that it is," Stonehammer said, with no small amount of excitement. "The axe was returned, and the Great Uprising is only just beginning." The prospect of the war surprisingly seemed to excite him, as though it were more than a simple distraction or cover for his purpose for Peryite in the Game of the Shadow. It was quite possible he really did care about Skyrim. "And men like me do not fight for the Empire, I'm afraid. We fight for Skyrim. But come! Enough talk of war and death! Throw a bag over the mohawk and follow me into the city. Surely you didn't mean to stand out in the cold all day."

Vanryth nodded, dropping back and pulling a hood over the Horizon's head, and tossing a thick blanket over him in an extra measure. It wouldn't do to make it all the way to Windhelm only to be undone by the Dunmer in the Grey Quarter. He wasn't looking forward to his return, it'd been twenty odd years since he had left, never to look back. But they needed rest, and Lynly had a home here. He would not reject it. They followed Vodrin through the gates of the city, some of the guards eyeing the elves of the group. But the fact that two Nords headed the procession silenced any words they had in their throats. They entered first into the Stone Quarter, greeted by Candlehearth Hall. It was a time before the group split from the Stonehammer and instead followed Lynly through the streets.

It hadn't been long since the warrior was last in the city. Before she accepted the job that put her on the course to encounter the Sellswords actually. She had told her father she felt good things from that job... Whether she was right or not depended on their point of view. Still, the group was quiet as they made their way through the streets. She eventually led them into Valunstrad, the most ancient district in Windhelm and filled with the largest houses. She moved down a street past the rows of houses until she came to a stop at a gate.

She pushed pashed it and held it open for the group and once they were through the threshold closed it behind them. Again she made her way to the front of the group and led them down a bush lined cobblestone path and up the stairs to one of the houses that lined the street. The front porch was a wide affair, a pair of chairs on either side of the doors between stone columns holding the lip up. At her door sat a sign that read "Snowsong" confirming that it was, her house. And after she unlocked her door, it revealed that it was her house alone. They stood in the foyer of a large manse. There was an empty fire place to their front with some chairs and couches with endtables. Arches to either side led deeper into the house.

Lynly stepped to the side of the room and unstrapped her sword and shield, hanging them up on a coat rack. As she spoke, she began to take off her scavenged dwemer armor as well, intending to put it up as well. "Stairs are to the back. Up leads to the bathrooms and bedrooms. Downstairs leads to the basement and armory. Careful around my trophies, some of them were hard fought and hard won. We can throw that," she pointed at the Horizon, "In the pantry until we figure out what to do with him."

"Nice place," Maya commented, taking a look around. She'd been in a slightly better mood after working up the ingredients to get a potion to heal her injuries, and after Sinder had given her the talking she'd sorely needed. Whether it had resolved anything in the long run remained to be seen, but for the moment she seemed willing to remain a part of the group in entirety. After helping Drayk move the Horizon into the pantry in question, she wiped her hands on her robes. "I've enough poison to drag him out for a week, probably, so we can recuperate before diving back into anything crazy. Are we claiming our own rooms?" If that was the case, Maya would probably be jogging upstairs and snatching the best one.

"You are not getting my room!" Lynly said, finally free of of her armor. Emotion finally returned to her voice after the talk with Stonehammer. She reigned herself in a little bit and rubbed her forehead. She'd never had house guests before-- despite the five bedrooms throughout her house. She wondered if it wouldn't have been better if she just put them up at Candlehearth and called it a day. Still, she already offered, and it'd be rude to rescind now. She shook her head and went into one of the arches, a finger indicating they follow. "Remember what I said about the trophies? If they get damaged, I'll replace them with your asses."

"I have five bedrooms, one of which is mine. Some of you might need to share," Lynly said, ascending a flight of steps. On the upper hallway Lynly came to a stop at a door and opened it, revealing a small room filled mostly by a huge bed. "Maya," she said, offering the room the witch. Maya eyed the bed rather greedily. It had certainly been a while since she'd slept in one of these, though more often than not she actually slept worse on real beds. A couch would be just as bad, though, so she claimed it for herself.

She moved down the hall a little ways and opened another door, this time on the opposite wall. Much like the last it was small, filled by a huge bed. Though above this bed was the mounted head of a horker. She pointed at the pair of Drayk and Adrienne for this one. "This can be yours. Careful about the mount, I'm not sure how sturdy it is," She said with a wink and a chuckle. Drayk turned a rather fiery red at the comment, and he moved to put some of his things in the room quickly, partly to turn his face away from the others. Adrienne raised a brow at the nord woman. "That was a little much, don't you think?" Nevertheless, she seemed amused rather than embarrassed.

She laughed again as she moved down the hall, opening another bedroom as she did. "Sinder, sorry. But you and Vanryth will have to share this one." Sinderion only shrugged; the Sellswords had shared tighter quarters before. He preferred to sleep on the ground or a rug besides, even at home, in the Mentor's manor. "Very well. My thanks." Vanryth stuck his head in the room and brought it back out, nodding satisfactorily. Like most of the others, he slept in worse. At least there were no rocks in this one.

The next she offered to Anirne, who glanced between those remaining and shook her head gently. "Thank you, Lynly, but whatever other furniture or floorspace you have will be quite adequate to my needs. Perhaps Tarquin would make use of it instead?" She was not the sort of person to allow a patient to sleep in worse conditions than she did, regardless of how easily they were capable of handling it. Besides, it seemed like it would be best to allow him a bit of privacy, given his relative lack of familiarity with the rest. Indeed, Tarquin looked somewhat uncomfortable in what could only be described as something of a family situation, so he inclined his head gratefully at Anirne. "Thank you. That is kind." Lynly shrugged and added, "There are are some couches by the fireplace we walked back."

With the rooms rationed out, she made her way further down the hall and rounded a corner, coming to a large door with the emblem of a shield and flute emblazoned into the woods, the insignia for Snowsong. She opened the door and took a step through, glad to finally be at home. Her own room was larger than the others, with a writing desk in one corner and a small library of story books. On the wall across from the foot of her bed hung a rusted sword proudly displayed. A picture occupied the other wall, consisting of a landscape of a snowy river.

As the rest of the group split off, Soren’s eyebrow gradually crept up his forehead, and when Lynly made her way to her own door, he simply followed, leaning up against the doorframe for a moment and crossing his arms over his chest as though surveying the décor. “I take it, lovely, that as I have not yet been mentioned in this little roll-call of ours, I shall be bunking with you?” He placed a casually-suggestive emphasis on the last word, half a foxlike smile on his face, and cut his glance from her accoutrements to the woman herself. She let go of an exaggerated sigh and turned around, rubbing her temples as she took a step forward to him. She leveled a cold hard stare on him for a for what felt like ages, not even gracing the comment with a response. Then the corners of Lynly's mouth twisted upward as she grabbed the front of his shirt. She threw him at the bed and shut the door behind them, the telltale locking sound accompanying it.

It was nice to be home again.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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"My father runs a smithy ahead," Lynly informed the group as she led the way into the commercial center of the Stone District. The Sellswords as a whole weren't present today, instead following the Dunmer somewhere into the city. Apparently, he was also born in the city though on the complete opposite direction than her. She figured they all needed a moment, meanwhile they still needed to resupply. They were resting at the moment, but it would be soon enough that they would strike out again, heading toward the Library. She had to make sure that they were prepared. Fortunately for them, if there was anything that she could acquire in the city, it was arms and armor.

It was a mild day for Windhelm, not nearly so much wind as the name would suggest. It was still cold, yes, but that was impossible to escape in Skyrim. She wore a light blue tunic with a pair of loose breeches. Her platinum hair was tied back into a pony tail, the effort to braid it demanding far too much time and energy. She wanted to feel comfortable, she was still sore from the fight. Tight dresses that rubbed against hidden bruises and did up hair were not acceptable right now. Even so, now out of the scavenged armor and at home, she felt far more comfortable than she had been since the Omen's boat.

She took a right under the archway that lead into the Stone Quarter, and they were met with the sounds of hammers upon steel, shopkeeps hawking their wares, and loud Nords talking far too loud to people far too close. It certainly sounded like home, she smiled. She turned around to the group with that smile and beckoned them with a finger, diving right into the market place. She marched a familiar path through the cobblestone streets, passing a forge, an alchemical shop, and a couple of stalls selling food and drink. It wasn't long before they pulled up to another Smithy, though this one with a familiar name upon the sign.

'Snowsong Arms and Armor' The sign had read, emblazoned with an emblem much the same as the one on Lynly's bedroom door, though instead of a flute and shield, it was a flute and sword. Lynly must have deviated a bit for her own crest. She didn't move to open the door, instead her eyes were leveled on the forge at the corner of the house. At the mouth of it, holding a piece of steel into the flames, stood a large man of clear Nordic blood. Large, though not so large as the Stonehammer, years of battle told stories upon his flesh, not a piece of skin on his hands and arms unmarred. His face was that made of leather, and a tight beard sat on his face and obscured his chin. While his hair had more gray than it's natural color, a few blonde slivers remained, the same color as Lynly's hair. The most striking feature was his battle ready skyblue eyes, the same pair that Lynly wore.

Lynly stood in front of the forge, waiting until the man noticed her. He was so intent on his work however, that seemed like an impossiblity so Lynly coughed to get his attention. "Can't you see I'm middle of something? Wait a while, let me finish!" He replied without looking up. Lynly frowned and replied just as roughly, "Dammit daddy, say hi to your daughter." That managed to bring the man's eyes from his work as he looked upon his daughter. Both Snowsongs returned hard stares until they both broke down into laughter and embraced. As they pulled apart, the elder Snowsong spoke, "Killed something big, have you? I can see it in your eyes." Lynly laughed and nodded, adding "You can say that. Daddy, these are my friends."

Friends? There was that word again, this time it came from her mouth. Before she knew what happened, there it was on her lips. Friends? Yes, she supposed they were. The man raised an eyebrow but said nothing of it, instead looking at these friends of hers.

“Well, this certainly explains some things,” Soren said lightly, glancing between the two with what appeared to be mild interest. The similarity was remarkable—he’d looked nothing like his father, enough so that he wasn’t even sure Ivar had been his father. They were alike enough in temperament, but that was bound to happen when only one person raised you. In his case, this was certainly not a good thing.

He found himself surprisingly… warmed, to be referred to as someone’s friend. It had been quite a number of years since that had happened, and even now he was uncertain that anyone else in their merry little band would consider him such. Friends were the furthest thing from survival necessities, of course, and as such he could get along fine without them, but… well, he didn’t bother to chase away the grin on his face, nor disguise the fact that it actually reached his eyes for once. Necessity or no, it was nice.

Shrugging, Soren decided he might as well and proffered the smith a hand to shake. “Soren Ivarsson, at your service. I occasionally help with the slaying of large things.” He was still himself, of course, and nothing was going to keep the wryness out of his tone. He considered adding a ‘your daughter favors you, but thankfully not too much,’ then decided against it. He rather liked this arm, and didn’t really desire to match Tarquin’s contribution to the pile of things they’d all left behind somewhere.

Maya had dressed more appropriately for the city, switching into a slightly frayed, pale green dress with a tan linen undertunic, and a matching pale green cowl, though she pulled this back away from her head for meeting someone new. There were actually several people within Windhelm she was already familiar with, and even a few who had ties with the Glenmoril, but Maya would not seek any of them out, as she didn't want any of them dragged by chance into whatever her potential enemies would have in mind. Upon being introduced to Lynly's father, Maya smiled quite warmly, offering her own hand after Soren's. "I'm Maya. An alchemist by trade." It was her typical cover when in most cities, because it wasn't entirely untrue. She often used to sell her alchemy when traveling from city to city before all of this happened.

She found Soren and Lynly's interactions... oddly refreshing. Certainly unexpected, from Lynly at least. It wasn't easy to stay above all the doom and gloom that surrounded them on their quest, and she would certainly admit it had brought her down recently. Sadly, she doubted Sinder would even consider such an offer were she to supply it herself, considering how strained things had become, and she had no intention of making things more awkward and difficult than they were. Still, it was obvious that Lynly had loosened up considerably as she'd gotten to know them. For the moment, Maya had her eye on that alchemy shop. It would be good to replenish her supplies the easy way for once.

Anirne wasn’t really sure how well her presence was going to go over here. Elves in Windhelm were not generally favored, she had gleaned from some sparse conversation on the subject, and judging from some of the rather hostile looks she was getting just walking through the place. She was in full psijic robes at the moment, crested cloak and all, but she didn’t expect most people to know what it meant. At least she wasn’t dressed in Thalmor armor, perhaps, not that she would ever deign to do that. She had no more love for them than most of these people did, though it was difficult to convey that without protracted discussions she did not want.

Normally, enduring such negative attention was simply a matter of ignoring it—she was not so susceptible to the opinions of others that she cared for the thoughts of those who understood nothing of her, but somehow, they were unsettling, here. It was harder to ignore them, as though she were persistently being made aware of such matters in a ways that was entirely new to her. Ignoring was harder, though she did manage to put it from her mind long enough to incline her head in greeting to Lynly’s father. She would not offer to shake his hand in case he’d be offended; causing a row was not her desire.

“Anirne Direnni. ‘Tis a pleasure.” She, like Maya, was not much in need of extra armament, though Adrienne had provided her with a list of alchemy ingredients that she wanted, and she found herself wondering if there was an enchantment apparatus nearby. She had a few items that she might make some use of, and a number of full soul gems, besides. She also wanted to examine this Staff of Souls, presently little more than a bronze pole at her hip.

Lynly had stepped out of the way and to her father's side to let her current companions introduce themselves. It wouldn't be a real introduction without the Sellswords, but she'd have to do that later. The first one to introduce himself was Soren, and she bit her lip as he stepped forward. She'd forgotten to tell him to behave himself. Old as he was, her father was still a strong man. She'd hate to see Soren get beaten to death with his own arm. She was pleasently surprised when he did manage to behave himself, and his hand was met with her father, clearly happy to meet another Nord in the company of his daughter's, even if he was a bit stringy.

"Sven Snowsong, best damn smith this side of the Throat of the World, and once upon a time also the slayer of big things," He answered with a hearty laugh. Now Lynly found herself hoping her father wouldn't launch into a spiel about one of these big things. She might have enjoyed her stories, but they didn't have the time for them now. Fortunately, Maya's hand interrupted any story he was forming. Again, he took her hand just like Soren's and shook it, looking aside and asking Lynly, "How'd you manage to meet this one?" Lynly shrugged and answered, "Almost killed her once." Sven looked at his daughter and then back to Maya before adding another throaty laugh behind the last. "Aye, aye, that's how the best of friends are made."

The next member wasn't greeted as warmly as the last. Instead of immediately taking the Altmer's hand, Sven's head twisted toward Lynly he returned his look. "Lynly." He intoned. "Father." She replied. "This is a High Elf," He pointed out. Lynly sighed. She knew there'd be some resistance to Anirne's presence. It crossed her mind that maybe she should have given the woman a heads up, but it was too late for that. "I see that," Lynly replied. Sven's eyebrows furrowed and the look of disappointment ran across his face. "Lynly, I told you about these Knife-ears. They took Talos out of the Empire--" He ranted, in which Lynly tried to interrupt, "Daddy--", but that wouldn't be enough to dissuade Sven, "They want to hunt people like us down. They're sniveling--" "Daddy..." "poumpous, backstabbing snakes-- Finally, Lynly had enough and raised her voice above her fathers, causing him to halt midsentence. "Father! She's with me. You don't have to, but I trust her. She's earned that," She said, staring a hole in Sven.

He was silent for a moment before sighing and looking at Anirne, though still clearly displeased. "Fine. But I got my eye on you," he said, tentatively shaking Anirne's hand, while Lynly rolled her eyes. How was she going to tell him that there were two more elves where she came. Something to tell him later, when they were alone, perhaps. "Anyway," She broke in, "We just got in, and we're under equipped. Can you get these things for us," Lynly produced a list, to which she gave to her father. His eyes scanned the list while Lynly summerized, "Swords, arrowheads, and the like. Please?" She asked, and Sven nodded, "I'm curious, for what exactly?"

At that, Lynly laughed and grinned, "It's a long story, and one that's not finished yet. I'll tell you when it's done."

Anirne was eventually herded into a handshake of some variety, and though it was clearly a bit on the strained side, she managed a polite smile for the sake of decorum. Perhaps it would have been better for her to stay at the house… regardless, she was here now, and that meant dealing with the situation as well as she could. “You’re welcome to keep it there, if it suits you,” she said mildly. “I’ve nothing to hide.” She was a bit surprised that Lynly defended her at all, and wondered if she had truly earned some measure of the other woman’s trust, or if she was simply trying to avoid a scene. It was a little hard to tell, sometimes, though she supposed that it would be the opposite of beneficial not to trust your healer. She stepped back, and let the conversation flow again around her, choosing to let the others participate as they would in her stead.

Sven nodded and turned back to his daughter, nodding at her own admission and smiling back, "Aye, I'd have it no other way." Then his face turned thoughtful and eyed his daughter, looking her up and down before saying something else, "Do you know what day it is?" He asked, to which Lynly shrugged, "The days have not been kind to us, I haven't been able to keep track, why?" She asked, curious. He smiled and shook his head, clearly tickled at the thought. "Because, it's Frostfall... the ninth," he said, like uncovering some sort of secret. Lynly looked at the man and wondered why the date was important, then it came to her in a bout of realization.

"Then that means--" She was cut off by Sven "Two days ago was your birthday. Happy birthday child!"

"That means we're having a party tonight, doesn't it?" Maya asked. "Let's get something good to eat, and all sorts of things to drink, yeah?" Surely quite a bit of alcohol would do them some good. Well, most of them. Maya knew she could certainly loosen up a bit lately. Hell, even Lynly seemed more comfortable socially than she did the past few days. Soren, who'd wandered off to glance over a few of the pieces Sven had set out, glanced back at this, and a cheshire grin cracked his face. "Now that," he pronounced, mischief glinting somewhere in his eyes, "Is the best idea I've heard all day."

"Obviously. Your mother and I will be at the maze you call a house later-- we're not taking no for answer," Sven added, staring down at Lynly, who'd since covered her face with her hands. Comfortable she might have been, she still didn't think a celebration was necessary. That simple happy birthday was more than enough, but it seemed like it was no longer in her control. If this was going to happen, she'd have to make another trip back and warn her father about the other elves in their party...

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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On short notice, Soren and his assistants had outdone themselves, crafting what had turned out to be a rather elaborate feast. Maya contentedly sighed her approval upon eating a first bite of the smoked ham. Drayk was enjoying the first gulps of the beer Vanryth had brought back for them. For a dunmer with no tongue, he had excellent taste in beer. That, or Drayk really just hadn't had a good drink in a while. Maya had also brought back a few wines she'd acquired at rather efficient discounts, as well as some other liquors that were available if anyone wanted them. She'd probably be going for that soon, if the wine proved not to her liking. She wasn't much of a beer person, really.

Drayk wore a near perpetual smile as the night began, even despite the slight awkwardness of having Lynly's parents around. He was none too eager, and he expected the others shared his feelings, to dive into the details of their mission they were on, as it was really too complicated and too depressing to cover in one sitting, especially when he had such a strong desire to enjoy himself tonight. Still, he felt so... comfortable, with all of this. Hell, even Tarquin sitting on his right wasn't bothering him tonight, not even his choice of a dark red wine. With Adrienne at his left he was... well, content was a terribly incompetent word for it. It had been so long since the four of them had eaten a good meal in some place other than a random inn or along the side of the road. The food they ate was more of a taste of the happiness they could have after all this was over than anything else. He didn't remember the last time he'd felt so hopeful, his earlier reconciliation with Vanryth only bolstering him.

He’d done well, and he knew it. Food was laid out from one end of the table to the other, and there was still more stuff still waiting in the kitchen, for room to clear. He had a tendency to attack any task he willingly took upon himself with a nearly-singleminded focus, and this was apparently no exception. All things considered, it had worked out superbly, and given the atmosphere of the evening, he chose not to think overmuch on the reasons he’d acquired these skills in the first place. For now, he had them because they had a use, and it was nice to see everyone smiling for a change. Not that he’d ever admit such a thing out loud, of course.

Soren was seated near the head of the table, with Lynly and her family, navigating the conversation rather like a fish navigates water, and though he didn’t bother to hide a number of his rougher edges, nor his perhaps somewhat diminutive nickname for their daughter, he wasn’t being incorrigible, and might even qualify as ‘polite.’

Sinderion was a little further down, Maya on one side and Van on the other, trying to remember when the last time he’d tasted food this good was. He was coming up with nothing, actually; he’d never eaten richly as a child, the Mentor favored simplicity… and he didn’t want to think about what had happened in-between. Clearly, it was the best food he was going to have for a long time, so he resolved to enjoy it, even if he did quaff only lightly at the tankard of beer in front of him. He couldn’t afford to loosen up as much as most, considering what the consequences would be to something like that. He didn’t want to ruin their night, nor his own.

Adrienne, fitted somewhere between Soren and Dom, was quite enjoying the fruits of their labor. Maybe it was odd to compare the two, but she felt inclined to say that she enjoyed having something besides a dead body and a new cluster of scars to show for her work. Ever easily-able to handle social situations, she didn’t find the presence of Lynly’s parents to be a discomfort, though of course, they did cause her to guard her tongue more than she might otherwise. They seemed nice enough people, certainly, though she left most of the conversation on that end of the seating arrangement to Soren and Lynly. It was not hard for her to perceive the change in their relationship, and though she wasn’t quite sure what she thought about it, she certainly found it interesting.

Instead, she spent most of her time conversing with her friends. She, Dom, and then Tarquin were on one side of the table, and across from them were Sinder, Vanryth, and Anirne, so she was well and truly surrounded by people. It was a nice feeling, actually, and she sipped liberally from her dark red wine, allowing the warmth of it to contribute to the ease of the atmosphere. Generally, she refrained, but she was not here to fool anyone or coerce a person into anything, so she found it well worthwhile to indulge a little.

Anirne, on the other hand, didn’t, simply as a matter of habit, though she kept a little mental note about who was most likely to need a bit of help with a hangover in the morning, since like it or not, it was back to business tomorrow. She didn’t spend too much time in thought about it, though, and just enjoyed herself. Once, her life had had many nights like this one. Recently… that had faded. It was nice to be a part of a group again, dysfunctional as they were. One certainly could not fault them for a lack of dynamism and interest.

While it was a nice gesture and all, most of the shine of the banquet in front of Vanryth lost its shine because of his abscense of taste. Eating was a joyless chore for him, merely done for survival instead of pleasure. His plate was covered in a random assortment of food picked for pure nutritional value over any thought of taste. Still, just because he couldn't taste food, didn't mean the rest of them couldn't. He was happy for them, to enjoy a feast like the one spread out before them. He himself would stick mostly to the one thing that he did enjoy anymore, and that would be the beer. He was halfway through his second tankard, reminding himself to pace himself. It wouldn't do to have him drunk before dinner was over.

Like everyone else he tolerated Lynly's family-- this was her house after all, she could do whatever she wanted. Still, he wished that her father would stop staring at him like he was going to start throwing magic around and subjugating his people at any moment. Though he was polite (for now) and let it roll off his back. Lynly caught one of these stares from her father, and gently poked his ribs, muttering something about being polite. After what these people have been through lately, they deserved that much.

Lynly for her part, was enjoying her first real dinner she had since she had left Windhelm. It was a welcome change from her usual day to day, which usually always ended with her covered in blood. Though she'd never thought she'd find herself enjoying a family moment with Soren of all people. At first, she was worried that his... Antics would rub her parents the wrong way, but he'd managed to prove himself rather capable in the situation. Her father seemed to take to the man, rough edges and all. He was no polished stone himself, after all. She found herself actually quite happy, considering.

As the meal itself wound down, Soren stood from his seat, heading back into the kitchen without a word. It took him a few minutes, but when he at last reemerged, he was holding a rather large confection, a proper cake, actually, which is not something particularly easy to find in Skyrim, given the general unreliability of the typical stone oven. Still, he’d somehow managed it, and the breadlike substance was stuffed with nuts and raisins, delicacies that had taken a fair bit of persuasion to procure for a reasonable fee. The dome-shaped thing was glazed with a translucent icing, colored faintly blue, though how he’d managed to do that was a secret he did not plan on parting with, exorbitant bribes excepted, of course.

He actually minimized the ceremony involved in the surprise, setting it down almost as if he disdained it, and appearing for perhaps the first time in recent history vaguely uncomfortable. “It was something of a tradition, in my previous household, to make such a thing on a birthday.” He’d learned how to do it for his son, so that, unlike his scoundrel of a father, the boy would know, at every possible opportunity but on such occasions especially, that he was loved, and valued for no other reason than his very existing. It had been several years since he had cause to make one, but this seemed as decent an opportunity as any.

Clearing his throat, he glanced at Sven and Rikke. “The eating of it, I found, was well-complimented by the giving of gifts.” He handed Lynly a knife, gesturing down to the table to indicate that she could cut some for everyone if she so desired. The thing was rather too large a dessert for a few people, after all. The archer himself retook his seat, disinclined to comment further on the matter.

She wondered if she'd be able to get away with slitting her throat first. Once again, she found herself thrust into the center of attention, and she gave Soren a glare that could melt iron as she palmed the knife. A vibrant shade of crimson descended upon her face which then illicted a chuckle from Sven. He wasn't helping matters, to say the least. Instead of doing anything drastic with the knife, Lynly sighed and commenced to the cutting. She noticed the uncharacteristic shift in Soren, though it was hardly the time to investigate that. Something to bring up later, perhaps, but it was a happy night tonight and she began to dole out the (generous) pieces of cake.

After the cake before them vanished (With Vanryth shoving his into his face for the sole reason of politeness). Once their plates were cleared, Anirne volunteered to take the plates away with Vanryth offering his assistance. Once the table was clear of empty plates, next came for the gift giving. Sven eagerly went into one of Lynly's side rooms and returned with the pack he had brought with him. As Sven was not too fond of ceremony himself, he sat the bundle on the table and slid it to Lynly, where he then crossed his arms and waited. "Figured you need this," He explained.

Lynly looked up at Sven with a curled lip, clearly less than impressed with his gift-giving skills, but said nothing and opened the parcel. What she saw, she somewhat expected, but not the caliber of the craftsmanship. At the top was the sheen of a breastplate, shined to a perfect sheen. Lynly leaned over the parcel and gently raised the piece out of the bag, noting the rest of it laying under. The plate was of steel make, solid and undaunted without a scratch or mark on it's surface. It reflected the firelight brilliantly and stunned Lynly for a time. It was Sven who spoke, "It's modeled after what I wore in my younger days. The whole set is there, gauntlets, boots, everything. Your mother even fashioned a cloak to go along with it," He said, and before Lynly could thank him, he interrupted her with a finger.

"Not done yet, child. I'll say when you can start telling your father how great he is," Rikke hid her face from the rest of the company, but said nothing, allowing Sven to grab the next item. A long, thin item that couldn't possibly be anything else but a sword. He handed the item to Lynly as she opened it, and pulled the blade from the sheath. Unlike the inornate iron blade of hers, this one was steel-- not only steel, but Skyforge steel. It was, simply perfect. "Had to pay a visit to Grey-mane for that one. Forged in the fires of the Skyforge itself. Better than that old pig-sticker you use, isn't it? Now, let's get my pride to your joy," He said amongst the rolling of eyes.

Next came a disk shaped object, and Lynly knew immediately what it was. She desparately needed a new shield, the edges of hers was chewed to pieces, the face was scarred, and generally irreparable. But when she pulled the cloth back, she certainly didn't expect what she saw. The craftsmanship trumped that of the other pieces, the shield shining brighter than both armor and sword combined. Lynly gently held the shield aloft and beheld the magnificent face. Polished to a mirror shine and perfectly round, the shield was engraved in a snowflake pattern and sparkled just a bright. Spread across from one edge to the other, the calling of the Snowsong, a flute was emblazoned onto the shield. Now Lynly was awed into silence, not even thinking of the words she should, or even could say to express her thanks. Instead, she set the shield down and embraced her father, of which he returned.

"You're a Snowsong, Lynly. Blood and mail harks our tale. Sing your song proudly child, like I did."

It was a lovely moment, and Anirne found herself smiling to see that there was quite a lot of love in Lynly’s family. It was something that everyone deserved, and it seemed like few ever really received. She shot slightly-discomfited glances at Sinderion, the only remaining member of her blood family, and then Tarquin, who seemed to be feeling acutely the loss of his own lately, but in the end, there wasn’t much to be done about it. Within a few more minutes, the elder Snowsongs had taken their leave, and everyone was finished eating the cake, a rather delicious thing that she’d never had the good fortune to taste before. It seemed that there was more to Soren than his sharp eye and excellent shot. Not that she’d ever expected there wasn’t, just… she hadn’t expected this.

When everyone was done, she joined Maya, Soren, and Tarquin in rearranging the room by pushing most of the furniture to its sides. Apparently, the archer had something planned, and when she noticed the lute leaning against the wall, she thought she might have understood, and the smile returned. It was going to be an interesting night, she was sure. In the meantime, Lynly and the Sellswords seemed to have moved into the next room, presumably at the nord woman’s request. She wondered what that was about, but she wouldn’t pry.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Dominicus Drayk Character Portrait: Adrienne Jastal Character Portrait: Sinderion Direnni Character Portrait: Vanryth Galero Character Portrait: Lynly Snowsong Character Portrait: Anirne Direnni Character Portrait: Soren Ivarsson Character Portrait: The Representatives

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Once in the other room, Lynly gently set her gifts down on the table, gazing one last time into the mirrored sheen of the shield before setting it too on the table beside her. With everything in order, the nord turned around and beheld the Sellswords' expectant eyes. Standing in front of them all, her mind went blank. She was not so good with things like this, saying the things that needed to be said. She'd brought them into this room on the spur of the moment, she wanted to say something to them. The issue was finding the right words to say. She'd never been gifted in the art of speech, but she'd have to try. Hopefully the words would come of their own accord eventually.

Moments passed with the Sellswords and the Warrior just staring at each other, and to defuse some of the awkwardness, Lynly picked up her sword and began to feign inspecting it. With something occupying her mind other than their eyes, she began, slowly. "We've been through... A lot. Together," there could be worse starts, she thought. Before that sentence hung in the air too long and festered into something awkward, she forced herself along, "We're a long way from when we first met. The Stonehammar and his dragon. The Imperial caravan. Maya. Soren. The Bloody Curse." Now she was rambling. She had to stop that.

"We... I.. I need to apologize first," She said, finally taking her eyes off of the sword and looking up at the Sellswords.

Drayk wasn't sure what to think about this woman. They really hadn't gotten very close over the journey, even though they had been through a lot, as she said, but that was probably because he'd never been sure what kept her around. They went through hell on an almost daily basis together, and it was really only their bonds that saw them through it. He wouldn't say she seemed to revel in it, but it had seemed at the start as though she were perhaps seeking something by accompanying them on their journey. She and Soren both he had trouble wrapping his head around. Why they both didn't just leave them to their fate